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May 23, 2012 11:38 PM   Subscribe

Apocalypse Soon: Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return? Four decades ago, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer model called World3 warned of such a possible course for human civilization in the 21st century. In Limits to Growth, a bitterly disputed 1972 book that explicated these findings, researchers argued that the global industrial system has so much inertia that it cannot readily correct course in response to signals of planetary stress. But unless economic growth skidded to a halt before reaching the edge, they warned, society was headed for overshoot—and a splat that could kill billions.
posted by j03 (130 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yup.
posted by Zarkonnen at 11:56 PM on May 23, 2012


Perhaps.
posted by philip-random at 11:57 PM on May 23, 2012


Most likely. I didn't think the odds were ever good that we could turn this ocean liner around in time. But at least it won't hit an iceberg BECAUSE THEY WILL HAVE ALL MELTED. (mixed metaphor)

And for conspiracy theorists (see previous "SnakeOil" post), ya ever wonder if the oil companies really DO believe in Climate Change, but see it as a future Profit Center?
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:05 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is why I'm forming a buzzard cult- a program to convince the youth of to kill themselves before they have to endure the horrors the future will bring. As for me, since the future is hopeless, I'm no longer bothering to recycle our otherwise reduce my consumption. There's no point in doing so, right?

That is the message we're supposed to take from this post, right?
posted by happyroach at 12:12 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


ya ever wonder if the oil companies really DO believe in Climate Change, but see it as a future Profit Center?

Like virtually every other company (and many officers of government), they know climate change is real, but they believe that by the time it really REALLY gets out of hand, it'll be Someone Else's Problem. And in the meantime, why voluntarily limit the flow of money into their pockets?

The anthropomorphic version of the Market is a myopic toddler. Beyond the next few quarters is too far away to be real, and we expect the market to handle a problem that will take decades to build up to full effect?
posted by chimaera at 12:13 AM on May 24, 2012 [34 favorites]


In this scenario, population peaks around 2030 at between seven and eight billion and then decreases sharply, evening out at about four billion in 2100.

Reset to 1974.

ya ever wonder if the oil companies really DO believe in Climate Change

Of course they know it's true. Any statement to the contrary is just someone's wallet talking. Admitting the truth would mean admitting your products (your marketing, your company, your business decisions, your own damned self) are the cause of an impending catastrophe.
posted by pracowity at 12:16 AM on May 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm not sure there will be an environmental point of no return. I think we'll kill ourselves off as a species long before we kill the Earth. That's not to say it won't be very, very inhospitable for us, but I think it's possible that it could still recover after we're gone.
posted by Malice at 12:28 AM on May 24, 2012


Recover? I don't think most people are worried about the Earth, sans us. It's been doing alright for a while now.
posted by Roman Graves at 12:34 AM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


ya ever wonder if the oil companies really DO believe in Climate Change, but see it as a future Profit Center?

Broadly, yes, they do. Some geologists believe that anthro climate change is rubbish, and it's all completely natural (solar cycles!), because it's all happened before.
Of course, they're getting older and dying off/retiring, and they're being replaced by under 40s who have more open minds about, you know, science, but in the meantime they're gonna site their wells and frac their shales because we need oil.

In the background they're trying to work out how to adapt to change and corner the market on future energy sources.

Unfortunately, they're a bit like record companies and they don't like change, or the threat of smaller profit margins.
posted by Mezentian at 12:40 AM on May 24, 2012


I'm not even too worried that we'll kill ourself off as a species. And the planet will be fine in a relatively short time. What I'm worried about is that we (people in our twenties and thirties) are going to live just long enough to see our grandchildren go through unimaginable horrors, that will be sustained for a few generations. Our legacy (and especially our parent's) will be that we were the ones who went on a bender and wasted the resources for generations to come, while ignoring all the pending dangers.
posted by svenni at 12:41 AM on May 24, 2012 [18 favorites]


...doom-doom doom doom-doom-doom doom doom-doom. I'm bored. Can I stop singing the doom song now? I want waffles.

I strongly dislike and disapprove of eschatological thinking and "planning", because it doesn't really help any.

But, yeah, we're basically fucked. Idiocracy wasn't a comedy, it was a documentary sent back from the future as a warning. That, or Brave New World, or 1984, or They Live or Soylent Green.

I really don't know how to integrate, process and deal with the fact that we're basically living in a living nightmare of a dystopia.

A dystopia where state/police action "legally" shuts down perfectly reasonable, long term and mindful research about important things about our future, or where research is destroyed about issues like bee colony collapse disorder, or the effects of GMOs or where GMO seed selling companies sue to prevent research, or shut down non-subscribing farms or where there is real collusion to deny loans to solar manufacturing and power station startups, that robber barons get away with heisting and scheming trillions of dollars of our money, where people owe 4-5x the amount for the initial cost of their student loans.

I don't know what to do with the idea that freedom and patriotism and standing up for what is right has been criminalized by the state and totally ignored or even actively disdained by much of the body politic.

Whatever happens - life on this planet will survive. It's survived worse diversity extinction events. It's just possible that we as a species or culture may not be there to see it.

And I think humanity will survive, too. It may take a diversion to the bronze or stone age, but it will survive, and so will culture. It has done well, so far, despite a step back for two forward here and there.

But in any case it seems like there are dark times ahead. Resource wars. Mass starvation or disease. Mass civil unrest both urban and rural.

Unless... Unless I'm underestimating our culture's reaction to crisis, and our ability to deal with the challenges ahead.

For better or worse, we do have a known history of doing the right things, on average, when shit hits the fan. Of coming together and helping despite our differences.

We also have a history of being lazy primates and eating the fruit that's right in front of us instead of planning and saving some for later.

So maybe we need some crisis and a bit of desert to remind us how hard things can be.

The desert is where God tests the faithful and all that.
posted by loquacious at 12:44 AM on May 24, 2012 [28 favorites]


Admitting the truth would mean admitting your products (your marketing, your company, your business decisions, your own damned self) are the cause of an impending catastrophe.

I was speaking about this very topic last night with a colleague. We're both sustainability practitioners, although from differing traditions – one strongly social, the other strongly environmental. We were speaking about how difficult it is to adhere to the values we have chosen to live by, especially as we age and our needs change.

As consultants, for example, the list of companies that we would not work for is longer than the list of companies that we will work for. Organisations like Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Weapons, are immediately out. Moving into FMCG or Automotive or Energy is more granular and nuanced. Electric vehicle programmes are fine; High Power Petrol Supercars are not. Internet platforms like Kickstarter, AirBNB, Fundable, and the rest are in the grey area, for whilst there are no metrics, digitalisation and disintermediation do substantially reduce resource consumption.

And these are personal choices that each individual makes, but in adhering to our values, it certainly can affect one's bottom line. Basic supply and demand; if you start removing entire industries from your scope of work, you are unnaturally limiting yourself to a smaller population of potential projects. And you are making the decision not to be as big a part of the catastrophe, or to try and change course.

It's wearing on my colleague. His work is about generating positive social externalities in local communities via for-profit business models. Talk about exhausting. When you crack the model and decide to maximise profit but also minimise negative environmental and social externalities, the company makes a lot less money, for even at the same revenue levels, costs are much higher (as those are 'true costs' and include clean energy/waste clean-up/remediation/etc) and 'wages' are higher in terms of better benefits (less working hours, greater investment in physical working space). The result is a business that 1) has a lower impact on the environment, and 2) a positive impact on it's employees and communities.

(un)Surprisingly, those businesses cannot pay the same wages as the traditional businesses. Because unsustainable business is about value transfer. One of us was being paid several thousand pounds for two days a week working for an extractive resource industry a few years ago. The point was to minimise their regulatory risk exposure concerning the environment and pollution. The project was about the economic implications of locating facilities in X Country, Y Country, or Z Country. Thus, one is looking for the sweet spot in between 1) transportation costs and 2) upper pollution limits.

The other of us has worked for Big Tobacco on a variety of exciting projects. Deep investigations into the motivations of individuals and the changing nature of social dynamics, stress, and smoking. The pay was substantial, with the output being finding triggers to keep people smoking. The language was heavily veiled – enhancing product defensibility – but the output was clear.

And as we carried on late into the evening, the net result is that sustainability is not as profitable as unsustainable business. Sure, there's the constant drone from the press about Duetsche Bank or Unilever doing good and doing well, it's certainly not an illusion. But you have to remember that they are working to minimise negative externalities, which is important, but it is not the same as maximising positive externalities. I'm not going to hate on anyone making electric vehicles, or people choosing smaller homes in urban cores to reduce transport impact.

