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August 04, 2006


Alex Censor, M.S.

You wrote, in part "..We should spend money on basic research with the purpose of better understanding the interactions between the oceans and the atmosphere, plants (and animals) and the atmosphere, cloud physics, and the effect of volcanoes before we spend any significant amount of money on the abatement of anthropogenic CO2. It may be that case that lessening the amount of man-made CO2 is not a sufficient solution...."

Volumes have been written on the question of whether human activity (be it CO2 production or deforestation, etc) is a significant factor in global warming, and whether human activity changes could reverse it.
As you allude, despite a wide consensus in the scientific community on the first issue, it's far from an absolutely certainly proven reality.

Here's the problem, though, with the "let's not go off half-cocked --let's do more research" position you and others take:
What IS understood is that there are tipping-points in these global changes. Get too much of the polar caps melted and that speeds the process, etc, and it becomes effectively irreversable. No one can say definatively where these tipping points are. Some credible scientists estimate we could be as close as 10 years.

If we wait until "all the facts are in" it could be too late. This isn't a stock portfolio we're investing in. It's not a computer security issue (that's my field) where if we make a mistake in the worst case we have to reconstruct 3 years of recievables.

It's in my opinion a case of needing to err on the side of caution. If we make excessive economic and lifestyle changes to reduce global warming and it turns out to be unnecessary or ineffective the results of that mistake could be very bad.
If, on the other hand, we DON'T get on the stick and change course now and THAT turns out to be a mistake the results could be far worse than "very bad" they can be indescribably catastrophic.

When one places their bets one needs to consider not just the odds of which way the bet will fall, but the seriousness of losing their bet.

I say, yes continue doing every possible form of research and simultaniously assume and prepare for the worst case and start acting as if we need to do something about greenhouse gases and the human contribution to the equation.

Alex Censor, M.S.

Saor Stetler

Your global warming post sounds like something out of a Michael Crichton novel.

Your overall message seems to be that global warming is a normal part of our globe's weather cycle and that we shouldn't try to do anything to address human contributions to the warming without further studies because it might not be necessary. I think your position is indefensible.

First, scientists have reached a consensus: humans are contributing to global warming and, if left unaddressed, the Earth's habitability for humans and many animal species may be drastically harmed. (See IPCC Climate Change 2001: The Third Assessment Report.) Even the Pentagon (as well as the conservative Insurance industry) has recognized the potential risks of global warming and the contributing effect that humans are having.

You comment that:
"We should spend money on basic research with the purpose of better understanding the interactions between the oceans and the atmosphere, plants (and animals) and the atmosphere, cloud physics, and the effect of volcanoes before we spend any significant amount of money on the abatement of anthropogenic CO2." Studies have been conducted and continue to be conducted and the consensus is clear: we need to reduce our emissions. The principle argument against requiring emission limits is that it will have negative economic effects. That's subject to debate and seems to be more of a cover for powerful industries to avoid change. The reality is that a move toward renewable energy would benefit our economy and our foreign policy as well as our health and that of the environment.

You also write:
"It may be the case that lessening the amount of man-made CO2 is not a sufficient solution." Of course there are unknowns, like whether we have already passed a tipping point but that does not provide a compelling argument against trying to mitigate our effects now. The Union of Concerned Scientists has this to say:

"By way of analogy, the occurrence of large earthquakes is also very difficult to predict. Just because we can’t predict when the next big earthquake in California will occur, should we stop building earthquake-resistant buildings? The IPCC projects that global temperatures will increase anywhere from +2.5°F to +10.4°F (+1.4°C to +5.8°C) by century’s end. Scientists show a range of temperature changes, rather than a single number, for a couple of different reasons: (i) imperfect knowledge about certain climate processes, such as cloud feedbacks and (ii) different assumptions about how much CO2 and other pollutants people will put into the atmosphere. These different hypotheses regarding the spread of temperature due to reason (i) are not just "guesses" as Crichton claims, but are constrained by fundamental physical principles and are tested against a challenging array of test cases drawn from the present and past climate of the Earth. The temperature spread attributed to reason (ii) arises from suppositions regarding factors such as population growth, fossil-fuel emissions, and economic and technological developments. The results provide a range of possible outcomes for policy makers to evaluate. For example, decision makers already have a good idea what will happen if no action to reduce CO2 emissions is taken: the “business as usual” scenario shows significant increases in temperature and changes in precipitation, leading to serious impacts over the next century.

Since a large portion of the projected range in temperature increases are based on human actions, the good news is that the future is in our hands. We have the opportunity right now to make choices for the future that will avoid the worst climate change impacts from occurring."

