Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

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Nick Reeves says we’re all ‘Fracking Mad’

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The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone!

I know this has been said many times.  Most recently it has been said by one of my favourite environmental commentators/campaigners, Executive Director of CIWEM (the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management), Nick Reeves OBE.  If any new readers are not familiar with him, they may wish to start by typing his name into the Search this Blog box (in the right-hand column) and see what happens…

CIWEM publishes a monthly magazine, to which Reeves nearly always contributes an article.  Last week, my copy of the May 2013 issue arrived early. It includes an article by Reeves entitled, ehem, “A bonkers energy solution”.  However, the online version is indeed entitled “Fracking Mad.  Reeves begins with a seemingly bizarre discussion of the failings of the UK’s education system.  However, it soon becomes clear that he considers this to be at least partly to blame for the fact that the general public are willing to accept a “bonkers energy solution” such as hydraulic fracturing. However, it is UK government policy that is “bonkers” (the general public just don’t seem to realise it):

Last December, the energy and climate change secretary, Ed Davey, gave the go-ahead for fracking (the controversial technology for releasing underground shale gas) as part of a plan for maximising the use of (so called) low-cost fuel. In so doing the government has thumbed its nose at legally binding carbon emissions targets and cuffed the country to a fossil-fuel future. Worse still, its commitment to fracking will undermine investment of billions of pounds in renewables, geothermal and energy efficiency. We now know that the ‘greenest government ever’ tag was shameless and that ministers are back-sliding on their commitment to a low-carbon and green economy.

Reeves goes on to recount the recent history of fracking in the UK and mentions all the (probably spurious) safety concerns.  Like me, he focusses on the fact that we probably cannot afford to pursue fracking because of the long-term consequences doing so will have; and that we simply must find a way to do without it.  However, he is more blunt than I have been, and criticises the reviews the Government commissioned for not making this point:

The scientists appear to have ignored the fact that no amount of control and regulation can stop shale gas from being a fossil fuel or from releasing carbon dioxide.

This is an important point well made.  However, in defence of the scientists (and engineers) asked to determine whether fracking is ‘safe’, I would have to point out that the questions of the long-term environmental sustainability, sensibility and/or survivability of fracking were carefully excluded from the remit of the reviews that the Government asked them to undertake.  Reeves therefore concludes that fracking is “a reckless move driven by ideology” that “will commit the UK to being a fossil fuel economy and not a low carbon one” for decades to come…  And so, you can almost hear the frustration in Reeves’ voice as he asks:

What will it take to get people to understand the seriousness of the climate change catastrophe that awaits us?

Reeves then goes on to talk about carbon budgets and our rapidly-declining chances of limiting global average temperature rise to 2 Celsius (compared to pre-1850) and makes the point many others have made that global reserves of fossil fuels are five times greater than that which we would have to burn in order to guarantee at least 2 Celsius temperature rise.  As Reeves puts it:

In other words, we can only avoid devastating climate change if we keep most of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground. But, is that possible? Can we deliberately forgo what many regard as our most precious energy resource – the fuels that have powered 200 years of industrialisation – for the sake of future generations?  It is absolutely possible, and we must. The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone. (my emphasis)

The remainder of Reeves’ article (which I would encourage all to read) is a typically incisive summary of how this problem is entirely solvable.  We do not lack the technology or the resources to produce the electricity to provide for the needs of even 10 billion humans. What we (or at least our politicians) lack is the intellectual honesty to admit that the game is up.  Fossil fuels are not the solution; they are the problem.  Furthermore, the longer we (or they) fail to acknowledge this, the greater the problem will become.

Reeves looks at the situation from a range of perspectives, UK, EU and global.  However, in the end, this is a problem that will only ever be solved by people demanding that their politicians solve it:

 The dash for oil in the Arctic and the dash for shale gas elsewhere, shows that we are as addicted to fossil fuels as we ever were.  But a low-carbon future is the one we must all fight for – our gift to the unborn.

Peak Oil – I think humanity is past it!

