Christmas Quiz

Merry Christmas to all my readers, and even more to my writers. Here is a festive image, tastefully coloured in by me.


And now for the quiz. In the spirit of “5 advances in climate science” I ask for the 5 best mistakes in sci-fi novels of the past year. To get the ball rolling with a low bar (and mix some metaphors in the process) I’ll offer the polar orbiters in Anathem. Things like di-lithium crystals don’t exist don’t count, of course. It has to be something plausible and interesting thats wrong.

[Oh well, that didn’t work. Never mind… -W]

Its a bit thin, isn’t it?

Nurture offers us …how far our understanding of climate change has come in the past twelve months. But its a bit thin, especially for just a pick of the top five; there are of course others we could have mentioned.

5. is “skeptics are still out there” – which has nothing to do with the science. 4 is “The hockey stick holds up” – true, but hardly a major advance in understanding. 2 (I’ll get back to 3) is “Arctic summer sea ice is in rapid decline” which I consider dubious (and I’ve offered to put money on, if anyone thinks rapid decline in 2009 is a sure thing, come on if you think you’re hard enough). Either way, I don’t think the observations of the past 2 years represent a highlight of our *understanding* of the climate system. 1 is “Other greenhouse gases are also worrying” which is not very interesting, especially as it leads with NF3.

Which brings me back to #3: “Warming is already having an impact”: this is an area in which I have precious little experience; potentially it is a matter of major importance. Perhaps its significant that the only one of Natures 5 that I don’t dismiss as twaddle is not-physical-climatology at all.

Did you hear that Pope on the radio this morning? No, neither did I, since he talked in either latin or italian and I speak neither, but from the talking heads I gather he was winding people up on the traditional catholic obsession with naughty bits, again.

Update: being constructive, it would be better to think what the Stoat Top Five should be. Over christmas I shall make some attempt to review 2008; in the meantime, feel free to send in your nominations for up to five climate-science advances of 2008, with the emphasis on WGI type stuff.

The Venus Syndrome

Hansen again. He seems to have got bored with saying climate sensitivity is 6 oC, and now agrees with JA that its 3 oC. Hurrah. Less excitingly, his estimate for all-ice-sheet melt on 2-3 x CO2 is now “it would take some time”, which has the virtue of vagueness.

But far more excitingly, he is now pushing the idea that Earth could be heading towards a Venus type runaway greenhouse effect, apparently with added forcing as small as 10-20 W/m2. (over present day or over pre-industrial? What CO2 level would that be? Not sure, but In my opinion, if we burn all the coal, there is a good chance that we will initiate the runaway greenhouse effect. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale (a.k.a. oil shale), I think it is a dead certainty. Perhaps we are expected to guess what Hansens estimate of total coal reserves is). Sadly he seems to have omitted the reference to the paper where the fine details have been published, but I’m sure that just a matter of time. I’m sure I can leave the likes of JA and RMG to rip the fine details to shreds.

As an encore, he has yet another go at defining tipping points. There are where Climate forcing (greenhouse gas amount) reaches a point such that no additional forcing is required for large climate change and impacts. Try to play that around D-O events (removing the unreasable restriction that forcing has to be from GHG amount).

There are some tantalising headlines about intergenerational equity, but no substance.

The problem of definitions defines “abrupt climate change” as:

A large-scale change in the climate system that takes place over a few decades or less, persists (or is anticipated to persist) for at least a few decades, and causes substantial disruptions in human and natural systems.

apparently oblivious to the problem that they have just declared that no abrupt climate changes occurred pre-humans. Indeed they have just declared that the D-O cycles are not known to be abrupt changes, since we don’t know that they caused any substantial disruption to humans.

Bit of a shame, since I’m sure they *mean* well.

Perl would be Voodoo

Perl would be Voodoo – An incomprehensible series of arcane incantations that involve the blood of goats and permanently corrupt your soul. Often used when your boss requires you to do an urgent task at 21:00 on friday night. From If programming languages were religions…, via mt’s shared list.

The comments add Fortran and Assembler. I do C nowadays. Matlab and IDL don’t get a look in.


I have a twitter feed, Quite what its for, I’m not sure. Maybe it will turn out to be useful. Maybe I can embed it into my blog or something. Did I mention that I have a pointless facebook page? Oh look, facebook has a twitter app. It doesn’t tell me what it does, and I can’t work it out even after adding it, call me a grumpy old technophobe 😦

[Update: more adventures in web2.0 land, in which I’m lost. Thanks to Paul, I worked out how to get my twitter feed onto facebook (somewhat unimpressed to discover that I can only import one feed, so I can’t import the blog and twitter, but then if you want to read the blog, errm, you can do that via google reader). Still not sure what use it is, beyond repeating J’s bon mots, lightly sanitised.]

