Will the Sun give us a reprieve from global warming?

Something unusual has been going on in the Sun’s magnetic activity. For the last three centuries or so that we have been observing sunspots, we have seen a regular eleven-year cycle in their behavior. At solar minimum, sunspots are few and far between (sometimes totally absent). This has usually been followed by a sharp upsurge after about 16 months, but the last two cycles have been different.

According to the opening paragraph of an article posted at the Science Now website of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Scientists studying sunspots for the past 2 decades have concluded that the magnetic field that triggers their formation has been steadily declining. If the current trend continues, by 2016 the sun’s face may become spotless and remain that way for decades—a phenomenon that in the 17th century coincided with a prolonged period of cooling on Earth.”

Later, the article notes, “Sunspots disappeared almost entirely between 1645 and 1715 during a period called the Maunder Minimum, which coincided with decades of lower-than-normal temperatures in Europe nicknamed the Little Ice Age. But [William Livingston of the National Solar Observatory in Tucson, Arizona] cautions that the zero-sunspot prediction could be premature. ‘It may not happen,’ he says. ‘Only the passage of time will tell whether the solar cycle will pick up.’ Still, he adds, there’s no doubt that sunspots ‘are not very healthy right now.’ ”

As expected, global warming skeptics are making a big deal about this report, arguing that this proves that solar effects are far more important to global climate change than human activity. If they are correct, does that mean we can continue to burn fossil fuels with abandon while atmospheric CO2 levels soar?

My answer is a resounding “No,” and here’s why:
(1) Correlation does not mean causality. The Maunder minimum may have been responsible for seven cool decades in the 17th-18th century, but there is no consensus on the physics of how changes in solar activity (and consequent changes in Earth’s ionosphere) could have resulted in global cooling. It may well have been coincidence. But even granting that it was causal does not change my position, as the subsequent points explain.

(2) We are not certain that we are on the verge of another Maunder minimum. Even if we are, it will likely only cool the Earth for a few decades while the effects of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will continue beyond that.

(3) What does the increased level of greenhouse gases imply? Analysis of the large body of climate data has led to a strong consensus among climate experts that human activity which has increased atmospheric CO2, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, is responsible for most, if not all, of the global warming that has occurred in the last century. Even if sunspot activity temporarily mitigates the increase in global temperature, we still need to be concerned about the projected increases in the next few centuries.

There is a wide range of projected scenarios about what to expect, and I have been known to criticize those who overstate the case. But even mid-range scenarios project serious problems from sea-level rise, more extreme weather events (in number and intensity), the spread of tropical diseases, and disruption of agricultural patterns.

Deviations from those scenarios in a beneficial direction, as may result from changes in solar activity if the skeptics’ confidence in the causality of the Maunder minimum is correct, would be welcome. However, deviations in the opposite direction are also possible, and such deviations would be matters of great concern. Policymakers need to consider the most likely scenarios as well as the range of possible deviations in setting policy. They need to give some credence to worst case scenarios and be alert for signs that such scenarios are occurring.

In short, let’s all hope that the Sun is about to give us a reprieve from those worst case scenarios and use that reprieve, if it comes, to mitigate and eventually reverse our production of greenhouse gases. It would surely be nice to have another 70 years to solve the problem, but we would be wise to recognize that as an opportunity to change our actions, and not as an excuse to continue our risky actions.

Addendum to prevent this thread from become yet another place to rant, please note the following statement in my response to Meme Mine’s comment:

For other commenters, I don’t mind your disagreeing with me on the interpretation of the science if you know something about the subject, and I certainly don’t mind your disagreeing about the policies that are necessary to deal with climate change.

But if this becomes a free-for-all with nonproductive rants like Meme Mine, I will close this thread to commentary. I will also delete comments that I view as unproductive rants rather than substantive discussions.

Addendum 7 October 2010:
Nature News has an interesting article about the possibility that the decline in solar activity may be linked to the most recent warming. The article has key quotations from several scientists who view this result in the same way I do. It does not change the main conclusion that human activities are primarily responsible for changes in climate. For example:

The idea that scientists might not have quite understood the Sun’s effect on climate should not provide ammunition for climate-change sceptics, says Martin Dameris, an atmospheric scientist at the German Aerospace Center in Oberpfaffenhofen. “The findings could prove very significant when it comes to understanding, and quantifying, natural climate fluctuations,” he says. “But no matter how you look at it, the Sun’s influence on current climate change is at best a small natural add-on to man-made greenhouse warming.”

