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The Dangerous Myth That Climate Change Is Reversible

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"The Dangerous Myth That Climate Change Is Reversible"

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The CMO (Chief Misinformation Officer) of the climate ignorati, Joe Nocera, has a new piece, “A Real Carbon Solution.” The biggest of its many errors comes in this line:

A reduction of carbon emissions from Chinese power plants would do far more to help reverse climate change than — dare I say it? — blocking the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Memo to Nocera: As a NOAA-led paper explained 4 years ago, climate change is “largely irreversible for 1000 years.”

This notion that we can reverse climate change by cutting emissions is one of the most commonly held myths — and one of the most dangerous, as explained in this 2007 MIT study, “Understanding Public Complacency About Climate Change: Adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter.”

The fact is that, as RealClimate has explained, we would need “an immediate cut of around 60 to 70% globally and continued further cuts over time” merely to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of CO2 – and that would still leave us with a radiative imbalance that would lead to “an additional 0.3 to 0.8ºC warming over the 21st Century.” And that assumes no major carbon cycle feedbacks kick in, which seems highly unlikely.

We’d have to drop total global emissions to zero now and for the rest of the century just to lower concentrations enough to stop temperatures from rising. Again, even in this implausible scenario, we still aren’t talking about reversing climate change, just stopping it — or, more technically, stopping the temperature rise. The great ice sheets might well continue to disintegrate, albeit slowly.

This doesn’t mean climate change is unstoppable — only that we are stuck with whatever climate change we cause before we get desperate and go all WWII on emissions. That’s why delay is so dangerous and immoral. For instance, if we don’t act quickly, we are likely to be stuck with permanent Dust Bowls in the Southwest and around the globe. I’ll discuss the irreversibility myth further below the jump.

First, though, Nocera’s piece has many other pieces of misinformation. He leaves people with the impression that coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a practical, affordable means of reducing emissions from existing power plants that will be available soon. In fact, most demonstration projects around the world have been shut down, the technology Nocera focuses on would not work on the vast majority of existing coal plants, and CCS is going to be incredibly expensive compared to other low-carbon technologies — see Harvard stunner: “Realistic” first-generation CCS costs a whopping $150 per ton of CO2 (20 cents per kWh)! And that’s in the unlikely event it proves to be practical, permanent, and verifiable (see “Feasibility, Permanence and Safety Issues Remain Unresolved”).

Heck, the guy who debated me on The Economist‘s website conceded things are going very slowly, writing “The idea is that CCS then becomes a commercial reality and begins to make deep cuts in emissions during the 2030s.” And he’s a CCS advocate!!

Of course, we simply don’t have until the 2030s to wait for deep cuts in emissions. No wonder people who misunderstand the irreversible nature of climate change, like Nocera, tend to be far more complacent about emissions reductions than those who understand climate science.

The point of Nocera’s piece seems to be to mock Bill McKibben for opposing the idea of using captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery (EOR): “his answer suggests that his crusade has blinded him to the real problem.”

It is Nocera who has been blinded. He explains in the piece:

Using carbon emissions to recover previously ungettable oil has the potential to unlock vast untapped American reserves. Last year, ExxonMobil reported that enhanced oil recovery would allow it to extend the life of a single oil field in West Texas by 20 years.

McKibben’s effort to stop the Keystone XL pipeline is based on the fact that we have to leave the vast majority of carbon in the ground. Sure, it wouldn’t matter if you built one coal CCS plant and used that for EOR. But we need a staggering amount of CCS, as Vaclav Smil explained in “Energy at the Crossroads“:

Sequestering a mere 1/10 of today’s global CO2 emissions (less than 3 Gt CO2) would thus call for putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by [the] petroleum industry whose infrastructures and capacities have been put in place over a century of development. Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation.”

D’oh! What precisely would be the point of “sequestering” all that CO2 to extract previously “ungettable oil” whose emissions, when burned, would just about equal the CO2 that you supposedly sequestered?

Remember, we have to get total global emissions of CO2 to near zero just to stop temperatures from continuing their inexorable march toward humanity’s self-destruction. And yes, this ain’t easy. But it is impossible if we don’t start slashing emissions soon and stop opening up vast new sources of carbon.

For those who are confused on this point, I recommend reading the entire MIT study, whose lead author is John Sterman. Here is the abstract:

Public attitudes about climate change reveal a contradiction. Surveys show most Americans believe climate change poses serious risks but also that reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sufficient to stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations or net radiative forcing can be deferred until there is greater evidence that climate change is harmful. US policymakers likewise argue it is prudent to wait and see whether climate change will cause substantial economic harm before undertaking policies to reduce emissions. Such wait-and-see policies erroneously presume climate change can be reversed quickly should harm become evident, underestimating substantial delays in the climate’s response to anthropogenic forcing. We report experiments with highly educated adults–graduate students at MIT–showing widespread misunderstanding of the fundamental stock and flow relationships, including mass balance principles, that lead to long response delays. GHG emissions are now about twice the rate of GHG removal from the atmosphere.

GHG concentrations will therefore continue to rise even if emissions fall, stabilizing only when emissions equal removal. In contrast, results show most subjects believe atmospheric GHG concentrations can be stabilized while emissions into the atmosphere continuously exceed the removal of GHGs from it. These beliefs-analogous to arguing a bathtub filled faster than it drains will never overflow-support wait-and-see policies but violate conservation of matter. Low public support for mitigation policies may be based more on misconceptions of climate dynamics than high discount rates or uncertainty about the risks of harmful climate change.

It’s also worth reading RealClimate’s piece “Climate change commitments,” based on a Nature Geoscience letter by Mathews and Weaver (sub. reqd.), which has this figure:

Again, zero emissions merely stops climate change, and obviously, thanks to fossil-fuel funded Tea Party politicians along with the deniers and the ignorati, we won’t be going to zero anytime soon.

Finally, I recommend RealClimate’s 2009 post, “Irreversible Does Not Mean Unstoppable“:

But you have to remember that the climate changes so far, both observed and committed to, are minor compared with the business-as-usual forecast for the end of the century. It’s further emissions we need to worry about. Climate change is like a ratchet, which we wind up by releasing CO2. Once we turn the crank, there’s no easy turning back to the natural climate. But we can still decide to stop turning the crank, and the sooner the better.

Indeed, we are only committed to about 2°C total warming so far, which is a probably manageable — and even more probably, if we did keep CO2 concentrations from peaking below 450 ppm, the small amount of CO2 we are likely to be able to remove from the atmosphere this century could well take us below the danger zone.

But if we don’t reverse emissions trends soon, we will at least double and probably triple that temperature rise, most likely negating any practical strategy to undo the impacts for hundreds of years.

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196 Responses to The Dangerous Myth That Climate Change Is Reversible

  1. This is a very important post because it explains a core misunderstanding that many folks still harbor: That cutting emissions will somehow reverse the damage (like it would do for acid rain, for example). It’s shocking that people who should know better still don’t seem to realize this, which has been obvious since the 1970s, if not earlier.

    • Daniel Coffey says:

      Yes, shocking, yet not so much. How many people have really thought about the physics of the greenhouse effect and heat transfer? How many people have had it explained to them in a way that is both real and makes sense? Not many. If they are not told, they are probably not going to figure it out from first principles.

      That is why it is key for those who actually understand the effect and its consequences to keep it simple, clear and basic. There has been too much focus on myriad details without enough punching home the awful, boring basics.

      In a way, the greenhouse effect is too simple to be engaging over a long period. The vast and varied consequences are all over the place, but the basic cause is just too mundane to think about. Hence the distractions and loss of focus on real solutions.

    • Omega Centauri says:

      The default mode of human thought is moralistic and anthropomorphic. We stop hurting GAIA, and she will (almost immediately) stop hurting us back. Of course for this form of hurt, its largely the cumulative hurt that’s been done over more than a hundred years that matters….

    • Joe Nocera has attacked Hansen, McKibben and promotes coal and tar sands. It’s little wonder he has trouble understanding the dynamics of carbon emission and climate change.

      Reading his posts, I find it difficult to distinguish his statements from those of oil, gas, and coal company executives…

    • Sasparilla says:

      That’s a great point Jonathan, acid rain, the ozone hole – we just phased stuff out over time and everything went right back to the way it was…not so with Climate Change.

      • Artful Dodger says:

        Not so fast there, Sas. An ozone hole formed over the Arctic for the first time ever in late Spring 2011. There was a greater than 40% reduction in ozone levels, and this is DECADES after the Montreal Protocol was enacted.

        The solution to the ozone problem is straightforward compared to replacing fossil fuel profits. This is far, far harder and will take centuries or millennia to undo the climate effects.

    • DRT says:

      Does the blanket analogy for GHG hold up?. That is, GHGs act like a blanket holding in hot air. Humans have added to the blanket so the planet keeps getting warmer. Discounting feedbacks the temperature won’t stabilize until we stop adding to the blanket. If we want to cool back down we have to remove the blanket that we’ve added. And just like when you put on a blanket you are not immediately warmer, it takes a little while for the trapped air under the blanket to warm up. For the planet the warm up time is decades.

      For feedbacks the analogy gets a little shaky. Its as if the act of putting on a blanket causes a fever which adds more to the blanket which warms up the air which causes more fever which adds more blanket which warms up the air more which causes more fever… . The only way back to normal is to 1st stop adding to the blanket and then remove the excess blanket.

      • wili says:

        Thanks for bringing up feedbacks. It’s not just that if we stop emitting more CO2 the problem doesn’t go away.

        The problem is that at some point enough reinforcing feedbacks kick in that no matter how quickly we reduce our emissions, we will still get increasing rates of CO2 concentrations and persistently rising global temperatures.

        Unfortunately, there is growing evidence that we are now past that point.

        Note that the wonderful graph that Joe posts above–while more than sufficient to show that the denialist crap he is debunking is just that–is three years old.

        That’s a long, long time in our quickly evolving understanding of how the global systems are responding to our massive, uncontrolled experiment of dumping hundreds of billions of extra tons of CO2 and other ghgs into the system in just a few decades.

        Since that time, for example, developments in the Arctic have taken a dramatic turn for the much worse.

        We also have a clearer idea now, from studies like those of MacDougal et al 2012, cited below, that big carbon feedbacks like permafrost melt already place us in runaway gw territory.

        So we are now probably already living inside that horror.

        Of course, this only makes it that much more desperately necessary to draw down as much of our carbon (and other ghg) contribution as possible as soon as possible, or sooner.

        Because, still, every effort we take to NOT add further to the problem will make whatever slim chances we will have in the future to avoid the worse, either from some unknown unknown that might come along and save our sorry @$$e$ in spite of ourselves, or some at-this-point-unimaginable new carbon sequestration technology that is scalable and doable…

        But, if we choose to be honest with ourselves, we must face the fact that, with every day that goes forward, it becomes less and less likely that even our very best imaginable successes can now avert utter catastrophe for human civilization and for most of complex life on the planet.

  2. Paul Hawley says:

    we have believe => we have to leave

    Thank you.

  3. Tami Kennedy says:

    Wait a minute. The Book of CPAC, Reversity 1:1 would disagree.

  4. Need to emphasize carbon emissions are effectively forever in human terms.

    New paper from Stockholm Enviro Institute says CCS 10x harder to do:
    These are; (i) a tenfold up-scaling in size (MW) from pilot plants to that of commercial demonstration, (ii) a tenfold increase in number of large scale demonstration plants actually being constructed, (iii) a tenfold increase in available annual funding over the coming 40 years and, (iv) a tenfold increase in the price put on carbon dioxide emissions.
    http://www.sei-international.org/publications?pid=2273

    • The other important point to make is that CCS makes no sense without a stiff carbon price, and many of the same people arguing against a carbon price are also supportive of CCS (this is not universally true, of course). Even with a carbon price, the other alternatives (like solar, wind, and efficiency) will outpace CCS in the marketplace because they are modular and actually save money, so CCS is doomed to minor player status either way.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      CCS was pure bulldust, from the beginning. It was and remains a scam to allow continued fossil fuel extraction and profiteering, while we wait, and wait, and wait, for CCS to materialise. It is cynical humbuggery, the money wasted a nice scam, and not available for the only proper alternative- real renewables.

  5. robert says:

    Fine post, Joe… though I’d like to take issue with this…

    “Again, zero emissions merely stops climate change, and obviously, thanks to the deniers and ignorati, we won’t be going to zero anytime soon…”

    I believe the deniers and ignorati are irrelevant. More than enough of us understand the score — intellectually. But we’re not behaving as though we understand it. 35,000 at the Keystone XL ralley? More people go to the average college football game.

    Readers of ClimateProgress: It’s not the deniers and ignorati that are stopping us — it’s us.

    • Jim says:

      Robert, I agree that the deniers are waste of time. However, the ignorati are not at all irrelevant. We need to educate them so they can become just as alarmed, and then you will habe many more people turning up at rallies.

