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Freeman Dyson’s selective vision

Filed under: — david @ 24 May 2008

In the New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson reviews two recent ones about global warming, but his review is mostly shaped by his own rather selective vision.

1. Carbon emissions are not a problem because in a few years genetic engineers will develop “carbon-eating trees” that will sequester carbon in soils. Ah, the famed Dyson vision thing, this is what we came for. The seasonal cycle in atmospheric CO2 shows that the lifetime of a CO2 molecule in the air before it is exchanged with another in the land biosphere is about 12 years. Therefore if the trees could simply be persuaded to drop diamonds instead of leaves, repairing the damage to the atmosphere could be fast, I suppose. The problem here, unrecognized by Dyson, is that the business-as-usual he’s defending would release almost as much carbon to the air by the end of the century as the entire reservoir of carbon stored on land, in living things and in soils combined. The land carbon reservoir would have to double in size in order keep up with us. This is too visionary for me to bet the farm on.

2. Economic estimates of the costs of cutting CO2 emissions are huge. In an absolute sense, this is true, it would be a lot of dollars, but it comes down to a few percent of GDP, which, in an economic system that grows by a few percent per year, just puts off the attainment of a given amount of wealth by a few years. And anyway, business-as-usual will always argue that the alternative would be catastrophic to our economic well being. Remember seat belts? Why is it that Dyson’s remarkably creative powers of vision (carbon-eating trees for example) fail to come up with alternatives to the crude and ugly process of burning coal to generate electricity?

3. The costs of climate change are in the distant future, and therefore should be discounted, in contrast to the hysterical Stern Report. I personally can get my head around the concept of discounting if the time span is short enough that it’s the same person on either end of the transaction, but when the time scales start to reach hundreds and thousands of years, the people who pay in the future are not the same as the ones who benefit now. Remember that the lifetime of the elevated CO2 concentration in the air is different from the lifetime of CO2 to exchange with the biosphere. Release a slug of CO2 and you will increase the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere for hundreds of thousands of years. The fundamental tenet of civil society is to protect people from harm inflicted by others. Are we a civilized species, or are we not? The question is analogous to using economics to decide whether to abolish slavery. I’m sure it was very costly for the Antebellum Southern U.S. to forego slave labor, but it simply wasn’t an economic question.

4. Majority scientists are contemptuous of those in the minority who don’t believe in the dangers of climate change. I often find myself contemptuous of efforts to misrepresent science to a lay audience. The target audience of denialism is the lay audience, not scientists. It’s made up to look like science, but it’s PR. We have documented Lindzen’s tortured and twisted representation of the science to non-scientists here and here. If Lindzen had a credible argument to support his gut feeling (and apparently Dyson’s), I can promise that I for one would take it seriously. I’ve got kids at home whose future I worry about. If Lindzen were right, no one would be happier about that than me. But I do get contemptuous of BS.

596 Responses to “Freeman Dyson’s selective vision”

  1. 251

    Yo Ray! I’m in agreement on some of your specific points but not the thrust of what sounds like a GW catastrophe hypothesis. I’m asking how much, on what, and when not to be rhetorical but because these are the action items on the human agenda. Most informed observers (e.g. Dyson, Nordhaus, most here at RC) recognize that there is much greater risk of catastrophe if we do *nothing* than if we do *something*. The issue though is how much we spend on *something* and what we do, and also the likelihood of a catastrophic vs. an uncomfortable but manageable future. Yes, destruction of humanity is *possible* but it so very unlikely that we must look at the other side of the equation – the things we fail to improve by allocating resources to mitigation that could better be spent elsewhere.

    Nick: Correct, there is no internal life to monetization calculator. However you can infer the value people put on their life in indirect ways or you can actually infer values from Government studies.

    Also: It was noted correctly that Dyson has no PhD. But for clarity could we please note the following:

    Dyson is one of the world’s most respected theoretical physicists.

    Dyson’s mentor: Richard Feynman. Associations with many other international PhD experts in physics.

    Cornell waived the normal “PhD on your resume deal” so he could teach there. Why? He was one of the world’s top thinkers.

    Oh yes, Dyson is one of the handful of members of the Royal Society. Isaac Newton didn’t have a PhD, either.

  2. 252
    Neal J. King says:

    A serious problem with using these economic calculations to evaluate harm:
    – How do you quantify the harm attributable to a loss of biodiversity (to my mind, the most serious consequence of GW)? We’re talking about a changed world, not a dent in the car. To some extent, you can talk about the loss of initial starting points for new medicines, etc. But that’s really not the whole story.
    – Even if you were to NOT act on C-O2 and to save the corresponding monies in a bank account at a 4% interest rate for the great payoff (and that is the concept behind Net-Present-Value calculations that Dyson, Lomborg, etc. use), when the day arrives, where do I go to buy a new planet? I’ll be sitting there with all this money: Where do I send away for a new coral reef, to re-install in the neighborhood of Australia? Amazon-galactic?

    These quantitative tools can be useful, but let’s not forget the old adage: If all you have is a hammer, you tend to think of everything as a nail.

  3. 253
    Nick Barnes says:

    Bogometer alert: “100 trees per person” has incorrectly become “100 trees per person per year”. The former is correct – a tree fixes CO2 throughout its life.
    Don’t focus on the planting, focus on the harvesting. A lot of seedlings in a plantation won’t make it to their first birthday.
    I have been saying for some years that we need to be harvesting and replanting a huge amount of fast-growing vegetation every year, and sequestering it somewhere it won’t rot (deep underground is only one of several options here). The best type of fast-growing vegetation varies between climates, but most of it will be trees.

