Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Cleantech VC Who is Unconvinced of Man-Made Climate Change

Go ahead -- call me a hypocrite.  I claim to be a cleantech venture capitalist yet I tell you here and now that I am not convinced of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change (aka global warming).  And I will audaciously tell you that my convictions on climate change in no way run contrary to my strong belief in the need for a cleantech revolution.

Many supporters of clean technologies make it seem as though anthropogenic climate change is an absolute fact.  To some of them anthropogenic climate change is almost like a religion where any debate or doubt is not tolerated.  Some of them may call me a heretic just for writing this post. 

At the same time, those on the other end of the spectrum are equally religious in their fervor and certainty that anthropogenic global warming is a fraud.  They are certain that human emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse” gases could never impact our climate.  And they may twist this post to use it as yet another data point against claims of global warming and added rationale to do nothing except increase fossil fuel exploration. 

In both groups, it is my perception that most have read little about the topic other than the popular press.  And I find both groups equally sad in their myopic viewpoints.  If both of these camps would open their eyes, I suspect there would be much greater agreement on the need for action on clean technologies rather than the divisiveness that their polarizing views create.

There are solid scientific theories and extensive data, anchored by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report, that indicate the possibility that over time man-made emissions of greenhouse gases could impact the global climate and may have already begun to do so.  To dismiss them out of hand because there is some reasonable doubt is irrational.

Similarly, to speak about anthropogenic climate change as a certainty or to claim that there is no disagreement among scientist is simply incorrect.  There are  reputable climate scientists who remain unconvinced.  The reality is that all predictions of global warming are based on very complex climate models. We can forecast the weather a few days out with reasonable accuracy but if you try predicting next year’s summer temperature -- let alone long-term global climate conditions -- things fall apart quickly.  Long-term climate models are anything but accurate.

We know with certainty that past natural occurrences have caused significant changes to the atmosphere, resulting in climate changes.  So, there is little question about whether changes in the atmosphere can cause climate changes.  Rather, the question is whether man-made emissions are significant enough to cause a change on their own and to overcome the large natural forces on our climate that include sun spots, variations in the earth’s orbit, and volcanoes all of which have not been taken into account in forecasts of global warming. 

Often there is a focus in the media on recent variations in climate as a source of evidence for anthropogenic climate change.  Variations in climate over short periods of time are highly suspect as evidence. While most scientists seem to agree that there have been increased temperatures and other climate changes over the past century or so, what cannot be said with certainty is that the increased CO2 levels caused this as opposed natural climate change events that have and continue to happen regularly to our planet.  Even the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which is the backbone of support for anthropogenic climate change, found that its confidence in human contribution to such measured weather events (e.g., temperature, severe storms, sea level, etc.) could be as low as 50% for most of the events and 66% for the others (pages 23 and 52 of the Technical Summary).  

Climate change is measured over extremely long periods of time – not a few years or tens of years.  Some of the best long-term data on historic CO2 concentrations and temperatures is derived from glacial ice core data that spans back 400,000 years.  This data shows that the concentration levels of CO2 in the atmosphere today are strikingly more than 20% higher than any level measured in the past 400,000 years (See Figure 1).  The recent rapid increase corresponds well with the industrial age and temperature variations are in high correlation with CO2 concentrations. This is hard data to ignore or simply write-off.

Figure 1 – Data from Vostok Ice Core (400,000 years)

Figure 2 –Estimated CO2 and Temperature Changes over 500+ Million Years

But interestingly over longer periods, the level of CO2 today is far below the estimated levels during many times in history (Figure 2) raising the possibility that the current spike may have other natural contributors.  And the correlation between temperature and CO2 that seems so apparent in the 400,000-year ice core data becomes much less clear when looking over many millions of years. 

