RealClimate logo

Unforced Variations: June 2013

Filed under: — group @ 1 June 2013

June’s open thread…

389 Responses to “Unforced Variations: June 2013”

  1. 101
    Hank Roberts says:

    Speaking of which, what’s new from Peter Ward on the Medea Hypothesis?

    I recall some years back an expedition traveling on an icebreaker heading to extend prior work on some outcrop of ancient rock on an island — that was expected to generate several years worth of laboratory work before they could come to any conclusions.

    I haven’t seen anything on that yet.

  2. 102
  3. 103
    Corey Barcus says:


    Barry Brooks (over at BraveNewClimate) is promoting the IFR/PRISM, which I do not think has nearly the economic potential as the MSR. And the IFR is probably not going to scale to tens of terawatts due to fissile requirements.

    The link you posted did not lead me to the discussion you alluded to- Not Found.

  4. 104
    Nick Gotts says:

    “history is going to be written by the offspring of the survivors, who will, as people do, see all the past as mere prologue to their glorious present” – Hank Roberts

    Well no, they don’t, not in general. Historically, the notion that the present is the poor remnant of a glorious past is much more common. If our current trajectory leads to the kind of civilizational collapse that looks increasingly likely, any survivors will probably take that view.

  5. 105
  6. 106
    Hank Roberts says:

    > evolution

    Of course people aren’t likely to -enjoy- the results:

    “… We can expect: (i) range expansion of warm-water species at the expense of cold-water species, which are driven poleward; (ii) species-specific changes in the abundance and seasonal window of growth of HAB taxa; (iii) earlier timing of peak production of some phytoplankton; and (iv) secondary effects for marine food webs, notably when individual zooplankton and fish grazers are differentially impacted (“match-mismatch”) by climate change. Some species of harmful algae (e.g., toxic dinoflagellates benefitting from land runoff and/or water column stratification, tropical benthic dinoflagellates responding to increased water temperatures and coral reef disturbance) may become more successful, while others may diminish in areas currently impacted…. The greatest problems for human society will be caused by being unprepared for significant range expansions or the increase of algal biotoxin problems …. Changes in phytoplankton communities provide a sensitive early warning for climate-driven perturbations to marine ecosystems.”

    Gustaaf M. Hallegraeff 10 MAR 2010; DOI: 10.1111/j.1529-8817.2010.00815.x

    I posted earlier mention of an assay using far-ranging migratory bird species looking at nitrogen isotope ratios indicating there’s been a recent change in ocean food webs after millenia of stability.

    We have broken the ocean as well as the atmosphere. How much changes as climate modelers incorporate the info from the plankton biologists?

    Rapid climatic driven shifts of diatoms at high latitudes, to give just one recent example.

    A sad reminder; yes, evolutionary pressure on rapidly reproducing organisms is a good early warning — to those who know about evolution. Some basic science is needed for people to trust the scientists who are trying to warn people what’s happening.

  7. 107
    SecularAnimist says:

    Corey Barcus wrote: “while ‘renewable fuel’ is free, the overall system costs are very high … renewable systems do not necessarily get cheaper with scaling”

    Those statements are blatantly false. “Overall system costs” of solar and wind generated electricity are already competitive with fossil fuel and nuclear generated electricity, and as deployment of solar and wind has skyrocketed all over the world, costs have plummeted, and there is every reason to expect that to continue.

    It’s up to the moderators to decide whether they wish to enforce their rule that discussion of nuclear power is off-topic, and I have no interest in “debating” the merits of molten salt or any other nuclear power technology, since I regard nuclear power as having little value in addressing the urgent problem of GHG emissions.

    But I do find it objectionable when advocates of nuclear power resort to demonstrable falsehoods about solar and wind energy to make their “argument”.

    It’s understandable, since the rapidly improving efficiency of solar and wind, along with their even more rapidly plummeting cost, makes the whole nuclear power “debate” moot — but it’s still objectionable.

