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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. 151
    Steve Reynolds says:

    Ray Ladbury> …that it is not just population, but growth of consumption that is the problem–and since increased resources will be essential to the very forces you say are behind falling population growth rates, will they be sustained in the future?

    I guess I don’t see the problem of lack of resources. Sure, we will eventually need to replace fossil fuels with somewhat more expensive nuclear and renewables, but once that is done, why can’t everyone enjoy high living standards?

  2. 152
    Mark R says:

    There is a presumption regarding total human population that we have not far, far exceeded the sustainable carrying capacity of the biosphere already. Unless we devise a means to eat sand, we are dependent on coherent ecosystems for our survival. The apparent fact that we can continue on as we have does not mean that we actually can do so. Resource collapse–and societal collapse–usually comes suddenly, shortly after the point of maximun exploitation. It would be easy to argue that we are near that point now.
    If one looks at the human population curve, suddenly spiking over the last century, and then compare it with the increase in the consumption of petroleum and its many products, it seems that the two are closely linked. That is, without that extra free energy, human population would never have reached such large numbers.
    We do not really know what is the actual human carrying capacity of the planet (thirty years ago, 60 billion was commonly asserted, twenty years ago 20-40 billion, ten years ago 14 billion; now I don’t think anyone could sanely argue for even 9 billion), but the current human population is obviously unsustainable. We will discover how true this assertion is when the backlog of free natural resources shortly evaporates. Suppose at that point there finally will be nine billion humans alive on the planet; what does it matter if the annual growth rate is slowing when the only remaining option is a precipitous crash to near zero?
    Human beings had an outsized impact upon ecosystems even twelve thousand years ago–even fifty thousand years ago, if one subscribes to the theory of megafaunal extinction at human contact (i.e. Australian colonization). One can only conclude that such outsized intelligence as the human mind represents is too destructive to last, because it cannot be effectively constrained for its own long-term welfare.

  3. 153
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #150 (Phil McCracken) “So, can I be on the committee that decides who lives and who, er, takes one for the team?”

    Very witty, but no-one here has yet suggested killing people as a solution to over-population.

    [Response: And they won't - please no more posts on this. - gavin]

  4. 154
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Nick, I don’t think the word “must” should be used often in the social sciences. However, as I said before, falling populations create problems, particularly when growth rate does not fall evenly over a region. Immigration from surrounding regions increases; the issue of supporting an aging population with a smaller workforce is particularly vexing. In some sense, the continuation of the trend toward population stability depends on how we handle these problems. Some governments are already increasing incentives to have more children, and even China is relaxing its one-child policy. In rural India, it might as well be the era of Malthus all over again. And in the United States, we are starting to hear some rumblings in less educated circles about increasing “white” birthrates to avoid being overrun by immigrants.
    And where it really counts–consumption of resources–growth continues apace.
    So yes, Malthus only had a part of the picture. That does not diminish his contribution. It also does not mean we will avoid his projected collapse, which we are still on track to encounter unless we develop a sustainable society. And Condorcet’s arguments in favor of contraception–while anathema to the mind of a 18th century English gentleman–form part of the answer, but only a part. I do not see how we can avoid collapse without a form of “moral restraint”, not necessarily with regard to sex, but more with regard to consumption.

  5. 155
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Steve, the problem is that resources are finite, and our consumption of resources may already be taxing the ecology of the planet beyond the breaking point.

    Nick Gotts, One can view the reduction of population growth in 2 ways: 1)People are making a conscious decision to have fewer childres because their environment presents them with other options; or 2)It is becoming more difficult to support many children, which could be viewed as a tightening of resource supplies. The first has been called the “Tonight Show” effect in the US–a reference to the fact that more people opted for watching the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson than having sex. However, I would point out that the two options are not mutually exclusive. It is possible that when both parents are working to make ends meet, as most are in developed countries anymore, they’re too tired to procreate.
    Population growth rate often decreases in populations where food supply (or in our case, infrastructure) is under stress. Again, I think it’s risky to extrapolate a 30 year trend a century into the future. And the population growth rate is still well above replacement level.

  6. 156
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #154 (Ray Ladbury) Ray, I agree with just about all of that, except I’m not sure what you mean about rural India. Certainly it is over-populated, but as far as I can discover all the national demographic statistics are going in the right direction, although too slowly. The fastest population growth is now in the 50 poorest countries, who are responsible for only a small proportion of the production of GHGs, although a larger proportion of other forms of environmental damage. I certainly agree with the need for “moral restraint” with regard to consumption – indeed I’ve argued it repeatedly here.

