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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. 101
    Septic Matthew says:

    73, Pete Dunkelberg: No one is objecting to flood control measures.

    Actually people do object.

  2. 102
    CM says:

    Blahusiak #89,

    > 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.

    The amount of FUDD some people will spread. Damien at #46 was talking about the actual carbon price legislation, A$23 per ton CO2, and giving an estimate that it might raise prices by $10 per household per week (to be offset by other measures).

    Let’s try to get a back-of-envelope upper bound for what this might cost Australians. Assume, for the sake of argument,
    1. that there are no carbon cuts cheaper than A$23/ton,
    2. that every ton CO2 emitted in Australia will be taxed, and
    3. that every cent of this price will be passed on to Australian consumers.

    Given Australian annual per capita CO2 emissions of a whopping 18.9 tons in 2008 (Wikipedia), you can just multiply by A$23/ton and divide by 52 weeks to get ~ A$8.40 per person per week as an unlikely upper limit. Given an average household size of 2.6 in 2006 (AIFS), it works out to ~ A$22 per household (or, if you prefer, ~ A$33 per four-member family).

    Now recall that this simplistic upper-bound estimate rests on three extreme assumptions, since in reality (1) carbon cuts come at a range of prices, starting with those that save money; (2) only 500 companies will pay; and (3) part of the cost will be taken out of profits, or passed on to consumers abroad through exports. On the other hand, the estimate ignores administration costs and various conceivable effects on the wider economy. Even so, Damien’s A$10 per household (before offsets) sounds reasonable; your A$40 per capita, not so much.

  3. 103
    Ray Ladbury says:

    George Blahusiak: ” It’s in caps because the coal industry is being whipped from pillar to post as the bad guy when it isn’t.”

    Hmm. Massey Energy has the blood of a lot of miners on their hands. The Koch bros are up to their necks in denialists. Been through Appalachia of late? I can show you former mountain tops where nothing grows even after 20 years. Broadform deeds, anyone? Tailings ponds flooding towns?

    George, come on. I don’t throw the word “evil” around much, but Don Blankenship and the Koch brothers ought to have their pictures next to the word in the dictionary.

  4. 104
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Septic Matthew says:
    >> Pete Dunkelberg: No one is objecting to flood control measures.
    > Actually people do object.

    Developers object vociferously to flood control measures that demonstrably do work in the longer term (reducing paving, minimizing runoff; keeping development out of floodplains).

    Ecology-minded types object vociferously to flood “control measures” that defer and increase flood damage, like trying to put a million cubic feet of river in a 200,000 cubic foot concrete-lined channel.

    It’s not like you can’t tell where the water will go when it goes.

  5. 105
    steve says:

    #50 Maybe Dyson has a valid point – “Any increase of the price of energy hurts the poor far more than it hurts the rich. The ordinary citizen sees the subsidizing of expensive green energy projects as a welfare program for the rich”.

  6. 106
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Septic Matthew @ 102, Are you just messing about? I think you can understand expressions. In fact no one in this conversation is objection to flood control measures as such, and although there may be someone somewhere who objects even to ice cream there is no general objection to flood control measures as such.

    It is obvious that particular cases should be evaluated based on all likely consequences, just as with any proposed action. If you dig up some case of some particular measure meeting some particular objection and present it as a “refutation” I will conclude that you are just arguing to argue.

  7. 107
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Septic Matthew @ 90 says
    “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.
    (emphasis added)

    This is at first glance a reasonable policy statement. The problems are packed in the word “first”. Of course in an emergency building a wall around Bangkok, say, takes priority. Outside of that type of emergency, there is no “first”. Nations and societies must do many things at once. Build both schools and roads, strenghten levies and convert to clean power sources.

    Stepping back and taking a slightly longer and broader view, we have an emergency in that our high and continuing use of fossil fuels is warming the atmosphere, which leads to more water vapor in the atmosphere, which leads to more floods until we address the cause. If we insist on just building higher levies “first”, in other words using that particular expense as an excuse not to address the cause, we can keep on doing that indefinitely or until the rising seas and rivers make a mockery of all our efforts.

  8. 108

    #97–George, I have little time to respond to your last comment, unfortunately, much as I wish otherwise.

    However, let me note the contradiction that on the one hand you criticize others for failing to rely on logic and reason, and on the other, your own comments are much heavier on rhetoric than on the qualities you advocate. (The litany in caps I mentioned is one example–hardly information-dense; another is the “discussion” of Australia’s supposedly necessary “renewables strategy” of building wind turbines every 10 meters and putting “fairy lights” on them.)

    If you want a serious discussion, you’re hardly modeling for us what you say you desire. In fact, I still don’t really know what you are actually in favor of–nuclear energy? Population control? Zero economic growth? BAU?

    Despite your rhetorical flourishes–or perhaps because of them–I really can’t tell at this point.

  9. 109
    Hank Roberts says:

    Is this the same George Blahusiak who writes reviews at Newstrust?

