Climate Change: The Standard Fixes Don’t Work

World leaders seem to have their minds made up regarding what will fix world CO2 emissions problems. Their list includes taxes on gasoline consumption, more general carbon taxes, cap and trade programs, increased efficiency in automobiles, greater focus on renewables, and more natural gas usage.

Unfortunately, we live in a world economy with constrained oil supply. Because of this, the chosen approaches have a tendency to backfire if some countries adopt them, and others do not. But even if everyone adopts them, it is not at all clear that they will provide the promised benefits.

Figure 1. Actual world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, as shown in BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. Fitted line is expected trend in emissions, based on actual trend in emissions from 1987-1997, equal to about 1.0% per year.

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997. If emissions had risen at the average rate that they did during the 1987 to 1997 period (about 1% per year), emissions in 2011 would be 18% lower than they actually were. While there were many other things going on at the same time, the much higher rise in emissions in recent years is not an encouraging sign.

The standard fixes don’t work for several reasons:

1. In an oil-supply constrained world, if a few countries reduce their oil consumption, the big impact is to leave more oil for the countries that don’t. Oil price may drop a tiny amount, but on a world-wide basis, pretty much the same amount of oil will be extracted, and nearly all of it will be consumed.

2. Unless there is a high tax on imported products made with fossil fuels, the big impact of a carbon tax is to send manufacturing to countries without a carbon tax, such as China and India. These countries are likely to use a far higher proportion of coal in their manufacturing than OECD countries would, and this change will tend to increase world CO2 emissions. Such a change will also tend to raise the standard of living of citizens in the countries adding manufacturing, further raising emissions. This change will also tend to reduce the number of jobs available in OECD countries.

3. The only time when increasing natural gas usage will actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions is if it replaces coal consumption. Otherwise it adds to carbon emissions, but at a lower rate than other fossil fuels, relative to the energy provided.

4. Substitutes for oil, including renewable fuels, are ways of increasing consumption of coal and natural gas over what they would be in the absence of renewable fuels, because they act as  add-ons to world oil supply, rather than as true substitutes for oil. Even in cases where they are theoretically more efficient, they still tend to raise carbon emissions in absolute terms, by raising the production of coal and natural gas needed to produce them.

5. Even using more biomass as fuel does not appear to be a solution. Recent work by noted scientists suggests that ramping up the use of biomass runs the risk of pushing the world past a climate change tipping point.

It is really unfortunate that the standard fixes work the way they do, because many of the proposed fixes do have good points. For example, if oil supply is limited, available oil can be shared far more equitably if people drive small fuel-efficient vehicles. The balance sheet of an oil importing nation looks better if citizens of that nation conserve oil. But we are kidding ourselves if we think these fixes will actually do much to solve the world’s CO2 emissions problem.

If we really want to reduce world CO2 emissions, we need to look at reducing world population, reducing world trade, and making more “essential” goods and services locally.  It is doubtful that many countries will volunteer to use these approaches, however.  It seems likely that Nature will ultimately provide its own solution, perhaps working through high oil prices and weaknesses in the world financial system.

Elastic Versus Inelastic Supply

It seems to me that many bad decisions have been made because many economists have missed the point that crude oil supply tends to be very inelastic, while other fuels are fairly elastic. Let me explain.

Elastic supply is the usual situation for most goods. Plenty of the product is available, if the price is high enough. If there is a shortage, prices rise, and in not too long a time, the market is well-supplied again. If supply is elastic, if you or I use less of it, ultimately less of the product is produced.

Coal and natural gas usually are considered to be elastic in their supply. To some extent, they are still “extract it as you need it” products. Supply of natural gas liquids (often grouped with crude oil, but acting more like a gas, so it is less suitable as a transportation fuel) is also fairly elastic.

Crude oil is the one product that is in quite short supply, on a world-wide basis. Its supply doesn’t seem to increase by more than a tiny percentage, no matter how high the price rises. This is a situation of inelastic supply.

Figure 2. World crude oil production (including condensate) based primarily on US Energy Information Administration data, with trend lines fitted by the author.

Even though oil prices have been very high since 2005  (shown in Figure 3, below), the amount of crude oil has increased by only 0.1%  per year (Figure 2, above).

Figure 3. Historical average annual oil prices, (“Brent” or equivalent) in 2011$, from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

In the case of oil, both supply and demand are quite inelastic. No matter how high the price, demand for oil doesn’t drop back by much. No matter how high the price of oil, world supply doesn’t rise very much, either.1

In a situation of inelastic supply, the usual actions a person might take appear to work when viewed on a local basis, but backfire on a world basis, if not everyone participates. When one country tries to conserve crude oil (whether through a carbon tax, gasoline tax, or higher automobile mileage requirement), it may reduce its own consumption, but there are still plenty of other buyers in the market for the oil that was saved. So the oil gets used by someone else, perhaps at a slightly lower price.  World oil production remains virtually unchanged. Thus, a reduction in oil usage by an OECD country can translate to more oil consumption by China or India, and ultimately more development of all types by those countries.

Adding Substitutes Adds to Carbon Emissions

If we don’t have enough crude oil, one approach is to create substitutes. Because crude oil supply is inelastic, though, these substitutes aren’t really substitutes, though. They are “add ons” to world oil supply, and this is one source of our problem with increasing world emissions.

What do we use to make the substitutes? Basically, natural gas and coal, and to a limited extent oil (because we can’t avoid using oil). The catch is, that to make the substitutes, we need to burn natural gas and coal more quickly than we would, if we didn’t make the oil substitutes. Since the supply of coal and natural gas is elastic, it is possible to pull them out of the ground more quickly. Thus, making the substitutes tends to increase carbon dioxide emissions over what they would have been, if we had never come up with the idea of substitutes.

The increased use of coal and natural gas is pretty clear, if a person thinks about coal-to-liquids or gas-to-liquids. Here, we need to first build the plants used in production, and then with each barrel of substitute made, we need to use more natural gas or coal. So it is very clear that we are extracting a lot of additional coal and natural gas, to make a relatively smaller amount of oil substitute. There is often a substantial need for water to make the process work as well, adding another stress on the system.

But the same issue comes up with biofuels, and with other renewables. These too, are add-ons to the world oil supply, not substitutes. While theoretically they might produce energy with less CO2 per unit than fossil fuel systems, in absolute terms they lead to natural gas and coal being pulled out of the ground more quickly to be used in making fertilizer, electricity, concrete, and other inputs to renewables.2

Carbon Taxes and Competitiveness

Each country competes with others in the world market place. Adding a carbon tax makes products made by the local company less competitive in the world marketplace.  It also signals to potential coal users that the countries adopting the carbon taxes are willing to a leave a greater proportion of world coal exports to those who are not adopting the tax, thus helping to keep the cost of imported coal down.

Asian countries already have a competitive edge over OECD countries in terms of lower wages and lower fuel costs (because of their heavy coal mix), when it comes to manufacturing. Adding a carbon tax tends to add to the Asian competitive edge. This tends to shift production offshore, and with it, jobs.

Figure 4. China’s energy consumption by source, based on BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy data.

China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Figure 4 shows clearly that its fuel consumption ramped up rapidly thereafter. It seems likely that the number of Chinese manufacturing jobs and spending on Chinese infrastructure increased at the same time.

Economists seem to have missed the serious worldwide deterioration in CO2 emissions in recent years by looking primarily at individual country indications, including CO2 emissions per unit of GDP. Unfortunately, this narrow view misses the big picture–that total CO2 emissions are rising, and that CO2 emissions relative to world GDP have stopped falling. (See my posts Is it really possible to decouple GDP growth from energy growth and Thoughts on why energy use and CO2 emissions are rising as fast as GDP. See also Figure 1 at the top of the post.)

The Employment Connection

I have shown that in the US there is a close correlation between energy consumption and number of jobs. (For more information, including a look at older periods, see my post, The close tie between energy consumption, employment, and recession.)

Figure 5. Employment is the total number employed at non-farm labor as reported by the US Census Bureau. Energy consumption is the total amount of energy of all types consumed (oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind, etc.), in British Thermal Units (Btu), as reported by the US Energy Information Administration.

There are several reasons why a connection between energy consumption and the number of jobs is to be expected:

(1) The job itself in almost every situation requires energy, even if it is only electricity to operate computers, and fuel to heat and light buildings.

(2) Equally importantly, the salaries that employees earn allow them to buy goods that require the use of energy, such as a car or house. (“Energy demand” is what people can afford; jobs allow “demand” to rise.)

(3) The lowest salaried people can be expected to spend the highest proportion of their salaries on energy-related services (such as food and gasoline for commuting). The wealthy spend their money on high priced goods and services, such as financial planning services and designer clothing that require much less energy per dollar of expenditure.

The thing I find concerning is the close timing between the ramp-up of Asian coal use and thus jobs using coal, and the drop-off of US employment as a percentage of US population, as illustrated in Figure 6 below. Arguably, the ramp up in world trade is just as important, but some aspects of programs that are intended to save CO2 emissions also seem to encourage world trade.

Figure 6. US Number Employed / Population, where US Number Employed is Total Non_Farm Workers from Current Employment Statistics of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Population is US Resident Population from the US Census. 2012 is partial year estimate.

Of course, the US did not sign the Kyoto Protocol or enact a carbon tax, and it is its jobs that I show falling as a percentage of population. It is more that the CO2 solutions act as yet another way to encourage more international trade, and with it more “growth”, and  more CO2.

Using More Biomass is Not a Fix Either

Burning more wood for fuel and creating “second generation” biofuels from biomass seems like a fix, until a person realizes that we are reaching limits there, as well.

In June 2012, twenty noted scientist published a paper in the journal Nature called Approaching a State Shift in the Earth’s Biosphere. This report indicates that humans have already converted as much as 43% of Earth’s land to urban or agricultural uses. In total, 20% to 40% of Earth’s primary productivity has been taken over by humans. The authors are concerned that we may now be reaching a tipping point leading to a state shift, because of loss of ecosystem services as use of biological products increases. With this state change would come a change in climate. Simulations indicate that this tipping point may occur when as little as 50% of land use is disturbed. This tipping point may be even lower, if world-wide synergies take place.

On Our Current Path – Lacking Good Solutions

While this list of problems relating to current proposed solutions is not complete, it gives a hint of the problems with reducing CO2 emissions using approaches suggested to date. There are many issues I have not covered.

One issue of note is the fact the cost of integrating intermittent renewables (such as wind and solar PV) increases rapidly, as we add increasing amounts to the grid. This occurs because there is more need to transport the electricity long distances and to mitigate its variability through electricity storage or fossil fuel balancing. (See for example, Low Carbon Projects Demand a New Transmission and Distribution Model, Grid Instability Has Industry Scrambling for Solutions, and Hawaii’s Solar Power Flare-Up.)

