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Hit the brakes hard

Filed under: — group @ 29 April 2009 - (Español)

There is a climate splash in Nature this week, including a cover showing a tera-tonne weight, presumably meant to be made of carbon (could it be graphite?), dangling by a thread over the planet, and containing two new articles (Allen et al and Meinshausen et al), a “News & Views” piece written by two of us, and a couple commentaries urging us to “prepare to adapt to at least 4° C” and to think about what the worst case scenario (at 1000 ppm CO2) might look like.

At the heart of it are the two papers which calculate the odds of exceeding a predefined threshold of 2°C as a function of CO2 emissions. Both find that the most directly relevant quantity is the total amount of CO2 ultimately released, rather than a target atmospheric CO2 concentration or emission rate. This is an extremely useful result, giving us a clear statement of how our policy goals should be framed. We have a total emission quota; if we keep going now, we will have to cut back more quickly later.

There is uncertainty in the climate sensitivity of the Earth and in the response of the carbon cycle, and the papers are extremely useful in the way that they propagate these uncertainties to the probabilities of different amounts of warming. Just looking at the median model results, many people conclude that a moderately optimistic but not terribly aggressive scenario such as IPCC B1 would avoid 2°C warming relative to pre-industrial. But when you take into account the uncertainty, you find that there is a disturbingly high likelihood (roughly even odds) that it won’t.

Schmidt and Archer N and V figureBoth papers come to the same broad conclusion, summarized in our figure, that unless humankind puts on the brakes very quickly and aggressively (i.e. global reductions of 80% by 2050), we face a high probability of driving climate beyond a 2°C threshold taken by both studies as a “danger limit”. Comparing the two papers is obscured by the different units; mass of carbon versus mass of CO2 (moles, anyone? Is there a chemist in the house?). But chugging through the math, we find the papers to be broadly consistent. Both papers conclude that humankind is already about half-way toward releasing enough carbon to probably reach 2°C, and that most of the fossil fuel carbon (the coal, in particular) will have to remain in the ground.

We feel compelled to note that even a “moderate” warming of 2°C stands a strong chance of provoking drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society, leading potentially to the conflict and suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations. Global warming of 2°C would leave the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years, a disruption of climate conditions that have been stable for longer than the history of human agriculture. Given the drought that already afflicts Australia, the crumbling of the sea ice in the Arctic, and the increasing storm damage after only 0.8°C of warming so far, calling 2°C a danger limit seems to us pretty cavalier.

Also, there are dangers to CO2 emission other than the peak, such as the long tail of the CO2 perturbation which will dominate the ultimate sea level response, and the acidification of the ocean. A building may be safe from earthquakes but if it is susceptible to fires it is still considered unsafe.

The sorts of emission cuts that are required are technologically feasible, if we were to build wind farms instead of coal plants, an integrated regional or global electrical power grid, and undertake a crash program in energy efficiency. But getting everybody to agree to this is the discouraging part. The commentary by Parry et al advises us to prepare to adapt to climate changes of at least 4°C, even though they recognize that it may not be possible to buy our way out of most of the damage (to natural systems, for example, including the irreversible loss of many plant and animal species). Anyway, how does one “adapt” to a train wreck? There is also the fairness issue, in that the beneficiaries of fossil energy (rich countries today) are not the ones who pay the costs (less-rich countries decades from now). We wonder why we were not advised to prepare to adapt to crash curtailing CO2 emissions, which sounds to us considerably less frightening.

p.s. For our German-speaking readers: Stefan’s commentary on the KlimaLounge blog.

604 Responses to “Hit the brakes hard”

  1. 1
    adam frank says:

    The problem continues to be the lack of understanding in the community about the systems science nature of the problem

  2. 2
    Wilmot McCutchen says:

    For a layman, like me, a 2 degree C rise doesn’t sound alarming. It isn’t beyond the range of daily temperature fluctuations and yearly averages too. Of course, I understand that non-linear dynamics in the atmosphere, based on this rise, are alleged by scientists to cause droughts and hurricanes, but I just have to take their word for it. It is no comfort that the existence and smoothness of Navier-Stokes in three dimensions remains one of the seven Millennium Problems in mathematics. So, for a lay audience, the alarm sounds like much ado about nothing. That seems to be what recent polls indicate. Is there some easier way to explain the link between the rise and the predicted disasters?

    [Response: The climate of the last glacial maximum was six degrees colder than today. That doesn’t sound like much, either. David]

  3. 3

    Thanks for the heads up on this article. I’ll read it this afternoon.

    How DOES one adapt to a train wreck? Well — it has not happened (yet). How much time do we have as we try to apply the brakes?


  4. 4

    When you folks, however well intentioned, venture into prescribed solutions, you can not claim quite the level of authority that you have, and deserve, in analyzing climate effects. This is not to say that people that understand physics can not bring that to bear in analyzing technical solutions. That would be welcome.