  10. 110
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Yucky Mountain was never a suitable nuke repository–if there is even such a thing. It would have contaminated groundwater. It would also have filled up rapidly. That is what the sceince tells us. The politicians overruled the scientists. If we are serious about nuke disposal, reprocessing is essential. Please inform yourself.

  11. 111
    Hank Roberts says:

    > … who oppose local mitigation efforts likely do not really
    > understand the significance of climate change, even though they
    > would say otherwise.–Jim

    Yep. “It is difficult to get a man to understand the significance of climate change, when his plans for improving his lovely home and manicured yard depend upon his not understanding it!”

  12. 112
    Kermit says:

    2 degrees warmer will necessary for more plants and animals and for the >10 billion people we will have in the future. 390 ppm got us to 7 billion and record crop production. Once the fossil fuels run out how will we keep CO2 in the 500-600 ppm range?

  13. 113
    sam marshall says:

    @davos – I don’t think it’s mainly ‘environmentalists’ standing up against wind farms. I think the main opposition is just regular locals. How many people are seriously committed to the environment – maybe 5%? How many people are much more worried about keeping the price of their house sky-high – maybe 50%?

    It’s a disturbing trend because ‘not complaining when somebody wants to put up a wind farm (non-polluting, relatively quiet and pretty, causing little traffic) that you can see from your house’ is pretty much the least amount of positive effort/inaction it’s possible to contribute on behalf of the planet. And for a large number of people, even that is too much.

    Not really much to do with science, this, I guess…

  14. 114
    Septic Matthew says:

    104, Hank Roberts & 106 Pete Dunkelberg,

    I think that you need to get together. Especially for Hank Roberts, perhaps a clear distinction between “flood control” and flood control would be a good idea. I think that “flood control” is something that someone might actually want to invest in.

    In the mean time, the Sierra Club opposes building either “flood control” or flood control everywhere.

    I think that advocates of CO2 control have lost the argument everywhere except the EU and Australia (excepting a few places in Africa and S. America where advocates expect to receive transfers of money.) In the 10 years it will take you to win back majority support, better flood control and irrigation might be something achievable.

    One of the really nice things about the “stabilization wedges” is that they don’t all have to be capital-intensive bursts of construction of the same sort in every place.

    Am I messing with you? I don’t think so, but the psychoanalytically inclined would call me in denial, so it’s pointless for me to answer.

  15. 115
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Uh, Kermit, productivity goes down with temperature.

  16. 116
    Brian Dodge says:

    “…please refer us to some peer reviewed literature showing that biochar can be a significant mechanism for carbon sequestration.” Toby Thaler — 15 Oct 2011 @ 3:12 PM

    “BIO-CHAR SEQUESTRATION IN TERRESTRIAL ECOSYSTEMS – A REVIEW” JOHANNES LEHMANN, JOHN GAUNT and MARCO RONDON, Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change (2006) 11: 403–427 DOI: 10.1007/s11027-005-9006-5 “Conversion of biomass C to bio-char C leads to sequestration of about 50% of the initial C compared to the low amounts retained after burning (3%) and biological decomposition ([less than]10–20% after 5–10 years), therefore yielding more stable soil C than burning or direct land application of biomass.” “Biofuel production using modern biomass can produce a bio-char by-product through pyrolysis which results in 30.6 kgC sequestration for each GJ of energy produced. Using published
    projections of the use of renewable fuels in the year 2100, bio-char sequestration could amount to 5.5–9.5 PgCyr−1 if this demand for energy was met through pyrolysis, which would exceed current emissions from fossil fuels (5.4 PgC yr−1).” Cited by 273

    “Energy Balance and Emissions Associated with Biochar Sequestration and Pyrolysis Bioenergy Production” JOHN L. GAUNT AND JOHANNES LEHMANN, Environ. Sci. Technol. 2008, 42, 4152–4158
    “Our findings show that the avoided emissions are between 2 and 5 times greater when biochar is applied to agricultural land (2–19 Mg CO2 ha-1 y-1) than used solely for fossil energy offsets. 41–64% of these emission reductions are related to the retention of C in biochar, the rest to offsetting fossil fuel use for energy, fertilizer savings, and avoided soil emissions other than CO2. Despite a reduction in energy output of approximately 30% where the slow pyrolysis technology is optimized to produce biochar for land application, the energy produced per unit energy input at 2–7 MJ/MJ is greater than that of comparable technologies such as ethanol from corn.” Cited by 65

    “Rethinking biochar” REBECCA RENNER Environmental Science & Technology, Sept 1 2007
    “Nitrous oxide is several hundred times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. The agricultural application of nitrogen fertilizers is a major source of the gas and has been difficult to control. Preliminary results indicate that biochar amendments to soil appear to decrease emissions of nitrous oxide as well as methane, which is a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than CO2. In greenhouse and field experiments in Colombia, nitrous oxide emissions were reduced by 80% and methane emissions were completely suppressed with biochar additions to a forage grass stand… Lukas Van Zwieten and colleagues at Wollongbar Agricultural Institute are seeing similar preliminary results, and Lehmann’s group also has greenhouse and field data showing the same effect.” Cited by 22

