Sunday, September 27, 2015

Climate Change Muddle

When speaking to people about my role of developing and evaluating strategy for a business that supports a vision of Planet and People and Profit, often the issue of climate change enters the conversation. Many people struggle with the man-made global warming rhetoric published by the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) and at the same time the debate continues to center on the classification of people as ‘deniers’ or ‘alarmists’.

I have always supported conservation, protection of the environment and efficient resource use, yet the forced need to make a choice between ‘believing or not’ in climate change has really muddled the issue. I have given this question significant consideration and I suggest that it does not have to be about believing or not believing: it’s really about action and doing the right thing. It seems to me that the current debate about climate change is more about protectionism of the status quo, rather than promotion of what is actually good for the planet and its inhabitants. Rather than being more efficient with the use of the resources we have, stopping pollution of our air, water, and land and to starting to pursue much healthier sources of energy which would clearly benefit everyone, we are forced to make a decision about whether we believe that we are at fault for climate change in order to take action in the first place.  The blame game, takes away from finding the common ground required to undertake action regardless of whether we are driving or contributing to climate change today. 

It has taken me some time to arrive at this conclusion and to look at the problem from an entirely different angle, however I do want to touch upon some basic pieces of data that form part of the climate change muddle, and hopefully provide some clarity. Keep in mind that no matter what, the issue is complicated, and includes many complex contributing factors of which I am only touching the surface. Considering that we have trouble predicting local weather 7 days in advance to a significant level of accuracy, how complicated must the model be to predict global climate change on a larger time scale?  

To begin, two basic questions come up immediately,

  1. Is the climate changing?
  2. Is climate change driven primarily by natural processes or by human activities or both?

Global Temperatures

The earth is 4.5 billion years old, with oxygen making a presence in the atmosphere around 3 billion years ago, multicellular life appearing around 2 billion years ago and with animals and plants making a significant entrance around 600 million years ago. Over the last 600 mya the temperature on the earth has a varied widely.
Global Temperature and CO2 over 600 million years.

Source: Plant Fossils of Virginia,, accessed on September 22, 2015.

Temperature variation is visible on a smaller time scale (800,000 years) and inferred from ice core data from the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica Dome C. You can find the data and a great explanation in Orbital and Millennial Antarctic Climate Variability over the Past 800,000 Years. Proxy based data from the last 1,500 years also shows obvious temperature variations.
Global Temperature Anomaly; 800,000 years.
Source: NASA,, accessed on September 22, 2015.

Global Temperature Anomaly; 1,500 years.
Source: NASA,, accessed on September 22, 2015.

This data reconstruction was based on 1209 data series available to anyone from NOAA  In addition, a great summary of this data can be found in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 105, No. 36, pp. 13252-13257, September 9, 2008. doi:10.1073/pnas.0805721105.

Since 1880 global measured temperature data from various sources clearly indicates that our environment is getting a little warmer.

Global temperature changes.png

NASA,, accessed on September 22, 2015.

Climate change is a reality.

The second question, Is climate change driven primarily by natural processes or by human activities or both? is not as simple as the first one. Is there a direct causal relationship? Can you prove it? Do you need to, if the debate is based on belief? There are number of the formus where people disuss and present their points of view such as;

Atmospheric Carbon Concentrations

Carbon dioxide data (red curve), measured as a mole fraction in dry air, on Mauna Loa (Hawaii) constitutes the longest record of direct measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere. The black curve represents the seasonally corrected data. There is no doubt that CO2 levels have risen since we started measuring them directly.


Based on measurements retrieved from ice cores from Antarctica, CO2 concentrations over the last 10,000 years have been relatively stable.
Source: Sceptical Science,, accessed on September 23, 2015. Additional data can be found at: U.S. department of Energy, The Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center,, accessed on September 23, 2015.

Extending the scale, the ice core data clearly indicates that CO2 concentrations have varied widely in the past and that the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere is higher than in the last 400,000 years. Unlike the temperature this data is a direct measurement of CO2 in the air bubbles frozen in the ice. There is some uncertainty as to whether global temperatures follow CO2 levels or the other way around, hence I am purposely not focusing on overlapping the data as part of this analysis.
Source: NASA,, accessed on September 22, 2015

Carbon Cycle

An examination of the carbon cycle shows that the amount of CO2 in the system, and moving between various components is significantly larger than the amount of CO2 human activity is contributing. For example the sea-air CO2 exchange is an order of magnitude higher than the CO2 contribution from human activity.The oceans are sinks for CO2, and the ability of a liquid to contain a dissolved gas depends on the temperature. Just like an open can of coke in your fridge has more bubbles than the same open can on your counter, cooler oceans contain more CO2.
BioComponents_Carbon Cycle.jpg
Carbon Cycle
Source: U.S. Department of Energy, Genomics Image Gallery,, accessed on September 22, 2015.
The Mauna Loa data indicates an increase in atmospheric CO2 over the last 50 years, and the question remains: is the extra CO2 in the atmosphere due to human activity or maybe with increased global temperatures the oceans are releasing more CO2 or it is due to something else?