  4. 254
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Joseph Hunkins–when dealing with uncertain risks, the accepted way of estimating the risk is to take the probability distribution of the probability of a particular threat and multiply it by the cost should that threat be realized. Then one integrates over the parameter(s) of interest (in this case either sensitivity or projected temperature rise). Although we have done a pretty good job of constraining CO2 sensitivity, there is still a significant proportion of the probability distribution above, say 4.5 degrees per doubling. And the costs rise so rapidly above 3 degrees that this region dominates the risk calculus. If we add the fact that we know natural ghg emissions will kick in, swamp the anthropogenic emissions and rip away whatever control we could exercise, then we have a very strong case for very vigorous action NOW so that we can come up with mitigation strategies and better refine our understanding of the right-hand side of the probability distribution.
    That is the economic calculus we should be using.

    As to Dyson, nobody denies that he’s a smart guy. I personally believe that he has to most Simon pure of motivations (his sympathies for international development are well documented). My question is this: When you are looking for a practical action plan, should you be asking a theoretical physicist?

  5. 255
    tamino says:

    So much of the policy discussion is “missing the forest for the trees.” It’s like a smoker asking “What monetary value should be applied to the risk of getting lung cancer?” “How does the economic damage from ruining the tobacco industry compare to the cost of medical treatment?”

    Then along comes Freeman Dyson and says, “Don’t worry — we can bioengineer a cure for cancer.”

    I say: QUIT SMOKING.

  6. 256
    Hank Roberts says:

    Look, there’s a much better way to sequester carbon. Have you read the figures on the total amount of topsoil that was on North America before the Europeans came? Figure the carbon sequestered in fifteen feet of topsoil.

    And nature keeps trying to put it back. Gardeners everywhere are out edging their walks, removing the plants growing up through their patio pavement, digging around their foundations to remove the accumulating new formed soil as it rises up.

    This is how older civilizations got buried, not just in their own debris, but in the topsoil formed around and eventually over them.

    if you really want to sequester carbon, go buy a burned over eroded piece of mineral soil wasteland and start composting, as well as planting.

    Oh, and make sure to fence out the offroad motorcycle/ATV crowd, the worst cause of erosion known.

  7. 257
    JCH says:

    “Yo Ray! I’m in agreement on some of your specific points but not the thrust of what sounds like a GW catastrophe hypothesis. I’m asking how much, on what, and when not to be rhetorical but because these are the action items on the human agenda. Most informed observers (e.g. Dyson, Nordhaus, most here at RC) recognize that there is much greater risk of catastrophe if we do *nothing* than if we do *something*. The issue though is how much we spend on *something* and what we do, and also the likelihood of a catastrophic vs. an uncomfortable but manageable future. Yes, destruction of humanity is *possible* but it so very unlikely that we must look at the other side of the equation – the things we fail to improve by allocating resources to mitigation that could better be spent elsewhere. …” – Mallard E. “WHAT-ME WORRY?” Neuman

    I think you need to start clearly describing what you mean by uncomfortable. Based upon your past comments, I suspect your soothing Lomborgian notions of uncomfortable are uncomfortably close to destruction.

    It would be nice if you could quantify uncomfortable in terms of how much CO2 you are willing to tolerate in the atmosphere, how much SLR you think is tolerable, etc.

  8. 258
    Chuck Booth says:

    Re # 249 Ray Ladbury: 200 trees planted in four years (and responses)

    For what it’s worth:

    According to a recent article in the Washington Post (don’t know where the author got his/her figures*, but the article frequently refers to CaseTrees, http://www.caseytrees, a D.C.-based charity established to protect and restore D.C.’s urban forest), a two-person household is responsible for releasing 41,500 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. To offset that, each household would have to plant 483 trees and let them grow for 10 years (presumably to reach maturity). The CO2 fixation rates (in pounds per year) for some common trees (roughly 5-10 years old, with a six inch diameter trunk) are:
    Black Gum – 176
    Little Leaf Linden – 176
    American Elm – 159
    Hickory – 159
    Red Maple – 108

    *According to my calculations, using the 176 lbs of CO2 fixed per year at maturity, those 483 planted trees will be removing 85,008 lbs of CO2 per year, more than double what the two people are causing to be emitted. Adding two children to the mix would seem to put the family and their trees roughly in carbon balance.

    Also mentioned in the article: Planting trees to shade your house during mid-day in the summer can increase the “carbon benefit” by some 15-fold.

  9. 259
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Lackner’s getting some press:

    Could US scientist’s ‘CO2 catcher’ help to slow warming?
    David Adam in New York
    The Guardian, Saturday May 31 2008

    It has long been the holy grail for those who believe that technology can save us from catastrophic climate change: a device that can “suck” carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air, reducing the warming effect of the billions of tonnes of greenhouse gas produced each year.

    Now a group of US scientists say they have made a breakthrough towards creating such a machine. Led by Klaus Lackner, a physicist at Columbia University in New York, they plan to build and demonstrate a prototype within two years that could economically capture a tonne of CO2 a day from the air, about the same per passenger as a flight from London to New York.

    The prototype so-called scrubber will be small enough to fit inside a shipping container. Lackner estimates it will initially cost around £100,000 to build, but the carbon cost of making each device would be “small potatoes” compared with the amount each would capture, he said.

