Why the Whole AGW/Warmist Narrative Is Even Weaker than Its ComponentsAlan Carlin | February 12, 2010
Current scrutiny of the AGW/alarmist/warmist positions quite deservedly centers primarily on the scientific integrity of the UN/IPCC reports, which in the United States may be crucial in the question of whether EPA acted in accordance with EPA regulations in determining that GHGs endanger public health and welfare. It is important, however, not to lose sight that the larger AGW/warmist view of the world makes a long series of crucial assumptions starting with the science and ending with the implementation of their proposed solution. This larger view of their assumptions suggests that some of the other assumptions are even less well grounded in reality than the ill-supported conclusions currently being discussed concerning the IPCC reports.
The publicized goal of the AGW alarmists/warmists and the European Union is to prevent more than a 2oC increase in global temperatures above preindustrial levels by reducing GHG emissions. They appear to have made a number of critical assumptions in order to arrive at this goal and their approach to achieving it, including the following:
- (1) Significant global warming is taking place and will take place in the future.
(2) This warming is primarily due to increasing levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere.
(3) These increasing GHG levels are primarily due to human activity in releasing GHGs.
(4) It Is Realistic to Rapidly and Drastically Reduce Emissions of GHGs.
(5) A United Nations consensus can be reached on a new global treaty to reduce GHG emissions.
(6) But to obtain a consensus it would desirable and feasible for developed countries to pay large amounts to the developing countries.
(7) If a consensus should be reached, each country would actually implement whatever it may agree to.
(8) These actually implemented reductions would reduce global warming sufficiently so as to avoid a 2oC increase in global temperatures.
Each of these assumptions appears to be essential for the overall warmist narrative if they are to make a well-rounded case that their solution might have credibility. The first three are related to the IPCC science conclusions and therefore the EPA endangerment finding. The remainder, however, are not really discussed in the EPA endangerment finding since they involve potential regulatory action. But they may be relevant to future EPA rulemaking and are very relevant to the real world viability of the warmist narrative as a whole.
(1) There Will Be Significant Warming
It appears clear that there has been significant warming since the end of the Little Ice Age and in the 1930s (well before any significant impact of fossil fuel use is likely). There also was some modest warming in 1998, which shows no apparent relation to changes in CO2 levels. Otherwise it is difficult to make the case for significant warming in the last 70 years.
There is increasing evidence that the alleged warming in the 1980s and early 1990s may be more the result of the urban heat island effect and attempts to manipulate the ground-based station data than it is of actual temperature increases. The satellite temperature data (which started in 1978) shows an increase only in 1998 leaving aside periodic oscillations probably related to ENSO. See here and here for a more detailed discussion.
Now as to the future, the principal argument advanced for higher temperatures is that a number of computer models used by the UN IPCC, which have all used similar assumptions, all show increases for the remainder of this century. But these models reflect the assumptions used in constructing them rather than having any actual predictive power (see Section 1.7 of my Comments). If this first assumption is incorrect the later assumptions should make little difference since there will be no alleged problem to solve. I give this assumption a chance of being correct a generous 2 out of 10 or 20% because of our limited understanding of climate despite the lack of any real evidence for the warmist view.
(2) Alleged Warming Primarily Due to Rising GHG Levels
There is very little empirical evidence for rising GHG levels as the primary cause for global warming. Ice core data suggests that CO2 levels follow temperatures rather than the other way around. In fact, the all-important scientific tests of this hypothesis show that increases in GHG levels are not a significant cause of warming, as discussed here. A new study suggests the same thing. There is even a theoretical hypothesis by Miskolczi that argues that the Earth simply reduces atmospheric water vapor (a more important greenhouse gas) to offset higher GHG levels. If correct (and it at least has a real world empirical basis, unlike the AGW hypothesis), this means that increases in GHG levels would have no effect on global temperatures! So it seems reasonable to give this assumption a 1 out of 10.
(3) Rising Atmospheric GHG Levels Primarily Due to Human Releases of GHGs
There is little doubt that atmospheric GHG levels are increasing, but whether human-caused emissions are the primary cause is doubtful but more uncertain than assumption (1). Rather, the increasing GHG levels may be primarily due to increasing ocean temperatures over hundreds of years since water cannot absorb as much CO2 at higher temperatures. This appears to be a major scientific uncertainty, so I propose to assign this assumption a 3 out of 10.
