Breaking Climate


An oft-used analogy for the effect of man-made climate change is that the weather is on steroids. Baseball players have always been able to hit home runs, but with performance-enhancing drugs they hit more than they could without. Similarly, climate change is making the weather do things more often, more severely, than it could without. This is not natural.

But that old analogy won’t cut it much longer. Because the climate will keep changing, taking weather not just into “enhanced” territory but to a state like nothing we’ve seen before. It won’t just be dangerous, it will be violent. Weather won’t be on steroids any more. It’ll be on meth.

It’s already started. 2015 has seen killer heat waves on four continents, in India, Pakistan, Colombia, Spain, England, and the U.S. Wildfire rages across the western U.S. and even worse in Alaska and Canada, with the smoke drifting as far south as N. Carolina. The worst drought in a thousand years plagues California. All could have happened without climate change, but all together — no. The steroids have kicked in with a vengeance.

It’s going to get worse. Not just a little worse, a lot. If you think the 2 deg.F warming we’ve already experienced in the U.S. is bad, how about another 4 deg.F by century’s end? How about even more? How many heat waves, how extreme, will that mean? How many wildfires will burn how much land? How many massive crop failures? How severe will droughts become — and floods too? How much shoreline and property will be indundated by sea level rise? How many will die in unprecedented storm surge kick-started by rising oceans and fueled by hotter ocean temperatures? How will the ocean food chain survive in the face of ever-greater acidification due to rising CO2?

What will it cost to move all the people and rebuild all the infrastructure — if we even can? What’s the dollar value of all the extra energy we have to burn just to stave off heatstroke? What will be the price tag on all the seawalls and flood levees? How much we will have to spend to build more guns and more bombs to deal with the flood of refugees and the threat of terrorists, not just angry but desperate because they have no food and no water? How will we cope when nations themselves — some already armed with nuclear weapons — turn terrorist?

If we don’t do something — as much as we can — to reduce global warming now, that’s the future we face. We’ve already delayed for 30 years. There’s no more time for halfway measures, and no hope to just “adapt.” We have to adapt and mitigate, as much as we can.

And that’s just the dangers we already know are looming. If the warming of the Arctic triggers the release of CO2 and methane stored in permafrost or clathrates on the ocean floor, we are fucked. Game over.

If we don’t get deadly serious about this, real soon, then expect the words of Jesse from “Breaking Bad” to become prophetic: “We’re all on the same page. The one that says, if I can’t kill you, you’ll sure as shit wish you were dead.

(Graphic design by Pamina)

73 responses to “Breaking Climate

  1. “All could have happened without climate change, but all together — no.” Is there a citation that makes this case quantitatively?

  2. Thank you, Tamino. What else is there to say?

  3. “If the warming of the Arctic triggers the release of CO2 and methane stored in permafrost or clathrates on the ocean floor, we are fucked.”

    According to David Archer at RealClimate, methane is only chump change in this story with CO2 in the leading role

    • Andrew Dodds

      Problem is, we are pushing the climate into a state is hasn’t been in for millions of years, very quickly.

      Whilst sea-based clathrates are *probably* fairly stable on 100-year timescales – because there is a limit to how fast the sea can warm and it’s difficult to get huge excursions, there is simply no prior case for very rapid warming in permafrost regions on land.

  4. Craziness: hall of famer Rube Waddel, upon hearing sirens would leave the pitchers mound and chase after fire engines.

    We need to stop playing the wrong game and run toward the emergency response. “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” HST

  5. This is particularly cogent and clear. Thank you.

  6. >If we don’t do something — as much as we can — to reduce global warming now, that’s the future we face. We’ve already delayed for 30 years

    Perhaps another meeting in Paris to talk things over is a solution ? :) Doing something means NOT emitting.

  7. We are headed for a human population crash from 7 Billion to 70 thousand or zero people within 13 years. We don’t have time for research or fooling around with renewables. Causes of a population crash:

    1. Global Warming [GW] will cause civilization to collapse within 13 years because GW will cause the rain to move and the rain move will force agriculture to collapse.

    2. Population biologist William Catton says that we in the US are overcrowded; immigration must reverse. Collapse from overpopulation could happen any time now. The Earth has 4 Billion too many people. An overshoot in population requires an equal undershoot. We overshot by 4 billion, and the consequence is an undershoot by 4 billion. The carrying capacity is 3 billion. 3 billion minus 4 billion is zero because there can’t be minus 1 billion people.

    3. Aquifers running dry No irrigation, no wheat. No wheat, no bread.

    4. Resource depletion
    4A oil
    4B minerals

    War will kill a lot of people. Famine will kill 8 billion out of 7 billion. 7-8=-1, but with population, the crash ends at zero.

    NATURE has lots of other ways to kill humans. Don’t provoke her.

    • You got any studies backing up your assertions?

    • “We don’t have time for research or fooling around with renewables.”

      OK, then. Just what action items do you propose instead? Because absent those, this is just more doomer porn.

      From where I sit, the largest single item that is actually slowing the growth of emissions in the world today is reform of the energy economy, which means increasing efficiency in numerous ways (from mileage standards to insulation standards for homes to devices that manage their energy use to electric grid demand management) and substituting less carbon-intensive electrical generation capacity for dirtier traditional sources like coal.

      And a big part of the latter has been, in fact, the explosive growth of renewable energy, which is now taking off globally following a pioneering period in which Europe and, to a lesser extent, North America, led the way. The adoption rates (and cost reductions, not coincidentally) don’t look like ‘fooling around’ to me–though admittedly they also aren’t yet where they need to be:

      “Renewables represented approximately 59% of net additions to global power capacity in 2014, with significant growth in all regions. Wind, solar PV, and hydro power dominated the market. By year’s end, renewables comprised an estimated 27.7% of the world’s power generating capacity, enough to supply an estimated 22.8% of global electricity.”

      Click to access GSR2015_KeyFindings_lowres.pdf

      REN identified the cumulative global RE generation capacity for 2015 as 657 GW, up from 560 in 2013. 51 GW of that increase came in the form of wind power. That’s serious–and is on the cusp of the kinds of magnitudes
      that we do need to see.

