Re: Sometimes, The Ponies Are Real. But That's Not The Way To Bet.

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Yes, betting on the deus ex machina is not the wise course.


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:19 PM
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Right. But if the three options are a) technological energy-ponies turn out to be real, b) western culture suddenly completely reorients itself to a system based on cooperation and economic shrinkage and giving what we have to poor people in Burma, or c) everyone dies... I'd start working on the energy-ponies.


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:21 PM
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Blessed, blessed pacing.

Anyhow, I think one of the bigger problems is the order of magnitude problem; if you tell people pollutant levels are 100,000 times the recommended amount, they'll tune you out. If you tell them they're 100 times the recommended amount, they'll get motivated. Global warming is a problem on such a nigh-unimaginable scale that I think people just retreat into similarly nigh-unimaginable solutions. In that sense, I think tempered techno-optimism -- however unlikely it is to be borne out as the reasonable position -- can help people feel like doing something is worth doing.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:22 PM
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To the post: I was just reading an article in Permaculture Activist that quoted some really impressive numbers on production increases for photo-voltaic cells over the past year, especially the cadmium telluride type.

So, who knows, ponies may be just around the corner.


Posted by: minneapolitan | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:26 PM
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I'll say again that Natural Capitalism is a very good version of the techno-optimist viewpoint from the left.

I don't think the changes it describes are either a complete solution, or a reason to defer action, but they do provide some reason for optimism, and a concrete sense of what it might look like.

The thing that it emphasizes that I found helpful, is that the vast majority of energy and resources aren't consumed by the end user, but are consumed in the process of creating and delivering goods and experiences to the end user, and if that process can be made more efficient their is the potential for tremendous savings without reducing end user consumption.

It's important, because it's far easier to redesign 100 factories, or 10,000 office buildings than it is to get 100,000,000 to buy different cars.


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:27 PM
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Forget the ponies. They don't have the motive power to drag people into the land of change. But might.


Posted by: ari | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:28 PM
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But this might.


Posted by: Ari | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:29 PM
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vast majority of energy

This is an exaggeration. A majority, certainly, depending on definitions, and I believe that the low hanging fruit in efficiency is changing industrial processes rather than more efficient consumer appliances.


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:30 PM
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Technology will probably rule out the ultimate doomsday scenario of total civilizational collapse. One gets the impression this would almost disappoint some hardcore Peak Oil enthusiasts, who talk about the coming collapse with the relish of prophets predicting the Lord's righteous wrath against a wayward people. But the elephant in the room here is nanotechnology, which is almost certain to have a major impact on many sectors of the economy, including energy production, in the next fifteen years. This isn't science fiction, it's just R&D.

The bad news is that you don't need to have total civilizational collapse to have far-reaching economic disasters with nasty social consequences. And there's plenty of potential for that, techno-fix or no.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:32 PM
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15 years for nano to really make a dent in some of this is probably optimistic.

I suspect fundamental issue is that even any plausible technological bump in the near future won't fix the underlying problem of energy driven growth. Any real fix is going to involve people on average using less energy (both personally and in terms of `footprint') but the mindset we have now is that every advance tends to lead to more consumption driving growth and stuff.

It just isn't a model that scales well, and it never will, even if we find the technology ponies. It's going to be a painful process to wake up the the inherent stupidity of this, and turn it round.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:40 PM
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Oh, and 9.last is exactly correct, and the mostly likely scenario as far as I can see.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:40 PM
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I get annoyed with the technology optimism argument when it's used to support not funding technology or conservation. Like 'oh, we'll think of something, haha, silly global warming activists, London isn't filled up with horseshit, you know.'

It's rather like the experience of one of my friends who does school counseling. She lived in an area which would regularly cut funding for programs like hers, and when people found out what she did for a living, they heaped praise upon her: "That sounds so great for the kids. There should be a program like that at all schools."

(PS. I know the review is coming, but how crazy does the eeeeee's keyboard drive you?)


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:41 PM
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15 years for nano to really make a dent in some of this is probably optimistic.

But... but... the flux capacitors! (Memristors.) They are so nanocool, surely they will save us all.


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:43 PM
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8: a third of all US energy usage - oil, gas, and electric - is in buildings. And it's very easy (technologically) to build new buildings in a way that they use vastly less power. The problem is twofold:

Marginal improvements have been deemed "good enough" in this field for 25 years. A LEED platinum building likely as not is using half of the energy of a typical building, because you get to platinum through non-energy measures (which are good an useful on their own, but don't deal with climate change). We need to move farther, sooner.

Existing buildings remain energy hogs. And there's a lot of entrained energy in those buildings - razing and replacing old, uninsulated houses isn't a net energy saver.

Good news, of a fashion, is that a lot of shittily-built (and often ugly and poorly-functioning) commercial buildings from the 1946-1973 era are reaching the ends of their useful lives, and will be replaced with much more efficient (by every measure) new structures.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:43 PM
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I'm reminded of folks who say that Y2K turned out not to be a problem, so it shouldn't have been a concern. The corollary seemes to be that all the effort at checking and changing code could have been skipped. Tech might fix it, but tech isn't magic. Lots of hard work and no guarantees.


Posted by: md 20/400 | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:44 PM
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13: it made me sad when I realized that the nanoscale ones were not actually flux capacitors. I decided that I can still call them that, though, and that makes me happy.

You'll all be happy to know that my KILLER ROBOT is designed to rely on renewable sources of energy.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:44 PM
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The infuriating thing is that since about 1975 environmentalists have been asking for increased investment in renewable energy, and during most of that time they've been sneered at. Now, suddenly, people are acting as though technological advances in renewable energy will make environmentalists look silly.

It's the same way as with population. A concerted, multi-faceted global effort has reduced the birth rate, the the extent that population may stabilize in a few decades. And this is used as evidence against the stupid Chicken Little environmentalists, even though they were the ones calling for the global effort.

If I weren't so lazy I'd be compiled a sequential record of the public statements of people like George Will, William Safire, and David Brooks who always manage to say the most effective wrong thing at exactly the right time, and then when it stops being plausible move smoothly to a new malicious statement that retains some plausibility.

And after that the dunce cap, the ducking stool, and the hog farm.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:45 PM
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You'll all be happy to know that my KILLER ROBOT is designed to rely on renewable sources of energy.

What part of the country are you in? I'm not sure how many people are involved in the small-scale design of KILLER ROBOTS, but we may know some of the same people.


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:47 PM
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You'll all be happy to know that my KILLER ROBOT is designed to rely on renewable sources of energy.

I dunno, Sifu. For some of us, rage is a quickly exhaustable resource. Stras's bot will be unstoppable, and I'm mostly ok with that.


Posted by: Po-Mo Polymath | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:47 PM
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18: oh, I'm working on my own. The fools at the Radio Shack laughed at me, but they'll see. THEY'LL SEE!


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:47 PM
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19: I actually meant solar. But sure, rage, yes, that too.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:48 PM
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"Technology will solve everything, why worry?" is only correct when we actually spend money basic research and development. Otherwise, as is the current situation, it's just magical ponyland.


Posted by: F | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:48 PM
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The rage-fed robots will be a lot more sluggish come January, 2009.

Right?

Right?

Oh god, it's never going to get better, is it?


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:50 PM
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15

"I'm reminded of folks who say that Y2K turned out not to be a problem, so it shouldn't have been a concern. The corollary seemes to be that all the effort at checking and changing code could have been skipped. Tech might fix it, but tech isn't magic. Lots of hard work and no guarantees."

I don't think there is any question that the Y2K dangers were grossly exaggerated and hyped.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:58 PM
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I get annoyed with the technology optimism argument when it's used to support not funding technology or conservation.

Well, yeah, that's just dimwitted or deliberate obstructionism. I'm a techno-optimist, for sure, partly for reasons like in JRoth's 14 (i.e. lots of low-hanging fruit already out there) and just because I think it's had a good track record. However, that just means I have greater support for intervening with proper externality taxes on polluting processes. Basically, even the most delusional of techno-optimists has to acknowledge that some impetus must arise to push people toward a new technology, as it's extremely rare for something to be the most cost-effective deal out there from the get-go. Gotta modify prices, push people and businesses to substitute to new technologies, pushing them further along the learning curve toward subsidyless cost-effectiveness, or conserve. The only alternative is to wait for disaster or severe shortage to cause the same price signal, and then there's much less room for error.


Posted by: Po-Mo Polymath | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:59 PM
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17.1-2 are absolutely right.

The rage-fed robots will be a lot more sluggish come January, 2009.

Bob's robot army will probably be unstoppable.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 12:59 PM
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is only correct when we actually spend money basic research and development.

It isn't ever correct. When you aren't supporting the basic R&D, it isn't even remotely plausible. Even when you are though, it's a long shot.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:00 PM
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I actually meant solar.

Fine, I and my band of merry resistors will turn nocturnal, to avoid the coming robot slaughter.


Posted by: Po-Mo Polymath | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:01 PM
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Bob's robot army will probably be unstoppable.

I've been putting one together powered by apathy. They're slow, but plentiful. We should be ok.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:01 PM
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We do not know who struck first, us or Sifu's machines, but we do know it was Po-Mo who scorched the sky.


Posted by: Morpheus | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:03 PM
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Fine, I and my band of merry memresistors


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:06 PM
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Curses. Not quite.


Posted by: redfoxtailshrub | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:06 PM
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15 Could only have been written by somebody who didn't have to check any code in 1999. I personally made about a hundred mods in non-critical code. Multiply that by how many tens of thousands of programmers? And there's no reason to suppose the critical stuff was any better.


Posted by: OneFatEnglishman | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:11 PM
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33. OFE you misread me, I think. It was the hard work that made Y2K not a problem. It was not the case that Y2K was never a problem—though I have heard that many times afterwards since the machine did not not stop. If there are tech solutions to global warming, I'd expect to hear similar from people 50 years from now saying that global warming wasn't really a problem.


Posted by: md 20/400 | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:23 PM
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9:

I'd live a reference to one of these delighted doomsday prophets you speak of. Near as I can tell that is simply a right-wing denial talking point but I'd love to be proven wrong.

If we are going to hope for deus ex machina let's put our money on finally understanding the exact nature of space and matter and reaching down into the quantum sea and extracting the nearly infinite amounts of energy there.