(4) It Is Realistic to Rapidly and Drastically Reduce Emissions of GHGs
Warmists assume that GHG emission reductions are the solution to (1), (2), and (3), but this is far from obvious. They generally propose reductions in CO2 emissions of about 80% by 2050, often compared to 1990. Taking account of population growth and increases in energy use since 1990, the reductions “needed” per person would be almost 90% (see p. 721 here). Given the rapid spread of new energy using technology such as computers, server farms, and cell phones, this appears more than unlikely.
In reality, most experience to date has been that in political jurisdictions where the most serious energy efficiency efforts have been made, the “best” that has been achieved is that GHG emissions have been held steady because the emissions reductions have been balanced out by increases brought about by demand for increased uses by increasing urban populations (for added discussion of all this see pp. 721-5 here). Finally, analysis (see, for example, here and here) suggests that various geoengineering solutions such as stratospheric solar radiation management would much more reliably achieve cooling at a small fraction of the huge costs of reducing GHG emissions. So I’ll give this assumption a generous 1 in 10 chance of being correct.
(5) A New Binding International Treaty Can Be Reached to Reduce GHG Emissions
Since even countries with large emissions could theoretically have only a small effect on global emissions and emissions reductions by one country would disadvantage it economically compared to those that do not reduce them, the only way to reduce emissions (assuming that this could actually be done) effectively would be for most large emitting countries to enter into a binding treaty to reduce emissions. This may require the intervention of a world body such as the United Nations. But the Copenhagen Conference and those leading up to it strongly suggest that a new UN consensus would be very difficult to reach, at best. The UN did earlier reach consensuses on both the UNFCCC and on the Kyoto Protocol to it, but there has been no evidence that a new consensus agreement is even possible. So I’ll give this assumption a very generous 1 out of 10.
(6) Funding Can Be Found to “Buy” Support/”Reimburse” Less Developed Countries
Assuming that a new consensus could be reached, it is very likely that it would include large payments from developed to developing countries. Many less developed countries have suggested that they would be willing to concur on a new accord only if the developed countries pay them quite large sums presumably for the expenses they might incur for reducing emissions and/or the damages they may have incurred by the higher temperatures allegedly resulting from GHG emissions from the developed countries.
The principal problem is that even if developed countries should agree philosophically with this position, they must find the funding for these payments. This may not be very popular with voters in developed countries; it is certainly not in the United States. Indications so far are that most of the money so far promised may come from existing foreign aid budgets, which means that total foreign aid would probably change very little, which is consistent with the idea that the voters in developed countries are unlikely to approve significantly higher foreign aid levels. The leading proposal considered at the Copenhagen Climate Conference was that the funds would be allocated by the UN, which may not reassure voters in developed countries who would have to foot the bill. So I’ll give this assumption a generous 1 in 10.
(7) Most Major Emitters Would Actually Carry Out Whatever GHG Reductions They Might Agree to
Voluntary international agreements do not have a very good record of actually being implemented. Witness the Kellogg-Briand Treaty renouncing war as an instrument of national policy in 1928, or more to the point, the Kyoto Protocol negotiated in 1997. Neither one was/is being implemented in any serious way (see pp. 725-6 here). But without effective implementation there will certainly be little reduction in GHG emissions, and, even if the above assumptions should be correct, in global temperatures. So give this assumption a generous 1 in 10.
(8) Proposed Actual Reductions in GHG Emissions Would Achieve the 2oC Goal
Besides the ability to predict climate decades in advance, this assumption assumes that we know the so-called climate sensitivity factor, which relates changes in temperature to a doubling of CO2 levels. Unfortunately this is one of the most controversial issues in climate science and is not known with even moderate confidence. Hence any claims that a given change in emissions will result in a particular increase in temperatures cannot be ascertained. Thus it is not possible to know what change in global temperatures might result from any given change in GHG emissions. Finally, it can be shown (pages 712-6) that if the IPCC assumptions and data were all correct that the 2oC goal could not be achieved using this approach. So I give this assumption a 1 in 10 probability.
Taken together, the odds that all eight of these crucial warmist assumptions would prove to be correct appears to be close to zero. There is no rational expectation that assumption (8), their ultimate objective, would actually be achieved if the world actually tried to implement the warmist narrative. The last five assumptions are particularly indefensible, but are receiving less attention than the first three. This post explains why each of these critical assumptions are very dubious and why the assumption that taken together they are all correct is not reasonable.
Despite the dismal prospects that all these assumptions are correct, many prominent politicians (including the Obama Administration), US mainstream media, and academics continue to pursue the warmist narrative. Even if the prospects for each assumption were magically doubled, it remains unclear why rational people would support more than one of the warmist assumptions and particularly the overall narrative.