      Yes, the science is settled. What is missing is the political will. That will come when enough ignorati become alarmed. We have a “PR” battle of epic proportions on hand to win over ignorati one by one. It can be done.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        The ignorati are happily ignorant for a reason. Most of them are dumb, full stop. When the proverbial hits the fan, the Right’s expert hatemongers in the MSM will simply channel the rage back against environmentalists. It does not have to be rational-in fact rationality is the precise opposite of the best means to mobilise the Dunning-Krugerites. You can use ‘emotionally potent oversimplifications’ as Bernays or some-one similar advised. You can tell Big Lies, or repeat lies so often that they become accepted as Truth. I’ve already heard the hacks beginning, here in Australia, to criticise Greens for ‘not selling the message’. The last thing the numbskulls will ever do is blame the rich, who they have been brainwashed to love and admire, in the deranged belief that they, too, will one day be rich.

        • Jim says:

          Mulga, fair point, there is a large share of ignorati that have to be written off for this cause, just like the deniers. However, the poltical battle for pressure on real change still requires convincing people that are ignorant. Just like most ignorati in the 70′s would tell you smoking was not harmful, now the majority of them have accepted the fact that it is harmful. It was long battle, but the tabacco industry has lost that one, at least in most countries. The same must be done here.

          • robert says:

            Disagree, jim. I don’t believe it involves convincing the ignorant — I contend it involves convincing those who already know… to start behaving as though they know.

            Part of the reason the noblelievers remain detached, is because they don’t see large numbers behaving like this is the emergency we say it is. If everyone who understands intellectually that we have a problem… behaved in accordance with that understanding… we’d be on our way, I think.

  6. Jon Davies says:

    “Of course, we simply don’t have until the 2030s to wait for deep cuts in emissions”

    Well theoretically we do. That’s the point of CCS. If we have an efficient way to sequester CO2, then mckibben’s ‘math’ numbers become academic. If we can take CO2 out of the atmosphere and bring our level back down toward 350, then the effect of climate change will be less in the long run than just stopping emissions.

    Don’t get me wrong, I want to get off fossil fuels ASAP, but I am sort of counting on CCS to help us out as we’re not getting off fossil fuels quickly enough. And no, I don’t mean CCS can be used to justify inaction, just that it will needed to help us out of the mess made by this current inaction.

    Some CCS tech looks promising, but besides the tech, some of the natural methods look more promising, using reforestation and holistic practices to increase vegetation coverage and soil quality to sequester huge amounts of co2. (see Savory Institute and others)

    • Daniel Coffey says:

      The thermodynamics and energy requirements of recapturing a dilute concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere dictate that NOT releasing the gas in the first place is the better approach. Basic chemical engineering principles apply.

      • Jon Davies says:

        Like I said, I agree it’s best to get off fossil fuels in the first place, but as we’re not moving fast enough, I hope the CCS tech can be developed enough to help us slam on the brakes and actually reverse global warming once everyone has realised we’re heading for disaster.

        I wanna see zero emissions and CCS, pulling us back down to 350.

      • BlackDragon says:

        Jon, Daniel is stating the thermodynamic principles involved here very mildly.

        Here is a good way to think about just how much energy would be involved in getting the now dilute carbon/CO2 back into a concentrated state through CCS.

        Ask yourself this question: how much energy was required to get the carbon/CO2 from its previous dilute atmospheric state, into the concentrated state of coal, oil and natural gas in the first place?

        As a first estimate, this involved, at least, approximately 100 million years of continuous sunlight-driven photosynthesis. 100 million years of sunlight, as anyone who has discussed solar energy here knows, is quite a lot. :)

        Now, if we want to take this again dilute carbon/CO2 put into the atmosphere by our burning fossil fuels, and get it back in concentrated storage somehow, any such process, by the laws of physics, will involve about the same amount of energy as outlined above.

        Let me put this very clearly: that level of energy is beyond impossible for us to accomplish. Keep in mind that the actual energy we got out of fossil fuels in the first place, in the form of work, is a fraction of the energy that was actually in there. We lost the majority to various forms of waste heat, friction, etc.

        And any form of CCS where we try to add “extra juice” to nature’s way of doing things, like reforestation or seeding the oceans with iron, would have to take place on scales that are comparable to millions of years of photosynthetic processes. Far, far, so utterly far from anything that we could approach. And if we even tried, the level of disturbance to natural systems, like ocean biology, would be totally off-scale destructive.

        Again, the scale of CCS we could achieve is microscopic compared to what is needed to make even the tiniest dent in atmospheric CO2 levels.

        Have to say, the fact that MIT graduate students aren’t even aware of these things is… discouraging.

        • Jack Burton says:

          Great point that! It seems so many people can easily discount the laws of physics. They are always looking for a something for nothing solution. Physics discounts all these something for nothing approaches.
          My mind almost explodes when I start to imagine the energy input needed to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and put it into the ground in a way that stores it for a very long time.
          Yet, we still get people clinging to these something for nothing dreams. Do the physics, run the numbers, it isn’t going to happen. Either stop putting CO2 into the atmosphere or it is game over.
          And again there is that ever present phrase, “if we discount positive feedback loops”. Ha! Ha! Here we go again. You CAN’T discount them, they are already well underway. Look at the arctic sea, that is a massive positive feedback loop that is now happening at lightning speed.

        • Artful Dodger says:

          Gee BlackDragon, that was lot’s of fancy sciency talk and arm waving, but you haven’t even come close to addressing a solution to the main issue that you yourself present: How to capture C02 from low concentration.

          *** As is often the case, the solution is to avoid the problem. There IS technology available to produce a high concentration stream of CO2 from coal fired power plants. It’s called Oxyfuel with flue-gas recirculation. Instead of burning coal with atmospheric gases, it’s burned in with pure oxygen (O2). Normally, the extremely high temperatures produced would actually improve the Carnot efficiency of the heat cycle, but it’s so hot that it actually melts steel.

          That’s where the flue-gas recirculation comes in. Part of the exhaust stream of pure C02 is diverted back into the furnace, in sufficient proportion to reduce combustion temperature to the optimal level. Hence, no super expensive metals needed for the furnace, just some more piping.

          The benefits of oxy-combustion are three-fold: 1. Zero Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) produces since no nitrogen is present 2. a highly concentrated stream of CO2 (near 100% concentration) can be used directly as a feed to make concrete, or feed a green house, and 3.) a stream of hot water can be condensed from the flue gases yielding both a source of heat for distributed domestic hot water heating, and a source of usable water for irrigation, or domestic grey water.

          Here’s the bottom line: any City that needs electricity, heat, water, concrete, and food could benefit from an oxy-fuel coal-fired power plant. Best of all, oxy-fuel combustion can be retrofitted to existing coal-fired generation and once in production the extra cost could be as little as 2 cents per KWH of electricity.

          So why aren’t we requiring this OBVIOUS solution for existing plants? And for new Natural Gas-fired plants, which have many of the same issues? Simple: Because Engineering execs also have MBAs, who tell them it’s CHEAPER to buy off politicians and lie to the public.

          So that’s the REAL reason: It’s not the concentration of CO2, it’s their concentration on $$$. Funny that, because I think I could sell the water, food, concrete, domestic heating for a bit more than 2 cents.

          And that should be everybody’s 2 cents worth.

          Cheers,
          Lodger

          • BlackDragon says:

            Hey Dodger, as I mention elsewhere in this thread, I was abusing the term CCS – I actually should have been saying “sequestration.” Sorry about that.

            Yes, for “real” CCS, getting it out at the source, there could be methods that could be applicable.

            It is interesting that the Chinese, who surely are aware of such methods, who are aware of AGW, have demonstrated that they will put many billions of dollars behind green tech, have plenty of need for efficient concrete manufacture, have no need to worry about buying off politicians, and have colossally huge cities that could benefit from all the positive effects you mention, are not using these methods.

            Any ideas why? Could it possibly be that this techno-fix is, as of yet, just more wishful thinking pie in the sky? Recent news on this can be found with the Google search: “are chinese using oxy fuel combustion”

            From link number three, we have: “Currently there are no full-scale plants using oxy-fuel combustion in operation. However, theoretical studies combined with laboratory and pilot-scale studies (typically 30 – 100 MWe) have been announced or are planned, which will lead to commercial deployment.”

            The key take away from why such processes as oxy-combustion are still theoretical is that there are lots of barriers to making these systems economically feasible. It has *nothing* to do with evil conspiracies. Sorry to burst your ego-gratification blame-bubble there.

            Boiling more complex issues down to a few key points that are both useful, accurate, and can be digested in a way where the most salient points rise to the surface, is neither “fancy sciency talk” or “arm waving.”

          • BlackDragon says:

            Why do some comments sail right through, and others seem to get hung up in moderation, even after *subsequent* comments, later in time, are approved? This is a mystery.

          • Joe Romm says:

            It’s a semi-mystery to me, too.

          • BlackDragon says:

            Mmm, the moderation-force is strong in this one… ‘-)

            A good mod does what a good mod does. Thanks for the semi-answer. :)

        • BlackDragon, You are mostly right about the formation of fossil fuel deposits, however, from your 100 MY of photosynthesis, you have to subtract the plants’ metabolism (burn carbon at night, exhale CO2), all animal, fungi, bacteria, etc., with plants at the base of their food chain and probably zooplankton storage of carbon (from plants or chloro-bacteria) as calcium carbide/limestone.

          About CCS and storage: we do not need the same energy as the fuels had before oxidation, because we don’t need to reduce the CO2 before storing it. That would take energy, stripping the O2 from the carbon. I’m not hopeful (yet) about CCS, but your physics, thermo, etc. is misguided.

          • BlackDragon says:

            If any process of getting CO2 from a dilute state in the atmosphere back into some harmless from out of the atmosphere was anywhere within reach and economical, we would have almost certainly found it already, and be practicing it on a large scale. Why? Because then we really would have hundreds of years of carbon-fueled bliss ahead of us, without AGW consequences, given the fact that we could burn with abandon. The fact that this is not here tells me that physics, however I may be misreading it, says, “Sorry! Not possible.”

            Same basic truth with CCS. If Joe would ever approve another comment I have upstairs about the current state of CCS research in Asia, I wouldn’t have to repeat myself.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        What do you think of Jon’s natural methods for sequestration ie reforestation, soil sequestration and biochar? I’ve always favoured these, but I often see them pooh-poohed as insufficient. Others seem to think that they are feasible. Massive reforestation, billions of trees, will be difficult, but would also bring huge benefits in restoring biodiversity etc.

    • Niall says:

      I don’t want to be seen as knocking reforestation, because I’m very much in favour of it, but you are failing to make an important distinction between ecosystem carbon, which is in the atmosphere because of previous deforestation, and fossil carbon, which has not been part of this system since the carboniferous.

      Even were to to reforest all the areas we could reforest without eating into scarce farmland, and even were all the trees to survive disease and shifting rainfall (and its consequences) we could remove no more than a fraction of the carbon we have dumped in the atmosphere.

      Reforestation might help (not solve) problems locally with hydrology problems, and might sequester some of the carbon presently in the atmosphere, and, done properly, could be of benefit for some ecosystems (in the face of climate-change related forest dieback) but it is not a solution.

      • Daniel Coffey says:

        reforestation is interesting and important, but from the little I have studied this issue, it seems that the grasslands may offer a slightly more rapid method for taking CO2 out of the atmosphere. The actual total storage capacity would need a little better understanding, but in any event, not placing CO2 in the atmosphere is the best approach.

        Note also that currently available tracking concentrating solar PV (see Soitec – not thermal CSP) is about 60 times more productive than photosynthesis for producing electricity when compared to biofuel. Why make and burn plants if solar PV or wind can do it better and cheaper with far less waste? More important, the waste heat generated is rather large when considering the fact that 1300 BTU/lb steam only gives up 300 BTU/lb of energy, with the remaining 1000 BTU/lb passing out as waste heat. Solar PV doe not suffer this issue.

        • catman306 says:

          I’m still waiting for someone to announce that they’ve developed a new kind of photovoltaic device that will turn waste heat (infrared light) into electricity. Or is that another something for nothing plan?

          I’d buy stock in his company because it has a future.

          • AA says:

            Thermoelectric devices already exist (they’ve been used in spacecraft and other niche applications for a while).

            The problem is that between their low efficiency and the small temperature difference between the waste heat and the air or water used as a heat sink, they just can’t deliver very much electricity.

            If they get cheap enough, however, it might make sense to start using thermoelectrics in factories or power stations for energy recovery.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        Oh dear-if I’d only read a little further. So reforestation will not draw down the fossil carbon sufficiently. Pity. Still, all those trees will have beneficial effects otherwise, and do some good, if not enough. How about biochar, and soil sequestration?

        • BlackDragon says:

          Biochar could do something – and the fact that it could be connected to agricultural practices in place is probably the most appealing aspect of this idea.

          On the scale we could do it if we dedicated *massive* action and resources, maybe something that on balance could shave a couple PPM out out of the picture over perhaps 50 years – just a reasonable guess.

          Here’s another idea for getting a handle on scale: the seasonal activity of the biosphere – mostly plant growth in the N hemisphere – takes about 5 PPM out of the picture every year. And this cycle is balanced by adding 5 PPM back every year.

          This activity is driven by total solar energy input, combined with the entire biospheric resources that are already in place: soil fertility, water, and so on.

          As humans, we are talking about building systems, or undertaking new processes, from scratch, that could reach scales of 5 PPM removal, maybe per decade if we are feeling ambitious.

          Think about the scale of what nature is doing, and what we are proposing with any method, and wait for your head to explode.

