A Few Things Ill Considered

A layman's take on the science of Global Warming featuring a guide on How to Talk to a Climate Sceptic.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

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Advocates and Vested Interests

A common argument for someone concerned about the danger of Global Warming when faced with the hollow authority of a Fred Singer or a Patrick Michaels is to point out that they receive money from oil industry clients. This money supports their work, allows them to purchase public attention and it is money that comes from people or organizations that have a vested interest in denying the problem at hand and otherwise preventing any action to mitigate it.

I think it is better to address the many weaknesses in their arguments and highlight the many lies they have put their names to in the past, but it still strikes me as a reasonable point to bring up. Scientists are people after all, and people will lie for money. Fair enough.

Now it so happens that I have frequently heard the counter accusation, that the research that supports Global Warming is somehow funded by Greenpeace or the Sierra Club and is therefore similarily suspect. Again, the science should stand or fall on its own, but these debates sometimes, shall we say, stray a bit from the scientific topics (hard to believe, isn't it?). Now, this is clearly not the case. The research is coming from the likes of NASA's GISS. I suppose environmental organizations might hire scientists as consultants from time to time and maybe they actually do commision some special research on a particular special issue every now and then. But clearly, the big names in climate science do not depend on any particular environmental group or lobby, they work for universities and governments by and large.

But what if they did, would this then be an equivalence? I don't think so.

Roger Pielke Jr has just done a post on Prometheus comparing the recent kafuffle with Phil Cooney to a situation that he describes with Susan Hassol. Phil Cooney recall went from being a lawyer for the American Petroleum Institute, to being a White House staffer, where he edited out urgency and certainty from scientific reports on Global Warming, to a consulting job with Exxon Mobil. Susan Hassol is working now as a consultant for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program while at the same time is the writer for a film advocating action on Global Warming that is funded by unspecified environmental groups. Seems pretty flimsy to me.

But there is a fundamental difference aside from job particulars etc.

The difference lies in the often conflated meanings of what it means to have a vested interest and what it means to be an advocate. Clearly, Exxon Mobil has a vested interest in the GW debate, its revenue stream comes directly from the cause of CO2 pollution. But is it fair to say that environmental groups have some kind of vested interest? I don't think so. They have a position, a bias perhaps and they are advocates but this is not the same thing as a vested interest. There is no profit, no material gain for them in people reducing CO2 emissions, unless you consider a healthy environment a material gain (which I do, but then we all have that vested interest, don't we?). Why would they want a scientist to lie about a phoney environmental threat? And there are plenty of real ones out there after all, if you want to entertain the notion that they need the work.

I think this is why Michael Crichton's State of Fear is so ridiculously implausible, we have to believe there is huge wealth and power at stake for the environmentalists, so much that greed and ego drive them to lie, manipulate and even kill. It just doesn't pass the sniff test.

In the meantime, ExxonMobil just gave its CEO a whopping $400 million retirement package.

That doesn't quite pass either.



  • At April 23, 2006 10:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Coby- Thanks for this thoughtful post. I guess I'd assert that there are more values than financial that matter when we think about interests. It seems odd to me that some in the the environmental community would spend so much time asserting that environmental impacts must be measured in variables beyond the crassly financical, but then limit conerns about conflicts of interst only to the financial. Thanks!

  • At April 24, 2006 4:42 AM, Blogger Wag the Dog said…

    Motivation by the various camps goes much deeper than mere material reward. One should not underestimate the willingness of a tribal mind to distort one's perceptions of reality. The book Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind by David Berreby investigates the human habit of tribal loyalty and the consequences of dividing people along lines of religion, nation, race, or caste. These same social forces are in play in the public debates concerning capitalist vs. environmentalist, religion vs science.

    The mechanism within the brain responsible for this truth distorting loyalty has actually been observed using functional MRI, in a study by Drew Westen investigating political bias. Promoters of good science have to always be consciously aware of this human tendency towards truthiness on all sides of any debate.

