Interview: Climate Change – A Different Perspective with Judith Curry: Part II
by Judith Curry
My follow up interview on the Strong And Free podcast [link].
My previous interview with Christopher Balkaran was discussed in this post. I also very much enjoyed our 2nd conversation.
At this point, the only interviews I’ve been giving are long-form discussions (order one hour). I have no interest in scoring sound-bite points, and I’m not very good at it anyways. I also like talking with interviewers from other countries.
A transcript of the interview is provided below. I have heavily edited this to make it more coherent and something that people hopefully want to read, while preserving the content of interview. I am really a much better writer than speaker, especially with off-the-cuff responses to questions.
We covered a lot of range, I hope this interview will stimulate some interesting discussion.
So, there’s been a lot of feedback from our first conversation and I wanted to dive right in, because I think that’s what a lot of people want to know more about. Now I will say the vast majority of people who reached out were very positive. But the folks that were very critical raised some very compelling arguments that I’d love for you to discuss. And the first was about climate modelling when it comes to climate change. And I know in the past, people have asked you about why you’re so critical about of climate change modelling in particular. And some of your critics say, well, there’s so much robust data out there. It’s been tested time and time again, and it kind of flies in the face of being critical of climate change modelling. What are your thoughts about that?
The IPCC AR 6 published a report last August, and I have to say they joined me in a lot of the criticisms of global climate models. In fact, for the first time, for their projections to 2100, while they show all the models, they constrained the projections, picking the ones that they like, which happened to be on the lower end. There’s also a growing movement not to use these big global climate models for policy purposes, but just to use simple climate emulators, that input some very basic things like which emissions scenario, which value of climate sensitivity, and off you go. The other thing that the IPCC had to say, which joins me, is that these climate models do not simulate extreme weather events. Their resolution is too coarse.
So any projections about future hurricanes, rainfall rates, whatever, are semi empirically based on observations, they’re not directly spit out by the climate models. And then the third factor is with regards to regional climate change. The IPCC AR6 thoroughly acknowledges that global climate models cannot simulate regional climate variability with any kind of skill because they don’t get the magnitude and the timing of the major modes natural internal climate variability, which have a dominant role in regional climates. In fact, the IPCC spent three chapters devoted to regional climate change. And at first I was really excited. Do they have a recipe for how we should do this? But they didn’t, you have to distill multiple lines of evidence – models, historical data, paleo climate data, process models, physical reasoning. There’s no simple answer, but you sure as heck can’t just use what the global climate models spit out.
A model that simulates the warming since 1970 based on CO2 emissions does not constitute proof that CO2 has caused the warming. The latest post on my blogs cites some papers that show that solar variability can explain pretty much all of the recent warming. So you can have models that get the right answer or something close to the right answer for the wrong reasons.
That’s very fascinating. Two follow-up questions on that. Judith. What were some of the reasons why the IPCC kind of walked back from alarmist reports from the past, which, mentioned high levels of global warming that would happen in the very near future if drastic action hadn’t been done?
Two things they’ve backed off quite a bit. The first is the really high emissions scenario. It used to be called business as usual. It’s not business as usual. It’s some crazy extreme scenario that is highly implausible, if not impossible. So they backed off on that one. The other thing is that the latest generation of climate models in the so-called CMIP6 simulation series, about a half of them were running way too hot, with equilibrium climate sensitivities of over five degrees. And they don’t do a good job of reproducing 20th century temperature history. So, what happened? Those models included some new cloud feedback processes, sort of arcane details about how clouds interact with aerosols. On one level, it’s improving the physics, but on another level they didn’t include countervailing negative feedbacks that were needed to really make this work in the model. As a result, the models were just running way too hot. And so the IPCC sort of danced around it and then did a constrained selection of the climate model simulations, resulting in much more moderate temperature projections than prediced by the CMIP6 models.
The second follow-up to that – the comments I received back from our first conversation was Judith Curry is basing this on her own modeling and discounting the vast data that’s out there.