    Technological feasibility is not meaningful without including the financial affordability factors.

    I have yet to find a forthright analysis of wind farm cost. There is also a lot of information discussing power outputs of these on a peak rather than average basis.

    Coal plants are obvious targets to eliminate, but there is a very significant cost to forcing these out of existence. However we might pretend otherwise, this cost will fall to the public in one form or another.

    The integrated “smart grid” electrical power network may be needed to make wind farm power available in the right places, but it will also perpetuate the most wasteful practice known to man which is the system of central power plants that throw away up to twice the heat energy as they manage to get converted into electric energy. Expectations for wind farms seems to fall far short of eliminating the central power plant.

    And a huge network improvement is not needed if we were instead to implement distributed cogeneration on a large scale. (Yes, I represent such a plan.)

    Then we get to the plug-in car panacaea. Now that the plug-in Hummer, the plug-in Fisker, and the Bright Automotive plug-in van have been added to the plug-in Prius we might start to catch on to the reality of this concept. It will surely reduce the use of foreign oil by shifting the load to the electric grid, but isn’t it clear that this will just exacerbate the electric power problem. Imagine trying to get coal usage for electric power generation cut when the roads are filled with plug-in SUVs.

    Efficiency is indisputable as a place to make huge gains. However, this often reduces to building insulation efficiency, which is great, but not so easily implemented on a large scale. Buildings do not turn over all that frequently. While new construction offers much opportunity, retrofitting is often quite problematic.

    The list of pet projects is long; the ready and affordable list is short.

    A danger of crash programs is that when done, they are done, and if they are painful and still not effective there will not be another chance for a long time.

    Ultimately, the question of affordability on a national scale becomes the issue. Zeal for a solution is appropriate, but it is a fact that there is not money lying around for this. It will be a current tax burden, or it will become a future tax burden on future generations. We all know how that goes.

    Finding pallatable solutions needs some real imaginative force being brought to bear on the problem. That seems in short supply.

  5. 5
    Maiken says:

    Is it naive to think that we must not even THINK the potentially inevitable? By suggesting to prepare to adapt to 4 C, do we not give way to the nay-sayers that efforts are useless anyway? If we start to not believe that we CAN make it, then we will have started to loose the battle.

    An comment on the Meinhausen paper: As I understand, even with “just” 1 trillion tons of CO2 emissions by 2050, we still have a 25% chance of passing the 2 C threshold. How can that be at all acceptable?

    Doesn’t this paper show that we already have no room to spare, that we absolutely must NOT emit those 1 trillion tons of CO2, and that we have to set the emergency bells to red?

    Isn’t this paper confirming that Jim Hansen and others are correct in saying that we are already way above the acceptable level, and that we have to do whatever is possible to immediately put a moratorium on coal fired power plants – at least in the industrialized countries that can afford to do so?

  6. 6
    Johank says:

    I’m not a chemist, but 1 kg C = 3.664 kg CO2.

    [Response: Well, OK, it’s not rocket science, but the differing units that people begin to adopt are really a pain in the butt. Read these papers and you may sympathize with my irritation. David]

  7. 7
    Daniel C. Goodwin says:

    It would be so much better to adapt to 80% less energy use – that’s something we and many other species could survive. But while the community of climate scientists grows ever more emphatic in their alarming prognoses, the political sphere, far from discussing how much to cut emissions, seems locked in endless temporizing to postpones any cuts at all.

    I find persuasive Hansen’s argument that the only way to achieve a sustainable consensus behind CO2 cuts is a tax with 100% dividend, such that all proceeds are immediately returned to the public – rather than given over to government priorities (read “cronies”). But the only solution in sight is tax-and-trade, which had its chance in Kyoto and failed to produce results. It’s hard to know what to do, and just discouraging that even the people we would hope are on the right side of this issue don’t seem to get it yet, as we watch Wilkins crumble.

  8. 8
    SecularAnimist says:

    The ClimateProgress site has an interesting review of this issue of Nature.

  9. 9
    Milan says:

    The point made by these articles is consistent with what has been my understanding for some time:

    We cannot emit more than a certain total amount of greenhouse gasses without causing dangerous climate change:

    And the fossil-fuel industry necessarily has no long-term future:

  10. 10
    Zane Selvans says:

    For some reason all of the links in this article seem to be non-functional… [we’ve fixed-sorry!]

  11. 11
    Jim Norvell says:

    Where do you plan on putting those wind farms? A quick SWAG puts the land area of wind farms to replace the current coal facilities at something like 50,000 square miles.