Stuck in the middle with… who?

I’ve already used Clowns to the left of me…. And then I run across an opinion article in today’s Guardian: “Let’s Get Real on the Environment.” by David Appell nicely counterbalanced by Yes. We Can.. Oh dear oh dear.

To begin with the obligatory snarking, anyone with young children in the UK will instantly recognise “Yes we can” as the irritatingly cheerful cleft-free Bob the Builder and his army of health-and-safety violating machines (Nah then nah then sir. Did you let that digger drive around by itself? Please come down to the station with me sir…). In Tamino-world, it means the equally unrealistic Suppose we institute a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, force U.S. carmakers to double fuel efficiency within a decade as a condition on any financial bailout, invest billions (not paltry millions) in new solar and wind power generation, invest billions (not paltry millions) in energy storage technology research. Suppose we institute a carbon tax, and not a wimpy “token” tax, but a heavy, extremely painful one. Suppose…

Until something really serious happens, climate-wise (or until something that most people take to be serious, climate-wise, like a few more big hurricanes happening to hit major US cities and causing massive damage) the US is *not* going to impose extremely painful climate taxes. For the obvious reasons. Some of his other stuff I consider unrealistic for other reasons: we could easily invest billions in wind turbines and not solve our problems; it needs more than that. And I don’t find We keep approaching closer and closer to dangerous “tipping points” in climate change, like the release of tremendous amounts of CO2 and methane due to melting permafrost, significant albedo change due to ice loss, even CO2 increase due to warming of the oceans. convincing. Its all too impatient: give us a disaster now that we can believe in! Huge tax hikes now! It won’t happen.

Which brings us on to… the other side. David Appell says:

But most of all, let’s open our eyes and begin to be honest. You will fly to Jamaica this winter instead of cutting your greenhouse gases. Fine. Can we please accept this and begin to move on? But I won’t. I’m going to stay at my mothers house, and with my parents in law (and will enjoy it, before I get any snarky comments). Very few people I know will fly away for christmas – but perhaps David Appell swims with a different set to me. There is no crisis that will change our minds – not heat waves in France, not Katrina, not the disappearance of Arctic ice up north. We want what we want, and our species is lousy at planning for the future. Again, I disagree. Some crises might change our minds, though its not easy to see what might do so in good time. Even the world’s climate organisers do not hesitate to fly thousands of miles to Poland and live high on the hog. This is true, but irrelevant: the implicit assumption – that the Poznam people care particularly about climate change – is quite unwarranted. Most of them are career talkers / negotiators / diplomats. Going to such events, and more humble versions thereof, is what they have honed themselves for, built their careers around. Why should anyone expect them to do otherwise?

Tamino is too impatient, Appell to far in despair, and neither is a very useful attitude.

Don’t tell Hansen

Because Kevin Anderson says that it is “improbable” that levels could now be restricted to 650 parts per million (ppm). Which blows Hansens target 350 out of the water. Not that it requires a luminary of KA standing to do that. Quite why the grauniad is using breathless climate-snuff-porn prose to report the bleedin’ obvious I don’t know – perhaps it really is true that people read the papers for titillation rather than news. Those with appropriate access can read what looks to be like the source paper (which begins with something I’ve been saying for a while, but he gets to say it in a nice academic place and dressed in nice academic prose: In the absence of global agreement on a metric for delineating dangerous from acceptable climate change, 2oC has, almost by default, emerged as the principal focus of international and national policy.).

But the reason for writing this is not to lay into Hansen, but to lay into Anderson (or at least the Anderson reported by the grauniad – I didn’t hear his talk and for all I know he didn’t say the nonsense they attribute to him. But I fear otherwise). Despite the political rhetoric, the scientific warnings, the media headlines and the corporate promises, he would say, carbon emissions were soaring way out of control – far above even the bleak scenarios considered by last year’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Stern review. The battle against dangerous climate change had been lost, and the world needed to prepare for things to get very, very bad. is just wrong. As they note lower down, atmospheric CO2 is increasing at somewhere between 2-3 ppm/y, at a level of 380, which is to say well below 1%/y, which is the basic scenario that many climate models are fed with (more old stuff refers).

Someone must know where there is a pic comparing current CO2 levels against SRES starting in 1990 or somesuch (there is one in IPCC ’92 fix Ax.4 but the scale is so small you can’t tell anything useful from it… by eye, its says 2008 CO2 under is92a will be about 400 ppm).

Or perhaps we care about emission more than actual CO2 levels?

