Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Climate Change: There are no simple solutions

The Earth is warming. Human carbon-dioxide emissions are one of the major culprits. We have known this for a long time. But in the past two decades, evidence for global warming has become more noticeable on local levels, as with seasonal shifts, extreme weather events, declines in biodiversity and, depending on where you live, droughts. And it will get worse.

I would describe myself as risk-averse, future-oriented, and someone who worries easily. I don’t need to be convinced that we are not doing enough to mitigate the consequences of rising temperatures. Yet, I have become increasingly frustrated about the discussion of climate change in the media, which makes it look like the problem is to convince people that climate change is happening in the first place.

It is not. The problem is that we don’t know what to do about it, and even if we knew, we wouldn’t have the means to actually do it. And nothing whatsoever has changed about this since I learned of climate change in school, some time in the 1980s. Gluing yourself to a train will not create the policies and the institutions we would need to implement them.

A good example for this bizarre problem-denial is Greta Thunberg, here speaking to a crowd of about 10,000 people in Helsinki: “The climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. All we need to do is to wake up and change.”

I do not blame Greta Thunberg for being naïve. She’s a child, and she even admits to being naïve. When I was a teenager, I thought much the same, so who am I to judge her. But adults should know better than that. Yet, here we have Bill Nye who delivers his variant of “all we need to do is wake up”:

But the fact that climate change happens does not tell us what, if anything, to do about it. And scientists really should know better than to mix “is” with “ought.”

As I said, I am future-oriented and risk-averse. These are my personal values. You may not share them. Maybe you don’t give a shit about what’s going to happen 50 years from now, and if that’s your opinion, then that’s your opinion. Maybe you are willing to accept the risk that a steep temperature rise will result in famine, social unrest, and diseases that eradicate some billion people. Or maybe you even think that getting rid of some billion humans, mostly in the developing world, would not be a bad thing. I don’t share these opinions, but there is nothing factually wrong with them.

Economists have a long story to tell about our responsibility to the coming generations. How much we value it depends on what is called the “future discount rate”, which quantifies, basically, the relevance we assign to what will happen in the future. This evaluation usually focuses on measures like the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and comes down to the question how much GDP per year we should invest today to prevent declines of GDP in the future. (If you are familiar with the literature, this is the Stern-Nordhaus debate over carbon pricing.)

The are many problems with that kind of argument. For starters, the GDP itself doesn’t tell you all that much about the well-being of people. It’s also somewhat unclear where to get the future discount rate. Economists have devised some methods to extract it from interest rates and the like. That is something you may or may not find reasonable. Also, we don’t know, just by discounting the future, how to factor in uncertainties about what is going to happen. Eg, one line of argument is that really what we should do is not look for a solution that is economically optimal, but one that minimizes the risk of a major ecological instability because then all bets are off.

Then there is the question what policies to pursue and how to implement them. A market-based solution, eg by putting a price on carbon, would be most likely to lead to an economically optimal strategy. The problem is, however, that this would necessitate an equilibrium readjustment of the global market which is unlikely to happen fast enough, even if we could get it going yesterday. And that’s leaving aside that equilibrium theory has its flaws, which is to say that economists aren’t exactly known for making great predictions.

Either way you turn it, resources that we spend today on limiting carbon-dioxide emissions are resources we cannot spend on something else, resources that will not go to education, research, social welfare, infrastructure. Oh, and they will also not go into that next larger particle collider.

 The world has two or maybe three decades of cheap fossil fuels left. Not using those makes our lives harder, regardless of how much we subsidize renewables. That, too, is a fact. Any sincere discussion about climate change should acknowledge it. It’s a difficult situation and there are no simple solutions.


  1. Hi! Great article!

    Is this sentence missing a "don't"?
    Maybe you give a shit about what’s going to happen 50 years from now, and if that’s your opinion, then that’s your opinion.

    Annnnddd I thought Nye's point was that the solutions to climate change are not free. It will cost money and effort to fix.

    1. Joey,

      Thanks for pointing out, I have fixed that. Yes, he points out that they're not free, but he makes it look like it's obvious what to do, that being my issue.

    2. given the proposals, wouldn't it be a good idea to reconsider and build bigger accelerators?

  2. Hi,
    Bill Nye ist an engineer not a real scientist...

    1. GT,

      My comment about scientists wasn't really about Nye. His video just came up this morning, so I added it for illustration. It was a couple of other articles that brought this rant on, most recently the ones about using school children to convince their parents that action is needed.

  3. In your second paragraph, do you mean "mostly in the developing world" rather than "developed".

    Let me also say that it's clear we need to start taking some action, and there are some easy things we can do. They won't be enough, but doing them will be better than not doing them.

    1. Peter,

      Thanks for catching that, I have fixed that. Well, we are already doing the easy things, at least that's my perspective. And the not-so-easy things are not getting anywhere because we don't have the institutions to make decisions and implement them. We didn't have them 50 years ago and still don't have them. All that activism isn't going to change anything about it.

    2. We know what to do, move away from fossil fuels, adopt EV's worldwide and reduce air travel until we can do it more efficiently. We can reduce beef and dairy consumption and plant billions of trees. We just don't want to. We are blindly hoping it won't be as bad as scientists predict or we are dead before it occurs. We are acting like a virus I hope I die before the question of "how much it will cost" is weighed against extinction.

  4. I actually would welcome greenhouse warming here in New England, as we are stuck in a seemingly perpetual cold spell. This morning it was 39 degrees, yesterday morning 34 degrees F. (3.9 C. and 1.1 C.). And this is after a month of practically continuous cloud cover and rain. We're running about 10 degrees F. below normal. The high yesterday was 46 F., the long-term average being 69, or 23 degrees F. below normal. But this is just a local phenomena. Other parts of the planet are experiencing above average temps. For example, Russia's Vavilov glacier went from a movement of 5 feet annually to a staggering 82 feet per day.

  5. Happily enough the Sahara is turning green again.

  6. "The problem is that we don’t know what to do about it, and even if we knew, we wouldn’t have the means to actually do it."

    Thank you for stating the problem so clearly.

    Of course, you know that almost no one actually believes in climate change, right? If we're all going to die in 12 years or so, then shouldn't the people yelling the loudest be significantly reducing their energy footprint? Shouldn't they be leading the way to a new energy promised land? Instead, they're jetting around the world to the next climate change conference. One must conclude that they don't really believe the things they say.

    1. As I said, the problem is that there are no easy solutions. In the particular case you mention, there are no alternatives. They cannot not fly to these meetings. But of course pricing carbon might reduce their enthusiasm about it.

    2. Matt: ... shouldn't the people yelling the loudest be significantly reducing their energy footprint? Shouldn't they be leading the way to a new energy promised land?

      No, they shouldn't, the logic doesn't support that, because it wouldn't solve the problem. Your conclusion is false; let me explain why:

      The only thing that might solve the problem is (a) a massive change in our emissions, and something like (a) can only be accomplished by (b) coercive government intervention, and something like (b) can only be accomplished by (c) a massive outcry of citizens in the democratic countries where citizen opinions matter for the fate of the self-interested politicians that control government.

      Thus the proper course of action is for them to spend all the energy they need to educate and rally the citizens to protest and action at the ballot boxes.

      Consider it an investment of expending energy now to prevent expending a million times as much later.

      I am certain there is a fair number of frauds trying to get rich off of people's climate change concerns.

      But for those that truly believe, attending climate change conferences and spending time, money and energy to build a movement is precisely what they should be doing.

    3. Dr.Castaldo,
      'to build a movement'
      You forgot to add:
      Luxury Hotels
      5 Star Restaurants
      and Limousines.

      - Let's
      get this party started !

      Unkind remark,I know
      -and- apologize.
      It's unfortunate to note that 'Truth often brings
      to bear it's most
      concussive force
      upon the minds
      of it's seekers'.
      (stating the obvious)
      - let us know them
      by their actions.
      - not their words.
      all the best,

    4. A.C.: Luxury hotels, 5 Star restaurants (?) and Limousines: So what?

      As I already stated, there will always be unscrupulous frauds latching on to the next major worry to get rich and defraud people out of money using charities or non-profits, promising to turn donations into solutions.

      They are rampant. I've seen dozens of kooks promising despairing parents quick fixes with what amount to magic elixirs couched in scientific lingo that makes no sense but cost thousands of dollars; just mail it in. I've seen blood-bank founders paying themselves millions a year. I've seen charities paying their directors millions a year, when the directors have no more qualification than just being a slick salesman.

      There is hokum everywhere. But besides that, the expenses of travel and safety are what they are, and a small carbon investment if it achieves even an incremental step toward finally addressing climate change.

      My point is that wasting my time and energy and money (or tax dollars) trying to conserve is dumb, and indirectly dangerous. It is dumb because the level of effort required to actually curb global warming demands living like hunter-gatherers, and there are too many of us for that. It is dangerous because it affords a completely false sense that we are doing something about global warming. It is the equivalent of "thoughts and prayers" in the wake of a mass shooting, they aren't worth shit if the laws don't change.

      There are two ways to address global warming. One is by rallying enough citizens to force governments to do something about it, and no matter what the incidental energy cost of that effort may be, and even if the unavoidable frauds are wasting 20% of the money, it is worth doing.

      The second way would be a relatively minuscule group of physicists and engineers saving the world by finding a way to make clean energy significantly cheaper than fossil fuels, using easily scalable technology that can be deployed quickly and inexpensively worldwide. In my somewhat informed opinion, having studied several methods of producing green energy in my spare time, thermal solar is by far the most viable option to pursue; with wind in second place.

      FYI: As for 5-star restaurants; G(Michelin Stars). Those are the "stars" you are talking about, the most any restaurant can be awarded is three; and even one Michelin star is so prestigious it can make a chef a worldwide celebrity. Out of roughly 15 million restaurants in the world, only 2817 are Michelin starred; about one in 5,325. 99.998% of restaurants have zero stars.

    5. A statement from the middle ground:
      The leaders of a movement should use all the resources they can get their hands on to rally the troops and get out the message.
      But in their PRIVATE lives, it isn't good optics for the leadership to live in 4,000 sq ft mansions while preaching the virtues of downsizing for the rest of us. Those mansions aren't necessary for the cause.
      Yes, there are con artists attracted to any opportunity, but this is an issue for even the most mainstream leaders. It's a valid gripe.

    6. Dr. Castaldo,
      I seem to be full of
      apologies today. lol
      For you, 2.
      1) the delay in response.
      Forgive me, I'm very busy
      at the moment. When time permits, I read a number of blogs - and comment very rarely. ( Sabine's is an exception)
      2) for any misunderstanding.
      - The term ' 5 star restaurant' is in common
      usage and refers to an
      'over the top' restaurant.(also common)
      The professional rating
      system used by inspectors
      world wide is,of course,
      However, it rates only
      the quality of food
      and wine.
      It does not take into account 'luxury' and
      Hence the casual term
      '5 star' often refers to
      restaurants that may or may not be (actually) Michelin rated.

      (perhaps) More importantly,
      In keeping with the theme of the post, indeed,
      - What,if anything,to do ?
      You suggest rallying the
      "outcry of citizens in democratic countries".
      Ok, but then what ?
      What about the countries
      with no real governmental
      regulations,- or concern ?
      - ie. China,India ,etc.
      Question: If we shut down
      EVERYTHING in the EU
      and US, and had Everyone hold their breath.
      - How long would it take
      for the other countries
      to take up the
      polluting slack ?
      - I wonder.
      * As of this moment
      China alone is responsible
      for more carbon dioxide
      emissions than the EU
      And US combined.
      (fact , - check it)
      * Region known as
      Asia Pacific
      - Now responsible for
      more than 50% of Global
      carbon dioxide emissions.
      ... and trending higher.

      In light of facts of the
      World situation, I understand Sabine's point.
      If all 'democratic'
      countries get in line,
      and you get past the
      other governments
      and could reach the people. I suggest a Large megaphone
      - and Rosetta Stone
      (Mandarin for starters).
      That's just the 'smartass'
      in me coming out.
      - I do appreciate good natured, well intentioned
      people and would gladly have a cup of coffee or glass of wine with you anywhere (time/location permitting).
      - and I promise not to bitch about the rating. :)

      - meaning it when I say it,

      All the Best.

  7. "...the problem is to convince people that climate change is happening in the first place.
    It is not."

    Maybe we don't need to convince them that it is happening, but we need to do more to make them aware of the consequences. Most of the people I interact with don't consider the problem as serious enough to take drastic measures. (And many of these people have a higher level of education than the average population.)

    "Either way you turn it, resources that we spend today on limiting carbon-dioxide emissions are resources we cannot spend on something else, resources that will not go to education, research, social welfare, infrastructure. Oh, and they will also not go into that next larger particle collider."

    What use would it have to invest in these things, if the planet might become uninhabitable for the next few thousand years within the next 100 years?

    1. The use is, to state the obvious, that we have a pleasant life, where by "we" I mean those of us alive right now. So what if civilization collapses after us? Maybe that's what we deserve, stupid as we are.

    2. @ Michael B,
      as a reminder,
      _ A higher level of education does not
      necessarily denote
      a higher level
      of intelligence.
      all the best,

    3. @A.C. I didn't equate those things. But I would expect that people with a higher level of education have a higher capacity to see the problem in a bigger context and to inform themselves from different sources.

      @Sabine: That's indeed the obvious, but I wonder how many people would consciously chose that option (let civilization collapse after us). My wild guess is less than 50%. But maybe I have a wrong picture of humans.

    4. I’m sorry I’m just not gonna listen to anyone. Wether we are at some sort of a climate conference or not! Preach to me about fucking paper straws. Who just flew half way around the world on a goddamn private jet. The hypocrisy is threw the roof! Go preach to the fucking Indians and the Chinese. I haven’t flown on a plane in over 30 years and I plant trees for a living! So I’ve done my part. So you guys with your so called educated we are the world climate talk can. Fuck off! Sincerely. Just and old uneducated fool with a low carbon foot print. Ps. I also hunt and fish and grow my own vegetables. Live off the land !

    5. Ken: Obviously if you think climate change is a problem, and you have structured your life around having a low carbon footprint, you must be listening to someone.

      Probably professors studying in universities and institutes, using computers and A/C every day, using transportation, flying to conferences, living normal academic and personal lives without a low carbon footprint.

      Why are you listening to those hypocrites?

    6. "Who just flew half way around the world on a goddamn private jet. "

      ClimateChange is NOT a moral problem. It won't be solved if we stop flying, or stop driving cars, or stop doing both. We need to cut down on fossil fuels by 95%+ and more.

      When those who want to combat Climate Change stop flying to conferences, that most certainly will not stop Climate Change, on the contrary. It will just mean that those who do not want to stop Climate Change will set the agenda.

