Change of Climate on the Right

There is no room for politics when we are playing for keeps. So say four Republicans, who served four Republican presidents as heads of the Evironmental Protection Agency.  The climate is changing in Washington D.C., though still more slowly than in the Arctic.

My own view? Our uncontrolled experiments on our one and only planet must be curbed.  Scientific evidence from many quarters show definitively that the Earth is warming.  Science can give us arguments, strong but not airtight, that we may be responsible (mainly via carbon emissions, and the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide).  It cannot tell us reliably how bad the risks of a warmer Earth will be; there are too many uncertainties.  But it seems to me that these are risks we shouldn’t be taking, period.  We don’t get to mail-order another planet if we mess this one up.

77 responses to “Change of Climate on the Right

  1. Surely those you mentioned pose big challenges for mankind. In addition there is a potential Black Swan lurking in physics. You are naturally familiar with the GRB phenomenon… What does it take to cause one? Some sort of chain reaction for sure. What else? What’s the ignition mechanism? One may speculate about it, right? What do you think of it?

    • Kimmo,you may be correct in part at least; some recorded gamma ray burst do have characteristics consistent with what one might expect of a shock front propagating through a multi planet star system at near the speed of light. That is the spikes in the gamma ray signal correspond to a large percentage of the mass energy of the star and individual planets being converted to gamma ray energy by a phase front moving through the system.

      We do not understand such a process nor how to ignite same, thank goodness. Hopefully we will develop into a more human like race before learning how to convert mass to energy in such an explosive manner.

      • The upside are potential good advances that include going away from fossil fuels.

      • Ironic part is that I do have an idea how GRB might be ignited but the majority of physicists won’t even listen to an amateur physicist. No, that’s not ironic that’s just hilarious. Ironic part comes when these same physicists get their hands on large amount of antimatter and decide (or are paid) to tryout bomb like behaviour with it. The outcome is possible ignition to GRB.

  2. Avoiding risks does cost. It seems to me we are not willing to pay.

  3. France consumes for champagne production 300,000,000 bottles per year where each bottle weighs 830grms +. The CO2 liberated in the glass production industry is enormous. A few individual yeast cells will quickly divide and populate a keg of beer and die in their own effluent – it only takes a few weeks. The only way to stop them killing themselves is to cool them down. But the beer will not be drinkable. If the population appetite for material is not controlled we will die in our own effluent just like yeast. During the carboniferous period the O2 levels where typ 34% hence huge insects could exist. Currently down to 16%. Life shall continue to evolve in the lower O2 levels – if we have the time. Some voice the opinion that it is too late for us, our global economy is driven by a law of ongoing positive growth. It is like a snowball which must continue to roll down hill and become bigger and bigger. A snow ball will become so monstrous that it simply fails and divides itself due to the lack of adhesion when it arrives at a certain mass. The global economic system must change so we can quite happily exist with zero growth. But wealthy countries and people will not tolerate that as they must get richer.

  4. As a Meteorologist of some 30 years, I get weather. This science requires an open mind and not a narrow one, where is consensus is determined to be absolute. Any scientist who says otherwise is just being political. Climate changes but that is a given in this field. The question begs the answer, do we curb and eliminate pollution when we can? Not whether it is called Global Warming, Climate Change or “Walking on Sunshine’.

    • Climate control at this point is merely speculative in nature. We are not sure what causes change though change is evident. How does oceanic mixing or volcanic residue affect climate? Profoundly! But to the best of my knowledge we cannot control these things just as we cannot control Subduction Zones or long wave patterns in weather.

      So to say we need action just for the sake of it, seems counter-intuitive. It is like being a rebel without a known cause.

      • But you are forgetting we are already “taking action”. We’re digging up carbon and putting it into the atmosphere without concern for the consequences. THAT seems like being a rebel without a cause… as opposed to saying “Wait a minute — are you sure that’s a good idea?”

        • I agree that we clean up the world as best we can but as a Meteorologist and therefore a defacto Climatologist, I know that some are overstating the damage, at least in the long term. One proponent actually did not believe that climate models are tailored after Computer Weather Modeling like the MOS and Lamp Models for example.

          The problem in this discussion that the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘pollution’ are being used interchangeably. That is presumptive and a false dichotomy. The choices are not either or, the alternatives will be scientific and not parochial arguments based upon political values.

