Will the severe winters in Europe continue?

Quite possibly, not every year but with increased frequency according to an article in The Independent.

A study completed in 2009 by the Potsdam Institute predicted this pattern:

Their models found that, as the ice cap over the ocean disappeared, this allowed the heat of the relatively warm seawater to escape into the much colder atmosphere above, creating an area of high pressure surrounded by clockwise-moving winds that sweep down from the polar region over Europe and the British Isles.

Clever them, because it happened in the following two years. They reckon that cold, snowy winters will be about three times more frequent in the coming years. Two cold winters doesn’t prove it, but the pattern’s looking good.

The cold air activated is about -20C to -30C. But don’t worry, it will warm up a bit over the next 40 to 50 years.

Here’s Stefan Rahmstorf:

Stefan Rahmstorf, professor of physics of the oceans at the Potsdam Institute, said the floating sea ice in winter insulates the relatively warm seawater from the bitterly cold temperatures of the air above it, which can be around -20C or -30C.

“The Arctic sea ice is shrinking and at the moment it is at a record low for mid-to-late December, which provides a big heat source for the atmosphere,” Professor Rahmstorf said. “The open ocean actually heats the atmosphere above because the ocean in the Arctic is about 0C, and that’s much warmer than the atmosphere about it. This is a massive change compared with an ice-covered ocean, where the ice operates like a lid. You don’t get that heating from below.

“The model simulations show that, when you don’t get ice on the Barents and Kara seas, that promotes the formation of a high-pressure system there, and, because the airflow is clockwise around the high, it brings cold, polar air right into Europe, which leads to cold conditions here while it is unusually warm elsewhere, especially in the Arctic,” he explained.

The issue has also reached the consciousness of those on the other side of the Atlantic, as evidenced at Dot Earth. Kevin Trenberth says that he had not seen the study but “count me skeptical.” He also says he is thinking aloud.

Trenberth stresses that a lot of other things are going on. There is a classical negative NAO (North Atlantic Oscillation) and we have a La Niña, which is associated with above normal pressures in the far North Pacific. Hence he thinks there is a large element of natural variability at play.

I’m with the Potsdam folk here and I’m not sure Trenberth’s position is all that far away. At Potsdam they are saying that there is all sorts of stuff going on, as much as possible captured in the models, but if you add the element of low Arctic sea ice coverage, particularly in the area of the Barents and Kara Seas north of Scandinavia and Russia, you increase the probability of colder winters in Northern Europe.

Anyway to quote Trenberth, as Joe Romm does in this post:

“It’s not the right question to ask if this storm or that storm is due to global warming, or is it natural variability. Nowadays, there’s always an element of both.”

It’s a matter of degree.

BTW, in case it happens, on 25 December forecasters were predicting:

temperatures could rise as high as 10C (50F) by the middle of next week as a new weather system moves in from the Atlantic.

Just now I looked up the forecast for Frankfurt. The maximum was -9C and the minimum -14C. That’s cold!

99 thoughts on “Will the severe winters in Europe continue?”

  1. Well, its certainly havung some kind of impact over the pond. For the first time ever I got an e-mail from my US bookseller telling me the book was probably still in the warehouse because the snow prevented it being trucked to the airport, and if it was trucked to the airport the planes would be too frozen to fly anyway.
    The sad thing is, its exactly this kind of weather with Andrew Bolt and others to get away with their claim that there’s no global warming because, well, it’s not hot, is it?

  2. This is what I have been saying for some time, Brian. The Arctic and Antarctic high pressure systems have become stronger and act as a (relatively) huge blow torch driving down on the poles forcing cold air away from the poles with more energy than in the past. The influence of the polar oscillations has become weaker as the atmospheric energy originating in the tropics has become greater. For Australia that appears to be shorter climate cycles as witnessed in the confused el/la ninx cycles. Not that I am any expert, but that is how it is adding up from my observations and studies.

    This is also observable in NZ where Christchurch, which had not had significant snowfalls for 40 years, suddenly started getting falls with increasing frequency. I got to benefit from that in making a batch of guttering snow straps for a major roofing company. As there had not been falls for many years builders stopped putting straps on guttering while at the same time gutters became larger and weaker. $7000 on that one production run (insurance claim protection). Another building trend that had developed was the use of gangnail trusses and lower pitched rooves, with in the worst cases a gaingnail connection being used in the middle of the truss lower tension member. As a result I witnessed a guy and his wife standing in their driveway supporting each other as they perused their collapsed 3 car garage the roof of which had collapsed under the weight of snow when the gaingnail plate gave way on the tension member, crushing their 3 cars and destroying the garage by pushing the walls outwards. Who would have thought??Another building that collapsed for similar reasons was the very large ice skating rink design by an Architect with whom I was in business at the time of building making soil sampling auger kits (bought mostly by Australia’s Telecom for drilling under peoples driveways).

    Australia is building itself into a similar corner with its ridiculous building codes, albeit for different reasons.

    So I am with the Potsdam thinking also.

  3. Yes, and imagine the economic costs of just one extreme winter – eg the one they’re having right now.

    Then next time you hear someone mount a so-called “economic” argument against climate change action, you’ll know you’re talking to someone who has absolutely no clue what time it is. A time-wasting fool, or a cynical delayer with skin the CO2 game. There are no other types.

