Letter to the Editor

Five years ago Wallace Mannheimer published a somewhat misleading article in Physics & Society disparaging renewable sources of energy for the world and urging continued reliance on fossil fuels(1, 2). In the July 2017 issue(3) he reprises his advocacy for fossil fuels with even less convincing arguments (almost nothing quantitative at all this time, with still no accounting for real economics) and mixes it with a toxic brew of climate misinformation. I feel reluctantly compelled to respond rather than to leave this mess unaddressed on these pages.

A substantial part of Mannheimer's claims (aside from the extensive polemics) rest on using outdated figures. The year is 2017, so why is he illustrating his article with figures published years ago? The most egregious example is his figure on sea level rise, for which he cites the widely-respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but uses an image from their 4th assessment report (published in 2007). The 5th Assessment Report was published in 2014, based on research from 2013 and earlier, and so is already several years out of date. Figure 1 is directly taken from Figure 3d of the Summary for Policy Makers of the 5th assessment report. Mannheimer's assertion that there has been no recent increase in the rate of sea-level rise is directly contradicted by the analysis presented by the IPCC concerning this figure: "It is very likely that the mean rate of global averaged sea level rise was 1.7 [1.5 to 1.9] mm yr–1 between 1901 and 2010, 2.0 [1.7 to 2.3] mm yr–1 between 1971 and 2010, and 3.2 [2.8 to 3.6] mm yr–1 between 1993 and 2010. Tide-gauge and satellite altimeter data are consistent regarding the higher rate of the latter period."(4) The IPCC also notes these increases are consistent with calculations of increased sea level expected from ocean warming and glacial melting, both of which have been accelerating.

Mannheimer's figures on energy use are similarly several years out of date. This matters the most for solar photovoltaics, which have been doubling about every 2 1/2 years(5) with over 300 GW capacity in use by the end of 2016. Wind power has not been growing as quickly, but was still slightly larger than solar PV at close to 500 GW capacity by the end of 2016(6). Given that total world electricity generation is roughly 2850 GW(7) year-round and given the roughly 30% typical capacity factor for wind and solar installations, these new renewable sources are already approaching 10% of world annual electricity generation, and still growing exponentially.

Mannheimer's figure 3 and caption argue that "Clearly it is extremely unlikely that solar power can replace fossil fuel in 20 years". In addition to being out of date, this conceals something else — in fact the exact same issue that I raised in my response to his 2012 article(2). Mannheimer shows a plot of "energy consumption", not production of useful energy like electricity. In these graphs, electric production from renewables is counted at par value (1:1), but fossil fuels (which at least for coal and oil are typically burned in thermal generating plants that lose roughly 2/3 of their energy to heat) are counted effectively at 3:1. Put back in that factor of 3 for hydro and "other renew", note that the exponential growth is already evident even at the edge of this graph which is 4 years in the past, and Mannheimer's qualitative "clearly extremely unlikely" becomes instead rather plausible indeed. 20 years is 8 times the 2.5 year doubling time we have recently seen for solar PV capacity, or (if growth could continue at that rate) a factor of 256 — there is plenty of room for "solar" to replace fossil fuels and go far beyond that in the next twenty years.

Mannheimer's only cost analysis in the article seems to confuse the money for "American Federal support for climate change research" with money to "support renewable solar power". Those are two very different things - which are his numbers actually for? At any rate, if $15 B gets us the 15 GW of solar capacity that was installed in the US in 2016, getting to the 500 GW (year-round) production level to replace all fossil electricity in the US should cost less than 2 trillion dollars, not even counting the steady cost reductions that have been experienced from improved production processes (of course there are electricity storage and transmission issues that would also need to be addressed). This is only 1/10 of our annual economy, so spread over 20 years would it even be very noticeable? The scale of the effort needed in the US is clearly well within our capacity. The fact that China and India are also forging ahead on solar and wind (China now has the largest installed solar capacity of any country(5)) suggests the price is also not too high for those Mannheimer classifies as "developing". Note that replacing fossil fuels also means we no longer have to pay for those fuels - a savings of at least hundreds of billions of dollars a year in the US — nor for their ancillary costs in illness and war which may be comparable in scale.

