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Kristof on the Apocalypse

Filed under: — raypierre @ 19 April 2006

We have noted with pleasure Nicholas Kristof’s column, The Big Burp Theory of the Apocalypse (TimesSelect subscription required), which appeared in the New York Times of 18 April. This column is built around the possibility of a catastrophic methane release from marine clathrate decomposition, but at heart it is really a lament that the more conventional and better understood harms of global warming have not proved sufficient to get the attention of the White House or Congress. This column is a refreshing change from the recent spate of backlash columns by Will, Novak and Lindzen attempting to tar climate scientists with the “a****mist” epithet.

Kristof gives a generous tip of the hat to “the excellent discussion of methane hydrates by scholars at” (Thanks, Nick.) He has clearly made good use of Dave Archer’s RealClimate article on clathrates, and it shows in the Kristof’s sound discussion of the basic science. He is very clear on why a clathrate catastrophe would be a bad thing, but equally clear about the uncertainties. The column even contains an intelligent discussion of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum as a possible example of a clathrate catastrophe. taking care to point out that this event might not, in fact, have been caused by methane release. Quite a lot to get in a short column, while still managing to achieve a lively style that surely keeps the readers awake.

Perhaps closest to our hearts is Kristof’s cogently stated theme that uncertainty is in the nature of the science, and is no excuse for inaction — indeed should be a spur to greater action. “The White House has used scientific uncertainty as an excuse for its paralysis. But our leaders are supposed to devise policies to protect us even from threats that are difficult to assess precisely — and climate change should be considered even more menacing than a nuclear-armed Iran.” He concludes, “The best reason for action on global warming remains the basic imperative to safeguard our planet in the face of uncertainty, and our leaders are failing wretchedly in that responsibility.”

Kristof is a 2006 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Congratulations, Nick! We hope you keep on reading RealClimate.

96 Responses to “Kristof on the Apocalypse”

  1. 51
    pete best says:

    Re #49, I meant 2.5 billion more people making 9 billion by 2050 all wanting that progressive life style.

    Fossil Fuels are energy dense relative to other forms of energy provison. Maybe we can replace them but it will not be easy, mitigation is a more likely cause of action but whether we can reach 65 % CO2 reduction is not known at present but the process must start in earnest soon.

  2. 52
    David B. Benson says:

    Today’s The New York Times:

    page A16: “More Satellites to Explore Clouds’ Most Intimate Secrets” report on tomorrow’s launch of CloudSat and Calipso.

    page A26: editorial “How Dare They Use Our Oil! states “That leaves the world with two options. The first is to manage energy resources better. The other is to look for another planet.”

    page A27: op-ed by D. Melnick and M. Pearl regarding forests mentions global warming.

  3. 53
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    #47, Ex-, I’m not a scientist, so this is what I do — hope for the best, expect the worst. Hope Crichton is right, but act as if Gore is right. So we reduced our GHGs and have unsuccessfully tried to get others to do likewise. I was driven more by a “State of Love” for my fellow critters, incl. even humans, not a “State of Fear.”

    As for the various comments above re “alarmism,” I’d say apparently there isn’t enough alarmism. I mean, I just don’t see people rushing to the hills or reducing their GHGs. And there certainly isn’t enough alarmism to freeze people with fear, so they don’t go around generating GHGs in the 1st place. All I see is profligacy and gluttony as usual. So, maybe we need more alarmism. I bet those people who ignored that boy’s last cry of “wolf,” regretted not listening to him, as they were being eaten by the wolf.

    Anyone want more scary – here’s something, an article in Geology (2005, 33(5):397-400), Kump, et al., “Massive release of hydrogen sulfide to the surface ocean and atmosphere during intervals of oceanic anoxia.” Toxic death. If it happened before, it could happen again. (I got it off a link Pete Best provided above.) I’m collecting stuff for next Halloween’s “Eco-House of Horrors” (displays & exhibits, of course, are all made of reused/recycled stuff).

  4. 54
    Dave B says:

    #27 hmmm, so a “worst case scenario”, when not presented with a corresponding “best case scenario”, is appropriate? assuming, of course, that it is “presented as such”?

    what about truly presenting ALL the science, not cherry-picking data to show an 11 c temp increase which NO ONE BELIEVES ANYWAY?

    read it for yourself.