The population consumption environment nexus

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Today’s post is that which was intended for last Monday.  However, thanks to the happy coincidence of incoming information, Monday’s post was taken up with summarising an 11-year old presentation by Dr Albert A. Bartlett, entitled ‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’, which is the best summary I have yet seen of the insidious problems caused by exponential growth.  Even if you think you understand the maths – and are familiar with concepts such as doubling time and illustrations such as 264 grains of rice on a chessboard – it is still worth watching the a series of eight 9-minute videos, or entire presentation, posted on YouTube.  This is primarily because of all the evidence Bartlett presents, which suggests that anyone who says exponential growth and/or resource depletion is not a problem is either stupid or a liar.  It really is that simple.

However, I should also wish to draw attention to two further happy coincidences – two recent posts by fellow bloggers that are well worth reading:
1. “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” – another post about Bartlett’s presentation by Jules Bywater-Lees.
2. The Great Unmentionable by George Monbiot – a self-explanatory post by Paul Handover.

Today, then, I will finally get round to summarising the recently-published paper by economist Partha S. Dasgupta and biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, entitled ‘Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus’.  As I said on Monday, the abstract is viewable on the Science journal website, but, having done a quick Google search, I found the entire paper published as a PDF by Dasgupta on the website of Cambridge University.  Here, then, is my summary of  the paper:

‘Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus’, by Partha S. Dasgupta and Paul R. Ehrlich.

Introduction (in lieu of Abstract)
The authors start by pointing out that externalities (i.e. unintended consequences) in economics are widely acknowledged but generally relate to human use of the natural environment.  Thus, people talk about our collective failure to value the essential ecosystem services Nature provides.  In strict contrast to this, the authors suggest that the adverse consequences of resource consumption and population growth are generally not acknowledged.

Reproductive Externalities
The authors then begin by suggesting that birth rates in Europe began to decline 400 years ago as a result of improvements in the standard of living of most people because, almost counter intuitively, it led to people delaying marriage and childbirth until they could afford to set up their own household.  However, birth rates in developed countries have since fallen much further and faster with improvements to the education and emancipation of women; and the advent and acceptance of contraception.

The authors note that, today, population growth is greatest in poor countries.  However, unlike Bartlett, they do not acknowledge that per-capita rates of consumption make modest population growth in wealthy countries even more problematic.  Instead, the authors focus on the factors that continue to encourage high birth rates in poor countries (in sub-Saharan Africa in particular).

Under the title ‘pro-natalist institutions’, the authors discuss societal norms such as the fostering of children by non-biological parents; communal land tenure (as opposed to the division of land amongst children that could discourage large families).  Although seemingly careful not to mention the effect of religious beliefs, the largely “unmet need” for family planning is acknowledged.  The authors also seem to be optimistic that lowering birth rates can be achieved faster through increasing access to contraception than it may be by improving education.  Irrespective of how it is achieved, the authors acknowledge that achieving it will be essential to halting global human population growth.  Notwithstanding, for the moment, that the ecological carrying capacity of the planet may have already been exceeded, the authors point out that whether or not global human population growth stabilises depends mainly on average family size in the future.

Under the title ‘conformity’, the authors discuss the reality that people continue to have large families long after the original reason for doing so (e.g. high infant mortality and lack of good healthcare or social welfare) has diminished or disappeared.  On a more positive note, the authors suggest that the desire to conform can be broken if a big enough minority can be encouraged to modify their behaviour (i.e. and defy convention).

Under the title ‘breakdown of the commons and the added need for labour’, the authors discuss the externalities arising from the predominance of subsistence economies.  These are the things that keep poor people poor, such as the labour intensive nature of many agricultural practices in the absence of mechanisation; and the fact that children who are fetching water, gathering fuel, working the land, or looking after animals are often missing out on being educated as a result.

Consumption Externalities
The authors start by stating the obvious: the consumption (and depletion) of resources has consequences for both current and future generations.  In terms of consequences for people alive today, the most obvious adverse consequence of resource consumption – or rather pollution by the waste being generated – is highlighted as being ongoing global climate disruption.  The authors then focus on what drives us to consume things and to do ‘competitively’ and ‘conspicuously’ (i.e. to equate consumption with progress, fulfilment, and happiness).  Here too, the authors highlight the troubling reality of social conformity as a driver of persistently self-destructive behaviour.

Environmental Externalities
Once again, the authors acknowledge previous discussion (in academic literature) of anthropogenic impacts upon the environment and choose to focus on those that are detrimental.  They suggest that these can be categorised as either unidirectional or reciprocal:  the former being impacts the authors describe as “externalities each party inflicts… on all others, as in the case of unmanaged common property resources”.   The authors then highlight that, unlike commonly owned resources at a local level, global resources that are not owned by anybody (such as the atmosphere and the  fish in the sea) tend to be become polluted or over-exploited.