      Turning to other issues you raise, we can’t decrease population on any timescale that’s relevant to the problem of climate change, short of starting a nuclear war (though if your assertions are taken at face value, that will automatically be self-limiting.) So there’s no (palatable) solution there.

      And we have no more promising alternative for low-carbon electric generation: nuclear has advantages but there is no suggestion whatever from the real world that we could begin several hundred new reactors in the next five years, which is pretty much what it would take. The only new US reactors will take a decade or more to build, starting from approval:

      And it’s not just the US:

      As to sources for your claims #1 and #2, the first is Barton Paul Levenson’s “Accuracy Check” paper, just published, though in a journal that I know Barton is not happy with:

      Click to access BSVol.13%20(1)%20Article%202.pdf

      It’s a statistical extrapolation of PDSI drought trends, and it’s sobering reading. But it’s also far from definitive on the topic–compare AR5 on the subject; the IPCC authors found low confidence even in the sign of drought trends, and the best metric(s) for measuring it are still un–or under–determined. Hardly a reliable basis for the flat assertion that civilization will collapse in 2028 exactly.

      For the second claim, I find no authority at all for the flat statement that “An overshoot in population requires an equal undershoot.” (I’d welcome a cite, if you can provide one, which I doubt.) That’s rather unsurprising, because the assertion’s illogical on the face of it–as your continuation demonstrates:

      “3 billion minus 4 billion is zero because there can’t be minus 1 billion people.”


      Thing is, though there are certainly estimates, nobody actually *knows* what Earth’s carrying capacity for humans is–partly because it’s not a fixed quantity, but rather depends upon the systems humans evolve to provide for ourselves. For example, the carrying capacity for pastoralists is not the same as for agriculturalists or for hunter-gatherers. And while there is certainly room to question whether the current population is sustainable in any sense, to pretend that we know some definite number from which we can somehow project the exact magnitude of the putative coming population crash is–not realistically supportable.

      (And BTW, Ed Greisch, yes, RC readers know that that’s you, under your ‘pro-nuke’ handle.)

      • Searching for a reference supporting the idea that “overshoot implies equal undershoot”, I came across this PDF of a classroom powerpoint on population dynamics:

        Click to access Cycles.pdf

        Illustrating the phenomenon of cycling populations is this graph of Northern populations of hares and lynxes:

        Obviously, in such a system of cyclic populations, over time overshoots and undershoots balance out, showing up as variations about a mean population. So, in a sense, the two would be ‘equal.’

        However, that model clearly doesn’t apply to the situation in which Ed tried to use it. Global human population is not cyclic (so far–it is possible, of course, that it may be so, or become so, given enough time.) So we don’t have an established mean about which to vary–and if Ed is correct about our impending fate, we never will, because we’ll only ever achieve one half of a population cycle!

        Contrariwise, if we do survive the crisis–and I do agree there’s one a-brewing, though it’s hard to know just what its dimensions will turn out to be, not the least because they can still be affected by choices not yet made–then we’ll have a lower population bound established. Future cycles *might* then let us infer global carrying capacity, given enough consistency over a long enough time.

        But it’s important to note that not all species or populations do cycle. According to the presentation above, for instance, Southern hare populations tend to be rather unvarying. And the current ‘demographic transition’ humanity has been undergoing certainly shows that human population dynamics are both highly variable and culturally driven.

      • Oh, and note from the scale of the graph given–which looks to be a bit on the ‘schematic’ side, but is closer to log than to linear–that there’s a suggestion at least that the magnitudes of population peaks and troughs could be quite asymmetrical about the mean population–which in turn might not be the same as the (presumptive) carrying capacity. It would be an interesting math puzzle for someone so inclined to look at that with actual data.

      • Nuclear power is the only way to stop making CO2 that actually works.


        [Response: I’ve resisted the temptation to ask you to be less long-winded. But I will insist that you refrain from total bullshit like this.

        Either stop it or I will follow in the footsteps of RealClimate and simply ban the topic.]

      • From

        The following words are entirely the words of James Hansen, the recently retired head of NASA-GISS:

        “People who entreat the government to solve global warming but offer support only for renewable energies will be rewarded with the certainty that the U.S. and most of the world will be fracked-over, the dirtiest fossil fuels will be mined, mountaintop removal and mechanized long-wall coal mining will continue, the Arctic, Amazon and other pristine public lands will be violated, and the deepest oceans will be ploughed for fossil fuels. Politicians are not going to let the lights go out or stop economic growth. Don’t blame Obama or other politicians. If we give them no viable option, we will be fracked and mined to death, and have no one to blame but ourselves.
        The asymmetry finally hit me over the head when a renewable energy advocate told me that the main purpose of renewable portfolio standards (RPS) was to “kill nuclear”. I had naively thought that the purpose was simply to kick-start renewables. Instead, I was told, because utilities were required to accept intermittent renewable energies, nuclear power would become less economic, because it works best if it runs flat out. What to do when the wind is not blowing? The answer was: have a gas plant ready as back-up. In other words, replace carbon free nuclear power with a dual system, renewables plus gas. With this approach CO2 emissions will increase and it is certain that fracking will continue and expand into larger regions.
        If we care about climate, a “carbon-free portfolio standard” would make more sense than RPS. However, the best approach is a rising carbon fee that allows efficiency, renewables, nuclear power, and carbon capture to compete fairly.”

        Doc Snow: I can be long-winded too, if you like.
        I have no interest, financial or otherwise, in the nuclear power industry. My only interest is in stopping Global Warming. My only income is from the US civil service retirement system.

        I have no interest, financial or otherwise, in the electric utility industry, except that I buy electricity from the local utility. I have never worked for the nuclear power industry.

        Doc Snow: Get another PhD in the power transmission branch of electrical engineering. That is where you will find out about the problem with wind and solar. Right now I am reviewing a Wind Integration Study by Charles River Associates. They keep using words like “overload.” The SPP interconnect area has a lot of wind compared with most other places, being just east of the Rocky Mountains. Even so, it is clear that SPP is complying with a mandate, not gaining energy from wind.

      • The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has certified 5 reactors for factory production.  More certifications for factory production are on the way.

