Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

We’re all James Tiberius Kirk in the carbon wind down

I’m sure many readers of this blog have seen the first movie in the reboot of the Star Trek franchise, the 2009 film, Star Trek.

There is one scene early in that movie that captures our climate situation with almost painful on-the-nose accuracy. I’m referring, of course, to the scene where an adolescent Jim Kirk has “borrowed” his step father’s (mother’s boyfriend’s?) vintage Corvette convertible, and is racing across a barren landscape at decidedly supralegal speeds. To say he doesn’t really know what he’s doing is an understatement. (The part where he opens the car’s convertible top and it’s instantly blown off the car by the onrushing air is all you need to know on that front.)

But it doesn’t end there; with Kirk at any age, it never does. An android police officer[1] attempts to pull him over, and he refuses to listen and speeds on, to no one’s surprise. Eventually, he figures out that he’s coming to a cliff, and that the basic physics of the situation — his speed, proximity to the cliff, and the lack of traction on a dirt road — dictate that he can’t stop and he can’t swerve enough to avoid the cliff. No combination of easy, safe maneuvers will keep him from becoming a grease spot at the bottom of the quickly approaching chasm, so he resorts to the only remaining option: He swerves and dives out of the car. It goes over the edge sideways and he’s left clinging to the edge, staring up at the android policeman, who presumably helps rescue our daredevil friend after the jump-cut.

So, you’re no doubt wondering exactly which parts of this scenario I’m attaching to our current climate mess and what’s The Big Point I’m Making. Given the opportunities overwrought metaphors present for misinterpretation, willful or innocent, let me explain exactly why I think this one works and why I find it useful if unsettling[2]:

  • Kirk is us, as in modern human civilization. (Duh.)
  • The android police officer is modern science, trying to stop us from doing spectacularly stupid things to ourselves.
  • The laws of physics are, well, the laws of physics: Utterly indifferent to human concerns as always.
  • The car is our economy and infrastructure, which we’re currently joy riding right to the edge of oblivion.
  • Kirk and the Vette potentially going over the cliff is most assuredly not meant to be a metaphor for human extinction or even the end of modern civilization. It represents the end of modern civilization as we know it. How far that diverges from the world outside your window as you read this is highly dependent on a list of factors, including where in the world your window is, your financial circumstances, etc.
  • The current state of our climate mess equates to some time before Kirk swerves and leaps from the car. How far before? Who knows. That’s one of the most “interesting” and maddening and dangerous aspects of this potential tragedy of almost unimaginable proportions. Have we passed the point where we have to dive from the moving car in a last-ditch effort to avoid a truly horrible outcome? My guess is no, but we’re getting bloody close. And I would note that over the last decade we’ve seen a parade of “it’s worse than we thought” discoveries, which means we’re closer to the cliff edge and/or going faster and/or have less traction than many of us presume. Put another way, the situation is even more urgent than many people, likely including hard core environmentalists, assume.

What equates to bailing out of the moving car? Geoengineering[3]? Abandoning our current infrastructure and lifestyle? Some combination of both? I’m not entirely sure, and I’m exceedingly skeptical of anyone who claims to know exactly what it will take to avoid any given level of civilization-wide disruption. We certainly must dramatically reduce our CO2 emissions, and barring any whiplash-inducing change of direction in our emissions trajectory, we’ll lock ourselves into being forced to employ one or more geoengineering technologies in the coming decades (assuming we haven’t already crossed that line).

And so, and so… What is the point of it all, you may well be asking? Where is the Big, Thundering Conclusion, the howling street-preacher call for all of us to employ the basket of solutions, the handful of silver BBs that has to stand in for the non-existent silver bullet?

Well, there isn’t one. At least not in the sense of us would prefer. I can’t point you to a simple set of actions you can take or policies that you can support that will magically fix this colossal mess. We’ve gone decades too far down the wrong path in terms of past emissions and current infrastructure for that to be possible.

What we desperately need is a reformulated environmentalism, one that’s as smart and savvy and determined to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as the fossil fuel corporations are intent on seeing us burn every last ton of coal, barrel of oil, and cubic meter of natural gas possible simply so they can make more money.