While most scientists seem to believe that, in isolation, increased CO2 concentrations create an increased “greenhouse” effect whereby the CO2 acts like a blanket, preventing more of the heat radiated by the earth from going back into space, at what concentration level and over what time period remains a point of uncertainty and debate. In addition, how other factors that may occur with warming such as increased moisture and clouds as well as changes in absorption of CO2 into the ocean at varying temperatures will affect the warming dynamic and other climate change is much more uncertain.

The bottom line is that we won’t truly know if man has caused climate change until after it has already occurred for a very long period of time. 

And that’s the rub.  The theoretical costs to the human race of global warming are high: rising ocean levels, decreased polar ice, increased severe weather and significant changes in precipitation patterns.  If they occurred to a significant degree, all could have sizeable economic and health implications.  But there is no certainty that we will ever pay such a price. More compelling is what we know with near-certainty:

·      Fossil fuels are a finite resource and they do pollute.   Reduction of pollution is always a good thing.  And with booming energy demand in China and India, fossil fuels are a resource that will become scarcer and more expensive.  You can argue about the pace, but few argue that it will happen.    Even oil rich countries such as Saudi Arabia have begun to accept this fact
·      Increased sources of cost-effective energy and more energy-efficient consumption have and will continue to lead to increased standards of living
·      Nations with greater diversity of energy sources have greater economic and national security. 
·      The U.S. Defense Department believes that climate change will impact our national security
·      If anthropogenic global warming is real, by the time we start paying the price for the damage we have done it will be too late to turn things back quickly. 

To claim with certainty that man is causing climate change or to claim there is no risk of anthropogenic climate change are both incorrect and both are polarizing.

While it is not certain, there is evidence that suggests that human emissions of greenhouse gases may be changing our climate in ways that could have dramatic impacts.  We can do nothing and roll the dice that everything can be OK.  Or we can take steps to diversify our energy sources away from fossil fuels and increase our energy efficiency, thereby not only reducing the risk of anthropogenic climate change but also increasing the robustness of our economy and our national defense.

Although there should be debate about the specifics of how to best advance the availability and utilization of cleaner technologies, support for cleantech innovation should be the ultimate bipartisan issue without the divisiveness created by talking about anthropogenic climate change as if it is a fact or as if it is fiction. 


Kai Stephan said...

Your argument for a lack of correlations between temp and CO2 levels over millions of years is valid. However, how confident are we in the accuracy calculating temp and CO2 levels millions of years back? I'm not trying to make an argument, but am genuinely curious on how they measure temp and CO2 levels from several million years ago, and more importantly, its validity. Thanks.

Penny Stock blog said...

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Mission said...

A few simple reactions:

1) Beware the lure of logical fallacies. You list a Wikipedia list of prominent scientists that reject AGW. Several in the list are not in the field, and some have been discredited. But the fact that there could be 10 or 20 or 30 scientists that question the issue conveniently ignores the fact that they represent an infinitesimal percentage of scientists who are in the field.

2) The focus of this debate ought to be whether or not we do anything about AGW and if so what those measures should be. But we can't even get there in this country because we're still paying attention to the "ideology defines my science" crowd.

3) We've been here before, however the last time something like this happened there was no internet. Take a look at the years leading up to SO2 cap and trade legislation. Same arguments against SO2 mitigation: no scientific consensus; will kill the economy; acid rain is a natural phenomenon and, according to Reagan, why the Smoky Mountains are smoky; and the rise in electricity bills will be catastrophic, especially in this period of a recession. The cast of characters against SO2 mitigation are the same ones you see against CO2 mitigation using the same arguments, except this time they are far more stronger financially and they can whip up the most amazing goofy arguments among the public by fueling conspiratorial socialism paranoia among the extreme right. Yet a republican administration passed SO2 cap and trade in 1986, the legislation continues to be effective today and no economies or utility bills were harmed in the process.

Anonymous said...

"To claim with certainty that man is causing climate change or to claim there is no risk of anthropogenic climate change are equally incorrect and equally polarizing."

