Climate Reflections

I am currently in Exeter attending the 22nd meeting of the WMO GCOS/WCRP AOPC. Let me translate:

In short, I am here to talk about monitoring the global climate with some of the best climate scientists from around the world.

The topics being discussed are diverse, and I am here to talk about one small part of the work. However, I feel honoured to take coffee with these people and to be able to legitimately call them ‘colleagues’.

My contribution is to speak on Thursday about creating a reference network of climate monitoring stations.

Historically, we have used records from normal weather stations to monitor the changing climate. But these stations have known biases that have to be detected and corrected.

It would have been really helpful if 100 years ago, scientists had thought to create a reference network where every time a new thermometer screen was installed, they recorded the fact. But they didn’t.

So the idea is to create that reference network now so that in 100 year’s time when climate scientists look back they will say:

“Thank heaven for AOPC-22: that’s when our job got easier! They created a Climate Reference Network that has allowed us to detect anomalies in the climate signal inferred from analysing regular weather stations.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about.

The mood of the meeting

This meeting is busy. People are mindful of the ability of a roomful of scientists to chat endlessly about details. And to counter this there is a powerful focus on getting things done.

However President Trump casts a shadow over the meeting.

Trump collage

Headlines from news sites today.: BBC, Guardian and Ars Technica

And the news today is that he has signed executive orders that effectively scrap energy policies based on avoiding the worst effects of climate change.

Most people at the meeting find this depressing. And it would be an understatement to say that colleagues from the US are ‘concerned’.

Trump’s policies are ultimately based on a simple belief which is summed up in the graph below from the Gapminder foundation.

2013 data for the countries of the world showing GDP per person versus carbon dioxide emissions per person. Each bubble represents a country and the size of each bubble is proportional to its  population.

2013 data for the countries of the world showing GDP per person versus carbon dioxide emissions per person. Each bubble represents a country and the size of each bubble is proportional to its population.

The graph shows that countries that emit a lot of carbon per person are richer.

However the graph shows correlation not causation. Emitting carbon dioxide of itself does not make anyone richer.

Burning carbon produces energy, and it is access to energy that makes countries rich, and unequivocally improves the quality of people’s lives.

But emitting ~30 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year also has another effect which is not documented on the ‘bubble graph’. As the people at this meeting have helped make clear, it has warmed the surface of the planet and will continue to do so for centuries to come. But we no longer need to emit carbon to produce energy.

Currently renewable energy sources are (generally) more expensive than fossil fuels. But there is no reason why that will always be the case.

Indeed, if Trump’s aim is to make America independent of foreign energy sources, the best thing he could do would be to increase exploitation of renewable energy which would reduce its cost.

Personally, I think that it is already too late for coal and that Trump’s efforts to open coal mines and burn more coal will fail, just like efforts to create ‘clean coal’ have utterly failed.


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3 Responses to “Climate Reflections”

  1. H Stiles (@HStiles1) Says:

    I really appreciate the sort of necessary if mundane work that you and your colleagues do in meetings like this.

  2. rosssmason Says:

    I spent a year at Scott Base. Once a day (might have been 2?) the Met Man wold go out and write the numbers from the Wet/Dry bulb, listen to the wind and anything else deemed necessary. In the draw of the Scott Base Lab was the calibration report for each thermometer. He was given strict instructions to NOT add the corrections to the reading. To consider the fact that the calibration report was in Scott Base and not at “Head Office” in Wellington guaranteed there was an inherent bias to every single temperature reading in one of the coldest places on earth.

    • edhui Says:

      To the uninitiated this sounds like an intentional error- what’s the point of calibrating and not applying, and what’s the significance of the calibration report not being in Wellington (or a copy of it)? My expectation would be that the calibration report should be close to the instrument, because it’s really part of the scale- there’s no point having it applied further up the chain because people in Wellington could apply the wrong calibration to the wrong thermometer, assuming there was more than one sent out to the base. So how could the Met Man be told not to apply it?

      In other words the account is intriguing, but I don’t understand how there is a goodwill explanation for the error, unless someone simply decided that a calibration report was an unnecessary document, like a set of instructions. Please elaborate…

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