Exactly How “Green” are Wind Turbines?

Using the wind to produce energy is considered by many to be an environmental panacea. Consider the words of Greg Vitali, a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives:

Wind energy is better for the environment than coal, natural gas or nuclear energy. Wind turbines operate pollution free, do not add to climate change and use very little water.

At first glance, this sounds reasonable. After all, wind turbines don’t emit carbon dioxide, so they are not contributing to the horrible “global warming” that is supposed to happen this century. They also don’t seem to consume much. They just sit there, twirling in the breeze, making electricity for us to use. It’s not surprising, then, that wind power is the fastest-growing source of new electrical power in the U.S.

As the video above shows, however, wind turbines do have an environmental impact – they can kill flying animals. Of course, a video of one or two birds being knocked out of the air by a wind turbine is no cause for alarm. The real question is, “How often does this happen?” If a few hundred birds are killed each year by wind turbines, you can legitimately say that their impact on bird populations is relatively low. However, a recent study indicates that more than just a few hundred birds are being killed each year by the turbines that produce wind power.

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The Trend Is Not Good for Global Warming Advocates

A graph showing Global Climate Model predictions compared to surface temperatures (click for credit).
The Economist recently ran a story highlighting the fact that the Global Climate Model (GCM) predictions upon which most of the fear of global warming is based are not doing well when compared to measured surface temperatures over the past few years. I found the story to be surprisingly balanced and full of a lot of good thoughts. I strongly recommend that you read it if you can find the time, because it gives you a great idea of how little we know about climate science. I don’t want to rehash the article, but I do want to add some thoughts of my own.

If you look at the graph above (which is from the article), you will see the GCM predictions most recently cited by Global Warming advocates. The dark cyan areas represent what the GCMs predict with a certainty of 75%, and the lighter areas represent what the GCMs predict with a certainty of 95%. As you can see, the measured surface temperatures (given by the dark line) are not behaving as predicted for the past several years. In fact, they have already strayed out of the 75% certain predictions and are poised to stray out of the 95% certain predictions. This, of course, is discussed in the article. What is not discussed is that the graph is rather misleading.

If you look at the graph from 1950 to the present day, you will see remarkable agreement between the GCM “predictions” and the measured data. However, prior to 2001, none of those “predictions” are actual predictions. They are a retrospective fit to the already-known data. You see, the GCMs are so oversimplified that they contain all sorts of “fudge factors.” Those fudge factors are varied to produce as much agreement as possible between the known data and the GCMs. Since the GCM predictions shown in that graph were produced for the IPCC report issued in 2007, they represent work done after the IPCC report issued in 2001. As a result, the data that appear on the graph prior to 2002 were all known when the work was started on the 2007 report. This means that all agreement between the “predictions” and the data prior to 2002 say nothing about the ability of the GCMs. It only tells you how well the fudge factors could be varied to agree with the known data.

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Some People’s Beliefs About Climate Change are Blowin’ in the Wind

This graph shows the likelihood of New Hampshire residents agreeing with the statement, "Climate change is happening now, caused mainly by human activities" based on party affiliation and the average temperature. The gray fields represent the error associated with the data.
(The graph is from the study being discussed.)

If you have read this blog for any length of time, you probably know that I am skeptical of the idea that human activities are changing climate on a global scale. I don’t think the data support such a notion. Climate is certainly changing, but that’s nothing new. The data strongly indicate that around 1000 AD, the Northern Hemisphere was significantly warmer than usual; this is generally referred to as the “Medieval Warm Period.” About 650 years later, the Northern Hemisphere was significantly cooler than usual, and that period is often called the “Little Ice Age.”1 The important question is whether or not the changes we are seeing today is unusual compared to events such as those. Based on the data I have seen, my answer would be, “No.”

At the same time, I hasten to add that global climate is incredibly complex, and we are not close to fully understanding how it works or even how to measure it in a detailed fashion. Indeed, there are various methods used to determine the “average global temperature” and how it has changed over time, and they each produce different results. So while I think that the data show there is nothing unusual about the way climate is changing right now, I think a lot more study needs to be done.

But what do most people think? When it comes to climate change, their beliefs vary over time. The percentage of Americans who think the earth is warming has been falling since 2007. Interestingly enough, however, there seems have have been a recent rebound, at least when the phrase “climate change” is used. What drives these changes? Are the data changing significantly? Are the proponents of one side “getting their message out” better?

Unfortunately, a recent study has provided insight into why some people change their mind on the climate issue, and the results are rather depressing.

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Once Again, It’s Just Not That Simple…

Two versions of the same species of coccolithophore - the heavily-calcified one is on the left
(image from the paper being discussed)

A few months ago, I discussed the acidification of the ocean. It is often called global warming’s “evil twin,” because it is caused by rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Unlike global warming, however, the connection between carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and increasing ocean acidity is straightforward and has been confirmed by many observations. Thus, while it is not clear that increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide will lead to global warming, it is very clear that increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide lead to an increase in the acidity of the ocean.

