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Carbon Bubble a Turning Point for Climate Change Action?

Mitchell Beer's picture
Publisher Energy Mix Productions

I’m publisher of The Energy Mix, an e-digest and online archive on energy, climate, and the shift to a post-carbon economy. Also president of Smarter Shift, an Ottawa-based firm that specializes...

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  • May 14, 2013

carbon bubbleThe idea that a large proportion of the world’s proven fossil fuel resources would be unburnable in any reasonable climate change control scenario has fed a growing body of analysis over the last year, all of it suggesting that carbon could become the next housing bubble.

If the outcome doesn’t go that way, it will mean national governments are propping up a multi-trillion-dollar global industry, almost literally by not lifting a finger. The argument for unburnable carbon rests on the assumption that nations will have to do something substantial, sooner rather than later, to minimize the risk of runaway climate change. But the carbon won’t be unburnable if climate policy remains at a standstill.

On the other hand, if the prospect of serious limits on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions translates into real policies, the European Union’s plan to impose an import fee on Canada’s “dirty oil” may be just the opening act. If that’s the way the story unfolds, more and more fund managers will have to take notice. And that’s when the investment community could gain prominence as a new front in the campaign for low-carbon energy futures.

Do the Math

The conversation about unburnable carbon broke into the public domain last year with a Rolling Stone exposé by Bill McKibben, co-founder of The argument, carried in a growing wave of research reports, magazine articles, and blog posts over the last six to 12 months, is that fossil fuel companies may be sitting on trillions of dollars of overvalued assets. They know where the resources are, they’re exploring for more, and their balance sheets express the unmistakable expectation that those resources will go into production.

But with a serious enough effort to get GHGs under control, those assets will be stranded.

McKibben brought the climate challenge down to three numbers:

  • 2° Celsius: The compromise target, arrived at during the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, for limiting the increase in global temperatures due to climate change.
  • 565 gigatons: The carbon dioxide humans can afford to pump into the atmosphere through mid-century if we want a four in five chance of meeting the 2° target, “somewhat worse odds,” McKibben noted, “than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.” Two things are true about 565 Gt: It’s a huge number, almost incomprehensibly huge unless you can proudly call yourself an energy nerd. And, at present rates, we’ll blow through the target around 2029.
  • 2,795 gigatons: The carbon contained in the world’s proven oil and gas reserves.

The ‘Numbers People’ React

The UK-based Carbon Tracker Initiative kicked off much of the discussion with the release of its Unburnable Carbon report in 2011. It estimated that, “if the 2° C target is rigorously applied, then up to 80 per cent of declared reserves owned by the world’s largest listed coal, oil, and gas companies and their investors would be subject to impairment as these assets become stranded.” With those words, Carbon Tracker began capturing analysts’ and researchers’ attention with the source material they value most: the numbers.

  • In February, HSBC Global Research calculated that oil and gas multinationals could lose up to 60 per cent of their market value if the world cuts its carbon emissions to limit climate change. According to a February 3 summary on the Responding to Climate Change (RTCC) blog, “reduced demand for fossil fuels could force down oil and gas prices, meaning that between 40 and 60 per cent of leading fossil fuel firms’ current market capitalization—essentially their net worth—could be at risk.”
  • In March, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculated that 78 per cent of Canada’s proven reserves, or 89 per cent of proven and probable reserves, would have to stay in the ground to meet a low-carbon objective. “By not accounting for climate risk, large amounts of invested capital are vulnerable to the carbon bubble,” CCPA stated, and with one-third of the $1.1 trillion in trusteed funds invested in stocks, “pension funds and other institutional investors need to be part of the solution.”

A Turning Point?

The conversation about unburnable carbon is just beginning to take shape, but it may be a turning point in the conversation about climate change, energy choices, and—most significantly—energy investment.

By their nature, financial markets are supposed to be risk-averse. The principle may not be applied with great consistency—think of the turn-of-the-century boom or, for that matter, the 2007/2008 housing bubble. But in energy, the search for steady, predictable investments has generally played in favour of established industries, to the detriment of low-carbon supply sources and aggressive energy efficiency measures.

