Peak ERoEI…?

22 08 2017

Inside the new economic science of capitalism’s slow-burn energy collapse

nafeezAnd why the struggle for a new economic paradigm is about to get real

Another MUST READ article by Nafeez Ahmed……….

 

Originally published by INSURGE INTELLIGENCE, a crowdfunded investigative journalism project for people and planet. Support us to keep digging where others fear to tread.

New scientific research is quietly rewriting the fundamentals of economics. The new economic science shows decisively that the age of endlessly growing industrial capitalism, premised on abundant fossil fuel supplies, is over.

The long-decline of capitalism-as-we-know-it, the new science shows, began some decades ago, and is on track to accelerate well before the end of the 21st century.

With capitalism-as-we-know it in inexorable decline, the urgent task ahead is to rewrite economics to fit the real-world: and, accordingly, to redesign our concepts of value and prosperity, precisely to rebuild our societies with a view of adapting to this extraordinary age of transition.


A groundbreaking study in Elsevier’s Ecological Economics journal by two French economists, for the first time proves the world has passed a point-of-no-return in its capacity to extract fossil fuel energy: with massive implications for the long-term future of global economic growth.

The study, ‘Long-Term Estimates of the Energy-Return-on-Investment (EROI) of Coal, Oil, and Gas Global Productions’, homes in on the concept of EROI, which measures the amount of energy supplied by an energy resource, compared to the quantity of energy consumed to gather that resource. In simple terms, if a single barrel of oil is used up to extract energy equivalent to 50 barrels of oil, that’s pretty good. But the less energy we’re able to extract using that single barrel, then the less efficient, and more expensive (in terms of energy and money), the whole process.

Recent studies suggest that the EROI of fossil fuels has steadily declined since the early 20th century, meaning that as we’re depleting our higher quality resources, we’re using more and more energy just to get new energy out. This means that the costs of energy production are increasing while the quality of the energy we’re producing is declining.

But unlike previous studies, the authors of the new paper — Victor Court, a macroeconomist at Paris Nanterre University, and Florian Fizaine of the University of Burgundy’s Dijon Laboratory of Economics (LEDi)—have removed any uncertainty that might have remained about the matter.

Point of no return

Court and Fizaine find that the EROI values of global oil and gas production reached their maximum peaks in the 1930s and 40s. Global oil production hit peak EROI at 50:1; while global gas production hit peak EROI at 150:1. Since then, the EROI values of oil and gas — the overall energy we’re able to extract from these resources for every unit of energy we put in — is inexorably declining.

Source: Court and Fizaine (2017)

Even coal, the only fossil fuel resource whose EROI has not yet maxed out, is forecast to undergo an EROI peak sometime between 2020 and 2045. This means that while coal might still have signficant production potential in some parts of the world, rising costs of production are making it increasingly uneconomical.

Axiom: Aggregating this data together reveals that the world’s fossil fuels overall experienced their maximum cumulative EROI of approximately 44:1 in the early 1960s.

Since then, the total value of energy we’re able to extract from the world’s fossil fuel resource base has undergone a protracted, continuous and irreversible decline.

Insight: At this rate of decline, by 2100, we are projected to extract the same value of EROI from fossil fuels as we were in the 1800s.

Several other studies suggest that this ongoing decline in the overall value of the energy extracted from global fossil fuels has played a fundamental role in the slowdown of global economic growth in recent years.

In this sense, the 2008 financial crash did not represent a singular event, but rather one key event in an unfolding process.

The economy-energy nexus

This is because economic growth remains ultimately dependent on “growth in material and energy use,” as a study in the journal PLOS One found last October. That study, lead authored by James D. Ward of the School of Natural and Built Environments, University of South Australia, challenged the idea that GDP growth can be “decoupled” from environmental impacts.

The “illusion of decoupling”, Ward and his colleagues argued, has been maintained through the following misleading techniques:

  1. substituting one resource for another;
  2. financialization of GDP, such as through increasing “monetary flows” through creation of new debt, without however increasing material or energy throughput (think quantitative easing);
  3. exporting environmental impacts to other nations or regions, so that the realities of increasing material throughput can be suppressed from data calculations.
  4. growing inequality of income and wealth, which allows GDP to grow for the benefit of a few, while the majority of workers see decreases in real income —in other words, a wealthy minority monopolises the largest fraction of GDP growth, but does not increase their level of consumption with as much demand for energy and materials.

Ward and his co-authors sought to test these factors by creating a new economic model to see how well it stacks up against the data.

Insight: They found that continued economic growth in GDP “cannot plausibly be decoupled from growth in material and energy use, demonstrating categorically that GDP growth cannot be sustained indefinitely.”