19 thoughts on “Will the Sun give us a reprieve from global warming?”

  1. THREAD AUTHOR’S NOTE: I view this as an unproductive rant, and I will delete similarly unproductive rants in the future. I leave this here only as an example. I like substantive discussion about science and policy, and I hope other commenters will chime in with substance. See my comment in response to this one before posting. — Fred Bortz

    Climate scientists are to science what alter boy abusing priests are to religion. Go ahead, say “the scientist say” all you want. It doesn’t change the fact that voters were not approving the measures ordered by the scientists in regards to controlling CO2 emissions anyways. Voters it turned out dictated public science policy and voters had the consensus that counted.
    Turns out that CO2 has about as much effect on climate as passing gas does in a septic tank. But I will give you this you fading climate pansies, lots of credible lab coat consultants endorsed the CO2 theory, a theory that can‘t be disproved let alone proven so it‘s not a lie. Prove the Fairy God Mother DOESN’T exist. And you doomers were just too shallow to see it in the big picture anyways and Climate Change was just too deep for you doomers to have seen that it was all just cultural, not science based.
    Carl Sagan and other scientists predicted a nuclear winter from the first Gulf War oil fires. And these saintly “scientists” you bowed to like bible thumpers polluted the planet in the first place with their harmful chemicals.
    So get ahead of the curve. I’d say stop scaring my kids but even they know it’s a sad and tragic joke on all of us. History will not be kind.

  2. Meme Mine states incorrectly that “Carl Sagan and other scientists predicted a nuclear winter from the first Gulf War oil fires.”

    I suggest you learn about your subject matter (Carl Sagan in this case) before you spout about it. Then you are less likely to produce such nonsense as this comment.

    For other commenters, I don’t mind your disagreeing with me on the interpretation of the science if you know something about the subject, and I certainly don’t mind your disagreeing about the policies that are necessary to deal with climate change.

    But if this becomes a free-for-all with nonproductive rants like Meme Mine, I will close this thread to commentary. I will also delete comments that I view as unproductive rants rather than substantive discussions.

  3. My understanding is that the Maunder Minimum and low sunspot counts represented only a part of a much longer stretch known as the Little Ice Age (although one could argue the coldest part if tree rings, etc. are correct), so it stands to reason that other factors could have magnified the solar effect. Unfortunately, there were few scientific instruments back then, so we may never know all of the underlying causes. The other thing to consider is that the sunspot counts from the MM are at best “spotty”, and do not appear to become reliable until around 1750. They also soared during the latter half of the 1700s, but the brutal winters in Europe and North America continued for more than half a century. One thing I find really fascinating (and entertaining) is the hordes of instant sunspot experts that have popped up in the blogosphere to make claims that solar out put is either proof of the coming ice age or a heresy to global warming theology.

  4. Since the climate emergency was about our continued existence on the planet Earth, not just some minor discomfort, why then didn’t the scientists start marching and yelling in the streets by the thousands because they had families too, didn’t they?

    NOTE FROM THREAD AUTHOR: The remainder of this posting and others by this user do not advance the discussion. I have deleted the other postings and retained the first sentence here only to give a civil reply to someone who clearly doesn’t respect scientists or science. It is important to me to keep this discussion reasonably close to the topic (science and policy) and not to get sidetracked by insulting remarks about scientists.

  5. I have to say I am totally confused on the climate change, global warming argument, for one the terms they use – climate change and global warming are correct and always will be correct so from PR perspective they have the advantage to begin with. I totally disagree with the consensus that all temperature rises in the last 100 years is down to humans. Firstly because of the mini ice age you mentioned, which is generally known as the beginning of what the media like to call recorded history, or since records began – a good example of media scare mongering is to say, “it is the hottest day in recorded history”, or since records began. What does that mean, it means nothing. The second argument I find interesting is the fact we tend to neglect the main causes of our planets warmth (which you should know are water vapour and plate tectonics, creating volcanoes pumping out Sulphur Dioxide, a far more potent green house gas than CO2), and without them we would be a frigid as Mars. Even if Co2 was the worst offender which it isn’t, we don’t even pump out nearly as much as the Oceans or the volcanoes. If three different sized cups of coffee were placed in front of you, and someone said, which one will keep you up all night? You wouldn’t say the smallest cup would you? It’s all about control, and accountability. I hope we eventually become a species that isn’t so selfish as to deliberately try to ruin and cause misery to billions of lives just so a few people can feel good about themselves. We are not the centre of the Universe, we are not the centre of our solar system, and we can’t control the planets climate.

