Is Carbon Lost Cause?

Browsing a Royal Society Phil Trans special issue on geo-engineering and reading a paper by Lane and Montgomery tempts me to ask: is carbon a lost cause?

After twenty years of laborious efforts, the plain truth is that greenhouse gas [GHG] control proposals have so far failed to move the needle on global emissions. Even in Europe, where the social consensus for GHG reduction is supposedly strongest, emissions continue to grow.  Where GHG emissions have fallen, underlying changes in economic structure may have played a bigger role than climate policy. ….

Global emissions must fall to roughly twenty percent of business as usual projections by mid to late century, if the goal is stabilization at 550 ppm CO2 …  Existing GHG-free energy technologies, and incremental improvements to them, cannot accommodate this growth at realistic costs. … Even if … signatories had lived up to their commitments, the [Kyoto Protocol]’s impact on global temperature would have been trivial. …


For America, Kyoto … very likely made compliance a net loss. … The fact that Russia is again refusing to accept even a nominal GHG cap points to that country’s deep lack of enthusiasm for the entire venture of international controls. … Initially advocates of unilateral controls argued that, if the U.S. adopted GHG limits, China and would promptly follow suit. However, during the Clinton Administration, the U.S. offered to adopt GHG limits if China and India did likewise, and China and India spurned the offer. …

[For] the spread of Green ideology … to work with GHG control, the same or equivalent Green world view must take root in the populations of all major emitting nations. … A very long process of social transformation would be required before the hoped for culture shift could possibly become widespread enough to make a difference. …

If progress is defined only as movement toward global cap-and-trade with universal adherence to strict targets and timetable, prospects are bleak. … Some form of muddling through has much better prospects. … agreement on a set of specific actions that each country will take contingent on others doing the same … This pledge and review process is unlikely to produce large and immediate reductions in GHG emissions.

Sure, many feel "something must be done" about carbon emissions, and "something" will be done, perhaps even at substantial cost.  But the world is eager to consume the vast tasty feast that is our oil, coal, and natural gas reserves, and unless a world war installs a world government to police a green ideology inquisition, it seems feast we will.  Politically feasible policies might delay this by a decade or two, but without a drastic revolution it seems all that carbon will go into the air over the next century or two. (Might I be wrong? I’d love to defer to decision markets here.)

Artificial volcanoes or cloud-seeding ships seem so cheap that if allowed they’ll likely stop disastrous warming, though heat redistributions may hurt.  But it seems hard to avoid carbon emissions making oceans more acidic, and so without drastic improvements in carbon sequestering, we’ll likely kill most coral reefs and dependent ecosystems.  These are real losses, but note we could probably more than compensate for lower fish catches via serious property rights in ocean fishing.  And let’s not forget, our descendants should be quite rich overall, in part from that carbon feasting; most could afford a few disruptions. 

Bottom line:
as with rising medical costs, it seems politicians can’t win by solving the problem; they can only deflect blame for failure.  You might think "Maybe prospects are dim, but we have to start somewhere, right?"  No, when a cause is lost it can be better to switch to not-yet-lost causes.

Concern about the distant future is so rare, and that future so important, it seems a shame to waste it on carbon if that cause is lost.  If your concern about global warming wasn’t just symbolic displeasure at tech or materialism, and you really were willing to work today to help folks in a century or two, consider instead saving for them, preparing for our new robot overlords, or making futarchy real.

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  • Stuart Armstrong

    Concern about the distant future is so rare, and that future so important, it seems a shame to waste it on carbon if that cause is lost.

    I don’t think that concern about the future comes in finite amounts, a precious resource that must be doled out only where it is needed. Someone concerned about carbon emissions is generally more likely to be concerned about other future worries as well – in some people (including some politicians), carbon emissions serve as “gateway worry” that points them towards other concerns (the argument does not apply to experts, of course, who really have opportunity costs when focusing on one area – but hiring redundant experts is cheap compared with the cost of these problems).

    and unless a world war installs a world government to police a green inquisition, it seems feast we will.

    That’s gratuitous. Do you have any serious reason to believe that every option between the current situation, and a world governmental green inquisition, will fail?

    These are real losses, but note we could probably more than compensate for lower fish catches via serious property rights in ocean fishing.

