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.

17 January 2010

Embracing engineering for the whole earth

Filed under: books, climate change, Genetic Engineering, geoengineering, green, Nuclear energy — David Wood @ 2:14 am

One thing I’m trying to do with my blog is to provide useful pointers, into the vast amount of material that’s available both online and offline, to the small small fraction of that material which does the best job of summarising, extending, and challenging current thinking.

Whole Earth Discipline: an ecopragmatist manifesto“, the recent book by veteran ecologist and environmentalist Stewart Brand, comprehensively fits that criterion.  It is so full of insight that virtually every page contains not just one but several blogworthy quotes, ideas, facts, putdowns, and/or refutations.  It’s that good.  I could write a book-length blogpost signing its praises.

Brand turned 70 while writing this book.  In the book, he indicates that he has changed his mind as he grew older.  The book serves as a landmark for various changes of mind for the environmental movement as a whole.  The argument is sustained, easy-to-read, detailed, and compelling.

The core argument is that the future well-being of the whole planet – human societies embedded in biological ecosystems – requires a thoroughgoing embrace of an engineering mindset.  Specifically, the environmental movement needs to recognise:

  • That the process of urbanisation – the growth of cities, even in apparently haphazard ways – provides good solutions to many worries about over-population;
  • That nuclear energy will play a large role in providing clean, safe, low-carbon energy;
  • That GE (genetic engineering) will play a large role in providing safe, healthy, nutritious food and medicine;
  • That the emerging field of synthetic biology can usefully and safely build upon what’s already being accomplished by GE;
  • That methods of geoengineering will almost certainly play a part in heading off the world’s pending climate change catastrophe.

The book has an objective and compassionate tone throughout.  At times it squarely accuses various environmentalists of severe mistakes – particularly in aspects of their opposition to GE and nuclear energy – mistakes that have had tragic consequences for developing societies around the world.  It’s hard to deny the charges.  I sincerely hope that the book will receive a wide readership, and will cause people to change their minds.

The book doesn’t just provide advocacy for some specific technologies.  More than that, it makes the case for changes in mindset:

  • It highlights major limitations to the old green mantra that “small is beautiful”;
  • It unpicks various romantic notions about the lifestyles and philosophies of native peoples (such as the American Indians);
  • It shows the deep weakness of the “precautionary principle”, and proposes an own alternative approach;
  • It emphasises how objections to people “playing God” are profoundly misguided.

Indeed, the book starts with the quote:

We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.

It concludes with the following summary:

Ecological balance is too important for sentiment.  It requires science.

The health of the natural infrastructure is too compromised for passivity.  It requires engineering.

What we call natural and what we call human are inseparable.  We live one life.

And what is an engineer?  Brand states:

Romantics love problems; scientists discover and analyze problems; engineers solve problems.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help comparing it to “The constant economy” by Zac Goldsmith, which I read a few weeks ago.  The two books share many concerns about the unsustainable lifestyles presently being practiced around the world.  There are a few solutions in common, too.  But the wide distrust of technology shown by Goldsmith is amply parried by the material that Brand marshalls.  And the full set of solutions proposed by Brand are much more credible than those proposed by Goldsmith.  Goldsmith has been a major advisor to the UK Conservative Party on environmental matters.  If any UK party could convince me that they thoroughly understand, and intend to implement, the proposal in Brand’s book, I would be deeply impressed.

Note: an annotated reference companion to the book is available online, at www.sbnotes.com.  It bristles with useful links.  There’s also a 16 minute TED video, “Stewart Brand proclaims 4 environmental ‘heresies’“, which is well worth viewing.

Thanks to Marc Gunther, whose blogpost “Why Stewart Brand’s new book is a must-read” alerted me to this book.

By a fortunate coincidence, Brand will be speaking at the RSA in London on Tuesday.  I’m anticipating a good debate from the audience.  An audio feed from the meeting will be broadcast live.

2 January 2010

Vital for futurists: hacking the earth

Filed under: books, climate change, futurist, geoengineering — David Wood @ 1:16 am

Here’s a tip, for anyone seriously interested in the big issues that will dominate discussion in the next 5-10 years.  You should become familiar (if you’re not already) with the work of Jamais Cascio.  Jamais is someone who consistently has deep, interesting, and challenging things to say about the large changes that are likely to sweep over the planet in the decades ahead.

In 2003, Jamais co-founded WorldChanging.com, a website dedicated to finding and calling attention to models, tools and ideas for building a “bright green” future. In March, 2006, he started Open the Future.

One topic that Jamais has often addressed is geoengineering – sometimes also called “climate engineering”, “planetary engineering”, or “terraforming”.  Geoengineering covers a range of large-scale projects that could, conceivably, be deployed to head-off the effects of runaway global warming.  Examples include launching large mirrors into space to reflect sunlight away from the earth, injecting sulphate particles into the stratosphere, brightening clouds or deserts to increase their reflectivity, and extracting greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.  It’s a thoroughly controversial topic.  But Jamais treads skilfully and thoughtfully through the controversies.

