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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. 301
    Douglas Wise says:

    Tamino #283 advocates a total and unqualified ban on the global use of coal. Ike Solem #278 goes further and wishes not only to ban coal but to end the global market in petroleum and natural gas. Each claims that anyone disagreeing with him either lacks honesty or sanity. However, neither appears honest enough to face up to the demographic consequences of his recommendations.

    The arrival or imminent arrival of peak oil has provided a much needed spur for the development and rapid deployment of alternative energy sources. This might greatly facilitate the fight against global warming. Clearly, however, a flight into coal without accompanying CCS would be almost literally suicidal to our progeny. Furthermore, it might well transpire that energy from coal, using CCS technolgy, will prove more expensive than other alternative energy technologies.

    Tamino is almost certainly correct in his view that solar, wind and wave energy have the potential to become the dominant contributors to our needs but spoils his case by pejoritive comments on capitalists “who gorge themseves on present day profits”. Likewise, Ike Solem’s conspiracy theory rants over the evils of the oil companies detracts from his usually saner comments.

    In summary, we could certainly save the planet from dangerous warming with existing technology if we were not too concerned about how many people survived the process. The difficult bit is to do so while the global population is on schedule to rise to 10 billion before its decline by natural causes can begin. Indeed, it may not be possible. If this is what Tamino and Ike Solem think, perhaps they would be honest enough to say so and lay out their policies for managing accelerated death rates.

  2. 302
    Cobblyworlds says:

    #284 Jim Cripwell,

    There is already open water at the Banks Island end of the North West Passage. The ice in there is much thinner than previous years. Also first year ice melts at a lower temperature because of salt/brine inclusion. Think of road gritting in reverse, the grit is intended to lower melt to below the night’s minimum temperature. In an arctic environment rising out of the winter cold first year ice melts preferentially as compared to the much less salty perennial ice.

    I remain uncertain as to a new extent/area record this year (will it set another record?). But an open North West Passage looks very likely given current conditions in that part of the Archipelago.

    #297 Ron Taylor.

    I’m not sure your reference supports odds of 25:1.

    If I can repeat some points I raised at Stoat (William Connelly’s blog):

    Since 2002 perennial ice area has shown year-on-year record losses, prior to last year’s melt the area was ~2.6M km^2, down from ~4M km^2 in 2002(Nghiem 2007). And over this winter further perennial has been lost, I cannot find data to put that in context of those areas for March 2002/07. However, qualitatively the preceding trend of record lows in perennial area has once again been sustained this year.

    Yet since 2002 we have still seen the autocorrelation behaviour noted by William Connelly, Cecilia Bitz and others (no new record after a preceding year’s record), despite the ongoing precipitous year-on-year decline in perennial area.

    We’ll find out whether the NSIDC “first year ice survival method” has predictive power within a bit over 3 months. ;)

    Frankly I’m not totally sure we will see a new record, but certainly wouldn’t bet against it. Indeed it wouldn’t surprise me if the whole of the perennial mass off Greenland/Ellesmere, through to Banks, breaks into a mass of bergs. We could in a practical sense lose the ice cap this year, widespread fragmentation such as seen in the Beaufort Sea this winter would effectively be the “death” of the ice cap.

    Whatever happens this year, excluding “force majeur” (comet/meteor/massive plinean eruption), the Arctic will be ice free in late summer within years.

  3. 303
    Jim Cripwell says:

    Ref Cobblyworlds #302, and Rod Taylor #297. “There is already open water at the Banks Island end of the North West Passage. The ice in there is much thinner than previous years.” If you have a reference with regard to ice thickness, I would be grateful. The thickness of annual ice is of particular interest to me. One of the problems is that our Canadian government has no icebreaker capability for venturing into the Arctic in the winter, so they keep few statistics on the ice freeze; the same seems to be true at NSIDC. These organizations “come to life” when the melt starts. I had the privelege of some correspondence with Sheldon Drobot before he made his prediction, and he sent me the ULR as soon as it was available. I was unable to understand how he deals with year-to-year variations of annual ice thickness, and tried to get a dialogue going with him on this subject. However, he failed to answer my email; I am sure he is extremely busy, so I was not disappointed. It strikes me as res ipsi loquitor that the rate of melt must be somehow related to the thickness of annual ice. I have tried, and failed, to get any data that I find reliable. A friend spent part of this winter on the Blecher Islands, and he said the ice was thicker than in recent years. I heard a similar report from Barrow. I would dearly love to know how Sheldon treats annual ice thickness in his prediction method, and where he got the data from on this subject this year. It wont be long now, before we have some idea of what the ice will be like in the Arctic this September equinox. You may be interested in the following URL http://ice-glaces.ec.gc.ca/Ice_Can/Arctic/CVCSWCTNCW.gif

  4. 304
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Geoff Sherrington, I’m sorry, I presumed that you knew how to use Google. I’m not hard to find. I am but a lowly PhD in physics, a mere foot soldier trying to defend science against who grasp at straws (or sampling buckets) to avoid grasping the truth and who would let complacency subvert good science.
    One advantage I have as a physicist is that I can look at the science and see that indeed some aspects are quite settled, and that these include the likely level of forcing due to CO2. Indeed most of the uncertainty that remains is on the high side of what the models assume.
    I applaud your efforts at forestry. Now, one might ask why you were concered with carbon sequestration if not because of the settled science of greenhouse gasses, but if we asked that, you’d probably tell us.

    I repeat my previous reply. The purpose of either cap and trade or carbon taxes is to ensure that prices of goods and services reflect their true cost of production–including environmental degradation. For this reason, it only makes sense to invest whatever funds accrue to government or other organizations (e.g. corporations set up to manage these assets) be spent to mitigate the likely effects of climate change. This can be done by investing in research for new energy sources, building new infrastructure, subsidizing energy-saving and green technologies, etc. We are looking at a massive replacement of infrastructure in the industrial world. In the developing world, it makes sense to subsidize green technologies to tip the economic balance in their favor over polluting technologies. I can think of a whole lot of things we could profitably spend the money on. If you thought about it, I’m sure you could, too.

