Tag Archives: Al Gore

Climate science’s vaporous certainties

Ooops! Are my windmills suddenly blowing hot air?

Ooops! Are my windmills suddenly blowing hot air?

 

Mother Nature abhors a pigeon hole. Just when we think we’ve labelled and tagged her and put her to bed for the night, she flies the coop, leaving us with the uneasy feeling that when it comes to the vagaries of creation we don’t actually know as much as we thought we did.

That proposition must be dawning in the minds of several scientists these days as they prepare to receive the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) fifth report on global warming. Conventional wisdom would expect the document to confirm the inexorable, upward rise of global temperature as a result, in large part, to manmade sources of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Conventional wisdom would be wrong.

Instead, according to information leaked to the world’s media, the report will likely observe that the planet’s average surface temperature has held pretty much steadily since the turn of the century and that increases in the near-to-medium-term will probably not be as dramatic as was once predicted back in 2007, when Al Gore and co. snagged a Nobel Peace Prize for playing the environment’s Cassandra.

It is, to say the least, an inconvenient truth. Or, as IPCC member Shang-Ping Xie, a California-based oceanographer, told the Los Angeles Times last week, “It’s contentious. The stakes have been raised by various people, especially the skeptics.”

So, what went wrong? The broad consensus is: Nobody knows.

Some criticize the IPCC for its bloody-minded swagger over the past several years. Judith Curry, a Georgia Institute of Technology climatologist – who was herself a panel assessor – told the LA Times, “All other things being equal, adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere will have a warming effect on the planet. However, all things are never equal, and what we are seeing is natural climate variability dominating over human impact.”

Others insist that anthropogenic warming is still extant. It’s just on vacation. Meanwhile, researchers, including Xie, are floating a theory that the Pacific Ocean – the world’s largest body of water – has been sucking the heat out of the atmosphere and storing it presumably until such time as it belches it back out.

Evidence for this phenomenon apparently shows up in average sea levels, which are continuing to rise. Quoting one climate scientist, the LA Times writes that this proves  “that greenhouse gases are continuing to heat the planet. . .(because). . .as ocean water warms, it expands and drives sea levels higher.”

Still, if we can’t reliably predict how the climate will behave, we have no such difficulty anticipating the opprobrium among the world’s chattering skeptics. A virtual tidal wave of “I-told-you-so” now threatens to drown what remains of the science.

“Too many people have too much invested in perpetuating this fiction,” Cal Thomas of the Tribune Content Agency writes, without actually commenting on the latest IPCC report. “Billions of dollars and other currencies have been diverted into ‘green’ projects in a Chicken Little attempt to stop the sky from falling. The BBC reports it as fact in virtually every story it does on the environment. Ditto the American media. Most media ignore evidence that counters climate change proponents.

“Former Vice President Al Gore has made a personal fortune promoting the cult of global warming, a cult being partially defined as a belief system that ignores proof contrary to its beliefs. Perhaps the climate change counter-revolutionaries should adopt the yo-yo as their symbol and send Gore and his apostles a box of them.”

The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente comments more circumspectly: “When it comes to the intricacies of climate change, the science is notoriously unsettled. the only consensus that exists is the well-established fact that human activity is contributing to global warming. Beyond that, it’s all hypothesis and speculation.”

What’s more, there’s now less certainty in research circles about the deleterious effects of climate change. Some experts (though, not many) are beginning to suggest that slightly milder temperatures might actually benefit societies, especially those north of the equator.

Again, though, who’s to say?

About the only certain comfort the world’s climatologists can take from all of this is that the renewed uncertainty about the weather is not born of inexpert opinion.

They, the scientists themselves, observe nature’s fickle response to the incontrovertible facts they thought they knew.

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Are Canada’s oil sands on shaky ground?

The tar sands may be moot in moments, people!

The tar sands may be moot in moments, people!

There he went again, raining all over Canada’s petroleum parade with the sort of gusto one expects from a former American vice president, nobel laureate and, arguably, the planet’s leading climate-change critic.

Al Gore thinks the nation to the north of him has lost its way and in an interview published in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, he pulled no punches. “The resource curse has multiple dimensions,” he said, “and [that includes] damage to some extremely beautiful landscapes, not to mention the core issue of adding to the reckless spewing of pollution into the Earth’s atmosphere as if it’s an open sewer.”

To which Canada’s Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver shot back (again, in an interview with the Globe), “Well, he’s off the mark. . .[Those were] wildly inaccurate and exaggerated comments.”

This is not the first time the two gentlemen have sparred over Alberta’s oil sands, which occupy a tract of land about the size of England (though only a fraction of this is actually under development) and which can be seen from space. And it won’t be the last. As the glittering example all that’s wrong with our greedy, self-destructive, fossil-fuel-addicted society, this bitumen-producing region is, for environmentalists, simply too sexy to resist.

Still, though they continue to provoke discussion, there is some indication that their battles over the production of synthetic crude are becoming less relevant to the global energy debate, which is moving in increasingly new and intriguing directions.

British Columbia’s Liberal Leader Christy Clark, who is campaigning for a second term as the province’s premier, touched on this the other day when she told the Globe’s editorial board, “The pipelines that are of most interest to British Columbians are liquefied natural gas,” she said. “That’s something we can do and we don’t need the federal government and we don’t need Alberta.”

It’s the sort of statement that comes with the electioneering territory. But at least one decidedly sober source openly wonders whether our conventional attitudes and assumptions about petroleum products deserve a makeover.

One such assumption is that the world is running out of commercially exploitable reserves, a condition that makes the still plentiful Alberta fields crucially important. But, as Charles C. Mann notes in the Atlantic magazine’s cover story this month, “Even as companies drain off the easy oil, innovation keeps pushing down the cost of getting the rest. From this vantage, the race between declining oil and advancing technology determines the size of a reserve – not the number of hydrocarbon molecules.”

Mr. Mann says, “This perspective has a corollary: natural resources cannot be used up. If one deposit gets too expensive to drill, social scientists (most of them economists) say, people will either find cheaper deposits or shift to a different energy source altogether. Because the costliest stuff is left in the ground, there will always be petroleum to mine later. ‘When will the world’s supply of oil be exhausted?’ asked the MIT economist Morris Adelman, perhaps the most important exponent of this view. ‘The best one-word answer: never.’ Effectively, energy supplies are infinite.”

The article’s author does not endorse this argument; he merely raises it by way of explaining that technology is transforming our notions of what is and is not exploitable   – just as it once did in Alberta. Now, shale gas from hydraulic fracturing is flooding the North American marketplace, promising to do the once unthinkable: make the United States energy self-sufficient in less than 20 years.

And, on the horizon, is another, even more promising, fossil fuel source awaiting the steady march of innovation to set it free. “In the 1970s, geologists discovered crystalline natural gas – methane hydrate, in the jargon – beneath the seafloor,” Mr. Mann explains. “Stored mostly in broad, shallow layers on continental margins, methane hydrate exists in immense quantities; by some estimates, it is twice as abundant as all other fossil fuels combined.”

It’s also much cleaner and, therefore, potentially less costly (environmentally and financially) to produce.

But if all this sounds like so much science fiction, it’s worth remembering that’s what the experts once said about shale gas and, yes, Alberta’s oil sands when technology was still in its infancy.

The future is about to give bitumen a run for its money.

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