Our modern technological civilization was born out of fossil fuels. Coal. Oil. Natural gas. To this very day most of our industry, transportation and agriculture is still powered by these incredibly dense, portable, storable sources of energy. There is a fly in the ointment though: the burning of these ancient accumulations of carbon comes with releasing a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere. So far so good, however, I still regularly stumble upon commentators (and commenters) who question whether all this burning of fossil fuels is the cause of climate change (if it is changing at all). According to some this is a recent “woke” theory emerging from backroom discussions of the World Economic Forum, in order to make us all obedient and to deprive hard working people of the great gift of fossil energy. Well, let’s have a look at the history of the topic, to see if it’s based on actual measurement data and science in its classical sense or its indeed just a recent scare. Who knows, we might even gain some insight into some of the conspiracy theories while we’re at it.
Up until the late 1980's the state of our climate didn’t seemed to be too much of a concern. One could even believe that we were headed towards another ice age without being labelled a climate change denier. Fossil fuels were deemed to be a universal good and very few thought that their use could put an end to human history. This state of blissful ignorance didn’t mean that there were no ominous warnings given beforehand. After all who could recall all the scientific studies made a hundred years earlier…?
Meet Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius (1859–1927) who first went into the matter of past climate changes and possible future ones. Although he didn’t became as famous as James Watt or Albert Einstein, he was no fringe scientist either. He was an elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and got involved in setting up the Nobel Institutes and the Nobel Prizes. As part of his ground breaking work in the then novel field of physical chemistry he used infrared observations of the Moon to calculate how much of infrared (heat) radiation is captured by CO2 and water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere. This was quite a remarkable achievement back in 1896, when steam locomotives were all the hype and no one even dreamed about using supercomputers to calculate future emission scenarios. Nonetheless, by using actual measurement data and a solid understanding of physics, he has calculated that a doubling of the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would lead to a 5 °C temperature rise — using a formulation still in use today (remember this number, it will be important later).
At this point — already at the end of the 19th century — we had solid verifiable evidence for the existence and the cause of the greenhouse effect. As solid as our understanding of evolution or the force of gravity. One could assume, that if we were rational species interested in our long term survival, we could’ve revised our approach to industry and energy consumption back then — just like we did with regards to creation and life. But we didn’t. Coal was just too important for the rise of industrial powers and their wealthy ruling class. So, Arrhenius’ study was memory holed and business as usual went on unabated. Even Arrhenius has convinced himself that a little warming could not harm anyone, and a growing population would benefit from global warming (as opposed to another ice age). Note, how all this has happened a hundred and twenty-seven years ago, when there were no renewables lobby, or green agenda to speak of (let alone a World Economic Forum). It was just pure science carried out properly, pointing to some obvious, but rather inconvenient conclusions on the long run.
Then, some 80 years later in 1982 another group of scientists, this time sponsored and paid for by the oil company Exxon, have embarked on a journey to measure weather human activities indeed raise CO2 levels, and if yes, how much warming would this increase bring about. Much to the frustration of their donors, they have found the same thing: human activity has increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere already and now this has started to cause global warming. Adding insult to injury they even attached a chart showing how much more warming can be expected in the coming decades should business as usual continue. Note, how their lives could have been much more easier if they had found evidence to the contrary and could signal to their management that all was fine, and that business as usual could go on forever.
Needless to say, after a short emergency meeting held by big oil CEOs, these findings (too) were buried deep into the archives, and all subsequent studies were denied of any further founding. Money instead was channeled to fund a grand PR campaign to improve the image of these companies and to sow doubt that climate change even exists. Again, there were no green agenda or renewables lobby to speak of: just pure, measurement based science versus vested interests.
After another few years of exuberance powered by fossil fuels the proverbial has finally hit the fan. In 1988, on a senate hearing discussing global warming and the greenhouse effect, scientists lead by Dr. James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, have came up with similar conclusions after reviewing satellite measurement data (they didn’t knew about the Exxon study back then):
- The Earth is warmer than at any other time in recent history.
- This global warming can be attributed, with 99% certainty, to a man-made increase in the greenhouse effect, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels and changes in the way we use land.
- This greenhouse effect is making extreme weather events like heat waves, storms, and droughts more frequent and intense.
After a mere century (since the first evidence based findings from Arrhenius saw the light of day), it seemed, we have finally begun to understand what we are doing to our home planet. Bureaucracies kicked into action, a series of global climate meetings were held, coming up with all sorts of protocols and vague language about the uncertainty of the origin of climate change (thanks to big oil, who knew it all along). Meanwhile emissions and CO2 concentrations kept rising along with global temperatures, unabated. Just as predicted.