That level of change in us has to begin within each of us, with a commitment to stop joy riding — and make no mistake, the hobbyist environmentalists who indulge themselves by doing only the fun things are just as guilty of making this situation worse as is anyone else you can point to — and start working the problem. To begin, we need to get serious about self-education on several fronts, from basic climate science to economics to public policy and politics and more, and focus our all-too-scarce resources on tasks that will have the biggest payback, like outreach, helping to educate other environmentalists, and collective political and consumer actions.

In short, we have to stop being the most valuable non-fossil fuel asset in the portfolio of Exxon Mobil, BP, and all their friends. And we have to do it soon, because while we can debate endlessly exactly how dire our situation is, we’re still accelerating toward that cliff, and it’s getting very close.


[1] I think he’s an android; perhaps he’s the descendant of one of the Daft Punk guys and Ultron. Hard to tell.

[2] Yes, yes, I know — metaphors are like jokes and should never be explained. But I’m making an exception here because I think it’s a valuable metaphor and I also want to give the miscreants who look for any excuse to misrepresent just about anything someone says about climate change as little wiggle room as possible.

[3] It appears that the next installment of the latest IPCC report, AR5 WG3 for you hardest of the hardcore, will push for the technology whose name shall not be spoken, geoengineering. See: IPCC report proposes sucking carbon out of the air as climate fix and Leaked IPCC climate plan to worsen global warming – ecologists. I guess I should take it as a sign of “progress” that bodies like the IPCC are finally recognizing something a lot of us have been saying for a long time: We will resort to geoengineering out of necessity simply because our current climate situation plus our emissions path will leave us no other choice. But it’s bloody hard to feel good about it.

From the archives: Planetary prognosis

Given that the IPCC released their latest report last night (US time), the “AR5 WGII” report (available here as the SPM (Summary for Policy Makers) and the full report in sections), and it contains, to put it mildly, not exactly cheery news[1], I thought this gem from April 12, 2009 was particularly relevant, even if I strongly disagree with something the author says, as I explain below [emphasis added]:

Poor prognosis for our planet

Every patient with an incurable illness will ask how long they have to live. The answer goes something like this: “No one can say how long you may live, because every individual is different, but focus on the changes you observe and be guided by those. When things start changing for the worse, expect these changes to accelerate. So the changes that have occurred over a year may advance by the same degree in a few months, then in weeks. And that is how you can judge when the end is coming.”

Apply that thinking to climate change. When An Inconvenient Truth opened in 2006 it was generally supposed we had a window of two or three decades to deal with climate change. Last year that shrank to a decade. Last month Australia’s chief scientist, Penny Sackett, told a Canberra gathering that we have six years to radically lower emissions, or face calamitous, unstoppable global warming.

Six years. Given that this problem is usually described as a process unfolding over centuries, how can it be that things have spun out of control in such a short time? The worst case scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, dismissed a mere three years ago as remote possibilities, are now given very short odds: the death of the Murray Darling, the drying of southern-east Australia to a tinderbox, the increased flooding in low-lying areas, the defrosting of the Siberian tundra, the dramatic loss of rainforest and the break-up of the Antarctic ice shelf. All these things are happening as predicted but – if you believe the evidence – at several times the expected speed.

I do believe the evidence. Which leads me, personally, to the bleak conclusion that the human race is stuffed. The current financial crisis is merely the curtain raiser to a grand opera of social and ecological collapse. Our children – forget our grandchildren, I’m talking about my own kids, aged 14, 11 and 9 – are going to live in a world in which major cities are flooded, fertile plains become deserts, populations run out of food and water, rivers run dry, fishing grounds become dead zones, our rainforests and living coral reefs become curiosities of history.

Climate change is often described as linear decline followed by some kind of distant “tipping point”. But consider these statistics: in 1979 Arctic sea ice cover remained above 7 million square kilometres all summer; from 1989 it was consistently above 6 million; in 2002 above 5 million; since 2007 above 4 million. I read recently we may have reached a tipping point and the ice will be gone in 20 years. But there is no tipping point – a curve is always tipping, and each new finding redraws the curve. If this year’s figure comes in under 4 million square kilometres the patient could be dead inside five years, and ships will be crossing the North Pole in September 2014.

