Is it the diagnosis or the prescription?

Update: As pointed out by MikeM in comments on my other blog, I got the numbers wrong for forcings in watts per square meter. Sorry! Here’s the chart from IPCC AR5–I’ll update numbers and text below and adjust the text accordingly. Let me know if I missed anything.

Patient disease

There are those who label opponents of the climate consensus as climate ‘deniers’ and some of those who do go out of their way to make sure that the term is as loaded as possible. When asked what it is these ‘deniers’ deny, the explanation varies, but usually boils down to ‘you don’t agree with our policy proposals so you must be denying climate science.’ If it hasn’t already, the conversation quickly breaks down when these climate activists are informed that ‘non-sequitur’ actually has a meaning.

As a non-scientist lukewarmer, I cheerfully accept the bulk of the science regarding climate change. I have no problems with the greenhouse effect, radiative transfer, the possibility of the amplification of warming caused by human effects, etc. Although what I see and read leads me to the belief that atmospheric sensitivity is at the low end of the IPCC’s 1.5C -4.5C range, it wouldn’t bring me to the point of existential crisis to find out I am wrong.

When Al Gore said ‘the planet has a fever,’ he introduced a medical metaphor that has persisted since he said it. Activists often say ‘If a doctor tells you you have cancer you normally accept it–even if you get a second opinion, it’s from another doctor.’

Although I think we should talk about climate change as complex interactions between various elements of the atmospheric and hydrological cycle, if you want to reduce it to a medical metaphor, I guess I can live with that. But it’s pretty clear that instead of talking about a fever, cancer or another favorite, heart disease, we should class human-caused climate change as a chronic condition along the lines of obesity, diabetes or alcoholism. Excess CO2 has led to a physical condition that we will have to manage or suffer serious (but not fatal) consequences.

But whatever. I accept the diagnosis. The climate has warmed and we are most probably a significant cause of this warming.

As a Lukewarmer my issues with the consensus are not about the science. Rather, I don’t agree with most of what is prescribed as a cure. Cap and Trade seems like a bad joke, REDD seems like a scam. Flying 44,000 people to Paris to talk about climate change partially due to air travel seems out of a Monty Python sketch.

Worst of all is the monomaniacal focus on CO2 emissions. These emissions constitute only one-third of human effects on the climate, yet that is the only thing that gets looked at, measured and combatted. Methane is actually a significant contributor to human influences, but it is rarely mentioned. Usually it is combined with CO2 to provide a larger total called ‘CO2 equivalents,’ then ushered quickly off stage so we can get back to the exciting conversations about sequestering CO2 underground and other megaprojects.

But, rice paddies aside, methane is easier to fight. We know where it’s coming from and we know how to stop it. Why is nobody making a fuss about it?

Similarly, black carbon causes about one-third as much as CO2 of human influences on the climate, yet it is ignored. Deforestation causes about 17% of our influence but is left out of the conversation.

Enter ‘Fast Mitigation,’ a new strategy to eliminate SLCPs (Short-Lived Climate Pollutants) including methane, black carbon, hydrofluourocarbons and tropospheric ozone. All of these factors are subject to human mitigation with existing technology and would have a dramatic effect on climate change. If implemented now, they could reduce temperatures by 0.5C by 2050, all else being equal.

The reaction of climate activists to Fast Mitigation is telling–they have derided it and sought to deligitimize those who advocate it, inventing terms like ‘mitigation skeptic’ the better to marginalize the views and viewholders.

However, combined with current efforts to get coal out of the power generation business, reversal of deforestation and the continued growth of renewables at a market-based pace, it seems like it would be easier to chart a strategy aimed at the 70% of human-influences on climate change that are not related to CO2 emissions in a manner that is both easier and cheaper.

Call it Fast Mitigation Plus. It doesn’t mean we have to abandon efforts to reduce CO2 emissions. It just means we broaden our focus to include all human influences, not just the one that is most expensive to fix, which is also the one we don’t really know how to fix.

Call it treating the patient, not the symptom.

22 thoughts on “Is it the diagnosis or the prescription?

  1. “we should class human-caused climate change as a chronic condition along the lines of obesity, diabetes or alcoholism. Excess CO2 has led to a physical condition that we will have to manage or suffer serious (but not fatal) consequences.”

