The Question isn’t of Saving the World via Renewables but of how Much can be Saved

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Humanity is not abandoning fossil fuels fast enough to avoid some massive changes to our world’s climate, with all the implications that change has for sea level, coastal erosion, extreme weather, and desertification and drought. There have been impressive advances in adoption of solar and wind technology in 2015, but compared to the crisis, it is not nearly enough. I say this not to provoke despair but simply to underline that the crisis can be bad, or worse, or the absolute worst. We get to decide for future generations the kind of world they will live in.

The overriding question is how bad it will get. I am going to talk to an American audience, because the US is the one place where all this is still controversial (!), and this country produces 5.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, among the highest per capita emissions in the world. I am therefore going to use Fahrenheit, since the Centigrade system confuses the 315 million Americans and downplays the threat.

All this is on my mind because I’ve been teaching history and climate change, and I think a historical sense of relative change over time is useful here. There is no point in talking absolutes.

Basically, and despite the more optimistic goals adopted in Paris at COP21, the world is locked into a rise of 3.6 degrees F. (2 degrees C.) already. Note that that is an average rise of surface temperature, including Antarctica, the cold oceans (most of the world’s surface area), etc. So if you are on land in a warm place like Arizona or California, it isn’t just that instead of a hot summer day being 115 F. in the shade, it will be 118.6 F. in the shade. The 3.6 degrees increase on average could take you into the 120s F.

The only question is, will we go on up from there– to 7.2 degrees F or 12 degrees F. average increase? Because that could make Arizona south of Flagstaff uninhabitable in the summer.

So, will we keep to a 3.6 degrees F. average increase, or go on up to 5 degrees, 7 degrees (click on this link to see what that would mean), 10 degrees? That’s the question.

James Hansen, the founding father of contemporary climate change science when he was at NASA, believes that a 3.6 degrees F. increase is already potentially deadly– and that is what we are bequeathing to our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren; more would be deadlier yet.

The problem is that there are potential tipping points into new, complex or chaotic climate systems, and the hotter we make it the more likely we are to set off a tripwire. If we warm up the frozen methane clathrates on the sea floor of our continental shelves, they could burp up the most potent warming gas known, and lead to a one-two punch of warming, as may have happened in the distant past. Paleo-archeologists in Sweden found evidence in the soil of a 10,000-year-long stationary storm during a very warm period of the earth’s past. That might be hard on your roof.

Likely Miami and New Orleans are already gone. New York and Washington D.C. substantially gone. Don’t bequeath your grandchild a house in West Palm Beach. Southern Florida is where most of the state’s groundwater comes from, but the soil down there is limestone and porous, so rising sea water is going to seep up into the aquifers. Miami will be submerged, because no dike system can keep the water from welling up underground. A lot of Floridians will have to move north or the state will have to put in a lot of solar desalinization plants (but those will gradually be submerged, too, so you’d have to keep rebuilding them in each generation).

But then the question becomes, whether we will also lose cities at higher elevations– 10, 15, even 30 or 40 feet above sea level.

So I am arguing for a sliding scale. The more emissions we avoid now, the less bad it will be in the future.

There is no economical way to remove carbon from the atmosphere once it is there. About half of it will go into the ocean over the next few hundred years, causing increased salinity and a die-off of probably half of marine life, the fish on which many humans depend. The rest will be washed out of the atmosphere by binding with igneous and other rocks, over 100,000 years. If, because of celestial mechanics, we had another peak glaciation period in our future over that 100,000 years, as happened 40,000 to 12,000 years ago, it has been forestalled. The species homo sapiens sapiens is probably about 120,000 years old and largely evolved in relatively cold conditions. We have now set up a future as long as our own past of Hot World, a world very unlike the one we evolved to be adapted to.

Every ton of carbon dioxide we avoid now (and Americans put out on average 16 metric tons of CO2 a year per person) is a temperature increase that doesn’t happen. When I moved into my present home in the early 1990s I put in insulation, which substantially cut my natural gas heating bill. I put solar panels on my roof and got an electric car a couple of years ago. I figure in just those 2 years I’ve avoided something like 7 or 8 tons my household would otherwise have emitted. And the insulation was more carbon avoided. A gift to my, and your, grandchildren. Not everyone can do this; some people are renters or take public transportation and are probably already more virtuous than I. The task before us can’t be accomplished anyway by individuals, but that is no reason for us each not to do our part. That is part of my argument for scalability.

Germany shows that a mature, growing economy can move relatively rapidly to renewables for electricity generation. In 2015 about a third of German electricity came from renewables. While some complain that its price for electricity is high, that is a trick. Germans put in insulation and got more efficient appliances, so they actually spend less on electricity than Texans even if their cost per KWh is higher. Anyway those price comparisons always leave out the environmental impact of fossil fuels. Coal looks like it can generate electricity for 5 cents a kilowatt hour. The real cost if you look at lost real estate, health costs in cities like Beijing and Delhi, etc., is probably closer to 48 cents a kilowatt hour. So Germany’s electricity from renewables is much cheaper in reality.

