There is a second inconvenient truth behind climate change, and this one is avoided by those advocating climate action.
This truth is the one behind why we can’t put the carbon from fossil fuels back into the air even though that carbon becoming CO2 emissions came from CO2 in the air.
I am by nature, a genuine sceptic. As opposed to a denier who is looking only for ways to justify their opposing viewpoint, I gave climate scientist the benefit of the doubt that there had to be reason we can’t just put the CO2 back where it came from, but I was not happy until I understood why not. I then still had two more hurdles of the 6 to clear before being fully comfortable with the climate narrative.
This information may help those who don’t want to just “trust” unless it makes sense solve three puzzles of climate and climate action.
Synopsis: The climate change story is poorly explained.
The first two hurdles to getting people to accept climate change are:
For these two, there is data, and although some people do argue, there is little that can be done to make people accept when it comes from very reputable sources.
It is the next step, accepting that humans putting CO2 into the air is the cause of temperatures rising where it gets complex.
A little knowledge can be dangerous. I suggest even anyone who understands enough of the science to know that the CO2 being put back by burning fossil fuels started out in the atmosphere, would struggle to accept climate science even if they are as motivated as Greta Thunberg, unless if they also understand this second inconvenient truth:
- Humans only can naturally exist during a brief phase of life keeping Earth habitable by reducing CO2.
It turns out the Sun has been gradually turning up the heat by a degree every few million years since the Earth began. and what has kept the temperature under control has been plants turning CO2 in the air into fossil fuels and offsetting the effect by reducing the greenhouse effect.
This is inconvenient because it is complex to explain, and because as we will soon have too little CO2 to keep reducing, it means our days are numbered even if we do still have several million years left.
When I first heard that CO2 produced by human activities was triggering dangerous climate change, my first reaction was “that just makes no sense!”. I may be against the use of use of fossil fuels and their dirty and polluting ways, but surely the carbon within fossil fuels came from the atmosphere. Aren’t we just putting the CO2 back where it came from?
Then you look at the data. The Earth has had way more CO2 in the atmosphere in the past. It turns out the Earth even supported more life back when CO2 levels were higher, and the total amount of life on Earth is slowly reducing from peak life over 500 million years ago due to falling CO2 levels.
OK, so the Earth cannot go back to CO2 levels of the past. Hurdle 3 cleared.
The next hurdle is accepting that temperatures rising by only just over 1°C means they would continue to rise as opposed to warm periods of the past which seem to have been survivable.
Even if it does go to 2°C or beyond, how could this be a disaster as far bigger temperature changes are seen all the time?
The last hurdle is accepting that it could be a disaster and urgent action is required, but it is OK to act by 2050?
Now, even as someone who accepts more of the narrative, I feel the whole process certainly needs a better PR campaign.
Researching led me to learn a lot, but I really wonder why this information on how the Sun and CO2 together control the climate is not made more widely available?
This page contains a look as why there is such scepticism, the steps required by a genuine sceptic to accept climate change, and how potential impact of climate change still remains vague.
In the end, while all the climate science is clear, exactly what the awaiting disaster will look like is still so unclear, that major governments seem still sceptical that warming must be stopped.
The Labels: Climate Polarisation and Extremism.
Climate Extremism: Believers vs Sceptics and Deniers.
The title could make this unpopular page, because the word ‘sceptic’ has become a euphemism. A euphemism for people who are not at all sceptical and have instead do not want to consider evidence.
We live in a world where social media and influence technology leverages and weaponizes confirmation bias, polarising people towards extremism, because that will get people spending more time on their web portals, and therefore increase their profits.
However, not all people who do not believe the climate change narrative are deniers. Here is my classification of the groups that have arisen with regard to climate change:
- Believers: There are people who, on first hearing about climate change were ready to accept it is real, even without clearing all the hurdles and understanding the details. At the extreme, some people in this group will simply deny anything that appears to contradict the climate change narrative.
- Some become believers need no convincing at all, others are convinced by compelling evidence for what I label as ‘step 1’ or ‘step 2’ and need no further convincing.