  • At April 24, 2006 8:44 PM, Blogger Glen said…

    There is no profit, no material gain for [environmentalists] in people reducing CO2 emissions

    Not in actually reducing emissions, no. But scaring people about it does in fact produce profit and material gain for environmental organizations. They get bigger government grants, more voluntary contributions, and more power to get their views heard in the media and the halls of government.

    Exxon's incentive to be involved strikes me as weaker than that since we don't yet have any particularly good alternatives to gasoline, so it doesn't matter how scared people get, Exxon will still make money.

  • At April 24, 2006 9:42 PM, Blogger coby said…

    Roger, now it sounds like you are saying Greenpeace doesn't *really* support mitigating GW, they only want clean air and water.

    I would like to make sure that we seperate an organizational interest from interests of individuals within that organization. Even in the case of Exxon, an individual might believe the environmental threat and worry about his children, but the organization clearly depends on fossil fuel consumption. So in Greenpeace, maybe we have someone who came out early and strongly warning against GHG buildup and now it is a matter of pride or what have you so he would not look at science saying things will be ok.

    But where is the institutional motivation for wanting a problem where there is not one?

  • At April 24, 2006 9:48 PM, Blogger coby said…


    Environmental organizations are generally (always?) non-profit. And having views just for the sake of getting them heard does not strike me as a very powerful motivation.

    You say what does Exxon have to worry about, there are no serious alternatives to gasoline. I think you severly underestimate the proactive approach large organizations take to ensure just such an outcome. Unlike gov't, they are not only looking four years ahead. Just look at the reason there is no public rail transportation in LA even though the city is criss crossed with lines. They were bought out by oil interests and just sat on. Now you would say "what do they care about public transport, there is no alternative" They have worked hard to ensure there is no alternative.

  • At April 24, 2006 9:53 PM, Blogger coby said…

    Wag the Dog,

    Thanks for the comments, I look forward to checking your reference later. I think what you are talking about is bias though, rather than vested or conflict of interest. I am ignoring the defensible notion that when one has a bias, one automatically has a vested interest in proving one's bias right.

  • At April 25, 2006 8:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Coby - Interesting post. If I can add something to the "funding" aspect of things. Funding from a oil and gas company (or an associated institute) results in cash in the fist. Funding from a government or similar research organization results in money to do or continue to do origional research. It does usually not result in cash directly to the researcher but allows them to buy equipment and hire on slaves (opps I mean grad students).

    In my research days there were a lot of strings attached to any funding I received including nasty visits from the financial people and auditors.


  • At April 25, 2006 12:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Coby - "Just look at the reason there is no public rail transportation in LA even though the city is criss crossed with lines. They were bought out by oil interests and just sat on. Now you would say "what do they care about public transport, there is no alternative" They have worked hard to ensure there is no alternative. "

    IIRC it was actually the car & bus makers. However, this all reminds me of the suggestion I've seen that fossil fuel interests might be quietly funding antinuclear groups. It certainly sounds plausible though I'm unaware of solid evidence.

  • At April 25, 2006 1:10 PM, Blogger coby said…

    Hi Jim,

    You could be right about that one. It still makes the point that these large corporations do alot of string pulling with very long term (relative to political figures) goals.

    I would not be surprised if oil contributes to anti-nuke, competition is competition! Despite what people who don't want to believe that might say, it is not conspiracy theory or evil, it is simply capitalist self interest.

    I wish I could dig it up, but I also recall hearing that oil industry lobbied in California for environmental regs limiting refinery construction, the motive being fewer refineries equals even higher prices from limiting supply.

  • At April 25, 2006 8:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Coby - "Despite what people who don't want to believe that might say, it is not conspiracy theory or evil, it is simply capitalist self interest."

    I guess I'd call it 'mercantilist' self interest. The sort of thing Adam Smith denounced, where *some* merchants get special favors from the government.