The same kind of graph applies to most aspects of climate change – species extinctions, ocean acidity, loss of rainforest. These probably can be equated to the multiple indices by which we plot human health – white and red cell count, blood pressure, temperature and so on. For the planet, these have been tracking downwards for 30 years and, yet, we find comfort in distant thresholds, burning coal as if there is nothing to panic about.

It should be obvious to everyone reading this that trying to make predictions even a few years out about an absurdly complex system-of-systems, like our biosphere and the ecological web built atop it and then human civilization built atop that is almost unimaginably hard. The author is right that we should be acutely aware of non-linearities, tipping points, feedback loops, etc. Push enough of those subsystems far enough away from their prior equilibrium and we risk throwing not just those conceptually localized pieces but the whole smash into a very different state, one that we can’t fully predict and one that’s certainly less hospitable to human civilization as it developed over the last 10,000 years. As I so often say, the fundamental issue with climate change is that it invalidates the assumptions virtually all of our human and physical infrastructure depends upon; adjusting to those rewritten rules will be both painful and expensive.[2] The 21st century may soon become known as the Century of Dynamical Systems Science as we’re prodded ever more often and ever harder by climate change impacts.

So, yes, I do grok how serious this mess is. But are we “stuffed”? Is it “game over, man, game over!” as Bill Paxton memorably whined in Aliens? Well, no. The simple fact is that future emissions haven’t been emitted yet, a detail many people somehow seem to have trouble grasping. And not emitting them means less pain and expense than emitting them. As I’ve pointed out perhaps a billion times online and in presentations, we’ve already locked in and continue to escalate a mind-blowing amount of pain thanks to the long atmospheric lifetime of CO2 and the resulting sea level rise (along with other hydrological disturbances, like droughts and floods) for a very long time. But it is a basic misreading of the situation to look at that situation and leap to the conclusion that there’s no hope and therefore we should do nothing to reduce our emissions and instead focus on adaptation and disaster relief.

That basic formula — what we’ve done already is very bad, but we can stop it from getting far worse — should be all the motivation we need to leap off our couches and take swift, smart, and effective steps that serve our own best interests. But, of course, it’s not enough. CO2 emissions are still rising rapidly, and it seems all but impossible for us to avoid sprinting past the endlessly discussed 2C line that supposedly separates “safe” from “unsafe” levels of warming. Why are we like this? Why do we act like a band of obstinate children who refuse to collectively recognize a glowing-red stove is hot until enough of us has individually touched it and been badly burned?

I see this form of denial all the time in my friends and relatives, many of whom are highly educated people who have no doubt that climate change is real, present, serious, and man made. When I ask them about it, which isn’t often, almost invariably the response is that it’s such a big and scary problem that they don’t want to think about it, or they are willing to think about it but they have no clue what to do. Of course, this means they don’t change their voting or consumption patterns to be more climate-aware, so, to no one’s surprise, nothing changes. I can hear the executives at fossil fuel companies laughing maniacally in the background as I type this.

We are a patient that’s been diagnosed with a very serious medical condition, one that will radically alter our life — meaning modern civilization roughly as we know it — and could even end it. But the pain we’re already feeling isn’t nearly enough to make enough of us take action.

Yet.


[1] There’s an explosion of media coverage of this report, as there should be, so I’m not going to attempt to give you, Dear Reader, representative links. Fire up ye olde Google Machine and/or the TwitMachine (assuming you follow climate-oriented individuals and media outlets) and you’ll find hours of reading material.

[2] As I said on social media this morning, the latest IPCC report reads like Fodor’s Guide to Hell and High Water. Or, as Bill McKibben would call it, Eaarth.

A year with a Leaf

At breakfast this morning, my wife reminded me that we picked up our Nissan Leaf exactly one year ago. Since I was looking for time to write a summary of our first year in EV-land, this looks like as good an excuse as any.

