Why Fossil Fuel Abundance Is An Illusion, Unless Your Goal Is Humanity’s Self-Destruction

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"Why Fossil Fuel Abundance Is An Illusion, Unless Your Goal Is Humanity’s Self-Destruction"

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Inaction (“No Policy” via M.I.T.) eliminates most of the uncertainty about whether or not future warming will be catastrophic.  Aggressive emissions reductions dramatically improves humanity’s chances. Hitting even 4-5°C (7-9°F) global warming post-2050 (with much higher warming over most of U.S.) is “incompatible with organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems & has a high probability of not being stable (i.e.  4°C [7F] would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level),” according to Kevin Anderson, director of Britain’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change (see here) — Joe Romm.

by Jonathan Koomey via his blog

In a blog post published on April 12, 2012, Dan Lashof of NRDC makes it clear that we’ll run out of the earth’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases long before we run out of fossil fuels.  In this blog post I’ll show why he’s exactly right.

In Cold Cash, Cool Climate, I explore this question quantitatively, using the latest fossil fuel resource estimates from IIASA’s Global Energy Assessment.  To do that, I estimate lower bounds to global fossil fuel reserves and resources (which together make up what’s called the “resource base”, our best estimate of how many fossil fuel resources we have, not including exotic supplies like methane hydrates and other occurrences of hard to extract deposits).  Reserves are well known deposits that can be extracted at current prices and technologies, while resources are somewhat more speculative, but resources become reserves over time as exploration advances and technology improves.

I focus here on the lower bounds to make an important point:  Even with estimates of the fossil fuel resource base at the low end of what the literature says, the amount of carbon embodied in just the conventional sources of these fuels is vastly larger than the amount of fuel assumed to be burned in the MIT no-policy case (which is a reasonable assessment of our “business-as-usual” future, assuming no major efforts to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels).

Figure 1:  Lower bound estimates of fossil fuel reserves compared to fossil carbon emissions in the MIT’s no-policy case

As shown in Figure 1, the lower bound estimate of the amount of carbon contained in all fossil fuels excluding exotic resources like methane hydrates is almost 10,000 billion metric tons of carbon, or roughly 6 times the amount that would be emitted from fossil fuel burning in the MIT no-policy case from 2000 to 2100. Just the resource base for conventional gas, oil, and coal would cover the fossil emissions in the no-policy case more than five times over.  And if we were to consume the conventional oil and gas resource base plus the coal reserves, we’d only need to use about 10% of the coal resources to reach the emissions in the no-policy case.  “Peak oil” won’t help much with this problem, as coal reserves are so vast.

I conclude from this comparison that there’s virtually no chance that resource constraints would provide a brake on carbon emissions in this century, and the emissions in the MIT no-policy case are below what could be expected if we were to burn even a quarter of our entire conventional resource base in the next ninety years.

When considering the challenge of keeping greenhouse gas concentrations to a level that would allow no more than a 2 Celsius degree increase in global temperatures, the situation is even more difficult.  If we take the 2 degree C warming limit seriously, we’ll need to limit CO2 emissions from all sources to no more than 315 billion tons of carbon (about 1150 billion tons of CO2) from 2000 until 2049, which implies a rapid phase out of fossil fuels (as well as other sources of GHGs).  That means that we can’t even burn the currently existing stock of proved reserves of fossil fuels and remain under the 2 degrees C warming limit (see Figure 2).  Recall that the proved reserves data from the GEA represents a lower bound, so the comparison is even more stark.  We’ll need to keep a significant fraction of our proved reserves from being burned, or we’ll need to figure out a way to sequester carbon in a safe way (which is not currently feasible on the scales needed, though it has been proved in some applications).

Figure 2:  Lower bound estimates of fossil fuel reserves compared to the MIT level 1 case ["Policy Scenario" in top figure] and a safer climate case that would keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C from preindustrial times

One implication of these results is that the current estimated value of fossil fuel reserves (as capitalized in the stock prices of fossil fuel companies) is an illusion, as Dave Roberts of Grist points out.  We quite literally can’t burn it all and continue the orderly development of human civilization, so the trillions of dollars of “value” in those reserves is a mirage (and a major impediment to progress on this problem, given how hard the fossil fuel industry is fighting to preserve its profits).