      The reality of Climate Change is only denied by people who deny the value of science, people who also tell us scientists are all frauds and imbeciles. These are also people who do not care whether or not some billion(s) of people will drown, burn or starve in the immediate future, because these people live in far away lands in poor countries. The problem simply does not affect them directly.

      Also, solving the Climate Change problem is not a scientific or technical problem. We know how to convert to renewable energy and the low interest rates show that there is enough money looking for an investment opportunity to invest in something useful (around $1T).

      Climate Change is ultimately a social and political problem. And these are the hardest problems to solve.

  8. I think the problem is money, on two fronts; or for a single issue, "self interest".

    First, that few people are interested in developing solutions that would work, but won't be making any fortunes. For example (and I haven't done this but have seen the calculations), I can generate green energy for free using old (unpatentable) tech; glass fresnel lenses focusing solar energy (no combustion) and a closed cycle steam engine or Stirling heat engine. That can drive a generator, if we want electricity. Any backyard mechanic (and home electrician) could follow the plans and go green for free. But there would be no monopoly on the plans, the parts or the designs. The insolation (solar radiation reaching a given area) is about a hundred times what we need in the USA, which suggests we only have to give up about 1% of area to the collection.

    But without patents or some other market exclusivity, it would be difficult to make millions in profit from such a scheme.

    Second, even if we have altruistic scientists or universities or institutes that ARE willing to do that development and make it public for free, it is hard to convince consumers to invest $X green dollars now for what may be a break-even result in twenty years.

    Many don't have the $X now. Taking out a loan for $X may be like a mortgage, and cost you $3X or $4X over twenty years with interest, making it a financial no-brainer to just spend $X over the course of twenty years, buying fossil fuels.

    I don't think the main problem of generating enough green energy is difficult to solve.

    It is just compounded by the fact that money matters, both to investors and consumers, so any viable solution must be not only as good as existing fossil fuels, it must be highly profitable to investors in order to get a massive enough launch, and it must then also be financially attractive to energy consumers.

    That is a much higher (and perhaps impossible) hurdle.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. I don't understand this straw man argument. You are implying that somebody is saying that there is a simple solution to climate change. If so... who?

    "the media, which makes it look like the problem is to convince people that climate change is happening in the first place."

    Which article suggests that this is the only problem? Which news reporter says that all we need to do is convince people about the existence of climate change? We are clearly reading different news sources.

    "The problem is that we don’t know what to do about it, and even if we knew, we wouldn’t have the means to actually do it. [...] But the fact that climate change happens does not tell us what, if anything, to do about it."

    What climate change science are you reading? Climate change is caused by humans emitting greenhouse gases (in the causation sense, not the correlation sense). So if we want to stop climate change, we should stop emitting GHGs. And we know that running coal power plants (say) causes emission of GHGs. So let's stop that.

    Are you trying to make the point that science does not tell us what morals are good and bad, or that policy cannot be generated from a mathematical formula? If so, congratulations, I hereby declare you winner of the philosophy game. In the meantime, you have contributed nothing to the actual problem that needs to be solved, namely the global reduction of GHG emissions. But good job!

    "Gluing yourself to a train will not create the policies and the institutions we would need to implement them."

    These people were affiliated to an organization that, in the span of two weeks, moved the public debate in the majority of western Europe from Brexit and Trump to climate change. In response, the UK and Irish governments have declared a climate emergency, as well as various city councils in other countries. The debate is ongoing and may very well result in policies, institutions, new jobs and new economies.

    You are absolutely right, they're not there yet. It's been barely a month and you're giving up hope? I thought you said you were future-oriented...

    Criticism like in this article, by academics worldwide, of people who are successfully changing the topic of the public debate baffles me. Are you hurt by the methods? You disagree with the blockade of a train? Great! Come and join the debate. Perhaps you can come up with even better events. Are you jealous because these people actually dare to take a stand? Great! Come and listen to their stories. They'd be honored and welcome you as their equal.

    1. Auke,

      Well, my blogpost contains two examples. I have already named in the comments above a very recent example to which the link is here.

      Having said that, you evidently entirely missed the point of what I was saying.

      You write "people who are successfully changing the topic of the public debate". I am telling you that this type of "public debate" is useless because it's not addressing what is the problem. Clearly you don't want to hear that. Instead of thinking about what I am saying, you go straight to attack me.

      Am I "hurt by the methods"? Haha, no. I am pointing out it's stupid. Are you hurt by that?

    2. Yes, I am hurt by that, and I'm shocked you have to ask if destroying other people's hope hurts them. Regardless of the fact that it's unjustified.

      I also (luckily) grew up learning about climate change, and throughout my life I have not seen adequate action against it. People now saying there is still hope inspires me. Academics, the intellectuals, people that I always looked up to and admired, now seem to say there is no hope and there is nothing we can do.

      So yes, now you get to make the argument that I don't want to hear what you consider the truth. Well, you found my weak spot. Great work. In the meantime, what have you done to stop climate change? Our carbon budget is continuing being used up.

      We need to change environmental policy, in particular how politics deals with GHG emissions. Social change is a very important tool towards any political change. Dismissing that tool as useless is wrong.

      You clearly feel climate action requires hard work. That's great to hear. I agree. Your implying that there is nothing we can do is wrong. Your implying that activating the debate is useless is wrong.

    3. Auke,

      You may believe or not believe this, but pointing out that the problem is with our lacking comprehension of how to make decisions in large groups *is* my contribution to the debate.

      And don't worry about your hope, I am sure it'll come back. Such is the nature of humans.

    4. Then you are criticizing the wrong people, because this is exactly the thing that they are trying to make progress on by calling for a citizen's assembly to oversee the government's climate policy.

    5. Auke,

      Graasroot democracy will not solve the problem. If anything, it'll make it worse. Look, this is exactly why I am saying nothing has changed. We're still as dumb today as we were half a century ago. The only difference is that now we have twitter to broadcast our dumbness.

    6. @Sabine
      > Grassroot democracy will not solve the problem. If anything, it'll make it worse.

      Why ist that? Could you explain?

    7. Michael,

      Hasn't Brexit settled that? We have representative democracies for a reason. The reason is that the vast majority of people do not have the time (and/or the interest) to collect and evaluate information to make good decisions.

      Instead what we do is that we elect people who represent our values and let them chose the right path to work towards achieving that.

      The other problem with grassroot democracy is that the public opinion tends to overreact to even tiny bits of basically irrelevant information (say, someone once had an affair with someone). Jaron Lanier summed this up with "high frequency noise". I consider this to be less of a problem because there are ways one could deal with it by using higher level decisions to lock lower level decisions.

      In any case, what's the dealbreaker for grassroot democracy is that there's no reason to think it'll integrate information well.

    8. Sabine: While I agree that representative democracy should in principle be a solution, the problem is that lacking any qualifications or specific job demands it just becomes a popularity contest filled with lies for the exact same people that don't have time to make good decisions. That is how we ended up with Trump; and why 1/3 of Americans still back his every stupid move. It is why half the States in the USA elect legislatures determined to reduce their basic human rights, increase their costs of living, reduce their wages and educational opportunities and increase pollution and shield the rich from all liability.

      Representative Democracy will only work if the representatives are educated, still proficient at learning, and some mechanism forces them to act in the best interest of the constituents they are supposed to be looking out for. At least, there must be enough that do that to overrule the corrupt and self-interested.

      As it stands we depend far too heavily on the honor system, and that system hasn't really worked, ever.

      I don't think grassroots democracy will work. It is quickly corrupted by the same leadership dilemma; namely that self-interested sociopaths have a very strong competitive advantage against leaders with a moral compass; in business or politics or heading up charities.

      But it is possible that grassroots activism can work by publicizing information, providing sound arguments, and rallying people to pressure existing "representatives" into actually representing the public. Basically by making them fear humiliation and loss of their lucrative public office.

      I think your own criticisms against the FCC are in a similar vein, it is why you have had an impact on the discussion.

    9. Sabine,

      I find myself agreeing with those arguments, but I don't see why the particular movement initiated by the school children should make things worse. (Maybe you didn't want to imply that, but it sounds like that). Yes, there is a risk that it will not integrate information well, but our established democratic system has been failing to integrate information well, for the last 30 years.

    10. Castaldo,

      You misunderstood this. I did not say that representative democracy is the solution. I said that grassroot democracy is not the solution because representative democracy is still better than that.

      Yes, grassroots activism can publicize information, but that is not the problem that we need to solve. I have no reason to think that representatives do not represent the public. For all I can tell, they do. It's just that they can't find a way to actually convert their knowledge into action.

    11. Michael,

      I didn't mean to imply that these children skipping school to express their opinion makes the situation worse. I think it'll not make a difference, but I am generally happy if young people do have an interest in political matters.

    12. Sabine Hossenfelder: It's just that they can't find a way to actually convert their knowledge into action.

      To me that implies that representative democracy doesn't work either. At least here in the USA, each representative gets near 50% of the vote, and the re-election rate is over 90%, but the overall collection of Congress consistently gets an approval rating under 20%, and as low as 9%.

      Which I suppose goes to your point; we (humans) don't know how to make decisions in large groups, since nothing we do seems able to execute with common sense for the common good.

      Clearly achieving competent representative government cannot be accomplished by a "greedy" algorithm, selecting the 535 best local Congressional candidates still produces a broken and incompetent Congress every time we do it!

  11. I agree with your argument in general, but one point is worth making. You say 'Yet, I have become increasingly frustrated about the discussion of climate change in the media, which makes it look like the problem is to convince people that climate change is happening in the first place.' I agree that this isn't much of a problem in parts of Europe, but does seem to be a problem in the US, Australia etc, and part of the naivety you mention is when protestors like Thunberg make sweeping statements about the world in general, where actually everywhere is not the same.

    I strongly agree with your response to 'The climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. All we need to do is to wake up and change.' If 'we' means her audience in Europe, you can do all the waking up you like, but it doesn't mean you can wave a magic wand and, for example, instantly change all many millions of oil and gas heated homes into electric heating - let alone somehow prevent China from bringing enough coal fired power plants online in a year that they cancel out the savings if the UK somehow managed to go carbon neutral overnight.

    Like you, I'm not at all happy about it, but if you're rational rather than emotional, we need more than platitudes in speeches and demonstrations.

    1. Brian,

      Yes, I agree regarding the US, at least what the polls say.

      But I am wondering sometimes if not the reason that people deny climate change is that they are not willing to pay the price, but that even admitting climate change exists and is human-caused seems to have come to mean to agree something must be done about it. In other words, the two issues are not unconnected. Denial might just be the easier way to argue (consciously or unconsciously).

    2. From following some of the discussions on US fora, my impression is that the right side of the political spectrum rejects climate change because it can only solved by federal (state) intervention and international cooperation at the state level.

      They feel life loses its meaning if state intervention is needed. This is the "Better Dead than Red" mentality.

      They will switch sides the moment a "free market" based solution appears.

    3. Well, carbon pricing is a free market based solution.

    4. Sabine Hossenfelder: I am not a Republican. But the Republican argument is that carbon pricing is either "intrusive government regulation" or a "carbon tax", so although a market solution, it is not a free market solution, and besides that if it reduces the wealth of the wealthy they aren't interested.

    5. @Brian Clegg: what would be a useful non-platitude to state in a speech?

    6. Dr Castaldo,

      Yes, I know. But that is nonsense of course. That free markets don't handle externalities has been known for 100 years. This means pricing carbon (not necessarily by a tax) will *improve* the market. It's not a regulation, it's simply making sure the market works to begin with, much like you need laws to prevent monopolies, another well-known cause of market failures.

      Yes, sure, people have personal interests, wealthy or not. That's what I am saying. They may simply not be willing to pay the price. Which is what I sometimes suspect is what is really going on. They full well know that it's socially unacceptable to say they don't give a shit about people who'll die in the developing world, so instead they pretend that climate change is a hoax.

  12. The discussion around Climate Change has three components:

    1) Admitting it exists. Those denying it now will not be swayed by science. They want to see a path out of the hole we dug ourselves in.

    2) Finding a solution to quit adding CO2 and Methane to the atmosphere.

    3) Removing as much CO2 and Methane from the atmosphere as possible.

    Ad 1) As you write, we know it is real. That ship sailed etc.

    Ad 2) Basic physics let you calculate that filling an area the size of Germany in the Sahara with solar panels would solve all the energy needs (all of them) of Europe up to the Ural.

    Transport is solved (HVDC power). Storage needs some thought, unless we want to fill up some large structures with pumped hydro-power.
    There is then still room for solar power for Africa. Other continents have their own deserts to fill.

    This is not new, see

    Ad 3) Yes we can remove CO2 from the air. By planting trees ( and by capturing CO2 and storing it underground. That latter process is hugely expensive in any sense and would probably require us to build even more solar power stations. But it is possible. Part of the captured CO2 can be used to produce carbon based fuels we cannot do without.

    The problem is not with the physics, nor with the technology (we can produce enough solar power plants if we set ourselves to it), nor with the economics (just ask: How much is saving a few billion lives worth to you?).

    As always, the problem is social: How to get 7+ billion people to work together to solve global problems is an as yet unsolved problem. And, the times are against us. There are too many people that rather have a few billion people die a horrible death than to work with foreigners.

    Rather than admitting that there are problems that require global cooperation, the current trend in the West is to deny anything that is outside the reach of the nation state.

    So sad for our (grand-)children.

    1. Yes, exactly. It's a social problem. And seeing that not even scientists are able to recognize and act on the problems they have with decision making in groups, I don't think it's a problem we are going to solve. Certainly not if we are not talking about it.

    2. I fully agree with your post!

      If we redefine the problem as a number of steps.

      1. Convincing people, especially policy makers that climate change needs to be tackled.
      2. Having the technology to drastically reduce our CO2 emissions.
      3. Getting governments and people to do something about it.

      We can quibble about 1 & 2 but in most of Europe 1 is not a problem. We also certainly have the technology to drastically reduce CO2, even if there are some edge cases which are tricky like air travel and smelting.

      The problem is 3, which brings us back to 1. People who are concerned about climate change hope that if there is strong enough public opinion then something may actually get done a lot faster.

  13. There may be no "simple" solution but to there is a quite straightforward solution: nuclear fusion. I have no idea why hardly anybody is talking about that and why we are not speeding up the reserach and development process by putting more money into fusion. (My hunch is that this topic is avoided because it contains the word "nuclear" which doesn't fit with the left ideology of alarmists and the media).

    1. Markus,

      Yes, that is right. And I think too that we should invest more into nuclear fusion. At this point though, I don't think the technology would come too late to change much about the next 30 years or so.