  6. Meme Mine asks (thank you for not completely ranting in your first sentence): “why then didn’t the scientists start marching and yelling in the streets by the thousands because they had families too, didn’t they?”

    Scientists are naturally cautious and skeptical. It took a while before the evidence made things clearer. Furthermore, there is always a range of scenarios with an even larger range of consequences. Even when the consequences look dire, the proper response for scientists is to present the evidence to policymakers and the public in rational ways.

    As a scientist myself, well-read but not truly an expert, I appreciate having materials that lay out the facts so that when I need to make a political decision, such as voting, working on a campaign, writing a letter, or participating in a march (I haven’t done that since Viet Nam), I can do so as a well-informed citizen.

    Marching in the streets is a political action, and scientists who march do so as citizens, not scientists.

    I hope this helps you understand better how most scientists feel about the difference between their professional and civic lives.

  7. The largest portion of greenhouse gas is water vapor. The biggest non-gas contributor to the “greenhouse effect” are clouds. Clouds are condensed water vapor. So it stands to reason if you understand water vapor distribution and cloud formation, you’ll have a better understanding on how the climate operates. How much effect is Ultraviolet Radition and Sunspots having on the Earths atmosphere? During the Jurassic Period CO2 levels were 4.7 times higher than they are today. During the Late Ordovician Period CO2 levels 12 times higher than today, but with the same global tempatures and no run away greenhouse effect.

  8. This article headline and content is the usual poisonous ideologically loaded ignorant drivel which is now the norm from the increasingly desperate Global Warming camp and it’s fellow travelers. BEWARE of so-called ‘climate’ and ‘solar’ experts who will swap their souls and evidence-based science for a piece of CO2 warmist gravy.

    If the writers knew anything about sun-earth weather relations they would at least know the main signal in World temperatures is the 22yr magnetic (‘Hale Cycle’) rather than the 11 year cycle.

    Let’s look at the key facts which are the nemesis of the warmers.

    1. The theory of Man-made Global Warming & Climate Change is failed science based on fraudulent data. IT JUST DOESN’T ADD UP!
    All the dire predictions of the UN (IPCC) since 2000 have failed. The world is cooling not warming. There is no evidence in 600, 600,000 or 600million years of data that changes in CO2 levels in the real atmosphere drive world temperatures or change climate; indeed it is temperatures which generally drive CO2 levels. – See –

    In a word CO2 has ZERO effect, and any concession to the notion there is somehow some ‘weak’ effect waiting to happen falls into the trap the Climate hype industry machine has set for the ill-informed, those who can’t face the science (which is actually simple!) and the usual Appeasement brigades who surface in all political conflicts. Let’s get it right NO MEANS NO and Appeasement to the Climate hype industry and its hirelings will FAIL and only prolong the crimes against science and humanity now being perpetrated in the name of ‘saving the planet’.

    2. The driver of all important weather extremes is solar activity.
    In the end it is extreme weather that matters rather than averages and this is controlled by JET STREAM SHIFTS and extra activity of weather fronts, and THESE ARE DRIVEN BY CHANGES IN SOLAR ACTIVITY & largely predictable – see ongoing discussion
    – especially comments in RED BOLD – eg added Aug 8th 2010 which gives links concerning predicted changes in the jet stream + records of the solar activity that caused them (and links to recent Presentation via WANews27) and 2nd Comment on Aug 22nd 2010 which gives links to Russia TV on this point.
    CO2 theory can predict NOTHING.

  9. Piers Corbyn says:

    This article headline and content is the usual poisonous ideologically loaded ignorant drivel which is now the norm from the increasingly desperate Global Warming camp and it’s fellow travelers.

    I have always found that people who accuse others in such blatantly personal terminology of being ideologically motivated are the true ideologues in the argument.

    Just because I find the consensus view more credible than the contrary position of the skeptics does not make me an ideologue.

    Rather, it puts me in the scientific mainstream, where ideology has no place in examining the data and refining predictive models. I approach my writing for young readers in the same way.

    For those who want to see that approach in action, look at my most recent book for middle graders, Seven Wonders of Exploration Technology, which has a chapter that deals with climate modeling as a challenging problem of scientific and technological exploration. Ideologues who claim to be skeptics, but who show their angry bias in language like Piers’, will not like it. But mainstream readers will.