          • BlackDragon says:

            But please don’t misunderstand – when I say ” biochar could do something” in this case it is so entirely theoretical that it is for all practical purposes impossible.

            I don’t want to err in even the slightest aspect of wishful thinking. There is far, far too much of that kind of thinking rampant right now!

          • Dave S. Nottear says:

            Re. ” wishful thinking… is far, far too rampant right now!”

            The wishful thinking is frustrating. It’s like the movie “Ground Hog Day” – year after year the same old fantasies of technologizing our way out of this mess.

            Whether the technologizing is about “how to wean ourselves off FFs using ______ “, or about “drill-baby-drill has unlocked _______ millennia of hydrocarbons …”

            The period of growth is over, the process of coping will probably drive the poor, (and soon to be poorer) to use whatever means necessary to maintain their “non-negotiable way of life.”

            There is not reason to believe the Global financial system will be able to kick the can down again. I’d hate to be an arch dukes visiting Cypress right now.

          • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

            Well, I’ve just wiped my neurons off the ceiling, and wish to thank you for your candour. It is really, when one considers the energy imbalance we have caused, the perturbation of the brief, pleasant, equilibrium we enjoyed for the last few thousand years, and the impossibility of putting the genie back into the lamp, a very grim prognosis. Indeed it really is hard not to see any action as now too late, which makes you wonder just what the science establishment have been doing, allowing deranged political cretins and morally perfidious business thugs sentence humanity to catastrophe. I see, however, that they predicted the future quite plainly as long ago as 1965, in the report to LBJ, but nothing was done. Amongst those with the knowledge of physics to understand the danger this surely must indicate a gigantic moral failure. Even today, I cannot see any scientists or other environmental grandees emulating Gandhiji and other freedom fighters, and going on hunger strike or deliberately getting themselves arrested, or even throwing cream pies in political and business faces. Have we simply worn ourselves out morally, and are ready, even eager, to just accept and acquiesce, and go very quietly into that not so good night?

          • Merrelyn Emery says:

            Mulga, please target the people who are responsible for this mess, not scientists who have been doing their job. We accepted the division of labour as it is now. But when I think about it, I can remember more than one scientist who has been persecuted, arrested etc, for standing up for their evidence, ME

    • Daniel Coffey says:

      MOst of the amine based capture techiques require a fair amount of energy to run and cycle. I have read that it requires about 1/3 of the energy generated by a coal facility to run the carbon dioxide extraction and capture equipment. More important, once isolated in concentrated form, CO2 is chemically very complex and more difficult to handle than people first realize. Depending on its pressure and temperature, it can function in very different ways.

      Also, the notion of burying or “disappearing” a gas which exhibits highly acidic characteristics is really a pipe dream. While it might work in relatively small amounts, the mass of CO2 at issue from just one year of combustion is simply staggering.

      Those who are selling the CCS concept are really just buying time, not selling a practical solution. Unfortunately, the CO2 released while they buy time will remain in the atmosphere for decades, centuries or millennia, depending on certain factors. During that time, the sun will continue to deliver massive amounts of energy to the planet. And the greenhouse gases will continue to accumulate that vast amount of energy into the ocean, ice and atmosphere. Some of that energy will heat the ocean and atmosphere, raising its temperature. A great deal of it will simply melt ice without a rise in temperature.

      This latter point is one of the most misunderstood effects of all. Ice is a buffer, but it is not inexhaustible, and when its “air conditioning capacity” is sufficiently reduced, all bets are off.

      • Raul M. says:

        Some think that at some point the economies will discontinue fossil fuel use and the burning bush will be the contributing factor.
        Yet the oceans will have absorbed much more carbon than the oceans would have normally. So the oceans would start outgassing carbon when the feedback rates dropped below some point. My guess is what is the atmospheric carbon content that would favor ocean outgassing of carbon?

        • Daniel Coffey says:

          The premise of out-gassing is an interesting one, since much of the dissolved CO2 is contributed to what in chemistry is referred to as a “weak” acid. What this means is that as the pH of the oceans falls, there is a relatively easy reversal of the equilibrated solution of CO2 into the gas phase.

          Anyone who wants to do a little research on this point should read up on H2CO3 HCO3− + H+
          Ka1 = 2.5×10−4 mol/litre; pKa1 = 3.6 at 25 °C.[1]

          See Wikipedia for a little chat.
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbonic_acid

    • I think there is some confusion in this entire discussion at comment post #7.

      First, CCS, to my understanding at least, means the capture and storage of carbon at the source — usually a coal burning power plant. Removing existing carbon from the atmosphere has another name — “sequestration,” or “biosequestration,” depending on the technology or practice involved. Most of this discussion is about sequestration, but using, or misusing the term CCS.

      Second, yes, it is absolutely essential to stop emitting greenhouse gases because we’re (1) already over the safe limit, (2) the lag time and, (3) there is no way sequestering rates can keep up with emissions rates.

      However, if we can stop emissions, anthropogenic sequestering practices can begin to reduce atmospheric carbon. One mistake in this discussion is that said carbon has to be “recompressed,” if you will, to a relatively pure form as it is found in fossil fuels. It can be sequestered in plants, which are pretty good at at it, although it’s true that carbon is not in as concentrated a form in plants as it is in fossil fuels. Another mistake is that there the only way to successfully biosequester carbon is through reforestation.

      There are at least three ways to successfully biosequester atmospheric CO2: (1) preserving existing forests and planting new ones; (2) expanding grasslands, which can simultaneously store carbon and reverse desertification and, (3) converting agricultural waste into biochar.

      Combined, these technologies can sequester a massive amount of carbon. And while in any give year they would sequester far less carbon than we are currently emitting, biosequestering occurs every year. If we can curb emissions, we can sequester continuously for decades or centuries until ppm comes down to pre-industrial levels.

      As well as sequestering carbon, there are all sorts of economic and ecosystem advantages to the processes. Expanding grasslands can feed people by the millions, hold down soil, etc. — See Allan Savory and Wes Jackson — so there are strong economic incentives for these practices. Biochar can enhance soil, and sequesters carbon for at least 1,000 years.

      Another way to biosequester and at least neutralize our emissions is to use algae for biofues (NOT corn ethanol!). A carbon-neutral liquid fuel regime — with the algal sludge turned into biochar feedstock — could go a long way toward controlling emissions and sequestering carbon.

      Sinking algae in the ocean won’t work, for reasons that are too complex to explain here. But there is no reason that biosequestration needs to destroy ecosystems — it can restore and enhance them, recreating the global garden.

      • BlackDragon says:

        My apologies for abusing the term “CCS” – hopefully from the context it was clear I meant “sequestration from the atmosphere.”

        I don’t think the “millions of years of photosynthesis” idea is at all off-base, though, to better understand true scale. It is not that it has to be all the way recompressed to fuel again – that is adding geological energy to the process.

        The idea is to just keep it basic by talking about the photosynthetic energy that is involved just to get CO2 to “plant-level” compression. And that is tens of millions of years of sunlight – no getting around it.

        I agree that anthro-sequestration could reduce CO2. The level at which we can achieve this though is about equivalent to changing the speed at which we hit the wall from 800 mph, to say 795 mph. There is no conceivable way it will make a difference on any timescale that matters.

        And this sequestration idea is based on thinking AGW will allow us to practice specifically focused forms of agriculture on a large scale for 1000s of years. That is looking problematic right now.

        Algae-based methods also hit problems of scale very quickly.

        It is very hard to appreciate the scale of what fossils gave us, and what follow-on natural processes will then take away from us.

        • Hi Black Dragon,

          I’m still not sure I agree about the millions of years of solar energy needed to sequester carbon in plants, especially if a lot of the carbon is turned into biochar. It’s true that it took millions of years to create our fossil fuel reserves. However, if I remember my geology 101 correctly, only a small portion of the plants that lived in the carboniferous actually became fossilized, and only a small portion of those were converted into anything resembling usable fuel.

          There is, in fact, roughly enough potential to store at least the amount of carbon we’ve emitted thus far in the world’s soils. Many of those soils are degraded and currently store little or no carbon — but at one time many of those same soils stored carbon to a depth of several feet.

          Potentially, we can add at least 1/4 inch per year of carbon to soils just by letting forest or grassland litter accumulate (not counting additions from biochar, etc.) That’s a foot in 50 years. Multiply that by the amount of soil that’s available for upgrading around the planet, and you have a pretty good-sized carbon sink.

          Take a look at the recent TED talk by Allan Savory, and read the comments on the same page — interesting stuff, and it gets into some calculations about the world’s potential to store carbon.

          As far as the politics of implementing such global initiatives go, it might be beyond our ability as the “wise sapiens.” But that applies to kicking our fossil fuel addiction too.

          Do we give up, or keep plugging away trying to save civilization? Maybe we should ask nature’s help,

          • BlackDragon says:

            Thanks for that additional information, Philip. I will check out the TED talk you mention.

            Your points on the sunlight->plant->soil->fuel process are well taken, and you are right, we only have to go to the first step to soil for biochar.

            I have to say, out of every possible idea for reversing course that I have heard about, biochar is probably the single one that seems to me to offer the best overall hope, whatever it may turn out to be.

            And YES, we desperately need to upgrade our degraded soils. This is probably one of the single most important things we could do, because one way or another, the fossil-green revolution is going to be seriously curtailed, sooner or later. What this particular “green” revolution has done to degrade the state of our soils is sorely under-appreciated.

            I would say let’s support any methods of biochar that can help our soils, and other other methods like grassland and forest restoration, as much as possible, even regardless of sequestration benefits. These things have countless positive benefits in other ways aside from possible CO2 reduction.

  7. Raul M. says:

    with energy use being a point of being these days, one might enjoy the better efficiency of headphones to the throughout the room sound system. Even with the 100 people in an event using the individusl headphone system connected with bluetooth to the sound system, there would be a significant savings of evergy epension for a substantial energy savings.
    Just thinking. Of course either way does not follow the laws of nature when it comes to a sustainable environment but we wouldn’t know it as a people until much later with the bluetooth system of headphones.

    • Raul M. says:

      To further explore the concepts of delusion, one might compare the forces evident in following our desires for feeling fine and our desires for feeling the forces of nature and learning the science of truth.
      I think that it would be a delusion for us to think that our desire to feel fine will outweigh the natural forces of nature. It seems that people have come to feel fine most by living within the natural forces. I think that by living within the natural forces we were able to feel fine without feeling fine becoming our main stay of delusions. For nature will show us that feelings aren’t up to the forces and powers that govern wind and rain, sun shine and shade, birth and death.
      Just thinking that living in the good times praising the power of a gentle shower is one feeling and crying to the power of the torrent is another time to praise the power of nature.

      • BlackDragon says:

        I think that it would be a delusion for us to think that our desire to feel fine will outweigh the natural forces of nature. It seems that people have come to feel fine most by living within the natural forces. I think that by living within the natural forces we were able to feel fine without feeling fine becoming our main stay of delusions.

        I feel much much finer after reading something so on target! Thanks, Raul.

        Unwinding ourselves, peacefully, out of our almost impossibly knotted problems, and getting back somewhere close to “feeling fine” within the balance of nature – this is our task now.

        • Raul M. says:

          It is interesting to think that humanity could still accomplish much even if the economies fail. But if it isn’t done when we are strong, then when? The concept of war and fighting among cultures does little to insist that humanity will find the science of truth. I think that it is easier to find comfort in the reactive powers of nature. I know of no one who may personify the complexity of nature where oposites may be be truly oposite. Enjoy the beauty in the morning even when it is overwhelming. Is that the ultimate rabbithole?

  8. Daniel Coffey says:

    Joe: Very good piece.

    This is the kind of educational post that should wake up those who need to understand the real and true nature of global warming. It’s not an effect, it’s a rate of energy accumulation bounded by an equilibrium temperature. It has the potential to consume all the thermal buffers of ocean, ice and atmosphere as it adds energy to the planet’s systems. It’s not like any other environmental matter ever dealt with or considered.

    Focusing on the root cause, not the myriad effects or consequences, is a better way to educate about global warming.

    For way too long, the operative notion – shared by a majority of environmentalists and almost all of the public – has been one of cutting emissions in order to achieve a rapid return to the previous equilibrium status. The underlying assumption is that the result will happen in a modest timeframe, not hundreds or thousands of years. That is why some many people – including environmental preservationists – deal with and obstruct our carbon-based energy and transportation transformation, offering instead labor intensive, minor-scale, slow-walk solutions and half-measures. They think delay is good and time is on our side. It isn’t.

    Only massively and rapidly deployed large-scale solar PV, wind and geothermal have any chance of meeting the 100% reductions needed in decarbonizing electricity and electrifying transportation.

  9. There is another obvious error in the concluding paragraphs of Nocera’s column, where he says:

    [McKibben] replied that if carbon were sent back into the ground “the worst possible thing to do with it is to get more oil above ground.” He continued, “It’s time to keep oil in the earth, not to mention gas and coal.”

    To me, at least, his answer suggests that his crusade has blinded him to the real problem. The enemy is not fossil fuels; it is the damage that is done because of the way we use fossil fuels. If we can find a way to create clean energy from fossil fuels, then they can become (as they used to say) part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

    He apparently doesn’t realize that it is impossible to use CCS with this oil, because almost all our oil is used for transportation. CO2 from the tailpipe of moving cars goes straight into the atmosphere.

