13 January 2014

Six steps to climate catastrophe

In a widely read Rolling Stone article from July 2012, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”, Bill McKibben introduced what he called

Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe.

The three numbers are as follows:

  1. 2 degrees Celsius – the threshold of average global temperature rise “which scientists (and recently world leaders at the G8 summit) have agreed we must not cross, for fear of triggering climate feedbacks which, once started, will be almost impossible to stop and will drive accelerated warming out of our control”
  2. 565 Gigatons – the amount of carbon dioxide that can be added into the atmosphere by mid-century with still an 80% chance of the temperature rise staying below two degrees
  3. 2,795 Gigatons“the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn”.

As McKibben highlights,

The key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.

He has a vivid metaphor to drive his message home:

Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit – equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit – the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That’s the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.

We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.

He continues,

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically above ground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.

The burning question


A version of Bill McKibben’s Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math essay can be found as the foreword to the recent book “The Burning Question” co-authored by Duncan Clark and Mike Berners-Lee. The subtitle of the book has a somewhat softer message than in the McKibben essay:

We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal, and gas. So how do we quit?

But the introduction makes it clear that constraints on our use of fossil fuel reserves will need to go deeper than “one half”:

Avoiding unacceptable risks of catastrophic climate change means burning less than half of the oil, coal, and gas in currently commercial reserves – and a much smaller fraction of all the fossil fuels under the ground…

Notoriously, climate change is a subject that is embroiled in controversy and intemperance. The New York Times carried an opinion piece, “We’re All Climate-Change Idiots” containing this assessment from Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication:

You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology.

However, my assessment of the book “The burning question” by Berners-Lee and Clark is that it is admirably objective and clear. That impression was reinforced when I saw Duncan Clark speak about the contents of the book at London’s RSA a couple of months ago. On that occasion, the meeting was constrained to less than an hour, for both presentation and audience Q&A. It was clear that the speaker had a lot more that he could have said.

I was therefore delighted when he agreed to speak on the same topic at a forthcoming London Futurists event, happening in Birkbeck College from 6.15pm to 8.30pm on Saturday 18th January. You can find more details of the London Futurists event here. Following our normal format, we’ll have a full two hours of careful examination of the overall field.

Six steps to climate catastrophe

One way to examine the risks of climate catastrophe induced by human activity is to consider the following six-step chain of cause and effect:

  1. Population – the number of people on the earth
  2. Affluence – the average wealth of people on the earth
  3. Energy intensity – the average amount of energy used to create a unit of wealth
  4. Carbon intensity – the average carbon emissions caused by each unit of energy
  5. Temperature impact – the average increase of global temperature caused by carbon emissions
  6. Global impact – the broader impact on life on earth caused by increased average temperature.

Six steps

As Berners-Lee and Clark discuss in their book, there’s scope to debate, and/or to alter, each of these causal links. Various commentators recommend:

  • A reduction in the overall human population
  • Combatting society’s deep-seated imperatives to pursue economic growth
  • Achieving greater affluence with less energy input
  • Switching to energy sources (such as “renewables”) with reduced carbon emissions
  • Seeing (or engineering) different causes that complicate the relation between carbon emissions and temperature rises
  • Seeing (or engineering) beneficial aspects to global increases in temperature, rather than adverse ones.

What they point out, however, is that despite significant progress to reduce energy intensity and carbon intensity, the other factors seem to be increasing out of control, and dominate the overall equation. Specifically, affluence shows no signs of decreasing, especially when the aspirations of huge numbers of people in emerging economies are taken into consideration.

I see this as an argument to accelerate work on technical solutions – further work to reduce the energy intensity and carbon intensity factors. I also see it as an argument to rapidly pursue investigations of what Berners-Lee and Clark call “Plan B”, namely various forms of geoengineering. This extends beyond straightforward methods for carbon capture and storage, and includes possibilities such as

  • Trying to use the oceans to take more carbon dioxide out of the air and store it in an inert form
  • Screen some of the incoming heat from the sun, by, for example, creating more clouds, or injecting aerosols into the upper atmosphere.

But Berners-Lee and Clark remain apprehensive about one overriding factor. This is the one described earlier: the fact that so much investment is tied up in the share-prices of oil companies that assume that huge amounts within the known reserves of fossil fuels will all be burnt, relatively soon. Providing better technical fixes will, they argue, be insufficient to prevent the ongoing juggernaut steamroller of conversion from fossil fuels into huge cash profits for industry – a juggernaut with the side-effect of accumulated carbon emissions that increase the risk of horrendous climate consequences.