But these are choices, and they are tough choices to make. It's paradoxical when you consider that 1) you take a lower wage because you won't work for some of the highest paying companies, 2) you have a family that has to exist on that lower wage, 3) you are taking the lower wage to ensure there is still a liveable place for the future family to inhabit.

It's hard man, we both agreed on that last night. Occasionally, sustainability people think "what's one cigarette contract, that will really sort me out for a while" or "it's the good kind of oil extraction, the cleaner kind," or "it's a new financial product that will potentially really help the banks, so what? consumers still choose to use it or not". But it's not that simple. Every day spent on oil is a day not spent on solar. Every day spent on cigarettes is a day not spent on healthy eating. Every day spent on traditional finance is a day not spent on social finance. And of course it's not black or white and there is a gradient.

Point being that 1) if you do admit the truth, and 2) live by that truth, you are wilfully limiting your lifestyle choices. And when you see friends, jetting around for fun, and making bigger pay checks doing Africa Warlord Oil Deals, you have to take a deep breathe and remember your cause, for whilst it's not paying as well, you're in moral alignment.
posted by nickrussell at 12:51 AM on May 24, 2012 [71 favorites]


I'm not sure there will be an environmental point of no return. I think we'll kill ourselves off as a species long before we kill the Earth.

Isn't that what we mean when talking about the environment? I mean, the Earth doesn't give a shit. You should be able to do all sorts of crazy shit to the planet and life ought to adapt. Slamming a comet into it supposedly let Humans happen.

What can't handle a different environment is us. Post-global warming earth might have more biodiversity and more life in more places than current Earth. But maybe we wouldn't be a part of that. When we talk about taking care of the environment, aren't we really talking about keeping the one we're well adapted to locked in?
posted by floam at 12:57 AM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


Recover? I don't think most people are worried about the Earth, sans us. It's been doing alright for a while now.
posted by Roman Graves at 12:34 AM on May 24 [+] [!]


I'm not worried about an Earth with us, so I guess that's the difference. I'm pretty convinced we'll begin great famines and horrors in future generations, because there will eventually be a breaking point. But at this point I'm not convinced there's anything that we as a society/people will do about it.
posted by Malice at 1:00 AM on May 24, 2012


Eh. I think we'll pretty much be okay.
posted by Justinian at 1:02 AM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


sustainability is not as profitable as unsustainable business

This is because most 'unsustainable' businesses are heavily subsidized by our tax dollars.
posted by j03 at 1:03 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


ya ever wonder if the oil companies really DO believe in Climate Change, but see it as a future Profit Center?

Oil companies believe in leaving certain costs to the public, like paying for a military to capture and defend crude oil supplies, or paying for environment cleanup when tankers run aground or platforms explode.

In the best case scenario, planting doubts in climate change helps petrolobbyists and the public come to the "correct" understanding and minimize regulation and regulatory costs that eat into margins. From an oil company's POV, if the worst case happens and climate change is real, it will always be someone else's mess to deal with and pay for, anyway, and we'll all still be buying their energy products.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:05 AM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Eh. I think we'll pretty much be okay.

It depends on how you define "we".
"when the rich can't get more by producing real wealth they start to use their power to take from lower segments." As scarcities mount and inequality increases, revolutions and socioeconomic movements like the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street will become more widespread—as will their repression.

There will be human beings in the future, of that there is little argument. What their individual and collective lives are like is a very different matter.
posted by nickrussell at 1:09 AM on May 24, 2012 [7 favorites]


Eh. I think we'll pretty much be okay.

I'm genuinely intrigued at what leads you to such a conclusion, and what possibly knowledge/qualification could lead you to saying it.

The world of 2012 is arguably, very much not okay for the majority of its humans. It is happening right now - that's the whole point of the article.

"Collapse will not be driven by a single, identifiable cause simultaneously acting in all countries," he observes. "It will come through a self-reinforcing complex of issues".
posted by smoke at 1:12 AM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Eh. I think we'll pretty much be okay.

Please back that up with data refuting the linked article. You'd be making my day.

Unlike Justinian, I don't think oil company executives are in denial, though they are living proof that motive internalism is false. I suspect that many of them know how much damage they're doing and genuinely don't like the visible consequences of their choices and yet are not motivated to change what they're doing. Few emotions other than guilt are capable of producing repentance, but that's not something people normally feel until its far too late.


I strongly dislike and disapprove of eschatological thinking

In a sense, I agree. Let's not blame God for avoidable extinction level events. If a nice large asteroid with our name on it is detected far too late, let's blame ourselves for not putting significant money into Spaceguard surveys and planetary defense.

An old joke: .
“I put all of my faith in you and you let me drown. Why didn’t You come and save me?”
“Kid, I sent you a warning. I sent you a canoe. I sent you a motorboat. I sent you a helicopter. What more were you looking for?”


I really don't know how to integrate, process and deal with the fact that we're basically living in a living nightmare of a dystopia.

Governments often claim that information needs to be kept from the public to prevent us from panicking, but people who are in full possession of the facts and genuinely terrified rarely panic. They deal with it or die trying.

Don't mind me, I'll be in the backyard cobbling together a railgun, possibly an Orion if the timeline's looking really tight. That sunshield ain't gonna build itself.
posted by D.D. Harriman lacked vision at 1:15 AM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Eh, I think we'll pretty much be okay. For values of "okay" that encompass "diseased", "hungry", and "heavily depopulated in spectacularly ugly ways", which by implication also eincompasses "dead" for some unspecified but large number of us. I think the problem the rest of you have is that you have some kind of elitist, non-inclusive definition of "okay" that only includes good things.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:23 AM on May 24, 2012 [8 favorites]


ya ever wonder if the oil companies really DO believe in Climate Change

Upton Sinclair puts it well:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it"

That's what's going on with the oil companies. Same thing happened for tobacco companies back in the day. And indeed still does.
posted by JohnnyForeign at 1:23 AM on May 24, 2012 [12 favorites]


Please back that up with data refuting the linked article. You'd be making my day.

Refute what? The article isn't scientific, it's a bunch of sensationalistic claims made without any evidence while trying to sell a book. The evidence may be in the book, of course, but it isn't in the article.
posted by Justinian at 1:25 AM on May 24, 2012 [12 favorites]


I suspect that many of them know how much damage they're doing and genuinely don't like the visible consequences of their choices and yet are not motivated to change what they're doing.

The system is in control now.

Imagine you're the CEO of a Big Oil company. Your profits are skyrocketing and you're making millions.. but you know that oil consumption is dooming us all.

Let's further imagine that you're able to convince the board of directors that the best course of action for the good of humanity is to cease all oil production.

Would that have any effect on global oil production? consumption? Clearly the answer is no. Oil will continue to be consumed and other companies will be more than happy to increase their production to provide it.

Even if you had the power, you couldn't do anything about it. As the article points out, the inertia is too great. As a functioning society we can't simply turn off the oil spigot without instantly causing mass starvation.
posted by j03 at 1:25 AM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


Well, one thing is that dystopia lit was big during the end years of the Roman Empire, I've read. Zombies, anyone?
posted by angrycat at 1:27 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Eh. I think we'll pretty much be okay.

In that we all have to die anyway.

People a hundred years from now will shit on our graves (if they can spare the fertilizer).
posted by pracowity at 1:44 AM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think it's a race. On one hand, we have the burning of fossil fuels, namely oil, and the eventual collapse of the modern world as we know it. Global Depression. Probably some nasty wars. Lots and lots of people die, as will some nations. It will be a new world order, not a world anyone in the modern world will recognize (of course, those surviving in the Third World might very well not notice much difference at all).

So that's worst case scenario, the cliff we're headed towards. On the other hand, we replace the oil burning culture with green energy. Solar, wind, yadda yadda. If we can phase out the oil and phase in the green, then we can fix it. We can, I really think we can. But the tech isn't there yet, and it needs to be. We've known for forty years that green energy is the wave of the future, but we're still just dipping our toes in the water, timidly.

Time to jump into the deep end, head first. Risky, but so heading off that cliff. (sorry for the lame metaphor storm).
posted by zardoz at 1:56 AM on May 24, 2012


Well, I do think from a technical standpoint, it's probably somewhat true. I mean, if you look at the serious policy proposals put forth, they're all about limiting temperature change to 2-3 °C, that doesn't mean it couldn't be done, maybe it could be. But at least the 'serious' talks about taking action are about limiting it, rather then stopping it.

However.