– Jonathan Koomey via his blog

 

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40 Responses to Why Fossil Fuel Abundance Is An Illusion, Unless Your Goal Is Humanity’s Self-Destruction

  1. Pangolin says:

    While the Republicans and Democrats argue over how many cookies are still in the fossil fuel jar any climate policy consistent with reality will tell you that every cookie in that jar is poisoned.

    There is no political power in the U.S. right now that isn’t putting a gun to the head of any child born past 2000 C.E. Twenty degrees warmer in March is great fun for the Midwest. Twenty degrees warmer in July or August means grain crops fail.

    • From Peru says:

      Twenty degrees warmer in July or August means TENS OF THOUSANDS OF DEATHS, mainly elderly people.

      Just rememeber what happened in Europe in 2003 and in Russia in 2010.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Why not join the rest of humanity and speak Celsius? It just confuses for the US to keep throwing Fahrenheit about. Perhaps start by parenthesising the Celsius, so twenty degrees gets an (eleven degrees Celsius)addendum. Either way you look at it is spells Doom.

  2. Christiane says:

    I’ve been reading this blog for two years… and I’m tired. The news that you post isn’t getting any rosier. It is clear that people would rather try to adapt to climate change after it happens rather than take steps to prevent it. Prevention is seen as making uncomfortable sacrifices. Those of us who have made those sacrifices seem to be doing so in vain. Even among my peers, the changes my family has made are seen as honorable, but futile.

    So, Climate Guest Blogger and Joe, since we can’t “continue the orderly development of human civilization,” what should we do to get prepare for the climate catastrophe this article empirically proves is inevitable?

    • Leif says:

      I have been pursuing austerity all my adult life and do not fine the the journey tedious or having to make “uncomfortable sacrifices”. Quite the opposite, learning to bring comfort into your life regardless of the circumstances is extremely rewarding and challenging.

      As for your second question: I would say STOP the bad stuff, work for the good stuff with what time you have left. Good karma begets good karma. On the bigger picture I recommend STOPPING the ability of Corpor/People to PROFIT from the POLLUTION of the commons for starters. I have others.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        The only conceivable way out is to reduce the power and influence of the reptilian minds who run the planet. Just radically reducing one’s own consumption will not do it-the insatiably greedy invertebrates will happily take up the slack. Indeed they are ferociously pursuing a policy of mass immiseration through deliberately contrived ‘disaster capitalism’ at the moment, while raking off more and more of the loot produced by destroying the planet’s life-support systems.
        Above all we must do away with moralistic scruples about recognising the elite for what they are-destructive, parasitical and evil in the most profound meaning of the word. That evil lies not, I would say, in allegiance to the Devil or any such ‘spiritual’ mambo-jambo, but in being controlled in their omnicidal activities by the psychopathology of extreme antipathy towards everything outside their own narrow interests. These are not creatures who can be reasoned with, or expected to ever ‘see the error of their ways’. If this type continues to absolutely dominate humanity for even a decade or two more, we’ve had it.

    • Christiane,

      This is a tough problem, no doubt about it, but catastrophe is by no means inevitable. Humans, institutions, and societies can change very rapidly when they need to (and much more rapidly than the economic models indicate, because of rigidities built into the models that are not manifest in the real world). The point of the comparison is to show that we have no choice but to change our path, and that the people who think that we can muddle along in the face of increasing greenhouse gas emissions are deluding themselves.

      The ultimate solution is to “turn fossil fuels into salt”, to paraphrase Jim Woolsey. Salt used to be an incredibly valuable strategic commodity, because it was the best way to preserve meat. Then refrigeration came along, and now I can buy a pound of salt for a tiny amount at the supermarket. We need to do the same thing to fossil fuels, using new technology of course, but also innovating in our values, behavior, and institutions.

      So keep doing what you’re doing. I don’t know if we’ll get through this in a non disruptive way, but we need to keep fighting to move beyond combustion of fossil fuels, and to do so as rapidly as we can. We won’t know if we can do it until we try, but I refuse to succumb to pessimism–it doesn’t help, and we might as well take action and see what’s possible.

      Chapter 8 in my book is about reasons for optimism, and I’ll do a post summarizing those ideas soon.