    If I were Bill McKibben, I would not answer Nocera’s emails. Nocera obviously just cherry-picks quotes from McKibben that he can use for his anti-environment polemic.

  10. John Hartz says:

    Joe Nocera is to the New York Times what James Taylor is to Forbes.

    Both are nothing more than shills for the fossil fuel industry.

    The New York Times should know better than to publish op-eds on energy/climate cahnge written by Nocera.

    Forbes and Taylor are a lost cause.

  11. The title is misleading. It should be: “The Dangerous Myth That Reducing Emissions Can Reverse Climate Change”. After all, we absolutely CAN reverse climate change, and we must find the ways and means to make it so. Of course, we must eliminate all fossil fuel burning, or at least eliminate 100% of emissions as soon as possible. But we must go further and remove excess CO2 already in the atmosphere. We can do that, in part, by restoring desertified grasslands, about half of all land mass, using properly managed livestock. We will also have to deal with the excess stored heat and CO2 in the oceans. Enormous global tasks are being forced upon us by nature itself. This should be a call to arms, a moral imperative to fight for our very survival – WWIII indeed!

    • In fact, I would stress that there is a dangerous myth that we can NOT reverse climate change. That attitude of defeatism will surely contribute to ensuring our defeat. I am not merely being optimistic, and in fact, we are doomed if we don’t take on our full responsibilities. But facts are facts, and we absolutely CAN reverse global warming, not without some feeling some pain, particularly the most wealthy of the world who are both hording and wasting resources, while blaming the rest of us for merely existing.

    • Joe Romm says:

      Title is fine.

    • Daniel Coffey says:

      One of the saddest aspect of global warming is that it can be dealt with if action is taken soon enough, but not otherwise. There comes a point when the long-lived greenhouse gases remain so long that the total energy accumulation into the planet’s systems of ocean, ice and atmosphere radically change what can survive and where.

      The point is: early action is good, action late is useless. We are at or very near the point at which action, no matter how large, will be effectively useless, and certainly for the lifetime of many generations.

      That is the real point.

      • Raul M. says:

        Given that the science of truth shows that fossil fuel burning is historically wrong for a human environment, I don’t know how burning fossil fuels would change from being the wrong way just because it has become too late for hunan survival on larger and larger portions of the lands. The threat of human extinction wouldn’t reverse the sience of truths’ basis for believing that burning fossil fuels in those fast and vast quantities is bad for humanities future. Bad for humanities future , for example, cause it is bad for the fishes.

    • Niall says:

      I agree with Joe. You want to reverse it. Great.

      By what means? I’ve said this before: you are confusing ecosystem carbon, released by the destruction of forests, and fossil carbon, which is the result of millions of years of photosynthesis. Since ecosystem restoration would remove a tiny fraction of what we need to remove, what is the rest of your solution? We are talking truly colossal amounts of energy here!

  12. Thomas Rodd says:

    Great discussion. In coal states like WV many concerned about climate think massive support for clean coal will have to be part of a national carbon/climate policy. And others everywhere see a necessity in places like China. Thanks for all info on this subject.

  13. Conrad Dunkerson says:

    The statement that we need to get emissions to near zero to stop climate change is incorrect. Indeed, the study cited in the article above to ‘support’ this point instead cites the correct value of about 50%. That is, currently about 50% of human emissions are absorbed by natural sinks each year. Thus, if we reduced emissions by about 50% the atmospheric CO2 level would stabilize and eventually (once equilibrium were established) temperatures would follow suit. Further, if we DID get down to near zero emissions then atmospheric CO2 levels WOULD fall. Not back to pre-industrial levels (i.e. ~280 ppm), but still enough that we might avoid some of the worst consequences of AGW. Remember that the ‘target’ of 350 ppm atmospheric CO2 was set when we were already well above that level… because we CAN reduce the atmospheric level by cutting emissions. At zero emissions there would be a fast decline (i.e. ~2 ppm per year) for a couple of decades trailing off to a very slow long term decline over the course of thousands of years.

    It is true that a great deal of the climate change we have initiated will only be reversible over the course of thousands of years or with the introduction of new technology in the future. It is NOT true that we cannot reverse course and prevent some of the damage from ever taking hold… nor that we need get down to near zero emissions to prevent things from getting worse.

    • Joe Romm says:

      The parts of your comment that conflict with the post are wrong.

      • Conrad Dunkerson says:

        No. They aren’t. To quote from the abstract YOU cited;

        “GHG emissions are now about twice the rate of GHG removal from the atmosphere.

        GHG concentrations will therefore continue to rise even if emissions fall, stabilizing only when emissions equal removal.”

        This clearly and unequivocally states that GHG concentrations will stabilize when emissions equal removal… and that emissions are currently about double removal. Ergo, GHG concentrations will stabilize when emissions are reduced 50% (to equal GHG removal) precisely as I said. NOT to near 0% as you have said.

        This isn’t some new finding of that particular MIT study either. The fact that we need about a 50% emissions reduction to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels has been well known for years.

        • Mark Shapiro says:

          From Archer et al “Atmospheric Lifetime of Fossil Fuel Carbon Dioxide”:

          “CO2 released from combustion of fossil fuels equilibrates among the various carbon reservoirs of the atmosphere, the ocean, and the terrestrial biosphere on timescales of a few centuries. However, a sizeable fraction of the CO2 remains in the atmosphere, awaiting a return to the solid earth by much slower weathering processes and deposition of CaCO3. Common measures of the atmospheric lifetime of CO2, including the e-folding time scale, dis- regard the long tail. Its neglect in the calculation of global warming potentials leads many to underestimate the longevity of anthropogenic global warming.”

        • Daniel Coffey says:

          Can you do that math again? I don’t think you understand the two parts of global warming due to the greenhouse effect. The first part is the GHG in the atmosphere which facilitate two separate aspects: (1) the rate of energy accumulation into the planet’s systems and (2) the final equilibrium temperature at which a particular GHG concentration will re-radiate energy to open space that is arriving at the planet.

          The second part of the effect is the rate of energy accumulation, also a function of the GHG concentration. This rate rises as the GHG concentrations rise. So the rate and the end point equilibrium temperature both rise as the GHG concentrations rise.

          THus, to stabilize climate in any similar to what we have known would require a total reduction in emissions of GHG in order to reduce the atmospheric concentrations to levels well below 350 ppm.

          Right now, we are not experiencing the full effect of the GHG already in the atmosphere because of thermal buffers principally in the form of an ocean and ice.

          Your premise that we need only reduce CO2 emission by 1/2 is simply wrong because it will maintain the current energy accumulation rate, exhaust the thermal buffers, and fail to address the larger issue. It’s only advantage is that it will occur slightly more slowly due to a decrease in emissions.

          Its worth noting that the carbon sequestration technique we have used to date is called the oceans of the Earth. We have actually changed the pH of the oceans, so much so that barnacles are not forming in various places. That “chemical” buffer is being consumed along with the thermal buffers mentioned above.

          • “…exhaust the thermal buffers…” and poison the oceans.

            Maybe it would help if we just look at a simple number. We are emitting 2.4 million pounds of CO2 per second (that’s, per second) into the atmosphere. Cut that in half, and we are still destroying the biosphere at an incredible rate of speed.

          • Conrad Dunkerson says:

            “Your premise that we need only reduce CO2 emission by 1/2 is simply wrong because it will maintain the current energy accumulation rate, exhaust the thermal buffers, and fail to address the larger issue. It’s only advantage is that it will occur slightly more slowly due to a decrease in emissions.”

            If we reduced emissions by 50% (and note, I did NOT say that was all we >should< do) then the atmospheric CO2 concentration would stop rising. Yes, as I noted in my original post, temperatures would continue to rise for a while after that until equilibrium was restored, but that is all.

            Basically, right now we are emitting enough CO2 that the long term impacts of AGW keep getting worse. The point at which that would stop being true is a 50% reduction in emissions… if we reduced emissions to 50% of current and kept them there the long term impacts would never get any worse than they are going to be based on the current accumulated concentration.

            Further, if we reduced emissions to LESS than 50% of current then the atmospheric CO2 concentration would actually DECREASE. We do NOT have to be 'stuck with' the impacts of the current ~400 ppm CO2 concentration. Yes, it will take thousands of years for natural processes to get us back down to ~280 ppm, but that would not happen at a continuous rate. If emissions dropped to near 0% then the first few decades would see atmospheric CO2 concentrations dropping significantly until atmospheric and ocean surface carbon levels were in equilibrium again.

            Yes, we should absolutely be taking action immediately… but it doesn't help to get basic facts wrong. And claims that we can't reverse any of the atmospheric CO2 accumulation or need to get down to near 0% emissions to have any impact ARE wrong. We should be aiming for a (relatively easily achieved) 50% emissions reduction ASAP to contain the problem and then further reductions to actually reverse some of the long term damage.

        • wili says:

          CD, it might help your argument here if you could point to some sources that support your position. Otherwise, it does look to me and to others that you are misunderstanding things in a pretty fundamental way.

          In the mean time, you might want to take a look at the MacDougal article cited by Icarus at #20 below.

          And keep in mind that when aerosols fall out of the atmosphere shortly after we stop emitting them, temperatures will rapidly increase by .5 to 2 degrees C.

          • Conrad Dunkerson says:

            wili, so the fact that the abstract of the MIT study, quoted in the article above (and again in my earlier post), directly states my position doesn’t count?

            Well then, you could also look at the last IPCC report;

            “About half of a CO2 pulse to the atmosphere is removed over a timescale of 30 years; a further 30% is removed within a few centuries; and the remaining 20% will typically stay in the atmosphere for many thousands of years” (“Executive Summary” of Chapter 7 on the carbon cycle, page 501 – per Denman et al 2007).

            Are the MIT study Mr. Romm himself cited and the IPCC also, “misunderstanding things in a pretty fundamental way”… or would that be Mr. Romm and the many people in this thread who have failed to think through what I am saying?

            Humans emit ~30 billion tons of CO2 per year. Natural sinks take out half of that (see MIT abstract above for confirmation). Ergo, if we cut emissions in half then atmospheric CO2 levels would stabilize (again, directly stated in the abstract Joe Romm quoted above). If emissions dropped to zero natural sinks would not suddenly STOP taking out 15 billion tons per year… they would continue doing so and the atmospheric CO2 concentration would fall quickly at first and then more slowly over time (as explained in the IPCC quote above).

            Frankly, this should be obvious. It is basic math: GHG added – GHG removed = GHG change.

            30 added – 15 removed = 15 change (increase)
            15 added – 15 removed = 0 change
            0 added – 15 removed = -15 change (decrease)

            Why are people arguing that ARITHMETIC is wrong?

          • wili says:

            I think the part that you are missing is that the ocean, which is doing the lion’s share of work as the immediate sink for the extra carbon we emit, mostly doesn’t serve to _deeply_ sequester the carbon.

            The dissolved carbon in the oceans is in dynamic equilibrium with the CO2 in the atmosphere. If or when atmospheric levels start to reduce, the carbon dissolved in the oceans will start to be released.

            On top of that, the atmosphere and the oceans are continuing to warm and will continue even if we stopped all further emissions today.

            The warmer that water is, the less able it is to keep carbon dissolved, and the more likely it is to release it to the atmosphere.

            So pointing to what the oceans are doing as sinks now have little to do with what they will soon be doing.

            Furthermore, the IPCC famously largely left out the effects of carbon feedbacks. MacDougal et al. (2012) show that just one such feedback–that of CO2 from the top 3 meters of terrestrial permafrost–is enough to keep atmospheric CO2 concentrations rising into the indefinite future.

            I wish you were right, but I’m afraid the best of the latest science does not support your position.

            Of course, even after one has started a landslide, it is a good idea to stop hurling boulders down the slope–particularly since our children are in the valley.

          • wili says:

            To address your specific claim:

            ” If emissions dropped to zero natural sinks would not suddenly STOP taking out 15 billion tons per year…”

            They may not completely stop, but they would not necessarily continue at that rate, and would most likely take out much less as the atmosphere and ocean and soils continue to heat up.

          • Conrad Dunkerson says:

            Yes wili, as I have noted several times, the natural sinks (i.e. primarily oceans) would not remain at their current level of removing ~15 billion tons of CO2 per year indefinitely. As the ocean and atmospheric concentrations came back into equilibrium that rate would decrease. However, in the interim atmospheric CO2 levels would fall substantially.

            This is also clearly laid out by the passage I quoted from the IPCC which lists (for a given total atmospheric accumulation) the CO2 decline over decades, centuries, and then millennia. The decline (when we eventually get below 50% of current emissions) would start out fast and then trail off to a long slow descent.

            As to natural greenhouse gas feedbacks offsetting the draw-down which would otherwise occur at near zero emissions… that would only be valid if natural greenhouse gas feedbacks were currently positive. The fact that they aren’t is one of the proofs that humans are responsible for the atmospheric increase. Again, basic math;

            Human emissions (30 billion tons) + Natural emissions – CO2 sinks = CO2 change (15 billion tons)

            The CO2 change each year is less than human emissions. Therefor, ‘Natural emissions – CO2 sinks’ must be a negative value (specifically, -15 billion tons). Ergo, the natural environment is actually taking CO2 >OUT< of the atmosphere and all of the atmospheric increase is human in origin. No net positive atmospheric CO2 feedback.

