Wall Street Journal of Atmospheric Sciences: Reply to Jenkins

March 6, 2009

Stuart Gaffin is a climate researcher at Columbia University and a regular contributor with his blog “Exhausted Earth”; this is a reply to a blog by Holman Jenkins, a Wall Street Journal columnist and member of the WSJ editorial board. Thomson Reuters is not responsible for the content – the views are the author’s alone.

Mr. Jenkins replies that the clarification of his perplexing column is reiteration of his original sentence “…We don’t really have the slightest idea how an increase in the atmosphere’s component of CO2 is impacting our climate, though the most plausible indication is that the impact is too small to untangle from natural variability…”

He still doesn’t say where his ‘most plausible indication’ comes from except for his reference to some unnamed : “ … many scientists who have pursued empirical results [that] show the human contribution [has] been …maddeningly elusive or indeterminate.”

By contrast, I have no hesitation to say I was referring to IPCC when quoting the 90% confidence attribution of warming to human activities.

With regard to the first part of his dismissal of the present impact of CO2 on our climate, this has been the focus of core IPCC studies for many years and is called the ‘radiative forcing’ of the atmosphere compared to pre-industrial times (e.g. 1750). This is the energy imbalance created in the atmosphere by a factor such as greenhouse gases, aerosols, solar energy, clouds, land use. The resulting bar chart (see figure below) is famous. CO2 dominates the chart and is estimated in 2005 to be contributing a +1.66 Watts/square meter positive imbalance, greater than any other forcing, including solar by five times.

The point is Mr. Jenkins says I misread his statement about science not knowing “…how an increase in the atmosphere’s component of CO2 is impacting our climate …” But I responded directly to this claim when I wrote he is effectively saying we know nothing about how “CO2 affects … Earth’s energy balance” — I was referring to the energy imbalance chart shown above and the +1.66 Watts/square meter forcing.

Also, current warming from CO2 isn’t the only thing we ‘actually care’ about.

Here are at least three other scientific issues and facts about CO2 that will have major implications for society and the environment, even if Mr. Jenkins does not care about them: (i) how high will CO2 levels go if Mr. Jenkins had his way ? 700 ppm ? 1000 ppm ?; (ii) the atmospheric CO2 excess we are creating will last 100’s to 1000’s of years into the future; (iii) as excess CO2 dissolves in the oceans it is acidifying them and will adversely impact marine life worldwide.

Since Mr. Jenkins raises the ‘global warming has stopped’ claim, 2008 was the ninth warmest year on record since 1880 and the 10 warmest years on record have occurred between 1997-2008.

Moreover right now we are in a cool phase of both the 11-year sunspot cycle and also the cool phase of the powerful oceanic El Nino cycle so it’s not surprising that the last few years haven’t broken all-time records. The sunspot and El Nino cycles will turn around and warm again. Meanwhile CO2 and other greenhouse gases continue to grow unabated.

Mr. Jenkins seems strangely unaware that the warming of the 20th century has coincided with 20th century increases in CO2. Also the current rate of CO2 and other greenhouse gases increases are extraordinarily unprecedented during the last 2000 years of human civilization (see figure below), which is no doubt the most important period to consider for modern society.

I called attention to Mr. Jenkins use of “contribution” because it is a peculiar word to use to describe something that is wholly due to human activities, unless you want to leave the door open in reader’s minds that natural emissions are playing a significant role in the observed increases. Skeptics try to confuse the public about this by saying that since natural fluxes of CO2 from the ocean and biosphere are larger than human emissions, our emissions can’t be significant. But these fluxes have been tightly in balance over the last few thousand years as seen from ice core data for example (below). More importantly, Mr. Jenkins still doesn’t fully acknowledge this fact about the cause of today’s CO2 rise.

5 comments

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Thank you for the follow-up. Given that most rational humans will do their best to neutralize a perceived threat – real or imaginary – it is irrational for the skeptics and disbelievers to continue to deny the high probability that we are responsible for global warming. It’s just not a sane approach so it’s obvious that the naysayers have an agenda. Money! Not simply their own income but money to fill the coffers of the vested interests (oil, coal, shale, lumber, etc.) that profit by continuing to pump CO2 into the atmosphere no matter what the cost to the planet or the vast majority of its inhabitants.
Yes, it will cost money to control CO2 emissions but not nearly as much money as it will take to build seawalls around all the nations on earth. Further, investments in clean energy will offset some of those costs and prevent many other toxins from polluting the earth.
Fighting climate change is a win-win proposition except for those who will have to change their business models but when they are dragged kicking and screaming to invest in the inevitable, they’ll be on top again.

Posted by Ray | Report as abusive

Not all who are skeptical of a catastrophic global climate change crisis are illiterate, flat-earthers beholden to energy companies so stop the ad hominem attacks and get on with the science debate.
The assumptions made in generating these worst case scenarios and hypothetical, irredeemable tipping points are unworthy of good science and good public policy. It’s one thing to exaggerate to get the publics’ attention, but the unsupported alarmist Armageddon claims are irresponsible and will ultimately do damage to the public perception of science and scientists.

Posted by David | Report as abusive

The climate is changing – no question.

But where should our resources be spent to minimize the effect of climate change. Environmental elitists would propose anything, but the problem is most of these actions have very negative affects on the middle and lower class. They don’t change their life styles but just buy their way out.
Secondly it is a global issue and until large CO2 exporting nations like China buy in the destruction of middle and lower class Americans isn’t justified. Unless you are elitist, then it doesn’t matter.

Posted by buffalojump | Report as abusive

Clothcap, CO2 and methane trap heat/light energy from the Sun. The greater the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere the more light energy from the Sun that is captured. That also means less for photosynthesis. The Earth’s orbit becomes more or less elipticle over time, hence a warming or cooling effect depending on our distance from the Sun.

The problem is all the gathered data suggests that this current warming process the planet is experiencing is happening at an extremely accelerated pace. There is no precedent for this in the geologic record. Of even more concern is mass extinctions associated with global warming periods. At the end of the Eocene Epoch, tropical forests were growing in Alaska and shell fish requiring 60 degree water were found off the coast of Labrador. Geologic evidence supports the disappearance of glacial ice throughout the inhabitable regions of Earth. At this time the earliest known primates, elephants and horses all disappeared.

The point is neither the glaciers or the primates appeared again for twenty million years or more. We are losing our glaciers at an alarming rate. This is the most significant source of potable water in many regions of the world.

The time for debate is over. Anthropogenic or naturally fluctuation is largely an academic question. Hot house gases must be limited in order to mitigate climate change if it is not to late.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

CO2 has been high in the past and it’ll be high in the future. The glaciers were half melted before the 1950′s when CO2 levels began to dramatically increase. Even from the 1950′s we’ve had the threat of glaciation ( 1970′s), the threat of global warming and now a cooling period again. The current CO2 levels are, what?, 390ppm.
Well in the past atmospheric CO2 ranged 1125-3000 parts per million. By 20 million years ago, CO2dropped to about 400 ppm. (Source: Science, Volume 313, Number 5795.
Date: 2006 September 29) No humans around that I’m aware of. No Cadillac Escalades either. Look, the science is not settled and the billions of dollars that are being miss-directed at taxpayer expense is criminal. Don’t forget that much research has been done in the past several years which discounts greatly the IPCC position. That was based on selective data pre-2005. And many reviewers disagreed with the stated IPCC position as well. The discussions and policies should be based on science. And they’re not. We’ll all pay for it ….. and some will get very rich from it. It’s just so stupid.

Posted by 07boxster2 | Report as abusive

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