      Jon

    • Dick Smith says:

      Christiane,
      Get off the computer and out the door.

      Joe says it in his book. There’s a two step process. Get educated, and get political. You’re educated. Now get political.

      Join Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL). Join 350.org in “connect the dots” may 5th.

    • Anne van der Bom says:

      Christiane,

      Your dilemma is actually very simple. Do what you think you should be doing, what you think is the moral thing to do. And don’t let anyone talk you into ‘I am just a drop in the bucket’ thinking. That is in their interest, not yours.

      In our society it is tempting to think you don’t matter unless you’re the next Martin Luther King or mother Theresa. Be your own hero and you’ll end up being an example and inspiration for more people than you can imagine.

    • Here’s what I did:

      1. Became vegan (much less water, food, and energy use).
      2. Got rid of one car (my wife and I now share, plus we save money).
      3. Began helping Hansen and other protest new and existing coal plants.
      4. Participated in the Keystone XL pipeline protest.
      5. Voted my conscience (progressives and climate sensitive democrats).
      6. Used my bicycle or walked when I could.

      I’m looking to:

      1. Start a vegetable garden.
      2. Get solar panels (money saved from getting rid of the second car going to that).
      3. Purchase a Volt.
      4. Join a sustainability group in my area.

      This was my way of trying to help. I know others have done far more. If anyone has more ideas, I’m all ears.

    • NJP1 says:

      to repeat a reply I saw on a climate doom blog a week or two ago—because it at least brings a little humour into the mess we’re in:

      Do you expect me to live sustainably?
      No Mr Bond, I expect you to die.

      It still makes me chuckle

  3. Martin Jetton says:

    The sad truth of a prisoners dilemma, tragedy of the commons, and carrying capacity. Humanity passed the point of potential altruism long ago when villages grew to more than 100 people and they scattered about the globe. Sad but true.

    Adaptation is the human way to this point. Yes humanity will suffer as we adapt. It’s up for debate whether humanity survives the inevitable impact of our own making. It’s still up for debate whether we’ll retain the knowledge that put us in this situation. The reality is things are changing. The reality is that fossil fuels will last for a while but they are not replaceable.

    We live in very interesting times for humanity. How will we look back upon this? All I can say is document, document, document so that after the adaptation humanity will retain this knowledge or learnings.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      We will not ‘look back’ on anything if we try to ‘adapt’ to the climate destabilisation coming, because there will either be none of us left, or the remnants will have regressed very far into ‘uncivilized’ behaviour. After all climate destabilisation, ocean acidification and the general toxification of the planet will, inevitably, lead to war, and we haven’t disinvented nuclear weapons.

    • Anne van der Bom says:

      …document, document, document…

      Dogmatic denial of the heliocentric universe is very well documented.

      Dogmatic denial of evolution is very well documented.

      Dogmatic denial of the adverse effects of second hand smoke is very well documented.

      Yet here we are again, for the umpteenth time in history.

    • The fossil fuels are certainly replaceable. Saying they aren’t is like an obese person arguing how he would die without access to Big Macs. New solar and wind energy have higher net energy returns than any new fossil fuels.

      The new fossil fuels (unconventional) are both harmful to the economy and the environment. First, they are lower energy content than renewables. Second, they cost of the damage they cause is far greater than any economic benefit they enable. Third, because depletion results in ever-higher energy prices over time, economies are put at ever-greater risk. Lastly, a livable climate is a necessity of human life. Remove that and all other issues become moot.

      We can see the effect of depletion in the oil markets right now. First, crude oil production has been flat since 2005. Second, all the new, unconventional fuels are less energy dense. The result is that all new oil is more expensive. For example, prices need to stay above $55 dollars per barrel for both tar sands and fracked or tight oil. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is saying that $100 oil is necessary for its economy. Saudi Arabia can demand this price because oil is scarce.

      As for the energy sources mentioned in the article… Anything not conventional is pretty crappy. Take coal, for instance. Most of the non-reserve coal base is lignite which is very low energy and even worse when it comes to pollution. Or Methane hydrates — the stuff is so unstable it requires extremely exotic extraction techniques that make deep water oil drilling look like child’s play.