I don’t run a climate model. I don’t have my own climate model. I interpret the results from other climate models. I rely much more heavily on observations, including a longer historical record. And I also look at paleo climate observations in my analysis. I do not have my own climate model.
There are many individuals who have reached out with very detailed data and are very passionate about this topic. And it seems like if you’re not “on the right side” you’re lambasted instead of having a nuanced conversation, it’s definitely you’re either an unbeliever. You’re a believer. And I’d love to know from your perspective, being someone who’s been in that space and has been in many ways, accosted for your views. What do you believe are some of the underpinning reasons for that to be, which is specific to the climate change space?
First of all, this whole issue has become a big part of tribal political identity. Somebody who’s in the right tribe can publish something that’s moderately critical or skeptical and they get away with it. Somebody who’s not in the right tribe, who says the same thing can’t get away with it – it either gets ignored or people in the other tribe try to squash it, and this is asymmetrical since one side has the political power. The other thing is there are certain aspects of climate science that are fairly basic, there’s a lot of data out there and much of climate science is based on basic physics and thermodynamics. And so a lot of people who understand statistics or basic physics say, I can look at that problem or I can try to analyze this. And so there’s a lot of passionate armchair scientists out there cranking through numerous aspects of climate science. Some if it is crankology. But some people have genuinely made really good contributions who are not PhD educated climate scientists.
My colleague, Nic Lewis is a case in point he’s, he’s a financier. He has degrees in physics and math from Oxford, but not a PhD. He’s very good at statistics and he’s taken on the climate sensitivity problem and has published maybe a dozen papers, in reputable journals and even co-authored with a number of distinguished mainstream scientists. Nic is an example of somebody who started off in this armchair mode, but actually ended up taking it to the next level and making contributions that are recognized by the mainstream and even cited in IPCC reports.
So the challenge is to separate the wheat from the chaff, but it’s really good for the populace to be engaged and thinking about the problem and looking at the data and so on. Alot of interesting research is having difficulty getting published in what I would call mainstream climate journals, but the minute they go a little farther afield and publish in astronomy and space physics or environmental engineering journals or something like that, where it’s not quite so religious, then they can get it published. So, it’s not a good situation, this whole tribalism thing has polluted the science. A lot of the ‘big’ journals and editors do gate-keeping that seems politically motivated. That’s very unfortunate for promoting reasoned, scientific debate and dialogue which is what the journals are supposed to do.
Yeah. I think that warrants a separate discussion on what journal articles are getting approved and funded and, and how that shapes public opinion. I wanted to talk to you because people said, “Christopher, you agreed too much with Judith Curry on your podcast!” So you need to challenge her.
One thing that some mentioned was that in your articles, you talk a lot about food security, water and energy. And it kind of is divorced from the emissions discussion. And so I wanted to know from you, because here in Canada, we’re experiencing really severe weather patterns in the west coast and British Columbia right now. And as I was reading those, I was thinking exactly about what you said, which is why don’t we focus on our wastewater management. It seems that when we talk about climate change, that’s muddled into the emissions discussion. And reducing emissions seems to be the number one priority. Why do you think it’s important that we separate the two and respond to each kind of differently?
The whole issue of climate change adaptation has taken second or third seat behind emissions. Even if we do manage to fix the emissions problem, you’re still going to get crazy floods and storms in British Columbia. I mean, they’re not going to go away. You can say, well global warming makes it 3% worse – maybe it does, but it’s not like these storms still aren’t going to occur. So the whole issue of reducing vulnerability and adapting to weather extremes and sea level rise should transcend the global warming debate.
We need to reduce our vulnerability to these weather and climate extremes. Many places have too much water or too little water, even in the same region during different seasons. So, the challenge is to better manage the reservoirs and sewage systems. You need to figure out how to manage your water so you can buffer against the extreme wet and the extreme dry. And building in floodplains and right on the coast just causes problems. These issues are soluble and the big driver here is not that they might be impacted at a few percent level by man-made global warming. Even if we fix man-made global warming, these problems won’t go away.
