The Solar Power Expert Blog

Climate Change – An Engineer’s Perspective

by Chris - January 21st, 2012.
Filed under: Personal. Tagged as: , , .

I’ve been pestering my family over the last few months about how attempts to curb global climate change has gone way off track and how they need to have a 5-year exit strategy. Obviously, I sound like a nut. They can’t seem figure out why I’m so passionate about the need to form a plan to cope with climate change right now.

I have no doubt that I sound like a religious nut-ball proclaiming armageddon. Unlike a faith based prediction, I actually have a large body of scientific data from which I draw my conclusions. Signal processing is also a specialty of mine, which means I look at the squiggly lines created by data all day in order to figure out what is going on. Looking at climate data isn’t much different than looking at signals from an electrical system. I decided to take a fresh look at publicly available climate data and explain, from an engineer’s perspective, why the data describes a recipe for disaster.

Most of the data and pictures in this article were pulled from Wikipedia articles. I site my sources for each below – so please feel free to do your own analysis and draw your own conclusions. If you don’t agree with my analysis (or if you do), I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Global Temperature Rise

The most obvious place to start is with global temperature rise. Chances are that if you read an article about climate change, they’ll quote some sort of global temperature benchmark such as 1C, 1.5C, 2C, etc. These are temperatures in degrees centigrade above ‘pre-industrial temperatures’. Wikipedia has a great article on the instrumental temperature record of the earths temperatures.

Let me point out first that this is not the most important piece of information to look at… but I’ll get to that in a minute. Temperature rise is the most widely quoted statistic, so it’s important that we address it first. Look at these pictures from NOAH graphing land and ocean temperatures:

NOAH Global Land Temperatures

NOAH Global Ocean Temperatures

Global‘ temperatures quoted in news articles is actually the average of land and ocean temperatures. So when you read about a ‘2C rise’, they actually mean a 2C rise in the average temperature of land and sea.

The first thing you should notice is the sharp increase in temperatures over the last three decades. While this is alarming in itself, there is a more complex story at work that you should understand.

The same Wikipedia page on the instrumental temperature record lists the 20 warmest years on record, all of which are in the last three decades. From this data I was able to plot the global average and global land temperatures for the last few decades in Excel. I was also able to use this data to do a linear prediction of temperatures between now and 2020.

Global Temperature Forecast to 2020

'Global' and Land Temperature Data

Based on this ‘zoomed in’ view, you should be able to see the following points clearly:

  • The first thing you should notice is that global temperatures are increasing. No matter how you slice it, that’s reality.

  • The second thing to notice is that according to this model, ‘Global’ temperatures are not expected to exceed 1C by 2020. That’s good news for the immediate future as 2C is the threshold where dire predictions occur. However, I’ll explain below why this figure is probably way too optimistic.

  • The land temperature is both higher and increasing faster than the ‘global’ temperature. This is important as land is where we grow food and these higher temperatures will adversely affect crop yields. In 2020, this model predicts the increase in land temperature to be double what is was in 2000. Again, this is a very optimistic prediction.

Historical CO2 & Temperature Levels

To really bring this temperature data into perspective though, you have to look back at historical levels. It’s less obvious how off-kilter we are without a frame a reference.

The Wikipedia page on climate change includes this awesome plot of historical temperatures, CO2, and dust as interpreted from ice core samples taken from Vostok, Antarctica:

Earth Temperatures and CO2 Levels from Ice Core Samples

Global temperatures, CO2, and dust concentrations over the last 450,000 years

At first glance, you should notice that CO2 (green) and global temperatures (blue) appear to move in unison. However, when you look even closer, you’ll see that CO2 actually leads temperature. A decrease in CO2 concentration is followed by a decrease in temperature. A rise in CO2 concentration proceeds a rise in temperature. Here are two examples that show what I mean:

Note: This is actually incorrect. I was reading the graph backwards. Temperature actually leads CO2. See the comments below for details.