    2. One may wonder what the speedup would be as a function of money. Probably it is not proportional to the money invested, that would be too good to be true.
      By the way, I just learned that Stephen Hawking also considered nuclear fusion as our best hope.

    3. Yes, well while nuclear fusion is seemingly ready within 50 years (too long a timescale, but still worth pursuing), we do have nuclear fission...unfortunately Germany is doing the wrong thing about it: as far as electricity production goes, it's at this time producing 378 grams of CO2/kWh, compared to France which is producing 48 grams of CO2/kWh.

    4. What about simple nuclear fission? And open up Yucca mountain for spent waste. The world seems needlessly afraid of fission*. A carbon tax would be a good first step, but it is hard to enact that globally. Renewables are fine, but need some sort of large scale storage to be much more than a ~20% piece of the energy puzzle.

      *I think we in the science community are mostly responsible for that.

    5. When considering nuclear fission, my first question is always: How much nuclear fuel is available?

      Current sources can supply the energy (not just electricity) of the world for only five years (yes 5! years).

      A lot has been said about using uranium from the oceans. However, no one then talks about what it means to filter uranium out of many cubic kilometers of sea water (and how to mix the depleted waters).

      The other solution is breeder reactors (Thorium). But this technology is not in production, that is, its is experimental. No one can tell us what the costs would be to replace all carbon fuels by Thorium breeder reactors.

      Compared to the uncertainties of sourcing enough fissile uranium or developing and building the required breeding reactors, solar and wind energy is rock solid technology. We even have better ideas on how to store electricity large scale than how to build all these Thorium reactors or filter many cubic km of sea water..

    6. Re. fission: "Current sources can supply the energy (not just electricity) of the world for only five years (yes 5! years)."
      Presumably you mean the supply of Uranium? If so, yours is a wildly off time-scale; it is orders of magnitude more than that. Thorium is a fine area of research, but if we're really serious about combating global warming we need reactors now.

    7. "Compared to the uncertainties of sourcing enough fissile uranium or developing and building the required breeding reactors, solar and wind energy is rock solid technology." There's not really much uncertainty regarding sourcing of uranium. Perhaps solar and wind are 'rock solid' technology as you state - but what will we do in a cold winter night when the Sun's not shining and the wind's not blowing? We need a non-fossil fuel baseload energy source and that's where fission comes in.

    8. Nuclear fission? Just forget it. The current contribution of nuclear (fission) energy to the world energy budget is about 4%, coming from about 450 nuclear power plants. (And we have already enough trouble with the nuclear waste).

    9. @Supernaut
      "If so, yours is a wildly off time-scale; it is orders of magnitude more than that."

      Proven ore reserves are enough to supply the world with some 50-100 years of electricity but only 5 years of all energy. Electricity is only 4% of total energy use.

      "There's not really much uncertainty regarding sourcing of uranium."

      Indeed, and it is lacking big time.

      For the numbers, look here:
      Why nuclear power will never supply the world's energy needs

      Note that most sources only talk about "current rates of consumption" or "electricity". A globe energy transition is something completely different.

    10. Thank you; it's one study, and it has its value. It was to be published (has it already been published?) in a journal that I'm not even sure it's peer reviewed. Three further points (a) The point it's not to replace all fossil fuel energy sources with nuclear fission, that's unrealistic: we need a diverse set of non-fossil fuel energy sources and nuclear should be part of the solution. (b) stating that we only have 5 years of Uranium ore left is misleading to say the least; (c) I don't want to depart too much from Bee's good and timely blogpost so I'll end it here.

    11. > Thank you; it's one study, and it has its value.

      You have no study giving a different opinion. You have not given any numbers at all.

      > (b) stating that we only have 5 years of Uranium ore left is misleading to say the least;

      Bizarre statement. All proven ore reserves are enough to power the world for only 5 years. That can be easily calculated using the published numbers of the nuclear industry itself. That you keep trying to return to "current rates of use" is misleading, to say the least.

      > (a) The point it's not to replace all fossil fuel energy sources with nuclear fission, that's unrealistic: we need a diverse set of non-fossil fuel energy sources and nuclear should be part of the solution.

      Could be, but building nuclear power plants is horribly expensive and takes a decade or more. That seems a horrible waste of money to me for only a little electricity.

      Whenever I discuss these matters with proponents of nuclear energy, I utterly fail to get a reasonable response to the question whether it is effective and an efficient use of capital. They all seem to like nuclear energy for some reason other than its usefulness for combatting climate change. Your arguments, again are an example of this phenomenon.

    12. "Could be, but building nuclear power plants is horribly expensive and takes a decade or more. That seems a horrible waste of money to me for only a little electricity."

      None of those problems are intrinsic to the technologies, but are due to policies.

      China is building many reactors per year and MUCH cheaper than the ones in the west.

      Fast breeder reactors can consume 99% of the Uranium. Your 5 years estimate are for Light Water Reactors, old tech that consumes only half a percent of the uranium.

      If by using only half a percent of the Uranium will make reserves last only 5 years if all World turned nuclear, using 99% of Uranium would result in 990 years of Uranium capacity for a full nuclear world.

  14. I agree that the problem is social, and I also don't see any easy solutions. Obviously it will solve itself eventually, as the system will collapse and we won't have the organisation and structures to burn fossil fuels anymore. This may happen sooner than we think due to non-linear climate change caused by a cascade of positive feedbacks triggered at certain thresholds (eg loss of polar ice cause less sunlight reflected and more warming, causing massive methane release from ocean beds, etc). Then, after a few hundreds thousands years, the global climate will probably slowly restore itself to some more favourable equilibrium, and evolution will get a fresh start.

    I like to try to analyse the problem -- together with other problems which unfortunately are coming to a crisis around the same time to speed up the collapse, such as depletion of resources, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and land and ocean pollution -- and find a deeper underlying cause. That cause would be the belief, which took hold a few thousands years back and is now mostly unconsciously shared by almost every member of almost every culture, that we, humans, are a species apart from all others and thus are entitled to dominating, shaping, disposing of and exploiting everything on this planet for our own benefit. This, unsurprisingly, led to exponential human population growth and at the same time a dramatic dwindling of living space for wild species as well as that of peoples which were not sharing that belief. This is also what gave us the science and knowledge which we love so much. Can we now keep the good things and evolve beyond that crazy belief of human supremacy which is leading us towards pathetic catastrophy? We probably could have, if we were educated and responsible enough to adopt an economic system based on open access and sharing rather than trade and competition. To me it seems too late, most are not ready for that kind of profound change and we need it urgently if we want to avoid chaos.

  15. Well there’s always geo engineering. Boosting sulfate aerosols into the upper stratosphere provides significant cooling...e.g.see volcanos.

  16. For over 20 years, as part of daily work, I analyzed ambient air samples for methane, CO2, and volatile light hydrocarbons. At my retirement I resigned my self to inevitability of climate change. My industrial experience suggests to me that the vast and interconnected web of economic resource dependent support for contemporary human life will not permit sufficiently rapid change to avoid disaster. ( Consider for instance the production of ammonia for fertilizer using air and methane )

  17. I agree with you. We do not know what to do about it. The fact is that unlike medicines for people, there is no one who can test a cure for the impact of humans on the planet. In other words, there is no FDA for climate change who can make sure that the solution to the problem does not cause more harm than good. I think we should encourage self-restrain of resources use at a personal level, and not force people to comply with solutions that can't be test.

  18. >> scientists really should know better than to mix “is” with “ought.” <<

    Nope. David Hume is dead. Seriously dead. Meanwhile is the first time in history that the Ought follows indeed from the Is - If you grant the axiom that Life is worth preserving.

    I need to read your long rambling a second time. But it looks like a declaration of scientific moral bancruptcy.

    And yes, the climate problem can be solved. It is brutally simple. (E.g. pricing "externalities" such as our Life support system (first trivial basic step for market fetishists!). E.g. Changing agriculture from being non-renewable to being soil-constructive (with synergistic positive societal side effects...). E.g. Use fucking photosythesis to sequester carbon by turning wood into char coal (Terra Preta soil: A technique known since stone age. No glitzy rocket science tech, alas) Etc. etc.)

    1. Florigulgurator,

      You missed the point. If you can solve it, then why don't you solve it? Is it maybe because you can't solve it?

  19. This either/or is not quite right:

    Either way you turn it, resources that we spend today on limiting carbon-dioxide emissions are resources we cannot spend on something else, resources that will not go to education, research, social welfare, infrastructure.

    Example: to handle renewal power resources like solar requires major infrastructure upgrades to the power grid, and this creates a demand for skilled workers, equipment and even research.

    To look at it broadly: What your claim amounts to is that resources spent on fighting climate change have a much smaller economic multiplier effect than spending those resources on {education, research, social welfare, infrastructure} as they currently are done. In fact, you are saying that the multiplier is precisely one. The advocates of the Green New Deal in the USA think that their program has a much higher multiplier.

    1. Arun,

      No, this is not what I am saying. The sentence explicitly speaks about "today", not including potential future benefits, which may, or may not come to pass.

  20. It is not really that the solutions aren't simple, it is that they are painful. Almost anything we do to ameliorate future climate change is going to cost today, and some of those whom it would cost have lots of political power and money. Nor are those it would cost numerically few - think developing nations, everybody who flies, and anybody who owns a pickup truck or a sportscar.

    1. CIP,

      Well, yes, that's what I mean. If solutions are painful, making a decision is difficult.

  21. One potential solution to Greenhouse Warming is to develop Thorium nuclear technologies. It would be nuclear energy version 2.0.

    1. "develop Thorium nuclear technologies."

      That is much more experimental technology with largely unknown costs than solar and wind, or even storage technology for electricity.

  22. Seriously folks. Take a pill and relax. Historically speaking, alarmism is rarely scientific, it is usually just highly sensational and emotional (i.e. chicken little 'OMG the sky is falling!').

    If you truly are concerned about CO2 and run away greenhouse effects, you can take solace in the fact that if such a thing were possible on our planet, it would have already happened...several times over in fact. But it didn't, and we do have the relatively solid geologic evidence to prove it. The Earth does not have a constant climate, it never has. It has changed significantly warmer and cooler, and will continue to do so, no matter what you think, how you feel, or what your politics are, or even if you do or don't feel guilty about it.

    Try to talking to some geologists for a longer term perspective as well, as much of the relatively recent Holocene era was demonstrably warmer than present day. When the Romans were in England, they had thriving vineyards all over the place which would not be possible in todays climate. There is also the Medieval Warming Period (MWP), and the Little Ice Age to consider, as both these climate changes were significant to human life, and geologically very brief. Many climate computer models ignore both these periods entirely (or pretend they didn't happen I.e. Micheal Mann and his hockey stick) because they foul up their hindcasting significantly.

    CO2 is a trace gas in our atmosphere measured in ppm (parts per million). Many who are familiar with the evolution of plant life would actually say that we are presently living in a CO2 desert based on planetary averages through the ages, as when the ppm of CO2 drops below 150ppm, plant life begins to asphyxiate. The ppm is presently around 400, and in the distant past it was even well above 7000 ppm. This begs the question: if the run away greenhouse effect didn't happen in the past at over 7000ppm, why would it begin to happen around 400ppm in the present? There is also the pesky problem that when analysis of CO2 is performed in relation to climate change, the temperature always precedes a change in CO2, not the other way around. Much like a warm day will cause your soda pop to go flat faster, warmer climates release more CO2 from the oceans, it is also important to note a colder climate cause the oceans to absorb more CO2.

    There is also the reasonable skepticism of the methodologies used to measure and predict temperature trends. As recently as the 1970's, alarmed scientists were very concerned about the onset of a new ice age and were actually discussing ways to WARM up the planet for fear of what a new ice age would do to humanity by powdering the ice caps with coal dust, just imagine what would have happened if they went through with their plans? During the 1930's similarly alarmed scientists were seriously contemplating a world without a frozen North Pole. There also is the problem that precise temperature records don't go back very far, so if you are trying to calculate longer historical trends or averages, you are almost always using proxies, which makes any precise calculation a guesstimate chimera of dubious accuracy.

    All this is to say, calm down, and consider carefully before you go about making an even bigger mess of the world than you already have.
    Any solution is less than worthless (if not outright harmful) if the problem isn't correctly identified.

    1. > ... distant past it was even well above 7000 ppm

      When was that, and how was live on earth during that period?

    2. While it is the case that CO_2 levels have been higher in the past, I am not sure about 7000ppm but it was around 3000ppm in the Mesozoic, what we have done is jumpthe CO_2 level from 250ppm to 400ppm in a century or so, and we are on track to maybe reach 10000ppm in the next 50 years. The sudden change is really more the problem than the actual figure. Life can adapt, but whole forests can't geographically migrate hundreds of kilometers in a few decades. If this shift were happening over 10s of thousands of years then adaptation is possible.

      The cooling effect and a possible long term onset of an ice age is possible because of this. The greatest warming has been at the poles, and this means the thermal gradient in the atmosphere that has bottled up the arctic air is weaker. This means the still very cold, just warmed a few degrees Celsius, artic air is more frequently spilling south. We are having more of these freak winter conditions in the temperate zone. If this continues it will bring havoc with agriculture. Probably the most frequent and important question people ask is "what's for dinner?" That is where things will get down and dirty with climate change, at least for us humans while we are still here.

    3. Note that in these times with very high CO2 levels, the poles were ice free.

      Greenland's ice cover is enough to give a 6m sea level rise. The ice cover of Antarctica is enough for another ~80m sea level rise. And if all glaciers melt, that adds a lot and many of the biggest rivers will become seasonal.

      Currently, around 600M people live below just 10m elevation. There are estimates that almost half of the world's population might have to move if the worst happens.

      But, at these earlier, warmer times, there were no people, so that was not an issue then.

    4. The currently high CO2 ppm level is worrisome enough (the press was highlighting the fact that we've recently reached 415 ppm), but as L. Crowell points out it's he rate of increase of CO2 concentration in the past ~100 years or so that is more worrisome. I believe that rate is geologically very rare.

    5. CFT: So the past is good evidence that a runaway greenhouse effect won't eliminate life on Earth. I'd say it's also unlikely to eliminate humans. But civilization is a lot more fragile than either life and humans, and I'd like civilization not to be destoyed.

  23. Here is the Nobel physics prizewinner Ivar-Giaever talking about climate change - if you watch, it might change your mind:

    Here is Freeman Dyson talking about Climate Change, he is less definite, but he is obviously very skeptical about current plans - and he brings in the possibility of global cooling:

    Remember that at some time we are likely to move into another ice age, and cooling seems to be the greater threat.