        “Design Certification Applications for New Reactors”
        copied from:

        “By issuing a design certification, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approves a nuclear power plant design, independent of an application to construct or operate a plant. A design certification is valid for 15 years from the date of issuance, but can be renewed for an additional 10 to 15 years.

        Which means:  If you want a nuclear power plant in a short time, like under 3 years from signing to turn on, the US is open for business.  Since these are factory built, turning on the factory means getting a lot of reactors, not just one.
        5 more Design Certification Applications are Currently Under Review.

      • The CRA link is… interesting. Apparently, it’s supposed to show that there are all sorts of terrible troubles with wind.

        Its purpose: “The Southwest Power Pool (SPP) selected Charles River Associates (CRA) in early 2009 to conduct a study to determine the operational and reliability impact of integrating wind generation into the SPP transmission system and energy markets.”

        Its conclusion: “The analytical results of the study show that there are no significant technical barriers to integrating wind generation to a 20% penetration level into the SPP system, provided that sufficient transmission is built to support it.”

        Damning, isn’t it?

        Of course, there’s been a lot of operational experience gained since 2010, and several jurisdictions have found ways to accommodate much higher penetrations of wind than that. Are there challenges to doing so? Of course. But those challenges are being met.

      • [edit]

        Doc Snow is working for the fossil fuel industry whether Doc Snow knows it or not.


        [Response: You are way out of line. Stop it.]

      • The NRC ‘factory-build’ certifications would be far more persuasive as evidence for these wonderful 3-years-start-to-finish reactors, did it not include the AP1000, which is precisely the reactor running way behind and way over budget in Georgia’s Vogtle Units 3 and 4, and South Carolina’s Summer Units 2 and 3.

      • michael sweet

        Asteroid miner,

        Do you think that your claims cannot be checked? When I look at the links Doc Snow provided (I see few links from you) I see that the South Carolina nuclear plants broke ground in March 2013 with a 4 year timeline for the build. Where do you get three years from signing to power? In June 2015 their new completion date is June 2019. After two years of work, with over 10% of customer bills going to pay the interest, they are no closer to completion than they were when they started. If they make their current schedule (???) it will be 6 years from first concrete to finish or 8-10 years from contract to power. The Vogtle plants have longer delays since they have been working longer. Norway is ten years behind on a similar build. Your three year claim is completely false.

        Doc Snow has already addressed many of your other outrageous claims.

        The more comments I see from nuclear supporters like you the more I think nuclear is a failed technology. How can you expect me to believe that you have solved the safety disasters with nuclear when your other claims are so transparently false? Nuclear should be banned because of their false claims.

      • michael sweet: A factory built nuclear power plant CAN be installed much more quickly isn’t the same as what is happening with mostly the older system that is happening now. At the present time, we still even have objections from the coal industry and other protesters to overcome. If we get serious about not making CO2, we can go nearly 100% nuclear faster than France did.

      • Michael, thanks. I’m not against nuclear power; in fact I suspect that it may have a significant role to play over the longer term–say, the second half of the present century. But it seems clear (to me, at least) that it can’t scale fast enough at present to avoid 2 C warming or worse by itself.

        Just for the record, let me clarify a few things.

        Vogtle 3/4 and Summer 2/3 are pretty much twins. Various ‘start dates’ are as follow below:

        COL Application:

        March 27, 2008 (Summer 2/3)
        March 31, 2008 (Vogtle 3/4)

        Groundbreaking (preliminary construction):

        March 9, 2013, Summer
        August 26, 2009, Vogtle

        Nuclear construction:

        March 9, 2013, Summer 2
        March 12, 2013, Vogtle 3
        November 2, 2013, Summer 3
        November 19, 2013, Vogtle 4

        As you see, Summer is actually the older of the two, slightly.

        Also, to be fair, it’s clearly incorrect to say that “After two years of work… they are no closer to completion than they were when they started.” Construction certainly has progressed substantially, despite the delays; you can see some documentation of that here:

        (It’s worth reading the latter, in particular, for some good sidelights on just how much ‘plug and play’ one can really expect from modular reactor designs like the AP1000.)

        As to projected completion dates, it’s Q2 2019 and 2020 for both projects. Call it 11 years start to first power, or 6 years from basemat to first power. (Actually, though, it’s longer than that; early site permit applications for both projects came in 2006, which would make it 13 years–and that’s not really the start either, as it must have taken some time to prepare those applications.)

      • Michael Sweet

        Asteroid miner: “A factory built nuclear power plant CAN be installed much more quickly isn’t the same as what is happening ”

        And fusion physicists have been promising power in 20 years since I was in High School (I am pushing 60). The four plants discussed here were claimed to be the ones that would prove nuclear plants could be built quickly. The proof is in: nuclear plants cannot be built on time and are not economic.

        Renewable energy is currently proven and being installed. Wind is so much cheaper now that nuclear will never be given another chance.

        I will not respond to you again, it is a waste of time. Nuclear should be banned.

  8. You wrote, “There’s no more time for halfway measures…” Coincidentally–or maybe intentionally–there was an episode of Breaking Bad titled “Half Measures” (312) that featured Mike (the great Jonathan Banks) brilliantly explaining to Walter White ( why not finishing something was as bad as not starting in the first place. The speech ended, “No more half measures, Walter.”


  9. I agree with Eric’s comment regarding a way(s) to quantify the most likely outcomes. I will have to read up on the citation regarding the methane estimates but as a former sailor, I can attest to the instability of methane hydrates in warming deep water in northern latitudes. It played havoc with some sonar calibration work we did in the Navy back in the day.

  10. For those of you who think that Tamino is just spewing more doomer porn, I would remind you that he’s just dealing in probabilities based on what we already know combined with the inconvenient truth that everything in the whole Earth system is connected. The more studies that are done, the more positive feedbacks are discovered where we had no idea they even existed. The only way to look at our situation is by looking at it using the principles of complexity or systems science. Anything else will always overlook some important connections that might have effects far beyond their apparent small size.

    What Tamino has done is list as many connections as he can based on his knowledge and limited space. He could have listed many more and still wouldn’t have hit most of them which are probably too numerous to list. What those who have faith in human ingenuity and technology fail to appreciate is that there are forces involved in the Earth system which go far beyond humanity’s ability to deal with them. And it’s not because such forces are individually, or even collectively stronger than what humans can bring to bear to fight them. It’s because we can never know just how the forces will interact exactly and so we can never know how to react effectively.

