Saturday, May 19, 2012

#139 / Kolbert

I heard Elizabeth Kolbert speak last Monday night in Mountain View. Kolbert is a science writer for The New Yorker, and has particularly focused on climate change issues. That is what she talked about on Monday. Kolbert was speaking as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), which has recently partnered with other conservation organizations to preserve the CEMEX property on the Santa Cruz County North Coast.

Having regularly read Kolbert's articles in The New Yorker, I was prepared to be impressed. And I was. Here are a few of the facts and observations I gleaned from Kolbert's talk:

  • Measuring the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is difficult (CO2 is the most common greenhouse gas), and it was not really possible to measure its concentration in the atmosphere with any accuracy until the 1950's.
  • In 1960, there were 315 ppm (parts per million) of CO2 in the atmosphere.
  • In 2012, there are 390 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing almost exponentially.
  • There is no question that the Earth is warming rapidly. The ten warmest years on record have all occurred in the last fifteen years.
  • Humans have only been around for about 200,000 years.
  • Based on reliable ice-core sampling, there has NEVER been a time, in the last 800,000 years, when the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has ever been greater than 300 ppm.
  • Scientists affirm, based on an examination of the real world practicality of achieving California's AB 32 goals (reducing CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020), that a reduction in CO2 emissions of this magnitude is technically achievable - and would make a difference.
  • What is lacking is not our ability to stop the ever-escalating emission of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, but the political will to act.
Kolbert's latest book is called Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. She believes that the physical changes that humans are making to the planet will be discoverable and obvious millions of years in the future, and that we have (without knowing it) in fact used our creative powers to establish what amounts to a new "geologic age," the Anthropocene. Global warming changes are only one aspect of this wholesale alteration of the natural world (on which our lives ultimately depend).


1 comment:

  1. I too have followed Kolbert's articles. Kolbert is not a scientist and her columns are policy based rather than science based.

    With regard to the points above:

    1) Water vapor is by far the most common greenhouse gas.

    2) Atmospheric CO2 concentration is increasing linearly, not exponentially. This is one of the odd features of atmospheric CO2, since, if it is the result of human activity, why does it not reflect the variability of human economic output?

    3) Yes, the Earth is warming. "Rapidly" is a perceptual interpretation. The fact that recent temperatures are highest on record is meaningless in climate terms, since the recorded temperature record is so short.

    4) Ice-cores records are not accurate measures of deep past atmospheric CO2 concentrations. It takes hundreds to thousands of years for air bubbles in glaciers to become sealed, therefore creating a "smearing" of the data, as gases continue to flow in and out of the ice during the process. Ice core records constitute a running multi-century average of past CO2 concentrations, which are not useful in interpreting accurate CO2 levels for any particular point in time. In fact, we know from other proxy climate records that past atmospheric levels have been much higher than 300 ppm/v, even within the past 800,000 years.

    5) "Technically achievable" does not imply plausibility or desirability. There is no verified data to suggest that reducing human contributions to atmospheric CO2 concentrations to some arbitrary level would indeed result in decreasing global average surface temperature within the next century.

    Global temperatures are not the result of atmospheric CO2 alone. The world ocean stores far more heat energy than the atmosphere and contributes far more to temperature variability than changing greenhouse gas concentrations. Atmospheric water vapor has hundreds of times more forcing and feedback effects than all other greenhouse gases combined. The small percentage of CO2 humans release to the atmosphere does affect surface temperatures slightly but not significantly, especially through the past two decades.

    6) The lack of political will to reduce human CO2 output is due largely to the inadequacy of global climate models and the anthropogenic CO2 hypothesis to explain on-going climate observations. The case for human caused "global warming" has not been made sufficiently to balance the readily apparent economic impacts of a rapid change to a non-fossil fuel economy.

    Renewable energy sources cannot replace fossil fuel energy sources and maintain the present level of technological human civilization. If we are to make this drastic change, as we must inevitably, we will also have to drastically reduce human population numbers, human consumption and exploitation of natural resources. These are desirable goals in their own regard, that do not depend on a perception of global warming.

    When human caused climate change is ultimately revealed as a product of political hyperbole, rather than verified scientific certainty, the cause for "traditional" environmental activism, i.e. pollution, habitat and biodiversity loss, will be severely weakened. It is important that we not lose sight of these critical biological and geographic issues in the heady political fervor over "Global Warming."


Thanks for your comment!