NY Times Criticizes Itself For Touting Myth That It Is Too Late To Avoid Climate Catastrophe

Every climate scientist I’ve ever spoken to thinks we can still avert the worst impacts of climate change. It is an absurd myth that either the media or scientists constantly repeat the “it’s too late” message — a myth debunked here and here.

And so we have the spectacle of the NY Times publishing an essay by a novelist (!) asserting “We already know it’s too late” to stop catastrophe — and then following that up with a piece by its climate blogger attacking this uncommon and incorrect view in order to make an erroneous (if not utterly counterproductive) larger point about how “the Biggest Climate Threat” is “Fear.”

You read that right. The headline of the second NYT piece is “An Earth Scientist Explores the Biggest Climate Threat: Fear.”

So the biggest climate threat isn’t 10°F warming, dust-Bowlification of a third of the planet’s arable land, sea level rise that doesn’t end until we have an ice free planet, ocean acidification, ever-worsening extreme weather — or all of those things happening at the same time making it all but impossible to feed 9 billion people post-2050.

No, we are to believe the biggest threat is fear. #FAIL.

Seriously, if we had too much “fear” about the very real, ever-worsening, compound threats posed by our current dawdling, well then we wouldn’t be dawdling, would we? If we were fear driven, we would be doing too much carbon pollution reduction rather than virtually none at all.

Heck, if we had even the right amount of worry — say, the amount of worry that most climate scientists have — we’d be like Lonnie Thompson, who explained in December 2010 why climatologists are speaking out: “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.” But I digress.

Let’s begin with the first NY Times whopper, the Sunday Book Review article about dystopian fiction, “Writing the End,” by novelist Nathaniel Rich. It contains these dubious assertions:

Dystopian novels about environmental apocalypses tend to contain a warning: this is the hell we will inherit if we don’t change our behavior, quickly.

But that view is obsolete. We already know it’s too late to reverse the planet’s transformation, and we know what is going to happen next — namely more of the same, just worse: superstorms, super-droughts, super-pandemics, massive population displacement, water scarcity, desertification and all the rest. The grim details can be found in any of the hundreds of nonfiction polemics published on the subject every year, books with titles like “Overheated” and “Hot.”

Let’s be clear what the science says — or, more specifically, what those nonfiction polemics say. You can read online most of Overheated (here) and Hot (here) — Amazon has conveniently (?!) posted most of their pages online.

Rich does a sleight of hand here. Yes, both those books make quite clear that because we have dawdled for so long — and because the climate and energy system both have large, intrinsic delays — we are almost certainly stuck with considerably worse superstorms, super-droughts, massive population displacement, water scarcity, and desertification than we have already seen.

Whether the “transformation” we are stuck with is “hell” is a matter of semantics, I suppose, but if hell is a metaphor for the worst place imaginable, then, no, not even close. What we are stuck with is more like “planetary purgatory” — a desperate, all-consuming effort lasting decades to keep us out of hell (and high water).

Indeed, contrary to Rich’s implications, both books he cites have the rather clear message that things could get considerably worse “if we don’t change our behavior, quickly.” Yes, 3°F to 5°F warming is going to be brutal — but it beats the hell (figuratively and, perhaps, even literally) out of 7°F warming, let alone 9°F warming or, heaven forbid, 11+°F warming.

And that matches what the best science says, as in this MIT analysis:


Humanity’s Choice (via M.I.T.): Inaction (“No Policy”) eliminates most of the uncertainty about whether future warming will be catastrophic. Aggressive emissions reductions greatly improves humanity’s chances.

Now some may say that, given our political system, we’re simply not going to act fast enough or effectively enough to stop at 3°F to 5°F. But that is a political judgment, not a scientific one.

If we were all as alarmed as the science warrants, then I believe we would make a WWII-scale effort and take the world to near zero net emissions in a couple of decades and then start sucking CO2 out of the air and go back to 350 ppm this century and perhaps even lower next century. No, that wouldn’t give us a 100% certainty of avoiding serious consequences, but it would give us a near-certainty of avoiding hell and high water.

And for those who think we are unstoppably close to crossing tipping points that will accelerate carbon feedbacks (like the melting tundra) which in turn will ensure yet higher temperature rise, the point to remember is that those feedbacks are not instantaneous. Most of them are moderately slow and temperature based — so they make the job of avoiding 7°F to 11°F warming much, much harder if we get to, say 650 ppm (let alone the 800 to 1000+ ppm we are headed toward). But they are unlikely to stop us from keeping total warming near 3°F to 5°F if we go all out to stay under 450 ppm — especially if we did get back to 350 ppm by century’s end.

Again, I’m not saying we are going to get on the path to 350 ppm (or even 450 ppm). I’m only saying that we could, and I don’t know any climate scientist who thinks those lower CO2 levels are not infinitely more manageable — and more desirable — for humanity than the higher levels. As climatologist Thompson puts it:

Unless large numbers of people take appropriate steps, including supporting governmental regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, our only options will be adaptation and suffering. And the longer we delay, the more unpleasant the adaptations and the greater the suffering will be.

So the original NY Times piece was quite in error, significantly misrepresenting the books that it cites and the science they represent. Which brings us to the equally erroneous piece by NY Times climate blogger Andy Revkin and the earth scientist whose extended comment he posts.

That will be the subject of Part 2.

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108 Responses to NY Times Criticizes Itself For Touting Myth That It Is Too Late To Avoid Climate Catastrophe

  1. Friends in Texas say that oil people are promoting the “it’s too late” meme — ostensibly to keep carbon fuel flowing by promoting apocalyptic cornucopianism.

    Such an attitude of “full speed ahead” because “what’s the use?” is most immoral. But not unexpected, not surprising.