    File under “defeat” if they have any power, and
    “ignore” if they dont (excuse me, but if I’m curt with you, but time is of the essence)…

  4. Brian

    “It’s a matter of degree”

    and frequency. As one mid US small scale farmer despaired “we’ve had 3 once in a thousand year rainfalls in a row this season”

  5. Agreed Lefty E, I try not to think of Bolt et al much.

    BilB @ 4, yes, the key is that there is 4% more water vapour in the atmosphere and more energy in the system from the extra heat. The differential is greater with increasing latitudes. And especially when the systems break out of their usual territory records are going to go.

  6. I think we need to emphasise the fact that it is not the temperature; as such, that is important , it is the energy that this represents. 10 to the 26 Joules for 1 degree rise would be about right.
    This energy addition will increase the amplitude of the weather patterns.
    It will get really bad when the average temperature rise exceeds 3 C.
    Huggy

  7. Brian. Any current observations of what the Gulf Stream is doing in ocean circulation? Should we assume that it’s warming effect is currently being overwelmed by the Kara/Barents/NAO/La Nina ‘effect’

  8. If you look at this image

    http://www.google.com.au/imgres?imgurl=http://www.dailygalaxy.com/.a/6a00d8341bf7f753ef0133f5a9170a970b-500wi&imgrefurl=http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2010/11/-the-gulf-stream-ran-backwards-during-ice-age.html&h=480&w=480&sz=98&tbnid=6xtHgI9zQYFjaM:&tbnh=129&tbnw=129&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dgulf%2Bstream&zoom=1&q=gulf+stream&hl=en&usg=__jI40V8Peit2dXDa3I_JxOhAOzJk=&sa=X&ei=PNoaTdrkIpSCvgP01OSMDg&ved=0CDIQ9QEwBQ

    ,pablo, the most vulnerable pinch point is from the cold waters coming down from the west of Greenland. This kind of suggests variability induced by the Arctic melt at that point, almost like an automatic shutoff valve. Too much melt causes the current to sink prematually, maybe.

  9. The sad thing is, its exactly this kind of weather with Andrew Bolt and others to get away with their claim that there’s no global warming because, well, it’s not hot, is it?

    🙂 What needs to happen for the Bolt hypothesis to be vindicated?

  10. What needs to happen for the Bolt hypothesis to be vindicated?

    Well, not increased precipitation from increased atmospheric moisture from increased evaporation, that’s for sure.

  11. A sustained decrease in global average temperatures, perhaps?

    Increased precipitation =/= lower temperatures.

    Localised seasonal lower temperatures =/= lower global average.

    Got it?

  12. Quite right Weaver. Localised weather and global climate are not at all the same thing. What’s especially mad about the Blot-regurgitated trope is the causal relationship between increased energy in the system and the current volatile weather patterns.

    In effect, Blot is citing manifestations of climate change as proof that it’s not occurring.

  13. Terje said:

    So a sustained non-increase in temperature doesn’t falsify AGW?

    It would, but petitio principii applies here. There has been a sustained increase in global temperature.

    FTR, a sustained non-increase in temperature would demand a new physics, since the radiative energy balance shows that the planet is absorbing more net solar energy than it was 40 years ago. That heat must go somewhere or phsics is not as clear as we thought. That in a sense is what Trenberth’s oft-cited observation was about.

  14. Jesus, don’t you boneheads have any dignity?

    When you come criticizing a huge number of highly trained scientists, you need to be armed something better than a Bolt column. Its a drongos parade.

    Why insist on making such fools of yourselves? This stuff is all on public record here you know – your own kids will laugh at your face and call you a f’tard if you’re wrong. Which, lets face it, you almost certainly are.

    Scientists v bonehead asserting science just must be wrong cos “I dont like teh Greens!”.

    I think we all know how this match ends. You look like fools, and anyone who bothers to stop and listen to you waits to long to mitigate.

    PS Here’s a heads up: ‘Falsifying the AGW hypothesis’ [sic] will require you to find some sustained *evidence* of a scientific nature that the world is not warming, and/or that it is not caused by human activity.

    I’ll be glad to listen to and weigh any new information in that vein.

  15. Terje, a sustained non-increase in the global average temperature would falsify AGW. The global average temperature has been rising for about the last 40 to 50 years, in line with calculations of the temperature rise to be expected from the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If we observe a 30 year cooling trend with increasing carbon dioxide, AGW will be falsified.

    If you want to know what temperatures have been doing, ask people who measure temperature.

    If you, Andrew Bolt, Jennifer Marohasy or Joanne Codling want to be taken seriously, please first attempt the following examination.

    Time: Fifteen minutes

    No references in any format, on-line or otherwise, permitted.

    Question 1. (3 marks) How many atoms in a molecule of carbon dioxide?
    Question 2. (47 marks) Why is the answer to Question 1. relevant to climate science?
    Question 3. (50 marks) Explain the importance of each of the key design features of a Stevenson screen.

    Pass mark: 75%

  16. It would, but petitio principii applies here. There has been a sustained increase in global temperature.

    Fran – No question was begged. None the less I accept the answer as offered.

    Regarding the heat change since 40 years ago no new physics is needed as we observe that the world is warmer than 40 years ago. How does the observed heat absorption characteristic of the earth compare to say 100 years ago?

  17. The Potsdam Institute study is intriguing; I wouldn’t regard two winters as being anywhere near enough to draw firm conclusions on the accuracy of their predictions, but an absence of (sufficient) evidence is not evidence of absence.

    As for where the warm weather’s gone, the answer is Greenland and much of Arctic Canada, which has been considerably further above normal than northern Europe has been below (the UK will come in around 4-5 degrees below normal for December; significant parts of Greenland and Canada are 10 degrees or more above). It doesn’t exactly have the impact of a few centimetres of snow at Heathrow (or a lot of centimetres of snow in New York), but two of the main northern Canadian observing sites, Baker Lake and Rankin Inlet, recently reached 0 for the first time ever in December. A Greenland site reached +17 in the last week of November.

