Monday, August 17, 2009

A Global Warming Primer

Among members of the general public, and also in many corners of Christianity (including both evangelicalism broadly as well as the Canadian Reformed churches) there is much skepticism about global warming. This might be due to the democratization of knowledge, in which everyone has (or thinks they have) access to all the same information, and in which one can find apparently eminent proponents of every possible point of view. Scientists, specifically, are viewed by the public in a curiously bipolar way: awe and amazement on the one hand and disdain and dismissal on the other. Medical science, with its knowledge and techniques, is held in high esteem especially by those in need of diagnosis or treatment for themselves or their loved ones. Simultaneously, public immunization programmes (or sunscreen) are vilified by many as being conspiratorial, socialistic, and dangerous, especially if one can find a website authored by a “PhD” or “MD” highlighting the risks.

On global warming, everyone is an expert. One says, “Al Gore sure is smart; we’re doomed!” The other counters, “It was cold this summer; global warming is a hoax.” Instead of joining either bandwagon, the reformed academic ought to weigh evidence carefully. Even within our community there are scientists whose expertise we can tap, brothers and sisters whom we can trust, who are familiar with the scientific literature and who do not rely on the popular press. We are not all experts on every topic, but just as we expect ministers to know the most about Scripture, and farmers about agriculture, electricians about household wiring, practicing scientists can give leadership in interpreting scientific discoveries.

Since global warming is a culturally important topic, touching on issues from personal lifestyle to global politics, we present an article written for Reformed Academic by Rick Baartman, a physicist working at TRIUMF in Vancouver and a member of Maranatha Canadian Reformed Church in Surrey, BC. Rick served on the Brazil Mission Board (1992-1998), is a board member of the prison ministry M2W2, and also board member of the Geneva Society for Reformational Worldview Studies. He and his wife Sara have five adult children and three grandchildren. Rick has reviewed the primary scientific literature on global warming, and has put together a valuable popular piece which we invite our readers to engage fruitfully. It is available in our “collected articles” in the sidebar, entitled “A Global Warming Primer”. A direct link is here.


Anonymous said...

I want to thank Br. Baartman for his intriguing piece on global warming. I teach Geography to Grade 12 students and I find it difficult to understand all the different interpretations of the facts.

There are some scientists who have argued that the current global temperature trend is a natural occurrence. They argue that the global temperature fluctuations are a result of sun-spots. However, while sun-spots might affect the annual changes, it can't really account for the change in averages over the years.

I wonder if you could comment on the following two questions/comments:

1. Is Al Gore's video scientifically accurate. It is very much a 'docudrama' in many respects, but is it scientifically accurate?

2. What could replace CO2? If all of our cars increased the water vapour in the atmosphere, couldn't that also have devastating affects? Are there models that investigate that scenario? Would we have more cloud cover, more rain etc?

Chris deBoer

YFNWG said...

I have been following the AGW debate for more than a few years and have seen the debates pro and con. Whilst I am trained as an engineer, my hobby is the weather. My gut instinct at the beginning of hobby was on the skeptical side. (My wife would say that would be my natural tendency :)) This came from the viewpoint of that there is no temperature record long or accurate enough to state that the warming we are experiencing now is unprecendented. Nothing I have seen to date has changed my viewpoint on that.

Mr. Baartman in his primer does not nearly cover all the bases. While being a primer, he does not mention any other factors that impact the climate, such has solar radiation, oceanic cycles such as the AMO and PDO and large scale climatic cycles. He concludes this papet with the "concensus" viewpoint. However, there is far from a consensus within the scientific community concern the cause and effect of global warming.

I hope to be able to put together a paper outlining the uncertainities involved in AGW debate.

Thank you.

Fred Nieuwenhuis

Rick Baartman said...

I want to thank Chris for his interesting questions.

For the benefit of Fred, let me briefly amplify on your point regarding temperature fluctuations. There are many many cyclic fluctuations occurring simultaneously. El Ninos come and go with a period of around 5 years. Sunspot cycle is about 11 years. The angle of the Earth's tilt changes with a main period of 18.6 years. And so on. Sometimes they are all in step and add up to a really hot year, sometimes they cancel out, and sometimes they are all in phase in the down-swing and add up to a colder year, or even a few colder years in a row. These effects contribute the "noise" in the graphs. So, yes, in any given year at any given location, these can contribute an effect larger than the total anthropogenic warming that has occurred since the 1800s. (See Fig. 7 of my article.) But as you (Chris) say, they cannot account for changes over longer time scales. Look at this graph.

Present this graph to a scientist who knows nothing about climate change. Tell him (or her) something started happening around 1850 (he'll say "No kidding..."), also tell him that you've calculated the effect of that "something" and it is about equal to the temperature rise of about 1 degree over 100 years in agreement with the data on the right end of the graph. Now if you tell him you are trying to find alternative explanations for the observed rise, he will wonder what your motives are.

Now for Chris' specific questions.

1. Gore's video is somewhat "over the top" in some respects (see this link). He is trying to scare people into action, but some of his projections are on shaky ground. People don't like being pushed around and so there was some backlash. My other criticism is that he relies too heavily on anecdotal information: hurricane incidence, very hot or very dry years etc. There is no way to establish a causal connection between any given year or event and AGW.

2. There is so much more water vapour in the atmosphere than CO2, that it is hard to imagine that the slight change from human activity would have any effect. See this link. One can envisage replacing all the fossil fuelled vehicles with hydrogen ones. To separate water into hydrogen and oxygen requires the energy that you recover when you burn it. If this energy is not from fossil fuels, say nuclear, then this is indeed a viable way to supply western society's large energy appetite.

Or we could reduce our energy needs by living in closer communities. It is easy to forget that cheap energy has drastically altered the lives of the occupants of "developed" countries. I am not within walking distance of any of my friends, or work, or church, or my grocer, and my children could not walk to school. It's quite a strange situation, if you think about it. Perhaps it would not be entirely a bad thing to go back to living closer together.

rosalie said...

I've enjoyed reading Dr. Baartman's paper. It breaks down some of the concepts so they're accessible.

I've worked in a biogeochemistry lab in the past and during my time there I had the opportunity to look at northern peat bog data. I think that anyone who wants to look at Global Warming seriously should also study the the cycling processes that occur in the environment. Interesting cycles to look at are nitrogen, sulphur, and carbon. My colleagues were researching the positive feedback cycles in peat bog cycling that occur in a world with a changing climate. This means that as climate gets warmer in northern regions, peat bogs will become drier and therefore will emit more GHGs (simplified).

It is also interesting to note that carbon dioxide is not the most potent GHG, we just convert all GHGs to CO2 so countries can compare emissions. The six major GHGs are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), sulphur hexafluroide (SF6), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs).

I would like to encourage everyone to read a few process based studies in order to be more informed on this topic. As a Canadian dealing with this issue, I believe that our northern peatland area is a very appropriate place to start. A brief summary of GHG cycling and warming in peatlands can be found at:

If anyone is interested in similar papers I don't mind to post some. You can also look up publications by Waddington and Strack.

I also agree with Rick's idea of altering the way we often do things in North America. We definitely need a paradigm shift. When more fuel efficient engines were developed a few years ago, car companies made the cars bigger so that we would use the same amount of gas. When certain government officials were asked about this in the States some replied that it is part of "our freedom" to be able to use the resources that we want. In this fallen world, however, things that appear to make us free can become the things that enslave us the most.

By the way, has anyone heard anything about ANWR lately? I was looking it up in the news and it seems like America hasn't made any decisions about the 10-02 area. If anyone knows, I'd love to hear about it!

Rosalie Ng-Rozema