Other recent scientific research has further fine-tuned this relationship between energy and prosperity.

The prosperity-resource nexus

Adam Brandt, a leading EROI expert at Stanford University’s Department of Energy Resources Engineering, in the March edition of BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality proves that the decline of EROI directly impacts on economic prosperity.

Earlier studies on this issue, Brandt points out, have highlighted the risk of a “net energy cliff”, which refers to how “declining EROI results in rapid increases in the fraction of energy dedicated to simply supporting the energy system.”

Axiom: So the more EROI declines, a greater proportion of the energy being produced must be used simply to extract more energy. This means that EROI decline leads to less real-world economic growth.

It also creates a complicated situation for oil prices. While at first, declining EROI can be expected to lead to higher prices reflecting higher production costs, the relationship between EROI and prices begins to breakdown as EROI becomes smaller.

This could be because, under a significantly reduced EROI, consumers in a less prosperous economy can no longer afford, energetically or economically, the cost of producing more energy — thus triggering a dramatic drop in market prices, despite higher costs of production. At this point, in the new era of shrinking EROI, swinging oil prices become less and less indicative of ‘scarcity’ in supply and demand.

Brandt’s new economic model looks at how EROI impacts four key sectors — food, energy, materials and labor. Exploring what a decline in net energy would therefore mean for these sectors, he concludes:

“The reduction in the fraction of a resource free and the energy system productivity extends from the energy system to all aspects of the economy, which gives an indication of the mechanisms by which energy productivity declines would affect general prosperity.

A clear implication of this work is that decreases in energy resource productivity, modeled here as the requirement for more materials, labor, and energy, can have a significant effect on the flows required to support all sectors of the economy. Such declines can reduce the effective discretionary output from the economy by consuming a larger and larger fraction of gross output for the meeting of inter-industry requirements.”

Brandt’s model is theoretical, but it has direct implications for the real world.

Insight: Given that the EROI of global fossil fuels has declined steadily since the 1960s, Brandt’s work suggests that a major underlying driver of the long-term process of economic stagnation we’re experiencing is resource depletion.

The new age of economic stagnation

Exactly how big the impact of resource depletion on the economy might be, can be gauged from a separate study by Professor Mauro Bonauiti of the Department of Economics and Statistics at the University of Turn.

His new paper published in February in the Journal of Cleaner Production assesses data on technological innovations and productivity growth. He concludes that:

“… advanced capitalist societies have entered a phase of declining marginal returns — or involuntary degrowth — with possible major effects on the system’s capacity to maintain its present institutional framework.”

Bonauiti draws on anthropologist Joseph Tainter’s work on the growth and collapse of civilizations. Tainter’s seminal work, The Collapse of Complex Societies, showed that the very growth in complexity driving a civilization’s expansion, generates complex new problems requiring further complexity to solve them.

 

Axiom: Complex civilizations tend to accelerate the use of resources, while diminishing the quantity of resources available for the civilization’s continued expansion — because they are continually being invested in solving the new problems generated by increasing complexity.

The result is that complex societies tend to reach a threshold of growth, after which returns diminish to such an extent that the complexification of the society can no longer be sustained, leading to its collapse or regression.

Bonauiti builds on Tainter’s framework and applies it to new data on ‘Total Factor Productivity’ to assess correlations between the growth and weakening in productivity, industrial revolutions, and the implications for continued economic growth.

The benefits that a certain society obtains from its own investments in complexity “do not increase indefinitely”, he writes. “Once a certain threshold has been reached (T0), the social organisation as a whole will enter a phase of declining marginal returns, that is to say, a critical phase, which, if ignored, may lead to the collapse of the whole system.”

This threshold appears to have been reached by Europe, Japan and the US before the early 1970s, he argues.

Insight: The US economy, he shows, appears to have reached “the peak in productivity in the 1930s, the same period in which the EROI of fossil fuels reached an extraordinary value of about 100.”

Of course, Court and Fizaine quantify the exact value of this peak EROI differently using a new methodology, but they agree that the peak occurred roughly around this period.

The US and other advanced economies are currently tapering off the end of what Bonauiti calls the ‘third industrial revolution’ (IR3), in information communications technologies (ICT). This was, however, the shortest and weakest industrial revolution from a productivity standpoint, with its productivity “evaporating” after just eight years.

In the US, the first industrial revolution utilized coal to power steam engine and telegraph technology, stimulating a rapid increase in productivity that peaked between between 1869 and 1892, at almost 2%.

The second industrial revolution was powered by the electric engine and internal combustion engine, which transformed manufacturing and domestic consumption. This led productivity to peak at 2.78%, remaining at around 2% for at least another 25 years.