While the problems noted in these articles are probably solvable, the cost of these solutions has not been built into energy balance analyses. Energy balances (or EROEI estimates) as currently reported do not vary with the proportion of intermittent renewables added to the grid. If energy balance analyses were adjusted to reflect the high cost of adding an increasing proportion of wind or solar PV to the grid, they would likely show a rapidly declining energy balance, above a certain threshold. This would indicate that while adding a little intermittent renewables (as we have done to date) can be a partial solution, adding a lot is likely to have serious cost and energy balance issues.

Another issue that is difficult to deal with is the fact that we are not dealing with a temporary problem with CO2 emissions. The idea is not to slow down the burning of fossil fuels, and burn more later; what we really need to do is to leave unburned fossil fuels in the ground for all time. This is a problem, because there is no way that we can impose our will on people living 10 or 50 years from now. The Maximum Power Principle of H. T. Odum would seem to indicate that any species will make use of whatever energy sources are available to it, to the extent that it can. Even if we temporarily defeat this tendency with respect to humans’ use of fossil fuels, I don’t see any way that we can defeat this tendency for the long term.

Considering all of these issues, it does not appear that most of the “standard” solutions will really work.3 What other options do we have?

Nature’s Solution  

The Earth has been handling the problem of shifting conditions for over 4 billion years. The earth is a finite system. Nature provides that finite systems, such as the Earth, will cycle to new states of equilibrium over time, as conditions change. While we would like to defeat Earth’s tendency in this regard, it is not at all clear that we can. Part of this cycling to a new state is likely to be a change in climate.

A state change is a cause for concern to humans, but not necessarily to the Earth itself.  The Earth has moved from state to state many times in its existence, and will continue to do so in the future. The changes will bring the Earth back into a new equilibrium. For example, if CO2 levels are high, species that can make use of higher CO2 levels (such as plants) are likely to become dominant, rather than humans.

Exactly how this state change might occur is subject to different views. One view is that changing CO2 levels will be a primary driver. The Nature article referenced previously suggested that increased disturbance of natural ecosystems (as with greater use of biomass) might force a state change. My personal view is that a financial collapse related to high oil price may be part of Nature’s approach to moving to a new state. It could bring about a reduction in world trade, a scale back in CO2 emissions, and a general contraction of human systems.4

However the change takes place, it could be abrupt. It will not be to many people’s liking, since most will not be prepared for it.

Steps That Might Work to Slow CO2 Emissions

It would be convenient if we could slow CO2 emissions by working to produce energy with less CO2. This option does not seem to be working well though, so I would argue that we need to work in a different direction: toward reducing humans’ need for external energy. In order to do this, I would suggest two major steps:

(1) Reduce the world’s population, through one-child policies and universal access to family planning services. This step is necessary because rising population adds to demand. If we are to reduce demand, lower population needs to play a role.

(2) Change our emphasis to producing essential goods locally, rather than outsourcing them to parts of the world that are likely use coal to produce them. I would suggest starting with food, water, and clothing, and the supply chains necessary to produce these items.

Changing our emphasis to producing essential goods locally will have a multiple benefits. It will (a) add local jobs, and (b) lead to less worldwide growth in coal usage, (c) save on transport fuel, and (d) add protection against the adverse impact of declining world oil supply, if this should happen in the not too distant future. It should also help reduce CO2 emissions. The costs of goods will likely be higher using this approach, leading to less “stuff” per person, but this, too, is part of reaching reduced CO2 emissions.

It is hard to see that the steps outlined above would be acceptable to world leaders or to the majority of world population. Thus, I am afraid we will end up falling back on Nature’s plan, discussed above.

Notes:

[1] Michael Kumhof and Dirk Muir recently prepared a model of oil supply and demand (IMF working paper: Oil and the World Economy: Some Possible Futures). In it, they assume a long run price-elasticity of oil supply of 0.03, and remark that a paper by Benes and others indicates a range of 0.005 to 0.02 for this variable. The long term price elasticity of oil demand is  assumed to be .08 in the Kumhof and Muir analysis.

[2] I would argue that standard EROEI measurements are defined too narrowly to give a true measure of the amount of energy used in making a particular substitute. For example, EROEI measures do not consider the energy costs associated with labor (even though workers spend their salaries on clothing, and commuting costs, and many other good and services that use fossil fuels), or with financing costs, or of indirect impacts like wear and tear on the roads by transporting corn for biofuel.

Other types of analysis have ways of dealing with this known shortfall. For example, when the number of jobs that a new employer can be expected to add to a community is evaluated, the usual approach seems to be to take the number of jobs that can be directly counted and multiply by three, to estimate the full impact. I would argue that with substitutes, some similar adjustment is needed. This adjustment which would act to increase the energy use associated with renewables, and reduce the EROEI. For example, the adjustment might divide directly calculated EROEI by three.

A calculation of the true net benefit of renewables also needs to recognize that nearly the full energy cost is paid up front, and only over time is recovered in energy production. When renewable production is growing rapidly, society tends to be in a long-term deficit position. Typically, it is only as growth slows that society reaches as net-positive energy position.

[3] I obviously have not covered all potential solutions. Nuclear power is sometimes mentioned, as is space solar power. There are new solutions being proposed regularly. Even if these solutions would work, ramping them up would take time and require use of fossil fuels, so it is wise to consider other options as well.

[4] The way that limited oil supply could interfere with world trade is as follows: High oil prices cause consumers to cut back on discretionary goods. This leads to layoffs in discretionary sectors of the economy, such as vacation travel. It also leads to secondary effects, such as debt defaults and lower housing prices. The financial effects “concentrate up” to governments of oil importing nations, because they receive less tax revenue from laid-off workers at the same time that they pay out more in unemployment benefits, stimulus, and bank bailouts. (We are already at this point.)

Eventually, countries will find that deficit spending is spiraling out of control. If countries raise taxes and cut benefits, this is likely to lead to more lay offs and debt defaults. One possible outcome is that citizens will become increasingly unhappy, and replace governments with new governments that repudiate old debt. The new governments may have difficulty establishing financial relationships with other governments, given that most are major debt defaulters. Such issues could reduce world trade substantially. With the drop of world trade would come much more limited ability to maintain our current systems, such as electricity and long distance transport.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to inadequate supply.
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122 Responses to Climate Change: The Standard Fixes Don’t Work

  1. Dana Mayson says:

    Que the angry, religious-like anti-carbon folks who claim to be operating from “facts” that remind the more open minded among us of what the folks who wanted to hang Galileo said (the earth is still flat, don’t you know?). They, who have financial interests in wind, solar and other unrealistic alternatives, will defend their investments till they are bankrupted by them. There is no such thing as absolute science. Scientific knowledge is always changing and evolving. Truly scientific minded folks know this. Sadly, we have very few in mainstream academia. The politicians manipulate the fools all the way to the bank (their bank).

  2. sapientsage says:

    Reblogged this on sapientsage and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  3. momist says:

    Your final sentence: “Such issues could reduce world trade substantially.” This might result directly in “(2) Change our emphasis to producing essential goods locally”. However, I can’t see any natural mechanism for the earth to encourage “(1) Reduce the world’s population”, except by using the three horsemen of the apocalypse.
    Gloom.

    • I’m afraid I don’t see any way to voluntarily reduce population, either. There can be small groups that choose to have fewer children, but beyond that, I don’t see many options. Everyone wants to have children, especially if pension programs don’t look like they will work.

      • Keith Thomas says:

        Having a child or two (at least) is at the essence of being a member of the species Homo sapiens. To decide to do otherwise is, so far as our genetics is concerned, pure ideology. It may be essential that billions of us do this for survival of our species, but it’s still counter to our fundamental nature as individuals in this Darwinian world.

        • I am mother of three children, ages 28 to 33 myself, and in many ways I agree with you.

          I have been surprised at how many of today’s young adults seem not to be too much interested in having children. It seems like if their jobs are not going well, many postpone marriage and families almost indefinitely. I don’t have grandchildren.

      • Leo Smith says:

        Many people I know, myself included, decided not to have children.

      • Noe Allen says:

        We’ve been slaughtering each other in wars for reasons far less consequential – I suspect when the pinch begins to hurt -we will begin serious population reduction.

        Okay by me. I have prayed for a die off for some years now. Seeing Java was enough for me. Too many people, destroying too many environments.

        I’m not even shy about saying WHO should go. If Africa became a game park tomorrow – there would be few tears. At least I’m honest about my misanthrope.

    • pendantry says:

      Proud member of VHEMT, here.

  4. I think what you are recommending is along these lines……

    From …

    There are no painless solutions to get CO2 levels below 350ppm. Will it be painless to keep things as they are, this is the real question we need to ask ourselves? Only time can answer that, and its a big gamble to take. I think as real tipping points occur a large scale effort to reduce emmissions will happen. Whether it succeeds or not is another days debate.
    However we conot continue to deny the warnings from social, environmental and even economic quarters…

    “World Bank – Climate Change Report Warns of Dramatically Warmer World This Century
    Highlights:
    •Report warns the world is on track to a “4°C world” marked by extreme heat-waves and life-threatening sea level rise.
    •Adverse effects of global warming are “tilted against many of the world’s poorest regions” and likely to undermine development efforts and goals.
    •Bank eyes increased support for adaptation, mitigation, inclusive green growth and climate-smart development. ”

    http://climatechange.worldbank.org/content/climate-change-report-warns-dramatically-warmer-world-century

    The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) world energy outlook 2012 executive summary also makes for disturbing reading from a climate change perspective – if sufficient energy efficiency measures are not implemented by 2017 (4 years from now..) there is a very high possibility of a global temperature increase of 3.6 dec C – no chance of limiting to 2 degC.

    http://www.iea.org/Textbase/npsum/weo2012sum.pdf

    The Pricewaterhouse Cooper (PwC) Low Carbon Economy Index 2012 centres on one core statistic: the rate of change of global carbon intensity.

    http://www.pwc.co.uk/sustainability-climate-change/publications/low-carbon-economy-index.jhtml?goback=%2Egmp_1140337%2Egde_1140337_member_186579689

    This year PwC estimated that the required improvement in global carbon intensity to meet a 2ºC warming target has risen to 5.1% a year, from now to 2050. We have passed a critical threshold – not once since 1950 has the world achieved that rate of decarbonisation in a single year, but the task now confronting us is to achieve it for 39 consecutive years.

    “Now one thing is clear: businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world – not just 2°C, but 4°C, or even 6°C.”

    At one degree Celsius, most coral reefs and many mountain glaciers will be lost. A three-degree rise would spell the collapse of the Amazon rainforest, disappearance of Greenland’s ice sheet, and the creation of deserts across the Midwestern United States and southern Africa. A six-degree increase would eliminate most life on Earth, including much of humanity.

    • This link was supposed to be after the word “From…” at the top….
      Worth a look :-)

      • Thanks! Some of this are very dependent on our current system. I don’t see that we are going to transition to 3D printers, for example. Part of our problem is that we don’t really know the path down. But it is an interesting video for those who are new to the issue.

    • If financial collapse takes place, it could fix most of those problems–but not in a nice way. We seem to have our choice of future problems.