    [Response: We have stated clearly in RealClimate, in connection with the study referenced above, that the 11C warming was a highly implausible case. From a scientific standpoint, it is worthy of study to help understand what processes can yield extremely high sensitivity, but such high sensitivity would be hard to reconcile with what we know about the past climate record. The press was wrong to emphasize the 11C warming case without proper qualification, and if the press release (which I haven’t seen myself) contributed to that misunderstanding, it was sloppy. This is a particularly extreme case, but I do not think you are right in thinking the “best case” is as relevant as a “very bad case” with perhaps low but significant probability (as in a 4-5C warming). As I’ve said elsewhere, if you’re designing a nuclear reactor containment vessel, do you design it for the 10% chance that the overpressure will be 10 atmospheres or the 10% chance that the overpressure will be 40 atmospheres? –raypierre ]

  5. 55
    Gar Lipow says:

    >Fossil Fuels are energy dense relative to other forms of energy provison. Maybe we can replace them but it will not be easy, mitigation is a more likely cause of action but whether we can reach 65 % CO2 reduction is not known at present but the process must start in earnest soon.

    I will note that I gave some simple examples of renewables replacing fossil fuels. In general the density argument is a non-starter.

    1) Most energy consumption is in a very non-dense form. We produce large amounts of electricity in a centralized plant, then build an extensive network of lines to trickle it out in small amounts to individual pipelines. We refine oil in centralized refineries, and end up sending it out in tankers to gas stations to be distributed into individual gas stations. There is no reason more distributed source can end up at the same end points, without quite so much intermediate concentration. There are uses which do require concentrated energy; but the grid is great for doing that kind of concentration from multiple sources.

    2) Fossil fuel is not really that concentrated when you condider what it takes to extract and process it. Wind actually uses less land per kWh produced then fossil fuels. (Misleading statistics sometimes don’t take into account that wind farms only use about 15% of the land they occupy for towers and roads and such. Corn is planted right up to the towers; on range land or pasture, cattle often graze around the base.) Even solar thermal electric, one of the most land intensive renewable alternatives would require about 2% of total desert land – a lot less than has been destroyed by coal, oil and uranium extraction.

    The problem is not the technology. It is the will.

    What I’ve outlined is a kind of ‘second best’ solution we could implement now, with no technical breakthroughs. With a little investment there is no reason we could not lower the price of solar PV; with a little more there is no reason we could develop some sort of inexpensive storage solution. Solve those two pieces of the puzzle and you end up with essentially zero net land consumption. PV is not fussy whether the solar source is direct sun or indirect sunlight on cloudy days. You can cover buildings, parking lots, highway walls, and if need be roof highways to generate all the electricty using only land that is already human paved. Then send the excess to storage for use when needed. However as likely as it is that we can achieve this, I don’t believe in trying to live on “ifcome”. So again I point out that we have solutions now, not as elegant as a PV/storage solution, but quite workable – a combination of efficiency and renewables that is competive with the current cost of fossil fuels.

  6. 56
    jae says:

    I think there has been a subtle shift from “Global Warming” to “Climate Change.” The phrase “Climate Change” is meaningless, since the climate is constantly changing. What is going on, anyhow? Does this phrase attempt to suggest “Adverse Climate Change?” If so, maybe that should be said, outright.

    [Response: Some would say that the term “Climate Change” is being pushed to make the change seem less threatening. It’s fair to say that “Climate Change” is more descriptive than “Global Warming,” since many aspects of climate other than temperature change. However, the globe does warm most places, and we are talking about a climate change associated mostly with warming, not with a glaciation. Hence, in talks to lay audiences, I still tend to prefer the term “Global Warming.” Our introductory class on the subject at U. of Chicago is called “Global Warming,” not “Climate Change,” for similar reasons. –raypierre]

  7. 57
    David B. Benson says:

    Re #56: the term ‘climate change’ is preferred in agriculture since ‘global warming’ does not sufficiently describe what worries agricultural scientists and economists. In addition to temperature change there is precipitation change. For both temperature and precipitation, quantity and variability are important in agriculture. In addition, these changes create new opportunities for pests, which require new means to control, if possible.

