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The Forecast in the Streets

Filed under: — david @ 28 December 2007

The physical impacts of the global warming forecast can be bracketed with some degree of statistical confidence. Biological effects are more difficult to gauge, except in special cases such as the likely demise of polar bears that would result from the demise of Arctic sea ice. The societal effects, however, are nearly uncharted territory, at least to me. Perhaps the topic of global warming suffers from the same sort of cultural divide as university faculties, between the techies and the touchies; that is the sciences and the humanities. A new report (pdf) called The Age of Consequences, just released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for a New American Security, tries to bring the social sciences, in particular history, geography, and political science, into the forecast of climate change in the coming century. It makes for fascinating if frightening reading.

The report was based on discussions of a group of senior luminaries with a wide range of expertise. I already knew or knew of and respect the climate scientists Mike MacCracken and Bob Correll, and Ralph Cicerone, head of the National Academy of Sciences. The group also included Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling, former CIA Director James Woolsey, former Chief of Staff to the President John Podesta, and former National Security Advisor to the Vice President Leon Fuerth. (Apparently not all group members, listed in the executive summary on page 8, got writing assignments, so not all of them are listed as authors.)

Images of the future can be constructed based on the lessons of history. The history chapter (beginning on page 26) begins with Table 1, which I will reprint here:

Event Potential deaths
Volcanic eruptions 104
Earthquakes 105
Floods 106
Droughts 107
Epidemics 108

It is sobering to note that the potential horsemen of climate change, floods, droughts, and epidemics, are all at the big end of this list. There is no historical precedent for the type of global multidimensional challenge that changing climate may bring, but there are common elements in societal responses to natural disasters, and many of the impacts of climate change will be regional in scope rather than global, like natural disasters.

The report considers the historical societal impacts of disasters ranging from bubonic plagues in the middle ages to Katrina. History teaches that people tend to return to religion in times of trouble, and to turn against people outside their social group. Governments are destabilized by hard times. Natural disasters tend to impact most strongly in less affluent parts of the world.

History also teaches that people have a tendency to develop ways of coping with environmental fragility, by choices of individual living strategies such as the ability to migrate, or by decisions made at the societal level, such as engineered flood control measures or mobilizing assistance from outside. The report offers the idea that it takes a population a few generations to learn how to operate within the limits of its natural world. For example, the report attributes the dust bowl drought in some measure to environmental inexperience of a population who had only recently migrated from more humid regions. With our recent increased mobility, and with climate change itself, we find ourselves losing this buffer of experience and understanding.

The group imagined three potential scenarios, labeled expected, severe, and catastrophic. These are not forecasts exactly, since forecasting society is even harder than forecasting climate, which is itself pretty dicey on a regional spatial scale, but rather a fleshing out of plausible possibilities, a story-telling, visualization-type exercise.

The “expected” scenario calls for 1.3 °C of warming globally above 1990 levels, by the year 2040. Changes in precipitation and sea level prompt migration at a scale sufficient to challenge the cohesion of nations. The potential responses to this scenario are broken down into specific regions with their particular historical and political settings. Just to pick a region at random, Nigeria in West Africa will suffer accelerated desertification with climate change, prompting intensified migration into the megacity of Lagos, which is itself threatened by sea level rise. Compounding Nigeria’s misfortune, there is oil in the Niger Delta, and as global oil supplies dwindle, the strife and corruption that oil brings a weak nation will only intensify.

In the “severe” scenario, the globe warms by 2.6 °C by 2040 and sea level rises about a half a meter. Scientists in 2040 conclude that the eventual collapse of Greenland and the West Antarctic ice sheets has become inevitable in the centuries that follow. Agricultural production declines in the arid subtropics and in increasingly flooded river deltas. Again to pick a random example from the report: the river systems in the American Southwest collapse, leading to impoverishment of Northern Mexico and increased migration pressure in the U.S. Resource stress in Latin American leads to a tendency toward populist, Chavez-type governments, and more extensive regions of de facto anarchy such as found today in parts of Colombia.

The “catastrophic” scenario assumes positive feedbacks in the carbon cycle to warm the planet by 5.6 °C by the year 2100, and sea level has risen by 2 meters. I feel compelled to note that if this is supposed to be a worst-case scenario, I personally can imagine worse in terms of sea level rise. In the social realm the crystal ball gets murkier as the report progresses from expected to severe to catastrophic, but one important ingredient in the prognosis for the catastrophic scenario is the migration of millions of people, a scale unprecedented in human history, potentially enough to undermine the stability of civilized governance. One participant recommended that we check out the movie Mad Max, only imagine it hotter.