  12. 12
    Kjartan Bleie says:

    Broken links (2 links) “,a News & Views piece written by two of us, and a couple of commentaries” [see above, we fixed this already]

  13. 13
    SecularAnimist says:

    Daniel Goodwin wrote: “It would be so much better to adapt to 80% less energy use …”

    No, not 80 percent “less energy use”. It’s 80 percent less CO2 emissions. We can use as much energy as we can harvest from the sun and wind and rivers and tides and the Earth’s internal heat, which is plenty. More, in fact, than the entire world uses at present.

    Equating “energy” with fossil fuels is a fossil fuel industry propaganda tactic that we should not internalize.

  14. 14
    Ike Solem says:

    Practically, what that means is that the U.S. should start eliminating the worst fossil fuels immmediately.

    The first item should be a ban on any imports of Canadian tar sand oil to the U.S., plus pressure on Canada to shut down those operations. This may not really be needed, however:

    The second item should be a ban on any new coal-fired plant construction, ideally a global ban.

    The third item should be a realistic plan to replace current coal-fired generation with wind and solar. The main opposition to that is from the coal-financed Electric Power Research Institute, which makes a business out of distortion of economic models to ‘prove’ that renewables are just too expensive. What they carefully do not do is to attempt estimates of the cost of global warming.

    The fourth item should be more ambitious, and that is a plan to set up modern industrial and agricultural systems that are entirely powered by renewable energy – for example, fossil fuel free farms run off solar-powered water pumps and worked with electric tractors, charged with wind and or solar. It really should be a rule that if you are growing and processing biofuels, no fossil fuels should be involved.

    The fifth item is perhaps the most complicated: managing the economic transition such that conflict is minimized – really, it’s a task equivalent to replacing slavery with for-pay labor – consider all the turmoil that caused. In fact, similar arguments abound – BP’s justification for developing Canadian tar sands was the same as that of British politicians who argued for slavery – “otherwise, the international competition will take over / those resources are going to be developed anyway.”

    As far as costs, the cost of switching to a renewable energy based economic system is far lower than the costs of global warming over the next century. Take a look at what insurance companies are saying:

    Climatewire: A premier group of European insurers is warning businesses to prepare for the worst effects of climate change, including civil unrest in Latin America that could drive more illegal immigrants northward. The report by Lloyd’s of London, a specialty insurance market, amounts to a request to its clients: Act now to reduce your future losses, or risk big damages later.

    Now, if we could just get all the fossil fuel organizations to cancel their PR and lobbying contracts on this issue, starting with Edelman and Burson-Marstellar, we might be able to make some progress. Personally, I think the public relations types and the lobbyists who work for the API, etc., are the real problem – they probably are as dishonest with their clients as they are with the media and the public. Not only that, the fact that they are being paid to spread falsehoods certainly opens their employers up to massive climate-related liability lawsuits – something for the CEOs to consider.

    They’re a liability – fire them.

  15. 15

    We don’t “adapt” to 4 °C of warming,” except in the sense that residents of New Orleans “adapted” to Katrina. It ain’t adaptation. As John Holdren would say, it’s “misery.”

    It is also an exceedingly open question as to whether one can in fact “stabilize” at much above 2°C — or whether you destroy the tundra and the peatlands and saturate the sinks and basically quickly go up to 5°C or more. I think the science is moving in the direction of stabilize below 450 ppm or cross thresholds that take you shoot you up to 1000 ppm.

    Frankly, I didn’t think Nature did a very good job in these articles, other than one very useful figure. See

  16. 16
    Bob Cousins says:

    Re: 11

    Anywhere you have 50,000 sq miles. Texas is 268,000 sq miles, so Texas.

  17. 17
    Bob Cousins says:

    “Both papers come to the same broad conclusion, summarized in our figure”

    Where is that figure?

    All the Nature articles are behind a paywall. Paying for information is so last century ;)

  18. 18
    SecularAnimist says:

    Jim Norvell wrote: “A quick SWAG puts the land area of wind farms to replace the current coal facilities at something like 50,000 square miles.”

    According to data from the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratories recently cited by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the gross offshore wind energy resources of the mid-Atlantic region alone exceed the total output of all the coal-fired power plants in the country. That’s just one region, and wind energy is just one component of America’s vast renewable energy resources.

  19. 19
    Myles Allen says:

    Hi Gavin,

    Nice summary, thanks. Of course, many realclimate readers will know that Wally Broecker ( and Tom Wigley ( were arguing about the size of the carbon pie a couple of years ago. What is new here is how observations constrain this cumulative warming commitment, which (let’s hope!) will prove a lot more tractable than climate sensitivity.



  20. 20
    David B. Benson says:

    Wilmot McCutchen (2) — For an approximation, use this graph:
    to see we are heading for Miocene temperatures and the distinct possibility of melting much of Antarctic ice sheets.

    John Burgeson (3) — We have negative time. Should have started 20 years ago. Now we can only try to slow it down, starting immediately.