  5. 305
    tamino says:

    Re: #301 (Douglas Wise)

    I’m flattered to be put in the same category with Ike Solem.

    It’s a pity that you didn’t pay close attention to what I said. I didn’t call for an immediate total and unqualified ban on the global use of coal, but a moratorium on coal-fired power generation plants and a rapid phase-out of existing coal-fired plants. Given that carbon sequestration is essential, it is indeed insanity to burn one of the largest reservoirs of already-sequestered carbon on the planet: coal. Building new coal-fired plants, when CCS isn’t yet possible, only undoes what is essential for the health of the planet and its inhabitants.

    Your defense of capitalists who gorge themselves on present-day profit at the expense of future planetary health is nothing but hand-waving, and your unfounded implication that a rapid migration to renewable energy would lead to accelerated death rates very effectively proves my claim: that those who defend exploitation in the name of capitalism will doom our future while using that very same fate as a scare tactic.

  6. 306
    pete best says:

    Re #305, slightly unrealistic don’t you think seeing as how we are building new coal fired power plants all the time but I do agree with your sentiment and would personally like to see no non CCS based power plants built after a certain time, say 2010 to 2015 and a new means of replacing coal to come omline. However we need to keep the ligths on and it might take 20 years to convince the politicians and economists of a suitable alternative such as large scale wind and solar thermal plants that can take its place.

  7. 307

    Geoff Sherrington, Ray Ladbury, Google Scholar. It’s not even funny.

  8. 308
    Tim McDermott says:

    Re: #303 (Jim Cripwell)

    The server seems to be down right now, but this link has freeboard estimates for the icecap:

    http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/2008/040708.html

    Thickness should be ~10 times freeboard.

  9. 309
    Ron Taylor says:

    Cobblyworlds, maybe I am misunderstanding the NSIDC info, but it seems to me that first-year ice would have a much more predictable melt season fate than multi-year ice. When they say that more than 50% would have to survive to miss a new record (which has only happened once in the last 25 years), that seems to my layman’s ear to be a rather strong statement. I assume of course that they are measuring the first year ice accurately, something that Jim seems to have doubts about.

  10. 310
    Jim Cripwell says:

    Ref #308. I went to the URL and found the following “As the winter extent numbers indicate, new ice growth was strong over the winter. Nevertheless, this new ice is probably fairly thin”. I hardly call “probably fairly thin” a scientific and reliable data source as to how thick (or thin) the ice actually was. What I am looking for is a measure of this year’s annual ice thickness with reference to what the average annual ice thickness is. My instinct tells me that the thickness of annual ice, MUST be related to how cold and how long the winter was. And in the Canadian part of the Arctic, this past winter came early, and was very much colder than it has been for the past few years.

    [Response: Thickness of sea ice is much more correlated to age than it is to the severity of any individual winter. This is because ridging and dynamical compression are better at growing thickness than bottom freezing. Therefore, multi-year ice is thicker than first year ice and almost all ice above a meter or so will be multi-year. See this for a picture of how the multi-year ice has changed. – gavin]

  11. 311
    Douglas Wise says:

    re Tamino #301.

    I was disappointed in your kneejerk reaction to my post (#301). If you had read what I wrote, you would have noted that I didn’t disagree with you other than to suggest that it would be reasonable to expand energy from coal if, and only if, CCS could be deployed and was able to compete with alternative sources of energy. Thus, when you say “no more coal, period”, I would say , being British,”no more coal without affordable CCS, full stop”. In fact, this is the position of our Royal Society, the members of which are not primarily noted for their insanity.

    In your second post that touched on the nature of capitalism, your original snide comment had apparently inflated into an all out attack. Originally, you described it as a great (essential in economic terms) system but implied that, when pursued unthinkingly as an ideology, that it could become dangerous. I agree. However, you will not win friends and influence people, which is presumably your intention, if you mix good science with ill-advised and unnecessary insults aimed at those in the best position to implement the policies that you would like to see. Certainly, it is incumbent upon our political leaders to set out the necessary policy goals before the capialists can respond appropriately. Alternatively, perhaps you would prefer to see democracy replaced by a command economy. This, too, might have its advantages in our current parlous state but only if the commands were the correct ones.

    You accuse me of implying that I think that a rapid phasing-in of alternative technologies would lead to accelerated death rates. I don’t have sufficient expertise to have an opinion on the subject that is worth expressing, let alone worth listening to. It was your expert opinion that I was seeking. There is a bewildering variety of options available to us and, as a layman, I would appreciate guidance from an informed source. As a result of using RC as a source, I have, over the last year, been converted from a sceptic/agnostic to a firm believer on the subject of AGW. However, notably absent from any discussions of possible solutions has been any acknowledgement of our burgeoning population growth, growth which, sooner or later, will have to reverse if we are to hold out any hope of saving the planet.

    Tamino, let’s not get off on the wrong foot. I would genuinely value your opinion as to whether you think that , were you in a position to implement all of the policies that you could wish for, you could prevent dangerous climate change while giving time for global population to level off naturally. I would be delighted with a convincing and affirmative answer. If you don’t think such a benign outcome is possible, then we are going to have to address some very unsavoury demographic solutions.

  12. 312
    Phillip Shaw says:

    Perhaps a bit off-topic, but if you go to wunderground dot com and check the weather in Greenland, every reporting weather station in Greenland is showing temperatures above freezing, with several above 50 degrees F.