  7. 157
    James says:

    Re #146: [Ray, I would have expected you at least to know what exponential growth means: that the proportional rate of change remains the same. It is not doing so; it is falling, and has been doing so fairly steadily for 40 years.]

    I think we have a disagreement on the meaning of exponential. What I meant, and I think what I said, is that if at T = 0, you have population P0, then at T+dT, P1 = f * P0. Now of course this is the real world, so f is not a constant, but a complicated function of many variables, and I’m sure that a properly changing f could change the underlying exponential growth so that it’d be linear for a while. However, the mechanism of population growth (any population, not just human) is exponential.

    In any case, this quibbling doesn’t change the underlying problems. The human population is increasing, it already far outstrips the sustainable resources, and there is no sign that it’s ever going to naturally go negative.

    And re #154: [he issue of supporting an aging population with a smaller workforce is particularly vexing.]

    Excuse me for drifting off-topic, but this isn’t really a problem, it’s just a consequence of an attitude that’s all too prevalent in modern society: that once people reach a certain age, they ought to “retire” from productive life. They can even be convinced that being thus thrown on the trash heap is a desirable goal :-(

  8. 158
    EW says:

    “And in the United States, we are starting to hear some rumblings in less educated circles about increasing “white” birthrates to avoid being overrun by immigrants.”

    I think that it its definitely hard not to rumble, when hearing other (supposedly more educated?) voices say that there’s just not enough people for doing this or that job and that increase in immigration by any means is necessary. And the immigrants usually do have more children than the original population, so whatever side you look at that, you get more people.

  9. 159
    mark s says:

    re 100,

    i think thats very debatable David, in light of this recent article by Bill Mcguire, my favourite catastrophist…

    Clearly, Mcguire says that climate change will increase the incidence of vulcanism, earthquakes and tsunamis.

    Maybe this would be worth a thread, because i’m not sure how aware other RC readers are of this work, and it certainly gave me new to worry about!

  10. 160

    The report provides honest answers but the question remains as to how must to trust in state of the art models that remain constrained by computational time and the scientific tools available to front load them with data and physical parameters

    It seems a capital mistake to assume that what they can and do computationally solve is all there is — but some policy makers make that mistake routinely- Woolsey is a case in point, with a mixed record when it comes to critically evaluating the input that framed his executive decision making as DCI.

    The art of intelligence all too often arrives at decaredly “robust” conclusions by strategically ignoring inconvenient complexity, because gentlemen as astute as Wollsey realize simple folk like Senators will balk unless fed clarity , even when the signal to noise ratio in the raw intel is atrocious.

    knowing even this rudimentary fact of organizational life often tempts scientists at earlier stages of the briefing process to represent their strategically simplified view of the world as more complete than it is.

  11. 161
    David B. Benson says:

    mark s (159) — Thanks for the link. The article treats the matter in more detail than my brief post, but is not inconsistent with what I attempted to briefly convey.

    Perhaps the main trust ought to be that people are rarely ready for extreme events.

  12. 162

    Re #48 Lynn, I agree. General interests are considerate of the common good. Special interests are in the interest of the group that is pushing the particular agenda that has most in common with advantage to the group and not necessarily the common good although special interest often claim the agenda they are pushing is for the common good.

    Technically there is nothing wrong with special interests as long as those interests are not influencing politicians and governance, which is/are supposed to be working for the common good and the national interest. Special interests as they are today are in conflict with the intentions of the founders of the US Constitution and the general intentions of the Constitution. It was written to empower individuals in order to ensure groups would not dictate to the citizens, generally speaking. That is not the case today especially since Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court decision, 1976. That decision is not inline with the general premise of the constitution and that argument needs to be made in order to begin fixing the electoral process as it pertains to campaigns. It did however support special interests and is still argued about today.

    Sorry all for the political speak, but it really does have a lot to do with the problems we are experiencing in getting the facts to rule the argument re global warming, vs. the fiction.

  13. 163
    Steve Reynolds says:

    Russell Seitz> …gentlemen as astute as Wollsey realize simple folk like Senators will balk unless fed clarity , even when the signal to noise ratio in the raw intel is atrocious.

    Kind of like figure 1 in the report that misrepresents the science and implies conclusions not supported by the science.

  14. 164
    a.syme says:

    I think the drought in the US during the 1930’s could serve well for a model in how climate change affects society. Some people lost their farms and migrated to other areas, but others were able to stay. Did people die from the effects of the drought? History doesn’t say a lot about this. How about birth rates? I have never read a thorough book on the social effects of this time period. It would be an interesting study in light of the debate on global warming.