  2. We need to get everyone involved to solve the problem and eventually everyone goes to elementary school, or their kids or grandkids are in elementary school. It is the Missing Demographic. That is why we work exclusively with elementary students, their parents and teachers with our one-day program Presenter training will start in Fall 2013 using schools in Montgomery County Maryland as our training base. Get back to me if you are interested.

    We leave each family in the school with their own Family Sustainability Checklist of all the things they promise to do to get their carbon footprint down to zero or below and we give them until their kids graduate from high school (7-12 years) to finish the list. We also empower the school Green Team to maintain the program.

    Our goal is to do what was done with seatbelt use or recycling – to make a movement out of this, not simply a program, starting with our youngest students and the adults who love them. The beauty of the program is that it is self financed by PTAs and from our commercial partners who provide wind and solar energy and energy audits for the families to meet their reduced energy goals.

  3. SecularAnimist says:

    The “constant repetition of doomsday messages” is the latest propaganda tactic of the fossil fuel corporations.

    Denial is no longer tenable. As an earlier article on this site today noted, people are becoming all too aware that very serious effects of global warming are already upon us. “There is no problem, so there is no need to do anything” just doesn’t work any more.

    So the “new denial” is defeatism: “The problem is too great, too unstoppable, for anything we do to matter — so there is no POINT in doing anything”. (Usually accompanied by hysterical fear-mongering about the “draconian sacrifices” that any effective action would impose.)

  4. Martin Gisser says:

    1. The fear of fear seems to me one of the most powerful and ubiquitous mechanisms of climate science denial. (The next one is moral corruption.) Mortals don’t want to think of some aspects of reality because that would be too frightening.

    2. “It is too late” is as stupid as “the climate has always changed”. This argument is really a “disqualifier” — qualifying one as a moron or being morally corrupt. Why? There is no either-or! There’s a spectrum of possible futures ranging from catastrophic (suffering) to apocalyptic (extinction). We can always make a difference.

  5. cindy Baxter says:

    You’re right: it’s a political call, not a scientific one.

    The Climate Action Tracker did a very detailed analysis in Doha last year and advised that it’s very much still possible.

    Then one of their scientists published a study in December showing the economic benefits of acting now.

  6. Camburn says:

    Please send some of the global warming to the midwest USA. Planting is not getting done.

    Forecasts of a cold period because of the low sun activity are bearing out more than one would like.

  7. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Having taught in USA and Canada, I know that N. Americans throw the word ‘fear’ around with gay abandon. Most of them have never actually experienced fear which is a terrible human emotion, ME

  8. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Yes and there are some notable promoters on this blog who remain untouched by anything resembling evidence, ME

  9. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Standby for sunspots 1730 and 1731 which have beta-gamma-delta configurations and are almost straight line Earth directed, ME

  10. Joe Romm says:

    uhh, there isn’t low sun activity right now….

  11. Paul Klinkman says:

    We can always do something.

    That said, the nonrenewable industry will gladly pound home the opposite proposition that we can never do something, so don’t try to tax their products because it won’t help.

  12. Paul Klinkman says:

    If I were running a private weather forecasting service, I’d be integrating sunspot activity with the computer models. I checked this myself — the new and full moon plus a few days delay are correlated with precipitation patterns. Sunspot activity may be affecting the weather also.

  13. prokaryotes says:

    Maybe this example proves the defeatism on climate change wrong:

    The Toba catastrophe theory suggests that a bottleneck of the human population occurred c. 70,000 years ago, proposing that the human population was reduced to perhaps 10,000 individuals when the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia erupted and triggered a major environmental change. The theory is based on geological evidences of sudden climate change and on coalescence evidences of some genes (including mitochondrial DNA, Y-chromosome and some nuclear genes) and the relatively low level of genetic variation with humans

    “Humans once became almost extinct but a small fraction was able to recover.”

  14. Superman1 says:

    You and Secular being the prime examples!

  15. My own take on the matter is that we have destabilized the climate. There is no way we could melt most of the Arctic ice and leave the former Holocene climate intact. There will be many negative consequences.

    That said, it is also possible to ameliorate those consequences to some extent, perhaps a large extent. Joe is on the right track — cut emissions and simultaneously draw down atmospheric carbon — and we could probably stabilize the climate to something like pre-industrial conditions in 50 to 100 years. But we’ll never be able to undo all the damage we’ve done. The oceans are too warm and too full of carbon and too many species have been destroyed to put humpty-dumpty bak together again.

    Welcome to the brave new world of climate change.

  16. Superman1 says:

    I don’t think we have the data to conclude whether it is still possible to avoid catastrophe from a technical perspective. We don’t have full models, and we don’t have critical resource data, such as spatial distribution of clathrates in the Arctic, especially at shallow depth. But the real-world economic and socio-political hurdles will not allow us to implement anything near what is required for a technical solution, if in fact it is still possible.

  17. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    Very well put, Joe. That is the best ‘We are totally screwed’ article I have read in quite a while. Thanks for reminding us and refocusing our thoughts on the biggest problem of the century, indeed the millennium, and for the future of life on Earth. It’s time that President Obama did something to prove he has some integrity on this matter and will stand by his word and prove he is the man. We know his “Yes We Can” spiel was complete bullshit. Now we need to see the real Obama, if he exists. He needs to stand up and be counted. It is better to try and fail then never to try at all.

  18. BillD says:

    I’d like to see the fossil fuel industry try using the “it’s too late” meme, instead “look at how great we are and how lucky you are now that we’ve discovered all the fuel that we need by fracking. We can double our use of fossil fuels in the next 20 years safely and economically.” Slowing the pace of climate change would at least give the next and future generations at least of chance of saving a liveable earth. However, if we really stay on the current course, then it clearly is “too late.” The moral position is that we need to do what we can, even though it will lead to some short term sacrifice.