    Part of the point is that climate always varies over time, but the measured warming of the Earth is quite small - 0.8 C since 1880 (note not 1980). This level of warming is only detectable by averaging the outputs from a few thousand thermometers scattered over the globe, and averaging again over entire years or longer periods. The locations of the thermometers are fixed (they are not uniformly distributed) and some are located in areas that have been urbanised over time. Computer processing is supposed to correct for this "Urban Heat Island Effect", but the rise in temperature due to this effect is much larger than the supposed signal.

    1. Firstly, a Nobel laureate in condensed matter physics is in no way an authority to give a qualified scientific opinion on climate science. Hence, Giaver's statements are as good as those of any other amateur in this matter.

      Correctly evaluating collected data is always a difficult task, that is true for global temperature data just as it is true for the discoveries of gravitational waves or the Higgs boson. It is also true for the data collected which showed evidence for faster-than-light neutrinos.
      Nonetheless, I trust the discoveries of the Higgs and gravitational waves, whereas I did not believe the superluminal neutrino result for a second. That is, because the former were consistent with theoretical predictions whereas the latter seemed in contradiction to our current understanding of physics. If you make such statements, that contradict your expectations based on logic and the best current understanding of your scientific models, you need much, much stronger evidence than when you simply confirm the theoretical expectation.

      Which brings me to climate science and temperature data: We might not be good at measuring the average global temperature, but we can quite reliably measure the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And the results leave no doubt about the increase (which is perfectly consistent with the theoretical prediction based on the knowledge of human emissions). We also understand the core principles of the greenhouse effect, which is really not all that hard from a physics perspective, hence an increased temperature from increased CO2 just makes sense from a logical perspective. And then climate scientists come up with computer models to quantify this temperature increase, which of course are complicated models with many parameters and a large margin of error. But in the end of the day they can compare this theoretical prediction to the experimental temperature data and find that they agree within the error margins.

      Needless to say, I am not an expert in climate science either, but this apparent consistency between experiment and theory is what makes me trust the experts and believe their results. Just as I do believe that the Higgs boson was indeed found, just as I do believe that we did in fact see evidence for the existence of gravitational waves, and just as I did not believe that neutrinos really are faster than light.

      If - like Giaver - you try to claim that the average global temperature is NOT increasing, you are the one who makes the crazy prediction that is in contradiction with theoretical expectations. So you need to provide much stronger evidence or theoretical arguments than simply pointing at technical difficulties in the existing data acquisition methods.

  24. We need cheap carbon-free power. It can only be nuclear. Maybe you physicists could help with that. Though actually I do like the idea of a humungous floating seaweed farm in the Pacific ocean... At any rate getting governments to declare a climate emergency will allow more money to be spent, and more radical things (like nuclear power in Australia) to be on the table.

    1. That is false. There is 100x as much solar energy hitting landmass as we need. We can focus it with old and cheap tech, aluminum and glass mirrors, the heat can be used to power old-tech turbines or Stirling heat engines that can generate electricity, the old-fashioned way. It requires zero invention, zero rare chemicals or materials. There is no danger of running out of aluminum, steel, glass or water or salts.

      We know how to do all of this, and we have done all of this multiple times. The lessons are already learned.

      This technology can be deployed far more quickly than devising a nuclear plant. It is far more scalable; meaning it can be deployed in small parcels, even down to the level of a single home, or a thermal solar farm can serve thousands of homes.

      It is non-toxic; we risk nothing but capital and equipment loss in case of a terrorist attack on such a plant; we don't risk anything being released that will harm anyone.

      It is non-polluting; no dangerous by-products are created that need to be stored and protected for centuries.

      It is safe; there is no risk of a meltdown, and since the goal is to operate at maximum collection, any malfunction simply collects less; any massive malfunction does not create runaway heating, but runaway cooling to the ambient temperature. In other words the plant only stops functioning, it won't explode or melt down.

      The production of such plants is asymptotically zero-emissions too; all the materials can be mined and produced with electric power which could be provided by solar thermal; i.e. a small number of such plants can self-replicate like actual green plants, using nothing but solar energy and materials from the ground (and human workers).

      Deployed seaside (or even on the ocean), solar thermal can automatically distill seawater into freshwater and recycle the extracts back into the ocean; responsibly done by wide distribution (also solar powered) this need not pose a threat to any ocean life. This is a solution for water shortages throughout the world.

      Nuclear power (fusion or fission) is not the only option on the table, and far from the best option. Controlled fusion is a dream, we shouldn't bet our lives on something with a proven record of failing to achieve the milestones they claim they can achieve, and none of the current approaches are scalable at all. We already have a perfectly suitable fusion reactor to exploit: The Sun.

    2. That's right, we know how to do it. The technology is known. We're just not doing it. Why not? Because we can't. We don't have the institution to make the necessary decisions and to initiate the relevant actions. We are still talking past the point, after all these decades.

      Your iteration of "we can" is like saying obese people can lose weight. Sure enough, for the vast majority of cases there's no physical obstacle to losing weight. But pointing that out doesn't help anyone.

  25. Many of the technical solutions are available. As I see it with energy we should maximize renewable energy sources and what can't be taken up there we use nuclear energy.

    The real problem is a matter of costs. Corporations do everything they can to externalize costs and the costs of investments. In the US there is the politics of facilitating corporate profits by cutting taxes and removing regulations and so forth. There is no political agenda for shifting our priorities. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez has proposed a green agenda, and it is largely ridiculed by the right wing. We do have a long way to go to just shift priorities.

    Sometimes I think George Carlin had the right message:

    Maybe we are engineering the next planetary mass extinction that we will go down with. 25 million years from now life will be doing just fine on Earth. We will be gone, fossils in effect, and our trash will be in geological rock layers for many hundreds of millions of years. Nobody cries over the end of Tyrannosaurus rex, and 25 million years from now nothing will lament our passing.

    1. Yes, basically that's the conclusion one has to arrive at.

  26. Greta is right -- we have all we need to build a noncarbon society.

    Sabine H wrote:
    "The world has two or maybe three decades of cheap fossil fuels left. Not using those makes our lives harder, regardless of how much we subsidize renewables."

    This is just uninformed.

    "It's now cheaper to build a new wind farm than to keep a coal plant running [without subsidies]," CBS News 11/16/18.

    "Locally generated solar and wind energy could already replace almost three-fourths of electricity made by U.S. coal plants for less than the cost of continuing to operate those plants, according to an analysis released today by two clean energy research groups."

    "Analysis: New wind, solar cheaper than operating most existing coal plants," Energy News Network, 3/25/19.

    1. Sure, David. If that is so, then I guess we just have to lean back and watch as crips and clean solar and wind replaces fossil fuels, which Germany is paying 20 billion Euro to phase out, which is entirely unnecessary of course. All will be good.

    2. Actually that is in fact what we should do. Coal plants in the US are being turned off. In 2010 about 45% of US electricity came from coal and about 13% from renewables. Now it's at 27% from coal and 19% from renewables. It doesn't turn on a dime, and better tax policies are needed, but it's happening. Not fast enough though.

      It's as necessary for Germany to phase out fossil fuels as it is for every other country. Otherwise we're going to keep getting warming of 0.15-0.2 C/decade.

    3. What about the problems of intermittency? And being able to store the energy? Having a stable grid? These are still problems as far as I know.

  27. Tanner is right: 'veiling' as it's called is cheap, easily done, and can be incremental. I did a study for DARPA on veiling the Arctic, the most threatened region, a decade ago. Cost $200 million/yr. Learn from that, then the Antarctic. For oceans, fill in chalk etc to lower acidity. Go from there. All can be done swiftly. Engineering vs politics.

  28. CFT,

    No one thinks that temperature increase will eradicate plant life. Really you seem to have entirely missed the point. Sure, the climate has always changed. And adaptation of life to that changing climate has always been necessary. That adaptation comes at a cost, and those who live through it have to pay the cost.

    1. An increase of temperature will move the zone where staple foods can be grown pole-ward. Pole-ward, there is less light and therefore, lower productivity, but there might be more arable land. In the balance, everything depends on the changes in net precipitation (rainfall - evaporation).

      So, agriculture will have to move, but it is currently completely uncertain where to and how much agriculture will be possible.

  29. Hi Sabine,
    Wow ! again.
    I hesitate to comment on
    such a polarized issue.
    (I would much rather think about the polarization of a particular photon in a recent experiment)
    I think you're right.
    The issue is social..
    and polarized.
    I so wish we could go back
    to the day when one could
    sit down and calmly discuss
    social and scientific issues.
    - Freely disagree with someone . without being 'branded' one thing or another.
    Oh, wait a minute.
    That day never existed.
    When the polarization
    reaches s level of fervor
    ( political or otherwise)
    that resembles religious
    fanaticism, . I mu

  30. The main problem, as I see it, is the relatively long delay between the (well-known) cause and and its problematic effect. It works against human nature to pay for something now that may or may not benefit us in 50 to 100 yr. A success story in this respect is the Montreal protocol from 1982 to implement bans on CFCs to protect the ozone layer. However, the price was much less then and more restricted in terms who paid the price for the ban.

    Regarding CO emissions, there are many known solutions. They incur a cost now, but it will likely be much more expensive to deal with the climate change in the future if we cheap out now. In a universal market economy, planets who realised this would win out in the end. The problem is that we have only one planet.

    The challenge is really to implement (and pay for) the solutions we know exist. Raising awareness is probably the most effective way of accomplishing this - I see no other way. If we more generally start to accept that reducing CO emissions now is a good investment, even if we don't see the benefits on short timescales, then more will support policies that will implement CO reducing measures.

    Of course, life on Earth will not have a problem with planet change. Life is extremely resilient, and it will take more than climate change to make life go extinct. It is the human civilisation as we know it that is at risk.

  31. Excuse me,
    -must step away.
    I don't tolerate very well
    issues that become polarized
    or political with a fervor
    that resembles religious fanaticism.
    My best advice to everyone
    is to exercise due diligence.
    - Do Your own research.
    -Verify 'facts'
    - on both sides.
    and don't forget to
    falsify theories.
    before formulating
    your own opinion.

    Sabine, I understood what you meant and I'm going to make a difference.
    Tomorrow, I'm going to run to work instead of driving..
    Oh,. Wait a minute.
    .. I just remembered,
    The human body releases
    more carbon dioxide
    in that distance than the
    average late model, fuel efficient car.. :(
    - damn,. Scientific Facts !
    - foiled again.

    - Love Your Work

    1. > The human body releases more carbon dioxide, in that distance than the average late model, fuel efficient car

      I haven't checked that, but since you probably don't eat fossil fuels for breakfast you're comment is beside the point.

    2. > The human body releases more carbon dioxide, in that distance than the average late model, fuel efficient car

      It might sound ridiculous, but I have seen such non-sensical arguments before from climate change deniers. There are actually people who claim humans/animals and plants produce more carbon dioxide than burning fossil fuels.

      It does show an utter failing of science education, in and out of school. On the other hand, this level of disinformation, or wilful ignorance, is not much different from what is levelled against vaccination programs (or evolution).

    3. Your body doesn't manufacture carbon atoms. The carbon in the CO2 you exhale comes from the CO2 you inhaled, and from the carbon in the plants you ate, and from the animals you ate who themselves eat plants. It's a closed cycle, which is why atmospheric CO2 didn't change for millennia before the industrial era, despite untold billions or trillions of people and animals breathing.

    4. Hi fellas,
      - just so happened to
      have a moment to reply.
      Perhaps, unfortunately
      for you.
      (though your determination
      that this blog is 'cold'
      - may mean you're off to
      pester other people
      somewhere else.)
      I'm not sorry.
      number 1)
      @ Michael B
      My remark about automobiles and the human
      body is scientific fact.
      Your irresponsibility
      in not 'checking' that
      before you comment
      is not my concern.
      Furthermore, your assuming to know what I eat for breakfast and the 'fossil' fuels involved
      in the generation/preparation
      of.. is beyond me.

      @ Ron von something
      Your reply displays
      a quite juvenile attempt
      at taking one statement
      and turning it into
      two or three others
      of your own contrivance
      ie. plants/animals, vaccination programs, evolution. ... Really ?
      As for disinformation,
      willful ignorance, and the failing of science education, ...
      - I'm sure you have a mirror in your home or office somewhere ;
      I suggest you glance at it
      once in a while.

      Finally, Mr. Appel,
      Your reply reinforces
      Ron's statement about
      the 'failing of science education'.
      - The human body does not
      'manufacture' carbon atoms
      per se. It expells them in various forms as the
      'waste' product of a biological mechanism known as 'living'.
      ( human beings are
      carbon-based life forms)
      I'm quite sure I have no
      idea what ' closed cycle'
      you're referring to, but
      I'm pretty sure that
      atmosphiric carbon dioxide levels rose and fell drastically in the
      'millenia' (or two) before
      billions and trillions
      of people and animals
      ever took a breath.

      Thanks, guys.


    5. @A.C.
      >Furthermore, your assuming to know what I eat for breakfast and the 'fossil' fuels involved in the generation/preparation of.. is beyond me.

      I suspect you have not understood some basic facts about greenhouse gases and what is going on. Either that, or you are willfully trying to spread misinformation. Care to say which option is true?

      Let me try to explain in case it is the first: it is irrelevant whether humans produce more CO2 than a modern car, since the CO2 produced by the humans comes from the food you eat, which comes from plants that currently growing on the earth, which take it from the atmosphere, where it has been at a pretty stable amount for the past few thousand years.

      The CO2 from the cars comes from the gasoline, which comes from oil, which has been underneath the surface of the earth for thousands of years. As long as the oil stays down there, it is not contributing to the warming of the atmosphere.

  32. And then there is nuclear energy: absolutely clean, as far as C12 is concerned. And, yes, there is nuclear waste. But there is no free lunch.

    1. "And then there is nuclear energy"

      How much of that is available, and at what costs?

      Uranium ore can supply the world with all energy for only 5 years. Other options are experimental, if not unproven.

    2. Again with the 5 years; this is plain wrong by orders of magnitude.

    3. Fortunately, there is also hydro-electricity, wind and solar. And obviously we wouldn't get rid of coal power plants tomorrow. The point, is that nuclear can buy us a lot of time before we have better long term solutions. (ie Fusion, if it is at all possible)

    4. SpearheadBT: The point, is that nuclear can buy us a lot of time before we have better long term solutions.

      But it can't, it is completely unrealistic to think we could in the short term build enough fission plants to supply even half the world, and fusion is a fantasy. Promoting nuclear as the short term solution is promoting an unrealizable fantasy and thus promoting inaction.

      And we have already tried the nuclear route; nuclear was a very popular idea 40 and 50 years ago. We have 450 operating nuclear plants in the world, but people are very wary now, and NIMBY plays a huge role. The meltdowns are terrifying. They take forever to build and license (for good reason), there is no solution to the waste, they are massively expensive to build and operate because the safety protocols have to be through the roof. They are too politically fraught to be the solution and definitely are not a short term solution.