          When science is subsumed by politics, it stops being pure science and gives rise to scheisters and nabobs like Al Gore. Let this be about the moral mandate to save our planet from smog and other particulates that make it hard to breathe than some political conquest driven by media hype and hyperbole.

          I love the monthly magazine, by the way. Thanks and keep up the good work.

          Meteorologist Mike Scott

          • Meteorologist are, in fact, not climatologist, just like micro-economists are not macro-economist. They know more about how to read the results, but they are often mislead by their own assumed expertise. While not specifically calling your credentials in to question, 30 years as a meteorologist provides a rather minimal ‘resume’ as for as appropriate expertise goes.

            That said, three is a lot of difficult science in going from drivers (e.g., CO2, etc) and climate, and even more in going from climate changes to impacts, especially in the long term, especially where mitigation can be readily, if a little costly, accomplished.

            As for the damages, the sea-level rise is spectacularly costly (good bye, NY and Bangladesh eventually without controls at some point) and mitigation will reduce the amount from huge to a slightly less huge. As for the appropriate manner to aggregate costs and benefits (and there are benefits as in the Nature paper of May 1989 on the US Ag sector, of which I am a co-author), there is a very interesting piece by Arrow, Heal et al. in the recent Science or Science News on discount rates).

            [note, posted previously under a slightly more specific ‘handle’ the too closely identified me; reader of this blog for the last 18+ months, especially the last 8.]

  5. I tweeted:
    re: CLIMATE CHANGE – Prof. Matt Strassler says “We don’t get to mail-order another planet if we mess this one up.”
    AMEN says I

    And some other tweets – this article and 2 from the NYTimes article you linked. Always interesting to read your political posts!

  6. I appreciate the willingness of the four former officials to come together and speak out. And, thank you, Matt, for posting the link and your comments. I agree wholeheartedly.

  7. Life on Earth is an uncontrolled experiment no matter what we do.
    The planet has always been warming or cooling.
    The “climate science,” unable to verify it’s global models experimentally is little more then speculation and fear mongering.
    As far as risks of CO2 emissions go, I am more then willing to take them myself. If you aren’t you should cut YOUR energy consumption. All the jet travel to various conferences around the world in particular, it has massive carbon footprint and little rational justification.

    • Actually, I increasingly attend conferences by video. I do think that will be the future. In any case, that is something which obviously will have to be cut — once people start to take the carbon footprint issue seriously. Every part of society will have to make adjustments.

      Particle physicists are in fact heavy users of video meeting technology.

  8. I agree with Matt’s wording on the science, although I’d quibble that much of the science and estimates on the consequences of warming range from speculative to just downright shoddy work. So then we come to the precautionary principle… It is a reasonable pov, although it really does depend on at least some Bayesian estimate on the credibility of the consequence. I mean if you don’t have at least some estimate, you could argue that cooling also leads to problems and then you preclude yourself from doing anything.

    I think the common sense approach is to try to reduce emissions when there are additional benefits for doing so. So eg replacing old coal plants with newer ones, where you also reduce local pollution levels in addition to emission levels. But I mean some of the talk in Eco circles where they advocate a full fledge reversal of modern civilization is also really trying. Just saying.

  9. “Our uncontrolled experiments on our one and only planet must be curbed”.

    I agree with most of what you right but this statement sounds to me at best illogical and at worst demagogic. To say that something “must be curbed” assumes that it can be curbed. You are either taking this for granted or just passing responsibility to someone else. Secondly, it is not clear what you mean by “uncontrolled experiments”. Is the desire of billions of people in China, India and elsewhere to live at a level that resembles what you surely take for granted one of those things that “must be curbed”? If so, you are certainly not going to get them to agree, if not, it’s hard to tell what else you can mean.

    In fact this kind of statement tends to reinforce a certain stereotype that many people have about scientists. It is one of people used to living on government grants who believe that money is something that comes from the printing press and governments can solve all problems by simply printing more of it. Economic analysis of cost and benefit is not something a scientist needs to bother about. They can decry cuts in spending on scientific research while at the same time demanding vast sums to be spent on preventing dangers, even when it cannot be estimated the extent of the danger and the more importantly, whether it is possible to do anything about it and what cost. Of course they completely ignore the little fact that practically all Western governments are running unsustainable budget deficits, face aging populations that will soon cease to be productive, and so on, and so on. How many billions of dollars should be spent in the hope that the temperature in 50 years will be lowered by 1 degree? What should give up in order to obtain this money? These are the key questions which should be in the center of any debate but hardly ever are.