After the 1930s, however, productivity continually declined, reaching 0.34% in the period 1973–95. Since then, the third industrial revolution driven by computing technology led to a revival of productivity which, however, has already tapered out in a way that is quite tepid compared to the previous industrial revolutions.

Axiom: The highest level of productivity was reached around the 1930s, and since then with each industrial revolution has declined.

The decline period also roughly corresponds to the post-peak EROI era for total fossil fuels identified by Court and Fizaine.

Thus, Bonauiti concludes, “the empirical evidence and theoretical reasons lead one to conclude that the innovations introduced by IR3 are not powerful enough to compensate for the declining returns of IR2.”

Insight: The implication is that the 21st century represents the tail-end of the era of industrial economic expansion, originally ushered in by technological innovations enabled by abundant fossil fuel energy sources.

The latest stage is illustrated with the following graph which demonstrates the rapid rise and decline in productivity of the last major revolution in technological innovation (IR3):

The productivity of the third industrial revolution thus peaked around 2004 and since then has declined back to near 1980s levels.

Bonauiti thus concludes that “advanced capitalist societies (the US, Europe and Japan) have entered a phase of declining marginal returns or involuntary degrowth in many key sectors, with possible major detrimental effects on the system’s capacity to maintain its present institutional framework.”

In other words, the global economic system has entered a fundamentally new era, representing a biophysical phase-shift into an energetically constrained landscape.

Going back to the new EROI analysis by French economists, Victor Court and Florian Fizaine, the EROI of oil is forecast to reduce to 15:1 by 2018. It will continue to decline to around 10:1 by 2035.

They broadly forecast the same pattern for gas and coal: Overall, their data suggests that the EROI of all fossil fuels will hit 15:1 by 2060, and decline further to 10:1 by 2080.

If these projections come to pass, this means that over the next few decades, the overall costs of fossil fuel energy production will increase, even while the market value of fossil fuel energy remains low. The total net energy yield available to fuel continued economic growth will inexorably decline. This will, in turn, squeeze the extent to which the economy can afford to buy fossil fuel energy that is increasingly expensive to produce.

We cannot be sure what this unprecedented state of affairs will herald for the market prices of oil, gas and coal, which are unlikely to follow the conventional supply and demand dynamics we were used to in the 20th century.

But what we can know for sure from the new science is that the era of unlimited economic growth — the defining feature of neoliberal finance capitalism as we know it — is well and truly over.

UK ‘end of growth’ test-case

The real-world workings of this insight have been set out by a team of economists at the University of Leeds’ Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, whose research was partly funded by giant engineering firm Arup, along with the main UK government-funded research councils — the UK Energy Research Centre, the Economics and Social Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

In their paper published by the university’s Sustainability Research Institute this January, Lina Brand-Correa, Paul Brockway, Claire Carter, Tim Foxon, Anne Owen, and Peter Taylor develop a national-level EROI measure for the UK.

Studying data for the period 1997-2012, they find that “the country’s EROI has been declining since the beginning of the 21st Century”.

Energy Returned (Eout) and Energy Invested (Ein) in the UK (1997–2012) Source: Brand-Correa (2017)

The UK’s net EROI peaked in 2000 at a maximum value of 9.6, “before gradually falling back to a value of 6.2 in 2012.” What this means is that on average, “12% of the UK’s extracted/captured energy does not go into the economy or into society for productive or well-being purposes, but rather needs to be reinvested by the energy sectors to produce more energy.”

The paper draws on previous work by economists Court and Fizaine suggesting that continuous economic growth requires a minimal societal EROI of 11, based on the current energy intensity of the UK economy. By implication, the UK is dropping increasingly below this benchmark since the start of the 21st century:

“These initial results show that more and more energy is having to be used in the extraction of energy itself rather than by the UK’s economy or society.”

This also implies that the UK has had to sustain continued economic growth through other mechanisms outside of its own domestic energy context: in particular, as we know, the expansion of debt.

It is no coincidence, then, that debt-to-GDP ratios have continued to grow worldwide. As EROI is in decline, an unsustainable debt-bubble premised on exploitation of working and middle classes is the primary method to keep growth growing — an endeavour that at some point will inevitably come undone under its own weight.

We need a new economics

According to MIT and Harvard trained economist Dr. June Sekera — who leads the Public Economy Project at Tufts University’s Global Development And Environment Institute (GDAE) — net energy decline proves that neoclassical economic theory is simply not fit for purpose.

In Working Paper №17–02 published by the GDAE, Sekera argues that: “One of the most important contributions of biophysical economics is its critique that mainstream economics disregards the biophysical basis of production, and energy in particular.”