  • At April 29, 2006 11:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    The is new version is much improved, except it identifies Susan Hassol as the producer for the film rather than the writer. Laurie David is the producer. It might be worth noting that Hassol's consultant work for the CCSP is specifically because of her writing abilities. Consultant isn't a very exact term. In neither case did Hassol have the final say over the contents.

  • At April 29, 2006 2:28 PM, Blogger coby said…


  • At May 03, 2006 4:57 AM, Blogger Heiko said…

    Exxon Mobil does produce fossil fuels, true, however, they can benefit from schemes put in place to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. For example, in the electricity market, they could benefit from better economics for natural gas over coal.

    Whether they'd get hurt doesn't depend so much on whether schemes get put in place to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but how these schemes are implemented.

    And Exxon's profits depend even more on direct measures, such as the UK's recently increased taxes on North Sea oil, or a possible windfall tax in the US.

    It would therefore be in their interest to play the public relations game, even when it's running against their own deep held convictions as to what is right and best for America and for the world as a whole.

    I therefore regard Exxon's executives as credible and largely non-self interested, and also as bringing a lot of valuable expertise to the table, when commenting on global warming.

    Greenpeace on the other hand only seems to exist to scare up donations for its workforce, and otherwise I see them as religious nutcases with little expertise in anything, but plenty of zest to convert the unconverted.

    Contrary to Exxon executives, anything coming from Greenpeace therefore carries the perception of self interest and lack of credibility for me.

    Oh, and take this with a bit of a grain of salt. It's my general position, hm, bias, but I realise that there's only so much I know about Greenpeace and Exxon, and that I am making sweeping generalisations based on limited evidence here.

    Not that most people wouldn't, nobody's got the time to make up their mind on these kinds of issues based on "complete information".

    I mean, what gives you the idea that Exxon executives:
    a) believe that it's in their interest "to deny global warming"
    b) act with the profit motive foremost in their mind when commenting or supporting work on global warming rather than based on what they believe is in the best interest of the public?

    Beyond the simplistic "they produce fossil fuels" and "they aren't as keen on CO2 emissions reductions as I am", that is.

  • At May 03, 2006 6:31 AM, Blogger Heiko said…

    Before asking some questions of you as an advocate for greater emphasis on emissions reduction,

    let me say that I think that beyond the rhetoric there is a wide, practical consensus, shown by what governments are actually doing, as to roughly what the best action is, namely to only favour cheap ways to reduce CO2 emissions, taking into account other constraints with a predominant weighting (such as jobs, national security, fear of nuclear power, the desire for an exurban lifestyle among voters).

    The UK and Germany are on target, barely, not so much because their respective governments were willing to spend a lot on CO2 emissions reductions, but because the Conservatives in Britain hated coal, favouring nat gas, and Germany was able to shut down lots of legacy lignite fired power generation capacity in Eastern Germany.

    If you correct for population growth and other factors (such as the discovery of nat gas in the North Sea and Tory antipathy towards coal mining communities), I believe that the differences in climate policies between all Western nations have been rather minor, with the energy mix, per capita CO2 emissions and energy prices largely dictated by considerations other than climate change.

    The country with the energy policy I like best happens to be France. High gasoline taxes and nuclear power mean France is a net electricity exporter, and has per capita CO2 emissions of just 6.8 metric tonnes, compared to Italy's 7.8, Germany's 10.2, Denmark's 10.85 and the US value of 20.0.

    I like France's energy policy, not because it produces little CO2 per capita, but rather because I like nuclear power and high gasoline taxes.

    Italy's got no nuclear power. Instead they have high electricity prices, import nuclear electricity, and have an energy mix dominated by oil (just over 50%) and natural gas (just over 33%).

    Germany's the world leader in wind power. But it's got plenty of coal in the mix in addition to its nuclear power that is due to be shut down. Denmark's also got plenty of coal in the mix, explaining why both Germany and Denmark have such high carbon dioxide emissions compared to France. And in the US, cheap gasoline, large houses and 50% coal in the electricity mix explain the emissions.