Difficulties in Enacting Policies to Counter Externalities
The authors begin their discussion of all of the above by lamenting the popular misconception by economists of Nature as something that is “a fixed, indestructible factor of production”.  This rather opaque statement incorporates a variety of fallacies, including that Nature has only instrumental value; that it has an infinite capacity to provide resources for our use; and that it has an infinite capacity to assimilate (or recycle) the wastes we generate.  These are all serious misperceptions of reality:  Nature’s resources are finite and its essential ecosystem services are non-substitutable.  For example, if human activity continues to decimate bee populations, at what point will it start to impact upon our ability to grow fruit and cereal crops?  Indeed, is this not already happening?

As in many other discussions of the environment, the authors highlight the non-linearity of many processes in Nature; and the existence of positive (i.e. self-reinforcing or mutually-destructive) feedback mechanisms.  Thus, they construct the population consumption environment nexus as three corners of a triangle with each having an effect upon – and being affected by – the others. Towards the end of their discussion, the authors highlight the fact that 15 of the 24 major ecosystem services examined in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment were found to be either degraded or currently subjected to unsustainable use.

Even more worryingly, they cite the conclusions of numerous other studies that, if all 7 billion of the people on the planet today were to squander resources at the rate at which those who are already wealthy do, “at least two more Earths would be needed to support everyone on a sustained basis”.  Considering the consensus view of UN statisticians that, on its current trajectory, the world population could exceed 10 billion by 2050, the authors make the obvious point that, if realised, “the demands made on the Earth system will prove to be even more unsustainable”.

So it is, then, that the authors end their discussion of the issues by considering the prospects for technology alone to solve this problem.  They start by noting that technology does not operate in a vacuum (i.e. it too consumes resources) and that innovators respond to incentives (so government policies are important).   Reflecting recent pronouncements by the IMF, the authors highlight the fact that Nature’s essential ecosystem services are currently grossly under-valued (e.g. the price of fossil fuels does not currently reflect the damage our use of them does to our environment).  The authors also cite historical and empirical evidence that suggests that innovation and technology has historically increased unemployment; and archaeological evidence that past civilisations collapsed as a result of degradation of their environment or an inability to respond fast enough to environmental change.  This should be of great concern to all humans alive today, because the current rates of environmental change are almost certainly unprecedented in the period of time over which such civilisations have existed.

I will let the authors’ conclusion speak for itself:

Although their magnitudes are likely to differ across societies, owing to differences in societal histories, institutions, customs, and ecologies, the reproductive and consumption externalities we have identified here share striking commonalities. Moreover, the analysis has uncovered reasons why technological innovations since the Industrial Revolution have been rapacious in their reliance on natural capital. We have shown that the externalities studied in this paper are not self-correcting. Therefore, the analysis we have presented points to a spiralling socio-environmental process, giving credence to the presumption that the pattern of contemporary economic growth is unsustainable.

Ruin is the destiny to which all men rush

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As the Bishop of London said at the funeral service for the late Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven today, this is neither the time nor the place to argue about her legacy. Comments on this post are therefore disabled (until tomorrow at least). However, even putting aside politics, all those miners of coal who have have shown such crass disrespect for the late Margaret Thatcher need to bear in mind that mining coal is one of the most environmentally damaging things humans have ever done. Therefore, in seeking to make the UK less dependent upon coal, it could be argued that Mrs Thatcher’s greatest mistake was pursuing gas rather than renewable energy. This mistake, replicated the world over for several decades now, is a mistake for which we and our children and our children’s children shall pay a very heavy price.

“An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it” — Orlando A. Battista.

Can technology save us?

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I happened to stumble across a BBC TV Horizon special, entitled ‘Tomorrow’s World’ last Thursday.  It begins with a fascinating review of humankind’s history of – and propensity for – invention. It also explains some truly fascinating – and inspiring – developments in the spheres of space exploration, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and power generation.

In the introduction, the programme presenter and narrator Liz Bronnin explains how, after 100s of thousands of years of technological stagnation, the fast-moving world of technological innovation is very definitely a modern invention.