  19. Superman1 says:

    ‘Becoming aware’ and ‘doing what is required’ are two very different issues. ‘Becoming aware’ didn’t work for smoking; what worked in the end was a combination of economic penalties and the non-smoking majority exerting its will on the smoking minority. Such a majority exists only in polls in climate change; it does not exist in the real world of serious action.

  20. John says:

    Scientists say it is not too late is a joke. The oil, gas, coal and nuclear power will kill most all life on earth. Look around to see what human greed is doing right now. You know we will not change enough in time no matter how sophisticated your denial.
    Here is Arctic ice breaking up in February.

  21. fj says:

    We can get to net zero in five years.

    Seems restoration will take longer.

  22. BobbyL says:

    People are taking action and have been for several years, it is just not up to scale. in the US, cities and towns of varying sizes have conducted greenhouse gas inventories and many have formulated climate action plans and have begun implementing them. We have cap and trade programs for reducing emissions in 10 states. We have standards for renewable energy and last year the US led the world in adding wind capacity. Similar actions are being taken in other countries. However, getting the transition up to scale remains an unsolved problem as there is a long list of obstacles to overcome. A defeatist attitude probably is not at the top of the list or even near the top.

  23. fj says:

    Absolutely. The most difficult part will be dealing with extreme climate but there will be a revitalizing of humanity to offset the difficulties.

  24. Lou Grinzo says:

    Thanks for this post, Joe.

    I think this discussion highlights one of the main challenges of communicating with newcomers and those less steeped in the topic of CC than are most people here. We have to make them understand that we’re in REALLY serious trouble, but that we can still do ourselves a world of good by employing the tools at hand.

    Far too many people want a simple, cut-and-dried picture: We’re OK and all this CC talk is just a lot of scare mongering or we’re screwed beyond belief. For some reason many people can’t deal with the notion that the situation is indeed urgent even though there’s a huge range of outcomes still possible.

  25. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    “Humans did not evolve an inclination to think broadly about time and space.” -Dr. Jpseph Tainter (from a link posted earlier today by prokaryotes)

  26. Ben Lieberman says:

    The Times decision to cut environmental reporting is magnifying the effect of (just chill out) and Nocera (more carbon).

  27. Tami Kennedy says:

    We are getting close to seeing the next measurement of global commitment. I hope the following EIA global carbon estimates show a marked improvement.

    The U.S. needs to see the gas / oil industry lobby take a very public hit in futures forecasts. Today I saw the Bakken shale proposed accessible capacity increased and TX looking at their own new exploration and purchase of Cline drilling rights.

    Japan sees methane hydrates in their future. They don’t seem to take global laws preventing whale hunting seriously, it’s still research to them.

    The global a#$-kicking boot needs to get big. Hoping it isn’t worn by the military.

  28. Raul M. says:

    An orbiting Ark would only need be able to carry basic building blocks for life types and if types were sent back at appropriate places at varying appropriate times then life could be jump started as the world becomes able to support life. Good to have a plan that is definable and puts faith in God rather than mankind. For one may say that scientifically God is more predictable than man.

  29. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Don’t know who Dr Tainter is but there are plenty in the life/social sciences who disagree with that statement. All the ancient cultures had astronomy and the Asians have been doing 500+ year plans for thousands of years, ME

  30. prokaryotes says:

    Btw i got the link via Richard Pauli (subscribed to his excellent YT playlist).

  31. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Energy and motivation for action flow only from the positive emotions. Anything e.g. defeatism, that causes people to lose these or even hope, is an extremely serious problem and must be countered at every turn, ME

  32. I think most people still fundamentally don’t believe what’s happening. I talk to intelligent people every day who just shrug. That the Arctic could disappear and send the weather into continuous fibrillation, not to mention a runaway feedback loop of more GHG release from the permafrost leading to more warming, is literally inconceivable to them.

    I think a lot of people fear being mocked as fools if they commit to the path of prevention, because it is a radical and very literally counterculture idea. Few want to step out of the mainstream for the sake of a hypothetical.

    So that’s the job: to help them imagine it, to concretize the likelihood. I’m afraid that may take some more harsh events.

    Even then, we have to believe it is not too late to avoid the worst. The alternative is pure despair.

  33. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Remember the Maunder Minimum? ME

  34. squidboy6 says:

    I spent a few weeks reading Revkin’s blog and learned nothing, no new perspective, no new information, and almost nothing about current conditions. It was a complete waste of time.

    The last time I read his blog he actually attacked others for doing exactly what he was doing himself.

    I decided to ignore him. It’s too bad he is so prominent in the NYT but while I read his stuff I noticed that many of his followers were deniers as well. Revkin has more influence on them than I had, but he is in a smaller and smaller minority.

    Call him out in articles such as this and refute him. That’s the best we can do for now. Personally I think he has problem but I don’t think he is important, except to himself. A really swell head.

  35. squidboy6 says:

    I don’t dispute the genetic evidence, some of my clients were early investigators into the biological clock, but the Toba volcano is not thought to have made a global impact of that magnitude according to new evidence.

    “Lead author Dr Christine Lane, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Oxford University’s School of Archaeology, said: ‘By tracing a microscopic layer of volcanic ash from the 75,000 year old Toba super-eruption within sediments from Lake Malawi, we have been able to show that the largest volcanic eruption of the last two million years did not significantly alter the climate of East Africa.”

    link to article, – there were others but this was the first one that popped up when I looked for the news…

  36. mulp says:

    According to Bill McKibben on the XL Pipeline, irreversible doom is just a decision away.