  13. 313
    Ark says:

    You can see at http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/IMAGES/current.365.jpg
    that the Arctic seaice melt is now already slightly ahead of last year’s record melt (at the same date). Fully in line with the high fraction of “first year ice”, I would say.

  14. 314
    Jim Cripwell says:

    Ref 310. Gavin. I specifically referred to ANNUAL ice; ice which is, by definition, ALWAYS LESS than one year old. Annual ice is what I originally referred to, and it is the 9 million sq. kms. of ice which is open sea in the summer, and ice in the winter.

  15. 315

    Tamino (283 & 305), I took your first post to mean that you’re against coal even when it is accompanied by CCS (carbon capture and storage). Even though I agree that it makes in principle more sense to use renewable energy, I do wonder why coal in combination with CCS should be avoided. Provided that the sequestration is safe until eternity, there isn’t much against it climate-wise (air pollution will remain of course, so that’s perhaps an answer to my own question). Your second post though makes me wonder if I misunderstood you.

  16. 316
    CobblyWorlds says:

    #303 Jim Cripwell,

    The open water near Banks Island.
    See QuikScat http://manati.orbit.nesdis.noaa.gov/cgi-bin/qscat_ice.pl
    Here’s 30 May 2008 (last available ocean masked image – open water shown blacked out)
    http://manati.orbit.nesdis.noaa.gov/ice_image21/D08152.NHEIMSK.GIF
    Also note the thinning (darker) at the East end of Viscount Melville Sound/McClintock Channel (South of Bathurst Island). There has been some re-freeze and closure off Banks Island since it’s worst around day 147 of 2008, but any new freeze this late in the cycle will not survive the summer.

    Ice Thickness.
    From National Ice Service:
    http://www.natice.noaa.gov/products/arctic/index.htm
    With reference to their “egg code” index:
    http://www.natice.noaa.gov/egg_code/index.html

    Take these assesments for Canadian Arctic West:
    2007, 21-25/5/07:
    http://www.natice.noaa.gov/pub/West_Arctic/Canadian_Arctic_West/2007/canw070521color.pdf
    2008 19-23/5/08:
    http://www.natice.noaa.gov/pub/West_Arctic/Canadian_Arctic_West/2008/canw080519color.pdf

    Just looking at Viscount Melville Sound; Over the last 12 months the amount of thick perennial has dropped massively, to be replaced by first year ice.

    2007: Areas P & R are key areas:
    P 6/10 perennial (over 2m), with 4/10 thick first year (over 1.2m).
    R 8/10 perennial (over 2m), with 2/10 thick first year (over 1.2m).

    2008: Area K is the key area:
    K 1/10 perennial (over 2m), with 7/10 thick first year (over 1.2m) and 1/10 medium first year (0.7-1.2m).

    Also if you look at 2008 above you’ll see some interesting structures to the East of Banks Island; W, M, and N leading to area AA. That’s the result of buttress failure. Check out this animated gif from Environment Canada watch closely just above Banks Island (mid way down) up to 9 January 2008, when it goes spectacularly:
    http://ice-glaces.ec.gc.ca/content_contenu/SIE/Beaufort/ANIM-BE2007.gif

    Out of interest, check out High East Arctic (centred on the pole iself). Last year predominantly thick perennial, now thick first year, hence the Serreze’s statement that the pole could be ice-free this year. Not all first year ice always melts though, and weather plus thickness are why I’m not sure we’ll see a new record. However with reference to PIOMAS: http://psc.apl.washington.edu/IDAO/retro.html
    It may be that much of the first year ice from the preceding year was “saved” by the bulk of the perennial ice. In which case maybe I should have taken up William Connelly’s bet…

    Thicker ice has tended to thin more rapidly than thinner first year ice. That’s because the thicker ice takes longer to grow than thinner (first year) ice. e.g. Bitz & Roe 2004 “A Mechanism for the High Rate of Sea Ice Thinning in the Arctic Ocean.”
    http://www.atmos.washington.edu/~bitz/Bitz_and_Roe_2004.pdf

    #309 Ron Taylor,

    I think NSIDC are quite right in suggesting that correlation, and their data is accurate enough to be confident in it given the yearly variance.

    I just think 25:1 implies virtually a “dead cert”, and as we’re now in unknown territory in the Arctic I’m not sure anything on a year to year basis is yet a virtual certainty (see my observation re perennial ice area in post 302) . In the satellite observations, a new record minima in one year is not followed by a new record. There’s no certainty that “rule” will hold, but equally, there’s no certainty it will not!

    Bear in mind we’re only just into June, and NSIDC cautioned this last year:

    “…weather conditions in the Arctic are variable. For example, in July of 2006, we were also on track to set a record minimum, but a cooler and cloudier August slowed the rate of ice loss.”

    By the way I should again stress, I’m just an amateur.

  17. 317
    SecularAnimist says:

    Bart Verheggen wrote: “I do wonder why coal in combination with CCS should be avoided.”

    Principally because no such thing as commercially applicable CCS technology exists nor is it likely to exist within the time frame during which we need to drastically reduce CO2 emissions. CCS — “clean coal” — is nothing but coal industry propaganda. There is no such thing.

    Also, coal mining itself is an environmental disaster, even before a crumb of coal is actually burned.

  18. 318
    tamino says:

    When CCS can be demonstrated to be both effective and economical, then I won’t oppose using coal-fired power generation. But as yet, it hasn’t even been demonstrated, let alone shown to be possible on a large scale with enough efficiency and economy to be workable. So at present, I regard discussion of CCS as sharing something in common with Dyson’s “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees”: it doesn’t exist, we don’t know when (or even if) it will exist, and using the possibility to rationalize building more coal-fired plants is folly.

