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Confounding climate
July 15, 2009 - 5:14pm

According to a paper appearing in the International Journal of Global Warming, the problem isn't greenhouse gases. To be more precise, it isn't only greenhouse gases, or even mostly greenhouse gases. If the authors are right, the problem is heat.

Bo Nordell and Bruno Gervet of the Lulea University of Technology (Sweden), what we're now experiencing is the cumulative effect of all the heat generated by all the fossil fuels burned over time. Modeling the heat generated since 1880 (roughly the start of massive industrialization), Nordell and Gervet account for the vast majority of global warming as energy (heat) stored in "the ground (31.5%), melting of ice (33.4%) and sea water (28.5%)".

Unlike outlying theorists who attribute climate change to sunspots, unexplainable long-term cyclic behavior or celestial monsters, Nordell and Gervet present a possibility which (1) matches the historic record, (2) agrees with (although it expands on) the general scientific consensus, and (3) says we've got a lot bigger problem than we thought we had (even though we already thought we had a colossal problem).

I can't decide whether the "heat storage" argument is helpful or not. One side of me fears that any break in the general consensus will get pounced upon by the flat-Earthers and Ussherites. But another side wonders if this sort of dialogue might be helpful in demonstrating to student both how science works and the difficulties of sorting out confounded (having similar root causes) effects by examination of quantitative data.

And, "on the other other hand", it occurs to me that the "heat storage" argument might have a couple of significant advantages over the greenhouse gas argument. First, it's inherently intuitive -- everybody knows that if you apply heat to something, it gets warm. Second, to the extent that the media discussion of the topic (such as it is) can be shifted from whether climate change is real/anthropogenic to whether it's primarily residual heat or atmospheric change, we allow the press to do their "both sides evenly" routine without beeing seen giving credence to the incredible.

If the "heat storage" argument is right, most of the best practices that we've been recommending are unaffected. Shifting away from fossil fuels is still of first importance. Solar, wind and tidal power are all still attractive. Geothermal becomes, if anything, an even better idea. The argument for nuclear power as clean energy disappears, though, because of the heat which nuke plants release. And I'm not sure about biofuels -- they're probably unaffected, but the increased velocity of heat release which comes from burning rather than natural decomposition may rule them out.

Interesting times, we live in.


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