    “A handful of carbon” Johannes Lehmann, Nature, Vol 447/10 May 2007 Cited by 201

    “Black carbon decomposition and incorporation into soil microbial biomass estimated by 14C labeling”, Kuzyakov et. al., Soil Biology & Biochemistry 41 (2009) 210–219
    “Black carbon addition amounting to 20% of Corg of the soil or 200% of Corg of loess did not change total CO2 efflux from the soil and slightly decreased it from the loess. This shows a very low BC contribution to recent CO2 fluxes. … Considering about 10 times slower decomposition of BC under natural conditions, the mean residence time (MRT) of BC is about 2000 years, and the half-life is about 1400 years. Considering the short duration of the incubation and the typical decreasing decomposition rates with time, we conclude that the MRT of BC in soils is in the range of millennia.” Cited by 67

    “Biochar proponents have been pushing it for years, and I have yet to see any major effort to scale it up. Am I missing something?” Toby Thaler — 15 Oct 2011 @ 6:18 PM

    Peer reviewed literature, perhaps?

    “Fate of soil‐applied black carbon: downward migration, leaching and soil respiration”, Major et al, Global Change Biology, Volume 16, Issue 4, pages 1366–1379, April 2010; et al GCB for CIAT.pdf
    “Using stable isotope techniques, we investigated the fate of BC applied to a savanna Oxisol in Colombia at rates of 0, 11.6, 23.2 and 116.1 t BC ha−1”
    “Black C caused a 189% increase in aboveground biomass production measured 5 months after application (2.4–4.5 t additional dry biomass ha−1 where BC was applied)”

    “Direct and residual effect of biochar application on mycorrhizal root colonisation, growth and nutrition of wheat”, Solaiman et. al., Soil Research 48(7) 546–554
    “We investigated the effect of deep-banded oil mallee biochar at different rates (0, 1.5, 3.0, and 6 t/ha) with 2 types of fertiliser (non-inoculated MultiMAPS® at 30 or 55 kg/ha; inoculated Western Mineral Fertiliser at 100 kg/ha) on wheat growth at a farmer’s field in a low rainfall area of Western Australia. Wheat yield increased significantly when biochar was applied with inoculated fertiliser and 30 kg/ha non-inoculated fertiliser.”

    “Maize yield and nutrition during 4 years after biochar application to a Colombian savanna oxisol”, Major et al, Plant and Soil, Volume 333, Numbers 1-2, 117-128, DOI: 10.1007/s11104-010-0327-0
    “Maize grain yield did not significantly increase in the first year, but increases in the 20 t ha−1 plots over the control were 28, 30 and 140% for 2004, 2005 and 2006, respectively.”

    “BIOCHAR AMENDMENT GREATLY REDUCES RICE Cd UPTAKE IN A CONTAMINATED PADDY SOIL: A TWO-YEAR FIELD EXPERIMENT’, Liqiang Cui, Lianqing Li, Afeng Zhang, Genxing Pan, Dandan Bao, Andrew Chang, BioResources, Vol 6, No 3 (2011
    “A field experiment was conducted on the effect of biochar (BC) amendment on Cd uptake by rice (Oryza sativa L.) in a contaminated paddy in 2009 and 2010…. Under BC amendment at 10, 20, 40 t ha-1, rice grain Cd concentration was observed to be reduced by 16.8%, 37.1%, and 45.0% in 2009 and by 42.7%, 39.9%, and 61.9% in 2010, while the total plant Cd uptake was found to decrease by 28.1%, 45.7%, and 54.2% in 2009 and by 14.4%, 35.9%, and 45.9% in 2010, respectively.”

    Unfortunately, Ag researchers can’t run down to the local farm supply store and buy 4000 tons of biochar to do a 100 ha field trial, but fossil fuel derived ammonium nitrate is readily available for ~$1000 a ton.

  17. 117
    Hank Roberts says:

    SM, don’t imagine most of us here agree with everything others think or how we use the words — “flood control” among others. We’re trying to learn from the climatologists.

    Urging flood control spending? specify what you think should be done, or at least what you’ve read, eh? –try this, for talking points that will lead you toward something others can agree or even disagree with productively:

    Ethos, Equity and the Water Resource

    By Luna B. Leopold, February 1990
    University of California, Berkeley
    The Abel Wolman Distinguished Lecture
    Reprinted by permission of the National Academy of Sciences – National Research Council.

  18. 118
    Craig Nazor says:


    I have not a clue what reality you inhabit, but it does not seem closely related to the reality that I live in.

