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The high cost of inaction

Filed under: — Jim @ 14 October 2011

In 2004 Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow published a paper in Science in which they argued that a pragmatic, but still difficult, way of stabilizing atmospheric CO2 levels over the long term was via the implementation of seven “stabilization wedges” over the next 50 years. The idea was very simple: each wedge represented one in-hand technology or societal practice that could be implemented, relatively slowly at first and increasing linearly with time, to make a small but growing dent in the rise in CO2 emissions, stabilizing them at 2004 levels (about 7 Gigatons C/Year) over the next 50 years (see figure below).

These seven wedges would be chosen from among a larger set of fifteen possibilities that included standard mitigation approaches such as increased energy efficiencies in vehicles and buildings, carbon capture at coal plants, nuclear power increases, and reduced deforestation and agricultural tillage-based losses. These practices would collectively buy time while larger scale transformations to renewable energies on a global scale could be developed and implemented that would drive emissions to zero over the following 50 years. This drastic emissions drop in the second 50 year period requires an immediate start on the research needed to develop and implement these technologies five to ten decades out, and the wedges themselves require a deliberate and committed effort, starting now.

A couple of weeks ago, Socolow updated this work in a brief commentary piece to show where we are seven years later. The results are not encouraging. First, and most significant, rather than decreasing the emissions rate, the lack of implementation of these strategies has been accompanied by an accelerated rate of emissions, such that annual CO2 output is now just under 9 Gt C/yr, a 2 Gt/yr increase. Accounting for natural sequestration, this represents an increase of about 13-14 ppm CO2 over that time. But this is not the full story by any means. As Socolow notes, if we re-set the clock to 2011 and start the wedge strategy implementation now, it would now take nine wedges implemented at the proposed rate of the original seven, to accomplish the same goal (keeping emission rates constant over the next 50 years).

The stabilization wedge concept, circa 2004 vs 2011

Here is the real kicker however.   Even if we were to do so, starting today, with stable emissions for 50 years and then falling gradually from there to zero emissions over the following 50 years, an additional ~50 ppm of CO2 would be added to the atmosphere by 2111, relative to what would have been added had the seven wedge strategy been initiated in 2004. This equates to a roughly 0.5 W/sq m forcing increase, and a ~0.4 degree C global temperature increase, assuming an equilibrium sensitivity of 3 deg C per CO2 doubling and that the additional 50 ppm is added on top of the increase that would have occurred even if the 2004 wedge strategy had in fact been initiated.  In other words, seven years of inaction, even if we immediately begin implementing the strategy now and fully carry it out over the next century, have larger climatic consequences over the next century than one might expect.

So are we ready to begin that now, and the research needed for the drastic drops from 2061 to 2111 that the strategy requires, or will we be repeating this same story in 2018, with a couple more wedges required, and another 50 ppm or more likely in the pipeline and no commitment to the needed advanced technologies?

You can read more about it, and commentary on it from some influential folks, here, here, and here.

142 Responses to “The high cost of inaction”

  1. 51
    Septic Matthew says:

    6, Pete Dunkelberg: The cost of delay? Everything. example:

    If I had a $1trillion to devote, and I could ensure that it was actually spent on the projects that I chose (as opposed to simply being embezzled by governments), I would ensure that at least $400billion went to flood control (including reforestation) and irrigation projects in places like California, the Indus valley, and the headwaters of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Irrawaddy and other places where there are alternations of too much and too little water. These floods will recur even if CO2 emissions are reduced, just as they always have occurred. It would be criminal to spend enormous sums of money on CO2 reduction in the industrial and developing worlds and watch the floods and droughts continue to kill people year after year.

    I would indeed make sure that the irrigation/flood control projects were complete or well underway before increasing the investments in alternative energies.

    How would you, or others, allocate the money first, and how do you know that it would have a beneficial effect? The US and EU could halve their CO2 output without affecting global warming.

  2. 52
    Septic Matthew says:

    Oh, I liked the Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow paper when it first appeared in part because of the diversity of approaches. Not every place has to implement every wedge technology for the whole to work together.

  3. 53
    R. Gates says:

    Being a student of both climate and politics, and watching what is unfolding on both the national and international political stages, I am not encouraged that any “wedges” will be implemented or planned for any time soon. Currently the pendulum of public and political opinion has turned against decisive action on any sort of mitigation of CO2. Helping to nudge this pendulum away from action are both economic and political forces, domestic and international, combined with the plan fact that climate change, was and still is equated primarily with global warming, and we all know that there has been a rather well-publicized flat-lining of global temperatures over the past decade. Regardless of the cause of this flat-lining (aerosols from China, frequent La Nina’s, a quiet sun etc.), it has taken a bit of the urgency of the need for CO2 “wedges” off the front burner of public perception. Combined with all the aforementioned issues has of course been the rather tepid global economy, which has caused no small measure of disruption and pain to millions of people, such that the issue of CO2 and climate change is now registering barely a collective yawn.

    As I’ve been saying for years…for CO2 and climate change to become once more a front-burner issue, it will have to force its way back into the collective consciousness of humanity through a clear, unequivocal, and rather painful wrap on the side of our collective heads. Until this happens, expect an increasingly cool public and political reception to the issue. Let’s just hope such a wrap– when and if it comes– isn’t a knock-out punch instead.

  4. 54
    Scott Wesley says:

    We have a bio source system that has ZERO CARBON EMISSIONS, which takes most any bio source and eliminates it and converts to renewable energy. MP BioMass can take; fly ash~coal ash, lawn debris, wood chips, petroleum waste, sludge, garbage, and more and thermal chemically process it to electricity which can be funneled into the grid, oxygen ~ grade 5, and methanol. We have been doing this since 2003, have facilities models to prove it, and have one of the finest scientific foundations and engineering firms in the world backing us. Please feel free to visit us at Facebook!

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  5. 55
    Edward Greisch says:

    Davos: There is a fight we don’t want to get into again here. We have been down that road before. Let’s let people find out for themselves, as they must anyway, before they will understand.

    I just finished reading “Prescr_iption for the Planet” by Tom Blees, 2008. I think burning boron to power vehicles has been discussed before here, but it was some time before my time here. I have the impression that boron is too brittle to be made into wire.