            It could be argued that some greenhouse gas OTHER than CO2 is rising due to natural feedbacks… but if we were to take methane, as an example, we'd find that it quickly breaks down into CO2 (and thus would have no long term effect when combined with falling CO2 levels) and further atmospheric levels have been fairly flat for several years. Water vapor IS rising along with temperature, but that is an extremely fast feedback… once atmospheric CO2 stabilizes temperature and then water vapor would do so within a few decades.

            Yes, we could eventually get to a point where the temperature is high enough that natural CO2 and/or methane sources are increasing the atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration… but we aren't there yet. We're nowhere close with CO2 and any methane feedback is currently too small to measure reliably.

            That said, the possibility of a large methane feedback is absolutely the biggest unknown danger in play. With renewable energy now falling below the cost of fossil fuels for more and more of the planet chronic political inaction is becoming irrelevant… the private sector will switch over to renewable energy sources and CO2 emissions will come under control well before 2100. It is just a question of how much damage will be done in the interim… and the biggest unknown in THAT calculation is methane feedback.

          • wili says:

            CD, thanks for your clear presentation of your position. And, again, I hope you are right.

            But let me also point out again that there are very large error bars on estimates of how much coal plant aerosols are cooling the planet, ranging from .5 – 2 degrees C. As these fall out of atmosphere rapidly–in days to weeks–we would see a very rapid increase in global warming initially, even if your rapid fall in CO2 levels did occur.

            The effects of that rapid warming on ocean uptake of CO2 would not be helpful.

            Also, note that the graph that Joe presented above is three years old, before things really started going totally haywire in the Arctic, especially with regard to exponential loss in sea ice mass.

            Once that ice has melted, refreezing it will take a much longer time with much lower temperatures. In the mean time, the albedo shift will keep doing its dirty work of increasing heat retention in that rapidly changing part of the world.

            And, as you know and alluded to, that is exactly the part of the world where enormous quantities of methane are stored in seabed and terrestrial deposits of various types.

            If you are unfamiliar with them, do check out the latest satellite data on Arctic methane provided by Yurganov and nicely (if frighteningly) presented by A4R:

            https://sites.google.com/site/a4r2013metop2iasich4co2/home/2011-airs-ch4-359-hpa-vs-iasi-ch4-970-600-mb

            While global average concentrations are still below 1900 ppb (iirc), levels over vast areas of the Arctic ocean are well above that, much in the 2100 to 2200 range.

            And do check out the MacDougal article on permafrost. Otherwise-very-cool heads, such as tamino at his Open Mind blog and kate at her Climate Sight blog, responded to this paper with expressions like, “Oh Sh!t!” Here’s a link to the discussion of it at SkSc:

            http://www.skepticalscience.com/Macdougall.html

            Note that the graph at figure 3 indicates that CO2 levels stay approximately constant for centuries even with immediate cessation of all further CO2 emissions, with just the inclusion of the CO2 emissions from the top three meters of terrestrial permafrost and at a climate sensitivity of 3C per doubling (which is likely too low).

            I frankly don’t know how this graph squares with your thoughtful argument that feedbacks/sink-failure could not be kicking in or we would now have CO2 changes higher than human emissions. Perhaps it is that, even though their contribution to CO2 levels are below those levels now, they are rising so quickly they will quickly overwhelm whatever we stop contributing. I have sought clarity on this from various climate blogs in vain. (Perhaps it is time for me to write the authors?)

            In general, keep in mind that what makes it into the IPCC reports is generally already out of date by the time it is released, and skews toward the…optimistic.

            For the record, all these tell me that we have to move as quickly as possible to the greatest reductions possible, then hope for the best (or at least for something better than the very worst). I have done so on a personal level, and have tried to influence others to do the same on many levels.

            Thanks again for your thoughtful points.

            Best to all in efforts to debunk denialist, to live within our ecological means, and to alter the terra-cidal course our national and global society has set for itself.

  14. fj says:

    It’s probably important to emphasize that because of observed changes substantially ahead of computer models, climate change is likely accelerating and out-of-control and will be very difficult getting under control; and, the first step is to bring emissions to near zero and initiate restoration of the environment.

    And, there should be a unique focus on the great water bodies of this world since the world’s oceans already sequester about 40% of atmospheric CO2 and potentially can supply huge amounts of concentrated and distributed energies suitable for processing CO2 to more benign or even useful forms such as energy storage and clean water.

    We have had extreme weather events.

    And, most likely we will have extreme events with impacts that will be far beyond normal experience, duration and intensity caused by inputs and feedbacks we have or may not have foreseen.

    In my mind they can be cascading such as with one storm following right after another making recovery very difficult.

    Or, in many instances, recovery may be very much like reaching shore from a huge powerful surf with a very strong undertow.

    In another, which was the case for Sandy, it seemed all services pretty much stopped working and even simplest tasks were difficult to accomplish.

    It would be an import service to try and characterize and model the types of events which will occur, and even “dramatize them”, and the critical paths to recovery. Super Storm Sandy would be a good place to start.

  15. Lore says:

    Right, makes as much sense at to continue to smoke tobacco because someday there will be a cure for lung cancer.

  16. Lou Grinzo says:

    Joe,

    I can’t thank you enough for this post. This issue — the hideously long atmospheric lifetime of CO2 — is what I call “the most inconvenient truth” in my presentations. I am stunned by the very high percentage of greenies, from those merely “concerned about the environment” to hardcore climate activists who have no bloody clue that (as I like to say) “love is fleeting but CO2 is forever”. (My most recent presentation is available from my blog: http://www.grinzo.com/energy/2013/03/10/presentation-at-interfaith-impact-iinys/ )

    The assumption I see and hear from them over and over is that CO2 is just like other air pollutants, and we can cut our emissions by, say, 50% and then see a 50% reduction in man-made CO2 levels within a few months to a year. When I tell them how much warming we’ve locked in via the state of thermal disequilibrium we’ve created, and how much more warming we’re committing to daily thanks to our insistence on building more fossil fueled infrastructure, they’re horrified.

    Even worse, I’ve been told by activists that we shouldn’t tell newcomers such things because it will “scare them” and ensure they won’t even try to do anything. I don’t know what angers me more, that arrogance or the ignorance of so many other greenies who don’t even know the most basic details of how carbon cycle works.

    • Jim says:

      Lou, I understand your concerns, but let’s not waste pressious emotional energy to get annoyed at others who have the same goals. We need all of our energy to convince ignorati who can probably be won over once they know what we know.

  17. jeremy says:

    One aspect to consider is “lead time” that will needed to undertake the transition. In addition we are to add 2 billion more people to the rolls on the planet that desire the “modern life” now. If one looks at the capital investments being made now for long term infrastructure projects that will run on fossil fuels (ie natural gas), the future looks dim. Capital budgeting is our reality.
    Also, Bill McKibben pointed out the $27 trillion in reserves…..most needs to remain in the groung and written off on the balance sheets. Who will take the loss?
    President Obama pushes for an “all the above energy” policy….and it looks like the approval of the XL Pipeline is near and the further expansion of the Alberta tar sands.
    Sorry, we are in a bind…fossil fuels will be hard to keep untouched.
    Hope I’m wrong

    • Jim says:

      Jeremy, yes fossils are still advancing, like the Nazi’s and Japs were before Pearl Harbour and few in the west dared to bet against them. A staggering number of people ignored the problem. Until…Pearl Harbour.

      Sooner or later we’ll see a new Pearl Harbour in the shape of record droughts, floods or superstorms that will turn the political tide.

      Then social and economic positive feedbacks can kick in that can potentially set us on the right course. Since we need urgent action, we’d better have these climate disasters as soon as possible…

      • Sooner or later we’ll see a new Pearl Harbour in the shape of record droughts, floods or superstorms that will turn the political tide.

        Sooner. We’re already seeing it.

        • Jim says:

          Philip, in the perspective that we need for real political change these events so far have been too small. Like Nazi’s occupying their neighbours. Others in the West condemned it but only Pearl Harbour triggered real action. Sadly a real Pearl Harbour for the climate would have to be much bigger than the droughts and superstorms we see now…

          • Dennis Tomlinson says:

            WWII started in September, 1939 when Germany, and later the Soviets invaded Poland. France and the UK, bound by treaty, declared war on Germany and the war was on. By the time of Pearl Harbor two years later, most of the European continent had fallen, the Battle of Britain was a year in the past, large battles were being fought in North Africa. The Japanese occupied Manchuria, China, SE Asia, and parts of the south Pacific.

  18. Hank Roberts says:

    > $27 trillion in reserves….. needs to
    > remain … written off on the balance
    > sheets. Who will take the loss?

    Assign a better valuation, folding in the externalized costs of burning that fossil fuel.

    Define all those “reserves” (mostly on federal land/seabed) as pre-sequestered carbon rather than as hydrocarbon available to extract.

    • jeremy says:

      Still someone will take a hit financially speaking. it will make the 2008 financial crisis look like a small time run on a bank

      • Dick Smith says:

        Using 2010 figures, the Carbon Tracker Initiative said a little over $7 trillion of the known reserves of fossil fuels were held by publicly traded companies on 28 stock exchanges. This represented 24% of known reserves. They extrapolated the public values to the private and state owned assets (76% of known reserves) and computed the total value of 2010 reserves at $28 trillion. Joe had guest post in Nov. 2011 explaining that the $22 trillion carbon bubble in valueless assets that would result if governments acted to keep 80% of the reserves unburned (that is, if governments did what their best scientists said was necessary to avoid dangerous warming).

  19. Paul Klinkman says:

    Going all WWII on the issue isn’t that impossible. Our technology is 68 years beyond WWII. In WWII they had a relay-based computer that could calculate a book of shell trajectory numbers.

    • Dennis Tomlinson says:

      ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was the first electronic implementation of a Turing
      Machine. It was built in 1943 at the University of Pennsylvania using vacuum tubes. ENIAC’s average uptime was about 50%, due mainly to vacuum tube failures. In an attempt to keep it cooler, and hence more reliable, the windows in the room housing ENIAC were opened and fans placed nearby. This resulted in insects flying into the works and dying. To keep these “bugs” from affecting operation, students were given brushes to brush the dead bugs away – in essence, the students were “debugging” the computer. I’ve been telling this story to my students for 35 years. I’m certain parts of it are actually true.

      • Paul Klinkman says:

        I had read that the bugs in the system were bigger in Hawaii, where they got into the radar systems.

  20. Icarus says:

    A 2012 paper by MacDougall et al indicates that the ‘Climate Change Commitments’ figure may be overly optimistic. That figure assumes that under a zero emissions scenario, warming ‘in the pipeline’ would quickly be offset by natural drawdown of CO2. The MacDougall paper finds that even with zero emissions from 2013, we’ve already done enough to initiate the self-sustaining permafrost carbon feedback, so that CO2 would not actually decline by more than about 10ppm, and warming would continue, just from this one feedback.

    If previous commenters are right about the impossibility of us sequestering large amounts of CO2 from the free atmosphere, then it seems that we’re in for continuing warming, unless we try some other geo-engineering scheme.

    • BlackDragon says:

      For very similar reasons of scale, both in time and space, and thermodynamics/physics, all geo-engineering schemes are equally as doomed as CCS.

      What is the real devil here: the world around us works on scales that are out of reach for our brains. We tampered with something, in the form of fossil fuels, that was so wonderful and hugely beneficial, that we didn’t stop to think that maybe there might be a catch. And if we did think there might be a catch, the reality of that catch was beyond our grasp.

      There is just tremendous, tremendous resistance to internalizing these things in any way, on so many levels.

      Not surprising when one thinks that most modern people experience the world as being inside a hermetically sealed box – there is a little slot on a wall of the box. You put certain inputs in like time at a job, and you get certain outputs out like money to buy food and shelter. That is the total extent of being “in the world” that almost all moderns have internalized in their “knowing about how things work.”

      Now, take that box away (fossil fuels) and then something interesting happens – almost every modern is instantly horrified by the implication: my death through starvation, exposure or strife is imminent!

      Considering that for the modern person, being in harmony with the natural cycles of life and death is even more removed than the natural cycle of how food works, well, a bit of mental resistance is probably to be expected.

      • This is indeed the problem and will continue to be. When things have gotten bad enough that nobody can ignore the changes, we’ll not only be past the point of no return, but there will STILL be millions if not billions of people who will find it easier to believe in angry gods, devils, current deliberate malice by neighbors, etc, than the science of our historical degradation of the earth.

  21. Paul Klinkman says:

    I don’t believe in sequestering carbon dioxide. I believe in creating gigatons of hydrocarbons (algae cellulose) in desert lands and sequestering that, in big capped lignite mountains. Saying that we can never, ever do this and get back below 300 ppm of CO2 isn’t quite true. Saying that we’re not taking the first baby steps in that direction is quite accurate.

  22. Jim Baird says:

    Climate change is irreversible. We can however do things to counteract its greatest risk -sea level rise – which in turn prevent things from getting worse.

    http://theenergycollective.com/jim-baird/196746/climate-change-sea-level-rise

    • I’m under the impression that the biggest threat — short-term threat at least — is running out of food — and viable places and reliable weather for growing it.