She then looks at how, since our governments announced they were not going to do so, private investors are now involved in a race to return to the Moon (and win a $US 20 million prize). Just after 11 minutes in, however, economist Marianna Mazzucato makes the point that private sector development would never happen unless governments first spent money innovating (just look at your Computer, iPhone, or SatNav).

This is followed by an examination of the invention of graphene (i.e. the repeated use of sellotape to produce a film of graphite comprised of only one layer of carbon atoms in a hexagonal matrix). It is truly astonishing what graphene can do – including carry the weight of a cat…

After 23 minutes, a variety of talking heads demonstrate the complexity of modern science and the impossibility of any one person understanding it all. However, Bronnin then presents the example of Professor Robert Langer at MIT. What he is doing – and enabling others to do – is truly amazing; including potentially doing away with the need for chemotherapy to treat cancer.

After about 32 minutes, Bronnin introduces the power of the Internet to promote innovation – crowd-sourcing research funding and the concept of open-source technology – the complete abrogation of intellectual copyright… It is a fundamental challenge to globalised Capitalism; but it may well be the solution to many of our problems…

However, to me, the final third of the programme is by far the most fascinating… It looks at the challenges of finding a replacement for fossil fuels. It provides a very clear message that this is a technological challenge driven by the reality of physics – not by ideology.

It presents the case for synthetic biology, which has now succeeded in genetically modifying cyanobacteria so that they use photosynthesis to produce ethanol. This is brilliant, but, it is still only recycling CO2 (it is not removing it from the biosphere). With this technology, we could stop the CO2 content of the atmosphere from rising (but it will not help get it down again).

In the final 10 minutes of the programme, Bronnin presents the inspiring case of the British inventor, Michael Pritchard, who miniaturised water treatment technology as a result of watching the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004; when people were surrounded by water they could not drink…   Indeed, to prove that it works, he even gets Bronnin (at 54 minutes) to drink water extracted from a tank including all kinds of unpleasant things including dog pooh…

For all these reasons, if you have not seen it, I would recommend that you watch the programme:

Re-engineering nature for our benefit will, without doubt, be very very useful. However, I still think the optimism of the comment at the very end of the programme “…I never worry about the future of the human race, because I think we are totally capable of solving problems…” is very unwise. This is because anthropogenic climate disruption is a problem that is getting harder to solve the longer we fail to address it effectively.

Bronnin concludes by saying that, “it is an exciting time to be alive…” However, I remain very nervous. This is because, as Professor Peter Styles of Keele University – a strong supporter of the hydraulic fracturing industry – recently acknowledged, it will be impossible for carbon capture and storage to remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere to prevent very significant changes to our climate. This is because of the collective hypnosis that deludes most people into seeing perpetual economic growth as the solution to all our problems.

In short, I am certain that technology alone cannot save us. In order to avoid the ecological catastrophe that all but the most ideologically-prejudiced and wilfully-blind can see developing all around us… we need to modify our behaviour: This primarily means that we need to acknowledge the injustice of a “use it up and wear it out” mentality and, as individuals, all learn to use an awful lot less energy.

Climate change “sceptics” have picked a fight with history and science – primarily with the concept of Entropy – and they will lose. The only question that remains is this: Are we going to let them put us all in (what xraymike79 recently called) ‘the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments’.

More freezes will melt climate change doubts

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So said Lord (Julian) Hunt, Vice President of GLOBE and a former Director General of the UK’s Meteorological Office, in an article published in The Times newspaper on 2 April 2013 (behind paywall). Fortunately (for me and all those without a Times subscription), the text of what appears to be the same article has been released to the media by the British Embassy in Beijing. This is presumably because Lord Hunt refers to China.

However, without further comment from me, here is the article in full:

It was the chilliest Easter Day on record, and last month is the coldest March for at least 50 years. But we are not alone in shivering. Across much of Europe, temperatures have been unseasonably cold. In Germany, this has been called a once in a “100-year winter”.

We should not be surprised. It has long been expected that climate change would bring more weird or extreme weather — not just cold but rain, droughts and heat waves — to the UK. So longer spells of colder winter weather are consistent with this. As were drought conditions around this time last year, followed by many months of heavy rain which resulted in the UK experiencing in 2012, the second wettest year on record.

