The real reason why global warming doesn’t matter

Because energy disaster looms anyway. Pretty soon, one of three things will happen : one, we achieve a sustainable low energy culture; two, we solve all the worries of nuclear power and have a high energy lifestyle; or three, civilisation collapses and we revert to a mediaeval economy.

I watched the Channel 4 documentary “The Great Global Warming Swindle” and have been trawling the blogosphere for comment since. Reactions divide pretty evenly in two. One half is along the lines of “Completely convincing ! I always suspected global warming was a hoax and now its been proved !” and the other half, who say “Sigh. Where do I start explaining the mistakes ? And these guys are all marxists with a weird agenda anyway.” As a piece of agit-prop, it was superb. Beautifully made, clearly argued, with just enough emotion to engage you, but not so much you get suspicious. Although there were one or two semi-cranks interviewed, there was also an impressive list of real scientists. However, at least one of those has now complained that his views were misrepresented…

As an astronomer, the argument that the dominant factor in climate change is cloud cover variation caused by changes in solar cosmic ray flux is of course appealing. (There is a useful explanation here, and some informed criticism here) There is a small chance that this completely explains climate change, but mostly it just adds a systematic uncertainty, making it harder to estimate the correct magnitude of anthropogenic climate change. The C4 show mocked the “precautionary principle” but its correct; given how long the world economy supertanker takes to turn around, can we take the risk that its all an illusion ?

So now the scary bit. As the oil runs out, we may end up with catastrophically less energy consumption, and correspondingly less carbon production, and so avoid global warming and just have darkness, poverty, and misery instead.

So… when the question of when the hydrocarbon reserves will run out is another famously contentious issue of course. I am not a technical expert, but I did read an excellent popular book – “The End of Oil” by Paul Roberts. Coal may last somewhat longer, but it has to go eventually, and meanwhile we keep getting greedier …Roberts does a nice analysis of growing energy needs. With our current rate of energy consumption growth and population growth, and assuming that developing nations catch up with the West, but also allowing for continuing improvements in energy efficiency, Roberts estimates that by the year 2100 the world energy consumption will be 50 TW. (50 TeraWatts, or 50 times a million million Watts).

Decades before this the oil and coal will be running out or becoming unproductive to extract; and many years before this the increasingly difficulty of extraction will be leading to horrible international tensions.. this is starting now of course. So new energy sources must come to our rescue !! Biofuels, hydrogen, wave power, solar energy, wind farms .. the more the better !

But what Roberts, and most others, don’t point out is that there is a renewable bottom line : the solar constant. All renewables are driven by solar energy – plants are recycled sunlight, the wind is driven by solar heating, and so on. Hydrogen cells are just a storage mechanism. Something has to make the energy first. Hydrocarbons of course represent millions of years of accumulated sunlight stored up underground. Once they are used up, we can’t use more energy than is falling on the surface of the Earth. There are only two exceptions. The first is nuclear power. The second is geothermal energy. However the heat emerging from the entire land surface of the Earth is somewhat less than the current world energy consumption, so this will never be a big factor.

So how much sunlight is there ?

The total amount of solar radiation falling on the surface of the earth is roughly 1.7 x 10**17 Watts. Thats everything – all wavelengths, falling on the oceans, Antarctica, or whatever. How much can we use ? Half of this is reflected. We could maybe at most cover 1% of the Earth with photo-cells with 10% efficiency, or perhaps 10% with biofuel crops at 1% efficiency. All in all, in round terms we might get half of one thousandth of the above if we are lucky. Thats 85 TW max.

The astute reader will now notice that this (85 TW) is close to the predicted world energy consumption in 2100 (50 TW). A somewhat bigger growth, or a somewhat less optimistic return on solar energy, and we simply won’t make it. We are perilously close to a magical dividing line in human history. There are three paths from here :

(1) We solve the problems of nuclear power and get as much as we want.

(2) We build a global lifestyle that stabilises at 5kW each.

(3) We do nothing until war and chaos destroy the global infrastructure and we revert to a mediaeval economy.

Even scarier, uranium supplies are finite so nuclear fission may be no good either. (Understandably, this is vigorously denied by the Uranium Information Centre of Australia ..) So how about fusion ? Well its promising but we have been trying for decades and still can’t get out more energy than we put in, let alone produce energy on an industrial scale.

Maybe I should teach my kids how to use a bow and arrow, and move to the Hebrides.