    So why is climate policy like that in practise given much apocalyptic rhetoric?

    Part of the answer I think may indeed be irrational fears (with regards to what gasoline taxes at $5 per gallon would do say), but the predominant reason is that while the rhetoric is apocalyptic the scientific description of what'll happen is with near nigh total certainty not.

    If there was a 10% chance that Earth would become Venus within a year of CO2 concentrations reaching 400 PPM unless we cut carbon dioxide emissions by enough to avoid 400 PPM, we would cut emissions by 90% plus within a few years.

    But the Earth won't become Venus, we'll have 0.1-0.8 m of sea level change or thereabouts and 1-6 C of temperature rise or thereabouts by 2100, and largely, as far as people are concerned, that's entirely adaptable to and a far cry from apocalypse.

    So my questions:

    1. What value would you attach to CO2 emissions?

    2. I frequently hear the argument made that climate change will mean more extreme weather.

    Now, my understanding is that warmer weather means, effectively, being closer to the equator. There is more precipitation and more evaporation and indeed there are hurricanes close to the equator, but none at the South Pole.

    Yet, why is this seen as more "extremes"? The South Pole has some of the most extreme weather on the planet, higher precipitation and higher evaporation is not the same as lots of floods and lots of droughts.

    3. Roger's work on hurricane impacts is rather interesting. What struck me is how much population has increased on coast lines in the South of the US compared to the North East. I believe this is due to air conditioning and the fact that given air conditioning, people prefer the warmer weather offered by Florida, even given the higher risks of Malaria and hurricanes.

    What do you think of this revealed preference? Isn't there some imputed economic value, and the fact that people are willing to move, wouldn't that be suggestive of the fact that this imputed value is quite large when compared to the economic damage they are willing to risk in exchange?

    4. Why do you think that half a meter of sea level rise implies a large cost over a hundred years due to the rapid nature of the change? Could you quantify that in some fashion?

    5. What do you think of the potential gains to be had from
    a) less heating in the winter
    b) large areas in the Arctic becoming more available for human activity, including mining and petroleum extraction
    c) longer growing seasons
    d) carbon dioxide fertilisation

    6. The argument is often made that climate change may not be disastrous for humans, but it'll bring about many extinctions.

    I value polar bears say, but I also think that the fate of the cuddly species (polar bears, pandas, all the kinds of animals and plants that get featured prominently by pressure groups) depends much more on specific conservation efforts aimed at them than climate change.

    Now if some moss species in the tundra, or some worms, don't manage to make their way up North over a hundred years, why should I care?

    7. What do you think of the argument that technology changes might result in zero cost emissions reduction in the future, making costly emissions reductions today potentially very wasteful?

    8. The IPCC scenarios effectively assume that the average citizen of the world in 2100 will be of the order of twice as rich as the average American in 2000. Isn't there something to the argument that the poor of today, shouldn't be paying to help the rich of tomorrow cope with what'll be to them a minor problem?

    9. Do you agree that the science indicates that apocalypse (Earth becoming Venus or something close to it, anything likely to kill 50%+ of humanity I'll accept as apocalypse), is for all intents and purposes impossible?


    My overall assessment is the changes will be an overall positive, ie sea level change can be easily adapted too, at minuscule cost compared to world GDP (through better sea defenses and better buildings, I don't think strategic withdrawal will have much of a role, because there seems to be a large imputed value in living close to the sea), that higher summer and equatorial temperatures should be attacked through air conditioning. Agriculture should be able to take advantage of more carbon dioxide and longer growing seasons, and more rain (with the help of large water projects to deal with droughts and flooding), hydropower will benefit from more precipitation, and in many areas (anything with average temperatures presently below 20C), the population will enjoy the warmer weather, and that in itself represents a large imputed value.

    Further, I think this assessment might change, as new facts come in, and there's therefore value in researching things such as sequestration.