I fucking hate this whole "It's over, the environment is doomed" talk. It's just so damned defeatist. What the hell is the point of taking that attitude anyway? The solutions are not only economically viable, they'll likely benefit huge numbers of people, as things like solar and wind power manufacturing are not limited by geography the way oil extraction is. So there could be solar factories anywhere, providing jobs for everyone.

The only problem is that the people who are currently buying off politicians support oil and gas, and the green energy sector has no lobbying dollars. But with the crash in solar prices and massive growth in the past couple years that might change. No amount of lobbying will stop solar power if it's actually cheaper then coal.

Also the whole population argument is so dumb, at least in terms of global warming. Lets look at the actual math. If everyone lived the way people do in Qatar, it would only take 543 million people to generate current global CO2 emissions. If they lived like Canadians, it would only take about 1.6 billion.

On the other hand, it would take 3.14 billion Japanese people, and many people would say the Japanese live pretty well. On the other hand, those stats might change in the short term as they abandon nuclear power.

Hong Kong? 5.43 billion. I don't hear people complain about life there too much, although they obviously import a lot of food. And we could squeeze in another hundred million if we all lived like the Swiss. Again, I don't hear a lot of people complaining about life in Switzerland.

If everyone lived as they do in Romania or Mexico, we could get about 6.8 billion people, which is, by the way, the current world population.

But there are a lot more countries with even lower CO2 emissions. At current CO2 emissions, the world could support about 12 billion Cubans. Or 13 billion Egyptians. If we lived like the Brazilians, it would take 15 billion people to put out our current emissions.

Or what about India? It would take 21 billion people to match our current emissions levels. There are countries with even lower emissions levels, it would take 37 billion philipinos, or 99 billion Bangladeshis, although there would probably be other limitations.

But with a country like India, you've got 1.17 billion people packed into 3,287,590 km2 . That's about 1/45th the current land area.

Asia, Africa, and Europe combined have a surface area of about 84 million km2. That's 25 the overall size of India. If you filled those three continents up with the same population density as India, you'd have about 21.93 billion people.

So, just to clarify: If everyone in the world lived at the same standard of living as a person in India, and the same population density (actually slightly less) We could fit about 21 billion people on the earth, while leaving North America, South America, Australia and Antarctica completely empty. And we would have no more CO2 emissions then we currently do, at this very moment

That assumes access to all the other resources they need as well, so you'd need to look into it a bit more. Arable land might be an issue, etc. But the point is that with respect to global warming, pure population figures are not a problem at all. The countries that dump the most CO2 into the atmosphere per capita are not the most populated ones at all. In fact, they're countries like Canada or the US where people have lots of room to spread out, build wide roads and drive everywhere. And especially middle eastern countries where the same thing is true and oil is cheaper then water (thus making desalination of sweater powered by burning oil a practical way to get it)

In fact, if you look at places like Japan and Hong Kong, you there might even be an inverse relationship between population density and greenhouse gas emissions , as people are packed in closer, cars become less and less practical, and people switch to trains.

But the key point is that, when you do the math we can continue to grow the earth's population at the current rates for centuries without running into a problem. Not that it will happen. As people become more affluent, they have fewer children. Global population isn't going to peak because of some catastrophe, it's going to happen because people have opportunities in life beyond just fucking a lot and having a lot of kids.
posted by delmoi at 2:04 AM on May 24, 2012 [26 favorites]


Anyway, I think of a lot of "environmentalists" are actually just misanthropes more interested in bitching and moaning about how horrible everyone is (other then them, of course) and how we're all doomed. There are also a lot of people who seem to care more about personal 'virtue' then actually doing anything to actually stop the problem. They want to, for example, take away everyone's cars rather then replace them with electric drive plug in hybrids. They want to make everyone stop eating meat entirely, rather then just cut down, and so on.

What they care about is felling good about themselves and wallowing in their own pessimism and dislike of everyone else. They're probably more counterproductive then anything. They are certainly annoying.
posted by delmoi at 2:04 AM on May 24, 2012 [16 favorites]


MetaFilter: Metaphor storm.

Oh boy this is an upbeat thread full of late-night worries and deep thinkers.
posted by loquacious at 2:08 AM on May 24, 2012


What nobody seems to realize is that the day we recognize there's too many people on the planet for us all to survive is the day outright nuclear war breaks out.

Given that hard and oddly not-obvious reality, you sort of can't blame political systems for not wanting to show what an actual manmade apocalypse looks like.
posted by effugas at 2:27 AM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


some researchers think a 40-year-old computer program that predicts a collapse of socioeconomic order and massive drop in human population in this century may be on target

I was one of the beta testers for that computer program when it came out, many years ago. We did the testing - pretty intense QA; unit testing, usability testing, system integration testing,... the whole thing. We ran test sequences, and sometimes the program would predict a massive overshoot and die off around 2004, and other times it would predict free ice cream for everyone by 2015.

I think the unpredictability of the software was one of the reasons the product never caught on, and why this software hasn't had a new release in forty years.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:28 AM on May 24, 2012 [11 favorites]


Randers predicts that its effects will become devastating sometime after mid-century, when global warming will reinforce itself by, for instance, igniting fires that turn forests into net emitters rather than absorbers of carbon.
That is some scenario. To be net emitters I presume the forests would have to be burning faster than they could regrow? ie burning away. Presumably most of your crops, in the dubious event you had any, would be burning before you could harvest them too, in most parts of the world.
posted by Segundus at 2:29 AM on May 24, 2012


In a sense, I agree. Let's not blame God for avoidable extinction level events.

I wasn't just talking about religious apocalyptic thinking of most denominations, but the also the kind of eschatological and doomsday thinking or sentiment of the sort found right here in this thread and in the posted article, as well as both natural and man made existential threats.

We need to keep hope.

This whole scenario stinks. There's a large contingent but stark minority of people on this planet who care about people other than themselves, and who can easily see the big picture about the lack of food, resources, clean water and energy as it is right now, and how it looks like it's going to get worse in the near to intermediate future.

Then there's seemingly an equal or larger contingent of people generally in the top 30 to 1% of the planet who seemingly have and use more resources than everyone else and they don't seem to give a shit, while another large fraction of the remaining 70-90% of economic strata also don't give a shit and only wish they were in the top 30%

"Hope for the caterpillars"? Are you sure?

And the rest of us who do care from all economic strata from somewhere near the top to the very bottom - we're not trying to be selfish. We're not trying to take away things from others. We're not trying to destroy our way of life, our culture and civilization - we're just trying to make sure we have enough to share and preserve that civilization from collapsing.

We're trying to make sure we don't lose all the vast knowledge and tools and art and music we've worked so hard for. The diversity of our numbers, the many good things to eat, the many kinds of amazing music, the many stories and memories of our ancestors that worked even harder to get us here.

To see our families, friends, lovers and neighbors healthy and content and happy like we wish to be. Feeling no unwanted pain. Growing. Caring. All that crap we were supposed to learn in Kindergarten. To have nice, useful things, and to be truly content and productive in our lives, to make our unique contributions. To say "I was here. I was. I existed" to the future.

To make sure that most of us have enough to eat to adapt to the changes our vast numbers are creating. To have enough to think of new solutions to big problems and threats - like earthquakes, or plagues, or diseases, or giant chunks of rock falling on us from space.

And these are just the things we know.

We should be venturing into extra solar space and exploring the entire Universe as far as we can. Not just because our sun will eventually die, and not just because we may make our planet uninhabitable, not - but because it's there.

Because we are curious, and we want to know. We must know. That's basically what it means to be homo sapiens sapiens, to want to know. To know and to survive and thrive in that knowing.
posted by loquacious at 2:31 AM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


when you do the math we can continue to grow the earth's population at the current rates for centuries without running into a problem

We are already running into problems my friend. Could we conceivably continue the current rate and manners of growth? Yes, if you mean 'is it physically possible?' Will you be at all pleased with the outcome of that scenario for yourself or anyone you love or will love? Most likely not.

a lot of "environmentalists" are actually just misanthropes more interested in bitching and moaning about how horrible everyone is (other then them, of course) and how we're all doomed.

What about people who bitch and moan about people who bitch and moan? Is that a derivative misanthrope? ;)
posted by nickrussell at 2:33 AM on May 24, 2012 [11 favorites]


I'm as concerned about the future of the human race as anyone with kids, but I'm becoming increasingly aware that a lot of people are engaging in a sort of environmental Weltschmerz, and I wish they'd knock it off.
posted by pipeski at 2:36 AM on May 24, 2012


The evidence may be in the book, of course, but it isn't in the article.