      Forcing dependence on these crappy fuels will require a control of governments by the fossil fuel companies equal to dictatorship. There’s really no economic sense in it other than monopolization and cornering the market by controlling a finite and increasingly difficult to access resource. Sure, it will make a few people wealthy beyond imagining. I’m sure the chiefs who built the Easter Island Moai thought they were wealthy too. That is, until the topsoil on the island they deforested washed away and resulted in their overthrow and a terrifying population crash.

  4. hudson says:

    Your question is one that I’ve never quite asked myself, despite feeling much like you do about the situation. However, I have wondered why there aren’t filmmakers and songwriters creating art to raise consciousness about the subject (too political and too depressing, I’d guess). Your question makes me wonder if artists and scientists could develop ways to visualize what our world will be like under more advanced climate change in order to help people begin to imagine the future. It may help individuals and groups save what can be saved, but more importantly, having a more concrete glimpse of what will happen could help turn the tide of public opinion against our current path. Of course, one runs the risk of appearing to be a nut-case doomsayer, but it may take more overt signs of genuine conviction by people that believe in climate change to convince the rest that we aren’t just after one world government.

  5. Gingerbaker says:

    Recent denier memes include that climate ‘alarmists’ are ‘panicking’ about ‘catastrophic’ global warming. And replies to this, at least on the blogs that I have read, are that nobody is panicking.

    I think it is time to bloody well panic. I think we need to urge everybody that, yes Virginia, it is now time to panic. We need to make it very clear that we are talking about the end of civilization as we know, it, that we may be looking at the end of humanity if we are the least bit unlucky.

    And it is time to stop arguing with deniers about science. The science is overwhelming and clear. Instead, we should be talking about prosecuting the people who are funding the propaganda campaigns that will be responsible for the deaths of millions if not billions.

    Goebbels never shot a Jew. He was, however, in charge of the propaganda campaign that led to the death of millions. If he had not committed suicide, he would have been front and center in Nuremberg, being tried for crimes against humanity. Can anyone explain to me how the Koch brothers and the former head of Exxon Mobil should not be similarly prosecuted?

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Absolutely. The propagandists for auto-genocide must face justice, while a semblance of legality and the rule of law remain. This is, in my opinion, the central crime in all human history, and that covers a lot of evil ground.

    • danielle says:

      great points gingerbaker…I couldn’t agree more!

  6. hudson says:

    PS Upon noticing James Cameron’s recent comments on the Titanic and climate change, I have to hope that he might organize such a project, but he’ll probably take another ten years unless he’s already got something in the works.

    PPS My comment was meant to be a response to Christiane’s comment above.

  7. Mason Inman says:

    I think you need a more sophisticated approach to establish the point you’re trying to make here. I don’t think we can take these fossil fuel resource estimates off the shelf and use them blindly; I think you have to dig in a bit to how these estimates are made so that you can see if they can be applied the way that you have here.

    Since coal makes up by far the largest resource in your graph, that’s a good place to start.

    Check out the work by David Rutledge at Caltech:
    http://rutledge.caltech.edu/

    (Caveat: Rutledge is skeptical about climate change, and I don’t agree with him on this.)

    But Rutledge has important points to make about coal resources. For your purposes, the most important point is that the estimates of coal resources in a region tend to remain high for decades, until a while after the production has gone into decline—and then finally the resource estimates plummet. That is, these estimates are not terribly objective, and contain a large dose of subjectivity in them—often optimistic.

    Also, check out what David Fridley (Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory) and Richard Heinberg (Post Carbon Institute) had to say about coal supplies, in a 2010 commentary published in Nature:
    http://www.postcarbon.org/blog-post/183218-fridley-heinberg-discuss-peak-coal-in

    Finally, I think your way of framing it in terms of “running out” is not very useful. We’ll never literally “run out” of the ability to inject more CO2 into the atmosphere, even when the climate goes to hell.

    Also, as long as our society is dependent on fossil fuels, if we are not able to continue boosting production of them, and production starts to decline, then it could cause big problems for our society.

    It seems it will take decades more to transition from fossil fuels to renewables—at least if we want to keep consuming a lot of energy, as we are now. If we start to run into problems with fossil fuel supplies—such as peak crude oil production—well before renewables are able to replace them, then it could cause a lot of problems. I think we’re actually in the middle of this right now, with high oil prices playing a major role in the economic woes since 2007.

