Paris, climate and surrealism

27 07 2017

Speaker: Prof. Kevin Anderson, Professor of energy and climate change

Title: Paris, climate and surrealism: how numbers reveal an alternate reality

The Paris Agreement’s inclusion of “well below 2°C” and “pursue … 1.5°C” has catalysed fervent activity amongst many within the scientific community keen to understand what this more ambitious objective implies for mitigation. However, this activity has demonstrated little in the way of plurality of responses. Instead there remains an almost exclusive focus on how future ‘negative emissions technologies’ (NETs) may offer a beguiling and almost free “get out of jail card”.
This presentation argues that such a dominant focus reveals an endemic bias across much of the academic climate change community determined to voice a politically palatable framing of the mitigation landscape – almost regardless of scientific credibility. The inclusion of carbon budgets within the IPCC’s latest report reveals just how few years remain within which to meet even the “well below 2°C” objective.

Making optimistic assumptions on the rapid cessation of deforestation and uptake of carbon capture technologies on cement/steel production, sees a urgent need to accelerate the transformation of the energy system away from fossil fuels by the mid 2030s in the wealthier nations and 2050 globally. To put this in context, the national mitigation pledges submitted to Paris see an ongoing rise in emissions till 2030 and are not scheduled to undergo major review until 2023 – eight years, or 300 billion tonnes of CO2, after the Paris Agreement.

Despite the enormity and urgency of 1.5°C and “well below 2°C” mitigation challenge, the academic community has barely considered delivering deep and early reductions in emissions through the rapid penetration of existing end-use technologies and profound social change. At best it dismisses such options as too expensive compared to the discounted future costs of a technology that does not yet exist. At worst, it has simply been unprepared to countenance approaches that risk destabilising the political hegemony.

Ignoring such sensibilities, the presentation concludes with a draft vision of what an alternative mitigation agenda may comprise.

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Our Aversion to Doom and Gloom Is Dooming Us

20 07 2017

Reproduced from Commondreams.

I worked for over 35 years in the environmental field, and one of the central debates I encountered was whether to “tell it like it is,” and risk spreading doom and gloom, or to focus on a more optimistic message, even when optimism wasn’t necessarily warranted.

The optimists nearly always won this debate. For the record, I was—and am—a doom and gloomer.  Actually, I like to think I’m a realist. I believe that understating the problems we face leads to understated—and inadequate responses.  I also believe that people, when dealt with honestly, have responded magnificently, and will do so again, if and when called. Witness World War II, for example, when Churchill told the Brits, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” In those words, he helped ignite one of the most noble and dedicated periods of unity and resistance in all the annals of human endeavor.

Finally, I believe that the principles of risk management dictate that when the consequences of our actions —or our inactions—are pervasive, long lasting, irreversible and potentially devastating, we should assume worst-case outcomes.  That’s why people get health insurance; it’s why they purchase insurance for their homes; it’s why they get life insurance. No one assumes they’ll get sick, that their house will burn down, or that they’re about to die, but it makes sense to hedge against these events.  It’s why we build in huge margins of safety when we design bridges or airplanes. You can’t undo an airplane crash, or reverse a bridge failure.

And you can’t restore a livable climate once it’s been compromised.  Not in anything other than geologic timeframes.

Yet we routinely understate the threat that climate change poses, and reject attempts to characterize the full extent of the potential for catastrophe it poses. And it’s killing us.

David Wallace-Wells’ recent article in the New York magazine, The Uninhabitable Earth, is a case in point.  It was an attempt to describe the worst-case scenario for climate change.  Here’s the opening sentences to give you an idea of what Mr. Wallace-Wells had to say:

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. 

Predictably, a large part of the scientific community reacted with hostility, and environmentalists were essentially silent. For example, Climate Feedback published a critique of Wallace-Well’s article by sixteen climate scientists, leading with Michael Mann, originator of the famous hockey stick, which graphically showed how rapidly the Earth was warming. Here’s part of what Dr. Mann had to say:

The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now, is overwhelming on its own. There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.