    • The political and economic issues you raise are well-known (certainly to me, and to most people.) And I agree these are the key issues. But we cannot discuss them at all when a substantial fraction of the American people and government believe there’s no warming, or no risks to warming, at all and that climate scientists are just making up the problem in order to get government grants. [As though scientists have been swimming in money.]

      So let’s first agree we have a problem. Then the very difficult discussion of how we’re going to change our own society (not necessarily lowering our standard of living that much, but certainly changing the way we live) has to begin. And as for China and India and other parts of the world, I do not expect them to pay a higher price (per capita) for this than we pay. We (the US, and a few other countries) who use and also waste the most have to pay the largest price per capita. Obviously.

      • Actually china is already the worst offender. The real problem is that emissions in the western world are mostly irrelevant. Both Europe and the US have already cut most of their emissions substantially (back to 90s levels) and are slated to have flat or negative emmisions growth even with standard technology upgrades and no new ideas. The real core of the problem is that China and India will absolutely dwarf our totals within a hundred years if population growth and energy demand keep expanding. That’s really what the IPCC is worried about. That’s why changing a lightbulb is mostly irrelevant claptrap that solves nothing, whereas ideas like creating a better condom or finding a new energy solution is exponentially more important.

        • China can hardly be expected to try to deal with their contribution to the problem if we won’t deal with ours.

          Will they deal with theirs? No way to find out if we don’t deal with ours and then put pressure on the rest of the developed and developing world.

  10. Matt, I am an engineer and read your blog because I want to learn more about physics. I also have followed blogs covering both sides of the global warming debate for several years. I have to side with Lucretius on this one. The global warming models have not proven to be very reliable in the short term. There are so many variables affecting climate that work on vastly different time scales that are not included in these models. The earth definitely has been getting warmer since the end of the little ice age. In my opinion the warming over the last 200 years has been beneficial in increasing food production. I am hesitant to turn the dial on the global thermostat when we do not know what the ideal temperature is.
    Would money spent reducing carbon emissions be better spent on finding cures for cancer or eradicating hunger? I would not last long in my profession if I could not explain with confidence the cost vs. risk/benefit before spending large sums of my company’s money. I think its just to early to commit to anything other than more research at this point. I don’t believe that the science is settled as many have proclaimed.

    • I don’t think the science is settled. Some of it is (the earth is warming, carbon dioxide rates are increasing) but that’s just a set of facts. Some of it is not (what will the consequences of these changes be?).

      But the point is not that the science is entirely settled. The point is that humans are taking carbon out of the ground and putting it into the air — and this is an “experiment” on the planet.

      Experiments should be done under controlled conditions with a clear understanding of the safety risks. We expect that of our scientists. Why do we not expect it of the species?

  11. Matt: I think you should stay out of the climate change debate on your blog. I know Phil Plait does it, but it’s a can of worms. See where you said “Our uncontrolled experiments on our one and only planet must be curbed”? That could sound like you’re against the LHC. And before you know it, you’ve got people asking why the HEP community aren’t “trying to understand the secrets of matter and energy so that one day you don’t need to put petrol in your car”. Or pointing out that green energy issues could harm the economy and drive even more science funding problems, or saying that overpopulation is the elephant in the room, and pandemic is a bigger threat that will solve our global warming problems at a stroke. And of course there’s always East Anglia and the hockey stick, brown coal in Germany instead of nuclear power, the exporting of emissions, fuel poverty, lights going out, de dah de dah. Total can of worms. .

    • Irony with a scientific progress is that eventually it discovers The Black Swan, the truth about antimatter. I wouldn’t care much about climate changes, pandemic etc. After the true knowledge of antimatter there might be a very short future ahead of us, I’m referring at GRB phenomenon.

      • Don’t worry about that. Kimmo. People already know the truth about antimatter. There’s no chance that collider experiments will result in catastrophe. What you should worry about is those other things, and about science funding getting diverted to futile green funding that makes some people rich and makes you a serf. China isn’t green. Windmills don’t turn when the wind doesn’t blow. And you can’t do science by candlelight. Or much else for that matter.

