Because of decarbonization, Mr. Ausubel believes that the growth of carbon dioxide emissions will be limited. “The computer models of the climate system aren’t good enough and never will be. I tend not to be frightened because I think the natural evolution of the energy system is away from carbon,” he said.
That would be science writer Nicholas Wade in his extended profile of Jesse H. Ausubel, “vice president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.” Ausubel has “A Passion for Nature,” according to Ward and may have done more than almost anyone else to catalog marine life.
Sadly, though, the data don’t support Ausubel’s rosy scenario. The world is “carbonizing” (blue line). Even the energy system has stopped decarbonizing (see red line and figure below). Ironically, Ausubel’s ill-informed complacency means his beloved marine life — and indeed terrestrial life in general — will almost certainly fall victim to one of the greatest mass extinctions in planetary history (see Geological Society: Acidifying oceans spell marine biological meltdown “by end of century” and links below).
Ausubel may “think the natural evolution of the energy system is away from carbon” — but the figure above, derived from Energy Information Administration data that anybody can access (here), makes clear that Ausubel is simply dead wrong. Actually he is dead wrong on multiple counts.
Not only isn’t humanity decarbonizing — as evidenced by soaring carbon emissions — but the energy system itself stopped decarbonizing a decade ago. And even if the energy system hadn’t stopped decarbonizing, its rate of decarbonization prior to 2000 wasn’t fast enough to stop emissions growth that would destroy life on this planet as we know it (see Nature Geoscience study: Oceans are acidifying 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred). You don’t need any computer models to figure that out.
Indeed, what Ausubel asserts is the “natural evolution of the energy system” puts us on a path toward 800 to 1000 ppm. But, as seen that “natural” evolution got derailed.
Ausubel has been writing and talking about decarbonization for a long time. Here is “Decarbonization: The Next 100 Years,” a big lecture he gave 8 years ago, when it still wasn’t obvious that China’s massive use of coal would reverse the trend in carbon intensity. It contains this chart:
Figure 1. Decarbonization or the changing carbon intensity of primary energy for the world. Carbon intensity is calculated as the ratio of the sum of the carbon content of all fuels to the sum of the energy content of all primary energy sources
Impressive. Not enough to save humanity from catastrophic global warming, but impressive.
Sadly, that upturn around 2000 became a U-turn. Sean Pool of ScienceProgress has extended that plot (using CO2 rather than C) with EIA data again:
Note: Intensity here is CO2 per unit energy, rather than CO2 per unit of GDP.
But why let facts that could easily be checked online in about one minute get in the way of Wade’s reporting on Ausubel’s mis-information:
In a recent interview in his office at Rockefeller University on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Mr. Ausubel explained his view that the environment will be protected, not harmed, by technology. Over the long run, he notes, the economy requires more efficient forms of energy, and these are inherently sparing of the environment. Cities used to use wood for heat and hay for transport fuel. But the required volumes of wood and horse feed soon led to more compact fuels like coal and.
Coal in turn is giving way to natural gas in a process that Mr. Ausubel calls decarbonization, the replacement of carbon-rich fuels with hydrogen-rich ones. The ultimate fuel source, in his view, is nuclear power, with reactors set to produce electricity by day and hydrogen, the fuel for battery-powered cars, by night. He sees little that might thwart the mighty process of decarbonization, even given setbacks like Japan’s nuclear crisis. “The energy system absorbs shocks even as big as Fukushima,” he says.
That is a lot of un-information, even for the New York Times. Okay, first, as noted, thanks to China — and the lack of a global climate deal that is primarily due to both the United States and China — coal isn’t giving way to anything. Low-carbon technology isn’t going to be adopted at a fast enough rate by magic or some sort of “natural” evolution
Second, it is simply implausible that nuclear power could be the “ultimate” fuel given how wildly expensive it is today — with no prospect of significantly lower cost anytime soon (see Does nuclear power have a negative learning curve?). And that’s without looking at issues concerning supply of fuel, proliferation, and the like that would become unimaginable problems if you wanted nuclear power to be the “ultimate” (i.e. primary) fuel source. Even one wedge of nuclear power would require adding, globally an average of 17 plants each year, while building an average of 9 plants a year to replace those that will be retired, for a total of one nuclear plant every two weeks for four decades “” plus 10 Yucca Mountains to store the waste. And we need some 12-14 wedges in four decades to keep CO2 concentrations to under 450 ppm (see “The full global warming solution: How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm“). So, no, nuclear power in the best case scenario is going to be one small piece of the answer — the ultimate fuel sources are efficiency and renewables.