    The scientists stress their invention is not a magic bullet to solve climate change. It would take millions of the devices to soak up the world’s carbon emissions, and the CO2 trapped would still need to be disposed of. But the team says the technology may be the best way to avert dangerous temperature rises, as fossil fuel use is predicted to increase sharply in coming decades despite international efforts. Climate experts at a monitoring station in Hawaii this month reported CO2 levels in the atmosphere have reached a record 387 parts per million (ppm) – 40% higher than before the industrial revolution.

    The quest for a machine that could reverse the trend by “scrubbing” carbon from the air is seen as one of the greatest challenges in climate science. Richard Branson has promised $25m (£12.6m) to anyone who succeeds.

    Lackner told the Guardian: “I wouldn’t write across the front page that the problem is solved, but this will help. We are in a hurry to deal with climate change and will be very hard pressed to stop the train before we get to 450ppm [CO2 in the atmosphere]. This can help stop the train.”

    He added: “Our project has reached the stage where it is quite clear we can do it. We need to start dealing with all these emissions. I’d rather have a technology that allows us to use fossil fuels without destroying the planet, because people are going to use them anyway.”

  10. 260
    CL says:

    Nick Barnes wrote: “..we need to be harvesting and replanting a huge amount of fast-growing vegetation every year, and sequestering it somewhere it won’t rot”

    May I ask where the energy will come from for this enormous project of planting, cutting, transporting vast amounts of vegetation, how would it be paid for, and how prevented from decaying ?

    It reminds me of the sublime quote further up the page, ‘In theory, theory and practice are the same; in practice, they are not’.

    Arm chair tree planting is so easy. 300 trees an hour ? That should be an Olympic sport. How many of you can dig a hole while carrying a heavy bag of seedlings, bend down, plant a seedling, straighten up, take a few paces, repeat, in 30 seconds, non-stop, for an hour, or 8 hours ? Nevermind the rough terrain, and the fact that trees may need watering, get eaten by rabbits, overwhelmed by competitive vegetation, attacked by diseases…Don’t mean to sound negative, I adore trees, but the ideas need to be practical and realistic, don’t they ?

  11. 261
    CL says:

    And another thought regarding sequestration of huge amounts of vegetation. You’re not just taking CO2 out of the air. You’re also taking all the other chemical nutrients out of the soil which plants and trees require. So, the next time around that land (where is all this spare land free for growing stuff, anyway ?) will be depleted of vital minerals and water. So,does that mean additional expensive fertilizer (with a massive carbon footprint) has to be distributed over the theoretical vast areas ?
    Anyone remember the East African ground nut scheme ?

  12. 262
    Geoff Wexler says:


    Bob Clipperton (UK) Says

    “the assumption that technology would save the day and not any sort of financial assumption.Secondly, One way to read your reply would suggest nuclear fusion is up and running. Is it?”

    Sorry there is more than one argument being tangled up. My point was that prolonged exponential growth in any area was the exception rather than the rule.

    As for your main point, I agree that it would be most unwise to rely on unproved technology to save the day especially if no one is prepared to pay for developing it. But I am not happy with your form of reasoning.

    The Zeta project in the UK was hyped by the media and involved some degree of chauvinism. It very soon led to a disappointment. But you can’t use that against Dyson unless he participated in the hype.

    It reminds me of the notorius ice age myth i.e. that climatologists can’t be trusted because there was about one paper in the 1970’s which raised the possibility that the cooling from aerosols might dominate the warming thus leading to an ice age.
    (William Connolley has written on this).

    Nuclear fusion is not running but it is quite astonishing how much progress has been made in the last half century. ITER is designed to come very close to “reactor conditions”. We might be able to find out whether fusion might help with the CO2 crisis especially if the project was made top priority. But the opposite appears to be happening and the project is being subjected to a deep funding cut. That is not a good omen for other technological remedies.

    RE #254. (Ray Ladbury)
    “…should you be asking a theoretical physicist? ‘

    Why not ? I usually agree with you but not with that sentence. Isn’t the other Ray (Pierrehumbert) a theoretical physicist; is he also to be banned? Engineers are also not immune from making crazy suggestions for solving this problem. Consider them all but skeptically.

  13. 263
    Donald Oats says:

    Discounting in the economic sense (ASAIK) works best on projects of known duration (within reason), *and* that also satisfy the condition that they are a small fraction of the total economy. The reason for this is largely to do with the manner in which different plans for the project may alter the net present value cost of project. In the extreme case of not doing the project at all, or following a particularly daft spending pattern, the cost differences to the total economy is negligible.

    Whatever the framework used to set up the calculations, the main point with projects of finite duration and of impact epsilon upon the whole economy, is that the eventual go/nogo decision matters little to the population/economy at large, on the time scale of the project. The path chosen has imperceptible perturbation upon the economy, however important it may be for the firm proposing the project.

    In the case of climate change due to our entire economy’s activity, the project of ‘fixing AGW’ is one of potentially large consequence to the economy; the specific path chosen may change the entire direction of the economy over the course of the project; the project duration is so long that the economy as a whole cannot be treated as a static background; and finally, while most firm level projects have some combination of risk and uncertainty in them, there is usually a historical database for comparison as a guide.

    For AGW we are in desperate need of even a plausible distribution family for risk based calculations (sure, EVT could be an alternative approach), let alone an economic science that can cope with fundamental path shifts in entire economies. While climate models are clearly no substitute for real experiments, they are the only things we’ve got so far that can point to the levels of uncertainty for BAU, and for a first guess at an empirical distribution for the physical aspects of climate change under a range of scenarios. Paleo data is mighty handy too, but no global economies were in existence back then, and one Earth history of climate is far from a set of controlled experiments. An additional advantage of the climate models is the physics incorporated, which constrains the possibilities substantially.