I'm being sarcastic. Sorry. I know a fair amount about physics and all this wishful thinking reminds me of the cartoon where the professor has a chalkboard filled with all these equations and then at the very end in small print it says "and then a miracle happens."

Energy is different from other things. Creating energy from energy is a losing game. Yes, matter itself holds an incredible amount of energy (E=MC squared and all that) but getting that isn't easy.

To net it out the carrying capacity of the Earth will be about 2 to 3 billion people, near as I can figure. What happens to the other 3 to 4 billion people? Starvation mostly.

In 10 to fifteen years the US will stop exporting food. Sooner if we keep burning it in our cars.

The science fiction of nano-technology always dodges the question of what do these tiny 'robots' use for a power source? Essentially it would take more energy to move atoms around than you could get back out.

Wind and solar will help but we just don't have a good way to store massive amounts of electrical energy. Some new battery technology appears hopeful, at least on a small scale, but will it scale up?


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:24 PM
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In Terminator, Skynet became self-aware in 2005.

I'm basically a technological optimist, believing that development of existing technologies, not unpredictable new insight, coupled with real attention devoted to wasting less will leave people poorer but OK (recreational plane travel very expensive, but hospitals still function).

Playing at chin-stroking prognostication, I think existing technologies will need to be applied to climate, which is scary and could go wrong. Either changing albedo or seeding plankton to sequester co2 are feasible now.

For whatever it's worth, I agree that people will need to be motivated to shift to smaller cars, a less wasteful diet, and crops different from corn. Scaremongering propaganda may be the right way to do it, but I'd really prefer subsidy cuts (viewing the invasion of Iraq as one more subsidy) be exhausted first, and let pricing drive people to virtue.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:24 PM
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If 33 wasn't supposed to be to 24, it should've been.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:27 PM
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Sorry, I'd love to see references, not live to see them.

Global warming will be troublesome but now that we've passed Hubert's peak it will become less so. Unless we are really really stupid and switch to coal in a big way.

If we did invent Mr. Fusion then the next problem in the future is getting rid of the excess heat all that power would provide.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:27 PM
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Innit "Hubbert's Peak"?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:29 PM
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39: It is


Posted by: I don't pay | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:30 PM
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store energy

Paul Ehrlich's tone about the inevitability of serious problems has been pretty bad. Kunstler shades into scolding prophecy, though I'm not sure he's taken seriously, and he's funny and good sometimes.

Fertilizer stores a lot of energy, and higher energy costs couple to food through fertilizer. I haven't done the homework yet to estimate what fraction of ex-vehicle power produced in the US goes to fertilizer. I back-of-enveloped that wind could supply 10% of current US consumption. I think that billions starving is unlikely.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:30 PM
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30: If Sifu's robot army and my human memresistors ever started a global war, Daft Punk would be the world's only diplomatic hope.


Posted by: Po-Mo Polymath | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:31 PM
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If we did invent Mr. Fusion then the next problem in the future is getting rid of the excess heat all that power would provide.

Maybe this is dumb, but my understanding was that the basic chemistry of fusion is energy-productive enough that you don't need to do all that much of it.

IOW, burning coal to spin turbines creates a lot of waste heat now; fusion would create more usable/capturable energy to spin turbines. At worst, I don't see why it should create any more waste heat than coal-burning or fission.

But I'm certainly willing to be told that I'm plug-ignorant on this one.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:31 PM
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34, 37. Yes it was to 24. Sorry.


Posted by: OneFatEnglishman | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:32 PM
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If Sifu's robot army and my human memresistors ever started a global war, Daft Punk would be the world's only diplomatic hope

And McCain probably admitted it a couple of years ago, before he started running as a lunatic.


Posted by: I don't pay | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:33 PM
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It's the same way as with population. A concerted, multi-faceted global effort has reduced the birth rate, the the extent that population may stabilize in a few decades. And this is used as evidence against the stupid Chicken Little environmentalists, even though they were the ones calling for the global effort.

I can't actually find the reference, but I'm pretty sure Gristmill or RealClimate once linked to a denier mocking global warming "alarmism" by pointing out the purported hysteria surrounding CFCs and the ozone layer -- which totally hasn't gone away, you dumb greens! Haw haw haw!


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:34 PM
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I'm a techno-optimist, for sure, partly .... just because I think it's had a good track record.

I really hate that argument. It misses the fact that some of the problems we face are specifically the result of our successes. For example, we have successfully destroyed the Atlantic cod fishery. The fertility of Central Asia was successfully destroyed using modern methods. We are successfully depleting aquifers in the American West. And global warming is the result of the successful exploitation of underground energy resources.

In Russian roulette your luck gets worse every time you win. If you're overcutting timber, your cut can increase every year until the timber is all gone. These analogies are not necessarily or exactly analogous, but they're things that optimists and "track record" gamblers should think about.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:34 PM
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I back-of-enveloped that wind could supply 10% of current US consumption.

I could swear I saw a hed just yesterday that quoted the DOEnergy projecting 20-30% in the next 10-15 years.

If I were a better commenter, I'd go to the DOE and find a link for you.

OK, got it. 20% by 2030. The key, of course, is to make that amount of production be worth 40% of 2030 consumption, without stymying growth.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:35 PM
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"these cases are not necessarily or exactly analogous"

or

"these analogies are not necessarily or exactly correct."

We regret the error.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:35 PM
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lw,

let pricing drive people to virtue.

That has already started. The problem is that in the US our food prices have been at an historically low point so we've got a way to go before we are pinched. In the meantime in places like Indonesia where food is 60% of their budget they have already become, as you say, virtuous.

The starvation has started and people still talk like this is some future problem. The future is now and we are in the lifeboat already. We just don't want to see it and our media obliges.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:36 PM
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41: And on the storing energy front, I've always been curious about some of the non-battery systems that have been mentioned for storage. How about using extra energy to pump water into an elevated reservoir, then release the stored potential energy by letting the downflow power a generator in lulls? I think snarkout's mentioned systems like this in the past, and they certainly seem elegant and intriguing to me. What are the efficiency of massive pumps and generators in terms of the energy return you would get through these sorts of mechanisms?


Posted by: Po-Mo Polymath | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:38 PM
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35: I'd live a reference to one of these delighted doomsday prophets you speak of.

Kunstler's Long Emergency is an example of what I have in mind. It's interesting and often compelling, but is also clearly and almost aggressively uninterested in any notion that solutions might be possible; essentially it's a kind of secular eschatology. I've had conversations with people who take this view, including one guy who claimed with dead seriousness and absolute certainty that the oil crisis would cause all technological progress to halt... right about now, actually. It wasn't about activism or finding solutions for him, it was about people essentially paying for their sins against nature.

Near as I can tell that is simply a right-wing denial talking point

Near as I can tell, the eschatological variant of Peak Oil has very little to do with right or left. Nor does disagreeing with it have anything necessarily to do with denialism.

The actual, non-SF nanotechnology that applies has (I should think it obvious) nothing to do with nifty little robot assemblers, it's about boring, unsexy materials science that's still in its early stages. Of course there are no guarantees.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:40 PM
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If you tell them they're 100 times the recommended amount, they'll get motivated

It seems to me that the idea behind 350.org is getting towards that. Instead of ZOMG WE'RE DOOMED, it's just, "We need to get back to 350 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere. We're at 385 now. We can do this."

Honestly, seeing those numbers after the apocalyptic discussions around here lately lightened my mood a fair bit. It's not that I think it's easy, or anything crazy like that. It's just that it seems manageable, especially given some of the things i know about the possibilities of conservation WRT buildings and vehicles.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:41 PM
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52: I think Tripp was also not around for recent threads on the topic featuring stras.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:42 PM
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I might even have been a technological optimist, if fewer of them were cornucopians, libertarians, transhumanists, and free-market Utopians. And of fewer of them started off by drilling for oil in Alaska and fusion power. And if fewer of them thought that environmentalism is an elite luxury issue. And if fewer of them were affiliated with people who up to recsently have been delaying our response to the issue. And if fewer of them insisted on continued growth in the standard of living as a number one priority, with no consumption reductions whatsoever by anyone.

Even liberal / left economists are untrustworthy on these issues, because economic growth infinitely into the future is a necessity of their system, and they don't believe that there can ever be any physical constraints at all.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:43 PM
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I think snarkout's mentioned systems like this in the past, and they certainly seem elegant and intriguing to me.

The phrase is "pumped-storage hydro"; the other one that people discuss is compressed-air storage. People argue about how good and feasible they are

It's much less sexy than photovoltic stuff, but people seem to be getting plant-scale thermosolar installations to the point where they can be commercially deployed; there's much less of a storage issue, because you can superheat salts that will remain hot enough to drive a boiler throughout the hours of darkness.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:43 PM
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35:

For a doomsday peak oil prophet, try this:

"Civilization as we know it is coming to an end soon. This is not the wacky proclamation of a doomsday cult, apocalypse bible prophecy sect, or conspiracy theory society. Rather, it is the scientific conclusion of the best paid, most widely-respected geologists, physicists, bankers, and investors in the world. These are rational, professional, conservative individuals who are absolutely terrified by a phenomenon known as global "Peak Oil."

http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/

They were on Peak Oil in probably 2003 or 2004; they must be patting themselves on the back these days.


Posted by: Klug | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:44 PM
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We should define some terms.

Electricity means nuclear, hydro, coal, and natural gas. Only hydro is sustainable although I admit the limits for nuclear, coal, and natural gas are farther in the future.

Hubbert's peak (thanks sifu!) is specifically about easy-to-reach cheap-to-extract high-quality sweet crude rock oil. That is the pinch we are currently facing on a global scale. Sure - the US has had a tiny reduction in oil usage recently but more and more India and China matter. Biodiesel and ethanol both consume huge amounts of food and water to create. They are stupid ideas. We drive our FUVs while the some in the world starve.

The runway is gone, the boat is overturned, and we are now in the lifeboat. $4/gallon gas will look like utopia in the future. Electric cars buy us a little time but hasten the demise of natural gas (used for fertilizer - food again) and fission material (mostly uranium.) Breeder reactors create the raw materials for a nuclear bomb - do we want that to proliferate?

There is plenty of coal, but what is left is harder to reach and poorer quality - meaning more polluting.