There is far too much in this report for any sort of summary really to cover, and anyway I’m a techie rather than a touchie so my retread wouldn’t do the original report justice, but you get the idea. Results from the IPCC are summarized clearly, including regional climate projections, but the point is also made and discussed that climate forecasts tend to be in general conservative. In the arenas in which I have some competence to assess, the judgments the authors have made seem measured and fair to me. The report is authoritative and very meaty, bringing an astonishing array of perspectives and insights to the table. One could read this report and nothing else, and come away with a considerable expertise on the potential impacts of climate change. I highly recommend it to the readership of realclimate, and I look forward to reading your comments.

Thanks to Hank Roberts for digging this up.


363 Responses to “The Forecast in the Streets”

  1. 1
    S. Molnar says:

    This may be a bit of a tangent, but a cursory look at the Chavez reference shows a strong political bias in the report. The sentence before says “Severe climate change will likely be the deathblow for democratic government throughout Latin America”. Whatever you think of Chavez (and I’m no fan), he is indisputably, except by the mainstream U.S. press (which has bizarrely called him a dictator in the same sentence they said he lost an election to extend his term), a democratically elected head of state. Beyond the bias against Chavez himself, this strikes me as a paternalistic (at best) or racist attitude toward Latin Americans. I can’t say it gives me a lot of confidence in the rest of the report.

  2. 2
    Don says:

    Generally I treat such learned speculations as entertainment and science fiction; probably because the first one I ever read, “Report From Iron Mountain,” in the 60s was a fraud parading as a government exorcise, but without the drama of War Of The Worlds. There has always been climate change, Athens, Rome, and London had their time in the sun, and so will Washington too. I suspect more people have died over religion and secular political ideologies than real climate change, but if the climate experts work hard enough at it I’m sure they’ll manage to adjust the mortality rates and their causes–by the law of unintended consequences or the paralysis of analysis– to more than compensate for the dismal historical record; doubtless in the effort to save the planet from the scourge of Malthus. And Malthus was wrong too.

  3. 3
    Elizabeth says:

    Thanks, I just downloaded the report. I’m an environmental policy person at the local government level and am going to pass it on to my boss.

  4. 4
    Tim Bitts says:

    Thanks for scaring the shit out of me!!!

  5. 5
    David R Hickey says:

    as far as SciFi Movies perhaps representative of future conditions go, I Highly recommend watching Soylent Green & Children of Men. They are both prophetic and right on track. They Should frighten you.

    [Response: I often tell folks that if they want a glimpse of a possible worst-case 2100ish century world, 'Soylent Green' may be their best bet. While the movie was indeed prophetic in recognizing anthropogenic global warming as a real potential future threat in the early 70s (responsible for the perpetual heat wave that afflicts Earth's inhabitants), it appears that overpopulation was envisioned as the primary aggravating factor. Nonetheless, with rising sea level and environmental refugeeism compounding the increased demand on water, food, and land of a growing population (albeit one likely to level out mid 21st century), the combined impacts of climate change and global population increase could potentially yield a world that doesn't look that different from the one portrayed in the movie--indeed, as Jim Hansen puts it, "a different planet"--by century's end. There are a number of other 1970s distopian sci fi movies that were ahead of their time in how they looked at issues of sustainability. The one I find most disturbing of all is "Silent Running". -mike]

  6. 6
    Richard LaRosa says:

    In addition to reducing GHG emissions, how about targeted programs like
    1. Solar absorber rafts to evaporate sea water to enhance orographic rainfall
    in places like SE Australia.
    2. Pump up 1000-m deep water for surface cooling and nutrient supply in the
    tropics. Pumps powered by solar-heated surface water.
    3. Turbines in the passages between the Antilles Islands to divert Equatorial
    Current water around the Caribbean Sea to lower Gulf of Mexico sea level.

  7. 7
    Andy Gunther says:

    In speaking to people about climate change and its implications for national/international security, I’ve started to use a line from the Executive Summary of this report. “A careful examination of the potential consequences associated with global climate change is profoundly disquieting.” When the former director of the CIA is the co-author of such a statement, it seems to really strike people in a way that the warnings of scientists do not.

  8. 8
    Danny Bloom says:

    Well, from this, I see that our “polar cities” model is getting closer and closer not only to reality but also to acceptance. It’s still a long way off, what I call “Arctopia,” when breeding pairs int he arctic, a la Lovelock’s phrase, are housed in sustainable polar retreats, circa 2500,
    but this report puts some teeth into these worst case scenario scenarios. If
    you want to see what one such model polar city might look like, check out our images here:
    http://pcillu101.blogspot.com

  9. 9
    paul m says:

    I haven’t read the report yet, but the big one I worry about, that doesn’t seem the get mentioned much, is what are we going to do about all the nuclear power plants at sea level – as the sea levels start to rise when the ice sheets start to collapse in the near future and what the cost of this will be to try to move/remove radioactive material to safer areas.

