Category Archives: Climate and energy

Minireviews: David Archer – The Global Carbon Cycle, Helge Ryggvik – Til siste dråpe

David Archer – The Global Garbon Cycle (2010)

Carbon cycles the earth at different time scales. Over hundreds of thousands of years, rock dissolution and degassing from volcanoes and the deep sea use CO2 to keep temperatures within a livable range. Over thousands of years, changes in CO2 and temperature amplify each other for some unknown reason, starting and ending ice ages. On a human time scale, carbon sinks in the ocean and on land help halve the impact of human CO2 emissions. Nobody knows how long it will continue to do this, and it is possible that at some point we’ll trigger the positive feedback system. This would be bad.

Recommended: Yes.

Helge Ryggvik – Til siste dråpe (2009)

The forgotten economic concept of land rent makes it morally questionable to profit from oil, and is the reason why the oil economy has such a destructive effect on everything it touches.

Read: Half.

Recommended: No. The moral dilemma of oil profits would have been relevant 40, or at most 20, years ago. Today, the only relevant oil dilemma is whether it is right to pump it up at all. And even if you do find this relevant, Ryggvik wanders about without focus, and doesn’t even explain what we should have done differently, (dump the oil at cost + “fair” profit? And then what?) There are two potentially interesting, much shorter books hiding in here: A socialist analysis of the economic dilemmas of oil, and a critical history of the Norwegian oil industry. But this book is neither of them.

Minireviews: Climate and the oceans, and skepticism by and for dummies

Geoffrey K. Vallis – Climate and the Oceans (2011)

A quick overview of how water circulates in the oceans, (under the influence of the wind, the sun, and the coriolis force), how the oceans affects the climate, (largely by slowing down temperature changes, in both directions, and at all time scales), and how this may be affected by global warming, (nobody knows, but some of the possibilities are pretty bad).

Recommended: Weakly. Half of it is too mathematical, but the rest gives a good idea of the sort of processes that are involved.

Harold Ambler – Don’t Sell Your Coat: Surprising Truth About Climate Change (2011)

Incoherent arguments and irrelevant anecdotes, sprinkled with speculation.

Recommended: No. This is possibly the worst book of climate skepticism I’ve read so far. Some of the arguments were so idiotic that I began to wonder if it was a parody. (Did you know that if you plot the temperature changes of the last 1000 years on a Kelvin scale, there’s hardly any change at all? And that, contrary to what those climate alarmists claim, cold weather can actually be pretty dangerous?) At most it functions as a competency test. If you read it, and find the arguments plausible, then congratulations: You are not competent to have an opinion of your own on this subject. But Ambler’s leftism makes for a refreshing change. (He blames the IPCC on Thatcher.) And I like that he, like many other skeptics, is bold enough to make a testable prediction: That global cooling will begin any day now. Any day.

Christopher Booker – The Real Global Warming Disaster

Christopher Booker – The Real Global Warming Disaster (2009)

Some climate scientists once believed that the earth was cooling, therefore we should doubt all climate scientists forever and to the end of time. Michael Mann may have underestimated the Medieval Warm Period, therefore we shouldn’t listen to anyone who gets similar results, and also this undermines all other climate science as well, somehow. Activists lie, politicians exaggerate, and IPCC scientists can be assholes, therefore we should only listen to the handful of scientists who claim that it’s all false. The cooling will start any day now. Why, it even snowed early this year.

Recommended: No. Booker tries to make up in polemics what he lacks in coherent arguments. He hammers you over the head just like he (falsely) accuses climate scientists of doing. What, no doubt? And how can you trust anyone  who didn’t spot the errors in The Great Global Warming Swindle? I do like his critical approach to climate politics and activism, though, an area I agree is probably full of bullshit. Perhaps the political world accepted global warming sooner than the science justified. And certainly the skeptics have sometimes been unfairly vilified. But there’s a problem. Despite all these potential flaws, and the handful of moderately successful counterattacks from the skeptics, the field keeps growing in strength. It is plausible that fraud or bad studies could go unnoticed for a while, but for two or three decades? The longer this goes on, the greater a conspiracy you need to believe in to reject global warming.

Archer, Rahmstorf – The Climate Crisis

David Archer, Stefan Rahmstorf – The Climate Crisis (2010)

A scientific summary of the IPCC AR4.