Policymakers, she says, “need to understand the biophysical imperative: that societal net energy yield is falling. Hence the need for a biophysical economics, and for policymakers to comprehend its central messages.”

Yet a key problem is that mainstream economics is held back from being able to even comprehend the existence of net energy decline due to an ideological obsession with the market. The result is that production that occurs outside the market is seen as an aberration, a form of government, state or ‘political’ interference in the ‘natural’ dynamics of the market.

And this is why the market alone is incapable of generating solutions to the net energy crisis driving global economic stagnation. The modern market paradigm is fatally self-limited by the following dynamics: “short time horizons, growth as a requisite, gratuitous waste baked-in, profits as life-blood.” This renders it “incapable of producing solutions that demand long-view investment without profits.”

Thus, Sekera calls for a new “public economics” commensurate with what is needed for a successful energy transition. The new public economics will spur on breakthrough scientific and technological innovations that solve “common-need problems” based on “distributed decision-making and collective action.”

The resulting solutions will require “long time-horizon investment: investments with no immediate payoff in terms of saleable products, no visible ROI (return on investment), no profit-making in the near-term. Such investment can be generated only in a non-market environment, in which payment is collective and financial profit is not the point.”

The only problem is that, as Sekera herself recognizes, the main incubator and agent of the non-market public economy is government — but government itself is playing a key role in dismantling, hollowing-out and privatizing the non-market public economy.

There is only one solution to this conundrum, however difficult it might seem:

Citizens themselves at all scales have an opportunity to work together to salvage and regenerate new public economies based on pooling their human, financial and physical assets and resources, to facilitate the emergence of more viable and sustainable economic structures. Part of this will include adapting to post-carbon energy sources.

Far from representing the end of prosperity, this transition represents an opportunity to redefine prosperity beyond the idea of endlessly increasing material accumulation; and realigning society with the goal of meeting real-world human physical, psychological and spiritual needs.

What will emerge from efforts to do so has not yet been written. But those efforts will define the contours of the new post-carbon economy, as the unsustainable juggernaut of the old grinds slowly and painfully to a protracted, chaotic halt.

In coming years and decades, the reality of the need for a new economic science that reflects the dynamics of the economy’s fundamental embeddedness in the biophysical environment will become evermore obvious.

So say goodbye to endless growth neoliberalism.


This INSURGE story was enabled by crowdfunding: Please support independent journalism for the global commons for as little as a $1/month via www.patreon.com/nafeez


Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an award-winning 16-year investigative journalist and creator of INSURGE intelligence, a crowdfunded public interest investigative journalism project. He is ‘System Shift’ columnist at VICE’s Motherboard.

His work has been published in The Guardian, VICE, Independent on Sunday, The Independent, The Scotsman, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, New York Observer, The New Statesman, Prospect, Le Monde diplomatique, Raw Story, New Internationalist, Huffington Post UK, Al-Arabiya English, AlterNet, The Ecologist, and Asia Times, among other places.

Nafeez has twice been featured in the Evening Standard’s ‘Top 1,000’ list of most influential people in London.

His latest book, Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence (Springer, 2017) is a scientific study of how climate, energy, food and economic crises are driving state failures around the world.

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Beyond the Point of No Return

4 12 2016

Imminent Carbon Feedbacks Just Made the Stakes for Global Warming a Hell of a Lot Higher

Republished from Robert Scribbler’s excellent website……..

If EVER there was a need to start soil farming, this proves it beyond doubt.

“It’s fair to say we have passed the point of no return on global warming and we can’t reverse the effects, but certainly we can dampen them,” said biodiversity expert Dr. Thomas Crowther.

“I’m an optimist and still believe that it is not too late, but we urgently need to develop a global economy driven by sustainable energy sources and start using CO2, as a substrate, instead of a waste product.” — Prof Ivan Janssens, recognized as a godfather of the global ecology field.

“…we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it… we only have one planet, and we need to work together to protect it.” — Professor Stephen Hawking yesterday in The Guardian.

*****

The pathway for preventing catastrophic climate change just got a whole hell of a lot narrower.

For according to new, conservative estimates in a scientific study led by Dr. Thomas Crowther, increasing soil respiration alone is about to add between 0.45 and 0.71 parts per million of CO2 to the atmosphere every year between now and 2050.

(Thomas Crowther explains why rapidly reducing human greenhouse gas emissions is so important. Namely, you want to do everything you can to avoid a runaway into a hothouse environment that essentially occurs over just one Century. Video source: Netherlands Institute of Ecology.)