  21. 21
    Walt Bennett says:

    I would like to thank RC for finally initiating a thread where it is entirely appropriate to discuss the issue which has been on my mind lately, and stated so clearly in this work: We will pass dangerous tipping points if we continue to rely on emissions reduction as the grand strategy. I would say that the strategy is at least 67% assured of failure on the simple basis that other nations will not agree. Add to that the severe reductions being insisted upon, which are economically as well as politically infeasible, and we are clearly left with two choices, and perhaps both must eventually be accepted as reality:

    1. We must develop methods by which we draw down atmospheric CO2

    2. We must begin to prepare for a much warmer world.

    Thus, we need immediate recognition of the need to invest in two areas where we do not, as yet, commit meaningful resources:

    1. We must invest in technological advances which can suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. There are some good ideas already in play, and we need to get busy examining their feasibility and then keep going to better and better ideas.

    2. We need to ask the question: what will a 2*C, 3*C or 4*C warmer world look like? Will today’s frozen tundra be tomorrow’s farmland? What sort of plant migrations can we expect? What will be lost, what will be gained and what impact will those changes have on humanity and the habitats upon which we depend?

    Bottom line: We need to move beyond yesterday’s conversations. I said once and I will say again, Gavin once correctly pointed out that Lindzen was trying to have yesterday’s conversations. Today, it is the “good guys”; i.e., those who really want to solve this, who are stuck in yesterday’s conversations.

    I don’t consider it an insult to you to point that out. I just consider it my moral obligation to remain intellectually honest about where we are and where we’re headed.

    Let’s have a robust discussion about how we accomplish that. We have to commit ourselves to rationality over fear, and we have to get busy doing that as soon as possible.

  22. 22
    James says:

    SecularAnimist Says (29 April 2009 at 4:22 PM):

    “…the gross offshore wind energy resources of the mid-Atlantic region alone exceed the total output of all the coal-fired power plants in the country.”

    So that’s what, 1000 x 50 miles? Also note the word “gross”. I think I would also like figures for how much of that energy is acturally capturable at practical cost (say not more that 2X the equivalent nuclear generation). What exactly goes into the computation of the available wind energy? For an interesting but meaningless factoid, the occasional hurricane that passes through the mid-Atlantic produces wind energy roughly equivalent to all the world’s generation – but just try to capture it.

    On the other hand, the equivalent nuclear generation might at a rougn guess occupy a hundred square miles or so (in a few hundred sites dispersed over the country), most of which can be nicely landscaped and used as habitat by wild creatures.

  23. 23
    Phil Scadden says:

    Jim Bullis – you find the scenarios for NOT decreasing CO2 palatable? Choose your poison. Wind farms, solar? I cant recommend MacKay’s “sustainable energy – without the hot air” more highly for this discussion. Available on on line for free but also cheap and easier to digest as a book.

    I doubt many people will find his numbers very palatable but he does point to what is feasible and USA much better placed than say Europe. You cant have a meaningful discussion without the numbers he presents.

  24. 24
    Jim Norvell says:

    #18 Go talk to the Kennedy’s. My Senator in California wants to shut down some of the best solar potential in the country. It will always come down to NIMBY.

  25. 25
    marktime says:

    Couldn’t resist – Captcha “Frizzled Times”

  26. 26
    Wilmot McCutchen says:

    David B. Benson — Thanks for the Wikipedia link to Miocene conditions, showing Antarctic melting with a 2 C rise. That’s good evidence, but what I was hoping for is some explanation of how such an apparently trivial amount of extra energy in the atmosphere can result in such huge effects.

    If the effects are predictably severe, there is no question of adaptation. A frog may complacently endure heating the water in its pot before it boils to death, but that’s not adaptation, it’s misery, as Joseph Romm points out.

  27. 27
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 24 (Jim Norvell) – I can understand a little NIMBY with wind farms (though that must be tempered with ‘do I want electricity?’) – but why they heck would someone not want solar power plants nearby? Just to be perverse? (Not to doubt you; I’m just curious about it.)

  28. 28
    Richard Ordway says:

    Gavin wrote, “build wind farms”.

    [Response: note that group posts are joint – only solo efforts are labeled by name. I’m pretty sure that we (collectively) don’t think that wind farms are the only solution here, and you should not read that into the text.- gavin]

    Gavin, you must have read more up to date material than me. I’m still reading the Socolow and Pacala study which seems in the published material to support a multi-pronged attack system…not just building windmills, but a huge combination including solar.

    Just windmills doesn’t seem to work out mathmatically. Your blog is a source of hope from the mainstream scientific communtity’s point of view.

    Can just building windmills alone do it? Maybe you are being tongue and cheek or reading published materials I’ve missed (or maybe depressed by the two studies!), but many people are reading your blog for nearly the first time and would not know the difference and would take your word for it.