    • Most people seem to agree that the planet is warming. The problem is convincing enough people that our CO2 emissions are the cause. Very few people still accept this fact and still say that its a natural variation. I sometimes like to show them the CO2 ppm measurements then and ask, is this a natural variation? I normally get silence then although in their mind they still think “its out of my hands”. As long as the majority of people still dont accept that our consumption of fossil fuels is a major cause for this warming, there is simply no way we can stop the runaway train on this. Especially with IEA posting good news for the growth of the economy by saying USA will be an oil exporter soon. The disconnect from the science and the economy is really bad for us.

      • The natural variation argument is well and truly null and void.

        This is a balanced article from both sides of the argument (it is well worth signing in to read, its free)……..

        http://www.europeanenergyreview.eu/site/pagina.php?id_mailing=287&toegang=918317b57931b6b7a7d29490fe5ec9f9&id=3740

        Of course NASA have been diligently documenting the evidence against the natural variation argument for years…

        http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

        http://www.9news.com/news/article/246143/188/NASA-Global-warming-caused-mostly-by-humans

        It has been well established that 97% of climate scientists (the people who study climate change for a living and are therefore the most knowledgable about the subject) agree that human activities are causing significant climate change.

        http://junksciencecom.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/pnas-2010-anderegg-1003187107-1.pdf

        We take the doctor’s advice on our physical health, the mechanic’s advice on our car maintenance, the dentists advice on a toothache and maybe even the climate scientist’s advice on the causation of life changing climate change. Makes sense!
        Although we look for a second opinion from time to time, that’s allowed too. A personnel choice can be made if you don’t want a life saving operation, but it should not impinge on others.
        Generally political consensus is concerned with the voting public and what they decide.
        Denial of certainty is not equivalent to the certainty of denial. We are all capable of studying the facts in order to make an informed decision. Those who chose not too, should listen to the experts. 97% – 3%, I would go with the 97%.

      • step back says:

        The other day I had a conversation with a Climate Denier.
        Turns out his CO2 footprint is way smaller than mine.
        Why?
        He owns his own business close to home and thus commutes shorter distances (often by bike).
        Me. I work for another person who has their business close to their home but for me it’s a much longer commute and no mass transit or other infrastructure to support reduction of footprint.

        Bottom line
        (as I see it for most people):
        Infrastructure
        Infrastructure
        Infrastructure

        (or as J Kunstler puts it: We are clusterF***ed)

        • Karl says:

          The short term temperature trend seems to be downwards. Let’s hope it develops into a long term trend (or maybe not).

          http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/hadobs/hadcrut4/diagnostics.html

        • Indeed, infrastructure is the critical part of everyones life. As I wrote on my blog, our society has through fossil fuel created a dependence on cars and long commuting to make the ends meet in order to pay our debt. We have very little flexibility and real freedom in this kind of society, as you are at the mercy of being able to pay those bills. I guess we have all willingly walked into this as I am sure quite a lot of us could make smart choices about how we invest our time and money.

          I have a big mortgage on my home which I will hopefully have paid down before I am 60 years old. When we moved into the house and took up that loan, I was reluctant to take on so much debt, but I soon realized it was perhaps even lower than the average – and indeed way lower than what I see people take on now in Norway. I mean, who can sleep well at night with over 2 million NOK (about $350.000) in debt? Everyone is saying that the value will grow so its not so bad, the house is after all worth 5 million – I guess that rings some bells for you over in USA? :) – Well our country still haven’t reached any form of real crisis while EU is falling apart, we got lucky, people still want to buy our oil. I am trying to tell people how lucky we are and that we act cocky and self sure about this situation which will come back and bite us seriously in not too far distant future.

          Personally I am thinking every day about what my options really are. Fortunately my workplace is considering moving, and will probably move closer to where I live so a bit shorter commuting. I am thinking of getting an electrical car this year as its way better than any petrol guzzler environmentally as well as good for my wallet (few taxes on them here so far). But at the same time its yet more loans… Although that house loan is really the killer, its really whats limiting any choice for me and my family now, and I am unsure what flexibility we will have in case there is a serious crash in the economy.

          If at least people were able to live somewhere without locking them into debt for the rest of their lives, I think we would have more options to “think different”. But the way it is now, I feel locked into this “expected behavior” and “business as usual” kind of thinking, unless I go completely radical and move to a cheap farmhouse outside town and take a 350.org or transition network kind of life. I am not sure if my family and I are ready for that – and neither do I know how I would cope in that world, but a part of me say we would at least be more resilient towards change. I generally think that kids should get the benefit of staying in one place, having the same friends for a long time, stability – with the amount of people moving all the time I wonder how it affects their kids, never finding a root anywhere and getting used to being ripped out of school and friends all the time. It surely cant be good, and I guess I feel the same about my kids. Another reason to stay put. But at the same time, it doesn’t matter where your school and friends are when you cant live a resilient life in a time of crisis (although friends certainly helps out).

          So you are right, infrastructure is the main reason, its like a cage really.

      • I think there is another issue as well: Even if the planet is warming, is there something that we reasonably can do about it, in a short enough time to make a difference? And of course, the question I raised, “How do we influence future generations as well?”

        I am afraid I am not convinced that the situation is really fixable, because of the issues I mentioned. We can do a little, that is all.

        • Manolo El Lobo says:

          Gail, whatever we do, it’s gonna be to little to late: our problem is shifting rapidly from CO2 to CH4. Methane is rising at an unprecedented rate from the Arctic, due to the effects of global warming. As you certainly do know , CH4 has a much, much higher potential as a Greenhouse gas (depending on the timescale you are looking, 20 to 100 greater..) Now, the speed of Ice Volume lost in the Arctic has taken everyone, even the most pessimistic, by surprise. We will almost certainly witness the same acceleration with the frozen methane under the Arctic Ocean and on land in the area (It’s happening right now). Similar things happened before. If you look up Paleo-Climatology you will find this kind of event under the name of “Dansgaard Oeschger”. These are very fast, brutal climate change events. The way it looks right now, we are in a ramp up to one of these kind of events. See link about methane rising (there are many more): http://arctic-news.blogspot.ch/2012/08/charting-mankinds-expressway-to-extinction.html
          Very little we can do indeed. Nature’s way we go.

      • Leo Smith says:

        The evidence seems to be that the planet stopped warming in 2000 or thereabouts.

        • Mel Tisdale says:

          Such a comment is unworthy of you, Leo. It is the sort of nonsense that Lord Nigel Lawson comes up with, one assumes in order to meet the requirements of the secret funders of his Global Warming Policy Foundation. Considering the harm that climate change is guaranteed to do to the U.K., it is amazing that he is allowed to keep his title. Poor old Fred Goodwin only made a bad business decision and lost his knighthood.

          Only the atmospheric temperature has experienced a hiatus, as is normal in La Niña events, of which we have recently had a series, and only then if one takes annual averages. The rolling ten year average just keeps climbing. An El Niño is building and so air temperatures are expected to rise. We can only hope that it is not as bad as the 1998 one. In the meantime the ocean temperatures have been rising inexorably.

          I will recommend yet again that you visit skepticalscience.com where you find the myth that global warming has ceased roundly rebutted, along with a load of other falsehoods so often presented as an excuse for not doing anything. It is a highly respected website within the climate science community.

  5. Leo Smith says:

    World population will reduce anyway. The only question is by what means.

    But that is rather academic, since it won’t matter to the dead, and the living will be too busy staying that way.

    I’d guess by at least four of the standard horsemen,. Starvation disease violence and of course the final horse coloured a pallid Green.

    Probably renewable energy. :-)

    I’ll get the popcorn.

  6. PeteTheBee says:

    Isn’t the US currently Kyoto complaint, despite not ratifying Kyoto? Our emissions are way down, that’s for sure.

    • No, the US isn’t Kyoto compliant. Its emissions are quite a bit higher than in 1990. The only figures I have are for CO2. (There are other gasses involved as well.) CO2 emissions were 5.4 billion metric tons in 1990. They hit a high of 6.5 million metric tons in 2007. In 2011, they were 6.0 billion metric tons.

      THe Former Soviet Union does very well under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol. I’m not sure how Germany fares under the exact rules, but it seems to be pretty good as well. (Perhaps closing down some East German factories helped.)

      • PeteTheBee says:

        Looks pretty close to Kyoto compliant to me.

        http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/17/a-20-year-low-in-u-s-carbon-emissions/

        You are aware that there will almost surely be a big drop in CO2 emissions for 2012? Read the papers, etc?

        • I know that with the low price of natural gas, there has been a lot of switching from coal to gas for electricity recently, hence the drop in CO2. The drop in the percentage of the country employed has “helped” reduce carbon numbers, as did the warm winter last winter. The chart you link to is for Jan-Feb-Mar, so reflects the warm winter months.

          Based on BP data, for 2011, the USA’s carbon emissions were was still 10.5% above the base year of 1990. For the year 2012, it seems likely that the emissions of the USA will decrease in 2012. It is possible that CO2 emissions for the USA may drop below the 1990 level in 2012, so if 2012 dropping below the 1990 CO2 level was the goal, the emission target would be reached. The catch is that we don’t really know what the goal would have been. For many of the countries, the Kyoto target was a actually a reduction from the 1990. (See Annex 1 percentage table on Wikipedia.) Canada was aiming for a -6%, Belgium was striving for -7.5%, and Belgium was string for -21%. If a decrease such as these is required for compliance, then it would be harder for the USA to be Kyoto compliant.

          • Its still good to read that CO2 emissions are going down. If China also had more natural gas based power stations I am sure the planet could get a much needed “breather”. We really need to explore these options as well even though CO2 will still be steadily rising as its above whatever the carbon cycle of the planet is able to digest. It can buy us some time to develop alternatives.

            Norway has been busy these past years with what our prime minister called “Norway’s Moon Landing Project”, which is carbon capture from gas plants. Quite a bit of money has been put into this so far although the technology hasn’t been able to deliver yet. I am sure with some serious effort we could considerably reduce emissions from natural gas plants. Yes, its expensive, yes it limits growth, and possibly the only reason why Norway can afford this now is because of the high oil price income, but its really necessary for us to figure out how we can best burn whatever fossil fuel we have left on the planet. Most of fossil fuel burning need to be centralized in order to have effective carbon capture, hence Norway has lower taxes on electrical cars to make more people switch to that. Thanks to Misubishi iMiev and Nissan Leaf the electrical car sales have gone up considerably in Norway, with the largest fleet in Europe. Our hydro based power is also very cheap so its really a win win situation for all here. Our governments target is 50000 cars by 2018 which is a bit in a 5 million population country. I am sure these cars will also be good for future battery storage banks kinds of infrastructure if they take form at some time in the future. I can easily imagine certain people living off the grid if they have local windpower also and are able to reduce their energy consumption as well. For now, with the cheap hydro (which has no plan of going away with the rise in precipitation here), I think a good electrical based infrastructure has its merits here.

            • Norway is different than most of the rest of the world with all of its hydroelectric. Most others are dependent on fossil fuels for electricity.

              There is still an issue of supply chains, but it you have oil to sell, those supply chains may hold up better than for others.