    Then of course, there is the whole dimension of what monetary value should be assigned to having a lot of nice flora and fauna and country-side; personally I’m quite partial to it!

  14. 264
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray Ladbury wrote:

    What you are talking about is a huge shift in infrastructure–not just building new infrastructure, but scrapping old infrastructure and swapping it for new. That has never really been done before. And it is not just social resistance. There are technical details that are still a long way from resolution. Yes, there are things we can do now, but we’re a long way from having a fire extinguisher.

    There are a LOT of things we could be doing now with existing technology — e.g. efficiency improvements for vehicles, buildings and appliances; clean electricity generation from thermal solar, photovoltaics, and wind power — that could make a huge difference very rapidly. The reasons we are not doing these things are political, not technical. And what is most urgently needed to move forward more rapidly with these solutions is not technological advances, but regulatory and economic measures such as carbon taxes, mandatory efficiency standards, tax credits for renewable energy investments, renewable portfolio requirements for utilities, and feed-in tariffs for small distributed solar and wind electricity producers (FITs have been highly successful in encouraging the growth of distributed solar in Germany, for example).

    If we are not making maximum use of readily available existing technology to reduce emissions and produce carbon-free energy, if we are not taking the steps that we are able to take now to begin building the renewable energy infrastructure of the future, then what is the point of discussing pie-in-the-sky science fiction ideas like genetically-engineered trees that suck CO2 out of the air and produce diamonds as fruit?

  15. 265
    JCH says:

    This article has to be right because it confirms all of my forest prejudices.

  16. 266
    Rod B says:

    Ray, Richard Feynman had a reputation for being practical, even when non-conventional.

  17. 267
    Arch Stanton says:

    Another problem with trees is that after harvesting the wood cannot be burned and must be protected from decay indefinitely. Particularly it must be protected from termites that would convert much of the stored carbon to methane. This includes the roots.

  18. 268
    CL says:

    Thinking about the questions and problems I suggested regarding “harvesting and replanting a huge amount of fast-growing vegetation every year, and sequestering it somewhere it won’t rot”, etc.

    To get around the tree planting problem, use biofuel coppice willow, which is very easy to establish, only needs planting once.

    Where to plant ? Possibly on the Canadian and Siberian tundra which will be thawing out (and releasing methane) ?

    How to harvest it in a carbon neutral fashion ? I don’t know.

    How to sequester the carbon ? How about processing the wood into chips, (extracting useful elements) and mix and compress with glassy carbon into useful products, like bricks, tiles, cladding ?

    I’m not an industrial chemist, so there’s possibly some big flaw I’m missing, but it seems more do-able than Dyson’s hypothetical GM trees.

  19. 269
    David B. Benson says:

    Jim Eaton (250) — Thanks.

  20. 270
    John Mashey says:

    Well, physicists can actually do practical things :-)

    The great negawatter
    Art Rosenfeld has done OK.

    Nobel physicist Burton Richter gave a nice talk to a small town meeting here a few years ago on climate & energy (parts of the PPT here, since for general audience). His verbal comments were rather firm, especially in reply to questions about existence of scientific consensus.

  21. 271
    Rod B says:

    Donald Oats (263) raises a salient and valid objective point regarding the deficiences of discounting in dealing with things like AGW (or nuclear winter, or nuclear WWIII, I suppose). I feel obligated to second this as I pointedly supported (and still do) discounting in earlier posts.

  22. 272
    Ray Ladbury says:

    WRT my dig at theoretical physicists–I was not implying that theoretical physicists can never be practical. Ferchrissake, Oppenheimer was at theoretical physicist with a reputation for thin skin and dilletantism when he took on the Manhattan Project. Probably nobody (except maybe Fermi) could have done it as well. It is just that when you think, “I need practical advice,” the next sentence that pops into your mind is rarely “Quick, get me a theroretical physicist.” Dyson has always been a “big picture” kind of visionary physicist, and vision can be synonymous with hallucination.

  23. 273
    Ray Ladbury says:

    SecularAnimist, I 100% agree that we could be doing much more with existing technology. In looking at the latest economy cars, nearly all of them get less gas milage than their previous year’s incarnation. Hell, they get worse gas milage than my 13 year old Honda Civic with 222000 miles on it.
    The thing is that they will not reduce our CO2 emissions by 50%, or even 20% any time soon. Produce a plug-in electric hybrid that gets 110 mpg, and sells for $10 K and maybe you will have 20% market penetration in 5 years. Replacing existing infrastructure takes time. That is why I have a lot more faith in building green infrastructure in developing countries in the near term.

    I am always thinking about ways of making a difference, but when you do the math, the difference it makes is usually depressingly small.

  24. 274
    Ray Ladbury says:

    John Mashey, Had the pleasure of working with Art Rosenfeld when I did physics journalism. Note that his adviser and mentor was Fermi–who did both theoretical and experimental physics. Art was actually an experimentalist in particle physics. He’s an idol of mine in that he really has tried to use physics for bettering of human lives. I note again Rosenfeld’s law–I don’t think it’s gotten nearly enough attention. It has held for over 150 years!

  25. 275
    Lawrence McLean says:

    Can anyone confirm the research by Jeffrey S. Dukes that we are using the equivalent of 4 centuries of current entire earth biosphere production every year of fossil fuels? (reference:

    If this is true, then it is absolutely futile to assume that modern civilization in terms of its current energy use is sustainable with any sort of bio fuel.

