Stuck in the middle with… who?

I’ve already used Clowns to the left of me…. And then I run across an opinion article in today’s Guardian: “Let’s Get Real on the Environment.” by David Appell nicely counterbalanced by Yes. We Can.. Oh dear oh dear.

To begin with the obligatory snarking, anyone with young children in the UK will instantly recognise “Yes we can” as the irritatingly cheerful cleft-free Bob the Builder and his army of health-and-safety violating machines (Nah then nah then sir. Did you let that digger drive around by itself? Please come down to the station with me sir…). In Tamino-world, it means the equally unrealistic Suppose we institute a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, force U.S. carmakers to double fuel efficiency within a decade as a condition on any financial bailout, invest billions (not paltry millions) in new solar and wind power generation, invest billions (not paltry millions) in energy storage technology research. Suppose we institute a carbon tax, and not a wimpy “token” tax, but a heavy, extremely painful one. Suppose…

Until something really serious happens, climate-wise (or until something that most people take to be serious, climate-wise, like a few more big hurricanes happening to hit major US cities and causing massive damage) the US is *not* going to impose extremely painful climate taxes. For the obvious reasons. Some of his other stuff I consider unrealistic for other reasons: we could easily invest billions in wind turbines and not solve our problems; it needs more than that. And I don’t find We keep approaching closer and closer to dangerous “tipping points” in climate change, like the release of tremendous amounts of CO2 and methane due to melting permafrost, significant albedo change due to ice loss, even CO2 increase due to warming of the oceans. convincing. Its all too impatient: give us a disaster now that we can believe in! Huge tax hikes now! It won’t happen.

Which brings us on to… the other side. David Appell says:

But most of all, let’s open our eyes and begin to be honest. You will fly to Jamaica this winter instead of cutting your greenhouse gases. Fine. Can we please accept this and begin to move on? But I won’t. I’m going to stay at my mothers house, and with my parents in law (and will enjoy it, before I get any snarky comments). Very few people I know will fly away for christmas – but perhaps David Appell swims with a different set to me. There is no crisis that will change our minds – not heat waves in France, not Katrina, not the disappearance of Arctic ice up north. We want what we want, and our species is lousy at planning for the future. Again, I disagree. Some crises might change our minds, though its not easy to see what might do so in good time. Even the world’s climate organisers do not hesitate to fly thousands of miles to Poland and live high on the hog. This is true, but irrelevant: the implicit assumption – that the Poznam people care particularly about climate change – is quite unwarranted. Most of them are career talkers / negotiators / diplomats. Going to such events, and more humble versions thereof, is what they have honed themselves for, built their careers around. Why should anyone expect them to do otherwise?

Tamino is too impatient, Appell to far in despair, and neither is a very useful attitude.

25 thoughts on “Stuck in the middle with… who?”

  1. William,

    which attitude is better then? Maybe that of Fred Pearce?

    [Thanks but no, thats crap too (don’t give up on me, though). The politicians just don’t seem to get the seriousness of the global warming crisis. Scientists attending the recent UN climate conference in Poznan, Poland, complained that the gap between political rhetoric and scientific reality on climate change is growing. is just wrong. The politicians know whats up, or at least they know if they care to. But they also know full well that if they promise swinging carbon taxes they’ll be voted out at the next election. Its *our* fault, not our evil leaders. People get the politicians they deserve, no? (possibly excluding the poor people of Zimbabwe) -W]

    Anyway, maybe that “peak-oil” will save us from ourselves?

    [That leads to a video, and a mangled URL: http://www.guprod.gnl/business/2008/dec/15/oil-peak-energy-iea (at least I assume its mangled; it doesn’t work) -W]


  2. WC,

    I think your sentiments are on the money. But as I have stated before I don’t think this is going to be solved by “being good.” (“Being good” is defined as individuals using less carbon, sort of like not eating food that is bad for you.) It is going to be solved by figuring out what to do about removing the carbon from the atmosphere.

