Grading the U.S. Senate: Climate Crisis All-Night Session

I watched a fair amount of the speeches given during the Senate’s all-night session about the threat of man-made climate change. Some of the things talked about were good, some of the things said were not so good.


There was a lot of talk about the science, and they did better than I expected but not very well. If they had done this five years ago I expect I’d have “graded” them a D- or maybe even an F, but this time I’d give them a C, maybe even a B-, for scientific content. That’s not great — Al Gore gets an A- for his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” — but it’s better than I expected.

There was good stuff. There was a lot of talk about sea level rise and ocean acidification. These are under-reported issues because they’re slow to unfold (in human terms), although the impact of ocean acidification is already being felt in the seafood industry. Most of the ocean discussion came from Senators representing states for whom coastlines are important, like Oregon, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Florida.

There was stuff that was both good and bad, especially a lot of discussion about solutions which would benefit both climate and the economy. Unfortunately, it seemed to me to be overly optimistic. It often sounded more like a campaign speech than a rational assessment of the prospects for specific measures. I suppose that’s to be expected from politicians, but it detracted (in my opinion) from the severity of the situation, which we need to emphasize is dire indeed.

There was also some bad stuff, statements that were silly and/or just plain wrong. I didn’t catalogue them because I figured the WUWT crowd would do that for me. Alas, the comments in the WUWT post about the session are long on criticism and ad hominem but short on actual details. One of the few specific criticisms which was supposedly fact-based, from WUWT reader Bill Parsons, actually got it completely wrong:


Bill Parsons says:
March 10, 2014 at 10:27 pm

Took a look — happened to catch the NM representative.

Curious how New Mexico’s Heinrich dwells at such length on snowfall and snowpack, comparing 2010 to this winter. Snow water Equivalent is up in 2014 between 20 – 30 % above the mean in nearly every NM drainage.

New Mexico SNOTEL Snowpack Update Report:

http://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/reports/UpdateReport.html;jsessionid=TrqklQQtY5RxavMluPBNU7It?report=New+Mexico&format=SNOTEL+Snowpack+Update+Report

The hilarious thing is, that if you follow the link he himself provided you discover that all but one of the drainage basins has low snowpack this year. Incidentally, the actual comparison is to the median snowpack rather than the mean, although Parsons corrects himself on that point later:


Bill Parsons says:
March 10, 2014 at 10:37 pm

Correction to my comment above at 10:27: SNOTEL snowpack report references the median snow-water equivalent, not the mean.

The Snow Water Equivalent PERCENT OF Median represents the current snow water equivalent found at selected SNOTEL sites in or near the basin compared to the Median value for those sites on this day

What he doesn’t correct is that he read the numbers wrong, because only the Animas River basin is above median, and only barely (it’s at 101% of median), while all the others (there are lots) are below median, many of them by huge margins. Follow the link yourself; you’ll see. Senator Heinrich was absolutely right to call attention to the dire situation. Alas, so far none of the WUWT readers has bothered to call out Bill Parsons on his boneheaded mistake.

I won’t be surprised to see a WUWT post about all the things the senators got wrong. In fact I expect the WUWT crowd to claim a number of errors which actually aren’t, more examples like Bill Parsons’ in which the critic is wrong while the senator was right. Nonetheless, there’s certainly fodder for criticism in the scientific claims made during the senate’s all-nighter, and I expect to hear about it not just from WUWT but from Faux News. That’s a genuine pity, because it will sow the seeds of doubt in those trying to get at the truth, and give deniers all that more reason to entrench themselves in denial.

Still, the senate event has called attention to the defining problem of the century. It has demonstrated the commitment of at least some of our politicians to take the problem seriously. I suggest, to those members of the senate who participated and to those who will participate in future events, that they submit their comments for scientific review beforehand, so as not to leave themselves vulnerable to criticism for incorrect statements. And I believe they do understand, that the problem is serious enough to justify that effort — we need to be as persuasive as possible with the voting public, and an accurate portrayal of the science is an important part of the power to persuade.

75 responses to “Grading the U.S. Senate: Climate Crisis All-Night Session

  1. Being an elected politician, especially at the level of U.S. Senator, seems to require an element of Dunning-Kruger.

    • Remember, national politicians have to deal with issues across the board, which kind of forces them into the ‘jack of all trades’ mold and definitely mitigates against knowledge in depth. Though I do know what you mean: I got a little snippy with my Senator when I emailed him to express my regrets that he was choosing not to participate. Something about how I could send him pointers on the scientific evidence, but after all that was what the National Academy was supposed to be for…

      [Response: It’s what the national academy did.]

      • Oh, I wasn’t impugning the NAS. I was trying to suggest that our Senator would be doing his job better if he paid attention to those (like the NAS) who are doing theirs.

    • Pete Dunkelberg

      They all have staff to research things for them and this is not exactly a new issue.

  2. I woke up this morning to NPR briefly mentioning the session and soundbiting a quote from, yes, Senator Inhofe.

    • Ralph Snyder

      NPR is a problem. They rarely report on the climate and when they do they suffer from false balance (and not only on climate). It’s a shame because so many of their listeners think they are getting the true facts with a progressive slant.