The ultra-short answer: We love the car and we’re very happy with the overall price/performance.

The longer answer, is, well, longer.

Life with a Leaf took very little adjustment. We drive it when we want, and we plug it in over night. Normally we charge it to 80%, but about 10 times in the first year we’ve charged it to 100%. We’ve also done some daytime charging, e.g. run some errands on a Saturday morning, plug it in during the afternoon, and then drive the car into town for a lacrosse game that night.

The objection I hear from people who have never so much as touched an EV — “But you have to plug it in all the time!” — is nothing more than ignorance at work. Yes, you have to plug it in. And in exchange for that simple, clean (as in no gasoline smell or spills) step, you’re freed from stopping at a gas station and paying roughly five times more for fuel per mile. Plus, you never have to pay for oil changes or tuneups, or repairs to the emissions system, exhaust system, etc. That’s a deal I’ll make every time.

The driving and ownership experience is great. It corners flat, accelerates and brakes very nicely, and is dead quiet inside. It has plenty of passenger and cargo room, especially with the back seats folded down. The quality of our car has been excellent.

I would change a few very minor things in my car, though. The heater/AC is a little whooshy on the highest setting, and flipping the charging limit between 80% and 100% takes more button pressing than I would prefer (although starting in 2014 I believe that the 80% option is gone).

And yes, more battery range would be nice. I’m not saying I need or expect 400 miles on a charge, but if Nissan delivers on the doubled battery range that they hinted at recently by asking some Leaf owners how much they’d pay for that feature, then I would be quite happy. To date, there’s only been one or two times when range was an genuine issue for us. But even doubling it would still not let us make our several-times-a-year trip to visit relatives (about 230 miles each way) without quick charger support along the way.

My one regret

There is one aspect of our Leaf experience I regret, and that’s getting it on only a two-year lease instead of the three year option. When we got the car last year, the prevailing online opinion seemed to be that the next generation Leaf, the “Leaf 2.0″, would be out by late 2014/early 2015. Since this is our first EV, we were a little nervous about whether we’d really like the EV life, plus we were uneasy about locking into a three-year lease that would keep us from upgrading to the new model with (presumably) greater battery range right away. It now looks like the Leaf 2.0, which might have up to double the battery range, won’t be available until late 2015, which puts us in a bind a year from now. If it turns out that the 2.0 version isn’t available in Spring 2015, I’m not sure what we’ll do. Try to extend our current lease for another year? Lease another Leaf 1.x for two years? Lease something else, like a Kia Soul EV? Whatever it will be, I can guarantee it will have a plug and no gas tank.

I’m equally sure that we’ll be leasing and not buying the next EV. We’re still early enough in the development of EV technology that the resale value on any EV is likely to be somewhere between bad and unspeakably bad for the foreseeable future. People are still way too nervous about the batteries dying — which is grossly overblown unless you’re driving 20,000 miles a year in Arizona, in my opinion — for the resale values to hold up. Given my per-mile savings on fuel, which effectively make my monthly lease payment about $125, I’m happy to keep on leasing.

Looking forward: EVs in general

Honda recently announced that they’re ending production of the Fit EV this year, after cranking them out at a blistering pace of 40 per month in the US.[1] My reaction: You’ll be baaaaack. As batteries continue their price slide and US EPA CAFE standards continue to rise, we’ll hit a tipping point where Honda, Toyota, and all the other foot draggers will have no choice but to introduce an EV in addition to their PHEV, hybrid, etc. models. They’ll need them to meet CAFE standards, plus they won’t be able to sit back and have zero share in a growing market. So, when Honda gets their head out of their corporate butt and re-introduces the Fit EV, no doubt trumpeting that it’s returning in response to massive customer demand, the Leaf will be on version 3.0 or even 4.0, Tesla will have new models for sale, even in Sopranostan (i.e. New Jersey), and who knows what other companies and models will be slugging it out for your EV dollars. Ditto for the other company I find deeply disappointing right now in this regard, Toyota.