    Socolow and Pacala

    [Response: You’re right, we were being over-simple; it would take more than windmills. The point is that it’s technically doable. If we were running out of fossil energy, we’d figure out a way to stay out of the stone age, I’m confident. David]

  29. 29
    David B. Benson says:

    Wilmot McCutchen (26) — We also know that during the previous interglacial, the Eemian, that global temperatures were about 2 K warmer than “at present”, i.e., 1950s, and during that time considerable melt occurred in Greenland (and probably some of WAIS), resulting in a 4–6 m sea highstand (different in different locations).

    On millennial scales, the oceans take up heat, lots of it; upper 2.5 m has the heat content of the entire atmosphere (from a Wikipedia page with a title I don’t recall just now).

    Not sure that answers your question.

  30. 30
    Jim Norvell says:

    #27 Ask Sen. Feinstein or the enviromentalists who object to solar in the outbacks of California.

  31. 31
    Jim Eaton says:

    Patrick 027 Says:

    “but why they heck would someone not want solar power plants nearby?”

    It is a matter of location. Our deserts in North America are “living deserts,” with an amazing variety of flora and fauna. There are already disturbed desert locals (used by industry or the military, for example) that might not have much opposition, but there is a gold rush going on to secure power plant sites everywhere on public lands in the desert — sometimes with the thought of later selling the rights to the highest bidder.

    Check out this website to get an idea why there are folks opposed to the Ivanpah Valley proposal:

    ReCaptcha: coverts shale

  32. 32
    Mark Cunnington says:

    Jim Bullis (#4) wrote:

    Then we get to the plug-in car panacaea. Now that the plug-in Hummer, the plug-in Fisker, and the Bright Automotive plug-in van have been added to the plug-in Prius we might start to catch on to the reality of this concept.

    Actually, we don’t have a plug in Prius yet, Toyota won’t make it despite the fact that it would be easier and cheaper and more fuel efficient to make than the current parallel hybrid system. They won’t do that because the Prius uses NiMH batteries, the patent on which is owned by Chevron / Texaco. One can only presume that they are preventing Toyota from using these batteries in a hybrid system that derives some of its energy from a source other than fossil fuels. They know that once the plug-in idea catches on, there will be nothing to stop it.

    The lack of decent electric vehicles on the road in 2009 is absolutely ridiculous. As an engineer, it is obvious proof to me of some level of “conspiracy”, if you can define corporate greed as “conspiracy”. Look at your cell phone, laptop, digital camera and the advances they have made in the last 10, 20 years. To think that none of those advances have moved over into the automotive industry to improve fuel economy speaks to the ridiculousness of the situation.

    Toyota is designing a new Prius which uses Lithium ion batteries (not patented, but 10 years behind in development compared with NiMH) Surprise, it will be a plug in!!! Maybe in a couple years we will be able to get our hands on it.

    The transition away from fossil fuels will not be very difficult. If everyone in the US Southwest put solar panels on their roofs they could power the entire continent. And solar panels in the southwest are nearing grid parity; in other words, people will automatically choose them over other energy systems. And Obama seems to want to add in additional incentives. Everyone could charge their electric cars using solar panels and the extra burden on the grid would be eliminated and decentralized. They could power their whole lives with solar panels on sunny days.

    Large wind turbines can be scattered across rural farmland in the Midwest, causing no one any grief. This, couple with solar panels, could easily replace the current electrical generation of North America.

  33. 33
    Jim Eager says:

    David Benson (20), I like this one because it combines multiple eras (albeit in multiple scales) in one place:

  34. 34
    J.S. McIntyre says:

    re 14.

    You left something out, imho. Given tha damage done, sustainability issues and the problems likely incurred with 0.8c warming as we move into the future, there will need to be found a way to halt global population growth – and reduce it.

  35. 35
    David says:


    Going beyond “wind farms” and the Socolow and Pacala wedges study, I’d suggest you take a look at some of the other packages of solutions out there – perhaps starting with Joe Romm’s excellent global warming solutions using the same “wedge” approach and a lot of background thinking on cost-effectiveness.

    Wind, efficiency and a smart grid are almost certainly part of the ultimate package… but I can’t imagine they’d be enough on their own.

    – David

  36. 36
    David B. Benson says:

    Jim Eager (32) — Thank you!

  37. 37
    Jim Norvell says:

    Lets get some hard numbers out folks. We generate 2E15 W-Hr/Yr from coal ( Solar PV’s output something like 2E6 W-Hr/Yr/KW-installed. We need to install 1E9 Kw-DC at 5K$/Kw . That is 5 Trillion dollars. I don’t think the Chinese are willing to pony up that amount of money.

  38. 38

    Re #20 and #3 Could we have acted 20 years ago?? Try 50 years ago

    See the classic 1958 video warning… on minute duration

    And the new application of Google Timeline reminds us this story has been around for a long time – articles on the subject in appeared as early as 1968.. could have been written today.,2505197&dq=global+warming

  39. 39

    I have two broad observations about how this issue is being processed by those who accept its reality and want change.

