It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Difference That Makes a Difference

A lot of people who'd like to consider themselves middle-of-the-roaders seem determined to treat two different but related issues as if they were the same thing. If only they were! If they were, our difficulties would, indeed, be smaller.

The idea seems to be that if we were to make enough progress on things everybody agrees to, we wouldn't have to address our disagreements, and we could bury the debates between science and pseudo-science under a rug. But if that were really possible, we wouldn't have the pseudo-science at all, would we?

The image is lifted from a UK site called Econometrica which has a brief report backing up the cartoon here.



Jonathan Gilligan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Tobis said...

I have no disagreement with you there, Jonathan.

The problem I have is with the suggestion that we should focus on the efficiency question to the exclusion of actually slogging through getting public understanding of the bind we are in. That would make for a calmer conversation, at the expense of it being delusional.

Sometimes it is easier to humor a delusion. Sometimes that option isn't available.

Yes, let's find and work on points of agreement, of course. But circumstances do not allow us to treat that as sufficient.

Jonathan Gilligan said...


I have a slightly different take from the one you ascribe to "middle of the roaders." We do have to address the disagreements; and the things we can all agree to do aren't nearly enough to prevent the kinds of catastrophes that climate change may bring; but since we can't make progress on the most important things right now, let's at least try to accomplish what we can, however inadequate.

Middle-of-the-road conservation and efficiency measures can buy us time in which to continue hammering on the differences and hoping to convert public sentiment to support more aggressive policies.

While it's not the whole picture, CO2 from energy use is the dominant source of radiative forcing. Also, the more we focus on the 200-year time scale on which most assessments believe the worst catastrophes would start to occur, the more CO2 dominates other gases that have much higher radiative forcing coefficients.

So anything we can accomplish in the next decade to promote energy efficiency and conservation can be enormously important even though it's equally important to note, as you do, that this wouldn't come anywhere near solving the problem.

Jonathan Gilligan said...

Oops. I noticed that I had badly edited my comment and deleted, edited, and reposted at the same time you were posting your reply. The edited version just cleans up some typos and punctuation and is otherwise the same as what you replied to.

Grypo Saurus said...

I seem to running into this problem at Kloor's on a daily basis. The inability to separate issues is more than just an "energy efficiency" problem. It's everything. I think we just need to realize that these people do not want to hear what we are saying. The media is very complicit in this. i'm at a loss. Complaining about the messengers is the usual tactic.

Tom said...

Perhaps middle of the roaders have different qualities from you dead-enders. (Such as the ability to think quantitatively, among others.)

Perhaps lukewarmers understand that it is not possible to do everything at once.

Perhaps lukewarmers understand that a consensus formed of those willing to act, as opposed those all too willing to hector, criticize and exhort is the group to aim for.

Perhaps all can see that your position--waiting for unanimity before stirring from your comfortable sloth--works better for Beckett than for a planet.

Michael Tobis said...

Well, okay, that was a tad more interesting anyway.

The sort of image that springs to my mind is Tom Fuller in West Berlin ca. 1985, pummeling the wall with his fists and whining that nobody is helping.

This leads inexorably to the disturbing image of same Berlin Tom, ca. 1990, taking credit that the wall is down...

Addressing the problem at its actual scale is not doing nothing. On the contrary, addressing the problem at a grotesquely inadequate scale is doing nothing, except inflating your ego and bruising your fists.

King of the Road said...


The problem, or at least one of the many problems, is that well-meaning people will still fasten upon reasons to not have to demand actions and policies that dramatically alter the lifestyles with which they've been brought up since birth and have passed on to their progeny.

People such as Tom Fuller, who say "I believe human emission of GHGs is a serious problem and the we must make changes to address this problem, and it can start with Priuses (Prii?), LED lights, distributed generation of electricity via rooftop solar panels, etc." sound extremely good to the well-meaning folks described above.

I made some rough calculations a couple of years back regarding my family's carbon emission and tried to include the emissions embedded in our food and consumer purchases, transportation, energy at the house, etc. Admittedly, they were very rough (and indicated our emissions at about twice what the "carbon footprint calculators" on the web showed) but, to get to what was the recommended goal for our family of four (I think the recommendation was based on some aspect of an IPCC report but I'm not sure) we'd have to reduce our emissions by 95%.