Extreme weather has become more frequent across the world. Australia started 2013 with a record breaking heat wave. Similarly, a heatwave in the US in 2012 (the warmest year on record for mainland America) contributed towards widespread drought which proved devastating for many crops. Russia also experienced its second warmest summer last year. This follows the country’s hottest summer on record in 2010 with states of emergency in seven Russian regions as a result of brush fires, while 28 other regions were put under states of emergency due to crop failures caused by drought.

And then there is the steady increase in peak rainfall rates. These have doubled in South East Asia,for instance over 30 years. It is such a problem that the Malaysians have built a huge SMART tunnel (or Stormwater Management And Road Tunnel) in Kuala Lumpur which doubles up as both a motorway and a six-mile long pipe to cope with flash floods. A similar less pronounced trend is occurring in the UK, which help explains the rise in localised, incredibly heavy showers which have brought flooding from Cumbria to Cornwall. This is caused by a change in the atmosphere called “vertical mixing” in which cumulus clouds become stronger and bigger.

In the UK, the trend is likely to be towards colder winters as a large part of Arctic ice melts permanently (as now happens every summer). The winds over the ice-free ocean could then push colder currents up to Iceland and the Arctic ocean. And as a result of colder waters from the North, the northern UK, in particular, may no longer enjoy the same level of warming from the Gulf Stream as it did when the sea ice boundary was further south.

It is these colder oceans which help to rebut one of the more common arguments used by sceptics to argue that “global warming has stopped”. They often point to graphs which purport to show that Earth’s temperature has not risen in 16 years. But that graph combines land and ocean temperature. Separate the two, and you see that on land temperature is still rising — 0.3℃ over the past decade. More dramatically, in China it has risen by 2℃ over the past 50 years, and 3℃ in the Antarctic over 30 years.

The drop in sea temperature is not just taking place in the Arctic, where the ice is melting, but equally strongly in the eastern Pacific, where winds off the South American coast bring deep, colder waters to the surface. Normally this La Niña phenomenon lasts for three to five years. However, it has been active for more than a decade, caused by easterly trade winds along the equator that have been strengthened by general warming of the atmosphere. When La Niña finally falls away, some time in the next few years, the surface cooling will end. This will increase temperatures over large areas of the globe, disrupting agriculture and fisheries in many countries, and pushing up food prices.

Fortunately, even some sceptics are won round when they experience the problems themselves. The scepticism of some Russian officials has disappeared as they have seen the permafrost melt in the north of the country, and watched the effects of prolonged heatwaves and droughts.

Responsible nations are preparing for the effects of climate change. However, all governments need constant encouragement, in the face of financial austerity and the claims of sceptics, to expand programmes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It is critical they do so, otherwise future generations will have more to worry about than a freezing cold Easter Sunday.

For all those people who have not been duped into believing in the fallacy of the marketplace of ideas, Lord Hunt is someone whose opinions should carry weight. Experts are real and so is anthropogenic climate disruption. So, then, I really do hope that climate change denial will founder on the rocks of reality (and the sooner the better it will be for everybody).

Who says the Bible is irrelevant?

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Please do not worry that I am suddenly turning all Evangelical on you. Far from it. I just cannot get over how relevant the following words seem. They were written by former Pharisaic Jew, Saul – known to Christians as St Paul – to his young protegé, Timothy, in 66-67 AD.

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God… (2 Tim 3: 1-4)

I am trying hard to fend-off a potential Messiah complex with regard to environmentalism but it seems, to me at least, an incontrovertible aspect of modernity that we have now fulfilled this 1950 year-old prophecy. However, as regular readers of this blog may well be able to guess, what concerns me more is that the greatest failure of modernity arose out of the Age of Enlightenment: This seventeenth-Century revolution in natural philosophy meant that Western science emerged from the Dark Ages but, from it, along with all the positive benefits of building on Chinese and Islamic scholarship, we sadly inherited the idea that humans are superior to Nature – rather than part of it. This is a fallacy that underlies the inability of many to accept the reality of ACD (i.e. anthropogenic climate disruption). Either that, or they are deluded into thinking that:
1. Humans are incapable of affecting their environment (despite the precedents of industrial pollution causing Acid Rain and CFCs creating the hole in the Ozone layer); or
2. God will not allow humans to trash the Environment (due to infantile reliance upon things like Genesis 9:15: “I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life.” Yes, Senator James Inhoffe [R-OK], I am looking at you).

