Global Warming

Global Warming one engineers viewpoint.

If you make a serious attempt to figure out what the global warming problem is you might find it more difficult than you thought. Although I thought it would be complicated it was much more complicated that I expected, and requires a lot of investigation just to understand the basic interaction of variables. There are a lot of opinions, hearsay, and considerable misinformation. Please recognize that these comments are only my own draft analysis of the problem. I do not suggest that I am expert at global warming modeling and control, and may revise my analysis and suggestions in the future in case I missed some important considerations.

The Climate Models

The first question is where to get technical information about global warming. My first thought was to go directly to the climate modeling experts:
  • National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR, in Boulder, Colorado, USA),
  • Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research (in Exeter, UK)
  • Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL, in Princeton, New Jersey, USA)
  • Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany

    This might be useful if you could get a guided tour and get a personal training course, but "get real"; you cannot. Instead I suggest a live dynamic encyclopedia that is updated as new developments take place. Wikipedia seems to provide a fairly complete technical description, including explanations of economic and political issues. Unless you are serious about climate modeling this description is quite sufficient to get the overall picture.

    What you will learn is the climate models of our planets environment can make many useful predictions, but there are many questions we would like to find answers for, but the climate models cannot do that. For example the models predict that even if greenhouse gases were stabilized at 2000 levels, a further warming of about 0.5 C (0.9 F) would still occur. This temperature increase when added to the 0.74 DegC we already have gets us to 1.24 DegC with and an uncertainty of about +/- 0.2 DegC. The climate models cannot tell us that specific weather events are caused by global warming. The climate models predicted Arctic shrinking that was significantly less than the observed shrinkage, this is model error. So yes there are many limitations to the science and we have a lot to learn.

    Increased publicity regarding global warming has resulted in political and economic debate and some polarized views. Some of the arguments we heard at Copenhagen suggest that the U.S. created most of the extra CO2 and the U.S. economy benefited from that, so they should make the biggest sacrifices. Since China's gross national CO2 emissions now exceed those of the U.S. there is a lot of pressure on China to make reductions. China has suggested that it is less obligated to reduce emissions since its per capita emissions are much less than those of the U.S. It certainly is a bit messy both technically and politically.

    It has been my experience that most scientists work hard to do honest science. Still both unintentional bias as well as manipulated data can occur. Independent peer review should minimize such bias. Various businesses are threatened by actions that would be taken to mitigate global warming such as a Carbon Tax. Companies such as Exxon Mobil have downplayed IPCC climate change scenarios. Exxon Mobil has funded scientists who disagree with the scientific consensus, and provided their own projections of the economic cost of stricter controls. As the financial resources of businesses and their experience with lobbying is much more developed there are strong forces at work to create doubt about global warming. I have mentioned the stewardship efforts of companies like DuPont, but not all business leaders put social responsibilities above stock holder profits.

    The Climate Debate

    The comments that we hear are: "There has been a change to the climate, but that the cause is still uncertain." and "I don't believe anyone has the answer yet". Debate about assumptions and modeling methods is healthy and will advance the science. The question to ask is which climate models and data sets have you analyzed to come to the conclusion that nobody knows anything about climate behavior yet? Have you actually looked at any climate models or are you simply saying you personally don't know anything about climate science? We do know that climate models are tested by examining their ability to simulate current or past climates. Current climate models produce a good match to observations of global temperature changes over the last century. These models are useful to make predictions with a certain error band about future climate temperatures. My personal conclusion is there are many people who will not take the time to get technically educated about climate science. The predictions from the climate science clearly indicate humans are heating up the Earth. There is also a broad consensus that heating the Earth more than 2 DegC will cause a lot of significant changes. We are smart enough to know that many of these changes will be harmful, but not smart enough to know all of the positive and negative effects on our environment. Whenever I have tuned control systems where I did not understand the process completely, I always went slowly so I didn't wreck the clients equipment. With the Earths climate, we have a temperature control system where we don't understand the process that well. Those who claim we should stay on the same path of quickly releasing 300 million years of stored carbon to keep our economy strong, but refuse to make any predictions about the impact of those actions have on our climate, are not acting to meet their social responsibilities. Those business who recognize that their actions are producing harm to society and/or the environment and act to hide or mislead the public need to be identified and dealt with accordingly. We require an educated and informed public to make regulations that protect the public interest by limiting those business activities that do the greatest harm to our environment.

    My Carbon Addictions

    I have modeled and controlled many complex processes before, so I at least have some basic technical idea of how such problems can be approached. I am proud of the work that I have done in the oil, gas, and energy sectors to help create our current energy infrastructure. Like most people I am addicted to electricity and hydrocarbons myself. I really like all the things they help me with, like running all my electrical gadgets that allow me to connect to useful information and communicate for business and pleasure and light my house and allow me to cook and heat. Hydrocarbons and electric power make me powerful by providing the energy to run lawnmowers, saws, drills, and snowblowers. I have enjoyed fast cars and motorcycles too. I worked on many projects, including the development of the BOSS software product that helps refineries meet the EPA, CARB and European requirements of reformulated transportation fuels. It is not uncommon that manufacturing processes have unintended consequences. As I take my obligations to help society seriously, I have made an effort to understand the impact of CO2 emissions on the Earths climate. It does not appear to be a hoax to me. We all need to understand the real problems with CO2 as dealing with this problem will affect everyone's lifestyle. Between running out of various resources like oil and problem of global warming, we all have a stake in making the best choices for recreating a more sustainable lifestyle.

