Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The fourth stumbling step

Thus far we have seen that carbon dioxide really is increasing in the atmosphere, and that the evidence that it originates from burning fossil fuels is good. However, in the third step, we found that the link between carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global temperatures was tenuous at best, and certainly not at the level of understanding where anyone could say "We can control the global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees C by controlling carbon emissions!" They can't, and we will stop wasting money the sooner they realize the falsity of such a statement.

In this fourth step we examine what the climate effects of a warmer world might be.  First, what is “climate”? It is the result of averaging a climatological variable, such as rainfall or atmospheric pressure, measured typically over a month or a season, where the average is taken over several years so as to give an indication of the weather that might be expected at that month or season.

Secondly, we need to understand the meaning of “change”. In this context it clearly means that the average of a climatological variable over X number of years will differ from the same variable averaged over a different set of X years.  But it is readily observable that the weather changes from year to year, so there will be a natural variation in the climate from one period of X years to another period X years long.  One therefore needs to know how long X must be to determine the natural variability and thus to detect reliably any change in the measured climate.

This aspect of “climate change” appears to have been overlooked in all the debate about climate change.  It seems to be supposed that there was a “pre-industrial” climate, which was measured over a large number of years before industry became a significant factor in our existence, and that the climate we now observe is statistically different from that hypothetical climate.

The problem, of course, is that there is very little actual data from those pre-industrial days, so we have no means of knowing what the climate really was.  There is no baseline from which we can measure change. 

Faced by this difficulty, the proponents of climate change have modified the hypothesis. It is supposed that the observed warming of the earth will change the climate in such a way as to make extreme events more frequent. This does not alter the difficulty; in fact, it makes it worse.

To illustrate, assume that an extreme event is one that falls outside the 95% probability bounds. So in 100 years, one would expect 5 extreme events on average.  Rather than taking 100 years of data to obtain the average climate, there are now only 5 years to obtain an estimate of the average extreme event, and the relative error in averaging 5 variable events is obviously much larger than the relative error in averaging 100 variable events.

The rainfall data for England and Wales demonstrates this quite convincingly:-
The detrended data is close to normally distributed, so that it is quite reasonable to use normal statistics for this. The 5% limits are thus two standard deviations either side of the mean.  In the 250-year record, 12.5 extreme events (those outside the 95% bounds) would be expected.  In fact, there are 7 above the upper bound and 4 below the lower bound, or 11 in total. Thus it requires 250 years to get a reasonable estimate (within 12%) of just the frequency of extreme rainfall.  There is no possibility of detecting any change in this rate, as would be needed to demonstrate “climate change”.

Indeed, a human lifespan is insufficient even to detect the frequency of the extreme events.  In successive 60-year periods, there are 2, 4, 2 and 2 events, an average of 2.5 events with a standard deviation of 1.0. There is a 95% chance of seeing between 0.5 and 5.5 extreme events in 60 years, where 3 (5% of 60) are expected. Several lifetimes are necessary determine the frequency with any accuracy, and many more to determine any change in the frequency.

It is known to have been warming for at least 150 years. If warming had resulted in more extreme weather, it might have been expected that there was some evidence for an increase in extreme events over that period. The popular press certainly tries to be convincing when an apparently violent storm arises. But none of the climatological indicators that have data going back at least 100 years show any sign of an increase in frequency of extreme events

For instance, there have been many claims that tropical cyclones are increasing in their frequency and severity.  The World Meteorological Organisation reports:  “It remains uncertain whether past changes in tropical cyclone activity have exceeded the variability expected from natural causes.”

It is true that the damage from cyclones is increasing, but this is not due to more severe weather.  It is the result of there being more dwellings, and each dwelling being more valuable, than was the case 20 or more years ago.  Over a century of data was carefully analysed to reach this conclusion.  The IPCC report on extreme events agrees with this finding.

Severe weather of any kind is most unlikely to make any part of our planet uninhabitable – that includes drought, severe storms and high winds. In fact, this is not too surprising – humanity has learned how to cope with extreme weather, and human beings occupy regions from the most frigid to the most scalding, from sea level to heights where sea-level-dwellers struggle to breath. Not only are we adaptable, but we have also learned how to build structures that will shield us from the forces of nature.

Of course, such protection comes at a cost. Not everyone can afford the structures needed for their preservation.  Villages are regularly flattened by storms that would leave most modern cities undamaged. Flood control measures are designed for the one-in-a-hundred year events, and they generally work – whereas low-lying areas in poor nations are regularly inundated for want of suitable defences.

Indeed, it is a tribute to the ability of engineers to protect against all manner of natural forces.  For instance, the magnitude 9 Tōhoku earthquake of 2011 (which caused the tsunami that destroyed the reactors at Fukushima) caused little physical damage to buildings, whereas earlier that year, the “mere” magnitude 7 earthquake in Wellington, New Zealand, toppled the cathedral.

So we should not fear extreme weather events. There is no evidence that they are any stronger than they were in the past, and we have generally adequate defenses against them.  Of course, somewhere our defenses will fail, but that is usually because of a design fault by man, not an excessive force of Nature. So here, on the fourth step of our journey, we can clearly see the climate change hypothesis stumble and nearly fall.


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