    [I remain undecided. My suspicion is that taking C out of the atmosphere isn’t going to work (but like biofuels, will probably be a temporary boondoggle for someone, when governments decide to throw money at it for a bit) -W]

    I know I’m being a bit of a broken record on this, but I’m not hearing any good alternatives. Give people good alternatives that actually could get the job done and they will get behind it.

    Nicolas Nierenberg

    [Price signals may well do it. Our temporary oil shock woke people up quite nicely. Look at the future emissions projections and see just how much emissions might increase (to the extent that “are we currently on a1f1 or a1b” is just wibbling in the noise), and think how much extra oil/coal we’d be scrabbling around for -W]


  3. William, the link on the video page is mangled, but the “full story” is probably Monbiot’s newest, available with citations here. More on this topic from Coby.

    Alexander: I seem to recall that even if oil peaks tomorrow (or yesterday), there’s still enough carbon in fossil fuels (notably coal) to prevent the peak from saving us from climaticide. I’ll see if I can find my reference on that and get back to you, although given how it was probably connected to Hansen, I’d expect some snarkery from our host. 😉


  4. So, let’s just lie down and enjoy it? How Roger of you, but he was there five years ago.

    The point that Tamino was getting at is that small steps have value and we have to start NOW. Progress is that the denialists have now moved to the nothing we will do will have any effect and the only hope is to pray for a technical miracle stage (See Lomborg in his debate with Myles Allen and recent RealClimate threads)

    You and I, William started in this business about ten years ago, maybe 15, at the stage when no cost and negative cost steps would have had an effect. The denialists (and yes Wm. Nierenberg was one) denied it all, and when they didn’t raised a fog of nonsense, we don’t understand, we can’t afford it, it is a communist plot (even when there were no more communists). They had their way and we are now starting to pay the procrastination penalty. Wait longer and the penalty will be higher. I will live to maybe the first thirty or forty years of the century, you maybe to the middle, your kids to the end. It’s their problem. I can’t afford it.

    {I’m happy to agree that small steps have value, and agree we should take what steps we can, starting now. But swingeing carbon taxes aren’t in the “small steps” category, which is what I was trying to say -W]


  5. ER,

    Thanks for the continuing cheap shot on WAN with little basis. There is no definition for “denialist” so it is just something to throw around. I would also like you to find a single reference to him saying a word about “communist plots.” He had a scientific point of view in a field he was fairly well qualified in, probably better than you although you keep your level of expertise well hidden. It was influenced by his world view, which I’m fairly certain is also true for you. (In addition he tended to use his real name.)

    Anyway, how about a realistic scenario for me showing how the little steps will lead to a solution. I sometimes think that you don’t actually think this is a real problem, and this is just a game despite your rhetoric. Show me how we get to an 80% reduction of global output of CO2 from current levels in a time frame that matters. And skip the global tariff nonsense, it isn’t going to happen.

    Nicolas Nierenberg


  6. Hey Nicolas,

    As a long time follower of these debates, I find the bunny on the money. I find the Stoat tiresomely on the fence. The edge must start to bite in after a time.

    [Part of why I left, though only a small part. I hope you can distinuish between what I would *like* us to do and what I think there is any *chance* of us doing.

    If there is any interest in this, I could expand at length, but: the present day damage we are clearly doing to ourselves and our envirnoment *now* by development related activities seems to me to be larger than the postulated future GHE related damage. And yet we refuse to fix it. So it seems unlikely we will fix the far less certain GHE damage -W]

    Nicolas, this isn’t a game. If little steps won’t metastasize into big steps what will? Do we really need to wait for lots of unambiguous disasters?

    A little more time spent trying to mitigate your father’s misdirection and little less patrolling the climate blogs for yet another slur against him might be productive. He got it wrong. Live with it. Our children will have to live with it.

    As a relative newcomer to the climate blogosphere, I suppose you can be excused for not being able to figure out who the elusive rabbit is. He do seem to know what he is talking about.