  10. 10
    Danny Bloom says:

    One question to David. This report was released Nov. 7, Reuters reported on it then, too, why is it being dicussed here now, as if it was “just released”. Quote from above: “A *new* report called The Age of Consequences, *just released* by the Center …”

    In fact, the report is two months old already, no? Well, almost.

    [Response: I first became aware of it a few weeks ago from a comment that Hank wrote, but then the AGU meeting took priority of this site and of my time. It took me a while to get through the fairly dense 125-page report, and writing a useful summary of it took some psyching myself up, since I'm not a historian or a social scientist. At AGU, I wrote a summary of an interesting AGU talk within a half hour of the completion of the talk, don't I get any credit for that? Jeez, this is a tough crowd. David]

  11. 11
    Figen says:

    I am impressed by the table of events and related potential deaths. It is one thing to try to interpret history after the fact and a whole other to live through it. With anthropogenic global warming I think we are living in a time that will determine the fate of our descendents and we should take this responsibility very seriously. Right now I am in Ankara, Turkey for the holidays and we suffered two earthquakes in the course of a single week. One 5.7 the other 5.5 on the Richter. No death toll but plenty of structural damage. It was pretty darn scary all the same. And it does not even come close to how scary the drought here was this past summer. At least in an earthquake some people can save themselves by stepping out into open areas. How do you survive drought with no food and water for days if not weeks and months on end? Of course climate change killed and kills more people than earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, it just does it over longer time periods, not seconds like earthquakes.

  12. 12
    stefan says:

    A report on the security implications of climate change has recently been published (and presented in Bali) by the German government’s Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) and can be downloaded here: http://www.wbgu.de/wbgu_jg2007_engl.html
    (This is pro domo: I’m one of the authors.) -stefan

  13. 13
    Francois Hugo says:

    Who is taking human overpopulation seriously?
    Approximately 2 billion at the end of WW2.
    6+ billion now.
    9ish billion by 2050.
    All contributing greenhouse gases, as well as requiring water, food and land.
    Education, Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion; free, on request, no restrictions.
    or
    Chaos, Death by Famine, Pestilence and War.

  14. 14
    pete best says:

    These scenarios are extremely unlikely due to the overestimation of global fossil reserves which the IPCC have taken their data from. The 1600 to 2000 BToe figures used by the IPCC in 2001 and which have not been updated for their scenarios are very very unlikely to be real, 400 Btoe is the more likely amount the IPCC has to work with.

    http://www.inspiringgreenleadership.com/blog/aangel/peak-oil-and-climate-change-q

    Recent work carried out in 2007 by Caltech Professor Rutledge and other demonstrates this seemingly.

    SO peaking fossil fuels become a world disaster before AGW will effect us in the first world anyway. It looks like climate change will be limited to some 460 ppmv at most.

    Coal, gas and oil reserves used by the USGS, IEA and others are wildely optimistic and simply incorrect it would seem.

  15. 15
    martin says:

    Thanks for admitting the near impossibility of social predictions, but I have a hard time swallowing the supposed predictability of biological systems already. The IPCC report predicts biological mayhem like 40-70% of species extinct, the Amazon dying and other shenanigans by 3.5 degrees already so that I would be surprised if after either the biological feedback (CO2 from decomposing biomass etc.) and/or the effect on the human food chain any significant civilizations remain at 3.5 degrees. The biological sensitivity of the Earth was what shocked me when I started to educate myself on climate change (Tim Flannery) where as previously I thought 2 degrees more meant raising the dykes a bit. So, why bother discussing society if there won’t be any society any more?

  16. 16
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Don engages in a bit of hyperbole: ” I suspect more people have died over religion and secular political ideologies than real climate change, but if the climate experts work hard enough at it I’m sure they’ll manage to adjust the mortality rates and their causes–by the law of unintended consequences or the paralysis of analysis– to more than compensate for the dismal historical record; doubtless in the effort to save the planet from the scourge of Malthus. And Malthus was wrong too.”

    Actually, Don, I suspect Malthus was not wrong, but merely prescient. The reason I suspect this is because both Malthus and I understand population dynamics and the exponential function. Yes, population in Malthus time avoided his predicted collapse–mainly due to the introduction of new crops, especially potatos. And the population increased again–just as expected by population dynamics when the population finds a new food source. And we have avoided it in our current rise to >6 billion people due to the “green revolution”. And perhaps genetic engineering will sustain us to 9 billion. It cannot, however continue indefinitely, as if we extrapolate, at some point the mass of humanity exceeds the mass of the planet that supports us. Long before that time, our technical and economic fixes will have broken down or we will have learned to live within the means of our environment.
    I don’t have a lot of faith that we’ll adopt the latter path. Already, the strain of producing so much food is starting to tell on our agricultural areas. The new crops are more water intensive. They require continual applications of chemical fertilizer, herbicides for weeds, and pesticides to control insects. They make farming more energy and capital intensive. If you are looking for a cure for your complacency, I would urge you to look at some modern farming techniques and imagine how resilient they will be as we confront peak oil, increased drought and expansion of invasive weeds and pests.