This ain't a joke.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:45 PM
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Hydro isn't very sustainable, or very expandable.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:47 PM
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I'm generally pessimistic about anyone's seriousness about climate change outside, perhaps, Europe, but I think Tripp isn't right to ignore wind and solar. Given the massive increases in the cost of building greenfield nuclear plants -- which I think we should have been doing for the last fifteen years -- I'd bet that plant-scale renewable comes online faster than nuclear over the next decade, and that's not even assuming a breakthrough like Makani Power's high-altitude wind or some of the current photovoltic research coming to fruition.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:51 PM
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Pebble bed reactors for everyone!


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:51 PM
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virtuous starvation
I was actually thinking of Ruth's Chris steakhouse and cheap burgers. I'm not going to pretend to understand how the global grain market works in detail, but many countries impose price ceilings on domestic food producers, which decreases food supply. Political independence and cheap food are at cross purposes. I don't know if this is a sufficient explanation for what's happening this year.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:52 PM
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But what if we use up too much wind, snark?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:52 PM
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But what if we use up too much wind, snark?

Congress will always be with us, Jetpack. Heyo! Try the fish, folks.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:54 PM
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PoMo Polymath,

What are the efficiency of massive pumps and generators in terms of the energy return you would get through these sorts of mechanisms?

Back of the envelope, probably around 50%.

But who here has actually been in an electrical power plant? I have, just a few months ago. I encourage it so you can see and hear and FEEL the massive amounts of energy running it 24X7X365. If you are pumping water into a reservoir it would have to be huge, not just a water tower. The same with a compressed air tank or cavern. It would also need to be local since there is no efficient way to store large quantities of electricity.

Ah - but make it distributed - forget about a central plant. There are some good points about that plan but where it really falls apart is the scalability. Each house would need a big cavern or city sized water tower to use. It is not feasible. Some could do it, but not many, and what about city dwellers?


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:54 PM
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it's about boring, unsexy materials science that's still in its early stages.

Heh, I had a long interesting talk with an ex-girlfriend's father about this 3 years ago. He's a Shanghaiese businessman and was setting up a factory to produce quantum dots at the time, looking in particular toward uses in improving photovoltaic cell efficiency. I need to ask her how that's going.

47 brings up very reasonable points. I'd argue that a lot of those problems from previous technology leaps were because of semi-predictable externalities or commons tragedies associated with the new technologies. They weren't addressed or priced in the beginning, because we were so focused on the immediate problems of how to get more food or how to power our new technology that we forgot to contemplate the problems that could arise as those new solutions became massive industries effecting global change.

We're hitting a new crisis now, as people worry especially about carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, and we're in danger of implementing yet more immediate solutions without contemplating the longer-term damage. I think this is where people like Stras have things right, when they at least bring up the other issues such as water scarcity and ecological impact which are not widely-acknowledged as emergencies at the moment, but should be very carefully considered as we price and implement new technologies to solve the current crisis.

Hydroelectric power is the obvious non-fossil-fuel power source with drawbacks in need of consideration, as are most biofuels. I would be interested to see if anyone has worked on potential negative externalities for wind, solar, and geothermal, which currently look like the lowest-impact potential technologies.


Posted by: Po-Mo Polymath | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 1:58 PM
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DOE 20%

Cool, thanks for the link.

I figured half the plains states could be covered with windmills, nothing on expensive land, hills, or in water.
There's more wind at hilltops, but build+maintain there is more expensive. If you get to deploy national guardsmen domestically to build economically in water or to maintain scenic mountaintops now with windmills, much more is possible.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:00 PM
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65: True, I hadn't done the calculations to work out what kind of volume of water would be necessary to generate the sort of energy used by a house or a neighborhood in a night. That alone could be the serious limiter, and it sounds like it is.

Energy density is a bitch, eh?


Posted by: Po-Mo Polymath | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:00 PM
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snarkout,

Current nuclear means uranium which is running out, with maybe 50 years left at the current usage. Breeder reactors are feasible but create nuclear bomb material and if you think we need to worry about terrorists now . . .

I don't really care if people believe me. It doesn't really matter, because there really is nothing we can do about it other than try to share our wealth which never happens in a life boat.

This has been coming ever since the US hit it's peak in 1973 but until it happens no one takes it seriously. Who in America even knows that the US was once an oil exporter? If it wasn't for the Beverly Hillbillies people would have no idea there were ever oil wells at all in America.

Sigh. And yes, I know, they are reopening some of them and sucking the dregs from them but the point is that will not be nearly enough.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:00 PM
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Pumped-storage hydro is used with reservoirs, like this guy. I don't think it would possibly scale down to use for individual buildings.

The geothermal name I know is Ormat, but I don't actually know anything about what their technology consists of (or even if they're just an engineering firm with expertise in building geothermal plants). One of the many downsides of just being an interested layperson rather than an engineer.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:00 PM
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51 56

Pumped hydro seems to be a reasonably mature technology with many operating installations. About 70-85% of the stored electrical energy is recovered. There are also issues with capital costs and suitable sites.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:01 PM
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"it's about boring, unsexy materials science that's still in its early stages."

I'd disagree with the unsexy characterization; seems to me it's just about the sexiest physical science field out there. I was trying to get my 16-yr-old sister to think about materials science the other day.

The underfunding of NSF at the same time that NIH has been relatively well funded is yet another way that the Boomer health has been placed in front of the needs of the children. /sarcasm


Posted by: Klug | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:04 PM
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59

"Hydro isn't very sustainable, or very expandable."

Expandable I'll grant but why isn't hydro sustainable?


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:06 PM
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Sometimes the doomsday people themselves are to blame, but a lot of times the debunkers zero in on the stupidest scenarios because they're easiest to refute.

I never have really expected the extermination of human life or the collapse of civilization. What I would expect to see would be a collapse of large areas into the worst third world misery, people falling from the middle class to the working class and from the working class to destitution, a general cultural and economic impoverishment for most people, and a return to a highly stratified society.

The rich will be as rich as they are now, with more servants. The middle class will be much, much smaller.

It wouldn't take an enormous economic downturn to produce all that.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:07 PM
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Pumped-storage hydro is used with reservoirs, like this guy. I don't think it would possibly scale down to use for individual buildings.

Pretty much the same problem with bio-diesel. We all can't possibly run our cars off the waste from Chinese restaurants, and last I checked soybean oil was $10/gallon and corn oil was $12/gallon.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:08 PM
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why isn't hydro sustainable?

I assume in the sense that it wrecks the landscape. Three Gorges is a technological solution in the same sense as Emerson's examples up above.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:09 PM
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I'd disagree with the unsexy characterization

Word.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:10 PM
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74: I'd say all of that is already in process, and will get a good deal worse before (and if) any real solutions are found. I mean, the current food crisis is in part due to genius decisions like "we don't need a North American grain reserve," but there's a reason mistakes like that are now in a position to have catastrophic effects. As the peak progresses the margins for error get narrower.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:12 PM
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last I checked soybean oil was $10/gallon and corn oil was $12/gallon.

Sunflower oil and canola oil are on the order of 10X as productive/acre as corn and soy. Further, they are phytoremediating plants, meaning ideal for brownfields; indeed, they are optimal as an intermediate step in making brownfields suitable for agricultural use, something that, in an era of food scarcity and urban farming, is inestimably useful.

I sometimes suspect that the bad rep that ethanol and soydiesel deservedly have gotten has blinded people to the potential benefits of other biodiesel sources. But I don't know for sure.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:12 PM
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77: The second set of pictures is kind of creepy; they look like something a Borg queen would wear/use.


Posted by: Klug | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:13 PM
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I'd disagree with the unsexy characterization; seems to me it's just about the sexiest

Well sure, but I mean, by comparison with little super-robots.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:13 PM
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I imagine the Bushes of the future restoring and racing classic SUVs while smoking big cigars on the way to the last surviving Ruths Chris steakhouse. Behind the steakhouse will be a whorehouse stocked entirely with college-graduate girls from old colonial families. They will careen heedlessly through the streets, occasionally greasing their wheels with the blood of an unwary plebian pedestrian.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:13 PM
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77: You know, it's only a matter of time before she gets a restraining order against this blog.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:13 PM
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82: Well, as long as you're not proposing stupid, easily-refuted scenarios....


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:15 PM
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Hydro power diminishes as reservoirs silt up. I don't know how fast that happens.

I am not absolutely sure that the Aswan dam was a net disaster, but it might have been. Predictable floods were a productive part of the Egyptian ecosystem. (Egyptian mythology is supposedly weird, since water there doesn't come from the sky, but from upstream.)


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:16 PM
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John Emerson,

Bingo! In many ways we are returning to the gilded age but with Xboxes.

One big transition problem is what will happen to all the people who used to own small plots of land and who survived by subsistence farming. They were displaced and run off their land by corporations and globalization and are trying to migrate to the cities and the 'rich' countries for work but we're building a wall now and Blackwater is building big detention centers along the wall and I wonder why?

Will the corporations give the land back to the people so they can survive? I know what I think.

But Republican market-worshippers just love it when they shove people off the land so we can have lower prices here and then use the military to keep the people from going where they can earn a living.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:17 PM
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67:
I figured half the plains states could be covered with windmills, nothing on expensive land, hills, or in water.

This would destroy Elgin property values. No go. Houses in Elgin are important to the Unfoggetariat.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:18 PM
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79. Let's cut the PC. It's rape oil! Rape oil! Rape oil!

There's a lovely field of golden rape not 200 yards from my house.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:21 PM
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82+86 are like a modern rewrite of Juvenal's 2nd satire, which goes on about the economic woes facing virtuous Romans, which lead to the best hookers preferring upstarts. Can either of you manage sestinas?

I've got to do something now.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:22 PM
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82: The Bushes, not the ladies. The ladies might ride along with the Bushes as they careen through the streets.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:25 PM
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John,

This would destroy Elgin property values.

Is that Elgin IL or MN? I'm familiar with both. Grew up near the IL one and live near the MN one.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:27 PM
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The following is rather trite in some sense, but would people here agree that a total "solution" (avoiding "final solution") should involve all of the following elements (the reduction will most likely come, humane or not). If not which would you disgree with?

Gradual and humane reduction of the size of the human population, limiting of wasteful per capita consumption among the rich to allow room for increased consumption by the poor, use of more environmentally benign technologies and increased equity among and within nations will all be required.

BTW, for perspective, since the "Bottled Up" thread last week, the population of the World has increased (not just number of babies) by about the number of residents in the Austin Metro Area (~1.5 million).