The last part of Dr. Mann’s statement may explain the real reason the environmental and scientific communities reacted so hostilely to Wallace-Well’s article, and why they generally avoid gloom and doom, even when the news is gloomy—the notion that presenting information that details just how bad climate change could be, leads to “paralysis.”

This, together with scientists’ tendency to stick to the most defensible positions and the scenarios that are accepted by the mainstream—what climate scientist James Hansen calls dangerous scientific reticence—probably explain why the scientific community has tended to understate the threat of climate change, although few would describe Dr. Mann as reticent.

And it should be noted that Mr. Wallace-Well’s did overstate some of the science. For example, given out current understanding of methane and carbon releases from permafrost, it appears as though it would take much longer to play out than Wallace-Wells suggested, although it likely would add as much as 2°C to projected warming by 2100. But for the most part, he simply took worst-case forecasts and used them. As Dr. Benjamin Horton—one of the scientists commenting on the Wallace-Wells article put it, “Most statements in the article are based on peer-reviewed literature.”

One of the reason worst-case projections seem so dire, is that the scientific community—and especially the IPCC—has been loath to use them. For the record, ex-ante analysis of previous forecasts with actual changes show a trend that is nearer to—or worse than—the worst-case forecasts than they are to the mid-range.

The article also forecast some of the social, demographic, and security consequences of climate change that can’t be scientifically verified, but which comport with projections made by our own national security experts.

For example, in this years’ Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, climate change was identified as a “threat multiplier” and Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, said in testimony presented to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in May of this year:

Climate change influences the entire geostrategic landscape. In that sense, one could  walk through the entire threat assessment report and identify ways in which climate  change will intersect with nearly every risk identified, and in most cases, make them worse.

Director Coats specifically highlighted health security, terrorism and nuclear proliferation as threats that climate change would exacerbate. This is coming from the Trump administration, which has been censoring climate-related information coming out of NOAA and EPA.  It’s a measure of how seriously the national security community takes the threat of climate change that they fought to keep the issue above the political fray.

Yet here again, the scientific community took issue with these claims, because they were conjecture.  Never mind that those whose job it is to assess these kinds of risks found the forecasts likely and actionable. Scientists want data and the certainty it brings, not extrapolation.

So what’s the gap between future worst-case and the more typically used mid-range projections the media and scientists favor?  It’s huge, and consequential.  I’ve pointed out some of the risky—if not absurd—assumptions  underlying the Paris Agreement in the past, but let’s briefly outline some numbers that highlight the difference between what’s typically discussed in the media, with projections based on worst-case—but entirely plausible—forecasts.

After Paris, there was a lot of attention paid to two targets: a limit of less than 2°C warming, and a more aggressive limit of no more than 1.5°C warming.  What was less well known and discussed was the fact that the Agreement would have only limited warming to 3.5°C by 2100, using the IPCC’s somewhat optimistic assumptions.

What is virtually unknown by most of the public and undiscussed by scientists and the media is that even before the US dropped out of the Treaty, the worst-case temperature increase under the Treaty could have been nearly twice that.

Here’s why.

As noted, the 3.5°C figure had a number of conservative assumptions built into it, including the fact that there is a 34 percent chance that warming will exceed that, and the idea that we could pass on the problem to our children and their children by assuming that they would create an as yet unknown technology that would extract massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere in a cost-effective way, and safely and permanently sequester it, thus allowing us to exceed the targets for a limited amount of time.

But the fact is, some projections found that temperature increase resulting from meeting the Paris targets would exceed 4°C by 2100, even if we continued to make modest progress after meeting them – something the Treaty doesn’t require. The IPCC forecasts also ignored feedbacks, and research shows that just 3 of these will add another 2.5°C of warming by 2100, bringing the total to more than 6.5°C (or nearly 12°F). At this point, we’re talking about trying to live on an essentially alien planet.

Finally, there’s evidence that the Earth’s natural sinks are being compromised by the warming that’s happened so far, and this means that more of what we emit will remain in the atmosphere, causing it to warm much more than the IPCC models have forecasted. This could (not would) make Wallace-Well’s thesis not only plausible, but likely.

But rather than discussing these entirely plausible forecasts, the media, environmentalists and too many scientists, would rather focus on a more optimistic message, and avoid “doom and gloom.”