        • I’m not worrying about generated antimatter in collider experiments. Those amounts won’t trigger GRB. It’s however possible to generate enough matter-antimatter annihilation to trigger the chain reaction causing GRB phenomenon.

          You only a need proper knowledge of antimatter.

          • Kimmo, cross my heart and hope to die. people have it. Along with a proper knowledge of black holes and relativity. That’s what you need to understand GRBs. I’ll let you into a secret: a falling particle falls faster and faster, but the coordinate speed of light is reducing in a non-inertial reference frame. There comes a point where there’s a crossover. An electron cannot travel faster than the local speed of light, so it gets destroyed, and the result is gamma radiation. This just can’t happen at the LHC. Black holes can’t happen either.

          • I don’t want to derail from the topic too much here. My point was that GRB (Earth as the ground zero) is the ultimate game changer and it will be (in case of actual event) caused by human beings.

            I’ll let you into a secret… There is no separate particle as antiparticle. They are just ordinary particles which can cause annihilation either when pumped up with lots of energy (+contact with another particle) or when brought together with another particle in certain technique. I can prove my claim.

          • Thanks for letting us in on your little secret. We’re so deeply grateful.

          • Obviously you have a different point of view :) But you, as a true scientist, should take in consideration a hypothesis which gives you more firepower to tackle issues currently untackled (like dark matter, dark energy, flyby anomaly, usage of antimatter etc).

            Honestly Matt, give it a try. I dare you and I guarantee that you find it very interesting. (Latest version http://toebi.com/documents/ToEbi.pdf)

          • You lost your dare, and your guarantee.

          • So says the man who can’t explain the anomalies and phenomena described in my earlier comment…

          • blah, blah, blah… you haven’t explained them either, you’ve just written a bunch of words that don’t make sense.

          • You shouldn’t be so arrogant because I can prove my theory in multiple ways, unlike for example ST supporters. Would you say my theory is wrong at the ground zero (if somebody makes the ultimate experiment)?

          • You even *talk* the part.

            And who’s the arrogant one here? Am I claiming to have solved all of the difficult problems in the universe? Or are you?

          • Mmm… I consider my claims as bold ;) Maybe I can approve my communication a bit..

          • When you are coming into a field as an outsider, humility plays a lot better than “hey, you guys are a bunch of idiots”.

          • Obviously so, but I wasn’t implying that current physicists (or past) are stupid. Every physicists generation is a prisoner of its time and finding new approaches ain’t easy, especially when you have studied and made research under the current paradigm.

            I hope my ideas bring some fresh air into the physics society.

          • The hypothetical division of 4 forces, in which long range gravity and electro magnetism had broken its symmetry earlier – the electromagnetism as light (photons), veiled the spacetime.
            If general relativity is true, drilling of this spacetime with high density, will create infinite curvature of spacetime. It will release both poison and honey. ?

          • I would be cautions with a word like infinite. Anyway, what do you mean by poison and honey?

          • Black holes are one of only a fairly small number of cases in the history of science in which a theory was developed in great detail as a mathematical model before there was any evidence from observations that it was correct – for which the only evidence was calculations based on the theory of general relativity.
            Without gravity there is no angular momentum of matter. Gravity increase with density. The matter in the universe is made out of positive energy. However, the matter is all attracting itself by gravity. The gravitational field has negative energy. Gravitational pull is out of spacetime – emiting no electromagnetism – affect only the spacetime not the photons. Photons reduce energy according to the affected spacetime.
            Gravitational energy exactly cancels the positive energy represented by the matter. So the total energy of the universe is zero. Mass is the ripple in gravitational field (negative energy)- but we feel only its effect in positive energy (matter). So mass is 0^2 = non zero.

            When the universe doubles in size (expand), the positive matter energy and the negative gravitional energy both double, so the total energy remains zero. Because of the spacetime veil, the angular momentum c^2 makes mass as non zero – thus increasing negative gravitational energy. So more matter density more gravitational pull ?

  12. How many billions of dollars should be spent in the hope that the temperature in 50 years will be lowered by 1 degree?