  7. Pingback: Leave the oil and coal in the ground | thetopcatplan.com

  8. Thanks a lot for your courage to talk about the crude reality outside the collective illusion of infonite growth!

    My agenda is pretty similar:

    http://ourgreatestcommonfactor.wordpress.com/2012/11/07/two-scenarios-lemmings-vs-ex-junkies/

  9. Reblogged this on Our Greatest Common Factor and commented:
    Courageous thinking outside paradigms, a must read!

  10. quantiger says:

    I’ve been saying things like this for quite a while. We can implement everything in Kyoto and it won’t accomplish diddly-squat. So what’s the point? It makes us feel like we are doing something. It’s Potemkin policy, and that’s dangerous because it blinds us to reality.

    Where I diverge is that it’s obvious we have to have huge amounts of energy, which means nuclear power. The costs of nuclear power are mostly regulatory, not engineering costs.

    The other serious alternative is orbiting solar power satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Expensive to put up, but excellent once they are up there.

  11. ChiefEngineer says:

    The world should stop building new fossil fuel burning personal transportation vehicles now

    • Good luck on that one! I expect China and India will build them, even if we don’t.

      • ChiefEngineer says:

        Hi Gail,

        I noticed you didn’t disagree with me. First, let’s apply the five stages of grief to our two comments.

        I believe you are trying to say that my acceptance will find resistance from others that are in denial, anger and bargaining from the depression of reality. My statement was one of many sacrifices mankind needs to make and would be a globe sign of acceptance.

        Realistically, 2030 and production of near ( more than 99% less than current) fossil fuel free personal transportation should become a globe regulated standard. We need to live within whatever technology advanced transportation this regulation brings us.

        I will leave it to the female species to figure out how to regulate(control) the population to a sustainable mankind.

        Failing to plan is planning to fail.

        • I believe back in The Long Emergency, James Kunstler made the argument that if we know we are not going to need automobiles sometime in the future, we should just stop making them. We could continue using what we had, and they might wear out about the time oil was depleting. It struck me as an innovative way to solve the problem–more so than deciding to make $40,000 plug-in cars that people who are getting poorer and poorer have no way of purchasing. So it doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me.

          I’m not sure if there is any way of getting countries to work toward a goal such as 99% less fuel than current usage. I think it is more likely that the way people will move toward vehicles that use very little fuel is if they discover the conventional vehicles are way too expensive, and find a cheap alternative that sort of satisfies their needs. I wonder if people will move toward scooters or electric bikes or vehicles like golf carts. We could even move back to carts pulled by animals again. For some purposes, they seem to work OK, and the fuel requirements are manageable without fossil fuels.

  12. OK, I got it, we need “Hunger Games” on a truly massive scale.

  13. we are locked into a commercial system that demands growth
    capitalism doesn’t have a reverse gear or a brake, we go on until we hit the wall of finite resources. it really is that simple folks. And we are all capitalists, like it or not
    we face a triumvirate of chaos, overpopulation, energy depletion and food shortage. they are acting in unison, yet there is an odd inclination to address them separately. it doesn’t matter which hits first, it will exacerbate the other two.
    The only ‘fix’ to all this is what nature will fix herself, humanity can only tinker around with it. As the planet heats up, (its fever), climate change will be the sneeze that gets rid of us, simply by cutting off the food that the planet has supplied so amply until now.
    Every species that outbreeds its environment invariably has its food supply removed. this law of nature is immutable. perhaps our biggest mistake was in granting ourselves immunity from the laws of physics.
    we were never the creation of any god, just a big brained primate who learned how to control fire

  14. Your arguments all point to an obvious but taboo subject: trade tariffs for carbon. If we think countries should all put a price on carbon, then we should allow those countries to protect their local jobs with carbon-tariffs. That is a big can of worms, as the amount of ‘embedded carbon’ in any product is not easy to estimate. And the WTO doesn’t allow anybody to just slap a tariff on anything. The result would be trade wars.

    That is the reason that so many countries resist so strongly the EU bringing flights into the ETS carbon-trade system. The next step would be shipping, and after that embedded carbon isn’t far away.

    If carbon tariffs can become acceptable, and a fair way can be designed to determine how high they should be .. that would help stench the problems indicated in this blogpost. The only alternative is that the world agrees on energy policy .. but that will not happen. We will need some combination of cap-and-trade, carbon-tax, and carbon-tariffs.

    • “In 2008, British Columbia rolled out the first large-scale carbon tax in North America. It is a somewhat unique tax because it is “revenue-neutral,” meaning that the government returns the revenue to taxpayers in the form of reductions in personal and corporate income taxes, along with a few other targeted tax reductions. In short, BC aims to reduce emissions by taxing harmful pollution while at the same time boosting economic growth by reducing tax rates.”

      http://daily.sightline.org/2012/11/05/deciphering-the-impacts-of-bcs-carbon-tax/?goback=%2Egde_1140337_member_188143581

    • People in warm countries tend to have lower living costs–often,they don’t need to heat, cool, or insulate their homes. Workers in cold countries need higher salaries, to have sufficient funds to pay for sturdier homes and heat them. It is hard to see how workers in cold countries can compete on a level playing field with workers in warm countries.

  15. Don Stewart says:

    I will pose a couple of questions, rather than provide answers.

    (1) How did the Nature article treat livestock grazing in the grasslands? The way most people do it today is clearly atrocious and creates deserts and releases carbon into the air. BUT, we also know how to increase the biodiversity in the grass and soil and sequester carbon. A quick search on the many entries under ‘carbon farming’ will reveal many examples. Allan Savory from Zimbabwe is a common thread through these examples. Carbon farming with livestock in the grasslands of the world is, in my opinion, a no-brainer. Politically, I believe that growing livestock should be a licensed occupation, just as prescribing drugs is a licensed occupation. The license is granted when carbon farming skills are demonstrated, and the license can be revoked if carbon farming is not practiced. And feeding grain to livestock should be banned.

    (2) Carbon farming is also clearly applicable to crops other than grass. See, for example, the World Bank description:

    http://climatechange.worldbank.org/content/climate-smart-agriculture

    We clearly have research and development work to do in terms of things like row crops, but our knowledge currently far outstrips our practice. The community college in my town bases it’s agricultural curriculum on carbon farming. We can do a great deal with what we already know.

    So…I would make a distinction between a pre-ordained doom and the doom we will most certainly experience if we just keep on doing stupid things.

    One could also argue that keeping on doing stupid things with debt will lead us to our doom before the carbon does–but that’s another story.

    I don’t have the skills to project what the temperatures would be if we continue burning fossil fuels, but also adopt quite rapidly a carbon farming best practices political program. But clearly we can put an awful lot of carbon into the soil, and I don’t think we should despair until we look carefully at that scenario.

    Don Stewart

    • The length supply chain supporting the food we eat is much shorter if we do it right than if we try to maintain what we are doing today. Seems like we need to take steps to get back to short supply chains.

      • Don Stewart says:

        I just returned from a trip to Texas to visit my newly relocated grandchildren. Which gave me an opportunity to look at the world they are growing up in with fresh eyes. A couple of observations:
        1. I didn’t see a vegetable growing anywhere. Long supply chain.
        2. I saw an enormous investment in highways and automobiles. Investments which may be very hard to maintain in the near future.
        3. The suburbs remind me of Jim Kunstler’s description of ‘the greatest mal-investment ever made’. Nothing looks sustainable.
        4. Everything is financialized. It’s all about buying and selling. In a crunch, the people may have very little self-reliance to fall back on.
        5. The idea of cooking a meal from simple raw materials seems alien to them. They do have some glitzy ‘life-style foodstores’ with a lot of pre-packaged stuff. In one of them, I did manage to buy the only two bundles of rubber banded kale they had in the store. In an energy crunch, the people who shop in this store are in for a shock.

        In terms of food, I think the proper focus for farmers is carbon farming, and for families it is getting the carbon (and complexity) out of the distribution and preparation. Which implies using unprocessed ingredients from local sources (not put in plastic in California). And, somehow, converting suburban lots filled with swimming pools into lots with gardens–but that project looks hopeless to me. What seems more likely to happen is that the McMansions will be be abandoned and older homes built with more resilient goals in mind will come back into style and rise in price.

        Ironically, Money magazine recently gave this suburb high honors.

        Don Stewart

        • Don,

          When one travels, it seems like a person sees things they didn’t notice otherwise.

          When I flew to San Francisco and drove to Santa Cruz, California a few months ago, I was surprised at how “packed-together” everyone was. The highway from San Francisco to Santa Cruz was inadequate for the number of cars. While I saw food growing and little gardens, the number of people, by itself, was clearly a problem. Finding a place to park all of the cars was a problem.

          Even at this point, it looked like the area was barely keeping up with natural deterioration. I wasn’t there long enough to see many of the details, except to decide it wasn’t a place I would like to live.

  16. Les D. says:

    Gail,
    I’m not quite so pessimistic about a carbon tax as you are. It seems to me that a substantial carbon tax, including an imputed tax levied on imports and services from countries without a similar tax at the same rate, would substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions if implemented by the countries with the greatest carbon footprint (essentially the OECD).

    The biggest problem is the escalating coal burning, particularly in China and India. While some of this is for local consumption, a large part of it is for outsourcing manufacturing and services for OECD countries. If these countries had to pay a tax (of perhaps $100/ton) on the carbon dioxide emitted by their suppliers, the consumption of cheap Chinese junk would drop substantially.

    The amount of international trade would also drop, but the carbon saving from this would not be dramatic: container ships are a pretty efficient way of moving goods, especially if they drop the speed a bit. A bigger saving would be a reduction in numbers of trucks on the interstates, shipping goods from west coast ports to the eastern half of the U.S.

    Of course, the big problem with a carbon tax is the political one. But a few more climate-related (or apparently climate-related) natural disasters might change the political balance on this.

    A really big problem might arise if implementation of a hefty carbon tax in the few countries with surplus agricultural production (the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand are the most important) reduces the amount of food available in world trade so much that the poorer countries in the long list of those unable to feed themselves suffer mass starvation.

  17. Vali Tralov says:

    The standart fixes – mean CO2 reduction – really don’t work. But the climate (balance of heat on Earth) is not limited by CO2 only. That is why the way out should not be focused only on said gas – non-standart fixes can differ greatly. Let’s look/correct the whole picture but not only 1% of global heat in GHGs.
    With respect.

  18. Sinnycool says:

    Gail, this is one of your very best articles, thank you.

  19. yt75 says:

    “1. In an oil-supply constrained world, if a few countries reduce their oil consumption, the big impact is to leave more oil for the countries that don’t. Oil price may drop a tiny amount, but on a world-wide basis, pretty much the same amount of oil will be extracted, and nearly all of it will be consumed.”

    You forget the image aspect, what does the US has to offer, besides being the most digusting piece of ignorant and deeply illiterate shit to ever roam the earth ?

