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  • I’ve Got Your Methane Right Here, Pal

    Posted by John Jay on December 12th, 2006 (All posts by )

    A couple of observations on Global Warming brought on by a new-to-me blog Pseudo Polymath. First, he cites a Taipei Times article that reminds me of a journal article that I have in my office. It seems that when Mickey Ds changed over from the styrofoam shells to paper shells for their greaseball hamburgers, they negelected to account for the production energy costs of paper (high) versus styrofoam (low). The net result of the change was either a wash, or a net loss for the environment, depending upon which end of the error bar you take your figures from. Yet the eco-weenies hailed this as a victory.

    There is a consitent pattern in the environmentalist movement of taking stands based on emotion rather than facts, going all the way back to the eradication of wolves from Yellowstone in the 1920s. Granted, failure to predict long-term consequences is always going to plague models made on limited information – the code word for predictions made from computer models is and always has been GIGO** – yet the enviros seem to get things wrong with amazing consistency.

    One reason is the lack of proper scientific skepticism that plagues any set of science that is used to underpin a political movement. Which is why it is vitally important that science, and science funding, never come under an international governing body. The national ones we already have (don’t tell me that funding agencies don’t have a huge impact on which of the currently studyable topics get studied – I’ve watched that process in action from the front row) are not all that healthy for science, but there are enough tenured curmugeons to keep things going for a while longer. But I do not think that it is any coincidence that generally poltically incorrect Taiwan produced this study:

    According to the study conducted across Southeast Asia by the National Sun Yat-sen University and the National Central University, hydropower causes much more global warming than coal or oil-fired power stations.

    “Hydropower has always been considered the cleanest form of power generation. But as dams prevent organic matters from flowing down stream, organic matters trapped at the bottom of reservoirs are deprived of the oxygen they need to decompose, thus producing methane and nitrous oxide,” Professor Chen Chen-tong (陳鎮東) of the National Sun Yat-sen University said.

    Chen said methane and nitrous oxide have different effects on global warming.

    “One ton of methane equals 21 tons of carbon dioxide and one ton of nitrous oxide equals 200 tons of carbon dioxide,” he said.

    The math in these models is so bad that even the UN is rolling back the doom and gloom. I’m now reminded of something that Jay Manifold posted back in aught three:

    Without mathematical rigor, the 20th century gave us things like Social Security, incomparably the largest Ponzi scheme in human history; and the 21st may give us a multi-trillion-dollar effort to “fight global warming,” an either nonexistent or entirely beneficial trend. How long can the equilibrium of technically incompetent rulers lording it over technologically advanced societies be maintained?

    How long indeed? I’m not a big proponent of technocracy (no thinking person who spent time in the USSR can be), but the current state of affairs is going to end in disaster if people keep voting on technical issues based on emotion rather than reason. The flip side of that is that we have to be honest about how informed our opinion really is. We (scientists) all need to go back and re-read Cargo Cult Science, and internalize it:

    Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

    I don’t see that coming out of the Global Warming crowd. Not to say that makes them wrong – they could still be right. But the concept of radiative forcing contains so many assumptions that I’m not surprised that predicitons derived from it are a bit off. I am surprised that so many scientists continue to insist that imperfect models are good enough to guide public policy beyond a general guidance to use less resources where possible (always a good idea).

    * Aside – I’m really glad to see some sanity from the DoE for once – oh wait, that’s the other DoE, not Education.

    ** My own first-hand experience with this was in using Chemometrics. You spectroscopists out there will know what I mean.

     

    3 Responses to “I’ve Got Your Methane Right Here, Pal”

    1. david foster Says:

      “hydropower causes much more global warming than coal or oil-fired power stations”…too many people insist on focusing on a single variable. Even if the statement is true–and the analysis behind it seems to assume that global warming science is a lot more settled than many people think it is–there are other factors to be considered. For example, coal burning without filtration or effective combustion control, as practiced in many less-developed countries, kills people via lung disease–over the next few years or decades, not in future centuries. Oil burning involves issues of cost and national security. You can’t just optimize one variable in a vacuum or you will screw up a lot of other things.

    2. John Jay Says:

      David- certainly. My point is that no simple model captures all the downstream consequences, and modelers need to honestly state that, and incorporate new data as it becomes available. Too often they don’t.

    3. ElGaboGringo Says:

      Nice post. Penn and Teller’s B*llshit has a good episode on recycling that makes this point. Like it takes more resources to use recycled paper than to make it from scratch and landfill it. I saw on youtube, maybe it’s still there.