    Consider what happened the last time the temperature of the Earth went up by several degrees. The ice sheets melted, raising the sea level by 100 meters. Millions of square kilometers of productive farmland in the Western Sahara became desert (okay, this was before the invention of agriculture, but it would have been farmland today). Even if the changes caused by AGW are much less in the next century, the cost is still very likely to be in the trillions of dollars. How can we afford not to spend billions of dollars in lowering the temperature?

    • Dear Peter, the continental ice sheets melted because they could: their annual mean temperature was close to 0 deg Celsius so a small change of the temperature was enough to make a big impact.

      Those ice sheets have been melted for thousands of years and nothing is left. To melt the remaining ice, you need about 20 deg Celsius to melt the Greenland ice and 50 deg Celsius to melt much of Antarctica. It won’t surely happen because of a greenhouse gas that isn’t even the dominant one.

      Moreover, you’re confusing billions and trillions. The futile fight against the CO2 emissions has already cost trillions of dollars. It’s made no impact at all and you would need tens of trillions to make an impact. On the other hand, the losses caused by fractions of the Celsius degree of warming can be counted just in billions and if one correctly compares both positive and negative terms, he will find out that a couple of degrees of warming is a clear net benefit. We should be paying billions if we could make the Earth a bit warmer. But it’s silly to pay trillions, whatever the sign of the supposed change would be.

      • Well, I doubt either of you is right; the costs of doing nothing are potentially in the trillions, and the investment in slowing down our uncontrolled planetary experiment is in the trillions too. It’s not going to be billions either way.

        However, I’m not convinced that the trillions invested will be trillions lost. A lot of that money comes back in improvements in efficiency. I’m also not convinced that doing nothing will be a disaster; but I’m convinced that it *could* be a disaster. That’s enough for me to get very nervous about doing nothing. Better to slow down the experiment, at least, than let it continue headlong.

  13. A step in the right direction at last…

  14. Climate change is real and progressing at an accelerating rate. That the human race is by far the major cause is a near certain conclusion. Any rational risk assessment shows that climate change is the greatest threat to all countries and all peoples on the planet. Methane hydrate has been mostly overlooked as a factor in the overall process but this is a “genie” not easily returned to the bottle. And the Earth may have already gone past the “tipping point.”

  15. If you are right than the only rational reaction is the time honoured one: “lie back and enjoy it”. Of course if you are so sure that the prospects are unbearably grim there are always ways to make an early exit leaving the rest of us (“the deniers”) to suffer our just rewards.

  16. Back in teh 70’s, the settled science was that the planet was cooling and we were due for another ice age. Not global warming is the settled science.

    I think they are both correct: anthropogenic climate change is real, but it is the reason Rutgers doesn’t have a glacier on top of it. :-)

  17. I must admit to having mixed feelings on this subject. I don’t delude myself (as many of the commenters here seem to) with the thought that the science of climate change is too uncertain to spend the money required to fix it. I think it is clear that our CO2 emissions are warming the planet. I’m just not willing to spend the trillions required (more money that we don’t have) to fix it.

    First, as long as we don’t send the planet into a runaway green house (like Venus) that destroys all life on Earth I’m not terribly concerned. I know that sounds horrible to some of you: “Don’t you know that while climate change won’t destroy mankind, it will make life unbearable for many millions of humans.” I think that while these changes will come in a very short time frame from the perspective of Earth’s history (perhaps just a few human generations), there will be time for mankind to deal with these changes piecemeal (populations will migrate inland, developing an advanced system of dikes, etc). Oh I fully expect that the ‘etc’ will cost a lot in blood and treasure but as long as mankind goes on I really am just not that concerned. Sorry… just being honest.

    Second, it’s clear that prior 3rd world countries looking to become, or already becoming, 2nd and 1st world countries like India and China are not going to join any environmental crusade by the U.S. After all, this is a planetary problem and cannot be solved without cooperation from all countries on the planet.

    Third, WAR. Though, it is no longer popular to consider the likelihood of nuclear war mankinds number one problem, I still do. Just cannot see us making it out of the 21st century without a WWIII (and hard to see us making it out of the 21st century with a WWIII) – sorry again – in which case Global Warming will be the least of our problems…from the perspective of a nuclear winter!

  18. This topic evokes a lot of conversation but when I hear let’s spend money I want to caution these people that we don’t have a lot of money laying around. If we spend our money, let’s fix the pollution issues first and then if we have money, spend money where we know it is needed.

