Thursday, December 10, 2009

Feedback and climate change

My guess is that few people realize how important the concept of feedback is to climate change. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explains its importance:

It is generally accepted that a doubling of CO2 will only produce a change of about two degrees Fahrenheit if all else is held constant. This is unlikely to be much to worry about.
Yet current climate models predict much higher sensitivities. They do so because in these models, the main greenhouse substances (water vapor and clouds) act to amplify anything that CO2 does. This is referred to as positive feedback. But as the IPCC notes, clouds continue to be a source of major uncertainty in current models. Since clouds and water vapor are intimately related, the IPCC claim that they are more confident about water vapor is quite implausible.
There is some evidence of a positive feedback effect for water vapor in cloud-free regions, but a major part of any water-vapor feedback would have to acknowledge that cloud-free areas are always changing, and this remains an unknown. At this point, few scientists would argue that the science is settled. In particular, the question remains as to whether water vapor and clouds have positive or negative feedbacks.
The notion that the earth's climate is dominated by positive feedbacks is intuitively implausible, and the history of the earth's climate offers some guidance on this matter. About 2.5 billion years ago, the sun was 20%-30% less bright than now (compare this with the 2% perturbation that a doubling of CO2 would produce), and yet the evidence is that the oceans were unfrozen at the time, and that temperatures might not have been very different from today's. Carl Sagan in the 1970s referred to this as the "Early Faint Sun Paradox."
For more than 30 years there have been attempts to resolve the paradox with greenhouse gases. Some have suggested CO2—but the amount needed was thousands of times greater than present levels and incompatible with geological evidence. Methane also proved unlikely. It turns out that increased thin cirrus cloud coverage in the tropics readily resolves the paradox—but only if the clouds constitute a negative feedback. In present terms this means that they would diminish rather than enhance the impact of CO2.

If the EPA can regulate carbon dioxide because of the greenhouse effect, could it also regulate water vapor?

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