A school teacher I know tells his pupils that ‘Saying does not make it so’, that facts are the key to knowledge, not opinions. Nowhere is this truer today than in the so-called ‘climate debate’. Here, much fails the facts test. Topping the list are claims of unprecedented warming from increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). Resultant droughts, rising sea levels, more frequent and severe storms and other catastrophes are assumed. A switch from CO2-producing fossil fuels to renewable energy, especially wind and solar, is deemed essential.
Similar dire climate predictions have been around since the late 1970s. And in all that time, none has come true. None at all. Undeterred, the climate soothsayers ignore their failures and carry on as if nothing had happened. The fact that good science should produce good predictions, and this is not happening, is also largely ignored. Instead, impending climate doom, and what must be done to avoid it, is orthodox thought in much of government, academia and environmental groups everywhere. This thinking is much at odds with key facts.
A most important fact is that Earth’s four and a half billion year history tells us we are now cooler than average, not warmer. Indeed, for 80% of that history Earth had no ice caps and dinosaurs lived near the South Pole for millions of years. There were ice ages, too, with thick ice down to the Canadian border and across northern Eurasia. Indeed, this was the norm for the last 800 000 years, with ice ages, separated by warmer interglacial periods, coming and going each 100 000 years or so.
We are in the Holocene inter-glacial period now. It officially began 11 700 years ago, but not in a clear-cut way. Gradual warming followed the ice age peak about 25,000 years ago until a cold spell 14,000 years ago chilled things down again and temperatures swung wildly by 5C or so until the current warmer times began about 12,000 years ago.
During the last ice age, sea levels were some 130 metres lower than today, thanks to water locked-up in ice caps. With warmer times, some ice melted and seas rose to near current levels in just a few thousand years. Today, they are rising by only 16cm or so per century; a tiny change compared with the rapid changes in the early Holocene days and some contrary claims today. The lower sea levels exposed our continental shelf, joined Australia to Tasmania and PNG and left the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) high and dry for tens of thousands of years. Then, as the ice melted, Tasmania and PNG became islands and the GBR re-generated some 8,000 years ago in its previous position.
Similar things happened throughout the world. Rising Holocene waters separated England from Europe, formed the Dardanelles and the Black Sea and remade the world map. Humans flourished in the warmer climate, with 60% of the Holocene averaging 2C higher than today. The hottest time was some 7 000 years ago, with other peaks at 4000, 2000 and 1000 years back. Although there were no thermometer readings in these times, reliable proxies are available using lake sediments, pollen fossils and such, and evidence of what crops grew where and tree-lines on hills and in marginal areas. Indeed, the old joke that the Roman Empire went only as far north as wine grapes would grow has some truth to it. In fact, they grew grapes and citrus in parts of England that until recently would not support either crop. The Chinese too grew crops along the Yellow River in those times that won’t grow there today. And, for history buffs, Hadrian’s route across the Alps could not be used today as it is permanently closed with ice and snow.
Thus, we know that Holocene temperatures were often warmer than now and varied constantly – and wild temperature swings occurred just prior to the Holocene period. When we take this longer view, the recent temperature increase of about 0.8C since 1880 falls well within the limits of previous natural change, and is neither unprecedented nor dangerous.
We also know another vital fact: CO2 levels were steady during these wild swings and throughout the Holocene at roughly 280 parts per million (ppm) until 130 years ago when a stuttering increase to 400 ppm today began. In other words, Holocene temperature changes, and the wild variations that preceded them, were not linked to CO2 changes. This prompts the question: if CO2 changes did not drive these temperature shifts, why all the fuss about CO2 emissions?
The answer owes much to the complexity of the climate system and the wish for simple explanations to explain its variability and with which to make predictions. But climate is not simple. There are many interacting parts that make it a ‘coupled non-linear chaotic system’ in which small variations of any part can create big, unpredictable changes. In the search for something simple to blame, like increasing CO2 levels, this ‘coupled non-linear, chaotic’ nature of climate is often played-down, overlooked or ignored. Things like solar variations, ocean heat transfers, cloud cover and the like – things that may well be the main drivers of climate – seldom get the respect they deserve.