  17. 17
    Juola (Joe) A. Haga says:

    And with Dr. James Hansen pointing to 350 ppm as the most realisitic goal in the carbon dioxide sweeps to aim for, despite our having reached 382, one asks one’s self, as one 6.8 billionth, can I turn on a dime and walk/work in an absolutely contrary direction? Pick up the hand saw instead of the chain saw? Wait for the dawn to correct a mountain of finals? Mmmmh,–whaddayou say?

  18. 18

    The “catastrophic” scenario assumes positive feedbacks … well we all here would agree on that anyway ? So, “catastrophic” it is going to be. Just factor in that we are running out of “cheap” energy (peak oil anyone?) and that the financial system is going into tailspin fast. Did I here worldwide famine ?

    Good luck to all of us and happy new year!

    the Mare Initiative team

  19. 19
    Mark A. York says:

    Anytime people hear “in 100 years” they just tune out. In my own novel I had to ramp up the immediate danger, which seems to be happening faster just like the Greenland melt. Third world countries including latin America will certainly bear the brunt of instability as they do now. It’s not a matter of political bias, only of reality and behavior to date. Doesn’t look pretty from here.

  20. 20
    Fernando Magyar says:

    Re #12 Francis Hugo,
    Watch this lecture by Dr Albert Bartlett:
    Arithmetic, Population and Energy
    http://globalpublicmedia.com/lectures/461
    BTW this guy is pretty good with his argument for risk assessment:The most terrifying video you will ever see
    http://www.mareinitiative.com/home6

  21. 21
    Fernando Magyar says:

    Coincidence, I just posted a link from the Mare Initiative. Great site!

  22. 22
    Paul K says:

    I like Science Fiction, so I’ll bet two cents that 50% of the West Antarctic ice shelf crumbles into the ocean (much of the ice sheet currently sits on land below sea level) and then floats off and melts in the next 10 years, raising ocean levels 9 feet. A western section of the Greenland ice sheet which similarly sits on land below sea level shall also crumble and float off, adding another 1 foot. Finally, in 10 years super-hurricanes will have added 5 feet to the Corps of Engineers official 500 year disaster ocean flooding levels.

    15 feet in 10 years. How’s that for catastrophic?

  23. 23

    Thanks, David. This addresses a lot of my concerns. It seems to be a good attempt at a holistic picture (I need to read it). I might use it as reading for the “Environmental Crime & Justice” course I’m developing for next summer.

    Okay, let’s let this be sci-fi, esp the catastrophe scenario. Let’s vigorously reduce our GHGs down to bare bones.

  24. 24
    Hank Roberts says:

    > “Silent Running”
    Me too. Mike.

    I’m still rereading the report slowly and looking up references.

    One bit that struck me is the 1342 German flood and associated massive topsoil loss (third cite in n52); I don’t have the article nor read German unfortunately. If that’s worst case before warming, imagine an increase in strong precipitation like that found at the PETM.

    I hope people will refer to the document– and read it, please.

    Perhaps our hosts could open a Friday Catchall to catch the driveby posters, to help this one keep focus? It’s a dense document.

  25. 25
    Jack Roesler says:

    “2007 a year of record temperatures in the U.S.”

    http://tinyurl.com/2mla33

    Here’s one I doubt anybody will hear from their TV weatherpersons. I read the story of the NOAA agency directing meteorologists to not include any reference to global warming in their weather reports. That sure applies in Toledo, Ohio. Thus the mainstream opinion around here that global warming is a hoax, and if there is warming, human activity is not likely to be the cause. Very discouraging.

  26. 26
    John P. Reisman says:

    Thanks David and Hank,

    This is a good exercise in conditioning our understanding. The actual
    way it plays out will include a great deal of stressors. In a
    reasonable consideration of how it will play out all we need to do is
    look at current food commodity prices.

    I just spoke with someone from Indonesia. He said that their rainy
    season is now 3 months shorter on average and they are having trouble
    growing crops. So now they are importing more and real inflation is
    9% according to him.

    In a report I read in Switzerland, the price of wheat jumped 80%. The
    strain on the society will be dynamic. We are operating on an oil
    based consumer model in most of the industrial nations. Lots of
    plastic widgets. When the food gets more expensive along with the gas
    the current market structure will be put under a great deal of
    stress. Markets will shift to durable goods that meet immediate needs
    and of course food.

    There are a lot of people on the planet, so when you add human
    migration to economic stress your get societal stress. The challenges
    should not be underestimated. Unfortunately most governments are
    still underestimating them. Less preparation, will increase future
    stressors as well. There is a lot that can be done. We just don’t
    have the political will yet.