    I would argue the patient is a hypochondriac and is displaying no symptoms because everything is normal and is no different than what has been before. When reading back on our long history and the climate we have endured I really struggle to see anything different now. 🙂


  2. The medical metaphor can be applied to policy as well as to the diagnosis.
    A true medical professional adheres to strong ethical codes. In prescribing a course of treatment ethically they would try to ensure that the patient will be better off with treatment than either without or with an alternative treatment programme.
    With global warming there is talk about what “we” should do. A necessary, but far from sufficient, condition for the world to be better off from policy is to reduce global emissions. But policy is not being enacted globally, but at a country or regional level. The EU, for instance, has less than 10% of global emissions – a share that is falling as other areas grow their emissions faster than the EU. If policy is itself harmful, then the harms of EU policy will be borne by the 500 million people in the EU, whilst the benefits (the mitigated harms of policy) will be tiny as global emissions will be hardly impacted. The major sources of future emissions will be from the emerging economies where the proportionate harms of mitigation are much greater, and where “expert” pontifications have no influence on policy. If that is the case (and certainly is based on the INDC submissions or the Paris 2015 climate talks), to impose policy in the EU would make the people of the EU worse off having no climate policy at all.


  3. In order to prescribe an effective remedy, you have to have an accurate diagnosis. At this current stage, we have neither.


  4. Nice post, but you may be missing the point. The driving forces of this scare, the Club of Rome, the Environmentalists and the UN bureaucrats aren’t trying to lower the temperature of the planet, they are rein to redistribute wealth from the developed to the developing world introduce a new world financial system (socialist) which would destroy capitalism and World Government. According to Bjiorn Lomberg the net effect of the much vaunted COP21 agreement would, if carried out fully, reduce global temperatures by 0.17C. It’s clearly not aimed at reducing temperature increases

    Splendid though your ideas are, and I fully support them, the last thing the Three Stooges want to see is positive action on climate change, they need the threat to make the Western industrial countries to share their wealth, take on an environmental lifestyle and hand over governance to a world government

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I dislike medical analogies, perhaps because I am a physician, because they are often used inappropriately. In the latter, invoking medical practice as an analogy is seeking to obscure the argument by inferring the two most sacred principles in medicine: ‘Do no harm’ and ‘use no falsehood’. As you can see, this issue becomes crystal clear when applied by the AGW movement. And what is a ‘diagnosis’ when we don’t know if there is even ‘disease’ present?


  6. To me the issue is the same as “getting at the root causes”. The politicians and the people who care a bit but don’t actually want their own lifestyle to change, push the carbon dioxide thing. Rather than look at people in poverty, we say “Nothing can be done until we get to the root cause!” Of course since there is no one root cause you never actually get to the point of doing anything about violence and poverty. We can’t NOT produce carbon dioxide. So we can ignore all the harm to our environment from things we CAN do something about by fixating on carbon. And the politicians love it because they can tax it and bring in money. Industry loves it because they can pay their way out of actually anything by paying for carbon credits instead, and then pass the cost on to consumers. And the true believers can feel all smug and sell righteous while they fly to Paris.


  7. Cutting SLCPs seems an eminently sensible approach. Methane and black carbon are by far the biggest. How would the author go about cutting these emissions?


  8. No regrets policies are easy because they imply no tradeoffs.
    Fast mitigation depends on details, because excessively high goals have negative cost/benefit. So it isn’t possible to generalize. How much black carbon? How much non-biogenic methane? Or do you also mean to cull beef cattle and dairy cows permanently? With what costs and benefits?
    I also think your lukewarmer position as stated is a bit naive, even though I am also technically a lukewarmer. It matters greatly what climate sensitivity is, because that determines urgency, and whether adaptation when and where eventually necessary is a better policy than fast mitigation. So one should not accept, but rather scrutinize, the core underlying CAGW principles and parameters like water vapor and cloud feedback. Like sea level rise. Like natural carbon sinks. Like ignoring CO2 greening.
    Having done that in parts of 3 books published over 6 years of research, I have concluded there are several other more pressing problems in the world than AGW, no matter whether CO2 or methane or black carbon induced.
    Developed world demographics (aging). Sovereign debt given unsustainable social spending (feedback to aging). Muslim extremism growing virtually everywhere. Long term energy policy. Long term global population in light of what can reasonably be projected for 2050 global food calory production. Those last two bite by or before 2050. In some regions, significantly before. The real problem of Vanuatu, Kiribati, and the Maldives is unsustainable population growth given limited water and agriculture resources, and limited economic prospects. Their problem is NOT climate change and SLR. That just their begging point to the Green Climate Fund.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks, everyone, for the comments. I got the forcing wrong up above and will be updating the post to reflect corrections.

    Mr. Istvan, I agree there are more pressing problems, but that doesn’t mean climate change isn’t a concern.

    Raff, c’mon–give me room for my next post, okay? 🙂

    Tumblewee, I agree with you.