    1. Global warming has been interpreted to the public as a “flow” problem, not as a “stock” problem. “Emissions” are an annual flow measure. Total CO2 concentration is a “stock” measure. If we were dealing with “Clean Air” we’d be on solid ground discussing emissions. Clean the “flow” and the surrounding air gets cleaner. But we’re talking about Earth’s equilibrium temperature, and the critical variable is the total stock of CO2, not the annual flow from human activity. The higher the stock, the higher the temperature and the more severe the climate consequences.

    And that ought to be the message to the public. Cap total CO2 at the lowest and least deadly level. The longer we have high emissions, the higher the stock becomes, and the higher the stock of CO2, the greater the damage. That’s a message that uses the logic of the situation to teach the public how urgently we must act.

    But is that the message? Heck, no. Scientists and environmentalists alike persist in positioning this problem as a “flow” problem to be resolved by a reduction in the “flow”, i.e. by cutting emissions by some arbitrary amount.

    To the public, this positioning entirely takes away the urgency. Cut the flow today, cut the flow in fifty years, what difference will it make? As with the Clean Air Act, the sooner we cut dirty emissions, the sooner we get clean air, but if we had waited, we would have gotten the same clean air anyway, just later. Translate this logic to global warming. Cut emissions today, cut them later, who cares? As soon as we get around to the emission cuts that are being asked, the problem will go away.

    It is utter folly to persist in describing a stock problem using flow language. The public is confused, and loses its sense of urgency. It is time for scientists and environmentalists alike to take the Pledge. Describe the issue in stock terms, not flow terms. As in “Cap atmospheric CO2 at the lowest and least deadly level.” Any takers?

    2. From a public policy perspective, especially from a presidential and congressional perspective, this whole problem resolves as an energy risk issue. Is fossil fuel energy safe for the long term? And, if not, how does one rework the nation’s energy system to produce one that is truly safe? This is essentially an all or nothing problem. Either we redo the whole thing, or CO2 never gets capped and temperatures continue to rise indefinitely.

    Given this, we have to adopt the discipline of seeing the whole grid. Socolow and Pacala are on the wrong track. The right way to frame the problem is with a simple Sources and Uses matrix. I put Sources across the top, and Uses down the side. Sources include all types of source energy – fossil fuel electric, hydro electric, nuclear electric, wind electric, etc, but also direct coal (not much) and direct petroleum fuel (a lot) and direct natural gas (fair amount). Uses divide into Residential, Commercial, Industrial, and Transportation, which further subdivides into Gasoline, Diesel, and Aviation Uses. The ~57 terawatt-hours/day in net Sources provides energy for ~57 terawatt-hours/day in Net Uses.

    There are four Uses themes for reworking the nation’s energy matrix:
    1) Efficiency – appliance efficiency, building efficiency, vehicle efficiency, process heat efficiency.
    2) Carbon neutral buildings. Tight standards for new buildings, and a 30-40 year retrofit program for old buildings, which will combine insulation, switching to heat pumps, adding geothermal, etc.
    3) Carbon neutral vehicles. Must be twelve to fifteen different applications, each of which will need to be reinvented. Some will work with electric power (cars) and some will need liquid fuel (planes) and the task of providing the fuel will have to be solved in conjunction with the task of choosing the best use technology. No point in creating liquid fuel for electric vehicles, right?
    4) Carbon neutral process heat. A major end use, 20 TWH/Day out of 57, but I have zero expertise on the options.

    There are four more Sources themes:
    5) Carbon neutral electric power. This will surely combine wind, and solar thermal, and photovoltaic, and possibly ocean wave energy, and a bit of hot geothermal. As well as niche nuclear. And surviving hydro.
    6) Carbon neutral liquid fuel. Surely not corn ethanol. Possibly crop-based, but more likely algae based, as the gallons/acre/year potential of algae is far higher than any crop.
    7) Properly sized and sited electric grid. If siting is done project by project, we lose. Feds have to do comprehensive siting for wind and grid at the same time, use incentives to create permits, then open permitted sites up to developers.
    8 ) Phase-out of fossil fuel power. As fast as renewable electric is ready, coal has to be phased out. As fast as renewable liquid fuel is ready, petroleum has to be phased out.

    As a general principle, much of the potential cost of this can be met simply by redirecting capital budget priorities. Money that would have been spent on fossil fuels needs to be spent, instead, on renewables. The upfront costs will be higher, and will need incentives/subsidies/mandates/deadlines, but the long term cost picture includes a trillion a year that we don’t spend on fossil fuels, a huge savings.

    Frame the problem properly, as one of limiting total stock, and perhaps we finally help the public understand the urgency.