    But there's no imputed value, rather than just little value, in actual CO2 emissions reductions at this stage.

  • At May 04, 2006 11:05 AM, Blogger coby said…


    Thanks for the substantial comments, especially the info about European emissions. I like what you describe for France too, high taxes on gasoline are needed to reflect its true cost and nuclear is probably a necessary evil at least for a while. I don't agree that a survey of what countries are doing necessarily reflects what the best options are, politics will govern these actions and politics is more about what is expedient than what is best.

    Regarding risk, I would hope that even a 1% chance of becoming Venus would provoke immediate actions, what a risk! But this is not even a possibility, as you say, so discussing it only has the effect of making 6oC warming seem quite ok, which it is not. If people think 6oC is entirely adaptable this is only due to ignorance of what that really means. Don't forget that 8oC is the difference between deep glaciation and pre-industrial. 6oC warmer is a climate not seen on this planet for many millions of years and happening in a century is a rare and utterly catastrophic geological event.

    As to your questions:

    1. This is too much of an economic question for me, sorry but I just don't know enough to put a dollar figure on that.

    2. The claims about more extreme weather are supported AFAIU. More precipitation does not necessarily mean more floods, but apparently in this case it does. So I think the claim is more heat waves, more droughts, more floods, more severe storms. I don't think these are all equally or highly certain. See here in the TAR.

    3. Yes, I think people value location and lifestyle over safety and security, at least when it comes time to put their money where their mouth is!

    4. I think half a metre of sea level rise is an underestimate. The losses are real estate, infrastructure, moving, reconstruction, dykes and human issues that are not monetarily quantifiable.

    5. I think these potential gains are very small and uncertain in the face of the losses.

    6. I am more concerned about the food chain than the cuddle factor.

    7. This is pie in the sky wishful thinking. Nor do I accept that reductions now are necessarily a net cost to the economy.

    8. Too many basic assumptions in the framing of this question that I don't necessarily accept, I can't answer it.

    9. Nothing close to becoming Venus is required for apocalypse, as you have defined it. Science indicates it is *very* possible. Read about the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum.

  • At May 04, 2006 11:13 AM, Blogger coby said…

    Heiko, you said:
    "I mean, what gives you the idea that Exxon executives:
    a) believe that it's in their interest "to deny global warming"
    b) act with the profit motive foremost in their mind when commenting or supporting work on global warming rather than based on what they believe is in the best interest of the public?"

    a - the fact that they are spending alot of money lobbying against Kyoto and other actions, the fact that they are funding PR firms and psuedo-scientists to sow as much doubt as possible, Phil Cooney.
    b - this is simply their legal obligation as a publically traded company.

    I might reply more, but frankly this: "I therefore regard Exxon's executives as credible and largely non-self interested, and also as bringing a lot of valuable expertise to the table, when commenting on global warming" leaves me speechless!

    Thanks for the comments.

  • At May 04, 2006 2:06 PM, Blogger Heiko said…

    Thanks for your detailed and thoughtful reply.

    Let me explain my thoughts on Exxon in a bit more detail.

    One of the most important reasons I personally believe they are acting out of conviction rather than a profit motive is that I think that they can thrive just as well with as without Kyoto.

    And a particular piece of evidence for me is the behaviour of other oil companies. Look at BP.

    The first sentence you'll currently read when going to their web site is "It's time for a low-carbon alternative."

    It matters much more to them how any emissions reductions schemes are designed than whether there are any in the first place.

    Look at the European carbon trading scheme. It's been criticised for the fact that emissions allowances have been handed out for free, which in principle can provide a large windfall profit to a company capable of squeezing out carbon dioxide emissions at low cost (say because a power plant is only upgraded after the emissions allowances have been allocated rather than before).