But if investors pay close enough attention to the climate crisis and its implications for fossil fuel investment, they’ll get worried. That possibility led sustainability writer Paul Gilding to pen a March 20 blog post with the counterintuitive title, Victory at Hand for the Climate Movement?, in which he speculated that “the fastest and most dramatic economic transformation in history” could be ushered in by several overlapping influences:

The resulting transformation “would include the removal of the oil, coal, and gas industries from the economy in just a few decades and their replacement with new industries and, for the most part, entirely new companies. It would be the greatest transfer of wealth and power between industries and countries the world has ever seen.”

The tone of Gilding’s post was more astonished than certain. But the prospect of unburnable carbon introduces an important and, at this point, unpredictable new element into the conversation about energy and climate. It isn’t a sure bet—not nearly—that fossil fuel companies’ balance sheets will go up in smoke. But if large numbers of investors begin to fret about those companies’ basic viability, their attention and financial resources could shift quite suddenly toward low-carbon alternatives.

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I K's picture
I K on May 13, 2013

It is naive at best to think an investor in say BP shares is going to sell his shares and buy shares in Green Energy PLC and it is more naïve to think the value of a companies shares impacts much on its innovation or R&D

Also there is a good chance that the global warming scare will turn out to be a non issue over the next decade or few if the world doesn’t start heating up markedly or if the partial pressure of CO2 results in most of the burnt CO2 not staying in the atmosphere but dissolving into the oceans and soil.

The days of poor business leaders is over. If the world does start to reduce its coal/gas/oil burn (which it won’t for at least a generation if not more) then the CEOs will just reduce output to maintain prices.  The biggest risk to coal/gas/oil producing companies and nations is nuclear, computer driven vehicles, and a global grid all of which could lower demand quicker than they are likely to cut production. Not a report from a cheer leader

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 13, 2013

Unless we see some truly miraculous technological breakthroughs very soon, it will simply be physically impossible to release no more than 565 Gt of CO2 while still keeping the global economy stable. We simply have no way of replacing the fossil fuels which currently supply close to 90% of our energy in such a short period of time. For example, the current rate of renewables deployment is roughly 3% the rate required to achieve this purpose primarily via renewables. 

Current projections from authorities such as the IEA, EIA, BP and Exxon show that the 565 Gt number will be exceeded around 2027 by which time yearly CO2 emissions will be about 20% higher than they are today (and still rising). We are a reactive society and will probably not respond meaningfully to climate change before we really feel its impacts. That is why I’m working on CCS – perhaps the foremost technology for reactive climate change mitigation (potential for fast deployment, retrofits and even carbon sinks). 

As far as the so-called carbon bubble goes, fossil fuel companies will power the world until we find alternatives that can better serve the energy needs of society (the developing world in particular). Such alternatives simply do not exist at the moment, implying that there is no danger of the carbon bubble bursting.

Also, economic bubbles usually originate from distortions created by government. From this viewpoint, renewable energy is a much more likely bubble. If highly accomodative government policy vanishes, many companies fail and many jobs are lost. The current problems with massive over-supply and anti-dumping tariffs in the PV market is a good example. 

I K's picture
I K on May 14, 2013

are you certain a warmer earth will be a worse world and by what measure do you determine so?

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 14, 2013

My concern lies with the non-linear feedbacks related to climate change. You are always claiming that the earth absorbs 80% of our CO2 emissions (to my calculations it absorbs less than 50%), but more warming can lead to a point where droughts and fires release more CO2 than plants absorb, permafrost releases more methane than the soil absorbs and the lower CO2 saturation concentration in the warmer oceans causes less CO2 to be absorbed (and eventually also methane to be released from hydrates). This is why many climate change alarmists are so concerned.