    The reform of property rights is something we should be doing anyway. I don’t believe that it becomes less likely if the world focuses on carbon emissions as well, hence I feel it is irrelevant to the argument. In fact, the kind of cooperation needed to make carbon emission agreements work is the kind of cooperation that makes such a reform more likely.

    Dealing with Carbon emissions should be decided on the merits and real opportunity costs, not the opportunity costs of “not worrying about other issues”.

  • michael vassar

    What incentives are there for accurate idea futures 200 years out?

    I don’t see much chance that there will be economic reasons to burn coal or gas 50 years out. 40 is a bit of a stretch. That’s without any government action. Oil is a different matter, but its price is rising anyway.

  • http://www.midasoracle.org/ Chris Masse

    Excellent post, for once.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/mporter/ Mitchell Porter

    As the signs of climate change become more pronounced, such an attitude will become increasingly implausible. For people currently in their twenties, this is not a matter of looking out for their 22nd-century descendants, it’s about their own lives a few decades from now.

    For developing countries, there is similarly a limit to the rationality of avoiding action by saying that developed countries made most of the emissions historically.

    If the developed world finds emission reduction quotas that are calculated on some basis of historic responsibility unpalatable, it may be cheaper for them to work with the developing world on new energy technologies instead. I have tried to interpret some costings from a European study here, and came away with the impression that a “business as usual” future scenario, in which energy investment occurred in an economic framework which disregards environmental externalities, would see 6% of annual gross world product invested, while a scenario which sought to limit atmospheric CO2 to 450 ppm required 7%.

    Try thinking of the countries of the world as energy exporters, developing energy importers, and developed energy importers. It’s not a perfectly accurate framework, but it lets us see certain trends. For example, in the 1990s all the economic power was with developed energy importers (USA, Europe, Japan). But in the past decade, energy exporters (Russia and the Gulf) and developing energy importers (China and India) have become independent centers of economic power. Therefore, any agreements on climate change mitigation will not merely reflect the self-interest of the developed energy importers. But as I’ve just argued, it is also in the self-interest of the developing energy importers to eventually strike a deal that works. Even the energy exporters will feel the effects of climate change in the near future, not just the distant future, though their economies are generally so dependent on energy sales that in their case there really is a powerful incentive to preserve business as usual. Since most “old energy” companies in the West are now trying to position themselves as “new energy” companies as well (e.g. BP’s interest in solar power), perhaps the energy-exporting countries could be brought into a deal by persuading them to make strategically similar decisions: invest their old-energy profits in development of new-energy technology, and so remain energy powers. (I note that Abu Dhabi is building on a zero-emissions “city of the future”.)

    OK, nothing in Robin’s post says all of that is impossible. He simply predicts that mitigation efforts will be conducted wastefully, and appeals for people interested in the very long-term future to consider adopting other causes. My counter-proposition is that climate change is not a long-term issue, it is a middle-term issue that interacts with short-term issues of supply (of fuel, food, and other commodities). For politicians and policymakers to rationally ignore it would require a widespread conviction that miraculous relief from the problem was coming in the near term. Basically, it would require Singularity ideology to become universal (and I suggest re-reading Lane and Montgomery, but substituting “Singularity” for “Green”, for an idea of how plausible that is). How to rationally combine sustainability futurism and Singularity futurism is an interesting question, but I don’t think this is it.

  • http://www.scottaaronson.com Scott Aaronson

    Robin, I agree with your pessimism but take it a step further. You make the implicit assumption that, if emissions aren’t cut drastically, there will be a few bad consequences like dead coral reefs and lower fish catches but humans will basically be able to adapt. This assumption is not obvious. The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets have been melting faster than just about anyone expected–underscoring that, to the extent there are uncertainties in the science, they often work against us rather than for us. We could see a phase change to a completely different climate pattern. And as I mentioned before, things like artificial volcanoes could at most provide temporary relief, since the amount of SO2 needed (and hence the bad side effects) increases with the CO2.

    So while I think the chance of serious mitigation is about as remote as you say, I see no other option except to put up a fight.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Scott, there must be ways we could try to adapt to a climate phase change. For example, moving people out of costal areas? I’m not saying it is obvious we would survive, I’m saying working on that problem could be more useful than trying to hold back the flood of carbon emissions.