A collection of essays by Jamais on the topic of geoengineering is available in book format, under the title “Hacking the earth: understanding the consequences of geoengineering“.  It’s a slim volume, with just over 100 pages, but it packs lots of big thoughts.  While reading, I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the book.

At present, this book is only available from Lulu.com.  As Jamais says, the book is, for him:

an experiment in self-publishing…

… in recent weeks various friends have tried out – and given high marks to – web-based self-publishing outfits like Lulu.com… I thought I’d give this method a shot.

The material in the book is derived from articles published online at Open the Future and elsewhere.  Some of the big themes are as follows (the following bullet points are all excerpts from Jamais’ writing):

  • Feedback effects ranging from methane released from melting permafrost to carbon emissions from decaying remnants of forests devoured by pine beetles risk boosting greenhouse gases faster than natural compensation mechanisms can handle.  The accumulation of non-linear drivers can lead to “tipping point” events causing functionally irreversible changes to geophysical systems (such as massive sea-level increases).  Some of these can have feedback effects of their own, such as the elimination of ice caps reducing global albedo, thereby accelerating heating.
  • None of the bright green solutions — ultra-efficient buildings and vehicles, top-to-bottom urban redesigns, local foods, renewable energy systems, and the like — will do anything to reduce the anthropogenic greenhouse gases that have already been emitted. The best result we get is stabilizing at an already high greenhouse gas level. And because of ocean thermal inertia and other big, slow climate effects, the Earth will continue to warm for a couple of decades even after we stop all greenhouse gas emissions. Transforming our civilization into a bright green wonderland won’t be easy, and under even the most optimistic estimates will take at least a decade; by the time we finally stop putting out additional greenhouse gases, we could well have gone past a point where globally disastrous results are inevitable. In fact, given the complexity of climate feedback systems, we may already have passed such a tipping point, even if we stopped all emissions today.
  • Geoengineering, should it be tried, would not be a replacement for making the economic, social, and technological changes needed to eliminate anthropogenic greenhouse gases. It would only be a way of giving us more time to make those changes. It’s not an either-or situation; geo is a last-ditch prop for making sure that we can do what needs to be done.
  • We don’t know enough about how the various geoengineering proposals would play out to make a persuasive case for trying any of them.  There needs to be far more study before making any even moderate-scale experimental effort. This is not something to try today. The most important task for current geoengineering research is to identify the approaches that might look attractive at first, but have devastating results — we need to know what we should avoid even if desperate.
  • Like it or not, we’ve entered the era of intentional geoengineering. The people who believe that (re)terraforming is a bad idea need to be part of the discussion about specific proposals, not simply sources of blanket condemnations. We need their insights and intelligence. The best way to make that happen, the best way to make sure that any terraforming effort leads to a global benefit, not harm, is to open the process of studying and developing geotechnological tools.
  • Geoengineering presents more than just an environmental question. It also presents a geopolitical dilemma. With processes of this magnitude and degree of uncertainty, countries would inevitably argue over control, costs, and liability for mistakes. More troubling, however, is the possibility that states may decide to use geoengineering efforts and technologies as weapons. Two factors make this a danger we dismiss at our peril: the unequal impact of climate changes, and the ability of small states and even nonstate actors to attempt geoengineering.
  • It is possible that, should the international community refrain from geoengineering strategies, one or more smaller, non-hegemonic, actors could undertake geoengineering projects of their own. This could be out of a legitimate fear that prevention and mitigation strategies would be insufficient, out of a disagreement with the consensus over geoengineering safety or results, or—most troublingly—out of a desire to use geoengineering tools to achieve a relative increase in competitive power over adversaries.

I particularly liked Jamais’ suggestion of a “Reversibility Principle” as an alternative to the “Precautionary Principle” and “Proactionary Principle” that have previously been suggested as guidelines for deciding which actions to take, regarding the application of technology.

Geoengineering is, by its nature, a huge topic.  The “Technology Review” magazine contains a substantial analysis entitled “The Geoengineering Gambit” in its Jan-Feb 2010 edition. And the authors of Freakonomics, Stephen J Dubner and Steven Levitt, included a chapter on geoengineering in their follow-up book, “Superfreakonomics“.  As it happens, there seems to be wide consensus that the freakonomics team were considerably too hasty in their analysis – see for example the Guardian article “Why Superfreakonomics’ authors are wrong on geo-engineering“.  But the fact that there were mistakes in that analysis doesn’t mean the topic itself should fade from view.

Far from it: I’m sure we’re going to be hearing more and more about geoengineering.  It deserves our attention!

Blog at WordPress.com.