Saturday, July 15, 2017

"Raining Sulphuric Acid"

We have it on the authority of no less than Stephen Hawking. The Trump administration has provoked a round of mindless hysteria in the minds of environmental activists.

OK, that’s not exactly what Hawking said. He said that Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord was going to make the earth as hot as Venus. And if you know your Roman mythology, Venus was very hot indeed.

OK, Hawking really said that Earth’s average temperature would soar to 250 degrees and it would rain sulphuric acid. This recalls the old song, sung by The Weather Girls: “It’s Raining Men.” Pick your poison.

Nathan Cofnas reports in the Weekly Standard:

Earlier this month Stephen Hawking declared: “We are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible. Trump’s action [withdrawing from the Paris climate accord] could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of two hundred and fifty degrees [Celsius], and raining sulphuric acid.”

Hawking is a scientist, but that does not, Cofnas reminds us, mean that everything he says is scientific fact. Here, Hawking is offering a hypothesis, or better, a prophecy, one that has nothing to do with the facts.

Cofnas responds:

The proportion of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is currently about 400 parts per million (ppm). The Cambrian explosion—when most animal lineages first appeared—occurred a little more than 500 million years ago when, according to all estimates, carbon dioxide levels were several times higher than today. The atmosphere of Venus is 965,000 ppm carbon dioxide, enveloped in clouds of sulfuric acid. And Venus itself is almost 26 million miles closer to the sun than Earth.

So Hawking’s claim that the earth is on the “brink” of becoming like Venus is preposterous. Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explicitly notes that the Earth will not experience a runaway greenhouse effect such as might have occurred on Venus.

From 400 ppm to 965,000 ppm… that is quite the leap of faith. Serious environmentalists will call it a rounding error, but still.

Cofnas points out that Hawking has let his imagination get seduced by visions of fire and brimstone, of the Inferno. He is thinking religion, not science. Does he honestly believe that he is about to be punished for his sins? Or does he think that the Paris Climate Accord was the royal road to salvation?

Cofnas concluded:

The threatened punishment for noncompliance substitutes sulfuric acid for the regular sulfur (brimstone) that features in old-fashioned religion. As far as the justification for the claim, there is no important difference between this and a religious statement that is supposed to be believed simply because it issues forth from a high priest.


trigger warning said...

It's a pity, but Hawking has finally jumped the shark. He seems painfully uninformed about basic planetary science.

Unfortunately, his reputation in the media has been driven, in large part, by his highly visible disability. He's a very good physicist in his field, but his work is not uncontroversial. Right now, Hawking is in a theoretical catfight with the estimable Canadian physicist, Neil Turok. Roger Penrose, arguably the worlds greatest living physicist, dismantled Hawking's so-called "M-theory". If it weren't for the popularity of the imaginatively-named and hugely counterintuitive "black holes", Hawking would be just another mathematical astrophysicist.

Hawking would be better served by sticking to his knitting.

trigger warning said...

By the way, in case you're tracking the Apocalypse, the Maldives will disappear below the waves by January, and ran out of potable drinking water in 1992.

I blame Trump.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Trump will push the Earth over the brink. Got it.

I'm sure Hawking thinks, sees and imagines lots of things. Doesn't mean they're true.

Ares Olympus said...

Yes, sure Hawking is way off base.

Cofnas responds: The proportion of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is currently about 400 parts per million (ppm). The Cambrian explosion—when most animal lineages first appeared—occurred a little more than 500 million years ago when, according to all estimates, carbon dioxide levels were several times higher than today.

This is true, but deceptive given the sun is getting warmer over time. A cooler sun means you need a stronger green house effect in the past to hold the heat in. The sun will last another 4 billion years, but in 1 billion years the sun will be hot enough to make life on earth impossible, so you could say we're 1/3 of the way (500 million of 1500 million years) towards a dead earth.

Interestingly the atmospheric CO2 is lowest in a glacial period, like 160ppm so when there is less plant activity, more CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and stored in the ground. So a glacial cycle has a large negative feedback cycle between more ice to reflect more sunlight into space, and lower CO2 to keep less infrared light from scattering back into space.

And our earth's last 10 million years is technically a ice age with glaciers for 80,000 years and 20,000 year interglacial cycles which we're in now. But if we raise CO2, and help melt more ice, it's like we're unplugging the natural refrigerator that has kept our earth cooler for 10 million years, and what follows our interfering may make plants happy for a few centuries, until all the ice is finally gone and the "run away greenhouse effect" won't have the old ice to help any more.

I can be a skeptic about our long term ability to destabilize the climate, but really what's important to us is whether the earth will support 9 billion people after 2050, and how we're going to feed all those people and keep them cool when our fossil fuel resources fail to keep up with demand.

Tom Friedman's "Hot Flat and Crowded" is our future it seems, and we're going to need more than walls to keep ourselves in the richer side of the migration cycles coming.

Sam L. said...

It Thomas Friedman a climate scientist? I think not. He is an NYT columnist, which does not make him either smart or right. I admit this does not make him dumb or wrong, but I'd wager on the wrong.

Ares Olympus said...

Sam L. said... It Thomas Friedman a climate scientist?

Actually I'm misusing Friedman's title, although he is advocating for renewable energy, which should be sensible to any conservative who wants a future that doesn't depend on burning 1 million years of ancient sunlight every year to survive.

And Friedman is a techno-optimist, somehow believes we can have a debt-based economy that demands the future always be bigger that the present, while claiming we can just keep cutting our per capita impact upon a finite earth.

So we're in agreement his optimism is misplaced, and probably walls of some sort are needed in a world to keep local stupidity contained in localized consequences, not that it ever works, but perhaps China had less horses invading from Mongolia.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Tom Friedman thinks the communist Chinese have things all figured out. That's what concerns me about Friedman's worldview, and is the prism I use when evaluating his views. The Chinese regime is a technocratic organized crime syndicate. It is shameful that they enjoy MFN with us.