  19. I agree with Matt in this respect: it is clear that we are burning fossil fuels at a dangerous rate, and that there will be serious consequences sooner or later if we continue doing so. One might say that we “ought to” stop doing certain things — such as running some 50,000 airplane flights every day.

    However, in considering the possibility of changing these aspects of our mass behavior, we must ask ourselves why we are behaving this way. The answer is something like (in suitable units)

    (impact of humans on planet) = (people in the world) x (fuel usage per person)

    As is well known, we currently have too many living people for the planet to support sustainably. To compensate, we have created a lot of extremely effective technology to make it possible to support ourselves non-sustainably. We do so by using the gibbs free energy (specifically chemical potential) in fossil fuel (and a few other sources) as a substitute for resources which are in short supply.

    For example, we use a lot of fossil fuel (mainly natural gas) to make fertilizer so we can feed ourselves using only the world’s existing arable land, which could certainly not produce enough food using traditional rhizome-based nitrogen fixation. Then we use more fossil fuel to transport the agricultural goods to market. And so forth.

    The big question, I think, comes down to this: can you persuade people to stop availing themselves of energy-based comfortable living? The answer seems to be: you cannot (peacefully) stop people from living the nicest lives they can manage.

    So whether or not we “should” make certain changes, I do not think we actually will make very many. I do not think it is possible for our species to simply stop doing what we characteristically do, until such a change is forced upon us.

  20. To build on Ralph’s comments, the harsh reality is the root cause (or the real uncontrolled experiment) is unchecked population growth. The use of energy has allowed us to develop quickly into an advanced society with all the benefits that go along with it (advanced medicine, fast means of travel, efficient and sustainable food supplies, computers, etc.) I expect that only a few of us would want to make our living with 1700’s technology knowing the advantages of 21st century technology.
    I am in favor of using energy efficiently but mankind will always seek out larger and cheaper energy supplies. Until there is a cheaper source of energy than fossil fuel, it will be continued to be used. If not by us, then by the rest of the world. I do agree that there will be a WWIII fighting over the diminishing natural resources. Possibly, a more civilized solution (sarc) of forced mass sterilization will put the world population back in check.
    On a personal level, everyone can decide to not have children, I’m not one of them. But if you do decide not to procreate, global warming should be of no concern to you.
    Carbon use is only a small symptom of uncontrolled population growth made possible by technological advances made possible by the use of energy. We can adapt to our climate over time, I don’t see a plausible way to control carbon emissions without reducing global population.
    I may be in a minority on this point, but I’m more concerned with astronomers finding a 2 mile wide asteroid that will impact the earth and no time or plant to stop it. No time to adapt.

    • Global population growth is the sine qua non for dealing with environmental problems. But it is not obvious it is so difficult to address; a number of economically wealthy countries have low birth rates.

      • I had to Google “sine qua non” – I learned something today. I do enjoy this discussion on global warming even though some say you should avoid the topic. I think it is an appropriate topic on your site when there is little new news in HEP to discuss. I get to discuss this with a different group of people than I find on the dedicated climate sites.
        Two climate sites (one pro and one con) I would like to share with the readers are “Watts up with that” by Anthony Watts ( It was voted best science blog several years in a row) and “Real Climate” for more information and discussions on various climate topics.

    • You should read “The Population Bomb” and “The Rational Optimist” in that order. After reading the first, you will wonder why the world didn’t end in the 80’s like it was supposed to. Reading the second will explain why and you will realize there will be no WWIII over natural resources.

  21. Ralph, Tripod: well said. I mentioned overpopulation in an earlier comment.

    IMHO since science funding is under pressure but green funding is on the up, a guy like Matt rooting for climate change is like a turkey voting for Christmas. And the irony is that in his next blog entry he’s complaining about science funding being cut.

    • Indeed. I wonder how much money has been moved in the DOE budget from HEP to green energy over the past five years?

  22. It cannot tell us reliably how bad the risks of a warmer Earth will be; there are too many uncertainties.

    If there are so many uncertainties we cannot tell either what are the risks of not warming the planet with CO2… right?

    • That is, to a limited degree, correct. But the limitations are important.

      We can measure how much CO_2 the Earth had over previous eras, back at least 400,000 years. http://www.whrc.org/resources/primer_fundamentals.html . We also know what the temperatures have been – they are roughly correlated with CO_2, though there is a time lag as the CO_2’s greenhouse effect kicks in.