  15. 165
    Steve Reynolds says:

    Ray Ladbury> the problem is that resources are finite, and our consumption of resources may already be taxing the ecology of the planet beyond the breaking point.

    That is what limits to growth people have been saying since 1972. The Simon – Ehrlich bet showed that we are likely not running out of resources. Besides, resources (other than fossil fuels) can be recycled, not consumed.

    So what evidence do you have that there is any fundamental limit to living standards for currently projected world population due to resources?

  16. 166
    Hank Roberts says:

    > History doesn’t say a lot …
    Would you tell us how you searched for this information? I did a very quick Google Scholar search:

    And found an awful, in both senses of the word, lot of history about that time span.

    One example off the first page of search results:

    “Between 1930 and 1940 the population growth of the nation declined markedly with the disappearance of net foreign immigration and with continued decline in natural increase. The decrease in the rate of growth of population in the South was less than that in the North or the West. The balance of age-specific birth and death rates shifted so as to fall below the critical point of population replacement. The rate of urban growth decline greatly, to a point barely exceeding that of rural growth, while the rural-farm population remained practically stationary and the rural-nonfarm population increased relatively rapidly….”

  17. 167
    Hank Roberts says:

    Recommended, short, reading:


    … as a matter of realism, a crash program of global clean energy transition would probably be an excellent vehicle for Keynesian stimulus. Not to mention the “green collar jobs” factor. — Tom Athanasiou

    —–end excerpt, from the comments———

  18. 168
    Danny Bloom says:

    Just a passing note here, re my earlier posts above about polar cities, and some later posts pro and con, and mostly con, and that is okay, I am open to all points of view here …. today I received a polite letter from a reporter from a MSM newspaper in the West Coast of the USA who said he could not report about my polar cities “idea” or blog because I was not in the local readership area (since I live far away in another country) and because I have no street cred. I accept and understand what he said. But it’s interesting.

    “Dear Danny -

    You’re correct about the local angle, since you are not a local. But even if you were a local, the
    main reason for not doing a story is that your idea hasn’t passed a
    “seriousness” test – that is, being taken seriously by someone who could
    place it on a path to fruition.”

    SMILE. I love it. What a world! Good thing I have a sense of humor and know that polar cities is NOT an idea whose time has come (and hopefully will NEVER come).

  19. 169
    a.syme says:

    Re 166
    I stand corrected; the climate change during the Dust Bowl is one of the most significant that I can think of happening to an industrialized country. I would think it could teach us some valuable lessons in handling the social impact of climate change, but I don’t see it often mentioned in a forum like this one.

  20. 170
    Lawrence Coleman says:

    Re: population growth, we are all aware that the pop growth in the developed countries are either near equilibrium or negative. We are also aware that the living standards for the mega populised countries such as china and india is rising, china imposed long ago a one child/family policy for much of the country but india’s rate is also slowing as life becomes easier and the need to procreate becomes less urgent. The carrying capacity of the earth entirely depends on effciencies of farming, distribution, commerce/consumption and the management and reprocessing of waste materials. The capacity of the land to grow crops can only be increased up to a point with the pressure of cities and towns to expand in size swallowing up more land that could be used for agriculture. But as done in many countries, even within cities you can develop a cooperative between a number of families to vigorously farm a plot the size of a city block with great efficiency even better when permacultural techniques are used. The key to our survival in the long run is to create an mindset of carbon neutrality across the globe. Carbon neutrality and self sufficiency in the only long term solution as far as I can see. Still the more people the world has to feed, house and entertain the more pressure has to bear on all the natural biosystems. It comes down to quality of existance, sure the world could probably house 15 bn people but at terible cost? I believe 3-4 bil is the ideal sustainable number.

  21. 171
    JOHN S.. says:

    reading this thread put me in mind of my University Sociology class: The UN population graph showed an exponential curve and the commentary was that population curves that turned sharply up to infinity, crashed abruptly back toward zero. (as an aside, the curve up to the early 70′s could have been called a hockey stick) the implication was that humanity faced catastrophe through war, famine, disease or some breakdown of the social order. That did not come to pass as a hodge podge of solutions occurred: Feminism, the pill, abortion, an economy which required a two wage earner family if the consumptive norms of the society were to be met and so forth. The remarks about the transformation of the old Soviet Union from stateism to kleptrocray gave me this amusing insight: Ronald Regan’s minions midwifed the transformation of the Old Soviets into the new Kleptocrats. In doing so they apparently impelled the affected women a view point of the most extreme American feminists: that men could not be relied upon. Reagan and Dworkin would each find the other anathima, but the Reganauts spread the Dworkin mantra to Russia.