    Dr. Dave, I don’t agree with you. If it is legitimate to create a medical metaphor, it is important to use the right one and scientists are the substitute for physicians in this fable. And they are clear there is a problem.

    Geronimo, I really disagree with what you wrote. I don’t think there is a global conspiracy to elevate global warming to crisis levels to insidiously erode governments. At all. I’ve seen cherry-picked quotes that can be used to create that impression–Maurice Strong has a great quote about needing global government that is pasted freely on the internet, for example. But he’s describing a novel he was thinking of writing.

    I’m glad you thought my ideas were ‘splendid,’ although after you read what I just wrote you are free to amend your description. 😉


  10. Ristvan hits the nail on the head: climate sensitivity determines whether we should be highly concerned about global warming, whether we should be moderately concerned, or whether we should indeed welcome the fact that the temperature of the planet is slightly warmer than it would otherwise be and the lower atmosphere is, at the same time, enriched with beneficial increases in CO2. There are many environmental and social issues which we should be highly concerned about, which present to the human race (and other more endangered species) a far more clear and present danger. The CAGW Phantom Menace has swallowed up truly vast amounts of capital and global focus which would have seen a good few of these issues permanently solved or at least considerably mitigated. This is why we should be angry as hell at those who plug ‘possible catastrophes’ based on ‘what if’ scenarios which are not firmly rooted in scientific evidence whilst demanding ever more urgent action.
    There is also another side to the coin. Climate sensitivity determines how much it will warm in the coming decades. but so also does natural climate variability which is still poorly understood, partly on account of the vast sums swallowed up in research grants by AGW studies. Where AGW studies have researched natural variability/climate forcings, the bias has been in maintaining that those forcings remain small in comparison to anthropogenic climate forcings. The paleo record and historical record over the Holocene especially suggest otherwise. It is quite likely that the coming decades will see a moderate to very significant cooling influence from natural factors and this will obviously impact upon any mitigation policy and its supposed urgency, but the IPCC and the hordes of climate justice warriors crying out for drastic emissions reductions largely ignore this possibility. Indeed, if you dare to suggest that the climate may cool (or man-made global warming may be offset) in the coming decades you are met with derision, even though there is a body of peer-reviewed scientific literature which suggests that will be the case. Where they do admit that natural variability may have a short term impact over a few decades or more, they always maintain that CO2 emissions will be driving climate change for centuries to come and therefore global warming will ‘come back with a vengeance’ unless we act now. Again, the scientific justification for this is weak.
    Combine low climate sensitivity with a greater cooling influence from natural variability and urgent AGW mitigation in any shape or form has virtually no case to answer.


  11. Raff, c’mon–give me room for my next post, okay? 🙂

    I’ll look forward to it. You’ll need to address how to force gas and oil exploration and delivery chain to plug the leaks that they have never been bothered about plugging before (because perhaps it is cheaper to allow leaks). I guess you’ll also be addressing those closure of any combustion facility that causes soot, the end of coal, etc. But then I’m sure you will have thought of those and many more problems. I hope you don’t turn out to be like others I have talked to, who reject action on CO2 in favour of other good causes but then make it fairly clear that they reject action on those too and in particular having any of “their money” spent on those worthy things.


    Combine low climate sensitivity with a greater cooling influence from natural variability and urgent AGW mitigation in any shape or form has virtually no case to answer.

    Everyone would like to know what sensitivity really is. Do you have some special method other than ignoring or rejecting any high value that tells you it is low? And do you know how natural variability has a cooling influence? What is the mechanism for removing energy accumulated because of black carbon, methane and CO2?


  12. Geronimo

    Splendid though your ideas are, and I fully support them…

    Maybe while the author ponders his follow-up article you can give him some clues as to how to cut this low hanging fruit.


  13. Raff:

    “Everyone would like to know what sensitivity really is. Do you have some special method other than ignoring or rejecting any high value that tells you it is low?”
    I’m not sure how a ‘high value can tell me it is low’ but i think I get what you’re saying. I didn’t say that I reject or ignore high values or that I know climate sensitivity is low. My view on climate sensitivity is here. Current observationally based estimates tend to favour a lower sensitivity, certainly considerably lower than the CMIP5 multi-model mean:

    I am aware of some of the basic mechanisms which might lead to a natural cooling. Are you? I am also aware that research is ongoing into natural variability – including the reasons for warming and cooling. It would be foolish for anyone to say they ‘know’ how the planet warms or cools in response to natural external forcings and internal variability; it is extremely complex involving a huge web of interacting processes poised somewhere between chaos and predictability.