    Davos: See:

    The cost of inaction could be extreme if BPL is correct, and I think he is. The growth of deserts is a cubic equation. That means that, by the time most people “get it,” we will be into a steeper part of the curve. That is what worries me sick.

  6. 56
    prokaryotes says:

    Re raypierre comment #30, the 1st link is to an assessment from Climate Progress about several studies, mainly the IEA June report and a NCAR study and the peer-reviewed Cornell study.

    And then there are question’s:
    What is the leakage rate for methane? Well, as I’ve written, we don’t know exactly because the gas companies won’t release all of their data. ses-warming-for-decades/

    Among other implications
    Uranium in Groundwater? ‘Fracking’ Mobilizes Uranium in Marcellus Shale

    or about groundwater fracking in general, as outlined in the movie Gasland. Or about the affirmed connection from hydraulic fracturing and earthquakes. With all this to bet on Natural Gas as a bridge fuel, seems kind of naive. I suggest to open a topic on alternative forms of energy and technologies which can make the transition to an zero and negative emission scenario.

    [Response: The Howarth study may be peer-reviewed, but that doesn’t make it right. There are a number of comments coming out in the same journal shortly pointing out what is wrong with the study, which relies both on poor estimates of leakage rates and inflates the impact in part by using short-term global warming potential. But I would go beyond even most of the criticisms to date, because even the critics of Howarth are still for the most part using 100 year Global Warming Potential, which significantly overstates the relative importance of methane and CO2. When you burn coal you release CO2 directly, and that changes the climate substantially for the next 10,000 years or more. In contrast, the radiative forcing methane released by leakage from frakking disappears almost completely within a decade after emissions. That makes methane a big winner over coal if you look at what climate you’re stuck with in the years past 2100, until the leakage rate gets pretty darn close to 100%. Note that I am not disputing the other environmental risks from frakking. Those are real, and need to be taken seriously. But people who are worried about effects of frakking on water pollution should make their case based on real environmental damages, not on scientifically unsound and trumped up charges of frakked methane being worse than coal burning. –raypierre]

  7. 57

    7 years delay = 50 ppm extra. Although I am speaking to the converted here, this is just another bad news tale for global warming. Tackling the denial that we are in is a big hurdle. I tend to agree with Lovelock that we are too stupid, but then the fact that we go to war already establishes our level of intelligence.

    I lament that we may lose such a beautiful world through our own stupidity, which is why I keep fighting for more action.

    The Gillard Govt is passing the start of a new way of doing things in Australia – a cap and trade system. Unfortunately the target is set at 5% which is not even the 15% Aust committeed to at Copenhagen. At least it is a start.

    A cap and trade system is the best economic solution as it uses competition to find the most economical solutions to reduce emissions. Lets hope it works.

  8. 58

    PS. I mean it’s new for Aust (not a new idea).

  9. 59
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Septic Matthew @ 51, Thank you for noticing the example I posted back @ 6, but I am surprised that you take the “don’t focus on reducing on CO2 because it’s rained before” approach. You didn’t just discover this issue today. Aren’t you aware that floods have increased? Check this
    if you missed it. And have you some idea of why? I think you do.

    Major cities are often located on the seacoast or in river valleys. I think you know enough about climate change to realize if you just give a little more thought that delay in reducing CO2 emissions is likely to lead to the necessity of not just flood controls but the relocation of most large cities.

  10. 60
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Septic Matthew @ 51, I am astounded that you repeat such absurdities as “It would be criminal to spend enormous sums of money on CO2 reduction in the industrial and developing worlds and watch the floods and droughts continue to kill people year after year.” You write as if you have no idea why floods just happen to be increasing in intensity, and no awareness that this is expected, for good reason, to keep getting worse due our energy-related habits. SM, the whole thesis of the top post here is that reducing emissions saves money and much else. The full costs of fossil fuels are not acknowledged in the official cost of energy, but are paid nonetheless. You perversely inject the opposite, but false, assertion that using less fossil energy = “spending enormous sums”. Replacing old, polluting coal fired power plants with renewable energy sources, using renewables for new power plants, instituting “feed in tariff” for rooftop solar power and so on will benefit humanity.

  11. 61
    Davos says:

    @ #55 … I think the failure of the nation to get the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility off (or under) the ground highlights the extreme conflict and complexity that challenges so many of these wedges that Socolow presents more matter-of-factly than I’d like. I mean really… if a project can be nixed because of a lack of a plan for what happens in year 12011 (yes, 10,000 years from now), then anything is susceptible.

    It’s obvious that no one WANTS to live next to or near any of this stuff…but someone’s go to.

    One of the problems that I see for the US relative to many other places in the world is that we have a Constitution that guarantees due-process afforded to every citizen. In this way, believing that a pervasive scheme of mass-convincing by itself is what we need to get the job done is wrong-headed.

    Even if 80% majorities wholly desire a certain energy infrastructure to be located in their district, it can STILL fail because of very few well-informed and well-financed individuals knowledgeable about the litigation process. Endless appeals and staggered demands for proper process and impact studies, etc. (there should be at least several of you who know exactly what I’m talking about). One litigant pursuing their due-process rights infront of a sympathetic judge is all that it takes. Even legislation enacted to consolidate the appeals process can itself be challenged in court.

    It just sounds like the places that can achieve real deployment on any scale necessary happen to be communist and monarchical countries. I don’t see ‘due-process’ being eliminated any time soon.

    Since all of us live all over the world, we should look inward to see what we advertise to our communities as to what’s really important. If eliminating the harmful side-effects of energy strategy xyz is MORE important than its contribution toward future CO2 stabilization, then you need to understand there is at least one person living in every other place on this Earth (including where you prefer that technology instead be deployed) that feels the same way. Unless YOU change what you’re willing to sacrificially permit near your home, it’s not going to matter what is published in academia regarding ‘wedges’ because there’s going to just continue to be costly ‘inaction’.

    A serious question… If everyone who lurks and posts on this board were to be truly honest… If we eliminate all energy sources that at least one person objects to if it were near them, what are we left with that is “acceptable”? It appears that we’re down to just solar, no?