    The reasons for climate action are many and long overdue, with some variation of a carbon tax or a 50-100 cent a gallon tax on gasoline ideally passed circa 1990 when oil was still headed down to under $10 a barrel – then a phase in would have been invisible. But bygones; missed opportunities.

    But the passage of time does not change a carbon tax in some form or another as the solution.

    The fuss over the XL Pipeline was useful only as long as it was an attack on the conservative policy of taking property by eminent domain for their favored industries. The same people supporting property taking for the XL and opposing it for cleaner electric for the Northern Pass in NH for Canadian hydro.

    McKibben seems to have latched onto the XL Pipeline out of desperation in the belief that end was near. But it did nothing to aid ousting enough Republicans from Congress to force moderation and a return to power in the party of progressive Republicans.

  37. Superman1 says:

    I can think of nothing more defeatist than identifying the wrong problem/target, and focusing one’s energies on that target. Yet, that is the modus operandi of you and the other denizens of the Amen Corner, who focus on the suppliers and not the addicts.

  38. Superman1 says:

    I’m also having a problem with the terminology. What could be more ‘defeatist’ than identifying the ‘wrong’ problem, and taking the ‘wrong’ action? Yet, that’s what most of the posters here seem to be doing. How can any problem be solved with such misguided strategy and tactics?

  39. Joe Romm says:

    Not quite what bill says.

  40. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    There’s a good article in The Guardian which outlines the further reaches of lunacy of the denialist Right in Australia. As I’ve said, ad nauseam, the Right will NEVER admit defeat or error. NEVER. EVER. They will simply grow more and more deranged. It’s in their DNA, their socialisation and their psychology. And they will get nastier.

  41. Kay says:

    I do not read the New York Times anymore. Like most newspapers, it is a bloated rag. (Poor metaphor, sorry.)

  42. Superman1 says:

    If a coach directed his team towards an opponent’s goal posts, wouldn’t that result in the ultimate defeat? Yet, that’s exactly where Secular’s proposals, and those of the other members of the Amen Corner, would lead us. Secular is the ‘Wrong Way’ Corrigan of the climate movement.

  43. Superman1 says:

    We have yet to see one proposal by Secular et al that would not violate the interim temperature constraints and lead us over the cliff.

  44. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The not so funny thing is that the parasites demand ‘draconian sacrifices’ all the time- but only from workers whose pay and conditions are ‘unaffordable’, compared to those in Cambodia. And only from welfare recipients, whose pittances are ‘busting the budget’, while elite tax avoidance sees tens of trillions salted away in tax-havens. And only from whole societies being put through the Hell of ‘austerity’ to pay for the larceny of the financial grifters that caused the ongoing GFC. Of course, when the parasites speak of ‘draconian sacrifice’ what they really mean is their sacrifice of tens of trillions in fossil fuels, which they are clearly prepared to put higher than the lives of several billion steerage-class passengers.

  45. Mulga Mumblebrain says:


  46. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    They have nothing to fear but fear itself.

  47. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Obama is a hollow-gram. He must be bypassed.

  48. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Let’s be hopeful and instead say ‘have not yet’. I mean, in order to avoid self-destruction we must forever repudiate the rule of those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, and their operating system and religion-capitalism.

  49. George says:

    Reality check people.

    Even if we built 1000 1.4gig nuclear power plants by 2020 will only lower global temperatures by 0.15C


    “”That is also the view of energy chemist Nate Lewis of the California Institute of Technology. “It’s not true that all the technologies are available and we just need the political will to deploy them,” he says. “My concern, and that of most scientists working on energy, is that we are not anywhere close to where we need to be. We are too focused on cutting emissions 20 percent by 2020—but you can always shave 20 percent off” through, say, efficiency and conservation. By focusing on easy, near-term cuts, we may miss the boat on what’s needed by 2050, when CO2 emissions will have to be 80 percent below today’s to keep atmospheric levels no higher than 450 parts per million. (We’re now at 386 ppm, compared with 280 before the Industrial Revolution.) That’s 80 percent less emissions from much greater use of energy.”

    Lewis’s numbers show the enormous challenge we face. The world used 14 trillion watts (14 terawatts) of power in 2006. Assuming minimal population growth (to 9 billion people), slow economic growth (1.6 percent a year, practically recession level) and—this is key—unprecedented energy efficiency (improvements of 500 percent relative to current U.S. levels, worldwide), it will use 28 terawatts in 2050. (In a business-as-usual scenario, we would need 45 terawatts.) Simple physics shows that in order to keep CO2 to 450 ppm, 26.5 of those terawatts must be zero-carbon. That’s a lot of solar, wind, hydro, biofuels and nuclear, especially since renewables kicked in a measly 0.2 terawatts in 2006 and nuclear provided 0.9 terawatts. Are you a fan of nuclear? To get 10 terawatts, less than half of what we’ll need in 2050, Lewis calculates, we’d have to build 10,000 reactors, or one every other day starting now. Do you like wind? If you use every single breeze that blows on land, you’ll get 10 or 15 terawatts. Since it’s impossible to capture all the wind, a more realistic number is 3 terawatts, or 1 million state-of-the art turbines, and even that requires storing the energy—something we don’t know how to do—for when the wind doesn’t blow. Solar? To get 10 terawatts by 2050, Lewis calculates, we’d need to cover 1 million roofs with panels every day from now until then. “It would take an army”

  50. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The success of the system’s decades of ‘dumbing-down’ of the populace, in order to make them more easily ruled. I meet many people at work, and chat, and most know absolutely nothing but what the brainwashing system tells them. Many sense that things are catastrophically awry, but lack the information and intellectual confidence to denounce the naked Emperors who control society. They’d rather watch the ritual torment of fat people on television.