    While I agree that the climate is always changing, at least the agriculturists, both practioners and scientists, have only recently discovered its importance to them.

  8. 58
    Mark A. York says:

    Crichton’s bibliography was extensive but he just decided to ignore most of it and go with Lomborg and conservative thinktanks. I’m still baffled by it after reading the whole book, which was farcical as a story. It plays to prejudices of those who think environmentalists, Hollywood liberals, actors and so on and scientists is where the big bucks are and the hype is a scam to get funding. Anyone who believes that needs help.

  9. 59
    pat neuman says:

    re 31. … article in today’s WP article by Weiss

    Gabriele C. Hegerl of Duke University: “This still commits us to quite a bit of climate change, but it leaves the door open to avoiding the largest and most devastating consequences,”

    Weiss: … Even a few degrees increase can have significant environmental and economic impacts, but by downgrading the worst-case scenarios the new work may convince governments that it is not too late to take action, Hegerl said.

    Do they think its okay to just downgrade the worst-case scenarios by saying it? Is that a smart thing to say? Honest? An and effective strategy?

    No no no.

    [Response: Remember that studies like this, and like the ones we reviewed in the article climate-sensitivity plus ca change test climate sensitivity against climates that are rather close to todays, or are considerably colder. It is fair to say that they do not provide any positive evidence for climate sensitivities on the high end of the IPCC range, but it would be over-interpreting such studies to say that they rule out high sensitivities in the warmer world of the future. The 2xCO2 world has no real analogies in the part of the climate record that has been used to test sensitivity, and there is ample room for surprise. If Gabriele is being quoted correctly, she may be over-selling the implication of her study. Or, it may just be the W.P. that is over-interpreting the result. The claim in the WP article saying that ruling out a higher sensitivity gives governments more incentive to act is entirely bizarre. –raypierre]

  10. 60
    TonyH says:

    54: The press release referred to in the comment is
    here. The 11 degree rise features prominently.

  11. 61
    pete best says:

    re #55, Energy density is a major factor I am afraid. Sure we can grow corn and Ethenol and the like but it needs to be processed and shipped around just like any other fuel does and that costs energy to. Many reports have alluded to the fact that biodiesel is not going to keep us as we are now. Maybe smaller cars with 200 mpg is possible but lets get to 60 mpg first on normal fuels, this is how slow it is going to be weening ourselves off of fossil fuels.

    Solar and PV are the same, it takes fossil fuels to produce literally billions of panels that can be useful I agree and it would be great to see economically viable houses and buildings using solar/PV and microwind to get much of their power but it cannot replace it all.

    Decentralising anything costs more and takes a long time to implement to. I agree that ultimately we will need to get off of fossil fuels but for some reason I am still concerned that with the powers that be in the USA and China having access to a lot of fossil fuels and with a present infrastructure in place that works and is paid for it will be a while yet before we see a major shift to renewables.

    Take 2006, it aint happenning at present.

  12. 62
  13. 63
    Brad Arnold says:

    Caps on human greenhouse gas emissions won’t work.

    First, most nations that committed to the Koyoto protocol seem to have ignored their committment-it is one thing for politicians to promise reductions, it is another to deliver. It is unrealistic to expect that the economic infrastructure for energy from combustion of fossile fuels will disappear anytime soon.

    Second, the earth will soon be emitting far more greenhouse gases than humans-former carbon sinks that turn into carbon emitters, and increased microbial activity. In particular, the melting methane hydrate chain reaction promises to be a nasty positive feedback loop.

    I think the only solution is to remove the CO2 from the environment. This can be done by “fixing the carbon” either mechanically or biologically. Due to the volume, I think the only practical solution is biological sequestration using a genetically modified organism seeded into the ocean. For instance take a phytoplankton genetic template, then improve it. Geometric reproduction rates should fill the oceans relatively quickly after it’s introduction.

    I have suggested this approach to experts, and they object on the basis of risk, not technical feasibility. In my opinion, the more dire the global warming threat is percieved, the more likely biological sequestration using a marine GMO will be.

    By the way, call the operation “Swallow the Spider” (i.e. the fly being greenhouse gas-‘I don’t know we released the greenhouse gas, perhaps we’ll die from global warming’). We should have a while to figure out what the bird is that we’ll have to swallow next to avoid depleting too much CO2.