What this means is that even if all of human fossil fuel emissions stop, the Earth environment, from this single source, will generate about the same carbon emission as all of the world’s fossil fuel industry did during the middle of the 20th Century. And that, if human emissions do not stop, then the pace of global warming of the oceans, ice sheets, and atmosphere is set to accelerate in a runaway warming event over the next 85 years.

Global Warming Activates Soil Respiration Which Produces More CO2

This happens because as the world warms, carbon is baked out of previously inactive soils through a process known as respiration. As a basic explanation, micro-organisms called heterotrophs consume carbon in the soil and produce carbon dioxide as a bi-product. Warmth is required to fuel this process. And large sections of the world that were previously too cold to support large scale respiration and CO2 production by heterotrophs and other organisms are now warming up. The result is that places like Siberian Russia, Northern Europe, Canada, and Alaska are about to contribute a whole hell of a lot more CO2 (and methane) to the atmosphere than they did during the 20th Century.

When initial warming caused by fossil fuel burning pumps more carbon out of the global environment, we call this an amplifying feedback. It’s a critical climate tipping point when the global carbon system in the natural environment starts to run away from us.

Sadly, soil respiration is just one potential feedback mechanism that can produce added greenhouse gasses as the Earth warms. Warming oceans take in less carbon and are capable of producing their own carbon sources as they acidify and as methane seeps proliferate. Forests that burn due to heat and drought produce their own carbon sources. But increasing soil respiration, which has also been called the compost bomb, represents what is probably one of the most immediate and likely large sources of carbon feedback.

increase-in-carbon-dioxide-from-soils

(A new study finds that warming of 1 to 2 C by 2050 will increase soil respiration. The result is that between 30 and 55 billion tons of additional CO2 is likely to hit the Earth’s atmosphere over the next 35 years. Image source: Nature.)

And it is also worth noting that the study categorizes its own findings as conservative estimates. That the world could, as an outside risk, see as much as four times the amount of carbon feedback (or as much as 2.7 ppm of CO2 per year) coming from soil if respiration is more efficient and wide-ranging than expected. If a larger portion of the surface soil carbon in newly warmed regions becomes a part of the climate system as microbes activate.

Amplifying Feedbacks Starting to Happen Now

The study notes that it is most likely that about 0.45 parts per million of CO2 per year will be leached from mostly northern soils from the period of 2016 to 2050 under 1 C worth of global warming during the period. To this point, it’s worth noting that the world has already warmed by more than 1 C above preindustrial levels. So this amount of carbon feedback can already be considered locked in. The study finds that if the world continues to warm to 2 C by 2050 — which is likely to happen — then an average of around 0.71 parts per million of CO2 will be leached out of soils by respiration every year through 2050.

rates-of-soil-carbon-loss

(When soils lose carbon, it ends up in the atmosphere. According to a new study, soils around the world are starting to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is caused by increased soil respiration as the Earth warms. Over the next 35 years, the amount of carbon dioxide being pumped out by the world’s soils is expected to dramatically increase. How much is determined by how warm the world becomes over the next 35 years. Image source: Nature.)

The upshot of this study is that amplifying carbon feedbacks from the Earth environment are probably starting to happen on a large scale now. And we may be seeing some evidence for this effect during 2016 as rates of atmospheric carbon dioxide accumulation are hitting above 3 parts per million per year for the second year in a row even as global rates of human emissions plateaued.

Beyond the Point of No Return

What this means is that the stakes for cutting human carbon emissions to zero as swiftly as possible just got a whole hell of a lot higher. If we fail to do this, we will easily be on track for 5-7 C or worse warming by the end of this Century. And this level of warming happening so soon and over so short a timeframe is an event that few, if any, current human civilizations are likely to survive. Furthermore, if we are to avoid terribly harmful warming over longer periods, we must not only rapidly transition to renewable energy sources. We must also somehow learn to pull carbon, on net, out of the atmosphere in rather high volumes.

Today, Professor Ivan Janssens of the University of Antwerp noted:

“This study is very important, because the response of soil carbon stocks to the ongoing warming, is one of the largest sources of uncertainty in our climate models. I’m an optimist and still believe that it is not too late, but we urgently need to develop a global economy driven by sustainable energy sources and start using CO2, as a substrate, instead of a waste product. If this happens by 2050, then we can avoid warming above 2C. If not, we will reach a point of no return and will probably exceed 5C.”

In other words, even the optimists at this time think that we are on the cusp of runaway catastrophic global warming. That the time to urgently act is now.

Links:

Quantifying Soil Carbon Losses in Response to Warming

Netherlands Institute of Ecology

Earth Warming to Climate Tipping Point

This is the Most Dangerous Time for Our Planet

Climate Change Escalating So Fast it is Beyond the Point of No Return

NOAA ESRL

Soil Respiration





Another silver bullet bites the dust….