    Likewise, given this figure, if it true, I cannot see how the biosphere (even genetically engineered) could come anywhere near fixing the CO2 that we are currently releasing.

  26. 276
    Geoff Sherrington says:

    Can someone please educate me about GHG emission trading. You take money from GHG emitters and give it to worthy causes. The problem is, I cannot think of many worthy causes. Almost all money that is spent on physical activity (as opposed to share trading, for example) generates GHG almost by definition.

    Sure, some emission trading can result in more efficient energy generation like closing brown coal power stations and replacing them with nuclear. Some say we should be preparing hydrogen powered cars because they emit mainly water, but water is a GHG itself. Some say we should plant more trees, but unless we manage their larger mass forever we have caused just a temporary blip in the cycle of Nature.

    So, what can we buy with emission credits that is TRULY a gain? At the moment, it seems like the Gates to Scamland are wide open. The flow of money is potentially incredibly large and the ways to spend it wisely incredibly small.

  27. 277
    pete best says:

    Off Topic

    Is Arctic Sea Ice about to Drop off a cliff?

    The melting is hapenning faster than it was in 2007 now and the levels are the same now. In Mid June 2007 the ice droped very quickly, will the same happen this year. Surely the ice is thinner and younger this year so it more than likely. Is this going to be a new record year?

  28. 278
    Ike Solem says:

    The bottom line here is that none of these sequestration strategies will have any chance of reducing atmospheric CO2 whatosever unless the use of fossil fuels is halted. All initiatives that claim to address carbon emissions while ignoring the issue of of our ever-mounting fossil CO2 emissions are dishonest, in other words. Solar, wind, nuclear, biofuels, energy conservation – all will do nothing to halt global warming. Really – not a single thing.

    This is because global energy demand continues to increase. As it is, all new renewables are mostly going to meet new demand, not to replace existing fossil fuel generation. Economically, replacing fossil fuel plants with renewable energy systems would be expensive and unprofitable for energy corporations, since government policy is deliberately intended to provide the global economy with an ever-increasing stream of fossil fuel energy. Right now, we are producing more crude oil per year than ever before – and probably more than we ever will again – though there is plenty of coal.

    So far, the attempts at carbon sequestration have been a flop. FutureGen, the large and secretive alliance managed by Battelle Memorial Institute for the U.S. DOE and Southern Coal, has been shut down, probably due to gross failure in the secret and proprietary technology involved, although noone involved with the project will talk about it – a good candidate for a Congressional investigation there. Jim in #259 points to a somewhat similar situation:

    Lackner’s team says it has made a significant breakthrough that massively reduces the amount of energy required to recharge the sorbent. It is reluctant to discuss details, but a US patent application obtained by the Guardian shows that it is based on changes in humidity.

    The team says it can trap the CO2 from air on absorbent plastic sheets called ion exchange membranes, commonly used to purify water. Crucially, it has discovered that humid air can then make the membranes “exhale” their trapped CO2. The discovery was “some serendipity and some working out,” Lackner said. “When I saw it the first time, I didn’t believe it.”

    The team is working to build a prototype at a laboratory in Tuscon, Arizona. Run by a company called Global Research Technologies (GRT), of which Lackner is vice president of research, the laboratory unveiled a “pre-prototype” air capture machine last year, based on a different technique -rinsing trapped CO2 off the membrane with liquid sodium carbonate, and then using electricity to liberate the CO2 from the fluid.

    Lackner says that device works, but the “humidity switch” could slash the scrubber’s energy use tenfold. He said: “We can do it coming out carbon positive.”

    The team is also working on ways to dispose of the pure CO2 gas produced by each scrubber.

    This looks about as promising as FutureGen. However, note here that all the energy expended was simply to counter the entropy factor – simply to collect all the CO2 from the air in pure form. CO2 is a gas, and if you want to store it permanently you have to stabilize it – essentially, that means turning it into a solid block of coal or a carbonate mineral. That will take a good deal more energy – and this team hasn’t even built a working prototype yet. All in all, the story merely serves to promote the myth that a technological solution is feasible, and that we can go on burning fossil fuels with no concerns. Just another PR gimmick.

    What this really means is you have to stop fossil fuel use. You have to shut down all the Canadian tar sands projects, and the U.S. coal fields in Montana and Virgina, and there will be no global market in petroleum or natural gas. That’s the only way to combat climate change, period. Everyone who ignores this basic, though politically and economically troubling, fact is playing a rather dishonest game. Cap and trade strategies are just as laughable as global carbon sequestration strategies in this regard. Not a single one of these “initiatives” has done anything to even slow the rate of emissions growth – we are very far away from seeing an actual reduction in fossil CO2 emissions.

    Yes – so far, the record has been one of dismal, abject failure on the part of those hoping to reverse this trend. Indeed, we have even seen a sudden rise in emissions over the past few years, with no end in sight. Government policy continues to support fossil fuel development and hinder renewable energy development – and government financing is being dumped into these nonsensical sequestration strategies, which are little more than good PR for the fossil fuel industry, while the really promising technological solutions – the ones needed to replace our energy source after the elimination of fossil fuels – are being neglected. Take the International Institute for Renewable Energy – it has eight university members, but not a single U.S. one. Not a single U.S. university has a world-class, well-funded, renewable energy program – because political fossil fuel-linked interests keep the funding from being directed to renewables.