    Global temperatures for 2010 are likely to either just break or just miss a record – unlikely to be more than 0.02 degree in it either way. Out of 23 global regions only one, northern Australia, was running below normal for the year as of the end of October (northern Europe will probably join it once the December numbers are in). Seven of the 23 regions were running highest on record; four out of the five in Africa, plus south and central Asia and Greenland/Arctic Canada.

  18. When you come criticizing a huge number of highly trained scientists, you need to be armed something better than a Bolt column.

    Who did I criticize? I chuckled at how easy people with foolish claims had made things for Bolt.

  19. Who did I criticize? I chuckled at how easy people with foolish claims had made things for Bolt.

    This implies that Bolt isn’t interested in the truth. He is interested only in promoting an a priori argument.

    Fair call, probably.

  20. He is interested only in promoting an a priori argument.

    And how does that make him any different from 99% of media commentators on this topic? Most are pushing a position. He just does it with a little more flare.

  21. Just in case anyone hadn’t realised, 2010 is going to be one of the top two hottest years on record despite severely cold winter temperatures in Europe.

  22. terjep, it doesn’t surprise me at all that you can mistake Bolt’s idiocy and bigotry for “flare.”

    How else would you think that those were “foolish claims”? Making bad predictions based on incomplete science is not making a “foolish claim.”

    But then you don’t know anything about how science works, do you?

  23. Do we really have to Bolt?

    The only quote he gives that is even vaguely silly is the first one; “within a few years” is obviously a wrong thing to say.

    The US and the European snow predictions are explicitly for the next century and the next 50 years, so how a 2010 outcome is supposed to bear on these I do not know. Peter Beattie’s quote is not a prediction at all but a perfectly sensible statement of risk management.

  24. TergeP @10,

    For Bolt to be vindicated he needs to right. Having 10 or 20 thousand environmental scientists support his views would be a start.

  25. Try http://www.weatheraction.com, and Forbidden Knowledge TV and find the climate regulator that some think has been affected by the Gulf Oil spill and Corexit.A young Italian climate related research physicist is sticking to his guns.And I think Americans and others who do not accept the AGW Hypothesis are simply more concerned about what the Truth maybe,because for a number of years now,many Americans have had to live with record breaking cold months.The claim came out last week or the week before, from Britain that again this was a record breaking year as far as high temperatures recorded was concerned.I have noticed the year hasn’t ended.And Delingpole from Dear old England is much sharper than Bolt is with his attacks on AGW Research Scientist proponents.Recently he did a job on the presentation of graphs in various colours and how he considered there was falsification because there were no temperature gauges in those grey areas of sea.Having made my mind up already,that the Earth is getting Cooler,I also noticed a blogger at Alex Jones.com called SouthernCross from Australia reads clouds from radar and has even got his son predicting more accurately than Australian Weather Bureaus.Also is measuring differences in mountain mass because of Siesmic activity etc. thus from that, some local predictors can be set.On one American site,it appears Americans are getting a bit peeved off as considered pretty stupid and are making references to if one has an Australian or British accent that means high IQ!The Murdoch Conglomerate is also giving the same people the bloody shits.So far The Coolers,have remained also that in temperament.And they are not the CIA so please change your bloody tack slightly ,if offended by their sense of Truth.

  26. This is a bit of a crappy pile-on on TerjeP I reckon. Assuming that Bolt hasn’t selectively quoted or actually misquoted (a big assumption), it’s pretty embarrassing for those quoted. It proves that regional climates are far more complex and harder to model than first thought.

    Which is why any recent pronunciations on future snow for Europe need to be treated cautiously.

  27. Amongst all the static, can I point out that Blair @ 21 is an actual climate scientist.

    Thanks for the comment, Blair.

    TerjeP, suggest you go here or here. Bolt is a waste of space and I’ve got other stuff to do.

  28. pablo @ 8, I haven’t read anything about the Gulf Stream lately. As far as I know it’s doing fine, and continues to warm western Europe when the wind isn’t blowing from the Arctic.

    As Blair @ 21 said, when it’s been cold in parts where people notice it’s been warm in parts of Northern Canada and Greenland where most people don’t notice.

  29. BilB @ 2, that’s amazing stuff about the snow in Christchurch.

    As far as I know, the case of the Antarctic is rather different from the Arctic. There the still-large ozone hole draws in and tightens the polar circulation. With the expansion of the tropics the mid-latitude lows go further south and increase in strength, being unimpeded by any land mass. This effect is enhanced by the afore-mentioned contraction of polar circulation.

    But Christchurch is a fair way south and when the Antarctic breaks out for any reason, strange things are going to happen.

    That’s as I see it with admittedly imperfect knowledge.

  30. Assuming that Bolt hasn’t selectively quoted or actually misquoted (a big assumption), it’s pretty embarrassing for those quoted.

    Irrelevant.

    Bolt has refused to address the thousands of climate scientists who have done sound work.

    These competent, honest scientists also dismiss the findings of poor scientists even though the latters’ conclusions are in accord with their own.

    Even those with a nodding acquaintance with scientific method should know that scientific discourse progresses by means of attempting to falsify the best science, not the worst.

    Bolt is interested not in science but in taking cheap shots as part of his political, unscientific polemic.