  8. 108
    Hank Roberts says:

    > present is the poor remnant

    Well, I know what you mean — but (ironically) people saying “civilization” was better in the past ignore the ecologists who warrn that our diminishing biodiversity is the consequence of our behavior, and we ought to be changing our ways to do less damage. Odd, isn’t it?

    I was thinking of the attitude that “whatever happened up til now, I’m doing all right” — people who seem to have no regret for what’s been lost from the living world. Ecologists differ on all that.

  9. 109
    Fred Magyar says:

    “The basic facts of the situation:

    – current global energy consumption is on the order of 17 TW
    – our global population is expected to grow to between 9 and 10 billion by 2050
    – energy use will likely grow with population growth, and rising expectations for increasing the quality of life (energy-per-capita) will ensure that affordable energy gets used, regardless of source.”

    Other than current global energy consumption being on the order of 17 TW the rest of those statemnents are not facts.

    They are assumptions based on extrapolation of past trends.

    The laws of thermodynamics and actual physical resource limits and what we know about population dynamics makes me think that the likelihood of 10 billion humans living on this planet together, is a scenario that I wouldn’t necessarily bet on…

    As for expectations, etc… I think there is what I would characterize as a ‘Longage’ of expectations. Probably due for a major contraction as reality collides with them!

    Whatever is coming down the pipeline, past performance is no guarantee of future results.
    Assumptions based on the BAU paradigm are probably not going to play out as expected.

    BTW, as others have mentioned your comment on the cost of renewables and their potential could use a bit of updating. Things are in flux and much is changing very rapidly.

    Anyways, “it’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future” possibly attributed to Yogi Berra.


  10. 110
    David B. Benson says:

    For discussions of various electrical power generation technologies, consider using the ably moderated
    which has an entire sub-board for energy.

    But as such discussions have little to do with climatology, not here please.

  11. 111
    Fred Magyar says:

    David @110

    “But as such discussions have little to do with climatology, not here please.”

    Someone correct me if I am wrong, however I was under the impression that the whole point of the open thread ‘Unforced Variations’ thread was to provide a space where there could be discussions about topics which might not be climate science per se yet would have at least some connection to the subject in a bigger picture sense. I certainly think that energy generation be it by fossil fuels or alternative means is a highly relevant topic.
    Not to mention that there are legitimate scientific studies that are specifically looking at how this relates to climate science.

    “Energy is the defining challenge of the 21st century, with unprecedented implications for national security, long-term economic competitiveness, and climate change. Leading the way on finding solutions, the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are pooling their vast expertise in engineering, chemistry, biology, environmental science, law, public policy and other related fields to help achieve an affordable, sustainable and clean supply of global energy.”

  12. 112
    PatrickF says:

    Well, Hank, I think the Beckwith stuff refers to the Dansgaard-Oeschger events, as he writes about “6-14°C increase in temperature over Greenland on a decadal scale” in the past. Though he certainly did not clarify whether he meant global or local in his video talk, the former would certainly be utter nonsense.

  13. 113
    prokaryotes says:

    Fred Magyar, actually these “debates” are for the most parts irrelevant since geo, wave, wind, solar etc have been shown to be feasible to reach low carbon emission scenarios and to be economical at the same time.We do not have the luxury to test everything over the next decades (think cold fusion). Calls for a lot of R&D is just a delay in the struggle to prevent tipping points in the earth climate system. What you suggest has therefore little to do with climatology, not here please.

    We are in the phase of roll-out, we need to deploy now – globally, if you do not understand this you have not followed the science.

  14. 114
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Not to mention … legitimate scientific studies …
    > looking at how this relates to climate scientists.

    There’s the problem! Not citing them (and those scientists don’t post here). You know where to find them: bravenewclimate. Go there. They moderate knowledgeably, losing the opiners and copypasters fairly effectively.

  15. 115
    Martin Vermeer says:

    Fred Magyar #111, there is a special rule here introduced after mention of ‘nuclear’ repeatedly led to thread derailment. Yes I agree it complicates discussing energy technologies comparatively ;-)

    Adding to David’s mention of BNC, let me link to Jerome a Paris’ wind power blog, also about renewables more generally.