    I have sat through hundreds of hours of local, state, and federal hearings about clean energy issues, water issues, endangered species issues, and other AGCC-related environmental issues. Here in Texas, “NIMBY environmentalists” are not seriously hampering clean energy. A far, far larger problem is our AGCC-denying governor (and now, presidential candidate), who has appointed AGCC-denying real estate, banking, energy, manufacturing, and other vested-interest people to boards like the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ), and others. Here is just one of the results:

    Your still-undocumented “NIMBY environmentalists” don’t hold a candle to this kind of crap, when it comes to addressing AGCC. The AGCC-denying LCRA is another example. In June, the LCRA Board seriously considered granting 25,000 acre feet of water a year to a dirty, coal-fired power plant from a river system that is being seriously taxed by the worst single-year drought on record which shows no signs of relenting. Fortunately, the “NIMBY environmentalists” (NOT) were able to stop it, when hundreds of citizens showed up to the hearing. Filthy wealthy “NIMBY environmentalist” (double NOT) had to pay for an independent water study, which ACTUALLY MENTIONED AGCC in its water forecasts, as opposed to the official (and taxpayer-funded) “scientific” LCRA study, which did not. I posted the issue here on RealClimate and asked for any interested, local scientist who might want to testify to contact me, and I got exactly zero responses, yet you don’t hear me complaining about “NIMBY climatologists.”

    We do not have to further slice and dice our already declining migratory bird populations with poorly sited windmills to get clean energy. People like you, Davos, just have to think that healthy bird populations are important. Here are just two ways that healthy bird populations are beneficial to the human economy:

    You have STILL not produced any proof whatsoever that there is a significant problem with “NIMBY environmentalists” and global warming mitigation, despite all your worrying and hand wringing. So why are you trying to scare people with your “NIMBY environmentalists”? What’s in it for you?

    In reality, environmentalists are LEADING THE POLITICAL BATTLE to address AGCC in America.

    And if the Chinese system of government can so much “more easily achieve deployment of any energy installation they want,” then why is China so unable to address its massive pollution problems?

    (And of some interest to this discussion as it relates to the lack of appreciating “NIMBY environmental” concerns as they relate to birds:)

    I think that China has some deeply systemic problems of which you may not be aware.

    Your poorly supported and misdirected “NIMBY environmentalist” arguments remind me of an old Hindu observation: The true enemies of Krishna are those that go around trying to make the unimportant things important.

  19. 119
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    SM, set the psychology aside. As a technical matter, delay is the bottom line for the denialism business .
    “Doubt is Our Product”
    for a reason.

  20. 120

    The sub-thread about NIMBYism and environmentalism connects very well with a point made in Andrew Weaver’s Generation Us: namely, that traditional activism has been predominantly reactive and negative–“Don’t pollute my stream,” “Don’t release PCBs into my air,” “Don’t force me as a taxpayer to subsidize this dirty industry,” or whatever.

    But to be effective in the struggle to mitigate GHG emissions, he argues, we need to learn to agitate for measures that will be effective. That makes sense to me: in few of life’s venues does a purely passive, reactive stance prove advantageous, and it seems correct that you can’t just wait around to see what “the man” is going to do so you can know what to paint on your sign!

    The rub, of course, is that consensus around a policy is much harder to build–that, too, is visible on these august threads, where we have pretty much embargoed the whole question of renewables v. nuclear (although why it should be “v.” kind of stumps me, but as we well know, there are strong emotional reactions on both sides of the nuclear energy question.)

    As I read Dr. Weaver, he thinks the first priority should be to appropriately cost carbon emissions. From there, developing non-fossil energy sources and technologies, and implementing conservation and efficiency strategies follow. The example he uses is in fact around wind power: a hypothetical wind farm opposed by NIMBY opposition. In that context he argues for principled support for the development from environmentalists, for exactly the reasons laid out upthread.

    But what do we need to do in order to make this shift in emphasis? Many of us here are involved in conversations around these issues, speaking or writing about them on a regular basis, and might wish to be involved in accomplishing such a shift (assuming we agree with the analysis.)

    So let me ask the collective readership about it. Where is the policy conversation occurring? What sources of information are most trustworthy on these narrower policy questions?

  21. 121
    p says:

    @ 120 Where?
    America’s Democracy Deficit
    The Power to Change Systems.
    and in the streets.

  22. 122
    Septic Matthew says:

    117, Hank Roberts: Urging flood control spending? specify what you think should be done, or at least what you’ve read, eh?

    What I would do in the Mekong headwaters is different from what I would do in the Indus Valley. What I would do in the upper Missouri/Mississippi/Ohio headwaters is different from what I would do in California. In and around New Orleans I would finance reforestation and do something about that ship channel. In the greater Amazon drainage basin I would initiate reforestation while studying other options for a few years; investors and government are promoting a large hydroelectric dam in the headwaters near Peru — I don’t know what I think, but I’d study it.

    If there is only $400B of my hypothetical $1T available for a while, I’d invest it all in flood control and irrigation, and not increase investment in alternative energy supplies until all the projects were well underway.

    Around the base of Mt Kilimanjaro, over hundreds of square miles, I’d invest in reforestation.