The question is, “How will increased ocean acidity affect the organisms living there?” Many who call themselves environmentalists answer that question by saying increased ocean acidification will produce catastrophic results, threatening many species of ocean life. The reason? Many organisms that live in the ocean have shells made out of calcium carbonate. To make those shells, the organisms use carbonate ions that are dissolved in the seawater. However, as the acidity of ocean water increases, the concentration of carbonate ions in the water decreases. Thus, it is thought that increased ocean acidification will make it harder for these organisms to make their shells. Here’s how one publication from the National Academies puts it1

As ocean acidification decreases the availability of carbonate ions, these organisms must work harder to produce shells. As a result, they have less energy left to find food, to reproduce, or to defend against disease or predators. As the ocean becomes more acidic, populations of some species could decline, and others may even go extinct.

Now if that’s true, ocean acidification is a major problem. Indeed, if several shell-making organisms go extinct, we could be in real trouble.

However, this is a very simplistic way of looking at things. Yes, the availability of carbonate in the ocean will affect how easily shell-making organisms produce their shells. However, there are a host of other factors involved in the process. To single out one factor without considering the others is not very scientific. When all the factors are considered, the picture is not nearly as bad.

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One Global Warming Alarmist Now Admits He Went Overboard

Dr. James Lovelock one year before he wrote his book warning of global warming's dire consequences. (Click for credit)
Dr. James Lovelock is a bit of a “renaissance man.” He has a PhD in medicine from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and he has done medical research at Harvard, Yale, and the Baylor College of Medicine. However, he started working for NASA more than 50 years ago, and his research interests broadened considerably. As a part of his NASA work, for example, he invented the electron capture detector, which led to the detection of CFCs in the atmosphere, helping to draw a definitive link between CFCs and ozone destruction. He is the author of the “Gaia hypothesis,” the odd idea that about one billion years after forming, earth became the home of an incomplete life form that started shaping this planet’s evolution to complete its own development. According to this idea, the earth and all its inhabitants are simply parts of one gigantic life form, named Gaia (after the Greek goddess of the earth).

As odd as the Gaia hypothesis is, it motivatd Lovelock to study the earth’s systems, and as he studied them, he became convinced that global warming was a threat to Gaia. In 2006, he wrote a book called The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity. It was full of the hysterical nonsense that is typical in the global warming literature, including absurd statements like:1

…before this century is over, billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the arctic region where the climate remains tolerable.

Clearly, then, Lovelock was convinced that global warming was going to radically change the world as we know it, devastating the human population. Time Magazine seemed to agree with him, because the next year, it named him one of 13 “Heroes of the Environment,” saying:

Jim Lovelock has no university, no research institute, no students. His almost unparalleled influence in environmental science is based instead on a particular way of seeing things. It is a way of seeing things as systems of connections, responses and feedback that applies both to experiments and instruments (of which he is a gifted inventor), and to the world itself.

How quickly times change. In a mere six years, Lovelock has significantly altered his tune. He still believes that global warming is real. However, he has finally taken the time to seriously look at the data, and even he admits that doomsday scenarios such as the ones that he painted in his book are wrong.

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Just How Evil Is This “Evil Twin”?

This cold-water coral flourished in acidic waters once it was given time to adapt. (Click for credit)
Ocean acidification has been called the “evil twin” of global warming. That’s because rising carbon dioxide levels are not just supposed to result in an overly-warm world. They are also supposed to result in an overly-acidic ocean. How does carbon dioxide in the air affect the acidity of the ocean? Well, the ocean absorbs a large fraction of the carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere. Some of that carbon dioxide then reacts with the water in the ocean, producing carbonic acid. The more carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere, the more carbon dioxide the ocean will absorb. As the ocean absorbs more carbon dioxide, more carbonic acid will be made. Thus, rising carbon dioxide levels will lead to a more acidic ocean.

Unlike the link between rising carbon dioxide levels and global warming, the link between rising carbon dioxide levels and ocean acidification is straightforward and has already been seen to some extent. As you may remember from high school chemistry, acidity can be measured using the pH scale. A pH of 7 is neutral. A pH greater than 7 indicates a basic solution, while a pH lower than 7 indicates an acidic solution. The key for this discussion is as follows: the lower the pH, the more acidic the solution. Well, according to the Ocean Studies Board of the National Research council:1

The average pH of ocean surface waters has decreased by about 0.1 unit—from about 8.2 to 8.1—since the beginning of the industrial revolution, with model projections showing an additional 0.2-0.3 drop by the end of the century, even under optimistic scenarios

Now this might not sound like a big change, but the pH scale is logarithmic. That means if the pH decreases by 1 unit, the acidity has increased by a factor of 10! Thus, a drop in pH of 0.1 is actually a change of 26%. This means the ocean is 26% more acidic than it was before the beginning of the industrial revolution. If the models are correct (and who knows if they are), the ocean will increase in acidity by an additional 58 to 100 percent by the end of the century!