  16. 116
    PatrickF says:

    Btw, does anyone know where i can find the discussion of the Garret paper (
    that Hank mentioned (here on RC)? I cannot find it via the “search” option. Would be very interested in an evalution of his ideas.

  17. 117
    Hank Roberts says:

    I think that Garrett paper — which says “… the human system grows through a self-perpetuating feedback loop” — failed to consider Stein’s Law.

  18. 118
    Hank Roberts says:

    MODIS detected surface urban heat islands and sinks: Global locations and controls

    Good clear figures. I stumbled across that one because it cites a recent paper by Ming Cai modeling how the slight extra heat actually produced by human activity may be enough to trigger local and regional changes in movement of the atmosphere, changing where the (far larger) heat captured from the sun goes. There’s quite a bit on that:,5

  19. 119
    SecularAnimist says:

    Pursuant to the discussion about discussing options for reducing GHG emissions from electricity generation, I would again like to recommend the site The site does permit comments on the articles, though at present there is relatively little discussion going on there.

    However, it is a really great site for keeping up on developments in solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy sources, as well as batteries and other storage technologies, as well as electric vehicles and rail. All of these fields are changing VERY rapidly, and very often I find that people opining about them here are unfortunately ill-informed about what’s really happening in these industries today.

    Also, as most readers of this blog are probably aware, Joe Romm’s site regularly features very good articles on renewable energy, nuclear power and related topics, along with excellent climate reporting.

  20. 120
    Hank Roberts says:

    How _complicated_ the interactions among components of this stuff gets:

    “… Future changes in precipitation acidity are likely to depend on multiple factors including trends in NOx and NH3 emission controls, naturally occurring dust, and fossil fuel use, with significant implications for the health of both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems….”

    May 2013
    Trends in cation, nitrogen, sulfate and hydrogen ion concentrations in precipitation in the United States and Europe from 1978 to 2010: a new look at an old problem

    DOI 10.1007/s10533-013-9860-2

  21. 121
    Jim Larsen says:

    113 Prok said, “We are in the phase of roll-out, we need to deploy now – globally,”

    Naw. The science is clear. we’re at 400. Our models show no particular point for tipping. They’re out there, but we don’t know where. Lowest CO2 level in 100 years should be our guide. If we hit a tipping point along the way, well, we’re human. We survived WWII. “Sulphates reduce any scenario to merely catastrophic”.

    Massive R&D for a decade, THEN a massive rollout. That’s a formula for success.

  22. 122
    Ric Merritt says:

    Declining cost of wind, solar, etc is a very nice thing, and leads us to the next thing to discuss, which is:

    How would we plan to build and maintain renewable infrastructure with much less FF burning, and eventually next to none?

    Discussing renewables in the context of the current FF economy without mentioning the game-changing reduction in FF’s is kind of like wading into the Pacific from a Costa Rican beach carrying a 20-kg stone, getting up to your waist, and remarking that this is going great so far, because the water is pleasantly warm. Well, OK, but what happens after you get in over your head? Something important will change. Needs thought.

    In my humble analogy, the nice, but temporary, resource is the air to breathe. For infrastructure of all kinds, the “air” currently is nearly all transportation, ships, mines, factories, built environment, and materials dependent on FF’s.

    When do we need to make a sharp reduction in FF burning (or will be forced to anyway by availability or cost [which are just 2 sides of the same coin])? We’ve had a pretty good idea for 40 years what’s ahead, since Limits to Growth, the oil crises, etc. Extrapolate current progress to the future. Do you like the rate so far? Figures like cost per megawatt installed or cost per megawatt-hour provided do not extrapolate in any simple way (and perhaps not in any meaningful way at all) when you know you will be forced away from today’s infrastructure. You have to completely redo the engineering and economics on a new base. The executive summary is: we aren’t.

  23. 123

    #122–“How would we plan to build and maintain renewable infrastructure with much less FF burning, and eventually next to none?”

    That’s a very good question.

    I approach it with an historical one: was the existing infrastructure ever planned? Obviously, its subcomponents were, and obviously integrating them as they grew required planning. But to what extent was it all ‘planned’ per se, and to what extent did it grow from the bottom up, driven by technology, economics, and an evolving regulatory structure determined by both planning and politics?