    P.S. (Hank Roberts – that comment referred to the very high yields generated under optimal conditions by plants from modern breeding programs, GMO or not. Your farm used a far better approach, using natural selection to choose the best mix of forest cover – but actual “yields” from that patch will be far, far lower than that from a fertilized, watered, and optimized crop. Reforesting a little patch of bare earth, while great for the local environment, will do nothing to sequester carbon on the scale needed. See comment #245 as well)

  29. 279
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Geoff Sherrington, You seem to be as confused by cap and trade as you are about the physics of the greenhouse mechanism. First, the latter–yes, H2O is a ghg. No, it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere for centuries as does CO2, so its impact is less per unit mass.

    As to cap and trade, the idea is to ensure that the market reflects the full price of production–including environmental degradation. There is certainly potential for abuse, but that goes part and parcel with human activity. One could argue that this is our evolutionary midterm exam. Better start cramming.

  30. 280
    Nick Barnes says:

    CL: harvesting in a carbon-neutral fashion: wood-chip digesters of various sorts (the most basic sort being wood-chip steam power). Of course there’s carbon cost there, but we can definitely come out ahead.

    Willow coppice is good, for places where it grows. In 20 years of being associated with my father’s forestry work the most important thing I have learned is to choose tree species which will grow well on your land; for a lot of the land in question this is probably willow or conifers of one sort or another. (the second most important thing I have learned is that grey squirrels are agents of the devil).

    The land: there are huge areas of otherwise unproductive land in Europe and Asia. We had a couple of conifer plantations in north Wales – Sitka Spruce, mostly. All the deciduous trees the Forestry Commission made us plant around the edges died as seedlings. The thirty miles or so of land between the two was almost all given over to upland sheep-grazing, than which there are few more worthless uses of moorland. There’s water aplenty, running off your hat, down your back, into your boots.

    Sequestering the resulting carbon: I gather that charcoal is the way to go: reduces mass and bulk, and deters decay and insects, without losing much carbon.

    The nitrates for a huge carbon harvesting program would have to be provided, so there’s also some carbon cost there. Just conceivably a hugely expensive, clever, and lucky research program could come up with some nanotechnological approach to fixing carbon in 30 years. In the meantime, we can (we must) fix it the old fashioned way, with trees.

  31. 281
    Nick Barnes says:

    pete best@277: yes, the sea ice isn’t looking too pretty. Could be a record (and in fact I have money riding on it) but it all depends on the weather. Don’t forget that last year had really remarkable weather.

    Wayne Davidson is predicting record warmth for this summer, based on his light refraction observations. But I haven’t heard anything from him for a month or so. It would be interesting to hear his personal views of the weather and sea ice conditions at Resolute.

    In the meantime, I’m watching these composite photos with interest:

    (the ones called D.NHEAVEH.GIF)

    I’m also waiting for the first arctic reports from the Polarstern, currently en route north from the Antarctic.

  32. 282
    CL says:

    Ike Solem wrote :

    “CO2 is a gas, and if you want to store it permanently you have to stabilize it – essentially, that means turning it into a solid block of coal or a carbonate mineral. That will take a good deal more energy”

    Are those really the only alternatives ? What about vitreous carbon,or carbon fibre or nanofoam composites ? I’m thinking that something useful with a market value as an incentive is more likely to be considered than turning coal back into coal. (And where do you put all the newly made coal ?) e.g. an inert carbon or carbon based material that could be made such as house brick or roof tile or road aggregate, something that will sequester the carbon for thousands of years, and be reusable, like clay bricks that last millennia.

  33. 283
    tamino says:

    Sequestering carbon is crucial to the atmospheric health of our planet. So I’ll point out what should be obvious: we have a tremendous store of *already sequestered* carbon, called “coal.”

    It makes less than zero sense to take coal out of the ground, burn it to release CO2 into the atmosphere, then expend effort and energy (using technology we don’t yet have!) to remove it. This is insanity! We need a moratorium on coal-fired power generation plants, and a *rapid* phase-out of existing coal-fired plants.

    And I’m not at all convinced by arguments that solar, wind, and wave power won’t make a dent in our energy needs. The reason this seems to be true is that they’ll never be important if we leave their development entirely to the “free market.” Without a Manhattan-project (or larger) scale effort they can’t begin to supply a significant portion of our energy — but *with* such a project, they can. It’s high time for governments to make this happen by the rule of law, because capitalists, left to their own devices, will continue to gorge themselves on present-day profit at the expense of future planetary health.

    Capitalism is a great economic system, essential to a healthy economy, but those who attach themselves to it as an ideology are dooming our civilization to exactly the “back-to-the-stone-age” misery that they so effectively use as a scare tactic to frighten people into doubt about global warming.

    No more coal. Period.

  34. 284
    Jim Cripwell says:

    pete best writes “Surely the ice is thinner and younger this year so it more than likely. Is this going to be a new record year?” This is a good question, and I am not sure what the answer is. In a very crude way, there are two types of ice; what I call “annual ice”, and ice that is over one year old. Each year, about 9 million sq kms of open water turn to ice during the “winter”, and the about the same amount melts every “summer”. This is “annual ice”, and by definition, it is always less than one year old. I understand it’s thickness is solely dependent on how long and how cold the “winter” was. This season, the “winter” was longer and colder than average in the Canadian part of the Arctic. In fact, the ice surface returned far more rapidly that it disappeared. So, one would not necessarily expect a rapid melt in places like Hudson Bay, and the North West Passage. However, the behaviour of ice that is more than one year old, I know very little about. As to whether this is going to be a record year for melting, there are already bets on this subject. Last year, July 1st (Canada Day) saw the most ice melt in one day than has been recorded since 1979. It will be interesting to see what happens this Canada Day, or there abouts.