    People who are big on renewables always fail to mention that manufacturing solar panels and wind machines, etc. on the scale needed to make a difference can only happen using the infrastructure based on fossil fuels that’s already in place. All this talk about renewables coming down in price and availability is really just a drop in the bucket of the world’s economy and infrastructure. Talk of nuclear power taking up the slack fails to take the extraordinary lead time it takes to build such plants which again depends on using the present fossil fuel infrastructure and all that implies for increasing emissions.

    For those who insist that Tamino present actual studies of the negative effects of all the events and interactions that he lists, one doesn’t have to look at actual studies (most of which haven’t even been done!) to put two and two together to get four. Sometimes the results of certain interactions are so obvious that further study just adds to the certainty of a certain general pathway.

    Of course, complex systems by definition make it impossible to forecast the exact sequence of events that may occur, but the general results are pretty clear as shown by the existence of strange attractors in complexity science. And that goes for the exact carrying capacity of Earth for humans, too. If one accepts that we don’t live in isolation on this planet but instead are intimately tied to every other life form that exists as well as to all the other inorganic systems and cycles that make up the whole of our world, then talking about a carrying capacity that only looks at human ingenuity and potential and not on the impacts that our existence has on every other part of the total system is delusional in the extreme. One only has to look at our relatively large size as omnivorous animals go to see that there are way too many of us already, since no other large mammal has attained our numbers because of the natural constraints that the system imposes on each species. We may think that we can flout these constraints as we have for the last 10,000 years, but the implications of such flouting have come back to bite us with a vengeance now that we have crashed up against the most powerful of the constraints. We’re not as smart as we think we are and human hubris and arrogance has gotten us between a rock and a hard place with no benign way out!

    Enrico Fermi once asked a question of his colleagues that became known as the Fermi Paradox: If intelligent life is so widespread in the Universe, why have we not yet made contact with any other intelligent life forms? There is a lot of speculation that the main reason may be that whenever a certain life form attains the level of intelligence and technology that allows the development of long range communication, it also develops technologies that allow for such things as nuclear war, massive resource depletion and ecosystem destruction, and major climate change (usually by warming) that leads to mass extinction and destruction of any civilization that may have developed. There is also some speculation that the rules of complexity dealing with the dissipation of energy gradients as the overriding driving force in the Universe based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics demand that the rise of intelligence life forms most likely leads to the most efficient dissipation of those energy gradients through the destruction and mass extinction of whatever happens to arise on that world. If that’s true, then there is really nothing we can do to stop our accelerating slide into the ultimate mass extinction event which has most likely already started with our unwitting instigation. Now there’s some doomer porn for everyone to contemplate!

    • Ed Hummel: Roger that.

    • As the guy who used the term “doomer porn,” I can assure you that it wasn’t directed toward Tamino.

      However, I would agree that it’s fairly apt for speculations “that the rules of complexity dealing with the dissipation of energy gradients as the overriding driving force in the Universe based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics demand that the rise of intelligence life forms most likely leads to the most efficient dissipation of those energy gradients through the destruction and mass extinction of whatever happens to arise on that world.”

      And before submitting meekly to the “Second Law of Thermodynamics”, I suggest you reread this clause:

      “…enough to supply an estimated 22.8% of global electricity.”

      That ain’t a “drop in the bucket,” my friend. It’s a substantial fraction. And it also happens to be the fastest-growing fraction: “approximately 59% of net additions to global power capacity in 2014.”

      And that’s why fossil barons like the Kochs and others hate and fear renewable energy, and have been using their stalking horses, such as the infamous ALEC, to fight it in just about every legislature in the country:

      Luckily–well, it’s not altogether luck, there’s been quite a lot of hard work involved–their success rate has been pretty low, as the Post story notes.

      • When looking at renewables data I would really, really caution about focusing too much on added capacity, because it can give a very misleading impression about how well renewables are doing, as can looking at percentage growth rates. One also needs to think about capacity factors, which for solar are around 10-15%, wind 25-35%, fossil fuels maybe average about 45% and for nuclear is something like 80%. Looking at capacity alone can paint a picture which is out of stop with reality.

        Looking at electricity data from the recent BP statistical review of energy, last year wind and solar supplied around 3.7% of global electricity consumption, up from around 1.5% in 2009. With an absolute growth of about 600 TWh. However the absolute growth in coal consumption over the same period was about three times this amount.

        Indeed your statement that it’s the “fastest growing fraction” doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Using the same BP data, if one looks at the absolute growth of energy produced by renewables+hydro over the last decade, then they grew by about 2143TWh, while coal grew by over 4200TWh. Focussing only on capacity, and on short timeframes, really doesn’t tell the whole story.

        Most renewable power comes from hydroelectricity, which has it’s own massive environmental footprint (plus you end up stopping nutrient rich silts being deposited on floodplains further downstream, which means more farmland now has to rely on artificial fertiliser, which is its own environmental disaster) and is limited in its expansion potential, and a big chunk is from burning biomass (some of which is virgin US forest) which is far from what I’d classify as renewable. There are no free lunches when you do stuff on the scale that we do it at. Plus, we’re only looking at electricity here, which represents only about 1/3 of global energy use. You’ve still got the transport and industrial sectors to deal with.

        All the “renewables are winning” stories you see smattered across the energy/climate blog network really don’t stand up to any dispassionate look at the data. We’re still moving very much in the wrong direction, and indeed appear to be accelerating. There’s a very, very long way to go.

      • Yes, one must consider more than just capacity additions. No, we aren’t yet at the point justifying ‘renewables triumphalism.’

        However, we are at a point where it’s pretty clear that we could potentially reach climate mitigation goals via renewables–current adoption rates and cost trends, I think, demonstrate that.

        And yes, the problems of growth and greed still need addressing. But those are, IMO, going to take longer–especially the latter.

  11. EH: People who are big on renewables always fail to mention that manufacturing solar panels and wind machines, etc. on the scale needed to make a difference can only happen using the infrastructure based on fossil fuels that’s already in place.