    Society has had to deal with change in the past but I don’t think
    anything of this scale has ever been even contemplated. We added over
    5 billion people in the past 100 years or so to the planet. That was
    all based on cheap oil and industrial processes. We will have to be
    very innovative to keep things from unraveling too much? But we don’t
    know what too much really is. In my mind, we have already done too
    much wrong which is why this discussion is occurring.

    I have said this before, just because the alarm bells are ringing
    does not mean we should panic. We need to continue to deliver the
    message and hope that people begin to wake up to what is coming so we
    can prepare and start adjusting. The further ahead of the many curves
    that are coming our way, the smoother or less tumultuous will be the
    transitions.

    I started the Centrist Party specifically for this reason. We will
    need governance that is not tied to special interests if we are to
    begin to get a reasonable handle on this with out undue influence
    from the very same processes that got us here in the first place.

    I think people, at least in the science world that are familiar with
    the relevant data and have common sense, can see the potentials. I
    like many others continue to hope that the rest of the world wakes up sooner rather than later.

  27. 27
    Steve Reynolds says:

    This report loses a lot of credibility by showing misleading figures like figure 1. Didn’t RC recently ridicule a paper by Courtillot for truncating and manipulating data to show the desired effect?

    [Response: I don't actually find figure 1 in my copy. There's a page that won't display but gives an error, page 40, maybe it's there. David]

  28. 28
    Jim Eager says:

    Re Pete Best @ 13: “SO peaking fossil fuels become a world disaster before AGW will effect us in the first world anyway. It looks like climate change will be limited to some 460 ppmv at most.”

    Pete, did you miss this part in the text of your link?:

    “And remember: it is not true that peak oil means that the worst of climate change won’t occur. Recall that even if we keep atmospheric emissions below 450ppm, we still have only lowered the chance of catastrophic climate change to below 50% — not eliminated it (Source: IPCC Fourth Assessment). All the other problems (drought, rising water levels, lower food production, etc.) will continue to worsen as we climb toward 450ppm.”

  29. 29
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Re Soylent Green in 5,

    “The oceans: they’re dying!” — Charlton Heston, reacting to the Soylent Corporation’s Oceanographic Survey of 2012.

    Probably the most prescient prediction in the film.

  30. 30
    James says:

    Re #5 response: [While the movie was indeed prophetic in recognizing anthropogenic global warming as a real potential future threat in the early 70s (responsible for the perpetual heat wave that afflicts Earth’s inhabitants), it appears that overpopulation was envisioned as the primary aggravating factor.]

    Honestly, though, isn’t overpopulation really at the root of AGW? (Even if it’s not often mentioned, for fear of stirring up even more opposition.) If the world population was 600 million instead of 6 billion, there’d be less anthropogenic CO2, even if all 600 million lived at a western standard of living. More importantly, there’d be much less stress on ecosystems which could buffer the changes – no need to convert rain forests to croplands, plow up prairies, or overgraze marginal grasslands. It’d likewise be far easier for 600 million to switch to non-fossil fuel energy, such as biofuels.

  31. 31
    Thomas says:

    about (13), I’m not sure what peak-oil will do to Anthropogenic Greenhouse emmisions. One desperate response could be bigtime consumption of coal and peat.
    Lower thermodynamic (and carbon) efficient technologies like CoalToLiquids might be pursued. There is really going to be a struggle between the desire for short term oil substitutes, and climate sustainable energy systems. It is not yet clear how this conflict will be resolved.

  32. 32
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Re Peak Oil and greenhouse emissions in 30, here’s some interesting research:

    Global warming exaggerated, insufficient oil, natural gas and coal
    by Kjell Aleklett

    Climate change and global warming has become part of our everyday life, and central to this debate is the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2). The fossil fuels that we use contain carbon and hydrocarbons, and in the combustion of these fuels, carbon dioxide is released along with energy.

    In the present climate debate, however, the amount of available fossil fuels does not appear to be an issue. The problem, as usually perceived, is that we will use excessive amounts in the years ahead. It is not even on the map that the amount of fossil fuels required in order to bring about the feared climate changes may in fact not be available.

    The presupposition for any temperature increase is that we consume great quantities of oil, natural gas and coal. The fact that IPCC exhorts our politicians to curtail the use of fossil fuels gives the impression that the fossil resources are enormous, but there are reasons to doubt this.

    At Uppsala University we study global energy resources, and have recently put forward a detailed analysis of future oil production. By disaggregating the production into 6 well-defined sections, we are now able to present a time frame for the global maximum production capacity, “Peak Oil”. It will occur between 2008 and 2018. If the world’s giant fields, which produce 60% of the oil, behave like Cantarell in Mexico, we have the “worst case” of a peak in 2008. But if instead the most optimistic prognosis for Cantarell is applicable, and global demand increase is simultaneously dampened, then we have the “best case” of maximum production in 2018.