- Sceptics: People who do not fully believe what they do not understand. Sceptics can be dividing into:
- Those now convinced.
- Those still undecided, but on balance believing there is a man-made threat, but still harbouring doubts.
- Those who conclude the evidence is not clear, but if a person is really sceptic, then they are still open to being convinced.
- Deniers: There are also who have strong unwavering beliefs that man-made climate change cannot be real.
- This includes those who do not want to believe and will not process information that does not confirm their bias.
- Many in this group are outraged by what they see as a deliberate and malevolent ‘climate change is real’ misinformation campaign. They are outraged by what they see as the ‘climate change hoax’ being propagated by people with economic or social interests that are against the interests of the majority of the population.
There are also wide range of beliefs on what to do about climate change, from people who are:
- Ready to accept whatever action they are told is necessary.
- Highly sceptical that proposed steps can hald climate change.
- Convinced it is all a plot and nothing is required to avoid so called ‘climate change’
There are also many ‘believers’ who label all others as deniers and if you question anything proposed in the name of preventing climate change, they you may be labelled a denier. This is because believers are themselves often polarised in their views.
Believers may declare my adopting a sceptical view as heretic. But then I may also upset ‘deniers’ by saying sceptics are not people who reject valid evidence without good reason.
In the end there are just many types of people, and there are people on both sides of the argument who are very intolerant.
Sceptics vs Pretend Sceptics, and deniers in denial.
Anyone who believes their position is rational, and will stand scrutiny, should be open to hearing other opinions, even if only to satisfy themselves of the flaw(s) in alternative positions. Even those who are already convinced of climate change may find themselves learning some surprising new truths. So, I would use the label of ‘sceptics’ for people with unanswered questions, and the labels ‘deniers’ and ‘opponents’ for people who are rejecting valid answers to their questions, simply because the answers do not fit their views. Some go beyond deniers, and hold a moral stance, believing that ‘believers’ include those who are guilty of deliberate fraud.
In the spirit of scepticism, it is important to consider all points of view. There is a site sceptical science that concentrates of debunking myths, but often does not give links to sources of the alternative views independently scrutinising the other side. I am actually compiling links to web sites of positions I have considered, but do not agree with:
- Ice Age Now: Not by Fire, but by Ice.
- Right: Yes, contrary to much popular opinion, we are technically in an ice age. Wrong: Being technically in an ice age does not in any way imply it is about to get colder or mean that it would be fine if everything hotter.
Note the danger of some of these alternative views is that, as indicated above, they are often part right, part wrong.
In the world of fake news, who do you believe?
I saw an interview with Brian Cox where he pointed out that the scientists who study climate, are experts, and it makes no sense to simply form our own uninformed opinions. In this video, Brian gives the example of someone sitting on a plane who knows nothing about the engineering, forming their own opinion on how the wings should be designed differently. Another analogy is, that if we go to a doctor, and they diagnose a health problem, we don’t think “but my great Aunt Emma’s friend has another opinion!”. We trust the doctor. If we get a second opinion, it is from another doctor. So why not trust scientists in the same way? Both analogies sounded reasonable when I first heard them, but it is not so simple.
However, it is not quite that simple. Unlike the design of the airplane wing, or the visit to the doctor, with climate change we are often presented with two contrasting views, each presented by people proclaimed as experts. It is not easy to just ‘trust the experts’ when multiple people put themselves forward as the experts, and each express a different view. Further, with the plane or the doctors, there are other confirmations. we neither fly the proto-type plane, nor enter a trial for a new medical treatment, without safety checks first and even then there is supervision and checks in place. We don’t have a second Earth to experiment on first and verify the results before we try things here.
It may be that there is a fossil fuel lobby following in the footsteps of big tobacco, and paying millions sponsoring some of these conflicting opinions, but if the strategy is to cause confusion, then the strategy works. Many people are left trying to decide who are the real scientists, and who represent vested interests.
However, it turns out there is a lot of information that becomes irrefutable once investigated thoroughly.
