46 thoughts on “Climate change and catastrophe

  1. In the paper I linked to at comment 19, there is a hypothetical graph on page 38 which basically posits that;

    Technological progress is faster than business progress which is faster than social progress which is faster than political progress.

    I find this pretty much accords with what I am seeing. Political progress in contemporary society is glacial and far behind what is becoming possible on the other leading fronts.

    Note: I would probably argue though that social progress is now ahead of business progress. The majority of people have wanted climate action progress for some time but business (read corporate capitalism) closely allied with reactionary politics has obstructed this progress.

  2. I haven’t had time to go through that item, Ike, but at a glance it looks like a very interesting and useful body of information. I am going to stick my neck out here, though, and suggest that the 2 most rapidly adopted technologies in recent times, rivaling even TV’s, are the smart/cell phone and the solar panel.

  3. To a surprising extent, climate policies actually are working, as anyone who holds shares in a coalmining company can tell you.

  4. Ken Fabian,

    The problem with that thinking is that it is extremely short sighted. The coal that Australia has left will be worth 10 times more per year over the next 2 millenia as a building material. Carbon is in the structure of nearly everything that consider to be useful. It is in the plastics and epoxy resins. It is the substance that electronic circuit boards (along with silicon) are made of, our cars of the future will be predominately carbon, carbon, silicon, ceramics, calcium and highly process metals are the building blocks of a technological future, and yet we squander them. There are those Australians who would scrape out every last chunk of carbon today only to enrich themselves if they could. We can’t let that happen. Once dispersed into the atmosphere and subsequently the biosphere, the Carbon will be very expensive to claw back. We need to keep most of it in the ground now for the future of this technological civilisation.

  5. To what extent is coal mining share price a consequence of climate policy? Climate policy may have kick started the renewables cost plunge but I suspect it began as more about appearances than conviction and perhaps supported – or tolerated – in an expectation of failure. Solar as cheap as chip wrappers and batteries to go with it might be credible for achieving emissions reductions at a scale needed but I’m not convince any science based foresight and planning from policy makers, at least from mainstream Australian politics, is capable of much beyond policies that look good but don’t hurt the resources sector. A bit cynical I know.

  6. @Ken Fabian

    We’ve seen large numbers of coal-fired power stations closing down as a result of climate policy in the US, China and Europe, new finance for coal cut off by development banks, projects like Adani blackballed and much more.

    It’s true that Australian governments haven’t exactly led the charge, but the Renewable Energy Target has at least ensured there will be no new coal-fired power stations for the foreseeable future.

  7. There is a lot of detailed information here for recent and imminent retirements of US coal power plants (of about 340,000MW existing, 25,000-60,000MW to be closed).

    Rather than Climate Policy, cheap gas (especially the fracking “boom” – which is a finance Ponzi scheme and environmental disaster) is the more likely main driver.

    People haven’t suddenly stopped using the coal-fired electricity they were using a few years ago. I would suggest that the main reason for the collapse of coal price is the economic collapse happening right now, especially Chinese industry, and finance driven resource speculation and over-production at unsustainable prices.

    Speaking of which:

    JQ – What is the preferred data source or measurement of current and historical per-capita industrial output?

  8. @chrisl
    Not sure what the tower of Babel has to do with this, or anything else.

    Assuming it’s not totally mythical, the tower’s collapse had more to do with a poor understanding of engineering principles than an open-ended budget or an angry deity. After all, if you try to build a mud brick ziggurat with a slope steeper than the slump angle of soil, you’ll end up with a catastrophic failure.

    Come to think of it, that’s not a bad metaphor for the denialists’ efforts. Just substitute bullsh!t for adobe.

  9. Assuming it’s not totally mythical, the tower’s collapse had more to do with a poor understanding of engineering principles than an open-ended budget or an angry deity.

    See, I thought it was about the difficulties of managing complex multi-national civil engineering projects.

  10. @chrisl

    I posted some questions to you at #21.

    As an aside, your interpretation of the myth of Babel isn’t how it appears in the old testament.

    Wikipedia has an entry about it and this is about right:

    The story of the city of Babel is recorded in Genesis 11:1–9. Everyone on earth spoke the same language. As people migrated from the east, they settled in the land of Shinar. People there sought to make bricks and build a city and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for themselves, so that they not be scattered over the world. God came down to look at the city and tower, and remarked that as one people with one language, nothing that they sought would be out of their reach. God went down and confounded their speech, so that they could not understand each other, and scattered them over the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city.

    Apart from the observation that this “god” character is one seriously messed up personality, the original story has nothing to do with the project failing on the basis of completion date, cost or specs. It failed because of malicious interference in the means of communicating information between the parties involved.

    Hey….. just a minute…, there IS a parallel with reducing carbon emissions!

  11. @chrisl
    Well, you brought up the Tower of Babel, although I don’t have any idea what point you were trying to make. Perhaps you could clarify that for us simple, reality-focussed, folk.

  12. They had Barnaby on Q&A the other night. Talk about ignorant. He had the idea that the main reason a Carbon price reduced emissions was because the increase in the price of electricity reduces demand.

    Unfortunately, no-one pointed out to him that the main reason a Carbon price reduces Carbon emissions is because it makes energy production (including electricity) using non-Carbon burning sources more attractive than otherwise, so Carbon emissions fall mainly because of a shift in energy production from Carbon-burning to non-Carbon-burning sources.