    “What is the mechanism for removing energy accumulated because of black carbon, methane and CO2?”

    You know that energy has accumulated do you? And by how much? I recommended you read Bob Tisdale’s summary of the IPCC model-based estimates of TOA energy imbalance.

    “There are astonishing differences in the modeled estimates of the past, present and future imbalances and the three components that make up the top of the atmosphere (TOA) energy budget. That is, there is no agreement on the magnitude of TOA Earth’s energy imbalance in the models, and there are even wider disagreements in the calculated components that make up that energy budget, how they evolved in the past, and how they may evolve in the future…all suggesting, among the models, there is little agreement in the modeled processes and physics that contribute to global warming now, contributed to it in the past and might contribute to it in the future. . . . .

    What about the four models that show a negative imbalance during our base period of 1996-2015? If those models are correct, then the hypothesis of human-induced global warming has a very big problem. A negative imbalance indicates that presently more energy is being reflected and emitted by the planet than is being received from the sun…and that our emissions of greenhouse gases are returning the Earth to a balanced energy budget.

    On the other hand, recall that Trenberth et al. (2014) gave us an approximate range for the energy imbalance of 0.5 to 1.0 watts/m^2. There are 5 models that produce an energy imbalance greater than 1.2 watts/m^2 for the base period of 1996-2015. If they’re right, then there’s even more heat than is presently unaccounted for. They’ll have to call out more search parties to look for all of that missing heat.”

    As for the measurement-based estimates, they also incorporate a high degree of uncertainty:

    TOA fluxes are extraordinarily difficulty to analyse with any certainty and say for sure that energy is building up within the system. So scientists are forced to infer an energy imbalance by measurements of ocean heat content, the measurement of which also has quite large uncertainties.

    So to say that energy is building up in the system, to even identify why it is accumulating, is not as well supported by observation and theory as some might think.


  14. For those of you who do and don’t like the medical diagnosis comparison; AAAS certainly does and they even throw in the fraudulent 97% consensus for good measure:


  15. Jamie, of course I’m aware of mechanisms that might (indeed do) lead to cooling, but your claim is in the present tense:

    Combine low climate sensitivity with a greater cooling influence from natural variability and urgent AGW mitigation in any shape or form has virtually no case to answer.

    So what cooling mechaisms are operating now that can compensate for the known forcings. Aerosols are clearly one, but they don’t come near to compensating.

    Sensitivity estimates are always in terms of a range. Lewis and Curry state 1-4 C, I think. How do you know where in that range reality lies?


  16. Raff,

    “So what cooling mechanisms are operating now that can compensate for the known forcings. Aerosols are clearly one, but they don’t come near to compensating.”

    We’re always talking about the future when assessing climate change impacts and the efficacy (or otherwise) of climate mitigation. Near term or long term. Cooling is most obviously not happening right now – we’ve just lived through the warmest February ever recorded and somehow managed to survive!

    I was referring more to the near term prospects of cooling – 2016/17 onwards into the next few decades or maybe more. Here is one scenario which may or may not be realistic:

    Univ of Southampton study suggests there may be a “brief respite” from CO2 global warming:

    Of course, this “brief respite” may turn out to be rather more prolonged than suspected if climate sensitivity is at the low end of estimates and negative feedbacks are more pronounced than presumed. Then of course there is solar activity which is forecast to be very low for SC25 and perhaps beyond. Though consensus climate science dismisses the impact of solar variability compared to GHG forcing, it has been significant in the past (accounting for 0.5C to 1C global cooling) and may indeed prove to be significant in the decades to come.


  17. Raff,

    “Sensitivity estimates are always in terms of a range. Lewis and Curry state 1-4 C, I think. How do you know where in that range reality lies?”

    Lewis and Curry did give ‘best estimates’ which were at the lower end of the scale. IPCC AR5 doesn’t even do that – just gives a range 1.5 – 4.5C. However, L & C’s 95% confidence interval is considerably reduced by updated estimates of aerosol forcings. See here:


  18. Jamie, the quote I questioned was:

    Combine low climate sensitivity with a greater cooling influence from natural variability and urgent AGW mitigation in any shape or form has virtually no case to answer.

    From what you have said since, the ‘has’ there was an error and the certainty you expressed disappears. What you perhaps meant to say was,

    If climate sensitivity was to turn out to be low and/or significant long term natural cooling influences were to occur, urgent AGW mitigation might be unnecessary.

    If you said that, I doubt many people would disagree. But it is hardly something to hang your hat on.


  19. “But it is hardly something to hang your hat on.”
    Agreed. I think it best if we all hang on to our hats actually!


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