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:28 PM
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Elgin, ND, a pheasant hunter's paradise. It is the Waco to John's David Koresh.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:29 PM
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Elgin ND eh? Nice to see it is a progressive community.

But the website - John - if all my intellect weren't owned by Globalcorp I'd love to get in there and clean things out.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:36 PM
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Pausing at comment 50 up there to remark, despite the fact that I really should be up to date on threads first, that I'm glad to meet Tripp.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:37 PM
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Tripp missed out entirely on the Elgin real estate threads. Tripp, in Elgin you can buy a 2-bedroom house for $7,000. An apartment in Manhattan costs you that much in three months.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:40 PM
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96: Or two months, or one.


Posted by: Flippanter | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:48 PM
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Expandable I'll grant but why isn't hydro sustainable?

Well, I could be confused here but my take-away from people who know something about the industry is that the main problem is silting, which will reduce the effectiveness of all the extant sites now, and may not be economically reversible (on short time scales). In other words, somewhat counterintuitively hydroelectric dams sites have an expected lifetime. That, plus the fact that we're using pretty much all the good ones already is a problem....


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:48 PM
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92 is a reasonable statement of some necessary (and not sufficient) conditions.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:51 PM
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Kobe can power Elgin, ND all by himself.


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:52 PM
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I'm glad to meet Tripp.

Tripp is good people. Though that comment made me realize that my sense of Unfoggedtime (as regards who arrived/left/returned when and such) is mostly non-functional. How long ago was Matt Weiner's last comment here?


Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 2:57 PM
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I had the chance to go to a fascinating conference on geoengineering recently. It was a weird, but appropriate, mix of optimism and doomsaying. The most intriguing idea involved actually making the oceans more alkali to force them to take up more CO2 from the air; it's the only thing I've heard proposed that would solve not only the average temperature problem but also the ocean acidification problem.

The thing that I find many people just don't get -- both people I talk to in real life and imaginary internet folks -- is that cutting emissions is not nearly enough. Even if we stopped emissions tomorrow, completely, we would still have a problem (a relatively mild one, granted). If we slowly reduce emissions over the next few decades, we still have a problem. The longer we wait to start cutting emissions, the more severe the problem gets, even if you pin your hopes on magical emissions-free technology arriving in 2040. And even if we did have a miracle, like cheap working fusion energy, it would still take fantastic amounts of time and money to replace our entire energy infrastructure with it. Waiting to act is incredibly stupid.

The weird thing about techno-optimism is that it's so often about how great future technology can be, at the cost of not wanting to do everything we can with current technology. Even brilliant people have very weird ideas about this sort of thing (I'm looking at you, Freeman Dyson!).


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 3:12 PM
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How long ago was Matt Weiner's last comment here?

Not all that long ago, but he stopped being regular at least a year ago.

But he'll be back. They aaalllll come back.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 3:13 PM
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As I was at least one advocate of techno-optimism on the past thread (and having thought about it a bit more since then) let me offer the following:

1. If there's a 1% risk of world destruction -- holy crap! Then you'd want to scramble the jets. But so far it doesn't seem like the scientific consensus supports that -- this is the single area I'm most interested in new information about.
2. With this stipulated, the intellectual action on global warming, as I see it, is making the argument that anti-global warming measure X is cost effective without pricing in a high risk of world destruction.
3. We should of course do all the 'free lunch' measures. There may be a great many of these, for all I know.
4. That said, substantial reduction in carbon emissions does not seem to be a free lunch with respect to economic growth. Since economic growth is definitely a good (and creates an all-purpose resource for disaster alleviation) we really do need understand the growth carbon trade off to know what the right thing is to do. You would hate to sacrifice a lot of growth to get a minimal gain in alleviating global warming.
5. Techno-optimism is a bit of a side-show to this argument. It's never an adequate response to any current problem to say "imagine a technology that could fix this." However, given the progress of science, it's not crazy to think that a 100 years of technological advance and wealth creation will give us lots of options. 3% growth vs. 2% growth will be a lot more options. (of course, 2% vs. 3% growth in badness will also be a lot more badness). It's likewise not crazy to deploy techno optimism against straight-line projections of any form.
6. Thus, assuming there are no obvious tipping points into catastrophe (as per 1) you can see a kind of consensus techno-optimist view which would offer a) the big risk is catastrophe via mechanism we don't understand, so let's do directed investment in generalized anti-catastrophe technology (carbon traps, albedo increasers, whatever), b) do the free lunch conservation stuff, c) only do the other conservation stuff it's sufficient bang-for-the-buck.
7. I don't think any of these points get you to a summer gas tax holiday, but give me time!


Posted by: baa | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 3:23 PM
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As I said, I would be an optimist about this these things given a completely different American and world political system, a completely different American, and completely different Americans. But even the Democrats aren't that good.

We aren't the only villains, but we're the straw that stirs the drink, and we're effectively the main opposition force to any progress on dealing with the problem.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 3:30 PM
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I'm currently working in fusion energy research, research which has been regrettably delayed due to my reading this thread. Anyway, a couple of points on fusion:
(1) the International Thermonuclear Energy Reactor will be online by 2010 and will most likely produce net energy output (physic Q ~10, for the geeks out there). It will move the ball forward quite a bit for fusion, though it is not IMO on the direct path to a viable energy plant due to inherent limitations of the tokamak confinement scheme. Fusion power based on magnetic confinement is probably roughly 30 years away. For real this time. Stop laughing.
(2) there are a number of privately funded fusion efforts out there, some of which are not batshit crazy. The possibility of a major breakthrough from one of these efforts is very real.
(3) a promising intermediate application for fusion is the fission-fusion hybrid, in which the neutrons from fusion are used to drive a fission reaction. Using f-f hybrids to burn waste from conventional fission reactors is a real possibility since the fusion side doesn't need to produce net energy.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 3:34 PM
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104: assuming there are no obvious tipping points into catastrophe

How "obvious" should they have to be? The point is really that we just don't know. The IPCC projections are almost always understating the feedbacks, sometimes dramatically. So far, consistently, our growth in emissions has outstripped even "worst-case" estimates, and feedbacks (Arctic ice loss, loss of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, permafrost melting, ...) seem to continually prove to be more severe than expected. "Albedo increasers" are a potential emergency stop-gap, and certainly can lower average global temperatures, but probably won't give us fine control (does that low average come at the cost of freezing some places and cooking others? of increasing severity of storms? of... well, all sorts of things -- we really just don't know). It's the nature of the problem of feedbacks that there is high uncertainty, and that the tails on that distribution always skew toward the dangerous end.

By any reasonable measure, the safe thing to do is cut emissions. So maybe we lose a small amount of economic growth -- all reasonable estimates are that it doesn't hurt much. And the costs of not doing so are inestimably high.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 3:35 PM
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Um. Tech is moving forward much faster than most people think. There was a major breakthrough in Li-ion battery tech recently, and solar cell prices continue to drop while efficiency increases. Wind and tidal power are not even close to being fully exploited.

Massive gains are also possible in efficiency.

And that's setting aside grand slam tech like fusion, if it can be made to work...


Posted by: Adam | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 3:37 PM
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108: There was a major breakthrough in Li-ion battery tech recently, and solar cell prices continue to drop while efficiency increases. Wind and tidal power are not even close to being fully exploited.

Yes! But that's exactly what a lot of the "techno-optimists" don't want to happen; they're always opposed to current regulations and subsidies that can force these things to be adopted faster, instead relying on visions of some utopian future where we all have fusion power and hydrogen cars. We need government intervention (precisely which form can be debated, but some form) to drive the markets to adopt these things more quickly.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 3:41 PM
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I'm currently working in fusion energy research

Rock on! Is it true that the move now is into wacky, non-standard magnet lay-outs: like baseball seams and what not?

all reasonable estimates are that it doesn't hurt much

This is not my understanding. Aren't the estimates of Kyoto's costs fairly large? If you've got info on this, please share -- I can't say I'm very informed about this area. If it's cheap, I am all for free lunches, and highly supportive of cheap lunches. But I think we need more than "it's always worse than the IPCC says" before we signed on to any measures that lower growth a lot.


Posted by: baa | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 3:42 PM
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We should of course do all the 'free lunch' measures. There may be a great many of these, for all I know.

Not to be partisan on this, but the ideological opposition to acknowledging climate change is what keeps us from achieving the 'free lunch' measures. In a minor but egregious example, when the Rs put the "Hummer tax cut" (in either a war or a stimulus bill, IIRC), it was purely an FU to environmentalists. A childish act with no real world benefits to anyone* that nonetheless made things a little bit worse.

Just the other day some Conservative Union guy was on NPR saying that McCain's climate change stance (which is inadequate to stop, let alone reverse, the problem) is unacceptable to his people. On this issue, it's not Rs and Dems debating how best to deal with the Soviet Union. It's one side of the debate denying the existence of the Soviet Union. And vowing to make stands on that point.

* I really don't accept that saving a rich person a marginal thousand dollars qualifies as a benefit


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 3:54 PM
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(not habitat destruction)

Ha ha. Ha ha.

Solar and wind, of course, will still take up a significant amount of resources, in terms of both habitat and basic material - those solar cells and wind turbines aren't made of nothing, you know - and they can't supply energy at the rates that fossil fuels do. Unless we're going to clear half the planet to turn into solar energy farms, which will only get us and our environment fucked by a slightly different route, we need to actually dramatically reduce our energy consumption, not just swap out fossil fuels for non-fossil fuels and imagine we've magically solved the problem.


Posted by: strasmangelo jones | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 3:54 PM
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And I should point out that some of these "magical pony" techno-fixes being proposed come with potentially catastrophic side effects. Various proposed means of carbon sequestration and geoengineering, for example, could have the effect of massively fucking up the climate even worse, or possibly sterilizing large portions of the ocean.


Posted by: strasmangelo jones | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 3:58 PM
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Tech is moving forward much faster than most people think.

Tech is moving forward very quickly. It isn't moving forward remotely quickly enough to deal with the fundamental problems of resource use & climate change. It isn't even close. Both of these problems are hard to quantify, but the optimistic but sensible scenarios (as opposed to the thumbs in ears, la-la-la-i-can't-hear-you scenarios) are all beyond our technological capabilities to deal with today.