The Obvious Questions vs The Highly Implausible Claims.
The Obvious Questions That Require Answers.
There are some obvious observations against those proposing urgent action is required to prevent catastrophic climate change, these include:
- CO2 levels are in parts per million, and are only a tiny fraction of the air, so how can the effect be significant?
- The ‘carbon’ in fossil fuels was all extracted from the air by plants, so aren’t humans are only putting the carbon back where it came from?
- CO2 in the air has been present at significantly higher levels in the past, why was there no problem back then?
- The Earth has had a relatively stable temperature, capable of adequately supporting life, for billions of years, how can that balance be disturbed simply?
In fact, modern plants have to go enormous lengths to get enough CO2, with their equivalent of lungs, their leaves, on the outside having a huge surface area. Clearly it would be better for plants if there was more CO2! Raising the CO2 levels, would help plants, and if in the process temperatures are raised by 1 or 2 degrees, how could that be a problem?
The Highly Implausible Claims, Requiring Some Convincing Evidence and Explanation.
The claims are:
- Just 1 or 2 hundred parts per million of CO2 added to the air can change the climate, when CO2 levels have clearly changed in the past.
- A temperatures change by a mere 1 or 2 degrees constitutes an ‘iceberg’ for our ship planet Earth, even though temperatures change by far more than 1 or 2 degrees every day!
Now we have air conditioning available, 1 or 2 degrees more heat should not be a problem!
The whole idea that more 1 or 2 hundred parts per million or CO2, and even 1 or 2 degrees of extra warmth is catastrophe, is ‘obviously’ an overreaction! That such changes are a problem, seems highly implausible.
Hurdles to clear before accepting climate change.
Overall, that ‘putting the CO2 back where it came from’ is a big reason accepting global warming is problematic form me. In fact, clearly only a small fraction of the CO2 will be returned to the atmosphere, and yet it seems the Earth will be worse off than when far more CO2 was in the air?
I have arranged a set of steps to answer the questions and test claims. I start with the basic steps that I see as easiest to verify, but the first two steps I see as just building blocks. The first big hurdle I see as step 3.
The hurdles are:
- Human activity is responsible for a ‘rapid’ increase atmospheric CO2 from 300 parts per million to 400 parts per million since 1950. (Not even one of my questions, but a necessary step),
- Global Temperatures have risen by over 1 degree Celsius, and this correlates to the rise in CO2 levels. (This answers my questions 1)
- Returning CO2 to the atmosphere can cause problematic temperatures, despite CO2 levels having been much higher in the past. (This answers my questions 3 and 4).
- The rise of global average temperatures of just 1 degree Celsius, which it is said is actually a result of rising CO2 levels, is a trend that will continue.
- A one, or even two, degree Celsius change in average temperatures, is unusual rather than something that happens all the time, and brings about significant changes to climate.
- Urgent action, such as bringing Earth to Carbon Neutrality by 2050, is justified, and can solve the problem.
Hurdle 1: There is a recent rapid Rise in CO2 levels.
I suggest the most surprising information here is how low actual levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are. I think may of us not familiar with the data would have guessed CO2 in the atmosphere to be at higher concentrations, especially given we know plants require CO2 in order to breathe. However, the data is the data, and there is no reason to doubt it even if the number are lower than a lay-person might expect. Only someone with their own data, or a conspiracy theorist, or a ‘denier’ would question the data, and even among climate ‘deniers’, there appears to be no dissent on the levels of CO2.
As for humans being responsible for the increase, it is very clear humans are pumping CO2 into the atmosphere.
This ‘step 1’ is not really open to scepticism, (although surprisingly I have found reports of such scepticism) as it is simply a measurement of data, combined with the undisputed fact that many human activities emit CO2. Fortunately, I have seen also seen little evidence of denial on this point either.
Hurdle 2: Global Temperatures have risen and can be linked to CO2 levels.
While the “denial” response tends to be “you are wrong, it was cold last week, so there is no global warming” the amount of warming claimed is so small that it would not impact daily weather reports.