    So that people don’t think I’m just some crazy peak oil fanatic, I’ll point out that Joe Romm is also worried about peak oil:
    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2010/05/15/206012/peak-oil/

    • mikkel says:

      Well first I think the traditional resource estimates are wildly off for both oil and coal in order to get sucker money and also influence policy. And secondly I agree we’re in the middle of peak oil and will be near peak coal soon.

      Both of these beliefs are making me more alarmed about climate change mitigation, not less. The reason why is that there is a lot of hard to use oil and coal that has been left in the ground because it’s bad quality, but it’s easy to foresee a future where the use wouldn’t be in direct thermal conversion, but combusting it in situ to free the molecules that could then be captured and converted to liquid fuel.

      The process to do so is straightforward, although it isn’t currently being done because it’s hard to manage the combustion, filter the gas stream and complete the reaction. Still, with a concerted effort I think it may be feasible to go to a coal bed, drill in a ventilation system and then set it on fire in a way where it will create usable stuff and an unimaginable amount of pollution.

      I used to not be concerned about this because it is insane, but after seeing that people are desperately talking about oil exploration that could be much harder and more expensive I’m not so confident any more.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      You prognosis seems to me to be based on the suicidal insanity of ‘leaving it to the market’. This means leaving it to the rich, whose money power controls the capitalist ‘Market’ everywhere. As their wealth is based on the twenty-five trillion in fossil fuel assets they have on their corporations’ books, and as they are, in the main, psychopaths with no interest in the well-being of others or of humanity after they are dead, leaving it to ‘business-as-usual’ is simply group suicide. Governments must govern-isn’t that what our sham ‘democracy’ is allegedly all about? Governments must say, ‘Do this or get out of the way’ and if some ‘entrepreneur’ can make a quid out of saving humanity, fair enough. And we must have carbon taxes, rising at a transparent rate, the proceeds hypothecated to income redistribution and renewable research and development, not the usual racket of ‘emissions trading’ and carbon ‘off-sets, both already exposed as ineffective rackets. It is actually quite simple, and harnessing human ingenuity and effort could yet do it, but the global parasite class and their MSM propaganda system still stand in the way.

    • There is still a lot of controversy about the coal estimates, and I spent a lot of time emailing with Hans-Holger Rogner, who was responsible for the resource estimates in the Global Energy Assessment (which should be out shortly, if it isn’t already). The Fridley article is particularly good, but I haven’t had time to dig into Rutledge’s stuff. The reason why I don’t think that work refutes my argument is Figure 2. Compare the Safer Climate case to the proved reserves of fuels. Even if we never burn any more coal, we’ll still need to keep some of the proven reserves of oil and gas in the ground to meet the constraints of the safer climate case. So all this concern about peak coal and oil is an academic argument that misses the real point: we need to keep a substantial fraction of proved reserves in the ground, and never touch the rest of the resource base. Even if Rutledge turns out to be correct, we’ll still need to restrict coal consumption substantially even beyond the constraints based on his analysis. So by no means does it refute the main point I’m making here, because we need to phase out fossil fuels even more rapidly than analyses of peak oil or coal will indicate.

      This insight follows inevitably from the warming limit/carbon budget approach to the problem, which some folks still seem to not have internalized: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2009/12/06/205058/copenhagen-two-degrees-warming-target/

    • David B. Benson says:

      There is also a recent study from either TX A&M or UTA which suggests that peak coal is happening right about now.

      What is certain is the coal-tonnes per worker-hour is declining in all US coal regions and so the price is going way up.

      There is also commentary on The Oil Drum regarding on how fast fracked natgas well decline in productivity. That suggests that EROEI isn’t very good for fraking.

  8. Rick says:

    We won’t be able to burn all the fossil fuels that are left. The die off will see to that.

  9. Dave Bradley says:

    Dudes and Dudettes,

    Yes, there is a lot of coal buried, but that is not the dominant factor. The same goes for tar sands sludge and of course, oil and buried methane.