    There are technologies that do already exist. Both wind and solar actually work, and once in operation they’re carbon-neutral — no capture or sequestration is necessary. The reason to switch to these already-existing renewable energy technologies is to prevent exactly the human misery and death which looms large in the future as population and consumption grow and climate destabilizes. The “free market” has demonstrated that it lacks the ethics and the foresight to invest in these technologies with anything close to the scale necessary for a healthy planet and a healthy human population.

    Capitalism is a fine system for building industries which satisfy consumer desires, but only for a profit; the essence of capitalism is the love of money. But only the law prevents capitalists from doing so at the cost of terrible human misery; if they can make more money exploiting people than they can providing good quality of life, they won’t hesitate to do so. Essential survival needs cannot be left in the hands of capitalists.

    I’m sure I’ll be roundly demonized for saying so. But before you compose a vitriolic response, remember there’s a well-known reference for my opinion; a very ancient document which states that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” If you disagree, take it up with the author.

  19. 319

    Moderation delays…is everybody moderated here for many hours? Very hard to carry on like that, and it makes me sound non-responsive which I certainly am NOT.

    Ray:
    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 …

    I’m missing something here – is the natural CO2 swamping effect you are talking about outside of what is projected by the most recent IPCC scenarios?

    In terms of unbounded risks I think we agree on the general approach (well, perhaps not if you agree with Stern on discounting), but we most certainly disagree about the likelihood of super costly high temperature scenarios. Simply put if I believed, for example, that there was a 20% or greater chance of GW caused global catastrophe by 2100 then I’d agree we should be mitigating the heck out of things almost regardless of the cost. But I believe IPCC’s projections are realistic and should be our guide to the likely scenarios, and that leads me to agree with most mainstream economists that optimal outcome is from a low to moderate mitigation effort.

    JC – good question about tolerance for Co2 and SL rise: I also replied over at my blog where the spirited debate is also raging:

    In terms of tolerance of CO2 and Sea Level rises my answer is basically that I’m very tolerant of the current situation (ie likely temperature incrase of about 3 degrees in next 100 years and sea level rise of this much per year: | or about 3 or 4 feet in the next century. There will be plenty of time to adjust to these tiny numbers. Catastrophe is already *here* in Africa where millions die annually from AIDS, Malaria, Intestinal disease. I’d fix that *first*, then talk about foregoing extra trillions *today* to delay the 3 degree rise from year 2100 to year 2101.

    I see no catastrophes looming (based on even the highest IPCC projections for Temp and Sea Level rises). I do agree that if Greenland melts we could be in for some major shit, but this appears very unlikely and I’d certainly want far more data before we start acting based on that assumption.

    I should note that I realize my interpretations here could be very wrong. If Stern’s approach is right, most economists are wrong and so am I – we should be mitigating the heck out of things effective ASAP. Also, if Hansen’s suggestions that catastrophic melting is likely just around the corner are correct then I’m very wrong (along with most climate scientists).

    But I’m a guy that accepts mainstream climate science *and* mainstream economic science, which together suggest a simple and cost effective approach:

    Moderate efforts at C02 mitigation with a powerful focus on potential low cost solutions.

  20. 320

    Uli – I’m trying to figure out what you mean. By year 3000 (!) did you mean year 2100? Your example seems very contrived to me but I’m assuming you are trying to demonstrate that waiting means we’ll have to mitigate at a much greater rate than if we start now? That is obviously true, but mitigation in the future is likely (almost certainly) going to be far, far cheaper. This was a key part of Dyson’s point (missed here by most). Not that magic trees are in the pipeline, but that technology … gets cheaper by the minute. It is wonderfully ironic how much enthusiasm there is for supercomputer climate modelling while at the same time such aversion for the idea that supercomputer mitigation solutions are coming soon to a planet near us all.

  21. 321
    Hank Roberts says:

    > mitigation in the future is likely (almost certainly)
    > going to be far, far cheaper

    Passenger pigeon
    Carolina parakeet
    American Chestnut
    Water pollution: http://www.umich.edu/~gs265/society/pic5.gif
    Lead
    Mercury
    http://www.epa.gov/npdes/pubs/centralized_brochure.pdf

    It’s hard to find a current or historical problem for which it was actually cheaper to even begin to address problems later compared to what it would have cost to take the obvious precautions early on.

    Horse manure on city streets — there’s one. Rather than invent the steam-powered pooper scooper, cities simply waited for the invention of the automobile to displace the automobiles.

    Now should we just wait for the vat-grown PETA Porkchop to displace hog farms and their nasty sludge ponds?

    Any others? Someone must have a list somewhere pointing out the successes, I suppose.

  22. 322
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Joe, the IPCC uses 3 degrees per doubling of CO2. This is the most probable value–not the extreme. Depending on the data used, the value could be as high as 4.5 or even 6 degrees per doubling. Moreover, while the IPCC scenarios do look at solubility of CO2 in the oceans (and so, presumably outgassing), they don’t look at outgassing of permafrost or methane clathrates for the simple reason that we don’t know how much this will contribute.
    The costs if we see 6 degrees of warming are dire indeed–as outlined by Hank, so with even 1-5% probability, they dominate the risk. So until we have better data, we had better keep things under control.

  23. 323
    Chris Colose says:

    Joe, as an addition to Ray Ladbury

    the word “catastrophic” in this subject (which usually carries around a more accusing tone than a scientific one) is generally very ill-defined and subjective, and there is no widespread agreement between scientists (and other fields like economists) if a doubling or a tripling or a quadrupling of CO2 counts as “catastrophic.” What is certainly scientifically supportable, is that such as change would swamp any natural variations in Holocene-like conditions, produce widespread impacts as well as ecological and economic loss. Is a complete loss of seasonal arctic sea ice, or the displacement of thousands or millions of people or coastal and island flooding catastrophic? Personally, I really don’t care what you call it, but I don’t want it, and I especially don’t want it on timescales which are too short for evolutionary adaptation (like decades).