    [Response: You seem to think entirely in terms of large energy generating facilities. A number of these wedges don’t involve this, specifically increased energy use efficiency, reduced tillage, reduced deforestation, and reduced total energy use. And some of the others don’t necessarily imply centralization, or if they do, they can be located in relatively remote locations, and/or their local impacts are not as adverse as are those from existing facilities, coal plants for example. The other point is that Pacala and Socolow weren’t attempting to address the social issues you’re raising–they were addressing only what’s technically feasible. So that criticism is misguided–Jim]

  12. 62
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Septic Matthew @ 51, It is as if although you know many details, you just can’t or won’t put them all together. I am reminded of something it says here:

    Failure of imagination is equally evident in our prolonged refusal to act on global warming. Collectively, we have proven incapable of imagining either the future we are headed for, or the alternative pathways that could save us, even though scientists and economists, using critical reason, have developed very good pictures of what lies ahead. Thus, the problem is not a lack of information, but a lack of capacity to grasp that information as a coherent whole, which is the very foundation of our capacity for imagination.

  13. 63
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    A reminder on denialism. Delay is the bottom line.

    Delayers may argue that they are not deniers, based on out of date dictionary definitions. Denialism is now a defined technical term best explained here. It is a business model developed by the tobacco industry. Recall that the tobacco industry had analyzed all the data and knew of the pernicious effects of their product all along. It would be very surprising if Big Carbon has not analyzed all the data. If there were any scientific support for denial, they would publish it. They must know that their extreme profits can not continue indefinitely, but like the tobacco industry they can prolong the money stream for decades with the consequence (evidently acceptable to them) of “giving the whole world cancer.”

  14. 64
    R. Gates says:

    This article from today’s New York Times sums the issue up quite well:

  15. 65
    Radge Havers says:

    “a lack of capacity to grasp that information as a coherent whole, which is the very foundation of our capacity for imagination.”

    There’s productive imagination, then there’s imagination that has slipped a cog and runs free. I can’t help thinking that there’s something cultish in the way that denialists thrash about in the data. It’s like they’re playing records backwards in order to find proof that Paul is Dead…

  16. 66
    Ernst K says:

    raypierre in response to 42:

    “Your figures are based on recoverable fraction at current prices and current technology. ”

    Not really. They are based on what could be strongly argued is a highly aggressive plan to develop the tar sands as fast as possible for the foreseeable future. The Alberta economy is bursting at the seams trying to keep up with the labour demands required to put all the infrastructure in place to produce even 3 million barrels per day, let alone 5 million, or the 50 million that would be required to develop the entire resource in 100 years. It’s a bit of a coincidence that 5 million barrels a day for 100 years works out to the 10% of the resource that is currently recoverable. But the facts on the ground in Alberta are that no one is proposing to produce oil at a rate in excess of 5 million barrels a day.

    “If the tar sands were to become fully recoverable by some combination of higher price and more advanced technology (both of which would also increase the production rate) then your numbers would go up by a factor of ten”

    Increasing the recoverable reserve would not necessarily result in an equivalent increase in the rate of production because Alberta is not a regulation-free no-mans-land. You wouldn’t be able to develop 1 barrel of that increased reserve without government approval. Also, having the technology to remove 100% of a pool rather than just 10% of a pool is not the same thing as being able to increase the production rate by 10 times. Usually it means being able to produce the pool for 10 times longer.

    While it’s likely that economic reserves will increase the recoverable reserves somewhat, the vast majority of the tar sands that are not currently recoverable are “not recoverable” for reasons of basic physics: too deep to be surface mined and too viscous to be pumped. As the price goes up, companies will be willing to hang around longer to put the extra effort in to produce another barrel of oil from their lease. They already have every incentive to produce as fast as possible.

    And all this ignores the simple fact that almost all of this increased production will go to supply US demand, and it’s US demand for oil that encourages development of the tar sands. The tar sands will not be producing anywhere near 50 million barrels per day unless the US continues to demand it.

    The full volume of tar sands reserves is only a threat if we assume that we will completely exploit all available oil sources before switching over to alternative, greener energy sources. But if you believe that, then you’ve already given up on any hope of staying below 450 ppm, let alone 350 ppm. Whatever needs to be done to keep CO2 at these levels will also heavily discourage massive development of the tar sands.

    Personally, I think that Alberta can responsibly develop up to 5 or 10% of the total tar sands resource over the coming century without having much impact on global CO2 levels. This is actually more than enough to keep Alberta awash in oil royalties for as long as oil remains a valuable resource while it struggles to manage the significant local socio-environmental impacts.

    I fully agree that developing any more than that would be increasingly irresponsible and 100% would be a total disaster (both globally and especially locally).

  17. 67
    Davos says:

    Jim @61 … I agree with you that criticism specifically of what Socolow has published is misguided if I declare they have avoided the critical task of deducing what could be ‘really possible’ without a social paradigm shift on the part of both polluter-supporters and NIMBY environmentalists– because that indeed was not their intent.

    I also agree I’m not concentrating as much on the wedges that are not related to energy facility and infrastructure…

    If we’re just talking about strategies that involve conservation, efficiencies, etc. we’ll be looking at only about 6 wedges (perhaps more if you include CO2 storage for already existing facilities). At some point, there needs to be this change in conversation that puts the elephant in the room of ‘how’ wedge technology is really going to work. (If not Socolow, then someone like him, writing a different piece with this goal).

    If the point is to just say flatly that “we have the technology” and “if only” and leave it at that, point taken (but I would say that’s what’s misguided). We know that waving the wand isn’t going to work. Wishing we all were communist/monarchical isn’t going to work. And, at this point, wishing everyone understood the true gravity of the situation isn’t going to work (because we know people who do and yet still put local inaction as more important/valuable).

    We also have the ‘technical’ ability to eliminate 1/2 of the world’s population. That would be a ‘wedge’ too ;) (clearly there is at least some sociology on the table).

  18. 68
    dhogaza says:

    Personally, I think that Alberta can responsibly develop up to 5 or 10% of the total tar sands resource

    I’ve seen it from the air, from somewhere between 35,000 and 39,000 feet. They’ve not been responsibly developing it thus far, why would one imagine they will in the future?

  19. 69
    Septic Matthew says:

    59, Pete Dunkelberg: Aren’t you aware that floods have increased?

    The evidence that floods have increased is very poor.

    60, Pete Dunkelberg: You write as if you have no idea why floods just happen to be increasing in intensity, and no awareness that this is expected, for good reason, to keep getting worse due our energy-related habits.

