Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Climate change and starvation: assessing the risk

“The most outrageous lies that can be invented will find believers if a man only tells them with all his might.” – Mark Twain

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” – attributed to Mark Twain

There were a lot of stories in the major media late last year touting experts predictions that climate change will lead to mass starvation unless we do something immediately.

Fortunately, the experts are almost certainly wrong, as they have been for decades, which we’ve pointed out in this series. The stories, however, illustrate the ongoing and pervasive nature of the environmental alarmist narrative.

At least two of the stories appeared in the on-line agricultural journal Drovers CattleNetwork.
The first was a Reuters story reporting the position of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), that the planet’s environment is seriously degraded, threatened by global warming, and that by 2050 agriculture will be unable to feed the growing global population.

The second story reported on nearly identical findings reported by researchers from Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, convened by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

These stories and a number of dubious scientific reports were timed to coincide with environmental and food security concerns voiced at the 17th annual global warming conference in Durban, South Africa. The formal recommendations of the conference were “…to advance, in a balanced fashion, the implementation of the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, as well as the Bali Action Plan, and the Cancun Agreements.”

These protocols, plans and agreements are intended to fight anthropogenic or man-made global warming (AGW) through: 1) carbon emission sequestration through the carbon market, 2) the Clean Development Mechanism, and Joint Implementation, as outlined by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Carbon sequestration and carbon trading quickly fell apart. There’s simply no evidence that greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane drive global temperatures or have ever driven temperature on the planet. Neither does physics allow for such a thing to happen.

As for carbon trading, the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) closed in 2010 after carbon prices fell from $7.50/metric ton to less than a nickel/metric ton. The European Carbon Exchange (EEC) is still trading carbon, but at great cost – at least $67 billion annually – to the economy of the European Union (EU). In the U.S. carbon trading was an unworkable scheme; in the EU it is an expensive, and failing, scheme.

The Clean Development Mechanism is perhaps the costliest swindle ever perpetrated on the third world. In simplest terms, it disallows third world development, because development causes greenhouse gas production, and greenhouse gases cause global warming. Those countries which have become dependent on UN money face the choice of losing UN cash if they attempt to develop on their own or continuing to barely subsist on UN rations. Since third world governments are the largest beneficiaries of the UN payouts, there is little if any incentive for them to change. The masses of the third world population continue to live a life of agrarian subsistence.

Joint Implementation is a combination of blackmail and swindle, where the developed countries are expected to pony up $100 billion annually to save the undeveloped world from global warming.

But a funny thing happened on the way to global warming. Despite the pronouncement by the UN’s International Energy Agency last month that global warming will become “catastrophic and irreversible” in 2017, the whole scheme has begun to fall apart. The Earth began to cool in 1998. Sea levels have not risen at all, let alone catastrophically. CO2 levels continue to rise, but none of the horrific greenhouse gas predictions have come true. Thousands of “climategate” emails now reveal the deeply unethical and flawed practices of the environmental alarmist and UN scientific “experts.”

And while the theory of man-made global warming is falling apart, so is the global economy. As Bret Stephens noted recently in the Wall Street Journal, first world nations can no longer afford to pour money into the invented notion of saving the planet by mitigating man-made greenhouse gases. Environmental alarmists and the UN have been barking up an invented tree, and the world can no longer afford to expend its wealth chasing imaginary demons.

“The U.S., Russia, Japan, Canada and the EU have all but confirmed they won’t be signing on to a new Kyoto,” said Stephens. “The Chinese and Indians won’t make a move unless the West does. The notion that rich (or formerly rich) countries are going to ship $100 billion every year to the Micronesia’s of the world is risible, especially after they’ve spent it all on Greece.

“Cap and trade is a dead letter in the U.S. Even Europe is having second thoughts about carbon-reduction targets that are decimating the continent’s heavy industries and cost an estimated $67 billion a year. “Green” technologies have all proved expensive, environmentally hazardous and wildly unpopular duds.

“That’s where the Climategate emails come in. First released on the eve of the Copenhagen climate summit two years ago and recently updated by a fresh batch, the “hide the decline” emails were an endless source of fun and lurid fascination for those of us who had never been convinced by the global-warming thesis in the first place.