    Take a look at the other side of the debate. GW scientists earnestly challenge the findings and methodology of the best opponents of GW.

    And doubtless there still exist climate scientists who dispute GW. And good luck to them. Every paradigm needs intelligent critics. Andrew Bolt is not one of these.

    However, apart from these sceptics, there is very little intellectual honesty displayed by the other side. Bolt is just one of thousands of anti-science rabble-rousers.

    But this is a good thing. For every losing cause in history, its final supporters have always been unhinged demagogues.

    Welcome to the rubbish bin of history, Bolt.

  31. Oh, Katz, you’re spoiling all the fun! It’s not like the state of the global climate and its effects on fresh water, habitable land and food production are serious subjects.

    No! They’re just a pretext for pointing and laughing at people whose political views we disagree with. Especially when they do it with such flair. How can one resist?

    Now, let’s talk about an important topic, like people who have pale skin and want to acknowledge their Aboriginal descent…you know, issues like that could cause real problems…

  32. Brian, the big difference between the North and South pole is the boreal forest (Tagia) this is circumpolar at the North pole, there is nothing similar in the South.
    As the average temperature increases it closes in on the pole, have not seen much research on this effect.
    Huggy

  33. Huggy, yes of course that is the big one. We used to think that the Antarctic Peninsula and perhaps West Antarctica were warming whereas the giant East Antarctica ice sheet was holding its own or even cooling slightly. Recent research gives a more differentiated picture (story here.)

  34. @Huggy @Brian,
    The other big difference between the two poles is that the North Pole is an ocean surrounded by land mass, and the South Pole is a continent surrounded by oceans. The land mass is why the boreal forest exists oop norrrth, and it has more effects than just allowing all that vegetation to exist. It also makes a huge difference in the marine currents/air currents interaction that modifies weather patterns in the North and South hemispheres.

  35. A final point: one of the really obvious problems with Bolt et al’s “its a warmist/ alarmist consipracy to de-inustrialise/ politically greenify the world etc” theories is this: there isn’t a single proponent of AGW who wouldnt wish Bolt et al was 100% right.

    The problem we can all see that he isnt. And this is serious.

    I believe I speak for nearly all advocates of reducing CO2 emissions when I say I wish I was wrong about all this.

    Presumably, a political conspiracy would involve the parties really wanting to make the social and economic changes necessary for sustainability.

    When in fact, we just wish it would all go away.

    The difference is we arent sticking our heads in the sand, and hands in the air to surrender, like Bolt the Coward and his kind

  36. A final point: one of the really obvious problems with Bolt et al’s “its a warmist/ alarmist consipracy to de-inustrialise/ politically greenify the world etc” theories is this: there isn’t a single proponent of AGW who wouldnt wish Bolt et al was 100% right.

    The problem we can all see that he isnt. And this is serious.

    I believe I speak for nearly all advocates of reducing CO2 emissions when I say I wish I was wrong about all this.quote

    Indeed. Almost too scary to think about. I imagine its a bit like being alive at the time of the Blitzkreig during WW2, not knowing if Hitler was going to win or not.
    Except this time its different. I hesitate to say worse. Governments virtually refuse to act, half the world population aware of globing warming don’t believe in it, and any real solution will place such an economic and social burden on democracies that their very existence may be threatened, but if we do nothing we will almost certainly die.

    And I hope I’ve succesfully dome my first block quote. Guess I’ll see when I press submit.

  37. Absolutely Lefty. Given the complete lack of confidence I have in the governments of the world to address this challenge in a timely and adequate way (and the related serious doubt I have that even the most robust, ubiquitous and early action might not be enough to foreclose disaster), it would be far more comforting to have grounds for believing that the problem was, at worst, a minor one playing out over the next 100 years or so, and easily reversible.

  38. I really hate the way these post always become a discussion of whatever the latest bat-shit insane denialist said. Thanks for keeping them up to form, terjep.

  39. Paul:

    …and any real solution will place such an economic and social burden on democracies that their very existence may be threatened…

    My view as well however my recall is of Clive Hamilton being severely criticised for suggesting that serious action on AGW may require the “suspension of democracy” or words to that effect.

    OTOH, however, currently most western democracies are captive to class interests that pursue their material advantage to the point of the collapse of a viable global ecology. How then could it be argued that such democracies are worth preserving?

  40. tt @ 43, we are doing Antarctica in bits. The overall pattern for Jan Nov 2010 is interesting (from this post).

    Certainly it doesn’t accord with remembered subjective experience, which usually doesn’t go beyond a month or two and perhaps extreme events if affected personally. Note the warmth in the NE of the USA for example.

    But you can see a coolish band that goes right across north America and Eurasia.

  41. Ian McEwan has recently published a novel on a flawed individual who makes a career out of global warming administration.

    Yet in an interview with Ramona Koval, [re]broadcast this morning on Radio National, McEwan firmly states his commitment to the factuality of AGW.

    The political point McEwan is making is that there is insufficient will to do anything about global warming. Moreover, he asserts, no alternative forms of energy will permit a western lifestyle. As a result, because people are so wedded to comfort.

    McEwan predicts that only a serious event will shock citizens of the West out of their complacency.

    McEwan, of course, is no more able to foretell the future than any of us. However, he is possibly the most influential middle-brow author writing in English at present. Thus, his pronouncements and sensibility are more likely than most to permeate educated consciousness.

    Maybe McEwan’s pessimism will serve as a slap to shock public opinion out of its complacency. Perhaps his fatalism will cause folks to conclude that nothing can be done, so enjoy it while it lasts.