For this reason, they see the need for concerted global action to ensure that the prices being paid for the acquisition and/or consumption of fossil fuels fully take into account the downside costs to the global environment. This will be far from easy to achieve, but the book highlights some practical steps forwards.

Waking up

The first step – as so often, in order to succeed in a complex change project – is to engender a sustained sense of urgency. Politicians won’t take action unless there is strong public pressure for action. This public pressure won’t exist whilst people remain in a state of confusion, disinterest, dejection, and/or helplessness. Here’s an extract from near the end of their book:

It’s crucial that more people hear the simple facts loud and clear: that climate change presents huge risks, that our efforts to solve it so far haven’t worked, and that there’s a moral imperative to constrain unabated fossil fuel use on behalf of current and especially future generations.

It’s often assumed that the world isn’t ready for this kind of message – that it’s too negative or scary or confrontational. But reality needs facing head on – and anyhow the truth may be more interesting and inspiring than the watered down version.

I expect many readers of this blogpost to have questions in their mind – or possibly objections (rather than just questions) – regarding at least some of what’s written above. This topic deserves a 200 page book rather than just a short blogpost.

Rather than just urging people to read the book in question, I have set up the London Futurists event previously mentioned. I am anticipating robust but respectful in-depth discussion.

Beyond technology

One possible response is that the acceleration of technological solutions will deliver sufficient solutions (e.g. reducing energy intensity and carbon intensity) long before we need to worry about the climate reaching any tipping point. Solar energy may play a decisive role – possibly along with new generations of nuclear power technology.

That may turn out to be true. But my own engineering experience with developing complex technological solutions is that the timetable is rarely something that anyone can be confident about in advance. So yes, we need to accelerate the technology solutions. But equally, as an insurance policy, we need to take actions that will buy ourselves more time, in order for these technological solutions to come to full fruition. This insurance policy inevitably involves the messy worlds of politics and economics, alongside the developments that happen in the technological arena.

This last message comes across uncomfortably to people who dislike any idea of global coordinated action in politics or economics. People who believe in “small government” and “markets as free as possible” don’t like to contemplate global scale political or economic action. That is, no doubt, another reason why the analysis of global warming and climate change is such a contentious issue.


  1. Hi David et al,

    Would love to be at the London discussion, but living in Kaikoura NZ I am almost exactly on the other side of the planet – so wont be (unless someone else comes up with the cash for the flights and accommodation).

    I have given the topic a lot of thought over the last 40 years.

    There is no doubt in my mind that the problem can be solved.
    The questions are:
    Will we make the necessary choices? and
    What do those choices look like?

    You asked:
    What mix of technology, politics, psychology, and economics might be required?

    That is a very interesting question indeed.
    It seems that the technology part is relatively easy, the psychology not too difficult, politics is irrelevant in a sense (in that it responds for the most part to other drivers), and economics seems to be the key issue.

    Let me start with the last bit first.
    Money, or more accurately, our use of markets as a valuation tool, seems to be the greatest stumbling block.
    All people tend to look after our own self interests (as we see them), we respond to the incentive sets in place.

    {I am a little unusual, as it became clear to me in late 1974 (as I completed my undergraduate biochemistry studies) that aging is basically a genetically controlled mechanism, and at some point in the future we would be able to arrest, then later reverse it – so the question then formed in my mind – what sorts of social, political and technical institutions are required to allow people to live in security and freedom to very old ages (thousands of years and beyond)? So that question has consumed me since then, and I view my self interest on that time-scale.}

    Coming back to markets. Markets are great tools for distributing scarce resources. The more scarce something is, the more value it has in a market. This is so common sense that very few think past it. Yet it hides what seems to me the greatest existential risk to humanity that we currently face.
    Markets value scarcity, which logically implies that they devalue abundance.
    Real abundance (like oxygen in the air) has zero market value.
    That means that there is zero market incentive to ever deliver real abundance of anything.

    We are rapidly approaching the technical capacity to deliver real abundance of all of the necessities of human life; yet not only is there no economic incentive to do so, there is massive economic incentive to prevent it happening. (Some might say that the whole global warming set of smoke and mirrors is just that – not saying anything about the science of warming, but about the responses proposed.)

    Solar energy is abundant and distributed; it cannot easily be controlled. Oil is hard to get at, and easy to make vast profits from. The cost of delivering a barrel of Saudi oil to port varies between 40c and $2.00, yet it sells for $100 – who is going to give up that sort of profit, and the political power it buys in today’s world?

    If we are going to solve this global warming problem, then we need to get people viewing their self interest in terms other than dollars determined in markets. That is going to take some work.