  3. Reblogged this on Hypergeometric and commented:
    … And policies on the part of some of the Senators is inconsistent. While Senator Elizabeth Warren underscores the importance of dealing with climate change, in her own backyard (she’s MY Senator, too) she caves to homeowners complaining about the rising cost of flood insurance near coasts. It’s one thing to price Carbon fairly, which it should be, and at levels which are barely spoken on among even the people in favor of it, but we have other subsidized and underpriced things in our country, such as the price for living near increasingly perilous coastlines.

    • John Garland

      The flood insurance subsidy is one of the most obvious blunders society is making. It needs to be zeroed out. A free market in home/building insurance in all storm surge areas and flood plains is one of the most direct communications of the scientific reality to people that can be made at the present time.

      Possibly a middle ground is a one time payout which then goes to a zero subsidy on that spot in perpetuity thereafter.

  4. Thanks for this report. Was wondering what this session would be like. I have lost faith in government action to meet the deadline. Even the most earnest Congresspeople really don’t get the inevitability and the enormity of climate changes ahead.

    Here and there I see random climate comments about how governments will never face this issue, Even with citizens pushing hard, they are powerless. Govts must represent power or money interest first – until power/money decides to act, little government action will happen,

    This line of thinking drove me to a book review posted on a Singapore military site – ‘Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the
    End of Globalization’ by John Robb.

    He says that nation states are fading, and next power is the international corporation and the networks. Fits with reality – we see the TPP usurping political power – operating outside of any national control.. See also the fade-away of democracies (Citizens United), and the emasculation of democratic free expression – mass media ownership.

    http://www.mindef.gov.sg/imindef/publications/pointer/journals/2012/v38n3/book_review/_jcr_content/imindefPars/0003/file.res/062-065%20Book%20Review%205-10.pdf Also you can read the forward in Amazon books.

    As I chat informally with anyone with just a smattering of climate science education – even high school science level – everyone says that governments are clueless or deliberately ignorant – as a way of masking the decision not to act or masking moral corruption. It’s easy for anyone to predict the chaos ahead. No need for Senate cheap talk. Just by looking at sea level rise – but pick any other of the dozens of problems looming – drought, heatwaves, deluges, floods, wildfires, disease, famine – all related to global warming. Deliberately ignoring this, and promoting ignorance, by forced wrangling with denialism, amounts to a fierce level of information warfare. And they have been winning that battle for decades. But the science will unfold as it must, We just decide how to face it.

    OK , cue the trolls. . , ..

    [Response: I disagree. I think senator Whitehouse of R.I. gets it, and maybe a couple of others too. And the sheer number of senators who were willing to take the political risk of participating in this highly visible session, speaks volumes.]

  5. The drought here in New Mexico is un-deniable.

  6. Oh yes, Sen Whitehouse gets it. But like the event last night, which was on the record, but without a quorum it was ineffectual, informational only. We have access to the same information as any Senator – but it is Congress that can best move the wheels of government. So far we have seen improvements in mileage, in the EPA rules, but not much else. The Supreme Court rejected the Kivalina nuisance suit – thus assuring the courts would only have minor impact. I’m still not sure I see much potential change coming from government action – but I would like to be surprised. …

    It appears the US govt has show token response to climate issues. . .

    [Response: The session was symbolic.

    I could just as well say that Gandhi’s march to the sea, to make salt, was only symbolic — it only deprived the empire of a few rupees of salt tax.

    Don’t underestimate the impact of symbolic acts.]

  7. Ralph Snyder

    Just thinking out loud: I wonder whether the desire that politicians get all their fact exactly right is reasonable. Half of politics is about understanding the issues and getting the facts straight, but the other half is about selling particular policies and the right response to the facts. At what point does wonkiness become a tar-baby distracting us from getting on with the people’s business? I have no strong opinion on the matter. I’m just wondering

    • Pete Dunkelberg

      You left out the 90% of their time spent on the phone talking to rich people to get donations.

  8. Our representatives are easy targets–feet of clay tend not to allow one to run very fast. However, if you were in your place, what would you DO? Keep in mind that at least half the country and half your colleagues distrust any action taken by government. Keep in mind that any action you take will generate a new class of losers–who will remember you come Primary time–and new winners–who will still despise you if only because it is fashionable. Keep in mind that the actions of a single nation cannot solve the problem, and that there are countless billions striving to increase their carbon footprint as they try to get a handhold to pull themselves up from abject poverty. Keep in mind that the Treasury is already busted. Keep in mind that climate change, while probably posing the most significant long-term existential threat, is just one of many problems burning your butt.

    Yes, our representatives are shallow, cowardly, shortsighted, dim of vision and wit. That is because they represent US. The do nothing because they have no good options that they can actually DO.

    More and more, I am starting to think that the answer to this problem will have to be a technological breakthrough. I do not know whether such a breakthrough is possible. However, politics is the art of the possible, and that seems to be a dead end until better options reach the realm of the possible.

    • Pete Dunkelberg

      They are not all that dim. Most have advanced degrees (if only in Law) and they have staffs for things they don’t personally know.

      They do not represent the US imho they represent major contributors.

      I an sorry to see that you have sold out to the breakthrough BS. What breakthrough do you have in mind that will make big rich energy companies give up on all that unburned carbon on their books?

      • Pete Dunkelberg

        Oh Snarcrates, I pressed Send too soon. I should have noted that you also buy into “the Treasury is broke.”