    In the upper Mekong and upper Amazon, opponents of the proposed big dams do not think the hydropower is worth the environmental cost. It doesn’t look to me now that any other power source in those areas is less environmentally damaging: solar, wind, and biofuels require equivalent sacrifices of acreages. I read (some time ago) that solar power equivalent to the output of Hoover Dam would require an area equal to Lake Mead; but there it would have been desert area, whereas the Mekong and Amazon drainage basins have productive forests. The upper Mekong projects purport to provide both flood control and electricity, so the question becomes do the dams optimally (or satisfactorily) provide two benefits that together are worth the sacrifice of the forested land? I think they do, but I am not sure. One way or another, the Mekong drainage area would benefit from flood control and irrigation; I would not want to oppose both flood control and electricity production, and any other method of electricity production would have some environmental cost.

    To me, flood control and irrigation should have priority over alternative energy and CO2 reduction, as they have in China over the last 3 decades.

  23. 123
    ChrisN says:

    After 15 years of no warming according to RSS satellite data (1997-2011), I can’t believe you guys still have your jobs.

    [Response: After years of cherry-picking start dates and data sources and ignoring significance, I can’t believe people are still at making comments like this. – gavin]

  24. 124
    wili says:

    Kermit at #112 wrote: “Once the fossil fuels run out how will we keep CO2 in the 500-600 ppm range?”

    First, ffs are not about to ‘run out.’ Some, like conventional light sweet crude oil, seem to be at or near their peak of production, which means that, while we may not ever exceed by much current rates of extraction, there is about the same amount left to extract as has been extracted so far. Other ffs have not yet reached this point and probably won’t for a while. So there is plenty of safely sequestered carbon for us to foolishly un-sequester and spew into the atmosphere. And short of very strong global restrictions, we are likely to burn every last bit of even the dirtiest coal, tar sands, oil shale…even as the energy returned on energy invested reaches or exceeds one.

    Second, we don’t have to do anything to ‘keep’ CO2 at high levels. The means by which CO2 are taken out of the atmosphere and sequestered are generally very slow–things like mountain weathering. So the excess CO2 we put into the system now will stay there for a long time.

    Finally and most importantly, let me introduce to the concept of ‘feedbacks.’ There are many of these, some, like seabed methane, many times greater than all the forcing industrial society has added to the system so far. More study is needed, but these seem to be destabilizing in the Arctic. Melting permafrost, burning forests and peat bogs, oceans getting too warm to absorb CO2 are among the major feedbacks likely to exacerbate the problem in the coming years and decades.

    Our forcing may, in fact, merely have served as a finger pulling the trigger on these larger mechanisms which, once started, will be essentially impossible to stop until they have run their course. We have been playing with planetary fire and may be about to get incinerated, taking most of the rest of life on the planet with us. Peak oil or other resource constraints are not likely to save us, unless they so thoroughly destroy the economy that no one is able to invest in any further ff extraction (which of course will be catastrophic in other ways), or unless it along with gw prompts us to wake up and move rapidly to a much more modest carbon footprint lifestyle with the rest supplied by renewables.

    (I humbly await further clarification and correction from those more knowledgeable than I on these matters.)

  25. 125
    otter17 says:

    Thanks for the reference to the paper. I continue to collect references to the costs of climate change and other effects. They help me get the word out more effectively.

    I don’t comment on Real Climate much, but I do deeply appreciate the communication that you guys do. Thanks.

  26. 126
    Brian Dodge says:

    “After years of cherry-picking start dates and data sources and ignoring significance, I can’t believe people are still at making comments like this.” – gavin
    It comes from willful ignorance.

    Anthony Watts says in his blog The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project puts PR before peer review, “The issue of “the world is warming” is not one that climate skeptics question, it is the magnitude and causes.” Apparently he doesn’t read the comments on his own blog.

  27. 127
    Septic Matthew says:

    123, gavin in line: After years of cherry-picking start dates and data sources and ignoring significance, I can’t believe people are still at making comments like this. – gavin

    The proper way to pick a start date is to pick the dates on which projections are computed, and select the temperature record from thence forward. For example, there was a forecast by Hansen in 1988, so select the temperature record after that (I believe that this should be recomputed using Hansen’s current best estimate of the climate sensitivity, the CO2 record since then, and the relevant volcano record since then); also, the dates of the IPCC reports, those that contain forecasts (or scenarios.)

  28. 128

    Why would anyone honestly believe that we have desire to change the status-quo in a significant enough ways to slow down or stop climate change? Greed governs our world. Our entire civilization is built upon the premises that we “own it all”, and that the world’s resources are here for the exclusive use of humanity, in any manner we see fit (including generational suicide).

    This viewpoint, held by billions now is very narrow, short-term and even xenophobic, and even encouraged by all of our major institutions.

    Yes, change is what we claim we want, as things get a bit more difficult then before, but what is this change we seek exactly? In a so-called “more perfect world”, a more equal distribution of wealth… equity, justice, the abolishment of a our duopoly… protection for the environment, etc.