    Or consider the fact that with a virtual moratorium on nuclear power, the two main competitors in the power market are natural gas and coal. Emissions certificates will then make coal based electricity more expensive, in turn pulling up the price of natural gas. And Exxon is a big producer of natural gas in North America and as far as I know produces no coal and no electricity from coal.

    I think that answers your point b).

    Concerning point a) I don't really know that much.

    Exxon clearly does have a lot of relevant expertise (eg with regard to CO2 sequestration in oil fields, resource potential for oil and gas and how that impacts the emissions scenarios) and because they are a huge commercial organisation, putting out lies can hurt them an awful lot. They can be sued and they've got deep enough pockets that it's worthwhile suing them, and even Exxon can be sued to the point of bankruptcy.

    Furthermore, I see them as rational, that is they aren't on a crusade with near nigh religiously held beliefs.

    Now I don't expect you to share my beliefs, I readily see why you might think that Exxon is more likely to be self interested than Greenpeace. I hope you also see my viewpoint (Exxon might actually be better off profit wise endorsing emissions trading, the people there just believe that they are providing a great service to humanity with their product and largely act rationally out of that conviction, while Greenpeace are, well, irrational and motivated by a mixture of greed and religious fanaticism rather than selfless concern for the environment)

    and why people might see rather sinister "vested interests" in connections with Greenpeace, just like you see them with Exxon.

  • At May 04, 2006 3:24 PM, Blogger coby said…

    Re Greenpeace, I can grant you fanaticism, but only a fool joins an environmental advocacy group for personal profit.


  • At May 04, 2006 11:01 PM, Blogger Heiko said…

    I think they employ PR people for fund raising, and I think those are willing to engage in questionable tactics with their career and money featuring prominently among the reasons.

    Now if Greenpeace was still an all volunteer organisation, I'd see things differently.

    And of course, when I just hear the word Greenpeace I seem to get something similar to the well known "Bush derangement syndrome" that makes some people foam at their mouth when they merely see his face on TV ;-)

  • At May 05, 2006 3:32 AM, Blogger Heiko said…

    "I don't agree that a survey of what countries are doing necessarily reflects what the best options are, politics will govern these actions and politics is more about what is expedient than what is best."

    I am not sure whether I understand what you are getting at here.

    I think my little survey shows two things, firstly, some low cost (in my opinion zero cost) measures, namely going for 80%+ nuclear power for electricity and high gasoline taxes, have proven a very effective way of getting per capita emissions down in practise, and secondly, climate change is not the prime consideration that is driving energy policy, it is one of many factors and not the most important.

    The point you are making about low risk high impact events is interesting. I've given some thought to this. How important is their probability? What's the trade-off between cost of prevention and that low probability?

    A valid clue I think comes from meteorite strikes. We are willing to spend a bit of money monitoring the possibility, but we haven't got a crash programme in place of several hundred billion Dollars to place nuclear missilies in space ready to deflect a once in 60 million year type meteorite capable of something close to apocalypse.

    There's trade-off even when dealing with the possibility of apocalypse, but even relatively small probabilities as you say ought to have a big impact on our willingness to spend money.

    In a comment elsewhere on your blog, you mentioned that you have largely picked low hanging fruit (the easy to refute arguments of the "sceptics", a term I don't like, and in particular I wouldn't like applied to myself, because a) I trust the IPCC consensus and b) that scientific consensus leaves plenty of room for disagreement about the best policy action).

    Movies like the Day after Tomorrow do imply something like what I consider apocalypse as a real possibility. Here's some low hanging fruit for me to refute.

    I also frequently hear how the IPCC is getting it all wrong and how methane hydrates might turn Earth into Venus (or at least I feel it gets insinuated).

    When apocalyptic language gets used, I do think it is important to convey accurately to the public what is near certain to happen, what is possible with a low likelihood and what just plain cannot happen.

    So, I think it is important to discuss Earth becoming Venus type scenarios, but not to make 6C appear completely harmless by contrast. How harmful or beneficial 6C is, is a separate issue.

