We’re Doomed

At least that’s what I take away from the article in this morning’s Washington Post:

The task of cutting greenhouse gas emissions enough to avert a dangerous rise in global temperatures may be far more difficult than previous research suggested, say scientists who have just published studies indicating that it would require the world to cease carbon emissions altogether within a matter of decades.

Their findings, published in separate journals over the past few weeks, suggest that both industrialized and developing nations must wean themselves off fossil fuels by as early as mid-century in order to prevent warming that could change precipitation patterns and dry up sources of water worldwide.

Using advanced computer models to factor in deep-sea warming and other aspects of the carbon cycle that naturally creates and removes carbon dioxide (CO2), the scientists, from countries including the United States, Canada and Germany, are delivering a simple message: The world must bring carbon emissions down to near zero to keep temperatures from rising further.

A few random observations. First, it’s unclear to me how we can achieve the stated goal with China, now the world’s largest emitter of carbon into the atmosphere, increasing its output at the rate of more than 8% per year. China’s hydroelectric dams like the enormous Three Gorges Dam project won’t help. Hydroelectric dams have carbon outputs, too, in the form of methane.

Are there any plans on the table that would solve the problem quickly enough? Europe’s experience with “cap and trade” has been somewhat mixed. Is Germany’s claimed 18%+ reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases since 1990 due to greater efficiencies, due to shutting down the East German industries, or due to their exporting their manufacturing to China? How do you disaggregate these factors?

I don’t think that nuclear power will provide a solution in the time required. It took 25 years to build the last nuclear power plant to come online in the U. S. I believe that a crash program to build nuclear power plants would meet with opposition so overwhelming it would make the reaction to our invasion of Iraq look miniscule, only with Bechtel playing the part of Halliburton in the anti-nuke protests.

I don’t think that alternative fuels will provide a solution in the time required. Nothing that’s being produced currently in the U. S. has the necessary efficiency and it takes 20 years to turn over the total vehicle fleet in the U. S.

Rather than debate whether there’s a problem, what do you say that we talk about solving the stated problem in the timeframe required? Please put some numbers behind your plan and relate means to ends.

I’ve put a few additional thoughts at The Glittering Eye.

FILED UNDER: Environment, , , , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. Tlaloc says:

    Honestly I don’t buy these kinds of predictions. That may surprise some since I am on record having no problem accepting global warming, but let me be absolutely clear about what that means- I accpet that the data shows the earth is currently warming, and that human beings are playing a role in the current dynamic.

    I do not accept that climatological science has reached a degree of accuracy where they can accurately predict what will happen to the climate decades, much less centuries in advance.

    We are currently in a period of warming. That may last or it may not. We may go into a period of global cooling (if say solar inputs were to change dramatically, or if artic ice melts releasing a lot of fresh water which can then sequester C02, or any of a hundred other possibilities). The climate is the very definition of a chaotic system and the defining attribute of same is that similar inputs can lead to wildly different results.

    So if we can’t be sure what is going to happen in the future, what is there to do? The correct answer is for us to minimize our impact. The biosphere is a massively parallel set of negative feedback loops that work to try and keep things within a fairly narrow range. We don’t want to meddle with that. So yes by all means let’s drastically reduce fossil fuel use. Let’s also work to find a good balance of people vs. nature. Let’s sxplore “green” technologes and really work on efficiency.

    But let’s not coiuntenance predictions that we have x years to do so. We just don’t know.

  2. Michael says:

    Hydroelectric dams have carbon outputs, too, in the form of methane.

    But the net change in atmospheric carbon is 0 (probably less, given that not all the methane escapes into the atmosphere).

    Even though it shifts CO2 to CH4, a more potent greenhouse gas, CH4 has a 7 year half-life in the atmosphere. An even better solution would be to try and separate the CH4 from the water and burn it for additional energy production.

  3. Michael says:

    or if artic ice melts releasing a lot of fresh water which can then sequester C02, or any of a hundred other possibilities)

    Melting ice means less reflective surface on earth, which means more solar energy is trapped, which means warmer temperature, which means more melting ice. You see where this leads.