Recommended: Yes. I have four levels of confidence in this: 1) I have high confidence in their understanding of past and current climates. The more I read of the bombastic claims of the climate skeptics, the greater the contrast becomes to the supposed alarmist scientists, who are sober and open about their uncertainty. (Activists and politicians are a different matter.) 2) I have a bit less, but still high, confidence in the ability of their models to portray the range of outcomes we risk facing, all of which is both plausible, and seems to have a precedent in past climate changes. 3) I have low confidence in their list of specific dangers, (so and so number of species extinct, etc.), partly because that’s the wrong level of thinking about this problem, except as part of a big picture that apparently hasn’t been assembled yet. The real problem is the range of uncertainty involved in changing a dynamic system we don’t understand, not particular outcomes. 4) And I have no confidence in their suggested solutions, both on a technological and an economic level. It’s all sunshine. Apparently we can solve this problem by hardly spending any money at all. Let’s just put up a few solar panels, switch to electric cars, etc. MacKay, Richter, and Smil, all mention major challenges that this book (and possibly also the AR4) doesn’t even address. There’s no solution to be found here, only wishful thinking, and they’re overreaching by even trying.

Robert Carter’s climate counter-consensus

Robert M. Carter – Climate: The Counter Consensus (2010)

In each and every question on which the IPCC has an opinion, the truth is the exact opposite. Most climate change is natural in origin, the earth is no longer warming, and will now start cooling, and since CO2 doesn’t have much of an effect, instead of abandoning fossil fuels, we may actually end up having to burn more of them, just to stop all that dangerous cooling. Proof of this can be found in this (possibly published, and maybe even peer-reviewed!) paper that hasn’t been accepted by the overall community of climate scientists, but is nevertheless absolutely 100% correct.

Recommended: No, except to illustrate the poor state of climate skepticism. The contrast with Michael Mann’s book is striking. Mann is open about the uncertainty of climate models. Carter is absolutely certain that everything you’ve been told is wrong, and here’s that one paper that proves it. He talks like a crank. And he tries too hard. By misrepresenting or over-simplifying in the few areas I do know a little about, he reduces my confidence in all his other bombastic claims as well. Is this the best the climate skeptics have to offer now? Also, the “prefatory essay” by Tom Stacey is one of the oddest things I’ve ever read. But there’s one thing I like about this book. It makes a testable prediction: That the current decade will see a clear trend of global cooling. It will start any day now. Any day.

Michael Mann’s hockey stick defense

Michael E. Mann – The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars (2012)

Every single person who has ever criticized Michael Mann is a henchman of the fossil industry, except maybe a few people on the internet, who are just very stupid. (Also, McKitrick and McIntyre’s criticism of the hockey stick was based on an incorrect use of principal components analysis, the results have been verified a dozen times, with different data records and statistical methods, climate science doesn’t stand or fall on temperature proxies, and ClimateGate showed only that scientists are human, and sometimes use terminology that sounds scary to lay people.)

Recommended: Reluctantly. Mann is an easy person to dislike. He questions the financial motives of all his critics, then attacks them for using ad hominem arguments. Could somebody please explain to him what ad hominem means? But if you can overlook the paranoia and self pity, the science and science history parts are good. He is open about his uncertainty, and backs up his confidence with strong arguments. I’ve suspected that ClimateGate and the hockey stick controversy was exaggerated by the skeptics, and this book confirms that, and strengthens my respect for climate scientists like Mann. But his trench war style of rhetorics is a disaster. What, does he think this style has been so successful in American politics that it should now also be used to settle the climate debate? Does he think “Republicans are morons”-type arguments are the road to bipartisan agreements? Please lock him up in a laboratory, before he makes it worse.

Minireview: MacKay – Sustainable Energy

David J. C. MacKay – Sustainable Energy – Without the hot air (2009)

A back-of-the-envelope approach to what it would take to run the world entirely on renewable energy. MacKay more or less dismisses large-scale wind, wave and bioethanol farming, (the W/m2 and W/m ratios are too low), but he does believe in electric cars, (because they’re more effcient, and enable non-fossil electricity), trains (very efficient, even at high speeds), and biking, (the most efficient mode of transport of them all, even when we take your food into account). He concludes that a renewable lifestyle in our time is at least theoretically possible by using a large amount of solar desert power and/or nuclear power. Whatever we do, it has to be big, not half-hearted “unplug your phone charger” campaigns. “If everybody does a little, we achieve only a little.”