  14. 64
    Alan says:

    RE:#28 reply from ray.

    Help from readers? – Perhaps couch it in terms of risk analysis, many people (particularly in bussiness) understand the basic premise. I know the insurance industry is starting to become concerned about both GW and “peak-oil”, perhaps they have some acctuary tables?

  15. 65
    Eachran says:

    Interesting report in The Guardian today : the Royal Society in the UK expressing concern that Bigoil and supporters are gearing up to sabotage any pro-warming publicity arising from the next IPCC report.

  16. 66

    Apropos of nothing, but because I don’t know where else to post this, I found an interesting deceptive use of figures by a denialist. Does anyone remember Sherman B. Idso claiming that doubling CO2 should cause only a 0.4 K rise in temperature? I found his paper where he derives this, and he does it by plotting a straight line on a log plot between the greenhouse differences in temperature from effective (Ts – Te) on Mars and Venus and the CO2 pressure on each. The very subtle point is, for Mars, of the ten most recent available figures for the planetary bolometric Bond albedo, he chose the darkest one of the ten (0.214 from Kieffer et al. 1977), raising Mars’s effective temperature very high and thus minimizing its greenhouse effect severely. When I replotted his data using the most recent figure (0.27 from Lumme et al. 1981), I got a doubling-CO2 figure of 0.9 K, not 0.4. Interesting, Houghton (2004) puts the doubling-CO2-alone figure at 1.2 K.

  17. 67
    pete best says:

    Considering that most climate research talk of a 3C rise in world tempretures by 2100 then 11C can only be attributed to one of a few things.

    Namely that of large scale methane burp I would assume brought about by some positive feedback loop such as the Amazon drying out or the permafrost melting which would potenitally release masses of additional CO2 into the atmosphere warming the oceans and invoking methane release.

    We find masses of new fossil fuels and burn them up in a much shorter time period than has been predicted.

    [Response: In the case in question, the 11C warming came from a model which simply had high CO2 sensitivity (presumably due to something stemming from cloud feedbacks, or perhaps also sea ice). It didn’t invoke any additional feedback mechanisms like the methane burp. It deserves further study, but the feeling at RealClimate was that the mechanism could be checked against other climate fluctuations, the basic checks had not been done, and that the checks were likely to show that the models with 11C sensitivity (a very small slice) don’t pass the tests. It’s for this reason that we felt that featuring the 11C run in the press was unjustified — not so much on the grounds that it was a “worst case,” but on the grounds that the work was too preliminary to say that it could reasonably be considered a “possible case.” –raypierre ]

  18. 68
    David Donovan says:

    I see that the “junk man” is at it again.,2933,192544,00.html

    Now he has his own greenhouse calculator !

    The piece contains the usual amount of misstatments and inaccuracies but he does seem to be taking a more sophiciated tack than he has in the past.

  19. 69
    pat neuman says:

    Response in 59. 67.

    Is it fair to say there are no studies that do provide meaningful predictions with high end climate sensitivities and that invoke additional feedback mechanisms like the methane burp?

  20. 70
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Re #41, I understand that electric cars run on new model lithum ion batteries can get a range of 300 miles with 15 minutes for an 80% recharge. And who wouldn’t want to stop for a 15 minute snack break after driving 5-6 hours?

    Too bad the powers that be are crushing electric cars (see ).

    The problem is not “can’t” reduce GHGs substantially, but “won’t” reduce, even if it means losing great savings, not off-setting other problems, and living poorer. People just want to be poor AND kill off the earth. There’s something more Freudian than AdamSmithian going on here.

  21. 71
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    RE #69, Pat, I think you’re right. It seems the models just have GHGs as inputs (regardless of whether they come from nature, people, or positive feedback loops like the methane burp caused by warming). So, while “sensitivity” may be an important concept, ultimately the positive feedback loops trump it in some ?geometrical? progression until we bang our head against some constaints.

    Are there any models on the horizon that would include positive feedbacks of the GHG–>Warming–>GHG and GHG–>Warming–>reduced albedo–>warming types? My thinking is this would be very very difficult to quantify & include (too many unknowns).