10 10 2016

A recent article in the Guardian explains why scientists now believe that soil’s potential to soak up climate changing carbon dioxide has been overestimated by as much as 40%….

Hopes that large amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide could be buried in soils appear to be grossly misplaced, with new research finding that the ground will soak up far less carbon over the coming century than previously thought.

Radiocarbon dating of soils, when combined with previous models of carbon uptake, has shown the widely assumed potential for carbon sequestration to combat climate change has been overestimated by as much as 40%.

Scientists from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) found that models used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assume a much faster cycling of carbon through soils than is actually the case. Data taken from 157 soil samples taken from around the world show the average age of soil carbon is more than six times older than previously thought.

markcochrane2

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane, our resident climate scientist, recently picked up on this at Chris Martenson’s Peak prosperity blog and wrote the following……?

The article points again to the problems with global models of climate change. Those who generally complain about ‘models’ usually do so to try to imply that they are wrong and that this therefore means that they are overstating climate change. The fact of the matter is that although they are ‘wrong’, the errors, in principle, are just as likely to understate as overstate the situation. In reality, the science tends to be conservative, as scientists are usually constrained to using what is statistically defensible for many of the parameters within their models, so the likelihood of understating known issues (e.g. ice sheet collapses) is greater than substantially overstating them, which is why the vast majority of new findings point out that climate change is progressing faster than we have been estimating.

The famous quote by George Box “All models are wrong, but some are useful” nicely sums up the state of things. Much of what we do in this world is based on our internal modeling, some of which is of high accuracy, “the sun comes up every morning”, and other ideas somewhat less so,  “I’m a safe driver so driving is not risky”. Weather models are notoriously inaccurate but we find quite a lot of utility in consulting them anyway. They may not be absolutely ‘right’ but they are usually reasonably close to the ultimate conditions. Climate models have multitudinous components but their ultimate function basically boils down to calculating the balance between sources and sinks of carbon in the atmosphere, then estimating what the ramifications are of the net changes in type and amounts of the so-called greenhouse gases.

Sources are emissions from things like burning fossil fuels, and positive feedbacks like melting permafrost that releases a portion of the carbon stock, that has literally been frozen in place for millennia, to the atmosphere as the climate warms. Sinks are things like ocean uptake of carbon as higher atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations force the gas into the water, like occurs in your soda bottle or beer can. Negative feedbacks are those that ultimately bring the system back into balance after excessive emissions and include things like plants soaking up carbon and ultimately depositing some of it for long term storage in soils, in addition to transformation of silicate rocks to carbonate rocks as mountains erode and deposit sediments into the sea, soaking up atmospheric carbon in the process.

As I have mentioned before, the existence of a positive or negative feedback is only part of the story, we also need to know the rate at which it proceeds and ultimately how long it might continue. If you put a match to a high concentration of an explosive gas (say hydrogen) the positive feedback of energy release from a few molecules transferring energy to the proximate molecules will proceed very rapidly but not for very long before the process runs its course in the explosion. On the other hand, eroding the Himalayan mountains down to sea level will soak up immense amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere but will take millions of years to accomplish.

All of which is providing context for what the He et  al. (2016) paper is saying. Soil carbon is a catch all term for many chemical compounds in soils that have carbon as a component. This makes the ‘organic’ component of soils. If you are modeling the rate at which carbon can get soaked up by soils you need to know the processes involved and calibrate them using parameters that balance the rates at which carbon enters and leaves the soil. What the new research is showing is that the current Earth Systems Models (ESMs – components of Global Climate Models – GCMs) currently underestimate the age of organic materials (carbon) in existing soils which effectively means that they overestimate the rate at which carbon is likely to be sequestered through plant growth/soil formation in the future. The upshot being that the models are currently estimating that soils will soak up potentially twice as much carbon between now and 2100 as seems likely. If the carbon isn’t getting soaked up it means that it could pile up in the atmosphere for longer than presently estimated and act to warm the planet more than currently projected.

As in all scientific matters, these results will be tested by other scientists and either be verified, refuted or refined. So what does it signify if this is correct? The soil component is only one pool among many but the net fluxes are what matters in the climate situation. For example:

With a Net Terrestrial Uptake of 3.0, the findings could indicate that this should be better described as 1.5-2.0. This could conceivably move the net atmospheric increase from 4.0 to 5.0 or so, a 25% increase. Non trivial. That said, what it probably means is that existing errors in other components of the modeling are either partially overstating emissions or global photosynthesis or understating net oceanic uptake. Therefore, instead of a 25% increase in atmospheric carbon there would be a smaller compounding increase between now and 2100, how small is the question. Future studies will be aimed at teasing these interacting components apart.