    We can now calculate how much energy/CO2 that can be produced during this century by using oil, and compare it to the amount required by the IPCC-families. To our surprise, the families A1, A2, B1 and B2 require more oil than what is realistically possible.

    [Response: For climate purposes, the problem is coal (and maybe methane hydrates) - there is more than enough fossil fuel reserves for the IPCC scenarios. - gavin]

  33. 33
    Don says:

    Actually, Ray, Malthus was wrong. True, I’m complacent, but I’m certainly not the only one dealing in hyperbole, either for or against the proposition that we are all doomed, doomed, and even more doomed! Energy costs have always been rising, and modern science and technology takes increasing energy, whatever its form. Probably because of a catastrophe, 80 thousand years ago there was apparently a human genetic bottleneck, but we are still here 6 billion humans later. If we do experience a population crash on the proportional levels of 80 thousand years ago, it will probably be because of cheap genetic engineering in a middle east weapons laboratory rather than an ice melting at the north pole.

  34. 34
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Gavin, thanks for the comment in 31.

    I should have posted this para as well:

    The third fossil source of CO2 emissions is coal. According to a widely held view, the amount of available coal is virtually endless. However, when we do detailed studies of production profiles in the six countries harboring 85% of the world’s coal reserves, we discover clear signs of peaking coal production in certain regions. Moreover, we notice a decline in production of the highest quality coal, that is, the coal with the highest energy content per volume. In the US, the world’s second largest coal user, the volume of mined coal is increasing while the total energy content is decreasing. Has US already reached “Peak Coal” in terms of energy.

    I remain skeptical that Peak Carbon will save us from AGW, but I kind of hope it will.

  35. 35
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Don, I would recommend to you the presentation referred to by Fernando above in #20:
    http://globalpublicmedia.com/lectures/461

    I first saw this presentation given by Albert A. Bartlett (or A^2B to some) of U of Colorado as a teenager. He was still giving it when I graduated with my PhD in physics from Colorado 20 years ago. Bartlett’s argument parallels that of Malthus. Populations increase geometrically (or exponentially) while the means to feed the population cannot be unlimited. So, while Malthus was incorrect in the details of his prediction (that is, when the collapse will occur), he was correct in the gist of his argument–that human population is not exempt from the laws of population dynamics. All we have done is buy time, and we have done so at the expense of serious degradation to the global environment. Other organisms have done as well. The result is ultimately a degraded carrying capacity of the environment.

    Your reference to bioterrorism reflects that you are as ignorant of the essentials of WMD as you are of basic mathematics. Biological entities make lousy agents of terror for the simple reason that the terrorists and everyone they care about are susceptible to the same diseases. The CIA and South African Intelligence services spent years trying to find bugs that preferentially attacked a given race or ethnicity. They failed. Rather than showing us how to do so, the advances in genetic understanding have shown us why it cannot be done.

  36. 36
    pete best says:

    Re #31, Sorry Gavin but that is not necessarily correct. IPCC require 1600 to 200 Btoe for 550 ppmv, recent research suggests only 400 Gtoe exists. In other words IPCC projections of FF resources are potentially exaggerated.

    Peak oil sites have commented on this at length and there is work out there to back them up. Only time will tell I guess but it is not a given I am afraid.

  37. 37
    pete best says:

    Re #27, You have to understand just what oil does for us, it makes stuff, roads, goods etc and transports us. Get ready for as much famine and pestilience without it (or it being too expensive) before AGW becomes a issue for the first world.

    Serious climate isues for the first world requires 2C (or so Governments are suggesting in their BALI talks) and thats not until another 50 years has past. Peak fossil fuels are between around 2010 to 2020 for oil and 2040 for gas and coal (if recent work is correct).

  38. 38
    Jim Galasyn says:

    2007 a year of weather records in U.S.
    By SETH BORENSTEIN, AP Science Writer Sat Dec 29, 12:15 PM ET

    WASHINGTON – When the calendar turned to 2007, the heat went on and the weather just got weirder. January was the warmest first month on record worldwide — 1.53 degrees above normal. It was the first time since record-keeping began in 1880 that the globe’s average temperature has been so far above the norm for any month of the year.

    And as 2007 drew to a close, it was also shaping up to be the hottest year on record in the Northern Hemisphere.

    U.S. weather stations broke or tied 263 all-time high temperature records, according to an Associated Press analysis of U.S. weather data. England had the warmest April in 348 years of record-keeping there, shattering the record set in 1865 by more than 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit.

    It wasn’t just the temperature. There were other oddball weather events. A tornado struck New York City in August, inspiring the tabloid headline: “This ain’t Kansas!”