    China, to pick one example, has managed to save millions of people (compared to losses in the early decades of the 20th century) through building its current flood control system. Other places where floods occur should do the same.

  20. 70
    prokaryotes says:

    Re #56 Raypierre, you may be right that coal is the greater evil here, but really does that help? I mean we have to reduce emissions, and to do this with “emissions”, seems kind of a panache. Also observation suggest, that certain deposits are really unstable once you start open them. And then there is the problem of high water usage required to “frack”.

    DEEP in the Arctic Circle, in the Messoyakha gas field of western Siberia, lies a mystery. Back in 1970, Russian engineers began pumping natural gas from beneath the permafrost and piping it east across the tundra to the Norilsk metal smelter, the biggest industrial enterprise in the Arctic.

    By the late 70s, they were on the brink of winding down the operation. According to their surveys, they had sapped nearly all the methane from the deposit. But despite their estimates, the gas just kept on coming. The field continues to power Norilsk today.

    And then the fact that the energy infrastructure is a great leaker as well.

    Video: More than 8 billion cubic metres of natural gas are lost in the US each year

    [Response: One of course shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that natural gas is a fossil fuel and still produces CO2. It is true that emissions need to eventually drop to “essentially zero,” but any action that even reduces the rate of emission growth puts off the day when we hit our trillion tonne threshold, and buys time to develop more decarbonization technology. Switching from coal to gas does this, because gas produces less CO2 per unit of energy produced, can be burned more efficiently, and can be used in conjunction with cogeneration schemes. Gas plants have lower capital cost than coal, and so can be more easily written down when something better comes along. And gas plants start up fast, so they provide a good complement to renewables, up to the point when renewables make up a substantial portion of the feed (at which point you start to need serious storage on the grid). Already in the US very few new coal plants are planned, because gas has become cheap enough that the lower capital cost and lower neighborhood resistance makes them the first choice. From my investigation of electricity choices in Illinois, it also appears that newly installed wind power beats the cost of newly installed coal (considering full lifecycle), which also undercuts the need for more coal. Main question there is when we run out of places to put new wind farms. So, gas isn’t a panacea, but it’s a step forward from what we have. I think a bigger issue with frakking (besides the water pollution) is whether the amount of gas that can be recovered using this technology has been way overestimated. –raypierre]

  21. 71
    Septic Matthew says:

    60, Pete Dunkelberg: Replacing old, polluting coal fired power plants with renewable energy sources, using renewables for new power plants, instituting “feed in tariff” for rooftop solar power and so on will benefit humanity.

    I would recommend the other $600B for diverse wedges, including increased solar in the U.S. as the coal-fired plants are replaced. But only after the flood control projects are well under way. Notice, that’s $600B additional to what is happening now. I would also recommend a feed-in tariff for solar electricity, but I would have it low in recognition of the costs of maintaining the grid; if it worked for a while, then I would possibly raise it. I saw news of a new solar farm with an installed cost (if the news item is correct) of $1.57 per kw. Solar will soon be price competitive against every method of generating electricity in the daytime, when in fact electricity is most used.

    If you could direct $1trillion, how would you direct it?

  22. 72
    Russell says:

    Pacala and Socolow’s original study paid little attention to the internal variability of its largest fuel term. Given the rapid growth of coal consumption since 2004, it is increasingly important to recognize that there is presently no incentive to minimize the carbon to hydrogen ratio of the coal that is electively mined. If markets favored high hydrogen coals to the exclusion of more carbonaceous varieties , substitution might enable CO2 savings , on a constant BTU energy scenario basis , of a substantial fraction of a wedge globally.

    Such an emissions reduction could be simply regulated , If carbon taxes featured a rebate for the heat generated by hydrogen combustion. The potential CO2 savings is much larger than one might initially imagine, because coal composition statistics are calculated in weight per cent.

    To realize the actual hydrogen to carbon combustion ratios, the small percentage of hydrogen [ typically 2 to 5% ] must of course be multiplied by the ratio of the atomic weights of carbon and hydrogen, before going on to the combustion energy and and stochiometry factors.

    though the potential reduction is not so great as the contrast between the outliers– remember that unsaturated and cyclic hydrocarbons can have C:H ratios of 1:1 ! — ,anthracite and highly bitumenous coals are rare, the very large set of unexploited higher-volatile deposits has the potential to afford whole % reductions in global emissions. The coal market is vast and easy to demonize, but hydrogen is where you find it, and at the margin emissions may be mitigated by promoting its combustion at the expense of carbon.

  23. 73
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    SM @ 69, you referred to 59 but ignored the link there. Then you changed the subject. No one is objecting to flood control measures. Governments and societies must do many things including that. You earlier statement strongly implied that other important things like using renewable energy would be criminal because, somehow, flood control is also needed. Your swipe at energy source changes (not mentioned directly but implied) and support for delay is the reason for my comments above.

  24. 74
    Miguelito says:

    Thank you, Raypierre, for stating the obvious about the Cornell/Howarth shale-gas GHG emissions study. Another excellent refutation is Jiang et al. 2011 in Environmental Science and Technology (they don’t address the Howarth study specifically, but they do use a proper and realistic methodology with good assumptions).

    The Howarth study is another example of scientists publishing in a field they have no background in and the result is an atrociously bad and misleading paper. Then the media runs with it, not checking with experts in the field about its veracity, and it becomes another internet meme that has to be repeatedly bebunked.

    And I agree, there are environmental controversies with gas drilling, but the coal vs. gas argument isn’t one of them.

  25. 75

    #61, 67–“It appears that we’re down to just solar, no?”

    Sadly, no–there are those who see solar farms as some kind of ecological scorched earth thing, too. (And who have said so on this forum.)

    But law is not actually the main factor in ‘What Gets Done’ in a functioning democracy, though it is a crucial part of the puzzle. Political and social “givens” are just as important, if not more so. If we had 80% agreement on the mainstream science, overt obstructionism would become very costly indeed for its practitioners–folks get very upset if they think their kids are at risk, and they say so, very loudly indeed.

    Nor does obstructionism avail forever. Controversial public works projects do get built, even if objectors get their due process first.

    So I don’t think that we need to wring our hands unduly about democracies and free markets being ‘Unable To Act.’ In fact, they will probably be the nimblest, if the situation ever does become clear to the kinds of majorities posited.