“But the real reason they mattered is that they introduced a note of caution into an enterprise whose motivating appeal resided in its increasingly frantic forecasts of catastrophe. Papers were withdrawn; source material re-examined. The Himalayan glaciers, it turned out, weren’t going to melt in 30 years. Nobody can say for sure how high the seas are likely to rise – if much at all. Greenland isn’t turning green. Florida isn’t going anywhere.

“The reply global warming alarmists have made to these disclosures is that they did nothing to change the underlying science, and only improved it in particulars. So what to make of the U.N.’s latest supposedly authoritative report on extreme weather events, which is tinged with admissions of doubt and uncertainty? Oddly, the report has left climate activists stuttering with rage at what they call its “watered down” predictions. If nothing else, they understand that any belief system, particularly ones as young as global warming, cannot easily survive more than a few ounces of self-doubt.”

But if the theory of man-made climate change is falling apart, what about the specter of  famine as the global population continues to grow? As we outlined in parts two and four of this series, there’s little evidence to support the notion that agriculture is destroying the planet or that it will be unable to continue to feed the global population. These are simply more alarmist myths, calculated to instill fear and loosen global purse strings in the pursuit of a political agenda.

Not only is agriculture keeping up with global food demand, it is improving the ecology of the planet. The shrinking number of agriculture’s adverse environmental impacts continue to be mitigated by improved farming and ranching practices. At the same time, diets, health, and life spans continue to improve around the globe. This is hardly a catastrophe.

Global famine could happen, of course. The climate is changing, just as it has continually changed for more than four billion years, and an extended period of global cooling would doubtless lead to crop failures and hunger. Global cooling or the beginning of a new ice age is by far the most likely possible cause of widespread famine. As recently as the Little Ice Age (LIA, 1300-1850 A.D.) crops failed and human populations fell around the globe. And famine isn’t the only threat to humanity.

There are no guarantees in life.

As mortal beings, we all learn this at an early age. It’s an intellectual fact for the young, but it becomes real and visceral as the years begin to add up.

That’s for the individual of course.

But there are widespread risks of deadly peril to humanity as a whole. There’s no sense arguing the fact. A major asteroid colliding with Earth would probably kill all or nearly all of us. So would a large-scale exchange of nuclear weapons. So would the sudden onset of a planetary glaciation. So would world wide crop failure. And so, probably, would a world wide and long-term interruption of electricity.

Each of these things can happen. In fact, with the exception of nuclear war, each has happened, right here on this planet.

But what is the risk of one of these things – or some other catastrophe – devastating humanity in the near future? How does one assess such a risk, and then having made an assessment, how does one prepare for the coming crisis?

For some potential catastrophes, it doesn’t matter. Were a very large (greater than 500 kilometers in diameter) asteroid or comet found to be on collision course with Earth and due to strike within the next decade, there would be nothing humanity could do to avert the disaster. Oh, there would doubtless be a crash program to destroy or deflect the object, but at our level of technical and political ability, these ideas are the stuff of science fiction – America hasn’t even begun to rebuild on the site of the former World Trade center yet. What kind of crash program are we capable of? The object would strike and life as we know it – perhaps all life – on Earth would end.

The same is essentially true for nuclear war, sudden onset of glaciation (the onset of some glaciations, or ice ages, have happened within mere decades, according to the geological record), world wide crop failure, and the long-term interruption of our ability to use electricity.

There would almost certainly be one difference with these last four, however. Life on this planet would survive. Humans would be very hard hit – societies would collapse, populations would plunge, human lives would become brutish, nasty and short – but the rest of Earth’s life forms would quickly adapt and go on much as before.

Now, that’s a lot of doom and gloom. But if you objectively quantify the risks of each of those things happening, you find some rather good news. A massive impact could occur, but none have for about four billion years. Nuclear war could happen – the risk is far greater – but a world wide nuclear exchange is almost certainly beyond our present technical and political capabilities. As for a world wide crop failure, it’s hard to imagine more than one likely circumstance which would drive such a global catastrophe. It could happen, but the risk is quite small.