  51. Superman1 says:

    “Now we need to see the real Obama,” What makes you think you haven’t seen him? He was re-elected President, and he is doing exactly what most of his constituents want done on climate change: nothing! He is following the pack as a representative of the people, not leading it.

  52. prokaryotes says:

    1 incentive step is to establish free CO2 car zones in city center’s.

  53. Superman1 says:

    “I think a lot of people fear being mocked as fools if they commit to the path of prevention”. That’s one interpretation. Another interpretation is that of a chain-smoker, who knows the consequences only too well but is too addicted to self-gratification in the here-and-now to make a rational decision.

  54. DRT says:

    re: “It would take an army”. Terrific, the US has one of those and they are coming home. Insulating every building and putting solar panels on every roof would would supply a of jobs.

  55. Lollipop says:

    It would take an army–and look, we’ve got one! What a great way for the military to constructively engage.

  56. Bill says:

    Can society solve any major problem? Can society be truthful to itself? Can society deal with issues such as death? Can people in society not strive for just their own acquisition but for the social good? The basis of the economic system is acquisition and property and it can only function when there is surplus. What we are faced with is an existential crisis. We have to move beyond acquisition and property if we are to address our common problems.

  57. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Mulga, can I quote you? Not your “Yawn”, but your earlier “draconian sacrifice” comment.

  58. BobbyL says:

    Not fair to say he has done nothing. Supported cap and trade legislation, got new standards for vehicle fuel efficiency, got stimulus money for green energy, backs EPA regulation of emissions, etc. I think it is fair to say he hasn’t done nearly enough domestically and internationally. Very disappointing given his campaign rhetoric in 2008.

  59. BobbyL says:

    Using sports as an analogy I think what you are really talking about is momentum. That is what fuels energy. Even teams hopelessly behind often play hard very hard to the very end. We lack momentum. One big play can change the feeling of the game. All the momentum is on the side of making more money. How do we turn the situation around? That question is has not yet been answered.

  60. Superman1 says:

    When I use the expression ‘nothing’, it means a very small amount relative to the large steps that are required if we are to have any hope of saving the biosphere. I don’t discount advances made in regulations on emissions, energy conservation, renewables development and deployment, etc, but we need to keep our focus on the metrics that count: global CO2 emissions and atmospheric CO2 concentration. We as a civilization have done effectively ‘nothing’ to slow the ominous trends in these metrics.

  61. Superman1 says:

    Why not state the obvious truth: “Many sense that things are catastrophically awry,” but are not willing to sacrifice their self-indulgent energy-intensive lifestyles to save the biosphere?

  62. Superman1 says:

    “All the momentum is on the side of making more money.” I would re-phrase this: all the momentum is on the side of continuing the energy intensive self-indulgent lifestyle to the exclusion of saving the biosphere. That places the responsibility on the shoulders of the true miscreants: us!

  63. Paul Klinkman says:

    I hadn’t heard of it. That was interesting. Thanks!

  64. Paul Klinkman says:

    Nuclear fuel takes energy to mine. Nuclear power plants take energy to build. Nuclear power plants take energy to clean up after they go Fukushima. In the end, nuclear power can save us net energy over its lifetime if we adopt South Asian safety standards, where a 15 foot pole is one way to minimize worker radiation exposure to radioactive waste. I don’t think that will be acceptable.

  65. BobbyL says:

    The US is down to about 1992 levels in emissions related to energy. Doesn’t that count for something? Considering where we were in 2005 that’s a fairly big drop.

  66. BobbyL says:

    I think the blame is widespread and includes the fossil fuel industry as well as us citizens trying to live the American dream or just survive. I wouldn’t call our use of fossil fuels an addiction unless you want to call everything pleasurable an addiction. It really is at the core wanting the basics that make life bearable like electricity, heating, mobility, shelter, and so forth. In terms of an energy source fossil fuels are pretty close to ideal. They come in solid, liquid, and gas forms and provide compact energy whenever you need it. There doesn’t seem to be any substitute with those advantages. This is just a nasty fact of life that we have to deal with. Regardless who we blame nothing will change that fact.

  67. Superman1 says:

    BobbyL, We made some strides in conservation/efficiency, but we also off-shored a lot of our emissions-generating industry. There’s also game-playing with the accounting. On 5 December 2012, Kevin Matthews had an article on this site, and he stated: “U.S. major media and others have been trumpeting a false meme of declining U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, spinning off from EIA data that actually shows a much narrower trend.”

  68. Superman1 says:

    Neither the media nor the politicians nor the fossil fuel industry have clean hands here. However, we are the central problem, and focusing mainly on the above insures the problem will never get solved.

  69. wili says:

    “By focusing on easy, near-term cuts”

    But we are not even focusing on these.

    These figures reinforce the fact that we have to go into beyond-WWII type mobilization and conservation, when for example Britain reduced domestic petrol use by 95%. The years between now 2020 are much more critical than those between 2040 and 2050.

    At every level of society–individual, family, business, institutional, municipal, state/province, national, and global–we have to set strict goal of ff-use reduction toward zero by 2020.

    There are already many examples of institutions–mostly colleges and cities–that have set goals like this for themselves. They can be models for others.

    This should be joined with goals to influence recalcitrant powerful organizations–like ff companies, and many government bodies–to do the right thing (and stop doing the wrong thing).

    But we do have to have a sense that this is a global emergency, a threat to our very existence ultimately even more dangerous than any war except perhaps an all-out nuclear exchange. (Last time I looked, no wars have melted the ice cap or other fundamental features of the planet.)

