Category Archives: environment

El Niño, La Niña and Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

What effect does El Niño have on the rate at which the concentration of carbon dioxide changes in the Earth's atmosphere changes? And for that matter, what is the effect of El Niño's cooler counterpart, La Niña, have on airborne CO2 as well?

We're asking the question today because we've ruled out China's attempts to stimulate its economy in 2015 as a significant contributor to the increase in atmospheric CO2 levels that have been observed since July 2015. In China's place, we're considering the impact that widespread and intense wildfires in Indonesia as the most likely culprit that contributed to the increase measured at the remote and high altitude Mauna Loa Observatory in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Reports on Indonesia's wildfires have pointed to the effect of El Niño on weather patterns as an influence that explains its severity, where the warming of surface waters in the Pacific Ocean contributed to drier than normal conditions on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo, which in turn, promoted the rapid spread of wildfires on these islands once they had started.

That observation agrees with what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has reported on the topic back in 2004.

Scientists notice significant changes in the air during an El Niño year. Concentrations of two important greenhouse gases, methane and carbon dioxide, go up significantly. These gases are normally present as the product of burning fossil fuels like gasoline, oil or coal. Many scientists thought the increases in greenhouse gases during El Niño years were likely due to a changing balance of plant growth and death. However, new research is providing a different diagnosis to the source of the Earth's heartburn.

Wildfires seem to ignite the geological version of the big belch. During El Niño, vast areas of the tropic regions dry out and become vulnerable to fire. During the 1997/1998 El Niño, wildfires ravaged huge areas in Latin America and Southeast Asia, belching large quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane into the air.

"We found that a large part of the [carbon dioxide] increases [were] the result of increased fire activity," said Guido R. van der Werf, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

That seems like a promising explanation, so we thought we'd take advantage of the chart that we've already developed showing atmospheric CO2 against the backdrop of globe-impacting recessions and tweak it to show the changes in carbon dioxide levels against a backdrop of El Niño (red) and La Niña (blue) events instead. The resulting chart, should give a good idea at how well correlated global weather-impacting El Niño events are with rising CO2 levels is presented below:

Trailing Twelve Month Average of Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide versus El Niño (Red) and La Niña (Blue) Periods, January 1960 through February 2016

The chart provides about as simple of a check for correlation as can be made. In quickly scanning it, we quickly would appear to see that El Niño events are indeed correlated rising concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

But that's looking for what we expect to see (a.k.a. confirmation bias). When we actually counted the number of red vertical bands representing El Niño periods, we actually find that there is an equal number of periods where the rate at which CO2 accumulates in the air was rising and periods where the rate at which CO2 accumulates in the air was falling.

That was a surprising result to us. Looking next at La Niña periods, we see these events are actually correlated with transitions between rising and falling rates of CO2 increases in the Earth's atmosphere. Or more accurately, rising-then-falling rates, and also falling-then-rising rates.

By contrast, El Niño periods tend to occur during periods where the rate at which the concentration of carbon dioxide is increasing in the Earth's atmosphere is either rising or falling - sometimes they occur during periods of transition, but more often than not, they appear to be an either rising or falling proposition.

Keep in mind that what we're doing is more of a simple, first-pass kind of analysis. We're not considering things like the relative strength of the various El Niño or La Niña events to assess what correlation that factor might have on what we observe in the trends for carbon dioxide increases in the Earth's atmosphere.

Based on what we've observed here however, we would say that changes in economic activity levels are a more reliable predictor of changes in the rates at which CO2 levels in the Earth's atmosphere change than either El Niño or La Niña events. But then, who's to say that these weather events might not be influencing the world's economic activities, where in particular, La Niña events may have something of a moderating or stabilizing effect, while El Niño might have more of an amplification effect on CO2 levels?

We wonder if Tim Haab is still looking for project ideas for first year PhD students?...

Data Sources

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Earth System Research Laboratory. Mauna Loa Observatory CO2 Data. [File Transfer Protocol Text File]. Accessed 8 March 2016.

Null, Jan. El Niño and La Niña Years and Intensities. Based on Oceanic Niño Index. [Online Table]. Updated February 3, 2016.

Global CO2 and Indonesia on Fire

Today, we're going to revisit a hypothesis we proposed at the beginning of the year, where an uptick in China's increased importation of U.S. soybeans and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide prompted us to propose that these facts might be evidence of some success in the Chinese government's efforts to stimulate China' slowing economy during 2015.

Although the available trade data at that time supported that hypothesis, the trade data that has come out since has not. We confirmed last month that China's year over year consumption of U.S. soybeans declined in both nominal and real terms.

