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Separating the “Pseudoscience” from the facts on Global Warming

After completion of the 2018 UN climate change conference in Katowice, it may be

interesting to review where the debate currently is. Some question the value of such
conferences and the hypocrisy of the global elites who jet in from around the world
creating greenhouse pollution, in order to preach to us about the dangers from
greenhouse gases. In contrast, I observed a speech online by Nobel Prize winning
physicist, Dr Ivar Giaever, who asks us to question the evidence for global warming.
One of the first pieces of evidence he presented was that between 1880 and 2013
global temperatures have increased from only 288K (14.85°c) to 288.8K (15.65°c).
This would suggest (according to Dr. Giaever), that temperature change over this
time is amazingly stable (0.8°c). He has called global warming a new “neoliberal
religion”. While it is true that climate change has been with us forever, it is the rate of
change, and the cause and effect of it, which are still not fully agreed or understood.
I should state firstly, like Al Gore, I am not a “climatologist”. However, as an engineer
in industry, and more recently at the National Laboratory, my life has involved the
constant measurement of one characteristic or another. I would remind readers that
“the only thing constant in nature is change” To develop the point further, we need to
understand that when we measure any unit of a quantity (i.e. length, mass, time,
electric current, luminous intensity, amount of substance, or temperature), we use a
scale which has a reference to some physical, biological or chemical characteristic.
To use a simple temperature example, “pure” water freezes at 0°c and boils at
100°c. We can then break that difference into 100 parts and call each part one
degree of temperature, simple right? Well not quite, this is only true at sea level (or 1
atmosphere). As any student of physics or engineering knows, temperature is
dependent upon pressure. At only 4500 feet above sea level (1372m), pressure falls
and water will boil at 95°c. Atmospheric pressure changes continuously, which in
turn changes the temperature everywhere continuously, even at the same altitude.
This adds up to a lot of variation. As climatology (like weather forecasting), is not an
exact science, we can only state the probability, and subject to various assumptions.
So to my first point, measurement. All metrologists (experts in measurement), will
always be interested in the instrument calibration and uncertainty of measurement
(UOM). In fact international standards have been written on it. If you want to set up
any measurement laboratory, you will need to demonstrate competence in
calculating your uncertainty of measurement and report it with your measurement
result. This should be documented on the certificates of calibration. Considering that
most modern thermometers have an uncertainty of about 1°c, the thermometers in
1880 would have greater uncertainty (if known at all). If so, when looking for changes
of 0.8°c, the historical data collected would be of limited value, as results are
meaningless when your uncertainty of measurement is greater than the change you
are trying to identify. We would also need to record pressure at the same time, and
understand the uncertainty of the barometer for the pressure measurements (as well
as the thermometer for temperature measurements) taken from 1880 onwards.
The second point is about understanding what the measurements mean. In other
words, even assuming we know the uncertainty of our measurements, and we
consider them acceptable for use, how representative are the results taken of the
whole planet? I understand that the historical instruments were moved several times
during the period of the study between 1880 and 2013. This adds more confusion to
the results. In addition, even if we had zero carbon emissions in the period under
study, we do not know what the natural changes in global temperature would have
been (as no baseline standard exists). As the results were recorded in “time series”
an interesting question may be whether the variation in measurements are due to
either “common cause” or “special cause”. This can be investigated by the use of a
simple control chart. I have written previously about control charts here:
Our main interest should be around the “so what” question. According to the media,
the major concern would seem to revolve around rising sea levels. I am not sure that
for each unit of change in temperature “somewhere” results in a changes in sea level
“somewhere else” because again no such accurate mathematical correlation can be
shown due to many factors. Even if it was, governments of the world will consider the
economy of their own nation and people first, as if they do not, they will not be in
government for very long! This may not be conducive to international agreements!
Population growth in the developing world is the most measureable factor in climate
change. We may not know exactly by how much, but all agree it is very significant.
More people need more water and electricity. Deforestation is a result of more land
needed for housing and growing crops. Farming increase nitrates in the soil, while
farm animals create evermore greenhouse gases. In the developed world people are
concerned with paying their current electric bill, food, water, council tax, and the
mortgage. Hence, while climate change issues are a major concern for some, in
western society climate change is often regarded as a trendy middle class issue.
Scientists and engineers continue to research new clean energy technology, while
reducing energy consumption and hence the costs of products. Solutions will not
come from politicians, lawyers or bureaucrats, creating ever more rules and
regulations on emissions. We all want clean air, but the technology to efficiently
replace all the fossil fuels we use every day is still a long way off. Nuclear energy is
clean and reliable but not currently cheap, and nuclear is not seen as green energy
by many. There will be no single “magic bullet” but a rebalance of the old and new.
While we should not be afraid to acknowledge climate change, we should be careful
about drawing specific conclusions with incomplete data. Targets for emissions may
have a role, but not at the expense of damaging the economy of nations, as no
governments will get (or stay) in office on that basis. Meanwhile we should continue
to work together across the world in a constructive way for sustainable greener
energy. That is what scientists and engineers are doing daily all across the world.
Denis Sexton CEng MIMechE