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The Dangerous Myth That Climate Change Is Reversible

The CMO (Chief Misinformation Officer) of the climate ignorati, Joe Nocera, has a new piece, “A Real Carbon Solution.” The biggest of its many errors comes in this line:

A reduction of carbon emissions from Chinese power plants would do far more to help reverse climate change than — dare I say it? — blocking the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Memo to Nocera: As a NOAA-led paper explained 4 years ago, climate change is “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe (if we don’t slash emissions ASAP).

This notion that we can reverse climate change by cutting emissions is one of the most commonly held myths — and one of the most dangerous, as explained in this 2007 MIT study, “Understanding Public Complacency About Climate Change: Adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter.”

The fact is that, as RealClimate has explained, we would need “an immediate cut of around 60 to 70% globally and continued further cuts over time” merely to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of CO2 – and that would still leave us with a radiative imbalance that would lead to “an additional 0.3 to 0.8ºC warming over the 21st Century.” And that assumes no major carbon cycle feedbacks kick in, which seems highly unlikely.

We’d have to drop total global emissions to zero now and for the rest of the century just to lower concentrations enough to stop temperatures from rising. Again, even in this implausible scenario, we still aren’t talking about reversing climate change, just stopping it — or, more technically, stopping the temperature rise. The great ice sheets might well continue to disintegrate, albeit slowly.

This doesn’t mean climate change is unstoppable — only that we are stuck with whatever climate change we cause before we get desperate and go all WWII on emissions. That’s why delay is so dangerous and immoral. I’ll discuss this further below the jump.

First, though, Nocera’s piece has many other pieces of misinformation. He leaves people with the impression that coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a practical, affordable means of reducing emissions from existing power plants that will be available soon. In fact, most demonstration projects around the world have been shut down, the technology Nocera focuses on would not work on the vast majority of existing coal plants, and CCS is going to be incredibly expensive compared to other low-carbon technologies — see Harvard stunner: “Realistic” first-generation CCS costs a whopping $150 per ton of CO2 (20 cents per kWh)! And that’s in the unlikely event it proves to be practical, permanent, and verifiable (see “Feasibility, Permanence and Safety Issues Remain Unresolved”).

Heck, guy who debated me on The Economist‘s website conceded things are going so slowly, writing “The idea is that CCS then becomes a commercial reality and begins to make deep cuts in emissions during the 2030s.” And he’s a CCS advocate!!

Of course, we simply don’t have until the 2030s to wait for deep cuts in emissions. No wonder people who misunderstand the irreversible nature of climate change, like Nocera, tend to be far more complacent about emissions reductions than those who understand climate science.

The point of Nocera’s piece seems to be to mock Bill McKibben for opposing the idea of using captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery (EOR): “his answer suggests that his crusade has blinded him to the real problem.”

It is Nocera who has been blinded. He explains in the piece:

Using carbon emissions to recover previously ungettable oil has the potential to unlock vast untapped American reserves. Last year, ExxonMobil reportedthat enhanced oil recovery would allow it to extend the life of a single oil field in West Texas by 20 years.

McKibben’s effort to stop the Keystone XL pipeline is based on the fact that we have believe the vast majority of carbon in the ground. Sure, it wouldn’t matter if you built one coal CCS plant and used that for EOR. But we need a staggering amount of CCS, as Vaclav Smil explained in “Energy at the Crossroads“:

Sequestering a mere 1/10 of today’s global CO2 emissions (less than 3 Gt CO2) would thus call for putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by [the] petroleum industry whose infrastructures and capacities have been put in place over a century of development. Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation.”

D’oh! What precisely would be the point of “sequestering” all that CO2 to extract previously “ungettable oil” whose emissions, when burned, would just about equal the CO2 that you supposedly sequestered?

Remember, we have to get total global emissions of CO2 to near zero just to stop temperatures from continuing their inexorable march toward humanity’s self-destruction. And yes, this ain’t easy. But  it is impossible if we don’t start slashing emissions soon and stop opening up vast new sources of carbon.

For those who are confused on this point, I recommend reading the entire MIT study, whose lead author is John Sterman. Here is the abstract:


Public attitudes about climate change reveal a contradiction. Surveys show most Americans believe climate change poses serious risks but also that reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sufficient to stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations or net radiative forcing can be deferred until there is greater evidence that climate change is harmful. US policymakers likewise argue it is prudent to wait and see whether climate change will cause substantial economic harm before undertaking policies to reduce emissions. Such wait-and-see policies erroneously presume climate change can be reversed quickly should harm become evident, underestimating substantial delays in the climate’s response to anthropogenic forcing. We report experiments with highly educated adults–graduate students at MIT–showing widespread misunderstanding of the fundamental stock and flow relationships, including mass balance principles, that lead to long response delays. GHG emissions are now about twice the rate of GHG removal from the atmosphere.