  35. 285
    Richard Simons says:

    CL says “Where to plant ? Possibly on the Canadian and Siberian tundra which will be thawing out (and releasing methane) ?”

    Unfortunately there are no trees on the tundra because conditions are not suitable. Even 500 miles south of the tundra, well into the boreal forest zone, growth is slow. Twenty years after a forest fire the trees are still not 20 feet tall. There is also the problem of accessing these areas to plant and harvest the trees.

    A couple more brief comments: I have long thought that biodegradable plastics are a mixed blessing. Of course we don’t want fishing nets floating around catching fish for a thousand years, but garbage dumps could be a means of sequestering carbon.

    In the long term, the idea that large areas of cities are zoned for specific uses will have to be drastically modified to make it easier for more people to walk or bicycle to work and to stores.

  36. 286
    Hank Roberts says:

    Ike, you write:
    > but actual “yields” from that patch will be far, far lower than that from a fertilized, watered, and optimized crop.

    Ike, read the links for information about the actual crops, in real fields, rather than deciding and telling people that, based on your theory, they will not be competitive in the future. The woody agriculture crops are competing successfully with corn and soy now.

    If you look only at the brief very best years of the old ‘green revolution’ you may have a point but that was a very long time ago and wasn’t sustained. The point is to sustain yield over the farmer’s economic lifetime, competitively.

    It’s being done.

  37. 287
    CL says:

    Richard Simmons wrote :

    “Unfortunately there are no trees on the tundra because conditions are not suitable. Even 500 miles south of the tundra, well into the boreal forest zone, growth is slow. Twenty years after a forest fire the trees are still not 20 feet tall. There is also the problem of accessing these areas to plant and harvest the trees.”

    Yes, I’m well aware why there are no trees on the tundra. However, we are already locked in to climate change which will effect the tundra, melting the permafrost, making a peaty swamp with warmer weather in the foreseeable future, when, I assume, willow trees would flourish.
    I agree, access and harvesting pose additional problems.

    I proposed the idea because it had been suggested that growing, harvesting, sequestering enormous quantities of vegetation might be a means to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. It might make sense, in theory. But, as shown by the biofuels fiasco, it’s obvious that all easily accessible fertile land is already being used.

    I was thinking in terms of system we already use and understand, which I consider an advantage over fanciful imaginings about GM diamond trees, etc.

    As I understand it, plant cellulose can be the basis for glassy carbon, which would appear to be a good product to aim for, or, at least, nobody has explained to me why not.

    I agree, biodegradable plastic, judging from the examples I’ve seen, produces masses of small plastic particles which are just one more environmental problem.

  38. 288
    Ray Ladbury says:

    CL, the limiting factor on growth in the tundra may be sunlight, not warmth. This is one reason why Canadian plains will not replace the US breadbasket as far as food production goes.

  39. 289
    CL says:

    Yes, Ray, you may well be correct, that the limiting factor may be daylength. But, as I understand it, dwarf varieties of willow already grow there. Willow has myriad varieties and hybrid strains and will grow from one small stick pushed into the ground. Better than having to produce hundreds of thousands of rooted seedlings for transplanting. And it regrows after cutting. I can’t think of a better candidate to try, except maybe alder, which also fixes nitrogen so doesn’t require fertile soil. But the whole idea may be a non-starter. Seems to me, that if we cannot even stop destruction of existing forests and extraction of existing coal, there’s little hope of solving the problem anyway.

    Perhaps the highest priority is to understand and explain why we cannot prevent forest destruction and coal mining. Personally, I believe I understand the reasons, but the politicians and voters seem not to.

  40. 290
    Nick Gotts says:

    Re #251 (Joseph Hunkins) “Nick: Correct, there is no internal life to monetization calculator. However you can infer the value people put on their life in indirect ways or you can actually infer values from Government studies.”

    There are different ways of inferring values people put on things, and they do not in general give results consistent with each other – because of course there is no reality to discover, since people don’t generally put a monetary value on their lives. As for inferring values from Government studies, that might possibly tell you how the government concerned values lives, but that is in no sense an objective figure.

  41. 291
    Jim Eager says:

    Not to mention the simple fact that the Canadian plains occupy far less area than the US breadbasket does.

  42. 292
    Martin Vermeer says:

    #283 tamino, you’re joking, right? Common sense? Related to climate change? What planet are you from?

  43. 293
    tamino says:

    Re: #292 (Martin Vermeer)

    Alas, common sense is uncommon.

    But making it more common, starts with saying it out loud. Fortunately, I’m not the only one doing so.

  44. 294
    Uli says:

    Re:#159:Joseph Hunkins
    You have claimed that according to most mainstream economists a later mitigation has an economical benefit.
    Let’s take the following example:
    The cumulative carbon emission in this example must be less than 300 GtC from the end of 2008 to every year until 3000. The same cumulative carbon emission in all cases ensures the approximately same environment impact. This has the advantage we can concentrate on economics only and need not to trade money for environment damage.
    The carbon emission in 2008 are approximately 9 GtC.
    Case A: early mitigation.
    We stop the growth of carbon emission and decline the carbon emission at -3.093%/yr from 2010.
    This results in the carbon emissions (GtC/yr)
    2008 9.000
    2010 9.000
    2020 6.574
    2030 4.801
    2040 3.507
    2050 2.561
    2075 1.168
    2100 0.532
    Case B: later mitigation.
    The growth of carbon emission continues until 2020 at 3%/yr and decline after at -7.079%/yr from 2020.
    This results in the carbon emissions (GtC/yr)
    2008 9.000
    2010 9.548
    2020 12.832
    2030 6.158
    2040 2.955
    2050 1.418
    2075 0.226
    2100 0.036
    The cumulative carbon emission is 300 GtC in each case.
    You claim is that most mainstream economists would find that case B has economical benefit over case A. Could you explain how this happens?