    The question is, will the situation become sufficiently clear sufficiently soon? And that’s probably unknowable until well after the fact.

  26. 76
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    By the way SM, if you didn’t mean your # 51 the way I took it, that great, and I apologize for misunderstanding you. Here’s a little fun as compensation:

  27. 77
    Hank Roberts says:

    > “… the gas just kept on coming …”

    But you can’t rely on New Scientist for science.

    They’re an entertainment niche publication.

    Mystery? Is there really a mystery there?

    Check the actual published work.

    Look for more recent articles.

    Reposting old info doesn’t go far toward informing people about what’s known.

    Ask some questions about the stuff you find.

    Did the gas keep on coming? (was the article right?)
    Was there really a mystery? (was it an entertainment article?)

    Is gas evolving there still (is the article outdated?)
    Is it the same gas? (can you tell methane from petroleum from methane from gas hydrates?)

    Why did the gas just keep on coming?
    Was there just more than expected?

    Or, considering the location, did they destabilize a gas hydrate deposit?

    Or did warming in the area destabilize gas hydrates, and since there were already wells tapping the site, they collected that gas as it was released?

    Looking it up:

    Looks like there are answers to the obvious questions in the literature.

  28. 78
    Hank Roberts says:

    In fact — judging by the bit Scholar excerpts from this paywalled article found with the above search — releasing the pressure by tapping a gas reservoir can make hydrates start to release more gas:

    Towards Commercial Gas Production from Hydrate Deposits
    [PDF] from
    J Marcelle-De Silva… – Energies, 2011
    “… nature of gas hydrate dissociation. The production from the Messoyakha field of West Siberia (a Class 1 type deposit) has been attributed to simple depressurization of natural gas hydrates overlying a free gas zone which was on production [63,64]. …”

    Choosing to use frakking to break open strata rather than tapping gas out of reservoirs under permafrost probably depends more on where the company has leases than on what makes sense environmentally for the global atmosphere.
    Ya think?
    “Biologically rational decisions may not be politically possible once investment has occurred.” Science v315, 5 Jan. 2007, at 45

  29. 79
    Hank Roberts says:

    PS, again recommending Google’s natural language search feature, which keeps getting better.

    On occasion I try to remember to take my own advice.

    Feeding it the question I asked above:

    Seems to be possible:

    “… The methane in clathrates typically has a bacterial isotopic signature and highly variable d13C (-40 to -100‰), with an approximate average of about -65 ‰ (Kvenvolden, 1993; Dickens et al., 1995; Matsumoto, 1995)…..”

    –Aside, RC’s 2005 post is on the first page of results:

  30. 80
    Russell says:

    I don’t think the wedges approach is the best way to approach the problem, for the following reasons:
    Imagine an analogy where instead of having to find carbon savings quickly, you have to earn money by a deadline quickly. Now the best way to do that would be to find a job with a high hourly rate and work all the hours there are at it. If you were offered a job at $100 per hour you wouldn’t say “Great, that’s one wedge, I will work 10 hours a week at this, then look for another job.” You would try to spend all the time you could doing it. If the job was only available for 10 hours then you would look for others, perhaps paying less but not unless you had to.
    A similar thing applies to technologies to combat climate change. For example if solar continues its exponential growth, and rapid drop in price, you should do as much of it as you possibly can as soon as you can without trying to get some balance between solutions. It can power the world many times over so could quite possibly end up being the lions share of the solution.
    It is the nature of technological progress that it is very unlikely that the problem will be solved equally by many approaches. Some or even one is bound to win out by a large margin over the others.
    Here are some possibilities:
    1. Solar becomes cheaper than coal in most places. If this happens then energy storage becomes more important than anything else e.g. for storing power when the sun isn’t shining and for electric cars.
    2. Offshore wind or jet stream wind becomes effective and cheap. Similar to 1, energy storage now the most important challenge.
    3. Modular nuclear works. Once again, batteries for electric cars are needed.
    4. Air capture of CO2 will either work well or not at all, it is unlikely that it will say remove 20% of extra CO2 from the air, rather than 0.1% or 100%. Its the nature of our technology, exponential growth and cost reductions that it won’t stay at 20%. If it gets there in some sensible amount of time, its reasonable to assume it will then go on to pretty much solve the whole problem. If it is cost effective at 20%, then why not 150%?
    Here is how I would approach the problem.
    1. Recognize that solutions grow exponentially not linearly. Once a technology works it will pull ahead, that should be encouraged.
    2. Look ahead for potential road blocks to such growth. The obvious one for pretty much all renewables is cheap grid storage/batteries. Money should be spent on solving this before it comes a road block.
    3. Spend more on unexplored technologies that could scale. One example is jet stream wind. The other is air capture. Far too little has been spent on air capture yet it is part of the plan. Spending 100’s of millions per year on this is entirely justified to find out whether it will work.
    4. Focusing on growing a solution rapidly is more effective and motivating to the public than focusing on cutting things that make CO2. This is widespread support for renewables, patchy support for carbon taxes etc. Energy efficiency is not enough and while worthwhile when it saves money is neither necessary nor sufficient to solve the problem. It is also obviously diminishing returns, but no one seems to acknowledge this. Because there is such a long way for a solution to grow, it must undergo a period of rapid and sustained exponential growth.
    While it is understandable, focusing on the current total emissions isn’t the most important thing in my mind.
    I think a situation where 10GT/Y of CO2 is emitted but renewables have grown from 1-30% would be a better situation to be in compared to one where 9GT/Y is emitted, but renewables have grown from 1-5% with the reduction coming from efficiency. Progress should be measured by growth of a solution, not the current size of the problem.

  31. 81
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Davos, To contend, as you seem to want to, that birdwatchers with fieldglasses constitute a greater threat to our addressing the challenges of climate change than brownshirts and their political masters who refuse to acknowledge century-old physics is simply silly.

    To ignore the role of the media in bringing false balance into play, is absurd.

    And your profound ignorance of the shortcomings of Yucky Mountain as a Nuke suppository are entertaining to say the least. I’m all for a sensible nuclear plan, but let’s at least get one based on science rather than politics, shall we?