Irreversible but not yet unstoppable

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irreversible not unstoppableWith regard to ongoing climate change, this is currently an important distinction.

However, as highlighted by Joe Romm on the Think Progress website on 17 March 2013, it is not one that will always be true. With the author’s kind permission, this article, entitled ‘The Dangerous Myth That Climate Change Is Reversible’, is reproduced in full below.

If you have not already read it, I would very much recommend that you do so. However, by way of a summary, here are the key points as I see them:

1. The burning of fossil fuels is causing change that will not be reversible in any timescale meaningful to humans: Although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say this will be at least 1000 years, the Geological Society of London (GSL) has warned it could take at least 100 times longer than that to undo the damage we are now doing. That being the case, the longer we fail to address this issue the greater the likelihood that the GSL estimate will be correct.
2. Warming will only ever stop if total CO2 emissions are less than the rate of CO2 removal; and one is already twice the other. Any change (current and future) could only be reversed if the CO2 content of the atmosphere were to be reduced (i.e. if removal exceeds emissions). Artificial carbon capture and storage (CCS) is almost certainly impossible to achieve safely, at scale, and within the timescale required (to prevent unstoppable change). That being the case, change is effectively irreversible; and we must stop burning fossil fuels ASAP.
3. Wait and see is no longer a survivable option; we need to decarbonise our power generation systems as fast as possible. Burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels without CCS is very likely to cause unstoppable climate change (i.e. what is called a “runaway greenhouse effect” resulting from feedback mechanisms now observed to be mutually-reinforcing the change human activity has already caused).

Here, then, is Joe’s article in full:


The Dangerous Myth That Climate Change Is Reversible

The CMO (Chief Misinformation Officer) of the climate ignorati, Joe Nocera, has a new piece, “A Real Carbon Solution.” The biggest of its many errors comes in this line:

A reduction of carbon emissions from Chinese power plants would do far more to help reverse climate change than — dare I say it? — blocking the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Memo to Nocera: As a NOAA-led paper explained 4 years ago, climate change is “largely irreversible for 1000 years.”

This notion that we can reverse climate change by cutting emissions is one of the most commonly held myths — and one of the most dangerous, as explained in this 2007 MIT study, “Understanding Public Complacency About Climate Change: Adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter.”

The fact is that, as RealClimate has explained, we would need “an immediate cut of around 60 to 70% globally and continued further cuts over time” merely to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of CO2 – and that would still leave us with a radiative imbalance that would lead to “an additional 0.3 to 0.8ºC warming over the 21st Century.” And that assumes no major carbon cycle feedbacks kick in, which seems highly unlikely.

We’d have to drop total global emissions to zero now and for the rest of the century just to lower concentrations enough to stop temperatures from rising. Again, even in this implausible scenario, we still aren’t talking about reversing climate change, just stopping it — or, more technically, stopping the temperature rise. The great ice sheets might well continue to disintegrate, albeit slowly.

This doesn’t mean climate change is unstoppable — only that we are stuck with whatever climate change we cause before we get desperate and go all WWII on emissions. That’s why delay is so dangerous and immoral. For instance, if we don’t act quickly, we are likely to be stuck with permanent Dust Bowls in the Southwest and around the globe. I’ll discuss the irreversibility myth further below the jump.

First, though, Nocera’s piece has many other pieces of misinformation. He leaves people with the impression that coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a practical, affordable means of reducing emissions from existing power plants that will be available soon. In fact, most demonstration projects around the world have been shut down, the technology Nocera focuses on would not work on the vast majority of existing coal plants, and CCS is going to be incredibly expensive compared to other low-carbon technologies — see Harvard stunner: “Realistic” first-generation CCS costs a whopping $150 per ton of CO2 (20 cents per kWh)! And that’s in the unlikely event it proves to be practical, permanent, and verifiable (see “Feasibility, Permanence and Safety Issues Remain Unresolved”).

Heck, the guy who debated me on The Economist‘s website conceded things are going very slowly, writing “The idea is that CCS then becomes a commercial reality and begins to make deep cuts in emissions during the 2030s.” And he’s a CCS advocate!!