That’s why I emphasize solutions that support human wellbeing, minimize losses and so forth and so on. And food is another issue. We produce enough food globally, the challenge is getting it distributed in the right places. Helping places produce their own food in developing world, making better decisions about their agriculture, would substantially support human well-being.
My company just got funded for a new project to develop an agricultural forecast system for one of the states in Pakistan. We’re working with an NGO and agronomists who are on the ground in Pakistan. We provide the forecast information so they can make better choices about which seeds they plant for a given season. They can time their planting based on monsoon onsets. And they can maximize irrigation based on understanding when the monsoon break periods will come along. They can use information about severe convective storms and wind gusts to make sure they pick their crops before they all get flattened by the wind and on and on. So there’s a lot of little things like that that do not cost a heck of a lot of money where you can use information to optimize your yield to the extent that countries can grow their own food. This really makes the global food supply much more secure. A lot of little things like that that you can do, and that’s not to mention all the new hybrids and GMOs and whatever that improve the hardiness and the nutrition of the crops.
And then if you go to energy security, I mean, what is the point of all this? If we destroy the energy security of the planet, by having electricity that’s intermittent, unreliable and too expensive, that’s not helpful to anyone. We’re headed towards a real reckoning here, you can’t run industrial economies on wind and solar. People are starting to realize this.
Within the last few months alot of people and some governments are suddenly saying nuclear is the answer. Well, yeah, it sort of is, but why are you just realizing this now? The realities of wind power are being realized. In the North Sea, they have all these offshore wind turbines. In 2020 these produced 25% of England’s power, which is fabulous. But in the first 10 months of 2021, they produced 7% of the power. So England and the rest of Europe is scrambling, having to pay too much money for natural gas and then with all the political problems with the natural gas supply from Russia. So, being able to produce your energy from within your country has a lot of appeal.
The one advantage of solar and wind as it gave some local autonomy to the countries, but wind and solar are not enough to run an industrial economy. And nuclear power gives you the best of both worlds. And also if the countries were to frack for natural gas, that’s another energy source that could be more local. The most important issue is energy security, so that its abundant and reliable, and you’re not held hostage to other countries or crazy price spikes.
I have no problem with going to cleaner energy sources. Everybody would prefer clean over dirty energy. But energy security has to be first and foremost, we have to have reliable, affordable energy. Otherwise, none of this makes sense.
I’m so glad you raised energy security. Cause that was one thing I wanted to talk to you about. It’s so complex and you raise a lot of really important points that are politics being one of them, for sure. Canada, we are a naturally wealthy country and shipping natural gas to China helping them lower their CO2 emissions is great. But that requires a lot of pipeline development here in Canada. There’s a lot of environmental regulations working with Indigenous communities and organizations. So it’s very challenging sometimes and often it’s people see the short term, the pipeline development and how that’ll affect the local ecosystems and not potentially the long term, which is potentially lower CO2 emissions. And the biggest polluter in the world’s emissions will go down and that’s a good thing.
But I do think that most people see the real cost with introducing new technologies, like wind and solar to replace entire energy systems because energy security is the critical point here. Why do you think that there’s this push specifically for wind and solar for governments to adopt, despite the fact that its inefficiencies are so evident and, and the costs being so high? I see this consistent narrative that with more investments, those costs will come down. It will be more affordable for developed nations to use as a viable solution. Caveat to that too, is I think if we do use solar on a large scale amount doesn’t, it require a lot of land mass?
Wind power requires a huge amount of land use. There are ecosystem disruptions, raptors being killed by wind turbines. In the old days, the environmental narrative was you couldn’t disrupt wildlife habitats, but now it’s okay to wholesale kill raptors with wind turbines. What happened to the traditional environmental values and concerns? They’ve all been thrown out the window because of global warming. The other issue I see is the waste, the end of life, what to do with all this toxic stuff from the solar panels and the wind turbines. For these to make environmental sense, there needs to be a lot of recycling and reuse, the circular economy.