28 Responses to The real reason why global warming doesn’t matter

  1. Ed Minchau says:

    4. we build solar power satellites and extract solar energy from a much wider area than merely the surface of the earth. And we don’t use inefficient, expensive, and extremely polluting (in their construction) photovoltaics, we use Carnot cycle heat engines to extract power from sunlight. The collected power is beamed as microwaves to rectennae on the earth, or to anywhere in the solar system that the power is desired.

  2. Stephen says:

    Back of the envelope calculations suggest that the area of the roof of my house should provide enough solar energy to heat the house (passive), light the house (solar electric) and, given batteries, power my car.

    Now, if my house were better insulated, if the roof geometry were optimized to collect energy, i could probably get off the grid entirely.

    Shading my roof would probably allow me to avoid using the air conditioner entirely. As it is, i only use it for two or three days a summer.

    Batteries. Flywheel batteries have already been shown to have a 50:1 energy to storage per mass advantage over lead acid batteries. That could give me several hundred miles of range entirely on electric power.

  3. andyxl says:

    Ed : collecting from an area bigger than the earth and then beaming to anywhere in the solar system ? Err.. maybe.. but this sounds even more challenging technologically than fusion. Better convince Mr Bush and get started.

    Stephen : I guess you live somewhere sunnier than me .. but yes in principle you can collect enough to heat your house and maybe run your car.. but how do you make all those consumer goods, and grow enough food ? By using fertilisers we get more out of the ground than the sun puts in .. potatoes used to be made out of sunlight, but now they are made out of oil. But indeed, a solar-constant compatible culture OUGHT to be possible..

  4. Berian says:

    Andy – you drive past fusion too quickly. The thrust of the ‘but we’ve tried for 50 years and still haven’t done it yet’ argument is that we should give up hope on science that doesn’t bear fruit immediately, which is callous.

    I would be prepared to argue that the prospects for industrial fusion power are better than ever; ITER represents the largest step toward this goal since efforts began. The problem is now one of political will, so more knowledgable scientists saying positive things about fusion can only speed the process along.

  5. sb says:

    “Maybe I should teach my kids how to use a bow and arrow, and move to the Hebrides.”

    If we start running out of resources to mine and we haven’t developed ways to mine off-planet, then we’ll be stuck here figuring out how to make ever more things out of plants while hoping for nano-tech assemblers. Electricity wont seem so important when we can’t build things that use it.

    There’s no second chance to bootstrap civilisation from men with shovels digging coal and ore from hillsides once all the near-surface resources are gone… 😉

  6. A.Mak`ski says:

    Global Warming…..Nonsense !
    The human race seems to be so advanced but yet cannot see what is blatantly going on all around them every day !
    Where every road is in every country, there was once vegetation and trees.
    This vegetation constantly consumes a large amount of WATER as it uses cabon monoxide to `live`.
    The same goes for houses and buildings…There use to be plant life here! Not forgeting the depleting Rain Forests….
    If one single tree uses up a hundred liters of water (to live) in one year and many harmfull gas`s, then think of the billions of tree spaces covered but buildings and roads. Now imagine the amount in the whole world…..
    Where does the WATER go? Where do the gas`s go?
    Global Warming and Floods. I rest my case!

  7. andyxl says:

    Well …. not with you on the water thing, but the steady removal of plant life from the surface of the Earth is indeed a significant factor in global warming. Current deforestation has been estimated by some to be effectively producing 25% of current heat-trapping gases. Might write a post about this sometime.

  8. tamino says:

    No disresepect, honestly — but before you speculate further on the causes of global warming, I think you should learn more about the subject.

    For example: regarding solar irradiance, you say that “Half of this is reflected.” The fraction of incoming solar radiation which is reflected is the earth’s *albedo*, and is one of the fundamental parameters of climate dynamics. It’s also not even close to half; it’s more like 30%. Another example: the “cosmic ray” theory of climate change is, not to put too fine a point on it, dead as a doornail.

    And if you’re really interested in the level of dishonesty in the “documentary” by Martin Durkin, I suggest this post.

  9. andyxl says:


    No disrespect (or even disrespect), just a tad patronising ?

    Do you realise I am an astronomer ??? 30% is almost identical to half. Gimme a break. We are talking orders of magnitude here. Yeah, I could’ve looked up the albedo first, but why bother ? Its obviously about half – not 1% or 99%.

    My post was, as I am sure you realise, not primarily about global warming. That was just an introduction to making a simple point about energy. Now, if you are doing climate modelling, then it matters quite a lot whether the albedo is 0.30 or 0.25 or 0.35, and indeed it is sensitive to cloud cover so there is a delicate feedback. But if you are asking the question “will renewable sources provide enough energy” it really doesn’t matter. Its an order of magnitude question.