    • yt75 says:

      Note : sorry for this stupid message (not written in a normal state)
      But indeed you forget the image and in this case form of “leadership” aspect the US is playing, in terms of cars, way of life , many things, and even towards China for instance.
      Plus again, I maintain that reducing the consumption of a country is valid in a pure country selfishness sense. You could argue complete collapse is coming anyway for sure, in which case all this doesn’t matter one way or another.

      • I am not sure any country would do well in a leadership role with respect to reducing CO2 emissions.

        The US has done not-too-badly recently, in reducing emissions because

        (1) 2012 Jan-Feb-Mar was a warm winter
        (2) Relatively fewer people have jobs, so there has been a cutback in new cars bought over the last few years
        (3) With the artificially low price of natural gas, there has been a big shift from coal to natural gas for electricity

        I am not sure how much of these are directly going to last though.

        Going forward, I expect the fiscal cliff will have a big effect, downward, because of more job loss. So, as you say, it may not matter anyway.

  20. Mel Tisdale says:

    There is one direction that events could take that I don’t think you have mentioned, Gail. The craving for economic growth with its dependence on scarce resources could easily lead to conflict. Anyone who has bothered to study nuclear weapons technology will know all too well that if the Cold War were ever to return, it would last five, maybe six, minutes before it got hot – very hot!

    Modern nuclear weapons are only a deterrent to minor nations, who, if they ever obtain nuclear weapons themselves will most probably deliver them in the hold of a ship or the boot of a car, anyway, so perhaps not even a deterrent to them either. There is no longer any of Herman Kahn’s ladder of escalation. That way leads to defeat in the modern nuclear age. It will be all out war from the off because any missile not used will not be able to be used, because either it or its launch infrastructure will have been destroyed. It is what you get with MIRV systems delivering warheads with miniscule CEPs.

    An all out nuclear war lasting at most an hour – but what an event filled hour it would be – would do wonders for curbing population growth and the nuclear winter that would ensue would do wonders for curbing global warming.

    When the ‘1%’ stop taking holidays all of a sudden and curiously stay near their mansions, which you can bet have fully stocked nuclear shelters, it might be time to blow any money we might have on a damn good farewell party. From what I have seen of the ‘1%’ I think we can forget any notions of the meek inheriting the earth. Any proles that survive will soon be put to work clearing up the mess while their new lords and masters divvy up the spoils.

    • GermanStacker says:

      I think most people would prefer not to be alive in such a world. And the 1% wouldn’t be there anyway, only the 0,001%. The normal 1% will get their french revolution treat in due time. They are very visible. Most nuclear bunkers are not for world war. They are for things like regional neutron bombing in case of severe civil unrest.

    • It is not clear to me that the winners would really be winners, in the scenario you outline. The resulting mess would be difficult for anyone to live in.

      The ones who died suddenly in such a mess might be in some ways better off. They lived reasonable lives up until the end. It was only in the last hour that everything fell apart. The result might not be worse than dying of a heart attack or a major stroke.

      • Mel Tisdale says:

        Very true. What I was really trying to do was raise awareness of the increased dangers that nuclear weapons pose to us today, even though peace has broken out. There seems to be the notion that because the Cold War is over, nuclear Armageddon has gone away. The truth is the exact opposite. When the Cold War ended, neither side possessed the capability to deliver a successful pre-emptive first strike, though they were clearly on their way towards doing so. It is very difficult to believe that they have not used the intervening years to complete their nuclear weapons systems to the point where a pre-emptive first strike can now be guaranteed to be successful.

        The most sobering thought is that the only real defence is to automate the launch process, seeing as there will not be time for a sensible discussion by the high command of either side in the event of incoming missiles being detected. A faulty diode in an IBM machine promoted Major Major Major to the rank of Major in Catch 22. In today’s world that same faulty diode could send us all to kingdom come and our finite world with it.

        It is not as though living with a hair trigger nuclear situation is inevitable. A treaty that banned multiple warheads on any missile, be they MIRV or not, would put an end to either side’s ability to take the other side by surprise. Such a ban will never happen until the public calls for it, hence my desire to raise awareness of the danger nuclear weapons still pose.

        As for the 1%, they were just a peg to hang the comment on.

  21. icarus62 says:

    This article makes complete sense to me. All our problems are the result of overpopulation and ecological overshoot. In principle we could survive as a very small population with an ecologically damaging lifestyle, or as a large population with a very low-impact lifestyle, but not as both large *and* ecologically damaging. Everyone wants a comfortable 1st-world lifestyle and the signals of the environmental damage that’s causing are not sufficiently immediate and direct to cause us real fear and force us to change our behaviour. Even if they were, we would still have a ‘tragedy of the commons’ effect to deal with. Not many people will happily accept hardship and shortages without trying to improve their own lives at the expense of others. The world is full of people who aren’t even prepared to change a light bulb in order to save the planet, let alone make real sacrifices. That’s just the nature of our species (well, *all* species, no doubt).

    My understanding of climate science is that the carbon we’ve extracted from the Earth’s crust and put back into the climate system is going to be there for millions of years, unless we remove it artificially, which seems impractical on a large scale. Reducing emissions would delay but not prevent the eventual warming associated with the current level of carbon in the system. I say “carbon” rather than “carbon dioxide” because CO2 can be exchanged between the various surface reservoirs (atmosphere, terrestrial biosphere, soil, oceans) but the carbon itself remains essentially forever, as far as its impact on human civilisation is concerned. With both the terrestrial and ocean carbon sinks projected to fail and become sources of CO2 within this century, there is little realistic prospect of atmospheric CO2 actually declining on any timescale we would care about, regardless of how hard we try to reduce our emissions in coming decades. That means we’re already committed to an eventual 3 – 4°C of global warming as per the early Pliocene climate with around 400ppm of atmospheric CO2, accompanied by multi-metre sea level rise. Admittedly it will take centuries for the Earth to reach a climate equilibrium.

    It seems unrealistic to expect that viable fossil fuels will remain in the ground while populations voluntarily accept a frugal, impoverished, low-energy existence. Even if a government came to power which advocated this course of action for the common good, it probably wouldn’t last long.

    Maybe I’m being unduly pessimistic. If there was a profitable way to extract and sequester carbon from the climate system, on a large scale, using non-fossil fuel energy, then we might have a chance of bringing global warming to a halt without ever reaching 3, 4, 5 or 6 degrees, but otherwise it seems we’re just going to have to live with it.

    • C Breeze says:

      Icarus,

      Your analysis is not pessimistic, it is realistic.

      Many people think that carbon capture and storage is a good way to resolve the problem. It is difficult to store CO2, because it is a gas that can easily leak out of storage. One way to store carbon that is very stable over eons is by turning it into coal. This is the way carbon has been stored over geologic time. It would be wonderful if we could capture the carbon in the atmosphere, turn it into coal, and bury it deep in the earth. Unfortunately, extracting carbon from the atmosphere and burying it would be unbelievably expensive and impossible to convince people to do.
      There is a very simple and inexpensive way to do this. It is by not digging it up and burning it in the first place. Then it is stored very safely and at no cost for eons to come.
      Although this solution is simple and inexpensive, it is not the one being chosen by humans. It would seem that the best response is to figure out how to adapt as well as one can to the climate changes that will take place inevitably as carbon rises. Humans have a tendency that we can “fix” everything, but this one appears to be too big to fix. It’s not even worth blaming other people for it. I try not to use a lot of energy, but I still drive a car and use the heater. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy… and he is us”.

    • GermanStacker says:

      “My understanding of climate science is that the carbon we’ve extracted from the Earth’s crust and put back into the climate system is going to be there for millions of years, unless we remove it artificially, which seems impractical on a large scale. Reducing emissions would delay but not prevent the eventual warming”.
      I agree, but if – voluntarily or not – the process is slowed down meaningfully, there would be more time to find adaptive strategies.

    • mikkel says:

      ” That means we’re already committed to an eventual 3 – 4°C of global warming as per the early Pliocene climate with around 400ppm of atmospheric CO2, accompanied by multi-metre sea level rise”

      Yeah but if we put a break on it then we might avoid the 8°C to 16°C increase with 20+ m sea rise.

      “Admittedly it will take centuries for the Earth to reach a climate equilibrium.”

      A huge problem that people have generally (which unfortunately advocates haven’t done a good job of explaining) is understanding that energy imbalance magnitude is what leads to all the weather/feedback craziness. By focusing on the destination instead of the journey, the conversation becomes abstract since it focuses on what we’d need to do to respond.

      The larger issue — and the one that will cause global panic — is that the further we get away from equilibrium the more fundamentally unknowable everything becomes. People are generally pretty good at dealing with adverse conditions (eventually) but complete randomness and uncertainty is terrifying.

      It is also why all economic cost/benefit views are not only inadequate but dangerous.

      Personally I think our choices in the intermediate term are decarbonize and localize strategically or continue on the path and watch everything fall apart, with such climate destabilization that localization is impossible. George Mobus has had posts suggesting that post bottleneck humans will most likely need to go back to nomadic lifestyles, which is a strong possibility.

    • If there were just a few of us, we wouldn’t have a problem.

      It seems like all we can do now is cross our fingers and hope for the best, with respect to climate. In the days of the ice ages, humans dealt with climate change by migrating to where it was warmer. I expect that if it does change, we will have little choice but to “work with what we are given,” and do something similar. We have built lots of infrastructure, as if it makes sense were it is, and we can depreciate it over a long period. It may turn out that we have to abandon part of it.

      Perhaps part of a problem now is assuming too much certainty about the future. We have made a lot of plans, assuming 40 or 50 year amortization schemes are appropriate, and they may not really be appropriate.

  22. mikkel says:

    I agree that the standard methods won’t work, and further that Odum’s observation is most likely correct and fatalistic. Reading his observations and thinking about it in terms of competitive systems made me recognize that the power-maximizing strategy is just an impersonal force that becomes embedded in any dominant system. To avoid a downfall we would need to change far far more than just our energy delivery system. [I DO think that saying it is biologically hard wired is a bit of a stretch since there are many examples of purposefully steady-state aspiring cultures, as Merelyn Emery, a systems theory sociologist points out.]

    What we’re facing of course is nothing new, even if it is magnified in scale. Nietzsche said that the concept of “eternal return” in which there is a fractal reoccurrence of all events is “terrifying” but that we can rise above by loving our fate. This is what Odum et al did for me. By depersonalizing not only my individual experience, but that of our civilization, it allowed me to not only accept but love our fate. By fate I do not necessarily mean destruction, although that is highly likely regardless of climate change, but of struggle for rebirth in the face of death. It is the die that have been cast, there is no blame, only reasons. And every reason is simply to guide a course of action.

    In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna says that the two ways to obtain communion with the Ultimate is through empiric philosophy and yogi action. There is commentary: “Lord Krishna has explained that for purified minds jnana yoga or the yoga of knowledge is appropriate as in chapter two verse sixty-one states: the self controlled one sits in meditation on Him. But for minds not yet purified karma yoga or the yoga of action is more suitable as in chapter two verse thirty-one states there is no greater fortune for a ksatriya warrior than a righteous war. Therefore in respect to the two paths they are actually two stages of the same path separated only by purity and impurity of mind.”