    Why aren’t clean energy sources slowing the rate of fossil fuel extraction?

    Quite simply, the rate of increase in demand still exceeds the rate of energy delivery from non-fossil sources.
    And non-fossil sources of energy are increasing exponentially, and based on current exponential trends will overtake fossil fuels by 2030 – according to the figures delivered by Ray Kurzweil in his November 15 2011 presentation (slides 61-63).

    Are the energy companies massively overvalued, and how will carbon-cuts affect the global economy?
    Carbon cuts will happen when other energy sources are available. Attempting to do so before then will destroy the “economy” and threaten us all. People need a vision of security and abundance, even if that is not their current reality.

    Will we wake up to the threat in time?
    Many have.
    Far fewer have woken up to the threat posed by markets, and the restrictions that markets impose on the delivery of new technologies (capital must make its profit from investments in past technologies before allowing new ones to take market share).

    And who can do what to make it all happen?
    We can all make a difference.
    We can start asking the really hard questions.
    We can start asking the unasked questions.
    We can start questioning the unquestioned assumptions.

    Psychologically the vast majority of human beings are primed for social cooperation. We have an inbuilt sense of justice, and injustice.
    Lies and half truths can work only so often, eventually people start to sense something is wrong, and then to see what is happening.

    We have an option to be leaders.
    We can lead humanity to a future of peace and security, a world beyond markets.
    It seems clear to me that we really have little other choice.


    Comment by Ted Howard NZ — 14 January 2014 @ 10:08 pm

    • Hi Ted – Many thanks for your comments. I’ll add a couple of further thoughts:

      >>Why aren’t clean energy sources slowing the rate of fossil fuel extraction?

      >Quite simply, the rate of increase in demand still exceeds the rate of energy delivery from non-fossil sources.

      The chart labelled “Total human energy consumption since 1850” in the book, which you can see here, shows what we’re up against.

      See also this one, “Net additions to the world’s energy systems in the period 2001-2011”.

      This should change when solar power (and/or other renewable energy sources) becomes even more efficient, but I’m skeptical about simply extrapolating existing exponential improvement curves.

      After all, as you say,

      >We are rapidly approaching the technical capacity to deliver real abundance of all of the necessities of human life; yet not only is there no economic incentive to do so, there is massive economic incentive to prevent it happening.

      This seems to leave us two options:

      1.) Move human society away from a system of economics that only values financial capital – but (as the book author argues) this is likely to be very hard
      2.) Place a fairer monetary price on the use of carbon-rich fuel – a price that takes into account the negative externalities of the impact on the climate.

      Option 2 will require a lot of politics, to make it happen. In contrast, you say that

      >politics is irrelevant in a sense (in that it responds for the most part to other drivers)

      – which I am not sure I agree with. It is true that politicians will respond to large-scale groundswells of opinion. And that is something that the discussion on “The Burning Question” can impact.

      Comment by David Wood — 14 January 2014 @ 10:35 pm

  2. Hi David,

    I agree with you in a sense.
    For so long as most people experience real scarcity in their lives, then it will be difficult to move away from the values of financial capital.
    Markets make good sense when scarcity is real.

    If we once create a set of machines that can use sunlight and local rock to replicate themselves, and can produce a basic range of goods and services required to support humanity, then that is a game changer.
    If those machines have a two week doubling time, then in less than 2 years from making the first one, we can supply one to every person on the planet.
    When that happens, then people will not be experiencing real scarcity in their lives, and it will be possible to move away from the values of financial capital.

    There is no such thing as a fair monetary price on carbon. Trying such a thing guarantees that all the carbon will be extracted, and bets on creating sink technology in time.
    That is also a mechanism that creates yet another set of vested interests in maintaining a carbon based energy system (the carbon sinkers).

    Far better to invest in creating a complete replacement, using widely distributed solar.
    But, and its a big but, doing so makes little or no sense to the current holders of capital unless we give them a reason to change their valuation time-frames. This is where the prospect of indefinite life extension is an essential element in bringing stability to the set of systems.

    Once there is a realistic prospect of ending bodily aging, and maintaining our 20 year old bodies indefinitely, then it is very much in the interests of anyone who wants to live a long time to have security for everyone, and to encourage tolerance and.diversity.

    And I get there are a lot of interlinked concepts in this mix.
    [There are a few more, and they will come out in time – a bit busy this evening.]

    Comment by Ted Howard NZ — 15 January 2014 @ 6:25 am

    • Hi Ted,

      >This is where the prospect of indefinite life extension is an essential element in bringing stability to the set of systems.