    However missing from all of these desires for change is something very fundamental: Us. We are not changing at all. We expect more, not less. We demand more, not less, even if it is to be more “fairly distributed” and there is more equity in the world.

    This is incompatible with a finite world of depleting resources. Humans seek to reshape and redesign their entire living environment rather then live symbiotically within it. This will always result in a devastating conflict. Our interest .vs. everything else (and I mean everything, including those essential resources and lifeforms on this planet required for our existence.)

    Our hubris is to fail to admit to our failings, to include all of above, and our incompatibility to adapt ourselves to our environment, versus adapting the environment to our demands. This will always lead to disaster, which is where we find ourselves now.

    We are going to repeat (on a global scale this time) what civilizations of the past also found out. There is no escape from this.

    We err greatly by thinking that with our modern science, tools, inventions and so-called “know-how”, that we have something they didn’t, and that we can now be confident that we will avoid their same fate, because of our “progress”. This is patently false, because it utterly fails to address the real fundamental issues of who we actually are, and that this progress is the very reason we are now collapsing.

    It is also the height of hubris to claim that if we re-achieve “350 ppm” that this will prevent catastrophe. Jevons Paradox teaches us this. We cannot be expected to constrain ourselves in reality, because we now lack the moral capability.

    Consider this: why are we not talking about the real issues, such as the basis of civilization itself? Or population? Or how we actually exist on this planet? The fact that we choose to ignore these very important topics reveals our moral failings and our hubris and why we will fail. Instead, we go on promoting how humans can fix things back up, which is quite ridiculous when you think about it.

    Humans do not actually produce anything (other then a few new man-made elements), we refashion and consume what was already here — but with devastating consequences as it turns out. We think our ingenuity and invention is our salvation, because we are blind to the real truth.

    We have now become our own worst enemy, having “conquered” the planet (temporarily) but destroying ourselves in the process. Nature bats last, and the grand slam to come is most definitely headed our way. We should be focusing instead on how to co-exist here symbiotically, while we still can, rather then how to foolishly try to master (and control) it all.

    The reason why other life-forms have lived here for so long, far, far, longer then humans ever have, is because of their ability to adapt themselves to their environment, not the other way around. Our brain might be bigger, but we’re not smarter — we’re conceited.

    Not to worry, in “The World Without Us”, our edifices are shown to crumble very fast, leaving almost no trace of our passing “civilization” and pitiful attempts to master the world. We may yet exist, but then again, maybe not. If we fail to embrace some very basic truths, then the latter is much more likely.

  29. 129
    Lewis says:

    Socolow’s Wedges update fails to mention that his objective of the ‘stabilization’ of CO2 at some chosen level actually demands the use of technologies including massive airborne carbon recovery and albedo restoration. In their absence, the interactive mega-feedbacks will predictably accelerate to dwarf current anthro-GHG outputs, driven by the pipeline warmings of timelagged GHG impacts and, very probably, by warming from the loss of the ‘sulphate parasol’ as fossil fuel use is curtailed.

    Three of the five mega-feedbacks now accelerating off the time-lagged warming of the mid-’70s CO2 ppmv have recently been quantified:
    Albedo Loss was reported last spring (Geophysical Letters) to be imposing a forcing equivalent to around 30% of anthro-CO2 outputs;
    Water vapour is reported to rise at around 7% per degree C (a CO2e figure for this would be helpful);
    Permafrost melt carbon emissions were projected (NOAA/NSIDC) as peaking at 1.6GTC/yr by 2100, and rising to around 0.5GTC by 2020 – which equates to around 25GT/yr CO2e if the carbon were emitted half as CO2 and half as CH4.
    I’ve yet to see credible figures for current CO2e outputs from the rising global incidence of wildfire, or from the CO2-driven microbial decay of peat bogs, and there is still controversy over the observations of methyl clathrates’ collapse at increasing depth.

    Suffice to say, the feedbacks are real, diverse, interactive, accelerating, and of a scale to dwarf Socolow’s recipe for CO2 reductions before its time span is one third run.

    A further lacunae in the Wedges proposal is that by focussing on the shares of sundry technologies that need deployment for his arbtrary mitigation target, it actively encourages the assumption of a ‘market-led’ solution in which non-fossil energies displace fossil options. In reality, this doesn’t happen – any fossil fuels displaced are simply bought and burnt elsewhere. In a world of rising energy demand, non-fossil energies cannot and will not reduce GHG outputs – that requires global legislation of the allocation of national emission rights under a declining annual global emissions budget. Non-fossil energies are the means by which society is powered under that legislation: they have no practical role as an alternative route to mitigation, and propagating that delusion, whether intentionally or not, dangerously diminishes efforts for the requisite climate treaty.

    Perhaps Socolow has written of the subordinate nature of the Wedges proposal to each of these two fundamental priorities – but if not, I’m puzzled as to why a science-based site like RealClimate affords his proposal such a high degree of credibility.



