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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Our Children Look Us in the Eye: President Obama’s State of the Union Speech

Summary.  President Obama delivered his annual State of the Union speech on January 28, 2014.  A portion dealt with energy policy and global warming.  He laid down a fundamental guideline for the U. S. and the world to address climate change, one whose motivation is the moral imperative to leave a world for our children’s children that is powered by renewable energy rather than by fossil fuels.

The President’s administration has put in place several policies that promote reductions in the rates of emission of CO2.  Nevertheless, his “all of the above” energy policy emphasizes expanding the domestic production of fossil fuel, permitting the nation to approach energy independence.  The policies and the infrastructure underlying “all of the above” ensure that fossil fuels will be extracted, and CO2 will continue to be released, for decades to come, defeating the President’s moral imperative.

Only by migrating away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources as soon as practicable (given the long delay times involved in transforming the necessary infrastructure) can we ensure the energy security of our children’s children.                                

President Obama’s State of the Union speech  on January 28, 2014, delivered to a joint session of Congress, included an important section on energy policy and global warming.  He stated what is probably the most profound and basic motivation for attacking the problem of global warming: 

“Climate change is a fact.  And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.” 

This statement illumnates the core of our attitudes and behavior about global warming, namely, the strong desire we all feel to pass on to our children and further progeny a secure world not threatened by the consequences of our present environmental actions.  Unfortunately the President’s remarks omit the important aspect of attribution: humanity’s use of fossil fuels is a major contributor to global warming.  This is explained in the following Details.


1.     Climate scientists have shown that it is possible to assess the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), a principal greenhouse gas, as well as the ambient temperature by sophisticated analysis of geological samples; the assay for temperature is termed a “proxy”.  Over the last 800,000 years the data show that atmospheric CO2 and the temperature proxy fluctuate in cycles lasting thousands of years, and that their fluctuations over time are highly correlated with each other.  Over this interval the atmospheric CO2 concentration was almost never higher than 280 parts per million (ppm; volume of CO2 gas present in 1,000,000 volumes of air assayed).

2.     Just prior to the start of the industrial revolution, the CO2 concentration was 280 ppm.  The industrial revolution has been powered by human’s burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) to provide the energy needed for industrialization.  This releases additional CO2 into the air, increasing the atmosphere’s retention of solar energy as heat, warming the earth’s atmosphere.  Over the last 250 years all three data sets, humankind’s burning of fossil fuels, the atmospheric concentration of CO2, and the long-term globalaverage temperature, have all increased following timeline trends that are virtually identical to each other, i.e., they are closely correlated.  This raises the likelihood that there is a causative relationship among them.  The changes observed are occurring 50-100 times more rapidly than the natural geological changes described in the first paragraph.

3.     A further physical proxy can determine whether CO2 originated from mineral sources (e.g. release of CO2 dissolved in the water of the oceans) or from fossil fuels.  The time course of this fourth data set over the same time period follows the same course as do those for fossil fuel use, the increase in CO2, and the global temperature.  This shows unequivocally that the additional CO2 in the atmosphere appearing during the industrial era originates from our burning of fossil fuels, and not from some other natural process not involving humankind’s actions.  It also makes highly likely that the increase in global temperature is due to the increased CO2 in the atmosphere.

4.     Climate models have been used retrogressively to seek to reproduce existing temperature data from about 1915 to the present.  If the models omit the added CO2 from fossil fuels the predicted temperature remains low, not rising after 1950.  Only by including this additional CO2 do the models successfully reproduce the observed higher temperatures in the record.  This shows unequivocally that the additional CO2, which arises from fossil fuels, causes the increase in long-term global average temperature.
Projections of future greenhouse gas emissions predict that most developed countries of the world, including the U. S., will not increase annual emission rates significantly, whereas major emitters among the developing countries, especially China and India, will continue to do so at drastic rates.  This has been termed “business as usual”, and is projected to lead to large increases in atmospheric CO2, higher average temperatures, and more frequent and severe extreme weather and climate events.  The President pointed out “we have to act with more urgency because a changing climate is already harming western [American] communities struggling with drought and coastal cities dealing with floods.”  It must be emphasized, however, that policies at the worldwide level, not simply within the U. S., are needed to interrupt this trend and keep harmful consequences to a minimum.

President Obama reiterated his “all of the above” energy policy, which promotes current expansion of fossil fuel resources within the U. S. while at the same time implementing policies that reduce their use in the future.  He praised the “all of the above” strategy, noting that “today America is closer to energy independence than we have been in decades.”   He cited the migration to increased use of natural gas as a major factor in this trend, calling this fuel “the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.”  He encouraged Congress to promote this trend by providing for natural gas fueling stations to help “shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas”.  At the same time, he noted, the U. S. is expanding its use of solar power, a renewable energy source.  He recognized the barriers facing expansion of renewable energy, urging “a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don’t need it so we can invest more in fuels of the future that do.”

The President reviewed the executive actions of his administration that will reduce fossil fuel consumption going forward.

“[E]ven as we’ve increased energy production, we’ve partnered with businesses, builders and local communities to reduce the energy we consume. When we rescued our automakers, for example, we worked with them to set higher fuel efficiency standards for our cars. In the coming months I’ll build on that success by setting new standards for our trucks so we can keep driving down oil imports and what we pay at the pump.”
Moral basis for climate action.  President Obama laid down a forceful imperative, that of working to abate global warming for the welfare of our children and their children, and by inference, our future progeny whom we will never know.  We can consider this the most powerful, fundamental driver for action against global warming.  It is a principal motivation for the faithful, who consider that they have been appointed to be stewards of God’s creation.  It is an important guiding principle for others as well who direct their actions to the improvement of the world and the lives of their fellow humans.  On the national level here in the U. S., establishment of the national park system clearly is consistent with these principles, for it set aside federal lands in perpetuity for the benefit of our fellow citizens.