      • Pete,
        I simply see no way that we can revolutionize our energy infrastructure, develop sustainable industrial infrastructure and facilitate development in the third world in the time we have left before outgassing tundra render our efforts moot. And yes, the Treasury is broke–the actual hole we are in is closer to $100 trillion rather than the $15 trillion on the books. The kleptocrats won.

        As I say, I don’t know if a technological solution is possible. I do know a political one is not, and I know that individual efforts won’t do the job by themselves (though they do buy time–the most valuable commodity we have, as we’ve squandered over 30 years).

      • Pete Dunkelberg

        Well snarcrates we may have to agree to disagree.
        My opinions:
        You do not know what the tundra will or won’t do or in what time frame. If you think you do, try it over at RC. Granted, incomplete understanding of the natural carbon cycle is not entirely reassuring.

        You do not know that a political solution is impossible. You have an opinion about it. I’m sure we at least agree that opinion is not knowing.
        Evidently I have a higher estimate of what leadership could do than you have.

        The treasury (broadly interpreted to include the Federal Reserve) is not broke and can’t be. The FR creates money. That’s where money comes from.
        IMO you underestimate the economic stimulus of putting money into jobs by helping companies other than the now big ones that are already good at minimizing employment.

        Granted, this pledge is a problem and makes government able to do less and less over time if not resisted.

        I will mention the breakthrough notion below some other comments.

      • Pete,
        I would be most grateful if you could point me toward something–anything–that would provide a basis for optimism. What I see is an electorate so ignorant of science that they want a 6000 year old Earth taught to their children. I see a country that has become a net oil exporter, providing even more incentive for denial. I see 30 years wasted and every prospect that we’ll waste another 30.

        And, Pete, I do know what will happen in the Arctic. I know because past in warmings, CO2 was a potent feedback. I cannot say precisely when it will happen–we probably have to exceed the Holocene maximum. I can say with high confidence that this will happen, though.

        You express faith in leadership. Leadership from where? By whom? Do you think it is a coincidence that the policies of Obama, Bush II, Clinton and Bush I are essentially indistinguishable? Leaders in a democracy tend, unfortunately, to lead from behind. Leaders in totalitarian states tend to lead in the wrong direction.

        We’re out of time. Probability for avoiding disaster is essentially nil. I’m holding on to possibilities–and technical breakthrough seems to offer the only one. That is not to say that I don’t favor cutting back on CO2 as much as possible–but that won’t solve the issue. It will only buy time.

        On the other hand if you retain some secret cause for optimism, by all means share it. The only comfort I take these days is that I had no children who will have to bear the brunt of our failures.

      • Well, unless there really is some kind of bifurcation in the dynamical systems sense, delaying where global GHG mitigation is implemented sets the asymptotic excess energy density we’ll need to deal with for the next millennium or so. I know we are playing with dangerous dice for anything over 2 degrees C, but the “thar be dragons” world is 4 degrees C and beyond. Could knock-on effects bring us there? Sure, but probably unlikely.

        What this all does, from my perspective, is make the economic COST of mitigation and countering this that much higher and more painful. Again, T.F. Stocker’s “Closing Door”. At some point, not only will humanity need to bring emissions to as close to zero as possible (probably can’t eliminate all emissions from agriculture), but, at the same time, will need to roll out free air carbon capture. Talk about cost! Talk about economic disruption! THAT’S what people do not presently see.

        Also, people are still rolling out energy infrastructure which is efficient by today’s standards, but won’t be by the standards in 10 years, and are apparently expecting to depreciate these investments over a typical deployment lifetime. (Dr Emily Shuckburgh has an interview which underscores this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fbpPU7GV94.) That’s what I mean when I say people are not taking this seriously.

        The flood insurance system is hugely in the hole, relying upon the federal general tax to bail out homeowners over and over again who continue to insist upon building and living in high risk regions.

        So, I don’t think pessimism is appropriate — or helps — even though such a choice is a highly personal thing. I DO think, as Dr Hansen has recently argued (http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2014/20140310_Sleepless.pdf), that even progressive environmentalists are not acting as if THEY understand the urgency.

        Communicators talk about how it is important to keep people from being fearful but it does not look to me like reason is working, or that evidence is working. Possibly the latter is because people like Hoerling (in the NY Times) are disingenuously dismissing the evidence, but, no matter, it does not seem to be working. Dr Shuckburgh talks about re-framing as an opportunity, but I don’t think that will move people to do anything urgently.

        So, what’s left? Well, maybe fear is necessary, but it is possible that leading indicators may convey the message …. The one which may indicate strongly is global price of food. People may respond with fear from storms and catastrophes, but they may respond

        We can continue pressing where we can. But we may just need to sit back and wait for Nature to speak with a Loud Enough Voice. It may possibly be the best we can do.

    • Pete Dunkelberg

      snarcrates,

      If you know something about the Arctic that David Archer doesn’t know, tell him! He does know that something (the carbon source being controversial) happened in the past over a long period (million years?) in different circumstances.

      Leaders do happen. That’s how we got through WW2 among other things. No, I don’t know who it will be.

      It is not “too late.” That notion comes from setting arbitrary targets. It is not too late to do much better that BAU until collapse. Not at all. We can do better.