That still left the question of where all the extra carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere was coming from. As we've seen in our previous analysis, China is one of the few nations on Earth where changes in its leadership's economic policies show up in the air we breathe, so we proposed a second hypothesis that might account for why the rate at which the world's CO2 levels had reversed and begun to increase after July 2015, which we'll call the "dead cat bounce" hypothesis.

Trailing Twelve Month Average of Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide (CO2), January 1960 to February 2016

Here, we considered how China's political leadership would act to stimululate its economy by accelerating the construction of coal-fired power plants, where having more of these plants go into operation would most certainly increase the nation's output of carbon dioxide emissions.

But for that to happen, China's consumption of power produced by these plants would need to rise. Otherwise, the output of these new plants would need to be offset by diminishing the output of existing power plants to maintain balance in the nation's power grid to avoid the damage that results from excess power generation.

If China's faster construction of coal-fired power plants were behind the increase in global CO2, we should alse be seeing China's imports of traded goods increase, particularly raw materials needed for producing manufactured goods. As we saw yesterday however, that's not happening, as the very latest evidence suggests that no significant improvement in China's economic performance is taking place.

What that means is that something else is most likely behind the recent, rapid escalation in the level of carbon dioxide levels in the Earth's atmosphere.

Using the Mauna Loa Observatory's data for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to establish the timing for what might have triggered the reversal and increase in the rate at which CO2 is increasing in the air, we found one prime candidate that might fully account for the increase, which just happens to be coming from just one nation: Indonesia.

In July 2015, a large number of forest fires began igniting in Indonesia's forests and peatland, which soon grew out of control in what has since been described as an ecological disaster.

Until seasonal rains dampened their burning, Indonesia's wildfires burned around five million acres (7,812 square miles, or 20,234 square kilometers) of the nation's forests and peatlands, putting an estimated 600 million tons (544 million metric tons) of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the planet's atmosphere.

In reviewing these stories, the influence of the current El Niño-driven weather patterns is often cited as a contributor to the severity of Indonesia's wildfires, having produced drier conditions for the southeastern Asian nation that made fires spread more easily. In an upcoming post, we'll explore the extent to which either El Niño or its cooler La Niña counterpart would appear to contribute to the rate of increase of global atmospheric CO2 levels.

Data Source

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Earth System Research Laboratory. Mauna Loa Observatory CO2 Data. [File Transfer Protocol Text File]. Accessed 8 March 2016.

China’s Dead Cat Bounce?

Year Over Year Growth Rate of Exchange Rate Adjusted Value of Goods and Services Traded Between the U.S. and China, January 1986 through December 2015

We've been following the health of China's economy, as viewed through the goods and services it imports from the United States, for a very long time. As a result of our ongoing analysis, we were among the very first to confirm that China's economy was encountering severe headwinds in its centrally planned attempt to transition from a manufactured good-export oriented economy to a services-based one.

Yesterday, we showed that exchange rate-adjusted year-over-year growth rate of the value of the goods that China imports from the U.S. had fallen to the lowest level they've been since July 2009, falling well below the level where this measure of economic growth last bottomed in February 2015.

At the time, China's political leaders were so concerned that they significantly ramped up their efforts to stimulate the nation's economy.

And they succeeded, which we confirmed as the growth rate of China's imports from the U.S. rebounded in the spring and through summer of 2015, albeit with some month-to-month volatility.

That changed for the worse in October 2015, which is when the year over year growth rate of China's imports from the U.S. plunged from +4.8% in the previous month to -7.0%, a negative swing of 11.8%. In the two months since for which we have data from the U.S. Census Bureau, it has only continued to fall.

Here's where things get interesting. In 2015, we began developing a new economic indicator that can provide insight into the near-real time health of the global economy. Using the measurements of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere taken in the remote Pacific Ocean at the Mauna Loa Observatory, we were able to correlate changes in the rate at which atmospheric CO2 is changing with recessions or other major business cycle downturns in the global economy.

The latest version of the chart we produced to visualize that correlation is presented below, which includes the most recent data reported by the Mauna Loa Observatory on 5 February 2016.

Trailing Twelve Month Average of Year Over Year Change in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, January 1960 through January 2016

In this chart, we observe that the rate at which carbon dioxide is being added to the Earth's atmosphere bottomed in June 2015 and has increased in each of the months since, which directly contradicts what China's U.S. import trade data is communicating.

While we expect there to be a time lag between when there is a change in economic activity and when the resulting change in a national economy's carbon dioxide emissions might be detected in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the upswing we see in the atmospheric CO2 levels is both larger than we would have anticipated and has extended longer than we would have anticipated as well.