  4. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Absence of Solar activity causes global cool down. As it appears we are entering a period of fewer Sun spots (Solar activities) hence the coldest winter since 1966. Snow in Bagdad? Quit it. To base future climatic conditions on computer models forgets the addage garbage in, gargage out. Give me an absolute accurate prediction of what the weather is going to be like here in Sacramento May 15th, 2009. CO2 existed in our atmosphere in much higher concentrations eons ago. Plant life was abundant as was animal life. Not much grows in snow. Only a fool thinks man has much, if anything to do with controling or changing our weather.

  5. […] Shuler (Outside The Beltway and The Glittering Eye) says we are doomed, and, how serious are the chicken […]

  6. floyd says:

    It can truthfully be stated that Chicken Little hyperbolists have always been as much a problem as those who stick their heads in the sand.
    If they had been right in 1903 we would have been out of all the world’s crude oil by 1933.
    If they had been right in 1963, we would have had a world population exceeding standing room only by the year 2000.
    There are many other examples to cite I am sure, but the bottom line is that once “Science” leaves the laboratory and enters the press, it morphs into everything from snake oil to religion.
    Suddenly the air is chock full of the sounds of scientific charlatans and purveyors of snake oil cures for the “PROBLE’ME DU JOUR”, while the voice of the real Scientist is drowned by the shrill screams of scientific groupies in their ubiquity.

    Someday, when the sky is truly falling and it seems nobody listens, It will be as much the fault of the Chicken Littles of the world as it is the fault of those whose heads are firmly ensconced in the sand, both oblivious to reality.
    Cue the cacophony!

  7. Alex Knapp says:

    Actually, in terms of cost and efficiency, solar is pretty much there. We could go to 90% – 100% solar in about a decade if not for one problem: battery technology. Which sucks. If we can find some way to store enough energy during the day to generate enough electricity at night, solar would be where it’s at.

  8. Michael says:

    We could go to 90% – 100% solar in about a decade if not for one problem: battery technology. Which sucks. If we can find some way to store enough energy during the day to generate enough electricity at night, solar would be where it’s at.

    There’s always the high-tech super capacitors, or the low tech molten salt. There’s also new development in electrolysis efficiency so maybe we could store it as liquid hydrogen. Or we could use excess energy to lift some mass up some distance, then release that energy at night.

    In the short term we could just switch to 100% solar in the daytime and 100% fossil fuel at night, it’s still a 50% decrease in fossil fuel usage, and _not_ getting rid of that old infrastructure doesn’t cost us much.

    In my perspective, the problem doesn’t seem to be batteries, it seems to be the one time cost of rolling out the new infrastructure.

  9. […] Dave Schuler: I don’t think that nuclear power will provide a solution in the time required. It took 25 years to build the last nuclear power plant to come online in the U. S. I believe that a crash program to build nuclear power plants would meet with opposition so overwhelming it would make the reaction to our invasion of Iraq look miniscule, only with Bechtel playing the part of Halliburton in the anti-nuke protests. […]

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    The problems that I see with solar, geothermal, or wind power, Alex, are mostly grid problems. The sunshine, heat, or wind aren’t where the people are so either you’ve got to move the power to where they are or the people to where the power is. The present power grid isn’t capable of handling the former and the latter presents what I think are insurmountable political obstacles in the near term.

  11. legion says:

    it’s unclear to me how we can achieve the stated goal with China, now the world’s largest emitter of carbon into the atmosphere, increasing its output at the rate of more than 8% per year.

    While China is a bigger contributor than the US, this is still a crap, cowardly argument, James. Just because the US can’t solve the problem _on its own_ is no excuse not to do _something_ ourselves.

    Back when other countries respected the US, we had some ability to lead by example…

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    This isn’t James’s post, it’s mine. And I’m not making that argument. What makes you think I am?

    I note you haven’t proposed a workable solution that solve the stated problem in the given timeframe.

  13. Michael says:

    I don’t think that nuclear power will provide a solution in the time required. It took 25 years to build the last nuclear power plant to come online in the U. S.

    That’s because large nuclear power plants are big, expensive, and complex. Toshiba is proposing the sale of small, closed loop nuclear generators to power office and apartment buildings. Not only are they more affordable and easier to build, you can construct hundreds or thousands of them at the same time. According to them, the fuel will not have to be replaced for a period of like 40 years.
    http://www.nextenergynews.com/news1/next-energy-news-toshiba-micro-nuclear-12.17b.html

    Now I’m not a fan of radioactive waste, but until we see some net gain from fusion, I think it’s one of our better options. Unfortunately, positive output from fusion seems to be perpetually 10 years away.