Recommended: Strongly, for the numbers-literate and visual approach, although the specifics are unconvincing. For instance, he uses the known reserves of uranium to conclude that we’re in danger of soon running out of it, if we used it as a primary energy source. Judging from the notes, it seems he is aware of how meaningless this value is for his purpose, (exploration is driven by prices, we find when it’s profitable to go looking), but he still uses it. Why? Garbage in, garbage out. Also, how relevant is “renewables only” as a near-future goal? The result is a thought experiment, although an interesting and well presented one.

Minireviews: Mill on Liberty, Lawson on global warming

John Stuart Mill – On Liberty (1858)

The only legitimate reason for restricting a person’s liberty is to prevent direct harm to someone else. Or if they belong to a backwards or barbaric society. Or if the state perceives itself in peril. Or they’ve offended against decency. But apart from that, I mean.

Recommended: Of course. You could drive a T-72 tank through the loopholes here, but this book presents some of the clearest arguments ever made for individual freedom, (although promising more than reality could deliver). I last read it 15 years ago, and was surprised to recognize ideas that I didn’t consciously pick up then, but have arrived at later.

Nigel Lawson – An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming (2009)

The climate change scenarios for the year 2100 do not justify drastic action on our part. The future will be richer than we are, so why make a large investment just to improve the already high GDP of our super-rich grandchildren? The other negative effects of global warming will be slow in coming, and can be compensated for in the same way humans have always responded to negative change: By adaptation. Besides, there’s really nothing we can do without India and China, and it is absurd to expect them to take on this expense.

Recommended: Yes. Lawson’s mild skepticism of AGW is superficial, but “it’s too expensive, plus futile” is a pretty strong argument against abandoning fossil fuels. Stronger than “we’re taking a risk with a downside of unknown size”? I don’t know.

Minireviews: George R. R. Martin, energy alternatives

George R. R. Martin – A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire, book 4) (2005)

In A Song of Ice and Fire, multiple political actors operate with different maps of the same terrain, leading all to disaster. Good intentions don’t protect you from making blunders, and the most dangerous characters are not the greediest and most ambitious, but the ones who execute their greed and ambition – or their good intentions – incompetently. It’s a world where the major players tend to be unaware of many of the most important events that are currently happening around them. In other words, much like the real world.

Recommended: Yes, and never mind the so-and-so HBO series, which is a competent visualization but does not approach the novels.

Burton Richter – Beyond Smoke and Mirrors – Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century (2010)

An overview of climate issues, mostly focused on good and bad energy solutions. Richter favors nuclear energy, hydropower, carbon capture and storage – and increases in efficiency.

Recommended: Yes, it seems scientifically sound, and level-headed, but his faith in efficiency is economically naive: Efficiency does allow you to get the same energy for less CO2 emissions, or the same benefit for less energy, but it also makes your energy cheaper, which means we’ll use more of it. So much more that it cancels out the benefit? Who knows? Richter doesn’t even address the possibility. I guess that’s the problem with scientists venturing into economics and politics.

Minireviews: Expert intuition, energy myths, and the Soviet Dream

Gary Klein – Sources of Power – How People Make Decisions (1999)

Expertise can be an illusion, but in fields where people run into similar situations repeatedly, and receive feedback on the decisions they make, it is possible to build up the powerful sense of intuition that marks a true expert. Where the novice agonizes over multiple options, the expert immediately sees the right one – or at least one that is good enough to act upon. It looks like magic, but is actually just subconscious pattern-matching that allows them to see what others don’t.

Recommended: Yes.

Vaclav Smil – Energy Myths and Realities – Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate (2010)

There are no easy solutions to our energy problems. Electric cars are no more green than the electricity they run on, nuclear power is expensive and unpopular, wind power requires a lot of space and complex infrastructure, and biofuel pits food and energy in direct competition for the same land. And no matter how theoretically useful a new technology may be, the transition to it must necessarily be slow and expensive. Basically, if we’re not making large investments in Technology X right now, (and we’re not), it’s not going to be a major energy source 30 years from now.

Recommended: Yes.

Francis Spufford – Red Plenty – Inside the Fifties Soviet Dream (2010)

Hayekian market philosophy told as a science fiction novel from reality, about a people who set all their best minds to the work of building something smarter than markets, and failed.

Recommended: Strongly.