Then there’s the issue of mining, all these batteries and the solar panels need cobalt, lithium, copper, on and on it goes. In the seventies and eighties, there were wars in the Middle East because of oil. Now, will there be wars in the countries that are naturally rich in terms of these minerals? This is where the next geopolitical conflicts are going to be. Again, if we go nuclear with Thorium, we bypass all this.
If you go back to like the 80s, when people were first talking about, oh, we need to stop this whole CO2 thing, there were two groups that jumped on this. It was the petroleum people and the nuclear people, they wanted to squeeze out coal. The oil and gas people ended up being ascendant as anti-nuclear sentiments took over. And then there was the big push for renewables. We’ve already seen the problems with wind and solar. But what really irks me is burning wood pellets, cutting trees down in North Carolina, making them into wood pellets, and then putting on a ship and having them burnt in the UK to produce electricity. And this is a big part of the UK’s claim to be producing renewable energy – does this make any environmental sense?
And so we have given birth to a whole lot of nonsensical policies. Wind and solar are niche solutions. Small modular nuclear reactors seem to be far and away the best solution, at least on the near term horizon. We’re just starting to see these plants. But on the time scale of 10 years, they should be very common. There may be other better sources that come down the pike. It takes a certain amount of time to develop prototypes, but scaling up and taking it to market and the infrastructure and whatever all takes time. So I think in the near term, the, the small modular nuclear reactors are the best solution for the next decade, but even going to natural gas, converting from coal to natural gas, I think is, is a fairly significant help.
When I look at wind and solar if I were an investor or a leader of a country – the value proposition just isn’t there yet. And it doesn’t mean that it can’t get there at some point. But right now, if I’m struggling with energy security, those forms of energy like wind or hydroelectricity, or have good sun exposure – coal makes sense. But I want it to follow up with that because again, and I don’t want to say that these folks who emailed me are fringe, but there were individuals who said, “Judith Curry is connected to the fossil fuel industry. And she’s a renegade that’s been disproven!”
My company has some clients in the energy sector, here are some examples. We make hurricane forecasts for electricity providers in Florida, so they can figure out when a storm is coming so they can prepare and and do their best to bring electricity back up quickly. My oldest client in the energy sector is a petroleum company. And my involvement with them is for natural gas trading. This began about 15 years to go to help stabilize natural gas prices, following hurricane Katrina and all that mess in the Gulf of Mexico and the natural gas prices skyrocketed. My company also provides temperature forecasts to support natural gas trading, but the biggest, the growing part of the natural gas trading is forecasts of wind power. And to a lesser extent, solar power. Forecasts of wind and solar power are very important because they’re so intermittent. Knowing when the wind is going to blow or the sun isn’t going to shine makes a big difference in how much natural gas you need to buy for backup. So all of this supports having adequate natural gas supply in the face of these intermittences and keeping the price stabilized. So how is that evil? I’m not exactly sure.
My climate research is not supported by fossil fuel companies. Some energy companies are customers for my companies weather forecast products (about 25% of the total revenue for my company). So how this puts me in bed with with fossil fuel companies, I don’t know. Any weather company or meteorologist in the private sector is dealing with energy companies. They’re the biggest single consumer of weather information. So that is my involvement with energy companies.
And that’s the very disgusting part of the climate science space. It’s that, that smearing, that divisiveness takes us away from the real, like you said, food security water management issues. And then you see the ramifications of not focusing on that. Not making the connection that somehow governments are looking at this and not thinking about infrastructure development, because I’m sure they are. But if there was as much focus on that than there are on emissions reductions, you just wonder…
All the money and effort that we’ve spent on renewables could have been used to improve the electricity transmission grid, and reduce our vulnerability to extreme weather events, which are going to happen anyways.