    BPL: The more renewable development, the more of the mix is coming from renewables and not from fossil fuels. It’s not like the whole fossil fuel establishment has to stay in place until the last windmill is built. That’s the fundamental fallacy in your argument.

    • Exactly, Barton. There are likely times when all the electricity used at Danish Vestas and Siemens wind turbine plants is coming from wind–overall, Denmark’s electricity was 39% wind-generated in 2014. And since “Currently around nine out of every 10 offshore turbines installed globally are made in Denmark,” that means that the global offshore wind fleet is already exhibiting the trend you mention.

      Yes, of course there are caveats–the transportation directly and indirectly involved currently is (I think) nearly 100% fossil-fueled, for instance. But that can and will change, too.

      • Ed, you seem to be responding to several things I said, although you don’t say that’s what you are doing. So I’m going to take the liberty to reply in turn.

        I’m sorry if I said anything that gave you the impression that I think that “all we have to do is replace fossil fuels with renewables and then everything can continue on as usual.” In my opinion, business as usual is looking rather frayed in several regards right now, and there will be much more drastic challenges coming down the road. And I agree that human appropriation of energy is an issue that needs to be dealt with. As one facet of that, see this article on ‘HANPP’:

        But right now we are faced with a crisis. The question is one of managing that as best we can. We have that large population, and we must operate within that reality, which in my mind means that we can’t simply ‘say no’ to energy growth. That is a position that is not sellable, not in a world of mutually antagonistic (or at least suspicious) nations, many of which are marked by desperate poverty.

        So the decarbonization of energy is–pressing. That doesn’t mean that systems thinking shouldn’t be developed, promulgated, and integrated into policy-making. It doesn’t mean that maladaptive cultural norms should be accepted or tolerated (though consideration of what tactics actually change minds and societies is indicated.)

        But concluding that we are inevitably doomed is about the least helpful thing imaginable. The first step to solving a problem is accepting the possibility that a solution could exist. Or to put it another way, “Despair is not adaptive.”

    • Barton,

      In order for renewble energy technologies to avoid “energy cannibalism” (that is, consuming more energy than they have produced, and saving mroe CO2 than they required to manufacture) they must grow at a rate lower than the inverse of their energy payback time. There’s a lot of fuzzy numbers floating around for energy payback, but solar is certainly one which could be a net contributor to greenhouse gases, especially with its extremely rapid growth in recent years. Wind, however, has probably helped.

      • You pretty much nailed it about the fuzzy numbers and the energy cannibalism, Sam.

        And lest people think I’m against renewables, I have to disclose that I’ve been off the grid with a PV array providing all our electricity in a passive solar house backed up with a wood stove in the Maine woods for the last 33 years. But I’m under no illusions that just the fact that I exist and live my life has an impact on the world, no matter how I live. The point I was trying to make about the renewables being a drop in the bucket had more to do with the energy cannibalism and resource extraction involved in their manufacture. And no matter how rosy a picture advocates want to paint about renewables taking over from fossil fuels, the fact is that they still have an overall adverse impact on ecosystems that is explosively larger because of our huge population. According to systems thinking, any energy captured for our use is eliminated from use by other systems, both living and inorganic. The more we take for ourselves, the less is available for the rest of the parts of the system. That’s from the first law of thermodynamics! The vast majority of our energy comes from the Sun which puts out pretty much a constant amount, at least on human time scales.

        So, I’m convinced for those and a myriad of other reasons that systems thinking is the only realistic way of looking at how the Universe operates. Expecting that all we have to do is replace fossil fuels with renewables and then everything can continue on as usual is strict linear thinking within a system that is infinitely complex, and so extremely non-linear. Only a systems view will suffice to truly understand our predicament and what we should be doing to live within the natural constraints of the system in which we are a part, and only a part!!! And meekly giving in to the second law of thermodynamics is certainly not my intent. In fact, it’s an irrelevant comment since the second law prevails as probably the most tested and important physical law that we’ve discovered. It rules no matter what our wishes and desires dictate how we live our lives. The key to dealing with it in a rational way is to learn how to live within the constraints that Nature demands from us or else we face extinction. It’s as simple as that. From where I sit, it doesn’t look as though many of us will have that chance, especially if we as a species continue thinking that we run things on this planet and can continue to expand our numbers and our consumption while treating Earth as our super market.

        As James Lovelock has said, global warming is just a symptom of the sickness that we have bequeathed Earth since we got through the last bottleneck in our existence about 150,000 years ago and began our march to our present condition as a major global force. Administering band-aid solutions to profound problems brought about by our very nature will never work and will probably just exacerbate the problems we face. And the speculation that I mentioned before that we are just agents of a very efficient dissipation of energy gradients within the Earth system and so probably destined to destroy ourselves is definitely not idle speculation. It’s based on how complex systems work as discovered by a half century of scientific discovery by systems scientists going back to Edward Lorenz in 1960. Of course it has to remain speculation since we only have this one planet to observe and can’t really test the hypothesis to its final conclusion. But we can observe how things are transpiring in light of what we know about how complex systems operate. And in my opinion, the circumstantial evidence and trends seem to point to such a conclusion.

      • Re Sam’s comment, the concept of “energy cannibalism” is explained here:

        And here, perhaps more helpfully:

        I’m a bit skeptical about the concept in this context. For once thing, it seems to assume equilibrium to start with, and that is not the case. We have both growing energy demand and a “pipeline” of energy infrastructure needing replacement. So some portion of clean energy infrastructure built is replacing dirty infrastructure that either would have been built otherwise, or needs replacing anyhow–and that portion doesn’t represent any *additional* energy/carbon debt.

        For another, I don’t really see any justification for doing the analysis on a sectoral basis rather than an energy system basis. Clearly it is better from an emissions point of view to replace dirty capacity with clean, regardless of whether this results in a (temporary) CO2 ‘debt’.

        Presumably, though, serious ‘real world’ analyses take such effects into account.

  12. May the baseball/steroids analogy rest in peace.

    Steroids only affect the game when the ball is actually hit.

    AGW affects all the weather, all the time. That is, our low temperatures are warmer, our mean temperatures are warmer, and our high temperatures are higher. And, there is more latent heat in the atmosphere.