Germany did it by providing financing for the soft costs of renewables– installation, etc., which are increasingly the bottleneck in the US. The state of Michigan gave me no help whatsoever with my panels and in fact apparently wants to punish me for putting them in. Michigan has lost a million people since I moved there in the early 80s, and could benefit from an enlightened energy policy. This situation shows that Mark Twain was wrong when he said, “Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.” Fleas would have the sense to respond to being cooked by high temperatures.

My own university, the University of Michigan, has among the more backward energy policies of any major university in the country. Ohio State leased a wind farm that will supply 25% of its electricity. The University of Hawaii is going completely green by 2045. The University of Michigan still plans on emitting like 510,000 tons of CO2 a year in 2025, down only slightly from today’s amount (there is a greenwashing element in the story, since this projected amount is a 25% decrease from 2006 levels– but the baseline should be 1990, since emissions increased enormously after Kyoto). If even universities, which ought to be centers of enlightened thinking and innovation, feels no more urgency than this, what can we hope from everyone else?

So, this thing is on a scale. We are going to a 3.6 degrees F. average increase. We could go to 5 degrees F or 10 degrees F. You or rather your great-grandchildren won’t like a 10 degrees F. increase. You won’t even like 3.6 degree F. very much (it won’t kick in for a while). It is up to you how bad it is going to get.

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26 Responses

  1. I have already advised my younger relatives and acquaintances that they will live in interesting times. We are now at 400 ppm of CO2 and CO2 remains in the atmosphere for something like 100 years. So, even if we freeze the level at its present state we will probably see the raise of 3.6 degrees F. The problem is that we could get to a situation where the climate goes into a self-reinforcing cycle. For example, if much of the ice melts, that means less reflection of the sun back into space (the albedo effect) which increases temperatures more. What happens, for example, if it becomes too hot in the Midwest to grow the grain crops traditionally grown there? There are so many possible negative results and many which we may not even foresee at this point, that I fear things will get really bad. I think that the only hope is if some technology advance allows humanity to take CO2 out of the atmosphere.

    • We actually do know several different processes for taking CO2 out of the atmosphere; the most obvious one is growing lots and lots of plants, and then sinking them in peat bogs or similar.

      But there are also several industrial processes which remove CO2 from the atmosphere, such as two different forms of carbon-negative concrete.

      But first we’ve got to stop spewing the CO2 *into* the atmosphere. (“When you’re in a hole, stop digging”)

  2. With the warming we have now it’s restricting the use of ice roads in the Northern communities of Canada. They’re not freezing in a timely manner, and they’re not freezing as ‘hard’ as they used to freeze a decade ago. Permanent roads aren’t likely to be built quickly enough to replace them, and portaging things in the summer isn’t really an option anymore.

    An earlier spring, a later fall (winter really, there isn’t much of a fall in the North) means a longer summer melting season. The permafrost is already melting, and the situation is far more dire than many want to admit.

    homo sapiens sapiens is misnamed. We should have called ourselves homo perniciosasque fatuis

  3. Dr. Cole, I liked your piece today, “The Question isn’t of Saving the World via Renewables but of how Much can be Saved.” However, I think there is an error in the second paragraph: The U.S. produces 5,046 million tons of CO2 per year, not just 5.4 metric tons per year. Thanks for your work.

    Charles Seabrook
    Decatur, GA

  4. I think one of the pillars of climate doom is the anti-tax rhetoric and philosophy of the Right (which easily seeps into the Left because no one has figured out how to put lipstick and rouge on taxation).

    As people discover they are in harms way from global warming (say by reading this blog), their instinct will be to expect the government to come to the rescue, as it does with localized disasters. But on the scale of harm pointed by Prof Cole, massive action will require massive funding, thus massive taxes. Unfortunately, with the current political climate, nearly every politician in the US will call in sick, or spout anti taxation cliches, if the subject of raising taxes is on the docket.

    We have no political problem spending half a trillion a year on Defense. So maybe a pervasive mantra of turning aircraft carriers into windmills and bombers into solar panels could work. Probably not.

    • A carbon tax that forced producers to abandon polluting and expensive fossil fuels and sped up R&D could be sold on security grounds.

  5. If the current chaotic weather patterns are not sufficient evidence that something is amiss it’s not clear what will be. The present human response shows not only a lack of intelligence but an appallingly low level of character.