Exactly. I also have this idea, I was talking to a friend of mine who’s big on electric vehicles. And I said to that person, I said, wouldn’t it be kinda neat if we just kept focusing on making the gas powered engine way more efficient getting a thousand kilometers out of a single tank of gas instead of just jumping into an electric vehicle where we still don’t really know all the risks with the technology as yet? Whereas with the gas powered engine, we’ve got a hundred plus years. Why don’t we just make that more efficient? I mean, doesn’t it produce more heat than anything else, I don’t know.
Well, I don’t know how much more efficient they can be made, but I like hybrid vehicles because the batteries are simpler. So I think the hybrid vehicles are a good intermediate solution. And the other issue too, everybody gets excited about electric vehicles, which are going to double, triple, quadruple, our need for electricity. Wind and solar alone aren’t going to cut it. We will need much, much more electricity, Bitcoin and and who knows what else will emerge. Electricity is key to innovation and prosperity, so we want as much of it as we can get.
What are your thoughts on COP26 and is the outcome what you anticipated? So for me, looking at it, making a global climate change agreement is exceptionally challenging and it lends itself to nothing too specific. What are your thoughts about just global climate change agreements all together? Do you think that they’re kind of they’re that they’re, I wouldn’t say pointless. But that it just shows a commitment from the global community towards climate change?
Well, I think Greta nailed it with her blah, blah, blah. There’ve been a lot of these COPs. It’s mostly hot air. And the thing that really irks me is all these ‘important people’ flying in on their private jets and driving around intheir gas-powered big limos and whatever. Excuse me, can you please walk the talk at least in some superficial way? COP26 looked like this big opulent blow out, and and here they’re telling all these developing countries, we’re not going to let you develop grid electricity and fossil fuel power plants. It was hypocrisy, at its finest. But all of these promises are really political games. At the end of the day, very few countries are going to sacrifice their own economic wellbeing over this issue.
A few European countries seem inclined to, but most of the others don’t no matter what they say. The US is an interesting microcosm because in the absence of a very stringent federal policy, you have the different states going in different directions. On one hand you have California. They’re going full force to wind and solar and shutting down their last nuclear power plant. And, the electricity prices are sky high with outages and on and on it goes, there’s no end of problems. And people are leaving California in droves. We’re seeing a few states that are in the Northeast that want to follow in California’s footsteps. And then you have other states that want to keep burning coal.And then in Northern Minnesota where they do all the iron ore smelting and all the really big, big, heavy industry stuff, I mean, coal is really the best fuel for that. So it’s hard to get them off coal also. At the end of the day, it’s wrong for the UN to ask countries to stop, burning fossil fuels when there aren’t any obvious alternatives for them, or if they don’t have enough electricity already, it’s just, it’s just not right.
Also, the actual level of alarm over global warming has dropped a lot. We used to hear five degrees centigrade, four degrees, crazy, horrible, scary stuff. Okay. Now with the AR6, with the medium emissions scenario, they said their best estimate was 2.9 degrees centigrade. And this is 2.9 degrees since pre-industrial times. So it’s really, we’ve already warmed 1.2. So we’re already halfway there with no particularly dire results. And then actually according to the International Energy Agencies, our emissions are coming in lower than the IPCC medium emission scenario. The estimates are now like maybe 2.6 degrees is the business as usual. And then if you put in everybody’s promises, that goes down to 2.2 and then net zero for the more developed countries, then it’s down to 1.8 degrees. Not meeting the made up target of 1.5 degrees is deemed to be code red for humanity, but how meaningful are these targets?
These timelines totally ignore natural climate variability. It looks like all the modes of natural climate variability are tilted towards cooling over the next three decades. It looks like we’re heading towards a solar minimum. Any volcanic eruptions by definition are negative. And we expect the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation to shift to the cold phase on the timescale of about a decade. So all of these modes of natural variability point to cooling in the coming decades, which would push these off by decades. This buys us decades to figure out what we should do. So we’re talking about less than one degree of additional warming, it doesn’t sound so scary when you put it that way.