What they’re actually doing is tantamount to playing Russian Roulette with our children’s future with two bullets in the chamber. Yes, the odds are that it won’t go off, but is this the kind of risk we should be taking with our progeny’s future?

There is something paternalistic and elitist about this desire to spare the poor ignorant masses the gory details.  It is condescending at best, self-defeating at worst.  After all, if the full nature of the challenge we face is not known, we cannot expect people take the measures needed to meet it.

I believe now, and I have always believed, that humans are possessed with an inherent wisdom, and that, given the right information, they will make the right choices.

As an aside, Trump is now President because the Democrats followed the elitist and paternalistic path of not trusting the people – that and their decision to put corporate interests above the interests of citizens.

Watching Sanders stump against the Republican’s immoral tax cut for the rich disguised as a health care bill, shows the power of a little honest doom and gloom.

We could use a lot more of it across the political spectrum.

John Atcheson

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and he has just completed a book on the 2016 elections titled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back on Track. It is available in hardcover now, and the ebook will be available shortly. Follow him on Twitter:@john_atcheson





Who cares………?

2 06 2017

Trump has just declared he’s taking the USA out of the Paris accord, and everyone’s freaking out…….. I personally don’t care much, and here’s why…..

Most people don’t realize, because they’re asleep at the wheel, read too many mainstream media headlines, and rather than do their own research before holding opinions believe what they are spoon fed by their TV screens that…..:

The Paris climate agreement:

1) had absolutely no binding language in it whatsoever, nor any repercussions for any countries that did not abide by it…..

2) required an increase in fossil fuel use up to the year 2100

3) would have already at this point required absolutely no new development of fossil fuels – only what was already “proven reserves”

4) has already been violated so badly that we absolutely cannot, by their own reckoning, keep levels below a 2 degree rise by 2050

5) completely and entirely relied on “carbon capture” – a technology which doesn’t yet exist in any form and is only dreamt of – to come along by mid-century and save us from catastrophic climate change.

 Professor Kevin Anderson has this to say about the Paris agreement….

The Paris Agreement is a genuine triumph of international diplomacy and of how the French people brought an often-fractious world together to see beyond national self interest. Moreover, the agreement is testament to how assiduous and painstaking science ultimately defeated the unremitting programme of misinformation by powerful vested interests. It is the twenty-first century’s equivalent to the success of Heliocentrism over the malign and unscientific inquisition.

The international community not only acknowledged the seriousness of climate change, but demonstrated sufficient unanimity to quantitatively define it: to hold “the increase in … temperature to well below 2°C … and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”. But, as the time-weary idiom suggests, “the devil is in the detail” – or perhaps more importantly, the lack of it.

The deepest challenge to whether the Agreement succeeds or fails, will not come from the incessant sniping of sceptics and luke-warmers or those politicians favouring a literal reading of Genesis over Darwin. Instead, it was set in train many years ago by a cadre of well-meaning scientists, engineers and economists investigating a Plan B. What if the international community fails to recognise that temperatures relate to ongoing cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide? What if world leaders remain doggedly committed to a scientifically illiterate focus on 2050 (“not in my term of office”)? By then, any ‘carbon budget’ for even an outside chance of 2°C will have been squandered – and our global experiment will be hurtling towards 4°C or more. Hence the need to develop a Plan B.

Well the answer was simple. If we choose to continue our love affair with oil, coal and gas, loading the atmosphere with evermore carbon dioxide, then at some later date when sense prevails, we’ll be forced to attempt sucking our carbon back out of the atmosphere. Whilst a plethora of exotic Dr Strangelove options vie for supremacy to deliver on such a grand project, those with the ear of governments have plumped for BECCS (biomass energy carbon capture and storage) as the most promising “negative emission technology”. However these government advisors (Integrated Assessment Modellers – clever folk developing ‘cost-optimised’ solutions to 2°C by combining physics with economic and behavioural modelling) no longer see negative emission technologies as a last ditch Plan B – but rather now promote it as central pivot of the one and only Plan.

