Sunday, 12 May 2013

2nd Letter To The China Post: State Of Climate Change Debate


In response to Sunday's top story regarding greenhouse gas levels, I should like to offer several brief observations.

The first is that the current scientific debate on climate change focuses on the question of where is the "missing heat", following the approximately ten to fifteen year absence of a clear and statistically significant warming trend either in the surface temperature record, the sea surface temperature record, or in the lake and reservoir temperature record - despite the continuous increase in greenhouse gases over the past few decades. Presently, the preferred conjecture is that the missing heat is to be found in the deep oceans (i.e. below 700 meters), having arrived there via increased wind-driven waves and the La Nina effect by which warm surface water is gradually mixed with cold, deep water. Theoretically, this conjecture is plausible and may yet turn out to be valid. However, it's empirical support is fraught with uncertainty on several key points: first, the satellite data pertaining to ocean wave activity over the past decade (AMSR-E) shows no upward trend, meaning that there does not appear to have been any increase in wind-driven waves; second, the ARGO data on ocean heat content is limited in time (global coverage was only established in 2007, and therefore multi-decadal data is not yet available), limited in space (each of the many ARGO floats around the world - 3, 566 - must record data for areas of many tens to hundreds of square kilometers), and limited in accuracy (because of the immense capacity of the oceans to absorb heat, changes in temperature below 700 meters must be recorded at hundreds or even thousands of a degree). It is lamentable that there is so little coverage (to say nothing of participation) of the global debate in Taiwan's parochial media; the English-language Taipei Times has been particularly poor in this respect.

Second, Taiwan's emissions of carbon dioxide amount to something like 1% of a global total which increases by more than that (perhaps as much as 3%) every year. Therefore, even if Taiwan's carbon dioxide emissions were to fall by 100%, there would be no change to the growth of carbon dioxide emissions around the world. Furthermore, even modest cuts to carbon dioxide emissions mandated by the government by, for instance, replacing coal-fired power plants with renewable energy, would likely raise the costs of generating electricity (and therefore consumer prices) in exchange for nothing at all, even if we assume - despite the evidence - that the greenhouse gas effect is actually increasing global temperatures, as was once believed by some a decade ago.

Third, there are ample reasons to think that the current long-term warming trend (i.e. not the past ten to fifteen years, but the past few hundred years) will have not only negative externalities, but also positive externalities too. Yet the case for reducing carbon dioxide emissions is unbalanced and irrational to the extent that it relies on a simplistic formula of adding up all the possible negative externalities and dismissing even any thought of possible positive externalities: the obvious possibilities being the amount of currently frozen land that could potentially become arable over the course of this century in places like Canada and Siberia.

If I may risk a generalization - to be understood, I hope, with the appropriate caveats - I should like to point out that, although vital, the tendency of people in Taiwan to read about and participate in international debates - particluarly online - is limited not only by issues to do with English-language confidence, but also by an attitude of deference-to-authority which, despite the year being 2013 and not 1913, is still encouraged by the media and the obedience system education system.

Yours freely,
Michael Fagan.

(Unpublished by the China Post).

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