  7. With Lomborg, perhaps? Do you have a major point of disagreement with his approach? Seems to me that even if you don’t buy everything he says you’re coming from roughly the same place. Myself I think Lomborg’s pretty sensible. It’s a bit sad that the calmer he tries to be the more fury he seems to generate.

    [Oooh I wasn’t expecting that; probably I should have been. Lomborg I think plays down possible impacts ( for example) whilst pretending to take the IPCC position on the science. I wish he wouldn’t do it, because it badly damages his credibility, for no real gain -W]


  8. “Its all too impatient: give us a disaster now that we can believe in! Huge tax hikes now! It won’t happen.”

    You know, for Canadians (like me) the melting Arctic is actually a pretty big deal. Within the past three years we suddenly have another national security issue on our plate. It is perhaps not likely, but not impossible, that this will all end in an armed conflict. Certainly, increased military expenditures on our part will be required (patrol boats and such).

    Tipping point? Maybe.

    [Its certainly more interesting for you. But “another” NS issue? It all looks fairly peaceful up there from over here -W]


  9. PM,

    I am not patrolling the climate blogs, I am enjoying them, and expressing MY point of view. As I was doing it ER decided to drag the issue of my father into it, which I resented as it had nothing to do with the point I was making.

    Neither of you can have a discussion with my father, so have one with me.

    I still don’t hear anyone with an actual proposal.

    Anyway here is mine. If I am president of the US I certainly take a series of actions to reduce energy/carbon fuel use. It is better for the environment, reduces dependence on foreign sources, and just in general seems like the way the future at some indefinite point will be anyway so it is good to get there as early as possible. At the same time I know that this will have little effect on GW.

    So to move to the main issue I start spending seriously on research on technologies that solve the core problem. Cheap clean energy, and CO2 removal. I would invest in research grants, but I would also put up very serious money prizes for solving certain problems.

    I would also sponsor international conferences which are not dedicated to politicians talking about reductions that they have no idea how to achieve, but rather are scientists and engineers meeting to discuss potential solutions. The goal at these conferences would be to return CO2 levels to below current levels, with the thought processes wide open, but also with realistic assumptions about human behavior.

    Instead at WC points out we have people pounding the table about changing light bulbs, and thousands of politicians meeting at conferences promising xyz reduction by some date in the future. I would have thought Kyoto showed how pointless that approach is.

    Nicolas Nierenberg


  10. What you are missing is that this time we will hurt our self in a way that will be noticed…

    However, I think that getting ppl to better understand biodiversity and the value of nature is important… so more ecological economy and visualise biodiversity… and do that while we tell everyone about the global warming implications.

    BTW I rank GW as a bigger problem then the other environmental problems atm…


  11. WC,

    I agree that energy use is elastic, and you can shift between energy sources based on price signals. That is part of the problem right now with China. Coal is a relatively cheap way of generating power if you ignore the externalities. I really don’t know what we can do to make coal more expensive for the Chinese without their cooperation. Look at how much Europe is squeaking now that some of their promises would actually limit things.

    Sufficient increase in the price of all carbon sources in a time frame that makes sense, on a global basis, is another solution that seems unlikely to me. But we can let the politicians try I guess.

    I don’t know enough about Carbon removal to know if it is feasible, but engineering problems are almost always easier than political ones. Chlorofluorocarbons were only killed off because there was a reasonable alternative. Europe only stopped cutting down forests because better fuel sources were discovered.

    [At least in England, we stopped cutting down forests because we ran out of forest -W]

    BTW I’m not sure that biofuels are a dead end. That may actually be an important ingredient in a solution, but it will be some type of bacterial bio-engineering, not corn.

    I sure like the idea of Carbon removal better than shooting stuff into the atmosphere. But maybe that is where we will wind up.


  12. Alexander,

    Interesting post, but it doesn’t prove your premise. The fact that it takes energy to accomplish is obvious. But since carbon removal could be done anywhere one could imagine non CO2 producing energy sources powering it. After all if we can’t imagine non CO2 producing energy sources, then what are we talking about?

    As you mention trees are a good example of non CO2 producing systems for removing carbon from the atmosphere. So we know in principle such a device can exist.