In a sense, you're right. Some of the claims made in the article are not backed up with evidence. We could interpret that as sloppy, unscientific writing, or take it that the author thinks he's mentioning facts which are no longer in dispute.

Take global warming, for instance. The problem isn't just that "greenhouse gases are being emitted twice as fast as oceans and forests can absorb them," though that is true. We're starting to see positive feedback. Segundus, consider arctic methane release as another positive feedback mechanism. There's room to debate how potent those positive feedback mechanisms are, but it's bad news. Increased natural production of greenhouse gasses means that humans would need to cut back even harder than we'd otherwise need to to get the problem under control. If we don't, there's some reason to think that positive feedback could lead to abrupt climate change.

delmoi's right that the math has always been in favor of conservationism. The problem isn't the math, it's humanity's limited willingness to act. There's a lot of Nostradamus in the second half of the article, but it doesn't take a psychic to tell you that things can't go on like this forever.
posted by D.D. Harriman lacked vision at 2:40 AM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


What about people who bitch and moan about people who bitch and moan? Is that a derivative misanthrope? ;)

A metamisanthrope, I think. Complaining about that makes you a metametamisanthrope. After that, you'll get told to take it to MeTa.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:42 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


The framing here, the idea that somebody had it all right long ago and now it's really going to happen, has the appeal of some kind of scientific Nostradamus, but you have to remember that forty years ago computer models were infantile by today's standards. There's very little reason to believe that the predictions of any model from that long ago have much accuracy now. They may be right. They may be wrong. But we can't assign value to them based on their antiquity.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:44 AM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


So maybe we need some crisis and a bit of desert to remind us how hard things can be.

The desert is where God tests the faithful and all that.


Tell me of your homeworld, Usul.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 2:53 AM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


From the comments: "As I look around me I can see that most people change when they have no choice. At some point in the future, we'll have no choice."

This. Both the coming car crash and the changes that will occur. Just this.
posted by jaduncan at 2:54 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


it's humanity's limited willingness to act.

It is unfair to say that society has a limited willingness to act. President Obama, for one, has acted boldly on the environment: Obama lifted the ban on deepwater drilling and he scrapped his administration’s controversial plans to tighten smog rules.

Hope and change, baby. Hope and change.
posted by three blind mice at 2:55 AM on May 24, 2012 [8 favorites]


I fucking hate this whole "It's over, the environment is doomed" talk. It's just so damned defeatist. What the hell is the point of taking that attitude anyway? The solutions are not only economically viable, they'll likely benefit huge numbers of people, as things like solar and wind power manufacturing are not limited by geography the way oil extraction is. So there could be solar factories anywhere, providing jobs for everyone.

The only problem is that the people who are currently buying off politicians support oil and gas, and the green energy sector has no lobbying dollars. But with the crash in solar prices and massive growth in the past couple years that might change. No amount of lobbying will stop solar power if it's actually cheaper then coal.


Only thing is, there is no renewable energy source poised to pick up where oil leaves off. Solar will never keep pace. Wind will never keep pace. Nuclear will never keep pace. Even if we went "all-in" with these green sources right now, there is no possible version of reality where oil is phased out and life goes on as normal. No energy source on earth is as quick and efficient as oil, and we will lean on it until we fall down.

It goes far beyond "stopping oil." People in the western world will have to completely change their lifestyles, and they will also have to persuade emerging oil consumers like China and India not to adopt their former habits. It's analogous to stopping someone from using drugs. You can't arrest every dealer in the world - you need to make the junkie not want the drug. Only we don't think of ourselves as junkies, we think of ourselves as entitled consumers. That's the extreme difficulty of the situation, and the reason it's so easy to predict catastrophe.

Also, the electric car is a bad joke.
posted by gonna get a dog at 3:05 AM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


"As I look around me I can see that most people change when they have no choice. At some point in the future, we'll have no choice."

Last comment as I have to run off... to a climate change capital conference, of all things.

The options are not priced correctly. Oil is subsidised to a tremendous degree (as has been mentioned here several times), thus the pricing of energy does not correctly reflect the cost of energy. Working with electric vehicles, there's always the cost argument – they don't provide the return on investment as do petrol cars. Except for that the cost of gasoline is almost 50% subsidised. You can imagine what happens when you reflect a 50% operating cost rise in the model. Suddenly, electric vehicles are not only viable but preferable.

And this is why corruption is such a problem. Because beyond the transactional problems of corruption (rule of man vs. rule of law; rule of opaqueness vs. rule of transparency), there are systematic and externality problems that come along with it. The subsidies given to fossil fuel companies are keeping us stuck in the fossil fuel age. If those subsidies were lifted, or distributed across all energy sources by Joule for instance, we would have a much different energy supply chain.

So it's not that people do not have choices, it's that they do not have real choices; in essence they have choices that have been perverted. And it's nobody's fault, these things happen. But at this point, we need to reflect the true cost of things in prices.

One reason Switzerland does well it because the Swiss will actually pay more for locally-produced goods. In the West, when we buy things from China, their lack of a floating exchange rate means that the prices are not reflecting the costs. If the Yuan was floated, it would rise by 20 - 50%, making Chinese goods that much more expensive. That would enable manufacturing in the US and Europe again. Thus, in purchasing so many goods from China, we are not seeing the true cost, rather we are feeding an economic distortion.

Now, we can't solve everything at once, but we do need efforts to correctly price things, for until things are correctly priced, we don't have a strong view as to what their costs are beyond the price. For example, produce at Wal-Mart. Good price or bad price? There is a social cost to shopping at Wal-Mart, due to their wage laws and everything else, but at the same time, there is a benefit to shopping at Wal-Mart because their supply chain is so efficient, it allows more people to eat for less. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? We don't know.

And correct pricing is going to shift power, which is why there is such a resistance to it. Equalising energy subsidies would be a boon for hydro generators, electric utilities, small renewables outfits and everyone else. It would create massive jobs programmes and start us on the shift away from fossil fuels. There would be job losses in fossils, but there would be job gains elsewhere. And you can't just go to the oil companies and say "hey chap fuck off" as oil does run the global economy. Thus, what we need is a shift toward better pricing as a society. Similar to how McDonalds lists the kCal on the menus now. They accept there is not only an economic price, but a health price. And they are seeing huge growth in salads and healthier fare. We need to do the same thing with oil.

One business plan that I saw was an iPhone app that would allow a consumer to geolocate themselves and find the cheapest petrol stations around them. The caveat was that below the listed price, it had the unsubsidised price (between $8 – $12 a gallon). It's a first step toward making consumers aware that price and cost are not always the same thing.

McDonalds shows that people make better decisions with more complete sets of information, now we just need to replicate that lesson... pretty much everywhere.
posted by nickrussell at 3:11 AM on May 24, 2012 [26 favorites]


Only thing is, there is no renewable energy source poised to pick up where oil leaves off. Solar will never keep pace. Wind will never keep pace. Nuclear will never keep pace. Even if we went "all-in" with these green sources right now, there is no possible version of reality where oil is phased out and life goes on as normal. No energy source on earth is as quick and efficient as oil, and we will lean on it until we fall down.

Energy positive fusion or bust, assuming that one wants continued economic growth.

But you're wrong about solar for grid supply; it's coming close to price parity in some areas right now and one can store the excess energy via hot salt or dams to deal with rainy days. Outside of solar-suitable regions Scotland is the place to watch for receivables in general over the next decade or so, and even then that's assuming EU companies don't just build a load of solar capacity in north Africa and just take it back over via cables. Oil is great for transportation and plastics, but there's a lot of uses of it that could be stripped back.
posted by jaduncan at 3:13 AM on May 24, 2012


sustainability is not as profitable as unsustainable business

In the long, long, long run, isn't profitable business by its very definition unsustainable?

It goes far beyond "stopping oil."

In the foreseeable, if not currently visible, future, oil will stop itself.
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:18 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the foreseeable, if not currently visible, future, oil will stop itself.

Bituminous sands, coal conversion. It's not very close, assuming that people just don't care about the carbon impact.
posted by jaduncan at 3:20 AM on May 24, 2012


It's says something - I'm not sure what - that an article like this has to explain the potential for global systemic collapse though the metaphor of Wile E. Coyote (Remember how Wile E. Coyote, in his obsessive pursuit of the Road Runner, would fall off a cliff?) That scares me more than the predictions. We may have the material resources we need, but perhaps our mental resources are being reduced to cartoons.