    I don’t know the answer to that, but my guess is that there was an awful lot of ad-hocery along the way, and the same will likely be true as we transition to less FF.

  24. 124
    SecularAnimist says:

    Jim Larsen wrote: “Massive R&D for a decade, THEN a massive rollout.”

    With regard to solar and wind generated electricity, both massive rollout of today’s powerful and mature technologies AND massive R&D into dramatically better technologies are both well underway.

    Which is as it should be. As exciting as are the new technologies approaching commercialization (especially in solar), the current mass-market technologies are already great, and already have huge potential for rapidly slashing the GHG emissions from electricity generation.

    In that decade that you mention, using today’s solar and wind technologies, the USA could reduce GHG emissions from electricity generation to ZERO. There is no need to wait for better technology — the technology we have NOW can do that NOW.

  25. 125
    Steve Fish says:

    Re- Comment by Ric Merritt — 10 Jun 2013 @ 12:12 PM

    You say- “How would we plan to build and maintain renewable infrastructure with much less FF burning, and eventually next to none?”

    Even with the rapid increase in installed photovoltaic solar electricity, the energy generated became greater than energy required for production and installation around 2010. This net energy will increase rapidly in the future.


  26. 126
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Massive R&D for a decade
    Transfer of investment from fossil to replacement energy
    > THEN a massive rollout.

    Fixed that for ya.

  27. 127
    Bob Loblaw says:

    Jim Larsen @ 11:21am: “We survived WWII.”

    I have pictures of the war cemeteries I visited near the D-day landing beaches that suggests that “we” isn’t everybody. Fortunately, my father was one of the “we” – but not all the men he walked through Normandy with were so lucky. My brother was clearing out some of my mother’s effects the other month, and found old ration books from when my parents were in London in the early 1950s – still dealing with “war” shortages. “Surviving” isn’t necessarily an easy-going life-style.

    “Massive R&D for a decade, THEN a massive rollout.

    Sounds like you are planning a breakthrough. Nice when they come along, but really hard to plan on a short schedule.

  28. 128
  29. 129

    Some may find this CBC story on the Keeling curve of some interest; there’s Ralph Keeling and Dr. Janice Burch (I hope I have her name correct), among other researchers.)

  30. 130
    G.R.L. Cowan says:

    Ric Merritt says

    How would we plan to build and maintain renewable infrastructure with much less FF burning, and eventually next to none? …

    … nearly all transportation, ships, mines, factories, built environment, and materials dependent on FF’s.

    … Figures like cost per megawatt installed or cost per megawatt-hour provided do not extrapolate in any simple way (and perhaps not in any meaningful way at all) when you know you will be forced away from today’s infrastructure. You have to completely redo the engineering and economics on a new base. The executive summary is: we aren’t.

    A low enough cost per megawatt allows hydrogen to be electrolysed out of water, carbonate rock to be pyrolysed (“calcined”) to give CO2, the leftover alkaline earth to be strewn over land or shallow sea to capture as much CO2 as it gave up, and the hydrogen and CO2 to be catalytically made into liquid hydrocarbon and water.

  31. 131
    Ric Merritt says:

    Steve Fish #125 (10 Jun 2013 at 3:11 PM) —

    An EROEI > 1 for photovoltaic is great, though the actual number matters of course. If you (anybody) can turn that around to run ships, mines, and heavy machinery on it, that is what would really matter over time scales of decades to centuries. Not very close currently.

    GRL Cowan #130 (11 Jun 2013 at 9:43 AM) —

    Your statement about low-cost energy is true I guess, but not very helpful. What would make energy low-cost? We are proving that we can do a good, and improving, job of making wind turbines, PV, etc from FF, but that says little about infrastructure not supported by FF. To prove anything about that, you really have to build it, at scale. You get a stingy amount of FF for transition, which we are mostly squandering while ignoring the issue.

