Energy & Environment

We need to solve the real climate problem

The debate over global warming — which morphed into climate change — over the past 25 years has misled politicians and the public about the nature of the real problem. The real problem is not increasing carbon dioxide emissions, as has been asserted by environmentalists and the climate establishment for years and accepted uncritically by most of the media. Even if carbon dioxide emissions were the problem, it should be clear that the world will not abandon fossil energy any time soon.

{mosads}The real climate problem is the fact that climate always changes and can’t be predicted. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relies on over 50 models and probabilistic estimates to characterize the climate system and the future. In spite of significant investments in complex models, none have been able to accurately replicate how the climate has behaved over the past 25 years and none can replicate past climates without “adjustments.”

As is obvious from observational data, climate models significantly overstate global temperature and climate sensitivity. Models perform poorly because the climate cannot be realistically predicted. It is a chaotic system. Chaotic systems are non-linear, exhibit characteristics that appear random and are sensitive to small changes that are magnified the further out in time prediction is attempted. That is why weather forecasts are only accurate about seven to 10 days out. Dr. Andrew Edmonds, a chaos modeling expert, has written that models are based on an incomplete understanding of the climate and assumptions about processes that are unknown.

Ed Lorenz, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology mathematician and meteorologist, established chaos theory in 1963. Lorenz’s work demonstrated that because the climate is mathematically chaotic, accurate long-term prediction is not possible. His 1963 paper stated: “In view of the inevitable inaccuracy and incompleteness of weather observations, precise very-long-range forecasting would seem to be nonexistent.”

Our climate history shows that the Earth goes through cycles. Those cycles, which have nothing to do with human carbon dioxide emissions, have included periods of drought — the Dust Bowl — extended periods of cold weather — the Little Ice Age — and extreme weather events. The effects of climate cycles which can have dramatic economic and demographic impacts can be ameliorated with thoughtful planning. The current focus on suppressing fossil energy and carbon dioxide emission drives out any realistic and thoughtful planning.

If climate cannot be accurately predicted decades into the future, how should policymakers respond to the reality that climate changes and the impacts of those changes cannot be known?

Advances in technology and knowledge have resulted in better health, longer lives, a better quality of life, a rising standard of living and declining fatalities from extreme weather. In other words, technology has enabled us to adapt to a changing climate. The pace of advances in technology is reason for optimism about the future and our ability to adapt to whatever climate we actually experience.

The 16-year pause in global warming has led some scientists to speculate that the world could be entering a period of extended cooling. Prolonged global cooling could have a dramatic effect on agriculture. More research into crop and seed modification is prudent to maintain crop production in weather conditions different from today’s. Technology can provide the means to maintain productivity independent of whether it is colder, hotter, wetter or drier.

Another climate-related concern is sea level rise. There have been claims that sea level rise will flood coastal areas and cities close to them. However, Carl Wunsch, an M.I.T. oceanographer, points out that sea levels have been rising since the end of the last ice age 16,000 years ago and will continue to rise until the Earth enters the next ice age. So, independent of man’s contribution to warming, sea level rise will continue. The Dutch have shown the way in adaptation and in developing technologies for dealing with sea levels — about 50 percent of the Netherlands is below sea level.

The solution to a changing climate problem is to develop resilience. Flexibility is the best approach to dealing with situations involving great uncertainty. The current preoccupation with fossil energy use and greenhouse gas emission undermines a paradigm based on adaptation and learning as the future unfolds because of a single-minded focus.

O’Keefe is CEO of the George Marshall Institute and president of Solutions Consulting, Inc.

Tags Climate change Global cooling Global warming

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