President Obama’s administrative actions have promoted mitigation of global warming.  The President has been faced with Congressional opposition to combating global warming, continuing a long history of Congressional recalcitrance.  Faced with this situation he has acted in several ways to reduce fossil fuel use.  He has set in place automotive fuel efficiency standards that halve fuel use by 2025.  His administration has just issued emission standards for new large electricity generating plants, and will follow up with standards for existing plants.  These will have the effect of eliminating use of coal-fired plants unless they install expensive capturing technology, since burning coal emits almost twice as much CO2 per unit of electricity generated as does natural gas.  In addition, the President issued a comprehensive Climate Action Plan setting forth a broad range of policies.

President Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy needlessly prolongs CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels.  President Obama’s administration controls permits to develop fossil fuel extraction on federal lands and offshore, but not on private land.  Conventional wells have long production lifetimes, so that once in operation, there is a legacy period of production that ensures emission of CO2 from the extracted fuels for the lifetime of the well, one to a few decades.  Installations for hydraulic fracturing to yield gas and oil have shorter service lifetimes.  To the extent that extraction on public lands is being promoted, “all of the above” ensures continued new emissions of CO2 for one to a few decades. 

CO2 and other GHGs persist in the atmosphere for a century or more once emitted; they are not cleansed by any natural process.  Ever since humans began burning fossil fuels in the industrial revolution, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has been higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.  The rate of accumulation of additional CO2 is now about 50-100 times faster than has occurred in the geological past from natural processes.   For all these reasons, the longer the nations of the world, including the U. S., delay combating global warming, the more difficult it will be to achieve results later.

For this reason, President Obama’s “all of the above” policy is counterproductive, promoting expanded domestic production of fossil fuels.  Production of natural gas is expanding rapidly, and new drilling for offshore oil is being allowed to proceed.  Oil and gas pipelines are growing and a major pipeline, the XL project for importing Canadian oil originating from tar sands, is being weighed for approval. 

Minimizing increased global warming.  Every energy policy should be evaluated  according to whether it abates emissions or contributes more.  We may slow the rate of accumulating more GHGs in the atmosphere, but we are powerless at present to reduce the amount already accumulated.  “All of the above” continues to add greenhouse gases.  Our energy economy should have only one objective, namely, to reduce the additional accumulation of GHGs as rapidly as possible.  Only in this way can we limit the long-term average global temperature to as small an increase as possible.  Only in this way, “when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, [can we] say yes, we did.”
© 2014 Henry Auer


  1. The correlation between CO2 and temperature did NOT occur over the past 3000 years except during the past 200. CO2 was in a 280 parts per million (ppm) flatline during the Roman Warming, the Medieval Warm Period, and the Little Ice Age too!!! Need some graphics? See:

    The link is a bit out-of-date; the atmospheric temperature flatline is now 17 years instead of 15, but the point made remains the same. In the past 200 years CO2 experienced a clear and continual linear rise, but temperature chose a rising polynomial variation instead. Of the 90 CMIP5 (CO2 based) climate models relied upon by the IPCC, 87 are totally wrong on the high side. This is not Random Error, where you'd expect 45 below and 45 above; it is CO2 driven Systemic Error, and off-the-wall wrong.

    President Obama ends up doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. "Petrochemical husbandry" is a worthy goal, but achieving it for "climate reasons" and throwing hydrofracking into the mix is politics, not science

  2. Commenter Tomwys is most likely Tom Wysmuller, the author of the website linked in the Comment. As with many skeptics and deniers of the reality of global warming, he cherry picks his data. On the linked website he shows the temperature record for 1997-2011, while ignoring the record from 1880 to 1997. Worldwide average temperatures must be considered on decadal or longer time scales, not year to year. There is no question that from 1880 to the present long-term global average atmospheric temperature has risen by about 0.8 deg C. Other factors govern atmospheric temperature. 90% of the excess heat in the Earth system is taken up by the waters of the oceans. It doesn’t reappear for decades or longer because of long-lived horizontal and vertical ocean currents. Even if the recent period shows no increase, the excess heat goes into the oceans, warming them inexorably (see IPCC cited below), and sea level rises without interruption.
    Mann and coworkers show that variations such as the Medieval Warming Period and the Little Ice Age, cited in the Comment, also “imply dynamical responses of climate to natural radiative forcing changes involving El Niño and the North Atlantic Oscillation–Arctic Oscillation.” (Science 27 November 2009: Vol. 326 no. 5957 pp. 1256-1260; DOI: 10.1126/science.1177303).
    The State Department’s Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL pipeline application released Jan. 31, 2014 includes the following evaluation of global warming:
    “Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the rate and amount of GHGs have increased as a result of human activity. The additional GHGs intensify the greenhouse effect, resulting in a greater amount of heat being trapped within the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], a group of 1,300 independent scientific experts from countries around the world, in its Fifth Assessment Report [] concludes that global warming in the climate system is unequivocal based on measured increases in temperature, decrease in snow cover, and higher sea levels.” Tomwys’s claim that the IPCC overestimates temperature is plainly false. The models correctly reproduce the historical temperature record when man-made CO2 is included but fail when CO2 is omitted.(, Figure SPM.6).

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