    In any event what this discussion leads me to conclude is: AGW will not be addressed and mitigated by any coherent program, but by a cludge, a number of ad hoc responses and unintended consequences. How REALCLIMATE influences real people will be far more its legacy than how its view point is presented at governmental hearings.

    I use all low watt bulbs now, I use Faraday flashlights and a solar led yard light, and I will drag my son in law and my nephew over this summer to help me construct an updraft / downdraft wind generator.

    I will repost this thread on the political board I frequent as: will peak oil save us from AGW or vice versa? —with your kind permission of course—

  22. 172
    Whit says:

    What’s the problem with Mad Max? I’m totally for “Sound the alarms.” But the Mad Max future was kind of, ahem, cool. Many of the characters it brought out were more appealing – on both the good and not-good sides of the ledger – than those who currently fill our public life. Those movies are more celebratory than cautionary, more about humanity finally coming through even in what, roughly outlined, should be the direst circumstances.

    This is a note on rhetoric. Saying “Mad Max” may put a scare into some, as intended. But to many others that’s not the worst of possible futures – and to those less favored in our current socio-economic order, even has appeal.

  23. 173
    Joe Duck says:

    This list should not be seen as presenting an overly alarming future, since we deal with deaths on all but the “Epidemic” scale every year in the form of diseases like worms and malaria, which kill tens of millions. If this list is a “call to global climate action” then why would we not want to prioritize the easily preventable 3rd world health problems? I’d vote for adding those deaths to this list and then dealing with death in order of return on our investment of time and money.

  24. 174
    pete best says:

    The file A crude awakening is available to watch on Youtube in nine parts. Although it invokes the usual peak oil spokespeople it does seem somewhat compelling in the sense that the EIA, IEA projections of 115 mb/d come 2030 up from 85 mb/d now is very very unlikely, in fact the whole world is looking to the middle east and saudi arabia is particulalr to pump 20-30 mb/d up from 10 mb/d as well as replacing the countries who have already reached peak declinging output. Iraq can obviously pump more but not yet, if ever but the very idea of 50 mb/d by 2030 is laughable.

    Sustainables were talked about in a offhand manner and not covered properly although the verdict was somewhat damming and a bit dismissive.

    For anyone to believe that the life we live now in the first world will spill over to millions more in india, china etc is extremely unlikely based on oil for transport. some growth maybe but china and india will still be energy poor in this regard.

    I do not think that climate change will be effected but it might be dimmed somewhat politicially if gas and coal is used to create liquids which means more CO2 emissions, not less.

  25. 175
    Cobblyworlds says:

    #159 Mark S,

    Re Bill McGuire and AGW affecting vulcanism. Interesting article, thanks.

    It’s reasonable to say that with the current high population we have, both the direct and indirect impacts of earthquakes and vulcanism will have a greater impact (in terms of numbers affected) than in previous centuries. But I’m sceptical about presenting this as an AGW risk, even though the Benfield Hazard Research Centre seem to have a good reputation with insurers (who “bet” hard money on risk related matters). As a factor increasing population would probably have a greater global impact than any increase in vulcanism.

    The ice sheets are by no means as big as they were at the depths of the last glacial, so as with the “thermo-haline circulation shutdown causes new ice age in Europe” story: Now and then are not comparable. Although to be fair to Mr McGuire, if his citing of Pavlof volcano is correct, he may be able to substantiate his claim in the current context.

    However you’re talking about many milennia to glaciate/deglaciate, longer than that for significant isostatic rebound. And even if we take the most pessimistic scenarios it’s hard to see how Greenland/Antarctic could substantially melt within centuries. Given how sporadic eruptions and earthquakes seem to be, it’s hard to see how you could get a statistical correlation even in century timescales.

    I’ve been dismissive of this previously, mainly because it’s been people claiming the Boxing Day Tsunami as a response of “Mother Earth” to human activity. This is the first article I’ve read putting forward a reasoned argument, and I have to concede that McGuire could have a point in principle. But I’m doubtful it’s going to be a major factor in the real world. For me the AGW risks for the coming decades remain primarily climatic changes (notably reginal precipitation timing and amount) secondary impacts as a result (notably disease vector changes). Sea Level Rise seems to me to primarily be a very long term (centennial) threat, if significant vulcanism seems to be in the same category.

    AGW = anthropogenic (human caused) global warming.

  26. 176

    #165 Steve Reynolds:

    So what evidence do you have that there is any fundamental limit to living standards for currently projected world population due to resources?