  22. 72
    pete best says:

    Re #70

    And where does the electricity come from. From burning fossil fuels I would assume.

  23. 73
    Grant says:

    Re: #66

    When I first took a serious interest in AGW (about a year ago), I searched the web for information. Early on, I found the site ( maintained by the Idsos. Of *all* the contrarian websites, this is, in my opinion, the most ridiculous (by which I mean, “worthy of ridicule.”). In fact, I prepared a lecture on global warming in which I illustrate some of the tactics used by contrarians, and I used this site as a *textbook* case of how to “cherry-pick” data to make a false claim.

  24. 74
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    In all the talk above about reducing GHGs, let’s remember that nearly every product, incl water, has a GHG component. So reducing water (which needs energy to pump & heat it) is a biggy. My favorite is the low-flow showerhead with off/on soap-up button. Costs $6 and saves $2000 over its 20 year lifetime (in water & energy to heat the water).

    I actually did a test. I held a bucket under the old showerhead, then the new one, for the same time – the new one used 1/2 the water AND we don’t feel any difference in the force. This has got to be much better than investing in the stock market!

    There are many many other examples. So while climate science is quite complicated & unfathomable for lay people, solving the problem is really pretty simple. You don’t need a lot of brains or rocket-science education.

    Best policy: REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE! Happy Earth Day! And remember to VOTE EARTH!

  25. 75
    Gar Lipow says:

    Re 61, 62: (and thanks to Lynne for dontcrush link ) I note that you don’t address any of my examples or my arguments (other than electric cars, and then you simply assert that they are not practical).

    In terms of the Science study.

    1)While poor nations will need to increase power consumption, in the rich nations efficiency can (if we have the will) reduce demand in absolute terms without making us poorer.

    2) Wind and the grid – the electric industry is asking for 50 billion in grid improvements anyway. And you don’t need superconductors. High volotage D.C. lines are a mature technology that can transport electricity long distances and across multiple grids that are out of phase with one another.

    2) Land area for solar: see efficiency above. Note by the way that a 1000 square miles is not that big compared to other forms of energy. How much land is used or ruined by coal mining, oil drilling, uranium mining? 85,000 miles of course assumes no efficiency improvements, and solar power as sole source.

    3)fossil fuels for wind genetors and so forth. Wind Generators pay pack the energy it took to make them with 18 months. There is no reason you could not use wind energy to make wind generators. (Yes I’m including steel; thanks to electric arc furnaces we can make steel with very little fossil fuel if the electricity comes from renewable sources.)

    4) In terms of transition; of course we don’t flip a switch and turn fossil fuels into renewables. But most of our energy consuming infrastrure will wear out in 30 years or less. U.S. automobiles last an average of 13 years.

    Also in terms of cars there is an intermediate step that can be done with very little infrastructure change – plug in hybrids. Take a hybrid. Replace the advanced battery with a slightly larger one. Add a plug and modify the existing battery management software in the existing on-board computer. And you can run the first 20 to 90 miles of travel each day on battery power – which is most of mileage most of us travel. You don’t get 200 mpg equivalent both because it is still a hybrid, dragging that gasoline engine and tank and associated mechanics around, and because our grid is no carbon free. But it will have half the emissions of a conventional hybrid (even with our present coal heavy grid); and of course a conventional hydrid is already at the low end of emissions for the U.S. fleet. So while we are designing advanced electric cars, and building the factories to manufacture them, as a transitional step we could insist all new cars match Plug-in hybrids for carbon emissions.

  26. 76
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    I wonder what the actual climate crisis point will look like. Probably as unremarkable as Icarus falling out of the sky in the Brueghel painting/Auden poem. Many years ago, I remember seeing graphs of multi-causal crises: dogs biting, bridges collapsing, the beginnings of wars. The point of the article was how similar they all looked: slight rises on all axes and then a sudden surge to a crisis: the dog bit, the bridge collapsed, the Guns of August roared to life. There simply wasn’t a ramp up where one could flirt with the crisis or mitigate it. Points x,y,z weren’t remarkably different than points x+1,y+1,z+1. When the crisis came, it came suddenly and absolutely.

    This time will be different, of course. We’ve learned from history how to control crises.