  30. 130
    Craig Nazor says:

    “Survival Acres”:

    Read this:

    Who would have thought it? Looking at the daily news, I certainly wouldn’t have. That’s because the daily news is biased towards talking about violence. So where are you getting your information about what is happening globally to address AGCC?

    There are always those things that can happen that no one can predict. This includes the discovery of new technologies as well as unforeseen natural events.

    Lots of very intelligent people out there believe that it is possible for humans to change their behavior, and have shown how technology could help make it happen. There are millions of humans working towards clean energy. The study being discussed here is just one way to approach it. Look at what’s going on in NYC right now, and echoing around the world. A lot of people are getting tired of unbridled greed. Who would have thought it?

    Can humans reverse the trend of ever-increasing carbon pollution? I don’t know. But I would put little stock in those who claim they can accurately predict the future of human behavior. So what is left to guide our actions in an uncertain world? Follow science as far as that will take us, and keep looking for answers. After that, I would suggest some old human wisdom: Think positive and be wary of negative projections – after all, your glass is either half full or half empty; both perceptions are accurate. One will help you function much better than the other. Do what you know is right. Love thy neighbor. Work for the best. Prepare for the worst. (Those last two sentences are what USED to be called “conservative”!) Change is constant.

  31. 131
    john byatt says:

    Monday 24th

    nothing new, just confirmation.

    A lack of international will means the chances of bringing climate change under control may already be “slipping out of reach”, scientists have warned.

    A study by the Swiss science university ETH Zurich shows that without an early and steep cut in greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures are not “likely” to remain less than 2C higher than pre-industrial levels. The 2C target, which experts say is needed to avert dangerous climate change, was agreed by the UN climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009.

    But countries that signed up to the Copenhagen Accord have yet to commit to measures far-reaching enough to meet it, according to experts.

    A voluntary agreement hammered out in the dying hours of last December’s UN climate talks in the Danish capital is said to fall well short of the cuts required.

    The new report, published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, sounds a further loud warning that time is running out. It suggests that for a “likely” chance (more than 66%) of holding warming below 2C by the end of this century, emissions must peak before 2020.

    Emission levels will also have to drop drastically to around 44 billion tonnes in 2020, and then keep falling. By 2050, they will need to be well below 1990 levels at around 20 billion tonnes, says the research.

  32. 132
    RichardC says:

    129 Lewis says, ” In a world of rising energy demand, non-fossil energies cannot and will not reduce GHG outputs – that requires global legislation of the allocation of national emission rights under a declining annual global emissions budget.”

    This is especially true since the cost of fossil fuels is far below their price. If renewables supply increases beyond increased demand, energy prices will fall. This will affect renewable suppliers, but won’t affect fossil fuel suppliers much, as they’ll just cut prices until demand again buys up all fossil fuel output. Oil only costs a few dollars a barrel to produce, so even at $30 a barrel, oil production is an immensely profitable endeavour (and even tar sands oil is profitable), and at that price somebody will buy every last barrel.

  33. 133

    #130–interesting, and I hope it’s true.

    Although comparing 2008 genocide deaths to 1942 genocide deaths seems like a bit of a cherry pick to me.

  34. 134
    TJ says:

    You talk about the “high cost of inaction”, but then fail to quantify the cost.

  35. 135
    Ray Ladbury says:

    TJ, Uh, Dude, they did quantify it–we have to implement far more “wedges” today than we would have previously. Pay attention.

  36. 136
    adelady says:

    survival acres “This will always lead to disaster, which is where we find ourselves now.”

    I’m not convinced. 100 years ago people were using – and developing – wind power. Remember the battery had been invented 40 years earlier and it was very useful for all sorts of nifty things – including lighting at night from batteries powered up during the day. (Country people in Australia, and I presume elsewhere, were using this method years after WW2 ended.) Some people then made a choice to move to oil-based and coal-based power generation. And handily improved their chances of profit by destroying public transport options in cities all over the developed world. It didn’t just happen in Los Angeles in the 20s, it happened in Australian cities not many decades later.

    Now I see home improvement companies advertising roof and related services with *free* solar panels, 1.5k’s worth, as an incentive. It makes me sad to think that we could have been in this position 20ish years ago if we’d moved forward from Jimmy Carter’s impetus on this rather than backwards as we did fairly soon thereafter.

    The sadness is that we could have had a much more manageable set of problems and consequences to deal with if we’d been more sensible.

  37. 137
    Hank Roberts says:


    “It should be emphasized that one should not take any comfort with the fact that the aerosols may be negating much of the greenhouse gas forcing–in fact just the opposite. Because the atmospheric residence time of tropospheric aerosols is short (about a week) compared to the decades-to-centuries lifetimes of the greenhouse gases, then to whatever extent greenhouse gas forcing is being offset by aerosol forcing, it is last week’s aerosols that are offsetting forcing by decades worth of greenhouse gases. Because the greenhouse gases are long-lived in the atmosphere, their atmospheric loadings tend to approximate the integral of emissions. Because the aerosols are short-lived, their loading tend to be proportional to the emissions themselves. There is only one function that is proportional to its own integral, the exponential function. So only if society is to make a commitment to continued exponential growth of emissions can such an offset be maintained indefinitely. And of course exponential growth cannot be maintained forever. So if the cooling influence of aerosols is in fact offsetting much of the warming influence of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, then when society is unable to maintain this exponential growth, the climate could be in for a real and long-lasting shock.”