  14. Tlaloc says:

    Melting ice means less reflective surface on earth, which means more solar energy is trapped, which means warmer temperature, which means more melting ice. You see where this leads.

    Again- chaotic system. Will the change in surface albedo be greater or less than the ability to trap CO2? The environement is a huge number of competing processes which means unless you have a pretty decent idea of how each works you can’t predict the final outcome. And we just don’t know the system nearly well enough.

    We can detect what is happening today, and that should give us pause, because if it continues it will be very bad for mankind as a whole.

    What worries me are aggressive attempts to control the outcome. I’ve seen suggestions of solar shades and attempts to manipulate the planetary albedo and more. These ideas suggest that we have a far greater ability to predict what will happen than we do.

    Our policy should be one of trying to stay hands off as much as possible.

  15. Tlaloc says:

    There just isn’t enough nuclear fuel to make a real conversion to nuclear worthwhile. When you read the estimates of “a thousand years of energy” keep in mind that those predictions are dependent upon us being able to extract uranium from sea water- a process that is theoretically possible but completely unproven.

  16. legion says:

    Dave,
    Sorry, I didn’t check the byline before I posted. My argument stands, though. Simply saying “Well, China isn’t helping, so let’s just do nothing ourselves” is a completely indefensible statement. If we know that human actions are significantly contributing to climate change (and I don’t really want to derail this into an argument about whether or not that’s correct), it would seem pretty self-evident that doing “something” is better than doing “nothing” (ie, sitting around doing exactly what we’re doing now, and continuing to increase our greenhouse emission that way we currently are).

    As for what makes me think that’s your argument, I assumed it from this:

    Are there any plans on the table that would solve the problem quickly enough?

    Even if none of the currently-available alternatives can solve the problem, on their own and/or when done only by the US, pretty much _any_ efforts are going to at least extend the timeframe we have to work with.

    I note you haven’t proposed a workable solution that solve the stated problem in the given timeframe.

    I admit I don’t have the background to propose or really evaluate such things. But since it is, as you say, your article, and you seem to be discarding the major suggested line of action without offering any of your proposals, I can only assume that “doing nothing” is your proposal.

  17. davod says:

    “Rather than debate whether there’s a problem, what do you say that we talk about solving the stated problem in the timeframe required? Please put some numbers behind your plan and relate means to ends.”

    Sorry Mate. There is a reason Global Warming became Climate Change – The GW facts did not match the rhetoric hence the change to CC.
    If we spend trillions trying to fix what is a natural occurrence our fixes may just contribute to making the problem worse.

    Climate Argument grows hotter as big chill deepens
    http://eureferendum.blogspot.com/2008/03/virtually-unreported-in-britain.html

  18. JohnG says:

    If the only solution must include zero emissions by mid-century, then the question must change from “how do we stop global warming” to “how do we adapt to a warmer world” because zero emissions is not going to happen, and if it somehow did there would almost certainly be more human suffering due to economic collapse than there would be due to higher temperatures. Even if the US somehow achieved zero emissions, it’s pretty much impossible to expect developing nations to give up fossil fuels, which means we’re going to be dealing with the new world regardless.

    And I think Dave’s point is not that we should do nothing since no one else will, but that a “solution” that does not lead to actually solving the problem is not a viable solution at all. Instead of fixating on how we can screw ourselves so we feel better but actually accomplishing nothing, I think Dave is asking what things we can do that actually WILL solve the problem. Assuming there is even a problem at all (which I am for purposes of this thread).

  19. Dave Schuler says:

    No, legion, my position is much like Tlaloc’s: I think we should be seeking efficiencies with great diligence, remove the subsidies on the stuff that’s not particularly efficient, incentivize prudent behaviors, and leave the doomsday projections alone. I also think that we need to take China’s role in the scheme of things seriously which IMO we’ve never done. Exporting our manufacturing to China doesn’t solve the problem. It may even exacerbate it.

    And I think Dave’s point is not that we should do nothing since no one else will, but that a “solution” that does not lead to actually solving the problem is not a viable solution at all.

    Yes, that’s exactly it. I’m looking for solutions and preferably incremental solutions since those are the ones I think are most likely to get implemented rather than policies that are apparently disconnected from the objectives they’re supposed to accomplish.