And then there’s the Ford Focus EV. Oy. Ford needs to make up its mind: Is it interested in just its Energi PHEV models, or does it want to sell at least one EV, also. Right now, they have a weird, half-hearted offering that they’re barely selling; they’re spending a lot of development money on embarrassing themselves. As with Honda and Toyota and others, Ford will have to change tactics eventually, but in the short run, the right hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing over there.

Overall, I expect car companies to try to deal with improving batteries for EVs and PHEVs by increasing range instead of lowering prices. The last thing they want to do once they have an installed base of customers and a sizable number of vehicles on the used car market is undermine the value of those units too severely. This is why I expect the Volt to get a bigger battery, in time, and the Leaf, Mitsu i, Kia Soul EV, and others to see much improved battery ranges. They won’t charge you (much) less, they’ll give you more functionality.

(Prediction sure to be wrong: The Leaf S 2.0 will increase its EPA mileage from roughly 80 to around 120, and the price will drop a couple of thousand. That will be a substantial improvement without rocking the boat too much.)

The current EV situation is very reminiscent of something I experienced from a front-row seat: The arrival of PCs. In their early days, they were weird, underpowered toys that only geeks and hobbyists (like me) cared about. Most other computing professionals laughed at them. But the PCs — meaning hardware, software, and infrastructure — got better and cheaper, and then they just about took over the world. I see EVs playing out much the same way, with public perception playing an even bigger role. Many people I talk to still are shocked that you can actually go into a local dealership with a recognizable car company name on the facade, and buy a car that (gasp!) runs on electricity and (double gasp!) doesn’t have a gasoline or diesel engine of any kind! And it’s a real car, that goes in snow, and everything! Who’d a thunk it???

The biggest hurdle EVs face is still educating the general public and not batteries or price or availability. It will happen in time, and we’ll have yet another “paradigm shift”, which, as many others have pointed out, is almost universally a phrase used by someone who simply didn’t see an inevitable change coming.

Frankly, I can’t wait.


[1] Forgive my sarcasm. My wife and I have owned numerous Hondas over the years and loved every one of them. I thought that if there was one major Japanese car company that would leap into the EV market, it would be Honda. To say I’m disappointed in their actions would be an extreme understatement.

From the archives: GM bets big on hydrogen cars

Lou’s file archives, a.k.a. The Cyber Gift That Keeps On Giving, coughed up this gem this morning, from MSNBC on Sept. 15, 2006:

GM: Hydrogen cars will re-establish company
‘Going to make General Motors what it was in the ’50s and ’60s,’ exec says

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles could hit showrooms as early as 2011 and the technology will revitalize General Motors, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said as he delivered a hydrogen concept car to be test driven by Camp Pendleton Marines over the next few months.

Calling the effort a “moon shot,” Lutz said it is vital the world’s largest automaker commits to the new technology, so it can win back its reputation as an innovator and design leader.

“This is to re-establish our technological credentials with the American public and the American media,” Lutz said Thursday. “And it has a huge re-moralizing effect in the company as our people see how serious we are.”

Up to $9 billion has been freed up as a result of General Motors’ recent restructuring, Lutz said. The company now has more money to invest in hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars, which will form an important part of the auto giant’s long-term economic recovery plan.

The company, which is suffering from declining U.S. market share at the hands of its Asian competitors, lost $8.6 billion in 2005 amid high healthcare, pension, labor and materials costs.

“We are going to make General Motors what it was in the ’50s and ’60s again,” Lutz said.

Oy. See the article for a bit more detail, but what I quoted above should be more than enough to get the point across.

Not that that will stop me from riffing on the topic(s) at hand…

Bob Lutz, as energy, climate, and car geeks might know, is the person who famously observed in 2008 that global warming is “a crock of sh*t”. The same article adds:

But we have to wonder what the hell Lutz was thinking when he said hybrids like the Toyota Prius “make no economic sense” because of their high cost when GM has promised to roll out one new hybrid every three months for the next four years.