    Frame the solution properly, as an orderly and aggressive reworking of the nation’s energy technologies, with redirected capital budgets and appropriate federal support, and we at least demonstrate that we are orderly enough to think about the whole of the problem. The more we highlight the problem by emphasizing all eight themes, the faster the public learns to understand all eight themes.

  40. 40

    Phil Scadden #23

    Getting the discussion correctly to the numbers is critical. Unfortunately there are a lot of misunderstandings here.

    Your reference indicated in UK the conversion from fossil fuel to electricity is done with 40% thermal efficiency. Yet that author goes on to say we should “electrify transport.” And that, “Electrification both gets transport off fossil
    fuels, and makes transport more energy-efficient. (Of course, electrification increases demand for green electricity.)”

    All this is correct if the electrification leads to transport that is indeed driven by green electricity. In the USA, coal is so abundant that it produces heat at a cost of about $1 per million BTU. Natural gas produces heat at a cost varying from about $4 to about $12 per million BTU. Electric power generating entities have the option to choose which fuel to use. Of course, coal burning causes about twice as much CO2 as natural gas. Hence the campaign against coal.

    But when we campaign to electrify transport by means of the plug-in hybrid vehicle, we are seriously exacerbating the problem, since the economically sensible reaction (yes short term) is to fill the added demand for electric energy from coal fired facilities.

    I try to make the case that this could be ok if transport was also redesigned such that it would use a small fraction of the energy that it now consumes. However, as I pointed out in my original (#4) the fact is we are now bringing forth as plug-ins, a Fisker, a Hummer, a Bright automotive van, as well as a Prius. Well known persons such as Mr. Andy Grove, ex head of Intel, advocate electrifying all vehicles, beginning with the least efficient we can find. This is not going right.

    When the 33% efficiency of coal fired power plants (no it is not 40% for these) is factored in, as well as the high rate of CO2 per BTU, the plugging in turns out to be not a good thing. Even the Prius hybrid, though excellent as a hybrid, turns out to be degraded by the conversion to plug-in.

    The situation is then confused by the seeming complementary benefit of reducing dependence on foreign oil. Yes, the plug-in will be beneficial in this regard since it resets us to use coal instead of oil. Unfortunately, many think it will also make great progress in reducing CO2 emissions.

  41. 41
    steve says:

    #30 Jim, just out of curiosity where exactly are we going to put windmills that don’t have a chance of killing birds or ruining someone’s ocean view. Where exactly are we going to put solar panels that don’t in some way interfere with the natural plant and animal life. What exactly is the technology that will allow us to use renewable energy sources that all seem to require a vast amount of space without putting up transmission lines? I have yet to decide that co2 will in fact warm to earth to a dangerous level but I would expect that those that do would be prepared to understand there are compromises involved and to be prepared to accept these compromises. The energy isn’t just going to magically appear.

  42. 42

    Yes Mark Cunnington #31, Jim Bullis has trouble spelling panacea.

    I think the plug-in thing is gaining considerable momentum. Here is where more attention is needed by those who can make analytical assessments and are willing to speak on them. This is one of my main reasons for posting here.

    Solar panels on our roofs and wind turbines in our fields would be fine, but they do cost a lot of money. If these were only required to fill a modest demand for electric power, we might even get there with these answers, though that is not clear.

    It turns out that the hopes for solar PV panels get dashed when the real costs of installation, maintenance (roofs under them included)are fully reckoned. Wind turbines seem to be not forthrightly costed out for the whole picture. But hopefully, there can be a blend of solutions that use these kinds of equipment.

  43. 43
    Ike Solem says:

    Walt says: “I would say that the strategy is at least 67% assured of failure on the simple basis that other nations will not agree.”

    Actually, it’s the other nations that have already agreed, and it is the U.S. that is refusing to go along by passing a benchmark renewable energy generation goal – a law that mandates that 20% of electricity will be from renewable sources within, say, five years. Germany’s 2004 Renewable Energy Act is an example:

    “This act is further intended to contribute to the increase in the percentage of renewable energy sources in power supply to at least 12.5 per cent by 2010 and to at least 20 per cent by 2020.”

    China has also gone ahead with such plans:

    China’s Renewable Energy Law Takes Effect; Pricing and Fee-Sharing Rules Issued by Zijun Li on January 18, 2006

    Even major oil producers like UAE have agreed to similar strategies, although India continues to behave like the U.S. on the issue.

    In Southeast Asia, many governments appear to be following the successful Korean model, as applied to renewable energy.

    It’s really simple – the U.S. needs to do what China and Germany and others have done if we wish to remain anywhere near the forefront of the energy revolution now in progress. Many other countries have agreed to boost renewables in order to replace fossil fuel emissions – but that goal has never been explicitly stated in binding form in the U.S., although recent Presidential speeches are highly encouraging.