Temperature and CO2 Affecting One Another

CO2 Leads Temperature

The left side of box 1 is right on top of a peak in CO2. You can see that the corresponding peak in temperature occurs slightly after the left side of this box. You can see this same phenominon illustrated throughout the graph.

Why Carbon Dioxide Levels Are So Important

The other major fact that you should note from the ice core graph is that maximum concentrations of CO2 have never exceeded 300 parts per million (ppm). Present CO2 levels, measured in Hawaii, have been increasing steadily over the last several decades and presently hover between 380 and 390 ppm. This nice graph of ppm concentration is also referenced on the Wikipedia page for climate change.

CO2 Increase over time

Carbon Dioxide Levels vs Time

The reason carbon dioxide levels are so important is for these two reasons:

  • All the historical data we have from ice cores show that temperatures rise with rising CO2 levels.

  • Present CO2 levels are much higher than at any point in the last 450,000 years


The last dozen or so articles on climate change that I’ve read have reported that climate scientists expect global average temperatures to hit 2C in 5 to 15 years from now. Based on my own analysis, I completely agree with this conclusion.

The fact of the matter is that CO2 levels are so high that no one knows what will happen. We’re officially in uncharted territory. The one thing we can be confident in is that global temperatures will continue to rise for the foreseeable future.

From reading this article, I hope that you take away the following points:

  • A sharp rise in CO2 levels reliably predicts sharp rises in temperature

  • In the last 450,000 years CO2 concentration have never exceeded 300 ppm. They are now at 385 ppm and rising.

  • Global temperature rise is currently around 0.7C. Once we cross 2C, then bad things happen

  • Most experts agree that we will reach 2C between 2015 and 2030 and this forecast is highly likely given the data above.

These are all the reasons why I am strongly urging my friends and family to create a 5-year ‘fall out’ plan. If you take action now, then you’ll have plenty of time to prepare. However, in 5 years, you’re going to be competing with the other 7 billion people for the resources needed to weather the storms of the future.

What do you think? Am I wrong? Am I right? Why? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

10 Responses to Climate Change – An Engineer’s Perspective

  1. Very interesting Chris, and good interpretation of the data. I’m not necessarily surprised, but I have to admit I don’t spend much time thinking about it.
    So what do you recommend for the “fall out” plan? Stocking up on water and food? What else?

  2. Hey Monica!

    The point really is just to have a plan. Your plan needs to reflect your personal life but it also needs to take the consequences of global warming into consideration.

    I’m really glad you asked about preparation because I think a lot of people believe in the fallacy that they can be prepared for global warming as if it was just a single disaster. If you see the story that the data describes, then of course the next logical question is, “what do I do about it?”. But there is no way that anyone could store enough water or food to deal with global warming.

    I love talking with people about global warming and discussing recent articles I’ve read about it. The two most common responses I get when I talk to people about global warming is either resigned acceptance or a belief that they are prepared because they have some food rations and a generator. While it’s always a good idea to have emergency supplies, that’s not going to help you here.

    However, the actionable steps that I hope my family and friends take is merely those of contemplation. If you can accept that the earth will fundamentally change in the next 5 to 15 years, then you should accept the corollary; that food prices will continue to rise at an exponential rate. Other global problems such as the increase in human populations, which is a primary driver of energy demands, need to also play a role in your considerations. I’d like everyone to ask themselves these questions:

    • How will these changes affect my source of income?
    • How will these changes affect the local economy in which I live?
    • Do you think the cost of utilitarian items such as generators and solar equipment will go up or down in the future? Should you invest in them now or later?
    • If food prices doubled or tripled, how would you cope with it?
    • If both inflation in our currency and famine from record droughts occur at the same time, how will you cope?

    Most of these are personal questions that are highly dependent on your unique geographical location. That’s why it’s good to think about these things, because right now is a good time to pick a place to live when things start getting worse. For instance, some areas of North America will be hit very hard by drought and natural disaster, but other areas will become much more pleasant to live in.

    There is one easy prediction to make, though. Those near the poverty line will be hit the hardest as they will have little room to absorb the increased costs in food and energy.