    But it’s hard to keep people in emergency mode forever (if we can even get them there with anything that isn’t as instinctively threatening as war in the first place).

    Once we get in the mode of living on a much smaller energy diet–often meaning we are living much healthier lives. So many may want to continue living what by current standards may seem rather spartan lives to some.

    But for others, the prospect of increasing build out of renewables allowing something like the luxuries of their pre-emergency life will help them get through the hard part.

    But of course this is all pure fantasy.

    Even though our leaders have been informed just how dangerous our situation is, none are willing to take actions even far milder than those necessary.

  70. M Tucker says:

    I think the biggest climate threat is inaction, the kind of inaction advocated by oil, gas and coal companies. The next biggest threat comes from those who denounce those who want to stop Keystone and other pipelines. Those who say it will do nothing to avoid climate destabilization. As if allowing those projects to go through would not contribute to the problem.

    We already have a warmer planet and it will be very hard to halt warming at 2 degrees. We still might have a chance to do that but continued inaction makes it harder the longer we wait. I think we can, and probably will, avoid 10 degrees of warming but if our choice is to do nothing we run the risk of getting something above 2 degrees. Continued inaction might get us to somewhere around 4 to 5 degrees. That kind of warming over a period of something like 90 to 100 years would lead to a world that will have a very hard time supporting civilization as we currently know it.

    It is absolute stupidity to claim it’s too late to avoid a dystopian hell. It is also absolute stupidity to claim that even small efforts taken now to limit CO2 and methane will do nothing significant, so we shouldn’t even pursue them. If by some miracle of international effort we avoid 2 degrees of average warming we will still have a struggle on our hands but it will be a long way from the absolute hell of 10 degrees.

  71. wili says:

    I think we have to accept that there is a certain level of uncertainty in any situation, and how a person deals with that uncertainty tells us about her or his character.

    Early on (’80s) there was legitimate uncertainty about how far and how fast GW might go. Some took this uncertainty to mean it was probably nothing to worry about at all. Others thought that it would be prudent to take immediate, relatively painless actions that would make it much less likely that bad consequences of GW would come about, if it did turn out to be as bad as some judged it to be.

    Of course, the former voices mostly won out. We mostly did nothing very effective to get off of fossil fuels, and indeed globally we’ve been increasing our consumption of the nasty stuff.

    Now we are in a position where there is essentially no uncertainty about the fact that global warming is real, caused by us, and very threatening.

    There is also clear evidence that we are in fact crossing critical tipping points–the melting of Arctic sea ice cap being the most obvious and visible one, and one that threatens to trigger many other feedback loops.

    (For a wonderful/terrible new video that makes the loss of ice mass very concrete, see: )

    Now of course there are still loud voices denying that there is anything to GW.

    But for the rest, there are (among others) two reactions to the new kind of uncertainty we face that mirror the earlier attitudes. We cannot be certain exactly how far and how fast other feedbacks will kick in.

    One reaction to this kind of uncertainty to assume that we now can have absolutely now effect on the outcome. (This seems to me to be oddly parallel to–or the flip side of–the position that uncertainty about early studies of GW meant that we didn’t have to worry about it.)

    Another reaction, though, is that, yes, very serious feedbacks seem to be kicking in, but we can’t know exactly how fast or how certain those feedbacks will hit, and it is still likely that our actions will effect both the speed and magnitude of their impact.

    Of course, there are other reactions. One can conclude (with more basis in science than most posts and the main post seems to acknowledge–see the MacDougal et al. paper from last fall on permafrost among others) that we are most likely already into a kind of runaway global warming situation but still:

    1) not wish to pour more lighter-fluid on our already burning children (by reducing one’s own impact, and those of ones family and institutions);

    2) want to discredit the industries most responsible for starting and perpetuating the fire (by participating, for example, in McKibben’s divestment campain).

    I would just plead here that, even though some denialists may flip to being catastrophists (presumably mostly for cynical reasons), people here should not assume that everyone that sees the situation now as very dire indeed is one of these sort of insincere puppets of the death-fuel industry.

  72. SecularAnimist says:

    Superman1 wrote: “Secular is the ‘Wrong Way’ Corrigan of the climate movement”

    So eliminating all fossil fueled electricity generation is the “wrong way”?

    That makes it pretty clear where you are coming from, if it were not clear already.

  73. Raul M. says:

    Hi Wili,
    Thanks that is a nice read.

  74. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Sorry Bobby, I mean exactly what I wrote. You don’t have to believe me but I know what I’m talking about, ME

  75. Daniel Coffey says:

    Joe: you write “Seriously, if we had too much “fear” about the very real, ever-worsening, compound threats posed by our current dawdling, well then we wouldn’t be dawdling, would we?”

    I use the word “dread” as fear does not quite capture the proper feel of what is coming.

    Good piece. At a conference today a local protector of birds – organization name omitted – explained that we are adversely affecting raptors and bats and therefore should not build wind farms. There was no compromise and the answer was walking and using less.

    OK. That should work.

    As a last point, it is the energy accumulation rate, not the CO2 or equilibrium temperature per se, that is our biggest challenge. It’s that rate which is driving all the rest of the effects, and its rather large. It seems we should focus on that a bit more.

  76. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Correct Bill. And we have moved into acquisition and property because we are organized into hierarchies of dominance that force us into competition and, therefore, self interest. To solve common problems, we need to organize ourselves as equals working together, ME

  77. Merrelyn Emery says:

    In the DNA of our form of organization, the first genotypical design principle, not the biological sort, ME

  78. Superman1 says:

    Secular, “So eliminating all fossil fueled electricity generation is the “wrong way”?” Doing it without requiring parallel harsh cutbacks in any non-essential use of fossil fuel is my main objection. That’s what will drive us over the cliff, if we aren’t over it already.

  79. BobbyL says:

    I think self-indulgence is part of the problem but citizens could reduce emissions quite a bit without changing their lifestyle. Making houses more energy efficient is probably the biggest thing that could be done. Just adding insulation and so forth. It can get expensive which is the problem but in the long run saves money. Also, people could buy more hybrid cars but again they cost more and the financial benefit is in the long run.

  80. kermit says:

    Why do you blame the ignorant and fearful, and those of limited power? Why not the elite, the wealthy, whose decisions actually put us in this position? The politicians and their financial backers could end this in time. Instead, you prefer to blame those who cannot be educated and emboldened overnight – it will likely take a generation.

    Sounds like a losing strategy, but at least you can feel righteous in doing so.

  81. kermit says:

    Can’t think of a better way for them to defend the country. It would also allow those boys and girls to unwind without the stresses of war, and avoid dumping all of those unemployed young people on the job market.

  82. Raul M. says:

    Taking a short look into ozone loss in the stratosphere reports by respected sources, I was surprised to see global warming listed as a reason to place our current situation on par with the dangers we faced 35 years ago before CFC’s were commonly banned. Rather than having easy to find direct effects resulting in ozone depletion, GHG’s react in many ways to cause ozone depletion in the stratosphere. Why even the common VOC’s effect and deplete stratospheric ozone.
    I really should thank those who contributed to the efficiency of doing research on the web, it is so much that may be found on the Internet.

  83. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The disaster today is, alas, far more multifarious and globally distributed than even Toba.

  84. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Of course.

  85. Andy Hultgren says:

    Great comment Wili, this needs to be “liked” up to the top of the comments list!

  86. Raul M. says:

    Also it was pointed out that there are separate looks into and findings about overall stratospheric ozone loss and ozone holes at the poles.
    An early uv index only went to 10 with 10 being listed as extreme. There are reports of 20 being the higher number of the index findings at locations near the equator with 10 or 11 being counted as extreme. Now 11 is listed as the number where eye and skin damage happens within 5 minutes of unprotected exposure.
    The decrease in anphibious creatures is tied to stratospheric ozone depletion.
    Yes, there are great harms retained by living creatures as a result of ozone depletion in the stratosphere.

  87. Alan Roth says:

    It is very unlikely that we can avoid catastrophic climate change. Our global climate models have been ignoring feedback effects for too long. Until recently, the loss of sea ice in the Arctic was not part of the models as it wasn’t expected for a couple of decades. I don’t know which scientists you’ve been speaking with, Joe, but I’ve spoken with enough to know that they are terrified.

    We have 1 trillion tons of carbon in the top 3 meters of the continuous permafrost (Ted Schuur) and it has long been projected that 90% of the continuous permafrost will thaw this century. And that was before the sea ice started to seriously disappear. Add to that the real strength of methane compared to CO2 of 100 (GWP) and not the 25 that the UN wants scientists to use. The 100 is when it first is emitted and it stays close to that for some years getting down to 72 at 20 years. That methane from permafrost is radiating right back down on the permafrost to further the rate of thawing. Add the extra thermal energy from the Arctic Ocean that comes from the melting sea ice and moves over the permafrost to further the thawing.

    Richard Alley, in his “Two-Mile Time Machine” shows 23 abrupt climate changes over the past 100,000 years of 14oF to 18oF increase. These took 10-20 years for some of them but only 3 years for the majority. Even though the conditions were somewhat different then, it tells us that very rapid climate change is possible.

    So there is every reason to worry that the tipping point is well behind us and this combination of factors in the Arctic will cascade. That’s not even considering the threat of methane clathrates!

    This isn’t to say it’s too late so let’s just back off. We need to work hard to buy time. We need to stop CO2 emissions as much as possible as quickly as possible and we need to start looking more at adaptation.

    I’m trying to do my share by working on a private fusion energy power project that has the potential to have 3-GW fusion energy power plants spreading around the country in 10 years from now. We think we have all the science questions answered and only engineering concerns in front of us. Even the financial aspect seems to be in order.

    But do we really have the time for this? Probably not but we need to try anyway.

  88. Alan Roth says:

    Correction: When I said 90% of the continuous permafrost will thaw this century, I meant only down to 3 meters but that takes care of 900 billion tons! Yikes!

  89. Superman1 says:

    There’s plenty of blame to go around, but the politicians can’t make real changes until they have the consent of ‘we the people’. Suppose rationing far harsher than what we had in WWII is required; do you think the politicians could, or would, institute that without our consent? We’re the ones burning the fuel, and we’re the only ones who can reverse the problem. Sorry that doesn’t mesh with your ideology.

  90. Superman1 says:

    “We need to stop CO2 emissions as much as possible as quickly as possible”. But, even on this site of supposed climate activists, we see many proposals that promise a painless transition to renewables, with no sacrifice required at all. Indeed, anyone proposing the requirement of harsh measures is termed a ‘defeatist’ interested only in imposing ‘draconian sacrifice’. Where are the people who will institute these emissions cuts, and where do you see any evidence of their motivation?

  91. Superman1 says:

    “potential to have 3-GW fusion energy power plants spreading around the country in 10 years”. With all due respect, Lyman Spitzer proposed the Model-D Stellarator Project in 1954, promising the demonstration of commercial fusion power in five years. We have had similar fusion proposals periodically since then. What evidence do we have that your fusion power plants are more credible than those of yore?

  92. Ed Leaver says:

    Could you please provide a link to your extended reference? I’ve done back-of-the-envelope wind estimates myself that disagree with Prof. Lewis and I’d like to know where I went wrong. Thanks!