GHG concentrations will therefore continue to rise even if emissions fall, stabilizing only when emissions equal removal. In contrast, results show most subjects believe atmospheric GHG concentrations can be stabilized while emissions into the atmosphere continuously exceed the removal of GHGs from it. These beliefs-analogous to arguing a bathtub filled faster than it drains will never overflow-support wait-and-see policies but violate conservation of matter. Low public support for mitigation policies may be based more on misconceptions of climate dynamics than high discount rates or uncertainty about the risks of harmful climate change.

It’s also worth reading RealClimate’s piece “Climate change commitments,” based on a Nature Geoscience letter by Mathews and Weaver (sub. reqd.), which has this figure:

Again, zero emissions merely stops climate change, and obviously, thanks to the deniers and ignorati, we won’t be going to zero anytime soon.

Finally, I recommend RealClimate’s 2009 post, “Irreversible Does Not Mean Unstoppable“:

But you have to remember that the climate changes so far, both observed and committed to, are minor compared with the business-as-usual forecast for the end of the century. It’s further emissions we need to worry about. Climate change is like a ratchet, which we wind up by releasing CO2. Once we turn the crank, there’s no easy turning back to the natural climate. But we can still decide to stop turning the crank, and the sooner the better.

Indeed, we are only committed to about 2°C total warming so far, which is a probably manageable — and even more probably, if we did keep CO2 concentrations from peaking below 450 ppm, the small amount of CO2 we are likely to be able to remove from the atmosphere this century could well take us below the danger zone.

But if we don’t reverse emissions trends soon, we will at least double and probably triple that temperature rise, most likely negating any practical strategy to undo the impacts for hundreds of years.

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Roger Faulkner's picture
Roger Faulkner on Mar 27, 2013 4:33 pm GMT

My piece of this vast puzzle is to work diligently to enable a supergrid. Supergrids are powerful enablers of a renewable energy economy, and I have identified two missing technologies that are needed for supergrids to be possible:

1) We need a way to put the huge power lines that will be needed underground; otherwise, a supergrid will imply many new transcontinental overhead HVDC lines, which is politically impossible;

2) We need a breakthrough on HVDC circuit breakers.

I have breakthrough concepts on both these problems. As is usually the case, I'm swimming upstream for now, due to the "risk averse" nature of the utility industry (they don't really count the climate risk the same way they count reliability risk).

Vailhem Vailhem's picture
Vailhem Vailhem on Apr 20, 2013 2:48 am GMT

It’s not just about slashing emissions, they need to be reversed. The only energy source that allows this is biomass, and even then, only when the biomass is gasified (via pyrolysis) in such that it produced biochar. This is an excellent combo because biochar, when readded to the soils from which the biomass is grown, actually help to increase the growh of the biomass itself… and, thus, the sequestration of atmospheric carbon.

The gasified hydrocarbon chains themselves form something similar to a biocrude and lighter hydrocarbon chains, including pure hydrogen. These can then be distilled, like petroleum crude, into various liquid fuels, as well can produce gases that aren’t just straight swap for, but literally are butane, propane, ethane, and methane… as well as their liquid counterparts… butanol, propanol, ethanol, and methanol…. and, again, the pure hydrogen.

Calculations have shown that high-carbon/high-woody, fast-growth crops like switchgrass and miscanthus could be planted in an area that is half what is currently farmed in Iowa (much of which is mostly corn and soy for use in the production of ethanol and biodiesel) and could produce the btu value (if not the outright fuels themselves) of what the US consumes in petroleum annually.  Under greehouses, these conditions can only be densified and extended to year-round production capabilities, as well… an area the size of that which is already used for farmland in Iowa could grow enough btu’s of energy from switchgrass (alone, miscanthus is even more energy-dense than switchgrass… both of which are much more energy-dense than corn and soy) to replace all forms of energy consumed in the United States per annum. 

All of this not just producing the energy, not just being carbon-neutral but actually being carbon-negative…. ie, what is necessary to not just neutralize global greenhouse gas emissions, but actually reverse them.

