Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Carbon’s long non-goodbye

Andy Revkin has a post on dotEarth describing a “mind-bending report” about the supposed coming abundance of oil (the report is linked from the article), A Fresh Look at Oil’s Long Goodbye.

While I urge you to read it all, I want to call attention to one long comment, posted by Revkin:

Marty Hoffert, an emeritus physics professor at NYU and energy researcher, sent this note by e-mail:

However welcome the news may be to market economists — and I’m confident Exxon-Mobil and company are licking their chops over continuing our highly profitable to them fossil fuel energy infrastructure — it’s an unmitigated environmental disaster for climate change: “Game Over,” as Jim Hansen rightly says.

Shale gas, shale oil and tar sands don’t fundamentally change estimates of total fossil fuel resources; but these “unconventional” sources, now more cost-effective to extract as fuel for the bottomless pit of world energy demand, will make disastrous climate shifts from the CO2 greenhouse a near-certainly. Forget solar, wind and nuclear fission. They can’t compete costwise now with coal-fired electricity, and unconventional cheap hydrocarbons could become as cheap as coal on a dollars per Joule of energy basis.

The result will be a hothouse planetary climate as different from today’s as the middle Cretaceous a hundred million years ago was, when sea level was a hundred meters higher and both poles were de-glaciated; when dinosaurs roamed a verdant Antarctic continent. This will happen virtually instantaneously from a geological perspective as fossil fuel resources accumulated over hundreds of millions of years are burned in a hundred years or so and CO2 in the atmosphere rises as much as fourfold over pre-industrial values.

The best analogy I can think of is watching the rise of Hitler from an isolationist USA in the late thirties as the threshold for stopping him early enough to matter is passed and a holocaust of some as yet unknown horror becomes inevitable. Optimists might observe that Homo sapiens survived WWII and the subsequent cold war. But the coming inundation of coastal zones and cities along with massive species extinctions will likely be far worse. We will need to burn even more fossil fuel to “adapt” to this change by building seawalls and air conditioning, an option perhaps for rich countries, or mass migration inland and poleward for everyone else. Moreover, any attempts by our descendants to rebuild high tech civilization will be seriously hampered by the depleted state of both conventional and unconventional hydrocarbon fuels. Maybe they, unlike ourselves, will learn to go straight to solar and controlled fusion power, necessity being the mother of invention. More likely is a feudal agricultural economy in high latitude lands still fertile for crops and habitable in climate; or in the worst case scenario, hunter-gathering capable of supporting perhaps a million or so humans worldwide.

Many climate researchers breathed a sight of relief when Jim Lovelock backed off from nightmare scenarios with humans huddled in polar refugia against a greenhouse-induced waterworld. Too many accept the GOP denialist scam claiming human-induced global warming is a hoax to risk being perceived as alarmists, or worse. We didn’t sign on for this. We went into science and engineering, many of us, not only for the thrill of learning new by mastering objective nature, but to avoid the crazy subjectivity of human behavior. Give us labs and computers and some money and let us be geeks. We make mistakes, but we didn’t sign on for abuse. Thank you Ben Santer, Michael Mann, Jim Hansen, Ken Caldeira and all my other climate/energy colleagues for your courage to speak truth to crazy. The truth is that if we burn identified fossil fuel resources, particularly the so-called unconventional ones now making free marketeers dance with joy, it is only a matter of time before a transition to “hothouse Earth” occurs.

A technology optimist, I like to believe that some genetic evolution of the human genome can produce intelligent Homo superior better adapted to living in a high tech world wrought by scientific revolutions. I hope the spark of self-awareness survives, even if our particular experiment by nature doesn’t adapt and survive.

If, as Carl Sagan speculated, technological civilizations are time bombs triggered by the inability of species evolved in technology-free environments to adapt to the technologies they themselves create, then we may be destined for self-destruction. Short lifetimes of technological civilizations is a reason for the absence of intelligent life in our Milky Way galaxy according to the Drake Equation for computing the number of contemporaneous technological civilizations in a galaxy. Too bad, if true, as we have now discovered that extrasolar planets sound other stars are a dime a dozen, and may discover potentially habitable “other Earths” soon with NASA’s Kepler Planet Finder.

Humanity is facing the greatest challenge it has ever created for itself: Shunning the allure of cheap fossil fuels in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. We are so far down this wretched path, and so horribly at the mercy of the intrinsic timing of this mess, that it will take a truly astonishing set of events to dodge the coming impacts. It is certainly still possible to avoid the worst of what’s headed our way, but whether we can find the courage, the foresight, the ingenuity, and the compassion to do it is still unknown.

Speaking of timing, probably the single most frustrating source of delay among the many that lie between us and the goal of sufficiently lowering our emissions is our cognitive disequilibrium — the infamous gap between what scientists know and what the vast majority of voters and consumers “believes” is true. There is precisely zero chance of taking the needed steps until a majority of the public, particularly voters, understands at a deep level how utterly screwed we and our descendants are if we remain on a business as usual path. And that, in turn, brings me back yet again to the issue of what will serve as an inciting incident to wake us up. Honestly, I have no idea at this point; my hope is that whatever it is, it will happen soon and with the smallest impact possible.

3 comments to Carbon’s long non-goodbye

  • Dan

    Something rather dull and obvious just occurred to me. In many countries, we manage to set up national parks, and they remain very, very popular with the public, even when (in the UK) ludicrous house-prices put huge pressure on land and law. It’s only a small thing, but it does at least illustrate we are capable of *not* exploiting resources when we recognise their value.

    Of course, keeping carbon in the ground is a quite different proposition – but it is at least feasible that people, businesses and politicians might slowly wake up to the fact that they need to stay there. I think that needs to be the message now, and why peak-oil arguments can be so destructive when they distract from this point: we have to find a way to keep the carbon where it is. Otherwise, game over. Every other carbon policy is going to mean nothing without addressing this issue.

    Beginning to wonder if direct action of some sort is the only thing likely to make a difference.

  • Anthony Paul

    I’m curious as to your take on Revkin’s (qualified?)enthusiasm for the comments of Mick Womersley. Prof. Womersley appears to be a self-styled political and economic realist, yet, to me at least, he appears to be at least as naive as those he criticizes in his apparent belief that the “democracies” that he favors will move quickly enough in the right direction, simply because they will now (he believes) retain a useful share of economic and geopolitical power as opposed (literally perhaps) to China and Russia. His comparison to the history of ending slavery in the U.S. seems reasonably pessimistic, but given that example of “realism” I have difficulty imagining why he thinks any of this progress can occur so fast as to make a significant difference to the climate. Hoffert’s comment seems more realistic to me.

  • Russell

    History is full of prophets of doom who fail to deliver, and Carl blew his chance to avoid that category by turning twilight at noon into an optical depth of 20 in hyping ‘nuclear winter ‘, an hypothesis containing an even longer string of assumptions than the Drake equation.

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v475/n7354/full/475037b.html?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20110707