    Now I’ll step out of the way and let the rest of you enjoy the argument, hopefully without characterizing anyone else’s motives (including mine). I only request that you focus your comments on scientific observations and analysis and on policy issues.

    From here forward, I’ll let my blog entry speak for itself. I will delete comments that have turned personal or are simply rants (like Meme Mine’s above) that do not advance the discussion, but I will not be otherwise involved.

  10. Dear Fred,

    I would like to caution you when writing books for children, because they are very vulnerable to scary stories on floods, storms, etc extreme climate vents and especially if connected to emissions of carbon dioxide.

    The official IPCC-mantra on manmade global warming in Finland broad-casted by the Finnish Meteorological Institute, has caused cases of severe anxiety with minors.

    If You want to understand the obvious (not proven yet) connection between solar activity, climate and history you should read the newest books by Brian Fagan. But before that I would suggest that you check what Timo Niroma (unfortunately passed away a year ago) has studied and reported at: http://personal.inet.fi/tiede/tilmari/sunspots.html

  11. Reply to Boris Winterhalter:

    You misread my posting on several levels and are jumping to conclusions about my work.

    Before you assume I am writing scary stories, you should take the time to read Seven Wonders of Exploration Technology.

    First of all, the target audience is middle-grades, so the youngest readers will be nearing adolescence. Secondly, I do not present anything that could be considered scary. The chapter on “Exploring Earth’s Climate” discusses how scientists develop, test, and use climate models, the kind of data they use in those models, the value and limitations of modeling, and the importance of developing responsible policies based on the best available analysis.

    Secondly, if you re-read my posting, you will note that I do not dispute that solar effects can affect Earth’s climate. But I also am persuaded by the mainstream view of the best current science, as is former skeptic “Skeptical Environmentalist” Bjorn Lomborg, that human activity is responsible for rising temperatures and that we need to be concerned about reducing our CO2 production in a rather short time frame.

    That is why I say that even if changes in sunspot activity may cool the Earth (or offset much of the human-caused warming) for several decades, the problem of greenhouse gases exists in the long run.

    Finally, I am familiar with Brian Fagan’s work. Even if he acknowledges the solar connection, he also recognizes that greenhouse gases pose a problem for the future. Two of his books are reviewed at my Science Shelf website, The Little Ice Age (reviewed by me) and The Long Summer (guest review by Tom Billings).

  12. Thank you for your clarifying your views. I apologize for having been hasty in my conclusions.

    I agree that young people should be made aware of our environment including climate variability, but the information should encourage them to study various approaches to scientific problems and only then form their own views. This means that information should concern also opposing views, because adolescents are not stupid . History has shown time and again that mainstream views change either slowly or are rapidly debunked. I am convinced that without the political agenda driving the IPCC the greenhouse hype would already have lost its credibility.

    Regarding climate change and especially the role of CO2 according to the mainstream view (i.e. IPCC) is being increasingly questioned by front line scientists, especially those free researchers that are not part of the IPCC establishment. The fact that the opposing views have not been readily audible has been due to strong lobbying by the politicized environmental movement and the negative attitude taken by many editors of newspapers and scientific journals.

    Regarding Bjorn Lomborg, despite the name of his book has never been a climate skeptic. His general skepticism emerged during his teaching in statistics. Together with his students, they used freely available environmental data (e.g. UN) and noted that this data had been very often wrongly manipulated providing erroneous graphs etc. As a political scientist he has always believed in the general IPCC consensus on the assumed damaging role of CO2. His skepticism has to do with the high cost of emission trading etc. and the futility of fighting global warming. He preaches to instead invest in adaptation etc.

    As a geologist familiar in past climates I should add that CO2 can not be the driver of climate. The main driver is solar magnetic activity and not just solar insolation. I am very much in favor of the views of John Christy and Roy Spencer, (e.g. ) and (not forgetting Richard Lindzen) .

    • Boris W. says: “the information should encourage them to study various approaches to scientific problems and only then form their own views”

      That is precisely my style. I always tell my readers to “follow your questions.” I hope you will take the time to become familiar with the breadth of my work.

      As noted in a reply to an earlier comment, I have made my position on the consensus view quite clear, and I don’t want to get into extended argumentation about climate science. I’ll leave that to others who want to pick up the discussion. I will note that your statement “CO2 can not be the driver of climate” is not a mainstream view. For an interesting view of the role of CO2 in climate in the geological long term, read Peter Ward’s The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? That’s not the central theme of the book, but it is an important supporting theme. The central theme is a challenge to the Gaia hypothesis, replacing good mother Gaia with a mother from myth who killed her own children.