Better still, both of these crops grow on sub-par land that is otherwise not suited for food-crops… meaning, lands not currently being farmed, and not necessarily in Iowa… in fact, a decentralized distribution of these crops would allow for more local production of energy sources…. all the while producing biochar which can then be used to improve both the quality of these lands, as well as lands already being used for food production.

This is unlike other renewalble energy sources (such as wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, hydroelectric… nuclear and even ‘clean coal’ and ‘clean natural gas’) wherein they are carbon neutral at best. 

There are many other crops that can be grown as well, including those already heavily researched and utilized for their energy usage… the notable exception being the switch from traditional methods of utilizing these (outright incineration as is the case with wood pellets, anaerobic digestion, as is the case with corn, soy, farm waste, etc) over to gasification via pyrolysis… in such that it produces a hydrogen-rich gas stream separate from the solid-carbon components of the feedstock… thus, resulting in biochar. With this, 1,000 years could easily become 100, and, with proper methods, rates-of-scale-up/deployment, and management practices, in even half that amount of time, if not faster. Estimates put us at before 2035… if deployed properly and quickly today. 

To restate that, we could have global atmospheric carbon levels not just neutralized, not just reversed, but brought back down to the 250ppm that they were before the  industrial revolution’s start of heavy utilization of fossil fuels… ie, pre-1850’s by 2030… vs the paths we’re currently going on… which is closer to 2150, if ever.

Vailhem Vailhem's picture
Vailhem Vailhem on Apr 21, 2013 3:23 am GMT

are you asking me specifically? or just the commenters in general?

According to the ever trusty and accurate Wikipedia (tongue in cheek) titled “World Energy Consumption”, the 2008 total worldwide energy consumption was 474 exajoules… this appears such that it could be just from electrical, but farther reading of the ‘trends’ section also seems to imply that it’s the total amount. Lets round up to 500exajoules and assume that it is the total amount (roughly double anything from this point on if it’s just for electrical as I believe transportation (ie, oil) is essentially half of energy consumed… if it includes oil, which it appears to, it’s a back of the envelope rough calculation).

1 joule = 0.00094781712btu’s… so, 500exajoules =’s 4.73908e^17 
Switchgrass is being advanced pretty aggressively to contain denser and denser volumes of harvestable crop off of less and less inputs, but according to Ethanol Producer magazine’s Oct 2007 article titled “Miscanthus versus Switchgrass”, the grass was sustaining 20 metric tons per hectare (8.3tpa) with the highest single year yield topping at 36.7 metric tons per hectare (17tpa). I have read much higher numbers in more recent articles who immediately escape me, but nearly doublings of this with specific strains and multiple harvests per year. Again, this crop has advanced greatly in the past 5 years with many newly created or ‘tweaked’ breeds growing multiple harvests a year and much faster and taller… and denser yields…. with more hydrogen in them per harvest. 

but, goign with that 8.3tpa 2007 number, and the 7,500btu per pound of switchgrass number (again, newer strains nearly double that number per pound, and nearly double the per pounds per acre… per harvest, and double the number of harvests per year… in open field.. double it again for under-greenhouse conditions on the number of harvests per field… plus the micro-control’ability of greenhouses.. carbon fertilization, atmospheric N2 fertilization mixed with diazatrophic fertilizers like SumaGrow and controlling the runoff from the greenhouse (both on top (rain) and inside such that it can be recycled back into the field again to keep nitrogen and SOC and nutritional levels high)… not to mention that the process mentioned above makes the hydrocarbon chains needed to make the plastics for the greenhouses….)


in short, 8.3tpa x 2000lbs per ton x 7500btu per pound = 124.5m btu per acre.

4.73908e^17/124.5m =’s 3.806b acres… which can be halved (new strains double harvests) and then halved again (double yields)… and then halved again (because of double growing seasons because of the ability to be done in greenhouses) and this doesn’t take into consideration the yield increases that CO2 and N2 fertilization that greenhouses allow…… you come to 475,811,244 acres….

according to, Iowa had 30,800,000 acres in farmland in 2010…. but we’re talking global energy consumption here… and Iowa-quality soil and Iowa rates of switchgrass growth… not the national average… total US farmland occupies 954million acres. …. so, roughly half of the farmland already dedicated to farming could be switched to switchgrass (miscanthus arbuably has double the energy yields of switchgrass… but lower carbon ratio in the plant so less biochar and thus carbon sequestration capability). with the other half put under greenhouses with doubled yields from doubled growing seasons as well lower inputs and carbon and n2 fertilization capabilities as well (keep in mind, the biocrude oil produced from switchgrass or just biomass gasification in general can be used to make the plastics needed for the greenhouse construction).


