Well, this is more like it. This appears to be the kind of hard data so sorely lacking in the debate over whether or not man is making a significant impact on levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere:
Researchers have recovered a nearly two-mile-long cylinder of ice from eastern Antarctica that contains a record of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane—two potent and ubiquitous greenhouse gases—spanning the last two glacial periods. Analysis of this core shows that current atmospheric concentrations of CO2—380 parts per million (PPM)—are 27 percent higher than the highest levels found in the last 650,000 years.
Evidently, the levels of CO2 have remained remarkably stable in Antarctica during this period – so much so that the spike generated by what one can only conclude as human activity over the last 100 years sticks out like a sore thumb.
I found this nugget of information about methane levels equally interesting:
This record also seems to show that the rise in methane levels in the last 10,000 years—thought by some to be a result of human agriculture—could simply be the result of natural variability in the decomposition of plants in boreal forests and wetlands.
Domesticated livestock as an agent for rising methane levels has been a cornerstone for many models involving dramatic warming scenarios. The apparent disconnect between human activity and rising methane levels doesn’t necessarily discredit the science in those models but it does obviate the political choice of committing economic suicide in order to avoid catastrophe.
So one part of the global warming debate could be settled; man has indeed had a significant impact on levels of CO2 in the atmosphere – if in fact the data holds up to scrutiny. If it does, the obvious follow up question is what exactly that means when we talk about earth’s changing climate.
The sad fact is that modeling climate based on CO2 in the atmosphere is a guessing game at this point. Here’s Iain Murray:
But the more we learn about the climate, the more it is clear that our knowledge is just scratching the surface. The National Research Council, for instance, last year issued a complex but fascinating report that spelled out that we know very little about the various “forcings” on our climate system beyond the effect of greenhouse gases. It also pointed out that the global temperature metric may not be the best signal as to what is going on with the climate. If the scientific discovery process can be likened to a police investigation, then focusing policy attention on greenhouse gases is akin to finding a murder victim in a house with a broken window and picking up a usual suspect whose modus operandi involves breaking windows. Unwise though it may seem to those who are convinced they’ve got the right man, much more investigation is needed.
Indeed, I’ve had many an argument with Kyoto proponents who say something along the line that “it’s common sense” that human activity has generated increased levels of CO2. Don’t give me common sense – show me the science! Now that there is some hard scientific data, policy makers have some decisions to make.
Will this revive the apparently moribund Kyoto agreement? Not hardly. Even Tony Blair knows that Kyoto is a dead issue:
We also have to recognise that while the Kyoto Protocol takes us in the right direction, it is not enough. We need to cut greenhouse gas emissions radically but Kyoto doesn’t even stabilise them. It won’t work as intended, either, unless the US is part of it. It’s easy to take frustrations out on the Bush Administration but people forget that the Senate voted 95-0 against Kyoto when Bill Clinton was in the White House.
We have to understand as well that, even if the US did sign up to Kyoto, it wouldn’t affect the huge growth in energy consumption we will see in India and China. China is building close to a new power station every week. They need economic growth to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty but want to grow sustainably. We have to find a way, as a start, to help them.
In fact, they may be burying the rotting carcass of Kyoto in Canada as we speak:
The United Nations conference that began yesterday in Montreal and will stretch on for nearly two weeks will fail in its aim: to devise a successor to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.
That does not matter; in fact, it is the best outcome. Kyoto has been an extraordinary piece of work. A treaty that its most important signatories have found impossible to meet, and which has changed behaviour very little, has still become a resonant global symbol.
The best way forward now is not a “successor” to Kyoto, which covers the years until 2012. Another treaty that attempted to set fixed targets for cutting emissions could be economically very damaging â€” in the unlikely event that countries ever reached agreement.
Hat tip to Clive Davis who also points to this little tidbit of information regarding emission levels of non-signatories to Kyoto:
Although the US and Australia have pulled out of the Kyoto process, their emissions have risen less than some nations which remain within the treaty.
If Kyoto is dead but at the same time there is a body of solid scientific evidence that CO2 levels are rising to historic levels, what is to be done? The article by Mr. Murray that is linked above details what Mr. Blair is doing:
It is clear, therefore, that new thinking is necessary to solve this seemingly intractable problem. The old nostrums of targets and timetables must give way. Tony Blair has therefore asked Sir Nicholas Stern, head of the Government Economic Service, to conduct a review of the economics of climate change, specifically:
- The implications for energy demand and emissions of the prospects for economic growth over the coming decades, including the composition and energy intensity of growth in developed and developing countries;
- The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change in both developed and developing countries, taking into account the risks of increased climate volatility and major irreversible impacts, and the climatic interaction with other air pollutants, as well as possible actions to adapt to the changing climate and the costs associated with them;
The key here is trying to uncouple rising energy use and economic growth. Is such a thing possible? It has been an article of faith that there is a direct correlation between the two and that you can’t have growth without a concomitant rise in energy usage. Realistically, only a pitifully small amount of that energy can be in the form of renewable sources like solar or aeration (wind) devices. The reason is that inefficiency of both resources. Unless we are willing to launch a massive solar collecting satellite into space, the best we can hope for here on earth is to garner about 5% of the 3% of the sun’s energy that reaches earth’s surface. And generating energy via wind power is equally problematic given the vagaries of the wind in most places on the planet.
Other renewables like geo-thermal or wave technologies are also dependent on location. Only nuclear energy holds the promise of reducing fossil fuel emissions significantly. But nuclear power presents its own set of political and technological problems that for the foreseeable future, takes that controversial energy source off the table.
That leaves fossil fuels and the problem of CO2 emissions. We can burn them cleaner but at what cost economically? And in the end, is there anything we can do that would make a difference?
The jury is still out on many of these questions. But the realization that we are indeed having an impact on the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is a significant step in our understanding of the forces at work in shaping our future climate.