The speed and scale of emissions reduction that is actually required probably cannot be achieved while preserving the economic status quo. As climate scientist Kevin Anderson points out in a recent Nature Geoscience paper:

According to the IPCC’s Synthesis Report, no more than 1,000 billion tonnes (1,000 Gt) of CO2 can be emitted between 2011 and 2100 for a 66% chance (or better) of remaining below 2° C of warming (over preindustrial times). . . . However, between 2011 and 2014 CO2 emissions from energy production alone amounted to about 140 Gt of CO2. . . .” [Subtracting realistic emissions budgets for deforestation and cement production,] “the remaining budget for energy-only emissions over the period 2015–2100, for a ‘likely’ chance of staying below 2° C, is about 650 Gt of CO2.

To put this into perspective, recent data shows global food production (itself a major CO2 emitter), was 3.9Gt; Coal production was 9Gt; Iron Ore was 3.22Gt. The simple fact is that if we want to capture and store CO2, it will have to be done on a scale we do nothing else at……. not feeding the world, and not even feeding it its fossil fuels. ‘They’ expect to do this within less than twenty years, with technology that doesn’t yet exist, and anything remotely like what is needed,

Definition of Insanity

The world’s first commercial CO2 capture plant will be used to increase economic activity and will therefore actually increase CO2 emissions.

“It’s important to note that they will not be permanently storing the CO2 that will be captured,” she said. “Instead, it will be used for greenhouses, producing synfuels, etc. No negative emissions will be generated.”

“The captured carbon dioxide could also be used to manufacture transportation fuel, carbonated soft drinks and other products, Gebald said.”

“In order to meet the goal of removing the equivalent of 1 percent of annual global carbon dioxide emissions, 250,000 similar direct-air capture plants would have to be built, Gebald said.”

In other words, because we need to reduce our emissions by more than 50%, means we need to build over 12,500,000 of these CO2 removal machines. In under twenty years…… Think about the CO2 and debt required to accomplish this. Obviously it won’t happen, and if we try it will make things worse, because it appears that everyone’s oblivious to the fact that it is cumulative emissions that are doing the harm.

Until we get an ‘agreement’ to cease economic growth, nothing worthwhile will happen, and I therefore still hold to the conclusion nothing less than an economic collapse will ‘save us’ from climate change….. because I just cannot see any such agreement ever coming forth.





Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS)

28 04 2014

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

Another guest post from Mark Cochrane on one of the cornucopians’ favourite solutions to our climate predicaments, Carbon capture and sequestration, better known by its acronym CCS….

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is the great hope for so-called “clean coal” as well as a potential way of removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Methods vary, but the basic idea is to capture the emissions from a coal-fired power plant and separate out the CO2 and acid rain-producing sulfides. These gases are then compressed into a liquid form that is shipped somewhere and subsequently injected underground. In principle the atmosphere could be scrubbed of CO2 in a similar manner. Makes you wonder why we aren’t doing this already…

If it works, the carbon will be gone from the atmosphere, so what is the problem? The purpose of a power plant is to produce…..power. As we all know, it takes energy to mine, process, and ship coal to the power plant. When burned, there is only so much efficiency you can get in converting the heat to usable energy (e.g. electricity). In 2008, the average efficiency was 32%, best plants (top 10%) were 37.4% efficient.

Well, surprise, surprise. It actually takes energy to capture, compress, store, transport, and pump the captured gases underground. If the energy spent on CCS processes exceeds the net power generated by the power plant then the process is completely untenable. Even if you can make the process work with a positive EROEI you still have to account for the lost energy. In other words, if you still need the same amount of disposable energy from the power plant to support your consumers then you need to burn even more coal to offset the CCS energy losses.

No free lunch here. The energy expenditures for CCS increase with the level of CO2 capture efficiency that we want to achieve. These energy expenditures need to be made up by mining, processing, shipping and burning even more coal than we are using today.

What about the oceans? They are a good place to bury carbon aren’t they?

The ‘iron hypothesis’ was put forth by John Martin in the 1980s and first tested in the open ocean in 1993. The idea is that large sections of the ocean are impoverished of iron, so seeding the ocean surface with iron should make phytoplankton bloom, soak up carbon, die, and sink, thereby drawing carbon out of the atmosphere. “Give me a half a tanker of iron and I’ll give you the next ice age,” Martin once said jokingly.