    Stuart, what evidence is there for this gateway worry model? Do you think there is no limit to the number of distant future issues we can have many people consider in depth all at once?

    Michael and Mitchell, you both lost me.

  • http://www.scottaaronson.com Scott Aaronson

    Robin, I have no doubt whatsoever that huge resources will go into adaptation—but that will happen on its own, as the consequences become more and more intolerable and people either pay for remedies (levees, relocation to inland areas, etc.) or else demand them from their governments. What won’t happen on its own (for well-understood Tragedy of the Commons reasons) is a solution to the underlying problem, and that’s why I find it more important to focus on the latter.

  • Grant

    Scott,

    I think what Robin is saying is that because of the Tragedy of the Commons, it won’t happen period. Individual governments don’t have much incentive to plan decades out, and most can’t even decide what is or isn’t a public good, let alone provide them with much efficiency. Even among the few serious carbon-emitting nations, the transaction costs for a Coasian bargain seem too high. If a world government came onto the scene things might change, but that might impose other costs that are worse than climate change.

    Carbon sequestering seems to be the most promising thing to me, as do the many carbon-neutral biofuels people are trying to produce (LS9, e coli-produced ethanol, etc).

  • Curt Adams

    The Chinese have changed their tune on GHG controls as they realize the water control implications of melting the Himalayan glaciers. I haven’t seen anything on the Indians but they’re even more affected than the Chinese so they would probably be willing to deal too. So the geopolitical situation is better than in the Clinton days, although it’s still tough.

    And let’s not forget, our descendants should be quite rich overall, in part from that carbon feasting; most could afford a few disruptions.

    Not entirely. Things which don’t increase with economic growth and which lack good substitutes, like land, historical sites, and ecosystem services, become much more valuable as wealth increases, so the disruption of climate change increases with wealth. Indeed, many of these things are superior goods so it might even be worse. Losing Venice will be probably even more agonizing to our wealthy descendents as it would be to us. We appear to be bumping up against fossil fuel limitations so energy will join the list of precious items, at least until solar power becomes cheap. That in turn will cap our ability to make real changes in the world. The terraforming-type activities that might be hypothesized as solutions to climate change may well be too expensive for our descendent in spite of their wealth because they will require so much then-expensive energy.

    In addition a great deal of the carbon feasting wealth is getting wasted because it’s being spent on consumption or based on a pricing regime with easily feastable carbon. The US has spent a large portion of its carbon feast on suburban sprawl, which will lose most of its value once oil gets expensive. Likewise tourism infrastructure loses most of its value if long-distance air travel becomes expensive again.

  • Carl Shulman

    Scott,

    How would you guesstimate the chances of global warming occurring much more rapidly and with much more damaging effects than central tendency estimates (e.g. IPCC estimates), so that it becomes a serious threat to the survival of civilization? Climatologists generally estimate that most of the expected damage is in the unlikely right tail of the distribution (sometimes deriving this result from the initial assumption that extraordinary disaster is a priori more likely than not: http://www.jamstec.go.jp/frcgc/research/d5/jdannan/prob.pdf).

    Could you make a rough comparison between your subjective probabilities of surprisingly apocalyptic global warming and strong AI (or brain emulation) development within 50 years?

  • PI

    I think the real problem with the geoengineering proposals Robin mentions is that you’re committed to them due to the mismatch of time scales. CO2 stays in the atmosphere for about a century, and much of the excess CO2 we’re putting up there will be around for millennia. By contrast, aerosols and cloud manipulation occur on annual or sub-annual time scales. That means if we stop doing geoengineering for some reason, its counterbalancing effect will disappear in years, and we will see all of the suppressed climate change come back in more like a decade or two instead of stretched out over a century or more (however long it’s been since geoengineering was started). Such rapid change would be much worse than almost any worst-case climate change scenario otherwise being floated. How well can we guarantee that the world will remain committed to geoengineering for the necessary centuries — that we won’t stop doing it due to unforseen side effects, war, lack of foresight, etc.? What if countries start geoengineering their enemies’ climates and they’re classified as weapons of mass destruction? And so on.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Scott, just because we have a commons problem doesn’t mean there is much you can do about it.

    Curt, do we have any evidence on Chinese tune-changing, beyond cheap talk? Agreed that much damage will be to things highly valued at the time.

