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.

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