    Re solar CR modulation and cloud cover and all that jazz – since I wrote the post the arguments against the cosmic ray theory have gotten pretty strong, but at the time there was still a live argument. But again, this was just a passing mention.

  10. tamino says:

    Regarding cosmic rays you say that there is a “small chance that this completely explains climate change.” You give yet more publicity to the truly despicable “documentary” The Great Global Warming Swindle. You title your post “The real reason why global warming doesn’t matter.” But apparently you feel that in spite of a completely slipshod treatment of the most important scientific issue of our time, I should just give ya a break? Gimme a break.

    As for your “Do you realise I am an astronomer?” I find that more than a “tad” patronizing. It certainly doesn’t qualify you to lecture me about numbers; I’m a mathematician.

    If you’re going to speculate in the blogosphere about the scientific issue which poses the greatest threat to mankind, in an offhand manner which reveals a serious lack of knowledge of the details of the science, you can expect to be corrected.

  11. andyxl says:

    OK. Those are all good points. So, by omission, you do accept that calling me ignorant, in a non-technical article, for quoting a number whose value is 0.3 according to some and 0.37 according to others “about half” is overkill… But now I realise you are a mathematician it all makes sense. Astronomers are notorious for being cavalier with numbers, and it drives many of our fellow physicists mad, as well as mathematicians … Don’t start me on my mathematician jokes .. you will probably have some even better astronomer jokes to retort with.

    More seriously, I do not think that the correct approach to nonsense like “The Great Global Warming Swindle” is to never mention it. This is like the old 70s campus debates about not allowing fascists to speak. Free speech is always better in the end. Likewise it is a bit surprising that you feel I am not even allowed to mention the POSSIBILITY that the CR theory is correct, even when I say it is a “small” possibility. (And as I mentioned, I have read things since which make it look an even smaller possibility … Mike Lockwood from RAL is coming here to give us a seminar on this in a few weeks .. he used to work on the CR model, but is now convinced its wrong. I am looking forward to this.)

    This all made me realise that like a lot of fellow scientists these days you are worrying here not about the Science, but about the Politics and Public Opinion. Scientifically one always makes guarded and probabilistic statements, and is careful to mention rival models etc; to deliberately ignore or stomp on things is seen as bad practice. But in the public realm, people often worry that even mentioning bad ideas will have all sorts of people grasping at them. And using a title that sounds denialist, even when the content is clearly NOT, makes people nervous.

    I can see that you are passionate, and correctly so, about a crucial problem. And it is true that the first half of my post was kinda casual and chatty, and this makes you upset. I respect all that, honestly I do. But at the end of the day I think it is better to treat the public like grown-ups.

    Oh and by the way, GW is only the second most important problem facing humanity. The energy crisis is the first.

  12. andyxl says:

    Tamino – on reflection, have added too much rant there. My apologies. Try this :

    (1) Your accusation that I have treated an important subject too casually, and so let the enemy behind the barricades, is a very fair point, if a debateable one

    (2) Your accusation that I have made scientific mistakes and shown ignorance is wrong, and unfair, and I would hope you would retract that. Likewise, I retract my accusation of you being patronising – you were only trying to make a point.

    D’accord ?

  13. tamino says:

    Accord. We’ll agree to disagree on the world’s most important problem.

    I hope you enjoy Lockwood’s visit; many of us are very impressed with his recent work (with Frohlich) on solar influence on climate in Proc. R. Soc. A. A technical note: there are two definitions of “albedo.” The geometric albedo is the fraction of incoming radiation which would be reflected if a planet were equally illuminated from all directions (for earth it’s about 0.37), while the Bond albedo is the fraction which is reflected under real-universe lighting conditions (for earth it’s about 0.29).

  14. andyxl says:

    Ah – thanks, that makes sense. Astronomy textbooks usually quote the albedo as 0.37, but I had noticed that climate modellers tend to use 0.30. Planetary astronomers also have a habit of measuring albedo within a waveband (usually visible light) whereas often what you really want to know is the bolometric albedo. Finally, one really needs to make clear whether one means actual (immediate) reflective albedo, or the net effective albedo including re-radiation – either from the surface, or actually escaping into space. The small difference between these two is after all the whole point of the greenhouse effect. I don’t know what terms climate modellers use to distinguish these.

  15. Jack says:

    I for one know nothing about this subject but I am writing about global warming from an astronamer’s point of view. I am not an astronamer, but I am still writing about it. anyone got any tips?

  16. Jack says:

    [also, I can’t understand half the words in the last 2 posts, so try to make them simple.]