    PI, yup, geoengineering disruptions, especially due to war, will be a serious concern. But I don’t really see that we have a choice but to bite that bullet.

  • Carl Shulman

    Please ignore/delete the last line of my previous comment.

  • David Hodgson

    “Scott, there must be ways we could try to adapt to a climate phase change”. Define ‘we’. Humanity in total? We are not looking at a binary issue. Some adaptation is possible. The question is how much and for who? The rich and privileged or those in Darfur?

    And then we must take into account that the carbon issue is only a small piece of the environmental puzzle. Look at the degradation of the oceans, between overfishing, acidification, the plastic gyre in the pacific, dead zones from agricultural runoffs. And third the mass extinction event, now that we have entered the Anthropocene Era. Humans currently use on the order of 40% of the earths plant based photosynthetic capacity – as well as degrade much of the rest.

    This interview with William Catton is illuminating and worth your time.

    Also are you familiar with the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross? The phrase quoted would appear to be from the ‘bargaining’ stage of her taxonomy..

  • Sociology Graduate Student

    I’m all for exploring geoengineering, but I’m note quite as pessimistic about the prospects of cap and trade / pigou taxes.

    Why can’t we force China and India to regulate GHG by threatening retaliatory tarrifs?

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Aside from the particulars of the carbon issue, there seems to be the more abstract political/philosophical issue of how to handle large-scale problems that require collective action, particularly those that require trans-national action. We have some imperfect mechanisms for state action, but very few that work globally.

    The people here tend to be individualists; I wonder if examining recent theories of collective agency (ie, this paper, which I have not yet read) would be worthwhile.

    Since people are themselves a bundle of divergent desires, the problem of collective action and decision making and individual decision making don’t seem that far apart to me, but I’m weird.

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: I don’t see much chance that there will be economic reasons to burn coal or gas 50 years out

    Coal and gas will be used in other ways, though. Organisms are made of carbon. Carbon will be needed for all the graphite/diamond engineering we will be doing. Today’s carbon mining will turn out to have been very useful – since it brings the vital element of carbon into circulation.

  • Floccina

    Biochar (also called agrichar or terra preta) could provide a cheap solution and if a sloution is cheap enough people will act.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    We already have the solution for global warming: nuclear power. (It’s true that nuclear power plants can help people build nuclear bombs – but the US, Russia, China, and India, which are collectively most of the problem, already have nuclear weapons.) It’s just a question of whether we will decide to use them before it’s too late. This could happen soon if we educate people about how much more toxic and dangerous coal-burning power plants are than nuclear power plants.

    All the effort spent pretending that we’re going to become energy-sufficient using turbines and solar power is worse than useless; it just delays actually dealing with the problem by building more nuclear power plants. Ethanol has the theoretical potential to help, but with present technology it is also worse than useless; it requires more than one gallon of ethanol’s energy to produce a gallon of ethanol in the US.

    According to this study saying that arctic permafrost contains vast carbon reserves dwarfing the amount we are releasing, taken together with this one saying it will almost all melt this century due to our carbon emissions, it may be too late to try to stop global warming 40 years from now, or even 20 years from now. Or even now.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Phil, nuke power is a good deal on the margin but I’m told there just isn’t enough nuke fuel for it to replace other power wholesale.

  • zao gao

    With all this discussion of global warming, I would love to see a study that actually lays out the good effects alongside the bad. People are in the mindset that change is bad, and surely there will be negative effects, but how do they compare to the positive?

  • michael vassar

    Robin: Breeder reactors can make all the fuel we want.

  • Leonid

    Robin,

    Your analysis seems correct, assuming no revolutions happen in technology. But what if we could make one happen? Nuclear fusion could potentially supplant fossil fuels altogether. We know that nuclear fusion is theoretically possible, so this is just an engineering problem (though obviously a very tough one). Yet the effort and the money spent on solving it can not be even compared with the money spent on the petroleum industry.

  • Curt Adams

    Curt, do we have any evidence on Chinese tune-changing, beyond cheap talk?

    They’ve become much more serious about alleviating ecological damage. There was an article (journalist/editorial, not research) in a recent Science about major restoration efforts on the Tibetan Plateau. Nothing on the scale needed to fix their contribution to global warming, admittedly, and the Three Gorges Dam isn’t coming down. But I think they will be serious simply because the loss of the glacier and snowcap buffering will make their rivers much more seasonal – they will really hurt from major rivers drying up seasonally. That same article mentioned the nine traditional tributaries of the Tarim River are down to 3 and they’ve abandoned the lower 300 miles of the Tarim to the desert (it flows into a dryvalley, not the sea).