We're starting to see some real improvements in batteries after 60 years of trying hard, but they're not that impressive on that time scale. Your quite right that wind and solar are underutilized, but it doesn't matter. Even given really optimistic estimates of efficiency gains, production gains and uptake, they aren't going to turn the ship around. Fundamentally we use too much energy, and it's going to bite us on the ass in the shorter rather than longer term. This isn't a question. The question is how long is the transition, and how painful.

Using all of the tech we currently understand (or near-future will nail down) to a degree that is frankly politically implausible won't solve the problem. The absolute best we can hope for is that it will slow things down long enough for new discoveries to be made before we hit anything to painful.

That's it. That's best case. And along the way, we'll make sure that at much of the rough ride as possible is experienced by other people. That's nothing new though.

The real bugger about this is that baa is right to a certain degree, that growth helps. Or rather, growth is part of the problem, but stagnation or shrinking economies are likely to slow down the very sectors that are most likely to help technologically. Delicate balance, but any sane plan is going to involve some pain. For minimal starters, give up on crazy cheap food, and some of the stupider side of the consumptive society (from an energy p.o.v).

And as always, the most blue-sky technological predictions are going to get very muddy when they hit real politics.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 3:59 PM
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baa, re 104, I think Emerson in 55.2 has your number. Your instinctive bias is pro-growth (mine, too !), but that bias leads you to some unexamined assumptions, some of which you correctly identify, but fail to justify.


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:00 PM
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Serious if possibly dumb question: If I'm not mistaken, big solar arrays raise local temps; does this have any macro impact.

I'm thinking of it b/c it seems to me that a solar panel is the opposite of high albedo.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:02 PM
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I would like to say fuck a bunch of American car companies. Rather than try to produce cars someone might actually want to buy, they got their light truck exemption and exploited the hell out of it. In addition to causing serious environmental harm, they have now screwed themselves so badly that the rest of us will have to bail them out.


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:03 PM
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117: Screw 'em. Protect the workers, tell the companies to bite it.


Posted by: Klug | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:05 PM
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so badly that the rest of us will have to bail them out.

Why? Plenty of industry here is dead in the face of non-competition with foreign companies, why treat car companies specially? It's not like Detriot is going to get much deader.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:05 PM
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118: right.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:06 PM
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106

"... Fusion power based on magnetic confinement is probably roughly 30 years away. ..."

If you mean commercially viable fusion power I doubt it. As you say tokamak designs do not appear commercially viable but what else is there?


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:11 PM
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Serious if possibly dumb question: If I'm not mistaken, big solar arrays raise local temps; does this have any macro impact.

I haven't seen a good answer to this, either. Solar panels don't reflect much light, but they do turn a bunch of what hits them to electricity, which mitigates local heat generation. You might be able to play some games with fancy coatings to reflect the lower wavelengths that don't generate electrons and thus cool stuff down at night...


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:12 PM
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Aren't the estimates of Kyoto's costs fairly large? If you've got info on this, please share -- I can't say I'm very informed about this area.

There's some good stuff at this McKinsey & Co. site, e.g. in this PDF file. A lot of cost savings from efficiency make a big difference. Maybe the Stern Review is also worth reading? I distinctly remember reading something that concluded that the cost of significant reductions over something like a 20-year time scale is essentially a one-year delay in economic growth. I can't remember where; I'll try to dig it up later.

At any rate, it's important to think about the costs in both cases; it doesn't make sense to ask about the economic cost of cutting emissions while pretending that there is no cost to not cutting them. That's very short-term thinking; the long-term costs of inaction are huge. (See e.g. here.) The most recent IPCC reports have discussion of costs, also.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:12 PM
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It isn't moving forward remotely quickly enough to deal with the fundamental problems of resource use & climate change. It isn't even close. Both of these problems are hard to quantify, but the optimistic but sensible scenarios (as opposed to the thumbs in ears, la-la-la-i-can't-hear-you scenarios) are all beyond our technological capabilities to deal with today.

Soup, this is an area where I am, quite honestly, seeking more information. So I say in a real spirit of wanting to know more: can you provide a evidence here? For example, what are the fundamental problems of resource use we can't deal with?


Posted by: baa | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:13 PM
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Thanks Essear


Posted by: baa | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:17 PM
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Screw 'em. Protect the workers, tell the companies to bite it.

Great soundbite. What does it mean?


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:19 PM
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126: When GM or Ford go to Congress for money or tax breaks, say no.


Posted by: Klug | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:31 PM
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those solar cells and wind turbines aren't made of nothing, you know - and they can't supply energy at the rates that fossil fuels do. Unless we're going to clear half the planet to turn into solar energy farms

With conversion rates past 40 percent, it's not going to take anything remotely near that kind of area.


Posted by: gswift | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:32 PM
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baa @110 - Wacky coils will always be with us. Try a Google image search for "wendelstein 7-X" for some examples.

JBS @121 - Tokamak results can help push forward other concepts, which is where the real promise lies. If I had to guess, I'd say the first magnetic confinement reactor would be something like a Tokamak with the center stack replaced by current carrying plasma, and some combination of RF and rotating magnetic field current drive. My area is magneto-inertial fusion, so don't take me too seriously on this, but there is room for the Tokamak to evolve into something less sucky, IMO.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:40 PM
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baa @110 - Wacky coils will always be with us. Try a Google image search for "wendelstein 7-X" for some examples.

JBS @121 - Tokamak results can help push forward other concepts, which is where the real promise lies. If I had to guess, I'd say the first magnetic confinement reactor would be something like a Tokamak with the center stack replaced by current carrying plasma, and some combination of RF and rotating magnetic field current drive. My area is magneto-inertial fusion, so don't take me too seriously on this, but there is room for the Tokamak to evolve into something less sucky, IMO.


Posted by: togolosh | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:40 PM
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124: The fundamental problem is that we use far more of almost everything that we can sustainably, then hold up the resulting life-style and economy to the rest of the world as example. Which much of it is busily trying to emulate. The problem is, it just isn't possible. The US economy particularly, as currently realized, simply isn't workable without a large chunk of the rest of the world in a `developing' economy. This is all obvious stuff, I'm sure.

Problem is, people are watching, and unless some viable alternative is presented, they're going to charge up the same path we went down, as far as they can. And there are a lot of them. Absent a new model, that's what will happen. And we don't have a new model. We don't even show convincing signs of giving up on the old one.

The thing that makes this all somewhat counterintuitive is the effect of population growth. World population has pretty much always grown to match the carrying capacity of the worlds food system, module local ripples. But the worlds current food system is unsustainable. It's dependent on fossils that are running out, and while it's very hard to predict exactly when they'll really run out, it's easy to see that rate of depletion is increasing at a scary rate. The situation is almost as bad with water. In the form of fossil fuels and aquifers, we have an enormous energy and water sink that we've been depleting at an increasing rate for near 100 years now. We're not replenishing these sinks, and both our economy and food production is highly dependent on this negative sum accounting.

This stuff all looks a lot scarier if you're living in SE Asia, say, than in North America, but it isn't going to be pretty here. There is every reason to believe our food production capability, after 30 years of growth, will level off and even fall soon. More domestic demand (biodiesal/ethanol) will reduce exports which hurts more elsewhere (read about food riots this year in the caribbean etc.) but will hurt economically here. Couple that with increasingly volatile and expensive resource markets for stuff we absolutely need (oil, primarily) and things get rocky here.

So when I can `can't technologically deal with', I mean in the absence of completely unlikely things. If a) world population trends reversed, rather than just slowing b) we sharply reduce fossil use everywhere by truly radical amounts (say 1/2, or more). Then I think maybe we can technologically deal with water use problems, overfishing, lower intensity agriculture and keep yields up. Maybe. And that's just food supply issues assuming little problem from climate. The technology we have now hasn't even done a particularly good job of taming the rate of increase of use of finite and dwindling resources. Even if we got very serious about implementing what we know how to do now, we'd be lucky to shut down the increase. And that isn't enough. We need real reduction in use, period.

I don't find either a) or b) politically plausible alone, let alone together.

So if we don't see a change like that, what happens? The whole machine keeps cranking until something breaks. Which is pretty miserable. There are other solutions to the oversupply of people/undersupply of resources (two sides of a coin) but a lot of them don't bear thinking about much.

I'll try digging you up some real numbers later, but everything I've read about this over the last few years supports the above interpretation, sad to say.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:40 PM
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There is every reason to believe our food production capability, after 30 years of growth, will level off and even fall soon. More domestic demand (biodiesal/ethanol) will reduce exports which hurts more elsewhere (read about food riots this year in the caribbean etc.) but will hurt economically here.

But hasn't the acreage of farmed land been steadily decreasing across the US for decades? It certainly has in non-Plains states like PA and OH. Talking about CA gets into water usage issues, but an Orange County that grows oranges is a living memory.

I'm not trying to wave away the problem, but it seems to me that statements like the above don't take into account land usage at all. Furthermore, permanently high energy prices will inevitably vacate much of the exurban development that has replaced farm fields. It's actually a virtuous circle, as far as it goes.

Also, since no one disputed it the last time I said it, I'll say it again: biofuels do not need to supplant food crops. An economy that includes brownfield oilseed crops*, semi-intensive urban/suburban gardening, maximized farmland, and, yes, reduced meat consumption is not one that finds constraints where they're outlined above.

I guess what I'm objecting to is the idea that we can make big changes without changing anything. I can imagine a very different-looking America in 10 years that gets us pretty far along towards where we need to be. I don't know if it's politically possible, but I think it's conceptually feasible.

But I'm optimistic by nature.

* As a supplement, I might add - I don't think biodiesel will replace petrodiesel, but it can stretch remaining supplies, particularly in a more fuel-efficient, rail-reliant world.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:54 PM
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It's not encouraging when the optimistic word is that fusion will most likely produce net energy output.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 4:58 PM
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But hasn't the acreage of farmed land been steadily decreasing across the US for decades?

Largely because of corn production, largely because of fossil fuel feedstock. Our shift to industrial agriculture is predicated on a lot of fossils.

I can imagine a very different-looking America in 10 years that gets us pretty far along towards where we need to be. I don't know if it's politically possible, but I think it's conceptually feasible.