In no time we'll be back to the Stone Age. Which is OK, because The Flintstones had it pretty good, what with their foot-powered automobiles and their dinosaur-powered home appliances.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:20 AM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


But you're wrong about solar for grid supply; it's coming close to price parity in some areas right now and one can store the excess energy via hot salt or dams to deal with rainy days. Outside of solar-suitable regions Scotland is the place to watch for receivables in general over the next decade or so, and even then that's assuming EU companies don't just build a load of solar capacity in north Africa and just take it back over via cables. Oil is great for transportation and plastics, but there's a lot of uses of it that could be stripped back.

I didn't say price, I said pace. It doesn't deliver enough energy quickly enough with sufficient capability for storage. It can replace a tiny fraction of our current demand at most.

Then there's the psychological element -- people will install solar panels in their homes and say "There, I've done it. I'm green." They won't consider the energy costs of the products they buy or the food they eat. They will still be hugely dependent on fossil fuels, but will think they aren't.

A lot of people hate on doom, but as many in this thread point out, there's no plausible path to change other than actually experiencing the upcoming economic/environmental disaster. And even when that happens, will people get it? Even legitimate crises are easily funneled into political narratives (which is why there's always war talk sprinkled in with this environmental stuff). Truly scary times.
posted by gonna get a dog at 4:02 AM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Am I the only one who is a little skeptical of people who readily accept that humanity is doomed? I feel that often people take that position not because they've made a reasoned assessment of the forces that are shaping our world...but because they're "bored" in a way. There's a lot they don't like about life as it is now, and a coming crisis would change it. The crisis would show those that are to blame for life as it is now. Life as it is now is just a little numb, and the crisis will make things real again. It will be exciting (yeah, it might be horrible too).
posted by victory_laser at 4:46 AM on May 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


Consumption won't decrease, efficiency will increase. Energy is expensive, and gets more expensive as it's tougher to extract, and as taxes are levied to mitigate the damages. Hybrids are everywhere, 40mpg sedans are everywhere, gasoline diesels are coming soon, craploads of R&D cash is being funneled into quick-charge batteries and capacitor banks and hydrogen sponges.

Space-based solar arrays. Thorium reactors. Fusion (maybe). Energy is all fossil-fuels because it's cheap and easy. As it becomes pricey and hard, other options are being examined. I don't think we're going to see a future where our grandkids need to move into communal dormitories or live in Mad Max Land.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:49 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


The market as we know it (aka "The System") doesn't work:
But then why is there a special need to value ecosystem services? Why can we not rely on markets to guide decisions, be they global or local, in the way we do for so many other goods and services? Or to put the matter in another way, why aren’t markets an adequate set of institutions for protecting the environment?

The reason is that for many environmental resources markets simply do not exist. In some cases they do not exist because the costs of negotiation and monitoring are too high. One class of examples is provided by economic activities that are affected by ecological interactions involving long geographical distances (e.g., the effects of uplands deforestation on downstream activities hundreds of miles away); another, by large temporal distances (e.g., the effect of carbon emission on climate in the distant future, in a world where forward markets are non-existent because future generations are not present today to negotiate with us). Then there are cases (e.g., the atmosphere, aquifers, and the open seas) where the nature of the physical situation (viz. the migratory nature of the resource) makes private property rights impractical and so keeps markets from existing; while in others (e.g., biodiversity; see Perrings et al. 1994), illspecified or unprotected property rights prevent their existence, or make markets function wrongly even when they do exist. In short, environmental problems are often caused by market failure (but see Section 5).

(Partha Dasgupta, cited in the article, in "Economic Pathways to Ecological Sustainability")
And the for the needed transition perhaps is too late (if we want to avoid an increase of 2ºC and at the same time mantaining BAU):
“Energy transitions” encompass the time that elapses between an introduction of a new primary energy source oil, nuclear electricity, wind captured by large turbines) and its rise to claiming a substantial share (20 percent to 30 percent) of the overall market, or even to becoming the single largest contributor or an absolute leader (with more than 50 percent) in national or global energy supply. The term also refers to gradual diffusion of new prime movers, devices that replaced animal and human muscles by converting primary energies into mechanical power that is used to rotate massive turbogenerators producing electricity or to propel fleets of vehicles, ships, and airplanes. There is one thing all energy transitions have in common: they are prolonged affairs that take decades to accomplish, and the greater the scale of prevailing uses and conversions the longer the substitutions will take. The second part of this statement seems to be a truism but it is ignored as often as the first part: otherwise we would not have all those
unrealized predicted milestones for new energy sources.

(Vaclav Smil in "Moore's curse and the great energy delusion")
And the IEA agrees in its latest World Energy Outlook:
“If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll end up where we’re heading”.

There are few signs that the urgently needed change in direction in global energy trends is underway. Although the recovery in the world economy since 2009 has been uneven, and future economic prospects remain uncertain, global primary energy demand rebounded by a remarkable 5% in 2010, pushing CO2 emissions to a new high. Subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption of fossil fuels jumped to over $400 billion. The number of people without access to electricity remained unacceptably high at 1.3 billion, around 20% of the world’s population. Despite the priority in many countries to increase energy efficiency, global energy intensity worsened for the second straight year. Against this unpromising background, events such as those at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and the turmoil in parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have cast doubts on the reliability of energy supply, while concerns about sovereign financial integrity have shifted the focus of government attention away from energy policy and limited their means of policy intervention, boding ill for agreed global climate change objectives.
I say we are in trouble, we don't have to despair, but at least don't lie to ourselves.
posted by samelborp at 4:50 AM on May 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


The world of 2012 is arguably, very much not okay for the majority of its humans.

And this is demonstrably different from every other year in recorded history how, exactly?
posted by gsh at 5:07 AM on May 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


I don't despair for myself or any of the people I know. We'll suffer some hardship perhaps. It's the world's poor who will suffer greatly. When resources become scarce, they'll be the first to go without. If the population drops suddenly, that's where you'll see it. None of the people who are driving this coming change really have anything to seriously fear, which is exactly why we will likely drive right into it at full speed.
posted by orme at 5:12 AM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think we will evolve - lets taks as an example work fom home: we have to trek every day to the office does not matter what. But rise the energy price, and the companies will start allowing work at home simply becuase it is cheaper for them, not because it is eco-friendly or so.
Same thing for the individuals - no more 6 trips a week to the shopping center, just a big one.
How much CO2 has the Pinatubo put in the air ? And yet we did not died.
I think the earth and humanity as a whole is self tuning - it just adapts as changes comes along. And reverting to the stone age - burning down half a forest to warm your house does not look eco-friendly either.
posted by elcapitano at 5:19 AM on May 24, 2012


We are always past the point of no return. The earth passing beneath our feet right now is the result of all our previous decisions of where we will walk next.

I am doing a project called Elegraphy, documenting how we are changing the world at a local scale. I bought a motorbike to get around my county efficiently and effectively. I take my camera. I photograph things before they've changed and in the process of changing. Farms. Factories. Shopping malls. Suburbs.

Sometimes I see good decisions, good choices, good changes. Changes that are thoughtful, considered, holistic and well integrated into the natural and human worlds. But only occasionally.

Usually I see bad changes. Things done for profit, to appeal to the short-term vision of a careless consumer, with no regard for externalities.

You have to understand: it's not even a system. A system implies a plan. There is no plan. This is how we are. We are quick to grasp at any advantage and clutch it, not just to have it for ourselves but to keep others from having it. This works amazingly well for the reproductive success of individuals and small tribes. It is how we got where we are.

But in the world of global corporations, this grasping and clutching behaviour is magnified in strength a millionfold and more. The stroke of a pen can grasp and clutch a million hectares of pristine land and turn it into a tailings pond and another few billion tonnes of emitted CO2. Grasping and clutching.

Here is the problem. In order to stop the grasping and clutching of our monkey hands, the grasping and clutching that are innate to our survival, there has to be something bigger and smarter than us to smack our fingers and say: no you can't have it. And that something can't be made by or built by us. Because even if a bunch of smart monkeys get together and make a Kyoto accord, there will be other monkeys who say, fuck you, we're not doing that. Squandering, squabbling and spoiling.

Fiction is full of utopian societies where decisions are made by fiat, either by machines or aliens or mysterious men behind the curtain. Where there is order and safety and wisdom and environmental conscience, but no "freedom". And how do all of those stories end? By individuals tearing down the oppressor in the name of "freedom". But what do they do with that freedom once they have it? No one ever writes that book.