  20. legion says:

    I may have misinterpreted things earlier, ’cause that sounds much more reasonable… I just have a hard time buying that we have to move to _zero_ emissions ASAP or cease to exist – you simply can’t have a major aspect of the global ecosystem (like humans – or, if you buy the methane-farting argument, cows) exist at all without having any “footprint”. Referring back to the post’s title, it works against common sense that such a “pre-doomed” branch should have even evolved in the first place.

    Perhaps George Carlin was right – maybe we only came into existence to provide the ecosystem with plastic, & have now outlived our usefulness…

  21. Grewgills says:

    The WaPo article primarily references two journal articles. The abstract of the Matthews and Caldeira article in Geophysical Research Letters follows:

    Current international climate mitigation efforts aim to stabilize levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, human-induced climate warming will continue for many centuries, even after atmospheric CO2 levels are stabilized. In this paper, we assess the CO2 emissions requirements for global temperature stabilization within the next several centuries, using an Earth system model of intermediate complexity. We show first that a single pulse of carbon released into the atmosphere increases globally averaged surface temperature by an amount that remains approximately constant for several centuries, even in the absence of additional emissions. We then show that to hold climate constant at a given global temperature requires near-zero future carbon emissions. Our results suggest that future anthropogenic emissions would need to be eliminated in order to stabilize global-mean temperatures. As a consequence, any future anthropogenic emissions will commit the climate system to warming that is essentially irreversible on centennial timescales.

    and from the Schmittner et al paper in Global Biogeochemical Cycles

    A new model of global climate, ocean circulation, ecosystems, and biogeochemical cycling, including a fully coupled carbon cycle, is presented and evaluated. The model is consistent with multiple observational data sets from the past 50 years as well as with the observed warming of global surface air and sea temperatures during the last 150 years. It is applied to a simulation of the coming two millennia following a business-as-usual scenario of anthropogenic CO2 emissions (SRES A2 until year 2100 and subsequent linear decrease to zero until year 2300, corresponding to a total release of 5100 GtC). Atmospheric CO2 increases to a peak of more than 2000 ppmv near year 2300 (that is an airborne fraction of 72% of the emissions) followed by a gradual decline to ∼1700 ppmv at year 4000 (airborne fraction of 56%). Forty-four percent of the additional atmospheric CO2 at year 4000 is due to positive carbon cycle—climate feedbacks. Global surface air warms by ∼10°C, sea ice melts back to 10% of its current area, and the circulation of the abyssal ocean collapses. Subsurface oxygen concentrations decrease, tripling the volume of suboxic water and quadrupling the global water column denitrification. We estimate 60 ppb increase in atmospheric N2O concentrations owing to doubling of its oceanic production, leading to a weak positive feedback and contributing about 0.24°C warming at year 4000. Global ocean primary production almost doubles by year 4000. Planktonic biomass increases at high latitudes and in the subtropics whereas it decreases at midlatitudes and in the tropics. In our model, which does not account for possible direct impacts of acidification on ocean biology, production of calcium carbonate in the surface ocean doubles, further increasing surface ocean and atmospheric pCO2. This represents a new positive feedback mechanism and leads to a strengthening of the positive interaction between climate change and the carbon cycle on a multicentennial to millennial timescale. Changes in ocean biology become important for the ocean carbon uptake after year 2600, and at year 4000 they account for 320 ppmv or 22% of the atmospheric CO2 increase since the preindustrial era.

    I do not currently have access to the full articles, but the WaPo article seems to overstate what is indicated by the abstracts.

    The problems that I see with solar, geothermal, or wind power, Alex, are mostly grid problems.

    More important than distance traveled is the inconstancy of wind and solar (particularly wind). The grid cannot handle surges in power at all well, so there needs to be an intermediary between this production and the grid (either batteries or mechanical storage).

    There is a reason Global Warming became Climate Change

    Indeed there is. Some places will become cooler, some warmer, some wetter, some drier, as the average temperature of the earth rises. Climate change is a more all encompassing term that includes a much larger set of changes that accompany rises in global average temperature.

    Re the article that (deservedly IMO) received so little attention, one cold winter does no more to disprove climate change than one hot summer proves it to be so.

  22. davod says:

    Grewgills:

    Maybe the work of physicist and environmental researcher Miklós Zágoni wil help. ” He is also a global warming activist and Hungary’s most outspoken supporter of the Kyoto Protocol. Or was.”