Of course, we simply don’t have until the 2030s to wait for deep cuts in emissions. No wonder people who misunderstand the irreversible nature of climate change, like Nocera, tend to be far more complacent about emissions reductions than those who understand climate science.

The point of Nocera’s piece seems to be to mock Bill McKibben for opposing the idea of using captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery (EOR): “his answer suggests that his crusade has blinded him to the real problem.”

It is Nocera who has been blinded. He explains in the piece:

Using carbon emissions to recover previously ungettable oil has the potential to unlock vast untapped American reserves. Last year, ExxonMobil reportedthat enhanced oil recovery would allow it to extend the life of a single oil field in West Texas by 20 years.

McKibben’s effort to stop the Keystone XL pipeline is based on the fact that we have to leave the vast majority of carbon in the ground. Sure, it wouldn’t matter if you built one coal CCS plant and used that for EOR. But we need a staggering amount of CCS, as Vaclav Smil explained in “Energy at the Crossroads“:

Sequestering a mere 1/10 of today’s global CO2 emissions (less than 3 Gt CO2) would thus call for putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by [the] petroleum industry whose infrastructures and capacities have been put in place over a century of development. Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation.”

D’oh! What precisely would be the point of “sequestering” all that CO2 to extract previously “ungettable oil” whose emissions, when burned, would just about equal the CO2 that you supposedly sequestered?

Remember, we have to get total global emissions of CO2 to near zero just to stop temperatures from continuing their inexorable march toward humanity’s self-destruction. And yes, this ain’t easy. But it is impossible if we don’t start slashing emissions soon and stop opening up vast new sources of carbon.

For those who are confused on this point, I recommend reading the entire MIT study, whose lead author is John Sterman. Here is the abstract:

Public attitudes about climate change reveal a contradiction. Surveys show most Americans believe climate change poses serious risks but also that reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sufficient to stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations or net radiative forcing can be deferred until there is greater evidence that climate change is harmful. US policymakers likewise argue it is prudent to wait and see whether climate change will cause substantial economic harm before undertaking policies to reduce emissions.Such wait-and-see policies erroneously presume climate change can be reversed quickly should harm become evident, underestimating substantial delays in the climate’s response to anthropogenic forcing. We report experiments with highly educated adults–graduate students at MIT–showing widespread misunderstanding of the fundamental stock and flow relationships, including mass balance principles, that lead to long response delays. GHG emissions are now about twice the rate of GHG removal from the atmosphere.

GHG concentrations will therefore continue to rise even if emissions fall, stabilizing only when emissions equal removal. In contrast, results show most subjects believe atmospheric GHG concentrations can be stabilized while emissions into the atmosphere continuously exceed the removal of GHGs from it. These beliefs-analogous to arguing a bathtub filled faster than it drains will never overflow-support wait-and-see policies but violate conservation of matter. Low public support for mitigation policies may be based more on misconceptions of climate dynamics than high discount rates or uncertainty about the risks of harmful climate change.

It’s also worth reading RealClimate’s piece “Climate change commitments,” based on a Nature Geoscience letter by Mathews and Weaver (sub. reqd.), which has this figure:

Again, zero emissions merely stops climate change, and obviously, thanks to fossil-fuel funded Tea Party politicians along with the deniers and the ignorati, we won’t be going to zero anytime soon.

Finally, I recommend RealClimate’s 2009 post, “Irreversible Does Not Mean Unstoppable“:

But you have to remember that the climate changes so far, both observed and committed to, are minor compared with the business-as-usual forecast for the end of the century. It’s further emissions we need to worry about. Climate change is like a ratchet, which we wind up by releasing CO2. Once we turn the crank, there’s no easy turning back to the natural climate. But we can still decide to stop turning the crank, and the sooner the better.

Indeed, we are only committed to about 2°C total warming so far, which is a probably manageable — and even more probably, if we did keep CO2 concentrations from peaking below 450 ppm, the small amount of CO2 we are likely to be able to remove from the atmosphere this century could well take us below the danger zone.

But if we don’t reverse emissions trends soon, we will at least double and probably triple that temperature rise, most likely negating any practical strategy to undo the impacts for hundreds of years.


With my thanks once again to Joe Romm, for permission to republish the above, all that remains for me now is to wish you all a pleasant [Passover/Easter/Spring Equinox] festival of renewal!


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