I suggest that even to a sceptic, a temperate change of one or two degrees seems very believable. The only challenge is to demonstrate how such a change is a significant problem.
I also accept that anyone who disputes this temperature increase is clearly a ‘denier’ given the significance of the evidence for what, after all, is quite a small temperature change.
Further, as the graph to the right reveals, there is clearly a link between temperature and CO2. Correlation is not causation.
However, there is an no available explanation for rising temperatures to cause a rise in CO2 levels, and there is an explanation for how rising CO2 levels could cause temperatures to rise. In fact, there is effectively proof rising CO2 levels would cause temperatures to rise through the greenhouse effect.
There is no proof that are rising CO2 levels are the only cause. But without another explanation, given the strong correlation, it seems extremely likely they are a significant cause.
Hurdle 3: How can putting CO2 back into the air make it warmer than before?
Given the carbon in fossil fuels came from CO2 in atmosphere, why can’t it go back?
To me this was a critical point, and the one at which I first stumbled.
The answer to this question is missing from films like “an inconvenient truth”.
This may the step where many others are also lost, and those who remain supporting climate change tend to ‘believers’ who believe despite not being able to answer critical questions.
Where did the ‘Carbon’ in fossil fuel come from?
While there is a myth that fossil fuels come from dinosaurs when they recall came from plants, even the plants still had to get the carbon from somewhere. The pants got the carbon from photosynthesises:
CO2 + H20 + energy -> sugar + 02.
And where did the CO2 come from? The air!
Didn’t the atmosphere have even more CO2 in the past? Hasn’t it been warm before? Given there has been even way more CO2 in the past, why will it be a problem now? How big can the problem be if humanity is only returning CO2 was originally in the atmosphere, and putting it back to where it came from?
Is climate change just cyclic, and fear of higher greenhouse gasses is just anxiety?
Without an explanation as to why the CO2 can’t just go back to where it came from, it would seem it could all be a cycle.
The graph of CO2 levels above, courtesy of Nasa, shows that current levels of CO2 are now the highest for ‘millennia’. Levels are now suddenly 400 parts per million, despite levels being previously below 300 parts per million for ‘millennia’. But ‘millennia’ actually means ‘thousands of years’ and on a planet that is 4 billion years old, ‘thousands of years’ is far, far short of forever. Now logic, and sufficient science knowledge to get into trouble, tells me that Oxygen in the form of O2 did not even exist in the air until plants started photosynthesis, and all the Carbon in plants, originally came from CO2 in the air. So, all the CO2 in oil and coal, came originally from the air. So, there must have been far more CO2 in the air billions of years ago.
And when you check, you find there was more CO2 in the air in the past. Way more.
Clearly if the Earth could support life for billions of years with far higher CO2, then how could a mere 400 parts per million be so bad?
So why can’t CO2 levels go back to the levels of the dinosaur era?
A ‘sceptic’ seeks to resolve conflicts and look for answers instead of immediately declaring “climate science is all wrong”. So, I set out to look for answers with the approach “is there a reason we can’t go back?”
The conflict was resolved when I learnt that the Sun was originally only 70% of the current intensity. To compare temperature, you need to compare absolute temperature. A warm day of 20oC or 68oF is 293K. So, at 70% of absolute heat, it would be 205K which is -88oC or -126oF! In the past we needed way more CO2 to avoid freezing, but those levels from the distant past could be catastrophic today. When the Earth was younger, we needed greenhouse gasses at far higher levels than today to avoid a completely frozen Earth.
So yes, the CO2 did all come from the atmosphere, but no, it is not safe to put it back, because the Sun became much brighter in the interim. Turns out it does make sense that putting back that CO2 could be disastrous once you have the facts. However, the story of the sun getting hotter and CO2 falling is a key pre-requisite to understanding this step requires, and a huge, and usually missing, part of the climate story:
- The Sun keeps getting hotter and hotter.
- CO2 levels have been dropping for billions of years to compensate for the ever hotter sun.
- Unless CO2 levels can continue to slowly fall, we fry!