  27. 77
    Matt says:

    This peak oil study group cites a study by the core of engineers that claims the peak oil moment has arrived. This moment means that new refinery facilities cannot be depreciated over their 50 year lifetime. Oil price rises above the rate of inflation will be the norm.

    Always looking for the hidden connection, I wonder if the carboniferous epoch was equilibrium with the atmosperic co2 carrying capacity. Why hasn’t nature left us with enough oil to fry our brains?

    Anyway, peak oil means that biofuels become economically viable, it makes long term investment in energy efficieny feasible for developing countries, and, importantly, it means that only a minority of populations will have the efficiency to use the existing capacity.

    The later fact creates political incentives for the poor countries to push an additional cost on the use of atmospheric co2 by efficient economies. These poor countries will threaten mass migration of populations to energy efficient nations, which will be resisted.

    Oil producers will see greater value in future oil deliveries and add additional cost to oil use.

    The developing countries will become more intelligent, sooner, because of this and other ecological limits. The damage will be limited to a moderate catastrophe, not bad for a bunch of stupid squirrels.

  28. 78

    70-71 et al, how about wind generator super tankers, maintaining themselves on purpose in windy sea areas, electrolysing hydrogen till they are full, other renewable energy have huge potentials, there are no excuses, we can switch to hydrogen in no time if we really want to.

    #58 Chrichton’s did some marketing, saw potential to taylor make a book for a specific audience, and produced it for profits. Follow the money as it was said, and find out that greed overpowers reasoning, even reasonable men, all the time.

  29. 79
    Gar Lipow says:

    77) You are right that there are no excuse; but hydrogen is not a mature storage technology. Hydrogen may be a good storage technology in the future (I don’t think it is likely to ever be a good energy transport means.) But a lot of hyping of hydrogen is a way to avoid doing stuff we already know how to do. For example we don’t need to put wind generators on supertankers; we can put them offshore on towers and run HV lines to land to provide inexpensive wind electricity. Unless your location happens to be visible from the picture windows of the super-rich on Martha’s Vineyard; then the amount of concern about “environmental” damage by wind generators has to be heard to be believed, an environmental concern the overrides the support for these wind generators by actual environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Audobon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Toxic Action Coalition.

  30. 80
    Jan Rooth says:

    “Hope Crichton is right, but act as if Gore is right.”

    Exactly. As I heard someone put it once (regarding alcoholism) – “If you’re having trouble with your drinking but you’re not really sure you’re an alcoholic, consider this: would it be such an awful thing if you got sober by mistake?”

  31. 81
    pat neuman says:

    How hot was it? … Scientists aren’t certain what caused the episode some 247 million years ago. They estimate that temperatures ranged in the low 100s year-round for thousands of years,

    Expert Says It Was Hotter 247 Million Years Ago
    April 05, 2006 – By Associated Press
    CAVE JUNCTION, Ore. “John Roth shined his flashlight on a black streak flowing through the cream-colored marble forming the walls of the Oregon Caves.

    The graphite line is graphic evidence of dramatic global warming that consumed so much oxygen that it nearly wiped out all life on the planet 247 million years ago, said the natural resources specialist for the Oregon Caves National Monument. …”

  32. 82

    I wish to cite the great Doctor

    Seuss for his prescient prediction re methane burp.

    But, as Yertle, the Turtle King, lifted his hand
    And started to order and give the command,
    That plain little turtle below in the stack,
    That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack,
    Decided he’d taken enough. And he had.
    And that plain little lad got a bit mad.
    And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing.
    He burped!
    And his burp shook the throne of the king!

    And Yertle the Turtle, the king of the trees,
    The king of the air and the birds and the bees,
    The king of a house and a cow and a mule…
    Well, that was the end of the Turtle King’s rule!
    For Yertle, the King of all Sala-ma-Sond,
    Fell off his high throne and fell Plunk! in the pond!

    And tosay the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
    Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
    And the turtles, of course… all the turtles are free
    As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.

  33. 83

    Re #79: Wind generators may seem a gift of God, but the increasing number makes their “CO2 replacement factor” approach zero, due to the more and more gas turbines needed to stabilize the flutuating grid: see the very interesting WINDREPORT 2005 from German E.ON NET (
    which predicts that an approx. 20% part of wind electricity will be the most a grid can bear. In my opinion every fluctuating energy source as wind or solar will need some buffer storage, and hydrogen made by electrolysis would be one solution (as would be pumping storage reservoirs where land use permits).