    Never mind my flying car, I’ll go without. Show me a container ship and one of those mining trucks with the tires twice my height, both running without FF’s, and built in factories running without FF’s, and the factories themselves built without FF’s, then we’re getting where most folks assume we’re going, without backing up their assumptions. People used to climate issues would benefit from thinking of it as a feedback problem. Feedback often makes extrapolation hazardous.

    I try to throw this into the conversation once or twice a year, when I feel it’s missing, without going on and on banging the same point. I think I’ve made the point. I have no more expertise than most folks, and less than many, but face it, there are no true experts on the future of industrial civilization. All I can legitimately ask for is that folks grapple with the right questions.

  32. 132
    prokaryotes says:

    As the White House prepares a climate change reform agenda that embodies the bold spirit of this year’s State of the Union address, in which President Barack Obama emphasized executive authority to regulate greenhouse gases, Congress has begun debating the nation’s new energy future. Concentrating solar power should be a key component of this dialogue.

  33. 133
    flxible says:

    Ric Merritt says: “Show me a container ship and one of those mining trucks with the tires twice my height, both running without FF’s …”
    In fact most of those giant mining trucks, and increasingly more ships, use diesel electric propulsion, which of course could use bio-diesel rather than FF – as for the energy used to build the machines and the facilities, alternatives could be used for those applications as well. The problem is we need to just get on with it, we know there needs to be a FF free future if we’re to save some fossil petro for vital uses other than burning.

  34. 134
    David B. Benson says:

    prokaryotes @128 — The link you provided invariably causes my Firefox to have a segmentation fault. So while I’d like to read the article I cannot.

  35. 135
    prokaryotes says:

    Uhm, that is strange, maybe install ghostery and inclussion extensions or try that with chrome browser. Also this error msg could hint to a RAM failure?

  36. 136
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Firefox … segmentation fault
    Same here; reported to Firefox as they request

  37. 137
    Jim Larsen says:

    Bob L said, “Sounds like you are planning a breakthrough. Nice when they come along, but really hard to plan on a short schedule.”

    Secular A is the man for finding out about those. He insists they’re coming soon, and I wouldn’t bet against him.

  38. 138
    GlenFergus says:

    Don’t forget June 12 is hug a climate scientist day. Like this.

  39. 139
    Hank Roberts says:

    David, go to the main page; an apparently identical link there to that ice cores page works ok for me.

    > prokaryotes
    Firefox (21.0, https-everywhere) opens your link, tries “” and crashes.

  40. 140
    SecularAnimist says:

    Bob L wrote: “Sounds like you are planning a breakthrough.”

    Jim Larsen replied: “Secular A is the man for finding out about those. He insists they’re coming soon …”

    Breakthroughs in solar, wind and battery technologies are occurring on a daily basis. Again, I encourage everyone to visit … it’s a great “news feed” for developments in those industries.

  41. 141
    Ric Merritt says:

    flxible #133 (11 Jun 2013 at 4:26 PM)

    Bio-diesel will, or would, be great, provided of course it arises from infrastructure not dependent on FF’s. But this begs the original question, namely, is such an infrastructure even possible, and if possible, can we get there without decades or centuries of rough going, maybe very very rough.

    If the inevitable decrease in FF’s comes too soon and too suddenly, we have more evidence than we usually like to think about that the lurch will cause economic disruption, with huge pressure on investments of all kinds, and political conflict with no obvious limit. We can’t alas assume that everybody will pull together to make the possible actual, because if that were likely, seems as if it should have started decades ago, at a far greater pace than we’ve seen.

  42. 142
    Hank Roberts says:

    “… renewable technologies can provide all the power the world needs.The Renewables 100 Policy Institute presents many on its website including “A Plan to Power 100% of the Planet With Renewables,” a 2009 cover story of Scientific American ….”

  43. 143

    #141–“But this begs the original question, namely, is such an infrastructure even possible…”

    Of course it is. Energy is energy.

    The one technological difficulty that I’m seeing is high-temperature process heat. But that can in principle be supplied either by nukes or syn fuel (which can be another form of solar.)