I don't disagree with this. I think politically it won't work, but fundamentally there is a lot that can be done in theory with a sparsely populated country. Assuming little population growth, economy slowing but not stalling, totally different consumption patterns, and a fundamental shift in agricultural and housing patterns, I can see working in the US with mostly existent technologies. Actually getting in a clean way there isn't politically plausible to me, but the existance of such a state --- assuming things don't get too bad elsewhere.

But it doesn't help, because there are another 6 billion people, most of whom can't make that transition even in theory.

And I think the oil crunch is going to be a lot worse than many people think.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 5:07 PM
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134: But it doesn't help, because there are another 6 billion people, most of whom can't make that transition even in theory.

Yes, as my daughter succinctly put it this week: "None of the people arguing about it on the Internert are the ones who are about to start dying from it." I do think that progress will be made on all fronts, even consumption here in the US (although that will be fought tooth and nail), but am not sanguine that we can avoid very large, unmanged disruptions in the near future. While this thread has been open the world population grew by enough people to fill Dodger Stadium.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 5:37 PM
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129

"Tokamak results can help push forward other concepts, which is where the real promise lies. If I had to guess, I'd say the first magnetic confinement reactor would be something like a Tokamak with the center stack replaced by current carrying plasma, and some combination of RF and rotating magnetic field current drive. My area is magneto-inertial fusion, so don't take me too seriously on this, but there is room for the Tokamak to evolve into something less sucky, IMO."

Maybe, but it is my understanding that when you look at what a viable commercial power plant would actually require there are numerous unsolved problems and no particular reason to think they can be solved at all much less in 30 years.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 5:44 PM
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When GM or Ford go to Congress for money or tax breaks, say no.

OK. GM says "Hey, we can't meet our pension obligations out of current cashflow and no one will loan us any more money. We're filing Chapter 11; shareholders get nothing, lenders get 50 cents on the dollar, pensions are now the PGBCs problem, no more job bank, those of you that had jobs making SUVs don't have them any more." Is Congress going to sit and let that happen, or are they going to give GM money?


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 5:44 PM
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137: I don't know, but I wouldn't. Congress as it is now? They'd probably go for some, but not a lot.


Posted by: Klug | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 6:56 PM
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"A poll by the American Museum of Natural History finds that 7 in 10 biologists believe that mass extinction poses a colossal threat to human existence, a more serious environmental problem than even its contributor, global warming, and that the dangers of mass extinction are woefully underestimated by most everyone outside of science."

http://plumer.blogspot.com/2007_04_01_archive.html#7321631189377929193


Posted by: David Weman | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 7:48 PM
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139: nice link. The example of bees is a good one; at least people can understand why this hurts agriculture. Since some people will never accept that we should try to preserve species for their own sake, I think we need a careful accounting of all the services the world's ecosystems provide for us. There should be a cost associated to destroying these things, and people should have to pay. But I have no idea how this can be accomplished. (When I think too much about realistic policy options, I just get confused and depressed.) Anyone know of feasible proposals for averting these disasters? (Doing something about climate change seems to be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to prevent mass extinctions.)


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 8:43 PM
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I was just checking the local forecast on weat/her./om and saw they're running a poll about global warming. Partial result: "I'm not convinced it's true - 38.8%"

In the old days the usual reaction to a spike in gas prices was to demand a Manhattan Project to reduce our dependence on oil. Now the reaction is to demand a tax holiday.

Think about that for a moment: it's the triumph of ignorance and selfishness. Whatever the problem, the answer is a tax cut. It's also a lovely metaphor, along the lines of 'the answer to terrorism is to go shopping.' Gas prices too high? Take a holiday!

I know it doesn't make any sense, but that's the American electorate these days. We're firm believers, with true faith in nonsense. That 38.8% figure is highly doubtful, but it's right in line with the whopping number of Americans who say they don't believe in evolution.

There was a brief time, in the 60s and 70s, when there was widespread belief in science and knowledge and the environment. We got cleaner water and cleaner air and a bunch of other good things. But since 1980, and the election of Ronald Reagan, the movement has all gone the wrong way. Now, instead of saying "hey, we can put a man on the moon, surely we can solve the oil crisis" people are instead saying "hey, we can't even save New Orleans from a hurricane we saw coming years in advance - there must not be any environmental problems."

Private enterprise has produced some technological breakthroughs - e.g. fire and the wheel - but the incentives are all wrong for basic research. Innovative R&D has, to a great extent, gone the way of the Superconducting Supercollider.

So there may be technological ponies hiding out there, but the odds are that they'll die of pollution or habitat destruction or Dick Cheney will shoot them.


Posted by: Michael H Schneider | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 8:54 PM
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gone the way of the Superconducting Supercollider.

It's all moved to Switzerland? Sweet!


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 9:22 PM
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Except that a (Slim) majority was against a cut in the gas tax.

People might have different priorities than cutting taxes, they might be swayed by other appeals. But people being polled and simply being against a tax cut is unheard of.


Posted by: David Weman | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 10:17 PM
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"So there's a superficial plausibility to the "Don't worry, technology's always saved us in the past, it'll save us again" arguments. The problem is that none of the cheap power possibilities out there, are in the "This is basically a solved problem, we just need to work out the details" category - while there are plausible possibilities, there's absolutely nothing we can count on becoming practical when we need it, or ever. And without a whole lot of cheap clean power, things are going to get very bad."

There aren't any impending cheap substitutes for fossil fuels but there are plenty of expensive substitutes for which just need to work out the details does apply. So you don't really need faith in technology, just faith in the ability of market economies to adjust. This adjustment is likely to be painful but it is unclear how a sense of urgency would help any.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 10:18 PM
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but there are plenty of expensive substitutes for which just need to work out the details does apply.

There aren't any substitutes that we know of. There are some expensive partial substitutes, but that `partial' isn't a minor thing. It's part of why the adjustment is likely to be a bit painful even in optimistic scenarios.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 10:26 PM
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There will be no single substitute; if substitutes arise there will be a combination of them. Which is probably a good thing, since heavy reliance on a single resource isn't working out that well.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 10:28 PM
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137: Is Congress going to sit and let that happen, or are they going to give GM money?

If only there were some historical example to hand of the US government actively working to create jobs to replace those lost by industry. And hey, maybe the government could even step in and bail out the workers for once instead of ensuring golden parachutes for the managerial class. That kind of sea-change is a ways off, probably, more's the pity.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 10:30 PM
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Both the Plumer post linked in 139 and the Mother Jones piece on mass extinction linked from that post are very much worth reading.


Posted by: strasmangelo jones | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 10:37 PM
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146: True, but there is no plausible combination either --- we're just using too much. Some combination of reduction and multipl e tech. alternatives can go a fair distance to cushioning the shock, I expect.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 10:40 PM
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148 is completely right.

149: Rather, no plausible combination has yet been found, since the technologies are still maturing and enormous resources are being wasted on wars and trying to pretend that oil isn't running out.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 10:49 PM
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150.last Fair enough, we don't know what the future brings. But betting that way is a bad idea based only on technology. Bring politics into it and it's a mugs game. As you note though, there is an awful lot of effort being spent unproductively.


Posted by: soup biscuit | Link to this comment | 05-16-08 10:56 PM
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There aren't any substitutes that we know of.

There are two:

1. Telegraph, which can move information geat distances (even across the Atlantic!!) very cheaply
2. Railroad, which can move both people and freight very efficiently.

As soon as the free market fully integrates these two technologies, we should usher in an enending era free of poverty and inequality. The railroad, in particular, when it is fully used for commuters in urban areas (subways, ELs, light rail) will totally eliminate the inefficiencies of spreading cities and lengthy commutes.


Posted by: Michael H Schneider | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 6:22 AM
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Michael, I believe you're forgetting the Philosopher's Stone, in concert with The Power of Greyskull.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 6:27 AM
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Sorcerer's Stone. Fucking Commonwealth sleeper cells ruin all the good blogs.


Posted by: Ari | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 6:40 AM
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152: Did you read The Victorian Internet? Some social changes happened permanently, others, such as the development of online communities among the operators, some of whom were women enjoying an otherwise unattainable capacity to engage socially without constraints, flowered briefly and then disappeared with further technical changes.


Posted by: I don't pay | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 6:50 AM
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Sorcerer's Stone. Fucking Commonwealth sleeper cells Rowling's original texts ruin all the good blogs.

Fixed.


Posted by: OneFatEnglishman | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 6:54 AM
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156 merely proves my point.


Posted by: Ari | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 7:08 AM
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Around here it's not a good idea to suggest that Harry Potter readers are morons and crack babies. Harry Potter fans are relentless and intense as steamrollers. You cannot slow them down. Threads about extinction or WWIII can be trolled, but Harry Potter threads cannot be.

They're vindictive too, and they have long memories. It's their world, and we just live in it.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 7:14 AM
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John, I'd probably eat my own head before I'd read Harry Potter, but you can't miss the damn things littering up the bookstores.


Posted by: OneFatEnglishman | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 7:21 AM
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Watch your back, OFE. The Potter group has already entered you into their Enemies Watchlist. Be very afraid. Keep an eye out for inexplicable events taking place in your vicinity, or mysterious strangers that you keep running into. Always turn up the covers of your bed with the lights on before getting in. And so on.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 7:36 AM
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Hey, thanks for the link in 139. Between that and articles linked from there (a NYT Michael Pollan piece on the farm bill), I've decided we must pressure a President Obama to freakin' do something about farm policy. Except the bill is only up every 5 years or so.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 11:37 AM
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145

"There aren't any substitutes that we know of. There are some expensive partial substitutes, but that `partial' isn't a minor thing. It's part of why the adjustment is likely to be a bit painful even in optimistic scenarios."

I am not sure what your objection is. What can we do with fossil fuels that we can't do without them albeit at much greater cost?


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 2:28 PM
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My point was that the higher cost is a giant problem in itself. The only problem with, for example, potable water supplies anywhere in the world is cost; the oceans are huge, and desalinization plants are perfectly practical. If you can pay for the energy to run the plant, you've got all the drinkable/irrigation water you want. Despite the fact that it's only a cost problem, though, we somehow still end up with droughts that kill peo-ple.

Without the cheap energy we've been relying on in the form of fossil fuel, we may not be rich enough to keep our society running on terms we're comfortable with.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 2:37 PM
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LB, I don't think you understand James. His point, if I'm reading him right, is that market will solve all of these problems. Which problems aren't really problems at all, you see, because while the intervening chaos wipes out bunches of people, he's wealthy enough (admittedly, I'm assuming here) to be insulated from the bloodletting.