Wiki says that emissions were 8.4 GtC in 2006 (and if you find numbers nearer 30, remember you have to convert by (32+12)/12 = 44/12). IPCC ’92 fig A.3.1 thinks that the range of possible emissions might be between 7 and 11 (doing it by eye and using the Beano christmas activity book as a ruler). I suppose emissions went up in 2007, but I doubt they went over 11 GtC, so the idea that we are over the most pessimistic projections is tosh. Is92 looks to be about 9 GtC in 2007, from the graph, so at a guess we’re about on the line.

Someone has produced pretty pix of this recently… where?

[Update: some of the pix are at, and there is more at, inclusing inconclusive discussion of how much we should care -W]

[Update: also (saperlipopette!). From which perhaps the major point is… see how hard it is to tell which line we’re on -W]

Monckton again

Naturally enough, there is a wiki article [[Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley]]. And of course what to say about his views on GW is a source of controversy: being wiki, it can’t just say he is talkin’ tosh, it has to be more polite.

Unlike certain anons, who make comments like Removed POV contributions by a failed Green Party candidate in the pay of a convicted internet-gaming fraudster and money-launderer who now spends his time rewriting “deniers'” Wiki-biogs – my my, who could that be and who could he have in mind? Its a complete mystery [update: well maybe not so complete; its now clear who the anon has in mind].

Whoever it is is clearly rather sensitive about M not getting a seat in the Lords elections: the anon added the bold bit to this sentence: Monckton was an unsuccessful candidate for a Conservative seat in the House of Lords in a March 2007 [[by-election]] caused by the death of [[Charles Stourton, 26th Baron Mowbray|Lord Mowbray and Stourton]]. Not being a Freemason, he received no votes in the election (source of results here if you’re interested). And he has written an awful lot on the talk page. Some suspect that the anon might be M himself, though I consider it unlikely that such a man would hide behind an anonymous address. M (or someone claiming to be him) edited briefly as {{User:Mofb}} but ended up blocked for making legal threats. That was months ago; if the lawyers papers ever turned up, nothing happened to them.

On the science-y side, there isn’t any real science but there is a fight about whether M’s APS piece was peer reviewed. It wasn’t, of course (best details of the actual errors at RC), but the anon is keen for wiki to say that it was, adding Monckton’s paper was meticulously reviewed before publication by Professor Alvin Saperstein, the review editor of Physics and Society, who concluded that the paper would make “an important contribution to the literature”. However, political pressure on the editors led them to announce that the paper had not been peer-reviewed, when in fact it had.

Curious co-incidence: I know (or knew, from my Go playing days) the person who won the Eternity puzzle money.

CO2 from nukes

Every now and again the question of how much CO2 nuclear power plants produce, compared with other forms of power production, comes up; and whenever it does, I’ve forgotten where I last saw the figures. So now someone (thanks S) sent me some that look good (and are, by repute, biased against nukes if anything), I’ll put them in here.

The original report is but I don’t read german, so I fed it through babelfish which seemed to a pretty good job. I’ll skip all the boring caveats and stuff and just show the end result: this purports to show Total greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation options (including upstream processes and substances used to manufacture plant)

Electricity from:                                   CO2e
Nukes-Germany(fuel)                                   32
Nukes-France(fuel)                                     8
Nukes-UK(fuel)                                        32 
Nukes-Russian(fuel)                                   65 
U.S. nuclear -                                        62
AKW (uranium after import mix)                        32
AKW (uranium only from Russia)                        65
Import coal power plant                              949
Import coal CHP                                      622
Lignite power plant                                1.153
Lignite CHP                                          729 
Natural gas combined-cycle power plant               428
Gas-CHP                                              148
Natural gas cogeneration plant                        49
Biogas Blockheizkraftwerk                           -409
Onshore wind park                                     24
Offshore wind park                                    23
Water power                                           40
Solar cell (multi)                                   101
Solar-Import (Spain)                                  27
Power Efficiency (medium)                              5

[Update: thanks WW: The unit is grams of CO2 (and equivalents) per kWh of electricity.]

[Update: "Blockheizkraftwerk" means "block heat and power plant", or CHP -W]

The differences among the nukes is just the fuel source, if I’ve read the report properly. The US uses lots of coal electricity to make its nuclear fuel, the French use nuclear, and who knows what the Russians use. So… French nuclear is better than just about anything else, whereas German is beaten by wind. I think there is something broken in that (if you could get your wind turbines made in France they would come out as casuing less CO2 than the same turbines made in Germany). Increased efficiency (assuming I’m interpreting that last line correctly) is bested only by Biogas-CHP, which somehow comes out negative. Not quite sure how they have calculated that (from the comments: I guess the biogas plant is negative because it also generates heat for houses, so it saves fosiil fuels used for heating. It would come up close
to 0 without use of the heat. That would also explain why the NG cogeneration plant has such a low value.

OTOH… table 5 lower in the report says that the cheapest in financial not CO2 terms is… you guessed it, lignite.