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Even if we could develop a non-warming energy tech, we would face the challenge of convincing the rest of the world to forgo the convenience of burning the oil/coal they have, using infrastructure already built for that purpose. It is hard to imagine this new tech being so cheap as to induce this behavior.

    Curt, doing a bit of restoring the Tibetan Plateau is a long way from being willing to cut way back on coal/oil use.

  • Leonid

    “Even if we could develop a non-warming energy tech, we would face the challenge of convincing the rest of the world to forgo the convenience of burning the oil/coal they have, using infrastructure already built for that purpose.”

    Most of the oil burning is done by countries with very little oil of their own (US, Europe, China) and no economic interest in keeping high oil consumption. As for changing the infrastructure – following changing oil prices Brazilian automobile industry switched from gasoline to ethanol and back three times. It is not impossible.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/mporter/ Mitchell Porter

    Robin, my main thesis is that climate change mitigation is not a lost cause. The bulk of my comment offered some reasons why not. It is a complicated enough topic, both intrinsically and in relation to other imperatives, that I cannot prove it, but can only introduce considerations opposed to those listed by Lane and Montgomery. Prominent among these are that extreme events are happening right now and will continue to happen (e.g. in the Arctic), and that the further ahead in time you go, the more personal the issue of climate change becomes, as it increasingly exacerbates the immediate risk of famine, natural disaster, etc. Those are powerful spurs to effective action.

    My secondary thesis is that your approach is consequently a bad way to promote an interest in other forms of concern about the future. Say that they matter too; say something about how they might interact with recognized priorities, if you can; if you’re daring, say that climate change can be stopped more easily than people realize, or that it will be easy to do so after a Singularity that is coming soon. But don’t say it’s hopeless or that it’s just an exercise in futuristic charity, because (in my opinion) neither of those positions can be sustained.

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: surely there will be negative effects, but how do they compare to the positive

    Melting of ice caps will help prevent reglaciation – and might help end the ice age.

    For details, see: http://timtyler.org/end_the_ice_age/

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Re: surely there will be negative effects, but how do they compare to the positive

    In the long run, it may make no difference. In the short run, it has mostly negative effects, because everything living is adapted to current temperatures.

    Say x_n is a vector (x1_n, x2_n, …). Imagine a continuous high-dimensional mapping x_{n+1} = = f(x_n). You start at x_0 = (x1_0, x2_0, …). For every i (representing a species, or a major adaptive “decision” by a species), the current point is updated with a period typical for i, ranging from hours to decades depending on the value of i, in this way:
    xi_{n+1} = xi_{n} – epsilon * gradient of f(x_n)[i] (steepest descent in the dimension representing i’s utility).

    Imagine this function has had ten thousand years of gradient search in this fashion. Your current value of x_n is represented by a steel ball rolling “downhill” in that space (although because this is a mapping from many dimensions into those same dimensions, I am misleading you a bit here, because the level of the ball is represented in only 1 dimension). Now you take the multidimensional space and give it a good shake. What are the odds the ball will end up lower than it was after 10,000 years of gradient descent? Not good.

  • http://www.daublin.org Daublin

    Mitchel, I plowed through your first response, and you describe an interesting framework for the international cooperation issues. However, that part is two steps ahead. How do you address the more basic problem that no country seems to have made truly significant reductions in CO2 emissions lately? If even Kyoto’s mild demands are proving too difficult to comply with, then what basis do we have for thinking there is a humane way to live with 20% emissions?

    This is a major elephant in the room for anyone wanting to adjust the climate by modifying CO2 emissions. There is no known way for a to reduce CO2 emissions to a significant degree while also being humane. Drastic population reduction would work, as would deindustrialization, but is there any way that works and is also kind to human beings?

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: In the short run, it has mostly negative effects, because everything living is adapted to current temperatures.

    The Earth contains a wide range of temperatures – the only temperature range that might vanish is at the poles – which are desolate icy wastelands.