Because than book is us: we grasp and clutch, squander, squabble and spoil. It works for individuals and tribes, where externalities really don't matter.

But it doesn't work for a planet. Because there are no externalities any more.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:27 AM on May 24, 2012 [15 favorites]


There's really no solving such problems without decreasing the population. It used to be that liberals would take overpopulation seriously, but conservatives wouldn't. Now liberals won't take it seriously (largely because it has implications about immigration that they find distasteful), and conservatives actually think we need to be *increasing* the population (largely because The Muslim Menace is "out-reproducing" us and OMG Europe is already dying out).

Add to this a major religion that encourage people to avoid birth control, and at least one that outright encourages having as many kids as possible. Add to this a destructive view of capitalism that sees population growth as a route to more economic activity, and you've got a real problem. Biological imperatives, ignorance, superstition and greed all lined up on one side of the battle, with nothing but altruism, reason and long-term planning on the other. Not a promising situation.

Overpopulation is a problem that could be addressed now, and it would be kinda hard, but not impossible. We can explain to people that we need to throttle back the population a bit, structure tax incentives to discourage people from having more than two kids, and so forth. Or we can wait until the problem gets worse, and then the problem gets really, really difficult.

One small bit of good news: population growth is expected to slow and level off this century. We'll still be overpopulated, and we'll still need to build down if we're going to survive...but slowing down is the first step.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 5:36 AM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm not convinced that nuclear can't keep pace for what it's worth, it's already providing ~15% of world electricity supply and that's with comparatively little R&D and decades of an outright hostile regulatory environment in most of the world. Price carbon at $whatever per ton, remove all fossil fuel subsidies and put all the income into a cleanup fund and safety regulators and I think we could grow the nuclear industry pretty quickly actually.

Or maybe Mr. Venter will get his diesel-shitting bacteria economically viable more quickly. Or hell maybe solar will just keep growing at the current rate (which looks unsustainable but what do I know). And maybe fusion will break even and we can all go home. If not we can get pretty far on just efficiency gains alone and the market is pretty damn good at increasing efficiency if regulation can price the externalities effectively.

The overpopulation argument is just as effective now as it was when Malthus said it, we've got plenty of space and plenty of energy to get most of the world living the way a city-dwelling European or American lives today. It's not equally distributed (at all) and of course suburbia and the car culture won't survive but good riddance. Climate change is going to kill a lot of people from drought and flooding but it's not going to be an extinction-level event. (And of course we should be trying harder to stop that, don't mistake my lack of panic for dismissal of the problem).

And globally poverty and war are trending downward and demographics are going to change a lot of the growth calculus in the developed world as mentioned several times upthread. That could all change in a picosecond if the wrong person makes the wrong call but that's been true for basically all of recorded history. I don't see anything particularly exceptional about this spot in time.
posted by Skorgu at 5:37 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


To quote William Blake:
The Road of Excess Leads to the Palace of Wisdom. One can never know what is enough until one first knows what is too much.
posted by Flood at 5:39 AM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


^ Thats what god invented imagination (and predictive models) for.
posted by victory_laser at 5:44 AM on May 24, 2012


(kidding)
posted by victory_laser at 5:44 AM on May 24, 2012


What nobody seems to realize is that the day we recognize there's too many people on the planet for us all to survive is the day outright nuclear war breaks out.

Given that hard and oddly not-obvious reality, you sort of can't blame political systems for not wanting to show what an actual manmade apocalypse looks like.
See here's the thing. You can imagine that countries will start nuking each other if there are too many humans on earth. And then, in the next paragraph you call it a "reality".

You are literally incapable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality.
This whole scenario stinks. There's a large contingent but stark minority of people on this planet who care about people other than themselves, and who can easily see the big picture about the lack of food, resources, clean water and energy as it is right now, and how it looks like it's going to get worse in the near to intermediate future.
Why 'and'? It seems to me that people who either care about others or see a problem with lack of food, resources, clean water, etc would be concerned about global warming, as for the vast majority of people on earth, those things would be a serious problem for them. After all, the majority of people on earth are pretty poor, and would be the first screwed over by extreme weather, famines, excessive flooding and so on.

In fact, recent polling (just last month) indicates that 66% of Americans think that recent extreme weather and various disasters are caused by global warming. Apparently about 55% of Americans worry about global warming "'a great deal' or a 'fair amount'" The same data shows that as many as 46% of Americans between 18-29 think that global warming poses a serious threat to their way of life

So as far as I can tell, it is pretty clear that a pretty significant number of people in the US are worried about global warming and as you get younger and younger more and more people actually think that they were personally get screwed over by it.

And on top of that public opinion on global warming the US is clearly an outlier among developed nations in terms of not being worried about it. Obviously, there are a lot of countries in the world which are not democracies (in particular china), where the leadership might just ignore it's populous' wishes on the issues. But if there were a global referendum, it seems pretty obvious that global warming restrictions could be put in place. (Especially, again, since most of the worlds poor live in countries with very low per-capita CO2 emissions, they would actually hardly be affected at all)
Then there's seemingly an equal or larger contingent of people generally in the top 30 to 1% of the planet who seemingly have and use more resources than everyone else and they don't seem to give a shit, while another large fraction of the remaining 70-90% of economic strata also don't give a shit and only wish they were in the top 30%
Dude, figuratively speaking, you literally just pulled those numbers out of your own asshole.
We are already running into problems my friend. Could we conceivably continue the current rate and manners of growth? Yes, if you mean 'is it physically possible?' Will you be at all pleased with the outcome of that scenario for yourself or anyone you love or will love? Most likely not.
First of all, I think it was clear that I meant with respect to global warming. Maybe there would be other issues with other resources.

But the point is that you don't need any kind of technological breakthrough at all. Billions of people are already living a life that could support 21 billion people on the planet without adding a single gram of CO2 to the atmosphere. It's not a great life, the average Indian is pretty poor. Most of the lack of CO2 comes from the lack of wealth. Although they do have the worlds largest solar power plant.

If you look at Brazil, though it's an economic up-and comer, with rapidly increasing wealth and a decreasing wealth gap between the rich and poor. They're also a country that's heavily invested in biofuels, for cars (mainly ethanol from sugar cane).

If we all lived the way brazil does today, the earth could support about 15 billion people, at the current CO2 emission levels.

And it isn't like people in those countries are miserable, in fact according to this study this study are some of the most likely to self-report being 'very happy', with 43% rating themselves that way, (with 89% who either rate themselves 'very happy' or 'rather happy', by the way) Brazil also ranks very high, with a 30% 'very happy' rate, (the US also ranks pretty high at 28%.)

Just to clarify, I am not saying at all that we could totally handle 21 billion people, without any trouble at all. Rather, I am saying that, just looking at the math with respect to CO2, it works out that you could put 21 million people on the earth, with the lifestyle of the average Indian and not increase CO2 emissions by one gram. Of, if you think that's too dire, you could put 15 billion people on earth and have them live the lifestyle of the average Brazilian.

From as far as I can tell, the raw population count isn't anywhere close to being a problem with respect to actual CO2 emissions. It's just... not.

Population growth in carbon emitting countries like the US can be a problem, because people inherit their parents lifestyle.

However, I see no reason at all why technological advances couldn't vastly reduce the amount of CO2 emitted without any kind of noticeable lifestyle downgrade.

Completely mundane, modest things like Plugin hybrid cars, for example give you all the benefit of a gas guzzler, with far less CO2. Solar panels are getting cheaper and cheaper. Given the current prices most countries in the world could probably afford to replace all of their daytime power generation with solar energy in 10 years with just a modest %GDP.

(For example, US electricity use is about 4 trillion kWh per year. If you estimate 4 hours of "insolation" per day, a solar panel should be able to generate about 1.4kWh per year for every watt of rated capacity. The current prices are less then a dollar a watt, it would cost about $2.8 trillion build, or $280 billion a year over 10 years to buy enough solar power generate all our daytime use, and we would only need to use old tech at night, and less if prices continue to decline, which is likely. That would only increase the federal budget by about 10%. From a practical standpoint, it doesn't seem difficult at all. It's not like the money is just gone either, a few years after the install is finished, the project would have paid for itself in reduced power costs)


Again, I'm looking at the actual data here, running the actual numbers. I don't see any practical reason why we can't fix global warming, and begin to reduce CO2 emissions, and I don't see how the current total population of earth is anywhere near a problematic number. The problem isn't poor people in India and Africa, or even China on a per-capita basis. The problem is people in North America, Europe, and the middle east burning a shitload of oil. But if you look at the data, it does not make them happier then people who don't.