    And we are surely facing the most righteous of wars. Krishna goes on to explain about path of detachment *through* action (something that some Buddhists miss, even though their own parables make it clear) and the role of caring out prescribed duties, even if imperfectly.

    The standard fixes won’t work, but that only necessitates the need for action towards whatever you are meant to do. We don’t need consensus or even the majority to understand, just act and teach through yourself for others and things will be as they are.

    • I think you are right about action needing to be at the personal level. Different people may find different religious views helpful in this regard. Waiting for governments to reach a consensus, and then find money to act on the consensus will be a long wait.

    • Keith Thomas says:

      Astrology, Bhagavad Gita, Scientology, Jihad and the like may give comfort to some, but we are in a totally new world so far as limits and possibilities are concerned. These human stories are cute and may give comfort to the despairing, but they are all equally irrelevant in this context. Gail is far too polite. The problems we face are biophysical and must be understood as such and examined, explicated and worked through using science. Science may not be up to it, but there is nothing better.

      • mikkel says:

        The fact you put Astrology and Scientology in the same category as the Bhagavad Gita and Jihad shows great ignorance. The latter two are fundamentally about purification through struggle, rising above the ego in respect with the natural order, not trying to read the future or blaming our problems on alien infection.

        I’m obviously a naturalist and materialist (quoting Odum’s theory as giving peace) but there is much more codified wisdom in the world’s religious philosophies (separate from their dogmatic practice) than modern science. As far as I’m concerned, the Tao is a treatise on complex systems theory in and of itself, while the other eastern philosophies have excellent commentary on the nature of growth in the individual and society, often with great humor that pierces through the hardest facade. Personally I get less out of Western Religions, although Aldous Huxley’s “The Perennial Philosophy” gave me more respect towards some of those thinkers as well.

        They aren’t about comfort to the despairing, quite the contrary, they are about resolve in the face of uncertainty and a call to action to those that have the strength to live for meaning and purpose.

        I’m not sure where the dichotomy of “science” and naturalistic religious philosophy arose from. Many of the greatest minds of scientific history have been strongly influenced by religion and the 20th century greats (Oppenheimer, Sagan and Einstein alike) had various levels of direct influence from and parallelism with the eastern philosophies.

        Not only do I know many biophysical minds that agree, but personally I have used these types of parables and core ideals to both explain about quantitative theory metaphorically and also help scientific rational minded types understand the nature of their emotions and anxieties about personal existential issues. It has helped them become better producers and leaders towards working towards a biophysically oriented society, addressing some of these issues even though “failure” is certain.

        Lastly, I don’t know what you mean by “worked through” by science. Do you believe that we will be able to quantify everything and then know what to do? If so, I have bad news. Not only have I worked on teams trying to understand very small adaptive biological systems with limited success, but sat in a room as some of the brightest scientific/mathematical minds in the world explained that after decades of intensive research they had concluded we would be unable to actually understand biology until we had a completely new mathematical field of some unknown characteristic. Several of them had much success as physicists early in their career, deciding to switch to quantitative biology in order to “solve” it and then were immediately humbled.

        And that is with biology, where we can do repeated experiments in controlled conditions, or at the very worst look at populations statistically!

        Complex systems science will always be more about qualitative guidelines and patterns of thought (like Meadow’s leverage points) than something to “work through.” It’s about having a hypothesis that you know is imperfect and undertaking actions that you know will lead to uncertainty, then using data to determine whether you should continue or try something else. Of course, since your actions themselves affect the system, your decisions eventually invalidate your observations and you must begin anew, cycling around in fractal patterns. This is precisely the core wisdom in the Tao and much of Hinduism/Buddhism.

      • In the past, we have had a lot of faith in science saving us. But if humans can’t dominate the world forever, and if the change to a new world order may personally affect our lives, then we have to come up with some approach to dealing with the consequences (psychologically if no other way). I am not willing to rule out anyone else’s approach. You may find further belief in science saving mankind helpful (or at least saving you personally), and I don’t think I can rule that out either.

        • donsailorman says:

          I subscribe to both “Science News” and “The Wall Street Journal.” It is striking how differently the two publications report on climate change. In the November “Science News” there is an excellent and scary article titled “Extremely Bad Weather” by Janet Raloff. By way of contrast “The Wall Street Journal” in its articles and especially in its editorials claims climate change is nothing to worry about. The market system will mightily help us adjust to changing weather patterns. Some regions will be hurt by climate change but (perhaps) others will benefit enough to fully compensate for the harm done.

          • Each news source seems to have faith in models closest to its own area.

            THe Wall Street Journal (and Economist, and Financial Times) all tell us endlessly about “when economic growth rebounds,” as if economic growth rebounding is a given. Of course, it is a given, in their models.

            Science News seems to believe the indications of the climate models. There is at least one deficiency in the climate change models–they assume far more fossil fuels will be burned in coming years than most peak oilers think is possible. The Oil Drum has had more than one post on this issue. (For example, here.) Also, the climate models do not yet seem to be sophisticated enough to forecast specific regional things that are taking place, such as the melting at the North Pole. There are so many feed back loops from increased melting at the North Pole that leaving them out raises questions about how accurate the models are. So I can understand the possibility of skepticism about the accuracy of the climate models. They may still be generally right, though.

            Besides climate changes, there are a lot of other issues with CO2, such as ocean acidification, so there are reasons we would want to reduce CO2 emissions, even apart from climate change.

  23. Pingback: Plant a Garden | Clover Culture

  24. Jack Cairney says:

    It is such a complex debate, but an incredibly important one. This article is impressive and thank you so much for taking the time to put it together. The reality is that the solutions are there, we simply need a collaborative and well thought out plan of action to create and then realise a sustainable future.

    Who knows what relationships and handshakes there are behind closed doors though. I for one strongly believe in the theories that governments have a plan to implement a sustainable energy strategy only once the oil companies only when it is convenient for the oil companies.

    Such an important issue, let’s hope we get it right.

    Thanks,

    Jack

  25. PeteTheBee says:

    “The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997. ”

    Hasn’t global warming essentially “stalled” since 1997? This is in defiance of the climate models at the time, now they’re doing the usual game of jerry rigging the models to fix their mistakes.

    Not denying AGW, and things like the Arctic breakup have proceeded faster than expected. But there is now a serious argument that the climate predictions that underlied the Kyoto protocol were overly pessimistic re: temperatures. (Probably hurricanes too, recall Sandy was really a minor hurricane that hit a cold front and a very high tide).

    • mikkel says:

      No, it has “stalled” since about 2004ish, but this past decade has seen relatively mild El Ninos compared to La Ninas.

      Not only did a weak El Nino year of 2010 lead to the hottest year on record, but the moderately strong La Nina year of 2011 was hotter than any pre-2000s year other than 1998.

      Now some have posited that maybe La Ninas have become the norm (instead of the prediction of El Ninos) and we were completely off about what would happen. That is possible, but there was a paper a few years ago (sorry I just looked for 20 minutes and can’t find it) suggesting that it was a function of cycling heat from the surface to the deep ocean, a process that would probably stay in effect until 2015-2018. This link is the best I can find.

      Dunno if that counts as “jerry rigging,” but if true, what goes down will come up.

    • I would agree that the climate models are not very accurate. For example, I would have expected an accurate model to predict the melting near the North Pole.

      The climate is changing; I am not sure we know exactly how. Based on past patterns, I would have expected the world to be heading back into another ice age about now.

      • Michael Lloyd says:

        Because we do not know everything, it doesn’t follow that we know nothing.
        Scientists are cautious and conservative with their findings.

        I am more worried that they have underestimated the impacts rather than overestimated them.

        WRT ice ages. This is worth a read:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milankovitch_cycles

        Seems like the current warm period may continue for thousands of years, before taking additional greenhouse gas concentrations into account.

      • Manolo El Lobo says:

        ;) well Gail, thank’s to us humans, the next ice age has been postponed until further notice, it seems. But we opened Pandora’s Box, and Nature is full of surprises. Nasty ones.
        A few interesting videos to watch in the following link, about stuff happening at the North Pole:

        http://arcticclimateemergency.com/#/esas-hydrates/4558619157

      • What about this one. Scientific model predicts with 95% confidence, that the Arctic Ocean will be ice free by 2019.

        http://e360.yale.edu/slideshow/arctic_tipping_point_heading_to_an_ice-free_north_pole/120/2/

        Or maybe its already been ridiculed…. I don’t know, how much evidence do we need?
        What ails the human heart can not be cured.

        • I am sure there are models that predict the Arctic Ocean will be ice free by 2019. In fact, a lot of us could fit a straight line to some recent points, and come to a similar conclusion.

          The issue I mentioned is simply that world climate models are not yet sophisticated enough to predict this kind of thing. The fact that the world situation is worse than their models forecast is scary. The actual results may come out very badly–but in different ways than their models predict.

      • mikkel says:

        On day 2 of Fukushima I wrote that there was a very strong possibility that it would have 75%-100% meltdown and that all the safety systems would fail. Someone asked why I didn’t believe the models that said it’d be OK while I believed in the climate models.

        I answered that it was all about the difference between a control system and a system prediction. In the case of Fukushima I had watched an interview with the creator of the LWR that said it should NEVER be used at utility scale because it is fundamentally unstable at that size (it was invented for ship sized reactors). He was adamant that it was literally impossible to develop a safety control system that you know would work if a LWR of that size began meltdown, and indeed that is precisely what happened as the safety systems that were supposed to be independent and complementary actually started blowing each other up.

        I commented specifically about how the people blindly defending Fukushima were doing a great disservice because there are many nuclear designs (including the majority of plants) that are fundamentally controllable, and by claiming that there was no way that it would blow up to the public they were digging the grave for the whole industry. Anyone that was pro-nuclear should have been on the forefront of stating that Fukushima’s design was inherently flawed, but they didn’t and now look at the reaction.

        Similarly, I don’t “believe” the climate models in terms of their predictive capability about how things will turn out. A complex system perturbed as strongly as we are doing is fundamentally unpredictable. I do believe that they are sufficient from a control systems perspective in that the fundamental negative feedback loops will fail well within the CO2 concentrations that are business as usual. At that point it will be impossible to say what will happen.

        The fact that Arctic ice and weather patterns generally are decades or hundreds of years ahead of where they were expected to be at the beginning of the century shows both the accuracy of the sketched out influences and the woeful underestimation of system sensitivity inherent to humanity.

        • Manolo El Lobo says:

          ! > “the woeful underestimation of system sensitivity” < is what is going to bite us really badly ! thx mikkel !

  26. Don Stewart says:

    Here are a few thoughts about human nature, rational thought, technical innovation, peak oil, debt and related subjects. I will draw from these resources: the yoga pants near riot at Victoria’s Secret in Kansas City (http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2012-11-23/thong-hungry-throng-teenage-girls-crash-victorias-secret); Charles Hugh Smith’s account of Thanksgiving dinner (http://www.oftwominds.com/blognov12/gratitude-wealth11-12.html); The Life of a Leaf by Steven Vogel; Albert Bates reflections following his visit to Cuba (http://peaksurfer.blogspot.com/2012/11/cuba-in-it-for-long-haul.html); Ted Patzek’s current post on US oil production ( http://www.theoildrum.com/node/9619); and the current issue of Yes! magazine.