    There are a few creatures who will find their temperature range vanishes at the top of the mountain they retreat up – and other creatures won’t be able to migrate fast enough to follow their temperature zone – but basically global warming will make large expanses of Russia, Canada and Greenland much more habitable for many creatures, including humans – thereby having a substantial positive impact on the Earth’s carrying capacity, farming area, and suitability for life.

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: I see no other option except to put up a fight.

    The other option is to enjoy the long-overdue end of the horrifying ice age – and delight in the Earth’s natural fauna and fauna finally recolonising the desolate, icy wastelands of the north.

  • mitchell porter

    Daublin, I’d first refer you to the IEA studies cited in my first link, in particular the “BLUE” scenario in “Energy Technology Perspectives 2008”, which aims at a long-term target of 450 ppm while maintaining global economic growth of 3.3% per annum from now until 2050. I gather that they built a world model, consisting of coupled national economic models, with the various forms and uses of energy disaggregated, and then asked what levels of investment, carbon prices, etc., would suffice to bring about that goal. The answer was apparently not far from what would be required just to produce such growth even without concern for emission levels. (I’d like to see the study repeated with a goal of 350 ppm, which is the fashionable target if you want to have no net temperature rise at all. Let’s get the quantitative bad news on just how hard that is to achieve.) I cannot vouch for the assumptions behind the models, but it is a uniquely detailed study and deserves the attention of anyone serious about the subject.

    Secondly… I don’t know how you feel about the potential of technology, but I am definitely in the camp which says that sufficiently advanced nanotechnology could make the whole problem trivial (whether from a geoengineering perspective or a zero-emissions perspective), and that sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence could do the design work to produce that level of nanotechnology very rapidly. It is reasonable to think that such a Singularity would kill you unless you had already solved the problem of Friendly AI, so just charging ahead on basic AI/NT research is not exactly a recipe for survival. But it does suggest the size of the unexplored regions of design space, and the speed with which they might be explored.

    Suppose you examined the eight sectors considered by the APPCDC, and aimed at a zero-emissions target for each sector; i.e. electricity generated without emissions, cement or a substitute produced without emissions, and so forth. You might look into new forms of rapid manufacturing, combined with Internet distribution of blueprints, as a way to roll out the technologies globally. (There was a news story last year about modifying a desktop printer so it would print out electronic circuits; I wonder if you could similarly produce photovoltaics.) Places like the UAE’s zero-emissions model city, Masdar, can be a testing ground (though one also needs old-style cities, with legacy infrastructure, where rapid substitution strategies can also be tested)… Such scattered innovation is already taking place, I’m just talking about cranking it up by a few orders of magnitude. Al Gore’s moonshot 2.0 project (100% renewable generation of US electricity within a decade) is one likely locus for that.

    As for whether the will exists to do all of this… the Australian experience colors my perceptions; the desire for action on climate was a big reason why the last government lost office, and that came about because of a decade-long drought. I’m not sure how the EU found the will to already initiate emissions trading; perhaps the less democratic, more technocratic character of the European super-state made it easier for a new layer of green econocrats to be added to the system. Both US presidential candidates support sizeable reduction targets for 2050. Japan and Korea are also on board. China has some of the world’s biggest green industries and markets, just by virtue of size and centrality. The pieces are certainly in place for a much bigger effort than has been made so far.

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: As for whether the will exists to do all of this… the Australian experience colors my perceptions; the desire for action on climate was a big reason why the last government lost office, and that came about because of a decade-long drought.

    We should not allow the more equatorial countries to overly influence global policy – simply because they get more of the costs and fewer of the benefits.

    Warming will mostly affect temperatures at large lattitudes – where the effects will be positive. Those areas are often too cold – below the freezing point of water even.

    Ending the ice age is one of the things that humans are doing which is obviously right. Since the configuration of the continents puts the earth at serious risk of reglaciation, we should continue – if not redouble our efforts to melt the ice caps – since they have caused so many problems for the planet in recent eras. Get the planet out of the freezer – and away from the danger zone.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/mporter/ Mitchell Porter

    Tim, you bring up the interesting possibility that there will be serious pro-warming advocacy from some sector of world opinion. Normally it is assumed that business as usual leads to strong warming, that all the positives lie in minimizing that warming as much as possible, and that all the debate lies in how much mitigation we should be willing to strive for or to pay for. But even the IPCC (see “summary for policymakers”) includes a few positives in its inventory of impacts, though the negatives definitely predominate.