      • Paul Klinkman says:

        I’m working on some sustainable partial solutions now. We can already grow microgreens (or at least keep them alive, even if they don’t grow any bigger) in subfreezing temperatures.

    • Mark E says:

      I wish the spam filter would watch for Jim’s profiteering. At RealClimate (where his plan was trashed) Jim admitted to holding patents on this technology. The trouble is it relies on taking what Jim calls “excess” BTUs from the surface of the ocean and short-circuiting the natural transport of those BTUs to the deep ocean by centuries if not millenia. OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND! That’s their ecological rescue package.

      The trouble is, that was the same way we thought about CO2 when we fired up the first smokestack.

      • Paul Klinkman says:

        To be transparent, in theory I have the same profiteering problems. In practice I favor a vetted economy to replace a market economy, where inventors earn their living like other people.

  23. “Remember, we have to get total global emissions of CO2 to near zero just to stop temperatures from continuing their inexorable march toward humanity’s self-destruction.”

    Forgive me, but I was under the impression that even if we stopped emissions, the globe would continue to warm for several decades due to the energy imbalance caused by the carbon dioxide already emitted. Is there not a “several-decade” delay between emissions and actual warming?

    Thanks.

    • Jim says:

      Yes there is a big delay between emissions and actual warming. So the sentence would have been more accurate if it said: “remember, we have to get global emisisons of CO2 to near zero to EVENTUALLY stop tempperatures from continuing etc.”

    • BlackDragon says:

      Is there not a “several-decade” delay between emissions and actual warming? This is correct. This is due to the thermal inertia of the oceans – a lot of heat gets stored in there, then it takes time to circulate around and be released back into the atmosphere.

      Overall, the delay is about 30 years from what I understand: the warming we have right now is due to the total effect of emissions cumulative to 1983, and then to lesser percentages, falling to zero now, of emissions since.

      Something to think about, for sure.

      (An aside – very recent research has shown that many moderate volcanoes erupting around the planet have masked about 25% of the warming we would have seen in the last 10 years, do to aerosol cooling effects.)

    • paulina says:

      Jocelyn,

      You might be interested in this post: http://www.easterbrook.ca/steve/2013/02/how-big-is-the-climate-change-deficit/

      “The model experiments most people are familiar with are the constant composition experiments, in which there is continued warming. But in the zero emissions scenarios, there is almost no further warming. Why is this?

      The relationship between carbon emissions and temperature change (the “Carbon Climate Response”) is complicated, because it depends two factors, each of which is complicated by (different types of) inertia in the system:
      Climate Sensitivity – how much temperature changes in response to difference levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. The temperature response is slowed down by the thermal inertia of the oceans, which means it takes several decades for the earth’s surface temperatures to respond fully to a change in CO2 concentrations.
      Carbon sensitivity – how much concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere change in response to different levels of carbon emissions. A significant fraction (roughly half) of our CO2 emissions are absorbed by the oceans, but this also takes time. We can think of this as “carbon cycle inertia” – the delay in uptake of the extra CO2, which also takes several decades. [Note: there is a second kind of carbon system inertia, by which it takes tens of thousands of years for the rest of the CO2 to be removed, via very slow geological processes such as rock weathering.]
      It turns out that the two forms of inertia roughly balance out.”
      http://www.easterbrook.ca/steve/2013/02/how-big-is-the-climate-change-deficit/

      (As an aside, this, as well as, I think, the Matthews and Weaver, ignores fossil-associated aerosols which complicate short-term developments in a zero-emissions scenario.)

    • Thanks everyone. I appreciate the responses.

  24. BobbyL says:

    Very interesting topic about one of the more confusing aspects of climate change to the non-expert. Can’t help wondering if discussions about staying below 450 ppm are now purely academic. The nations of the world say they are committed to devising a plan by 2015 that would not be implemented until 2020, which I think makes going beyond 450 probably unavoidable. And it’s a stretch they will actually agree on a plan and implement it. My feeling is at the moment we are between targets. The main target, 450, will be surpassed and the next target has yet to be chosen.

    • Jim says:

      If we have to wait for plans agreed during UN conferences, forget it. Any target they agree will be academic because they won’t all agree on the policies to get there. Big waste of energy and time.

      The change will have to come bottom-up: Keystone protests, 350.org, solar successes, coal-divestment campaign, California, Germany, etc. The snowball is rolling. Now it needs to accelerate and grow in size.

      • BobbyL says:

        Governments are needed to bring about the enormous changes required, particularly governments in the developing world since those countries are responsible for the majority of the emissions. Emissions continue to grow by about 3% a year despite the promising things mentioned. The UN process does not seem to be working. It has been suggested that the US and China work out an agreement first and then others can follow. But it takes two to tango. We don’t even have one. The US has a major political party that won’t acknowledge that humans are the main cause of global warming and China wants to delay reducing emissions as it pursues rapid economic development.

        • Yes, but it’s only when the people lead that the leaders follow. Wait for the “leaders” like Obama to do something about climate change, and we’re all dead.

          • BobbyL says:

            Great, we will wait until the people of China lead the Politburo Standing Committee of nine. Exactly how are they supposed to do that? And Obama was elected to lead. He needs to make tough decisions that may not be popular. The future of the country is at stake. He knows that. His top science adviser is an expert on climate change. He has to get the country to follow him, not the other way around. I don’t think Churchill waited to follow the English and FDR didn’t wait to follow Americans.

          • Bobby,

            Obama ain’t doin’ squat about climate change. I know you think he should, and so do I, but he’s not/won’t/ain’t. Yes Churchill and FDR lead the war — after it was clear to their respective populaces that the war was really on (Austria and Pearl Harbor).

            But we’re not there yet. Our political situation is more like what was going on in the south during the drive for racial equality in the late 50s and early 60s. We’re struggling to make people aware of the issue, to force the hands of politicians who are reluctant to act for a variety of reasons.

            Look what happened with Keystone. They were about to approve it, slide it through, when a bunch of environmental groups caught the State Department in a bunch of slimy revolving door stuff and caused enough embarrassment and stirred enough sh*t to force Obama to put the thing off — for a while at least.

            Obama or Cameron or Putin or the the new President/Party Leader/Head General of China aren’t suddenly going to grow a conscience just because they ought to. We’ve got to push, push, push.

          • BobbyL says:

            For all the reasons discussed here and more I think it should be clear that discussions of staying below 450 ppm are now academic. That is my main point. When do we officially give up on 450 and choose a CO2 level target that could possibly be achieved? It is somewhat comforting to hold on to the 450 target (even though many argue the target should be much lower) but is it realistic? I think not.

          • BobbyL says:

            Quoting former IPCC Chair Bob Watson, “To be quite candid the idea of a 2C target is largely out of the window.”

  25. rollin says:

    Joe, why are you going so easy on everybody?CO2 is only one of the greenhouse gases and if we include the others we are already at 450 ppm CO2 equivlent with little hope of stopping there. The only thing keeping us from hitting 2 degree C quickly is the constant SOx pollution and other aerosols that have dimmed sunlight to surface. Once they go we are in for it, quickly. The best we can hope for, with massive efforts now would be 3 degree C. Not a pretty picture.
    Since business as usual will probably continue for another twenty years, we are probably looking at 4 to ??? degree C (feedbacks really kicking in then).

    • Mark E says:

      I sometimes wonder if one reason we are still burning SOx coal is….. on purpose. Sort of a devil’s bargain, trying to buy time for the market to ramp up all the climate wedges, despite the political field.

      • rollin says:

        I think you are giving them too much credit for forward thinking. They burn what they can dig out cheaply.

        • Mark E says:

          of course, I said *one* reason;

          and if it exists, it exists as a reason among some but not all policy-makers

  26. Len Ornstein says:

    While certainly not meaning to support Nocera’s position, it’s important to note that AFFORDABLE very large levels of atmospheric CO2 draw down are available – in Sterman’s terms, SUSTAINABLY reducing the bathtub draining rate to match the filling rate, (for example at pre-industrial levels) – without developing new technology. And this can ‘work’ as quickly as the technology is deployed!

    See:

    http://www.springerlink.com/openurl.asp?genre=article&id=doi:10.1007/s10584-009-9626-y (free access)

    and

    http://www.springerlink.com/openurl.asp?genre=article&id=doi:10.1007/s10584-009-9625-z (free access)

    Also see:

    http://www.pipeline.com/~lenornst/ThermostattingTheEarth.pdf

  27. Mike Roddy says:

    Nocera has shown no intellectual curiosity about climate change, even as his columns are thoroughly deconstructed. It tells us that he is doing a job, and it is not journalism.

    • robert says:

      Yes, the term “tool” does come to mind…

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      I’ve not seen any MSM presstitutes in Australia, in the last twenty or so years, who appear capable of ‘intellectual curiosity’. If they are, they do not show it, and are, instead, rather practised at actively ignoring or suppressing information contrary to the Rightwing Groupthink they are paid to regurgitate. Serving the power that pays their wages is their one strength.

  28. Liz Calkins says:

    Seems like a necessary myth to me. If people think we’re doomed no matter what, then they will figure that there’s no point in even trying to solve or improve anything and we might as well live it up while we can.

    Especially people still think that fighting climate change means having to make sacrifices and go back to the stone age, making people doubly unwilling to make the sacrifices they think are necessary if it won’t even fix anything.

    • BlackDragon says:

      Seems like a better course even is to put aside *all* necessary myths – this is just the thinking that got us in this horrible mess!

      We made it a “necessary myth” that fossil fuels wouldn’t have any serious consequences, in order to justify our actions over the last 200 years.

      Science and all knowledge it gives us, however brutal and scary, is ultimately a gift. Our choice whether we abuse that gift and pander to our base natures, or use it to grow into something more.

    • Lou Grinzo says:

      This view — we’re screwed if we don’t tell them and we’re screwed if we do tell them — drives me nuts. I think we have no choice but to find the right way to tell people the hot, hard truth and then organize them in creative and effective ways.

      Those of us who know what’s going on have a moral obligation to do everything we can to educate and activate as many of our fellow human beings as we can. Yes, we’re trying to push a very big boulder up a very steep and muddy hill, and the odds of success aren’t exactly good. But I absolutely guarantee that not trying to fight that fight has a lower chance of success than giving it everything we have. And yes, I’m saying that intentionally not telling people the full truth is equivalent to not fighting the fight.

      In my personal experience, when I give presentations to greenies and tell them exactly the kind of things Joe mentions above, it scares them, but it also pushes them to do more. We have to find ways to repeat that process with more of our fellow greenies and then generalize it to lay people as a whole.

      • Liz Calkins says:

        People often don’t really want the truth. They want to hear what they want to hear.

        Why not tell them the truth that fighting climate change will mean saving money on electricity costs, upgrading their technology, and learning how to do the same things they do now but just with less resources?

        People don’t want to hear about making sacrifices when many of them are already struggling just to put food on the table. They don’t want to hear doom and gloom that will happen no matter what. The average lay person who is scared isn’t going to fight; they’re going to dig down and hold onto what they have with both hands and refuse to let go because they figure if they’re doomed anyway they might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

        People want to hear about how they can make their lives better; not how they have to make them harder or more difficult. Start selling how fighting climate change can reduce their costs of living and enable them to live the same lives for less, and you’ll get a lot farther. Start telling them how their lives will get easier and better. Because that’s what the fossil fuel kings have been selling them, and they’re the ones who’ve succeeded while we’ve failed, because they have what people want to hear.

        Do you want to be right but dead and doomed, or do you want to telling a few white lies but surviving and succeeding?

        • Mark E says:

          a (((necessary)) myth? Gee, that must be why cardiovascular surgeons just tell people to keep sitting on their butts and eating all the saturated fats that they want, instead of telling them they’ll die if they don’t make major changes and get used to a different lifestyle.

        • Merrelyn Emery says:

          You are totally ignoring history and how people behave when they are informed and understand the threat. And you are putting down your own people in the process. Lou is correct, ME

          • Liz Calkins says:

            “You are totally ignoring history and how people behave when they are informed and understand the threat.”

            Er, no, I’m pointing out that being educated about history shows that the majority of people will stick their heads in the sand and do what makes themselves feel good, what is safe, what is the easiest route.

            I’m well informed about history and how people behave when they’re informed and understand the threat. That’s why I’ve made the posts here that I have, and the correct way to frame things.

            “And you are putting down your own people in the process.”

            Indeed I am. If people were as intelligent and brave and responsible as you mistakenly make them out to be, this crisis would have been averted decades ago when we first started reporting it was a problem.

            But I guess you’re answering my question; you’d rather be right and dead and doomed. Disappointing and scary.

          • Merrelyn Emery says:

            Liz, I know America is suffering some serious maladaptions at the moment but I assure you these are reversible. It doesn’t take much for people to recover their sense of purpose and intrinsic motivation. But if you believe it’s impossible, you’ll never try, ME

        • Liz Calkins says:

          “But if you believe it’s impossible, you’ll never try, ME”

          Nah, I’ll just actually be intelligent, stop trying to accomplish something by doing the impossible, and start accomplishing it by doing the realistic.

      • Dick Smith says:

        Absolutely Lou.