The idea has been tested in many locations since 1993 and the results support the theory insofar as the phytoplankton do respond and bloom after adding iron to the waters.

It works, so what is the problem? Phytoplankton blooms have met or even exceeded predictions, however, there are impacts on the composition of the ecosystems involved and the nutrients consumed are no longer available for other organisms that would have used them in down current locations. Ultimately though, the main problem is that very little of the ‘fixed’ carbon actually reaches the deep ocean or seafloor. Mixing keeps the particulates from coagulating and zooplankton graze and recycle the carbon. It comes back to the atmosphere as CO2 again.

Even in the best of cases, it would be necessary to fertilize an area of roughly twice the surface of the Earth to significantly offset fossil fuel-based carbon emissions. Beyond the physical impossibility of this, and the exorbitant costs of maintaining a fleet of ships dumping the worlds iron ore into the oceans, concomitant emissions of nitrous oxide (another greenhouse gas) caused by the iron seeding could offset many of the ‘gains’. Many regions of the deep oceans could also experience anoxia.

In short, this is no panacea.

On Geoengineering the future

This has showed up in the final paragraph of the Summary for Policymakers of WG1 for the latest IPCC assessment report (AR5).

“Methods that aim to deliberately alter the climate system to counter climate change, termed geoengineering, have been proposed. Limited evidence precludes a comprehensive quantitative assessment of both Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and their impact on the climate system. CDR methods have biogeochemical and technological limitations to their potential on a global scale. There is insufficient knowledge to quantify how much CO2 emissions could be partially offset by CDR on a century timescale. Modelling indicates that SRM methods, if realizable, have the potential to substantially offset a global temperature rise, but they would also modify the global water cycle, and would not reduce ocean acidification. If SRM were terminated for any reason, there is high confidence that global surface temperatures would rise very rapidly to values consistent with the greenhouse gas forcing. CDR and SRM methods carry side effects and long-term consequences on a global scale. {6.5, 7.7}”

This bit about geoengineering apparently was added at the behest of Russia but the US has been interested in elements of this for a while is well. The U.S., U.K. and other countries are already funding research into a variety of climate engineering approaches. This should be outside of the mandate of the IPCC but such things are malleable where political considerations are concerned.

For those who do not know, geoengineering in this context refers to intentional planetary climate engineering. Traditionally, responses to climate change have been classified in terms of mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is doing things like reducing fossil fuel emission so that the future climate changes will not be as severe as otherwise expected. Adaptation is admitting the inevitability of climate changes and actively doing things to prepare, like planning for flooding or heatwaves.

Geoengineering is a third option where we try to ‘fix’ the climate through various technical schemes. A quick fix and we will not have to change anything. Party on! There are three major reasons (besides ethics) that such approaches have been marginalized to date; expense, side effects, and what economists term moral hazard.

Moral hazard is the tendency to be more willing to take a risk, knowing that the potential costs or burdens of taking such risk will be borne, in whole or in part, by others. In terms of climate change, it is the idea that knowledge that geoengineering is possible could lead to climate impacts seeming less fearsome, which could in turn lead to an even weaker commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The fact that governments are agitating for the inclusion of geoengineering in the IPCC reports seems a clear indication that they feel it will be easier to sell technical ‘fixes’ than the pain of reduced fossil fuel use.

Followers of this thread already have some understanding of the complexity surrounding greenhouse gas-related climate change. While we have a good idea of the energy balance issues, the actual ways in which these changes will ripple through, affect, and be affected by earth system processes and ecological changes are only now being uncovered. Feedbacks in the system are poorly defined even where they are known. Now imagine implementing several simplistic ‘solutions’ designed to intentionally alter global climates at the same time as we continue our present global terraforming experiment of fossil fuel-based climate manipulation. The impacts of these ‘solutions’ are poorly if at all known. Shoot from the hip and hope for the best.

What could possibly go wrong?

I’ll try to add another post or two explaining some of the proposed approaches to ‘fixing’ the climate so you can decide if you think this is a good idea.