    It’s not trivial to quantify the impacts of global warming, and you wouldn’t have a complete agreement on their significance or what to do about it even if we had a perfect scientific understanding of what they would be. We don’t even have a universal way of quantifying the significance of the loss of an ecosystem from an economics perspective. But the fact is that we know a 3 C warming or more will be very significant by any reasonable standard, and we cannot rule out low probability-high consequence events which some might call abrupt climate change or tipping points. The IPCC WG2 is the best assessment on this, and I think Mark Lynas’ book “Six Degrees” is probably the best book that is friendly reading.

  24. 324
    Ron Taylor says:

    Re 318 – Tamino,

    …amen, and thanks for the clarity.

  25. 325
    Jim Eager says:

    Re Joseph Hunkins @319: “But I believe IPCC’s projections are realistic and should be our guide to the likely scenarios”

    Fine, but be sure to take into account the IPCC’s explicit caveat that it assumed no increase in the rate of melting of the Greenland ice cap, yet such an increase is exactly what is being observed. And be sure to also take into account an actual rate of Arctic sea ice melt that makes a mockery of original projections. And actual observed rates of methane emissions from thawing permafrost, which were not included in the IPCC projections.

    In other words, be sure to take into account that some of the IPCC’s projections were wrong, and that the errors were not in our favour.

  26. 326
    Phil. Felton says:

    Jim Cripwell Says:
    1 June 2008 at 11:00 AM
    “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.”

    And at the start of this winter there was only 2 million sq km of old ice left.

    “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.”

    But not in other parts!

    “In fact, the ice surface returned far more rapidly that it disappeared.”

    After starting about a month later than usual, and then the average rate of disappearance during the month of April was 6,000 square kilometers per day faster than last April.

    “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.”

    Well a lot of it left the Arctic during the winter via the Fram St:
    http://ice-glaces.ec.gc.ca/App/WsvPageDsp.cfm?Lang=eng&lnid=43&ScndLvl=no&ID=11892

    As I pointed out a couple of months ago the dramatic breakup of multi year ice in the Beaufort sea will have significant impact for ice loss this summer and it’s certainly looking that way in the movie.

  27. 327
    Chuck Booth says:

    Conservative political analyst George F. Will opposes the cap-and-trade proposal being considered by the U.S. Congress, calling it

    “An unprecedentedly radical government grab for control of the American economy…cloaked in reassuring rhetoric about the government merely creating a market, but government actually would create a scarcity so government could sell what it has made scarce.”

    He suggests, instead, a straightforward tax on the carbon content of fossil fuels.
    http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/printDS/241492

    I’m curious to know what the economists think of this – is an obvious tax better for the environment and/or economy than a “hidden” tax?

  28. 328
    Phil Scadden says:

    #318. I think CCS is somewhat further advanced than “it doesn’t exist, we don’t know when (or even if) it will exist”. All the technologies used in CCS (capture from stack, CO2 separation and underground storage – at least in depleted gas fields) already exist albeit built for other purposes. The Otway project is going and Gorgon will be full commercial scale. I think it is a technology that is well worth the research.

    “using the possibility to rationalize building more coal-fired plants is folly.”
    On this we agree. Our government has banned state-owned companies from starting any thermal project UNLESS there is complete CCS, putting the onus of proof back on them.

  29. 329

    Chris: A good point that “catastrophe” is too vague/charged a term, though I use it a lot because my beef is with *characterizations* of IPCC rather than the data itself, which I feel was very responsibly reported.

    Ray (and Jim). Yes, I agree that 3 is the most probable temp increase but that higher is possible. I also think (without much to back it up) that the 1-5% estimate of a higher temp likelihood is reasonable.

    Now some research is needed because I was under the impression that at least some of Nordhaus’ projections using the DICE model included those unlikely high temp conditions. If we had a very high chance of 6 degrees we should spend much more now than if we have a low chance, and I think 1-5% is a low chance.

    Hank I think you’ve raised a great question but not answered it with that list. *At what point* is intervention optimal? Clearly we should not pull out all the stops today to save the American Robin from extinction, since it’s not facing trouble. Spotted owls here in Oregon may get a 400 million recovering plan soon and it would be weak for me to suggest that’s cheaper than if we’d done better 20 years back when we knew things were problematic with the species. Again, we face the *real* questions of how much, on what, and when. Nordhaus appears to have an *excellent* approach to making that decision. Let’s use it.

  30. 330
    John Mashey says:

    re: #327
    Carbon taxes are certainly simpler, but as usual, the devil is in the details. I reiterate what I said in #90, but having read Nordhaus’ book, I have more details.

    1 gallon gas ~ 20 lbs of CO2
    1 ton CO2 ~~ 100 gallons of gas or diesel
    $100 per ton carbon = $27.2 / ton CO2 = $.27/gallon

    p.91 of Nordhaus gives Carbon prices (in 2005 US$)for different policies
    His “optimal” policy gives:

    2005. 2015. 2025. 2035. 2045. 2055. 2065… 2075… 2085… 2095… 2105…
    27.28 41.90 53.39 66.49 81.31 98.01 116.78 137.82 161.37 187.68 217.02 $/Ton Carbon
    $0.07 $0.11 $0.14 $0.18 $0.22 $0.26 $0.32 .$0.37 .$0.44 .$0.51 .$0.59 $ tax/gallon

    It is completely unclear to me how a carbon tax of that size can have much noticeable effect any time soon, given that it’s totally dwarfed by Oil price jiggles. That’s not to argue against it – I’d rather we keep the money, but I do observe that *wishing for a carbon tax* is no apriori wish to actually do anything meaningful, because it depends on the numbers. Stern’s numbers start at $249 ($.59/gal) and end at $940 ($2.54/gal) … which is still lower than most European countries, but at least might actually get noticed.