- We are running low of CO2 and will run out, but we around 25 million years yet.
- The life supporting climate on Earth is actually fragile, and maintained by a delicate balance.
Hurdle 4: Global average temperatures rising around of 2°C is a problem.
So, you accept CO2 levels rose and temperatures rose. You have resolved that in the big picture, the factors driving climate, CO2 and the Sun, are finely balanced, each move in one direction, and are not cyclic.
But is human activity really doing enough to create a problem?
A temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius. Most cities and towns experience at least 10 degrees Celsius variation every day. The sceptical response is more likely to be “just one (or even two) degree so what?”
Surely there have been changes of way over 2°C in the past? What about the Medieval warm period?
We have moved away from balance but is this a trend to move away from balance, or is it just a wobble? Temperatures have risen, but that alone does not prove that if CO2 levels rise further, temperatures will rise further. It is not proven that temperatures will keep rising. How can you prove the future?
Sometimes as things get hotter, even more is required to heat them further. Perhaps we have reached a limit?
However, climate predictions have now been running since the 1970s, and so far, predictions seem to have, if anything, been conservative. With predictions of temperature rises so far exceeding predictions, it is difficult to ignore predictions of further temperature rises.
It does follow that if predicting temperatures on the basis of rising CO2 levels has been successful so far, then if CO2 levels continue to rise, then temperatures will continue to rise.
If fact it seems unclear if current temperatures yet reflect increased CO2 levels. It seems possible that current CO2 levels would cause further warming, even without further CO2 emissions. While it is difficult to be certain with future predictions, it seems a very very high probability that if emissions continue to raise CO2 levels, temperatures will rise further.
Hurdle 5: Allowing the Trend to Continue, Will Result in “Disaster”.
Climate scientists have been sounding the alarm for years now, and consistently deadlines for action are missed, and the indicators of temperature increases has accelerated as the temperatures have been tracked further and further. But so far, the Earth keeps spinning and the wheels are not falling off.
Unless you fall at hurdles 1 or 2, you would agree there is this small increase in global CO2 and temperatures. I you accept hurdles 3 and 4, you agree that increasing CO2 further may be a problem and the trend is that problems are increasing. The question then becomes how big a problem it will become if things continue on the current path. The size of the problem determines what is justified as a response.
Revisiting the “didn’t the CO2 come from the atmosphere in the first place” brings back the “yes, but the Sun was dimmer then“. The Sun has never been this bright. We don’t have a precedent for having even current levels of CO2, together with the current brightness of the sun. I do keep hearing “the last time we has this level of CO2 was….” but information so far lacks any data on the change in the Sun over the time.
The next problem is: what is the measure of ‘disastrous’? You can measure CO2 levels, and even if deniers will not believe the stats, there is a quantitative number. You can measure global average temperature ranges. But there is no scale for ‘disastrous’.
Sea levels can rise. They have been as high as 70 metres higher in the past, and there is no evidence that the temperatures that resulted in the 70 metre rise were a disaster for the planet. Ok, it is different with a hotter Sun, and less CO2 than ever, but it does seem the Earth can survive warmer temperatures.
However, there is a compounding of problems:
- The Earth is overpopulated with humans.
- The impact of the number of humans has reduced other animal habitats and put pressure on other organisms battling for the their share of the finite resources: many species that may be necessary for a balanced environment are threatened.
- The change of temperature is noted to be unusually rapid in geological time frames, resulting in rapid changes to habitats.
- The percentage of land surface with forests is at a recent low.
But just what are the ‘disasters’? In seems somewhat vague. Sure, some humans will lose their land to rising sea levels, and given how crowded the planet is, that will be difficult, but it is not ‘survival of the planet’ level threatening. Other factors could be, but exactly how is not clear.
In the end, I am stuck at hurdle 5. I even do believe it could be disastrous, I just do not have a clear picture of what the ‘disaster’ will be.
Hurdle 6: Scientific understatement; It’s urgent, but Carbon Neutral by 2050, is OK.