    I’ll bite :-)

    I don’t think there is any fundamental limit in the abstract sense. I believe a population of 10B or even more, at a western level of prosperity, could exist on the Earth’s surface stably and indefinitely. It would be high tech and long-term sustainable, fully respecting the limits of its physical environment.

    The problem is getting there from here — which I would posit as desirable if difficult.

    There is a fundamental difference between the situation with “peak oil” and climate change, in that the former is (tends to be) self-regulating. Everyone knows that raw materials run out, even though the precise timetable is usually uncertain. But it is going to happen, and when it happens, there just simply isn’t any more oil to use. (With the usual caveat that there is no sharp limit, only progressively harder to extract sources.) And the market will see it coming and can prepare for it — in principle if not always in practice.

    Climate change works in a different way. It is possible to push the system to the limit and over, without running out of anything — and then disaster hits. It can be made self-regulating as well, by putting a price on the externality that is the cost of climate change, somehow realistically estimated. (Caveat about assumed linear relationship between emissions and damage — almost certainly wrong.)

    Unless such externality costing happens (which would be a good thing), we are likely to see a boom-and-bust dynamic of people not taking effective action until very late in the game, when mitigation will be very costly if at all possible any more.

    Note that many of our investments have a long write-off / replacement time. Power plants, 30 years; most real estate, 50 years. A loss of low-lying coastal areas would represent a substantial capital destruction, if it happened unexpectedly. Same with fuel prices going up: urbanization patterns with suburbs and shopping malls far from city centres are only affordable with cheap fuel. And think space heating: currently there are already affordable space heating solutions that are C-neutral or almost so, but they are best included in new buildings: retrofitting them is costly.

    This puts a premium on taking action well in advance of disaster striking, and putting a price on releasing GHG, and gradually increasing that price, would help to motivate people to do that.

    Again, it’s about getting there from here, in a dynamic situation. Time is of the essence.

  27. 177
    Lawrence Coleman says:

    Gavin, was the Bali climate conference carbon neutral? To fly all the delegates from every part of the globe to a single destination would have resulted in many thousands of tonnes of carbon being pumped directly into the atmosphere. Being in a centralised location such as Bali would have helped a little but still aviation pollution gets worse and worse increasing at 4.5%/yr. Was the food and drink served at the conference locally sourced produce or did much of it come from thousands of kms away by plane? I do hope these issues were met or the whole exercise to me does seem a little hollow. Practice what you preach etc..

  28. 178
    Lawrence Coleman says:

    re: 102 Danny Bloom, interesting concept but it’s only for a miniscule percentage of the population, the rest of us will have to sweat it out. An elitist city or cities for the mega rich and powerful is not my idea of a forward thinking world.

  29. 179

    Steve Reynolds posts:

    [[The Simon - Ehrlich bet showed that we are likely not running out of resources. Besides, resources (other than fossil fuels) can be recycled, not consumed.

    So what evidence do you have that there is any fundamental limit to living standards for currently projected world population due to resources?]]

    Well, I guess it is an a priori thing. If resources are, in fact, finite, then exponential growth in resources inevitably ends in running out of same. The fact that we haven’t run out of everything yet doesn’t mean we won’t in the future. And please note that per capita production of grain and fish has already peaked and is now declining. We can be as ingenious as we want, and exponential growth is still not sustainable in the long run. The planet has a fixed mass, about 5.9736 x 1024 kg, although a little adds every year from meteorite infall. We can’t really extract more than that from the Earth — and if you work out a compound interest expansion at, say, 2% per year, you get to that total surprisingly fast.

  30. 180
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Steve Reynolds asks “So what evidence do you have that there is any fundamental limit to living standards for currently projected world population due to resources?”

    You mean other than rising commodity proces, the collapse of fisheries around the world, the reliance of green-revolution agriculture on petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, decreasing nutritional content of produce, increased competition for water, depleting aquifers, decreasing tropical forests, inability to consume fish from streams all along the eastern seabord due to mercury contamination…?

    And all this to support only about half the world’s 6 billion people in relative comfort? By the century’s end, we’ll have 2x that many all wanting to live like Americans. That’s not a recipe for stability.

    Recycling only works for some resources. It will not work for energy resources, nor for resources like topsoil. Even groundwater takes much longer to recharge than it does to consume, and salinization of groundwater is becoming an increasing issue. All in all, I’d say there’s more reason for concern than complacency.