Arctic Death Spiral and the Methane Time Bomb

18 11 2013

I wasn’t convinced about Guy McPherson’s assertion of Near Term Human Extinction…….  but now I’m not so unsure.  This really scary movie made me feel like blowing up coal railway lines and assassinating a few dickhead politicians. We are TOAST. IF you haven’t got the download bandwidth, let me know;  leave an address in a message, and I’ll send you a CD…. but the time to revolt has well and truly arrived.

The start’s a bit crap in my opinion, they even misspelled SPIRAL in the title…….  I recommend skipping the first ten minutes.





Some Credible Scientists Believe Humanity Is Irreparably Close to Destruction

21 08 2013

 

Originally published at http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/near-term-extinctionists-believe-the-world-is-going-to-end-very-soon

WARNING:  Colourful language!

By Nathan Curry

If you were to zoom out and take a comparative look back at our planet during the 1950s from some sort of cosmic time-travelling orbiter cube, you would probably first notice that millions of pieces of space trash had disappeared from orbit.

 

The moon would appear six and a half feet closer to Earth, and the continents of Europe and North America would be four feet closer together. Zooming in, you would be able to spot some of the industrial clambering of the Golden Age of Capitalism in the West and some of the stilted attempts at the Great Leap Forward in the East. Lasers, bar codes, contraceptives, hydrogen bombs, microchips, credit cards, synthesizers, superglue, Barbie dolls, pharmaceuticals, factory farming, and distortion pedals would just be coming into existence.

 

There would be two thirds fewer humans on the planet than there are now. Over a million different species of plants and animals would exist that have since gone extinct.  There would be 90 percent more fish, a billion less tons of plastic, and 40 percent more phytoplankton (producers of half the planet’s oxygen) in the oceans. There would be twice as many trees covering the land and about three times more drinking water available from ancient aquifers. There would be about 80 percent more ice covering the northern pole during the summer season and 30 percent less carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. The list goes on…

 

Most educated and semi-concerned people know that these sorts of sordid details make up the backdrop of our retina-screened, ethylene-ripened story of progress, but what happens when you start stringing them all together?

If Doomsday Preppers, the highest rated show on the National Geographic Channel is any indication, the general public seems to be getting ready for some sort of societal collapse. There have always been doomsday prophets and cults around and everyone has their own personal view of how the apocalypse will probably go down (ascension of pure souls, zombie crows), but in the midst of all of the Mayan Calendar/Timewave Zero/Rapture babble, there are some clarion calls coming from a crowd that’s less into bugout bags and eschatology: well-respected scientists and journalists who have come to some scarily-sane sounding conclusions about the threat of human-induced climate change on the survival of the human species.

 

Recent data seems to suggest that we may have already tripped several irrevocable, non-linear, positive feedback loops (melting of permafrost, methane hydrates, and arctic sea ice) that make an average global temperature increase of only 2°C by 2100 seem like a fairy tale. Instead, we’re talking 4°C, 6°C, 10°C, 16°C (????????) here.

 

The link between rapid climate change and human extinction is basically this: the planet becomes uninhabitable by humans if the average temperature goes up by 4-6°C. It doesn’t sound like a lot because we’re used to the temperature changing 15°C overnight, but the thing that is not mentioned enough is that even a 2-3°C average increase would give us temperatures that regularly surpass 40°C (104°F) in North America and Europe, and soar even higher near the equator. Human bodies start to break down after six hours at a wet-bulb (100% humidity) temperature of 35°C (95°F). This makes the 2003 heat wave in Europe that killed over 70,000 people seem like not a very big deal.

 

Factoring in the increase we’re already seeing in heat waves, droughts, wildfires, massive storms, food and water shortages, deforestation, ocean acidification, and sea level rise some are seeing the writing on the wall:

We’re all gonna die!

 

If you want to freak yourself the fuck out, spend a few hours trying to refute the mounting evidence of our impending doom heralded by the man who gave the Near Term Extinction movement its name, Guy McPherson, on his blog Nature Bats Last. McPherson is a former Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, who left his cushy tenured academic career and now lives in a straw-bale house on a sustainable commune in rural New Mexico in an attempt to “walk away from Empire.” There are a lot of interviews and videos available of Dr. McPherson talking about NTE if you want to boost your pessimism about the future to suicidal/ruin-any-dinner-party levels.

 

 
If you are in need of an ultimate mind-fuck, there is a long essay on McPherson’s site entitled “The Irreconcilable Acceptance of Near Term Extinction” written by a lifelong environmental activist named Daniel Drumright. He writes about trying to come to terms with what it means to be on a clear path toward extinction now that it’s probably too late to do anything about it (hint: suicide or shrooms). As Drumright points out, the entirety of human philosophy, religion, and politics doesn’t really provide a framework for processing the psychological terror of all of humanity not existing in the near future.