    • Frank Messmann,

      Interestingly enough, James Hansen says the same thing in his book Storms Of My Grandchildren. He says a different approach to nuclear power was researched, tried, and near prototype-perfected at Argonne National Lab and then was belligerently terminated for some vulgar political reason. Since I am not a nuclear engineer, I could only dimly understand what he was describing.

      He writes about something called a “Full Fast Reactor” or something. The neutrons inside the fuel are moderated lightly enough that they can travel fast enough to destabilize and “fissionize” many other nucleii that they hit. These then fiss with the release of energy and neutrons and so on till 97% of the theoretically possible available fuel in the fuel sample is fissed all the way down to stable isotopes. The 3% remaining is supposedly species that have half lives of tens to hundreds of years rather than thousands of years or more. They supposedly release little enough energy when they fiss that they can be mixed into meltable glass-feedstock which is then cooled back into glass, and solidly storable that way. It is called vitrification.

      The notion of “Fast” reactor may have been tainted by association with the “Fast Breeder Reactor” which isn’t really fast. It is only half-fast. Its sole purpose was to serve as sneaky “nuclear power” cover for the production of plutonium, which was the real purpose of the “Fast Breeder Reactor”.

      So perhaps the Full Fast Reactor deserves a fresh look the way James Hansen says it does.

      • Nuclear plants would be fine as a temporary transition but the public doesn’t want them, they take years and billions to build, and given how quickly and efficiently solar and wind installations can be put, up, I think the nuclear plants are just a distraction in the US. Ain’t gonna happen.

        • Hansen himself may have been advocating the Full Fast-Cycle Reactors as a baseload-supply transition on the way to something better. His feeling was we are carbon skydumping so fast we have to stop NOW and only Full Fast-Cycle Reactors can jump into the breach.

          The sudden suppression of the Full Fast-Cycle Reactor research deprived the public of a chance to even hear about it ( beyond off little corners of the web, paragraphs in Hansen’s book, etc.) When the public, including me, thinks of “reactors”, we think of the fragile mega-polluting light water reactors such as at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima. What public would want those? But if the public got its hands on information about Full Fast-Cycle Reactors, the public might do a re-think. The public might still reject the concept. But the public at least deserves the information to think with. Hansen must have been thinking that way when he put it in his book.

      • 40 and even 50 years ago scientists were saying that nuclear fusion was the way to go and we would have it in about 25 years. They are still saying it is at least 25 years away. One of the benefits of being older is I have heard a lot of this b.s. before. If the process you describe were feasible and economic, some power company would have produced it. The fact that nothing further has happened should tell you something. There are probably difficult engineering problems that haven’t yet been solved. As it is now, nuclear fission plants not only take 10 years or more to build at a cost of billions of dollars, decommissioning one takes almost as long and costs about as much, something proponents usually leave out. A quick off the cuff calculation tells me that for the cost of one nuclear power plant you could probably provide solar power for several hundred thousand homes without the same problems and create more jobs. When you figure in the cost of decommissioning, double that number of homes.

        • I too remember the endless hype about fusion. Intuiting by analogy, one could certainly feel that any discussion of fission reactors of a design other than Light Water reactors is also hype.

          Since I am just a lay amateur science buff, I sometimes have to take scientists’ word for things. I do my best to understand the science. Hansen is certainly not a nuclear engineer. Yet he has revealed himself to be a careful thinker who does not stray from the data. Would he offer a data-free opinion about Full Fast-Cycle FISSION Reactors? Should I automatically assume so?

          On the other hand, I do remember having watched a PBS program about the “pebble bed” reactor research going on at Argonne National Lab, and its sudden shutdown. Is this “pebble bed” the same as Fast Cycle that Hansen describes?
          Google is now so crappy a search engine that I can’t find referrences to things on it that I remembered seeing on it years ago. All I could find was this article by an Earth First activist claiming that “new fission reactor” designs are also all hype. I don’t know how to take it. Maybe Hansen has been fooled. But maybe this Earth First guy is some sort of special pleader for his own agenda. Here is the link.
          link to theecologist.org

          Now, before accepting that “if it were profitable, Big Electro would have bought some”, I would want to know if the electric utilities and the coal/gas/oil companies have interlocking directorate webworks and incestuous mega-share stock block cross ownership patterns. If they do, why would they permit adoption of a technology threatening to their fossil carbon assets? Why wouldn’t they conspire against it the same way they are conspiring against solar/wind/etc today? Given the immoral nature of carbon corporate leaders, I wouldn’t accept “if it were profitable they’d do it” as the last word on analysing their actions.

        • Nuclear fusion? As I always say, we have a giant nuclear fusion reactor located conveniently 92.96 million miles away from us. The sun.

          There are numerous calculations showing that we can power the whole world with solar power *very* easily. We just need to do it.