There are many many studies on biochar produced from switchgrass, and in average systems, it’s approximately 50% weight of biochar to gases… at <15% moisture content. and since biochar  not only sequesters pound for pound its weight, but also increases carbon sequestration of the soil itself… you could calculate it into the mix as well, but lets not.

I’ll let you do the calculations on the sequestration of carbon via biochar made from switchgrass gasification, but in short, it’s carbon neutral on the gases burned, and carbon negative on the biochar produced… 


to contrast all of this, the total agricultural area irrigated in the world is 2.8billion acres… and growing per annum…. with the deserts of the world largely untouched… Sahara, Gobi, Australia, Southwest US…. not to mention the deserts that have been created from slash & burn… that can be covered in greenhouses and utilized for this (if Brazilian equatorial lands even need to be put under greenhouses for light frequencies and temperature… CO2 and N2 fertilization would benefit though, as would carbon sequestration-ability.

The emissions from burning the ligher hydrocarbon chains produced (methane, hydrogen, etc) can be pumped into the greenhouses… the NxOx’s that are naturally in the flue gases because they are so naturally prevalant in the atmosphere and the CO can be pushed through a catalytic converter to produce CO2 and N2, stored using activated carbon, like with ANG technology, and later pumped into the greenhouses… 

It sounds ambitious because it is… but it can all be done using already existing technology. Solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, tidal, wave-power, etc etc… let alone petroleum, coal, natural gas, tar sands, nuclear-even… carbon neutral … and only if processed properly.

The biochar can later be used as a carbon feedstock to produce graphene with… for use of storing the power, generating more, purifying water, etc etc. There are advanced technologies that can only improve it, but everything that is needed to do it at the rates mentioned already exists… and has for quite some time.




Vailhem Vailhem's picture
Vailhem Vailhem on Apr 21, 2013 4:38 am GMT

Wouldn’t superconductors make more sense than HVDC? Wouldn’t waiting … pushing even… on the development of graphene make more sense than putting traditional HVDC lines all over the place?

hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in graphene, if not billions, and payoff should be very quick around the corner at the rate of current development… my other comments on this can give an idea on how to source the carbon for the graphene.. while also reversing ghg emissions in the process… and using technology already in existence today… and using today’s already existing grid networks… both electrical and natural gas…. and transportation fuels…. which could also be worked on as the already lab-proven graphene technology is properly developed for product form…. again, from the biochar which is the sequestered atmospheric carbon

Vailhem Vailhem's picture
Vailhem Vailhem on Apr 21, 2013 4:50 am GMT

I could not disagree with this more. It’s exaclty this anti-human b.s. that has allowed it to go on this far.

1billion were starving or below the poverty line 2billion people ago (ie, at 5billion)… and 1 billion are there now…. we have grown, and advanced enough to keep the number steady. We have also grown in our food production, with much of it going to waste or being out-right destroyed vs feeding the people…. socio-politically understood.

We have more than enough water, if properly managed, we have well-more than enough land…. if the biomass we produce and the water we use are properly utilized…. we could probably and quite possibly will be able to feed 10 times our current population, and possibly even more than that!

It’s all about proper structuring and utilization of resources. Biochar sequesters carbon…. greenhouses allow for year round growing seasons… densification of farms allows for even more food production… vertical farms, farms underground, etc… can easily grow massive amounts of food. Land currently not used for farming…. Australia, Sahara, Gobi, southwestern US, the newly-created deserts from old rainforests in the Amazon…. 

this anti-human sentiment is exactly what’s wrong with the environmental movement. It isn’t bad enough that they won’t just kill themselves, they want to take 6/7ths of the population with them in the process…. and convince as many others to kill themselves as they possibly can.

I’m not saying consume consume consume…. by no means no…. our society has become so gluttonous that it makes me want to vomit… and I’m sure many others actually really have from observing it.

Changes… social, behavorial, moral, etc… will most definitely need to be made, but the carrying capacity of our planet is well beyond the 1billion number thrown around oh-so-often.

The thing is, in order to create the population that has the self control to exist at these larger numbers, it will also have to have the intelligence to conduct itself properly… and an intelligent person tends to not ‘breed’ as heavily… so, capability and probability are two totally different things…. the probability that we will reach our capability is honestly far reduced…. then again, people still like to have kids… and with longer and longer lifespans becoming all but inevitable… we may easily reach those numbers….. 

And we haven’t even really begun to embrace inhabiting the oceans… iron on this planet is nearly limitless, artificial islands could easily be constructed… if energy constraints get out of the way… and advances in nanotechnology allow for even wilder ideas to be embarked upon.