Along with the out-of-date graphs and numbers, Mannheimer's article is full of stale anti-climate-science talking points. Rather than discuss them all, I would point readers to the excellent compilation of answers to these dated claims at skepticalscience.com(8) and note on their list of "MOST USED Climate Myths", Mannheimer used #3 ("It's not bad"), #4 ("There is no consensus"), #6 ("Models are unreliable"), #7 ("Temp record is unreliable"), and several more. Just to address the most scurrilous of these in Mannheimer's article, the "97%" claim clearly refers to "climate scientists", not to scientists (and engineers and other PhD's) in general — yet it is the latter who signed the "Oregon petition", there are almost no "climate scientists" who are signatories. Does Mannheimer seriously think there are a million climate scientists out there? But there are many millions of PhD's in the US, so 32,000 is well below 3%. Also note this petition was circulated 20 years ago, before the science was as clearly conclusive as it is now. The truth is that many independent studies have found a strong consensus among qualified scientists of generally well over 90% — the Skeptical Science discussion of this is a good review.

Worse is Mannheimer's accusation against NOAA: "NOAA has seriously damaged its credibility by publishing such changes, changes that please their political bosses; and then refusing to publicize their new methodology." NOAA's methodology was published in the peer-reviewed literature, it agrees to within hundredths of a degree with every other surface temperature compilation from a variety of independent groups, and the main recent change that has been touted involved the calibration of sea surface temperatures made using different methodologies that had a primary effect on the temperature assessment for the middle of the 20th century(9). Mannheimer makes no mention of the Berkeley Earth project, which was started by a skeptical group in 2010 (funded by the Koch's!) and ended up reproducing the land surface temperature record completely independently and transparently and found that if anything that previous analyses might have slightly underestimated surface warming of the Earth.(10)

Each of Mannheimer's three "not such well-known aspects of solar power and climate change" are "not well-known" for a good reason: they are simply not true. This entire article seems aimed mainly at advertising his rather odd article from a year ago in the "International Journal of Advanced Research", which even includes the same Tom Lehrer quote (with the same missing word in the lyrics). Ironically, it is not climate scientists, nor climate activists, who have been ignoring the consequences of their advocacy. The lyrics much more directly apply to those who think the continued rise of fossil carbon in the atmosphere is not their "department". It is unfortunate that their voices seem too frequently to outweigh the truth.

Arthur Smith

1. Wallace M. Mannheimer, "American Physics, Climate Change, and Energy", Physics & Society, April 2012 - https://www.aps.org/units/fps/newsletters/201204/manheimer.cfm

2. Arthur P. Smith, "Letters On “American Physics, Climate Change, and Energy,”, Physics & Society,July 2012 - https://www.aps.org/units/fps/newsletters/201207/smith.cfm

3. Wallace Manheimer, "Three Not Such Well-known Aspects of Solar Power and Climate Change", Physics & Society, July 2017 - https://www.aps.org/units/fps/newsletters/201707/climate.cfm

4. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Assessment Report 5, Working Group 1, Summary for Policy Makers, Section B.4, p. 11 - http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg1/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf

5. Wikipedia has an excellent, well-referenced page on the growth of solar photovoltaic capacity worldwide: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Growth_of_photovoltaics

6. Global Wind Energy Council, Global Statistics 2016: http://www.gwec.net/global-figures/graphs/

7. Energy Information Administration, "International Energy Outlook 2016" - https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/ieo/electricity.php

8. "Skeptical Science" - https://skepticalscience.com

9. Gavin Schmidt, "NOAA temperature record updates and the ‘hiatus’", http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2015/06/noaa-temperature-record-updates-and-the-hiatus/

10. See the project website at http://berkeleyearth.org/

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.