    • Steroids affect the _rate_ at which balls are hit over a certain distance. They affect every swing of the bat. All the time. It’s just that the measure you take is whether it exceeded a certain distance or not.

      Rate is an “all the time” quantity that can be manipulated mathematically just as easily as temperature. There are problems when we get into extreme rates (e.g., balls hit over 475′). But these problems arise equally when talking about extreme temperature events as we have been a lot lately.

  13. From the transcript of the Sixth Dispatch From the Endocene at Extinction Radio:

    …it is worth repeating that the sixth mass extinction is not being driven, at least not yet, by climate change.

    Here is how one academic posed the issue in an article published in in 2013:

    “What would happen to the world if, with the snap of our fingers, we shifted all our energy supplies to renewable sources overnight? You might be surprised at the answer: not much, at least for biodiversity and ecosystems.”

    “Certainly, it might solve the climate problem, but I have canvassed this question in a number of different places, and the answers usually converge on this: we would still wreck Earth’s ecosystems. And what’s more, we’d still wreck them on a timescale similar to the trajectory that we’re on already.”

    “The reason is that climate change is A problem, not THE problem. At the moment much of the focus is on climate and there’s no doubt this is a problem that requires emergency action now to see if we can avoid the worst of the tipping points. But there are many “showstoppers”, any and all of which can bring humanity and biodiversity to a sticky end.”

    “Without biodiversity in all its forms, which creates the complex web of interrelated systems that hold the biosphere in homeostasis, things that we take for granted such as temperature, the level of oxygen in the atmosphere or the even concentration of salt in the sea, will no longer support the life we know.”

    “Something other than climate change is driving the current mass extinction. The impacts of climate change, though potentially catastrophic, are in the main yet to come – albeit sooner than we have previously expected.”

    “The current trajectory of biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse is being driven by cutting down forests, over-fishing, chemical pollution, soil degradation and erosion, habitat destruction, desertification and so on. These activities are all a function of the vast amount of energy we have at our disposal. We have too much and, as we use it, we damage ecosystems.”


    The fixation on climate change and CO2 is a distraction. No amount of clean energy is going to fix the fact that the more energy we have, the more we use and grow our population, and the more we exploit and destroy essential parts of the biosphere – like fresh water. This isn’t going to end well for the human race regardless of how many solar panels or windmills we build.

    • That’s a very good point. I’m working on a piece about Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Sixth Extinction”, which won a Pulitzer earlier this year, and for the current extinction spike it’s very true that “climate change is A problem, not THE problem.” Many of the dynamics driving species loss today are due to other effects, like species introductions, habitat fragmentation and destruction, and over-exploitation, as Ms. Kolbert lays out with elegance and clarity.

      Yet I must respectfully disagree with your last paragraph. Existential threats never truly qualify as ‘distractions.’ And there is evidence that we’re starting not to ‘grow our population’–though ‘peak humans’ will take a few decades yet, barring catastrophe arriving earlier. We must address climate change, which means replacing our energy systems with cleaner ones–even though doing so, while necessary, may not be sufficient.

      • It doesn’t matter if we stop growing our population if we continue to grow our affluence though. I=PAT and all that. Everyone talks about how great it is that the birth rate would fall if only we could get everyone to a European level of consumption, but 7 billion people consuming at a european level would entail a massive acceleration in the damage we’re doing to the earth system.

  14. Wind turbines typically pay back the energy used in their construction in less than one year.

    • michael sweet

      From Jacobson 2008:

      “For a 5 MW turbine operating over a lifetime of 30 yr under the wind-speed conditions given, and assuming carbon emissions based on that of the average US electrical grid, the resulting emissions from the
      turbine are 2.8–7.4 g CO2e kWh1 and the energy payback time is 1.6 months (at 8.5 m/s ) to 4.3 months (at 7 m/s). ”

      Many turbines from the 1970’s are still in operation so a 30 year life is reasonable. 7 m/sec is the lowest wind speed that he feels is economic (there are enough locations with this wind speed to easily power the entire world).

    • Maybe slightly more than that. A recent meta analysis ( ) got an EROI value of around 20, which implies slightly more than a year. With energy storage this figure likely drops dramatically.

      • turboblocke

        Thanks for the link to the metaanalysis. However, I note that it uses data from as far back as 1977 and also small capacity generators. Modern machines are bigger and more efficient, so their payback period is shorter.

  15. “War becomes perpetual when used as a rational for peace,” Norman Solomon. “Peace becomes perpetual when used as a rational for survival.” Yours truly.
    The reality of “population control” will happen of its own as soon as the Nation and the world accept that humanity is in fact at war with our greed. At that point reason will prevail. Birth control will be free and easily accessed. Knowledge will be honest and forthright. Women and children will be treated with the respect, equality and love they deserve. The “We All Win War,” (WAWW ), will permeate the soul and justice will prevail. Not because of authority but because of morality. The problem then becomes one not of “control” but “survival.” As it has always been. The children keepers of the flame, not cannon fodder.

  16. Dennis Bird

    Instead of tying renewables to the current grid (controlled by for profit utility companies) the focus should be generating energy at the point of use. It would be cost prohibitive to retrofit existing buildings now, but I don’t see why it could not work on new construction.

  17. Jobs are needed for all and the only jobs that can provide 100% employment and not kill the planet are GREEN JOBS. Green jobs are rewarding in and of themselves, are not rocket science, have room for advancement, and good for the Nation and the world. With universal health care, access to green transportation, and little to no tax, folks could work for far less wages and still improve their lives significantly. As folks worked their way up the pay scale the tax burden could increase and those folks would willing pay those taxes. The problem with taxes it that when the largest share of our tax $$$ are spent on war and subsidies for pollution profiteers is when we get pissy about them. We do not need more billionaires. We do not need jobs shipped to countries with cheap labor to ship crap back to our country. We do not need the industrial military complex killing machine. We need a “Greening Military” shipping and deploying green technology in the third world, and as Dennis mention, point of use manufacturing for their problems. 3-D printing of shovels, hoes , wheel barrows, water systems, sewer systems, homes, etc.