      Current plans for solar and wind are exploding, and the main reason for this is they are safer and scalable; they can be implemented and work providing clean energy on the scale of a few $thousand and continuously on up to the scale of $billions.

      Storage and intermittency problems have been solved, and there are several already implemented ways of solving them; pumped hydro power is one proven method, but there are several proven methods. We don't have to pick just one; that is a huge advantage in being scalable.

      The other huge advantage of scalability is we don't have to convince the world to change; just a few people or a neighborhood or town at a time can get the job done. Heck, in my neighborhood solar panels are increasingly popular one house at a time.

      Nuclear is not scalable, it is too scary, it is too expensive, and we've already tried it and the failures will not be forgotten. If the planet is saved, it will be from solar (photovoltaic or thermal/concentrated) and wind power, and innovations in those fields that make them cheaper than fossil fuels and financially attractive to adopt. That is what will drive adoption; and that kind of tech can be adopted worldwide as quickly as the telephone, TV, computer, Internet, cell phone, etc. Because people worldwide want cheaper energy, green or not.

      It is probably a fatal mistake to think global warming is going to be solved by government enforcing anything; the best they can do is fund the academic physics and engineering research that would make solar and wind more efficient and reliable, providing the key inventions and design so that, like cell phones or the internet, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists and consumers world-wide will all act to indirectly solve our emissions problem, by providing/adopting solar and wind power out of their immediate financial self-interest.

      No regulation is needed, no big decisions by large groups, no extensive or complicated government programs or fraught politics.

      How much did it cost Apple to develop the iPhone in 2007? Next to nothing compared to sales, and look how fast (12 years now) the tech has become universal out of simple self-interest. (though big clunky 1G cell phones began about 1983, 36 years ago).

      That is exactly the kind of adoption dynamic we need for green energy, and that is how a small group of scientists could plausibly save human civilization (and countless other species): If going green truly saved people noticeable money, it would go viral, like any other tech product. And there is no reason it couldn't be cheaper than fossil fuels; both solar and wind are far more accessible than those fuels and require no extensive refinement.

    5. It's not about having half of our energy generated by nuclear either. We don't need to completely stop using coal or oil to stop climate change. There is also hydroelectricity. For example, I'm from Quebec in Canada and we have trouble selling our electricity outside the province. Well, this is going to change as it seems like the city of New-York and the state of Massachussets want to buy our hydroelectricity. And we are not the only ones to have barrages.

      I might be a downer, but as much as I think it is important to work on solar and wind, I don't think they can be be-all end-all solutions. I'm sure there are plenty of things we don't know yet about them. Like, how much surface of solar farms and wind turbines does it take for them to have an impact on climate? Which impact? Solar panels change the albedo of the surface. Wind turbines change the exchange of energy of the planetary boundary layer. Can there be too many solar and wind? If so, how much? And if so, what impacts exactly? We don't know this.

      Nuclear clearly isn't perfect, but none of the energy sources are perfect. By the way, more people die installing solar cells on roofs than people who have ever died in nuclear accidents. Nuclear has disadvantages, yet we think all the disadvantages our methods of transit have, especially cars, is alright. What about all the deaths by car accidents? Even those who have no cars? It's not even comparable to nuclear. We only talk about the failures of nuclear, but not about its successes, why? They are considerable. France still use a lot of nuclear, and they're much more likely to be able to reach their GES reduction goals than Germany. They've had to open up new coal plants because they closed down nuclear plants, as their solar and wind farms are not effective enough. Some years, they've even had a decrease of energy generation even if they build MORE solar and wind farms? Why? The years of interest were less windy and more cloudy (both a the same time).

      Of course I don't think nuclear alone can solve everything, but I think it can help tremendously. Heck, I am not alone. The use of nuclear is recommended in the IPCC reports. The truth, is that we can't expect the solution to be ideal. That's not how nature works.

  33. We are stumbling in "solutions". It's always the same and boring melody. Take your time! Climate change isn't the core. To understand the character of the problem, we have to go under the surface and ask for the driving forces, that brought us up to the point of self-destruction.
    First of all, it is necessary to analyze the position of man in an evolutionary chain of development.
    What might be the definition of man?: "The animal, that is exporting functionality into the periphery in a massive way."
    A lion always has to be in contact with its prey, to bring it down. Humans don't. They developed objects. First: Objects are not inevitably linked to the body. You can use them and then go away. Second: They are consciously made and not a product of innate behavior, like spider webs or beaver dams.
    Next: What is the driving force of the externalisation of functionality? In history of life, there is a mainstream: To broaden context. First living molecules or bacteria are in a very restricted context. They were (are) able only to digest, what is next-door. To get into a higher level, there must be a clearance. I call this "absolution". Absolutions always occur, when a certain resource is omnipresent, at least for a long amount of the day and in extended areas. The omnipresence of oxygen is such a clearance. It caused the explosion of complex life in the Cambrian period. Absolutions are reversible: Without oxygen - no complex life. Today we are living in a kind of supernova of absolutions. One major absolution, only 200 years ago, was the farewell to the highly-praised sustainability. The German romanticist Novalis once said: "Der ist der Herr der Erde, der ihre Tiefen misst..." We overcame the use of horizontal resources and went massively into the utilization of vertical resources, that had accumulated over millions and billions of years. So we are now able to develop the production of objects to the maximum and broaden our context.
    The return to sustainability is inevitably a regression and will cost million of lives. Maintanance of industrial progress isn't possible either, without losing billions of humans. We are trapped and now at the brink of the biggest catastrophe of life, not only of human life. Every expedient turns out to be a deception at the end of the day. Peter Ward is right: Life on earth is ultimately self-destructive.

  34. this central european, middle class and their worries are kind of like the guy that says "you know? my wife and I have distributed our tasks: she is in charge of lesser stuff, like the mortgage, school for the kids, monthly budget, food, care of my elders,.."; asked "really? and you?"; "well, I'm on the important big things: brexit, the crisis of the middle east, the rise of china, climate change.."

    1. Why only talk about the Europeans? Why not about China and India? If you ask them, they'll tell you they want the same quality of life as us, and for good reason, and that, as fast as they can. But when (not if) they do to manage that, what about Europe? By then Europe's emissions will be almost ridiculous in comparison to China and India (almost 3 billion put together). Obviously Europe has something to do about it, but they're certainly not alone in this!

    2. because this annoying willingness to save the world is a mostly central european middle class trait

  35. GEOENGINEERING: This topic peppers the comments above. There are a range of plausible ideas here from putting sulfate particulates in the upper atmosphere to iron powder in the oceans to stimulate phyto-plankton and so forth. Last decade I corresponded with Dr Angel at U. Arizona on such ideas with space based systems. Is geoengineering a good idea? It is only good if the other options are worse.

    When I was a kid the big issue was acid rain, and the environmental agenda was to reduce sulfur releases into the atmosphere. Remember, there was a time when US policies would address these problems, when now it is almost impossible. With geoengineering we are thinking about back peddling on the sulfate releases into the atmosphere. So the solve one problem we will end up generating another.

    To maybe solve acidification by releasing sulfate particles we might do some pH balancing by putting calcium carbonate in bodies of water and the oceans. We also have an increase of carbonic acid in oceans just from CO_2 increases. Then what could be the side effects of that?

    Planets are horrendously complex systems, and Earth is the most complex we know of. By running the uncontrolled experiment with annually releasing 35 billion tons of carbon in CO_2 we have identified problems. Now to try to solve these problems we try to employ other chemicals and substances that may have a negative feedback on the thermal or climate effects of CO_2. However, there are side effects from that, which we might have to addressed with further measures and ... . This looks a bit similar to what can happen in medicine. Dr. Seuss wrote little narratives on this sort of thing as well in The Great Oobleck and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. Human beings are good at making a muddle of things when we really do not know what we are doing.

  36. Sabine,
    Seems you've rejected my comment. Some months ago you did that as well. Please tell me why.

    1. The most recent comment I received from someone identifying as "Steven B Kurtz" is dated Sun, Dec 23, 2018, 6:46 PM, was submitted to my blogpost titled "Winter Solstice" and I did publish it.

  37. Sabine I don't agree with your thesis or the examples you have chosen.

    As you state in reply to the comments above - we have the technology so why haven't we done anything? You then extrapolate to say its because we can't do anything.

    In fact all you can conclude is that we haven't done anything. Just like a smoker who only quits when their child is born, this does not mean that a point might be reached where can't becomes can.

    What is required is an incentive and leadership. With actual evidence of climate impacts now appearing we have the incentive. Leadership comes next - in a liberal democracy this will come when companies and politicians believe it will lead to money and votes. This is starting to happen.

    Which brings me onto Greta Thunberg. It is unreasonable to accuse her of being naive - this just plays into the hands of the rather unsavoury characters who would deny her a voice already. of course she knows this is a hard problem. Her point is that the choice between "solve the problem" and "brutal reduction in my quality life, and that of millions of others" is actually an easy one, especially for her generation.

    Now we have to solve the hard problem. But we can get thousands of people together over decases to take pictures of a black hole. So we can do this, if we try.

    1. Dr Jones,

      Greta is either naive or she deliberately pretends to be naive. I have chosen the more favorable interpretation. No, the choice is not an easy one for her generation either, though of course it is easier. Even in this case, however, fact is that money which is invested into climate change mitigation is not going to go into something else and that's something to take into account. Maybe the bigger problem we have is actually antibiotic resistance? Maybe we would be better of investing into artificial intelligence which will save us all? Maybe the Swedes shouldn't worry about climate change to begin with because it'll probably improve their agriculture?

      Be that as it may, the real problem that we are still not talking about is that we have no institutions to make complex decisions that require much scientific input on a global level. The default setting, therefore, is what has become known as "business as usual". And that's basically what we'll do, fix problems when they knock at the front door. It's both economically and socially a crappy path to take, but unless we stop pretending that simply knowing a technological fix is enough, that's what we'll end up doing.

    2. "Maybe the bigger problem we have is actually antibiotic resistance?"

      That too is a social problem. It requires the same kind of coordination as climate change. And we can solve it much easier. Just spend a few billion on new classes of anti-biotics and new vaccins.

      There is only a problem because we insist the new cures must be developed by commercial parties under the patent system. And we know very well why that does not work (wrong incentives).

      When a large entity, say, the EU or China allocates the resources and handles the way-to-market, and changes prescription habits, the matter is closed.

      But on the other hand, you too are right, if the only thing between us and paradise-on-earth is corruption, we are all doomed.

      Also Greta is not naive. She states the obvious: We have the science and technology to solve climate change.

      There is ample capital sloshing around the world waiting for an opportunity to invest. Current interest rates are extremely low because there is no one who needs capital. The real economic problem is to write-off all the carbon that is still underground. But that is capital that is as virtual as the capital invested in art.

      In short, the only thing lacking for solving climate change is the will to do so. That changing the will to act is the really hard problem, that might be difficult to explain to the younger generation.

    3. Rob,

      I am afraid I have to disagree. Antibiotic resistance is still a research problem. Throwing a billion at it may or may not have the desired result. This is presently not merely a social problem. But really that's somewhat irrelevant to my point. The point was that if we do not do the research then we are surely not going to see new drugs to solve the problem.

    4. > Antibiotic resistance is still a research problem.

      I disagree. The problem is very much like that of climate change.

      Antibiotic resistance is a problem because of two causes:
      1) Rampant over-prescription of antibiotics in humans and animals.

      2) Lack of funds to develop new antibiotics.

      Reason 1) is caused by patients and farmers asking for antibiotics whether or not they are considered appropriate (and in animals, they are used as growth stimulants)

      Reason 2) is a bad incentive. Any new antibiotic will NOT be prescribed and kept as a last resort. Meaning, there is absolutely NO money in developing one.

      See e.g.,

      Both of these reasons are social in nature. They have nothing to do with research.

      There are many research leads to new anti-biotics. With the right incentives, the impossible is made possible, see the development of anti-viral AIDS drugs in the 1990s.

    5. It's not just about having the science and technology to solve climate change, it's also about being able to implement it in a decent way, so that it doesn't have huge drawbacks. And that, we don't necessarily know. It's easy to say we just need more solar and wind, and to electrify transports. It's another thing to propose a decent plan that will actually work. The implementation is not a simple matter at all. Claiming we just need to take action is very simplistic. Did anyone came up with a real plan for say, the United States? One that takes into accound the energetic needs, the territory, the fact that it'll take decades to do, how to phase out oil and coal and when, how to make the infrastructure work, etc... It will be a logistic hell. How do we go about that?

    6. Rob,

      It is correct that the reason there is too little money in developing new antibiotics is social, but fact is that we do not have the necessary antibiotics yet, and we cannot predict how much time and money it would take to develop them. This is a research problem, not a social problem. The situation with climate change is different. We full well already know what to do, have known it for decades. We're just not doing it. Different situation.

    7. @SpearheadBT
      "It's another thing to propose a decent plan that will actually work. "

      I'll bite. This has been thought through in every detail. What is holding us back in the US is political inertia (in my opinion, corruption) and in Europe, political instability in North Africa. But some countries in NA are already taking the lead from Europe.

      I'll take Europe as an example:
      (NOTE: Some articles talk about replacing conventional power plants and others about supplying ALL energy needs. The difference matters. The former is only 4% of the latter.)

      The transition towards a sustainable energy system in Europe: What role can North Africa's solar resources play?

      Solar power from Saharan sun could provide Europe's electricity, says EU


      And here is the Classic:
      Sustainable Energy - without the hot air by David JC MacKay
      (includes storage)

      The plans of the European commission on electrical storage:

      And this for North America:
      No Huge Energy Storage Breakthrough Needed For Renewable Energy To Flourish

  38. >"I do not blame Greta Thunberg for being naïve. She’s a child, and she even admits to being naïve."

    Sorry Sabine but reading what you wrote here gives me a bit too much of a stomach ache - I don't think it is appropriate to call a child who expresses her fears about her future "naive"- even if she "admits" (!!Is this your wording?) being so.

    >"Yet, I have become increasingly frustrated about the discussion of climate change in the media, which makes it look like the problem is to convince people that climate change is happening in the first place."

    I understand your frustrations but that doesn't justify to bash Greta Thunberg by calling her naive. I don't think anyone in this world can say with certainty what's really going on with the climate. There are very strong indications that greenhouse gas concentrations play a crucial role in global warming, but there are certainly factors which are not so well understood and not so well measured and may be not taken appropriately into account. Or to put it in simple words: Even the Koch brothers are not able to claim with certainty that we are not already past a point of no return. This stuff is scary and even if I think panic does not help I equally do not think that Greta Thunberg's fears and those of the other children should be treated in this way.