  17. Jack says:

    I have to have an answer by this sunday so please answer quick. it is getting to be my bedtime.

  18. andyxl says:

    Jack : sounds like its way past your bedtime already.

  19. Pebbles says:

    A lot of the above thinking seems to be quite narrow, no real perception of the bigger picture. Obviously global warming is a pseudo religious movement based on guilt and denial and has no relation to the facts. If I remember correctly, they tried to push the idea of a big freeze before they decided we were about to burst into flames.

    This is no criticism of the above author, it’s a criticism of human beings. Environmentalists remind me of the religious puritans who chastise, deny and blame themselves and the people around them for their subjective sins.

    Here is my point: Human beings could probably be the first organism on the face of the earth that is able to bypass the system and processes that produced them. We no longer have natural processes within the environment that prevent us from outgrowing our resources. All other organic populations are directly correlated with the available resources within the environment. Medicine, intensive food production, fertility treatments and technology allow populations to expand rapidly. Natural population controls such as disease and famine are fought against (understandably) but produce more mouths and more potential victims of disease.

    It’s ironic that the more help we give ourselves, the more damage we do.

    So, the earth is a tiny resource centre with limited resources able to support a finite population – this is not negotiable. If the resource centre is plundered then everybody looses out, yet we here constant shrill voices preaching that we all have the right to live and prosper.

    I predict more and more taxes based on environmental consumer guilt in the developed world. This money will of course go to the higher level consumers who will just get richer. Exactly the same as the church establishment once plundered finance from populations using the same guilt/scare tactics.

    I am sure a lot of the environmentalists really do have (subjective moral) reason for there guilt pangs but eventually these people will be replaced by very clever people who can use this new religious movement to dominate and tax the masses. It’s a human inevitability.

    So the real problem is population growth not global warming. China dared to point this out and try and do something but came under massive criticism from the rest of the world.

    In terms of resources, yes fossil fuels will run out and there is a need to find another source. Nuclear power is the best source at this point but Iran reminds us that politically, it is not going to be encouraged.

    Answer: Population limiting world wide. everything else falls into place.

    Although: this may be out of our hands because again in our desperate attempt to avoid human suffering, we have instigated an arms race between human medicine and virus and bacterial resistance. I think they will always come out on top.

    The arguments against global warming are best fought in the same way as are fought against mindless religious zeal. You Don’t need to argue the technical points of global warming, just as it’s pointless to argue about the possibility of creationism. The detail is fog and you only need to consider why people want you to believe it.

    Apologies if any of the above seems cold and harsh, I am not interested in current fashionable liberal thinking, I am only interested in facts.

  20. Willie McDonald says:

    The True Reasons For Global Warming
    Earth’s Orbit Around The Sun Is Decaying

    My purpose is to gain support for this report. Global warming can be reversed, If not reversed the sun’s heat will dominate this planet’s weather, and generate unusual weather patterns, to the point where the only thing left to eat will be other people. The real reason for global warming is the earth’s orbit around the sun is decaying, in other words the earth is moving closer to the sun.

    The earth is a planet that functions like a machine. Like cars, trucks, aircrafts, or rockets. The earth has a fuel system, an engine system, and exhaust system. A car’s engine system generates torque, an aircraft’s engine systems generates thrust, and the earth’s engine system generates a powerful magnetic field, and the earth’s magnetic field protects all life on the surface of this planet, and beneath the oceans.

    The earth’s magnetic field keeps the earth at a safe distance from the sun, and the core is the earth’s engine. The earth’s fuel system is referred to as oil wells/ crude oil reservoirs. They are actually self pressurizing fuel cells. Like any machine, if you were to shut off fuel to the engine, the engine will stop operating. The oil company’s crude oil extraction process compromises the earth’s fuel system, and shut off fuel to the earth’s engine (the core), by releasing pressure out of the earth’s fuel system (oil wells). Normally the pressure in a crude oil well/ reservoir is tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of pounds per square inch.

    Under normal circumstance the core (the engine) stays at a constant 5000 to 7000 degrees celsius, and that’s hot enough to melt steel, and the pressure in the core is tens of thousands to hundreds of pounds per square inch. The oil is ignited long before it reaches the core, and enters the core as flames, and/ or heat. Crude oil, and its components are hydrocarbons, and are capable of generating the temperatures, and pressures found in the core, and mantle. Hydrocarbons are used to melt, and manufacture steel. The higher the temperature in the core, and the stronger the earth’s magnetic field. The cooler the core, the weaker the earth’s magnetic field. The earth’s engine is being fuel starved, and it is slowly cooling. As the core cools the earth’s magnetic field weakens, and the earth is being pulled closer to the sun.