    Politically, the west appears to be nicely poised between alarm, guilt, complacency, fatalism, hedonism, and reformism.

  42. The problem is a minor one. At least that is the preponderant view expressed in the very few peer reviewed cost benefit analysis studies. In terms of treating the problem as a risk to be insured against the viable solutions like nuclear power tend to be supported by RWDBs like Bolt whilst those that pretend to be most concerned generally want to tinker with technologies that have no track record at reducing national CO2 figures.

    Here is my view on what to do:-

    * electricity – remove the ban on nuclear power. Secure property rights and approval processes so the antis can’t game the debate.
    * population – nothing, fertility globally is plummeting rapidly already and has been for years.
    * transport – invest in better battery technology, although the next generation coming through the commercialization pipeline is probably good enough to spark a consumer revolution in cars.
    * agriculture – eat less meat personally and support genetic engineer of better crop varieties.
    * domestic politics – a modest revenue neutral carbon tax on electricity and transport only. Abolish MRET plus subsidies and scrap public investment in carbon capture and sequestration etc. Recycle the savings as across the board income tax cuts.

    Those that say ignore Bolt are saying “ignore politics”. Good luck with that approach.

  43. * electricity – remove the ban on nuclear power.

    Let’s see whether or not a commercial insurance company is prepared to ensure nuclear power plants in an unindemnified legal environment.

    A libertarian could not honestly argue otherwise.

  44. Katz – worth a try. So long as we get the government out of industry specific safety regulation (ie cost ramping) I’m happy to go with no government indemnification.

  45. p.s. If you want to regulate nuclear waste then the nuclear waste produced by the coal sector should not be exempt as it is at present.

  46. but you aren’t ignoring bolt are you terjep, or disputing him? You’re citing him approvingly, thus proving your own stupidity, and your mendacity in this debate.

  47. TerjeP, those cost-benefit analyses you cite so approvingly have generally been done (and peer-reviewed) by BAU shills and glibertarians like Lomborg. I wouldn’t take them too seriously, if I were you.

    As an aside, my experience of cost-benefit analyses is that they are usually intended to ensure something (the thing being costed) doesn’t happen. When one of my idiot users asks for some enhancement to an otherwise robust piece of software, the first thing I request is a cost-benefit analysis, for that very reason.

    I don’t think you are a serious person, TerjeP.

  48. When one of my idiot users asks for some enhancement to an otherwise robust piece of software, the first thing I request is a cost-benefit analysis, for that very reason.

    Only guessing but in that context a proper cost benefit analysis probably would be justified due to the cost. In short invoking the CBA process wouldn’t pass a CBA. For major public policy initiatives that isn’t the case.

  49. Whatever we do to reduce CO2 production, I suggest that unless we have the program well under way within 10 years that the program will be too little, too late.
    The only thing going for us is that severe weather events must become even more frequent and extreme. These might get our “leaders” out of their torpor.

    Huggy

  50. Katz said:

    Let’s see whether or not a commercial insurance company is prepared to insure nuclear power plants in an unindemnified legal environment {typo corrected: FB}

    The problem here is not with the principle, Katz, but with the practice. If you, in effect, imposed perfect storm liability on every commercial business no commercial business could function. Certainly, no airline, mine, dam, petrochemical or gas plant could trade.

    Clearly, one must limit liability to that which is reasonably foreseeable in all of the circumstances. In such circumstances, the community accepting, through the state, liability for unforeseeable risks is reasonable.

    As a matter of practice this is probably a subtlety more apparent than real. An insurance company or self-insurer that took on liability for perfect storm losses probably couldn’t charge enough to cover it, should it arise, and would in theory be trading insolvent. In the unlikely event that the perfect storm ever arose, they’d be insolvent and the state would in practice have to bear the costs anyway.

    It’s a matter of record that no claim against a nuclear plant in the western world has ever approached the Price-Anderson benchmark applying in the US — not even close, and so upping the insurance liability would not in practice improve safety or indemnity from risk. All it can do is push up the price and make low carbon energy more expensive than it needs to be.

    Sidebar: My 3rd party motor vehicle property cover is capped at $20million. I can’t imagine how I could do that much damage to property with my little Astra TS through negligence, but you can’t be too careful I suppose. I guess if I manage to do $40million worth of damage, I’m in a lot of trouble.

  51. Huggy – I recall people saying that 10 years ago, and 20 years ago. Is it really truly 10 years this time?

  52. I’m skepitcal of pronouncements using numbers divisible by 5. People using such numbers are using them as a shorthand expression of what they can’t accurately estimate. 5 years, even 10 years, more usually means “it’ll happen soon but I don’t know how soon”, whereas 15/20 years means something like “it’ll happen eventually but I don’t know how long it’ll take”. Anything over 20 years is usually something more like 100: science fiction.

    This doesn’t mean they’re wrong, or trying to be scare-mongers. Science fiction has often played out, to one degree or another, as accurate, and if you’re asked When? and you’re serious, you’ll try to give an estimate that will mean something more to people than “I don’t know” and that will be sufficiently broad to play out in your favour.

    “We have reached” or “Next week” or “by the early part of next century” mean more than buzzy 5-year incremental estimates, whatever the topic. And although I’d prefer not to hear those first two in regard to global warming, I expect to live through that point before I hear we’ve fixed anything.

  53. GregA – if Huggy said that is too late in 11.4 years from now I’d be dubious about the claimed degree of accuracy. I can live with numbers rounded to the nearest 5 or even the nearest 10 in this context. However I’m still skeptical about any claim that another 10 years of inaction will doom us.