    First, it should be clear that my sympathies lie with Smith and Bates rather than the Victoria’s Secret crowd. Smith’s book Why Things Are Falling Apart–And What We Can Do About It identifies the attempt to purchase identity as one of the reasons things are falling apart. When I look at the Black Friday mythology, that is exactly what I see and, thus, regard it as a sign of decay. Second, as Bates makes clear, the Cubans would gladly become the 51st state if they were promised the ability to drive SUVs and participate in Black Friday at Victoria’s Secret. So the sickness that Smith identifies may be more advanced in the US than in Cuba, but the sickness is apparently a result of human nature–not some toxin in the drinking water in the US. Third, as Bates points out, Cuba is where all of us should aspire to be in terms of human health and happiness and ecological footprint. So the Cubans would, in Bates judgment, rapidly walk away from ‘success’ for some yoga pants. (Zero Hedge, in their own clueless adult way, identified it as a crowd of teenage girls looking for sexy thongs to wear). Fourth, Bates admits to being awfully tired of swimming upstream. Albert diligently offsets his carbon footprint, recycles his own manure, has written a seminal book about Biochar, and has generally set a good example for us–and he is tired because so few of us are willing to go forth and do likewise.

    Fifth, if human nature prevents the vast majority from simplifying their life, perhaps technology can come to the rescue. Yes! magazine gives a pretty good overview of some technologies which may help (at a pretty elementary level of discussion). Read, for example, the article on Biomimicry and Cradle to Cradle design. If plants can make oxygen, sequester carbon, convert nitrogen into ammonia, distill water, store solar energy as fuel, build complex sugars, create microclimates, change color with the seasons, and self-replicate…then why can’t human technology do those things cheaply and efficiently? I would add to that list the fact that trees can lift large quantities of water 100 feet in the air using negative pressure–which I will let you read Steven’s book to discover how truly strange that is.

    So we can either follow a Permaculture and Carbon Farming model and simply use Mother Nature’s inventions more intelligently, or perhaps we can invent things which use Mother Nature’s methods and inventions. If we fail at both of those, then I am afraid that Patzek’s doomerish graphs will do us all in–given the evidence about human nature discussed in the second paragraph.

    Albert’s blog is called The Great Change…but it seems he is getting tired of waiting for the turn. Will the turn be into material chaos as Patzek’s Revenge strikes us down? Or into Smith’s spiritual Eden where ‘True wealth is what cannot be bought’? 2500 years ago the Buddha supposedly achieved Enlightenment…I wonder if his spirit is as tired as Albert’s?

    Don Stewart

    • Thanks for your thoughts. There are many inspiring things to read.

      I was reading National Geographic’s article about Cuba in its November 2012 issue. Under the caption of one picture it says,”Poor management and decades of a US embargo have crippled Cuba’s agriculture. The country imports most of its food.” I sort of wonder what really is going on. The article talks about food subsidies for rice, beans, milk, and sugar. I can imagine that subsidies would keep production down. Cuba has a tropical climate and a fairly big land area–two things that a person might think would help its production of food.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Some urban farmers in this area have been making an annual trip to Cuba for a number of years. They are quite impressed by what Cuba has been able to do in the cities. I forget the exact numbers for Havana, but they grow a lot of their fresh fruit and veggies. I think it is the staples that get subsidized so that there is very little hunger despite low incomes. Same with medical care–low infant mortality considering their income levels.

        As for the tropical climate. As Albert notes in his article, the soils were basically destroyed by the time of the revolution. So they have had to engage in a lot of soil building. I have also heard that there were, and still are, some cultural issues. The Cubans saw themselves as ‘Europeans’ who ate the foods of Europe. There was a lack of enthusiasm for truly tropical foods such as would be grown in Africa. I believe that is changing with the practicalities of growing food in the cities. As you can see from Albert’s pre-revolution statistics, the diet was quite unhealthy in the old days.

        As for the US embargo. Cuba was hardly a diversified agricultural country before the embargo. They had the big cash crop of sugar which allowed them to buy real food from other countries. When the Soviet system collapsed, they had no money to buy anything. So they have been forced into a rapid learning curve in terms of diversified and localized agriculture. (Sounds like Peak Oil or Financial Collapse, doesn’t it?). If the US embargo were lifted, and the US stopped subsidizing domestic sugar production, and Cuba went back to growing predominately sugar cane for export to the US and stopped the diversification and localization…do you think they would then be better prepared for the future?

        I haven’t been there…so all second hand…Don Stewart

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear eamonnodonovan
            To add to the confusion about Cuba. Here are two reports, one from the Organic Consumers organization and one from the USDA. If you search on ‘urban farming cuba’ you will find a lot more articles and pictures of the Agroponicas.

            My notes:
            1. The Organic Consumers are enthusiastic because fresh fruits and vegetables are being grown in significant quantities right in the cities by the immediate consumers (in many cases).
            2. The USDA is unhappy because animal products are scarce. Many diet doctors would rejoice at that. I imagine the average Cuban is not happy. But if you look at Albert Bates statistics, the average Cuban ate very little in the way of animal products before the revolution. Allan Savory could give the Cubans some excellent pointers in terms of holistic grazing.
            3. The USDA looks at the world largely through the lens of commodity crops. In a post-collapse world, I would expect commodity crops to decline in importance and garden products to increase–whatever is the impetus for the collapse.
            4. Cuba was essentially a colony of the US before the revolution. You can see in the USDA report the very high levels of foreign ownership of assets and the concentration of ownership of farm land. Thus, the country had no tradition of Jeffersonian farmers or Garden Farmers. Arguably, the US has just about killed off the last of the Jeffersonian farmers. A Garden Farming tradition in the US is being born as we speak, with struggles.
            5. You will note that Raul Castro encouraged the garden farming initiatives he saw in the military–and now there is a department of the national government responsible for encouraging them.
            6. You will see in the USDA report that land and water resources are degraded and that water use, especially during the dry season, is problematic.
            7. You will see that hurricanes have done considerable damage to agricultural infrastructure. In the US, Sharon Astyk suffered damage last year. Also note the damage to the Permaculture sites in the clip below. Nobody knows all the answers.
            8. The country has been largely deforested.

            Here is a short excerpt from an Australian Permaculture group which has been assisting Cuba for two decades:
            Dictated by reality, Cubans began to bring agriculture into
            the city with urban gardens, cultivating vegetables wherever they
            could. A small group of Australians assisted in this grass-roots
            effort, coming to Cuba in 1993 to teach Permaculture, a system based
            on sustainable agriculture that uses far less energy. With a grant
            from the Cuban government they set up the first Permaculture
            demonstration site, that evolved into the Foundation for Nature and
            Humanity’s Urban Permaculture demonstration site located in Havana.
            Today 50 percent of Havana’s vegetables come from inside the city,
            while in other Cuban towns and cities, urban gardens produce from 80
            percent to more than 100 percent of what they need.

            More recently Australians have come back to Cuba to assist
            after two devastating hurricanes wrought massive destruction
            throughout Cuba in September 2008. The loss of crops, soil and
            organic matter from the torrential rains and flooding, challenged all
            the islands agriculture, including the permaculture sites.

            In short, Cuba’s experience may give some clues as to what one might expect in the US in a severe collapse….Don Stewart

            Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Movement

            http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_18018.cfm

            Cuba’s Food & Agriculture
            Situation Report

            http://www.fas.usda.gov/itp/cuba/CubaSituation0308.pdf

            Excerpt:
            Although Cubans have learned to grow vegetable products on small private farms and urban gardens, Cuba is still short of meat, milk, and other animal
            products.

            • Thanks for the links!

              The Cubans certainly did a lot to increase fruit and vegetable production in the cities. One thing I learned was that the increase took place later than I had thought. The decline in Russian support occurred about 1991. In 1997, fruit and vegetable production in Havana was 20.7 thousand metric tons. In 2007, it was 272.0 thousand metric tons. It takes a while to get new systems in place.

              Water seems to be one big issue. The city plots often seem to be irrigated; there is also farmland that is irrigated. The USDA doesn’t have specific numbers relating to depleted aquifers, but there does seems to be a depletion issue already; also salinity of soil where irrigation has been used. Cuba is trying to do agriculture year-around, when it rains mostly during the rainy season. This approach is sustainable for a while, but can run into problems with depleted aquifers, salinity, etc. I expect the city raised bed approach would be closer to truly sustainable if it was done only during the rainy season, and skipped the irrigation.

              With respect to why Cuba now imports the majority of its food, based on the USDA report, Cuban people still do eat some meat–more chicken and pork now than beef. Feed for animals (corn, soybeans) needs to be imported, as does rice, wheat, dry peas, lentils, and dry beans. The USDA report indicates that agricultural land in general has degraded in the last 10 years–become more eroded, for example. 75% of agricultural land was considered degraded to some extent in the mid-2000s. The city raised bed program is a vegetable and fruit program. While it has helped where it is in place, there doesn’t seem to be any comparable program to address the vast majority of the farmland, used for other crops (sugar, rice, soybeans, corn, beans, etc.) The lack of a program with respect to the rest of agriculture may be the reason for Cuba’s big need for imported food now.

        • We depend on energy for our existence.
          We obtain and use energy in many forms, but ultimately it all comes from the sun.
          Cuba gets more heat from the sun than northern Europe or the northern USA, so it follows that any comparison about food/energy production in Cuba must take this into account. no matter what techniques you use in Cuba or elsewhere, the sun does most of the work and delivers the most food/energy.
          Cuba went through its revolutionary trauma confined within a small island, while the rest of the world got on with its infinity of fuel burning. Cubans wanted the hydrocarbon goodies being enjoyed by the rest of the world
          Castro made lots of mistakes, but ultimately his overall concepts might have been right. Suddenly agriculture Cuban style suddenly seems attractive. Problem is people have this delusion that the Cuban model can be applied anywhere, It can’t.

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Medieval Future
            I encourage you to read The Life of the Leaf. The author gives a very good explanation for why trees find it efficient to make leaves under the canopy. Briefly, in the temperate zones there is a lot more solar radiation coming in than leaves can use, and there are other factors at play.

            I was visiting with a recent immigrant from Africa. I noticed that he was growing leafy greens in the summer very close to the north side of his house. I asked if they got enough sun. He told me that they got plenty of sun. They get early morning and late afternoon direct sun, but are shielded from the direct rays of the mid-day sun–which is perfect for green leaves.

            The farm I work on has been doing solar double-cropping for a year now. We put in solar PV panels elevated 12 feet off the ground. The sun strikes the panels where some is absorbed and makes electricity, which we sell, and the remainder continues to the ground and grows plants.