    But as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts I’m happy to hear about alternatives. And I’m not talking about king of the world alternatives where you get to decide energy policy for every country.

    It never occurred to me before but maybe when people say “we” need to stop producing so much CO2 they mean it as the royal we.


  13. There is no “core” solution. Waiting for a core solution leaves us waiting for a Godot who will never arrive. What there are are a number of steps which together need to be implemented ASAP and the accumulation of which may have the desired effect or at least buy time. Tamino listed a number of them. The tragedy is that these small steps would have had a much larger effect if implemented earlier, but were opposed as being “not enough” “too expensive” “let’s do more research” “a majic horse will appear” “CO2 is life” and more.

    We are in the position of driving down a mountain at 100 kph encountering a bus filling the road on the turn. We can continue BAU and get crushed by the bus, or we can go over the side. Our car could get hung up in the trees or land on a lower level.

    Swinging carbon taxes offset by tax reductions are a zero sum situation. The point of changing the tax regime is to motivate other changes.


  14. ER,

    I am afraid we are talking past each other. It doesn’t matter what needs to be done, it matters what can be done. It is a wonderful idea to have a carbon tax, I would vote for it, if it was implemented on a world wide basis. But I only get a vote in one country, and therein lies the problem.


  15. I’ve been wanting a moderate carbon tax for over a decade. It doesn’t have to start off huge (but our Australian government seems to want to quarantine everyone from its effects)
    National borders for taxes are a soluble problem – carbon tax locally, carbon duty on imports from non-carbon-taxing countries; preferential arrangements with countries with a comparable carbon tax regime. We’ve solved this sort of thing for company taxes.


  16. Lomborgs real gain, as I’m sure you know william, is in dollars to his account and kudos amongst journalists and do-nothings.
    William unfortunately has a point regarding nothing getting done about current environmental degradation, although part of that problem is due to the fact that the worst of it is in developing countries, who as we all know are in the grip of massive debts and development crises.


  17. Where to set a carbon tax is an important issue. Just as important investors need to know that the tax is long term and will only increase otherwise they will not invest in lower carbon fuels, CO2 capture, etc.


  18. “I hope you can distinuish between what I would *like* us to do and what I think there is any *chance* of us doing.”

    Not really.

    1) What would you like us to do?

    2) Why would you like us to do it?

    3) What do you think there is any chance of us doing?

    4) Why is there (if there is) a discrepancy between 1 & 3?

    5) What will that mean in terms of 2?

    [I’d like us to slow down, step back and take a far longer term perspective on life and values. Vast swathes of things that we currently do simply don’t need to be done at all. I’d like us to do this because we could all be happier, and the environment less damaged. But I don’t see any real chance of this happening, absent some external shock, because sitting quietly tends to get overwhelmed by doing -W]


  19. Thank you for the response. It seems to me that it has nothing to do with AGW. Does it? Not that it should in general, but when you spend a lot of time covering it, could confuse people. You don’t really think anything needs to be done to address AGW specifically, do you? Or do you? If so, why? Which is probably the fundamental question of many who may visit the blog (if I may be so presumptuous).

    [I’ve always avoided straying too far into the what-to-do-about of GW. When I was a scientist, I was involved in the what-it-is, not what-to-do. Nowadays, I’m less convinced that its GW that needs our immeadiate attention, or that attending to it would be useful. Someday I may develope these thoughts, but they need to be better formed to do anything other than add to the noise -W]

    On a sidetrack (or maybe not) have you read any of Roger Deakins’ books? I’m currently reading Wildwood and your response seems very similar in spirit, if not content.

    [Nope, never read his stuff. Thought I have a feeling I’ve seen the book cover recently -W]


  20. Sorry put the apostrophe in the wrong place, it’s “Deakin”.

    Well, I’m thoroughly enjoying Wildwood, if that’s any sort of recommendation. I’ll probably be getting hold of the swimming one as well, in the new year.

    Thanks for the clarifying comments, too.


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