    Also, I know that the phrase "entirely adaptable" to is quite vague, it isn't really meant to convey much more than there won't be true apocalypse. The absolute worst case, if some nations continue burning coal not caring the least about the world's welfare, might be more than 1000 PPM of CO2, more than 6C of temperature, 100 m sea level rise within 200 years, as the melting glaciers of Antarctica accelerate, and at some low probability will include things like India becoming a desert, and with no food aid, a billion or two dying, and another billion or two being displaced.

    But this worst case depends on actions beyond 2050. It isn't set in stone through our actions today or up to 2020.

    More relevant for me is the worst case, if we get onto a stabilisation course in 2020 rather than 2006, ie what are we losing by delaying emissions cuts by a few years.

    And the answer to that is that a reasonable, low cost stabilisation started in 2020 can still keep us below 3C, and if some irresponsible countries insist on burning lots of coal after 2020, even with some small emissions cuts today, we can still get 100 m sea level rise, and if other countries in 2100 don't want to help India cope with drought, how much does a little bit of emissions cutting today help India in 2100?

    Or in other words we can still get the same temperature increase in 2100, it just may cost us a bit more.

    1. Thanks for your simple answer. To me the economics is very important. If you don't have a specific Dollar value in mind, what action would you be advocating based on the dangers of climate change that isn't being considered today?

    Also, that doesn't have to be action that costs money, and it doesn't have to be action justified by the value of cutting carbon dioxide emissions today:

    Notably, I see lots of uncertainty about the future. The overall cost of carbon dioxide emissions today is a sum over lots of future scenarios.

    If by 2020 say we find that coal is the cheapest source of energy together with sequestration and that without sequestration and with large coal use we'd be getting 6C by 2100 with large costs, then having some sequestration technology in hand would be quite valuable.

    Therefore research into sequestration today has value (because it might be useful in the future), even when I think it ought not to be employed today at great cost to reduce carbon dioxide emissions substantially.

    2. I know what the TAR says about it, things like more extreme hot days, fewer extreme cold days (great surprise that), a lower diurnal range, more precipitation, no clear information yet on extra-tropical storms, and an increase in tropical storms.

    This is easily summarised by "move South by a few hundred km and you get a good idea of the kinds of changes to be expected".

    Maybe this is all semantics. I know that central Canada or Siberia say get little rain, and if they get warmer temperatures that'll likely mean the soil will get drier. But that's the same effect you get from merely heading South within North America or Siberia.

    What I'd like to see is an analysis that shows that the increase in so called "extremes" goes beyond what you'd expect by moving from Alberta to the Prairie States, or by moving from New York to Florida. That kind of change is not more "extremes" for me. Alberta's weather is more extreme than that in the Prairie states, as far as I am concerned, lower soil moisture, higher heat indexes, more extreme hot days and the like notwithstanding, and Florida's weather compared to New York's isn't more "extreme" either I think.

    3. Ok, but how would you deal with this?

    4. What makes you think it's an underestimate? I take the 0.09 to 0.88 m of the IPCC at face value noting that the high end depends on us emitting an awful lot of carbon dioxide from coal burning after 2050.

    If we get evidence in 2020 that burning lots of coal after 2020 is going to give us 3 m by 2100, there's still plenty of scope to go nuclear, or build loads of wind turbines etc..

    And you've evaded the cost question. Much of the Netherlands is below sea level. Why do you think that dikes, sea defenses and better buildings cannot deal with 0.5 m at a cost of considerably less than 1% of GDP for the same kind of damage (human and economic) still accepted in spite of the improved defenses.

    5. You wave those gains away without any detailed analysis.

    Based on greenhouse trials, I think 560 PPM will add some 20% to agricultural production.

    All else equal 10% more rain should mean 10% more hydropower. Hydropower is 16-17% of present electricity generation, and technical potential is around 100% of current electricity generation (much in places like Africa and Siberia).