We can trace the current increase in atmospheric CO2 directly to human activities by looking at the ratio of carbon isotopes.  Isotopes are simply different atoms with the same chemical behavior (isotope means “same type”) but with different masses. Carbon is composed of three different isotopes, C14, C13 and C12. C12 is the most common. Plants have a preference for the lighter isotopes - 12C; thus they have lower 13C/12C ratios. Fossil fuels are derived from ancient plants from the Carboniferous period (roughly 300 mya) hence plants and fossil fuels all have roughly the same 13C/12C ratio, which is currently about 2% lower than that of the atmosphere. As CO2 from these materials is released into, and mixes with, the atmosphere, the average 13C/12C ratio of the atmosphere decreases.  You can find the full explanation here

Source: Stuiver, M., Burk, R. L. and Quay, P. D. 1984. 13C/12C ratios and the transfer of biospheric carbon to the atmosphere. J. Geophys. Res. 89, 11,731-11,748. Francey, R.J., Allison, C.E., Etheridge, D.M., Trudinger, C.M., Enting, I.G., Leuenberger, M., Langenfelds, R.L., Michel, E., Steele, L.P., 1999. A 1000-year high precision record of d13Cin atmospheric CO2. Tellus 51B, 170–193. Quay, P.D., B. Tilbrook, C.S. Wong. Oceanic uptake of fossil fuel CO2: carbon-13 evidence. Science 256 (1992), 74-79.

OK... we are most likely responsible for the increased atmospheric CO2.  However, is that additional CO2 solely responsible for the warming we are experiencing? Maybe fluctuation in solar activity (more energy reaching the Earth) or an increase in atmospheric water vapor (water vapors produce greenhouse effect) are causing warming of the atmosphere?

Can we muddle the conversation further? What about the Polar ice caps?

Fluctuations in polar ice are evident based on data from National Snow and Ice Data Center. If we look at changes in polar ice we can see that Arctic ice is decreasing faster than Antarctic is increasing.


Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center,,  accessed on September 22, 2015.

Global warming sceptics argue that the loss of ice may be related to soot and other particles accumulating on the surface of the ice, absorbing sunlight, increasing heat transfer and thus melting the ice rather than increases in global temperature due to increases in CO2. Therefore, soot deposits increase the melting rate of snow and ice, including glaciers and the arctic ice. Considering that majority of industrial activities and population are located in the Northern Hemisphere, this is a valid argument and you can read it at Uncommon Descent.

Muir Glacier melt  Alaska.jpg
Muir Glacier, Alaska, August 13, 1941 and August 31, 2004

Melting polar ice is a problem of significant consequence, regardless of whether it is caused by caused climate change or human-caused global industrialization, as the addition of freshwater into the oceans can disrupt natural ocean currents potentially leading to significant cooling in northern Europe.
Thermohaline Circulation (THC) or the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt is driven by differences in water density, which are caused by differences in temperature and salinity. The oceans are mostly composed of warm water near the surface over cold salty water in the ocean depths. As the warm water moves north it becomes colder and more salty as ice is formed and the salt is left in solution. This makes the water more more dense and causes it to sink. This cold water travels along the bottom of the ocean towards the equatorial regions where it warms and rises to the surface, repeating this very large and slow cycle.  In the northern hemisphere, the Gulf Stream winds bring warm ocean waters to the North Atlantic Ocean around Greenland, Iceland and northern Europe, thus keeping the regions mostly ice free year round. The water returns to the south Atlantic via the North Atlantic Deep Water Current and travels further south to the Antarctic before reaching equatorial regions in the Indian and Pacific oceans where it rises to the surface. Interruption (slowing) of this cycle due to additional influx of fresh (less dense) water from melting polar ice, would significantly affect climate in northern Europe and could potentially lead to significant cooling.
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,, accesed on September 22, 2015.

So again, let’s leave the argument as to the causal relationships of this problem to the scientists, and simply pursue more efficient and clean energy use.
What about plants and CO2?
Some people (Plants Need CO2) think that because plants require CO2 for photosynthesis that an increase in atmospheric CO2 will benefit plant growth and a reduction will have negative economic impacts.  Some argue that plants are evolutionarily prepared and conditioned to the current CO2 concentrations and increases in CO2 have little effect. At the same time, owners of greenhouse operations often increase CO2 concentration to 1,000ppm to increase yield.
Source: Photo by Tom Kenny, Southern Alberta, September, 2015
Biologists, on the other hand, are clearly aware that the majority of living plants today evolved in a time when atmospheric CO2 concentrations were lower than today. Over 90% of plants on Earth follow the C3 carbon fixation pathway (conversion of inorganic carbon in CO2 to organic compounds; carbohydrates) in photosynthesis. C3 plants require CO2 concentrations of 200 ppm or higher to thrive and elevated levels of CO2 have the same effects on C3 plants as growth hormone on livestock or steroids on people as the metabolic pathway is limited by access to CO2.

Let's reframe ...
As far as climate change is concerned, there should be no argument that change is happening and will continue. Are humans in the driver’s seat? or are we a contributor to a larger phenomenon? Do you believe? Those questions remain, however why not just act; the burning of fossil fuels for energy is a wasteful activity, it is inefficient, consumes valuable resources, pollutes the environment and should be phased out. So let’s be the first to lead this disruptive change in philosophy when it comes to climate change and oil and gas industry.

It's not about CO2, or GHG, or climate change... or about being a 'denier' or an 'alarmist'...

It is about clean air, water and land
efficient use of our resources
clean, secure renewable energy
and clean, recyclable hydrocarbons
for you and me and our children

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