    Think long and hard about your geographic location and local economy. Personally, I have chosen to move away from the city. A big part of that decision was based on the belief that forces caused by global warming and population increase will seriously stress the existing infrastructure in the large cities. I don’t think anything calamitous will happen, but the cost of living in a major city is going to skyrocket while the quality of life will tank.

    For me, a big part of my plan is to start scaling back my cost of living, without disrupting my quality of life. I’m embracing a life of voluntary simplicity and reducing the amount of ‘stuff’ that I have. I’m installing a wood stove to heat my home with local firewood. I have plans to build solar panels, wind turbines, and a battery bank in the coming year to enable my own passive energy generation. Ironically, these items are not about saving the environment. They are to help me create a local power source for the modern conveniences I love, but which will become increasingly expensive to operate on the power grid of the future.

  3. Chris,

    Looking at the graphs I don’t think it is accurate to say CO2 leads temperature. The X axis is, left to right, increasing years in the past. That means that actually temperature leads CO2. E.g. the first peak in CO2 that you highlighted happened ~210,000 years in the past, and the preceding peak in temperature happened ~220,000 years in the past, or 10,000 years before the CO2 peak.

    However, I don’t think this changes your conclusion. It seems that there is something about increasing temperature that causes the increased release of CO2. That aligns with some of what I’ve read about the soil releasing CO2 above a certain temperature, the rainforest dying, and the permanent tundra releasing its sequestered carbon.

    Frightening stuff, either way. A few generations from now it looks very likely that the world will be very different unless we make some drastic changes now. Although even if we do make changes, looking at the periodicity of the temperature cycles on that graph, I’d say we’re overdue for an ice age.


  4. Wow. Zac, you are totally correct. I was misreading the x-axis of that graph.

    I hate to backpedal here, but you are right that temperature leading CO2 would confirm the earth’s decreasing ability to absorb CO2 as temperature rises. This would be setting up a positive feedback loop, which is a scary thing to think about.

  5. I totally believe you. My 5 yr plan involves buying a piece of land and taking it off the grid using the money I make in my current career. Then I will use my boyfriends inordinately large stockpile of weapons and ammunition to take what ever supplies I need from the neighbors after our society collapses. How does that sound? By the way I am kind of actually being serious.

  6. Everyone seems to think that it’s going to come down to an arms race for a limited amount of supplies. I’ve even heard people calling this concept the ‘zombie apocalypse’. I used to think that society would collapse, and it may do that, but not for several decades. What I think will happen will be a significant increase in the cost of living and a significant decrease in the buying power of your income – either through taxation or inflation.

    If American society collapses, it will be due to revolution – either a political or an economic one. However, modern American society has displayed an amazing amount of complacency with the status-quo up to this point, so I wouldn’t count on either one happening any time soon. For at least the next ten years however, my educated guess is that life will just get harder and harder for those who are dependent on the system. If you focus on ways to grow food and generate electricity on your own property, it will save you a ton of money over the next few years. Money which you can invest in scaling the size of your energy and food storage process to go completely off grid.

    If you focus on being self sufficient, you won’t need to fear for running out of supplies. You’ll be able to sit back comfortably while the world tears itself apart.

  7. I agree our society most likely won’t shatter over night though I do see a theme in societies when the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” becomes so far apart people tend to revolt and then re-establish a new society that then grows into the same thing. The reality is that our population will have to be down sized to accommodate for the change in resources (which would not need to happen if people had focused on renewable energy with the same vigor as other products). In short I can see our society going down hill slowly till it gets to a point and then all hell with break lose. That’s my prediction.

  8. Wow! I just watched this TED talk by (retired) NASA scientist James Hansen. He uses a lot of the same data I use here and reaches very similar conclusions. The talk is only 17 minutes long, and I highly recommend watching it!

  9. […] Climate Change […]

  10. Hello Chris,
    It appears that initially a warming period is initiated by the Milankovitch solar cycle. This results in production of CO2, causing more warming. Eventually the CO2 concentrations increase to the point where the CO2 is driving the warming trend.

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