Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Open Question: Is Man Now Responsible For Managing The Climate?

My answer is that we are already influencing climate and will continue to do so; therefore we must learn to manage climate. I believe the answer to the question is yes.

This blog is dedicated to continuing a discussion which began on RealClimate in the thread The debate is just beginning — on the Cretaceous! where I started a discussion based on a comment by Steve Reynolds, who asked why China and India would allow their economic growth to be slowed in order to produce less greenhouse emissions.

My opinion is that they will not. My opinion is that "emissions reduction" has little or no chance to avert catastrophic warming. I believe we must engineer our way forward.

I would like to continue that discussion.


Walt Bennett said...

From the RC thread:

Re: #169


Here’s the thing: I read your post and agree with your general stance; then I try to interpret the specifics, and find myself right where I started.

Example: you say “people act in accord with their interests”. You then go on to surmise that the people of China and India can “adopt a view of their interests being favored by long-term sustainable growth rather than a more rapid growth spurt followed by ecological collapse”…you see those two statements as complementary, and I see tham as in conflict.

The people of China and India have a lot in common with the people of the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe: they want to feed their families, be gainfully employed, and so forth. Their day-to-day concerns almost certainly closely resemble ours.

Have you noticed a growth of conscience in the country you live in, which I assume is among the wealthy nations? Are people volunteering to reduce their carbon footprint at the expense of their economic security? I didn’t think so. Now, why would the people of China and India, who can rightly feel that they desever their turn at growth, choose differently than those who have already received that benefit?

My point is simply that they will not. And if anybody thinks they will, then it’s time to start talking numbers. What will be the impact on individual families? AGW is one huge climate experiment, with the planet as the lab. “AGW Soultions” (at this point: emissions reduction and setting aside forest) is one huge social experiment, with the population of the planet as the guinea pigs. We are a long way, in my view, from any reason to believe that this experiment, as currently constructed, will achieve the intended result.

What this discussion lacks is realism; fatalism, if you will. What is the plan if the plan to alter the behavior of millions and millions of people fails? What is the backup? What is the failsafe?

You write “Given these uncertainties and the potential consequences, I would contend that prudence is strongly favored.”

I could not agree more. I consider the prudent path to avoid reliance on such a shaky “solution” (again, where are the details?) of “emissions reduction.” If we aren’t careful, this conscientious objective could devolve quickly into a vicious scam.


You wrote “However, this site might not be the best place for that since we are not policy people.” Fair enough. However, I wrote in #158 that there are important science questions to be answered before we can discuss social policy. I see no area of science better suited to this analysis than climatology. I see scientists as being in the position of providing the data necessary to inform policy. We can’t assume that this work is done; it has in fact only just begun.

It is my sincere hope that RC will reflect this reality in its postings, and t

Walt Bennett said...

Also from RC:

Re: #188


You and I do not fundamentally disagree on the need to avert catastrophic warming. If anything, I believe that current Climate Science orthodoxy is much too conservative. Whether or not global temperatures skyrocket in the next decade (as I believe they will), we are seeing more and more signs that the climate is shifting in permanent ways. The signs could be wrong, or they could be the early warning that we will one day come to recognize as the start of the shift to a warmer planet.

Of course I am in favor of a zero carbon emissions planet. I am in favor of clean energy. I am in favor of social policies which encourage this shift.

I am stuck with this concern: what if it is later than we think? And, what if we completely miss our targets for emissions reduction? And, what if the reduction in soot has a sudden impact on warming? And, what if it turns out to be incredibly difficult to reverse some of the processes which are underway?

What I am struggling to communicate is: we really need a lot more science on the above questions, and on all possible alternatives to avoid the worst consequences. And we simply must do all of this without placing an extra economic burden on those who already cannot afford basic energy.

To whoever it was who scoffed at my concern over energy costs, based on the idea that scarcity will raise the price anyway, my concern is that the Big Plan is to increase that cost even further. This will create a much broader and deeper class of impoverished people, whose only real problem is their inability to afford or access basic energy at a decent cost.

I don’t know how else to say it: we run the risk of ruining millions of lives without actually solving the problem. We really need to expand our ability to question the strategies we have been asked to accept. We need numbers and we need them soon.

I assume we’re all on the same side here. We have one chance to get this right.

Mark said...

Answer: Yes, we do. As for the Chinese, we make them an offer they can't refuse. Clean up or ship out. No American company will use their cheap sub-human labor. I'll enforce it too! Try me.

Walt Bennett said...

Also from RC:

Re: #203 and the other posts by SA,

I held the belief, briefly, that all we need to do to “fix” global warming is to stop doing the things that caused it. You evidently still hold that belief.