    What matters most is the rate they can be extracted, and the cost to do so. And while solar PV will most likely be more expensive than coal, coal, oil, gas and nukes wind is likely to be cheaper than when methane goes for $10/MBtu, coal for $150 to $200/ton, and oil became too expensive several years ago. New nukes are now mre expensive than offshore ind, nd about twice to three times as much as onshore wind. And geothermal sourced heat pumps powered by wind turbines can be cheaper than gas when pices for gas are more than $7/MBtu.

    So, in all probability, this article is not too meaningful. Oil is now too expensive to use to make electricty and heat unless there are no alternatives. Once the current gas glut goes away and methane starts getting converted into oil, oil and gas will start to equilibrate, price-wise. So then we have nukes and oal to worry about.

    China now has to import coal to meet its needs. Its easy to get (alias cheap) coal is going fast. India is also a big importer, and both are bidding p the world coal price – alias that bought on world markets to supplement their domestic usage.

    If you want to do something useful, put an EXPORT tariff on US coal, and keep making it higher every year. Start off with $20/ton – at 125 million tons/yr, that would add $2.5 billion to government coffers. Have it go up $10/ton each year from now on till exports stop. But, they won’t for some time… What this will also do is cream off a lot of proits from some pretty reprehensibe coal compnies, too, just for good measure….

    DB

    • See my comment about Figure 2 in reply to Mason Inman’s comment…. The necessary constraints on fossil emissions are so strict that all this talk about what’s easily extractable or expensive will be besides the point. A substantial fraction of the proved reserves alone will need to be kept in the ground if we’re to meet the constraints of the safer climate case. And the rest of the resource base (which is huge) will need to be completely off limits.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        That argument is one that calls for the destruction of capitalism. Those ‘resources’ and ‘reserves’ are valued assets amounting to about 25 trillion, and form the basis of the largest corporations’ wealth and solvency. They borrow, hedge, speculate and issue shares based on that implied wealth. To say that a large proportion must return to the status of worthless rocks would cause stock market and banking implosions of unprecedented magnitude, so will be resisted by any means that come to hand.

        • To displace those reserves requires building enterprises of equal or greater value. Yes, the fossil fuel companies will go down, but others will rise to replace them. That’s what “creative destruction” is all about. Energy is still only 6-8% of the world economy, and if we can power the rest of the economy with a different kind of energy (and we surely can) then the alternatives will rise up to displace fossil fuels. So it’s not the destruction of capitalism, necessarily, just the decline of the companies that supply fossil fuels.

          • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

            Yes, but what force can compel capitalists to cease investing in ecologically destructive activities, if they see that as the best course to realise their legal obligation to maximise profits? So far I only see resistance, the creation and financing of a massive denialist propaganda industry, sabotage of renewables and a preference for other destructive technologies like nuclear. I’m all for the destruction of capitalism, because, in my opinion, its is antithetical to human life on this planet. Only another economic and social system, based on equality, not grotesque and growing inequality, sufficiency rather than insatiable greed in our appetites and the gradual and humane reduction of the planet’s human population to one billion or so, will save us. Capitalism inherently opposes all these. It’s gotta go!

    • David B. Benson says:

      NStar’s contract with Cape Wind calls for the utility to pay US$0.187/kWh for that offshore wind farm project.

      According to avionexusa wind farm contract prices are typically 10-14 cents per kWh. The nearest to here that I know about has a 20 year contract with Idaho Power with LCOE=US$0.091/kWh.

      The Westinghouse AP1000s just now starting construction at VC Summer have in the justification documents approved by the state utility commission an LCOE of US$0.076/kWh. Those 2 NPPs will be Westinghouse’s 5th & 6th AP1000s so the chance of significant cost overrun is low.

  10. paulina says:

    Jonathan Koomey:

    Why use a carbon budget estimated to give us a — *** 50% chance *** — of staying below 2C, as the relevant budget if we want to “take the 2C warming limit seriously”?
    If I cheat on my partner half the time, am I taking the monogamy “limit” seriously? If I drink too much half the time, am I taking my drinking limit seriously? If I have sex with minors half the time, am I taking age limits seriously?

    What basis is there for saying that an estimated 50% risk is the level of risk that equals “taking this limit seriously”? I realize the “50%” carbon budget estimates are commonly bandied about, but I can’t remember what the rationale for this is supposed to be.
    What are your thoughts on this?

