Thursday, January 9, 2014

Tax Carbon as pollution? Barbara Boxer asks, coyly.

“Time for Congress to put a price on carbon pollution?”  Barbara Boxer and Bernie Saunders  San Francisco Chronicle 1/9/2014
- A rebuttal by Charles Jordan

First of all, these two politically correct politicos aren’t talking about carbon, they are talking about carbon dioxide, not about the heavy hydrocarbons you used to hear about regarding air pollution due to incomplete burning of fossil fuels.  The theory is KISS “keep it simple stupid” and identify a simple villain, the goal of all politicians except when they need to obfuscate.

But carbon dioxide is not a pollutant.  Is water vapor a pollutant?  It is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  But it has other uses as does carbon dioxide.  Both are central to life on earth, coming together particularly in plants.  My motto is “You can’t be green without carbon dioxide!”  To state the obvious, plants need carbon dioxide to grow.  Every fall, huge amounts of carbon dioxide go back into the atmosphere when leaves decay.  Do you notice it getting warmer in the fall? 

 Still the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, percentage-wise it’s 0.04%, is very small even when seemingly large amounts of carbon dioxide are generated by burning fossil fuels.  Right now 38.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year are generated by autos, power plants, trucks, etc. serving human activity which weren’t generated before the industrial revolution.  Sounds like a lot doesn’t it? (By the way,  only 10.4 Billion tons of that is carbon.  73% or 26 billion tons is oxygen which burning fossil fuels generates for the plants.)   Whenever we compare such a number to a reference like the .01 ton mass of the human body such numbers are impressive.  But comparing to a human reference is the classical mistake humans always make.  If we use our individual selves or even the total human endeavor as the reference, we risk overestimating our place in the universe. The total mass of the atmosphere is 5.3 Million Billion tons, so that new carbon dioxide is .0000072 of the present mass of the atmosphere per year.  And the mass of the atmosphere is one millionth of the mass of the planet.  We are indeed small fry compared to the earth. The sum of all the masses of all the humans (.01 tons each) is .018 of the carbon dioxide produced per year, .132/Billion of the atmosphere, and .132/million billion of the mass of the earth.  

Scientists have used what are called proxies (ratios of various isotopes)  to estimate the carbon dioxide levels millions of years ago to compare against the large temperature swings associated with major ice ages.  These estimates indicate that carbon dioxide has been at much higher levels earlier in the history of the earth, up to a factor of 20 times today’s level, even during major ice ages.

Even though the global temperature levels are up on the plateau associated with a non-ice age, this same plateau has been reached after the 4 major ice ages covering millions of years.  The actual measured global warming, an average over 100 years is an increase of less than 1/2 degree Celsius higher than that of the little ice age we are emerging from.  And, even though the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising smoothly, the temperature swings are oscillating rapidly with no particular correlation to the rise in carbon dioxide.  In fact, the average of the temperature oscillations has not increased in the latest 15 years and the oscillations seem to be more correlated to the oscillations in the water currents (El Niño, La Niña) than with carbon dioxide.

Climate scientists will tell you that their models (i.e. guesses about future developments which are not based on pure physics calculations, due to the lack of relevant starting values,an incomplete set of physical processes, and the lack of a comprehensive understanding of areas in which they are not trained) are inaccurate due to the magnitude of the problem and the power of their computers.  Computer runs on the absolutely fastest computers in the world like Blue Waters (the petascale computer at the University of Illinois) take up to a month.  Then prediction of different models differ by as much as a factor of 5.  In addition due to computational approach, the models are completely incompetent at describing local events like tornados, thunderstorms, hurricanes, monsoons, etc.   Pontifications about newsworthy events like the amount of rain, number of tornados, big hurricanes, power of monsoons, are manufactured out of whole cloth, handwaving arguments on general principles after the answer has been assumed.

Should we study climate change?  Absolutely!  Should we support alternative energy sources at a reasonable level?  Yes!  Do we know what we don’t know about the effect of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? No!  There are alternative guesses which project cooling rather than heating as we go forward and that is a lot more scary.  Should we tax the energy companies, the automobile manufacturers, and anyone who uses energy derived from burning carbon because carbon dioxide is a pollutant and give it to alternative technologies whose energy capacity will always be also-ran?  No!