    Which use of the additional carbon emissions in the next years should be done to reach this especially to compensate the -7%/yr decline after 2020?

  45. 295
    Jim Galasyn says:

    I don’t think afforestation of tundra will be a policy option, because it’s already happening with the rapidly changing arctic climate. Unfortunately, this has the effect of reducing the albedo of mid and high latitudes, which isn’t good news.

  46. 296
    Luke says:

    Re Australian droughts comments above: To make a pronouncement on rainfall trends in Australia based on national time series or even a Murray- Darling Basin (MDB) average if quite misleading given the areas involved. There is wide spatial variation in national rainfall patterns, far from uniform land use, and vast areas largely unoccupied.
    Figure 2 here shows that the Australian rainfall issues are very important economically and socially as the areas affected are the capital cities and cropping zones. Much of Western Australia is desert or semi-arid so additional rainfall there is not relevant for agriculture or urban water supplies. also shows the size of the Murray- Darling Basin and the very different catchment area of the upper Murray River compared to the Darling River.
    So to confound any drought analysis with too wide an area misses very significant regional effects. Effects which appear to have some AGW influenced meteorological mechanisms.
    There has been record or near record drought conditions in the Murray River headwaters, south-east Queensland water catchments (for city of Brisbane), and ongoing rainfall decline in south-west Western Australian wheat belt. Many capital cities in Australia now have water supply issues.
    One can define drought as rainfall deficit for dryland cropping and grazing or alternatively in terms of stream inflows for irrigators and town water supply. Water inflows show record lows in Murray system – see slide 4 here Multi-year sequences including El Nino events, and non-ENSO affected (neutral) years that also miss out on rainfall, exacerbate the impact of antecedent conditions i.e. very dry catchments that take a lot of rain to wet up again to produce runoff. Narrowly defining AGW impacts in terms of temperature only misses the major impact of water supply.
    The Murray Darling Basin Commission has regular updates on the state of the Murray Darling Basin water supplies and the situation is indeed dire and ongoing.
    Australia has obviously had major historical drought sequences, but as others have commented above, there is good evidence to suspect some “anthropogenic” influence at least in exacerbating the recent droughts around Australia. Changes in the El Nino-Southern Oscillation, Southern Annular Mode, Indian Ocean and Tasman Sea present some interesting research challenges.

    Indeed learning from history, the impacts of drought sequences documented in the MWP by Brian Fagan in his recent 2008 book “The Great Warming” make some sober reading.

    I have discussed the issue much further at so won’t repeat those details here.

  47. 297
    Ron Taylor says:

    284- Jim, if you read this link carefully, I think you will see that the odds are roughly 25:1 that the Arctic ice will hit a new record low this year. The only way to miss is if more than 50% of the first year ice survives. That has happened only once in the last 25 years.

  48. 298
    Ted Nation says:

    All of the discussion of economic analysis and discount rates strikes me as being off the mark. When threatened, societies rarely use such analysis to select a response. A more constructive analysis would be to look at the least productive things we collective spend resources on and discuss the merits of transferring those resources to fossil energy alternatives including massive improvements in end use efficiencies. Others have already alluded to military spending as such an example. I have a great deal of trouble taking these economic arguments seriously when most of the US military expenditure goes to cold war weapon systems. Just who are we going to use new atomic submarines against? When the neo-liberal economists apply their analytical skills to take on the military industrial complex, I’ll take them more seriously. One should also ask, just who will benefits from the growth they postulate and who will be hurt the most by climate change. A little application of welfare economics seems called for.

  49. 299
    Geoff Sherrington says:

    [edit – please avoid personal comments]

    Please read my # 276 again. I make the point that the massive monies being proposed for collection from GHG emission imposts far outweigh the known ways to spend them – without creating more GHG. Tell me please, of a few activities that that can be done with no GHG addition to the air. Realistic ones, useful products, within the lifetime of my grandchildren.

    You did not understand what I said about forestry. To beneficially affect the carbon equation, you have to increase the mass of carbon per unit land area – and you have to keep that increased mass in perpetuity, otherwise if it reduces it will give off GHG and the whole exercise would be a transient bit of theft by smooth talking promoters.

    And, by the way Ray, I, used to attend the management meetings of one of the largest forestry regrowth companies in the SW Pacific region. I even did a company audit of CO2 before most people were too concerned about it. Among other matters, we calculated the sequestration by various trees at different growth stages. Have you ever done that? You are strangely quiet on your qualifications, which I suspect are far inferior to mine.

    Inferior like those who argue for huge social change before the science is settled on GHG – when correct SST adjustments for ship water buckets might account for 0.15 deg C of the 0.8 deg C of supposed global increase in the last century. [edit]

    #298 Ted Nation. Take the money from efficient power stations, give the money to the poor so they can inefficiently burn more fuel? Now that’s a real solution.

  50. 300
    Øyvind Seland says:

    Re 288, 291. For many species, sunlight is not that important. Warmth combined with enough moisture is more important. E.g. the wheat yield in Norway is almost
    50 % higher than in the US. Norway does not have very much agricultural land though, so the total amount is not very large.