      • Pete, The nation was not a kleptocracy in 1932. There was such a profession as journalism in 1932–it’s dead now. Instead, media simply tells us what we tell them we want to hear.

        Whether or not is too late is irrelevant if we do nothing–and we are doing nothing. If anything, the increased hydrocarbon production in the US will make us even more denialist. The last leader we had in this country was Ronald Reagan–and he led us in the wrong direction with us following gleefully along like puppies.

        I’ve fought this fight for over 20 years. I now have to simply admit that the vast majority of my fellow humans are simply too cowardly to ever accept unpleasant truths, regardless of the evidence. So the only thing I can see that could change things is technology. It saved us from the nitrogen crisis in agriculture. It pulled our ass out of the fire with the green revolution. It is the only way I can see that we can turn climate action from a loser to a winner. If we can develop a technological solution, then you will see the captains of industry lining up to sell it to the rest of the world. Suddenly, they’ll all be trumpeting the dangers of climate change and the need for a solution.

        That will take time, if it happens at all (admittedly unlikely). So of course, we should do whatever we can to reduce carbon emissions and stimulate carbon uptake in the biosphere. Ultimately, though, Earth will become a carbon source, rather than a carbon sink. Then it is game over, and we don’t know whether that is tomorrow or in a hundred years.

  9. I don’t think you’ll hear from the WTFUWT until they get their talking points from the Faux News mothership.

  10. I can see how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a thorny issue, or freeing North Korea of its buffoon regime. But Climate Change, while huge (probably the biggest issue of all) does not require complex solutions. The technology exists! The most basic step is to establish a progressively (and predictably) rising price on carbon pollution. The earlier we start (and it’s way past time), the less traumatic it will be for everyone. It does not have to be frantic. The key is the signal and making everyone understands that there is no future in fossil fuel extraction and burning.

    • Dan,
      I might agree if this were a problem that could be contained within national borders. I might agree if climate change were a problem in isolation from all the other problems that challenge sustainability. I might agree if this were not an intergenerational issue where the costs must be borne by one generation to benefit another. I might agree if we did not already have a legacy energy infrastructure that cannot be easily updated and that comes with its very own vested interests. I might agree if we’d started 30 years ago when the evidence stopped being compelling and became overwhelming and incontrovertible.

      None of those things pertains. And since there are no good options that guarantee success without pain, our politicians will do what they have to to save their hides–do nothing and obfuscate.

      • The point I was hastily trying to make is that at the policy level,the key decision is to institute a price on carbon pollution, and that should not be a daunting task (though I acknowledge that, in the world we live in, it is). The current cost of polluting does not reflect the value of a clean environment and a stable climate, and that is a problem because our current system is first and foremost based on cost to determine where and how resources are allocated. This basic distortion is screwing up everything that comes after it. Without this transparent price signal, we have to rely on other considerations to do “the right thing”, and that is much harder.

      • Dan, Simply placing a price on carbon will not guarantee a new energy infrastructure. It will not guarantee stabilization of human population below 10 billion people. It will not overcome entrenched interests.

        It’s an important start, but to imagine that if we get a carbon tax in place that all our problems will be solved is to be as delusional as those who oppose the science because it suggests a need for a carbon tax.

  11. More and more, I am starting to think that the answer to this problem will have to be a technological breakthrough.

    It is.

    I do not know whether such a breakthrough is possible.

    They are. The best thing these political yahoos could do is pinpoint fund the obvious ones. If you don’t know what those breakthroughs are, I would be happy to enlighten you. Tamino won’t like them, though, but that doesn’t change anything.

    • Re: TLE’s technological solution …

      While, no doubt, it is possible to “fix” the problem using technical means, it is disingenuous to tout these as a replacement for GHG mitigation. Either the solution is stopgap, like sulphur aerosols (no addressing ocean acidification, for instance), with difficult side conditions (what happens if it’s stopped?), or comprehensive but INCREDIBLY expensive, like CO2 free capture and sequestration and implies reduction of emissions to near zero anyway. Some in between, with limited testing, appear to work not as well as hoped (aerosols in Arctic only, iron seeding for phytoplankton blooms in oceans). AND the global political framework is at least as complicated as GHG mitigation, never mind how to pay for the thing.

      The technical solution needs to use an energy budget which doesn’t counteract the fix, in addition to meeting some kind of budget.

  12. Well, I dreamed I saw the silver
    Space ships flying
    In the yellow haze of the sun,
    There were children crying
    And colors flying
    All around the chosen ones.
    All in a dream, all in a dream
    The loading had begun.
    They were flying Mother Nature’s
    Silver seed to a new home in the sun.
    Flying Mother Nature’s
    Silver seed to a new home.

  13. I consider Forbes to be a very icky publication – but they claim a congressional defeat of “global warming alarmism”

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamestaylor/2014/03/12/alex-sink-rides-global-warming-alarmism-to-surprise-congressional-defeat-in-fl-13/
    “If there is any congressional district in America where Democrats should theoretically get the most bang for their buck selling global warming alarmism, Florida District 13 should be it. The district is urban and decidedly moderate. The Tea Party barely exists here. Northeastern and Rust Belt snowbirds dominate the demographics. President Obama carried the district in 2008 and 2012. And global warming alarmists’ constant (and erroneous) harping about sea level rise and hurricanes should prove especially scary to voters in District 13, which hugs the Gulf of Mexico.
    Now that may not have been the reason for the defeat – but it does show that democracy is failing to address the issues that are a risk to the future. I can’t see how Congress will be able to do anything wise. ”

    The ad is http://youtu.be/kEBr8KsE0mY that voters seemed to ignore.