  13. How can you start with “(1) Correlation does not mean causality.” and then write “human activity which has increased atmospheric CO2”?
    Whether or not the latter is correlated is irrelevant for this argument.

    You have just falsified your own premise. Q.E.D.

    Surely causality can only be “proven” by all human activity being stopped and us all leaving the planet forthwith (but leaving an instrument with a transmitter behind to confirm the cessation of AGW). Or will another ad hoc explanation be thrown in to explain, in our absence, why it is continuing?

    • Kefalonia53 writes:

      How can you start with “(1) Correlation does not mean causality.” and then write “human activity which has increased atmospheric CO2″?
      Whether or not the latter is correlated is irrelevant for this argument.

      Since you asked me specifically, I will reply, though I would prefer not to get wrapped up in long discussions.

      Correlation does not mean causality, but it often suggests causality that can be investigated by further research. My statement that human activity is responsible for warmer temperatures is supported not by correlation but by research to tease out the various factors involved in climate change. My statement reflects the consensus view that has resulted from that research.

      Note that my argument in the main post accepts that there might be a causal relationship between the quiescent Sun and the lower temperatures during the Maunder minimum, so there is a chance that a we may see some cooling due to ionospheric changes. Research hasn’t pinned down the precise mechanism for that yet, but it is an interesting question.

      In fact, if we do enter an extended period without sunspots, we will have some more data to see if there is causality. And the same research techniques that support the notion of anthropogenic global warming will be applied to evaluate the question of ionospheric-change-induced global cooling.

  14. Let me get this right, Fred Bortz you think the Sun spots are actually keeping us cooler and stunting the activity of light and temperature for Mother Earth? So that’s a good thing for this article. A matter of say a certain amount of years. I find this somewhat in convincing, due to the fact these Sun spots Are putting out radiation.
    (Sorry for the way up, pretty sure you are right though Fred Bortz)

    Radiation- is the complete process in which energy is emitted by one body, transmitted through an intervening medium or space, and absorbed by another body. -Dictionary.com

    But I do understand the value you might be taking here, though I’d like to take full precautions in ways I don’t represent. I think either way, we pretty much need to take this in all ways. MM says that we have a cycle. Man has been around longer than recorded history in the sciences of solar sciences. To be specific able to study outside resources for what they truly are for way longer than recorded documentation using a radar telescope. I mean, for example can’t we take 1 and 2 and figure out 3? Talking in the means of Mercury and Venus. If you matched all of the documentation today you would become of such a probability that honestly, we are seriously effected by the testimony of the Sun’s way and the way we take care of this fine planet.

    One last try, I do see a dilemma in our way of life and taking granted for what has been brought to us which is all surrounding us. Thanks.

  15. Reply to Jeff E.:

    I’m not sure you have the science correct here. First, I am saying that it is reasonable to assume that changes in sunspots can affect Earth’s climate, but it isn’t as simple as the changes in solar radiation. Sunspot activity and other solar phenomena are powerful electromagnetic phenomena that affect the ionosphere, which might in turn conceivably affect Earth’s climate.

    The exact relationship between solar electromagnetism (not just changes in light intensity) and Earth’s climate is not well understood. But we have one piece of evidence, the Maunder minimum, that shows a correlation (not necessarily causation) between a quiescent Sun and a cooler Earth. It’s certainly worth researching that relationship, and we may be heading into a period that will make such research possible.

    Having said that, I also note that there is a demonstrated causal relationship (not merely a correlation) between increased CO2 caused by human activities and a warmer Earth. This is the consensus view that is supported by a large body of evidence and climate modeling that has become quite powerful (though skeptics still focus on its limitations–see Storm World by Chris Mooney for some excellent insights into the dispute).

    The point of my blog posting was to put the two different climate-affecting phenomena into context with each other. Even if we are on the verge of a quiescent Sun, and even if that will lead to a cooling effect on climate, we are still faced with the warming effects of our greenhouse gas production.

    If we are lucky enough to have the solar effects temporarily offset the anthropogenic greenhouse-gas-induced warming, we need to recognize that as a reprieve but not a long-term solution. We still need to act to reduce our greenhouse gas production in the longer term.

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