  31. 181
    Alan K says:

    wrt polar bears

    the statement “promoting” polar bears to the IUCN Red List says:

    “There is little doubt that polar bears will have a lesser AOO [area of occurrence], EOO [extent of occurrence] and habitat quality in the future. However, no direct relation exists between these measures and the abundance of polar bears.”

    are the minutes to the 14th Working Meeting of IUCN on polar bears which gives detailed analysis.

    The study recorded 23,166 polar bears across the 19 populations and sub-populations (many had no data). Using the document’s assumptions and methodology on population change after ten years (eg. 14% chance of increase; 100% chance of decrease), and an arbitrary 10% change in population (the delta of a 1% change in this assumption is a 0.2% change in the expected population, ie. using 10% gives a 2% decline; using 20% gives a 4% decline) the expected population after 10 years is 22,706, a 2% decrease. Interestingly, 805 bears are expected to be harvested annually. Adding these back (v crude and I’m sure it’s not like-for-like) would lead to a poulation of 30,756 bears in 10 years, a 33% increase.

  32. 182

    RE #132, I agree with you re pop not growing exponentially. The demographic transition theory ( ) has perhaps more merit than Malthusian theory. And I agree that “pop growth is the problem” is a way of shifting blame and avoiding responsibility for ones own actions, or reducing one’s own GHGs. And I also agree that a large and increasing (though not exponentially) population, is putting great stress on the world’s life-support systems, via global warming and many other problems; tho the highest consumers cause the greatest portion of that stress.

    But to bring about the type of society we need to solve the global warming and other problems, we need to swear off all types of violence,
    [edit - this is off topic and we are not going to get into it here].
    We need leaders like Gandhi and MLK. I’m sure if they were here today, they’d be leading marches against global warming.

    So, another theory that sheds a ray of hope re this dystopia thread is REVITALIZATION THEORY (in anthro) or social movement theory (in sociology). When things get bad (due to wars, environmental degradation, oppression, economic failure), movements spring up (civil rights, the hippie movement, the women’s movement, various cargo cults and religions, including Christianty, environmental movements) to bring about a more satisfying culture. And they happen rather suddenly (within months and years). Usually a leader (Gandhi, MLK, Jesus, Buddha, etc — or multiple leaders, as in the hippie movement) will undergo a “mazeway resythesis” (have a fairly sudden insight into a new way of life), and others will catch on and follow.

    I’ve been sorely waiting and hoping for this, and I think it may be happening soon. The ground is rumbling with revitalization movement.

  33. 183
    James says:

    Re #165: [So what evidence do you have that there is any fundamental limit to living standards for currently projected world population due to resources?]

    Simple. The Earth has a fixed surface area. A decent lifestyle (using my subjective definition of “decent”, which is as good as anyone else’s) requires a certain amount of living space. I’ll be generous, and put that at 40 acres, though to my taste it should be closer to a square mile.

    If I did the math correctly, at the current population levels, there’s about 5 acres per person. Therefore, the population has to decrease by a factor of 8 in order to afford each person a decent living standard.

  34. 184
    ghost says:

    RE: #40 Phil and #48 Lynn, some might be amused to read this paper (Stormy Weather Ahead–The Legal Environment of Global Climate Change) written by non-scientist lawyers from a U.S. law firm of, by, and for industry about representing client in the climate change context:

    The tone and footnotes are revealing, and no hack paper would be complete without describing how ‘scientists predicted global cooling in the 70s.’ The paper apparently played a prominent part in an October conference sponsored by the Washington Legal Foundation, which was devoted to the idea that the climate change bogeyman may be opening the door to the annihilation of free enterprise. Roll eyes. It’s nothing new on the propaganda-ish front really, but the climate background part of the article struck me as rather poor for what should be an objective article (some poor law clerk or 1st year associate probably got stuck with assembling that part). It would be cool to see a detailed Real Climate response, but then that’s what this entire site is.

    Regarding the general Malthus discussion, the general thought from decades of intensive scholarship appears to be that his editor omitted at the last minute a critical conclusory bit that would have made the Malthus theory iron clad. Apparently, the editor thought that the phrase “Besides, you can’t cure “stupid”!” would offend the critics of the times.

  35. 185
    Aaron Lewis says:

    Population is certainly a problem. However, what is the most pressing problem that we face? Where are the steepest curves?

    Prior to 1980, there were essentially no melt ponds or moulins on the Greenland Ice sheet. Last summer there were tens of thousands of melt ponds and moulins on Greenland. That is a much greater rate of increase then the rate of increase of population over any part of the period since 1980. Last fall, parts of Greenland were still getting rain in November, weeks after the sun went down. Ice that gets rained on falls apart. In short, ice is melting much faster than population is increasing. The difference is enough to make future population increase moot.

