For President Obama, Energy Is More Important Than Climate Change

(You can read previous blogs on similar topics here, here and here).

In “Can Obama Change the Climate?” (New York Review of Books, June 11, 2009) Bill McKibben has warm words for President Barack Obama, including the following

“Obama himself has continued to mention global warming at every turn, and in commendably strong terms”

I am afraid Mr McKibben is missing the point. During the first 6 months in office, President Obama has mentioned “global warming” almost exclusively as just one aspect of the “energy” issue.

Take for example the New York Times’ archives, where between January 1 and June 11 2009 there are:

  • 114 articles about President Obama speaking on “energy
  • 22 articles about him mentioning “global warming
  • 16 articles with the President of the United States talking about “global warming” and “energy

That is, only 6 articles are left when “global warming” appears without “energy“.

There are also 42 articles with President Obama talking on “climate change”: only 12 of which are not about “energy”.

Remarkably, the situation is more skewed when one visits the White House’s own website (www.whitehouse.gov).

A search via Google on that website shows:

  • 3,260 pages with “Obama” and “energy
  • 68 pages with “Obama” and “global warming
  • the very same 68 pages with “Obama”, “global warming” and “energy

That is, 3,066 “Obama” whitehouse.gov pages talk of “energy” but not of “global warming”; and not even once “Obama” pages mention “global warming” but not “energy”.

Just out of curiosity: only 4 “Obama” pages talk of “climate change” but not of “energy”.

One can safely assume that for President Obama, global warming/climate change is a sideshow to the far, far bigger issue of the future of energy. Therefore, when and if a choice will have to be made between “energy” and “global warming”, in all likelihood the current US Administration will choose “energy”.

With Five Months To Go, Let’s Pray About Iran

For the next five months President George W Bush will remain Commander in Chief of the armed forces of the United States.

In other words, there are still slightly more than 150 possibilities for Iran to be attacked.

And the strange thing is, nobody can really do much to prevent President Bush from taking advantage of any of those opportunities. It’s a danger highlighted by the words of Thomas Powers in the New York Review of Books’ “Iran: The Threat” (July 17, 2008; Powers’ words are in italic ):

  • According to the President, “all options” must remain “on the table.”
  • Last April, information about an Israeli air strike in Siria has been released explicitly with the aim of “sending a message to Iran”
  • According to Administration officials, Tehran wants a bomb in order to dominate the Persian Gulf region and to threaten its neighbors, especially Israel
  • The seriousness of American threats is confirmed by the fact that […] the whole country listens to the administration’s threats with breath held […] in effect leaving the decision entirely to [Bush and Cheney]
  • President Bush has accompanied periodic threats against Iran, supporting them with practical steps—the presence of large American armies just across Iran’s borders in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the dispatch of the world’s largest fleet of warships to cruise along Iran’s Persian Gulf coastline. The Bush administration further accuses Iran of “meddling” in the affairs of its neighbors, of supplying weapons and training to Iraqis who kill Americans, and of being the world’s principal state sponsor of terrorism
  • [Bush and Cheney’s] frequent warnings that the United States does not trust Iran with the knowledge to enrich bomb-grade uranium and will not tolerate an Iranian bomb. Many of these warnings have been issued in the last month or two and we may expect a continuing barrage until their final days in office.
  • The President’s frustration is plainly evident: Saddam Hussein may be gone, but Iran remains defiant, and more powerful than ever. The President’s male pride seems to have been aroused; he said he was going to solve the Iranian problem and he doesn’t want to back down.

Whatever the US Constitution has to say about war, the President of the United States can do pretty much anything he wants, under the guise of “executive power”. For an example, think of the botched rescue attempt of the American hostages in Iran, in 1980. Likewise, the successful invasion of Grenada in 1983.

And so we can literally wake up any day with the “news” of a US attack against Iran. Because as Powers concludes:

if attack is impossible, why does Bush talk himself into an ever-tighter corner by continuing to issue threats? Does he believe Iran will cave? Are these the only words he thinks people will still listen to? Is he hoping to tie the hands of the next president? Or is he preparing to summon the power of his office to carry out the last option on the table? One hardly knows whether to take the question seriously. It seems alarmist and overexcited even to pose it when the realities are so clear. But it is impossible to be sure—Bush has a history

Has Nordhaus Demonstrated We Better Do Nothing About CO2 emissions?

Kudos to the climate-change-believers at the New York Review of Books for providing almost 3 full pages to climate-heretic Freeman Dyson’s review of William Nordhaus’ “A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies” (Yale University Press) (and of Ernesto Zedillo (ed)’s “Global  Warming: Looking Beyond Kyoto”).