    In the Middle East, an equally rare cyclone spun up in June, hitting Oman and Iran. Major U.S. lakes shrank; Atlanta had to worry about its drinking water supply. South Africa got its first significant snowfall in 25 years. And on Reunion Island, 400 miles east of Africa, nearly 155 inches of rain fell in three days — a world record for the most rain in 72 hours.

    Individual weather extremes can’t be attributed to global warming, scientists always say. However, “it’s the run of them and the different locations” that have the mark of man-made climate change, said top European climate expert Phil Jones, director of the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia in England.

    Worst of all — at least according to climate scientists — the Arctic, which serves as the world’s refrigerator, dramatically warmed in 2007, shattering records for the amount of melting ice.

  39. 39
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Pete, There are still mountains of coal in the west and in Appalachia, and if it comes down to a choice between using that coal, people will find a way to use that coal to fill the gaps petroleum leaves behind. There are even schemes to make artificial petroleum. And once the coal is gone we have forests–nominally “renewable”, but still sequestering a lot of carbon. How long do you think those will last if they are the only fuel around. I do not dispute that quality of life will suffer. I merely dispute that carbon emissions will decrease enough to avoid something in the “severe” range in the next century. Also do not forget that at some point natural sources of carbon may overtake anthropogenic emissions, and then the point is moot. I would simply say that your expectations of famine, pestilence and war are more optimistic than mine ;-).

  40. 40
    Phil McCracken says:

    I live in a liberal Northeast state and work in a professional environment with people from all walks of life and I have to say the subject of global warming and the predictions of ensuing calamaties are not taken seriously at all by anyone that I know. A warm January is followed by a bitterly cold March and April and global warming becomes a running joke around the office. I think affecting political and social change is impossible because it has to start at the grass roots level. People will not tolerate higher prices for bread because farmers are growing corn for ethanol instead of wheat. People who are living paycheck to paycheck are more concerned about warming the home than warming the planet. Outside of this blog there exists a very different reality, one that will not change very easily.

  41. 41

    You just inspired me to take a look at the report and write about it in my blog. In a nutshell, my take away is the need for a systems approach to the climate change solution. For more: http://lamarguerite.wordpress.com/2007/12/29/facing-the-10-highly-consequential-implications-of-climate-change/

    Not all is lost, but we better make sure we elect the right leader for America . . .

  42. 42
    Tex says:

    Hi, I am not a meteorologist, but as a pilot I have some interest in the weather, and as a resident of the planet I have concerns about global warming, but I wonder if you can point me in the direction of data, rather than forecasts and predictions. I have used search engines to try and find out about the actual measurements of temperature and other factors (eg: frequency and intensity of thunderstorms), but am having trouble finding much information which has actual factual data in it. There are lots of models and predictions based on various assumptions, and I am certainly not a climate change sceptic; I do think it is occurring, however I am interested to find some actual data to back up this belief, and can’t find much. The CO2 level rise is documented and oft quoted, but why is there such a lack of information about temperature?

    The media (including the internet) seems to love to focus on doom and gloom scenarios, which often become so sensationalised that people become detuned to their predictions. If there was a bit more factual information to support what is being said, ie: “here are some measurements of temperature, which prove conclusively that global warming is occurring”, then it would be helpful. Does such data exist, and if so how do I find it?

    Tex

    [Response: The global average temperature over the past century or so it shown in the IPCC, for example the summary for policymakers figures 3 and 4. Google IPCC and take the second link, and you can download the report. David]

  43. 43
    Don says:

    True, Ray, I’m a mathematical illiterate. However, as you concede, so far Malthus has been wrong. And while I’m ignorant about WMD I leave you with the following from Janes:

    In 2001 an Australian academic research team published results of its accidental creation of a micro-organism with potentially lethal applications – a modified mousepox virus that does not infect humans but is closely related to the smallpox virus. In 2003 a US government-funded team deliberately created an extremely deadly form of mousepox – to explore how terrorists or malcontented scientists could achieve the same results. The team engineered a mousepox strain that killed all vaccinated mice even when they were also treated with the antiviral drug cidofovir. It turned out to be more deadly than the modified Australian mousepox. It is possible that others with sufficient expertise and resources might try to use the same techniques to modify a pox virus that infects humans.

    While complacent and stoic, I’m basically an optimist, but in my experience caca happens. I see no reason to assume, as you apparently do, that all people at all times will be rational and forgo a biological dooms day scenario. One can’t predict future scientific developments anymore than next years best selling science fiction. However, thank you for the suggestion.

  44. 44
    Hank Roberts says:

    Tex, look at the top of the page, click “Start Here”
    Look at the right side of the page for the first under the heading
    Science Links: * AIP:Discovery

    Those commenting here — care to say if you’ve read the report described in the original post? I’m most astonished at how this is being ignored. It’s just amazed me — no news, nobody commenting on it for over a month after it came out. I just found it by accident while searching for other things.