    It is instructive to read Nordhaus with a copy of Kharecha & Hansen at hand for comparison.

    If all one does is a carbon tax, given that Oil+Gas prices are likely to go up anyway, I think this is a recipe to shift to more coal for electricity and synfuels…

    Again, I simply do not understand how, simultaneously:

    a) More than a $0.11/gallon in 2015 would be nonoptimally high
    b) But a $1 price rise now [and probably more to come from Peak Oil] is irrelevant.

    Again, I beg any economist (or anyone who says they trust these results) for enlightenment.

  31. 331
    Nick Gotts says:

    #311- Douglas Wise “However, notably absent from any discussions of possible solutions has been any acknowledgement of our burgeoning population growth, growth which, sooner or later, will have to reverse if we are to hold out any hope of saving the planet.”

    Well, this site is not primarily about solutions, but I don’t think you can have been following very closely if you have not seen population growth discussed. The proportional rate of growth has halved in the last 40 years, and since the late 1990s growth has actually been slightly sublinear. Moreover, we know how to accelerate the trend toward zero or negative growth: move people into cities (we couldn’t stop this if we wanted), educate girls, improve access to contraception.

    “Tamino, let’s not get off on the wrong foot. I would genuinely value your opinion as to whether you think that , were you in a position to implement all of the policies that you could wish for, you could prevent dangerous climate change while giving time for global population to level off naturally. I would be delighted with a convincing and affirmative answer. If you don’t think such a benign outcome is possible, then we are going to have to address some very unsavoury demographic solutions.”

    What “very unsavoury demographic solutions” are you thinking of. Mass murder? Compulsory sterilisation?

  32. 332
    Nick Gotts says:

    “But I’m a guy that accepts mainstream climate science *and* mainstream economic science”
    Whether “mainstream economic science” exists is a moot point. There simply is not the kind of consensus among relevant experts about economics as there is about climate science.

    “It is wonderfully ironic how much enthusiasm there is for supercomputer climate modelling while at the same time such aversion for the idea that supercomputer mitigation solutions are coming soon to a planet near us all.”

    Not really: the site is run by climate modellers, so they know climate modelling works, and they know how to continue improving it. Relying on pie-in-the-sky “supercomputer mitigation solutions” is merely foolish.

  33. 333
    Jonathan Dyrud says:

    I am new to this large site. Can you help me find what I am looking for? Rather than the science, I am interested in who cares? – meaning, is there a purely political reason for highlighting this issue? Is some lofty person or group with a philosophical view have a reason to emphasize the issue of climate change? Is something beyond science propelling the issue? Is there a puppet master guiding the editors of textbooks for all levels of education? It appears to me that no serious politician dares to question what children have been taught from the earliest grades. What is really behind this amazing phenomenon of promoting climate change politics?
    Jonathan Dyrud

    [Response: It’s a fair cop, we are all paid up members of the climatati – a secret society formed in Bavaria in the depths of the Little Ice Age, dedicated to subverting all authority. Or you are very confused. Take your pick. (PS. This site is just about the science. You might be happier elsewhere). – gavin]

  34. 334
    Hank Roberts says:

    Joe, I’ve been seening your ‘joeduck’ postings in many places around the net for a long time. You’ve got opinions. Everyone’s entitled to their own. If you have facts on the question, I’d be interested.

    “If you have a choice between a hypothetical situation and a real one, choose the real one.” — Joan Baez

  35. 335
    Douglas Wise says:

    re #331 Nick Gotts apparently knows how to accelerate the trend towards zero or negative population growth but the supposed efficacy of the methods he suggests have been subject to recent academic challenge. However, I have no real wish to get into a debate over this issue because it is off topic.

    What I would like to know, in the view of the technically expert contributors to this site, is whether dangerous global warming can be averted through the use of existing technology, provided that an appropriate global consensus could be obtained to expedite deployment of the proposed solutions. If so, is this compatible with a global population peaking at, say, 9 billion in 2050? If not, I previously suggested that there would have to be consideration of “very unsavouy demographic solutions”.

    Nick asked if I were contemplating mass murder. I would not rule it out if the choice were between that and all going down in the sinking ship together and taking down most other species with us. However, even if technology can’t provide the fix we all desire for all 9 billion of the 2050 population, there are other possible solutions that should obviously be considered before mass murder (which I interpret to mean war).

    Homo sapiens is but one of many species of mammal. If any other species were to temporarily escape the normally controlling agencies of predation, disease or food supply, wildlife managers would intervene to prevent resource degradation which would otherwise lead to a lower future carrying capacity for the species in question or to a reduction in biodiversity. Homo sapiens has escaped normal controls by exploitation of fossil fuels. Are we going to behave as any other species would and carry on using what we can till it has all gone or, because we are unique in having reflexive consciousness, do we have the capacity to escape going over the precipice just in time? It is a moot point and one that probably can’t be answered except in the future.

    At the moment, all I am trying to find out is whether we are just in time if we could overcome some of our possibly hard wired behaviours and cooperate. In other words, is there a satisfactory technical fix if we can summon the will to use it?

  36. 336
    Nick Gotts says:

    335: Douglas Wise “Nick Gotts apparently knows how to accelerate the trend towards zero or negative population growth but the supposed efficacy of the methods he suggests have been subject to recent academic challenge.”
    Such an assertion is all the better for some actual references; and since you brought up population, and are continuing to talk about it, perhaps you could provide some.