That's why this gloom and doom bullshit is so agrivating. Not only is it not helpful It's not even remotely true!. There is plenty of depressing shit in the world. Why make up fake shit to get depressed about and then run around telling people who actually want to fix things not to bother, because we're all fucked anyway!?

So people. Please. Stop being so damn negative. there is no practical reason why global warming can't be stopped, and there is no reason to think that the population is anywhere near how large it would need to be to make make that impossible.
A metamisanthrope, I think. Complaining about that makes you a metametamisanthrope. After that, you'll get told to take it to MeTa.
Double negative = positive. The correct term would be 'anthrophile'.
posted by delmoi at 5:55 AM on May 24, 2012 [8 favorites]


The defeatism, as always, is fucking hilarious, as are the people who smugly preen about how everybody's gonna have to change their lives and they might not like the way those lives change, man.

Our modern concept of sustainability is a crock of shit, technocratism disgusted as environmentalism. Sustainable doesn't mean you replace the fucking cars with solar cars and life goes on as normal. Or you replace the microwave with a more energy-efficient one and go on warming those Easy Macs. I mean, finding ways to make disgusting habits a little less disgusting is nice, but the point of sustainability isn't to support an out-of-balance lifestyle, it's to develop lifestyles which aren't inherently fucking the world over.

So, okay, our way of living is gonna change. But what the fuck else is new? We live differently now than we did 50 years ago. Go 100 years back and there's little in common. 200 and we're officially talking The Past. Change is accelerating, so by the time we get to this peak population estimate in 2040 things will already be significantly different than they are now. At some point, drastic environmental catastrophe will force a certain set of changes, but by the time we're that close to meltdown, you can trust that worries of meltdown will be popular enough that subcultures will have already arisen to take that into consideration. The fact that we're already speculating over this now suggests that the human race isn't as stupid as some of the people wanking themselves off here like to think.

Sure, most people currently don't give enough of a shit about the environment. That'll have repercussions much later on. But that doesn't mean they're incapable of caring, or of preparing for disaster, and there are enough smart people worrying about this right now that there'll be systems in place for people to buy into once they start looking.

That doesn't mean what happens wont be tragic. It probably will be. But our species is used to tragedy, yeah? Tragedy, even culture-destroying tragedy, is something we'll survive, and learn from. Moreover, the tools our species has learned for critical analysis, for systemic thinking and preparation, won't suddenly disappear. The same knowledge that helps us see things like this coming eighty years from now will help us figure out what to do after the shit hits the fan. There will be misery, and probably lots of it, but I'm not betting against the human race, which as a whole is a lot smarter than its individual members. Than any of its individual members. Not just the individuals we like to hold ourselves above, nawmean?

What I wonder is how much of our communications network will be left. It all depends on how our methods for computing evolve over the next few decades; I can see them collapsing completely, or being left completely intact. And I'd hope for the latter, but if not, we'd find a way to bring them back pretty damn quickly. Entitlement mixed with ingenuity is a glorious thing.

Not for the first time, I am baffled at how often it seems that bright, informed people lack the imagination to do anything more than panic. You see it in college classrooms and you see it with political/environmental/social discussions. Any time "the worst" is sufficiently dramatic, people latch onto it and refuse to let go. I'm still not sure if it's more driven by ego or sheer inflexibility, but the pratfalls it produces are funny as hell once you stop being frustrated by them.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:03 AM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


How is it not true that humankind will die out? That is an absolute certainty. WHEN that happens is up for debate, but it will happen.
posted by agregoli at 6:25 AM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


(And there's no panic at all about that statement. Truth doesn't freak me out)
posted by agregoli at 6:29 AM on May 24, 2012


If we all lived the way brazil does today, the earth could support about 15 billion people, at the current CO2 emission levels.

If we all lived the way Brazil does today, with Brazil's per-capita carbon levels, billions of those 15 billion people that had the bad luck not to be living in actual Brazil would die every winter.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:33 AM on May 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


To paraphrase the article:if you live in a world where exchange of wealth is what drives things,

As long as natural resources are underpriced compared with their true environmental and social cost

then we're fucked. Until markets can price a things (or processes) true costs...... or something replaces - or effectively adjudicates - markets, then all of this is deckchair on the titanic stuff.
posted by lalochezia at 6:38 AM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Skorgu, you got it all wrong about nuclear energy, by far is the energy tech that has received the largest share of R&D funding and in every country it has been regulated in order to make it artificially profitable. Also, the world is mostly non electric, electricity is just around 16% of the total energy consumption, so nuclear, after more than 50 years of operation is less than 10% of the total energy consumption, and after Fuskushima will decline even more.
posted by samelborp at 6:39 AM on May 24, 2012


If we all lived the way brazil does today..

They're also a country that's heavily invested in biofuels, OIL.

there is no practical reason why global warming can't be stopped,

posted by j03 at 6:46 AM on May 24, 2012


That's not to say it won't be very, very inhospitable for us, but I think it's possible that it could still recover after we're gone.

Oh, of course it'll recover. But what does it mean to "recover?" For the great majority of time on Earth, it was a home to single-cellular life. Compared to bacteria we're a fairly new innovation.

When it recovers, it might not be in a form that we'd recognize, or could live in. There will certainly be some life that can live in it, though. Even if the whole surface of the earth increased to the point of molten lava, the extremeophile bacteria that live in geothermal vents might spread out from their niche. And if any life survives, evolution means there could well be multicellular life again, and from their other forms, in millions of years.

But none of this matters really to us human beings, if we're all dead. If that happens, it'll be because of a failure of empathy -- people caring for their own well-being above that of others, willfully forgetting that fundamental point that we are, ultimately, in this together.

How is it not true that humankind will die out? That is an absolute certainty. WHEN that happens is up for debate, but it will happen.

Yeah, but it could happen later, or sooner. We cannot afford to be fatalistic about this. Ultimately life exists for its own sake, so let's keep living while we can.

But that doesn't mean they're incapable of caring, or of preparing for disaster, and there are enough smart people worrying about this right now that there'll be systems in place for people to buy into once they start looking.

The problem isn't that there aren't smart people working on this. The problem is that there are stupid people standing in their way, and they have huge amounts of money and influence at their disposal, and their filling the media with messages that the problem really isn't all that bad.
posted by JHarris at 6:50 AM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


delmoi: Billions of people are already living a life that could support 21 billion people on the planet without adding a single gram of CO2 to the atmosphere.

Suggest you abandon that particular line of bullshit. The planet could not support that many people whether or not they produced any CO2. Unless you assume they also do a bunch of other even less likely things along with ceasing to oxidise carbon. In which case why not 100 billion? Global warming is not even remotely close to being the only problem. I think maybe it gets as much attention as it does in part because it's actually one of the easier ones to imagine theoretically workable solutions for.

The "Limits to Growth" model was overly-simplified and only loosely based on reality. But it was a reasonable attempt to "do the math", where yours is not. Even in the simplest possible model where it's just population size multiplied by per-capita destruction, you're getting it wrong if you deny the importance of one of those two big factors. It's not so obvious which one is more difficult to change in favour of sustainability, so far they're both still going in the wrong direction.
posted by sfenders at 6:53 AM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Only thing is, there is no renewable energy source poised to pick up where oil leaves off. Solar will never keep pace. Wind will never keep pace. Nuclear will never keep pace. Even if we went "all-in" with these green sources right now, there is no possible version of reality where oil is phased out and life goes on as normal. No energy source on earth is as quick and efficient as oil, and we will lean on it until we fall down.
You know what? OMGHOLYSHIT. How many times do I have to sit down and explain how cheap solar power actually is right now. I just did the math for the U.S, but let me do it again with some real world data.

At the end of 2011, solar generated 0.5% of all the electricity in the world. over half of that was installed that year. The Charanka Solar plant generates 605 MW of power at peak, and about 1095 GWh of energy per year. It cost US$280 million to build, and it mostly came online over 2011. In December, it generated 16.687 gigawatt hours of electricity. Of a year, that's 200.24 GWh.

So again, do the math. For $280 billion dollars you could build 1,000 plants that size (or one plant 1,000 as large) and increase production by 200.24 TWh a year.

Our current electricity production is 4.33 PWh. 4,330TWh/ 200.24 TWh/year = 21.6 years.

So, based on real-world, actual data from a solar plant that actually exists and is generating electricity the US could build enough solar to replace all of our electrical production with solar for $280 billion a year, over 21 years.