  34. 84
    SqueakyRat says:

    #38 Your figures on world oil consumption are incorrect. Depending on how you define “oil,” it averaged about 84 million barrels per day last year, and might inch up a little this year if production can be increased — a big if.

  35. 85
    Gar Lipow says:

    Re: 83 — the post you are replying to was in reply to another post. Hydrogen at the moment is an extremely expensive storage technology. 20% of an electricity grid is a good chunk. Also, you don’t need to make wind fully dispatchable to go beyond that. Add a couple of hours of name plate capacity of vanadium flow battery storage and you can smooth out the fluctuations enough to let wind safely provide half your grid at a 2 cents per kWh increase in price. (Two hours name plate capacity serves because wind generators typically average under 35% of name plate capacity; so that two hours capability is almost six hours of average production.) Even with storage, that wind is cheaper than nuclear power plants. For the other half we can use fully dispatchable sources, hydro, geothermal , and solar thermal electric with molten salt storage. If the cost of either hydrogen or flow batteries drops sufficiently then we can depend totally on variable sources with storage. But the key here is that we have means now to substitute for fossil fuels without waiting for price of hydrogen or other storage techniques to drop. If we can achieve that drop so much the better; being able to use PV and storage would avoid the need for a whole bunch of high voltage DC lines to ship power long distances across grids. It is an obvious place to put more research and development money. But in the absence of those things, we should get started on what we know how to do today and not wait for the great hydrogen breakthrough.

  36. 86
    Alan says:

    Re #62.

    From the link…

    “Nuclear fission: It is not the final answer because of a shortage of uranium fuel. The proven reserves of uranium would last less than 30 years if nuclear fission was used…”

    “Wind power: These systems must operate from remote areas and the current power grids could not manage the load, the study found. New grids, perhaps using cooled superconducting cables, might be needed to harvest power from wind and solar systems.

    “Hydrogen energy: … Extracting hydrogen from water using solar or wind power is not now “cost effective,” the study found.”

    So what’s wrong with using reators as a band-aid while we pacth up the grid for wind power, thirty years is about the life of a power plant anyway. Once oil is too expensive, hydrogen, bio-desiel and/or electric cars will become more “cost effective”.

    I belive there are practical alternatives to fossil fuels both cenralised and decentralised. However even with the strongest “political will” nothing much is going to happen overnight.

  37. 87
    pete best says:

    Re #84, Sorry I meant to state 28 Billion barrels per annum, it is as you say 82 to 84 million barrels per day.

    Re #86, No single renewable can be the answer to world energy demand if we expect to keep on as we are. We also require large scale efficiency gains and other energy sources besides.

    There can be alternatives to fossil fuels, it is as I have stated though, fossil fuels are the mother of all vested interests due to their infrastructure costs. As they befin to run out and hit NET and PEAK issues then we should see a move to alternatives, trouble is by then climate change could be a major issue.

  38. 88
    Hank Roberts says:

    Corporations are the only “legal persons” that will still be alive in a hundred years. I’d suggest we know enough to track how much CO2 each person produces, and after a hundred years, if they’re still alive, bill them for their proportionate share of warming costs. Call it a “life tax” — only those still living after a century pick up the bill, as part of the cost of having continued to live.

    Of course, they’ll outlive us, so they have forever to change the laws in their favor (sigh).

    Odd, eh, the people (legal people) with the shortest planning horizon (next financial report) and narrowest social responsibility (shareholder value) also are the people with the longest lifespan (potentially immortal). It’s like the best we could do in intelligently designing a business/financial system was to reinvent the Norse gods and let them run things ….

  39. 89
    Dave B says:

    #54…with all due respect, you are not “building” anything. the analogy is awkward at best…BUT, it does contain some irony. rather than report the raw science ACCURATELY, you come off as trying to maximize the potential downside, rather than reporting the (equally likely) minimal downside. this is exactly how environmentalists get characterized as fear mongers.