  36. 186

    Re 183

    You did not do the math correctly, and might do well to check for other order of magnitude errors before continuing.

  37. 187
    Philippe Chantreau says:

    About the total population/consumption aspect, Jared Diamond has an excellent editorial in today’s NYT, in which he examines the problem along the lines of compared consumption rates. According to him, having China ALONE consuming at the current US rate will be the equivalent of a total world population of 72 billion (with the current average rate). He does not even mention peak oil and, funnily enough, this is also the day that oil hit $100/barrel. Interesting read.

  38. 188
    Aaron Lewis says:

    Re 184
    I was at a holiday party with one of the elite power lawyers of the SF Bay Area; man that has produced thousands of letter perfect legal briefs. However, he denies the existence of global warming. He said that hundreds of scientists, including Nobel Prize winners had found serious flaws with the “theory of AGW”. However, he could not provide a single cite, and he had not checked a single source document. I know this guy provides cites in his legal briefs, and reviews all of the cited documents in detail. I do not understand why he does not perform a similar level of cite checking in his personal arguments. I was disgusted that a man oft his reputation did not do his homework regarding AGW. This is a man with direct access to senior policy makers, and who is consulted on matters of public policy and governance. I was disgusted, that he did not know any facts about global warming, and worse, that he did not want to learn any facts about global warming.

    He considered global warming to be an argument with two equally valid sides, and he felt that his view was a valid as any. He felt that he was entitled to his view on AGW, just as he was entitled to choose whether to be a republican or democrat.

  39. 189
    Hank Roberts says:

    > lawyers

    Very few have _any_ science education to speak of.

    “in 2001, less than 2% of law school applicants specified a major in Biology, 0.6% listed Chemistry, 0.2% listed Physics, and 0.3% … Computer Science (Law School Admissions Council data published by NAPLA, 2002).”

  40. 190

    One of the statements in the report states that “It is conceivable that under certain scenarios a well armed nation experiencing the ravages bought on by climate change might covet the more mild and fertile territory of another country and contemplate seizing that land by force.”
    Didn’t this just happen a few years ago where a “well armed country” preemptively seized another’s land by force?(rhetorical q.) Not for climate change in this instance, but ostensibly to halt the spread of non-existent weapons of mass destruction. This land, Iraq, happened to have the world’s second largest capacity of oil under its land. There’s no question in my mind that might will make right in a world beset by hardships brought on by AGW. This knowledge will give greater incentive for more and more nations to join the nuclear club.

  41. 191
    CobblyWorlds says:


    The job of a lawyer is to represent the interests of their client by devising arguments that support their client’s position. Success for a lawyer is to win the case, whether their arguments were true to evidence and free of logical falacies or psychological sleight of hand is less vital than that they convince the jury (or magistrate).

    The problem with this technique is revealed when they try their techniques to oppose a real physical process. On the whole physical processes are not amenable to obfuscation and persuasion.

    I must admit I didn’t fully read the paper ghost #184 linked to. I scanned it over and decided the most efficient use of my time was to allow the ongoing process to address their “argument”. Furthermore, I don’t mean to be unduly harsh, but I think anyone persuaded by lawyers on this issue is pretty well incorrigible.

  42. 192
    mark s says:

    re 175

    hi Coby,

    i’ve read a couple of books by Prof McGuire, and i have always been impressed with his visibility in the media, at least here in the UK. When ever there is a disaster, he gets wheeled out to comment, and he is generally very quotable and authoritative.

    He is well used to crunching the numbers associated with natural disasters, and he frequently seems to be on the leading edge of a highly pertinent field.

    I really don’t think he is misusing his evidence, as he is talking about his own academic field, and he often says things that very few people are saying, because he is presenting the original data.

    I’m thrilled to have actually provided a link on RC that someone found useful, its made my day :-)

  43. 193
    rick says:

    One doesn’t need a science background to understand what’s going on with AGW. Just read what’s being presented here and it’s pretty clear. The SF lawyer probably lives a CO2 HEAVY lifestyle and doesn’t want to give it up. Thus, deny, deny, deny.

  44. 194
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Re 189. Hank, You can’t blame the problem of denialism on education. In my profession, there are plenty of engineers who deny climate change outright. Now, while the typical engineer may not have a background that allows them to understand the science in detail, they ought to at least recognize their limitations. Instead, they embrace some half-baked rationalization they read and then forget about the problem. To many denialists, the idea of anthropogenic climate change is a blatant assault on capitalism/libertarianism (fill in favorite ism). It does not matter what the science says or that many conservative capitalists recognize the reality of the science. The subject raises questions about their worldview, and so they never get around to looking at the evidence.

