Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

It’s STILL Rule 0, people

In my presentations, I’ve started boiling down our climate mess into a handful of rules, with Rule 0 being: It’s the greenhouse gases, stupid!

Given all the news I see about what various countries, corporations, etc. are doing, it seems that not nearly enough people get the basic message. Hence this post, and my latest windmill-tilting effort.

Specifically, we still seem to be stuck in this mindset that says, “We’re developing lots of renewable energy, so look how great that is! And we’re recycling more, too!” The problem is our addiction to incrementalism — the infamous “if we all do a little it adds up” mindset — and a misunderstanding of the fundamental urgency of our situation.

As David MacKay (and many others, I’m sure) has pointed out, if we all do a little, then collectively we’ve done a little. And our situation, meaning the amount of CO2 already in the air and its lifetime, plus the state of thermal disequilibrium we’ve already created, dictate that doing a little isn’t nearly enough to save us from horrific pain and expense in the coming decades.

Let me tease that apart, just to make sure we’re all on the same page. We’ve added a lot of CO2 to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution got going. We’ve pushed up the CO2 content of the atmosphere from roughly 280 parts per million to roughly 393ppm. The good news is that the oceans have absorbed roughly half of what we’ve emitted to date, or we would be in almost unimaginably worse shape. The bad news is that by absorbing all that CO2 the oceans are becoming more acidic, which creates a whole different nightmare. Once again, our beloved concept of throwing things away breaks down when we’ve so filled the world with us and our infrastructure and our lifestyle that there is no longer any such thing as “away”.

The thermal disequilibrium part is much simpler than it sounds. Start adding blankets on top of a sleeping person, and s/he heats up. If you suddenly stop adding blankets, but don’t remove any, the person will continue to get warmer until the heat s/he radiates equals the heat generated by his/her body — in other words, until the system (person + blankets) reaches thermal equilibrium. That’s where we are with CO2. We haven’t come near experiencing all the warming that’s committed/”in the pipeline” from our past and current emissions, even as we continue to add to the CO2 content of the atmosphere at a breakneck pace.

Perhaps the most concise statement of the situation I’ve heard came from Ken Caldeira, who famously said:

I compare CO2 emissions to mugging little old ladies…. It is wrong to mug little old ladies and wrong to emit carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The right target for both mugging little old ladies and carbon dioxide emissions is zero.

I routinely see people comment that because they bought a smaller SUV or even (gasp!) a Prius that they’re not as bad as other people. Yes, that is undeniably true; if everyone else is mugging X little old ladies and you take steps to mug “only” Y, where Y is marginally less than X, then it’s clearly not as bad. But claiming some sort of victory over the difference (X – Y) demonstrates a spectacular lack of awareness of our situation.

Yet we see articles like India to double renewable energy capacity by 2017, vows PM, which ends with:

The Prime Minister said India was taking steps to exploit non-conventional clean energy sources like solar and wind power and has proposed to double renewable energy capacity in the country from 25,000 MW in 2012 to 55,000 MW by 2017.

India comes in second, just behind China, in new coal plants (see page 5 of the report linked below), with over 519,000 MW of capacity planned.

But back to Rule 0. The point I struggle so often to make is that the only thing that matters to the environment from a climate change perspective is the amount of various greenhouses gases we pump into the atmosphere. The environment doesn’t care that this gram of CO2 was emitted for a good or bad reason, in human terms, merely that it was emitted at all. Similarly, when we build near-zero electricity generation, like wind turbines or solar cells, there is only a positive environmental impact to extent that the new capacity crowds out carbon intensive generation and results in a significant net carbon abatement over time. And if you’re still planning to build, worldwide, 1,200 new coal plants, then you can cover China, India, and the US with turbines and solar arrays and it won’t make any difference because we’ll still burn through our remaining carbon budget in record time.

We’ve all heard the old line about how the first step in fixing a problem is recognizing we have one. In the case of climate change not only do we have to recognize that it’s real and here and urgent, but we must find the maturity and intelligence to drop the quaint and wildly self-destructive notions that we can nibble around the edges of the problem or politick it into submission. We certainly have to employ politics, economics, and psychology as we make deals with each other and (hopefully) make progress in reaching our overarching goal, but trying to negotiate with physics, biology, and ecology is as surely a recipe for disaster as one could imagine.

It’s the greenhouse gases, stupid!

2 comments to It’s STILL Rule 0, people

  • Lou

    “We have far more oil, coal and gas than we can safely burn. For all the millions of words written about climate change, the challenge really comes down to this: fuel is enormously useful, massively valuable and hugely important geopolitically, but tackling global warming means leaving most of it in the ground – by choice. Although we often hear more about green technology, consumption levels or population growth, leaving fuel in the ground is the crux of the issue. After all, the climate doesn’t know or care how much renewable or nuclear energy we’ve got, how efficient our cars and homes are, how many people there are, or even how we run the economy. It only cares how much globe-warming pollution we emit – and that may be curiously immune to the measures we usually assume will help.

  • disdaniel

    The Economist reported last week that the share of electricity generated by coal in the US dropped from 48.5% in 2007 to 37.4% in 2012. (April 20th 2013 issue)

    That is a rather remarkable shift in a very short time. Yes this is mostly due to “cheap” natural gas pushing out “cheap” coal. Still it shows that even during difficult financial times, large shifts in the generation “base” can occur in just a few years.