    We put lots of faith and hope in Congress. Maybe too much. But it is difficult to see where else we can put our faith. Only in science, of course. Physical laws trump all else.

    • Forbes is a sad, empty shell of its glorious days as a “capitalist tool”. Now it is simply a blunt, soft pillow inflicting vicious blows to no effect. Malcolm Forbes was a bastard. Steve is simply pathetic.

    • Pete Dunkelberg

      Another view of that election.

      Many comments do not agree with the top thesis. We learn though that the district has been Republican for a long time and that Sink did not stand tall on progressive issues. Whether that would have changed the outcome is unknown. In the event one comment tells us

      “The Tweet of the Day last night said it all-

      Turnout in Jolly districts–50%

      Turnout in Sink districts–30%”.

      It is hard to win this way.

  14. We often bemoan the government for not acting. But WE CAN act. If we purchase an electric car slash our transportation emissions 50%. Then add solar to our homes we can then cut our total emissions by over 75%. Then our neighbors seeing us both acting and saving money others will join. We do not need the government to solve this problem as we can make a lot of good ourselves.

    Further I feel if we who believe global warming is a threat do not act; how can we expect the government or anyone else to act?

    • I bike or ride the metro almost everywhere and have slashed my personal transportation emissions drastically, from about 1500 km per month to less than a third that today. My electricity is over 95% hydro. I feel so virtuous!

      Pay no attention to the government building public transit, bicycle infrastructure, and hydro plants rather than coal.

    • All of that is helpful, but far from sufficient. But I’m working on these, since your second paragraph is quite apposite.

  15. > helpful, but far from sufficient.

    When I was much, much younger, I thought I’d try to take responsibility for my fair share of the world’s problems. Gasoline (leaded) cost about 32 cents/gallon.

    Over time, I realized the world’s condition is more like a sinking raft or a burning house. Looking back, that ‘fair share’ notion is pathetic.

    • Pete Dunkelberg

      > that ‘fair share’ notion is pathetic.

      Please reconsider this. See my response to rpauli above. Perhaps what is pathetic is not doing what one can. As more and more people do it, it adds up. This is where real leadership is needed, but personal examples are valuable locally.

  16. Pete Dunkelberg

    paraquote – :)”Only a Breakthrough can save us. Especially the one I’m thinking of. If you are not convinced by my saying so I can prove it with numbers.

    Doubtless your numbers will account for all the wedges in appropriate proportions for each locality.

    The problem with breakthrough-ism (aside from the great breakthrough being imaginary) is that it is hard to distinguish from Delay which is the real point of Denial (even though some deniers have their egos wrapped up in being internet Galileos.) You may say that you are not opposed to more use of existing methods even if it is just marking time while awaiting the Breakthrough, but this attitude leads imho to a lackluster effort.

    I still agree with Romm: Deploy deploy deploy all current methods as fast as possible. Work as if the imaginary breakthrough is imaginary. Of course R&D will continue, and money being made from deployment can be expected to spur innovation.

    • Deploy, deploy, deploy?
      Where?

      How’s that working out for you?

      • Pete Dunkelberg

        What & where? Requires many decisions by many nations and areas within nations. Serious leadership is needed, but some countries are well ahead of the USA.

      • Name one country that has made significant strides weaning itself off of both the sale and consumption of hydrocarbons.

      • Don’t know what threshold ‘significant’ requires for you, but Sweden has cut emissions by 9%, and per capita emissions by about 50%.

      • Pete Dunkelberg

        > Name one country

        I don’t have all statistics for all countries, but which countries that are not in on the export racket have not reduced emissions? check Spain and Portugal. And since I indicated that all “wedges” or ways to be better should be used as matches local conditions I think Iceland has hopes of getting close to zero CO2 thanks to hydro-power and geothermal.

      • Pete,
        The reductions in emissions seen in Europe, the US and urbanized Asia are an insignificant fraction of what’s needed. Meanwhile Africa, the rest of Asia and Latin America are ramping up. And Germany and Japan are moving in the wrong direction. If we don’t provide a carbon-free infrastructure for these countries, they’ll be locked into the same outdated infrastructure we are for generations.

      • I think you are too pessimistic about the developing world’s energy infrastructure. Building new fossil capacity is rapidly becoming more expensive than renewables, not less. The question is, is it anything like ‘rapidly’ enough?

    • Here, here! I keep looking at T.F.Stocker, “The closing door of climate targets” (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6117/280) and swallowing hard.

    • Breakthroughs, especially the ones I am referring to (besides RLVs which are more or less straightforward capital intensive engineering) in condensed matter physics have to do with ’emergent phenomena’ at the low energy scale. It helps a lot if you have a theory for the high energy scale (in this case the optical to UV). Emergent phenomena are by definition, unpredictable. Life is a low energy emergent phenomenon.

      These kinds of breakthroughs are here right now and right around the corner. What they need is recognition that they exist (they do) and very precise funding of the most obvious ones (there are a lot of them).