My point is not to dredge up old, cherry-picked quotes to try to make an ex-GM exec (or GM, for that matter) look bad. I’m attempting to make a more general point and remind everyone that while we’re awash in new articles about technology trends and breakthroughs and promised product rollouts and features, the signal to noise ratio is conspicuously low. For example, I found one article, long before the Chevy Volt went on the market, quoting a mileage figure of 60MPG while running on gasoline, and the actual figure for the car is 35MPG city, 40MPG highway.

On a similar note, there’s a lot of talk, much of it low-grade balloon juice from the usual balloon juice merchants, about how the US should greatly increase its natural gas exports to the EU as a way of economically damaging Russia. The problem, of course, is that the US simply doesn’t have the export terminals necessary to compress tankers full of gas to carry out such an operation.[1] And not that long ago, shortly pre-fracking boom, in fact, one of the big concerns was that the US had only four or five natural gas import terminals, and we were facing a supply crunch because there was no way to get supplies from the Middle East and other overseas locations into the US.

But all of that is window dressing compared to the point in the original article above about hydrogen fuel cell cars. My basic objection to HFCVs: Too expensive in terms of the vehicles and the needed infrastructure, and too expensive compared to EVs in terms of miles/kWh of electricity consumed. The price of EV batteries is dropping quickly, with every examination of the phenomenon using a slightly different metric, but one of the more widely quoted figures says they dropped 40% from 2010 To 2012. It won’t be much longer before 200+ mile/charge EVs are not just cheaper to fuel and maintain than a gasoline powered vehicle, but they’re at price parity or even cheaper than equivalent cars.[2] That, dear readers, is the making of a tipping point the likes of which we haven’t seen in quite some time, and it will have both obvious and not so obvious ramifications.[3]

And I also note that one of the other reminders I got while spelunking through my archives was that at one time some analysts and companies were quite confident that the Car Of The Future would be not an HFCV but an H2ICE (hydrogen internal combustion engine). That was a vehicle that used a slightly tweaked gasoline engine to run on hydrogen instead of gasoline or diesel fuel. BMW, for example, had (has?) a test fleet of them. If you haven’t heard of this technology or vehicle and you’re wondering why hydrogen vehicles (from BMW or other companies that were high on the concept at one time) that avoid the enormous technological challenges of fuel cells haven’t caught on, one reason is no doubt they aren’t all that efficient. The BMW gets only about 31 miles/kg of hydrogen, roughly half of what an HFCV would achieve.

Still, one has to wonder: If hydrogen is such a great idea, why haven’t H2ICE vehicles caught on eight years after the first one from BMW hit the market and 12 years after they were being tested on-road by Ford? Surely it can’t be that boring, pesky old refueling infrastructure issue people like me keep harping on, could it…?


[1] Don’t mistake this comment for glee on my part or any sort of sympathy for Russia (read:Putin). I’m all for using economic leverage to keep people like Pooty Poot (as President Bush The Second called him) in check.

[2] Anyone who thinks this is a Lutzian pie-in-the-sky extrapolation/wild-eyed guess, please consider a modern car, like, perhaps a Honda Civic, and its still mythical EV variant. Now tally up the cost of all the major components that the gasoline version has but the EV version won’t: Engine, transaxle, exhaust system and emissions controls, fuel tank and delivery system, cooling system, etc. Now add up the cost of the EV-specific parts: Battery pack, electric motor, regenerative braking system, etc. I would bet that we’re already at the point where the marginal cost (note the technical economic term, please) to produce the items on the second list is already very close to the cost of items on the first list, and that it will soon be lower.

[3] Obvious impacts: Lower gasoline consumption, waiting lists to get EVs (which will piss off those of us already on the EV bandwagon, I note with mixed feelings), and a schism in transportation technology according to vehicle size. Less obvious impact: Currently in the US large trucks are almost exclusively diesel fueled while “light duty vehicles” (cars, minivans, SUVs/CUVs, pickup trucks) are almost exclusively gasoline fueled. That’s a pretty minor difference. But once EVs start to take over the light duty vehicle segment we’ll see them increasingly running on electrons and heavy duty vehicles still running on liquid fuels or compressed natural gas. Watching the dynamics of this play out in the US pickup truck market will be perversely fascinating.