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Cooler Heads Are Starting to Prevail

Someone I respect and admire sent me a Wall Street Journal article that was published on January 27, 2012. It is an opinion piece written by 16 scientists and is entitled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.”1 While most of the scientists who authored the opinion piece are not climatologists, there are three notable exceptions: William Robert Kininmonth was in charge of Australia’s National Climate Centre at the Bureau of Meteorology from 1986 to 1998. Dr. Richard Lindzen is professor of atmospheric sciences at MIT and has more than 200 peer-reviewed publications in the field of climatology. Henk Tennekes is the former director of research at the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute.

These and the other 13 authors offered some advice to any candidate for public office in any contemporary democracy. He or she should understand:

…that the oft-repeated claim that nearly all scientists demand that something dramatic be done to stop global warming is not true. In fact, a large and growing number of distinguished scientists and engineers do not agree that drastic actions on global warming are needed.

The article makes many good points. It brings up the fact that Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ivar Giaever left the American Physical Society because of its anti-science stance on global warming. It informs the reader that there has not been any detectable warming of the earth over the past ten years and that climate alarmists can’t explain why. It also tells us:

Although the number of publicly dissenting scientists is growing, many young scientists furtively say that while they also have serious doubts about the global-warming message, they are afraid to speak up for fear of not being promoted—or worse.

More importantly, it brings up the fact that all models which have been used to promote the idea that global warming is human-made and catastrophic in nature have consistently overpredicted the rise in earth’s surface temperatures for the past 22 years. The importance of this fact cannot be overstated. Those who want to convince us that drastic action must be taken to curb global warming typically use computer models to tell us how horrible the results of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be in future decades. However, those computer models have consistently been wrong, and most climate scientists know this.

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Certainty and Science Do Not Go Together!

Dr. Daniel Botkin holds a PhD in ecology and is currently Professor Emeritus in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is best known for his books about nature, and has been called “one of the preeminent ecologists of the 20th century.” His website has a lot of good material, including an excellent FAQ regarding global warming.

The reason I am blogging about Dr. Botkin is that he authored a fantastic article in the December 2, 2011 issue of the Wall Street Journal. The article starts with an incredibly unscientific quote which comes (ironically enough) from NASA senior scientist Michael J. Mumma:

Based on evidence, what we do have is, unequivocally, the conditions for the emergence of life were present on Mars—period, end of story.

This kind of statement might excite people, but it does nothing to promote science. In fact, it does quite the opposite. As Dr. Botkin masterfully points out in his article, the phrase “period, end of story” should never be uttered by anyone who is trying to be scientific. The fact is that in science, we never have the end of the story. New information comes in constantly, and sometimes, it overturns old ideas, despite the fact that those ideas might be accepted by virtually every scientist on the planet. As the title of Dr. Botkin’s article correctly proclaims, absolute certainty is not scientific.

Dr. Botkin goes on to discuss how global warming advocates hurt their cause by making statements with absolute certainty, and I agree with his assessment. As I read his article, however, I couldn’t help but think about the hypothesis of evolution.

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Sea Ice and The Robustness of the Earth

As I have mentioned previously (here, here, here, and here), the earth has a wide array of negative feedback mechanisms that help it cope with change. This, of course, is exactly what you would expect for a system that was designed by an incredibly intelligent Designer. Unfortunately, many people who study the earth don’t understand these negative feedback mechanisms or don’t appreciate how incredibly powerful they are. As a result, they overstate the severity of certain trends that scientists observe. One excellent example of this comes from the observation that in recent years, the amount of sea ice in the Arctic has dropped significantly.

Arctic sea ice as measured by the National Snow and Ice Data Center. (Click for more info)

In the graph above, a 21-year average of Arctic sea ice extent is shown with the heavy gray line. The gray band that extends above and below that line shows the variation one would expect from random fluctuations. Now look at the green dashed line. That’s what was measured in 2007. Clearly it is far, far below the average, and it is well below what you would expect from random fluctuations. As a result, the drop in sea ice is probably the result of a systematic change that is occurring in the Arctic. Not surprisingly, some doomsayers went off the deep end when they saw such data.

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Another Famous Physicist Leaves the APS Over Global Warming

Nobel Laureate Dr. Ivar Giaever (click for credit)
Dr. Ivar Giaever has a PhD in physics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He was a biophysics scholar at Cambridge, and is professor at both his alma mater and the University of Oslo. Although he has an impressive list of accomplishments, he is best remembered for sharing the Nobel Prize in physics with Dr. Leo Esaki and Dr. Brian Josephson in 1973. The trio won the award for investigating a quantum mechanical effect called “tunneling” and how it relates to solids. When a particle (like an electron) passes through a barrier that Newtonian physics says it should not be able to pass through, we say that it has “tunneled” through the barrier. Specifically, Dr. Giaever showed how this quantum-mechanical phenomenon applies to superconductors, which are materials that conduct electricity without resistance.

Of course, that was almost fourty years ago. Since then, he made a name in the field of biophysics, shedding light on how large biological molecules as well as cells interact with thin metal films. While he still has academic appointments at both Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Oslo, he has dedicated most of his recent time to a company called Applied Biophysics, which specializes in scientific instrumentation used in biological research and drug discovery.

Why am I telling you about this world-renowned physicist? Because he has joined another famous physicist in protesting the American Physical Society’s stand on global warming by resigning from the society.

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