  40. 90
    Gar Lipow says:

    Re: 86 – what’s wrong with using reactors is they they take longer to bring on-line and are more expensive. Note that I am not talking about shutting down existing reactors prematurely. But you can buy efficiency, wind, solar thermal electric, solar thermal space heating and cooling (and hot water heating), a limited sustainable amount of biomass all for a lower price than new nuclear plants. Increased efficiency combined with renewables can replace fossil fuels at a lower price than we currently pay for those fossil fuels. (To make it clear that there is no free lunch, efficiency plus fosisl fuels would be even cheaper; the choice of renewables over fossil fuels has to be made based on social costs even after efficiency means kick in.)

    And it is true that we won’t kick in renewables and efficiency overnight. but our infrastructure is not eternal. If start now, or even soon, we can probably phase out fossil fuels fast enough to prevent the worst consequences of global warming; we can certainl phase them out faster than oil and gas production will drop.

  41. 91
    Gareth says:

    Re #88: Corporations are the only “legal persons” that will still be alive in a hundred years.

    Not a singularitarian then? Or read much Kurzweil?

  42. 92
    ocean says:

    I guess I don’t understand the legal persons argument..

  43. 93
    Fernando Magyar says:

    I can’t really speak to the questions of global warming but I would like to ask any skeptics if after reading this article they can still justify arguing that that status quo should be maitained.

    BTW I’m sure you all know that plastic is derived mostly from oil. If you can go to sleep at night and sleep soundly after reading the above article then I most certainly don’t want to know you!

    I also suggest spending some time in an around the ocean as well, specifically on coral reefs which if I understand correctly aren’t doing too well. I have been scuba diving in the tropics since 1975, I have seen a lot of change and certainly don’t know the reasons for it but I have an uneducated hunch it just may have something to do with human activity in some way shape or form.

    As a long time maintainer of saltwater aquariums I have a pretty good understanding of what even reletively minor variations in the reduction of PH can do to a stable contained aquarium ecosystem. The result ain’t pretty!! For a few hundred dollars any skeptic can run their own acidification experiments in a salt water aquarium in their homes, try it you might learn something practical.

    Carbon dioxide seems to be a confirmed culprit in the acidification of the oceans. Maybe it’s not directly related to coral die off. I’m sure some qualified scientist could chime in here…

    I for one would like try a different experiment than the one we are curently embarked upon.

  44. 94
    James Annan says:

    FWIW, the Kristof article appears to be quoted verbatim at (I can’t tell for sure if this really is a perfect copy, since I don’t have access to the real thing). I find googling on an exact phrase (in this case, the title) to be a powerful way of finding copies of pay-to-view articles – eg, the recent Lindzen op-ed was also posted elsewhere.


  45. 95
    Brad Arnold says:

    Leggett’s “putative” logical chain of events:

    – As the oceans warm, they are less able to absorb CO2.
    – Warming oceans are more thermally stable. This stability reduces the circulation of nutrients and decreases the biomass of the phytoplankton, thus further damaging the ability to absorb CO2.
    – Ultraviolet radiation from the damaged ozone layer, particularly severe in Polar Regions, further damages the phytoplankton. The net ecosystem balance between respiration (CO2 emitted) and photosynthesis (CO2 used) now tilts toward respiration, and more CO2 is released into the atmosphere.
    – As the temperature rises, Arctic tundra melts and releases huge amounts of methane. Under certain conditions, wet, flooded soils can release 100 times more methane than dry soils.
    – At this point, drought in many areas from warming and associated climatic changes further retards photosynthesis.
    – Changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere deplete the cleansing hydroxyl reservoir that oxidizes methane and other greenhouse gases.
    – Ozone in the troposphere, a greenhouse gas at lower levels of the atmosphere, is increased as a result of carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide from growing automobile exhaust.
    – The Arctic ice cover begins to thin and retreat. This thinning reduces the albedo (the net reflectivity of the planet), thus leading to further warming.
    – Finally, huge amounts of methane trapped in the Arctic continental shelf in the form of methane hydrates are released from under the permafrost and in shallow Arctic waters.

  46. 96

    The Melting Permafrost…

    Dkos writer oxon wrote today about the melting permafrost and how lakes in Alaska are now boiling due to the release of methane gas. The story he references from Science Daily mentions that researchers are now finding methane bubbles rising……