Check out my others comment(s) on to this article to get an idea with how far I think this can be taken.

Vailhem Vailhem's picture
Vailhem Vailhem on Apr 21, 2013 7:21 pm GMT

Mr Post,

  You hadn’t mentioned anything about ‘species survival’ in your previous post. Species survival could probably happen off of much less than even 1 billion… we were already planting the foundations of our current civilization atop. Between 70,000BCE until around 11,000BCE we peaked around 1 million people, and that’s when we were really beginning to start to grasp agriculture. Clearly we’ve done nothing but grow and become more complex since then, but the basic river valley civilizations that are still a part of the global picture had already begun doing their deal around 6,000BCE…. at populations much less than 1 billion.

My point is, we could easily continue to exist as a species at well below 1 billion…. and even an interconnected civilization… in that we would, at least theoretically, be ‘surviving’ in a civilization built with at least the technologies that exist today….. and many that probably yet don’t.

A global reduction or even killing off of the population such that it reduces itself to 1/7th its current size is horribly inhumane. Life has a natural tendency to kill us off itself… plague, influenza, small pox, etc… but even in the most sever of those cases, small pox, it was 75%, and even then only in select pockets of infection… plague was high in pockets as well, but its average is estimated to be around 33%… influenza is around 10-12%. 

A dye off on the order of 6/7ths would require multiple coalescing variables (asteroids, bioweapons, war, etc) and even then they probably wouldn’t be enough. It would take a much much more targeted and focused intent to reduce the population down to those levels…. much more malicious in focus. I have no doubt the technologies exist, I read about them daily. I also have no doubt that the force-of-arms exists, I read about those too.  My worry is the mindset.

It is so easy to make such wild statements while perched upon a society where countless before us have died to ensure that such a thing never come to pass. Looking at your history, your background is largely American. Forgive me if I am reading into it incorrectly, but I see little to no European, let alone other countries in your history. On the one hand, looking at it from a ‘numbers problem’, sure, we may be able to gain from reductions here and there.. but on another, at what cost?

The acts involved to do this in any short order would be such a violation of personal liberties and freedoms, right as far as I am concerned… rights, and liberties, and freedoms that both of us have so clearly benefited from to be able to make such bold observations… that it not only cross the line of sense & sensibility, but flirts with the line of madness and insanity.

Education seems to be one of the most successful paths towards population reduction…. and in a much more ‘civil’ way. The Kissinger-era mentality of carpet bombing areas to help with future population bottlenecks, or the mass sterilizations that took place in India in the ’70’s were human rights violations that I personally want no part of. Imagine me climbing onto your bus, or stopping you while enroute to your classes in NJ, and taking you, at gun point, from the bus to a van and having you go through a process of forced vascetomy simply because we needed to limit the population. Or, worse, because I felt that the over-population was such a dire problem for the world, that I built pressure cookers with sinister purposes and placed them at the schools of Sandy Hook or at marathon end-lines simply because I felt that there were too many people.

These violations are absurd. Extreme? Yes…. but unfortunately not paths that civilization has managed to not endure. It’s so easy to talk about sweeping reductions in population, or government ordered 1-child policies, it’s quite another to be at the receiving end of them.  Granted, you put no timeline for these end goals…. so the extremes that would be needed to reach them are flexible, of course, but most certainly would require a major change from the current paths our planet is walking.

Is it no more ‘god-like’ to make decisions like this than it is to think that we can keep walking the path, ‘destroying the planet’, raping the environment such as we are? There are better ways. Technology and audacity got us into this current situation. I challenge that we have the audacity to discover the science and invent the technology that get us out of it…. humanely.

Your profile shows that you are well-experienced in many of the areas that we would need a thorough understanding of in order to implement much (if not all?) of what I have proposed elsewhere in this post’s comments. To think that such a talent as your could be removed simply because people lacked the foresight to recogize your years, decades-even, of accomplishments simply to meet some goal to ward off something that was long ago put in place would be a shame.

Humanity definitely needs to change, and massive populations far beyond our current levels are most definitely not needed, and hopefully can even be averted, but I am of the opinion that, with a bit more delicacy than we’ve shown up to this point, we can achieve a much much more ‘just’ footprint on the planet. …. a planet that created us too.  Evidence shows that our ability to make the sweeping changes to its landscape was evolved right here… we are just as ‘natural’ as anything else, as are our actions. It’s up to use to elevate them to a higher level.

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