    Make the economic case for UHC and the battle is won. Who would not want a Green Economy with 100% employment and a cost effective green economy.

  18. David B. Benson

    Having just read all the comments pertaining to electrical power generation, I am glad that none of you who wrote those comments actually work for a generating organization.

    Now it is possible to study some power engineering economics, there being books with such titles. Those not wanting to appear a fool are advised to do so.

    • Professor Benson: I know that you are an EE prof, but I don’t remember your specialization. I couldn’t find an electric power transmission course on Coursera but I did find Introduction to Electric Power Systems at MIT in open courseware. It is mostly a review of circuit analysis. I looked through it. It doesn’t get into what we need to know here. Could you recommend or start a Coursera course on the right stuff? Please comment more frequently and keep us on track.

      • I’d second AM’s request for suggestions. Ignorance is curable assuming the ‘patient’ makes some effort, but assistance is often very valuable…

  19. Dennis Bird: See:
    by Tom Murphy, who is a physics professor at the University of California.
    Professor Murphy says you need enough energy storage to last a whole week, in case you have a long, cold, coludy calm winter. The result is that the battery for your new house will cost as much as the house, and you will need a new battery in ablut 5 years. If you are a billionaire or a hermit, you can use wind and solar for all of your electricity needs. If you have a wife who is used to air conditioningin the summer and heat in the winter, you will not have a wife very long.

    • Sigh. Dr. Murphy’s post is not meant to be definitive, but illustrative, as he makes clear in the text. Let’s let him speak for himself as to the ‘takeaways’ he intends:

      “This post does not proclaim that there is no way to build adequate storage to accommodate a fully-renewable energy infrastructure. A distributed grid helps, and an armada of gas-fired peak-load plants would offset the need for full storage. Storage can be augmented by pumped hydro, compressed air, flywheels, other battery technologies, etc.

      “Rather, the lesson is that we must work within serious constraints to meet future demands.”

      • OF COURSE Professor Murphy will never say he “Believes.” “Believe” is taboo. The Doc Snows, being musicians, have not taken the Prob&Stat course from the physics department.


        [Response: I’m getting really sick of your crap. You presume to “know” that Prof. Murphy doesn’t say he believes because it’s “taboo”? You’re not only pushing your agenda rather than what he really said, you have consistently made ludicrous claims which are all too often contradicted by the very references you provide to “support” them.

        It’s a genuine pity that we can’t have a sensible discussion of the topic because of you. You are doing more to hurt the argument for nuclear than all the anti-nuclear believers here combined.

        At least it’s a bit amusing that you seem to think one learns one’s statistics from the physics department.]

      • michael sweet

        Jacobson et al 2015 claim 100% of all power in the USA can be generated reliably using a variety of renewable resources. From the abstract:

        “This study presents roadmaps for each of the 50 United States to convert their all-purpose energy systems (for electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry) to ones powered entirely by wind, water, and sunlight (WWS). The plans contemplate 80–85% of existing energy replaced by 2030 and 100% replaced by 2050….Year 2050 end-use
        U.S. all-purpose load would be met with B30.9% onshore wind, B19.1% offshore wind, B30.7% utility-scale photovoltaics (PV), B7.2% rooftop PV, B7.3% concentrated solar power (CSP) with storage, B1.25% geothermal
        power, B0.37% wave power, B0.14% tidal power, and B3.01% hydroelectric power. Based on a parallel grid integration study, an additional 4.4% and 7.2% of power beyond that needed for annual loads would be supplied by CSP with storage and solar thermal for heat, respectively, for peaking and grid stability.[jobs will increase and pollution will decrease, other issues are addressed, money is saved] Thus, 100% conversions are technically and economically feasible with little downside. These roadmaps may therefore reduce social and political barriers to implementing clean-energy policies”

        There are many other peer reviewed references (Budischak et al 2013 for NE USA and Elliston et al 2013 for Australia (both for electrical power only) that make similar claims for other areas. The authors (who are qualified engineers) have roadmaps for most countries on their website. They include no batteries so gigatons of lead are not required, actual studies using historical weather data find that it is never windless and cloudy over the entire USA. Can a peer reviewed analysis that shows gigantic storage is required be provided? Norway alone has enough hydro storage to power all of Europe.

        CO2 emissions are reduced the most when renewables are built as quickly as possible.

        Dr. Benson, what do you think of these analysis?

  20. David B. Benson

    Tamino — My first formal introduction to probability & statistics was a section of a year long course entitled Mathematical Methods of Physics offered by the physics group at CalTech. It was and probably still is the case that physical scientists do not actually learn enough statistics and only “pick it up” while analyzing the experiment for their thesis.

    In contradistinction the agricultural science graduate students here do study quite a bit of statistics from the statistics group.

  21. David B. Benson

    At a level suitable for most here, the TCASE series on
    presents most of the required power engineering economic ideas required. Some additional concepts are explored in a few sections of
    But none of this is organized as a course or even a textbook for one.

    Obtaining a copy of “Power System Economics: Designing Markets for Electricity” by Steven Stoft for serious study would make one far more qualified to comment than anyone except for some (retired, mostly) power engineers who comment on Brave New Climate.

  22. David B. Benson

    michael sweet — Jacobson and the others are trivially correct in that by massive overbuilds and making some not-quite-reasonable assumptions about the stability of weather systems one can claim to dispense with dispatchable power generators. No serious power engineer, in academia or in industry, that I know agrees because the proposed solutions are not economic.

    The conterarguments to Elliston can be found on the Brave New Climate website.

    “Norway alone has enough hydro storage to power all of Europe.” No. Might have enough hydro pumped storage potential, but I doubt even that. And I remind you that Europe extends all the way to the Ural Mountains.
    “CO2 emissions are reduced the most when renewables are built as quickly as possible.” I doubt this is true. Renewables require back-up, typically combined cycle gas turbines. Those emit CO2 and worse, the extraction leaks methane.

    You are providing overly simple pronouncements, undocumented. You appear to be making claims far beyond your knowledge.