    1. I am not "bashing" Greta, I am pointing out the obvious. Besides, she has admitted herself to being naive, please see link in blogpost.

    2. It is quite a difference if you call yourself naive (like in some context) or if someone else calls you naive. She said :

      “I think what I want for the future is just that we fix everything and that we fix the climate and the ecological crisis so that everyone lives in peace, I guess, very naive,” she said, shrugging her shoulders."

      That is she says that what she wants in this sentence is naive, i.e. "too idealistic". That doesn't imply that she is naive as a person.

      Bashing means amongst others to put someone into a very bad light (jemanden schlechtmachen). Calling someone naive connotes ineptitude. A child that expresses her fears and dares to state naive wishes shouldn't be called naive because of that.

    3. Nad,

      If you don't like what I write, don't read it.

    4. "I don't think it is appropriate to call a child who expresses her fears about her future 'naive'- even if she 'admits' (!!Is this your wording?) being so."

      It is inappropriate to identify the result of a gigantic naive media hype with an adolescent. Even if she thinks, it's herself: Greta "the child" is something completely different. It is therefore pointless to defend "her" in these terms; just another example of how stupid "we" are.

    5. >"If you don't like what I write, don't read it."

      There are moments, where I actually think ahead, whether I can bear to read what you write or not.

      Despite the fact that there are certainly things where I would agree with you, there are astonishingly many things where I would disagree and I do have sometimes problems with your general writing style.

      That is I quite often perceive a gloating undertone (hämischen Beiklang). Unfortunately this gloating undertone is not too uncommon these days - especially not on the internet and also not in journalism. So maybe this undertone should just be taken as a "style element" without much behind it, but calling Greta Thunberg naive is for me at the overstrung end of that "style" - mildly put. I understand that you write a lot and so not every word should be weighed too much, but as a tendency I wanted to communicate that I found that went too far.

    6. nad,

      I think you should factor in that you have arrived at a personal interpretation of my writing and, apparently, of other people, which is not necessarily correct. I cannot follow why you think my remark is "gloating", especially not after I explicitly expressed my understanding for her, not only her general attitude but also her actions.
      Neither, for that matter, do I notice a general trend of that sort.

      Your comments, on the other hand, certainly demonstrate a general trend, in which people try to have endless discussions about the tone of a single word that rubs them personally the wrong way and they think that the rest of the world must care.

      Look at yourself. The world's going to hell in a handbasket and you complain that I point out someone is naive for thinking there's an easy solution. I would laugh if it wasn't so symptomatic for all that's going wrong with mankind.

    7. nad,

      I received your comment, but I will not publish it due to the randomly copied comments from someone's youtube video. I don't understand the relation and don't want that in my comment section. Let me just say that I wrote explicitly I don't blame her, and expressed my understanding for her point of view. Even if you didn't notice it the first time, I have now pointed it out to you and I hope that clarifies the situation.

  39. Um...we are approaching the point where the only potential solution to the dire consequences of climate change is geoengineering. “Pilot” projects to lower temperatures in the Arctic and Antarctic need to be explored sooner than later.

  40. I think what auke misunderstood, is that knowing that our greenhouse gases emissions cause climate change implying we know the solution to the problem is not entirely true. It is much more complicated than that.

    No one will accept sharp declines in our quality of life. Especially the developing world that is aspiring to our standards of living. And let us be reminded that China and India together have almost 3 billion inhabitants. Which is one of the big problems. Every year the greenhouse gases emissions of these countries increase by an important factor. Using green energies like solar and wind is expensive. There are also numerous unsolved problems with these technologies.

    Numerous climate scientists say that what will make the most impact is using more nuclear energy, but there are huge, powerful political and, weirdly enough, environmental lobbies against that. Germany's CO2 emissions have been increasing in the last years because they close down nuclear power plants and the wind turbines and solar panels they build up can't keep up because they are too "frail", so they need to open up COAL power plants.

    The truth, is that stopping using oil isn't so easy. Yes, we can electrify transportation, but you can't change the market overnight, especially in countries where clean electricity isn't so easy to come by in the first place. Electrical transportation requires a lot of infrastructure too. Political parties with huge environmental measures are just unrealistic. You can't just break down the system and build anew like that. It always ends up in chaos and destruction.

    The present climate crisis is mostly an energy crisis. How can we shift our huge energy needs from "dirty" sources to mostly clean ones? The answer isn't so simple. And that is partly why there are people who don't believe in climate change. Because the solutions are unrealistic and over the top. That's not a good reason not to believe it, but a lot of people won't believe something if they fear they're being had, which is what is happening now. The discussion isn't honest. It's one of moral preaching. And this causes mistrust, and for good reason. Crazy environmentalists are as much a problem as pro-oil lobbies.

    Fusion would definitely be a game changer, but we are nowhere near close to be able to use it. And I'd say yes, money in education would be a good thing. What about geo-engineering? Can we take out CO2 out of the atmosphere for example? Understand more how climate works in detail can also help us to gauge whether certain interventions could be positive. I, for one, also think too much solar could be potentially be a bad thing for example, as it changes the albedo of the surface it is installed on, especially if it is in a desert. There are a lot of things we still need to understand in order to do the right things. And as already stated, we can't just make the economic system do anything. I think a lot of people fail to realize how lucky we are do live in such a decently stable world, regardless of its numerous problems. Some people seem to be willing to risk everything, rather than having an imperfect system. So yeah, oversimplifying the problem is part of the problem.

    1. Spearhead,

      You write

      "And that is partly why there are people who don't believe in climate change. Because the solutions are unrealistic and over the top. That's not a good reason not to believe it, but a lot of people won't believe something if they fear they're being had, which is what is happening now. The discussion isn't honest. It's one of moral preaching."

      Yes, that's exactly what I mean. You said it better than I did :o) E

  41. Climate change is a highly-political and complex issue. I will not tell anyone what to believe or what to do about it. I will only suggest that people inform themselves by:
    Don't listen to Greta, Nye, Greenpeace, politicians, environmental journalists and activists
    Read scientific literature on both sides:
    IPCC assessment reports (not just the summary for policymakers)
    Prof. Lindzen's papers and lectures, Bjorn Lomborg's Copenhagen Consensus, Science of Doom blog (expert on atmospheric physics and climate models)
    If you're intelligent and science literate, you can discern the truth. Good luck!

    1. Your very thin veneer of "even handedness" scarcely disguises the fact that "telling anyone what to believe" is exactly what you are doing.

    2. Oh you got me. I'm telling everyone to believe they have a brain they can use to decide for themselves. Obviously that is too much for you to bear. I understand your protest

    3. No. You are telling us who we should not to listen to. That in itself reveals an agenda. That is why I protest.

    4. My "agenda" is if you want to learn science, listen to scientists. But if you don't want to learn science, listen to Greta and non-experts. Sure please do so

  42. I am a German physicist who worked 30 years in the electricity industry. I follow the discussions in Germany but it is very difficult to discuss with somebody. They all are doctors, artists, teachers, social workers, journalist etc. who do not know anything what it means to change the electrical supply, the heating systems and the transport system of the whole world in 20 years. Most of them do not even know the difference between kW and kWh. Engineers do not want to waste their time with such ridiculous ideas. By the way, we need more than 15 years in Germany to build an airport.
    The discussion whether the climate changes or why it changes or how we could stop the climate change Is in my opinion all waste of time. Instead we should start thinking what we do when the climate changes. I would not be surprised if we find out that handling the consequences of the climate change is much easier than to stop it.

    1. The difficulty comes when we collapse the life support system of this planet. This appears to be a mass extinction we are engineering. With the loss of the thermal gradient that keeps arctic air bottled up in the north, since the arctic is warming the most, we are seeing more frequent cold snaps and freakish winter-like weather later in the spring. This might put the kibosh on large scale agriculture. This could happen within a few decades. Sorry dude, but if that happens Homo sapiens is toast. Or if Homo sapiens survives its members will be far fewer in number and living on subsistence levels.

    2. Lawrence Crowell: I agree with that. If we don't solve it in a way we like, it will surely be resolved in a way we hate.

      We're a lot smarter than the dinosaurs. We didn't just wait around, we made our own asteroid!

    3. I would like to see a study of the side-effects of filling the Sahara desert with solar panels and the required electrical power storage systems.
      One big question that came to my mind is what will the local climate effects be due to removing that much energy from the Sahara region and transmitting it by wire to the rest of the world. It could be negligible, but maybe the weather patterns that happen because of the heat deposited in the Sahara will be changed for the worse in many places.
      A second question is whether moving the world's electrical production to a large central system rather than thousands of regional systems make it too vulnerable? That Sahara idea is really the antithesis of one of the normal solar power arguments for moving production away from the large regional coal and nuclear plants to local neighborhood production.

    4. @SteveB The area of the Sahara desert is 9.200.000 km^2. We would only need a tiny fraction of that. So what is your problem ?

  43. +1 Internets Sabine
    The two sides are not talking to each other. This won't change.

    I'm not a Green so when I see people in need I see members of my human family that I want to help. Any plan that admits on it's face that we will let billions starve is a bad plan. I refuse to be an accessory to Armageddon, and readers should refuse aswell.

    The good news is that we have the technical ability to solve this one. We have two paths forward. Of-The-Shelf fission reactors can tide us over till we get up to gen 4+ thorium reactors.

    If the politics on the fission strategy prove intractable then we jump right to fusion. A lot of people ether don't follow fusion or don't have their eye's on the ball. I'm talking 'proven' in under 5 yr and on grid before 2030. We currently have 8 private companies that are building/testing machines between one to three orders of break even. Everyone of them is saying on grid power in under 10 years. There are six geometries/strategies being used all wildly different. We only need one to work. I'm not counting the NIF or ITER those are bomb research and a professor's toy respectively.

    We can and will fix this, but it will be through engineering not "institutions". The other thing to notice is we haven't even been stressed yet. If we were really in trouble you'd see coal gassification tanks on car roof racks like seen in 1940's Germany. That's what a shortage looks like in the developed world. A shortage in the developing world is a lot crueler and bloodier. In the mean time please stop trying to ban fire... people need fire.

  44. Dear Sabine,
    if the problem is how to decarbonize the entire energy grid, the problem has been studied by the late, great David MacKay in probably the most important book written "Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air" and available free on his website (

    Massive expansion of nuclear energy production allied with significant improvements in house-building standards could get rid of much of the waste. Unfortunately Germany had gone backwards on the first point, but is about 20 years ahead of the UK on the second point. Much remains to be done. Further, the idea of shuttling people around in large metal boxes, either by fossil fuels or electric is a stupid idea.

    So, can we decarbonzize soon (say within 10 years)? Yes, I think we can.

    Will we decarbonize within that time? Only if the message promulgated by Extinction Rebellion gets through.

    Best, JB

    1. Henning Flessner indicated above that it is not so easy to unplug from one energy source to another. Also renewable energy sources are not going to do the whole trick. For one thing they are intermittent. The other is they require a lot of land. I read a while back about how the construction of a solar farm in California in the Mojave wiped out thousands of desert tortoises. That is not really progress.

      There will have to be to around 50% of energy on a continental grid that is not dependent this way. There is only one source that can fill a zero carbon requirement and that is nuclear energy. I am disposed to the idea of the thorium to uranium breeder cycle over the U to Pu systems employed now. Even still, the EM2 nuclear reactors developed are modest scaled, so the costs are lower and there is not the sunken costs with decommissioning, and it has far more stability control than the 1970 GE reactor that went awry in Fukushima.

      I think there is one trend with energy in going from sources that are less dense to more dense. From firewood to coal to oil to natural gas that trend has been clear. We develop more concentrated energy sources.

  45. Yesterday, on our bike club's 23 mile ride, in southwest New Hampshire, it took a while to get warmed up. Something weird seems to be going on with the jet stream, it's keeping our region in the ice box, while other areas are baking. To try to figure out what's going on I looked at the snow/ice cover at the Climate Reanalyzer site, run by the University of Maine, and it shows all of Hudson Bay to be ice covered. I'm not sure if that's unusual for this time of year. Additionally, a few days ago, the "Snow Depth/MSLP" app. showed the snow depth to be quite substantial in Ontario and Quebec, reaching almost to the US northern border. But looking at that app. this morning the snow in those two Canadian provinces has massively retreated. Hopefully, this will shift the jet stream further north and lead to more normal temperatures for New England.

  46. Did I miss anything? There is the Paris climate aggrement that shows a pathway for limiting warming to about 2 degrees. Is there new information that shows that this is no longer possible?

    1. Oh, it is certainly "possible". As possible as it has been for the past half century.

  47. Dear Cassandra,
    You are singing the wrong song, especially above the line.

    There is a war on. We have met the enemy and she is us. For the last thirty years it's been a phony war, but now it's getting hot. Yes, the problem is social, not technical. Telling us we are all doomed through our venality and stupidity is not going to help. You can't win a war if you don't believe you can win. Greta Thunberg understands that: we need our Joan of Arc.

    The developed world has to lead on this. How can the leaders of China and India tell their peoples to make sacrifices when the countries mostly responsible for current warming are still causing far more than their fair share of damage?

    Thunberg and Attenborough and Nye's words are working. Extinction Rebellion are working. They are working because they are saying "listen to the scientists": it is hard to paint the disruption as anti-social when there is no informed opinion that says they are wrong.

    The tweet you post about Nye is from someone with an outside chance of being the next US President, and every challenger in 2020 will have climate action on their agenda. Every other government in the world is signed up to the Paris accord. Governments are trying to do the right thing as far as they can without asking their citizens to make sacrifices. It's not enough. Individual action will not be enough.

    Our duty as citizens and scientists is to tell governments loud and clear that we understand there is a war on, that we have to make sacrifices, that we are ready to do it, and vote for it. Actually, the sacrifices we need to make are pathetically small. Air travel now accounts for 10% of UK CO2. The cost of offsetting the carbon from a London-Sydney flight is about $100 per passenger. The rich west can afford to go carbon neutral by 2030, and we should try to achieve it sooner.

    Many readers of this blog will have the chance to vote in the European Elections next week. I'm 59 years old and have never voted Green before but I will do that next week. I don't agree with all their policies but they are focussed on the real problem. We need them to have a strong voice in the EU, especially when the nationalist right are growing and making climate-change denial part of their political identity.

    1. Paddy,

      I don't see that anything is "working" here. The only thing I see is a lot of words that lead to nothing. The only thing that all this talk does is waste further time.

    2. Open your eyes, then. Windmills and solar power are everywhere, and spreading faster and faster. They are cheaper than coal even without accounting for environmental cost. Electric cars are common and will take over in the forseeable future. Carbon offset pricing is in place as a charitable option but must be made compulsory. Of course political action starts with words, and votes. The Green party vote trebled in the recent UK local elections. Words make laws, laws change things on the ground. The task is not to start the change, but to make it faster.