  32. 82
    prokaryotes says:

    Correction to the True Cost of Coal Power – MMN11

    In short, the CO2 external costs estimated in MMN11 are extremely conservative. Nevertheless, they estimated that in the USA, coal combustion CO2 emissions cause an additional $15 billion in external damages per year which are not reflected in its market price. Had they used a more realistic SCC value, this figure would be much, much higher. This just reinforces our previous conclusion even further, that the economy would benefit by putting a price on CO2 emissions, thus allowing the free market to incorporate those (currently external) costs.

  33. 83
    prokaryotes says:

    And then there are these kind of news about methane deposits.

    Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush

    Natural gas companies have been placing enormous bets on the wells they are drilling, saying they will deliver big profits and provide a vast new source of energy for the United States.

    But the gas may not be as easy and cheap to extract from shale formations deep underground as the companies are saying, according to hundreds of industry e-mails and internal documents and an analysis of data from thousands of wells.

    In the e-mails, energy executives, industry lawyers, state geologists and market analysts voice skepticism about lofty forecasts and question whether companies are intentionally, and even illegally, overstating the productivity of their wells and the size of their reserves.

  34. 84
    prokaryotes says:

    Raypierre the entire point about Natural gas is denial in face of the looming catastrophic climate change. We have to remove Co2 from the atmosphere, not contribute to it. Only because Natural Gas might have a lower Co2 impact does not change our situation. Using Natural gas is like fighting fire with oil.

    We need to transition to clean energy alternatives, such as Wind, Solar, Geothermal and Wave. Fossil Fuels are not a solution to our problems! Natural Gas is uncontrollable and flawed on many levels.

  35. 85
    Andy Revkin says:

    I’m kind of surprised you didn’t note the extensive additional thoughts from Rob here, along with input from Ken Caldeira, David Victor, and many others:

    [Response: Thanks Andy.–Jim]

  36. 86
    Craig Nazor says:


    Your statement (#37, #39): “Of course you can link to ‘other folks’ and ‘ecologists’ that are willing to look at the damage done to various green-energy projects by environmentalists that are prioritizing NIMBY concerns over that of the value of these initiatives.”

    Do you have any evidence that this is a significant problem with the search for ways to address AGCC? Or is your apparent “anti-environmentalism” merely political bias?

    With wind power, three objections that environmentalists might have are bird strikes, sound pollution, and esthetic placement. These are legitimate concerns, as they impinge on endangered species concerns and demonstrable quality of life issues (sound pollution particularly). Both the bird issue and sound issue are being researched, and strides have been made toward minimizing these impacts. Esthetics is a little more subjective, but we are having little problems in Texas with any of these issues as windmills are rapidly appearing along the Gulf coast.

    And, no, I don’t trust you, nor will I ask you to trust me – post your evidence.

    It seems to me that you are arguing that if humans want to successfully address the problem of AGCC, all we have to do is do what you tell us. You know, someone far, far more accountable than yourself once told America that nuclear energy would make electricity “too cheap to meter,” so pardon my skepticism.

    Without any evidence to back up your projections about what you believe that environmentalists want or how they will react, your argument is just hot air.

    And in #65 – are you trying to tell us that we must abolish due process in order to fight AGCC?

    You also might be interested in this:

    You have gotten now to the point that they are no longer merely “environmentalists,” they are “NIMBY environmentalists.” That borders on name-calling. Actually, many of my “environmentalist” friends are putting solar cells, passive hot-water heaters, skylights, etc. on their own roofs, and using the output fom the solar cells to power their homes and drive their electric vehicles, generating all their energy on site. That’s not quite the back yard, but it’s awfully close.

  37. 87
    Craig Nazor says:


    I find it revealing that you would mention Ted Kennedy’s objection to wind farms but not Donald Trump’s objection to them:

    Ted Kennedy is a very dead Democrat and “The Donald” is a very live and outspoken Republican. Who is currently the bigger impediment to wind power, the live Republican or the dead Democrat?

    Do I detect a little bias here?

    I think that the real problem is that these people have (in Ted Kennedy’s case, had) a lot of money invested in their real estate. And in Trump’s case, he wants a return on his investment, and he believes that windmills will get in the way of that.

    In fact, I would argue that large monetary investments are one of the major impediments to addressing AGCC. Dirty carbon fuels are cheap right now because they are heavily subsidized through trillions of dollars worldwide in both public and private investments. If the true costs of the damage that these fuels are doing to the environment were factored in, clean, renewable energy sources would be very competitive, and the Pacala/Socolow wedges would become far easier to impliment.

    The reason that Thorium is not now being used as a source of nuclear energy has very little to do with environmentalists. Oops.

    In answer to your last paragraph, I can do no better than Jim’s response.

  38. 88

    Now all we need as a paper on the cost of getting it wrong.

    As for the replies, #7 has a good point. The trouble is, most people don‘t want to know.

    #12 got it partly right, but he doesn’t go far enough. The entirety of the CO2 argument is designed to allow us to do more with more people consuming more resources. It has essentially nothing to do with climate change. How do I know? Ans: No one has put forward a long term plan. Worse, the majority of the plans that are presented address only one small part of the problem, as if solving one small part of the problem means we have solved the whole problem.

    #15 has a good point, just like #7, and as in #7, most people simply don’t want to know.

    #46 Thank you for the detail. Unfortunately you got most of it wrong. The cost of carbon reduction is closer to $40 per week for every man woman and child, i.e., $160 per week for an average family. Of course if you count only part of the carbon then you get a far more optimistic, and far more useless, picture. Consider energy growth. Business as usual will give 124% increase by 2020? The last time I looked population growth alone was closer to 2% p.a.. That would mean 40% growth (assuming for simplicity linear growth) by 2020. Then you have to count industrial development, add another 1% p.a.. Then you have to add personal development, add another 1% p.a.. Let’s say 50% growth all up by 2020. That means every car has to get twice as much out of every litre of fuel, every light must be twice as efficient, every refrigerator must be twice as efficient, every air conditioner must be twice as efficient. But the situation is far, far worse. The amount of energy to produce every car must be reduced by 50%. The amount of energy to produce every refrigerator must be reduced by 50%. And yet that is still only part of the problem. The amount of energy to mine the ore that goes into the metal that is used to build these things must also be reduced by 50%. And the amount of energy to refine those ores must also be reduced by 50%. And the amount of energy to transport those goods through all of those stages must also be reduced. The administrative overhead, from sales to management to public service must be reduced by 50%.