The other set of non-linear feedbacks have to do with the impacts that the negative effects of climate change can have on our economy and society. Currently, almost all economic and societal trands are still going in the wrong direction. Debt and unfunded liabilities are rising as a % of GDP, acommodative monetary policy (e.g. ZIRP and QE) is maxed out, the taxpayer/retiree ratio is falling, inequality, structural unemployment and population density are rising, and obesity is sweeping the globe causing medical costs to soar. If you throw the effects that climate change can have on food, water and energy supply/prices into this mix, it does not take much imagination to see distinctly unpleasant scenarios unfolding in the medium-to-long term. 

Of course a little warming and a litte higher CO2 concentration can be a good thing. Agricultural yields slightly increase, some areas become more habitable and highly profitable new trade routes are opened up in the Arctic. The question is just when the negative effects briefly described above start to overwhelm these positive effects. Some think that this will never happen, while others think it has already happened.  

And no, of course I am not certain about this. No-one can be certain about predictions linked to something as complex as the global climate system and the global economy. Based on the overwhelming scientific concensus, I am confident though – sufficiently confident to build my carreer in this direction. 

I K's picture
I K on May 14, 2013

Firstly let me repeat something I have mentioned on this site many a time. I think the future is a global grid powered by PV so this is not an anti renewable power post. 

You are correct you dont know but these are the questions you need to think about to even consider it 

Worse for who or what. There are countless species some which will benefit others which will not

At what location.  There are countless locations some which will be better off for the countless species some which will not. 

When you consider these two very rational arguments the notion that global warmingis a huge negative for wverythibg abd everywhere quickly dies. The truth is that for each location some species will bebifit narginally and others will find it marginally more difficult.

Overall multiply the countless locations by the countless species and you are magnitudes more likely to find the sun of global warming is a very very minor positive or negative


Also please stop with trying to link physics to the man nade construct of how we run our economoies its pointless way of trying to link unrelated topics

I K's picture
I K on May 14, 2013

Also positive feedback systems are very rare in nature becuase in the billions of years earth has been around at some stage they will have already been triggered and hence ‘burnt’ themselves out. 


So the notion that there is a magic number for atmospheric CO2  after which poibt there is runaway co2 increases in the air is fae fsr more likely to be false rhab it is to be correct

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 14, 2013

That is exactly why anthropogenic climate change is such a great concern. The current concetration and the rate of accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is unprecedented in the entire known history of our planet, implying that the climate system could respond in ways it has never responded in before. 

To me the theory of climactic tipping points makes perfect sense. The only issue which is largely unknown is the location of these tipping points. It may not lie at 450 ppm CO2 or 2 deg C of warming, but I’m pretty sure it lies somewhere. 

I K's picture
I K on May 14, 2013

I am pretty sure it lies somewhere too but that is of little value becuase it could be 500ppm or 5000ppm or anything in between

What we know is that the earth is quite old and has probably been through anything and everything you can imagine including the so called unprecedented 400ppm

There was a time when the atmosphere was 30 percent oxygen and bow its closer to 10% lower. That is a 100,000 ppm change in the gas most critters use to live yet the world did nit end (unless you were a oversized insect) hence my earlier comment about global warming good for who or what

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 14, 2013

Climate models simulate the entire planet and the (quantitative) conclusions drawn from them therefore represent the sum of all positive and negative contributions. The overwhelming concensus is that, in the long term, the negative impacts grossly outweight the positive impacts.

Also, our economy is inextricably linked to the services nature provides for free (formation of fossil fuel and mineral deposits, photosynthesis, the water cycle, C/P/N cycles, mitosis/meiosis etc.). In fact, if not for the millions of years over which nature formed fossil fuels, we would still be riding around on horses and living in wooden huts.

If we interfere with these natural systems by using resources at grossly unsustainable rates, altering the climate through AGW or disrupting the N/P cycles through excessive fertilizer use, the primary inputs to our man-made economy are disrupted. This is reflected in prices such as the permanent quadrupling in the oil price that dumped the developed world into a seemingly never-ending recession. Our economy fundamentally demands perpetual exponential growth and, by extention, parrallel increases in our demands on natural resources. If natural limits interrupt this exponential growth, societal problems quickly emerge (e.g. Southern Europe). 