    In terms of the purely latitudinal zones of classical geography, the northern temperate zone has the biggest population, followed by the “torrid zone” between the tropics. If it could be shown that northern temperates would really benefit from warming, there might be the basis of a political divide here. It’s hard to see anyone benefiting from a several-degree rise compressed into less than a century, however.

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: If it could be shown that northern temperates would really benefit from warming, there might be the basis of a political divide here.

    The biggest benefits accrue in the furthest north regions – where there are currently few people – because of the whole “icy wasteland” business.

    With a bit of effort, we could turn those regions into something much more like a steamy tropical jungle – but we should not rely on political advocacy from the people who currently live there – because there are few of them. However migration is relatively easy, especially if there are tens of thousands of years in which to do it.

    Re: It’s hard to see anyone benefiting from a several-degree rise compressed into less than a century, however.

    “Global warming is more of an opportunity than it is a challenge for the British tourism industry, if speakers at last week’s the Tourism Society debate are to be believed. According to UK-based The Tourism Society, the debate was opened “with an assault on gloom mongering, suggesting that global warming was good news all the way for British tourism” Tourism Society chairman Roger Heape.”

    “The development of the oil industry is one of the most important components in Greenland’s effort to establish a self-bearing economy,” Kim Kielsen, Greenland’s minister of mines and petroleum, has said. In the shorter term, the country is relying on the rapidly expanding eco-tourism market. Business is already booming in Ilulissat, where hotels are now booked up a year in advance and unemployment is 0 per cent.”

    “The United States is predicted to be one of the tourism winners, with international tourism to the U.S. increasing an estimated 13.7 percent over what it would have been if the atmosphere wasn’t warming up.”

    “The biggest winners: Canada, which they predict will experience a 220 percent increase in international arrivals by 2100, Russia (174 percent) and Mongolia (122 percent).”

  • Ben

    I have rarely seen such bad assumptions.

    Higher carbon dioxide will cause ocean acidification. Yes, by a marginal degree (a tenth of a pH at most, we are talking about trace gases in a highly buffered system, remember). However, multiple experiments have been done with various oceanic wildlife in greenhouses at massively elevated CO2 concentrations (up to 1500 ppm), and to my knowledge, none of them have shown any adverse effects.

    The great barrier reef has an annual ocean temperature variation of up to 10 degrees C along it’s length. How can raising the temperature two degrees destroy the coral? That claim is ludicrous on it’s face.

    Indeed, comparing climate change to annual variation throws a large cloud of doubt over many claims. The Antarctic CANNOT melt due to climate change because CO2 could raise temperatures by 2-4 degrees, but the Antarctic is currently a balmy -20C.

    Please, use common sense when dealing with this subject and research every severe claim on both sides, and remember that everyone wants to deceive you.

  • http://maggiesfarm.anotherdotcom.com/archives/9342-Weds.-links.html Maggie’s Farm

    Weds. links

    Paglia:The witch-trial hysteria of the past two incendiary weeks unfortunately reveals a disturbing trend in the Democratic Party, which has worsened over the past decade. Democrats are quick to attack the religiosity of Republicans, but Democratic ideolo

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Stuart, what evidence is there for this gateway worry model?

    My evidence is anecdotal and from personal experience (another way of saying “no real evidence”). But since the evidence you presented was no stronger on the issue of how people worry, I thought I’d present mine. It turns on the fact that the most sucessful way I’ve found of convincing people to worry about future events is to start our with global warming, and work in other issues after.

    Conversely, from a few conversation where I haven’t taken that approach, I’ve found that unconcern with future risks in general is highly corellated with unconcern about global warming in particular.

    Do you think there is no limit to the number of distant future issues we can have many people consider in depth all at once?

    Of course not, but we are nowhere near the saturation point.

  • http://initforthegold.blogspot.com Michael Tobis

    Ben is substantively wrong on two of his three points to my knowledge and I have suspicions about the third.

    Re ocean acidification: The buffering processes are slow. Equilibration takes centuries. The ocean will take a hit the likes of which it has possibly never seen, or has possible seen 65,000,000 years ago at the paleocene/eocene boundary.