The effect of the sun, the sea and clouds on climate is known and accepted – the Gulf Stream being a well known example – but more precise knowledge suitable for computer models is a different thing altogether. But what can be said for sure, is that the sun, the sea and the clouds are all very important and CO2 is only one player in a big game, not the control knob on the Earth’s thermostat. It is true that CO2 contributes to the greenhouse effect, but its heating effect is small (when compared with water vapour, the main contributor) and drops off logarithmically as its concentration increases. The more there is, the less additional heating effect it has.
The generally warmer history of the Earth, the serious shortcomings of climate models and the minor role of CO2 in climate are not well known in the community and frequently ignored by climate alarmists in government, academia, the media and the wider public. As a result, many Australians still feel ‘something must be done’ to curb CO2 emissions, and believe that ‘something’ is renewable energy, mainly from solar and wind. These beliefs have caused much debate, for while we all know the sun doesn’t shine at night, or the wind blow on demand, just what that means for wind and solar energy is not agreed.
Reliable, on-demand power from intermittent wind and solar requires storage (usually batteries) or back up power – a fact all agree on. But here again, facts take second place to wild claims for future storage potential and denial of serious problems with back-up power. Batteries are now available for household solar systems (panels, inverters and batteries) costing twenty thousand-or-so dollars. But even if the cost is ignored – which it can’t be – batteries are still way, way short of providing the capacity needed to power a large town, let alone a city. Consequently, the biggest problem with wind and solar today is the need for back-up power, mostly from coal and gas. This greatly increases the number of power sources needed, and with it cost. The efficiency of back-up coal and gas plants designed to run full-time, but used only intermittently, is also seriously degraded.
In Germany, intermittent use made back-up power stations so unprofitable they are now subsidised along with renewables. South Australian may well be heading the same way. With the unprofitable local coal plant closed, the gas plant partly closed and the interstate power link unreliable, subsidised gas or coal is now the main option. And the problem would spread though out the eastern states if the very high state and federal renewables targets are applied. With all power generation subsidised, much increased power costs and lower reliability would inevitably result.
Also, integration of wind and solar into the grid is not simple. Phasing and voltages must be matched precisely and power surges can unbalance the grid. These are not minor problems and need considerable effort and expertise to manage.
But perhaps the most important fact – seldom admitted but very real – is that in total power system terms, few if any CO2 savings result. Energy is needed to make, transport and install windmills and solar systems and connect them to the existing grid, adding CO2 to the overall total. Intermittent running of fossil fuel back-up plants adds more CO2, and total savings over efficient, full-time, modern coal or gas plants are few if any – despite the much greater cost. These facts are almost never mentioned when ‘clean energy’ claims are made.
The developing world knows all this. Like my teacher friend they know that: ‘saying does not make it so’ and look at the facts. They know the influence of CO2 on climate has been greatly exaggerated and other possible contributors played down or dismissed. Not fearing their people will overheat, they happily look to cheap coal as their main power generator. India is buying into Australian coal mines to ensure supplies and China recently approved construction of up to 200 super-efficient coal plants. Vietnam and the Philippines too are turning to coal and a 2016 study by Calgary University showed Asian coal consumption now greatly exceeds that in the West and will keep increasing until mid-century.
The International Energy Agency 2015 report shows renewables – biofuels, solar and wind – supplied only 1.2% of world power in 2013. Fossil fuels – oil, coal and gas – produced 81.4%. This tells us that most of the world knows the facts, and is acting accordingly. It also tells us that our energy policies are not only mistaken, but futile. Nothing we do will change the climate. Increasing atmospheric CO2 is not a problem – and if it was, wind and solar would not fix it. It’s time we followed the Asian example and acted according to facts instead of fears and fantasies.
Doug Hurst is a retired RAAF navigator with a long-term interest in weather and climate. In writing this article he was assisted by: Ex-RAN engineers Colin Davidson and Peter Bobroff; epidemiologist Dr Judy Ryan; IT specialist Mike O’Ceirin; medical practitioner Dr Patrick Purcell; public servant and military historian Peter Edgar; polymath Peter Kemmis; biochemist Maureen Hanisch; novelist and poet Alan Gould; and geologists Aert Driessen and Dr Howard Brady, author of Mirrors and Mazes, a guide through the climate change debate. Most are retired and none work for power generators or fossil fuel companies