      This is congresses’ job, and they have failed at that job miserably. The necessary (and predicted) two decades of spectroscopic resolution enhancement has already passed. It’s time to get on with the job.

      [Response: If I may use an analogy: the possibility of a breakthrough in cancer treatment (something we all hope for), in no way reduces the wisdom of quitting smoking.]

  17. If I may use an analogy: the possibility of a breakthrough in cancer treatment (something we all hope for), in no way reduces the wisdom of quitting smoking.

    If you think you are going to get soon to be nine billion apes off carbon combustion without some breakthroughs in theoretical and experimental condensed matter physics, then you are just deluding yourself further.

    Clearly alternatives like solar and wind can pave the way, but then there is ‘agriculture’ and ‘finances’ and ‘beliefs’ and ‘strife’ and ‘conflict’ and even worse ‘weapons’ to think about, as well as global catastrophes which could occur at any time independent of human action, that could trigger anything.

    I’m sorry to say you are just not seeing the obvious bigger picture here. What is even more remarkable is that this is REALLY EASY STUFF. Even the most superficial efforts at funding and in the science has been absent. This isn’t cancer in a horribly complex biological system, these are atoms and molecules with well defined spectroscopic characteristics and behavior.

  18. Relying on some possible technical solution in the future is blind and foolish. I’ve been reading about ITER (fusion) in The New Yorker and found some useful summaries of the state of affairs and the state of our mental gymnastics in avoiding facing the same. In the quotes which follow, some are out of context but not less relevant therefrom.

    With slight apology for the length of these extracts; it’s an interesting article and says a lot about how clever minds can fool themselves.

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2014/03/03/140303fa_fact_khatchadourian?currentPage=all

    “[One] scientist said. “Efforts are made on many levels to hide the problems, in part because people believe the situation can’t be remedied, and in part because some of the decision-makers will be dead by the time the big red button is pushed.””

    “David MacKay, a physicist at Cambridge University, once posed the question of what would need to happen for the United Kingdom to entirely stop using fossil fuels. He arrived at this instructive hypothetical: even if the country cut energy consumption by half, it would still require a wind farm the size of Wales, along with fifty new nuclear-fission plants, and photovoltaic cells with twice the surface area of Greater London—but situated in a far-off desert, with the electricity somehow delivered to British consumers.”

    ““Fusion should come in at the price of wind,” Janeschitz continued. “Some of our colleagues dream of fusion coming in at today’s competitive energy prices, but that means that they have to produce science-fiction physics on science-fiction machines. If you are realistic, fusion will not be cheap. But, considering that oil prices will be higher than they are today, then it will be O.K. Coal might be cheap, but because of climate change it will be a big problem. Some people propose sequestering the CO2 from coal deep into the earth, but, I mean, do you want to live over land with high-pressure CO2 underneath it? And the energy and expense to capture and transport that CO2 to a suitable site, and then to press it down—my God, you would have pipelines across the country. And, in two or three centuries, you wouldn’t have enough sites to do it. It is like renewables: the problem is scale. Oh, I can harness the wind. I can harness solar. Yes, but now talk about numbers, which most politicians forget. Talk about gigawatts. Talk about terawatts—then things become interesting. This is thousands of nuclear power stations. This is millions of windmills—of course, while the wind is blowing. And, if it doesn’t blow, what do you do?””

    • It’s hard to choose amongst the commentary in this article; here are a few more bits:

      “… concerns about energy were largely economic. Climate change has made them a matter of survival. It is virtually an article of faith among some fusioneers that creating miniature stars on Earth is a non-optional part of humanity’s future—a view that mirrors arguments put forth by a growing number of environmentalists who once decried nuclear power. The belief rests on a simple premise: burning fossil fuels is a paramount ecological ill, but no existing form of renewable energy can replace it.”

      There is also some material that addresses the stark impossibility of perfection embodied in the project’s need to succeed.

      “The need is, without question, more pressing than it was for Apollo. By mid-century, the atmosphere will likely contain five hundred parts per million of CO2, and by 2100 its effect on the oceans alone will be devastating: a near-total ecological collapse.
      ….
      “Assuming that the physics of tokamaks is perfected, and fusioneers can hold a synthetic star indefinitely in a magnetic bottle, someone will still have to solve the tricky problem of how to protect all the machinery that surrounds that bottle. The plasma in a commercial reactor will be a cloud of atom-size H-bombs detonating unceasingly. The tritium fuel is radioactive, but it will not be a source of radioactive waste—it will be transformed into helium. The machine itself will become the waste. Under constant neutron bombardment, nearly all of the tokamak’s crucial parts will become “activated.” Their radioactivity will be low, and will last only about a hundred years—a time frame that scientists tend to believe is manageable—but the structural impact of the neutrons will be awesome.”

      There’s a little story about a European agency insisting on cost cutting, and the gymnastics required to accommodate that. The whole story reeks of people deceiving themselves, from the moneylenders in the temple on down to the scientists and administrators overseeing the work itself.

      • You could check with P.W. on this, Susan, and I’m sure he could fill you in on subjects such as Mottness, the Hubbard bands, charge transfer gaps, etc. Again, you have gone completely awry from what I am proposing.

        We’re stuck in biological bodies on the two dimensional surface of a biological terrestrial planet, that requires optical flux to support us. Or at least it used to, now in addition to that it requires stored energy inputs in the form of carbon since we have progressed beyond what the planet can supply us. To proceed we require more two dimensional space.