The intricate connection between our environment, our economy and our society is extremely important and any thinking that ignores this connection is bound to lead to (dangerously) incomplete conclusions. 

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on May 14, 2013

The discussion stumbles in the usual way. If we could adopt simple electronics circuit principles we might get somewhere, some day.

First, let’s accept that electric concepts like volts and amps are the calculus counterparts of CO2 “ppm” and “emissions.” We can then begin using concepts from a science that works and apply them to a science that isn’t working.

If we want to power an active society, we will likely need a lot of (CO2) “current” at a reasonable (CO2) “potential drop = voltage.” If the circuit is broken, the current stops. The time scale for electric current might be picoseconds, and the time scale for CO2 choking us might be decades, but either way the lights go out if the circuit is broken.

So how can we complete the CO2 circuit? Presume magic partial pressure effects? Presume magic technology? Or, since we are burning fossil trees, perhaps consider growing more trees (etc.).

Of course this gets into the whole “but how do you grow trees” question. At least we will have evolved past the “my circuit element is more important than your circuit element” argument.

I K's picture
I K on May 15, 2013

To add to the climate change discussion perhaps someone should do a post about a 100% certain huge climate change period in earths history. That is the period when the oxygen concentration in the atmosphere went down from around 30% to 20%. That is a far larger change than the 0.01% in co2 and oxygen is more critical to all life at those variations than carbon dioxide at todays variations.

Anyway, if we were around back then the same cheer leaders would be cheering “the end is now  everything is going to be dead and it’s a huge disaster and a terrible negative to everything and everywhere”  what was the outcome, a hell on earth?

Well it depends on what species you are talking about as well as location. For giant insects it was a disaster, whereas for other critters it was a huge positive (with the giant insects gone their primary food supported other critters)

So that huge huge climate change and even more drastic chemistry change was not a huge net negative. It was a negative for some animals and plants and a positive for others. We cant say for certain the world was much better or worse for life post/pre huge change in oxygen concentration because it varied for the countless lifeforms and countless locations.  The same is true for global warming. The cheer leaders try to paint it like that propaganda sham of a movie “the day after tomorrow” when the reality is that global warming if it happens will likely be a tiny tiny tiny net positive or negative. Not hell on earth and certainly nowhere near as bad as most cheer leaders are suggesting

Paul Ebert's picture
Paul Ebert on May 15, 2013

When was this period?  I’d like to learn more about it.  Are you aware of any scholarly articles about it?

Paul Ebert's picture
Paul Ebert on May 15, 2013

It seems to me that our best bet for a way to switch away from fossil fuels quickly would be a global version of the Manhattan project with the goal of creating a fourth generation nuclear plant – preferably a LFTR or something of that ilk.

The second best bet (given that the first best is not likely) is for some country – probably China – to develop such a plant and demonstrate it’s effectiveness, with the rest of the world following its example quickly to stay competitive.

These assume that the scenario is to include minimized economic disruption (or even improved global economics).  We’ll just have to see how realistic that remains as a possibility.

Paul Ebert's picture
Paul Ebert on May 15, 2013

It seems to me that paleo-climatology has given us a fairly clear picture of how the planet appears at various levels of temperature increase.  The book “Six Degrees” by Mark Lynas covers this well in that it provides a lot of good references to peer-reviewed articles.  You may well find that his discussion is too conjectural.  I, personally, do not.

The main difference, of course, in what is presented in the book and the research refered to and our current situation is that the changes are happening so much faster.  This makes it unclear how the planetary climate will react.