    5C warmer winter temperatures (with 3C as the global average) in North America, China, Europe, might cut heating demand by a third or something like that.

    6. Could you expand on that? What is it that concerns you about the food chain?

    As far as humans are concerned, I find it difficult to believe that there'll be large losses in food production, particularly when adapting to higher temperatures, precipitation, evaporation and CO2 levels through moving agricultural production, through water projects, through fertiliser selection to make sure plants can use the extra CO2 efficiently and through plant selection.

    If it is the food chain for animals, and it's extinctions, why can't we counteract that for the species we really care about?

    7. You are somewhat contradicting yourself here ;-). If we can already make costless cuts (and I agree with that, it just so happens that these cuts will be opposed on other grounds, such as the wonderful benefits of exurbia or the terrible impacts of nuclear power, or the safety implications of putting drivers into econo-boxes), why isn't it at least a fair shot that in a few decades, it'll be cheaper still?

    8. Ok, the basic idea is that the IPCC is assuming lots of economic growth by 2100. So Africa or Bangladesh won't be poor then and will be easily able to afford a few hundred billion for good sea defenses or higher power bills for running their air conditioners harder.

    What this also touches on is the best interest rate to be used for discounting the future. To make an economic case for emissions cuts today, that interest rate needs to be low.

    Or in other words, it might be better to build a school in Bangladesh today than to instead invest in a carbon sequestration facility with the aim of helping Bangladeshis in 2100.

    9. Looking at


    Sounds bad for sea life in particular, but even this, and unless we emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide from coal for well over a hundred years, the probability of it occuring is surely well below 1% (you agree with that probability?), is not what I consider true apocalypse.

    But yes, it comes close enough. On the other had, we can emit carbon dioxide now and for the next few decades without running any real risk of it becoming inevitable.

    We can make very deep cuts in carbon, if necessary, and in particular, we can avoid high carbon growth scenarios after 2050 that would get us to real danger points.

    We are not at a point of "no return" with "irreversible" changes in store for us (at least not these kinds of changes desribed in the link), unless we change our emissions double quick.

    If really necessary we can be emitting less than zero carbon by 2100 (by capturing some carbon, eg by gasifying biomass, producing hydrogen for fuel cells or gas turbines and injecting the carbon dioxide sidestream into geologic formations).

  • At May 05, 2006 10:32 PM, Blogger coby said…

    Thanks for the comments Heiko. It's too much for me to try responding but I did read it and can appreciate many of your points. If there is something particular you are disappointed I did not follow up on, I will try to answer a more narrowly scoped comment!

    Or you can just enjoy the last word... Oops! Sorry ;-)

  • At May 07, 2006 9:12 AM, Blogger Heiko said…

    Thanks again for the fruitful discussion, maybe I'll do something similar to your "How to talk to a sceptic" guide someday (I might call it "How to talk to a climate alarmist") and I'll ask you to reality check it for gross errors.

    One thing I'd like you to follow up on is why you are a sceptic of sorts (that is you don't agree with the IPCC ;-) on sea level rise?

    (I've had a look at the draft version of the latest IPCC report, and recommend having a look at the chapter on sea level rise - I am not supposed to cite etc..., but pointing you in that direction surely is all right)

  • At May 07, 2006 1:44 PM, Blogger coby said…


    I am downloading the rest of the AR4 draft, I only had done the summary, but will go ahead and comment without the benefit of checking. I expect higher seal level predictions because of the surprising and recent results that indicate much greater icesheet instability than thought. I am also of the opinion that there are no models that can yet provide a prediction with even the barest minimum of confidence. I think icesheets form slowly but will melt rapidly. This is a largely non-scientific assessment of my own.

    Believe it or not I considered a "how to calm down an alarmist" type of section too, but find it of questionable utility to tell someone "relax, it's only a 100 foot fall, not a thousand" which to me would be the equivalent of telling someone, "relax, 11oC by 2100 is almost impossible, at worst it will be 5 or 6."



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