I believe that we are beyond that point both as a practical matter (it will take 10 to 20 years before we see an actual annual reduction in ghg emissions, and that is a best-case scenario) and from the standpoint of what’s feasible (getting the world to agree on this strategy sounds good until the world has to agree on how to do it).

You and some others seem to have missed my point completely, which is this: we cannot put all our eggs in the “stop being bad” basket, because the very real possibility is that we’ve already been too bad, or will reach that point before we can stop it. Therefore we must - and I mean, must - get better at engineering the climate system, in particular the atmosphere.

As Hank and Ray acknowledge, we are already doing it (engineering climate). We have to move from doing it unconsciously to doing it consciously.

Although perhaps you cannot envision it, it is clear to me: we must, and we will engineer our way forward.

I am approaching this from the standpoint of realistic optimism (or, if you prefer, optimistic realism).

Walt Bennett said...

From Climate Change Debate (Yahoo Groups):


I have made two broad suggestions:

1. We need a vigorous, constant effort to confirm that we know how far along we are in building in future warming. This is critical in order for us to make informed decisions about remedial actions. For example, if in ten years we are still producing more CO2 each year worldwide than we did the year before (which I am certain will be the case), how much future warming does that mean? And is that expected warming capable of causing unacceptable sea level rise, for example? We need this kind of analytical capability.

2. Climate science is, in my view, best equipped to look for ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Perhaps an enhanced bio-cycle or some chemical method can be developed and scaled up. If it turns out, as I suspect it will, that such measures are necessary, we will be in a position to reduce atmospheric CO2 through methods other than emissions reduction.

One interesting possibility would then be: could CO2 removal serve as a cheaper substitute for emissions reduction? After all, CO2 is not a pollutant. We aren't talking about sulfur dioxide here. If a power plant spews CO2 into the air, nobody's health is degraded. As long as the CO2 is eventually removed through some process, the act of spewing it into the atmosphere becomes a benign event.

Those are my opening thoughts on the matter. I am anxious for robust discussion.

Thanks for asking.



Walt Bennett said...

From RealClimate comments:

My two thoughts, just sticking to basics:

1. There will be no year-to-year emissions reductions in the next decade, and perhaps twice that long. Where will we be in relation to major tipping points by then? If a Plan B is needed at that point, we will need to be working on it from now til then, in order to be prepared for any eventuality.

2. Carbon taxes will cause major social upheaval. Even if we found a way to keep basic energy costs within reach of all, the scheme for doing so has yet to be described; tax credits for low income people is a sham, because low income people do not pay income taxes now. So, they would need an actual government handout. In other words, the artificial increase in the cost of fuel will turn large numbers of people into wards of the state.

Now that may be alright with you; after all, it’s for the greater good, salvation of humanity and all that. However, you ought to consider the lives which will be affected by these policies. These are people such as you and me. You or I might find ourselves unable to pay for basic energy. Certainly many people all over the world will suffer this fate. And since all alternatives are even more expensive than fossil fuels, there will be no way out of the trap.

I have said that we must seriously analyze ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere. This would obviously be a home run, and would negate the above two issues. I also believe that our actual ability to avoid catastrophic warming hinges on our ability to remove CO2 once it is already in the climate system. I see very little chance that we will change course soon enough to get there with emissions reductions.

Think it through: without viable, affordable alternatives, what we are talking about is slowing down economies. Even if some nations agree to do so, others will not. Those who do will suffer the consequences, which will result in lower standards of living and hellishly expensive energy. Yum, what a recipe.

Climate science must get busy looking for ways out of this situation which do not require mankind to take a giant leap backward, which is almost certainly an impossibility (especially for planning purposes).

We have the capacity to take on this science and engineering challenge, and in my view we must make the effort.

Please join me, and let’s take this discussion forward toward real solutions. I believe it matters greatly to us all, and deserves to be grounded in complete reality.

Walt Bennett said...

From RealClimate:

Posts such as Jim’s which gloss over the very real issues of inadequacy and hardship, represent a very troubling tendency within the AGW movement to behave as though they have all the answers, so we can just skip the analysis.

Although it is true that mankind has shown a historical tendency to stick its head in the sand, it strikes me that many people in this discussion believe they are rising above that tendency, when they are in fact perpetuating it.

Pretending that emissions reduction are a certifiable solution to AGW is every bit as fanciful as pretending that there is no problem in the first place.

bi said...

Walt Bennett, when you say "engineer our way forward", is that really just a euphemism for "do nothing"?

bi said...