    Please take time to read it while you discuss it. It helps.

  45. 45
    Ike Solem says:

    On a more positive note, researchers in Germany are demonstrating that they will be able to supply the German electric grid with all the power it needs using an integrated system of solar, wind and biogas-powered electricity. Watch the video at Germany is doing it: reliable distributed power based on 100% renewables.

    The fact is that we already have the technological capacity to do away with all fossil fuels on a global basis, as that video shows. Techie improvements can make the power sources more productive, reliable, and efficient, but the basic energy mix – solar, wind, and biofuels – will remain unchanged.

    What’s preventing this from being the global model for energy is entrenched economic interests and their political allies. Some reasonable policy changes for the U.S. would include a complete ban on fossil fuel energy imports – no petroleum from Canada or Mexico or Venezuela or Saudi Arabia or Iraq, no liquified natural gas from Burma or Mexico. A complete phasing out of coal fired power plants over the next ten to twenty years would also be a good idea.

    That would leave a big energy gap, but as Germany is currently demonstrating, that gap can be filled with solar, wind and biofuel power. It will take some very focused efforts to do so, however – and the entrenched fossil fuel interests will do all they can to stop it from happening. In other words, the obstacles are all touchy, not techie.

    Still, it seems that even if we do this there is an unavoidable amount of warming in the pipeline already – as evidenced by the vanishing glaciers and Arctic ice. In the long run, in the ideal scenario, we might be doing a lot of carbon burial (on land, using charcoal or the equivalent).

    By the way, for even more evidence that iron-based ocean fertilization is a terrible idea as a carbon burial mechanism, see Nitrous Oxide from ocean microbes.

    Turning the ocean into an anoxic swamp will only exacerbate global warming, threaten fisheries, and on and on.

    Also note that carbon offsets do nothing to slow global warming. Building a huge solar power plant and then saying that “offsets” CO2 emissions from a coal-fired plant is nonsense – the only way to offset CO2 emissions is to bury an equivalent amount of carbon in the ground, permanently.

    The point is, there is a solution, it just needs to be implemented.

  46. 46
    Craig Allen says:

    Tex, Check out the Global Warming Art website. It has lots of data plots, and links to the raw data files, or at least the organizations that maintain them, in many cases.

  47. 47
    Steffen Christensen says:

    Tex, I don’t know how technical you are, but there’s an empire of data at the NASA GISS site: http://data.giss.nasa.gov/ and links therein. You can draw yourself plots galore of real data, examine individual meteorological site data from the entire historical record, and integrate with some climate models. Hansen’s group has done a fantastic job, although the user interface is a little difficult to use. If I get the time, I’d like to make a pretty front-end that serves the data from their site.

  48. 48

    RE #26 & “We will need governance that is not tied to special interests”

    I got in a discussion once with someone who accused the environmental concerns being special interests. I told him, no they are general interests. And environmentalists have to stick to that line. The environment (resources, water, air, habitable climate, food, etc) are fundamental, the economy is contingent.

    The adage, “What is good for GE is good for the country,” is true only if they provide real goods that help us avert the worst of global warming. Perhaps electric cars….

  49. 49
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Re #44: Don, I do strongly recommend the A^2B video. Al’s been doing this thing since the ’70s, so he has a great presentation. People are always telling us how this time the laws of physics won’t apply (e.g. perpetual motion, cold fusion…) or the laws of population dynamics won’t apply to humanity (the Malthus was wrong argument) or that the laws of economics won’t apply (the dot.com bubble, the housing bubble…). They always have convincing arguments why this time is different. I’ve never known them to be right. Malthus was wrong on timing. There was no way for him to foresee the green revolution or even the introduction of the potato. His reasoning, however, is dead right. Organisms either limit their population (by mating protocols, suicide, etc.) or they expand until they outrun their food chain and die back. There is no reason to think that humans are any different, and we certainly haven’t limited population. Even if we have another 150 years, Malthus will have been wrong by what…maybe 15 generations? That is pretty good in population dynamics. We are not immune the the laws of nature.

  50. 50
    danny bloom says:

    David,
    Re your response here: YES, credit where credit is due and we are not a tough crowd, smile, your post was most welcome. I had not seen that report either. chrs danny

    [Response: Actually, the tough crowd at realclimate is what makes it so stimulating and fun to participate. Keeps me honest. David]

    RE”
    [Response: I first became aware of it a few weeks ago from a comment that Hank wrote, but then the AGU meeting took priority of this site and of my time. It took me a while to get through the fairly dense 125-page report, and writing a useful summary of it took some psyching myself up, since I’m not a historian or a social scientist. At AGU, I wrote a summary of an interesting AGU talk within a half hour of the completion of the talk, don’t I get any credit for that? Jeez, this is a tough crowd. David]


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