Monthly Archives: November 2017

Climate Change Dishonesty

Once upon a time a lot of people were worried about something called global warming. The idea was fairly simple. The modern industrial world was producing much more carbon dioxide than we did in days gone by. Carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas; it traps heat, so the theory was that if we put too much of it in the atmosphere, the world would start warming up, hence the phrase global warming. And sure enough, global temperatures did increase during the period 1975 to 2000. Since then, however, even though we are producing more and more carbon dioxide, temperatures have stayed obstinately flat.

Shortly after temperatures stopped rising, the phrase ‘global warming’ went out of fashion, and we started talking about climate change. Almost at the stroke of a pen this enabled us to forget the embarrassing fact that carbon dioxide doesn’t seem to be causing global warming any more. Climate change can mean anything you want. Hot summer this year? Climate change! Coldest February since records began? Climate change! Too wet, too dry, too anything else? Climate change! Let us link arms, brothers and sisters, and boldly go forth to fight climate change!

The phrase ‘climate change’ used in this way is intellectually dishonest. It implies that without modern civilization the climate on our world would always be idyllic. The sun would always shine, winters would be mild, summers warm, and everything we need would grow on trees.

Climate is always changing, regardless of the human race. 20,000 years ago, for example, we were in the middle of an ice age, and much of North America was buried under a mile of ice. Since then, the ice has melted. Now that’s climate change. It’s hard to see climate change happening because it changes very slowly, in terms of decades and centuries, but change it does. Fighting climate change is about as sensible as fighting gravity. People who unthinkingly demand that we fight climate change remind me of George Orwell’s sheep in Animal Farm, who ran around bleating four legs good, two legs baaad.

Besides this underlying intellectual dishonesty about climate, there is a more frightening dishonesty among the scientists who, for one reason or another, adhere to the climate change school of thought. An example of this comes from the 2006 testimony to the US Senate of Dr David Deming, a respected geophysicist at the University of Oklahoma:

I had another interesting experience around the time my paper [on borehole temperatures] in Science was published. I received an astonishing email from a major researcher in the area of climate change. He said, “We have to get rid of the Medieval Warm Period.”

The Medieval Warm Period (MWP) was a time of unusually warm weather that began around 1000 AD and persisted until a cold period known as the “Little Ice Age” took hold in the 14th century. Warmer climate brought a remarkable flowering of prosperity, knowledge, and art to Europe during the High Middle Ages.

The existence of the MWP had been recognized in the scientific literature for decades. But now it was a major embarrassment to those maintaining that the 20th century warming was truly anomalous. It had to be “gotten rid of.”

‘Get rid of’ is a political phrase, not a scientific one. A scientist might conceivably say “I have discovered new evidence which casts doubt on the existence of the Medieval Warm Period”, but saying “We have to get rid of the Medieval Warm Period” expresses a political desire, not a scientific truth.

There seems to be a double standard among many scientists. You can advance any theory you like, no matter how tenuous the evidence or preposterous the reasoning, and provided your theory supports the idea of man-made climate change, you will be taken seriously and your theory will be published in a scientific journal. However, if your data and conclusions do not support man-made climate change, no matter how meticulous your work, you can pretty well forget about being published. To quote Dr Deming again:

The week the article appeared, I was contacted by a reporter for National Public Radio. He offered to interview me, but only if I would state that the warming was due to human activity. When I refused to do so, he hung up on me.

As with most phenomena of this nature, the reason for it isn’t hard to find. It can be summed up in one word: money. In the twenty-first century to date, a total of about $3 trillion has been spent worldwide on so-called green energy, mainly wind and solar. Now ask yourselves how much of this would have been spent if the terms ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ had never entered our consciousness. For three trillion dollars you can buy yourself a whole lot of tame scientists who will gladly say whatever you want them to say.

Many of us think of scientists as superhuman beings who know everything. Put the word Professor in front of someone’s name and he or she automatically becomes an awesome fount of knowledge beyond the comprehension of mere mortals like us. Unfortunately scientists, particularly academic scientists in universities, are as human as the rest of us, and are just as anxious to advance their careers. Academic scientists are usually dependent on outside sources to fund their research, which is the main route to advancing their careers, and if the owner of those funds says climate change is the thing nowadays, well, you’ve probably heard the phrase ‘go along to get along’. In the present global political environment it takes a brave academic indeed to stand up and say that human-caused climate change is nonsense.

I started off as an academic scientist, then switched over to industry, where I spent many years designing radar systems. Just for the record, the work we were doing with radar was equally as complex as anything being done in a university laboratory, but we were subject to a constraint that academics are not – the customer. If you are an academic scientist you can develop a theory that increased carbon dioxide emissions are going to cause people’s toenails to explode, and you may very well be taken seriously and have your work published in a scientific journal. The equivalent for such as myself in industry would be to claim that we had designed a lightweight radar which would detect a mouse at a thousand miles range. The problem in our case is that eventually the customer would come along with those dreaded words – “OK, show me”. Intellectual dishonesty is not a survival trait in industry.