And... it's bad for poor, impoverished people to be unable to afford "basic energy"(*), but it's OK to flood their lands through rising sea levels?

(*) what's so "basic" about energy from fossil fuels again?

Walt Bennett said...


Far from it. I advocate doing plenty. I want broad analysis of all alternatives for removing carbon from the climate system. Starting with the assumption that we will need to, at some point, reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations, which is a perfectly valid assumption, I want robust investment in research and development of methods for accomplishing that. the added bonus would be that we might be able to skip the whole process of separating carbon during the burning of fuel. That would mean we would not need caps or taxes at all. Sure, that sounds like a fantasy, but only because we haven't made those breakthroughs. I am of the firm belief that we will and that we must engineer our way forward.

Your question about sea levels concerns me also. That is why I am so convinced that we need to invest in as many viable alternatives as we can, so that we are ready if needed to take action which will halt, or even roll back, warming which is already built in to the system.

Walt Bennett said...

Regarding what's so basic about fossil fuels, nothing, unless you need to provide significant amounts of heat, light or electricity.

There is no real alternative to fossil fuels if you want to operate any sort of machinery.

Maybe one day we can fire up enough nuclear plants to do the job, and I actually believe we should. But until then, "basic energy" means fossil fuels.

bi said...

Walt Bennett:

"I want robust investment in research and development of methods for accomplishing that. the added bonus would be that we might be able to skip the whole process of separating carbon during the burning of fuel. That would mean we would not need caps or taxes at all."

Which, from the policy point of view, is different from "doing nothing" how?

"Sure, that sounds like a fantasy, but only because we haven't made those breakthroughs."

So you advocate doing nothing until "we" manage to achieve some fantasy breakthrough which is nowhere in sight? At which point, "we" have even more reason to do nothing?

Walt Bennett said...

Let's turn it around: what specific actions do you believe we should be taking at this time?

Exusian said...

walt wrote: "Far from it. I advocate doing plenty. I want broad analysis of all alternatives for removing carbon from the climate system."

When you find yourself at the bottom of a hole and want to get out, the first step, even before you start building a ladder, is to stop digging.

We're in a pretty deep hole right now, and as we continue to inject fossil carbon into the atmosphere it's getting deeper with each passing minute.

It will take time to develop methods and engineer technologies for removing carbon from the atmosphere, and to implement them on a large enough scale or them to have any meaningful effect, let alone start filling in the hole.

And all the while that we're busy doing that the hole will continue to get deeper. All the while CO2 will continue to build up in the atmosphere. All the while mean temperature will be rising, meaning there will also be more water vapour in the atmosphere. All the while ice will continue to melt in the polar regions and at high altitudes, sea level will continue to rise, weather will become less and less "normal", extreme weather events will become more and more frequent.

I'm all for reducing atmospheric CO2, but I'm also all for reducing the amount of fossil carbon humans inject into the atmosphere so that the hole stops getting deeper, which will give us the time it will take to figure out how to remove enough CO2 to make a difference.


Philip Machanick said...

I wouldn't be quite so pessimistic about the prospects for low-emissions power.

Consider: peak oil theory suggest we will no necessarily run out of oil soon but supply will not match demand, and current high prices will be the baseline, not a spike.

Also, there is a growing view that coal is going to peak a lot sooner than expected, notwithstanding talk of hundreds of years of reserves. A lot of this argument however hinges on certain parts of the world not going all out to mine their full reserves, and very rapid expansion of coal before reserves run out has the risk of triggering other climate feedbacks. So I wouldn't rely on this alone -- but the point is that at some stage not that many decades off, we are going to need alternatives, so why not start investing in them now -- especially in the wealthier countries, which can afford to be leaders?

Finally, the alternative energy business is not standing still. Nanosolar, for example, claims to have brought the price of solar panels down to $1/watt, comparable to the price of coal power. Add installation costs, and you probably come out as about $2/watt, good if you take into account a 25-year lifetime without ongoing fuel costs.

There's a lot to be done to make alternative energy sources viable, but there are good economic reasons to do so, even without the climate change problem. Climate change adds urgency to the problem because there is evidence of accelerated extinction rates, and reduced environmental sequestration of CO_2.

For poorer countries without highly developed power grids cheaper forms of distributed power like solar with local storage may even work out cheaper than installing a nation-wide grid from scratch. See for example the success of cell phones in developing countries.

Way too much is made of the economic downside of mitigation -- the same arguments were made about asbestos, tobacco and CFCs. Vested interest don't want to change the way they do business and exaggerate the costs to everyone else.