      Yes, that will be a game-changer, but I believe we need to take action sooner that than.
      When people come to believe that it’s likely that, later in their lifetimes, rejuvenation technology will become widely available, they may equally think that, later in their lifetimes, the technology of material abundance and abundant clean energy will become widely available.
      But, in both cases, people should realise the need to take sensible precautions in the meantime:
      *) On the lifespan level, we need to maintain our personal fitness and good health in the meantime – avoiding actions that could lead to a downward spiral of our vital systems.
      *) On the planetary level, we need to avoid actions that could trigger a climate spiral tipping point (increased seepage of long buried methane from frozen tundra, etc) in the meantime.

      >There is no such thing as a fair monetary price on carbon. Trying such a thing guarantees that all the carbon will be extracted, and bets on creating sink technology in time.

      But if fossil fuel extraction were more severely taxed, it would increase the price to consumers, and encourage consumers to switch to lower-priced (greener) energy sources.
      It would also encourage the oil companies to invest more vigorously in becoming experts in other forms of energy, e.g. solar.

      One interesting variant of this idea, discussed in the book, is the “SAFE Carbon” initiative. SAFE = “Sequestered Adequate Fraction of Extracted”. See this note by Dr Myles Allen of Oxford University. This deserves wider attention.

      Comment by David Wood — 15 January 2014 @ 9:46 am

  3. Hi David,

    This is getting really complex, and the linkages get numerically vast very quickly, and trying to keep it as simple as possible:

    It seems clear to me that the most powerful action we can take is around reducing the existential fears that most people have, and creating a sense of security that promotes people recognising the global commonality of humanity (whatever their current cultural context).
    Introducing a carbon tax, or even a SAFE system, doesn’t really assist with that.
    Any increase in energy costs simply makes it harder for those at the bottom of the heap to survive.
    We don’t have a lot of money, and we do give $10 per day to the UN, to help in feeding those in need of food. It is a small thing, and it is something we have kept up even through our toughest financial times when I was diagnosed terminal cancer and told I might die within 6 weeks (I seem to have beaten). The increase in fuel costs doubled the cost of food and halved the contribution we were making thereby. Unforeseen and unwanted consequences!

    At another level, the idea that the earth has some sort of grand stability to it is utter myth.
    The earth is a very dangerous place. It suffers from periodic comet and meteor strike, large scale volcanism, ice ages, and all sorts of things that could be terminal to our civilisation. To mitigate those risks we have got to establish large scale engineering off planet.
    Once we build a self replicating machine, and launch it to the moon, then within a couple of years we will have all the engineering capacity we need to mitigate any global warming effects.

    Global warming is real in a scientific sense, and it is irrelevant in the greater scheme of humanity as an evolving technological civilisation.

    We need to push to break through the technological barriers that separate us from an age of abundance.
    Nothing else really matters.
    Once we achieve that abundance, we can do whatever is technically required to manage earth’s climatic systems to provide optimal climate for humanity and a range of other ecosystems.

    I like nature. I am a conservationist. I enjoy the time I spend in the wild. And I have no illusions about any sort of grand balance in anything. Nature is a constant struggle for existence against competing forces.
    We have the ability to create something different, but not by imagining that something already exists that doesn’t.

    So I am a yes to thinking about mitigating strategies for all threats to humanity and to the ecosystems that support us.
    We need to stop global warming.
    We also need to prevent global cooling (a much more dangerous scenario).
    We need to have a few trillion mirrors in space that allow us to manage how much sunlight falls where, so that we don’t get large dangerous tropical cyclones.
    We need a few million automated telescopes in far flung orbits, scanning for anything that might impact this planet.
    We need space stations capable of supporting all of humanity should some mega-volcanic complex (like the Yellowstone complex) decide to erupt.
    We need a lot of things, to provide security.

    We need to start valuing every living human being, and creating systems that ensure that everyone has all the essential of survival, and the freedom to responsibly choose whatever they want (without seriously impacting of the lives or freedoms of anyone else).

    Managing from where we are now, to a set of technologies that can provide us with that abundance, is our greatest and most urgent need.

    Climate change is real, and it is a side issue.
    Once we have self replicating robotics we can reverse or mitigate any unwanted effects of climate change.

    We could have self replicating robotics in a decade if we put half the funding into that that we currently put into the military.

    Comment by Ted Howard NZ — 15 January 2014 @ 10:23 pm

  4. […] The burning question: climate change in context, with Duncan Clark […]

    Pingback by Climate Change | Ted Howard NZ's Blog — 31 January 2014 @ 6:50 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: