Big Oil changes sides in the War on Coal

by John Quiggin on June 11, 2015

As the time left to save the planet from uncontrolled climate change gets shorter and shorter, the previously glacial pace of movement on the issues has speeded up. One of the most important, and surprising, developments has been a string of increasingly sharp attacks on coal, coming from representatives of major oil and gas companies. As this (rather excitable) piece explains, the reason is simple. The policy debate has crystallised around the idea of a carbon budget – the remaining amount of CO2 that can be emitted while keeping atmospheric concentrations at levels consistent with 2 degrees of warming or less.

Obviously, if such a budget is imposed and adhered to, a lot of fossil fuel resources, currently sitting on corporate account books, will have to be left in the ground. Unsurprisingly, fossil fuel companies have done their best to prevent such an outcome, promoting science denial, and encouraging national governments to shirk their share of the burden with the argument that others should do more. Such a strategy implies a united front among fossil fuel owners, since the longer the imposition of a budget can be delayed, the better off they all are.

The recent break in the fossil fuel coalition therefore marks a new stage. Rather than try to expand the budget for all fossil fuels, the oil and gas companies have decided to get as much as possible for themselves, which means shutting down coal as fast as possible. The facts that have made such a strategic switch sensible are many and varied but the most important are

(a) the increasing recognition of the health effects of burning coal which gives national governments like that of China a strong incentive, independent of climate change, to reduce coal use
(b) the fact that the most immediately promising alternatives to fossil fuels are renewable sources of electricity which compete directly with coal, and are, to a significant extent complementary with gas (as a dispatchable source, gas-fired electricity tends to offset problems associated with the variability/intermittency of renewables.

What’s the appropriate response here? In the end, it will be necessary to phase out fossil fuel use altogether. But the logic of tackling coal first is inescapable. If that logic drives a wedge in the fossil fuel coalition, so much the better for all of us.

{ 74 comments }

1

ZM 06.11.15 at 7:24 am

The carbon budget idea and the divestment movement are quite complementary I think. One thing I have heard with regard to asking the organisations you have accounts with or are a stakeholder in (eg. superannuation companies or universities with endowment funds) how their investments are exposed to risk due to investing in fossil fuel companies, is that the next step would be asking them to develop a divestment strategy.

It is not practicable to ask that everyone divests from fossil fuels right away, as fossil fuels need to be continued to be used to fuel various things. So the idea is that there should be a divestment strategy in line with keeping global warming to safe levels – here the scientific evidence is for 1 degrees of warming or 350ppmCO2e but governments have followed Nordhaus’ 1970s recommendation of a limit of 2 degrees of warming.

For example: In Australia a lot of the companies that mine coal also mine various other materials too, so the divestment strategy could target companies that only mine coal, or some companies have bad environmental or social records, so the divestment strategy could target these companies.

The divestment strategy could also be time based. So for Paul Gildings rapid mobilisation to return to 350ppmCO2e by 2100 you would try to make a strategy based on that time frame. So investments in ghg emitting companies would be consistent with halving emissions from 2018-2023; then from 2024-2035 (I forget the exact year) it would be consistent with achieving zero ghg emissions by 2035; then until 2100 the investment strategy would be consistent with negative ghg emissions returning the atmosphere to 350ppmCO2e by 2100.

If you would like to ask your superannuation company, bank, or university if their investments are exposed to risk by investing in fossil fuel companies there are forms here , you just have to add your name and details. The site covers all countries and a great many companies and universities

http://www.areyouthevitalfew.org

2

Rich Puchalsky 06.11.15 at 11:36 am

I don’t really know of a likely decarbonization scenario that leaves a lot of easily obtainable oil in the ground, so this sounds like a good development to me. It gives up something that we’ve already pretty much lost (existing easily obtainable oil reserves) in exchange for making it easier to get something we absolutely need to get (the coal reserves have to stay in the ground).

3

kidneystones 06.11.15 at 12:58 pm

There is no wedge, just two sets of concerns fighting it out. The real wedge is between fossil fuel and nuclear, with fossil fuel companies paying the Sierra Club millions to keep the heat on nuclear, but ‘build partnerships’ with fossil fuel companies. Course, when the secret donations were no longer secret, the Sierra Club reversed policy.

China and India will buy all the coal they can and Australia isn’t about to stop selling coal to China and India, no matter how bad the air quality becomes in north Asia.

So, there’s that. The rest is just hot air, increasingly dirty.

4

Shirley0401 06.11.15 at 1:06 pm

“So much the better,” indeed.
In light of their histories, it’s hard to resist the knee-jerk compulsion to be suspicious of anything coming out of the oil and gas industries, but this is encouraging for a few reasons. Not only will it hopefully keep a bit more coal in the ground, but it also (hopefully) reflects the growing acceptance that we can’t simply keep operating as though the consequences don’t/won’t exist.

5

ZM 06.11.15 at 1:31 pm

“China and India will buy all the coal they can and Australia isn’t about to stop selling coal to China and India, no matter how bad the air quality becomes in north Asia.”

If you are overseas you might not know there are objections in Australia to developing new coal mines that would exceed the carbon budget. There have been protests and there are ongoing legal challenges by environmental groups and traditional indigenous land owners.

Also China is moving away from coal, the people are upset at the air pollution and the government thinks greening China is the best strategy, this is reflected in the 5 year plan.

No matter Black Cat or White Cat, who can catch rat is good cat (Deng Xiaoping, 1962)

“The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) has proposed clearly that China’s growth pattern is going to be adjusted from “accelerated development” to “scientific approach of development.” The color of the “cat” will become much more important in the future. It is essential that China transform itself from the biggest “black cat” in the world into the biggest “green cat.””

http://www.daonong.com/g/2010EN/Insights/20100926/23030.html

6

kidneystones 06.11.15 at 1:36 pm

@5 ZM. Cheers. Double-checked the SMH and other sources before posting and have been living in Asia for 20 plus years. Oz can’t afford to stop selling, and China and India don’t want to stop buying.

China’s had a large number of very stiff environmental laws in place for years. The new laws don’t mean a thing.

7

Anarcissie 06.11.15 at 1:58 pm

I am shocked to learn that any of the world’s leadership or ruling classes take the threat of climate change seriously enough to actually do anything about it. Energy is both literally and figuratively power, and the business of a ruling class is to acquire, maintain, and extend its power: political power, economic power, military power, all of which are served by energy production. In general this has meant (in the case of fossil fuels) getting them out of the ground and burned as fast as possible. Getting the better of their competitors today or tomorrow is likely to seem much more important to them than something that might happen decades in the future. Hence such insane adventures as the invasion of Iraq or the putsch in Ukraine. So that’s changing now, is it? How come?

8

Rich Puchalsky 06.11.15 at 2:08 pm

Anarcissie: “So that’s changing now, is it? How come?”

It’s a mistake to think that analytical rationality has no ability to influence power at all. Ruling classes don’t think very long term, in general, but the global climate problem is just starting to get near term enough so that it could impact their ability to hold on to power on time scales that they care about. IF we get 2 degree warming, what’s going to happen to basic farming, and how is that going to impact e.g. the Chinese ruling party’s ability to hold on to power? They may actually be concerned about that.

Also, they’re going to own the replacement alternative power facilities anyways.

9

Sockpuppet 06.11.15 at 2:30 pm

Then again, if the choice is between the CO2 released from coal and the methane released from natural gas, shouldn’t we be on coal’s side? Coal’s been having a pretty rough go of it in the last decade or so, and coal use has dropped significantly. By contrast, natural gas has experienced a meteoric boom, no doubt thanks to its labeling as the “relatively clean” alternative (methane is actually worse greenhouse gas than C02…).

To me, going after coal, while laudable, seems like a bit of a red herring, a way to pat ourselves on the back and divert our attention while all kinds of shady stuff happens over there.

10

DMC 06.11.15 at 2:41 pm

The ever decreasing cost of renewables will make coal burning for electricity production economically untenable within 10 years. Oil and gas will take a bit longer as I don’t see much being developed in terms of all electric airplanes. Nuclear? Maybe for some 3rd world suckers like Pakistan but nobody in the developed world is falling for the nuke scam. Just too expensive, to start, to maintain, to decommisson. Meanwhile, the cost of photo-voltaic, concentrating solar and wind-genertated KwH just keeps dropping and dropping. The Saudis are actually doing us a favor by dropping the price of oil by knocking the expensive to produce oil(Tar sands, off-shore, fracked) out of the market. And note that they can drop the price MUCH lower than they have and still make money on every barrel as their production costs are only about $3 a barrel. Really, it’s hard economic facts that will put an end to fossil fuels rather than than carbon taxes and regulations. When stops making economic sense to burn them, then they will stop being burned.

11

someguy88 06.11.15 at 2:51 pm

I think that on ‘your’ side policy has already been set. Drilling for trillions in dollars in natural gas in the OCS would result in, well trillions of dollars, and millions of jobs, while lowering carbon output. But the whack jobs that drive your car won’t allow that. They really don’t give a rat’s ass about carbon output. They care about self indentfying as good and that requires a mindless blanket demonization of all fossil fuel usage. You can either mood affiliate with them or get accussed of eating babies.

The only possible response is all fossil fuel is evil and anyone who says other wise eats babies. If you start agreeing with fossil fuel companies, that natural gas is better than coal, you bcome are part of the evil conglomerate, and need to be shunned.

12

Roger Gathmann 06.11.15 at 3:25 pm

JQ – I like your inveterate tendency to optimism. I wish I shared it. But I am more impressed with the mafia-like insolence of the big oil CEOS – like this remarkably thuggish speech by Rex Tillerson, the criminal who heads up Exxon”
http://www.politico.com/story/2015/05/exxonmobil-ceo-downplays-climate-change-mock-renewable-energy-118330.html

13

Peter Dorman 06.11.15 at 3:30 pm

On balance, I agree with JQ that competition between fossil fuel interests over who’s going to get cut from the carbon budget is a good thing. It’s interesting that the article he linked to did not mention the decision by Norway’s SWF to divest from coal; this is very big in the world of internecine fossil fuel fights. It also points to a central battlefield, investment. While the ultimate driver has to be political regulation of fossil fuel extraction (taxes, permits), the transmission belt to energy transformation is the changing pattern of investment, both disinvestment from likely-to-be-stranded resources and new investment in alternatives. Investors do try to look down the road, and if significant regulation seems to be on the way, they will adjust their portfolios accordingly. So, yes, investment shifts are a leading indicator in this case.

I’m reminded of the decisive role played by private disinvestment in the nuclear power industry in response to and anticipation of heightened regulation in the 1970s.

Of course, the wheels are grinding far too slowly on the carbon front, as exemplified by yesterday’s minimalist action by the US government on airline emissions—this coming after the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Prohibition Act of 2012. This latest move clearly puts wealth maintenance above climate action in airlines. (Event study, anyone?) That’s the conflict we’re going to see in every sector potentially impacted by climate policy.

14

Map Maker 06.11.15 at 5:55 pm

Norway’s cynicism knows few bounds. Divesting coal and paying developing countries to switch to oil and nat gas supplied by Stat Oil, but coat it with greenwash and call it environmental.

When Norway shuts down Stat Oil, I’ll be impressed.

15

dsquared 06.11.15 at 7:08 pm

So that’s changing now, is it? How come?

Who you gonna believe, historical materialism or your lying eyes?

16

Matt 06.11.15 at 7:47 pm

17

Val 06.11.15 at 8:03 pm

Also (in general but also responding to kidneystones’ assertions):

Anglesea coal mine to shut down in August
http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/alcoa-to-shut-anglesea-coal-mine-and-power-plant-20150512-ggzgw9.html

South Australian coal mines to be shut down, partly due to competition from renewables
http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-11/power-stations-port-augusta-alinta-energy/6537814

http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/jun/11/south-australia-power-stations-and-coal-mine-to-close-with-loss-of-440-jobs

Relatively small mines I think, but straws in the wind

18

Omega Centauri 06.11.15 at 8:11 pm

JQ sounds pretty spot on. Of course I’m not convinced the oil/gas companies won’t take a dual approach. (1) Continue to try to delay the imposition of carbon limits and push for higher limits, and (2) Since some sort of limits will be hard to avoid, obtain as large a piece of the pie as they can.

I’ve seen stats (sorry I don’t have any refs) that show that China’s coal consumption was down several percent last year. That was partly due to good weather (better hydropower yields), but its likely the beginning of a secular downtrend.

Its questionable whether nat gas is any better than coal -at least if you consider 100year CO2 equivalents. Our methane infrastructure is leaky all along the pipeline, extraction, distribution, and consumption, and the greenhouse strength of a molecule methane is many times that of CO2. But I think it will take a while longer before we start to take that seriously.

19

Zamfir 06.11.15 at 8:54 pm

There is reason to be careful abkut the recent numbers showing flat or ddclining chinese coal consumption. There was a previous decline in the late nineties, IIRC associated with a campaign to close small mines. Some years later, coal consumption figures skyrocketed at incrdible rates. Presumably, the small mines were not actually closed as fast as the official number showed, and part of the coal economy went undergound for a while.

It’s quite possible that the same is going on again. The recent offical goal is to reduce coal imports hard and to stop consumption growth, and there is quite some pressure behind it. It is not unlikely that part of the response has been to cut imports, and to replace them by unofficially sourced coal from within China. The official numbers show that coal plants in China are running at the lowest capacity in a long time, but construction of new plants is still substantial.

Then again, there are definitely also real efforts to cut back on coal use, and last year was not a strong year for Chinese production all over. But we might to wait a few years to be sure if their coal use is really stagnating.

20

kidneystones 06.11.15 at 9:24 pm

Well, that didn’t work as planned. The link in 20 is good where you can read this:

“Australia will usurp Indonesia to reclaim its title as the world’s biggest coal exporter by 2017, according to government forecasts…

Yet while cutbacks forced by falling prices are expected to see Australian thermal coal production decline slightly in fiscal 2015 to 243 million tons, the long-term outlook is for continued expansion…

The department said production would increase from 2016 as new mines reached full capacity, while the expected start-up of Indian giant Adani’s new 60 million tons per annum mine in Queensland state’s Galilee Basin would boost output to 278 million tons by 2020.

Most of this production will be exported, with Australia’s thermal coal exports expected to reach 234 million tons by 2020, up from 201 million tons in 2014. While well below Indonesia’s thermal coal exports, which are expected to drop from 406 million tons in 2014 to 387 million tons in 2020, Australia’s dominance in metallurgical coal will see it become the world’s biggest exporter of coal by the end of the decade, matching its position in iron ore and liquefied natural gas (LNG).While China’s demand for thermal coal has weakened, with an estimated 70 percent of domestic producers “currently unprofitable,” India boosted imports in 2014 by 28 million tons to 164 million tons, overtaking Japan as the world’s second-largest importer.

“India is commissioning around 20 gigawatts of new coal-fired power every year. Coal accounted for nearly 80 percent of its power generation last year, up from 74 percent the previous year and 71 percent the previous year,” Gresswell said.

“India doesn’t really have many options in terms of large scale, cheap fuel for power generation. And if India wants to grow at 6 to 7 percent it desperately needs thermal coal power generation – it’s already running short of power. We’re very bullish on the fundamentals in India – we expect they’ll get close to 200 million tons of imports this year, from 34 million tons in 2008.”

According to Gresswell, supply will remain “sticky” in 2015 but demand will start rising from 2016 as countries across Asia ramp up coal-fired power generation, resulting in an estimated 50 million tons of annual demand growth from 2016 to 2020.

“Even with lower gas prices now, coal is still by far the cheapest fuel for power generation anywhere in Asia, and it’s widely available. Over the next five years we do expect significant growth from India, North Asia…and Southeast Asia,” he said.

21

Matt 06.11.15 at 9:27 pm

Oh, I’m pretty sure that Chinese coal use has not yet reached its all-time peak. Chinese coal consumption is not down overall to the same degree that imports are down! And there is nothing unofficial about replacing imported coal with domestically produced coal: it’s an explicit goal to reduce loss-making Chinese coal enterprises by, in part, raising barriers to imports. Still, I will take good news where I can get it. The smaller and less profitable the Western coal industry becomes, the less influence and money they can direct to climate obstructionism.

22

mbw 06.11.15 at 10:01 pm

Re #9: Yes, methane is a worse greenhouse gas than CO2. The methane that doesn’t leak in extraction is burned to CO2. So the impact of fracking for gas is extremely sensitive to whether it’s done sloppily, with leakage, or without leakage. People are starting to keep track of leakage and it looks like it’s highly variable between sites.

23

James Wimberley 06.11.15 at 10:53 pm

Matt, kidneystones: Total Chinese coal consumption in 2014 was down 2.4%. These are revised figures from the National Statistics Administration, as kosher a China gets. China’s economy is still growing, so the drop reflects major and continuing structural shifts, not a cyclical downturn. The government has ordered the closure of 1000 mines.

Australian coal exports to China are therefore toast as definitively burnt as Alfred’s cakes. The only hope is India. Australian coal miners can point to encouraging (for them) Indian plans for even more coal generation. What they don’t stress is that the same policymakers say they expect to get the coal domestically, not from expensive imports. Counting on Indian policy to precisely half fail is a risky strategy.

The very rapid progress in India on the ambitious renewables targets – 100 GW of PV, 60 gigawatts of wind by 2022 – may well make the issue moot. Indian politicians, unlike Chinese, are under electoral pressure to deliver results quickly. Solar and wind plants are not ideal but they be got up in 18 months, and provide plenty of in-state ribbon-cutting opportunities when they are switched on, which makes a change from apologising for delays.

The wild card is international pressure on India to present a reasonable INDC before the Paris climate conference. India really does not want to be made a climate pariah like Australia. It has already lost the support of China for a “rich guys first” line.

24

James Wimberley 06.11.15 at 11:07 pm

At a recent junket in Paris on gas, Big Oil executives were talking up natural gas as the fuel of tomorrow. I speculate: are they cooling on oil too, not just coal? The ever-rising costs of oil exploration and development mean that they are being forced to cut back. A lot of prospects that were attractive at $100 a barrel are shelved at today’s $65. It’s as if they are tacitly conceding that Peak Oil has crept up on them.

A data item in support of this speculation is that Big Oil PR against electric vehicles is nonexistent or so minimal as to be ineffective; it looks as if they have give up that fight before it’s started. They would have to take on not only Tesla, run by a marketing genius, but the powerful electric utilities. The mass of the automotive industry is hedged on evs and will not join a campaign against them.

(cross-commented at JQ’s blog)

25

Matt 06.11.15 at 11:43 pm

Australian coal exports to China are therefore toast as definitively burnt as Alfred’s cakes. The only hope is India. Australian coal miners can point to encouraging (for them) Indian plans for even more coal generation. What they don’t stress is that the same policymakers say they expect to get the coal domestically, not from expensive imports. Counting on Indian policy to precisely half fail is a risky strategy.

The very rapid progress in India on the ambitious renewables targets – 100 GW of PV, 60 gigawatts of wind by 2022 – may well make the issue moot. Indian politicians, unlike Chinese, are under electoral pressure to deliver results quickly. Solar and wind plants are not ideal but they be got up in 18 months, and provide plenty of in-state ribbon-cutting opportunities when they are switched on, which makes a change from apologising for delays.

I definitely agree with the last sentence of your first paragraph, which is why I am not willing to break out the champagne for India’s electricity plans just yet. India has a long history of setting electricity targets more ambitious than it can actually achieve: in the past it has regularly missed targets for coal, hydro, and nuclear generation. Experience from other countries indicates that solar and wind projects are more often on-time and within-budget than coal, nuclear, and big hydro projects, so there is room for hope. But India meeting the renewable plans and totally flubbing the coal plans is not terribly likely IMO.

26

mojrim 06.12.15 at 12:03 am

One need not trust another’s motives to rely upon them; it’s all self-interest (enlightened or otherwise) in the end. When former allies break ranks and seek a separate peace you know that, at least for the moment, you have gained the strategic momentum. The trick is keeping it.

27

kidneystones 06.12.15 at 12:19 am

@22 and @24 Cheers to both of you. Speculating about the long-term prospects of fossil-fuel consumption is risky, but I think that even declining consumption rates in China at a more rapid rate of say 5% per year will still generate a high level of pollutants. The key factors, of course, are the availability and price of various alternatives.

I’m very guardedly optimistic that the combination of improved energy efficiencies and high prices will see the shuttering of more coal plants, but barring a major breakthrough (possible) on hydrogen, say, we have accept that coal will be consumed at the same or higher rates between now and 2020. Political pressures inside China are a major factor, I suspect, as the air quality in large parts of China is appalling. Toxins in water and agricultural add hours to preparing safe meals in many households, in part, the residue of ‘bury the problem’ practiced by Dow in America.

We do not own a car. We own a new house with no air-con or fossil fuel furnace. We save and re-cycle water in strategically place buckets around the home, call it the new aesthetic. There’s a lot we can do to reduce our energy footprints. With hard work and good science new technologies are sure to emerge.

28

John Quiggin 06.12.15 at 1:08 am

@20 While I understand that US government projections are 100 per cent reliable, the same is not true in Australia, sad to say. The report to which you link, coming from an agency with a history of spectacular error, has been widely derided. Some have even suggested wishful thinking is at work here.

http://reneweconomy.com.au/2015/why-australias-chief-economist-gets-it-wrong-on-coal-market-again-52140

29

Eli Rabett 06.12.15 at 1:32 am

#23, methane trapped in coal and released by mining accounts for about 10% of man’s methane emissions. Since modern mining breaks up the coal at the mine, this heating value is lost. Not the biggest, but not zero.

http://epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html

30

kidneystones 06.12.15 at 2:07 am

@JQ Cheers. Thanks very much for this. A first quick read confirms the problems with data produced to serve competing interests and agendas. This jumped out at me:

“While it [report cited in 20] provides a valuable, in-depth perspective on the Indian coal and coal-fired power markets, the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) would suggest the analysis has a number of omissions that together skew the rosy conclusion that India will be a net importer of thermal coal for the foreseeable future.”

I’ll take a look again and give it a think, (FWTW), but my first reaction is that demand for coal, including Australian coal, is likely to persist. The IEEFA report seems more/as concerned with the allocation of finite public financial resources, and the wisdom of building new plants. I confess I’m as suspicious of the data produced by the environmental lobby as that of the fossil fuel industries, despite the vastly different scales of profit.

31

tony lynch 06.12.15 at 2:50 am

James @24.

The idea is that Indian democracy is more responsive to citizen needs and views than China? Well, as a general claim this is surely false. Consider Indian Democracy and poverty and caste. (Teaching in China recently I tried to talk about democracy. A student said incredulously: “You want us to be like India?!!” Looking around, she had a point.)

32

Val 06.12.15 at 4:40 am

What is the link in @20? I can’t see one?

33

John Quiggin 06.12.15 at 5:53 am

The link borked the comments thread for some reason

34

Plucky Underdog 06.12.15 at 1:05 pm

Eli #23 — to put the numbers in that link into perspective, 314 billion cubic feet per year (losses of natural gas from natural gas production systems, USA only, as of 1992) is equivalent to the rate of gas production from a very large gasfield. In energy flux terms, it’s equivalent to three Deepwater Horizon blowouts. But Deepwater Horizon lasted three months: this has been going on continuously for decades! Of course a million small sources of gas dotted around a continent are far less visible than one big oil blowout.

For those of you that care, this isn’t a matter of leaky pipes. It’s things like deliberate flowline and pressure vessel purge to atmosphere, or intermittent flow from valve actuators powered by the pressure of the gas they are controlling. So it’s not just carelessness, at least not on the industry’s terms.

Fugitive methane, as it’s called, isn’t actually a very important part of the greenhouse budget. There’s a very good summary chart .

Note that air transport isn’t very important either. ISTR reading, and agreeing, that if you were ranking the upsides of the carbon economy, the ability to travel across an ocean in hours rather than weeks for a few days’ salary would be pretty high on the list, so last to go. Hard to beat kerosene as an aviation fuel.

In fact the only thing that is really going to do anything for decarbonization is stopping burning coal in power stations. Presumably that is where the promoters of gas see their (relative) advantage.

35

Plucky Underdog 06.12.15 at 1:07 pm

Link got et. Dunno why.

36

James Wimberley 06.12.15 at 5:17 pm

Tony Lynch #31
What makes you think that apart from Dalits Indian voters want to get rid of the caste system? They want to get rid of poverty, and India is growing fast. Democracy means that governments pay attention to what voters want, not that these wants are ideal from our point of view. I also refer to Amartya Sen’s work on famine. In India, famines ended at independence.

37

Bruce Wilder 06.12.15 at 11:47 pm

This post reminds me of Oswald Spengler’s adage: “optimism is cowardice.”

I get it, I guess: why optimism is more attractive and comfortable than pissing your pants and screaming. Still I have to ask, at what point does optimism make you delusional? Pretty close to the point of this post, I would think.

Oil and Coal are playing good cop, bad cop. And, this is good, how?

A Carbon Budget is emerging as a policy concept pretty much at the point at which the remaining carbon budget — calibrated to a high assurance of avoiding runaway catastrophe — is pretty much zero. And, this is good, how?

It does seem to me that eliminating fossil fuel use pretty much completely, even over the course of a decade or two, and constraining energy use generally, would require some fairly drastic, indeed heroic measures on an unprecedented scale of collective action. And the longer we continue to dither, the more drastic and heroic — and counterfactual — effective action becomes.

I guess I understand that there’s some risk of realism leading to pessimism leading to hopeless resignation. But, how is optimism and minimizing leading to accommodation and adaptationism leading to accelerating toward catastrophe — how is that course supposed to be superior?

38

Rich Puchalsky 06.13.15 at 12:51 am

BW: “Oil and Coal are playing good cop, bad cop. And, this is good, how?”

What’s the point of either optimism or pessimism if neither one leads to action? I mean, I guess that they are psychologically useful, each in their own way. But unless we’re talking “an optimistic policy” or “a pessimistic policy” to be undertaken by policymakers who have real power, the only usefulness of optimism or pessimism to us is insofar as either one leverages the tiny amount of power that we do have into actions that have some kind of possible effect.

Knowing that Big Oil is turning against Big Coal — even in a puppet-play good cop, bad cop sense — is potentially useful. It permits actions that were previously not possible. I could start to go into what these actions might be, but this probably isn’t the thread for that.

I also question the “we’ve created a budget now that the budget is zero” bit. In fact there is no actual budget, and things could always get worse. We could go up to 4 degrees, 6 degrees etc. So anything that keeps the coal in ground would probably still lead to us “overshooting our budget”, but prevents the even worse things that would happen.

39

kidneystones 06.13.15 at 1:09 am

@37 “Pissing your pants and screaming” is the default behavior of cranky infants, so there’s that.

Re: optimism. The question is simple: do you believe that life is materially better for large numbers of people today than it was a century ago. In my view, the answer must be a resounding yes. The larger half of the population of the western world has yet to enjoy a full century of equality under the law. Women won the vote for themselves less than one hundred years ago. The list of positive developments is virtually endless. I rank improvements in dentistry during my lifetime one of the great unrecognized blessings.

Is the world perfect? No, thank god. We need to do much more to reduce inequalities and improve living standards for greater numbers of people. A little democracy here and there wouldn’t hurt, either.

We’re living, in many cases, lives our parents and grand-parents could not even dream of and we tell our kids this every day. Getting to this point cost a lot, the least we can do is enjoy it as we try to improve the general good.

40

John Quiggin 06.13.15 at 1:10 am

“calibrated to a high assurance of avoiding runaway catastrophe ”

The Doomsday Clock was at two minutes to midnight when I was born. High assurance of avoiding catastrophe has never been a relevant concept for me. It’s all about improving the odds.

41

Matt 06.13.15 at 1:44 am

I think it is monumentally unlikely that the world will stay within the 2C carbon budget. I think that the target will be well overshot by 2050. Later there might be expensive active measures working over decades to centuries to draw down atmospheric CO2. Or if people don’t bother to do that, or societies collapse to the point that people can’t do that, there’s a ~100,000 year wait for natural geological carbon cycling to scrub the CO2.

Any billionaires reading this thread? Millionaires? OK, if you’re not in one of those groups, and you think that the situation calls for measures beyond normal political participation, direct sabotage against fossil fuel facilities might buy us a couple more decades before blowing the carbon budget. Or not. China’s emissions are greater than the EU and USA combined, and I don’t think democratic politics or monkey wrenchers are going to reverse its emissions trajectory.

There’s always more history still to come. No matter how badly the carbon budget is blown, people can still make the problem relatively worse or better in the future. It’s not reasonable to just give up and wallow in fossil fuels even if you believe, as I do, that the world is going land in the upper range of IPCC projections. Keep voting, donating to pressure groups, marching, doing that usual boring, weak incremental stuff. It’s perhaps less stimulating than playing Cassandra but it’s no more unlikely to keep the world within the 2C carbon budget. Talking about tiny bits of climate optimism instead of the larger bad news is no more incongruous with believing in climate crisis than talking about favorite pop songs is incongruous with believing that everyone dies and everyone dies alone.

42

kidneystones 06.13.15 at 2:18 am

Overstating the risks of global warming, extreme weather, climate change, has clearly made it much more difficult to persuade people to change behaviors – for example: to consume less and more wisely. Here’s an anxiety-inducing and wildly inaccurate set of ‘predictions’ from ABC News produced by the moral minority to scare the be-jesus out of gullible rubes:

“Appearing on Good Morning America in 2008, Bob Woodruff hyped Earth 2100, a special that pushed apocalyptic predictions of the then-futuristic 2015. The segment included supposedly prophetic videos, such as a teenager declaring, “It’s June 8th, 2015. One carton of milk is $12.99.” (On the actual June 8, 2015, a gallon of milk cost, on average, $3.39.) Another clip featured this prediction for the current year: “Gas reached over $9 a gallon.” (In reality, gas costs an average of $2.75.)”

I haven’t included the link, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find. As someone old enough to know some of the founders of Greenpeace, I am willing to swear on the grave of my mother that there is no lie these individuals will not tell in order to advance their cause. As Mark Kleiman noted in 2007:

“To those who dislike a social system based on high and growing consumption and the economic activity that supports high and growing consumption and maintains high and growing demand (a dislike with which I have considerable sympathy), to those who think that the market needs more regulation by the state, to those who think that international institutions ought to be strengthened in order to limit the scope for national selfishness, and to those (an overlapping but not identical group) that think current attitudes toward maintaining the planet we inhabit are much too casual and insufficiently reverent, global warming is a Gaia-send. It means that the current pattern of activity is unsustainable, and it requires fairly drastic public action on a worldwide scale. Their eagerness to believe the worst (cf. An Inconvenient Truth) is just as evident as the right wing’s denialism. That’s not to say the two sides are equally wrong, just that neither side starts from an impartial position in examining the science.”

Despair is an ideal excuse for the lazy and an excellent disguise for greedy self-interest. I still like the very politically incorrect R. Crumb’s take:http://comixjoint.com/despair-1st.html

Enjoy!

Keiman’s remarks clearly

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kidneystones 06.13.15 at 2:19 am

Points off for sp. and editing errors!

44

Bruce Wilder 06.13.15 at 2:27 am

RP @ 38: What’s the point of either optimism or pessimism if neither one leads to action?

I suppose I am presuming that optimism is leading to action, maybe just not a sensible choice of action. I fully expect conservative and reactionary interests to gradually acknowledge and respond to peak oil, climate change, sea-level rise and so on. Indeed, I think elite reactionaries (business execs and billionaires) tend to lead in some of their responses, being better informed by the machinery of capitalism as it were about business prospects, despite the deceptive propaganda of the business press and mainstream media.

The OP is about evidence in political rhetoric of strategic business response of this kind.

We can say, “look, things are beginning to move in the right direction, even if slowly and late.” At what point does this switch to, “this is too little, too late, we need to panic” because heroic action, drastic constraint is necessary, now, now, now. What I see conservative business executives say is, “we have the ability to adapt and mitigate”. This fits in well with the general attitude of rich people to risk: that they have reserves and power to meet challenges. I think that can-do capitalism spirit could be self-destructive, but I think optimism tends to accommodate adaptionist attitudes, even when it doesn’t intend to, even when it is married, as in Quiggin’s case, to realistic assessments of what is necessary.

Quiggin recognizes that the use of fossil fuels will have to be reduced eventually to zero, and eventually is not that far away (close enough that portions of existing infrastructure will have to be scrapped before it wears out). But, I have trouble reconciling the eventual with the optimism about a political trajectory of too little, too late, anchored on the Right by an adaptationist instinct that is likely to result in policies and approaches that exacerbate the problems — fracking to get five or ten years of natural gas, to be wasted or exported, at the cost of poisoning the groundwater beneath vast tracts of arable land, just to take one example.

RP @ 38: . . . there is no actual budget, and things could always get worse. We could go up to 4 degrees, 6 degrees etc. So anything that keeps the coal in ground would probably still lead to us “overshooting our budget”, but prevents the even worse things that would happen.

No actual budget. A budget would be a political commitment to limit additions of carbon to the carbon cycle, tied to some standard of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere or ocean chemistry that reflects realistic assessment of catastrophic consequences. When I said, zero, I was riffing off recent IPCC estimates that suggested that achieving a 90% probability of limiting global warming to 2 degrees celsius would require massive efforts to recapture carbon from the atmosphere in the second half of this century. That implies that we are already exceeding the carbon budget that would keep us to 2 degrees warming, often taken as identifying a threshold.

The concept that worries me is that there’s some threshold we can cross — maybe it’s 45o ppm and 2 degrees (if that’s even the right correlation, let alone a “safe” non-accelerating threshold) — where the various effects we collectively have in forcing climate and ecological change trigger accelerating climate change or economic collapse or both. Things can get worse. Things can get so much worse that we no longer have the ability to respond effectively, even if manifest catastrophe motivates the political will, and they just go on getting worse, no matter how we try to respond.

It is that threshold anxiety that prompts my concern. I see a lot of denial that threshold anxiety is realistic. And, a lot of potential for a race condition to set into our politics, where the gradual realization that something must be done has a fatal lag built in. Aircraft pilots have an expression for the catastrophic circumstance in which the pilot’s situational awareness regarding the state of the plane falls behind the actual state of the plane, and every thing the pilot does makes things worse: they call it falling behind the plane. To be in control, the pilot has to be a couple of steps “ahead” of the plane: aware of where the plane is, and where the plane will be in a few seconds or minutes. Then, his course and attitude adjustments control the plane in line with his intentions. Otherwise, . . .

45

Bruce Wilder 06.13.15 at 3:00 am

kidneystones @ 39: do you believe that life is materially better for large numbers of people today than it was a century ago?

Yes. Not the same people, of course, but corresponding populations, I guess. Also, life is materially worse for surprisingly large numbers of people or mostly unchanged. There are a lot more people. The population of the U.S. has doubled twice since 1915, and so has the population of the world. The scale of technological civilization has increased more than apace and the rate of technological change across the global space it occupies has accelerated.

kidneystones @ 42: Overstating the risks of global warming, extreme weather, climate change, has clearly made it much more difficult to persuade people to change behaviors – for example: to consume less and more wisely.

Lying about the consequences of our choices, the forces shaping the planet’s future economic or ecological course, or expressing anxiety in the hysterical fantasies of a B-movie, is not particularly helpful. I wouldn’t suggest that it was.

I am talking about the struggle to tell the truth, to understand emergent phenomena and systems, get politics — which is how humans “think” and decide collectively — to respond in way that genuine meliorate the situation.

I think a case could be made — has been gestured at already by others in this thread — that the case is, in the main, hopeless. I don’t know that that is true. I haven’t made those arguments. I am taking the position, heuristically though not from conviction, that the situation can be substantially remedied, and it makes sense to try to motivate political action appropriate to limiting climate change and preventing ecological collapse.

It is an odd sort of optimism that attempts to “improve the odds” by advocating attitudes and delays and adaptive measures that accelerate the inevitable catastrophe. ymmv, I guess.

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Matt 06.13.15 at 3:03 am

We can say, “look, things are beginning to move in the right direction, even if slowly and late.” At what point does this switch to, “this is too little, too late, we need to panic” because heroic action, drastic constraint is necessary, now, now, now. What I see conservative business executives say is, “we have the ability to adapt and mitigate”. This fits in well with the general attitude of rich people to risk: that they have reserves and power to meet challenges. I think that can-do capitalism spirit could be self-destructive, but I think optimism tends to accommodate adaptionist attitudes, even when it doesn’t intend to, even when it is married, as in Quiggin’s case, to realistic assessments of what is necessary.

If you assume that “the rich will always be with us” and they’ll get their way, then can’t-do attitudes could be just as destructive. The most dramatic CO2 emissions decrease ever seen followed the collapse of the USSR. Collective emissions of its former members are still well below 1990 levels. Nothing cuts emissions like mass unemployment, alcoholism, and dying in the gutter. All we need is enough looter-billionaire oligarchs to run every society like Russia circa 1998.

47

Omega Centauri 06.13.15 at 4:04 am

The danger with making too big a deal with the 2C goal, is that more and more people are realizing we won’t make it. Some want to double down on control efforts, but many react counterproductively and develop the “might as well party on” attitude. Personally, I think we won’t be able to muster heroic efforts, but I think renewables are advancing at a pace which will make meeting 3C seem to require little sacrifice. As I see it our efforts today may determine how far above 2C we hit, so our efforts are not wasted, even if the 2C goal appears futile.

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Bruce Wilder 06.13.15 at 4:11 am

Omega Centauri @ 47

So, that whole “threshold” concept just whizzed right by you, did it?

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kidneystones 06.13.15 at 4:33 am

@45 lives “worse, or unchanged.” Is that like O’s jobs created or saved claim? I disagree wholeheartedly. And given the bumper crop of material improvements ranging from global decreases in infant mortality rates, overall life expectancy, social mobility (still very limited, but at least now theoretically and legally possible in most nations), the onus is on you to provide some evidence to support your [implicit] claim that generally life is not measurably better for most people across the globe over the last century. I say it is.

I’m not all surprised to see come out against half-truths and hysteria, as a principle. Your difficulty, I suggest, is not seeing the hype when it’s staring us in the face. As in :
“As the time left to save the planet from uncontrolled climate change gets shorter and shorter….blah, yikes, blah, yikes, blah.” As much as I respect the general tenor of much of the CT content, this lead is built upon some highly suspect concepts.

For example: What exactly is ‘uncontrolled climate change?’ What is ‘controlled climate change?’ Until quite recently I retained what turned out to be an entirely unjustified faith in the integrity of the climate science peer-review process. I have always been aware of the hysterics and outright lies of the ‘forces for good,’ but relied on academics to provide the hard science and skepticism. Instead, they provided ammunition for the hysterics and, as the ABC clip confirms, corporations were quick to milk the hysterics cash-cow for all its worth. Clorox and sundry other brands paid environmental groups millions to ‘partner’ up to the financial benefit of both. A highly significant sub-set of reliable academics assert that the risks of climate change, AGU, extreme weather, or whatever other term you may wish to employ have been inflated for political/economic/career ends. If any part of this comes as news to you, I suggest you get out more and read more broadly.

The arguments for lower and wiser consumption rates are self-evident in many cases, whether we are talking about individual lifestyle choices, or policy decisions. I need to exercise, I don’t need to buy a membership to a gym or a new pair of trainers. Universities don’t need safe spaces, spanking new buildings, and 2,000 dollar chairs. We need better salaries, higher standards, and open minds.

I don’t believe one word of the apocalyptic claptrap currently polluting the discussion on the environment and the sooner we return to objectivity and probity the better.

50

john c. halasz 06.13.15 at 4:46 am

Yes, my attitudes matter more than any external reality. So long as I maintain “objectivity and probity”, all will be right with the world, because I say so.

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kidneystones 06.13.15 at 4:54 am

50@ “Endtimes are nigh. Repent, all ye sinners!” All you’re missing is a bible, a cup, and a tambourine. In case you haven’t noticed a whole lot of people are making a real good buck out of predicting the world is ending. I rank climate science right alongside phrenology.

Feel my bumps.

52

Kenny 06.13.15 at 4:55 am

Of course, oil is still useful even if you don’t plan to burn it. Coal not so much. At least, I know of many important chemicals that are made out of petroleum. I don’t think any of our nylon or pharmaceuticals are made out of coal.

53

John Quiggin 06.13.15 at 6:16 am

” I rank climate science right alongside phrenology.”

Thanks for this. I can safely disregard anything you say from now on.

54

Matt 06.13.15 at 6:41 am

Of course, oil is still useful even if you don’t plan to burn it. Coal not so much. At least, I know of many important chemicals that are made out of petroleum. I don’t think any of our nylon or pharmaceuticals are made out of coal.

Funny that you should mention nylon. Up through the 1950s, coal dominated the world of chemicals production. Coal still dominates in China, where there is a lot of chemical and coal production but a lot less natural gas or petroleum than in North America. Chinese plants transform coal into a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide by reacting it with high temperature steam. This gas mixture is converted to methanol and methanol can then be turned into a huge variety of fuels, plastics, solvents, and other chemicals. When the process for synthetic methanol was originally developed in the 1920s it was, ironically, an environmental improvement because methanol (“wood alcohol”) had previously been produced by charring vast quantities of wood in the absence of air.

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kidneystones 06.13.15 at 8:54 am

@53 Cheers, John. I have to say I expected some push back, but not a complete retreat. I’ll go ahead with a more complete attack on your introductory statement, a statement I’ll allow is perfectly acceptable in most contemporary discussions of the environment, and that should not be judged as your final, or most careful, description of the challenges we face. I’ll note, however, that you have failed to provide any detailed explanation of what “controlled and uncontrolled climate change” might be. Let’s take a look at your opening statement.

“As the time left to save the planet from uncontrolled climate change gets shorter and shorter, the previously glacial pace of movement on the issues has speeded up.”

You cannot possibly be serious. The earth is 4.5 billion years old and is in no need of saving. The idea that any single species could determine the survival of this body is patently ludicrous, so let’s allow that you do not mean that the earth is going to disappear and be somehow transformed into a mass of rubble, gas, and dust orbiting around the sun. Perhaps you mean that a single species is going to render this body incapable of supporting any form of life, and that the earth will be transformed into a second, much larger, moon. This is equally nonsensical.

Hence, my assertion that Bruce could not recognize hype when it’s staring him in the face. That’s my point. Why the hype? What you may mean, but for some strange inexplicable reason simply refuse to state clearly, is that we are currently doing irreversible damage to the ecological system that supports human life, and that prompt action is required.

Given the amount of hair-splitting over definitions and exactness on this site over other I cannot fathom why you would choose hyperbole where clarity and accuracy are clearly called for, given the stakes, as you see them. Or are you so used to mute agreement, that any hype will suffice? Fair enough. You still need to explain how you plan to regain control over the earth’s climate and what you plan to do with climate once you get it. Let’s call that hype, too, and leave it at that.

There are a number of reasons why I compare climate science to phrenology – the first is because its fun. There are some actual similarities, not these are particularly relevant. Both grow out of a need to justify political and economic behavior – phrenology ‘explained’ aptitude and personality, but was used more broadly to justify political actions, the exploitation of ‘inferior races’ and for social and economic ends. See Keiman above on that.

What wins climate science its well-deserved opprobrium is the climate scientists cowardice in the face of bullying by the hysterics. Anyone familiar with the IPCC reports is aware that the dissent I alluded to earlier does in fact exist, and that these dissenting positions are typically shunted into appendices that never see the light of day. The dissenting scientists are so cowed by the very real threat of career-ending punishments that they remain silent when horror stories about the ‘end of the world’ are used to panic the public and make money for corporations. If you are unfamiliar with these cases, I strongly suggest to try to learn more. They’re real.

I defended climate scientists and accepted the arguments about climate change until 2008. I then began reading the dissents, and the more I read the more unhappy I became. Academics do not threaten to destroy evidence rather than subject it to scrutiny. Reputable physicists, statisticians, and mathematicians question the sampling and methodologies of individuals who can quite properly be described as ‘quacks.’

The climate scientists claims of ‘settled science’ have evidently disappeared right down your memory hole. What discipline claims the science is settled? Why the need to change the science from AGW, to extreme weather, to climate change? In what other scientific discipline do these changes occur, and at such a rapid rate? The central argument of AGU resulting from increased CO2 omissions came into question fifteen years ago, when temperature records confirmed record emissions, and no warming.

The CRU emails confirm that leading climate scientists across the globe had no clue as to why, and colluded in keeping their concerns from the public. Does this strike you as best academic practices? Is this how you run your investigations? Theories break down, so don’t tell anyone lest the funding tap gets turned off? I very much doubt it.

New studies of changes in water temperatures may well tell us more about where the heat went, or whether there was actually a pause. The very real problem for me is the combination of confirmation bias, secrecy/dishonesty, refusal to promote dissenting views to the public, and the fact that the same gang of a#holes are still running the show.

I have no doubt that there are a great many good scientists working to learn more about temperature changes and the environment. I wish them every success. I’ve read enough of the dissents to believe that claims of imminent long-term irreversible damage to the ecosystems that support human life have been greatly overstated and that the ‘planet’ is no danger whatsoever.

There are a great number of good scientists working in climate science. I’m not sure, however, if you really are familiar

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kidneystones 06.13.15 at 9:01 am

Apologies for not removing the redundant bits at the end. Cheers, other interests call.

57

ZM 06.13.15 at 9:35 am

Bruce Wilder,

“It does seem to me that eliminating fossil fuel use pretty much completely, even over the course of a decade or two, and constraining energy use generally, would require some fairly drastic, indeed heroic measures on an unprecedented scale of collective action. And the longer we continue to dither, the more drastic and heroic — and counterfactual — effective action becomes.”

This is why I always say we need a rapid response like in wartime.

Things were done very quickly in wartime, the government intervened in the economy eg. in the US they told all the car factories they could not make personal cars any more they had to stick to making military vehicles, and the percentage of GDP that went on military expenses soared even in the context of GDP generally growing.

I went to a talk on the technical and scientific advances of wartime the other day for the ANZAC centenary lectures at the Museum. While in Germany it had been recognised that science was important for the nation, in Australia there was not a national approach to science until WWI.

Billy Hughes was the 7th Prime Minister since Federation in 1901, serving from 1915-23 during wartime. He changed political parties most regularly for a politician from Labor, to National Labor, to Nationalist (these three just during WWI) then Australian, then United Australia, then finally Liberal.

Anyway, he was the first to start a national scientific organisation. This failed before the late Bruce government later started the organisation which was the beginning of our present day CSIRO.

But Billy Hughes’ national science organisation was a good prototype as since he never liked political parties as you can see from his incredibly varied party allegiances — he cut out the politicians and at the helm of the science organisation put the Commonwealth Governor-General, the Governors of the States, and then the Chancellors of all the Universities.

I think this is a very good model for a scientific body to govern Australia’s response to climate change as then the Governor-General and the Governors can work directly with the Chancellors to be most up to date and then tell the parliamentarians they have to adopt the recommended proper measures to address climate change so as to maintain a safe and prosperous climate for young Australians and future generations of Australians, as per their parliamentary duties.

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Rich Puchalsky 06.13.15 at 12:29 pm

BW: “The concept that worries me is that there’s some threshold we can cross — maybe it’s 45o ppm and 2 degrees (if that’s even the right correlation, let alone a “safe” non-accelerating threshold) — where the various effects we collectively have in forcing climate and ecological change trigger accelerating climate change or economic collapse or both. Things can get worse. Things can get so much worse that we no longer have the ability to respond effectively, even if manifest catastrophe motivates the political will, and they just go on getting worse, no matter how we try to respond.”

As far as I know, there is no convincing evidence that such a threshold exists in terms of accelerating climate change. (In terms of economic collapse, who knows.) It’s certainly possible that such a threshold exists. But as far as I know it’s more probable that it doesn’t, and in that case, we still have to act in order to stop us from reaching 4 degrees, 6 degrees etc.

The “we” is the important part that I think you’re skipping over: who is “we”? “We” aren’t the pilot of the plane: we’re the passengers. At best this is a principal-agent problem — we’ve voted in politicians who make the decision of how to respond, but their interests are not our interests. More realistically, it’s not a principal-agent problem because we have very little control over the elite at all. So if “we” are supposed to be panicking, what good does that do? It doesn’t necessarily convince the elite to do anything about the problem.

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ZM 06.13.15 at 1:36 pm

“As far as I know, there is no convincing evidence that such a threshold exists in terms of accelerating climate change.”

This is not accurate. I have seen 3 degrees posited as being the threshold for feed backs like the Siberian tundra melting and releasing methane, and some say lower like 2 degrees. Because these feed backs are complicated they are not included in a lot of climate modelling.

Many scientists say we need to go back to 350ppm CO2e. This is because of the geological records and climate reconstructions of these past geological epochs. For all the history of human agricultural civilisations we have had under 300ppmCO2e in the atmosphere until with the release of greenhouse gasses from the machines of the industrial revolution.

The current level at 400ppmCO2e has never been seen in human history – the last time levels were so high was more than 2.6 million years ago in the Pliocene period. That was when temperatures were cooling – thus allowing the formation of the ice sheets at the North Pole and the South Pole. But now we are at 400ppmCO2e again – and going up rather than down this time – and so then the ice would all melt again like before the Pliocene Period and alligators will live in Greenland again.

That is why having a wartime mobilisation response to return to 350ppmCO2e by 2100 is important.

“The last time the concentration of Earth’s main greenhouse gas reached this mark [400ppmCO2e], horses and camels lived in the high Arctic. Seas were at least 30 feet higher—at a level that today would inundate major cities around the world.

The planet was about 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (3.6 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer. But the Earth then was in the final stage of a prolonged greenhouse epoch, and CO2 concentrations were on their way down. This time, 400 ppm is a milepost on a far more rapid uphill climb toward an uncertain climate future.

In a way, 400 ppm is an arbitrary milestone, like a .400 batting average in baseball. But the fact that no one has batted .400 since Ted Williams in 1941 still says something important about baseball. The same goes for CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere.

The last time the concentration of CO2 was as high as 400 ppm was probably in the Pliocene Epoch, between 2.6 and 5.3 million years ago. Until the 20th century, it certainly hadn’t exceeded 300 ppm, let alone 400 ppm, for at least 800,000 years. That’s how far back scientists have been able to measure CO2 directly in bubbles of ancient air trapped in Antarctic ice cores.

But tens of millions of years ago, CO2 must have been much higher than it is now—there’s no other way to explain how warm the Earth was then. In the Eocene, some 50 million years ago, there were alligators and tapirs on Ellesmere Island, which lies off northern Greenland in the Canadian Arctic. They were living in swampy forests like those in the southeastern United States today. CO2 may have been anywhere from two to ten times higher in the Eocene than it is today. (See related: “Hothouse Earth.”)

Over the next 45 million years, most of it was converted to marine limestone, as CO2-laden rains dissolved the ingredients of limestone out of rocks on land and washed them down rivers to the sea. CO2-belching volcanoes failed to keep pace, so the atmospheric level of the gas slowly declined. Some time during the Pliocene, it probably crossed the 400 ppm mark, as it’s doing now-but back then it was on its way down. As a result, at the end of the Pliocene, it became cold enough for continental ice sheets to start forming in the northern hemisphere. The Pliocene, says geologist Maureen Raymo of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, “was the last gasp of warmth before the slow slide into the Ice Ages.”

What was Earth like then? In Africa, grasslands were replacing forests and our ancestors were climbing down from the trees. (See related: “The Evolutionary Road.”) On Ellesmere, there were no longer alligators and cypress trees, but there were beavers and larch trees and horses and giant camels—and not much ice. The planet was three to four degrees Celsius warmer than it was in the 19th century, before man-made global warming began”

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2013/05/130510-earth-co2-milestone-400-ppm/

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Anarcissie 06.13.15 at 2:15 pm

‘That is why having a wartime mobilisation response to return to 350ppmCO2e by 2100 is important.’

I can’t imagine how you think that could happen politically any time in the near, sort-of-foreseeable future.

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Omega Centauri 06.13.15 at 2:15 pm

The whole 2C number was pulled out of a hat. It was something thought reasonably doable, and thus not so intimidating as to be immediately rejected. The planet survived the PETM, although many species didn’t. The carbon in permafrost will be released slowly because heat diffusion through meters of soil/peat is slow, and at slow rates even much becomes methane that oxidizes to CO2 fast enough that the methane concentration will be limited. Its estimated the rate of release is something like 15% of the rate of current human emissions, very damaging to be sure, but not the end of life on earth. Obviously it behooves us to limit the excursion as much as we can manage, but in any case -especially considering the large uncertainties, 2C is worse than 1C, and 3C is worse than 2C, and 4C is worse than 3C, but there is no actual known cliff that we can approach but must not step over.

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Rich Puchalsky 06.13.15 at 2:25 pm

Bruce, maybe my best way to answer you is with my least successful poem ever. It’s all there: the years ticking away, the observation that no one is really responding, the conviction that optimism is foolish and the realization that pessimism doesn’t necessarily gain you anything.

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ZM 06.13.15 at 2:29 pm

“I can’t imagine how you think that could happen politically any time in the near, sort-of-foreseeable future.”

Paul Gilding’s plan is to start at 2018, then for the first 5 years halve ghg emissions globally through easy ways like conserving energy by lowering uneasily energy use, retrofitting housing, avoiding air travel, installing solar and wind etc. it is all in an article, I can’t recall the title off the top of my head but I’ll look for it tomorrow.

2018 would be an auspicious starting date as it is the centenary of the end of WW1 – so everyone will be thinking about war these next 3 1/2 years anyhow. Whenever anyone mentions the war, just bring up how we need a wartime mobilisation approach now to climate change. If everybody does this then the idea will get popularised quickly as there will be so much discussion of the First World War in the next 3 1/2 yearsbecause it is the centenary.

My great grandfather was a soldier and got a soldiers settlement after the war, then his daughter married my grandfather after the next world war he had been a soldier in. Already the conflicts in the Middle East are said by military experts to be the first conflicts due to climate change because of the droughts before the Arab Spring that meant Russia stopped exporting grain to the Middle East causing food price hikes and shortages. The situation is very bad in several countries. Climate change is already going to get worse because it takes 30 or so years to take effect – this means more droughts, more limits of food exports, and more conflict, unless the countries co-operate to rapidly decrease ghg emissions. The option of a wartime mobilisation response is much better than more actual wars.

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Anarcissie 06.13.15 at 4:21 pm

You’re being rational. I’m talking about politics. In the present state of the world.

65

Omega Centauri 06.13.15 at 8:05 pm

ZM. As far as I’ve been able to determine a two to three decade transition of energy to be fully renewable is an investment of only a couple of percent of GWP. Its a longer commitment than was WW2, but spread over several times the timespan. Will is required, but not really much sacrifice, except for those owning fossil fuel related assets which will have to be written off.

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Bruce Wilder 06.14.15 at 5:44 am

RP@ 62: the observation that no one is really responding

Not to belabor the point, but I think “we” are responding. The response of the globalized elite of billionaires and corporate executives, in particular, worries me.

67

ajay 06.14.15 at 10:59 am

As far as I’ve been able to determine a two to three decade transition of energy to be fully renewable is an investment of only a couple of percent of GWP. Its a longer commitment than was WW2, but spread over several times the timespan.

And of course worth remembering that over that 20-30 year period, we will be replacing most of the vehicle, airliner and power plant fleets of the world anyway – so really the figure that matters is the difference between “building a completely new fossil fuel powered fleet” and “building a completely new renewable fleet”.

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Bruce Wilder 06.14.15 at 9:57 pm

zm@ 63, om @ 65, ajay @ 67

Economists have not exactly covered themselves with glory in their feeble attempts to help people think through the implications of global resource limits and a global policy response. The reasons for the intellectual failure have to do with the degenerate research program of a profession that finds its most remunerative work in the political priesthood. One of the consequences of that failure is that we are left with mere fragments of insight and primitive heuristics like “threshold”.

The timeframes of climate change are admittedly something of a novel challenge both to economics and ordinary political motivation. We are talking about tiny changes in atmospheric chemistry playing out their effects on climate over decades and centuries of volatile weather. CO2 is a trace gas, present in the atmosphere in parts per million. Not surprisingly, the direct and primary — that is, the first order — effects of an increase in the proportion of this trace gas in the atmosphere are similarly tiny. That there’s two more ppm this year than last year has no discernible effect that anyone could isolate or identify, anymore than one can isolate and identify the first-order effect of 10 or more ppm difference between summer and winter. The additional accumulation of atmospheric heat directly attributable to an incremental 2 ppm in one year over the course of that first year is immeasurably small. The aggregate change (from whatever causes) in observable global average temperature over the last century is less than a single degree Celsius.

We are talking about cumulative second and third and fourth order effects of an accumulating change measured in a delta of ppm per annum. On “climate”, which is itself an abstraction of pattern or central tendency from the extremely volatile phenomena of weather. That human beings can even dimly perceive that the chaos of weather is related to an emergent and chaotic “system” of climate is a remarkable tribute to the analytic and pattern recognition capabilities of the human brain.

Still how this will play out on a time-scale of decades and centuries presents a dauntingly complex picture. What will matter will be those second, third and fourth order effects, many of which have not been identified, quantified or put into model perspective.

The concept of a threshold, which policy ought to be designed to pull us back from, was a metaphor cum heuristic introduced to make some sense of what might otherwise appear to be fog of uncertainty. One aspect of it was, indeed, to introduce a salient for political coordination — a clock in Grand Central Station where we could meet at noon.

But, it was also meant to extract from the fog of emerging, tentative and speculative climate science some policy-relevant implications of the science, implications that are known or believed with a high degree of certainty, because they follow from the general outline, foundation or pattern of the science.

I think it is genuinely hard to communicate the science of a chaotic system playing out in a time-frame of decades or centuries. “Threshold” is meant to compress and translate a lot, while still poetically communicating some practically important essential aspects to our common intuitions.

Among the intended intuitions, I believe, is that there’s the potential to set in motion processes and consequences that will not be subject to subsequent policy control.

It isn’t just that 2 degrees may be a politically and economically doable from the standpoint of human capability, it is that anthropogenic additions to the carbon cycle that take atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to 450 ppm may be the limit of control.

The climate “system” isn’t some well-designed machine that we can reliably throttle thru a wide range. It is more like some primitive steam engine. Sure, up to a point — an unknown point! — adding more fuel to the fire causes the steam engine to build more pressure, run faster and put out proportionally more power. It remains under control, the point of control being how much fuel is added to the fire. And, beyond that unknown point, the steam engine blows up!

That’s what emergent chaotic systems do: in relation to small perturbations, they assume a rough sort of cyclic regularity that might poetically be likened to stability, and sometimes a perturbation, maybe because it is a bit larger or is sustained longer, they blow up, spinning out of control before settling down again into a rough stability of cyclic regularity around some new and different point of attraction.

RP @ 58 said: As far as I know, there is no convincing evidence that such a threshold exists in terms of accelerating climate change. (In terms of economic collapse, who knows.) It’s certainly possible that such a threshold exists. But as far as I know it’s more probable that it doesn’t, . . .

I know that the idea of a singular threshold is in the nature of a political coordination device, but it reflects a consensus on the nature of complex chaotic systems, in which tipping points are known to be important factors as well as an informed appreciation for a great range of evidence on wide variety of implicated processes, like the melting of glaciers, release of methane from natural sinks, changes in ocean circulation and on and on.

I started out this comment with a libel of economics, because the translation from climate science is hard enough, but what economists hear and repeat makes the dogs in a Gary Larson (The Far Side) cartoon look like philologists.

Following Nordhaus, one form of economists’s translation has it that preventive policy is in the nature of an insurance policy (as if we can share the risk with other planets in the risk pool). In line with that vacuity that is the macroeconomics of growth, economists have argued that per capita income will increase by three or four times in the 21st century, because . . . trend, and therefore remedying these problems will shave only a small percentage off “growth”. Those with a more leftish perspective have, of course, noticed that the consequences of climate change constitute an externality, but the political conclusion drawn from this insight is that compensation must be negotiated, paralyzing any discussion of constraint and control.

In a more sane world, the coincidence of peak oil and global resource limits with the prospects of climate change would galvanize economic thinking. Instead, only hack Hollywood scriptwriters, eager for a special-effects apocalypse, are motivated to think thru the problem even a little bit. That the productive capacity of natural resources might be eroded, eroding the productive surplus available to restructure economies or otherwise respond to the unfolding consequences of coincident developments . . . well, we have to be optimistic don’t we?

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ZM 06.15.15 at 10:47 am

Omega Centauri,

“ZM. As far as I’ve been able to determine a two to three decade transition of energy to be fully renewable is an investment of only a couple of percent of GWP. Its a longer commitment than was WW2, but spread over several times the timespan. Will is required, but not really much sacrifice, except for those owning fossil fuel related assets which will have to be written off.”

I don’t think this in right. There are lots of things that need changing for both climate change mitigation and adaptation, and also the other sustainability challenges we face.

I do not take the cost estimations very seriously because they do not factor in all the things that need to change, and they also don’t factor in the impacts of regulation on greenhouse gas emitting businesses, or unsustainable businesses. Some can change what they do and stay in the same field, but some fields will just have to stop.

Farming can become more sustainable and have less greenhouse gas emissions by decreasing the amount of animal farming, changing machinery to work on electric battery power (I don’t know if batteries have developed this far yet?). Extra land that was used for pasture that is no longer tenable due to the greenhouse gas budget can be re- or a-forested, which will draw down emissions, but this is quite likely to draw the ire of some animal farmers so the government will have to pay them for their land outright or pay them per annum to act as new forest stewards maybe together with the traditional indigenous owners since it was their land first. There can be more local food production in gardens, community gardens, or unused land that is suitable.

Stationary energy is recognised as one of the easier things to change, to replace with Renewable Energy Technology. But some countries have more potential for renewable energy than others, so you might need international energy grids.

Moving shipping to 100% renewable energy may be possible, there are some prototypes now, but looking at them ship sizes may need to decrease. Aeroplanes need to be banned as their is no way to fuel them except with biofuel which is a waste of crops except for extremely important people like the Queen and Prime Minister and President etc, diplomats can just take boats unless there is a diplomatic crisis. A friend said you could have balloons and such things maybe if people are set on having some air travel options.

Other transport is also an issue — and there are public health problems and social problems with our current over-reliance on personal motor vehicles — so in urban planning more mass transit and more active transport facilities are considered the better option, not just replacing cars running on petroleum with cars running on batteries. Also having people be able to work and go to schools closer to where they live is considered a better idea — which entails what I’ve seen referred to as “retrofitting suburbia”

For climate adaptation, planting urban forests is a good solution to counter the warming associated with both climate change and the urban heat island effect. However you will need more people to look after the urban forests and take the leaf litter away to be mulched and put back into the earth. Another solution to cool down cities and towns and make them greener is to “daylight” creeks and streams that were put into drainpipes, there is a lovely very noteworthy example in South Korea of this, and other examples in other places such as in the USA.

Manufacturing might need to be spread around the world more fairly as Asia probably does not have the renewable energy potential to manufacture such a high amount of goods for the rest of the world like it does now. This means a transformation of advanced economies back to having some manufacturing.

And consumption should be more conservative overall and also more fairly spread around the world too, because there are limited resources so it is not fair for advanced economies to take such a high proportion and less advanced economies have more poverty, and it is not fair for present generations to use all the resources especially in such a disposable way like we do now.

Then as we are also facing declining resources since so many have been used by now, we should be moving to a circular economy — this is where everything gets recycled instead of going to landfill. This is a good idea to save resources and because landfills get quite toxic with all the mix of things people don’t want anymore and even when regulations say plastic has to line the landfill, the plastic lining will not last forever so the toxicity will get into the soil and water at some point down the track anyway. So waste management practices need to change too.

Then low lying coastal areas need to plan for moving people and residences by the time the sea level rise is significant.

And by 2050 experts predict there will be 200-250 million refugees and displaced people due to climate change impacts. Yet look at what’s happening now and at the moment we are not even making progress on resettling the current 50 million refugees and displaced persons. This is the highest number since WW2, but I went to a talk earlier this year and found out it took until 1968 to resettle all the refugees from WW2 — that is 23 years without the increasing numbers we face due to climate change.

These are just a few things off the top of my head, but I am sure you can see why I am dubious about estimates of costs.

70

ZM 06.15.15 at 11:38 am

Bruce Wilder,

“In a more sane world, the coincidence of peak oil and global resource limits with the prospects of climate change would galvanize economic thinking.”

My recollection is this was starting to happen in the years before the Global Financial Crisis, then this made everyone worry about economics and austerity measures and so forth, and fracking started to make more fossil fuel available.

“The concept of a threshold, which policy ought to be designed to pull us back from, was a metaphor cum heuristic introduced to make some sense of what might otherwise appear to be fog of uncertainty. One aspect of it was, indeed, to introduce a salient for political coordination — a clock in Grand Central Station where we could meet at noon.”

I think it was to put off action actually, not to act as a clock but make the clock only start ticking some time decades down the track. Nordhaus was the first to say the threshold was 2 degrees, this was in a 1970s economics paper, not a science paper, and he did not have any scientific basis for this judgement, except it delayed action.

This was a great shame, because as someone has mentioned on CT before, Jimmy Carter (I think it was) had many failings but he tried to get people to cut their energy use and wear extra jumpers in winter instead during the oil crisis. If Nordhaus had said 1 degrees in his early 70s article, then America could have continued to conserve energy like Jimmy Carter suggested and start to move to renewable energy in the 70s and 80s with a science program like Kennedy’s moon landing goal.

This would have made better foreign policy as then US foreign and military policy strategists wouldn’t have made up policy deliberately to provoke or go to war in the Middle East in the 80s, 90s, 00s, 10s. Strategically planning for wars in the Middle East was a deliberate goal of policy by the 1980s, I know this since our former Labor party Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley (who was also defence minister in the Hawke (and maybe Keating?) Labor government in the 80s and 90s, and whose father was also a parliamentarian), wrote an article about how a US official tricked him into agreeing Australia would be involved in all these US led upcoming wars in the Middle East and Kim Beazley only realised he was tricked into this agreement afterwards.

“Among the intended intuitions, I believe, is that there’s the potential to set in motion processes and consequences that will not be subject to subsequent policy control.”

Due to geological records James Hansen says this limit is 350ppmCO2e, so we should be aiming to return to 350ppmCO2e by the end of the century.

I have found the article I mentioned above for the wartime mobilisation plan by Paul Gilding of the University of Cambridge, and Jorgen Randers of the Norwegian School of Management: The One Degree War Plan (2010, Journal of Global Responsibility, Vol 1, No. 1 pp. 170-188).

There is a 2009 draft version available here http://theclimatepsychologist.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/One-Degree-War-Plan.pdf

Below is an excerpt with the suggested timeline for action, however I will note the Draft version leads to 390ppmCO2e by 2100, whereas the final published journal version leads to 350ppmCO2e by 2100.

“[I]n private, often late at night, when we reflect on what we really think and wonder if the battle is lost, it’s a different conversation. The talk goes to the potential for self- reinforcing runaway loops and for civilisation’s collapse. We discuss geopolitical breakdown, mass starvation and what earth would be like with just a few hundred million people. It’s a very strange thing to calmly pontificate the realistic risk of the collapse of civilisation and then go back to work!

Why are the public conversations so different from the private ones?

Changing public opinion and galvanising political and market action is an art rather than a science, but an art made all the more complex by the array of human emotions that discussions like this provoke.

If the messages is too soft – the “win, win, we can do this, let’s not dwell on doom and gloom” approach – people don’t confront the scale of the challenge and find endless reasons for delay. When change is difficult, or failure frightening, then avoidance is a welcome escape.

However, if the message is too hard – the “we’re doomed, it’s a catastrophe, act now or we’ll all die” approach – then people can switch off, switch into denial or worse – into resistance.
….
It is a symptom of the magnitude of the task, that even with the dramatic action we propose, our plan sees warming increase above one degree temporarily in the middle of this century, before falling back to plus 1 degrees C by 2100.