      What we see is that the CO_2 has never, in the past 400,000 years, been higher than it is now. So we know that we are taking the Earth into territory for which we do not have data — and therefore we cannot predict the risks based on past history. And climate theory is not sufficiently reliable for us to trust its predictions.

      A fair question is “What causes ice ages?” A sudden onset of an ice age would also have a big impact on the world economy. So you could try to argue that warming the planet is protection against ice ages — but that argument, given how little we understand, would be pure guesswork. We don’t have the science to back it up. It might provide no protection; for all I know, it might even eventually trigger an ice age, if there are feedback mechanisms we don’t understand.

      My point of view remains: we’re taking huge risks by experimenting with our one and only planet before we understand the consequences of what we’re doing. We should slow this experiment down.

      • Matt: I realize I haven’t read all of the related posts, but I guess I’m a little surprised at your talk of wanting to control this uncontrolled experiment we call life and the universe. Clearly, there’s no way to have anything remotely analogous to a controlled experiment, where factors and influences are understood and known. I have a great deal of respect for your work and this blog, so maybe I’m missing something.

  23. Dave G- I would appreciate people not politicizing weather. When I hear people marginalizing forecasters the words ‘talking points’ resonate loudly. I would welcome debate by people who actually knew something about science and weather and could appreciate just how complex all of this is.

    This is not a junior high school popularity contest because a lot is at stake and when Matt talks about funding cuts, I hear him. But from the vantage point of taking care of immediate needs, like oh, severe weather forecast and saving lives.

    So we have people assume they know something and would die for that cause. Max Planck himself made the following quote. “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

    I do know that people do destroy our environment when we strip our lands as is the case in China. We also have impacted plankton levels and created dead spots in the ocean. And not the least we have to breathe gas vapors and cause a rise in respiratory diseases. If in the course of that, we improve our quality of life, then I am totally onboard. What I will not do is endorse as a matter of fact something that is still a subjective interpretation.

    In the final analysis, we Meteorologists do get climate. We see the changes that occur and how it affects weather but we are hesitant to go overboard and claim to know something we don’t.

    • stlluna7 — Agreed, but how? I hope Matt is correct that population growth can be controlled by following available examples of steep declines in birth rate in the wealthy countries. From what I’ve read, it seems we actually need to go backwards in time, to arrive at a lower population. That is not going to be easy.

      • I believe new technologies will help us deal with growing nations and their lack of birth control. But I would shiver to think that mandated BC is an answer.

      • I think that there is only forward in that but we can adjust and I am not sure about control here either… because we are leveling and we will make due. It is all crazy..

  24. It seems to me we have to face up to the (population) x (resources consumed) problem. Trying to lower the magnitude of that expression leads us into the paradox that everything that is bad is good, and everything that is good is bad.

    For example, feeding the hungry is good, but having, in consequence, additional living people is bad. Likewise, helping every student reach his or her potential is good, but that leads to more economic activity (which we also see as good), and thereby tends to cause society to be more productive (double good) by using more energy per capita (triple bad).

    In the past, a popular solution to such problems was to pick out a scapegoat group, then start an internal or external war against that group, leading up to partial or total genocide. At the same time, the ensuing war and murder served as distractions from otherwise unmentionable population problems.

    • People are not a useless product on a shelf somewhere. They are sentient beings with intelligence and a will to live. Decreasing the surface population is a solution but not a compassionate one. In other words you pass a poor person and judge him because he or she is expendable in your world.

      • I agree. That is why grappling with significant overpopulation seems to put our species into an impossible bind. The only ethically acceptable way to lower the population is with family planning — that is, birth control and, when necessary, abortion. I think the deep political (and social) divisions associated with abortion law provide a perfect illustration of the impossible quandaries arising from overpopulation.

  25. Tony (Rácz) Rotz

    Wow, maybe Minnesota will become livable, we’ll be the Hawaii of the north, 10,000 lakes and a mild climate. We will be the, never mind, I better quit.

  26. You science guys need to perfect fusion power or make better nuclear reactors – problem solved.

    • Thanks for the advice.