  54. TerjeP, you seem to be a fairly young man, and I understand that you have several young children.

    I hope for your – and more particularly their – sake that your scepticism is correct. For, if you are wrong, it’s the next generation who will suffer the consequences of our inaction.

  55. Fiona – I’m 40 and I have three young kids. I’m vastly more concerned about them getting a good education and good life skills. Based on the behaviour of most parents that I know they have the same outlook.

  56. Clearly, one must limit liability to that which is reasonably foreseeable in all of the circumstances. In such circumstances, the community accepting, through the state, liability for unforeseeable risks is reasonable.

    The conditions you describe here aren’t indemnifications in the proper sense of the word, merely applications of tort laws.

    In a more general sense, insurance companies use the legal system, including tort law to attempt to avoid liabilities and to impose the burden of the payment of damages on to the insurance company of the counterparty.

    It would take an act of willful blindness not to accept as “foreseeable” a Chernobyl-style meltdown of any nuclear reactor, no matter how safe it is claimed to be. Such a meltdown being defined as “foreseeable”, would probably ramp the costs of insurance coverage to a level that would make nuclear energy uneconomic.

    I use the word “probably” here, because such a regime of commercially contracted insurance coverage has never existed anywhere in the world.

    No prizes for guessing why.

  57. Interesting aside regarding Chernobyl. Given the 4000 – 5000 lives inferred by the WHO to be lost eventually due to this accident and the associated radiation leak. And taking account of the lifetime energy produced by the four reactors (3 of which continued to operate commercially for more than a decade after the meltdown). Then the lives lost per unit energy of the Chernobyl power plant is better than the world average for coal fired power stations. It is also the only civilian nuclear power plant accident in history to cause a loss of life. The average for nuclear as a whole is safer than hydro electricity. It is hard to see how nuclear liability should really be much of a concern compared with things like gas pipelines, chemical plants and all manner of risky industrial processes we routinely accept.

    And in terms of nuclear waste from nuclear power plants, this is already much more carefully managed than nuclear waste from coal fired power plants (the later generally being piped into the atmosphere).

  58. Katz said:

    It would take an act of wilful blindness not to accept as “foreseeable” a Chernobyl-style meltdown of any nuclear reactor, no matter how safe it is claimed to be.

    Not at all. A Chernobyl-style meltdown (more accurately, a Chernobyl-style reactor fire) would entail:

    1. A Chernobyl-style reactor (i.e. an RBMK graphite-moderated reactor) (now considered obsolete and even in the late 1970s considered as poor design)
    2. A Chernobyl-style operating environment (i.e an unaccountable regime operating the reactor outside design parameters)

    And

    3. A Chernobyl-style lack of a containment structure around the reactor

    As none of these now apply, the possibility of a Chernobyl-style reactor fire is … zero.

    One might as well demand that current passenger jets take into account the risk of a Zeppelin-style failure.

    On the broader point though, given that we now know psychopaths sometimes hijack planes with the intent of carrying out suicidal missions, should not airtravel take on board insurance against the day when one such team hijacks an aircraft on take off from Melbourne and flies it nose first into the MCG on Grand Final Day.

    Sure it’s unlikely, but can we absolutely rule it out?

  59. Mods: please close blockquote at [to be]; Not aty all; should we not airtravel

    Ugh!

    [All fixed, I think – Brian]

  60. p.s. Whilst a Chernobyl style meltdown is foreseeable it is highly unlikely. And Chernobyl lacked a containment building which is standard on all modern nuclear power plants and which would, as the name implies, contain a meltdown. Even if an uncontained accident like Chernobyl happened every 50 years or so the technology would still be superior to the non nuclear alternatives.

  61. @ 61 Huggy said

    Whatever we do to reduce CO2 production, I suggest that unless we have the program well under way within 10 years that the program will be too little, too late.

    @ 63 TerjeP said:

    Huggy – I recall people saying that 10 years ago, and 20 years ago. Is it really truly 10 years this time?

    Huggy is right, in spades. I refer you to this post which on reflection is probably the most important I’ve ever done.

    At the outside, we could peak emissions on a world basis by 2030, but then we would have to reduce emissions by 22.6% pa from there, hit zero by 2040 and go negative at the same rate thereafter.

    That would be quite beyond the human race, I think. But if you read the post carefully, peaking emissions by 2030 is probably the best we can hope for, and that is based on the hopelessly inadequate notion that 2C is the appropriate guard rail for a safe climate.

  62. FB, your discussion of the meaning of “Chernobyl-style” is jejune. As TerjeP correctly says, an analogous catastrophic event may be less likely today but by no means unforeseeable. I would venture to suggest that insurance companies today are more concerned about the foreseeability of such an event as opposed to its likelihood. Though cavil has he might, TerjeP is still faced with the fact that so far no commercial insurer has shown the least inclination to offer to insure even the “safest” nuclear reactors.

    On the broader point though, given that we now know psychopaths sometimes hijack planes with the intent of carrying out suicidal missions, should not air travel take on board insurance against the day when one such team hijacks an aircraft on take off from Melbourne and flies it nose first into the MCG on Grand Final Day.

    FB, this is a passage that demonstrates your ignorance of the principles being discussed.

    For an insurance company to pay out under claims of negligence, not only does an event have to be foreseeable, the insured party must also owe a duty of care to the persons being damaged.