A fusion of desperation and hope

The March 3, 2014 issue of The New Yorker has a very long — as in about 15,000 words — but very worthwhile article on the ITER fusion project, A Star in a Bottle, by Raffi Khatchadourian.

Like most of you who frequent this site, I suspect, I’ve been following the quest for a workable fusion reactor intermittently for years, but not necessarily the ITER project. In my case, going back to the late 1970′s, when everyone was absolutely sure that we’d have the technical problems solved and we’d be rolling these things out like clockwork by 1990, 2000 if we hit some snags. As the old saying goes, fusion is the technology that’s been 20 years away for the last 50 years. Or maybe 50 years away for the last 20. Or something like that.

I’m certainly not an expert in any branch of physics, let alone fusion R&D, but I think Khatchadourian does an excellent job of explaining a very convoluted topic and situation to a lay audience. So I highly recommend the article to anyone willing to give 15k words a fair shot.

I approached the article expecting to read about the physics (check), the international effort (check), the current status of ITER (check). What caught me a bit by surprise was some of the detail about just how insanely difficult this task is. I had no delusions about this being a “simple matter of engineering”; given the stakes involved, most notably the implications for climate change, I’m quite sure that if we could have conquered this problem decades ago, we would have. To give you a taste of the article overall, plus some of the technical challenges the ITER team is trying to meet, consider:

In the nineteen-eighties, tokamak performance had hit a ceiling because turbulence at the edge of plasmas was impossible to control: electromagnetic eddies carried energy outward from the superhot core in diffuse and unpredictable ways, abrading the tiles on the tokamak walls, sucking impurities into the plasma and cooling it. These instabilities seemed insurmountable until researchers in Germany stumbled upon a discovery: under the right heating conditions, the plasma contained itself by forming a steep, clean pedestal at its perimeter, with its inner temperature and density ballooning. At first, the effect was doubted. There was no theory to explain it, and plasmas had rarely offered gifts, only obstacles. But the pedestal was real, and it was christened H-Mode. It is now ubiquitous in tokamaks, though physicists still have only a general idea how it works, and maintaining it is hard: when the pressure behind the pedestal is too great, the plasma erupts into flares that must be quelled.

It is unclear whether ITER will have enough power to achieve H-Mode. The relevant heating systems on the largest existing tokamak are the size of five shipping containers; ITER’s will be three times larger, and will have to work in an unproved way, just as pliers the size of a skyscraper cannot be opened by hand. Even if the systems work, there might not be enough of them. Current extrapolations offer only a hazy guide to what ITER will require for the pedestal, with the range of uncertainty—what physicists call the error bar—remaining frustratingly large. Joe Snipes, a physicist at ITER’s headquarters, told me, “We tried and tried and tried—and when I say ‘we’ I mean the entire fusion community, experts from around the world working on different machines—we tried to reduce the error bar, but we really couldn’t do it; the H-Mode depends on so many different factors that we don’t understand.” Some engineers wonder if the relevant heating systems—hardware, costing a billion dollars, first developed for Reagan’s Star Wars Defense Initiative—have outlived their usefulness in tokamaks. Others believe that everything must be tried, because ITER ultimately remains an experiment: mapping the way is its purpose.

Snipes’s job will be to run the plasma. Not long ago, in the headquarters, he gave a lecture for engineers titled “Operational Limits on ITER.” Most of what he had to say involved the uncertainties of plasma behavior, but he reminded his colleagues that some limits might be imposed simply by the way ITER is built. While the Praetorian Guard was worrying over the gaps among components, trying to insure that there will be enough space to assemble the machine, the physicists were worrying over them, too. Neutrons are expected to pour out of ITER’s plasma like a tsunami. Because these particles have no charge, they will escape the grip of ITER’s magnets, advancing through any space that they can find, pushing into, or even through, obstructions—solid matter will not always stop them.