    “At the moment, all I am trying to find out is whether we are just in time if we could overcome some of our possibly hard wired behaviours and cooperate.”
    Anyone who pretends to know whether it is too late is ignoring the considerable remaining uncertainties about climate sensitivity, availability of fossil fuels, possible changes in solar output or large volcanic eruptions, etc. If you decide it’s time to start the mass-murder, make sure you target it appropriately, at the richest areas of North America and western Europe, since that’s where the greatest concentrations of greenhouse gases are still coming from.

  37. 337
    Chuck Booth says:

    Re # 330 John Mashey

    Point of clarification: George Will proposed (if I read him correctly and take him at his word) a tax on the carbon content of the fuel – not on the price of the fuel. So, it should be independent of the price of a barrel of oil. Yes?

    To get back to my original question, there is little doubt that a direct tax is anathema to most politicians. And, based on my economically-challenged way of looking at these issues, if a carbon tax were to be compensated by a reduction in some other tax (as Will suggests), the whole thing would be revenue neutral, and there would little incentive to take the carbon tax revenue out of the general fund and use it to promote alternative fuels, emission-reducing technologies, etc. I have to wonder if these aren’t the very reasons George Will favors a direct carbon tax – nothing will change.

  38. 338
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Hi Douglas and Nick, I think you should both give each other the benefit of the doubt–and indeed every other poster–that they are not in favor of mass murder. There is no need to take antagonistic positions. We have all accepted that society is in the soup unless we take serious action and that if we screw up the actions we take, we will equally be in the soup. We also agree that certain actions will make things worse, while others will ameliorate the situation–whether enough to avoid disaster we cannot know yet.
    I think Douglas feels frustrated with the slow progress toward finding solutions (as are we all) and worried that by the time action is agreed upon we may find we are too late. However, I think it is safe to say that since we do not yet have a generally agreed upon technological or economic fix, we are in a position of trying to buy time however we can until such a fix or fixes can be found.

  39. 339
    tamino says:

    Re: #335 (Douglas Wise)

    … whether dangerous global warming can be averted through the use of existing technology, provided that an appropriate global consensus could be obtained to expedite deployment of the proposed solutions.

    Of course I don’t know the answer, but I’ll offer an opinion. I’d say no, we can’t avoid dangerous climate change — but yes, we can avoid disastrous climate change. It will require two things. First, we have to make massive investment in renewable energy, including both the deployment of existing tech (wind, solar, etc.) and R&D, while phasing out (rapidly) fossil-fuel energy. Absolutely no more coal-fired plants until CCS is proven.

    Second, we have to make actual sacrifices. The 3-car family has to become a 2-car or 1-car family, the Ford F350 pickup truck has to become a Prius, the Hummer should simply be banned. No more incandescent light bulbs, period. Leaving electronic devices on “standby” all night long while everyone’s asleep must be forbidden. Animal husbandry must be reduced, and meat should probably be rationed. Efficiency and conservation should be the rule of law, not the recommendation of environmental activists. I’m sure this sounds unpleasant, and it is, but it’s far better than the alternative. We can pay now, or we can pay later, and the cost later is all too likely to involve that mass murder/warfare which we all shudder to imagine.

    It’s nearly impossible to avoid future CO2 concentrations reaching 440-450 ppm, but we can limit it there if we act *now*, not later. If levels soar to 550 ppm or higher, we’re beyond dangerous and into “totally screwed.”

    Finally: the forces of “free-market capitalism” which seek to obstruct all the above must be punished. Slapped down hard. The forces of “free-market capitalism” which seek to profit from development and deployment of the renewable technology that will help, must be rewarded. Lavishly.

  40. 340
    Douglas Wise says:

    re #336. We all need hope for the future of our offspring. Without it, the strategy of many will be to “eat, drink and be merry”.

  41. 341
    Douglas Wise says:

    re #339. Tamino, thank you. I greatly appreciate your answer. It doesn’t fill me with the hope I had wished for but, nevertheless, doesn’t totally extinguish it. I appreciate that you acknowledge that none of wants mass murder/warfare and that not all “free market capitalism” is necessarily malign

  42. 342
    John Mashey says:

    re: #337 Chuck Booth

    Carbon taxes are indeed taxes on the carbon content, not on the price of the fuel, they are like the excise tax, not a sales tax.

    Look again at Nordhaus’ by-year imputed $/gallon taxes. Those might be noticeable to businesses that use a lot of fuel, but they’re in the noise for a long time compared with the rises in prices at the pump. Assume someone drives 10,000 miles/year @ 25 mpg, so uses 400 gallons/year. In 2015, the tax would cost them $44. I’m not sure that’s enough to induce much behavioral change.

    Again, as best as I can tell [and I’ve been looking at the GAMS code from his website], Nordhaus’s models say:
    (a) The economically optimal carbon tax is as shown in #330; more than $.11 in 2015 would hurt the economy.
    (b) BUT, somehow, large oil price increases have *zero* effect on the economy in the next few years. There’s one giant pot for all fossil fuels, and no resource exhaustion limits / Hoteling effects happen any time soon.

    “I have to wonder if these aren’t the very reasons George Will favors a direct carbon tax – nothing will change.”

    That is certainly plausible, which is what I was trying to say in:

    “*wishing for a carbon tax* is no apriori wish to actually do anything meaningful”,

    as it has been interesting to see certain people espousing carbon taxes [but not high enough to have much effect soon], and perhaps guessing that the political difficulties end up stop them from happening at all. This can be an effective tactic, i.e., the misdirection argument. I am *not* claiming Nordhaus is doing this.