  45. 195

    RE #188, I saw on TV there’s this mega-hurricane-looking (extratropical) storm headed for the Northwest coast in a couple of days.

  46. 196
    Chuck Booth says:

    Re #188, 189 Lawyers

    All the more reason to appreciate the clarity, wisdom, and logic in Judge John E. Jones III’s ruling in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case, in which he concluded that intelligent design is not science, and teaching intelligent design in a science class is unconstitutional (in the U.S.).

  47. 197
    Ike Solem says:

    You know, we are already looking at serious and unavoidable global consequences. For example, every single region of the planet that relies on seasonal glacial melt for their water supply for agriculture and hydropower generation is facing the permanent loss of those supplies. For example, the primary Central Asian water source is Tajikistan’s glaciers – and as Reuters reported, the short-term dangers include landslides and flooding. Oxfam reports that the glaciers have shrink 35% in the past 50 years – and as the radiative forcing increases, that melt rate also increases – so we can be sure that those glaciers will be gone 50 years from now. The same thing is happening in every other glacial-fed interior continental region of the planet.

    As far as the polar regions go, it seems unlikely that the seasonal warming trend will continue. Recent work by Graversen et. al (AFP) seems to provide more evidence that the warming Arctic trend is not “local” but is a primary consequence of global heat transport, rather than local albedo effects. As the Arctic warms, it appears likely that it will start releasing frozen carbon stores to the atmosphere – the permafrost and the shallow marine sediments being the sources.

    A third unavoidable effect under current levels of radiative forcing is the polewards expansion of the subtropical dry zones – this appears to be happening in the Mediterranean, the Sahel region of Africa, and the southwestern United States.

    In the face of this undeniable evidence of global warming, why do many people in the U.S. still deny it? The problem is that there’s only one possible response – leaving all the fossil fuels in the ground, and halting deforestation (especially in the tropics). Imagine if the U.S. took meaningful action – which would include halting all fossil fuel imports to the U.S. and banning the use of coal. That’s essentially what it will take to slow the rate of global warming and avoid the high-end outcomes. Now, we already have the renewable energy technology needed to replace a good fraction of fossil fuel energy. Unfortunately, the vested economic interests are still unwilling to accept the necessary changes – and such interests are largely in control of politics in the U.S.

  48. 198
    ghost says:

    RE: 193 “rick,” the SF lawyer probably represents industry, as do the two listed authors from Texas of the piece I linked (one of whom has a BS in engineering). Some, maybe many, practitioners are deathly afraid of being seen as willing to consider the other side, maybe for fear of losing reputation/clients/money or maybe for fear of ostracism from their imagined clubs. It doesn’t have to be limited to sex or race, but that characteristic appears to me to be prominent in white males among U.S. lawyers. The whole thing reminds me of the question Ralph Nader attributes to his father: “Did you learn how to think or did you learn how to believe?” I know the object is to advocate, but to me, a dogmatic lawyer is a poor lawyer. I would have written that article differently by assuming the audience knows AGW, and then going straight to the preparation-for-risk part. Worse for me was the conference I mentioned, which appears to have been a confederacy of witch hunters. There must be a Monty Python reference somewhere that augments that image :)

  49. 199
    Hank Roberts says:

    See also, if you can read them

    House Budget Committee
    November 1, 2007
    Effective action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is necessary to prevent costly and potentially catastrophic environmental and economic damages from climate change. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities … focus is on how climate change legislation might affect 1) the budgets of American families, especially those of modest means; and 2) the federal budget. Our analysis indicates that Congress can develop climate change policy that is environmentally and economically sound and fiscally responsible …

    “The wealthiest 1% of Americans earned 21.2% of all income in 2005, according to new data from the Internal Revenue Service. That is up sharply from 19% in 2004, and surpasses the previous high of 20.8% set in 2000 …. The bottom 50% earned 12.8% of all income, down from 13.4% in 2004 and a bit less than their 13% share in 2000.

    The IRS data, based on a large sample of tax returns, are for “adjusted gross income”…

  50. 200
    Mike D says:

    I found this at a GISS web site about cloud monitoring.
    “Such variations are referred to as “natural” variability, that is the climate varies naturally for reasons that are not fully understood. The problem for understanding climate changes that might be produced by human activities is that the predicted changes are similar in magnitude to those shown here. The difference between natural and human-induced climate change will only appear clearly in much longer ( >= 50 years) data records”
    As they have only been monitoring this for a short period does that mean we should wait another 20 or 30 years for definite answers?

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