Global Warming

A friend asked me this evening what I thought about Global Warming.

We were interrupted by the waiter asking us what we wanted for pudding, so I never got round to answering, but here's my two-pennyworth:

30 years ago when I was at school, there were three concerns about climate change:
  • the widening hole in the ozone layer with the prospect we'd all get fried to death by UV radiation
  • the effect of coal-burning power stations in producing acid-rain (deadly to Scandanavian pine forests apparently)
  • the widely-held belief that we were all heading towards another ice age.
Interestingly enough, society did get its act together on the first two, but as far as I can tell there was no action on the third. Despite this, many people are very worried about global warming. CO2 reduction, carbon-neutrality, and renewable energy are all the rage. Governments around the world appear to have embraced the whole thing with great enthusiasm, though I suspect this has a lot to do with how easy it is to foist additional "Green Taxes" on people.

I read quite a bit about the science and find the debate between the IPCC and sceptic camps quite interesting.

My own view on the whole subject probably drifts over time, but if you were to ask me today what I think about the main questions, my answers are:
  1. Is climate changing ? Almost certainly - it always has and always will
  2. Is the earth getting warmer ? Yes, at the moment
  3. Is it bad if the earth gets warmer ? Only if you live near the equator. Much of the land in the northern hemisphere could produce more crops and would be more pleasant to live in if temperatures were a bit higher (*)
  4. Is the earth getting warmer due to increased CO2 caused by mankind burning fossil fuels ? This is a contribution, but a very small one
  5. Can we reduce the warming by producing less CO2 ? Unlikely because the practicalities of modern industrial society, coupled with the increasing population and ever-increasing industrial development will prevent us from actually reducing CO2 production. It's still likely to rise, albeit more slowly than if we did nothing. However, as the effect of CO2 is currently overstated, this isn't going to be as big a deal as many people currently fear
  6. If atmospheric CO2 increases, could this result in catastrophic positive feedback (ie. runaway temperature increase) ? Highly unlikely, CO2 has been much higher in the past and the earth has many more negative feedback mechanisms that tend to balance things
  7. Should we try to reduce CO2 production ? Yes, but mainly because there is a finite amount of hydrocarbon fuel available and the more we use now, the quicker it will run out
* This seems quite a heartless comment, so I should expand it a bit. If animals and people were free to migrate, a warming climate would mean that they tended to migrate towards the poles, and a cooling climate would encourage them to live closer to the equator. In our structured society, with its artificial national boundaries, this is far more complicated. However, if we spent a fraction of the amount of money currently being thrown at climate change on improving facilities and opportunities for the poorer people in our world, the impact of any climate change on them would be far less than current government policies on climate change would effect.

Conclusions and Predictions
  1. Reducing our fuel usage is a really good thing because it preserves fossil fuels for as long as possible to allow time for mankind to come up with energy alternatives.
  2. Within the next 10-20 years, the current obsession with CO2 production will reduce. After that people will look back and think we were all daft to think that a 100ppm increase in CO2 in our atmosphere could cause a huge problem.
  3. The money spent on reducing CO2 would be of far greater benefit to humanity if we used it to ensure that everyone in the world had good access to clean water, food, shelter, security, and education.
Additional Comment

My eldest son is studying Environmental Science at university and would probably disagree with much of what I've written here. All I've said to him is that I think he's doing a useful course that will provide good employment prospects, "...but just don't specialise in anything to do with climate change, as the established wisdom might all change (again)". Fortunately, I think he's far more interested in other aspects of Environmental Science.

6th February 2010