I'd estimated that carbon emissions related to our food alone were 8% of our total, so we'd need to eliminate all non food related emissions and reduce our food related output by 37.5% to meet the target.

What kind of national policy can lead an American (or a Canadian, for the matter of that) to accept something like this? Even if I grow my own food, generate solar electricity to charge whatever devices I might use for transportation, recreation, etc., I'd still need to make everything my family would use with materials acquired locally.

It seems to me that mitigation of consequent damages, geo-engineering, and CSS combined with increases in efficiency are really the only possibility. How good those possibilities are I can't say.

Thus, approaching our dilemma through concepts such as reduction of dependence on hostile foreign countries, reduction of our trade deficit, freeing up of discretionary funds, etc. is likely to be the best that can be done. Framing a solution involving mitigation, CSS, and geo-engineering with a baseline of what can be done through efficiency may be the only solution with a chance of working.

I'm reluctant to come across as a "lukewarmer" or "middle of the roader" but the fact is that, in my opinion, there are the proverbial two chances to succeed by approaching this through forcing people to simply face the facts.

Paul Daniel Ash said...

I'm sympathetic to those who say "half a loaf is better than none," without question. I do wish that they'd at least allow for the possibility that what looks like half a loaf might actually be a crumb in terms of having any appreciable effect at all on global climate change.

To restate what I wrote on a previous thread: this is not to say that efforts to encourage efficiency, a demand-side bottom-up approach to lowering the cost of entry for residential PV, changing development patterns in sensitive areas, and carbon capture and sequestration (or cascading stylesheets, whatever) are futile and meaningless gestures. They are not, clearly.

But the chance is very real that they are also not, in and of themselves, sufficient to alter the climate change trajectory in any significant way. The fact that advocates of these measures seem so reluctant to even allow for that possibility is curious to me.

Michael Tobis said...

Almost all energy can be substituted, but the substitute sources are each problematic in their own way. I think solar/thermal wins easily in a sunny country like America, but if every country has to solve the problem by itself, there will be a lot of nukes. The algae trick looks like it might work.

I will be absolutely astonished if I live to see the day when these can compete on price against unregulated coal.

CSS is part of HTML, the markup language of the web.

CCS, in the form of CO2 injected into geological formations where methane used to be, seems less plausible to me than it did at first, especially if done by private interests who can quite undetectably cheat. But some sort of carbon drawdown does have to be part of the picture. I'm leaning toward the olivine approach.

The food picture scares me the most. I have stopped buying meat though I will eat it at restaurants or when served by friends. I think meat will have to be a rare luxury and mostly pastured. Our wierd symbiosis with the cow may have to end. But even so, nitrogen fertilizer seems to be made of natural gas in some weird sense, and I don't think we can support the current population without it. My casual efforts to do numbers on this problem have failed so far. I suppose we can make enough methane from sawgrass when it comes down to it?

The question of how these restraints will apply to rich people vs poor people vs everybody else is very difficult.

In short, it's big, and it requires a collective, worldwide negotiation.

I don't want to sell individual efforts short (I do have the Prius and the vegetable protein and the tofu, myself, as well as, most importantly, zero offspring) but emphasizing them is really all about the deck chairs.

We have a big problem.

King of the Road said...

Argh. Yeah, I'm familiar with cascading style sheets, sorry for the typo.

The bottom line for me is that a solution, if it exists, will revolve at least as much around engineering as around behavioral modification. A big part of that engineering will, in my opinion, relate to efficiency, a big part will relate to energy storage to enable effective deployment of intermittent resources, a big part will relate to transmission and to distribution, and other massive engineering projects.

We may have a moral right to demand that the developed world massively change its behavior but we have no right to believe it will happen if we want to ground our beliefs in reality.

Marlowe Johnson said...


There is a good chance that biochar will meet both your fertilizer and CCS requirements in many situations. Not all, but many. Algae biofuels, are IMO, a dead end in much the same that hydrogen fuel cells are. For algae to succeed, other more promising alternatives like switchgrass, need to fail. It isn't that difficult to imagine a world where homes are heated with ground source heat pumps, vehicles are biofuel plug-in electric combos, and all electricity is some form of renewable, or renewable with storage). It goes without saying that this will be more difficult in some parts of the world than others, but I'd suggest that the technologies to get there are much closer to market than some might think.