    3. Paddy,

      I live in Germany. We have wind farms and solar power everywhere. We are, apparently also phasing out coal and nuclear power, presumably to then import it from other countries. Even so, we'll miss yet another climate goal this year. And Germany is one of the better cases. Can you not see that this is not working?

      You also still do not see what I am saying. You claim "political action starts with words". Yes, but not words about what we could do to combat climate change - we have known this since decades. The words we should be exchanging are what institutions we need to come to decisions about this, and how to implement these decisions. This is the discussion we are still not having.

    4. @Pady
      > Windmills and solar power are everywhere, and spreading faster and faster.

      The current cost of solar is ~$2/W (generating capacity).

      Global energy use is currently 15 TW. Installing that amount of solar energy production capacity would take O($30T) (trillion) give and take some infrastructure work.

      Compare that to the global equity markets, $70T, and global bond markets, $92T. It is clear that the capital is available if it could be given a good return.

    5. @Dr B
      > Even so, we'll miss yet another climate goal this year.

      That is because the problem is not with the generation of electricity (4% of total energy), but with heating, transport, and industry.

    6. I visited a seminar in the 90s where we discussed alternatives to the canoncical energy sources. The punchline was that the best alternative source for Germany would be wind which could in the ideal case contribute about 10% to the overall energy supply. That's it.

    7. Sabine,
      There is a big difference between not doing enough and doing nothing. The changes made already, in Germany and across much of the rest of the world including the developing world, are really important because they show everyone that large-scale change is possible, even inevitable. Yes, we are missing targets but it is clear that those targets could be met if we made action a higher priority.

      The institutions we need are governments, because only they are powerful enough to take the actions we need. Every government in the world (except the USA) already has a plan and is
      implementing it. Every opposition party in the world has a different plan, in many cases involving more effective action. Yes, words are especially cheap for opposition parties. But politicians are actually much better at following through with their manifesto promises than people give them credit for.

      The solution may not be simple, but it is obvious: we need to do more. Political action is the most important thing that individuals can do. We need to persuade our fellow-citizens that we are in a fight for the highest possible stakes. Greta Thunberg is acting entirely rationally and I have the greatest respect for her.

      Victory is not guaranteed. Climate change was the major issue in the Australian elections and today the side of reason lost. But not by much. Now is the time to redouble our efforts, not to despair.

    8. Paddy,

      Unfortunately, your comment only raises my despair because that you claim the solution is "obvious" demonstrates that you still don't understand what I am saying.

      That the institutions we need are governments is tautologically true because any such institution would govern and hence be a government. In case you mean to say that the institutions we need are the existing governments, that's simply wrong. You can see with your own eyes how this is not working.

      Look, we have known since half a century that the global economic (and financial) system works inefficiently if externalities aren't properly priced. But we have not changed anything about this. Why? Because we do not have any institution to make such a change. And we still do not have one. Which is why carbon still doesn't have a price, except for some country's experiments here and there. Now it's too late of course to solve the problem this way, but that would be an obvious way to start. How can we expect a system to work if we KNOW why it doesn't work but sit around just watching it fail?

    9. Sabine,
      I'm not suggesting we just sit around. Political action is essential. That means voting for politicians who promise to take the action that's needed, and massive protests if they don't deliver. In other words, what Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are doing now, with widespread popular support, albeit not yet wide enough. It also means doing everything possible to change the minds of those who believe that the climate crisis is a plot by the "elite" (which includes scientists) to dump on them.

      You say our institutions have not done anything. Please admit that this is patently false. In most EU countries, for instance, for decades there have been heavy taxes on the main carbon-based fuels which are explicitly intended to wean us off them. Governments have taken many other actions to tackle climate change, not always politically easy. Why is this not enough? Because so far there has not been enough popular support, as the fuel-price protests showed. There is still a very powerful opposition, but the balance is changing and we need to work to change it faster.

      There is no rational basis for claiming that success is impossible. It is rational to believe that failure is more likely than not, but that means we have to work harder to succeed. Despair is the worst possible reaction. Especially from you, a person widely respected as an informed scientist prepared to tell hard truths. Haven't you noticed that you are getting support below the line from climate-change deniers and the kind of people who think it's someone else's job to prevent a global catastrophe?

    10. Paddy,

      You write:

      "You say our institutions have not done anything. Please admit that this is patently false."

      It is false, but it's also not what I have said. Please read what I wrote. I have explicitly pointed out that some countries have carbon taxes. Of course some countries have done other things. Look, I already said, I live in Germany, I have it literally in front of my eyes. But this will not solve the problem. How can this be so hard to see if it is so patently obvious that it *does* not solve the problem.

      "There is no rational basis for claiming that success is impossible."

      I didn't claim it's impossible. How is it that people constantly start fabricating things I didn't say. I would never claim it's impossible because that's obviously wrong. Look, I don't have time for this nonsense. Please stop inventing things I didn't say.

      "It is rational to believe that failure is more likely than not, but that means we have to work harder to succeed. Despair is the worst possible reaction. Especially from you, a person widely respected as an informed scientist prepared to tell hard truths."

      The hard truth is that if we continue to have nonsense discussion like this, we will fail.

      "Haven't you noticed that you are getting support below the line from climate-change deniers and the kind of people who think it's someone else's job to prevent a global catastrophe?"

      No shit, eh. Do you seriously think I don't know what's happening in my comment section? Can you people here please stop for a moment assuming that I'm completely dumb? Of course I know the planet is full with people do don't want to pay the price that it would take to prevent the most dire of consequences, and many of them, consciously or unconsciously, deny scientific evidence instead of admitting this. This is why I am saying we have to stop implying that the costs are justified without discussing the underlying value decision.

      You, as most others, do not. Just look at this exchange we are having. I wrote in my blogpost explicitly that I am not someone who needs to be convinced. Yet you preach to me!

  48. I fully agree that human activity is responsible for much of Climate Change and that there are no simple solutions to this problem. I'm sure your readers are aware that there is another organism that has taken over most of the land mass of the planet, that has completely changed the land surface, and that has completely changed the atmosphere. This organism is - the tree. I am afraid that tackling climate change is tackling the wrong problem. The real problem is human population; there are far too many people on the planet. If the human population were reduced (by at least a factor of 10), then the climate change problem would go away. Just as obese people know what to do but don't, so we won't do anything about population size, nor will we do anything about climate change. However, I am very optimistic about the long term future of the planet, because "nature cannot be fooled"; nature is much cleverer than we are; nature will find a way, and it will be extremely unpleasant for a large fraction of the human population.

  49. UK governments over the last few decades have had significant success in changing entrenched and seemingly impossible to tackle social attitudes where the science was clear, like getting people to wear seat belts and to make smoking or drunk driving more and more socially unacceptable. From a 1970's perspective, it was near impossible to imagine that any government could be elected who would take measures to ban smoking or compel the wearing of seat belts. Yet events have shown that it is possible to change attitudes and convert the voting population to people who demand such actions of their governments, rather than oppose them. Schools here have been working on teaching children about global warming for some time. Attitudes in young people are clearly different from the older generations. Grassroots activism like Extinction Rebellion are making an impact. It may well be possible that the voting population will end up pressuring their governments to take drastic actions, including those that result in voters having to make sacrifices. Attitudes move with the times and all hope is not lost. Don't let personal despair damage the shoots of change.

  50. Dear Sabine,

    this is an excellent and much-needed article, and I hope you don't draw too much fire for this. Climate change is perhaps *the* best example for a problem to which there is no simple solution. We need more such voices that raise awareness for the problem, but also keep their calm, and don't fall for simple solutions. I find it especially odd that some of our fellow scientists (justly) stress at every turn how vulnerable the climate system is to human interfence, but at the same time fail to see that human society (including, but not limited to the global economy) can be thrown out of balance just as easily by unrealistic utopian policies as we have seen more than once over the course of history.

  51. I heard Greta Thunberg on BBC a couple of weeks ago. She reflects a level of intellectual immaturity, and she really reflects someone who sees their future potentially endangered by global warming.

    The media shows by Bill Nye and others really pale into smallness compared to the advertising and PR campaigns the corporations can muster. We also see Fred Singer at work, where his previous service to the tobacco firms with PR denial over health effects of cigarette smoking have now been playing out over climate change denial. The fossil fuel companies have lots of money they can throw at this propaganda offensive, and they can also buy politicians. If effect the American political system is an open form of bribery.

    There is a misconception that somehow the CEOs of corporations are ignorant of this. My favorite pair are the Koch brothers, who deny climate change. Are these people really ignorant? No! They know what the hell is going on. The problem is they do not give a damned. They care about their profits and money now, and the future in their minds may sort itself out. Either that or they will be dead before it really impacts them and they really couldn't give a flying fig if the human race dies off --- or dies out.

    The science is decided, and while some responses here reflect some doubts on that from what I see it is decided. I am not a climatologist, though I read Hansen's original paper and it is a pretty straight forwards use of the Stefan-Boltzmann equation and thermodynamic analysis. For the world average temperature Hansen's original paper is about on track. The more professional work is complex and beyond my pay grade in this area. So I have to go with what is being modeled, from what I can tell it is matching what is happening and this is based on the professional assessment of people doing the actual word. A certain string theorist seems to think that because he knows string theory and this is the ultimate foundation that, with his fascistic ideology, he knows global warming is about hysteria. He might as well be saying his string theory knowledge qualifies him to walk into an OR and perform open heart surgery. The scientific conclusion is largely decided; the noise is now more about PR, money, influence, politics and the activities of a fair number of scurrilous people who worship an orange baboon, or Godzilla who relentlessly stomps forwards, running the most powerful nation on Earth.

    The battle really is for the average person's mind. So far in the US the battle is not going very well. Europe has saner campaign laws and laws surrounding influence over politicians. In America the game is one of manic insanity. As I see it the antics of people doing things like supergluing themselves to a train reflect more a sense of desperation. For every monetary unit thrown at a production by Bill Nye there are hundreds more devoted to the promotion of ideological nonsense that counters that.

    1. The problem is one level higher than what you write about the Koch brothers. It's allowing these people to have too much say in government policies. That companies have to make a profit, put their economic interests first (at least to a large degree), is inevitable as the economy needs to be based on free market competition. If you go too much out of your way to do other things than what's good for your company, you'll be bankrupt and as a result, lose the ability to do those other things.

      But it's the government's job to impose rules and regulations that are good for society. They don't have to stick to the Koch brothers' advice, they need to let the free market forces work toward getting to the long term solutions for climate change, not against it.

    2. Count Iblis: The free market is entirely free to solve the problem; but there are flaws in the free market system that prevents that. This is evident in the books "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" by Piketty and "When Free Markets Fail" by Scott McCleskey.

      Basically, there are vested interests opposed to the solutions, and the presumption that consumers will make informed choices is just wrong (and contrary to all evidence).

      If your "free market" includes "free speech", it also includes the freedom to lie and shade the truth in ways that sabotage the optimal solutions. That clearly happens now; sometimes in financial self-interest, sometimes the lies are from the religious that believe God will protect them, or (ironically) from those so accustomed to hearing (or telling) lies that they can't recognize the truth when they hear it; they think everything is a lie in some powerful person's self-interest.

      If the optimal solutions require permanently sacrificing some comforts now, the vast majority of people are not that altruistic. Under the free market, they will opt out of energy conservation.

      Claiming that government should "impose rules and regulations that are good for society" is the opposite of a free market, it is a constrained market. Letting the market do whatever it wants, letting the Koch Brothers use their money to spread countless lies about global warming, letting businesses do whatever is in their immediate self-interest, THAT is the free market, and it truly only succeeds in limited circumstances for goods we can literally live without. In those circumstances, the consumer can walk away from a deal without consequences; they won't die without the product or service for which they bargain.

      In circumstances where one's life or health or livelihood is on the line, government imposed regulations are necessary, to varying degrees depending on the seriousness of the threat to life, health or livelihood, and the degree to which the "free market" for such products and services is causing hardship to people by essentially holding them hostage; the equivalent of a demand for "your money or your life". Presuming the government exists to protect life and liberty, keeping such demands off the table is their job.

      Clearly the issue of global warming is a very serious threat to life and liberty; and rules and regulations that constrain the energy market are warranted.

  52. The simple solution that should have been implemented in the late 1980s when it was clear that there existed a problem (and this was known to politicians at the time: ) would have been to implement economic measures such as a carbon tax. Back in the late 1980s the rate of CO2 emissions was far lower than today and with less put up in the atmosphere by that time there was far more room to let the free market come up with solutions. But you then do need to steer the free market in the right direction, e.g. using carbon tax. Today, the time available to act to prevent a dangerous problem is far more limited, and the action we need is also far more rigorous. It requires a far more government intervention in the economy, so the price tag is going to be a lot higher.

    But that's stating the obvious. If you can see a problem way ahead, then your optimal solution is going to be at least as good than if you act later, as acting later is a subset of the set of options you also had when you could see the problem way ahead like Thatcher could.

    From 1990 to 2020 a lot could have been done, just look at how the World changed from 1950 to 1980. All it takes is to unleash free market forces that are capable of drastically change society. This happens at an exponential rate due to economic growth being diverted partially to tackle the problem but it has a long characteristic time scale. If you have something that grows like exp(t/tau) with a tau of the order of 15 years, then during the first few years it looks like nothing is happening.

  53. Thanks so much, Sabine, for (finally) broaching this incredibly important, but also, as you correctly argue, deeply misunderstood topic. Your post stands out from the many others in being eminently sensible, reflecting an outlook that is truly scientific (as opposed to ideological).

    Your extremely restrained essay reminds me of an extremely unrestrained rant I penned some time ago on precisely the same issue. It's rather long, but no one has to read it all the way through to get the idea:

    Everywhere we look nowadays we see men with long beards and lunatic eyes holding up signs saying "REPENT - THE END IS NEAR." They are standing on their soapboxes and preaching, to no one in particular, that our selfish indulgences have brought us to the brink of extinction. After reminding us that "the science" cannot possibly be mistaken and that all "deniers" will be either going to Hell or dispatched there, they inform us that things are already even worse than anyone thought, that "tipping points"of all sorts lie before us like mines in some infernal minefield that could never be crossed.

    But just before each sermon ends -- wait for it -- they raise a hopeful finger to remind us that "it isn't too late," that if we take action NOW to "fight climate change" there is still some hope of saving the planet nonetheless. But the demands being made are impossible demands. Short of a worldwide uprising and the establishment of what would amount to a universal totalitarian regime, there is no way the burning of fossil fuels will ever be cut back to the degree demanded by "experts" such as James Hansen and Michael Mann. And, realistically, even if that were possible, based on the findings of these same "experts," it will already be too late.

