October 30, 2003

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Few facts when it comes to global warming

The Kyoto protocol does not appear to be centered upon the environment, but rather on socio-economic issues, international politics and other forces.

By Steven Pearce

The Kyoto protocol has been referred to as the most significant
international treaty since World War II. The stakes are allegedly high - disastrous environmental impact in the form of significant global warming if the treaty is not implemented versus economic havoc to the first world if the treaty is implemented.

The truth resides somewhere between these extreme forms of ideological rhetoric. Yet I am often unsure whether the true experts - climatologists - can report objectively in light of such enormous political pressures. I will attempt to convey my impressions of this situation rather than pretending to profess an expert critical analysis.

For my part, I am a theoretical planetary physicist now lecturing in the school of computing science at SFU. I have designed and built several mathematically sophisticated computer simulations describing various astrophysical and geophysical phenomena.

However, only one of these problems pertains to the issue of global climate change. While I do not consider myself a full expert, I do know the topic of numerical modelling with proficiency. I am also authoring an undergraduate textbook on sociotechnological change, so I do believe that I am credible to discuss the relationship of computer modelling to social policy. My interest here is purely academic - I am concerned with the truth of the matter.

I am also the director of research and co-founder of Enterra Environmental Corporation, a company pioneering the infrastructure required to implement alternative, clean energy tech-nologies, such as microturbines and fuel cells based on more hydrogen rich fuels.

Recently, Enterra signed an agreement with First Nations leaders in the Northwest Territories to conduct a pilot project that will demonstrate economic viability in the harsh northern environment. Though this company has the potential to provide jobs and innovative technologies to Canadians, and let me be frank, this is a capitalist enterprise - my interest here is primarily for profit. I stand on the issue of global warming simultaneously from two apparently opposing ideologies - academic versus industrialist. Take note, however, that this company is rooted to the Kyoto protocol. Thus, one might expect no conflict as the media leads us to believe that all right-minded individuals should be united on the side of the environment.

Well, it is not a matter of being against the environment - that would be mad. However, as an academic I have serious misgivings regarding the Kyoto protocol.

Is anthropogenic carbon dioxide (meaning derived from human activity) really responsible for the alleged increase in global surface temperatures through the greenhouse effect and, if so, will the Kyoto protocol provide a viable solution? Certainly, industrial society has produced an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. This hypothesis dates back at least to the late 1800s. Our energy infrastructure is based upon carbon-rich fuel sources. As human population and industry grows, so too does our contribution of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Moreover, the rise in concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has been directly measured for more than four decades, and it seems likely that human activity is largely the cause. Part of the rationale of the Kyoto protocol is to implement more hydrogen-rich fuels.

Yet atmospheric carbon dioxide is not the primary greenhouse gas. Generally speaking, astronomical observations in the infrared part of the spectrum require moving to a high enough altitude to escape the atmosphere's infrared opacity, which is primarily created by high concentrations of water vapor and, to an insignificant extent, by carbon dioxide. In fact, the United Nations framework convention on climate change identifies six greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydroflurocarbons, perflourocarbons, and sulphur hexaflouride) and, unlike water vapor, they are all trace gases in earth's atmosphere.

Nor are variations in greenhouse gas concentrations the primary cause of long-term global surface temperature fluctuations. Atmospheric trace gases represent one of several forcing mechanisms on climate that scientists are aware of. On the longest time-scales, tens to hundreds of millions of years, the distribution of continents determines extremes in global climatic conditions - from ice age to global drought. Shorter-scale fluctuations, with a roughly 90,000-year period, are due to variations in earth's orbital parameters, so-called Milankovitch Forcing. The next advance of the northern ice sheets will occur within a few thousand years. It is also believed that variations in solar luminosity, related to the 22-year solar magnetic cycle, directly affect earth's surface temperatures on time-scales, at least, of decades to centuries. It should be noted here that the sun drives the weather, though not necessarily the climate.

However, there are scientists who currently argue that the record of earth's surface temperature fluctuations appears to correlate better with measured variations in solar luminosity rather than with rising concentrations of anthropogenic carbon dioxide. Other forcing mechanisms include volcanic and tropospheric aerosols, which can affect cloud formation.

It remains unclear whether global surface temperatures are rising. Some experts claim that satellite-born measurements indicate that terrestrial surface temperatures are currently decreasing (though the most recent reporting of satellite-based observations suggests the opposite, at least for the upper troposphere). Those climatologists who argue against global warming cite the so-called island effect - temperatures are largely measured from stations located in growing urban settings. Cities retain heat and as they grow, the local temperatures rise.

The truth is, we don't have an adequate understanding of the physical system in question because we simply do not have a theory of climate. The observation that results of global circulation models vary so widely is the signature of our inadequate knowledge. A full understanding of climate goes well beyond the atmosphere alone, and should include the nonlinear interaction of the atmosphere, oceans, cryosphere, biosphere, astronomical factors, and so forth, and in ways that scientists do not yet fully appreciate. To my mind, this fact wholly disqualifies climate models as agents of social policy.

So, if anthropogenic carbon dioxide is responsible for possible global warming, will the Kyoto protocol adequately address this problem? No. The Kyoto protocol only involves compliance among the industrial nations, allowing other countries to follow our path. In the final analysis, the difference to the global anthropogenic carbon budget with and without the Kyoto protocol amounts to very little as the third world industrializes. On the face of it, the Kyoto protocol does not appear to be centered upon the environment, but rather on socio-economic issues, international politics, and other factors that I am not qualified to address.

Government and media agents have not fairly reported the debate. The general public is led to believe that anthropogenic-induced global warming is a fact. It is not. We hear of unanimous consent among scholarly members of the intergovernmental panel on climate change from the United Nations, yet this is untrue - the Heidelberg Appeal and the Leipzig Declaration are largely unknown to the public at large, for example.

There are a significant number of highly competent experts who have expressed skepticism on global warming, yet their doubts are not highly publicized. Let me be blunt, these views are not politically correct.
So please, do your own research and draw your own conclusions. Don't be influenced by anomalous local conditions, such as this summer's drought-like conditions over the majority of western North America and, in particular, here in British Columbia (opposite conditions prevailed in other portions of the continent and throughout the world).

Remember, there are relatively few facts in this complicated story. As for myself, it is clear that I am skeptical with regards to the official science of the matter. However, as director of research for an environmental corporation, I have elected to remain largely silent throughout this presentation.

Steven Pearce is a lecturer in the school of computing science.

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