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      The fate of humanity reduced to the toss of a coin. My word, we have come far.

    • Conceptually I agree with you, but practically, there’s no such thing as accuracy decades from now, so predicting exact probabilities is a fool’s errand. My own view is that we need an aggressive goal for which to aim, and once we start moving toward it we’ll find it’s a lot cheaper and easier than we initially thought. That’s the way these things usually work, because humans have a hard time envisioning a future much different from their current existence (and they build models that embody unreal rigidities, thereby limiting their thinking in ways that are not helpful to envisioning many different futures). Some have used a two thirds probability, others have used 50-50, but this is angels on the head of a pin speculation as far as I’m concerned. If we can get to where we now think we’ll have a 50-50 chance of staying within 2 degrees C, we’ll almost certainly be able to do better than that (because of the way technology change gathers momentum over time).

      • paulina says:

        Thanks for your reply. Correction on my part: the reference I had in mind, yes, associates 1150 Gt CO2 (2000-49) w/ a two-thirds chance of staying below 2C, not 50/50 as I said. And, yes, certainly, such estimates are highly uncertain and, yes, also do not take into account a variety of effects that are grounds for optimism, as well as effects that are grounds for pessimism. But who is talking about “predicting exact probabilities”? That seems to be beside the point.
        Suppose I grant your conclusion: “if we can get to where [where/when] we now think we’ll have a 50-50 chance of staying within 2C, we’ll almost certainly be able to do better than that.” My question remains: Should putting ourselves in a situation in which we believe we will “almost certainly be able to do better” than having a 50/50 chance, or than having a two-thirds chance, of staying below 2C count as taking the 2C limit seriously? Suppose we even guarantee the outcome: getting to X WILL give us a better than a two-thirds chance of staying below 2C. My slightly incendiary examples make it seem ridiculous to call this taking the limit seriously. The questions of What counts as serious? and How do concepts acquire the status “serious”? are not academic. Especially not when we are all seriously playing along with the idea that the 2C limit is the limit to take seriously, in the first place, if we want to be taken seriously.

        • Yes, I relied on the standard source (which you apparently did also) which is Meinshausen, Malte, Nicolai Meinshausen, William Hare, Sarah C. B. Raper, Katja Frieler, Reto Knutti, David J. Frame, and Myles R. Allen. 2009. “Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 degrees C.” Nature. vol. 458, April 30. pp. 1158-1162. [http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v458/n7242/full/nature08017.html]
          And yes, the carbon budget I use for the safer climate case gives a 2/3 chance of hitting 2 Celsius degrees according to that source, but the point I made above is still operative. We need to get moving in the right direction and modify our actions as experience dictates, because predicting the future is not possible for economic and social systems. Chapter 4 of Cold Cash, Cool Climate explores this issue in detail.

          Another side point is that small changes in the carbon budget lead to large changes in the percentage chance of hitting 2 celsius degrees, so this parameter is very sensitive to assumptions. In my opinion, it’s not worth arguing over these differences in percentages, because they can’t be determined with precision.

  11. The problem is not evil people per se, the problem is an evil (or amoral and thus leading to evil) economic system, and with it the political system too.

    Until the economic system is changed, changing who the “leaders” are, will not fix things.

    The problem is not “irrational” psychopathic individuals, the problem is that the economic system makes it a ‘rational’ thing to do, to maximize short term profits and ‘growth’ at all costs.

    In other words, we don’t have a rational economic system taken over by irrational people, we have an irrational and psychopathic system, so that even when a not-as-evil person like Obama (or even a good person like Ralph Nader) if they become president, they can not change it very much.

    The “tragedy of the commons” is a convenient name, yes, but this ‘tragedy’ exists because of an economic system based on creating (by Law) entities (legal fictions called corporations) whose very Duty is to externalize costs in market transactions. Those are human choices for an economic system, there are other economic arrangements. Does a family use market forces to divide up the bread? Would the angels use market forces to share food in Heaven with people? Our current economic model is not the only one, and while there are equally-bad alternatives, there are also less-pathological alternative economic models.

    Search for The Ecology Of Money , for example.

    The way the economic system will change is from the ground up, so local, city, even neighborhood alternative economic models (along with internet based ways of networking to the global levels) are critical.