Embedded emissions are indeed tricky and there is no doubt that much more work is needed to convey the implications. Which leads me to two of the toughest GHG nuts to crack -- steel and cement, both of which are pretty integral to western civilization.

manuel "moe" g said...

Ashamedly, I am obese. Over my lifetime, not having a very expensive medical intervention would have the biggest effect on reducing my lifetime carbon footprint (not even factoring in that the costs of the medical intervention don't correctly account for the cost of the carbon emissions involved).

I am profoundly disappointed in my belly's reluctance to conserve.

Looking over my first paragraph, maybe carbon taxation on only those with household income of $175K, which is about 8% of the population, would cause a lot of right changes to happen. I would have a magnificent reason to lose weight, because my health insurer would be on the hook for not only the medical intervention, but a staggering carbon emission penalty, and would charge fatties like myself with appropriate premiums. (Nothing special about 8% - I was embarrassed to find how "exclusive" my household income percentile is. It turns out I am one of those vile people who out-earn practically everyone but still whines about cutting-back, just because I choose to self-servingly compare my income to Buffet and Gates.)

Really, you would have to tax only the income over $175K, tax luxury spending much much more than income, tax wealth as a way to retroactively tax carbon emissions in the past, etc.

The question would come down to: the rich cannot buy enough air-conditioning to overcome a boiling world, what is their grand-children's existence worth to them? If the Canadian Inuit have the only viable lifestyle, today's rich will have a hard time converting their wealth into bowed weapons, animal pelt mukluks, and an appetite for chewing hunks of blubber. The actions of the rich will be interesting to observe. I imagine it will go down like the end of the Roman Empire, where a primitive lifestyle was an attractive alternative to being oppressively taxed to try to sustain unsustainable contradictions of economics, infrastructure, and governance -- and a lot of lives were lost to the blades of barbarians, no matter how large or how small their contribution to the collapse was.

Michael Tobis said...

Sawgrass and similar can't scale up adequately even to greatly impact the liquid fuels requirement, never mind the overall carbon balance because it competes for land and water with food crops. see here.

Marlowe Johnson said...


My point wasn't about switchgrass in particular, but biomass crops more generally (i.e. switchgrass, sorghum, miscanthus, poplar, etc.). Different crops for different conditions. And many of them can be grown in poor quality soils (many of them are basically weeds after all).

The food vs fuel question is an important one to be sure, but I'd suggest that it is nowhere near as black and white as you suggest. Like it or not, bioenergy crops will be part of the future. Will this impact food prices? Of course, but the more relevant question in that context is what impact will oil and natural gas have on food prices, not biofuels. To put it in perspective, California currently adds a 30 gCO2e/MJ indirect land use change penalty for corn-based ethanol under its LCFS (it's about 70 without IIRC). That puts ethanol from natural gas at slightly better than gasoline on a lifecycle basis. Many (including some folks at the EPA) are less hardass about ILUC, and think that the net effect is smaller when you include all first and second order impacts (e.g. higher grain prices --> higher meat prices --> less beef/more chicken =lower ag emissions).

In any case, I agree that you'll never replace all gasoline/diesel supply with biofuels, nor would you want to. In the Fewchur (i.e. 2030-2040), transportation energy consumption will probably be close to 80% electricity and 20% biofuels. Considering that close to 10% of the gasoline pool is already ethanol that's not much of a stretch.

For a good overview on the problems with algae fuel google check out Robert Rapier's blog.

guthrie said...

Yes, concentrating on efficiency stuff leaves aside the simple fact that the only way we can make the required cuts in CO2 output is by changing the nature of our energy generation.
But in turn efficiency can greatly lower the threshold of energy required, and therefore make life easier. (Unless of course cheap easy fusion suddenly arrives courtesy of some friendly aliens)

dhogaza said...

"The sort of image that springs to my mind is Tom Fuller in West Berlin ca. 1985, pummeling the wall with his fists and whining that nobody is helping."

More accurately, pummeling the wall blaming the West for its existence, because if the West weren't attractive to those living on the far side, it would never have been built.

David B. Benson said...

Michael Tobis --- I'm not sure what you mean by "solar/thermal" (presumably for electric power), but if you mean concentrated solar thermal then that is much more expensive than alternatives, even in California's deserts.

Now there is nothing which requires societies to adopt the least expensive means; the USA has one of the most uneconomic ways of moving people around, after all.