We suggest fighting the One Degree War in three phases:

1. Climate War. Years 1 – 5. Modelled on the action following the entry of the US into World War II, this would be the launch of a war level of global mobilisation to achieve a reduction of 50% in climate gas emissions within 5 years. This crisis response would shock the system into change, and get half of the job done. We call it “C-war” for brevity. This is detailed in section 6 including a summary of the C- War’s emissions reductions and their distribution among sectors (Table 2).

2. Climate Neutrality. Years 5 – 20. This would be a 15 year long push to lock in the 50% emergency reductions, and move the world to net zero climate emissions by year 20 (Year 2038 on our assumptions). This will be a major global undertaking, requiring full utilization of all technological opportunities supported by behaviour and culture change. We call it “C-push”. This is detailed in section 7.

3. Climate Recovery. Years 20 – 100. This would be the long haul effort towards global climate control – the effort to create a stable global climate and a sustainable global economy. Achieving this will require a long period of negative emissions to move the climate back towards the preindustrial “normal”. For instance, some refreezing of the Arctic icecap will require removing CO2 from the atmosphere through geo-engineering actions, like burning plantation wood in power stations and storing the emissions underground using CCS. Also enough solar capacity will have to be introduced to power and heat the world without the use of fossil fuels. We believe humanity can complete the job by year 2100, and name it “C-century”. This is detailed in section 8.”

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Rich Puchalsky 06.15.15 at 2:31 pm

BW: “Not to belabor the point, but I think “we” are responding. The response of the globalized elite of billionaires and corporate executives, in particular, worries me.”

I can only repeat that they aren’t us. Sure, the global elite is responding, in a sense. If anyone not in the elite isn’t satisfied with that response, it makes no sense to talk about “we”. There is only a “we” in a *political* sense if there is some kind of functioning political mechanism that causes the values and interests of the large mass of people to influence the people who make the decisions. There isn’t currently such a mechanism. Obviously there is a “we” in the sense that we’re one species on one planet and we’ll all suffer together (sort of — wealth can buy your way out of a lot of suffering) but that’s not a useful way to look at the project of getting a political outcome past opposition when the conflict is exactly an elite vs mass phenomenon.

ZM: “Nordhaus was the first to say the threshold was 2 degrees, this was in a 1970s economics paper, not a science paper, and he did not have any scientific basis for this judgement, except it delayed action.”

I don’t see the basis for the last clause in that sentence. As far as I know, global warming activism started pretty much everywhere in the 1980s, later than Nordhaus’ paper. I don’t think someone can be said to have delayed action that wasn’t really in prospect at the time. In particular, Carter’s energy conservation and alternative energy pushes were not about global warming: they were about not being dependent on foreign oil. (His 1997 national energy plan objectives were: “a. In the short term, to reduce dependence on foreign oil and to limit supply disruptions. b. In the medium term, to weather the eventual decline in the availability of world oil supplies caused by capacity limitations. c. In the long term, to develop renewable and essentially inexhaustible sources of energy for sustained economic growth”.) Global warming activism took off in the US and UK largely around 1988.

I recommend these two short articles:

a history of 2 degrees
social movements and climate change

I know something about this: that poem I linked to earlier itself has links to what I was doing at the time. (There are no links to the ads in the middle section because they’re unarchived.)

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ZM 06.15.15 at 3:40 pm

Yes, but Carter’s approach would have segued nicely into a climate change mitigation program. Then think of where we would be by now.

A review of the history of the 2 degrees target says it started with Nordhaus and then police makers adopted it. In 1975 Nordhaus wrote

” As a first approximation, it seems reasonable to argue that the climatic effects of carbon dioxide should be kept within the normal range of long-term climatic variation. According to most sources the range of variation between distinct climatic regimes is in the order of ±5C, and at the present time the global climate is at the high end of this range. If there were global temperatures more than 2 or 3 above the current average temperature, this would take the climate outside of the range of observations which have been made over the last several hundred thousand years’’

I don’t see that his reasoning was scientific, especially since agriculture has only been around for a small fraction of “the last several hundred thousand years”, and anyway the information is wrong as you have to go back millions of years to see 450ppmCO2e, as I mentioned above.

As I don’t think his reasoning was very sound, and he could have just said that there should be a great scientific effort for renewable energy technology, like the moon landing program except actually useful, I can only think he just decided on 2 degrees C because it would mean the issue of action could be put off.

Also, if you look at that time period, in 1972 The Limits to Growth was published, and you also have the start of neoliberalism.

“William Nordhaus (1977) originated the characterisation of greenhouse gas emissions as externalities, whereby rational agents acting in their own self-interest despoil the common-pool resource of the Earth’s atmosphere by using it as a global greenhouse sink. Climate change within the neoliberal, market framing is held to be an instance of the tragedy of the commons (Bunzl 2009). The atmosphere is regarded as a public good, owned by no one with identifiable individual property rights.

The idea that carbon emissions have costs and benefits naturally leads on to the idea that “CO2 is a commodity,” which can be valued and traded like any other. This means “it has a price, which is the outcome of supply and demand, and is amenable to the application of the traditional economic tools of valuation (Helm 2005:15). Nordhaus summed up this approach in pithy fashion:

“… Economics contains one fundamental inconvenient truth about climate change policy: for any policy to be effective in slowing global warming, it must raise the market price of carbon, which will raise the prices of fossil fuels and the products of fossil fuels… the ‘carbon footprint’ is automatically calculated by the price system.” (Nordhaus 2008:20-2)”

(Workers and Trade Unions for Climate Solidarity: Tackling climate change in a neoliberal world by Paul Hampton)

But the Crown here or the equivalent in the US system has the responsibility for the air anyhow, which is what the greenhouse gas emissions pollute.

So you can see, after making up a target of 2 degrees without good grounds (and that just delayed action even though the oil crisis was a good reason to move to renewable energy and there could have been a policy like the moon landing program), then again in 2008, after concern for climate change had been building, Nordhaus tries to delay action again by proposing a carbon price — when there is a financial crisis and no everyday person wants their costs of living to increase and the economy to change in more unsettling ways.

Nordhaus could have suggested the moon landing program approach in 2008 since he missed the opportunity in 1975, and this would have kept people’s spirits up in the financial crisis as it would be such a great endeavour to look forwards to like the moon landing. But he just suggested a carbon price which, as we saw in Australia, people do not like very much even at low proposed carbon price figures, let alone at the high carbon price figures that would be needed to move away from fossil fuels and enact the numerous other changes I mentioned some of above.

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Rich Puchalsky 06.15.15 at 4:42 pm

ZM: “Nordhaus could have suggested the moon landing program approach in 2008 since he missed the opportunity in 1975”

Criticizing what he wrote in 2008 sounds fine: criticizing what he wrote in 1977 as “delaying action” sounds anachronistic. Arrhenius discovered the greenhouse effect in 1896, and figured that doubling CO2 concentration because of releases from human sources would cause a 5-6 degree rise in temperature, but (based on 1896 release rates) he thought it would take 3000 years for that to happen. I don’t think he was delaying action either.

Nordhaus’ economic thinking fed into the whole cap-and-trade idea, which was implemented for the acid rain control program in the U.S. And since I’m going to keep on talking about that poem until someone else says something about it, that was the source for the lyrics in the R.E.M. song “Fall On Me” in 1986 about buying and selling the sky. That program remains, as far as I know, poorly studied in terms of what actual effect it has (my impression is that the purchasable permits never did anything: that reductions were caused by regulation) but in any case that approach was not widely adopted for GHGs and I think could never really have been, for obvious coordination reasons. So I don’t have a problem with saying that his economic approach failed.

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ZM 06.16.15 at 3:15 pm

“Criticizing what he wrote in 2008 sounds fine: criticizing what he wrote in 1977 as “delaying action” sounds anachronistic.”

I studied history so you always get to criticize what people said in the past. I can’t think of a good reason for Nordhaus to have decided on 2 degrees, so I think as it wasn’t scientific he just chose it as it delayed action from starting in the 70s. He wrote a regretful article last year, so I guess he wishes he had not made up a target without any scientific underpinnings that delayed action so long and is now the popular limit even though scientists say it is too much of a rise in average temperatures and we should have 1 degrees as the limit.

I have read of a couple of scientists that posited theories of climate change due to carbon emissions from machines earlier in the 19th C, although I hadn’t read that at least the person you mention thought effects were so far in the distant future as 3,000 years. I have never heard of him, so I can’t make a judgement about if he was trying to delay action or not.

I like your poem. In Australia we were taught about climate change in the 1980s in primary school. It seemed very far away though and not something we could do much about ourselves, although there have been a number of alternative houses around here with solar power etc for a long time.

In the late 90s we had the Millennium Drought, which lasted for over a decade. The man made reservoir Lake Cairn Curran near where I grew up dried up almost entirely and you could walk on most of it. But a lot of action was focused on saving water rather than mitigating climate change. Although I will say our Shire has a higher than average number of solar panels installed per residence and one of the smaller towns here is planned to be one of the first renewable energy towns in Victoria and there are other sustainability initiatives driven largely by the community. The 100% renewable energy town is supposed to be an example of how government and community can work together. Also in the Garnaut Report (Ross Garnaut is an Australian economist who has worked on climate change) a local initiative to reduce the emissions of industry in our shire was one of the case studies.

” Well I would keep it above but then it
2005
Bodies floating by in New Orleans wouldn’t be sky any more

2009

Can we agree on cap and trade? Buy the sky and
We can make a scheme for trade sell the sky and
They say they believe in trade lift your arms
They don’t believe in trade ”

I do not think cap and trade is a good idea either. Maybe if they started a couple of decades ago it might have helped, but it is too slow now. That is why I think a wartime mobilization style approach -but to suit America it can be like the moon landing program too and they can try to be ahead of Russia and China in becoming sustainable and moving to negative greenhouse gas emissions – is a good idea.

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