    There is no duty of care to guard against a criminal act. The criminal act of a third party vitiates the insureds’ duty of care to the victims as described in your rather odd example.*

    For example, if you left your keys in your Cessna and someone stole your car and flew it into some bystanders, it can be said that you were negligent in a non-tortitious sense for leaving your keys in your Cessna. Yet you owe no duty of care to the bystanders, nor to any persons who may be damaged by the criminal’s misuse of your plane. (Note that the above scenario doesn’t apply to your Astra, so long as it has current registration, because your car insurance is a no liability insurance.)

    I imagine that this would apply even if the person damaged were your infant child, whom you left strapped in the back seat of the Cessna before you carelessly walked away, leaving your keys in the plane’s ignition.
    ______________
    * a reckless act by the insured party may also vitiate insurance coverage. Presumably, an insurance company that insures a nuclear reactor could not argue that the very act of building one was reckless, even though this may be a common sense example of recklessness.

  63. I would venture to suggest that insurance companies today are more concerned about the foreseeability of such an event as opposed to its likelihood.

    Insurance is all about the likelihood of an event as well as the cost of an event. The idea that one is more significant than the other is misleading.

    It is wrong to say that nobody will insure a nuclear power plant as discussed in the following:-

    http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf67.html

  64. TerjeP @ 69,
    I’m looking at you especially, and even though I don’t agree with your comments, I always enjoy them. The pisewed as a fart cfomment was for FDB in case I misread him in my altered state of mind.

  65. This discussion about Chenobyl is so inhumane.

    It’s a conversation for adults that acknowledge that everything has risks and that life entails trade offs. If that bothers you then stay away from public policy discussions.

  66. The accident at Chernobyl was entirely foreseeable and preventable. And as Terjep points out, it was not even in the end that serious.

  67. TerjeP @ 76

    I didn’t say that one was more significant than the other. I said that insurance companies may be more concerned about one than the other.

    The document you quote admits that worldwide the civil nuclear industry is heavily indemnified against liability for damages by the public purse.

    Of course, insurance companies may provide coverage when they are indemnified against paying out on a catastrophe.

  68. One of Terjep’s many contradictions, Katz. He’s a libertarian who supports massively government-subsidized power sources because solar is inefficient (or something). It’s similar to this gem of libertarian doublethink:

    Secure property rights and approval processes so the antis can’t game the debate.

    a plea for stronger property rights in the same sentence as a plea for stronger government powers to override peoples’ property rights.

  69. The document you quote admits that worldwide the civil nuclear industry is heavily indemnified against liability for damages by the public purse.

    As is every industry. However I’m okay with removing the ban on nuclear and not providing a government indemnity. Happy to run with common law remedies only if that will swing the debate. Let’s try it and see. And if nothing gets built then nothing changes in practice.

  70. As is every industry.

    Well yes.

    The GFC has caused the US government to embark on the most radical program of nationalisation since Lenin introduced War Communism in 1918.

    All this was done under the rubrics of “systemic collapse” and “too big to fail”.

    It seems that the capitalist system itself was deemed not to be “too big to fail”. Rather, its principles were sacrificed to preserving the commanding heights of the US economy.

    This can be related to the issue of insuring the nuclear industry. Just like the collapse of AIG would have torn down the financial system of the world, so a properly underwritten and funded insurance of a major nuclear facility would tear down the financial system if the lead insurer were compelled to pay out in full on a catastrophe.

    In the case of AIG, the company lost sight of the magnitude of the risks they insured. This was an egregious underestimation of risk.

    On the other hand, insurance companies appear to be very impressed by the dangers they and their reinsurers would face were they to accept unlimited liability for a nuclear catastrophe. They have not underestimated the risk.

  71. One thing I absolutely agree on with the Zero Carbon Australia by 2020 advocates is their time frame – a time frame for responding to AGW which some of these posts also concur with. The politicos and others who mouth 50 percent reductions by 2050 or similar are dealing in time frames that are quite incomprehensible and I think many know it.
    ZCA explicitly nominate 2020 because they assert this is comprehensible to a leaderless public. Gillard should note this yearning in her ‘year of action’ (2011).

  72. pablo @ 88:

    The politicos and others who mouth 50 percent reductions by 2050 or similar are dealing in time frames that are quite incomprehensible and I think many know it.

    The ones who understand the science do know it and if they don’t they should. That’s why I can’t help respecting the Bolivians at Cancun.

    Analysts at Climate Action Tracker have revealed that these paltry offers [at Cancun] are nowhere near enough to keep temperature increases even within the contested goal of 2 degrees. Instead they would lead to increases in temperature of between 3 and 4 degrees, a level considered by scientists as highly dangerous for the vast majority of the planet. [Bolivian negotiator] Solon said, “I can not in all in consciousness sign such as a document as millions of people will die as a result.”

    Solon again:

    “Proposals by powerful countries like the US were sacrosanct, while ours were disposable. Compromise was always at the expense of the victims, rather than the culprits of climate change.”

  73. TereP, I don’t think glibertarians are capable of being serious people, because you always assume whatever your conclusion is. (Axioms need to be undisputed, but yours aren’t.) Like PB (and his maths teacher), I give up on you.

  74. Terje

    You still haven’t answered the questions about carbon dioxide and Stevenson screens. Please tell us what you know about climate science and provide evidence that you know it.

  75. @52 – To that list, I would add that we have to find a viable large-scale method of producing biodegradable plastics that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. Otherwise pretty much our entire modern civilisation is in the shi**er.

  76. Mercurius – if plastics were biodegrading wouldn’t that just add to the greenhouse problem? Surely we want to either recycle them or bury them. Or I suppose once plasma gasification becomes commercially viable for municipal waste management we could just atomise it and recycle that way.