Third, “reactors set to produce electricity by day and hydrogen, the fuel for battery-powered cars, by night.” Not! Wade/Ausubel apparently mean fuel-cell cars — pure “battery-powered cars” don’t need the hydrogen. The most valuable commodity in climate-constrained world will be carbon free electricity. It is ludicrous to think people are going to buy expensive electrolyzers to take that valuable commodity — along with huge quantities of equally scarce and valuable water — convert it into hydrogen and then run that hydrogen through an expensive fuel cell to convert it back to electricity (with a round-trip efficiency of well under 50%) just to power an electric motor. They would just have electric cars (with no fuel cell) and run them directly on the electricity, rather than spending staggering amounts of money and throwing away most of the carbon-free electricity and using up huge amounts of water to power fuel cell cars.
The reason Ausubel pushes hydrogen is because it fits his theory of the “replacement of carbon-rich fuels with hydrogen-rich ones.” But reality says a hydrogen-based economy makes little sense because of the inefficiency and cost of the conversion process — and the massive infrastructure costs (see Hydrogen fuel cell cars are a dead end from a technological, practical, and climate perspective and Obama, Chu try to slash the multi-miracle hydrogen program once again).
Fourth, “He sees little that might thwart the mighty process of decarbonization.” Again, one minute online reveals that the mighty process of decarbonization of the energy system was thwarted a decade ago.
You can tell where Ausubel is coming from in this jaw-dropping paragraph:
As a program officer with the National Academy of Sciences, Mr. Ausubel worked with senior scientists who had broad experience in running international environmental programs. He was involved in planning the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meeting but has viewed the panel’s subsequent reports with reserve. went from being a small to a major issue. “And then the expected happened,” he said. “Opportunists flowed in. By 1992 I stopped wanting to go to climate meetings.”
Yes, those damn opportunists. Once they saw that the best science suggested that unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases threatened humanity’s future, they flowed right in to try to understand it and prevent the worst from happening. Don’t you just hate opportunists like that? Seriously, who exactly is Ausubel smearing here?
It’s too bad he apparently dialed back his efforts to understand climate science, because then he would’ve understood that even if is decarbonization theory actually were correct it wouldn’t have stopped dangerous warming.
And what’s doubly bizarre is that Ausubel “has so far started four major international programs to survey the planet and catalog its biological diversity.” If we were to buy into Ausubel’s complacency, then the loss of biological diversity we are seeing today — Royal Society: “There are very strong indications that the current rate of species extinctions far exceeds anything in the fossil record.” — is expected to become catastrophic.
In 2007, the IPCC warned that “as global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5°C [relative to 1980 to 1999], model projections suggest significant extinctions (40-70% of species assessed) around the globe.” That is a temperature rise over pre-industrial levels of a bit more than 4.0°C. So the 5°C rise we are facing on our current emissions path would likely put extinctions beyond the high end of that range
No worries, though. Wade and Ausubel are here to tell us that we can go back to sleep:
Mr. Ausubel does not belong to the Jeremiah school of environmentalists who prophesy imminent doom unless their words are heeded. “The credibility of the environmental movement as a whole is less than its members wish it to be, and a lot of that has come from overdoing it on various issues,” he says.
Forests are now growing back in many temperate countries and the worst phase of habitat destruction may be over as efficiency demands shape better technologies and less polluting forms of energy. But the oceans lag a century behind and their remoteness has denied them the protection they need from pollution, overfishing and noise. “We can leave most life in the oceans alone,” is Mr. Ausubel’s hope.
Notice how Wade slipped in “temperate” when talking about what is happening to forests worldwide. The tropic forest story isn’t so rosy. And there is no evidence that the worst phase of habitat destruction is over — indeed, a considerable amount of habitat destruction continues in our insatiable quest for polluting forms of energy, including food-based biofuels.
“We can leave most life in the oceans alone,” is Mr. Ausubel’s hope.
It’s my hope too. But it ain’t happening because of “hope.” Quite the reverse. If we fall victim to the complacency promoted in this article, much if not most of ocean life will be wiped out:
- Veron: The end is in sight for the world’s coral reefs
- Nature Geoscience study concludes ocean dead zones “devoid of fish and seafood” are poised to expand and “remain for thousands of years”
- Geological Society: Acidifying oceans spell marine biological meltdown “by end of century”
- Nature Geoscience study: Oceans are acidifying 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred
The only hope for avoiding devastating extinction of biodiversity on land and at sea is the kind of aggressive mitigation that this article dismisses.
This article appears to be is more evidence supporting the remarkable assertion last year by John Horgan, a former Scientific American staff writer who directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology: “Two sources at the Science Times section of the New York Times have told me that a majority of the section’s editorial staff doubts that human-induced global warming represents a serious threat to humanity.”
But hey, an anti-peer-reviewed report just out says the NYT’s coverage of climate is just fine, so I guess we can all go back to watching TV.