Even at this point, after countless independent studies made on the subject, there are still claims that there is no global warming at all. And even if there is such a thing, it is surely caused by perfectly natural phenomena and has absolutely zero, nil, zilch, nada to do with human activities. Especially not with the burning of fossil fuels. ‘No, releasing twice as much carbon dioxide than the weight of all things living on the planet (responsible to uphold a delicate balance) can surely have no harmful side effects. Caribbean cruise tickets anyone?’
Seriously, if 127 years of actual measurement based evidence can’t put this question to rest, then really nothing can. ‘OK then, fossil fuels might cause global warming, but there is really nothing to worry about. It is neither going to be that fast, nor will it be that severe.’ Well, let’s review the latest measurement based evidence and see some actual data (I highly recommend opening that link and reviewing the charts presented there – they are quite revealing). Here are some excerpts:
Global temperature in June and July (Fig. 1) shot far above the prior records for those months for the 140 years of good instrumental data. Early indications are that warming exceeds expectation based on only the long-term trend due to increasing greenhouse gases (GHGs) plus the emerging El Nino. Three additional mechanisms will have a near-term effect, with a result that the 12-month mean global temperature likely will pierce the 1.5°C warming level before this time next year.
Say what? 1.5 C will be surpassed this year?! I’m old enough to remember utterances from the „alarmist” IPCC that this is what awaits us by the end of this century if we don’t take action immediately. OK, it was just ten or so years ago, but still… I can recall urgent warnings from just a few years back that 1.5 °C is looming close, but if we take immediate action we can stay below that. Obviously, these calls were wholly out of sync with reality:
[Political leaders at the United Nations COP (Conference of the Parties) meetings give the impression that progress is being made and it is still feasible to limit global warming to as little as 1.5°C. That is pure, unadulterated, hogwash, as exposed by minimal understanding of Fig. 6 here and Fig. 27 in reference 6.
What you can read from the chart above is no good news. The actual measured energy imbalance (the extra heat trapped by CO2 based on infrared readings from satellites) is growing at an accelerated rate. Today it is in the process of exceeding 2 W/m2. For every single square meter of planet Earth. That is a thousand Terawatts or 1 000 000 000 000 kilowatts. That is orders of magnitude more than any increase due to solar or volcanic activity. It’s like turning on an electric oven; if you add more and more power (measured also in Watts), there is only one thing you can get: more heat. It is that simple. And then finally here is this:
The recent revelation (Global warming in the pipeline) from paleoclimate data that equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) is 4.8°C ± 1.2°C for 2×CO2
Let me translate this into plain English: if we manage to double CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere (compared to what we had before we embarked on this great journey towards industrial utopia) global average temperatures will rise by 5 °C. At least. Remember what Arrhenius has calculated for the climate’s CO2 sensitivity based on his measurements and understanding of physics and chemistry more than 120 years ago? Yes, exactly that: 5 °C. So much for “alarmism”. We have went full circle, going in and out of denial, conservative estimates, complex models provided by supercomputers, satellite measurements, and yet have arrived at the same value now supported by a ton of further measurement evidence. Wouldn’t it have been much easier to accept the original findings and not to create this hot mess to actually prove that Arrhenius was right?
And here is the big dilemma. We can’t just give up on fossil fuel use. We still derive 82% of our primary energy from them — just like 50 years ago — for a million reasons. All of our technology, including mining, agriculture, renewables and electric vehicles, depend hopelessly on an unabated use of fossil fuels. Long distance transport, the smelting and melting of metals and glass, mining ores, making concrete and asphalt can only be done at scale by burning vast amounts of ancient carbon. This is why CO2 emissions are just keep rising and rising — hitting a record high of 34.4 billion metric tons last year — “despite” an unprecedented increase in wind and solar output. Meanwhile the steady depletion of rich mining and drilling sites and their replacement with ever poorer ones, not to mention mitigating the effects of climate change will require more and more energy — and not less — thus an increase in emissions is all but guaranteed. At least until the point where we become simply overwhelmed by problems (including resource depletion) and the whole ordeal comes down into a pile of mess.
If there is a conspiracy behind all the green agenda, it’s there to pretend that we can solve our predicament of becoming fully reliant on finite stocks of fossil fuels and raw materials; ending up in overshoot under a rapidly deteriorating climate as a result. Such predicaments, though, have outcomes only, like the 5 °C of warming already baked in (up to 10 °C considering all feedback loops). With this amount of carbon already in the atmosphere this has become inevitable, a scientific fact if you like, which you can deny, but cannot alter. Governments all around the world will thus most likely use this long emergency to further centralize their power, censor dissent, and get rid of whom they don’t like. Since not even the mightiest ruling caste can solve predicaments, all this will achieve is that the poor folks will go down first, while the wealthy will keep migrating to places with a more pleasant climate, until even the richest run out of places to go or people and resources to exploit.
Until next time,