Early on, physicists understood that, as more gaps were introduced into the design, more neutrons would penetrate the machine, heating whatever absorbed them. To study the plasma’s effects on the structure, they purchased a million C.P.U. hours on MareNostrum, a supercomputer in Barcelona that is housed in a pristine glass box in the dimly lit nave of a nineteenth-century chapel. ITER’s magnets will be encased in a cryostat and continuously cooled with liquid helium. If they get warmer than negative two hundred and sixty-seven degrees, they will “go normal,” and lose the quality that makes them superconducting. At that point, the enormous electrical current running through them will look for an alternate outlet, like a dammed river. If all eighteen toroidal-field magnets were to experience this phenomenon at once, forty-one billion joules of energy would seek a new place to go. One scientist compared the outcome to two 747 airplanes simultaneously crashing into the machine.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Another surprise for me was the staggering level of organizational/managerial incompetence on this project. The scientists and engineers deserve to share a Nobel prize merely for putting up with the serial acts of political lunacy that needlessly forced them to make one round after another of changes to the design.

I won’t quote any more of the article, but those self-inflicted problems are nearly as daunting as the ones physics dishes out at every turn on ITER.

So, what to make of all this? Honestly, I don’t know. Several countries are spending billions of dollars on this project, and the prospects of it working, by which I mean it leading more or less directly to a design for a commercial fusion reactor that pumps electrons to your home, aren’t good. But the potential gain from such a breakthrough are almost impossible to imagine, something people working on ITER are quite aware of, as they’re quoted reflecting on climate change and resource depletion.

If I were to find myself advising President Obama or the US Congress on this topic, I don’t know what I’d tell them. My knee jerk reaction would be to say that the potential payback is so immense that we have no choice but to push as hard as possible to make fusion work. But the doubts about whether that’s even possible linger, and I can’t help but wonder if we might be better off taking all those billions of dollars and building several of Tesla’s battery Gigafactories, or buying out the entire US coal industry. If fusion can’t be made to work, either at all or via the approach being pursued by ITER, then it’s no contest — shut down the project and pour money into some other decarbonization approach. Even if ITER can get fusion to work, what if it’s absurdly expensive? What if the levelized cost of electricity from fusion plants comes in at something like $5/kWh? We will have made a breathtaking technical achievement that’s useless in terms of providing utility-scale power and helping address climate change.

Again, please find the time to read the article, and ponder the kind of a mega-decisions we’re increasingly forcing ourselves to make.

Supporting our climate scientists

In private conversations, I’m often asked what non-scientists and non-activists can do to help move us in the desperately needed direction of taking action on climate change.

Aside from the obvious things — educating yourself, working on outreach to other lay people, etc. — here’s something that’s very simple and quick, and is even (for those in . . . → Read More: Supporting our climate scientists

From the archives: McKibben interview

Another find while doing some cyber-spelunking in my file archives last night. This one, an interview with Bill McKibben from 2009 [emphasis added]:

Q: You recently wrote that global warming is the biggest problem humans have ever faced. Why do you believe this?

Bill McKibben: Think about it. All the other things that we’ve done as a . . . → Read More: From the archives: McKibben interview

From the archives: 2C and 400ppm

While doing a massive (and ongoing) re-org and cleanup on my archives of government reports and news articles, I stumbled across the following article from January, 2005 [emphasis added]:

The global warming danger threshold for the world is clearly marked for the first time in an international report to be published tomorrow – and the bad news . . . → Read More: From the archives: 2C and 400ppm

Pondering transportation fuels

Thanks to the snow we got last night, this morning found me walking past my Leaf in the garage to the snow blower, which I had to refill with gasoline before clearing out my driveway.

While I was pouring about a quart of poisonous, smelly, highly processed, ancient algae into the snow blower’s tank, I wondered: Would . . . → Read More: Pondering transportation fuels

CCB: 3 Civics and 7 Leafs v1.0

I just posted v1.0 of the “3 Civics and 7 Leafs” package.

You can grab the ZIP here.

The only change from pre-release 1 was the addition of PPT and PDF copies using PowerPoint’s “Newsprint” theme. So both the original white background and the themed versions are in the ZIP.

The main message, encapsulated in the chart from . . . → Read More: CCB: 3 Civics and 7 Leafs v1.0