No, they are not equally incorrect. The vast majority of evidence supports the position that man is causing climate change - the real debate is about to what extent, which is difficult to model due to the extreme complexity. I'm not saying there is certainty, but there is a lot of support for the position that humans are changing the climate.

On the other hand, there is very little credible evidence out there that says there is no risk of humans causing climate change. The list you cite of scientists who remain unconvinced by climate change pales in comparison the the list of those who believe sciences supports the position that humans are contributing to climate change.

So, both sides may not be correct, but they are not equally incorrect. One side is suggesting greater certainty than exists, though it is also possible that scientists may be underestimating the warming that humans could be causing. The other side is making an argument that lacks much support - either in terms of peer-reviewed research or percentage of climate scientists who take this view.

Social WIM said...

Clean tech should happen regardless climate change. It just makes sense from a wide variety of perspectives.

And yet there's much more we can do to improve our understanding of global warming, which includes using better quality atmospheric data (e.g. radio occultation) in forecasting models. The use of better data means better forecast quality, better historic context and greater accuracy in discerning weather causes and forecasting potential effects.

Alas, better discernment doesn't always lead to better decisions, else we'd all have clean tech and the best atmospheric data technologies flying on orbit now instead of legacy industries, antiquated technologies and arrogant incompetence that seems easier to access that contemplative insights and tempered analysis.

Nice post. Thanks!
Rob Hanna

Maia Nilsson said...

Does it matter whether (we believe) climate change is anthropogenic? Yes, it does. Because our behavior is heavily influenced by our beliefs.

If people believe climate change is caused by human activity (i.e., anthropogenic), they will likely (1) invest heavily in measures designed to protect us from environmental change that is harmful to human civilization; (2) invest heavily in measures designed to profit from the opportunities created by those environmental changes; (3) change their own behavior to mitigate its effect on the collective carbon footprint of the human race and (4) do what they can to change the behavior of their fellow human beings likewise.

If, on the other hand, people do not believe (or aren’t convinced) it is anthropogenic, they will seek protection – and profit – from climate change, but they will be less likely to prioritize measures to change human behavior.

And if, as the preponderance of evidence suggests, human behavior is the largest contributor to climate change, the time we spend debating its role now will turn out to be time we didn’t have. There will be no time for a course correction. Thus the sense of urgency surrounding the statements of those who are already convinced of anthropogenic climate change and its accelerating pace. You can call them greenies or alarmists. I call them responsible.

Chris L said...

THis is much easier than you think ... any high school chem teacher can tell a student here's how carbon dioxide molecules react with oxygen, nitrogen and water molecules. On this level pretty simple. Now multiply that single molecule's effect by hundreds billions of tons vented into the atmosphere over decades ... do the math on probabilities and the odds say what ? This is enough to worry about now.

In the past millions of years, many 'events' have affected the climate ... a major supervolcanic event 50,000 years ago only became known 15 years ago .....and impacted the climate with a cooling period of at least a few hundred years ... how many other as yet undiscovered events have had similar results. The gist is it doesn't matter in regards to what is happening now. Within 100 years we could have gondola service in Houston , Miami, DC, and the big apple .... something totally unthinkable a few years ago ... sealevel rise numbers have jumped with recent melt results ....

Randall "Texrat" Arnold said...

Take CO2 out of the picture, and a lot of your qualms diminish, especially vis-a-vis the Vostok data. To me that graph is beyond compelling and can't be so easily dismissed, especially by coupling the data with standard CO2 dogma.

I think it's safe to say man *contributes* to global climate change BUT that the jury is still out on CO2 specifically.

PC Games said...

In the past millions of years, many 'events' have affected the climate ... a major supervolcanic event 50,000 years ago only became known 15 years ago .....and impacted the climate with a cooling period of at least a few hundred years ... how many other as yet undiscovered events have had similar results. The gist is it doesn't matter in regards to what is happening now. Within 100 years we could have gondola service in Houston , Miami, DC, and the big apple .... something totally unthinkable a few years ago ... sealevel rise numbers have jumped with recent melt results ....

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