    The economics are, admittedly, harder. But realistic pricing of carbon emissions would surely help in a major way. And I’d reiterate my point that this won’t happen pending a comprehensive top-down planning process (though the more realistic planning, the better), any more than past industrial transformations have done.

    A couple of (nuclear enthusiast) links on this:

    Personally, I’m not that squeamish about nuclear power anymore–I think that the dangers, though non-negligible, are much less than continuing BAU. But I must say that I question just how large the ‘unreplaceable’ portion of the high-temp demand is–for example, making bio-ethanol is often listed as requiring fossil fuel, but most of Brazilian production (as I understand it, anyway) is fired by biofuel (specifically, “bagasse”, the non-sugary portions of the sugarcane used as the main feedstock.) So I’m a bit ‘skeptic’ there…

    Still, either way there is no technological barrier to near-complete replacement of fossil fuels. It is true, of course, that we will be using infrastructure that was built with fossil fuels for decades to come–probably well into the next century. But who cares? Those emissions have been, er, emitted–well, many of them. But as the percentage of non-FF energy in the mix continues to rise, the carbon-intensity will continue to drop accordingly.

  44. 144
    prokaryotes says:

    How Hot will it Get? (Berkeley Lab)

    “If we can limit our emissions, then the permafrost region will release less carbon to the atmosphere, there is a curve – it’s not a all or nothing question.” Ben Abbott

    Bob L wrote: “Sounds like you are planning a breakthrough.”

    According to Elon Musk, we need a breakthrough in energy density transmission.

  45. 145
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ric Merritt wrote: “… infrastructure not dependent on FF’s … is such an infrastructure even possible …”

    There is a big difference between an infrastructure that is dependent on burning some fossil fuels to build coal-fired power plants which will subsequently spew massive amounts of carbon pollution for decades, and an infrastructure that is dependent on burning some fossil fuels to build solar power plants and wind turbines which will subsequently emit NO carbon pollution, ever.

    Likewise, there is a big difference between burning fossil fuels to build millions of gasoline-fueled cars per year, each of which will subsequently spew carbon pollution for years, and burning fossil fuels to build electric cars & rail systems which will emit no carbon pollution, ever.

    At this point, what’s urgent is not to come up with a plan to eliminate the last, most difficult-to-eliminate 10 percent of GHG emissions within a few decades — what’s urgent is to come up with a plan to eliminate the first, easiest-to-eliminate 90 percent of GHG emissions within a few years.

    Fortunately, there is a LOT of low hanging fruit — for example the 58 percent of the USA’s primary energy consumption that is outright WASTED (according to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), or the coal-fired power plants that can be replaced with wind and solar much more quickly and at much lower cost than most people realize.

    That’s the stuff that we need to get on with NOW, if we are going to buy the time to tackle the more difficult-to-eliminate emissions.

  46. 146
    SecularAnimist says:

    Kevin McKinney wrote: “The one technological difficulty that I’m seeing is high-temperature process heat.”

    Concentrating solar thermal generates some serious heat. And of course it is always possible to use electricity (from solar, wind or hydro) to produce hydrogen fuel with electrolysis.

  47. 147
    Hank Roberts says:

    >> high-temperature process heat.
    >Concentrating solar thermal

    “Make hay while the sun shines”
    is a long-honored proverb,
    but I doubt that
    “smelt aluminum while the sun shines”
    is sustainable.

    Producing (and recycling) aluminum, steel, many kinds of glass and most chemical processes require better control than that.

    Now if we could put a thermostatic control on a volcano …

  48. 148

    #146–Yes. At one of the linked articles, the argument was made that the best CSP sites often don’t have great water resources. I don’t know how serious an argument that is; in principle you’d have to quantify need, potential resource and technological and economic constraints in bringing CSP and water together. I saw no indication that any such analysis had been done, so the point remains at the hand-waving level, AFAIK.

    And as I said, the question of how much high-temperature heat demand there is remains open in the first place.

    Good point, too, about the low-hanging 90%. Priorities…

  49. 149
    David B. Benson says:

    Hank Roberts @139 — Thanks, but unfortunately that leads to a video version and I don’t do those.

  50. 150