        And, climate pollster Anthony Lieserowitz says there really are only 5 things you need to explain to people:
        1. GW is real.
        2. We humans did it.
        3. It’s (already) dangerous.
        4. There’s an overwhelming scientific consensus on the first 3 points.
        5. We have solutions. We know how to fix it…if we act now.

        FYI–he calls #4 the “gateway” belief. Once people understand the consensus they get off the fence.

        For a good start on documenting the scientific consensus see skeptical science’s discussion of denier myth #4–and make sure to look at the both the “basic” and “advanced” discussion.

      • Jim says:

        Correct Lou, give them the whole truth and make it clear that some sacrifices will be required, but also better health (bikes instead of cars), comfort (insulation of homes) etc.

        Do not sell it to them in the shape of lower cost, although I do believe that actions we now take will turn out to have a good payback in the long run (solar, wind, electric, efficiency etc.)

        What triggered me was the full and complete sinking-in of the threat and that there is scientific consensus. It makes me worried for the future of my kids and their kids.

        Since then I try to win over others with the same arguments. One by one. With success. The snowball is rolling, and if everyone would convince two others….well you know.

        Best “payback” of all: making a difference in fighting the biggest threat humanity has ever faced, even if it is a lonely fight every now and then.

        • Liz Calkins says:

          “Correct Lou, give them the whole truth and make it clear that some sacrifices will be required,”

          And you’ll have guaranteed they won’t do a single thing. Right now the poor and middle class are tired of hearing about how they have to make sacrifices while the rich do nothing. They’re tired of austerity, tired of struggling to get by, tired of seeing their lives made harder. There’s riots going on in other countries in protest of being asked to sacrifice. What makes you think they’re going to enjoy hearing it any more from us? I can tell you right now, “save the environment” is even less of a motivator for the average person than “save the country” is. They think only lazy tree-hugging hippies care about the environment. Framing it that way is a non-starter.

          “but also better health (bikes instead of cars),”

          Which nobody really cares about. The growing obesity epidemic in the US speaks to that. Not only that, but biking is unrealistic for many Americans in rural areas; we’d do better to focus on things like public transit and better commuter rail instead.

          “comfort (insulation of homes) etc.”

          Now this is a good angle. Again, you sell how it will improve people’s lives, not how it will make them harder.

          “Do not sell it to them in the shape of lower cost,”

          …er, what? Why not? I can tell you that this would be the most 100% successful way of selling it. Americans love saving money and love getting more for less. You couldn’t ask for a better angle to approach things wrong in terms of successfully selling the message.

          Especially when you consider that this angle reaches conservatives as well as liberals, by speaking to their “fiscally responsible” rhetoric.

          “What triggered me was the full and complete sinking-in of the threat and that there is scientific consensus. It makes me worried for the future of my kids and their kids.”

          Thing is, the vast majority of people don’t think that way. They think about the here and now. They think that they don’t want to sacrifice their present for some vague future.

          “One by one. With success. The snowball is rolling, and if everyone would convince two others… well you know.”

          Well, we could convince them if we used the correct arguments.

          The problem is that you people want to do what’s moral, I guess. You want to be ideologically pure.

          Me? Heck with that. I want to do what WORKS. And if that means having to spin the truth into a package pretty enough for people to open it, then that’s what we should do. I’d rather we all be half-right but alive than 100% right but dead.

          It’s very frustrating that liberals are so dead set against accepting that not everyone thinks the same way we do, so if we want to get those who don’t on board, you have to learn how to frame things into their mindset and not ours.

          • BlackDragon says:

            Liz, I’ve read and re-read your posts, and I think your arguments have a lot of validity, up to a point. And I would also say, I am sure most people commenting here are painfully aware that others don’t think like they do.

            Here is one example from history that may be interesting. In 1920s and early 1930s Germany, things were pretty dang desperate, for the vast majority of the populace – the economy of Germany was well and truly destroyed, for one thing.

            Now, imagine these two scenarios:

            1) A forceful and effective leader comes along, and sells everyone on the idea that if we just all pull together and do these certain things, our lives will be easier and better.

            2) Another group of leaders comes along and says, well, actually, if you follow that path, at that particular pace, we have clear scientific evidence, and some very disturbing models, that say our future in the 1940s will end up as such horrible and total destruction, that you would not believe your eyes. We can point to some of these things unfolding already, and if you listen to us, really internalize what we are saying, instead of listening to that other guy, we can maybe follow a different path.

            Now, here is the rub, of course option #2 was not available to the German people. The few Germans that did take action, to either leave or resist, only did so because they were freaking scared out of their wits, right in the HERE and NOW.

            Today, we have option #2 starting us in the face. Our science is speaking loud and clear, and saying – know the truth, the whole truth, and try to find some way to act accordingly.

            I will take door #2.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            BlackDragon:

            Uhm, except that’s your scenarios have absolutely nothing at all to do with a single thing I’ve said.

            Here’s the real current scenario based on what I’ve said:

            My door: We tell people what needs to be done by playing up the aspects of it that might be a bit of spin or half-truths, but are what people want to hear, and will thus make them in favor of doing what needs to be done.

            Everyone else’s door: We tell people want needs to be done by continuing to play up the aspects that might be “more honest”, but they don’t want to hear, and thus will make them continue to not want to do what needs to be done.

            Personally I want to be smart and pick door number one, because it means that what needs to get done actually gets done, even if we had to trick people a little to get them to do it. Because we’ve already tried the 100% honest and scaremongering route, and guess what? Failure city. The fossil fuel people won. So we can either be dumb and let the fossil fuel people keep winning, or we can be smart.

            Especially when a lot of the stuff needed to fight climate change is a very easy sell IF YOU ACTUALLY FRAME IT PROPERLY. Really, if we weren’t so dumb about framing things badly, we’d have people lining up happily to do most of the things needed to fight climate change, since everyone likes doing more stuff for less money, among other benefits.

            I’m not really sure why it’s so hard to grasp this fact or why I’m getting so much blowback. Do you guys enjoy doing things the hard way and sabotaging yourselves continually or something? Are you closet masochists?

          • BlackDragon says:

            I hear ya, Liz! I really do. Because I practiced the slow-thinking and slow-talking approach about AGW from the early 80s through about two years ago.

            And you now what? I wasted 30 years of my life on these, I believe, wrong approaches. These approaches mesh so precisely with the generally lazy view of the world (I suppose you could call it that) that we have taken for… well, hundreds of years. And look where we are. Staring down the barrel of a loaded 44.

            No more! Am I a closet masochist? I guess I am, because I thought your approach would change things over the last 30 years, and it most definitely has not.

            No more time. We are just out of time for slow-go, win them over with happy-talk, half truths about *anything.*

            God, I so wish I could go back to my happy, complacent, pre-awareness, life.

            What I don’t think you are getting is that the pace of things in life can change, from very slowly, to radically fast. We are now at that point. Let me put it another way: you take slow, deliberate action when you are changing the oil in your car.

            When you are acting to avoid imminent collision with a freight train, you act very differently. You don’t happy talk your steering-wheel: “well, if you’d kindly just move about 180 clockwise, whenever you have the chance, I think that would be best for both of us.”

            I believe many people are capable of acting much more quickly, when they are presented with the whole truth, and not pablum. But I am sure many will keep trying your approach as well. It will out work out however it works out.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            “I guess I am, because I thought your approach would change things over the last 30 years, and it most definitely has not.”

            We haven’t even TRIED my approach yet, so… yeah, I guess you’re right that technically something we haven’t done so far can’t change a thing. Maybe we should fix that by actually doing it so it actually can change things.

            “I believe many people are capable of acting much more quickly, when they are presented with the whole truth, and not pablum.”

            We’ve been doing that since the 60s and received big fat failure in return. So you’ve been proven wrong.

            “But I am sure many will keep trying your approach as well.”

            Actually, I’m still waiting for people to actually START trying my approach, so I still have no idea what you’re talking about.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            “I hear ya, Liz! I really do.”

            Nope. I have no idea what you’re hearing, but it ain’t my posts. Precisely zero of your responses has had a single thing to do with what I’ve said so far. In fact, it’s often been the exact opposite of what I said.

  29. The most frustrating thing about the NY Times is that more people probably read Nocera than read the good editorial that they posted recently.

    Such is journalism today.

    I will begin to believe we are making progress when National Business Review hires Chris Mooney and CNN’s Ali Velshi points out that all of our annuities are f’cked if they have fossil fuel stocks.

  30. By the way, everyone: Do your heart some good, and check out the Nocera article and then read the comments (under the “ALL”) tab. I read the first 20 or so, and it’s clear Nocera’s added a new wrinkle to Abe Lincoln’s famous quote by proving that you (Nocera) can’t fool any of the people any of the time. Everybody dumps on him, in lots of cogent comments. A good read.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/16/opinion/nocera-texas-might-be-on-to-something.html?ref=joenocera

  31. Gil Johnson says:

    This article and the comments attending it bolster the argument for geoengineering. I know it’s heresy among environmentalists to speak of a technological fix, but with virtually no possibility of stopping global warming, what other option is there?

    • Joe Romm says:

      Actually, the article is not pro or con geoengineering. If we don’t do aggressive mitigation starting ASAP, however, geoengineering is a futile exercise.

      • Sasparilla says:

        Exactly!

        Gil, unless we are on the direct path to no emissions (measured in a few decades) it totally won’t matter about geo-engineering (just be trying to sweep back the oceans waves with a broom).

        We’ll certainly need it (in many dangerous and reckless ways) to get out of this mess – but first we have to get to the place where we decide we need to turn off the CO2 spigot (and we are so far from that, the yearly CO2 PPM number will show that).

  32. Ken Barrows says:

    I know not what course that others may take, but as for me, give us a carbon tax or give us death!

  33. Sasparilla says:

    Great piece Joe, really well written.

    It’s sad, Nocera through ignorance has become a tool of the fossil fuel denier / delayer club / lobby.

  34. Ben Lieberman says:

    Nocera finally makes clear that he is not just defending Keystone and Tar Sands–he loves all fossil fuel from Tar sands oil to coal. It would be interesting to apply his logic to other destructive substances. Smokers should keep smoking as long as we carry out research on a safe way to smoke. Alcoholics should keep drinking. And it was deeply unfair to the lead paint industry to make the take lead out of pain when we could have started a research project to find a way to keep lead in lead paint.

    • BlackDragon says:

      Our problem is this: we are addicted, like alcoholics, and we know we have to quit. But then we discover that in order to get the alcohol out of our system, we have to physically remove our hearts, arteries, and veins. We discover we have hard-wired our addiction into the very system that sustains us! Man, that sucks.

  35. Artful Dodger says:

    I’m not worried that the American Public misunderstands this: I’m worried that the PRESIDENT misunderstands this!

    The only other plausible explaination is that he DOES understand, but is counting on his quick exit in <4 years to cover his tracks.

    President Obama, unlike President Reagan, you are young enough that you will live to see your legacy, good or bad.

    Please turn down the Keystone XL pipeline. Your children, and mine, will thank you. God bless.

  36. BillD says:

    A time scale of 1,000 years is mentioned here. My understanding is that we are putting in place an unstoppable change with a tail of 20,000 to 30,000 years. By then oceans will have flooded all coastal cities and essentially all of the carbon and methane will have been released from arctic and antarctic regions. In a thousand years, if civilization still exists, no one will remember or care about some fiscal crisis or terrorism; our generation will only be know and cursed for what we did to the earth’s climate.

    • Mark E says:

      We’ll only be cursed until the survivors are dead or start to trust that they can continue to live in the new conditions, and to that generation those won’t be the new conditions, but what they know as “normal”. See
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shifting_baseline

      At that point, this will all be a bit like the Noah myth, and if they still believe in the our stupid capitalistic idea of trying to grow their economy nonstop, forever……

      That’s when the cursing stops, we’re a bedtime story, and history will repeat itself. Because *nothing* grows forever, including our delusional economy.

  37. Spike says:

    Archer points out in the Real Climate article cited that we are almost certainly going to have to find a way of removing CO2 from the atmosphere. the only way we can do this that I can think of is to use solar energy to do so as the only widely available free energy source of sufficient magnitude. nature of course managed this long ago but I have read some articles on artificial trees that can carry out the equivalent of photosynthesis but more efficiently – a Nobel prize surely awaits someone here.

    http://io9.com/5950271/could-artificial-trees-solve-the-global-warming-crisis

    None of this rather speculative work detracts from Joe’s superb article showing how we have to stop adding the stuff first!

  38. In the context of our climate problem, “irreversible” should have this important qualifier: “Unless we clean up the excess CO2 in the air,….”

    This quote is from my MIT CoLab proposal entitled “Emergency 20-year Drawdown of Excess CO2 via Push-Pull Ocean Pumps”

    Even if rich countries somehow achieve zero emissions, the developing countries attempting to modernize are likely to continue burning their own coal and oil. (They already emit more than half of the yearly total). Some will surely continue doing this for many decades, so we must continuously bury equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide elsewhere.

    Any “climate solution” that does not handle out-of-control emissions is unworthy of the name.

    Generating a high haze to reflect sunlight, mimicking a long series of volcanic eruptions, is far too dangerous because of its lack of uniform cooling. Regional differences in coverage are likely to rearrange circulation patterns like the jet stream, triggering floods and droughts in many places. High haze will not “back us out” into a previously stable set of climate conditions in the way a uniform cooling might.