Paul Ebert's picture
Paul Ebert on May 15, 2013

Those that are researching the subject are indicating that we may already be seeing the positive feedback cycle of methane release from warming permafrost and methane hydrate deposits in the arctic.  Here’s a link:

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 15, 2013

Two important points about this CO2 vs O2 argument:

Firstly, we again have to return to the rate of change issue. The Earth is very good at adapting as long as things happen on a geological timescale. There was a time when the atmosphere contained virtually no oxygen and there was a time when oxygen concentrations were higher than they are today. However, these periods were separated by millions and millions of years. For example, if the oxygen concentration changed by 1 ppm/decade (needing 1 million years to go from 30% to 20%), I’m pretty sure evolution will be able to keep up. However, if it changed by 25 ppm/decade as is happening with CO2 right now, it might be a bit more challenging (although probably still managable). 

Secondly, you have to consider the effect that CO2 and O2 could have on a planetary scale. O2, while being essential to life, will not have a major impact if the concentration is changed by a few hundred ppm. In fact, the O2 concentration in major cities can be as low as 15% which is a 60000 ppm difference from fresh mountain air. CO2, on the other hand, is a greenhouse gas and, because of this, it can trigger a range of non-linear interactions. For example, the 100 ppm or so rise in concentration we have seen already has created a 0.6 W/m2 energy imbalance on our planet, causing gradual heating which, in turn influences the climate system which, in turn, influences all life on earth. A 100000 ppm change in CO2 concentration would suffocate almost all life and turn Earth into Venus (which has a surface temperature of around 500 deg C). 

One post below recommends Mark Lynas’ work. In one of his books he refers to the “Great Dying” period of 250 million years ago where temperatures near the equator were 6 degrees higher than they are today. The Great Dying cost the earth about 90% of all its life and the planet needed about 10 million years to recover from this event. That event was caused by a freak combination of factors such as volcanoes and a large scale methane release from the oceans, but the literature suggest that humans could recreate such a scenario in only a century or two by burning fossil fuels at an ever increasing rate and triggering various positive feedback loops. 

I K's picture
I K on May 15, 2013

You have to be crazy to suggest co2 moving by 100ppm is a bigger change and possible devastation from oxygen changing by 100,000ppm. Not only is oxygen concentration at those variations magnitudes more important than co2 changes at those variarions to life but the oxygeb variation is a huge huge chemical variation. Yiu have probablybheard of oxidation its not by chance they bamed it as they did.

Anyway if you actually let your nind think for a moment yiu will see that its nonsense to call any change a huge bad for earth. For a start earth is a rock there is no bad no good for it. What you mean is that carbon dioxide emissions will be devastating to life on earth but that too is wrong becuase you need to break it down to the countless species and countless locations.  When you do this yiu figure out that almost any possible change is 

ot a big net negative nor a big net positive. After all we are not worried about returning o2 to 30 percent to revert climate change. 


As for your notion that the animals and olants cant adapt to a change of a degree or two over thousands of years that is laughable.  Just yesterday we had a 15 cebtigrade swing. Rhrough a nornal year we have a 30-40 degre swing.  Through decades we have 50 degree swings. Yet there is bo mass species extinction.  Also most animals and plants live in quite a wide range of conditions.  The earth warming a little will just mean they move a little. 

BTW one more thing extinction itself isn’t in itself a huge negative. Remove ine species say the cow and the primary food it used to eat is now available to other critters so they expand. Plus new species are created on an ongoing basis through evolution and chance

Mitchell Beer's picture
Mitchell Beer on May 16, 2013

Everyone, thanks for a good, varied discussion. I don’t want to belabour every point that has come up along the way, but here are just a couple of observations:


I K, as someone who works with words every day, I have to congratulate you on creating a new definition of “cheerleader,” a term I would never have thought to apply to the likes of the World Bank, the IMF, the International Energy Agency, HSBC Research, Deutsche Bank, Standard & Poor’s, investment analyst Jeremy Grantham, or (on the balance of evidence) the authors of 97% of the climate science papers ever published. But there’s more. Even if there were any likelihood that the fossil-funded deniers are right and the “cheerleaders” are all wrong, the co-benefits of a low-carbon energy transition are huge: If you’ve ever brought a young child to a pediatric emergency ward with a severe asthma attack, as we’ve had to do dozens of times, you have another good reason to phase out coal plants, even if you choose to disregard the overwhelming evidence that climate change is real, accelerating, and anthropogenic…and yes, that a warming world is already a worse world. Just ask the millions of people who’ve become climate refugees in the last year.