You also write:
"Political correctness must take a back seat to science. Science needs to explain global warming and it needs to do so without predisposition as to the causes. Scientists need to proceed without predisposition to a "politically correct" answer." Huh? Scientists' position that we are contributing to global warming at our peril is the opposite of "politically correct;" more like "environmentally correct." If it were "politically correct," politicians would have embraced it long ago rather than fighting tooth and nail to implement changes. Instead, the politicians beholden to powerful lobbyists defer change by calling for more studies while the globe gets warmer.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists said:
"Global warming from CO2 build-up in the atmosphere is different from other pollution problems society has faced. The CO2emissions we release today very literally will determine the climate we leave to our children and future generations. This is because CO2 is very long-lived in the atmosphere. You may have heard that each CO2 molecule that we emit from burning fossil fuels in our cars and power plants will remain in the atmosphere between 50 to 200 years. The more complex explanation is even more sobering — carbon cycle models indicate that ~25 percent of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, and ~7 percent longer than one hundred thousand years.

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are already at unprecedented levels and the consequences of a changing climate are already underway. If we wish to prevent the most severe climate change projections from actually happening, we must reverse the heat-trapping emissions trend as quickly as possible. The progressive accumulation of atmospheric CO2, however, becomes more difficult and costly to reverse as time goes on.

Current solutions exist that can be implemented now—we don’t need to wait or to rely on unknown future technological developments. Many large corporations have already reported substantial savings after they instituted measures to reduce heat-trapping gas (greenhouse gas) emissions. Recently, DuPont reported $2 billion and IBM $791 million in savings from reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We can harness new technology as it develops, but there is no reason to delay implementation of currently available technologies, such as producing electricity with wind and solar power, improving building energy efficiency, and getting better gas mileage in our vehicles."

While I generally enjoy your posts, I think this one was either careless or irresponsible.

Alex Censor, M.S.

Couldn't find your blog article titled "July 07, 2006: RateWatch #519 Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
" which dealt partly with the energy issue and with your belief that worries about water problems have been exaggerated.

So I'm posting here:
Optimism, which you show in large amounts, is a wonderful trait, Dick.
Pessimism is destructive.

You wrote, in part "Water is not scarce."

I'm neither an optimist or pessimist on the energy "problem" or the water issues.

I like to think I'm a realist:

# Watersheds have been and are being destroyed.
# Counting on cheap energy to desalinate seawater to be brought on line quickly enough and massively enough to allow "business as usual" is a pretty risky bet if we lose it.
I'm sure you're aware that it take massive amounts of energy to desalinate water and that it's economically feasable to do that only in places like Saudi Arabia where, at least for now, they have lots of cheap oil to burn to do it with.

Ever hear of the precautionary principle?
The idea along the lines of "better safe than sorry?" or that it's OK to plan for and expect the best, but you'd better be prepared for the worse?

In finance I bet you don't think it too wise to purchase a home with payments far more massive than your projected incomes can handle on the grounds that you believe that you "should" in principle be able to before the bank forcloses get yourself a job that pays ten times your current income. Or at least if you can't that you have a "plan-B" in place?

Well running out of water or energy, draining it down to critical levels because we might, or "should," be able to replace it later, is a heck of a lot more serious than having your house forclosed. Run out of water an you die.

Only 2.5% of the earths water is fresh water. Sixty nine percent of that is actually tied up as ice at the polar caps. About thirty percent is tied up underground, as ground water in the aquifers. About point nine percent of the earth's fresh water is, is tied up in permafrost, as a swamp moisture or, or permanent soil moisture. And that leaves us with a very small percentage for all the uses we need it for. "
So how much fresh water does that leave for all the plants and animals of the world, including us humans? The answer is: not much.

"It's less than one hundredth of one percent of the earth's water is actually available for all of the biodiversity that lives in fresh water. But that's also the tiny percentage that we as a species actually have to use for our own needs. It's an amazingly small amount of the earth's water that's available to us."

It's really a classic case of "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink" .

Aquifers all over the world are being overpumped and sucking in seawater to replace the freshwater. The portions of the aquifer so contaminated become useless.

Some believe that fresh water will be a critical limiting resource for many regions in the near future. About one-third of the world's population lives in countries that are experiencing water stress. In Asia, where water has always been regarded as an abundant resource, per capita availability declined by 40-60% between 1955 and 1990. Projections suggest that most Asian countries will have severe water problems by the year 2025. Most of Africa historically has been water-poor.


Dick Lepre

Just a couple of quick notes to Alex Censor's comments:

- regarding water: the gigantic majority of water consumption is for agriculture. Intelligent use of an apparantly limited water stock would seem to entail growing and consuming "water effecient" crops. Instead rice - a monster water consuming crop - is a staple of many Asian diets.

The general appeal of the piece that you mentioned "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" is that there is an available abundance of unused solar energy and that the technology to effeciently convert sunlight to PV energy should be aggressively pursued.

I am in no way suggesting that we should act as it there is not a problem or concern. Rather I am stating that we should identify the solutions and pursue them. For me, solar cells are a very obvious solution with little downside. The PV that has existed is simply not cost or size effective but the next genetarion may well be.

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