Well it does provide a welcome change from the usual doom-and-gloom of Hansen, Flannery and McKibben, doesn’t it

Dyson (whose article has been rebuked on RealClimate with way too quick a contempt) doesn’t actually deal with the reasons for his skepticism on the dangers of global warming. After a long preamble on how efficient vegetation is at capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide, the NYRB article deals (among other things) with Nordhaus’s conclusions about costs and benefits of various possible climate-related policies, in a 100- and 200-year timeframe.

First of all, Nordhaus is very convinced about the need to put a “price” to carbon, to avoid “economic inefficiencies”.

It doesn’t sound such a bad idea, if the majority of people are truly convinced CO2 is a harmful emission. My main concern is, how does anybody find out what that “carbon price” should be, if not an arbitrary value?

As Dyson reports, Nordhaus follows “the conventional wisdom of economists” and does all computations for a 4% discount rate.

For mysterious reasons, this has become a point of contention, with the Stern Report using a discount rate close to 0%, and the RealClimate guys rather naively trying to argue for an equivalence between people actually living today and people possibly living in the future. Luckily, an AGW-believer with a solid experience in economics has torn such equivalence to pieces. It simply makes no sense, morally-economically speaking.

What is the point of stealing from the people of the present thereby removing plenty of resources from the very people of the future one is trying to provide resources to?

And what is the moral case, outside of economics? Well, let’s say you have a sick child and a single dose of medicine…would you really withold it just in case you would have another child, five or ten years in the future?

My criticism of Nordhaus is different. I would have rather preferred computations based on a progressively fuzzier discount rate, since the future gets harder and harder to predict (obviously) the further we try to look into the…future!

Leaving the rate at 4%, Nordhaus’ 1-century results are the following, compared to a “do nothing/business-as-usual” (BAU) situation:

(a) with a continuously-adjusted carbon tax, a $3 trillion net gain
(b) with an updated Kyoto protocol, a $1 trillion net gain (with the US), and zero (without the US)
(c) with draconian, Stern-like limits on emissions, a $15 trillion net loss
(d) with drastic-but-gradual, Gore-like limits on emissions, a $21 trillion net loss
(e) if a cheap way to capture and store CO2 (“low-cost backstop”) is discovered, a $17 trillion net gain

Dyson reports the conclusions as:

(1) Avoid the ambitious proposals
(2) Develop the science and technology for a low-cost backstop
(3) Negotiate an international treaty coming as close as possible to the optimal policy, in case the low-cost backstop fails
(4) Avoid an international treaty making the Kyoto Protocol policy permanent.

These objectives, according to Dyson, are valid for economic reasons, independent of the scientific details of global warming.

I am not sure I can agree with the above.

What I see is a strong case for doing absolutely nothing.

In scenario (a), in fact, the total loss for BAU is about $15 billion per year. Not much to cry about, really. 

Just the complex mechanism that needs to be setup and run for a continuously-adjusted carbon tax, with its load of intrinsic inefficiencies, should be more than enough to bring such a loss to zero.

Kyoto-like interventions (scenario (b)) look absolutely irrelevant, and of course both Stern and Gore (scenarios (c) and (d)) have the single-minded goal to make us all miserable (starting with the Chinese).

The one “hope” is in carbon capture and storing, something presented by Dyson in his preferred terms of genetically-modified trees that could reduce the atmospheric CO2 content “by half in fifty years”.

But…if you believe in CO2 as a greenhouse gas, reducing its atmospheric concentration by half will surely sound like absolute madness…a one-way trip to a worldwide refrigerator?

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All in all, then, it looks like the work of a convinced AGWer such as William Nordhaus has been useful in identifying what to do regarding CO2 emissions: nothing, zero, zilch, nada.

Will that accelerate the end of the AGW madness? I don’t think so. Perhaps the above is why Lord Stern, well aware of the overall situation, went through all the pains of trying to argue for a quasi-zero discount rate.

If logical arguments show the best course of action is to do nothing, that concept by itself will simply convince AGWer to become gloomier prophets of doom than ever.

You see…there simply is no AGW worry without catastrophism.

Scientific Literature on Patagonian Glaciers

And so once more Global Warming has meant the publication of misleading pictures, with a wrong caption…why oh why does the mere mention of AGW force so many otherwise thoughtful and wise people to switch their brains off?

Here a “Letter to the Editors” just sent to the New York Review Of Books:

Dear Editors

Clarifications and at least one correction are required about the pictures of the Upsala Glacier in Patagonia, Argentina, “from Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006)”, on the first page of Bill McKibben’s “Warning on Warming” (NYRB, March 15, 2007).