    Because CO2 mixes worldwide in several years, it meets the uniformity requirement. The obvious climate fix is to clean up the 41 percent carbon dioxide excess, taking it out of circulation to reverse the overheating and most of sea level rise. An emergency cleanup of the atmosphere is also the only intervention that stands a chance of reversing ocean acidification.

  39. fj says:

    Both chaos and causality are cognitive tools.

    The more chaos we can except without being overwhelmed the more we can remain functional.

    The quicker we can establish functional causal frameworks the faster we can start to work on solutions.

    • Jim says:

      On this issue the causal framework is already well established among scientists and many observers. And you could argue that mankind has already lost functional control of the chaos it has created.

      The question left open is how to “help” chaotic minds to stop accepting the consequences of their own chaos, adopt the causal framework and act accordingly.

      • fj says:

        The science and technology causal framework has prevailed for many years. It works very well.

        Those that subvert it play a fools game.

      • fj says:

        Trash talking is a house of cards requiring a power structure enforcing obedient denial of the obvious fact that the emperor actually has no clothes.

    • fj says:

      Jim,

      Yes, bring on the action plans for dramatic successes by 2020 on both the Fed and local city state levels.

    • fj says:

      The President must be called to task if he is not acting at sufficient urgency of wartime speed

  40. john atcheson says:

    This single fact — that what we are doing is essentially irrevocable — is the most important thing about climate change, and it is the least understood. This cogent piece needs to be sent to every Congressperson and every governor and every school in the US.

  41. Sue says:

    Cutting emissions is only half of the issue. We need to re-establish the great forests. These great sinks of carbon are being lost at an alarming rate! The amazon i burned at a rate of 200,000 acres a day! We have learned when we were in 2nd grade that we need the plants to “breathe” carbon dioxide and “exhale” oxygen for us to breathe. If global warming is allowed to continue, unchecked then we face warmer more acidic oceans making life in our oceans more difficult.

  42. Marc Gunther says:

    Great, important point on “reversing” climate change.

    But Vaclav Smil is not as pessimistic about CCS as you suggest. In the same paper that you quoted, he says:

    “I must hasten to add that underground CO2 sequestration in the serviceof secondary oil recovery is most desirable.”

  43. fj says:

    (Repeat)

    There’s a lot of talk about the future and the way things are accelerating and the complex dynamics it seems that we must be focusing on the immediate and very near future.

    2020 is probably the most realistic effective point in time we should be targeting major reductions of emissions and huge environmental restoration ramp ups.

    As the costs and difficulties are likely being amplified beyond our understanding.

    Successes might well be judged on how much we can minimize the coming chaos.

  44. fj says:

    Lester Brown’s Plan B 4.0 is another excellant manifesto for moving forward immediately at wartime speed.

  45. kca says:

    Analogy: Like thinking that discontinuing smoking after the cancer diagnosis has been offered is sufficient to make the cancer go away. A certain pathetic desperation behind the attitude. Almost a bargaining with God. “I promise to be good from now on! Please make the bad stuff disappear!”

  46. kca says:

    By the way, carbon sequestration about as good an idea as the infamous budget sequestration our elected reps in Washington put into place last year. Both temporary measures and ineffective temp measures at that.

  47. J4zonian says:

    Wow, 150 posts. A new record here?

    Didnt’ read them all so I don’t know if this point has been made, but it usually isn’t here:

    The way to sequester carbon, in tandem with not emitting any more, is to increase the organic (carbon) matter in soil by switching to low-meat, local organic permaculture for our food, fiber, medicine and material supplies. We also need to plant trees, and where trees can’t grow, reconstitute perennial grasslands. Many of those trees (etc.) can be in edible forests, accomplishing many things at once while sequestering carbon, and we can get a small amount of meat as well as the plant foods from the grasslands.

    See Edible Forest Gardens, Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier

    • Icarus says:

      We need to do all those things for several very good reasons but that is not going to achieve anywhere near the scale or speed of sequestration that we need. I hope we find something that can.

      • wili says:

        Good points. Also, just considering terrestrial permafrost:

        “This large carbon pool represents more carbon than currently exists in all living things and twice as much carbon as exists in the atmosphere.”

        So it becomes difficult to sequester enough carbon biologically to offset the more than the total amount of carbon currently in all living things.

  48. Nell says:

    OK… so we’re toast. End of story.
    Or, I can believe James Hansen and trust that we can undo some of the damage we have done.

  49. fj says:

    The world’s oceans sequester about 40 percent of atmospheric CO2.

    The issue is to convert this CO2 to clean water, hyrogen, food, or anything of value offsetting buildout costs for extracting energy and restoration of the marine environment.

    The world’s oceans may well provide some of the best natural services for transitioning to a much more advanced and successful civilization.

    It seems they have always served us well.

  50. fj says:

    With ultra-lightweight molecular-strength materials such as graphene and carbon nanotubes projected to achieve commercialization by midcentury, and the European Union currently preparing to heavily invest in nanotechnology, carbon may well become the preferred building material.

    • Mark E says:

      Around 1850 people started whooping up coal as a miracle material that would solve all our problems.

      It seems we’ve grown the economy so much that the gains from fossil fuel use are about to be wiped out by the cost of using those fuels.

      New tech? Ok, sure. As a miracle answer? Only if it cures the delusion that we are best served by an economic model requiring nonstop growth, forever – because that’s the true problem at the heart of this mess.

      • wili says:

        Well put.

        And we still have essentially no idea of the unintended consequences of these nano-particles as they get out into the eco-system, as they inevitably will.

        Will they break down without any effect?

        Will they lodge themselves in vital organs of all species, including us, causing untold damage?

        Who knows?

        Does anyone care?

      • fj says:

        Nattering nabobs of negativism

        Gee, how that trips off the tongue!

        (Even though it was Spiro Agnew who said it written for him by speech writer William Safire.)

        • wili says:

          Funny, I was just thinking of that uber-alliterative phrase, and wondering if anyone would spring it out.

          If only there had been more NNON when we first started to consider burning coal, oil and NG. Perhaps if there had been, and if they had been listened to rather than ridiculed and called names, we would not now be in the process of cooking the earth and everything on it, including our children.

          But do feel free to align yourself with the likes of SA. I’m sure that will win you lots of followers around here ‘-).

        • fj says:

          Gee again,

          Nanotech applications seem to be accelerating from delivering targeted medications and other medical uses; improving the efficiency of photovoltaics and batteries . . . and much original nano biomachinery in living systems are well worth imitating as in biomimicry . . .

      • fj says:

        A civilization based on heavy machinery is extremely wasteful and destructive and will rapidly become a thing of the past.

  51. Adam Grant says:

    There’s a widely-held belief that because peak fossil energy is behind us, we’re going to have to face a changing climate with dwindling energy resources. However, the sunlight shining on the Earth’s surface contains 10,000 times the energy our civilization is using now. As we get better at harvesting this energy, we can go beyond merely replacing fossil fuels and increase our species’ total energy utilization until thrusting the climate back into a lower gear becomes doable.
    The various schemes that have been proposed for pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere generally fail because of high cost of construction and the energy needed to run them. If we collect sunlight equivalent to, say, five times humanity’s current energy consumption, it’s reasonable to imagine sucking the excess CO2 and CH4 out of the atmosphere and compressing the carbon into diamond bricks.

  52. Adam Grant says:

    … alternatively, we might pave the hottest part of the Sahara with concentrating solar installations, and use the resulting energy to desalinate and lift seawater, turning the desert into a vast hydroponic greenhouse. Much of the water will sink into the ground, refilling the region’s water table, and any that evaporates will be carried far away by the Hadley cell’s circulation, but we can pull so much water up from the sea that these losses won’t matter and the new forest will fix millions of tons of carbon every year.

    • Adam Grant says:

      Some will say that waving the magic future energy wand to make climate change go away shelters the fossil energy industries’ present efforts to extract as much oil, coal, etc. as possible.
      However, they’re doomed anyway. I suspect fossil fuel companies have long understood that it isn’t the Hubbert curve that will limit their ability to pull goo out of the ground – it’s competition from renewables. As the price of energy is driven down by solar and wind installs, the more expensive-to-extract hydrocarbons get stranded in the ground forever, and the power plants that burn them become liabilities.
      It will take a few years of decreasing fossil fuel profits to clear that industry’s owned politicians out of the world’s governments, but it’s the sort of transition that usually follows an S curve, like the collapse of the Soviet Union.

  53. Option 2.0 says:

    If you want your kids to grow up with the same opportunities you had, the time for solving climate change is now. http://clmtr.lt/cb/qeu0Tu

  54. sreality says:

    The longer we wait, the challenge of fixing it will go up exponentially. Let’s act now!

  55. Claudio says:

    If you want your kids to grow up with the same opportunities you had, the time for solving climate change is now. http://clmtr.lt/cb/qeu0VD

  56. Heteromeles says:

    A note: I’m an ecologist and environmentalist, but I ‘m pretty feeling that climate change is going to be hard to even slow. Too many people *think* they have something to gain from the change. Worse, the big problems are political, not technical, and we’ve shown a pitiful amount of political innovation in the last century, compared with the technological innovation that’s both brought us the climate change problem and made us aware of it.

    In any case, as a climate amelioration pessimist, I’d like to suggest some, um, hopeful thoughts, as I posted in my blog recently.. The thing that may inspire both hope and fear is that I’m pretty sure climate change won’t drive humans extinct. This is scary because, of course, our descendents will have to live with the weird new world we’re making.

    The other thing to remember is that even if we get our carbon emissions under control, Earth’s climate will continue to change, both for better and worse. We cannot stabilize the world, no matter how much we might want to. That is as a pernicious myth as denying climate change. We do have to learn to live with change, no matter what happens.

    • wili says:

      H, many good point. On human extinction, yet, we are very clever so some may find a way to eek out a way of life somewhere on the planet.

      But, as you know, we are currently in the midst of a global mass extinction event, with something like 200 species vanishing forever every day. (And extinction is even more one-way than is GW.)

      Humans are, of course, just one more species. You are also presumably familiar with the concept of anthropocentrism or human hubris.

      Since we are, after all, just one more species, I’m not sure how confident we can be that, while nearly every other complex life form goes under or is threatened by extinction, we somehow come out smelling like roses. Among other things, human flesh now comprises the largest uniform food source on the planet. Some enterprising germ, bug or other critter will eventually find a way to exploit this massive untapped food source.

      A whole other question is, having been responsible for utterly thrashing the only planet we have and he only one we know for sure had a thriving community of life on it–do we really deserve to survive?

  57. Joan Savage says:

    I expect severe weather patterns as long as the warmer Arctic contributes to high-amplitude waves.

    Anyone have enough information for a serious estimate about how long it would/will take to cool the Arctic back enough to generate the formerly tighter circumpolar pattern of the jet stream?

  58. Tom Goreau says:

    Joe Romm has a very important point (which Nocera does not), namely that it is too late for emissions reductions alone to do what is needed to prevent runaway global warming and sea level rise, and that CCS is a cynical fraud designed to perpetuate business as usual. But, like most commentators, both are wedded to supply side carbon economics and ignore the demand side solutions.

    CO2 cannot be stabilized at safe levels in any reasonable time with source reductions alone. This can only be accomplished by simultaneously increasing CO2 sinks, and that can only be done safely, economically, and in the time scale needed by storing it as soil carbon, with many ancillary benefits.

    This is precisely the core point of the book we are now editing.

  59. Joan Savage says:

    Of course, the present pattern still has some temperature differential. If we don’t get a lid on things, there could be an even more perturbed pattern that emerges after the high amplitude loops.

  60. Seth Itzkan says:

    I believe this necessitates further development of carbon capture strategies, including natural approaches, such as reforestation and grassland restoration.

  61. Citrakayah says:

    We can actually remove carbon from the atmosphere, though. Given enough effort being put into it, it’s quite do-able, and I’m surprised that it isn’t talked about more, because realistically it’s going to be necessary.

    That doesn’t mean that the Earth would suddenly revert to it’s previous state. But it does mean that some of the forces on the climate would be eliminated, and we might go back to normal more quickly.

  62. Paul Sorrells says:

    Many of the same folks that fell for, hook, line, and sinker, the lies leading into the Iraq War a decade ago are similarly falling for the lies being pushed by the deniers of global warming. The one difference, respectively, is that the neocon right-wing lies leading into the Iraq War only devastated Iraq while costing U.S. citizens thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, but in the case of atmospheric temperatures rising the result will be on a global scale, affecting all the countries of the world and billions of people. And the common denominator between the two cataclysmic events of this new century…oil…with the neocon’s Iraq War driven by the desire of western oil companies to seize Iraq’s oil resources while stopping Saddam Hussein’s attempt to replace petrodollars with the “bourse” exchange medium, while the denial of global warming is driven by the same oil “profit motive” and the oil suppliers trying to stop their profits from declining. Driven by this insatiable force it is hard to have optimism that anything will be done to mitigate high carbon concentrations in the world’s atmosphere. Tipping points continue to be reached and passed, and as this excellent article notes, lessening or even ending carbon emissions into the atmosphere will NOT reverse the warming trend anytime soon, sad to say. IOW, odds are that the rest of the world in the next few decades will begin to look like Iraq today.