    Sorry but I'm not buying it. I've seen too many of these long-bearded zealots in my lifetime to be anything but skeptical regarding this sort of message. Behind every doomsday cult there is an agenda and before deciding to follow this movement it's necessary to inquire as to the nature of its agenda.

    As should be obvious to anyone with the curiosity to look into the history of the "climate change" movement, it has ALWAYS been "too late" to avert the predicted catastrophe. The alarmists want us to believe "we" could have done something if action had been taken back in the 80's when Hansen first sounded the alarm. He's intelligent enough to realize, however, that the same obstacles that exist today existed back then as well. It's always been "too late" and what is more, anyone with any capacity for critical thinking would have seen the truth of this even back then.

    Which tells me that the agenda behind the "climate change" movement is not at all what it seems. If there never was any way to "save the planet" then all the efforts over so many years to convince us that "it's still not too late so long as we take drastic action NOW" represent not merely a flawed argument but an argument in bad faith. Saving the planet could never have been the real agenda. And no, I'm not some nutcase claiming it's all some sort of communist conspiracy to empower "big government." My politics is closer to that of Bernie Sanders than anyone else. As with any doomsday cult, the agenda has never been what it seemed. The leaders of this particular cult have no real interest in “saving the planet,” which, if we are to believe their hysterical ravings, could never actually happen anyhow. It’s all about power, influence and control.

    1. DocG,

      Well, the phrase "it's too late" is very vague. The question is always "too late for exactly what" assuming you can take which steps.

      But, yes, of course we have known in the 1980s already that the real obstacle is institutional. There were ways to improve the outcome and there still are ways to improve the outcome, but the way it's presently going, we will not take them.

      I mean, just take this comment section as an example. People actually do think that the current activism is going to make a difference. And then they'll be perplexed if it doesn't come out as they think in the elections. And what will we have learned by this? Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

    2. Yes, Sabine, exactly. However, I think you are being too kind. The very idea that all the people and all the nations of the world can somehow come together in some vaguely Utopian sense to “fight climate change” in a manner that can actually make a difference (assuming the enormity of the alleged threat) is a huge chimera that could never be achieved -- the impossibility of achieving it should be obvious to anyone with an ounce of critical thinking ability, not to mention common sense. It’s not just that the desired solution is impossible, it’s that the very notion that it MIGHT be possible borders on insanity.

      We’re being told that CO2 levels have to be reduced by such and such a percentage by such and such a date, but no one has a clue as to how that could be achieved, short of a major worldwide revolution followed by the imposition of universal martial law so onerous that no society anywhere would be willing to accept it. Nor does anyone have a clue as to what the effect on the climate would be if such a revolution WERE possible and the required reductions achieved.

      It’s not simply that I advocate “doing nothing” in the face of an imminent threat, nor do I have any desire to maintain the status quo (I happen to be a Socialist). It’s just that I refuse to go along with what looks more and more to me like the sort of doomsday cult that demands more and more sacrifice with no clear understanding of whether such sacrifice will matter. While earlier cults took their authority from “the Gods,” this one takes its authority from “the Science.”

      In both cases, cult members are expected to follow the directives of those who represent the ultimate authority, the high priests who continually assure us that they alone know the Truth and must be obeyed or else we will all perish.

      As I see it, the bad faith exhibited by these priests with respect to the extreme demands they are making reflects back on their “science” as a whole, making the skeptical position regarding the climatic effects of fossil fuels even stronger than ever. I, for one, have no problem “doing nothing” because I have no faith in anything the alarmists have to say and see no need to “do something” when I see nothing to be alarmed about.

    3. Doc,

      I wouldn't go so far to call it impossible, but arguably it is difficult. The problem is that humans have not been able to create decision making systems that have grown in step with their influence on the environment. That the outcome is ultimately a failure of managing the environment with devastating consequences is hardly surprising.

      This starts with us not configuring the global economic and financial system so that they actually works. Externalities and monopolies result in market failures, and we have known this for a long time. Even now we would be better of if we would finally fix this, but of course now the cost of many goods would rise so steeply that too many people will balk at it.

      The other problem that we have long known about is that the current political systems do not properly separate value decisions and evaluations of scientific facts resulting in risk estimates. This leads to the idiotic situation that we have politicians debating scientific facts that they aren't able to comprehend. A sensible system would simply present politicians with the facts asking them to decide what path to take to best represent their electorate.

      But, well, look, even particle physicists haven't been able to understand that they need to pay attention to the way that they make decisions in groups and to how they evaluate information. If particle physicists aren't able to see the patently obvious and understand that they need to configure the system in which they operate carefully, what hope is there for the rest of mankind?

      Seriously, I ask you this. If the smartest of the smart aren't able to fix a problem that they have in their face, what chances are there that the average person on the planet will?

      Sorry if that sounds depressing, but it seems to me that we will not be able to prevent suffering for the coming generations. We are simply too dumb to get it done. And of course I include myself in this, because if I was smart, I would know how to make a difference, but I don't.

    4. Sabine Hossenfelder: Well, given that indictment (which I mostly agree with) the only option is to abandon the "government has to do it" approach and hope the save can be accomplished without the help of government or sacrifice of people.

      In short, if the save happens, it will be because a small group of people invented some green technology that works so cheaply it goes viral and displaces the fossil fuel industry despite its political and financial clout.

      If anything can do that in thirty years it is a new technology that is in a person's immediate selfish interest to adopt and immediate financial interest as an investment; like iPhones, like TVs, like cars, like electric lights. Hard to believe it has only been 12 years since the iPhone (and other smartphones like it) were introduced; now it is surprising to meet somebody in the industrialized world that doesn't have one.

      So government and institutions don't need to do anything but stay out of the way of worldwide exponential growth.

      Then the thing to do is figure out what is scalable, where breakthroughs could occur, and how to support those development efforts. THAT part could be done by governments and other existing institutions, as just another routine science grant, not draconian new rules about energy usage.

    5. Dr A.M.,

      Surely what's best is not to abandon any approach and keep pushing on them all. I completely agree with your first post on this article. At the risk of sounding over-optimistic, it was entirely rational and only a bit too slow for governments to start by setting up the IPCC in 1988, to see if DocG's bearded loonies actually had a point or not. Since then action on IPCC advice including Kyoto and Paris has significantly reduced our fossil fuel budget from what it would have been, and certainly done much more than individual voluntary action. Partly that's by tweaking the tax & grant system to jump-start R&D on renewables, to the point that many of these technologies are fully commercially viable, especially in the developing world where construction is cheap.

      What gives me the most hope is that China, which is a totalitarian state, signed up to Paris. For sure nobody made them do it. China's leaders appear to be highly competent given the staggering improvement in living standards they have achieved over the last 30 years. They have the largest task in meeting or exceeding Paris objectives, but every incentive to do it. (Though even they will have a hard sell with their people if the EU and USA don't keep their side of the bargain).

    6. @DocG: you keep talking about a "hidden agenda" without once saying what that agenda is. (You mention "power, influence and control" at the end of your post. But everyone can be accused of following "power, influece and control" for every action they take, so this is a shallow observation.) Unless you can provide a reasonable hidden agenda, I would qualify you as a "nutcase" conspiracy theorist.

  54. Paddy: Surely what's best is not to abandon any approach and keep pushing on them all.

    I am pretty sure that is NOT what's best. It is how we maximize the dilution of efforts and financing on any one solution. It will also maximize the conflicts between ideas. It will also maximize the opportunities to sow discord, for entities opposed to paying for any solution (politicians and corporations); and a hundred "solutions" that cannot possibly ALL be funded hands those that want to do nothing a convenient excuse for doing nothing.

    Nevertheless, that is the impasse we are facing right now; the public may believe in global warming, but continues to ask governments to do the impossible, or ask governments to do things that will not suffice.

    I dare say that is Dr. Hossenfelder's argument, governments and institutions do not work, they make terrible decisions, and there is no way to change that dynamic in time to save the planet. None!

    Because of the way they work, the optimal (and unattainable) solution would be for all citizens to advocate for one clear approach to fighting global warming. That would likely be sufficient pressure to force that one thing. But we can't come to such a decision, and in fact most people just say "we want the problem solved!" They don't say how, or they spread the political pressure too widely to push anybody to do anything.

    If we accept that as a given, the only sensible thing to do is stop worrying about changing the mind of government or institutions or corporations altogether; and devise a solution that uses them as they currently exist, to do things just like they currently do.

    The only thing I personally can think of that has a chance of adhering to the "use government as it is" criterion is developing a technological solution. In my personal opinion, the most room for improvement lies in CSP (Concentrated Solar Power); aka "thermal solar". Photovoltaic has low efficiency (about 15%; one product at 22.5%), and isn't scalable due to elements it relies upon. CSP is an array of mirrors and efficiency can exceed 50%. CSP relies on commodity materials that will never be in short worldwide supply; it is aluminum and steel, mirrors and turbines.

    But that would be my personal bet based on current technology. The right thing to do is, as I said, to find experts that can collaborate on making some specific green energy technology mainstream, scalable, and cheap enough that it can go viral; and make a profit even as it saves consumers a noticeable amount of money. Those are not impossible goals. Businesses create tools that people (and companies) buy to save themselves time and money all the time.

    Such a solution would also be a rallying point for the public. But even without it, the role of non-scientist citizens would be to push politicians to fund such endeavors, on the scale of a few $million per project, a parallel search to find the breakthrough in green energy production needed that will go viral.

    I will note that going viral does require a profit motive to fund the costs of growing and funding an organization that can handle production and distribution and installation. But the creation of a megalith is a social problem we can deal with, especially if that is what we expect to create from the start, if successful. First save the planet. This is how a relatively small group of people, with a relatively small level of funding, could do that: Without changing government, without convincing anyone new that climate change is real. Such a group might even be privately funded by fervent climate change believers alone; there are enough of us that might invest in that, if we believed it was a real effort.

    Goverment? We don't need no stinkin' government!

  55. Some developed nations whose GHG emissions per capita are less than half of the US (from 1990 to the present day):

    Japan, Belgium, Singapore, South Africa, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Austria, United Kingdom, Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, Portugal, Sweden.

    I'll mention a few other nations that are currently emitting about two-thirds of the GHG's per capita as the US:

    South Korea, Ireland, Finland, Israel, Netherlands, Germany.

    As far as I know, the people in these nations enjoy a decent standard of living.

  56. Mr. Mason,
    I've found that ' per capita'
    assessment does not tell the
    'whole' story in regards
    to total output.
    - see Qatar, U.A.E. etc.
    all the best

  57. The science is not settled. We know very very little about how the climate changes, amazingly little. We don't even know why we come in and out of ice ages. The last ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, rapidly, and no one knows why. Europe/America was mostly covered in thick ice like Antarctica, then it quickly disappeared. Then the Younger Dryas mini ice age ended almost in a week - THAT was rapid temperature change! The problem with climate scientist activists is that they ignore all other factors that are not carbon emissions. This is crazy, but convenient. The field is not working like a science should work, because it has clearly become highly politicised to justify certain political ideas and goals.

  58. If people just stop eating beef, this alone will save the planet!

  59. Hello Sabine,

    Thanks a lot for your post!

    I would like to make a few points:

    - If we are going to talk about low-probability high impact risks from anthropogenic climate change, we should also mention low-probability high impact risks from various climate policies. For example, slowing down economic growth not only makes the lives of present-day people more difficult, it also creates the risk that future generations will be less equipped to deal with various problems, including low-probability catastrophic problems.

    - I would like to add that just as we can argue "The climate is a poorly understood complex system, so we should be risk averse about messing with that system.", we can make a similar argument about the global economy: "The global economy is a poorly understood complex system, so..."

    - Why do you think that the net-effect of anthropogenic climate change is negative? As far as I can tell, you are very uncertain about the magnitude of the impact of climate change, but you seem to be quite convinced that the net effect is negative. So you seem to think that the possible effects of climate change range from a nuisance to an existential threat. But why are you not also uncertain about the sign of the overall effect, not just its magnitude? There are a number of plausible positive effects of anthropogenic climate change. Let me name a few:
    (1) Large increases in usable land in the northern hemisphere.
    (2) Easier access to resources, oil and minerals, in the Arctic.
    (3) It becomes easier to travel through the Arctic Sea, which provides economic benefits.
    (4) Fewer cold-related health problems, which in turn has positive economic effects in some parts of the world.
    (5) More precipitation overall, though the distribution of rain patterns changes.
    (6) Warming the Earth provides our civilizaiton with an insurance against low probability natural cooling events, like the Little Ice Age for example.
    (7) etc etc

    Why are you confident that global warming is on net a problem for humanity? Why do you think not only that if makes some people worse off, but that it makes humanity as a whole worse off?
    It seems to me that in order to believe that it is a problem, we need some sort of model that attempts to sum up the costs and the benefits, which as far as I can tell is what people like Nordhaus and others have tried to do.

    1. That's right, that's what they've done. So why do you ask?

    2. There is a common argument that says "Uncertainty about models should make us more, not less, concerned about climate change."

      I am skeptical that that argument is correct. I think that the argument would be plausible if we were confident that the effect of global warming is on net negative, but we were uncertain about the magnitude of the effect. But it seems to me that if we are uncertain both about the magnitude and the sign of the effect, then uncertainty about models should make us less concerned about climate change.

      Me personally, I am concerned about climate change basically to the degree to which I trust the economic models, like Nordhaus' DICE model and so forth. But I thought maybe you have different thoughts on the matter as you clearly have thought a lot about it, and when I read you I don't have the sense that you agree with me.

    3. Jackson,

      The argument you quote, therefore, is neither correct, nor incorrect. Risk tolerance is a value assessment. And as I have stated very clearly and upfront, I am risk adverse.

  60. Thanks for the clarification! When you say that you are risk-averse, are you using that term in the way in which it is used in economics/finance, or are you using it in a more colloquial way?

    1. I believe you could quantify it in terms of finances though, to state the obvious, I don't actually do that.

  61. I didn't mean it in terms of quantification. It's more that the definition of risk-aversion in econ/finance differs from more colloquial meanings of the term.
    "Preference for decisions with a less uncertain payoff, even if a decision with a more uncertain payoff has a higher expected payoff" versus something like "willingness to go to great lengths to avoid dangerous situations".

  62. The idea that everyone is going to get together and do something about this problem that effects everyone is specious. In all likelihood they'll be another global war, maybe even from fighting about what to do about warming. Whatever happens I'm with Sabine. A voice of reason.

  63. "The world has two or maybe three decades of cheap fossil fuels left. Not using those makes our lives harder, regardless of how much we subsidize renewables."

    You didn´t discuss the third alternative... NUCLEAR.


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