      • Matt, how about a discussion on the big hurdles with various fusion designs (Tokamak, inertial confinement, muon catalyzed, Z-pinch, etc.), or better yet a discussion of the various 4th generation MSR (Molten Salt Reactor) designs for safety, waste disposal, and cost to operate. Maybe do one reactor design a month until the LHC goes back on line. Just a suggestion if this would be of interest you and your readers. Thanks to Andy and Dino’s comments for the idea.

  27. That’s the ticket Andy. Technology got us into this, and I believe that ultimately, only technology can get us out of it – provided we have enough time…which I am not sure we do. And I agree that fusion is the ultimate answer, but I am not happy with the pace of developments on this front, and this is one of the few areas where government intervention might have really been helpful.

    Rather than pissing away trillions in Iraq and Afghanistan and rather than spending trillions on bank bailouts, Obama care, and government creation of temporary, 80k jobs that cost taxpayers 180k to create – all that time and money should have been used (starting back in 2001) for a two decade long Energy Independence Project which would have as its main focus Fusion Break-even by 2021. But that is now time and money already wasted. Choices do matter, and we have chosen poorly.

    Regardless, the engineering breakthroughs needed for a practical fusion reactor will come, but it is clear that the western democracies have been shortsighted and slow to move in this regard. It seems clear to me that the 22nd Century will be a bright and glorious century of clean fusion energy with all nations shifting to hydrogen based economy.

    As for the 21st Century – not so lucky…

  28. I have huge respect for prof. Strassler, thanks to his blog I’ve really expanded my knowledge, but I’m afraid this article, as well as the whole global warming dispute seems to neglect some facts, like it’s obvious that fighting with climate change in long term (whatever the cause may be) is futile. It’s Don Kichote all the way. Eventually climate WILL change, no matter if we spend billions to cut the CO2 emission, and sterilize all 3rd world countries.

    To put it as simply as I can – Humanity could extinct, climate would change anyway.

    Earth is not a fishtank, and never was a homeostatic environment, there’s no such thing as “optimal earth temperature”, all life evolved in dynamic conditions, animals/plants/PEOPLE can live on Sahara as well as in the Arctic.

    Instead of listening to politicians and energy industry lobbyists (look at differences in margins!), we should try to do what’s natural, follow the instinct – adapt, evolve. That’s the key, advancements in bioengineering, medicine, farming, hydrology etc. that’s the only rational solution, when it’s comes climate change challenges.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree that cutting CO2 is necessary, but rationally, as a part of energetic independence, not as a tool to fight (or rather slow down at best) climate change, therefore aforementioned disciplines deserve much more attention, they could provide faster, cheaper and more efficient tools for humanity to cope with different climate.

    Sorry for my English.

  29. Nice post. I was checking constantly this blog and I am impressed!
    Extremely useful info particularly the last part :) I care for such information
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  30. Belief that we need to save our world or climate has become a widespread religion in many “western” countries over last 10-15 years. Few people care about actual science, its progress and uncertainities. What’s important is what media, ecologists or politicians say.

    I don’t count myself a believer of that religion although I started as one many years ago. The mistake I did was that I started thinking about it and started looking after what science has to say about it. My key conclusion, assuming the civilization will not destroy itself in its “war with climate”, is:

    There is no way carbon emissions will be stopped. People will not stop digging oil and coal reserves and even if they find a way to propel their cars and planes and TV sets with something else, they will use fossil reserves up for other purposes and that will inevitably lead to emitting that carbon to the atmosphere one way or another.

    Everything else are details. Such details like that global temperatures have not actually risen since at least 2002 even though CO2 concentrations continue to rise at accelerated rate. Such details like that there is no proof that CO2 drives temperatures (*) but there is rather convincing evidence that temperatures drive CO2 concentrations. Such details like that even though every other extreme weather event is attributed to climate change, the amount and strength of extreme (or whatever) weather is not changing so for every extreme event attributed to climate change there is another extreme event that climate change prevented to happen. Of course, the second kind is rather hard to notice.

    (*): CO2 concentration of course DOES affect temperature. CO2 is a “greenhouse” gas (however inaccurate that word is) and its increasing concentration increases atmosphere’s thermal insulation capacity. But the question is what is the “driver” of the change, i.e. the cause that for instance made temperatures rise over second half of last century. And there is very little support for the hypothesis that it really was CO2. Most of belief that it is so is just that: a belief.

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