  6. I take issue with one statement “because the US is the one place where all this is still controversial”. If only! Unfortunately, it is also still highly controversial where I live – Australia – a country with more solar and wind energy than it knows what to do with. Our, thankfully recently departed, Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, a (man-made) climate change denier, was responsible for ditching Australia’s carbon pricing scheme on entering office. Our current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is still largely adopting Abbott’s policies – though he has softened the government’s negative stance on wind turbines. Australia is not far behind the US in carbon emissions per capita, and by some measures worse:
    link to smh.com.au

    Moreover, many in the government would seek to minimize reduction commitments. Fortunately our population is not that large. But Australia, the world’s second largest coal producing country, is still contemplating allowing development of what will be one of the world’s largest coal mines – Adani’s Carmichael Mine.

  7. What you have already done is great but there are other reasons people can’t afford solar panels and electric cars — cost. It is still cost prohibitive for many people, and some states, like southern states, actually make it harder for people with taxes on electric cars, lack of charging stations, taxes on solar panel systems, etc. Incentives on these things should be a no-brainer for governments but they are reluctant to get off oil and natural gas, and you can tell that by the politics and policies.

    • A lot of it lies in finance. If people could roll solar panels into their mortgage everybody in sunny states would get them.

  8. We should stop having kids and hand the planet over to robots and AI

  9. Unfortunately, not only do we need to work our hardest to reduce carbon and methane emissions but we also need to be working on minimizing the damage. Even in ‘liberal’ Massachusetts where I live and it seems like everyone either has or is planning to get solar panels, there is almost no discussion of what needs to be done to protect Boston and Cambridge from flooding and no one is talking about how to respond to the eventual flooding of most of Cape Cod. People object to the refugees from Syria but no one is thinking about the 40 million refugees we will see from Bangladesh.

  10. If we can keep global warming down to the currently “baked in” level, we probably actually can protect most of New York City — Manhattan is on a very steep piece of bedrock, and so is Brooklyn Heights. I’ve worked through the sea level rise maps a few times; southern Long Island will have to be abandoned, but that’s not a great loss. Newark will have some serious problems.

    Likewise Boston and Cambridge will need help, but it’s doable.

    South Florida is *completely* doomed already. Everything south of Orlando will have to be abandoned, and probably quite soon.

  11. Presumably as the world grew warmer the population living in colder climates would use less energy to heat living space. Space heating has always typically more energy than air-conditioning as shown in the study done by the EIA Energy Information Agency. Presumably as the climate moderated in the Northern USA and Canada, less energy would be consumed for space heating with proportionately much less used for air-conditioning. The growing energy eater are appliances and that could be constrained and made more efficient.
    link to eia.gov
    Heating and cooling no longer majority of U.S. home energy use
    For decades, space heating and cooling (space conditioning) accounted for more than half of all residential energy consumption. Estimates from the most recent Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS), collected in 2010 and 2011 and released in 2011 and 2012, show that 48% of energy consumption in U.S. homes in 2009 was for heating and cooling, down from 58% in 1993. Factors underpinning this trend are increased adoption of more efficient equipment, better insulation, more efficient windows, and population shifts to warmer climates. The shift in how energy is consumed in homes has occurred even as per-household energy consumption has steadily declined.
    While energy used for space conditioning has declined, energy consumption for appliances and electronics continues to rise. Although some appliances that are subject to federal efficiency standards, such as refrigerators and clothes washers, have become more efficient, the increased number of devices that consume energy in homes has offset these efficiency gains. Non-weather related energy use for appliances, electronics, water heating, and lighting now accounts for 52% of total consumption, up from 42% in 1993. The majority of devices in the fastest growing category of residential end-uses are powered by electricity, increasing the total amount of primary energy needed to meet residential electricity demand. As described in yesterday’s Today in Energy, increased electricity use has a disproportionate effect on the amount of total primary energy required to support site-level energy use.
    Other notable trends in household energy consumption include:
    • The average U.S. household consumed 11,320 kilowatthours (kWh) of electricity in 2009, of which the largest portion (7,526 kWh) was for appliances, electronics, lighting, and miscellaneous uses.
    • On average, residents living in homes constructed in the 1980s consumed 77 million Btu of total energy at home. By comparison, those living in newer homes, built from 2000 to 2009, consumed 92 million Btu per household, which is 19% more.
    • Space heating accounted for 63% of natural gas consumed in U.S. homes in 2009; the remaining 37% was for water heating, cooking, and miscellaneous uses.
    Heating and cooling no longer majority of U.S. home energy use
    USEAGE % used 1993 % used 2009
    Heating 53.1 % 41.5 %
    Air conditioning 4.6 % 6.2 %
    Water heating 10.3 % 17.7 %
    Appliances 24 % 36.6 %
    (Appliances includes Electronincs and Lighting)

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