    It’s a sad reflection that not only did Barnaby not know this, but no-one on that program pointed out his error. It’s just another case of “Australia is a lucky country run by second rate people who share its luck.” Barnaby is just another one of those second rate people who run the country.

  13. @Chris O’Neill

    Barnaby is second rate? Methinks you praise him mightily beyond his real ability. I’d call him a sixth-rate. That was the lowest rate of vessel in the old British Navy (wood and sail); so on that general analogy he is a sixth-rate. Actually, I don’t think he is worth the un-planked frame of a beached and rotting jolly-boat.

  14. @Newtownian

    At a certain point in warming of a planet water vapour comes to dominate in the upper atmosphere and UV (controlled by the Ozone layer) starts splitting water much faster leading to hydrogen escape at excessive rates triggering a feedback heating loop.

    I think in the case of Venus (also Mars), the water was being lost through UV decomposition and subsequent loss of hydrogen to space all through its history because there was never a significant amount of Ozone compared with Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere. Of course, Earth’s atmosphere only became oxygen-rich in the last billion years so this was only a relatively recent factor in reducing the loss of water from the Earth. So the heating of Venus was probably an important factor in speeding up its rate of hydrogen and thus water loss.

    At the very least there needs to be accelerated work aimed at resolving the runaway greenhouse question or at least improving the risk estimates.

    Regarding “runaway” greenhouse warming, I believe the climate sensitivity increases with increasing oceanic surface temperature and reaches the point of instability or “runaway” somewhere around a water surface temperature of 60C – not something we need to worry about anytime soon, we’ll be in dire straits from the effects of global warming long before that temperature arrives, but something to think about. Even if sensitivity did not increase with temperature, it would only take 10 doublings in CO2 (1,024 times) to reach runaway global warming. A rough calculation assuming climate sensitivity is inversely proportional to the difference between 60C and maximum ocean surface temperature would suggest 6 CO2 doublings (64 times) will take global warming to runaway. So perhaps something over 2% CO2 in our atmosphere would be enough to reach global warming runaway.

  15. @chrisl

    Those building the biblical Tower of Babel, intending to reach heaven, did not know where heaven was and hence when the project would be finished, or at what cost.

    Much like the Liberal Party’s “direct action” scheme for reducing Carbon emissions. Barnaby on Q&A helpfully pointed out that there were no estimates for how much “direct action” would cost taxpayers to reduce Australia’s GHG emissions by 28%.

  16. @Chris O’Neill

    The Skeptical Science site notes;

    “Atmospheric CO2 levels have reached spectacular values in the deep past, possibly topping over 5000 ppm in the late Ordovician around 440 million years ago. However, solar activity also falls as you go further back. In the early Phanerozoic, solar output was about 4% less than current levels.”

    If I have got my decimal places right, 5,000 ppm = 0.5%, which is still way below the danger mark of over 2% CO2 for runaway global warming, if that is a correct figure.

    However, “runaway” change to a new climate state (rather than to a boiling state) can still occur well below this level and might even be possible at current levels of 400 ppm or 0.04% CO2.

    The Holocene (where we are now temporally) is actually an ice-age, hard as this might be to believe. We are simply in an inter-glacial period (glaciers retreating). The last glaciation, the Quaternary, occurred during the last one hundred thousand years of the Pleistocene, from approximately 110,000 to 12,000 years ago. Cultivation and civilization essentially developed and evolved in an ice-age inter-glacial and are thus arguably adapted to it and to the relative general stability of the current Holocene climate. However, current climate forcing from anthropogenic CO2 may well end this ice-age with a rapidity usually reserved for catastrophic events like massive volcanic shield outpourings of CO2.

    It’s not runaway global warming to a boiling planet that we have to fear even in the next several million years. It is runaway climate change (with some warming obviously) to a new climate state. The period of state-change would see massive instability and fluctuations in many climate and weather parameters. The new eventual state, with new ocean currents and new wind and air circulation patterns would throw just about every climate verity we currently rely on, right out the window basically. For example, current monsoons and their reliability could alter profoundly thus affecting the viability of tropical and sub-tropical agriculture for billions.

  17. @Ikonoclast

    However, “runaway” change to a new climate state (rather than to a boiling state) can still occur well below this level

    You can make any definition for “runaway” you like but the usual definition is where the feedback produces a marginal climate sensitivity of infinity. That won’t happen until the ocean surface temperature reaches around 60C. But as I said, we are in dire straits long before that happens. You don’t need runaway global warming to be in a disastrous climatic situation.

    BTW, using the term “runaway” global warming for anything less than the usual definition of runaway global warming simply leaves you wide open to claims of alarmism. Better just to stick to the usual definition.

  18. @Chris O’Neill

    using the term “runaway” global warming for anything less than the usual definition of runaway global warming simply leaves you wide open to claims of alarmism.

    or accusations of alarmism.

  19. @Chris O’Neill

    Actually, I used the full term “runaway climate change”. The sense is “rapid climate change until it reaches a new stable condition”. The term to imply runaway to boiling or at least to some catastrophic and irreversible heat level is “runaway greenhouse effect”. At least, that is how I understand matters.

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