Schalk, you’re right that the low-carbon deployment rate will have to be very fast to adhere to the 565 Gt limit, but it might not take a miracle. (Although if we could line up *that* level of cheerleading…? J ) In our research in Canada, we’ve compared the ramp-up to an 80% GHG reduction by 2050 to the acceleration in fossil fuel development that followed the Second World War. So the scale of change we need is large, but not unprecedented: At this point, what’s missing is the political will and the policy momentum, but that’s not an issue of technology or capability.


Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 17, 2013

Hi Mitchell,

I would really like to believe that it is possible to transition away from fossil fuels within the time constraints prescribed by climate science, but the more I study the topic, the more impossible it looks. As a ballpark estimate, an 80% decrease in GHG primarily through wind & solar will require the current 0.4 TW installed capacity to be increased to 100 TW in 37 years. If we assume constant exponential growth, this could be achieved with 16.5% p.a growth sustained over 37 years where we install about 14 TW in the final year (about 200 times the current rate) – something which is simply not possible. 

There are some important differences between today and the post WW2 boom. The most important of these is that, when adjusted for inflation, fossil fuels were about 5 times cheaper than they are today. $1 could get about 1 GJ of energy from coal. For comparison 1W of solar power is worth about 0.075 GJ of energy when a capacity factor of 15%, a lifetime of 30 years and a discount rate of 5% is used. In other words, fossil energy post WW2 was equivalent to solar panels costing 7.5 cents per Watt installed. If solar cost that much I would agree that such a rapid infrastructure overhaul might be possible, but unfortunately it costs about 30 times more. (This rough estimate assumes the embedded energy and losses in power plants is roughly equivalent to the embedded energy and losses involved in balancing intermittent renewables.) 

Then of course there are many other headwinds such as the wide range of other resource limits, enormous (and rising) burdens of debt and unfunded liabilities, aging populations, rising inequality, slowing population growth etc. which we did not have to deal with post WW2. Alltogether, I would estimate that the challenges faced by renewable energy today are roughly two orders of magnitude greater than the challenges faced by the fossil fuel industry post WW2. Such a comparison therefore does not bring me much comfort.  

Nathaniel Pearre's picture
Nathaniel Pearre on May 17, 2013

So what you’re saying is that even if AGW causes whole phila to go extinct, it’s really not the end of the world, as lots of species will live on, and will grow, expand, adapt, shrink, migrate, evolve or go extinct in the new climate reality…  but it won’t be the end of all life on earth.

That’s very open minded of you, but not a whole lot of confort to me, personally.

Nathaniel Pearre's picture
Nathaniel Pearre on May 17, 2013

You keep saying this.  So just to be clear, your position is:

“Anything that does not exterminate all life on earth is not important enough to worry about.”

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on May 17, 2013

I believe that the FF companies, since they have the money to do so at this time, will invest in the machine automation required to mass produce batteries and solar. The object is to extract the cheapest, most abundant sources for these new energy components.

As something to think about, solar’s growth averaged about 33% and as of 2012, was a whopping 78%. Now, if subsidies were reduced to where solar’s growth rate averaged ONLY 22% for the next forty years, close to 1% of the Earth’s land space will be covered, providing some 256,000GW capacity (at only 23%, though) which is enough to just barely power the world and it’s electric cars by then!

Bradley Robinson's picture
Bradley Robinson on May 17, 2013

The true value of Oil and Gas is “undervalued” by the oil companies, when sold into the market for combustion energy processes.

Surprisingly, oil resources appear to be the key to energy efficiency and materials which can enable energy technologies fabricated from these same oil and gas resources, and the building block resin essential to rebuilding new and efficient global infrastructure capable of superior energy applications is “Oil and Gas”. Many emerging energy innovations could be much more successful if energy demand was no longer the result of simple inefficiencies on a large scale.