        The optical flux from a large fusion reactor is the least of our problems. You just aren’t getting it. In the early nineties I predicted a minimum of 15 to 20 years of spectroscopic advancement will be required to achieve the necessary spectroscopic resolution to solve the issues I have presented. That time has now passed and we are beyond what we need to do this. All we need to do now is ‘do it’. Unfortunately, the required funds for the required combined Manhattan and Apollo projects have been lost to …

        Well, quite honestly, lost to complete and vile nonsense. Too bad. But that doesn’t change the facts that the solutions are now upon us.

        Your mileage may vary. I’ve already put in my miles on this problem.

      • TLE, I have no idea what you are talking about.

      • Doc, I think he’s talking about nano-tech applications that promise higher energy efficiencies in electrical devise usage, photovoltaics and storage cells.

        Amirite, Thomas?

      • I’m sort of with TLE in not “getting” where the animus lies. Of course, my and I share a healthy skepticism about things like this. I have never been a fan of fusion, but was fascinated with the reflections on the human condition represented by the whole thing.

        I was also interested in the comments about carbon sequestration, another piece of magical belief about nonexistent future solutions that are going to save us all.

        I’m open to all those who are sick and tired of the pileon about clean energy’s lack of potential as a reason not to try to solve problems with the most useful alternatives.

      • Regarding carbon sequestration (*), I don’t think it is a “magic solution”, but it is an incredibly expensive possibility that the developed world could be forced into doing and paying for, should we fail to mitigate and the consequences are realized. Surely mitigation is far, far cheaper. And, ironically, at the time carbon capture and sequestration is put in place, emissions will necessarily need to be as close to zero as possible, since it is foolish to capture and sequester new stuff as well as stuff that’s there. The process will be expensive enough!

        Is the technology in hand to do this at scale and bury the material? No. Could it be developed with enough investment? I think so, given that it is primarily an engineering problem and not one that demands breakthrough technologies. But what should be repeated over and over when it is mentioned is that this will take a couple of trillion present day dollars to set up and may well run at a trillion present day dollars a year for a century. Just the administrative challenges are nightmarish!

        —–
        (*) By this I decidedly DO NOT MEAN point CCS that some large power producers are advertising and experimenting with …. I mean free air capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide.

      • Aaargh, I’m with Doc Snow about TLE, not with TLE about the issues here. I thought the article was interesting and informative, if not quite in the way advocates on any side might assume. I’m interested in the human condition. For those not already in the know, PW Anderson is my father, so the refs to physics are understandable. I’m an artist and, lacking sufficient training or ability, have to take a lot of science on others’ sayso in in old lady kicking the tires way, but he’s certainly one of the most reliable judges around. Recently he was talking about not getting too absorbed by detail – we were discussing the mathematical bias of Freeman Dyson that makes him not see what’s wrong with his climate opinions.

      • I have no idea what you are talking about.

        You are not alone. But this is not my blog and Tamino and I are not of the same philosophy with respect to solutions, and so out of respect for that I try not to proselytize here. I supply a link with every comment I make here and I have supplied some more links and commentary on this subject farther downstream. You can follow the links and beyond that – search.

        Solutions are not an easy subject, but I have put a great deal of long term effort into this, and so I am fairly confident I have the basics correct. Your Baez crackpot index on this subject may vary. Physics is your friend. Mathematics is one of your tools. I’ve simplified it all I can for you.

      • nano-tech applications that promise higher energy efficiencies in electrical devise usage, photovoltaics and storage cells.

        Well there is that. But I am also referring to breakthroughs in understanding and process that quantum emergence’ is guaranteed to deliver. Delivering those breakthroughs to spectroscopy technique, particularly astrophysics spectroscopy, will deliver further breakthroughs in planetary physics understandin, and the computational modelling of such. As I have indicated, it’s clear that spectroscopic resolution now exceeds the threshold required to deliver this in a very timely manner. Whether that will be soon enough is debatable, as we are now decades behind the curve with respect to the problems that have been neglected.

        [Response: I’m skeptical.]

    • Pete Dunkelberg

      So the New Yorker features a fusion evangelist with a hit piece on alternatives with the bothersome habit of actually working. Could it be this Mackay?

      I put these calculations to MacKay before he published his book in hard copy form, but he seemed unable to respond to them! This is hardly surprising since most of his base figures, particularly the fuel usage, seems to be dragged out of ‘thin air rather than hot air’ if I may borrow a pun.

      The real horror of it is that MacKay is the UK’s top green energy guy. http://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/1802151/decc-confirms-mackay-low-carbon-advisor
      but the Scots somehow evaded him:
      http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/going-green-record-40-of-scotlands-electricity-is-coming-from-renewables.1387457034

      What happens to those who don’t read MacKay’s book and just go ahead? It’s not so bad.

      I hope The New Yorker will now feature an analysis with corrected numbers and covering all of the “wedges” I linked earlier.

      • The New Yorker does not do “hit pieces”. This was an in-depth article about an interesting subject, exploring the practical realities of a project on this scale, and some relevant issues. I found your comment to be a lot more of a “hit job”. As I’ve said elsewhere, I take none of it as gospel, but am interesteded in what people do in different circumstances, and this is the first time I’ve given fusion the time of day. At least now I have an idea what is being done, its scale, and why.