    And kindly do not tell me that it is the pollution industries that will pay this impost.

    When a mining company uses energy to dig up iron ore they use energy ON YOUR BEHALF.

    When a food store uses energy to run their stores they use energy ON YOUR BEHALF.

    When the government builds a road they use energy ON YOUR BEHALF.

    When a car company uses energy to build a car they use energy ON YOUR BEHALF.

    When an appliance company uses energy to build a washing machine, or refrigerator, or air conditioner, or DVD player, or television, they use energy ON YOUR BEHALF.

    Oh, wait. There is a report called Zero Carbon Australia. It says we can reduce our carbon footprint by driving less, say only 8000 kms a year. Say goodbye to the tourist industry. But tourism employs only 500,000 people. Shouldn’t have to much impact on unemployment. Not.

    #48 got a lot close to the truth. In order to go renewable Australia will have to build 300,000 wind turbines by 2050, at a cost of ~$2Tr. That’s 1 turbine every 10 metres between Perth and Melbourne. But hey, if we put fairy lights on them they might look rather fetching. The unemployed can look at them and know that they are doing something for the environment.

    Renewable energy isn’t going to cut it. And it isn’t carbon neutral either.

    Oh, and finally, about rising sea levels. The way I see it, even if ALL of the currently postulated energy imbalance were poured into the Greenland ice cap it would still take 80 years for it to melt. I figure 200 years, or more, would be a far more likely scenario. If people can’t get out of the way by then, well, perhaps we would be better off without them. Harsh? Sure. But why carry an anchor made of granite while trying to swim.

    It’s either that, or addressing the real problem. I’m sure I need not elaborate.

  39. 89
    Septic Matthew says:

    71, myself: of $1.57 per kw.

    That was an installed cost of $1.57 per watt of power.

    76, Pete Dunkelberg: By the way SM, if you didn’t mean your # 51 the way I took it, that great, and I apologize for misunderstanding you.

    Large sums of money are discussed. For the kins of money discussed, it can’t all be raised and allocated in short order, so there has to be some focus and priority. I would focus on the flood control and irrigation first. In terms of the theme of this thread, that would contribute to the perceived cost of procrastination. Since floods and droughts will recur in any scenario, I think it is the best order of business.

  40. 90
    Edward Greisch says:

    61 Davos: You are off on a forbidden topic again. Please read “Prescr_iption for the Planet” by Tom Blees, 2008. The IFR eats nuclear waste.
    “Power to Save the World; The Truth About Nuclear Energy” by Gwyneth Cravens, 2007

    book: “Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy”


    And no, there are objections to solar. Something will change when the population as a whole gets mad enough.

    But see this objection to coal:
    Coal contains: URANIUM, ARSENIC, LEAD, MERCURY, Antimony, Cobalt, Nickel, Copper, Selenium, Barium, Fluorine, Silver, Beryllium, Iron, Sulfur, Boron, Titanium, Cadmium, Magnesium, Thorium, Calcium, Manganese, Vanadium, Chlorine, Aluminum, Chromium, Molybdenum and Zinc. There is so much of these elements in coal that cinders and coal smoke are actually valuable ores. We should be able to get all the uranium and thorium we need to fuel nuclear power plants for centuries by using cinders and smoke as ore. Unburned Coal also contains BENZENE, THE CANCER CAUSER. We could get all of our uranium and thorium from coal ashes and cinders. The carbon content of coal ranges from 96% down to 25%, the remainder being rock of various kinds.

    67 Davos: “If the point is to just say flatly that “we have the technology” and “if only” and leave it at that, point taken (but I would say that’s what’s misguided). We know that waving the wand isn’t going to work.”
    Davos: We are trying to avoid a local war of nuclear vs wind & solar, if you don’t mind. So raypierre, please edit Davos from now on.

    raypierre: Thanks for the info on methane leak rates. But according to Aiguo Dai and BPL, we do not have time to change energy sources twice. Natural gas would have been good in 1930.
    There are 2 wind turbines near Interstate 80 at Geneseo, Illinois. I go by there once or twice a month. On the average, it seems like one is turning. I recently read that you get an average of 17% of nameplate power out of a wind turbine.

    [Response: He wasn’t bringing up the “forbiden topic” of nuclear power except to use it as an example of his point of how difficult it is to implement some of the proposed wedges, because of various oppositions to them. Rather, you were the one who took that as an opportunity to promote your very obvious attachment to nuclear power, as well as another chance to get your “civilization is going to collapse in 50 years” viewpoint in, which I am getting exceedingly sick of, as it has no basis in anything but speculation. So for you to request other people be moderated out is ridiculous.–Jim]

  41. 91
    RichardC says:

    84 Prok says, “We need to transition to clean energy alternatives, such as Wind, Solar, Geothermal and Wave. Fossil Fuels are not a solution to our problems! Natural Gas is uncontrollable and flawed on many levels.”

    Quite true. Add to this the economic reality that solar power is declining in price quite rapidly. There just isn’t any economic justification to expand natural gas utilization. By the time new gas comes online, solar will be cheaper, and the use of natural gas will just lessen the decrease in solar costs, so we’ll pay for expensive gas and also pay more for solar and wind! How much money do we want to waste developing fossil fuels? Pump the oil we’ve already drilled for. Keep the coal mines we’ve already built. Extract the natural gas we’ve got online. But NO NEW FOSSIL FUELS. NONE. They are a waste of money given the inexorable decline in renewable energy costs. And that’s not even counting the damage fossil fuels cause to the planet. The Keystone XL dinosaur would be an unmitigated disaster that would be abandoned perhaps a decade after completion from lack of demand as solar and wind drop in price while tar sands remain expensive. A total waste.

  42. 92


    Um, no.

    You’ve conflated energy-use reduction with carbon emissions reduction. The two are not the same.

    And your repeated ‘on your behalf’ really doesn’t need all caps–it’s obvious enough already, thank you very much.

  43. 93
    SecularAnimist says:

    Jim replied to comment #14: “That’s for stabilizing concentrations at a much lower than what Pacala and Socolow are aiming for: 500 (initially) and 550 (now)”

    It is my understanding that there is a plausible scientific case that there can be no such thing as “stabilizing” CO2 concentrations at 500 or 550, since those concentrations are sufficient to produce feedbacks that will guarantee further increases.