Posted by: Ari | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 2:42 PM
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The market will solve all problems except the problem of Harry Potter. That one will require guns.


Posted by: Walt Someguy | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 2:54 PM
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163

"Without the cheap energy we've been relying on in the form of fossil fuel, we may not be rich enough to keep our society running on terms we're comfortable with."

I am not really disputing this, although market economies are more flexible than they are often given credit for, the exhaustion of fossil fuels is going to be a severe shock. But I don't exactly see how a sense of urgency is going to help much.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 3:00 PM
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164

"... he's wealthy enough (admittedly, I'm assuming here) to be insulated from the bloodletting."

Not just me but the United States as a whole.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 3:01 PM
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The sense of urgency is what you need to ramp down consumption without a shock. If commuting by car becomes prohibitively expensive for the bottom 70% of the income distribution, and we haven't put any work into infrastructure that will allow people to live and work without cars, trying to do it all at once after the last minute will suck. And so on.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 3:07 PM
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Similarly, James, a sense of urgency about industrial mobilization for WWII wasn't strictly necessary. There was no possibility that the Japanese could outproduce us in the long run. Yet, for some reason, people thought it would be a good idea to use mechanisms outside the market to cope with a massive reorganization of the economy.

I mean, presumably the US Gov't could simply have outbid consumers for vehicles, outbid the airlines for airplanes, etc. That would be a more market-oriented solution, and would surely have worked. Eventually.

A less sarcastic note, perhaps: None of this is news. Except for the parts that are worse than predicted, that is (like the Arctic becoming free of summer ice a decade or so sooner than anyone but cranks thought possible just 10 years ago). Had we taken the knowledge we had 10-20 years ago and used it to make policy - as opposed to using it to make fun of Al Gore - we would have had a carbon tax 15 years ago, one which would have led to less oil usage in the 90s, an easier transition to more sustainable land use patterns and vehicle fleets, etc.

This has always been the flaw in markets - prices move slowly and/or late. Presumably the last polar bear family will be valued enormously, and humans will pay millions to sustain them. Spending a few more millions now to sustain thousands of polar bears isn't what the market does.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 3:31 PM
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145: I think that some resources are substantial enough and crucial enough that major fluctuations in cost will have massive consequences: air, water, topsoil, and energy come to mind. Likewise, there's no substitution for any of them (though you can substitute one form of energy for another, and you can economize on the use of energy).

Substitution arguments I've seen often talk about copper. It's possible that every single use of copper has a substitute, and it's possible that the effect of an enormous increase in copper prices would hbe easily manageable, but generalizing this to energy would be misleading.

To economists, the entire physical world, including the people in it, is external. Any change whatsoever can be handled by changing prices.

A good critique of economics from this point of view is Cobb and Daly's "For the Common Good".


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 3:44 PM
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168

"The sense of urgency is what you need to ramp down consumption without a shock. If commuting by car becomes prohibitively expensive for the bottom 70% of the income distribution, and we haven't put any work into infrastructure that will allow people to live and work without cars, trying to do it all at once after the last minute will suck. And so on."

I don't see why the alternative is doing it all at once. If the market is left alone the price of energy will rise steadily forcing people to reduce consumption. I have little confidence that government intervention will make this process smoother. The ethanol mandate seems to be a disaster. And a lot of proposed infrastructure projects don't make any sense. For example Yglesias recently praised the idea of a high speed (220 mph) train between LA and SF. I doubt there is any economic case for this at all.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 3:45 PM
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I actually think that it should be possible to model enormous price changes and scarcities which the price system can't allow for, and even perhaps to describe the particular way that the system will break down. Environmentalists probably should be working on this, because to economists nothing exists if it isn't modeled, and I doubt that economists themselves can be bothered to do the modeling themselves.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 3:49 PM
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169

"Similarly, James, a sense of urgency about industrial mobilization for WWII wasn't strictly necessary. There was no possibility that the Japanese could outproduce us in the long run. Yet, for some reason, people thought it would be a good idea to use mechanisms outside the market to cope with a massive reorganization of the economy."

That was a short term 3-4 year effort with very clear goals. Fossil fuels are going to run out over the next 50-100 years and there is little agreement on what we should be aiming for. I doubt WWII style mobilization will work very well over the long haul.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 4:01 PM
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James, your smart and stupid posts seem to be randomly distributed.

No one here denies that you don't see why, as you say. The general idea that foresight and taking steps in advance are not necessary because the market will handle everything fine requires a number of assumptions, many of them probably false. It's certainly not a general truth.

Your revelation that a generalized a priori suspicion of government is a basic principle of yours puts you in the worthless wingnut troll category, of course.

I think that everyone here is aware that there are many people who think exactly as you do about the relationship between the market and government, and almost no one here has any respect for them. It's purely kneejerk. Your two examples added nothing (ethanol is universally regarded as environmentally useless or harmful porkbarrel spending.)


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 4:01 PM
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174

"No one here denies that you don't see why, as you say. The general idea that foresight and taking steps in advance are not necessary because the market will handle everything fine requires a number of assumptions, many of them probably false. It's certainly not a general truth."

I am not claiming the market will handle everything fine. If you all want to make me dictator I expect I could do better. However I would rather take my chances with the market than with one of you as dictator.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 4:12 PM
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None of is running for dictator, nor do I think that any of us would want you to be dictator, or think that you would do well at that.

Most of us believe that effective government action is possible, desirable, and necessary, and also that it's highly desirable to start now, or soon, rather than waiting for a crisis. In 1980 the Reagan team made this kind of thing taboo, and we need to break the taboo. (As far as "urgency", that's somewhat of a red herring; the current ruling orthodoxy basically says that nothing will ever need to be done, because there probably isn't a problem -- that is what we're trying to change.) The fact that government action is often ineffective or counterproductive is a threatening contingency that we need to deal with, not a law of nature giving us an excuse to decide that nothing should be done.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 4:23 PM
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James,

Of course the market will handle things. Sheesh. That's not the point.

The point is that as basic necessities become more expensive a LOT of people will die. As I said way above, I estimate the carrying capacity of the Earth using sustainable energy to be about 2-3 Billion.

There are numerous problems we'll encounter on the way down to 2-3 Billion, and we must ensure the problems are not global such as an all out nuclear war.

Personally I can't dismiss 3 billion deaths as easily as you appear to, but I do agree with you on one point. There is not much we can (collectively) do about it.

We can prolong the wait. We can do everything more efficiently including what we eat but that simply forestalls the end.

Barring Mr. Fusion or some other miracle the human population will be cut roughly in half.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 7:47 PM
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171:

If the market is left alone the price of energy will rise steadily forcing people to reduce consumption.

James,

I wish you would not hide behind euphemisms. I mean you do know that "reduce consumption" means "eat less," right? And you do know that unlike in the US, in many places of the world "eat less" means "starve sooner," right?

I don't understand why you are so blasé about this.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 7:59 PM
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I don't understand why you are so blasé about this.

Probably because the huge majority of people who would starve in such a situation are poor Asians and Africans, whom he's not related to and doesn't know even second- or third- hand.

The population was less than the 3 billion you estimate 30 years ago. Most of the population growth has happened in the same areas that will get screwed the worst by climate change, and it's for related reasons.

I wish we had an analytical philosopher to re-cast the situation into something involving a trolley...


Posted by: water moccasin | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 8:49 PM
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See, Tripp is exhibiting the kind of tendencies that really turn me off about the eschatological variant of Peak Oil advocacy. It is almost an article of faith that no technological alternatives are possible in the near term or even the mid-term, to such an extent that diebacks by the billions are inevitable -- and in order to back this view, the potential of renewable energy sources must be discounted at every turn, the difficulties magniified absurdly and almost fatalistically... in fact in much the same way that the oil industry is fond of doing.

This attitude is unhelpful; it's demotivating; and given the fact that significant revolutions in at least wind and solar power show every sign of being on the near horizon, I think it is also untenable. Conservation and disaster management are necessary, but they don't have to come at the cost of near-absolute denialism about the potential utility of alternative energy sources. If it's at all possible to forestall collapse back into the Middle Ages, and to avoid waiting for half the planet to die of starvation while we shore up the barricades, it bloody well ought to be done. And one doesn't have to be a starry-eyed techno-fetishist to think it can be done, that resources should be invested in it, that this should be a major part of the "sense of urgency" we keep talking about.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 9:48 PM
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DS, you know I love ya, but I don't think Tripp is quite engaging in eschatological thinking and a complete dismissal of technological solutions that might mitigate some of the suffering. I could be wrong; maybe he is.

But talking about Peak Oil isn't "advocacy" for heaven's sake.

And Tripp just got back from a year in Africa, and probably knows what he's talking about with respect to the untold numbers who will die.

Um. But yes, this doesn't mean we shouldn't work our asses off to .. become alarmed.


Posted by: parsimon | Link to this comment | 05-17-08 10:13 PM
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181: What brings eschatology to mind is stuff like: "Barring Mr. Fusion or some other miracle the human population will be cut roughly in half." I don't think one needs to talk in terms of "miracles" about what's needed to keep three billion people from dying; I think that rather dubiously underrates the potential of alternative energy sources and that this is a bad thing. It's formally really not that different from "repent for the end is at hand."

A comments thread doesn't amount to advocacy obviously, but there are speakers and writers who are advocates who talk along these same lines, and that this is a bad thing. And I'm disagreeing about inevitability, not about the number of people under threat.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 1:36 AM
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Fossil fuels are going to run out over the next 50-100 years and there is little agreement on what we should be aiming for.

I'm utterly confused about what you're thinking here. I guess you're assuming we will use all available fossil fuels, and the only problem is what to replace them with when they run out? That's not good enough. If we do that, the CO2 levels in the atmosphere will certainly be disastrously high. We either stop before we burn through all fossil fuels, or we find some other way to ameliorate the problem. There is, indisputably, a problem we must begin to address in the near term. It's not something that we can wait 50 years for and then get a quick fix.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 1:52 AM
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178

"I don't understand why you are so blasé about this."

If there is nothing to be done there is no point in worrying about it.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 1:52 AM
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178: We don't see why you're so determined to believe that nothing can be done, either. You now have a two step circular argument, both based on simple assertion, which looks literally psychotic. A. Nothing is to be done -->B. No use worrying --> A. Nothing is to be done.