This indicates that the “Oil on the Books” may be well placed to meet this huge market driven by the transformation of… where the carbon gets sequestered too.

The oil and gas in the ground is really much more valuable if you don’t burn it.

Take simple EPS insulation, made from natural gas. The use of this insulation as an energy barrier in buildings and industrial heat process, can vastly reduce the cost of gas as a fuel to heat the same building etc. … by exponential factors over very long periods of time, greatly outstripping its value as an energy source.

The Oil Companies apparently don’t realize this yet, but its likely they could sell much less oil and make much more money.

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on May 17, 2013

Schalk says that rapid climate change is unprecedented. Not so. I recommend John D. Cox’s informative book, “Climate Crash,” published by the National Academies Press and summarizing the findings of a NRC panel on abrupt climate change:

BTW, that study was several years ago; the NRC is now in the process of revisiting that subject.

Schalk’s choice to focus on CCS at least is constructive and consistent with his assumptions. CCS presents a difficult challenge, but breakthroughs in that area certainly would be a game changer.

Aside from that, I think I K raises some good points to counter what I think is an unduly apocalyptic view.

As for the ‘great dying’ (the Permian-Triassic extinction event), the most commonly accepted theory attributes it to the massive volcanism of the Siberian lava traps. It’s hard to see any analogy between that and AGW. However an alternate lesson to take from that and similar events in geological history is that catastrophic volcanic events can and will happen again sometime — anytime — in the future. (The same can be said about collisions with massive Near Earth Objects.)

Therefore, completely eliminating AGW (unlikely as that may be) cannot as some claim “prevent climate change.” Note that if AGW could be magically erased overnight, the climate regime of the past million+ years implies the return of “normal” ice age conditions at the end of the current, relatively brief Holocene period of interglacial warming. While the Holocene has not been typical of other interglacial periods, on average the onset of the ice age would be expected sometime within the next several centuries. And as the Cox book indicates, the onset of ice ages can occur fairly abruptly, in as little as 20 years. While AGW poses some potential hazards, the return of the ice age would/will certainly have a catastrophic impact on most of current civilized societies.

So debates about the relative peril of AGW aside, there still are abundant reasons to work on improving the resilience and adaptability of human communities (and their related ecosystems) to potentially abrupt and extreme climate change.

Finally, Mitchell Beer claims that eliminating carbon fuels would have the collateral benefit of eliminating the negative health impacts from the pollution emitted by burning those fuels (particularly coal). That’s true. But that pollution can be eliminated by other pollution-control means, at lower cast, without sacrificing the immense economic and strategic benefits that fossil fuels confer. (That is, up to the point where the marginal costs of additional pollution controls exceed the marginal benefits of any further environmental or health improvements.)

The reason poor commuities are so commonly willing to tolerate higher levels of pollution than wealthier, more developed economies do is that poverty itself is an insidious form of pollution that often has far more destructive impacts than do the effluents associated with industrial development.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on May 18, 2013

GW  is based on complex physics over geological time scales. And now on mere human timescale s. Therefore  very non trivial.  We need to understand  the physics of it and develop massive solar for cheap by machine.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 18, 2013

I don’t think I said that the pace of climate change is unprecedented and, if so, it was unintentional. What I meant to convey was that the rate of greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere is unprecidented and that this could eventually trigger positive feedback mechanisms resulting in rapid and unstoppable climate change. 

I would also be interested in your views on how we can improve the resilience and adaptability of our society. Currently, we are still becoming increasingly interconnected and increasingly constrained by our overly complex economic and social systems – quite the opposite of what we should be doing. 

Nathaniel Pearre's picture
Nathaniel Pearre on May 18, 2013

Can you quantify the term “good chance”?  There who try come out with very low probabilities.  Is 5% a good chance?

Disolving more CO2 into the ocean (the ocean is already a sink of something like a third of atmospheric CO2) does in fact NOT make it a “non issue”, that is itself an issue.  Ocean acidification is a huge problem that threatens multi billion dollar industries worldwide, and food resources that deliver about 1/6th of all the protein we consume.