            I won’t claim that one can grow green crops at the North Pole, but as far north as Ontario people are doing solar double cropping and trees still find it advantageous to have multiple layers of leaves. There are disadvantages to farming in the tropics. The soil doesn’t hold much carbon, for example. The carbon content of a tropical rain forest is mostly tied up in the biomass. A forest in Minnesota can have a lot of carbon in the soil and also in the biomass. If the forest is cut, then annual crops can be grown in the carbon rich soil. (I won’t talk about the intricacies of keeping the carbon levels high…)

            Don Stewart

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Medieval Future
            News article:
            February 8th, 2013, we are holding a day long conference @ Central Carolina Community College
            Pittsboro campus to pair farmers with researchers and technical advisors. In partnership with the agricultural community we will be bringing together the experts and experienced to solve some of our climate issues NOW.

            The flyer has a picture of the solar double cropping at my farm. In the middle of the temperate zone, too much heat and inconsistent rain has become a real problem. Lots of farmers who, two decades ago, were just using Nature’s bounty are now resorting to drip tapes and shade cloth and trying to sell weedy tropical greens in the summer and even extravagant solutions like the solar PV double cropping. It should be an interesting conference.

            Don Stewart

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Medieval Future
            After thinking some more about it, I will foolishly attempt to answer more directly your question about northern Europe vs. the tropics in terms of sun intensity. I will use Steven Vogel’s The Life of a Leaf as my reference.

            1. pg 22 A broad leaf in direct sunlight and windless air can get as much as 20 degrees C (36 F) above the local air temperature. When the air around it reaches the mid-30s (mid-90s), the leaf tickles temperatures at which proteins start changing shape in undesirable ways.

            2. pg 32 Sunlight, on average, is only a little brighter in the tropics–there’s less than a two-fold difference in intensity between a sun that’s directly overhead and one that’s inclined at 45 degrees.

            3. pg 32 What’s different are the conditions favoring plant growth, conditions such as uniformity of temperature and continuous availability of water.

            4. pg 33 As light diminishes, a point comes at which the oxygen production of photosynthesis is entirely reinvested by the leaves’ own respiration. That happens at about 1 percent of full sunlight. (He also observes that bare forest floors typically receive about 2 percent of the sunlight falling on the canopy.)

            So a farmer in Cuba does not face an identical situation with respect to ‘sun management’ as a farmer in North Carolina. Cuba doesn’t get the temperature extremes we do, for one thing…but they get a more extreme difference between the wet and dry seasons. Cuba also doesn’t experience frost, so true tropical, perennial plants are practical. In North Carolina, we can grow the tropicals only as summer plants (e.g., sweet potatoes). In neither case do the farmers face a serious issue of insufficient sunlight to effect photosynthesis. In fact, at the farm I work at, we use the shade from bordering trees to shield tender plants such as lettuce. The loss of photosynthetic power we experience is more than made up for by the shading and cooling as noted in point 1.

            Farmers here used to use shade cloth only for tobacco. Now, it is widely used to help control the heating effect of many leafy green plants. Shade cloth can block 30 percent or so of the sun’s light. In the winter, many local farmers now use plastic covered tunnels with the plastic blocking 40 percent of the light. Now, if you were in Scotland and were blocking 40 percent of the light and were trying to grow lettuce in January, you might very well have a problem. Will Allen of Grow Power fame grows greens all year in Milwaukee, Wisconsin under plastic. My impression is that Milwaukee gets more winter sun than Scotland–but I could be wrong.

            The water problems faced by the Cubans and the North Carolinians are different but they rhyme. This year, the stagnant weather pattern which brought severe drought to the Midwest brought us evenly distributed rainfall and flooding to Britain. But last year, the stagnant weather pattern brought flooding to the Midwest and drought to North Carolina. Some of the Climate Change research shows that a weakening of the jet stream is leading to stagnant weather patterns. So we in North Carolina have to be prepared for a summer with no rain–just about like the Cubans with their dry season. There are different strategies one can use. My favorite is sinking water into carbon rich soil with things like swales. Many farmers here use groundwater or ponds to feed water into drip tapes. I don’t know what the Cubans do.

            Two final notes. Last winter we had no winter. Consequently, many fruit crops failed. In one of his interviews, Chris Martenson in Massachusetts observed that his entire peach orchard (created so lovingly as a ‘self reliance’ strategy) failed. I didn’t make a single peach or cornelian cherry. Blueberries were poor. Blackberries were outstanding. Figs didn’t react too well to the lack of a dry season in the summer. My conclusion is that climate change is probably going to reward the diversified farmer. Second, the hot summers which are hostile to our traditional leafy greens have led us to sell things like sweet potato greens and amaranth–both of which are tropicals grown for the summer. I can sympathize with the Cubans who are trying to sell crops adapted to their tropical environment into a population which expects ‘European’ choices.

            In short, any two farmers from anywhere in the world who meet in a bar with plenty of beer will have a lot to talk about.

            Don Stewart

          • Don

            Thank you for taking so much trouble to put over so much knowledge
            It is never ‘foolish’ if the recipient is willing to absorb it.
            My main thinking about Cuba is that being a basket case island that no one wants to visit particularly, they will resolve their food/energy/ population problems in their own way by diet changes and a people cull…. maybe faster than the the rest of the world, and in microcosm. the niceties of farming will eventually work out for them but with fewer people.
            we would do well to observe Cuba, it will happen to the rest of us eventually. Putting solar panels on 12ft frames is ok if you can afford it, and have the space. most can’t and don’t. indeed self sufficiency stuff is a dangerous myth. Some have the knowledge to do it, most don’t. I have space to grow veg, but I think I might starve between harvests.
            In our coming future, (the downsized economy?)I think that those with the means to produce food energy will just end up employing the majority who just need to eat. That will certainly be the case if money crashes, if you have no skill with which to barter (a blacksmith say) you can only sell your muscle power for as long as it lasts.
            So we take that scenario a logical stage further, if you have land that can produce food energy in large quantities, you will need to protect it. To do that you will need a soldier caste, they can only paid for by the labour of the food producers; without money there is no other source of revenue. The same soldier caste will also ensure that enough excess food is produced to keep them in employment… I leave that to collective imaginations!!!
            Our future is of course uncertain, but I feel that we will be unconcerned about the finer points of leaf science if someone cuts the tree down to keep warm
            serfdom anyone?

    • mikkel says:

      Hey Don, do you know of anyone looking into making a pump that mimics tree water transport? I’m involved in some aquaponics projects and it’d be neat to investigate.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Mikkel
        I do not know anyone making a tree like pump.

        It actually works by suction. When we ‘suck’ on a straw, we actually just create a partial vacuum in our mouth which causes the weight of the air on the water to force it up through the straw. A tree actually creates negative pressure–far more effective than a mere vacuum.

        Now you have exhausted my ability to explain. You can read The Life of a Leaf for more details. It was very hard for scientists to accept what the leaves were accomplishing. I am still not sure I understand what is going on.

        Don Stewart

  27. John Paily says:

    Accelerated Climate change is real. But we cannot fight it unless we reduce the problem to its fundamental level of energy and matter. We need to understand the “Principle and Design” on which Earth functions to maintain certain energy to matter ratio and thus heat of the environment within certain limit for life to sustain. We need to develop the comprehensive energy management of the Earth’s environment, if we need to alleviate the increasing climatic catastrophes. Our survival now depends on evolution to understand the Truth of Nature as well as Truth of God, for man in his twin ignorance of Nature and Her Master is digging his own grave -Read the links to two small articles and awaken the world – Tweet and Retweet

    The Reality of God and Nature in Brief

  28. Don Stewart says:

    Gail
    If you haven’t seen it, you might like to take a look at the paper by Tim Garrett linking wealth and energy consumption and thus CO2 emissions.

    http://www.declineoftheempire.com/2012/11/is-global-economic-growth-persistent.html

    The link is to Dave Cohen’s blog, but you can easily click through to the PDF of Garrett’s paper.

    I would rather have your comments than repeat my sophomoric ramblings. One thing that did occur to me is that, once resources are sunk (as in a highway and an SUV), the perceived cost of fuels changes. So, for example, if shale oil were a newly discovered resource in Titusville, PA, society might take a look at the EROEI and conclude that it wasn’t worth the trouble. But a society with a hundred million internal combustion engines and a gazillion miles of highways and streets may look at it all differently. Economics is very fond of the marginal, but a class in politics and environmental degradation taught me long ago that sunk costs are what drives politics. The corporations defend their sunk investments, and few people are interested in what might be possible in the future.

    Thanks…Don Stewart

  29. Don Stewart says:

    I find this, probably fictional, account of a man and woman talking after hearing Charles Eisenstein speak to be relevant to much that has been discussed in response to Gail’s posts. It is in the current blog of Dave Pollard:

    http://howtosavetheworld.ca/2012/11/26/distracted/

    It may also help clarify your thought about Cuba and how a similar scenario might play out in the US or Europe.
    Don Stewart

    Lori looked at me with a frown, and displayed that skeptical mouth-turned-down pout I loved so much. I laughed. She stood and put her hands on the railing of the balcony, avoiding the chicken wire we’d rigged to the balcony spindles to keep Myron the cat from accidentally falling through. She turned to me. “Your grandparents told you that they survived the Great Depression because most people then still knew how to grow their own food, make their own clothes, and basically be self-sufficient when they couldn’t afford to buy anything. My great-grandparents, who wrote about those times, said the opposite. Most people in cities lived in apartments then and didn’t know how to do much more than the clerical jobs most of them did in those days. Your grandparents lived in Winnipeg, Spencer — hello, grow your own food? But they learned to do what they had to to survive. And they did it fast. Look at the Cuban people when the Soviet empire collapsed and their oil supply suddenly dropped by 95%. In just three years they went from 10% organic agriculture to 85%. They lost an average of 20 pounds apiece but they did it. They had no other choice. They’re smart people. They turned it around.” She sat on her haunches and poked me gently in the nose. “We’re smart too. We can turn it around.” She sat, taking the sorbet bowl as she did.

    “I don’t know what happened to previous collapsed civilizations, or how difficult it was for them to walk away from the only culture they knew, but I suspect it wasn’t like Charles Eisenstein’s dream of orderly and enlightened transition,” I said. “And my guess is that the Se’da were just as smart as we are and less dependent on centralized systems. As for Cuba, they’re not in any better shape than any of the countries around them. They depend on Venezuela’s help and oil, their infrastructure is collapsing even faster than ours, and most of them from what I understand want to repeat all the economic mistakes we’ve made in the last half century, in the belief it will make their economic lives better. As we face more frequent and serious economic, energy and ecological crises in the coming years, we’re going to respond as best we can, and we’ll do some amazing things, but they won’t be fast enough or substantial enough changes to keep our civilization from collapsing in fits and starts until there’s nothing left of it. Just because we can theoretically create a better, more sustainable economy, responsive to our true values, doesn’t mean we will, or even that we could practically engender the collective will to practically do so. Economies evolve, they aren’t designed. When governments have tried to impose radically new economies on citizens they’ve failed, even when the citizens were initially keen.”

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