It isn't quit as neat as that, because the terms slip a little, but certainly someone who's determined not to worry, because he's decided that nothing can be done and the problem is hopeless, will not be someone searching for ways to deal with the problem. And your assurance that nothing can be done seems grounded mostly on tendentious winger free-marketer anti-government propaganda which is only weakly argued or grounded in reality. .


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 2:03 AM
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183

"I'm utterly confused about what you're thinking here. I guess you're assuming we will use all available fossil fuels, and the only problem is what to replace them with when they run out? That's not good enough. If we do that, the CO2 levels in the atmosphere will certainly be disastrously high. We either stop before we burn through all fossil fuels, or we find some other way to ameliorate the problem. There is, indisputably, a problem we must begin to address in the near term. It's not something that we can wait 50 years for and then get a quick fix."

I think it is pretty certain all the available oil will be used and probably all the available natural gas as well. Perhaps there is some chance that we won't use all the coal but I wouldn't bet on it. Switching to alternative sources of energy as the fossil fuels are exhausted is likely to be painful. I don't see much chance of society choosing to increase the pain by switching before it is necessary in order to avoid speculative climate change problems. Which contrary to what you say above are not indisputably certain to be disasterous.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 2:08 AM
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Which contrary to what you say above are not indisputably certain to be disasterous.

It's late and I'm too tired to find all the right numbers, but burning all the oil and natural gas already gets us to somewhere in the 550 - 600 ppm range, IIRC. That is certainly not the only thing that will be increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations, and this isn't taking into account further feedbacks that can raise it even more, as well as possible saturation of ocean sinks, etc.... So at any rate, it's more than doubling CO2 from preindustrial levels. Conservatively, that's probably 3 degrees C of warming.

One can quibble about the precise meaning of "disaster", but for many people in the world, this will already be a disaster. Maybe not for those of us who are relatively wealthy. But to the people of Bangladesh?

The target the experts are pushing is 450 ppm, and it's not even clear that that is safe.


Posted by: essear | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 2:31 AM
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I don't see much chance of society choosing to increase the pain by switching before it is necessary in order to avoid speculative climate change problems. Which contrary to what you say above are not indisputably certain to be disastrous.

James, you're so determined to avoid the psychic pain of having to deal with uncertainties that you're facing a possible disaster with adamant indifference because it's not an indisputable certainty. And you seem already to have decided to accept famine (probably only for others) with equanimity in order not to think of the stressful possibility that it either might, or might not, be possible to avoid it: you hate undertainties and decisions.

I'm sure that if we were able to prove to you that disaster is inevitable if we do nothing, but that a solution can certainly be found, you would accept that. At least, you'd accept it as long as government action is not involved, because for unargued reasons you reject the idea of government action.

Your merger of self-protective emotional fragility, political dogma, and hyper-rationality pretty much incapacitates you for contributing usefully to political discussions, since the certainties and assurances you emotionally need are never to be found in human history.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 4:02 AM
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Bill McKibben on 350 ppm:

A few weeks ago, our foremost climatologist, NASA's Jim Hansen, submitted a paper to Science magazine with several co-authors. The abstract attached to it argued -- and I have never read stronger language in a scientific paper -- "if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm." Hansen cites six irreversible tipping points -- massive sea level rise and huge changes in rainfall patterns, among them -- that we'll pass if we don't get back down to 350 soon; and the first of them, judging by last summer's insane melt of Arctic ice, may already be behind us.


Posted by: strasmangelo jones | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 7:02 AM
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The Shearer Reaction is the other reason I dislike the eschatological approach. If there's enough of a drumbeat of "the Peak is here, repent, repent, and try to conserve but basically know there is nothing that can be done" going on, of course the prevailing reaction is going to be "well fuck it, then, I'm not going to think about it."


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 8:27 AM
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If there is nothing to be done there is no point in worrying about it.
a very buddhist pov
but i think it's possible to not worry and still do everything required in order to avoid the disaster if one knows about it and other knowing people say so, to cover all the bases so to speak
as the Russian proverb says 'na boga nadeisya, no sam ne ploshai'
which means rely on god but still don't fail yourself


Posted by: read | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 8:33 AM
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187

"One can quibble about the precise meaning of "disaster", but for many people in the world, this will already be a disaster. Maybe not for those of us who are relatively wealthy. But to the people of Bangladesh?"

I think peak oil is a bigger threat to the third world than climate change.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 2:21 PM
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191: There are English versions of that one: the most common is probably "Trust in God but keep your powder dry." Powder means gunpowder.

It's funny. Not Shearer, because I don't remember him saying anything one-percenty about terrorism, but doesn't it seem as if the same people say "If there's a vestige of a chance of a possibility that Iran might have a program that at some point in the future might lead to nuclear weapons, it would be irresponsible not to obliterate them. On the other hand, in the absence of absolute certainty that global warming will end industrial civilization, it would be irresponsible to take ameliorative action."


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 2:23 PM
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192: But the problems feed into each other. Climate change seems very likely to create a series of problems (droughts, floods, crops no longer being viable in places where they were viable before) that will both be hard on the Third World (hard on us too, but harder on them) and will be very expensive to fix . And peak oil is going to make it wildly more expensive for anyone to do anything. So when people start starving, are we going to blame it on their crop failure caused by global warming, or on the fact that peak oil means no one has fertilizer to increase yields elsewhere?

The problems aren't going to be distinct.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 2:29 PM
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Your merger of self-protective emotional fragility, political dogma, and hyper-rationality pretty much incapacitates you for contributing usefully to political discussions

So are you coming round to the "Shearer is a troll" point of view after all, John?


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 2:31 PM
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Shearer lacks malice. He seems to mean everything he says, and he doesn't seem to be trying to pull anyone's chain. He just has enormous blind spots in a sort of Aspergy way.

His lack of malice and non-chain-pulling are evidence for some sort of mental defect that normal people (you and I) don't have.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 2:40 PM
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Fair enough.


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 2:45 PM
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196: You and B are normal people?

(Low-hanging fruit, I know.)


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 3:11 PM
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We define normality, weirdo.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 3:12 PM
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We define normality whiteness.

Fixed.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 3:18 PM
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(But then, so does Shearer. A conundrum!)


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 3:18 PM
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Could there be a paler shade of white?


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 3:21 PM
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... and perhaps B and Emerson are a darker shade of pale. Possible.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 3:26 PM
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Whiteness: overdefined.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 3:28 PM
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I bow to no one, whitenesswise. Did I ever tell you about Cotton Mather and my aunt?


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 3:32 PM
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Please, do go on John, it sounds terribly interesting.


Posted by: JP Stormcrow | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 3:44 PM
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193

"It's funny. Not Shearer, because I don't remember him saying anything one-percenty about terrorism, but doesn't it seem as if the same people say "If there's a vestige of a chance of a possibility that Iran might have a program that at some point in the future might lead to nuclear weapons, it would be irresponsible not to obliterate them. On the other hand, in the absence of absolute certainty that global warming will end industrial civilization, it would be irresponsible to take ameliorative action.""

There is nothing particularly surprising about this, people often do not give their real reasons when campaigning for policies they support. Consider how the party positions on the appropriate role for the Senate regarding Supreme Court nominations change depending on which party controls the Senate and White House.


Posted by: James B. Shearer | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 3:56 PM
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205: Cotton Mather was secretly black, John. That's why he went so easy on the darkies.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 3:58 PM
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The Shearer Reaction is the other reason I dislike the eschatological approach.

This is the problem, DS. It's not about an "approach." It's about facing reality. If reality says the tipping point is five years off - and there are studies that have said that it is - that's where we are. No amount of framing or "reasonable" posturing is going to stop the ice caps from melting.


Posted by: strasmangelo jones | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 4:05 PM
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And John, of course Shearer is a troll. At some point intentions don't really matter to trolldom; all that matters is the troll's effect on the discussion. The troll's heart is in his function, not in his motive.


Posted by: strasmangelo jones | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 4:07 PM
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This is the problem, DS. It's not about an "approach." It's about facing reality.

All parts of reality, including the probability that extreme pessimism about alternative energy sources is more an artefact of oil industry propaganda than actual science.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-18-08 4:09 PM
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extreme pessimism about alternative energy sources is more an artefact of oil industry propaganda than actual science

I'm not showing "extreme pessimism about alternative energy sources." I'm saying what anyone who spends a lot of time reading about this says: that there are definite limits to what renewables can provide, that they have their own environmental cost in terms of resource use and habitat depletion, and that the bottom line is that we're going to have to start using less energy, and in general, producing and consuming a lot less stuff.

Here's a link to an old Brad Plumer post that's pretty good on this subject, breaking down where our energy needs will be in 2050 if we keep consuming at the rate we're consuming now, and where carbon-free sources could bring us.

(The Plumer post is from 2006, so it's actually overly optimistic in a lot of ways - the goal he's talking about there is 550ppm, and the goal today is 450ppm, which people like James Hansen now say is way over the mark of where we need to be.)


Posted by: strasmangelo jones | Link to this comment | 05-19-08 7:40 AM
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Jamie,

If there is nothing to be done there is no point in worrying about it.

If my grandma had balls she'd be my gramps.

There is something that can be done. This is not all or nothing. Sheesh.

Here's a parable. A guy's walking along the beach at low tide and he comes upon zillions of star fish that have been washed too far inland and are dieing. He sees another guy picking up starfish and tossing them back into the water. He say's "That's stupid. You can't save them all. You aren't making a difference."

The other guy responds "I'm making a difference to this starfish," and he tosses it into the water.

I'm assuming for the moment that you are a naive nube who is trying on different ideas to see which make sense. You might be an irrational authoritarian follower parroting back sound bites but even if that is so (and you will not go back into the water) you are useful to me as an excuse to articulate my ideas for others to see.


Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 05-19-08 9:07 AM
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212: I'm not showing "extreme pessimism about alternative energy sources."

Grand, then we're not disagreeing. Kindly note the context of the post you're replying to, which was a response to Tripp's prediction of the inevitability of three billion dead.

The Plumer post is quite good, and I do note it doesn't underrate the potential of solar, which I'm of the opinion is the most urgent development prospect. (It actually doesn't say anything that I can see about reducing consumption, it's a post about sustaining present levels of increase with a different mixture of power sources.)


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 05-19-08 11:29 AM
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