    Global Warming has nothing to do with green house gases, holes in the ozone, CFC, R-12 refrigerant, the sun going nova, aerosol propellant, and methane gases, etc. Hydrocarbons such as coal are safe to use. The only way to reverse global warming is for the oil companies to re-pressurize the earth’s fuel systems. One way this can be accomplished, by igniting the methane gas in the fuel cell (oil/ gas well). The ignited gas will expand, and create the pressure need to force the remaining crude oil (fuel) into the core. This is the real cause for global warming, and the only way it can be reversed.
    1 o2
    Volcanoes, the earth’s exhaust system are designed to rid the core (the earth’s engine) of spent fuel, debris, and they regulate the /pressure in the core, which is generated by the combustion, and/ or ignition of crude oil / methane gas. The pressure that’s release from volcanoes are provided by carbon dioxide, nitrogen, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and the facts are these are all hydrocarbon by-product, including the pressure.
    These gases, and the pressure proves beyond a shadow of doubt, hydrocarbons are being burned in the core of this planet, and lots of it. I believe it crude oil, and/ or methane gases are this planet’s fuel source. Volcanic eruptions in the pass are stronger, than present day eruptions. This is due to the core of this planet cooling. The more hydrocarbons that are burned in the core, the higher the core’s temperature, and the stronger volcanic eruptions will occur. Green house gases are not responsible for global warming, it goes beyond green house gases. Something is going wrong with the earth itself, and its obit around the sun is changing, and not for the better.

    The earth has shifted on it’s axis by 26 degrees, and is wobbling on it’s axis. The earth is moving away from the moon at 4 centimeters each year. A total of 24 leap seconds have been added to the atomic clock over the decades, because the earth rotation has slowed down. 12 noon use to be the hottest part of the day, now it 3 o’clock in the after noon.
    Scientists are saying the day will increase from 24 to 25 hours in a day. The winters are getting sunny, and warmer from the equator (latitude- zero) to (latitude 29-N, and S) in winter. Both polar ice caps are being melted, one at a time, and the oceans are rising. Floods, and tornadoes are developing in winter, from (latitude 35.0 –N) to (latitude 42- and there shouldn’t be enough sun rays, and heat for the green house gas theory to be applicable. The same weather is occurring in the southern hemisphere from (latitude- zero to 42-S) in winter. Nasa scientists say the earth’s magnetic field has developed a breach. It’s getting noticeably hotter every 15 to 20 years. Look at the facts, and due diligence! Most of what I’ve written in the last two paragraph, was written by scientist, geophysicists, geologists, astrophysicists, and can be found on the internet. I warn you global warming, and the apocalypse are one in the same. The decay, and global warming are in the beginning stages, the worse has yet to come. I prey you take this report seriously, for our great grand children’s sake

    Written by: Willie McDonald

    2 of 2

  21. andyxl says:

    Hmm. Earth’s magnetic field keeps it at a safe distance from the Sun… Now there’s not many people know that.

  22. PEBBLES says:

    In response to ‘The True Reasons For Global Warming
Earth’s Orbit Around The Sun Is Decaying’

    I will never say never but it Still sounds like fatalism. Science, especially theoretical science can be molded to fit one’s preconceived beliefs. A good proportion of famous scientists throughout history (Darwin, Newton) also believed in God and miracle workers. Never underestimate the human ability to combine scientific logic with emotionally driven belief and fatalism.

    Your explanations still result in global warming which is still disputable. Fossil fuel layers within the crust must be miniscule compared to the mass of the the mantle and core and could hardly effect its orbit or anything else.

    “Green house gases are not responsible for global warming, it goes beyond green house gases. Something is going wrong with the earth itself, and its obit around the sun is changing, and not for the better.-” this is a bit ‘the end is nigh’ 🙂

    The earths temperature has varied massively over 100,000’s of years and yet now, it’s because of what we are doing, our sins, our greed or indeed our ability to act as gods.

    I am not going to analyze the detail as it all heads the same way. Of course orbits are changing over time, nothing is permanent in the universe.

    Whenever a scientist discovers a new system or process within the universe, immediately some people notice it’s fragility and start seeing it as a weak system that is about to fall apart.

    “I prey you take this report seriously’ I take everything seriously but I don’t prey 🙂

    All our anxieties lie elsewhere – sublimation

  23. […] ? Well thats scary, but I think we’ll be ok. Climate change ? Well, yes but … as I argued here , maybe its irrelevant because civilisation will collapse soon anyway when the oil runs out . Old […]

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