    • I think we’re getting into the wrong debate, as so often happens. Regardless of anyone’s hopes, wishes or fears, we’re unlikely to have a 100% *anything* energy mix over relevant timescales for emissions mitigation. For example, let’s consider China’s plans as discussed in the “Nationally Determined Contribution”–AKA climate pledge–which has just been unveiled. It is analysed here:

      Among many other interesting things, we find this:

      China’s climate pledge also repeated its existing goals to source 20% of its energy needs from non-fossil sources by 2030, up from 15% in 2020. This would imply roughly maintaining the rate of progress seen since 2011.

      This expansion has been based on a massive build-out of renewables, particularly hydro, with China adding nearly half of the additional renewable power generated globally over the past decade. It has targets to raise hydro capacity to 420 gigawatts (GW) in 2020, while adding 18GW of nuclear, doubling wind to 220 GW and doubling solar to 70GW, all between 2015 and 2020.

      (Current Chinese hydroelectric capacity is probably around 290 GW. And nuclear advocates will be pleased to note that there are also plans to increase nuclear power considerably after that date–IIRC.

      But the point is, they are looking at a mix of energy sources. So, to my knowledge is just about everybody else in the world; nobody is putting ‘all their eggs in one basket.’ Of course, proportions matter, and it would be great to know what is absolutely the optimum trajectory to follow for most rapid and effective decarbonization. But I doubt that we’ll figure that out solely by considering the extreme cases of “all this” or “all that.”

      The advantage of nuclear is that it’s high-capacity factor baseload. The advantage of wind is that it is very scalable, very quick and easy to build, and has become very affordable over wide areas where suitable conditions exist. (Its ability to rapidly curtail output also has some advantages for grid management.) The advantage of solar is that it is very scalable, is the only option really suitable for residential/commercial distributed generation, and the timing of its max output correlates fairly well with peak usage times.

      We’re going to be using all of the above, unless something really drastic happens–social collapse, or technological or economic breakthrough for some alternative. (Fusion, finally? Plummeting costs for hot rock geothermal, due to widespread adoption of technologies developed for fracking? The odds of success for any specified ‘breakthrough technology’ is pretty low, but breakthroughs do happen sooner or later.)

  23. michael sweet

    Dr Benson
    Thank you for your response. I am amazed that the 100 papers that cite Budischak are all written by engineers that are not serious. Obviously you are more familiar with the field than I.

    I intended to say the Norway hydro could potentially power Europe for 10 days, enough to ensure backup power during sunless, periods with no wind.

    • Interestingly, Dr. Budischak does in fact have a PhD. in electrical engineering (U. of Delaware):

    • David B. Benson

      The Budischak et al. paper was both well written and interesting. The best was the suggestion of using excess generation to replace natgas for space heating. I take exception to the economics presented, however. For several reasons the cost of the generators installed in 2030 CE will not be as low as assumed and so rates charged will have to be higher than the estimates in the paper. The figure to beat is US$80/MWh wholesale as the
      SMR will be available and economic at that figure and perhaps somewhat less. So another scenario is nuclear for the 70% of maximum gneration which is always there, baseload, and the so-called renewables plus storage for the remainder. That might prove to be more economic.

      As for Norway, I’m exceedingly dubious. You’ll have to provide a solid reference. But if you want a lot of storage for Europe

      • Thanks for the comment. I hope that you are correct about the nuscale SMR, but frankly, availability remains to be seen.

        The B & W ‘mpower’ SMR is the only one with an early site permit application listed on the NRA site, and development’s apparently going rather slowly due to lack of investor support. (Despite the cute name.)

        B & W slashed development funding by up to 75%, but are said to be hoping to be up and running by the early-to-mid 2020s nevertheless. Meanwhile the site owner–the TVA–is hedging their bets by making it a ‘generic SMR site’ (perhaps thinking that the nuscale reactor may win out over the mpower?)

        If that’s all excessively cryptic, the story is here:

        And here, for a focus on nuscale:

        NuScale is planning to present its design to the NRC next year with a view to obtaining a licence in 2020, after a 39-month review process. All being well, the first module could be delivered to the first customer – Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems – as early as 2023.

        McGough said: “It’s a very expensive barrier to cross and because of that, no company is likely to embark on it without an apparent market and some financial support from the country’s government. We won’t go into a hundreds of millions of dollars licensing process without some assurance that there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There’s no doubt that it’s still a gamble. If you don’t have a $3bn contract in your hand then you’re gambling. But it’s like in hockey – you’ve got to skate towards where you think the puck is going to be.”

        In the meantime, I think we should be cracking on all the solar and wind we can–since we can, and can *right now.*

      • David B. Benson

        Doc Snow — Thanks for the links. I agree with your last sentence.

      • michael sweet

        Dr. Benson,
        According to this reference, Norway has 85 Terra watt hours of power potential stored in their hydro system. That is about half of total European hydro storage. Electricity production of EU 28 was 3100 TWh/yr = 8.5 TWh/d in 2013 link. Peak power is greater. If Norway could use all its storage without the rivers bursting their banks that would be about 10 days of power. Europe gets about 13% of its power from hydro. Installed hydro is about 200 gigawatts. link. That is about half of power currently used per day. Additional peak power could be added to current dams to cover higher demand as needed. Building more big hydro is politically very difficult, but many existing small dams can be electrified.

        The USA does not have as much hydro as Europe so it needs other solutions.

      • David B. Benson

        michael sweet — Thank you. But please remember that the EU 28 are not all of Europe.

  24. A brief excerpt from the first paper I mentioned above:

    “… analogous to projected future changes following the present increase in atmospheric CO2, semiarid regions during the PETM experienced prolonged and intensified drought during the summer seasons, and an increase in the strength and frequency of storm events in the cooler parts of the year.

    This circumstance … led to a dramatic increase in erosion of the vegetation-barren landscape during PETM.

    The purpose of this paper is to test whether there is additional evidence, based on studies in the western Pyrenees, for dramatic and abrupt changes in the hydrological regime during the PETM. The most important new finding is that massive volumes of coarse-grained quartz sands and pebbly sands, and not only fine-grained siliciclastics, were supplied to the Pyrenean Gulf during the thermal event….”

    • Hank, dust-bowl denying has been a bit of a Thing in the recent past, but I expect that in some quarters at least it will become a Very Big Thing, even as the deniers are gasping their last with lungsful of wind-eroded topsoil…