Outside of the official NTE enclave, there are a lot of scientists and journalists who would probably try to avoid being labeled as NTE proponents, but are still making the same sort of dire predictions about our collective fate. They may not believe that humans will ALL be gone by mid-century, but massive, catastrophic “population decline” due to human-induced rapid climate change is not out of the picture.

James Hansen, the former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s leading climatologists has recently retired from his position after 43 years in order to concentrate on climate-change activism. He predicts that without full de-carbonization by 2030, global CO2 emissions will be 16 times higher than in 1950, guaranteeing catastrophic climate change. In an essay published in April of this year, Hansen states:

 

“If we should ‘succeed’ in digging up and burning all fossil fuels, some parts of the planet would become literally uninhabitable, with some times during the year having wet bulb temperatures exceeding 35°C. At such temperatures, for reasons of physiology and physics, humans cannot survive… it is physically impossible for the environment to carry away the 100W of metabolic heat that a human body generates when it is at rest. Thus even a person lying quietly naked in hurricane force winds would be unable to survive.”

 

Bill McKibben, prominent green journalist, author, distinguished scholar, and one of the founders of 350.org—the movement that aims to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels to 350ppm in the hopes of avoiding runaway climate change—wrote a book in 2011 called Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. In it he highlights current environmental changes that have put us past the predictions that had previously been reserved for the end of the 21st century. He emphasizes that the popular political rhetoric that we need to do something about climate change for our “grandchildren” is sorely out of touch with reality. This is happening now. We’re already living on a sci-fi planet from a parallel universe:

“The Arctic ice cap is melting, the great glacier above Greenland is thinning, both with disconcerting and unexpected speed. The oceans are distinctly more acid and their level is rising…The greatest storms on our planet, hurricanes and cyclones, have become more powerful…The great rain forest of the Amazon is drying on its margins…The great boreal forest of North America is dying in a matter of years… [This] new planet looks more or less like our own but clearly isn’t… This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened.”

 

Climate Change protesters in Melbourne. via Flickr.

 

Peter Ward is a paleontologist and author whose 2007 book Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What they Can Tell Us About the Future, provides evidence that all but one of the major global extinction events (dinosaurs) occurred due to rapid climate change caused by increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. This time around, the carbon dioxide increase happens to be coming from humans figuring out how to dig billions of tons of carbon out of the ground—and releasing it into the air. Ward states that during the last 10,000 years in which human civilization has emerged, our carbon dioxide levels and climate have remained anomalously stable, but the future doesn’t look so good:

“The average global temperature has changed as much as 18°F [8°C] in a few decades. The average global temperature is 59°F [15°C]. Imagine that it shot to 75°F [24°C] or dropped to 40°F [4°C], in a century or less. We have no experience of such a world… at minimum, such sudden changes would create catastrophic storms of unbelievable magnitude and fury…lashing the continents not once a decade or century but several times each year…For most of the last 100,000 years, an abruptly changing climate was the rule, not the exception.”

Far from being a Mother Earth lover, Ward has also developed an anti-Gaia hypothesis that he calls the “Medea Hypothesis” in which complex life, instead of being in symbiotic harmony with the environment, is actually a horrible nuisance. In this hypothesis, the planet and microbial life have worked together multiple times to trigger mass extinction events that have almost succeeded in returning the earth to its microbe-dominant state. In other words, Mother Earth might be Microbe Earth and she might be trying to kill her kids.

 

Scientists are putting out the warning call that rapid, life-threatening climate change lies ahead in our near future—but most are drowned out by the political arguments and denialist rhetoric of climate change skeptics. The well-funded effort by free market think tanks, energy lobbyists, and industry advocates to blur the public perception of climate science should come as no surprise. The thermodynamic forcing effects of an ice-free artic by 2015 don’t seem so threatening if you stand to gain billions of dollars by sending drill bits into the potentially huge oil reservoirs there.

It may not be the case that the southwest US will be uninhabitable by 2035, or that all of human life will be extinguished in a generation, but we should probably start to acknowledge and internalize what some of the people who have given their lives to better understand this planet are saying about it. It’s depressing to think that humans, in our current state, could be the Omega Point of consciousness. Maybe sentience and the knowledge of our inevitable death have given us a sort of survival vertigo that we can’t overcome. As the separate paths of environmental exploitation quickly and quietly converge around us, we might just tumble off the precipice, drunk on fossil fuels, making duck faces into black mirrors.