Isn’t it an oxymoron that something is “urgent”, yet an outcome over 30 years in the future will be soon enough.
I watched a documentary on Bill Gates (inside Bill’s Brain, S1E2 just past 17 minutes) discussing request for funding on polio:
And I [Bill Gates] said, “I think you just asked for the most you thought you could ask for; you didn’t ask for what it is really going to take to have a high probability of success.”Bill Gates: Interview in ‘Inside Bill’s Brain‘ on the project to eradicate polio (S1E2 just past 17 minutes)
Was it a ‘white lie’ for the polio team to say needed only the amount they requested, without, admitting they really needed more? They did they tell themselves they only needed the smaller amount of money? Is it a white lie to just say, ‘if the globe does not reach Carbon Neutrality by 2050 the consequences will be dire”? Or is it that Carbon Neutrality by 2050 is seen as the most that it is felt can be asked for – even though it is clear that, if hurdle 5 on what is at risk is real, this 2050 is really too late goal is not enough?
I am sceptical here too, as I cannot see that Carbon neutrality by 2050 would be a solution. If your acceptance of climate change reaches level 5 and belief that continued emissions will create in a real disaster, then current response would be woefully inadequate. It seems most people are stumbling at level 5, so that is as far as they support their government. Not necessarily because they don’t believe there will be a ‘disaster’ if we do not act, they are just unclear on what that disaster looks like.
My Sceptic status: It has evolved.
Original position 2010: Stuck at the 3rd hurdle.
Perhaps it is that I had other things happening in life at the time, but also perhaps it was how the story was told, but when I first heard the story, I simply did not get past that 3rd hurdle.
After seeing “an inconvenient truth” a key piece of the puzzle was missing.
2019: Like Most Governments, between Hurdle 3 and 5.
I am no longer a ‘hurdle 3’ sceptic, as having found the explanation to my question. To me it now makes sense that putting CO2 that was previously in the atmosphere, back into the atmosphere, is no longer feasible. Further, I am now aware of an entirely new aspect to the threat: as time goes by, keeping the Earth from overheating becomes an increasing challenge.
However, I had to look to get an understanding that took me past hurdle 3.
However, while hurdle 4 makes sense, it is difficult to prove. The balance of probability on very high on the side of the point that if we keep emitting it will keep getting hotter. I can’t prove, and as it is possible that some response to rise temperature will reverse the process.
As for hurdle 5, that the result of inaction will be disaster, I can’t be sure, and nor do I have a clear picture of this ‘disaster’, but I do not think we can afford the risk.
But will the result be a disaster? That also applies for hurdle 5.
But hurdle 6?
How can you reconcile a plea for ‘Carbon Neutrality’ by 2050 with a report that between 200 million and 1 billion people will already be displaced by 2050?
Clearly, either the response being requested is so well below what is actually needed as to effectively be “please re-arrange the deck chairs on this Titanic”, or those requesting that response, are also even more sceptical about how the seriousness of problem than I am.
Conclusion: Lack of action suggests decision makers are still sceptics.
Either things are not seen as being as bad as suggested, or the action called for and agreed at COP summits is totally inadequate. One or the other.
It almost seems that the only citizen of a high-profile country to take reports of the impact of climate change seriously, is a teenager in Scandinavia.
The current international suggested plans to clear ‘hurdle 6’, invite a huge amount of scepticism, or lack of conviction on hurdle 5.
It would be interesting to know what people reading this consider the possible impact of climate change to be, even in the seemingly unlikely event the globe does reach Carbon Neutrality by 2050.
Is it fair to say if many of us were not still sceptical, we would be putting more focus on the problem? I am reminded of a situation years ago when I heard an elderly lady explaining to a young child how a dog had died. “He has gone to a better place”, the lady declared in an extremely sad voice. The child asked, “If he has gone to a better place, why are you so sad?”. There was no answer, which suggests that story of the better place for dogs was not necessarily believed by the person telling the story.
I wonder how many of us need to put more efforts into resolving our doubts. Should we be more concerned or is it really just an unlikely risk.