    “Researcher: Basic Greenhouse Equations “Totally Wrong”

    http://www.dailytech.com/Researcher+Basic+Greenhouse+Equations+Totally+Wrong/article10973c.htm

  23. Michael says:

    Maybe the work of physicist and environmental researcher Miklós Zágoni wil help. ” He is also a global warming activist and Hungary’s most outspoken supporter of the Kyoto Protocol. Or was.”

    “Researcher: Basic Greenhouse Equations “Totally Wrong”

    The article doesn’t actually tell us what those negative feedbacks are or how they work. Can you please provide us those details?

  24. Grewgills says:

    The Miskolczi article in the Quarterly Journal of Hungarian Meteorological Service is making the blog rounds. I have yet to see any real discussion of it by people who seem to understand the math or the science involved. I am skeptical of both the claims of the article and his claims about NASA. If his claims are valid and his math and science sound it deserved publication in a more prestigious journal, regardless it is being trumpeted and will doubtless be answered soon. I will wait a bit for responses and try to work my way through the article and the responses as time allows.

  25. davod says:

    Michael:

    Some pertinent points from the article:

    “…Just as the theory of relativity sets an upper limit on velocity, his theory sets an upper limit on the greenhouse effect, a limit which prevents it from warming the Earth more than a certain amount. …

    …How did modern researchers make such a mistake? They relied upon equations derived over 80 years ago, equations which left off one term from the final solution…

    …So Miskolczi re-derived the solution, this time using the proper boundary conditions for an atmosphere that is not infinite. His result included a new term, which acts as a negative feedback to counter the positive forcing. At low levels, the new term means a small difference … but as greenhouse gases rise, the negative feedback predominates, forcing values back down…”

    Grewgills: The article say the theory has been peer reviewed. Although, who the peers should be is open to debate.

  26. yetanotherjohn says:

    To put a bit of perspective on this, imagine if we were told in 1895 that we had to discover within 50 years an explosive of sufficient magnitude that a single bomb could destroy an entire city. Or in 1920 we were told that unless within 50 years we were able to put a man on the moon and bring him safely back again, we were doomed. Or in 1958 we would have 50 years to shrink a computer to fit into a briefcase with 800 gigabytes of memory, we would be doomed.

    They would have looked like a totally impossible tasks. So when you look at what currently looks like an impossible task, throttling the economic engine that has in the past produced the breakthroughs needed to meet the task is not the solution.

  27. Michael says:

    Just as the theory of relativity sets an upper limit on velocity, his theory sets an upper limit on the greenhouse effect, a limit which prevents it from warming the Earth more than a certain amount.

    Frankly their lack of understanding of Relativity doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in me. But just saying that his theory sets an upper limit doesn’t tell us why it does so. Einstein added the Cosmological Constant to his theory because he didn’t like the predictions it make without it. It turns out he was wrong, the constant wasn’t needed*, and the predictions the theory originally made were correct. Just adding something to a theory doesn’t mean it should be there.

    How did modern researchers make such a mistake? They relied upon equations derived over 80 years ago, equations which left off one term from the final solution

    What was that term? Why do they think it should be part of the final solution? Again, not answers. We regularly rely on very old equations, some thousands of years old, that still give accurate predictions.

    His result included a new term, which acts as a negative feedback to counter the positive forcing.

    Again, what is the new term and how does he justify it’s inclusion? Is it necessary to form the solution, or does he just think it is necessary because he doesn’t like the predictions the theory makes without it?

    (*) New studies are said to be adding it back in, but really they’re just adding a new constant, with a new value, to fit new observations. It has very little in common with Einstein’s constant, other than the fact that is changes the expansion rate of the universe.

  28. Grewgills says:

    davod,
    The article referenced in your link is by Ferenc Miskolczi, not Miklós Zágoni. Zágoni is apparently quite taken with the work, but it is not his.
    The article, “Greenhouse effect in semi-transparent planetary atmospheres”, was published in the Quarterly Journal of Hungarian Meteorological Service. This is a peer reviewed journal, but not a particularly prestigious one. This is not to say his work is not valid, but to say that not too much weight should be placed on this particular peer review process. I am in the midst of a move and don’t have easy access to a proper research library so I am a bit limited in the resources I can bring to bear on his article right now. At this point it is one article in a small and obscure journal. Wait for the responses and counter-responses before you assume that his math and science are sound.