    As far as the technical ability to replace fossil fuels with wind and solar, see this story:

    The technology, a system of rotating dishes made up of mirrors, is capable of harnessing up to 75 percent of incoming sunlight – roughly five times the capacity of traditional solar panels. In addition, using mirrors to reduce the number of photovoltaic cells needed, it makes the cost of solar energy roughly comparable to fossil fuels.

    While this technology has been implemented elsewhere, Israeli start-up ZenithSolar – working in conjunction with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University – is a pioneer in combining it with a water-based cooling system that increases the photovoltaic cells’ efficiency and produces thermal energy to boot…

    * See this thread also

  44. 44
    James says:

    ““but why they heck would someone not want solar power plants nearby?”

    It is a matter of location. Our deserts in North America are “living deserts,” with an amazing variety of flora and fauna. There are already disturbed desert locals (used by industry or the military, for example) that might not have much opposition, but there is a gold rush going on to secure power plant sites everywhere on public lands in the desert — sometimes with the thought of later selling the rights to the highest bidder.

    Check out this website to get an idea why there are folks opposed to the Ivanpah Valley proposal:

    Lets see:
    Wind Farms: 1000s dead birds killed on the blades
    Nuclear: Terrorists, fail to manage the waste across many glacials etc etc and you have a sterile world
    Roof top solar: Energy storage for rainy days and nights
    Lower energy use: get real! no hope here

    Guys we need to use every option, too much soapboxing and we will wax extinct

    So instead of opposing every option that spoils our favorite pretty picture lets work constructively or the BAU folk will prevail

  45. 45
    James says:

    Patrick 027 Says (29 April 2009 at 6:17 PM)

    “Re 24 (Jim Norvell) – I can understand a little NIMBY with wind farms (though that must be tempered with ‘do I want electricity?’) – but why they heck would someone not want solar power plants nearby?”

    You have it almost exactly backwards: it’s not NIMBY, but IMBY, or more precisely, on my rooftop – and yours too. Put PV panels on every existing rooftop in the southwest, and I’ll be leading the cheering section, because that’s where they belong, on rooftops, or shading parking lots, or on any structure that already exists. Where they don’t belong is out in the countryside, blocking the sunlight from wide swathes of land, and so destroying the ecosystem.

    Same applies to wind turbines: there are a lot of places they can be built, such as those midwest corn and wheat fields, without harming the environment much more than it already has been. A short distance offshore from a scenic coastline is NOT such a place, though.

  46. 46
    Dean says:

    Adaptation or misery?

    Some people think that adaption is something like adapting to a different flavor of ice cream if somebody stops making your favorite.

    But for the folks already here in North America, adaptation to the arrival of European germs meant an 80-90% die-off. That’s what adaptation can mean in the broad sense.

    It’s not that I’m not predicting specifically that for 4 degrees of warming. Just that adaptation in the scale we are talking about makes comparison with a percent or 2 of GDP (or drop in property values) for mitigation laughable.

  47. 47
    Hank Roberts says:

    Mark Cunnington, you write about batteries: “… absolutely ridiculous. As an engineer, it is obvious proof to me of some level of “conspiracy … one can only presume …”

    Well I thought that sounded nuts, but poked around and someone might want to look into this and see if it holds up.

  48. 48
    Peter Williams says:

    Interesting, but I have to say as a fellow scientist I find it a huge turn-off that the authors feel the need to mention more than once in this post how important their work is.


    [Response: You are mistaken. None of us were authors on the main papers. Instead, two of us were instead asked to comment on the results (exactly as we often comment on other papers here). If you spent any time reading here, you would also find that we rarely discuss any of the over 30 papers a year collectively (estimate) we publish. – gavin]

  49. 49
    danny bloom says:

    Alexis Madrigal has a good story on this in Wired this week, too. All the more reason to stop the stranglehold that coal and other fossil fuels have on this world gone over-mad, and thus my graduation
    speech to the future class of 2099, which remains on YouTube and awaits your kind eyeballs….

  50. 50
    Doug Bostrom says:

    #11 Jim:

    For an update on what’s going on in places where political will is usefully married w/capital as opposed to both being paralyzed by nervous handwringing, neurotic perfectionism and nostalgic, romantic attachment to hazardous anachronisms see the cover article in the latest issue of MarineLog. There you’ll see what is basically mutated offshore oil equipment being put to use installing offshore wind farms. All quite routine, quite productive. The imaginary problems just don’t seem to be quite as real as is our fear of the new.

    Is wind generation perfect? Obviously not. But then neither is coal generation, not by a long shot, amazingly efficient though the underlying technology has evolved to become.

    We in the U.S. are looking increasingly strange, locked in perpetual discussion about what we might do while others have long moved on. Hardly like our self-image at all, really. We’re becoming exceptional in a way that is sort of embarrassing.