What are your thoughts on environment and corporate social governance? If ESG is this new term that’s floating out there especially in the financial circles about companies and individuals directing their investments to companies that already have some type of environment or social governance policy or platform to their line of work. Now just as an individual, I’m concerned about that because I always think, well, there’s no real way to audit a company on their environment or environmental, social governance. And I worry that a lot of money is going into this space now, similar to sole sourcing windmill development to one company and signing up large government contracts. And what I saw at COP26 was there’s a lot of money on the table that’s dedicated to this. And again, as a layman investor, I would say, well, show me your assets, show me your liabilities. And I can tell you if you’re profitable or not, I’m concerned about this. Cause it could kind of in a way, inflate an entire sector without really looking at its profitability?
Those people might very well end up losing money because those might not necessarily be the smartest decisions on the timescale of a decade. There’s a lot of greenwashing going on. People who are voting with their politics and their green conscience are becoming people who are voting with their wallet, we’ll see who wins financially. The same thing is going on with property along the coast in the US. Every one is alarmed about sea level rise, and then President Obama just bought a big mansion at Martha’s Vineyard, right on the coast. Like, how worried are you about sea level rise? At some point, there’ll be Republican and Democrat neighborhoods, the Democrats won’t buy houses on the coast and the Republicans or the climate deniers will. And who’s going to make money out of these deals, and will there be net benefits or disasters to living on the coast? We’ll see.
Many people have overinflated the financial risk of all this. The scientists who prepared the socioeconomic pathways and the emission scenarios have stated that by 2100, everyone will be better off than they are now, at least on average, even for the highest emissions scenarios. So why are we, doing all this now – our grandchildren who will be better off than we are. We have a fairly naive understanding of the risks we’re actually facing in the 21st century. Climate policy could end up being like treating a head cold with chemotherapy, while when the real medical problem is something very different. And by putting so much resources into an ineffective solution for climate change, we use up the insurance money that we have for all our threats, and we could overall end up more vulnerable as a result of this exercise.
And I think about everything that we’ve talked about, and I think about elections in the United States and around the world and this Canada went through its own election here in September. And it seems like there’s this blind adoption of, we must do something for climate change. And we’re going to sign on to every international agreement and we’re going to commit Canada and the United States to these record low emissions levels, but it’s less sexier to talk about, well, guess what, we also built up our water waste management in, Northern Alberta, or other parts of Canada and the United States. And so I wonder, is all this too far gone? Can we elect politicians now and leaders of countries that want to revert back to evidence-based discussions and less on the political platitudes?
Oh, but the science is ‘settled’ everyone knows that. They’ve been so brainwashed about global warming that there’s only one thing that’s going to change it. if I’m right about natural variability having sort of a cooling effect in the coming decades, this will be the one piece of evidence that people will have to pay attention to. If that transpires, I would say that would be the single most effective thing at bringing this dialogue back to some level of rationality, but how much confidence do I have in that prediction? How much money am I going to bet on that? I don’t know, but it’s a very plausible scenario that natural variability will lead to cooling in the coming decades, or at least slow down the warming. So we’ll see if that transpires. If it does, that would be the single most effective thing at bringing the dialogue back to normal in some sensible way, so people look at this problem more broadly. On the current path, we are not managing this risk in a sensible way that would leave our countries stronger and less vulnerable to whatever my transpire in the future.
And I think voices like yourself and those that are advocating for more sensibility when it comes to energy security too, it’s, it’s very, very appealing to talk about wind and solar. It’s less appealing to say coal is not a choice. It’s a necessity for some countries in some regions and it’s not that these regions don’t want cleaner energy. It’s just, we haven’t gotten to that point yet for that area. And so I think that’s why I’m so thankful that you’ve agreed to come back on here and talk for a second time.
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