We think that this sustained acceleration may very well be a direct consequence of the emergency stimulus measures that China's leadership undertook began in March 2015.

Xian Coal Plant - Source: National Science Foundation -

In this hypothesis, we suspect that China's leadership acted to accelerate the early completion of a number of construction projects that were already in progress - and particularly, new coal-fired power plants, which typically take 3 to 4 years to build and put into service.

By getting these plants into service more quickly, China's leaders may have hoped that the additional electricity that they would generate would be capable of sustaining additional economic activity, which would justify the acceleration of these projects.

Unfortunately, the trade data suggests that plan is not working out as well as China's leaders may have hoped. China, the world's largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions by a very wide margin, is burning more coal and is exporting an increased amount of CO2 into the Earth's atmosphere as it brings these new plants online sooner than previously planned. But the demand for what might be done with the additional electricity generated by these newly chartered power plants is not sufficiently developed enough to take advantage of the increased capacity to sustain new economic activity, which we can confirm by China's plunging level of imports.

That's the kind of dynamic that can produce the national economy equivalent of a dead cat bounce, where the efforts of national leaders to stimulate an economy to reverse its contraction lead to short term gains that ultimately prove to be unsustainable because of the imbalances they create.

In the worst case, they would make their nation's economic situation worse because they've added capacity that would take decades to fill, which in the mean time, virtually ensures the negative economic outcome they had sought to avoid. In this scenario, the increased supply without increased demand causes prices to plunge, starving firms of the revenue they need to cover their costs of staying in business (particularly the cost of any debt they may have taken on), which leads to defaults and business failures, which become greatly amplified if they prompt failures in banks and other institutions.

If that happens, we'll definitely see it in both the trade data and in the air.

Image Credit: National Science Foundation

Carbon and Soybeans Contradict Conventional Wisdom on China’s Economy

For an economy whose growth is hypothesized by some to be over, China is showing some surprising indications of economic expansion.

The leading evidence to support that conclusion is to be found in the air we breathe, where we find that the pace at which the trailing twelve month average of carbon dioxide is being emitted into the global atmosphere is continuing to rebound strongly from its June 2015 low.

Trailing Twelve Month Average of Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, Jan 1960-Dec 2015

We know that China is responsible for the increase because the nation is, by a wide margin, the world's largest producer of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In fact, the decrease in the rate at which carbon dioxide was being added to the Earth's atmosphere that preceded the rebound is directly attributable to the outcome of China's political leadership's third plenum in September 2013, where they committed to reduce the growth rate at which China's economy was expanding to lower levels.

The decision to decelerate the growth of China's economy however proved to be problematic, as China's growth slowed far faster than its leaders expected and the nation experienced recessionary conditions. Those conditions then prompted China's leadership to begin acting to stimulate the nation's economy in an attempt to prevent those recessionary conditions from exploding into a widespread contraction.

We see then the effects of their stimulus effort through a sharply increased rate of addition of carbon dioxide to the Earth's atmosphere.

On the other hand, data on the value of all the goods traded between the United States and China would initially suggest that China's economy is still experiencing recessionary conditions, with the year-over-year growth rate of the exchange-rate adjusted value of that trade falling well into negative territory.

Year Over Year Growth Rate of Exchange Rate Adjusted U.S.-China Trade in Goods and Services, January 1986 - Present

We dug deeper into the details of the goods that the U.S. exported to China, finding once again, as we did in October 2015, that the leading product leaving the U.S. for China's ports was soybeans (over 28% of the value of all U.S. exports in October 2015, over 22% in November 2015).

Doing some quick math, using the values of soybeans exported by the U.S. to China in October and November of both 2014 and 2015, then taking into account an average 25% decline in the price of soybeans from 2014 to 2015, we determined that the quantity of soybeans being exported from the U.S. to China actually increased by over 34.7 million bushels year over year.

Combined with the rebound in the rate at which carbon dioxide is being increased in the Earth's atmosphere, that increase in soybean consumption suggests that China's economy is experiencing some degree of expansion in real terms, which is why we find ourselves in the odd position of contradicting what is finally becoming the conventional wisdom on the state of China's economy in other quarters, long after we saw the conditions that led to that conventional wisdom first developing.

And certainly which is not to say that China's economy is out of the woods yet. These are simply positive factors that were present in China nearly through the end of 2015. Things can turn for the worse with very little notice, which may be the message that China's stock markets are currently trying to send.

In an upcoming post, we'll consider the possibility that these positive indications are really more akin to a dead cat bounce for China's economy.