  44. 94
  45. 95
    Kevin O'Neill says:

    #48 “…Australia will have to build 300,000 wind turbines by 2050, at a cost of ~$2Tr. That’s 1 turbine every 10 metres between Perth and Melbourne. But hey, if we put fairy lights on them they might look rather fetching. The unemployed can look at them and know that they are doing something for the environment.”

    Sounds like a $2 trillion jobs program, so perhaps the unemployed can work building and maintaining the turbines — or do the wind turbine fairies magically leave them under pillows for ecologically minded boys and girls? Were those talking points numbered or bulleted …

  46. 96

    RE: #93. Confusing energy use with carbon emission? OK, so some energy is not as carbon intensive as others. You think it doesn’t need caps? It’s in caps because the coal industry is being whipped from pillar to post as the bad guy when it isn’t. It is consumers (and the number of them) who are the bad guys. Trouble is, no one seems to want to admit it. That’s why it is in caps. It’s an atempt to get people to recognize the real problem instead of blaming someone else, or blaming their ‘injuries’, as sports people are prone to do, or blaming the GFC, as economists are prone to do, or blaming ‘the opposition’, as politicians are prone to do. It’s an attempt get people to face facts, to use their brains, not their emotions. If you have a better solution, please don’t be shy about telling the rest of us what it is. As for #96, I despair. I really do. Does anyone think that those people will not require energy, provided for in any one of the usual ways? Of course they will. And what will be the end result? By the time those wind turbines are built we will be in virtually the same position we are now, running around like chooks with our heads cut off, trying to blame someone else insead of looking at ourselves.

  47. 97
    Hank Roberts says:

    > industry … the bad guy … it isn’t. It is consumers …
    > who are the bad guys.

    But we have that same problem with tobacco, lead, CFCs, DDT — you name it, it’s always the consumers who are causing the problem by buying what’s offered on the market.

    So you’re putting forth an old familiar critique of capitalism and markets: they offer cheap attractive problems and expensive unattractive solutions?

    That’s what they do.

    Look at the British East India Company’s history; they did that with the Colonies — the colonialists’ response was revolting, and successful.

    What alternative do you see, other than people gathering together as the colonialists did to form governments to deal with corporations?

    You can’t blame the consumer _and_ keep them helpless to organize, forever.

  48. 98
    David B. Benson says:

    Oh me, oh my. Consider for now just electrical energy production. [When considering alternatives, do not forget those who live in apartments (flats), commericial needs and especially industrial needs.] By looking at actual data (sometimes in scarce supply in these discussions] I designed the following simplified and scaled electrical power grid. From 11 pm to 6 am the demand is a constant 10 GW; from 6 am to 11 pm the demand is a constant 14 GW. Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to design the electrical generation required to energize this reference power grid using solely low carbon, scalable technologies. I know of only three: wind, solar and NPPs. And yes, the design has to provide reliable, on-demand power so you might include underground pumped hydro for storage although that is quite expen$ive, although less so than alternatives.

    Least cost alternative is the winner!

  49. 99
    Hank Roberts says:

    “… “We’ve moved beyond trying to place blame, because that’s just an argument that will never be won,” said co-author Steven Davis of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. “The only way it’s ever going to get sorted out is if we can come up with anything resembling a consistent, unavoidable price on carbon that applies globally and then the chips will fall as they may.”

    The scientists analyzed fossil fuel extraction, combustion, and consumption in 112 countries and 58 industry sectors. They learned that 51 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions from human activities stemmed from fossil fuels or goods that were sent across borders to get to consumers.

    Incentive for big drillers and miners
    They found that 67 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions would be covered if regulation of fossil fuels was done at the point of extraction in China, the United States, the Middle East, Russia, Canada, Australia, and India. …”

  50. 100
    Davos says:

    I’m afraid of being edited now, so not sure what to say.

    @ #81 … “No” Birdwatchers with field-glasses are not the greater threat. And, I’m not talking about the media’s false-balance.

    But, “Yucky Mountain” and Craig’s comments (87) make my point for me.

    @ #87 … My evidence for this being a “significant” problem is going to be difficult to produce for you, because of the shifting views of ‘significance’ and ‘importance’…Indeed, my point all along is that the view of the impending doom that lies ahead without CO2 mitigation below 550ppm can take a back seat to causes of things like “bird strikes”, “sound pollution”, and “esthetic placement”. If environmentalists take these positions on local levels, then so will non-environmentalists. In the end, there are enough issues that jeopardize the siting and deployment of practically any installation. Juxtapose that with the sheer massive deployment required in order to achieve mitigation– and we’ve got a problem.

    Here’s some evidence though…
    This is a link to more than 6000 energy installations or proposals that have been targeted. Considering the massive deployment necessity, I think this is an issue.

    And (obviously) carbon-heavy ‘dirty’ energy infrastructure is NOT off the hook here, but I’m willing to bet you for every clean energy installation you can find that is protested and litigated –on a local level– by a competing ‘dirty’ energy outfit, I can show you 2 or 3 that are protested and litigated on a local level by a concerned environmentalist. Are all their concerns legitimate? My point is: If so, then how can we ever get the deployment we need? Yes, the dirty energy industry is lobbying hard to keep their subsidies, and to denigrate any such funding for alternative energy. Perhaps the extra funding and guarantees may get clean energy industries over the hump when having to fight siting protests/litigation, but the point remains that the legion siting issue is more-or-less not a product of dirty energy– they obviously have to fight this too.

    …And my point in #65 is that an extreme minority of well-informed, well-heeled individuals is all that’s really required to pursue, delay, and litigate energy installations in our country. I’m not advocating for the abolition of due-process (at all), just merely pointing out why a place like China can more easily achieve deployment of any energy installation they want (I don’t think this is controversial).

    @ #91 … I guess it’s their right to edit me :/ …I don’t have a dog in any fight about which energy is ‘better’… Socolow’s wedge theory doesn’t either. The deployment NEEDS to be diverse and massive. There is where I begin my argument.

    [Response: You are fine–there’s nothing wrong with this discussion, you’ve made some good points, and we’re not here to promote a certain view on this. One thing I would say is that my guess would be that a lot of the “NIMBY environmentalists” who oppose local mitigation efforts likely do not really understand the significance of climate change, even though they would say otherwise.–Jim]