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on May 18, 2013

Schalk, you can get some samples of my writing related to resilience here:

I also have discussed this subject extensively for several years in the AdaptAbility group in LinkedIn. (You have to join LinkedIn and become a member of the group to participate.)

Getting back to this discussion, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that “the rate of greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere is unprecedented”. I suspect the ancient geological record is not detailed enough to gauge that accurately. For one thing, major volcanic or NEO impact events can alter the atmosphere very rapidly. It seems likely that comets have sometimes collided with the earth, but from what I’ve read, their impacts may be hard to detect. Water vapor is the major greenhouse gas, and a colliding comet — comprised mostly of water — would almost instantly inject immense quantities of water vapor into the atmosphere. A massive object striking in the ocean would too. A strike on or near land rapidly burns organic matter over a vast area, producing a huge spike in greenhouse gases.

I K's picture
I K on May 27, 2013

No its that you need to define who or what is going to benefit or not. Very few things will be a net harm to the diverse life rich earth. If one species suffers another will move in on its primary food and it will expand. When oxygen went from 30% to 20% the days of the giant insect were numbered so it was bad for them. But other things moved in and benefitted. As such CO2 going up will not be a net negative

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on May 28, 2013

It’s not very simple to define “who will benefit” in a different atmosphere, however, it’s very easy to define that “change” would occur.

The biosphere that we and ALL the other species depend on AT THIS TIME would be different, most probably caused by positive feedbacks (which are negative to us) accelerated by the addition of humanity’s expulsion of excess co2, into one that WE and the other species AT THIS TIME… don’t like. Therefore, it is in all of our best interests to research and then know with 100% certainty how to prevent such unfortunate “change”. Just randomly saying things like “nature is resilient” does NOT manifest a 100% certainty of truth and neither does that contribute toward the solutions.

This whole global warming thing is most probably an exercise for humanity to learn from, just as all the previous “problems”… because, even though our unnatural addition of excess co2 is indeed off the charts for a half million year or so period, natural causes are ALSO at play.

To simply disregard THAT (and our own additions) is like the dinosaurs disregarding the possibility of giant space rocks… It’s bound to happen, only this time, we must first “learn” the global warming ropes if we are to persevere long enough to mine the asteroid that has our name on it.

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on May 28, 2013

Clearly, giant space rocks continue to be a potential threat. The fact is that the ability to identify and track asteroids that could hit the earth is currently very limited and inadequate. No technology exists that can effectively prevent a collision. The money estimated to be needed to develop the necessary defensive capabilities seems to be no more than a few percent of the c. $365 billion currently being spent on climate change ‘mitigation’ activities. Yet the necessary investment is not being made.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on May 29, 2013

I was just trying to put the two (possible) global killers in perspective… Statistically speaking, we will have the technology to mine (or simply nudge) the space rock by the time it hits because it shouldn’t become a threat until, like a thousand years from now. By then, we should have the robotic armada necessary to catalogue every object in this and even other, solar systems and thus the ability to nudge it hundreds of years before, to effectively prevent collision with very little energy expended.

However, if the GW problem indeed presents its dreaded feedback loops, then we are all in doom long before any hopes of averting asteroids.

Therefore, the need to develop the advanced machine automation necessary to be able to deal with it, specifically, to mass produce clean energy generators and CO2 to mineral sequestraters (because not all countries have the renewable energy resources).

I K's picture
I K on May 29, 2013

Good post

Some time it’s useful to imagine what if we did have the power to change things. For instance lets say an alien civilisation came to earth and gave us a magic machine we hit a button and can have any concentration of CO2 we wanted.  Would we really want to hit the minus 125ppm button? 

Im not so sure we would


The co2 debate is polluted by the renewable debate

The alternative energy debate is polluted by the co2 debate

Throw in a dash of ‘morals’ and politics and you have the alphabet soup that is the ‘climate renewable change warming energy’ debate

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