  93. George says:

    That is the real “what if”. If we already have 400ppm co2, and no sign of slowing down, how much more will nature belch into the atmosphere in the next 100 years as a result of terrestrial change? My gut says that even if we held co2 at 400ppm, permafrost will melt and add more in time. The big question is how much and how fast. I think lot of warming, but not as fast as the climate models suggest.

  94. George says:

    Fat chance… and who is going to pay for the solar panels?

  95. FrankD says:

    Superman, can you point to a single claim of a “painless transition”? Because I’ve not seen one. I’ve seen a lot looking to minimise the pain, but none that suggest it is entirely avoidable.

    To take your smoking analogy, people want to look for nicotine patches or similar. Your insistence on cold-turkey only simply ensures 50% of people who would like to quit fail to do so.

    Your posts remind me of the medieval idea that mortifying the flesh with a cilice was proof of virtue. Wear your hairshirt if you want, but your constant insistance that anyone who differs is a sinner is boring, counterproductive and wrong.

  96. FrankD says:

    Well, 500 MW in 15 years, but perhaps you should read about ITER before assuming that nothing has changed since the 50’s.

    Seismic footings are now complete, and pouring of the slab for the Tokomak is about to start. Not another proposal, but bricks and mortar, as it were.

  97. Stephen W says:

    I really think that this is so important. I used to give many talks on Peak Oil and would always say at the end that in my opinion this issue, and it’s as relevant if not more so to Climate Change, will not be resolved (as far as that can be done) with technological solutions. The problem is us and we can only address it by changing our relationship with the planet and our relationship with each other. If we don’t we will just continue replicating the same old problems that got us into this mess in fancy new high-tech ways. Climate Change, Peak oil and many other huge issues facing us are really asking us to find out what it means to be human in a world of 7 billion people.

    I believe that with all the excellent initiatives that are springing up and the rapid spread of the inspirational Transition Movement that we can potentially do this but whether we can do it soon enough is another matter.

  98. wili says:

    George: Yes, we may well hit a weekly average of 400ppm in the next couple weeks. The last week officially logged was at 398.68.

    The recent hourly and daily averages point to the next weekly average being well above 399.

    The peak week is usually one or two weeks after that on.

    Your gut feeling about permafrost melt agrees with the latest science. See the MacDougal link above.

  99. Bill D. says:

    Bottom line: most humans are incapable or disinterested in perceiving the ultimate consequences of our daily, cumulative activities. In this regard, our species appears no more advanced than other animals.

    We’re like a herd of antelope gathered at a shrinking water hole in the middle of a desert. No matter what the scientists or philosophers think, we’ll just keep drinking our fill until the bitter end.

    As comedian George Carlin once said, “The Earth isn’t going anywhere; WE are. We’re going away.”

    We were born with the intellectual capacity to survive, but we refuse to utilize our greatest gift. On the contrary, we use our intellect each day mainly to threaten rather than to preserve our survival as a species. Essentially, climate change represents the mother of all moral issues for humankind and we’re failing miserably at the basic test of generational morality. Even lower animals aren’t this stupid.

  100. Superman1 says:

    The point of my posting was that we’ve been hearing promises of cheap and plentiful fusion power for the past sixty years. ITER is essentially a scientific feasibility demo, hoping to demonstrate breakeven (power in = power out). Present costs are about $20B, with estimates of substantial escalation before completion.

  101. Superman1 says:

    Fission was discovered in 1938, and breakeven was demonstrated in the Stagg Field experiment, four years later. Fusion was discovered by Rutherford in the Cavendish Laboratory in 1934, and eighty years later, breakeven is, at best for ITER, estimated to be about 2028. There’s a message in these two sentences!

  102. Superman1 says:

    Given the complexity of its design and maintenance, there’s little chance the tokamak as reflected by ITER will lead to competitive commercial power production. If you want nuclear, go breeder! It works, the design is much simpler, and the unknowns are far fewer.

  103. Superman1 says:

    But, there’s a simpler route. The Southwest is projected to have increasing drought due to climate change. Why not blanket the area with PV cells, connect them to an expanded grid, and have a clean technology? It’s certainly not going to cost more than fusion, and even if it costs more than fission or fossil (it may very well end up being competitive), view the extra cost the way you view the purchase of organic food; good for your health and worth the extra money.

  104. Superman1 says:

    “boring, counterproductive and wrong.” Well, if you want to read feel-good sounds-good projections of the transition, where all is wine and roses, read Secular’s proposals. Economic prosperity, continue enjoying the benefits that only technology can bring et al. Look, it’s not my insistence on cold turkey; my reading of the science is that it is Mother Nature’s insistence and, as McPherson states, She Bats Last.

  105. Superman1 says:

    Small point about breakeven. I believe the largest gain that’s been demonstrated in a tokamak so far is 0.7 in JET. ITER’s stated target is a gain of ten. If they achieve such a gain, the earliest they could have a commercial demo would be somewhere in the 2040s, and the earliest actual commercial is another two decades. Well before then, we could be fully solarized.

  106. Superman1 says:

    Now, for those who like fully organic meals and periodic fasting, if we went full speed on solar and wind, in parallel with eliminating every non-essential use of fossil fuel, that’s a compromise I could grudgingly make. Even though some fossil fuel will be expanded in such a transition, it may be sufficiently small (especially if we could do some serious carbon recovery in parallel) to keep us from going over the brink.

  107. Superman1 says:


  108. BobbyL says:

    Tragedy of the commons. That’s our predicament. We are not stupid. Everyone is just acting in their self-interest which to them makes perfect sense. An enforceable global cap on greenhouse gas emissions seems to be the only way out.