Perhaps the highest catastrophic risk of the five mentioned above is the long-term loss of our ability to use electricity. A massive solar flare could do it, as could a coordinated electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, where large nukes would be set off high in the atmosphere and the resulting rain of radiation and nuclear particles – which would be mostly harmless (at least in the short term) to human life – would nevertheless destroy all unshielded electrical equipment. No computers, or cell phones, or “cloud” based devices. No stock exchange. No electrical generation and none of the heating, cooling and lighting based upon such generation. No cars or motorcycles. No refrigeration. No ATM’s. The list goes on and on. In such a suddenly changed regime, life would be very hard for people. Harder perhaps than you can imagine.

Still, the likelihood of any of these events actually occurring within the next twenty years is  relatively small.
One way to assess risk is mathematically. We’ve just done this, on the back of an envelope as it were, for the above catastrophic scenarios. To describe it mathematically, or to “say it in math,” goes something like this. C=Rl/Dle, where C is catastrophe, Rl is likelihood that the risk will occur (quantified level of risk), and Dle is the devastation level expected to occur.

Now comes the fun part, assigning numerical values to the various mathematical expressions. This yields a catastrophe quotient – given as a percentage, of the probability of human devastation caused by a particular catastrophic event. It’s not a predictive tool, rather, it’s a way to wrap your mind around the problem.
Because Rl is expected to be small in the above scenarios, let’s scale it from 0-5, with zero being not expected to happen, ever, and five unlikely to occur, but still a distinct possibility. As for Dle , lets use a range of 0-100, where aero is no devastation and 100 is complete loss of human life on the planet.

In our massive impact scenario, Rl would be quite small, on the order of 0.02. Devastation to planetary life, however, would be huge, the maximum possible of Dle=100. Therefore our equation would look like this C=0.02/100, or 0.002 percent. In this mathematical context, not a very big risk.
Now let’s look at scenario five from above, world wide long-term interruption of electricity, using the same formula.

On Nov. 3, 2011, a powerful solar flare erupted from a huge sunspot  on the surface of our star. It was classified as an X 1.9 flare. Although the flare wasn’t aimed directly at Earth, it still caused some radio and other communications interruptions and breakdowns.

Solar flare energy is rated on x-ray output and measured in Watts per square meter. The November 3 flare, classified as X 1.9, released 1.9 times 10 to the fourth power Watts per square meter, or 1.9 x 100,000 W/m2 , or 190,000 W/ m2.  To put this in perspective, the normal solar flux reaching the surface of the Earth is about 5 W/ m2, or about 38.000 times less energetic. But X class flares can achieve level 9.9, which would put their output at 990,000 W/ m2, an increase of about 800,000 W/m2, and even higher.

Stronger flares have been measured including X-28+, X-20, x-17, X-15, X-14, X-12, X-10, and X –9.0 – X – 9.8, all during the last 30 years. None of these flares have directly impacted Earth. However, should one do so, it would quickly overwhelm the Earth’s protective magnetic field, leading to a de facto EMP event.

How do you assess such a risk? Applying our simple math from above, we find that the Rl is quite high. With 30 solar flares of X-9 magnitude or greater in less than 30 years, perhaps as high as 2.5. The Dle, in human terms, is also quite high, perhaps on the order of 90 (How long do you think you would survive without food, heat light, etc.). this makes the equation come out differently, at 0.27 percent, or two full orders of magnitude higher than the impact scenario.

What about widespread crop failure and famine caused by global cooling then? At the onset of the Little Ice Age, it took barely 20 years for food production, and then population, to begin falling off. So how do we assess a similar risk today?

In general, the risk would probably fall somewhere between the two extremes cited above.

We could reasonably set Rl at 1.0, and  Dle to 50. Therefore our equation would look like this: C=1.0/50, or 0.02 percent. Again, not a huge risk, but potentially a troubling one.

With history as a guide, however, it’s more likely that our climate will remain reasonably stable for at least hundreds of years. Also, agricultural techniques and technologies have improved greatly since the Little Ice Age, so the impact of a similar cooling period would probably be greatly reduced when it comes to food security.

Overall, an objective assessment of the likelihood of catastrophic climate change and global famine shows that the risk is there, but it appears to be quite low, at least for the foreseeable future.

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