Data Sources

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Earth System Research Laboratory. Mauna Loa Observatory CO2 Data. [File Transfer Protocol Text File]. Accessed 6 January 2015.

U.S. Census Bureau. Trade in Goods with China. Accessed 6 January 2016.

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. China / U.S. Foreign Exchange Rate. G.5 Foreign Exchange Rates. Accessed 6 January 2016.

Climate Scientists, Media Get Science, Data Wrong

Did anybody catch the "surprisingly good news" that was reported in the Washington Post on Monday, 7 December 2015?

In case you didn't, here are the leading paragraphs of the story, which describes the basic findings of a study by Robert B. Jackson, Josep G. Canadell, Corinne Le Quéré, Robbie M. Andrew, Jan Ivar Korsbakken, Glen P. Peters and Nebojsa Nakicenovic, which was coincidentally published on Monday, 7 December 2015.

Emissions of man-made greenhouse gases appear to have declined slightly in 2015, scientists said Monday, reflecting what experts say is an encouraging, though likely temporary, pause in the steady rise in pollutants blamed for climate change.

The projected dip of 0.6 percent over 2014 levels, if confirmed, marks the first decline in heat-trapping pollutants in a year when the world economy was not in recession, a new analysis shows. Scientists say the drop is tangible evidence of changing behavior as more countries invest in renewable energy such as solar and wind power.

The single biggest factor appears to be a marked reduction in China’s use of coal to make electricity. But other countries, from North America to Europe, also emitted less carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning as governments and consumers shifted to cleaner fuels and more fuel-efficient vehicles, according to a report published Monday in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change.

As it happens, Political Calculations became the world's leading authority on the correlation between the changing levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere and the world's economic activity over the last year, an expertise we've developed from scratch through a series of posts on the topic, which we've listed below, where we've also juxtaposed portions of our long running analysis of the relative economic health of China's economy as events have warranted the merging of the two series. See if you can detect any trends in what we've observed (we've highlighted the posts where we've presented the development of the changing level of atmospheric carbon dioxide as an economic indicator):

In our series of original analyses, what we quickly find is that evidence from international trade data directly contradicts the claims of the study's authors that the recent decline in the rate at which the concentration of carbon dioxide is increasing in the Earth's atmosphere occurred in an environment of economic growth.

Instead, it occurred, as virtually every similar decline in the the rate at which the concentration of global atmospheric CO2 has occurred, as economic activity has likewise declined globally as Earth's economy has experienced recessionary conditions.

That's not our opinion - that fact is plainly evident in international trade data.

But that's not all that's wrong. The story of a reduction in atmospheric CO2 emissions presented by the climate scientists is already well out of date, as the Chinese government's actions to stimulate its economy in its efforts to pull the nation out of its recessionary funk early in the first half of 2015 have gained some traction, the effects of which we may directly observe in the trailing year average of the change in global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, where the rate at which CO2 has resumed increasing after having bottomed in June 2015.

Trailing Twelve Month Average of Year-Over-Year Change in Parts per Million of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, Jan 1960-Present

The global atmospheric carbon dioxide source data used to produce our chart above was just updated through October 2015 on Monday, 7 December 2015.

Anecdotally, the recent rebound in China's CO2 emissions has also been directly observed in China, in what Gizmodo describes as "China's Worst Pollution Crisis Ever", which was also posted on Monday, 7 December 2015.

The bottom line is that the climate scientists behind the study failed to consider economic data that clearly indicated growing recessionary conditions in China during their period of interest, which in turn led to an incorrect conclusion, namely that the observed reduction in the rate at which CO2 increased in the Earth's atmosphere in 2014 and 2015 occurred in the absence of recession, or more accurately, recessionary conditions.

The climate scientists certainly picked a bad day to launch their media public relations strategy.


Jackson, R.B., Canadell, J.G., Le Quéré, C., Andrew, R.M., Korsbakken, J.I., Peters, G.P., Nakicenovic, N. Reaching Peak Emissions. Nature Climate Change (2015) doi:10.1038/nclimate2892. Published online 07 December 2015. Accessed through on 8 December 2015.

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Earth System Research Laboratory. Mauna Loa Observatory CO2 Data. [File Transfer Protocol Text File]. Updated 7 December 2015. Accessed 8 December 2015.

U.S. Census Bureau. Trade in Goods with China. Accessed 8 December 2015.


Update 8 December 2015 12:10 PM EST: This post has been updated to highlight our series of posts that specifically focus on developing atmospheric carbon dioxide as an economic indicator, and to clarify our "bottom line", where we've added the text indicated in bold face type.