    Re: temperature of the Antarctic interior: Nobody seriously suggests melting of East Antarctica. West Antarctic ice sheet sits on the ocean bottom and may become mechanically unstable with modest temperature increases. Also Greenland may well melt; it did melt in the previous interglacial. Total sea level rise at risk is in excess of 10 meters. (Of course, if Tim Tyler gets his way we are talking about 200 meters. so check the altitude of any real estate you may own before backing him up.)

    Re: barrier reef; it is entirely possible that corals are sensitive to peak temperature; hence even if the statistics of temperature are merely smoothly shifted it is entirely possible that the periods of heat stress may be greatly expanded. I don’t know about this for sure but given his arguments on the other two points I’d bet this one is wrong too.

  • Tim Tyler

    200m is wrong: melting of the Greenland ice sheet would produce 7.2 m of sea-level rise, and melting of the Antarctic ice sheet would produce 61.1 m of sea level rise – not that it’s going to happen any time soon:

    The Greenland ice sheet has huge inertia – it will take a thousand years to melt it.

    The Antarctic looks even more unshiftable: ice five miles thick and temperatures 37 degrees below zero down at the pole.

    http://timtyler.org/tundra_reclamation/

  • Julian Morrison

    I’m thinking… you know the way floating ice doesn’t count, because it’s already displacing exactly its melt volume? So nobody worries about water levels from the Arctic pack-ice. But that implies: the ice doesn’t have to 100% liquefy. It just has to slide off into the sea as slabs, and it will have already displaced as much as melting.

    Does land get more slippery to ice as temperature goes up?

  • http://my.telegraph.co.uk/clothcap Ian O’Clothcap

    Julian. So all of Greenland is down hill? Silly me. What a fool I’ve been. Thank you for setting me straight on that.
    To the various cavemen wannabes. 1. CO two increase is harmless to climate and beneficial to biomass. That has always been and evermore so shall be. There is no EVIDENCE to the contrary. 2. It is not even conclusive the assumed effects of water vapour are correct. 3. Kyoto and a partridge in a pear tree are about as relevant to climate as my last bum burp. 4. That damned Gore’s hot air has pissed off Lovelock’s Gaia and its now PDOing all over. Oh look at that damned AMO. Sunspots are just a fond memory of warmer days. Damn NASA sneaking behind Hansen’s back and proving hot air is as relevant to rapid sea ice disappearance as idiot Branson sprout expeditions carving the ice up. Carbon dioxide poisoning the sea. At last. Everything is now known about about the deep blue. EVIDENCE? Oh that poor coral, only just got established and wham the sea that covered the land and gave it life is taking it back again. Or is it a cycle coral is well used to? Was it 30 metres down that living coral was recently discovered. That invisible friend is some kind of joker… or was it a sceptic plant? Hmm I wonder. I see double glazing company stocks are up in the warming upper climates. Must be from the increasing noise of toasted kiddies forcing sales.
    Even were the co2 nonsense true, C oh two is a very, very popular product, and addictive. Tried living without it? Withdrawal sets in very, very quickly. Thank gods it is free. Oh it isn’t we now pay for common property. I am sometimes amazed at the intelligence portrayed by inertia. As with the inertia to do sfa about its reduction. Co2 output by humans only increases. Oo, oo, (ape talk for) Hawaii have led the world in the pretend reduction frenzy, seen their latest effort? And that despite world class smoothing effort.
    I hope that ostriches and sceptical lepers alike found my insane humour amusing.
    I would ask of some commenters if they lived in a house built of cow dung, or worse, would they turn their nose up at economic development to make activist delusion/illusionists happy??

    Robin, sir, may I reproduce your fine article on my blog? I recommend you look first, you may find it unsuitable, although I hope not.
    I am schitzoid, blog wise. http://my.telegraph.co.uk/clothcaphttp://my.telegraph.co.uk/clothcap2http://my.telegraph.co.uk/clothcap3
    (but apart from this socially irritating refusal to swallow BS, personality near normal – whatever that is)

  • Ralf

    “Even if we could develop a non-warming energy tech, we would face the challenge of convincing the rest of the world to forgo the convenience of burning the oil/coal they have, using infrastructure already built for that purpose.”

    Yes, but a fairly convincing argument would be if these techs are cheaper than the convenience of burning oil/coal. Google has an interesting initiative for that purpose.