        As to MacKay, I will take your opinion into account. On the whole, I like your commentary here and elsewhere, which means you opinion is worth consideration. However, starting it as an attack does not do you any favors.

      • All McKay has ever said is that science matters and the numbers need to add up. None of us here can really argue with that. He’s a pretty sensible chap (I’ve met him). His book is perhaps a little pessimistic on renewables energy density and enthusiastic on heat-pump COP, but the point is that you can adjust those numbers to reflect developing reality.

        He’s by no means the only person to conclude that it’s very hard to get off fossil fuels quickly without using a lot of nuclear too. (e.g. Hansen).

        I don’t follow the connection with the piece in the New Yorker on ITER?

      • Wookey, it arises from a quote above which I lifted from MacKay in the cited article. As I’ve already said more than once, I’m interested in scale and behavior as much as or possibly more than the subject, and had never before considered the possibility of fusion being either practical or possible.

        note to self: proofread!

  19. > the issues I have presented

    There are always young people coming along who, somehow, never heard of you, and are eager to learn about this world they find themselves in.

    A citation to a simple summary, assuming no prior knowledge, would save such youngsters much time and effort.

  20. Well since the topic is congressional action, then I can refer them to this summary, now obsoleted by congressional act and actions. As far as further immediate action to take, I can supply this quote from another essay.

    The atmospheric carbon crisis, precipitated by the use of fossil fuel combustion as the primary source of energy for the civilized world, has doubled human population in the last fifty years and resulted in great stresses on climate and the environmental and biological diversity of present day life on planet Earth. The most direct method of remediating this problem involves immediate reductions in population, and reduction of fossil fuel use through increased increased efficiency, cogeneration and thermal insulation, with the use of alternatives to fossil fuels wherever appropriate – solar, wind, hydroelectric and nuclear. Additionally, reduction in power use will also come from device progress and improvement as well as radical new and innovative applications of electromagnetism and chemical physics and engineering.

    Of course, the solutions I am referring to are a little more radical than weatherstripping windows. They’re more along the lines of confronting religion with science education, condoms and taxes on their institutions, insulating exposed concrete basements with a minimum of six inches of exterior polystyrene foam and a Manhattan project style investment in spectroscopy laboratories with pinpoint investment in promising avenues of specific theoretical and materials research. The space based aspects of my proposals have already rapidly sorted themselves out to my surprise, but certainly there are immediate things congress could do there as well.

  21. I sincerely hope you meant “immediate reductions in population GROWTH” here.

    Er … no, I don’t. Population is not infinitely differentiable. Certainly some higher derivative must change first, but nature is easily capable of providing the discontinuities with or without the help of humans. Nevertheless, if you wish the higher derivatives of carbon emissions to change, then ultimately either population must be reduced, or planetary emigration must occur. So scientific or technological breakthroughs are preferred, and indeed, required. To say that these breakthroughs will not occur or cannot occur is pretty delusional given the evidence. The problem is the pace of these breakthroughs, and the effect they have on the world. I am merely hypothesizing that we have the necessary spectroscopic resolution where, by proper funding, we can choose what they will be.

    • How do you propose to reduce the population?

    • I already stated some things that are immediately necessary – confront and tax religious institutions, sex education and condoms. Latex is cheap. But I understand how some seem to think idiotic religious beliefs are off limits to confrontation. Legislation (vis a vis China) are the best options, but directly confronting religious institutions would be far more effective and less traumatic than say, letting the discontinuities of nature take its course.

      I’m not opposed to direct confrontation of idiotic scientific and technological beliefs as well. I’m an equal opportunity confrontation generalist, since the status quo is about to fail in the most spectacular manner possible.

      [Response: This is not a forum to discuss the taxation of religious institutions. If you want to argue for that, find somewhere else to do it.

      If anyone wants to argue against that, find somewhere else to do it.]

      • The “status quo” is what we have to work with. If you really care about moving a solution to climate disruption forward, it’s time to be more of an engineer, and less of a scientist, at least in my opinion.

      • Well I told you that you weren’t going to like it. But I hypothesize that you are going to like climate change delivered to you on a golden platter by the status quo even worse. I’ll check back in twenty or thirty years to see how its going for you guys. As far as engineering is concerned, quite honestly you are not going to be able to engineer your way out of this without doing some science first. I usually do things in the order they are needed, as necessary. So it may appear that I’m ahead of the curve.

        And as usual, I will patiently await your solutions to these problems.

        [Response: I said nothing about liking or disliking your solutions. I said that this is not a forum to discuss them. I would add that I detect a hint of smarmy superiority from you.

        I suggest that if you actually believe that proposing to tax religious institutions has any chance of happening in the near future, you are too disconnected from reality to be of much use in actually getting something done.

        And no, I don’t care to hear your response.]

  22. David B. Benson

    HORATIO

    What is it ye would see?
    If aught of woe or wonder, cease your search.

    from
    http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/full.html

  23. Horatio Algeranon

    “Climate Change we can believe in”
    — by Horatio Algeranon

    The climate isn’t right
    To talk of changing clime
    Especially not all night
    I haven’t got the time

    Besides, there’s an election
    In case you haven’t heard
    We can’t afford defection
    To elephantine herd