I don’t mean to say that all academic scientists are cynical liars. However, most scientists live in little silos and are afraid to venture outside. You may have heard the story of a group of scientists at a conference where one of them said “the sky is blue”. The others said to themselves “does he have the academic credentials to say that? How many papers has he published on atmospheric physics?”. Most university scientists spend their lives learning more and more about less and less, and are frightened of venturing outside their narrow little specialities in case they get put down by another scientist into whose speciality they have strayed. As a result, very few of them see, or are willing to stake their professional reputations on, anything but a tiny slice of the problem. In this respect, scientists are more easily fooled than non-scientists.

All of us, scientists included, are being cynically manipulated by those who stand to make a great deal of money by scaring people with the bogeyman of climate change. Whether or not there is such a thing as man-made climate change, the aura of intellectual dishonesty surrounding the whole subject makes me very suspicious of it.

 

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Renewable energy in the real world

Renewable energy will solve all our problems! A wind- and solar-based renewable energy system which will free us from all carbon emissions is within our grasp, and all we have to do to attain power Nirvana is reach out for it with trust in our hearts. What’s not to like?

Whenever I hear this I am reminded of Hyman Rickover’s opinions on the development of nuclear reactors back in the 1950’s. Admiral Hyman G. Rickover ran the US Navy’s nuclear reactor development program and was intimately familiar with the real-world problems that this involved. He understood full well the difference between pipedreams and reality, or, as he referred to it, between the academic and the practical. He had this to say in 1953 about the difference between academic and practical reactors:

An academic reactor almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose. (7) Very little development will be required. It will use off-the-shelf components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.

On the other hand a practical reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.

An academic renewable energy system is very similar to the academic nuclear reactors described above. You just have to put up a few wind turbines and solar arrays and presto! the world will be full of bluebirds and unicorns, and electricity will be too cheap to meter. After all, we don’t have to pay for any fuel costs: wind and sunshine are free!

Now let’s take a look at a practical renewable energy system. Wind turbines only work when the wind is blowing at the right speed. Too little wind and there is not enough energy to generate any power. Too much wind and the turbines must be shut down lest they overspeed and burn out. In Ontario this means that the conditions for wind turbines to generate power occur about 25% of the time. Similarly, solar arrays only work when the sun is shining, which means that in Ontario they also generate power about 25% of the time. Consequently, whether we use wind or solar power we will need back-up power for the 75% of the time that wind and solar aren’t available. Usually this comes from gas-fired power stations. When the wind blows at the right speed or the sun shines, we can switch off the back-up power. However, large-scale gas-fired power plants don’t run at their best when they are constantly switched on and off. Far better to let them run 100% of the time, in which case we can dispense with the wind and solar altogether which, when all is said and done, are merely bit players.

Another awkward characteristic of practical wind energy systems is that all those thousands of wind turbines have to be serviced. When you service a gas-fired power station you shut it down for a week or two every year (‘scheduled maintenance’), take the covers off everything, and let your technicians get to work in air-conditioned comfort. Servicing wind turbines means sending a crew to each and every one of those thousands of individual turbines, often in difficult-to-get-to, out of-the-way spots, then climbing up to a cramped nacelle at the top of a tall mast … you get the picture. Servicing a large fleet of wind turbines is very expensive.

Yet another awkward characteristic of practical wind energy systems is that turbines are located where the wind blows strongest, which is not necessarily where the power they produce is wanted. You therefore tend to have lengthy, and hence expensive, grid connections to get the power to where you want it. Gas-fired power stations, on the other hand, can be built fairly close to where the power is wanted. Oh, and because of the intermittency of wind and solar power, the grid system needs to be much more robust, and hence expensive, than if you have steady power as you do with gas-fired power stations.

And then there is the question of robustness of the power generators themselves. Gas-fired power stations don’t really care about the weather, even if there’s a hurricane blowing. Wind turbines and solar arrays however are quite fragile and do care about the weather. Before the recent hurricane season, Puerto Rico had some large solar arrays (with emphasis on the word had). Wind turbines have to be shut down if the wind blows too strongly, otherwise they have a nasty habit of bursting into flames or falling to pieces.

All of which goes to explain why renewable energy is so much more expensive and less reliable than energy from more conventional sources such as gas-fired plants. A gas-fired plant can profitably sell electricity at 6 to 7 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). Wind power gets 11 to 13 cents per kWh in Ontario, while solar gets about 40 cents per kWh. However, whenever the wind blows or the sun shines, the grid system operator is obliged to take power from wind and solar operators in preference to any other sources. They have to do this, otherwise nobody would ever want to take wind and solar power, because it’s too expensive. Furthermore, wind and solar power are contractually required to be accepted whenever they are produced, regardless of whether the power is needed or not. Since wind is often strongest at night, when power demand is very low, Ontario is often in the position of having to sell wind power to other jurisdictions (usually in the US) at whatever price it can get. Sometimes this is a negative price; we have to pay them to take our power. Meanwhile, the wind turbine owners are still being paid at 11-13 cents/kWh for whatever they produce.

Of course, the aficionados of renewable energy tell us that these are merely minor inconveniences, and in reality we are saving the planet by not generating any carbon dioxide. It seems almost churlish to tell them that, as a result of the increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, our planet has greened by 14% over the last thirty years, i.e. there is 14% more vegetation cover on our planet than there was thirty years ago.

Whether or not carbon dioxide is harmful (and this is a moot point, in spite of the constant drumbeat of assurances by our political masters that ‘the science is settled’), one thing is certain. Whoever is making sacrifices to save the planet, it isn’t the owners of wind turbines and solar arrays.