  43. 343
    Henning says:

    Fortunately politics just doesn’t work like that and therefore neither meat nor cars will be rationed and conservation won’t become the rule of law. Politicians will do something, if its benefit is obvious and visible. Nuclear energy was one of those things. It was visible and gave the impression of a technological advantage that nobody wanted to miss out on. You could sell it to the public as a leap forward into a better future. Rationing meat will not save the planet but it does significantly cut into our daily lives and our freedom. Surely we can survive eating less meat. We can also survive not going on holiday, not having pets, not eating rice, not heating our homes in fall and spring (what are blankets for?) and not watching television. But no politician will ever come up with an according law because all of that has very little effect. And the argument, that many small things can positively add up to big one is true for cutting into our personal freedom as well. Politicians should focus on the big stuff: promote renewable energy but please don’t steal my hambuger for a millionth of a millimeter in sea-level rise.

  44. 344
    John Mashey says:

    re: #339 tamino

    Yes, but many people have trouble with long-term thinking. Maybe it would help to realize that if we *don’t* do these things, the USA economy won’t be anything like what they’re used to, *much sooner*.

    I summarize (& add a few):

    C = climate
    E = economy

    1. C E avoidance of waste
    2. C E efficiency

    3. C E build renewables as fast as possible
    4. C E avoid throwing away money on “stranded assets” (vehicles + infrastructure)
    5. C E carefully manage oil+gas to allow a shallower downslope post-Peak
    6. C E change utility rules to encourage efficiency & renewables
    7. C – manage un-CCSed coal down as fast as possible **
    8. C E manage a disciplined R&D & deployment program, not magic.
    9. C E think real hard about the nature of the US military

    Item 1: are often actions that can betaken with no investment, on short notice.

    Item 2: have big payoffs, but sometimes take a while, due to installed base issues.

    item 3: will take a long time, so better be doing it now.

    Item 4: buy and build nothing whose natural economic life exceeds the life dictated by rising prices of oil+gas. I.e., as of today, GM seems no logjner committed to Hummers. Good move. There are still plenty on the lots.

    Item 5: from past oil shocks, the slope of the supply curve matters, and steep supply drops are really rough, because substitution takes a while. We are way better off economically if, for example, we leave ANWR as a (small) piggy-bank for some future generation. Oil+gas have to increasingly be treated as capital to be *invested*.

    Item 6: this is one of the biggest wins there is. Incent utilities (as CA does) to make money via efficiency, not just more megawatts. CA has managed to keep electricity/capita flat for ~30 years, while USA average has gone up 40-50%. If everybody had done, there would have been a lot less coal plants. As can be seen in US per capita energy use by state, states vary tremendously, and it’s isn’t just by climate. Long-term policies matter. For good ideas, the hero in CA is Art Rosenfeld.

    Item 7: ** coal is the big differentiator between climate (and environment in general) and economics. I grew up in Western PA (i.e., edge of coal country), used to work for the US Bureau of Mines, and if someone wants to learn more about the management style and environmental consciousness of this industry, I recommend Jeff Goodell’s “Big Coal”.

    Item 8: We need properly-crafted, “progressive-commitment” R&D programs.

    item 9: For the same resource expenditure, there is some tradeoff between building {windmills, solar thermal, etc} and building {tanks, airplanes, and coal-to-liquid synfuel plants}.

    Anyway, I’d claim that “climate vs economy” is a mis-direction argument, of which most seems to come from coal people, unsurprisingly.

  45. 345
    Jim Cripwell says:

    Off topic. For those interested there is an NSDIC update of the situation with respect to arctic sea ice.
    http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/index.html

  46. 346
    Jim Eager says:

    Yes, Jim, I’m sure many of us have been watching the NSDIC plots with baited breath. That the current trend has almost caught up with last year’s trend since mid-May is the reason most of us did not take much comfort in this past winter’s ‘record’ refreeze. We may not exceed 2007 this year, but it probably won’t be far off.

  47. 347
    Ted Nation says:

    #299 Geoff Sherrington, how in the world did you read my statement in post #298 to conclude that I was advocating taking “the money from efficient power stations, (to)give the money to the poor so they can inefficiently burn more fuel?” I was advocating redirecting resources from wasteful and low yield uses like cold war weapons to investments in improvements in energy use efficiency and alternative carbon neutral energy sources.

  48. 348
    per says:

    Re 300
    “For many species, sunlight is not that important. Warmth combined with enough moisture is more important.”

    But that does not explain why wheat fields limited by a short growth season and lack of hot sunshine should yield 50% more grain than those who are not. It makes no sense at all.

  49. 349
    Ron Taylor says:

    Re 344 – John, you have pretty well nailed it as far as I am concerned. I especially appreciate your take on drilling ANWR. I have gone from telling friends “We shouldn’t drill ANWR” to, “Yes, we will have to drill ANWR, but I hope we don’t do so until after we have improved efficiency, since we would just waste it if we drilled now.”

    I think we will desperately need it in the future and will be glad it is still there.

  50. 350
    Ric Merritt says:

    Tamino #339. Your contributions in statistics and allied areas have been so well-reasoned, well-presented, and to the point that it is very disheartening to have to dissent with your proposals for public policy. I’m having great trouble characterizing them without ad hom adjectives, so I’ll just say that their likelihood of success is nearly equal to their grounding in logic and judgment. About zero, in each case, to several decimal places. Rationing meat and banning Hummers, gimme a break.

    Surely all this blog’s readers understand that such policies are not the only way to control AGW. Even more surely, any such policies would be fought to the death (more or less literally, given the consequences) by the right and most of the center. As noted above, even George Will, hardly a lefty, is willing to talk about a carbon tax. (BTW, see carbontax.org for many cogent reasons why it beats cap and trade.) Reducing national and world economic inequality is a separable problem, with far less dire feedback loops. Very simple question: What are the IPCC reports about, CO2 or Hummer counts? The CO2 is the first-order problem, the Hummers a side issue. Get the right policy, and the Hummer count will take care of itself.

    I don’t mean to disagree with the need for some sacrifice, but a sensible CO2 policy will have many benefits as well. Let’s not throw them away by taking our eye off the main issue.