  38. 138
    TJ says:

    “TJ, Uh, Dude, they did quantify it–we have to implement far more “wedges” today than we would have previously. Pay attention.”

    That’s not a quantification of the cost. All they quantified was that CO2 goes up by another 50 ppm. That’s not very convincing to people who think that high CO2 and higher temperatures are not a problem in the first place.

    [Response:What is your evidence that higher temperatures will not be a problem?–Jim]

  39. 139
    TJ says:

    “Aging technocrat Freeman Dyson is well outside his area of expertise – an argument for treating scientists as humans with the usual share of foibles.”

    I’m sorry, but I’m unwilling to vote for massive interventions in our economy based on experts whose arguments are so complex that even Freeman Dyson (or myself) can’t understand them. Either people make a compelling clear argument that other scientists can understand, or nothing is going to happen.

    [Response: What a strange rule. Do you apply it to anything else? If one can find a single economist that disagrees with monetary policy, the government should do nothing? Or if a single doctor prefers lemon juice drinking over surgery, you would refuse treatment? If yes, then you have no clue, and if no, you are setting climate as some unique issue that requires unanimity, which just seems irrational. – gavin]

  40. 140
    Hank Roberts says:

    > where is the policy conversation?

    You’ll find a lot of leads if you start at


    “… I’m struck, repeatedly, by the sense that the more people know about the science, the less they believe that we’re going to rise to the occasion. This pessimism seems to me to be key. To oppose it, we have to remember one equally simple thing—we have the resources and the technology that we need to build the future. We really do. But the climate transition is not a techno-economic problem. It’s a political-economic problem, and we can’t leave it to the incrementalists.

    Why [censored by blog software] bother? Let me answer this way – I’ve been a left green for decades, and pissing in the wind is something I’m used to. And, lately, it seems to me that the wind has begun to shift….”


    “… Left and right have long disagreed about more or less everything, except the existence of an expanding ‘cake’ to share out. As long as the cake is expanding, then you can argue – as the political philosopher John Rawls famously did in his Theory of Justice back in 1971 – that inequality is OK if the worst off people are better off, in absolute terms, than they’d be under an equal distribution. But if the cake is finite, then by definition more for the better off means less for the worse off. It’s a much starker proposition….”

  41. 141
    Lewis says:

    Gavin – I’m puzzled by the lack of a staff response to my critique of Socolow’s Wedges update (at 129). He appears to me scientifically illiterate in excluding from his calculations any CO2e contribution resulting from the known pipeline warmings driving well-documented interactive positive feedbacks, and economically careless at best in excluding the fundamental caveat that non-fossil energies will not displace fossil energies without the market regulation supplied by a global climate treaty.

    I may of course be mistaken in believing these two factors to be real and of fundamental significance, but if so, I’d be glad to learn why; if not, I wonder if you could help with two factors of the science case that seem obscure:

    first: would it be possible to put an authoritative CO2e output/yr value on the widely asserted 7% rise in water vapour per degree C of global warming ?

    [Response: No. This is part of the response already taken into account in the climate sensitivity. – gavin]

    second: in your view, what is the likely average ratio of TsCO2 to TsCH4 emitted from melting permafrost in the next two decades ? The degree of water saturation shown in Siberian ex-permafrost peat would imply a predominantly anaerobic decompostion and thus a very high fraction of carbon emitted as CH4, but perhaps other factors counter this probability ? My projection of ~25GT CO2e output in 2020, based on the NOAA/NSICD projection of ~0.5CTG output in that year, reflected equal volumes of carbon being assumed to go into CO2 and CH4, with the former having a multiple of 3.667 and the latter a multiple of 1.333 for methane and of 72 for CO2e GWP on a 20 year horizon. As even this moderate assumption would imply an increase over present anthro-CO2 output of ~80% in 9 years time, I’d be very glad to learn just what the scientific projections would amount to.

    [Response: The decomposition depends on water saturation of the soil, the ratio of methanogenic and methanophilic bacteria etc. Your estimates appear far higher than anything being measured right now and appear to violate a number of paleo constraints (i.e. why didn’t methane increase enormously during the early holocene or the Eemian?). This is an issue that warrants further close monitoring, but it isn’t as dramatic as you are claiming. – gavin]

    I should add that while Socolow appears to me pathetically complacent and even misleading, it is very good to see policy responses being discussed here on RC as well as the science. I guess we may agree that “the cart needs the horse to get anywhere useful.”



  42. 142
    Lennyh4747 says:

    If you do not start building Nuclear Plants now then all your math is silly. The people against co2 are against nuclear power so the whole subject is silly.