  77. Alan – a carbon dioxide molecule has three atoms obviously. A room full of the stuff has a lot more atoms but I don’t have Avogadros constant handy. The workings of a Stevenson screen isn’t overly relevant to a discussion of global warming, unless your debating the reliability of weather station data. Question two is probably relevant in several ways relating to spectral absorption, mass of the gas and long range chemical stability but I’m not going to expend much energy speculating about the answer you are fishing for.

    Now that I’ve answered the questions will you take me seriously as promised. 😉

  78. Honestly guys, dont waste yer time.

    People who refuse to get it fall in two categories:

    1. the powerful (who are to be defeated on their stance)
    2. the irrelevant (who probably should ignored, on time saving principles).

    No point arguing with the 2nd category, as we are here.

    I’d suggest instead compiling a precis of Brian’s excellent posts, and perhaps some of the more important comments, in a short letter form and for each of respectively to send them to our MPs and all senators.

  79. Katz said:

    FB, your discussion of the meaning of “Chernobyl-style” is jejune. As TerjeP correctly says, an analogous catastrophic event may be less likely today but by no means unforeseeable.

    There’s more fuzziness in this response than is consistent with sound inference. You clearly wanted “Chernobyl” to be a precedent for the idea that catastrophic incidents are intrinsic to nuclear plants. Your choice of the word qualifier “Chernobyl” was forced, since it is the only precedent.

    Of course, if Chernobyl is going to be a good precedent you must show that something more than the extraction of heat from radioactive decay causes the foreseeable risk. You must show that Chernobyl shares one essential and dispositive engineering attribute with all conceivable nuclear plants, or the context in which they operate. It certainly can’t of course be the graphite moderator, or the lack of a solid containment structure, or a decaying unaccountable bureaucratic regime and crumbling industrial infrastructure, or the fact that the incident occurred whn the reactor was not being operated as per its specifications.

    There is no duty of care to guard against a criminal act. The criminal act of a third party vitiates the insureds’ duty of care to the victims as described in your rather odd example

    That is not, as I understand it the case. In NSW it is an offence unfer the Motor Traffic Act not to secure one’s vehicle. If a criminal made use of the vehicle to commit a criminal act, and injured someone in the process, a tortious claim against the party could arise, since the vehicle operator was bound to have assumed that misuse of the vehicle might have arisen, based in part on the existence of a statutory restraint.

    It is often objected that the mere existence of nuclear plants can increase the possibility of criminal attacks and damage to the community, so the analogy is pertinent.

    Yet the same would apply if one positied a plne being critically disabled by contact with space debris. The risk, though remote, is foreseeable. Had the aircraft not been there, injury could not have followed. That’s an argument against aircraft operation based on the remote but foreseeable risk of catastrophic injury.

    The reality is that we humans trade in risk all of the time (often unwisely, but that is not pertinent here). We trade risks to us perceived as low or low cost for risks perceived as high or high cost. Sometimes, our calculations are wrong, but the principle remains the same.

    The same applies to nuclear power plants — or any other industrial or commercial facility. The mitigation of risk of damage/loss from an incident that might notionally occur once in every 1000 years ought to be spread over all of the beneficiaries in 1000 years. Settling that risk with the state makes sense because states rather than insurance companies and businesses may last that long and be seen as acting for the entire class of beneficiaries.

  80. That is not, as I understand it the case. In NSW it is an offence under the Motor Traffic Act not to secure one’s vehicle. [Typo noted and corrected by Katz.]

    This is irrelevant to the point at issue.

    This statutory law in no way makes the car owner responsible for the damage done by a person who steals the car and uses it to damage others. There is a simple reason for this. In NSW, and as far as I know, in all other Australian states and territories, there is no tort action that can be taken against the owner of a properly registered and insured car that does negligent damage to the body or property of another. (Naturally, that protection does not extend to the criminal law. If you deliberately or recklessly drive over someone in a properly registered and insured car, you may still be guilty of malicious damage, assault, manslaughter or murder.)

    But let us assume that the car is not registered and therefore the owner is not covered by no-fault insurance. And let us imagine that the owner left keys in the car. Even under those circumstances, the owner of the car is not responsible for the consequences of the thief’s criminal act — driving an unregistered car. Victims of the thief’s illegal use of the car have no action against the owner of the car.

    We may take this principle one step further. Let us imagine that the owner of the car offered someone use of the car, knowing that the car was not registered. And let us imagine that the driver causes damage to a third party. The third party would have to sue the driver for a remedy.

    If the user of the car did know that the car was not registered, the user has no action against the owner. The driver is liable for any damage done.

    If the user of the car did not know that the car was not registered, the user may have an action against the owner. The owner owed the user a duty of care to inform him/her about the illegal state of the car. However, in this case the victim would still sue the driver and the driver may sue the owner.

    The following compounds your jejunity:

    There’s more fuzziness in this response than is consistent with sound inference. You clearly wanted “Chernobyl” to be a precedent for the idea that catastrophic incidents are intrinsic to nuclear plants.

    In no way can it be inferred from my earlier comments that I believe that catastrophic incidents are “intrinsic” to nuclear plants. The rest of your specious argument results from this self-serving mischaracterisation.

    My actual point is that insurance companies have concluded that nuclear power plants are to serious a risk to insure to a level of coverage regarded as economic by the owners of these power plants.

    To make the point perfectly clear, I was commenting on the observable behaviour of insurance companies, not on my opinion about the safety or otherwise of nuclear power plants.

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