    Some questions, some useful facts, and some predictions

  • Who is to blame and who should fix it?
    Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, the United States has produced more than 1 trillion tons of carbon emissions from fossil fuels compared to Chinas 300 million tons.

  • What is the economic impact that climate change has on business?
    From the Wikipedia document: In 2005, the average social cost of carbon from 100 peer-reviewed estimates is US$12 per tonne of CO2, but range -$3 to $95/tCO2. The IPCC's gives these cost estimates with the caveats, "Aggregate estimates of costs mask significant differences in impacts across sectors, regions and populations and very likely underestimate damage costs because they cannot include many non-quantifiable impacts."

  • What is the best way to keep our climate safe?
    There has been a developing consensus that limiting the temperature increase to 2 DegC will keep us from experiencing the worst damage to the environment. The McKinsey report considers a huge number of options and prioritizes them with costs and benefits.

  • Fossil fuel burning has produced about three-quarters of the increase in CO2 from human activity over the past 20 years. Most of the rest is due to land-use change, particularly deforestation.
  • Without natural global warming due to greenhouse gases, the earth would be some 59 DegF cooler, and not so friendly to life as we know it.

  • The average global air temperature near the Earth's surface increased 0.74 0.18 C (1.33 0.32 F) during the past 100 years and the IPCC concludes this is mostly due to CO2 produced by human activity. It would be hard for any individual scientist/engineer to make their own calculations on this. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) does not do research themselves, but bases it's results on peer reviewed scientific literature and would appear to be the primary authority representing the worlds scientists as a whole. It would seem that worldwide scientist believe it is unlikely that our current rise in global temperatures is primarily due to natural causes.

  • The present atmospheric concentration of CO2 is about 385 parts per million (ppm) by volume. The atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and CH4 have increased by 31% and 149% respectively since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the mid-1700s.

  • You cannot control what you cannot measure. We can measure CO2 and global temperatures, although I expect we could make more and better measurements to improve our accuracy. Good measurements alone do not mean we can control them, but we can monitor our progress relative to our target.

  • To develop a global temperature control strategy, we must understand the processes we are trying to control and the impacts of any proposed control actions. We must determine the setpoint(s) for our controlled variables and make sure that our manipulated variables have sufficient effect (gain). In other words we should decide what is the best earth temperature and how do we achieve this. Perhaps this is a bold goal, but simply changing global CO2 without concern of the consequences is stupidity.

  • We are looking beyond earth for new frontiers, It would appear that there are approximately 0 frontiers we can reach if we traveled for a lifetime. We have arrived at our only home at planet Earth with 6 billion people. We are the caretakers of our planet. Future generations will live with our decisions. If you would like to get inspired to do the right thing, I suggest a short U-tube video of the girl who silenced the UN with a 5 minute talk.

    The Solutions:

    See the overall energy solutions that are on the Energy Options Page. These give specific recommendations for the problem of energy supply and the related global warming.

    If we look at the CO2 footprint of our various energy options we can see that Electric Vehicles (and Hydrogen) actually have a higher CO2 footprint than conventional hydrocarbons when we add in the CO2 produced to make the electricity needed. Please note, this is a bit of a distortion, because I did not add in the CO2 it takes produce the other options delivered to your door. We import most of our oil from Canada. Canada makes most of this oil from the Alberta Tar Sands. This type of oil produces an enormous amount of CO2 compared to conventional oil production.

    Now lets look at the net CO2 of actual vehicles taking into account their thermal efficiency. I.e. taking into account how good the engines are at converting energy to shaft work.

    With our current CO2 intensive energy grid there is a virtual tie between grid powered vehicles and conventional liquid fuels. The low efficiency of solid fuels would penalize them even if you could make a functioning wood burning car. This says that steam engines are not the solution (unless they can be much more efficient than 10%). It also says that neither electric cars nor hydrogen cars offer much savings in CO2 with our current power grid. Now the cost to operate might encourage drivers to do the wrong thing, as hydrogen and electric vehicles appear to be cheaper to operate. This graph is $ per million BTU equivalent of shaft work. This is the work that can propel the vehicle. Now obviously, small, aerodynamic, vehicles driven as little as practical will take less work to propel them. Other technologies such as regenerative braking, or engine idle cut-off can reduce the energy. The other conclusion is the diesel looks like it has nearly the best combination of economy and CO2 footprint. The new TDI diesels in a small car can really make a dent in the problem without breaking the bank. Natural Gas looks good here but the advantage on price is mostly due to regulated prices and the figures used for the prices are based on home use and do not include any road taxes.

    If you want to make your own more detailed calculations (or maybe correct any errors I have made) you can download the spreadsheet with the data and the calculations that created these graphs. Just use the following link:

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    Last modified: 5 Jan 2017