At the top, the 1928 photograph of a vast flat glacier; at the bottom, the 2004 ice-free landscape as captured from a similar vantage point as the one 76 years earlier (at least two peaks are clearly distinguishable).

I was surprised indeed to see the New York Review of Books reproduce without much commentary and with a wrong caption a couple of photographs that may turn out to be exceedingly misleading.

(A) CORRECTION

First of all: the caption is wrong. Contrarily to the published text, it is _not true_ that by 2004, “most of the glacier had melted“.

Upsala Glacier still occupies well in excess of 850 sq km (330+ sq mi), an area vastly larger than the one covered by the photographs.

You can see pictures of Upsala taken from the Space Shuttle in January 2004 at the NASA website.

A discussion of the situation 2001-2004 is available on the same site.

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(B) CLARIFICATIONS

If one could rely on photographs alone, those of Upsala could be the definitive, final, closing, incontrovertible evidence that something has warmed up during the XX century, at least at the location of the Upsala Glacier.

Pictures, however, are not everything, as any modern consumer must have learnt one way or another by now.

Do some little research about Upsala, in fact, and more than one doubt arises about the glacier’s changes having not been mostly caused by warming, global or local or otherwise.

They may be the result instead of the behavior of a large glacier when subjected to particular mechanical stresses.

See for example “Historic Fluctuations of Outlet Glaciers from the Patagonian Ice Fields” at the USGS web site.

That web site reports a picture from “Thinning and retreating of Glaciar Upsala, and an estimate of annual ablation changes in southern Patagonia“, by R. Naruse, P. Skvarca and Y. Takeuchi (Annals of Glaciology, Vol. 24, 1997).

In that paper, it is suggested that “considerable retreat due to calving may have resulted in reduction of longitudinal compressive stress exerted from bedrock rises and islands near the glacier front, causing a considerable decrease in the emergence flow.”

R. Naruse repeated similar considerations at the 2nd International Symposium on Arctic and Antarctic Issues, at Punta Arenas, Chile, in November 1998 (“Dynamic features of glaciers in Patagonia“).

More recently, in “Recent behavior of Glaciar Upsala, a fast-flowing calving glacier in Lago Argentino, southern Patagonia” (Annals of Glaciology, 36, 2003), P. Skvarca, B. Raup and H. De Angelis proposed again that “drastic glacier retreat in the last two decades” may be explained “partly due to the release of back stress when the glacier retreated beyond the islands in Brazo Upsala […] which acted as pinning points.”

You can also read an earlier paper by Mr Skvarca: “Significant Ice Retreat in the Region Patagonia – Antarctic Peninsula Observed by ERS SAR” (ESA ERS 1997 Workshop, 1997) by H. Rott, W. Rack, M. Stuefer and P. Skvarca:

It cannot yet be assessed if the ice retreat in Patagonia […] indicates just regional changes of the atmospheric circulation patterns or can be assigned to global climatic change.”

Last but not least, Upsala is not the only glacier in Patagonia.

Surely if the dramatic retreat of Upsala were related to global warming, all the other glaciers would be retreating too? And yet that is clearly not the case.

Read “Recent Fluctuations and Damming of Glacier Perito Moreno, Patagonia” by H. Rott, M. Stuefer, T. Nagler and C. Riedl (ESA Envisat and ERS 2004 Symposium):

The satellite data, in synergy with field measurements, confirm the stability of the [Perito Moreno] glacier, showing only minor front fluctuations and indicating an approximately balanced mass budget since many years.”

Furthermore, they report the Pio XI glacier as having experienced a “net advance of about 10 km […] from 1945 to 1995“.

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Some revealing considerations should be made about Perito Moreno glacier indeed, the advancing glacier whose pictures have been used by Frank Capra in 1958 and by Al Gore in 2006 to demonstrate the retreat of glaciers due to global warming: but those will have to wait for a future article or letter.

For the time being, I am confident the above makes the main points clear:

(1) Most of the Upsala glacier has not melted.

(2) The Upsala glacier 1928-2004 pictures can only be seriously understood with an in-depth commentary of what is being shown, including “what lies beneath”.

And there are all the indications that the local characteristics of the terrain, rather than “Global Warming”, have had a major role in what has been happening.

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Given the reputation of the New York Review of Books then, I will be expecting a prompt publication of this letter and of all the necessary explanations.

Keep up the good work

Regards

Maurizio Morabito

UPDATE: The NYRB went only as far as admitting the caption was wrong (read it here)…