And remember. you get paid back. The money doesn't disappear. Once you start generating power, you can use the money made to pay for more of it. at 10 cents/kWh, a $280 billion dollar investment would start earning $0.15 /kWh * 200TWh/year = $30 billion a year.

So, the first year you would have to invest $280 billion, the next year $250 billion, then $220, and so on. After ten years, the project would generate enough money to continue to fund the rest of it's development. And by the time it was finished - the project would be generating $645 billion dollars every year.

Again, how exactly is that not practical? This is real world data based on a real world plant generating 1 TWh of electricity a year.

How is this in any way not practical or doable? If we started, we would begin reducing CO2 emissions immediately, far more quickly then energy use has been rising.

---
I'm not convinced that nuclear can't keep pace for what it's worth, it's already providing ~15% of world electricity supply and that's with comparatively little R&D and decades of an outright hostile regulatory environment in most of the world.
Do the math. If you look at the actual costs . an AP1000 costs anywhere from $5 to $11 billion dollars to build, and puts out about 1.154 gigawatts if it always runs at full capacity, which is (theoretically) possible for a nuclear power plant (although in practice, not so much). Since there are 8765 hours in a year, that comes out to 10.115 TWh a year.

So, at $11 billion a, it costs about $1.08/kWh/year (that is, for ever $1.08 you spend, you can now generate one kWh/year).

At the low end estimate of $5 billion, it costs 49¢/kWh/year

Now, the solar plant I mentioned? It cost $280 million and puts out $1TWh of power a year.

The cost per kWh/year? Just 25¢.

So, the most advanced, most recently constructed nuclear power plants cost about twice as much, to build as the world's largest solar power plant. One that generates about 1/10th as a plant that can cost anywhere from 18 to 39 times as much. And that's totally ignoring the fact that a solar plant starts generating power as soon as you start building, while a nuclear plant takes years to get going.

And, while solar panels pretty much just sit there, nuclear power plants do require a lot of maintenance and management. They are not free to operate.

So why would anyone invest in a nuclear power plant when they can invest in a solar plant instead?
posted by delmoi at 7:01 AM on May 24, 2012 [13 favorites]


Whatever we end up doing, that's what's going to happen. No matter how much one wants to walk away from threads like this with some reassuring personal sense of certainty that the future of humanity either is (or, I guess in the case of the nihilistically-inclined, isn't) secure. Even if I were perfectly correct in saying at this precise moment that humanity's "going to be okay" a thousand years from now, five minutes later, something could happen to change that. That's why the topic, generally, of mankind's doom is pointless--just having the conversation forces us into a flawed mode of thinking that literally requires us to predict the future.

My own hunch: We're probably not going to make it too much longer as a species if we don't learn some basic lessons.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:05 AM on May 24, 2012


Suggest you abandon that particular line of bullshit. The planet could not support that many people whether or not they produced any CO2.
Next time, try actually reading my comment. This is what I wrote:
Just to clarify, I am not saying at all that we could totally handle 21 billion people, without any trouble at all. Rather, I am saying that, just looking at the math with respect to CO2, it works out that you could put 21 million people on the earth, with the lifestyle of the average Indian and not increase CO2 emissions by one gram. Of, if you think that's too dire, you could put 15 billion people on earth and have them live the lifestyle of the average Brazilian.
I am only talking about the amount of CO2 generated by a person. Looking at that number alone the earth can support 15-21 billion people without generating any more CO2 then we do today. Therefore, the raw population count doesn't pose any kind of problem in terms of stopping global warming, nor would it if it doubled or even tripled.

The point is that when people say that we can't fix global warming due to the current population of the earth they are factually wrong. By an enormous margin.
posted by delmoi at 7:06 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


But it was a reasonable attempt to "do the math", where yours is not. Even in the simplest possible model where it's just population size multiplied by per-capita destruction
What exactly is "per capita destruction" and where do you look it up?

You can't do math with numbers that don't exist.
posted by delmoi at 7:08 AM on May 24, 2012


I used to take solace in the saying 'the whale oil age didn't end for the lack of whale oil.' Now I'm not so sure.
posted by narcoleptic at 7:08 AM on May 24, 2012


... Therefore, the raw population count doesn't pose any kind of problem

I just find that to be a very silly conclusion. You could just as well say that if we had only 100 million people on the earth, then they could all burn plenty of fossil fuels and there'd be no problem. It may be tautologically true, but it's not really helpful to actually solving the problem.
posted by sfenders at 7:13 AM on May 24, 2012


If we are fucked, well carry on then - nothing to be done, just try to live well.
If we are unfuckable, again you needn't worry - the fix will either be magical technology or massive common effort, and either way your own individual actions are meaningless. If changes in behaviour are needed, they will let you know and you will be compelled.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:16 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


The biggest problem is social inertia. People don't want to have to think about doing things differently. God here in my stupid insular little town they think nothing of spending $50M on a bridge or widening a road, but thinking about spending $500M on an intercity rapid transit network makes people run around like their children are being killed by a mad butcher. People don't want to THINK DIFFERENT. Oil is good! Cars are good! Roads are good! Anyone who says different is PUNCHING GOD IN THE FACE.

Dude, there is solar on farmhouse roofs here in Southern Ontario. I love seeing it. Makes me happy. I don't see too many nuclear reactors in backyards, but who knows what all is in those silos.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:19 AM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


delmoi, certainly you are correct. The earth could support lots more people if everyone moved into 100sqft of living quarters under enormous population density and stopped driving cars and burning fossil fuels. Maybe Obama can do a program like he did with old gas guzzler cars, except he pays people to demolish their McMansions and move to efficiency apartments.

You keep talking about electricity though. If we're all going to be driving electric cars, you should realize we will need more electricity than we are using now to support the vehicular traffic. There are 11000 Watt hours in 1 gallon of gas. 138,496,176,000 gallons of gas were burned in the US in 2010. How many solar plants would we need to meet that need?

Finally, supposing we were able to halt CO2 emissions radically in the next 10 years, how do you propose stopping global warming when the prime emission driving warming becomes methane being released from melting permafrost?
posted by j03 at 7:19 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Simple. We won't be driving electric cars or any other sort of car, and we won't have a choice in the matter. Unless you are lucky enough to live in an area that has the good sense to invest in mass transit, hope you like biking and walking.
posted by fimbulvetr at 7:34 AM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Can't find the link, but there was a story on Slashdot (possibly also Metafilter) about a year ago with a fairly interesting proposal for dealing with climate change: autonomous solar-powered sailboats slowly circling in the mid-Atlantic off the west coast of Saharan-latitude Africa. Each boat dumps all excess electricity generated into vaporizing sea water, promoting cloud formation.

Estimated unit costs w/ mass manufacture of $2-3 million per ship, times 1000 ships for a paltry $2-3 billion total project cost.

End result? Huge albedo increase from cloud cover in the mid-Atlantic/Sahara regions (equatorial so massive gains in terms of total reflected sunlight) helps cool the Earth, while simultaneous massive increase to Saharan rainfall enables rapid plant growth over a vast region previously denied to any oxygen-producing plants, and located in latitudes ideal for plant growth.

End result? We buy ourselves some time by artificially dropping the Earth's temperature a degree or two Celsius, while setting up conditions for a whole new Amazon in an almost completely depopulated region of Africa. For the cost of a few days spent occupying Iraq.

I'm not qualified to render an opinion on feasibility or long-term unintended consequences, but it sounded like a damn good first attempt at actively turning things around for the equivalent of pocket change.
posted by Ryvar at 7:42 AM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


If we all lived the way Brazil does today, with Brazil's per-capita carbon levels, billions of those 15 billion people that had the bad luck not to be living in actual Brazil would die every winter.
I wonder how you think Eskimos survived the winter.

*sigh*. Let's do some math again. In order to qualify, a Passive house must not require more then 15 kWh/m2. per year. In most places in the world, you get about 4-6kWh/m2 of sunlight per day. Even if you live somewhere up north, if you were getting 1 hour of sunlight a day in the winter, you would only need to collect about 1m2 worth of sunlight for every 24 square meters, or 258 square feet of floor space.

And here's the thing. It doesn't seem like you actually did any math at all. It's amazing - people seem to feel that they can figure things out like how many people can live on the earth or whether or not global warming can be stopped without doing any math at all.
I just find that to be a very silly conclusion. You could just as well say that if we had only 100 million people on the earth, then they could all burn plenty of fossil fuels and there'd be no problem. It may be tautologically true, but it's not really helpful to actually solving the problem.
Right, but the point is that billions of people already live within those levels today. Therefore, there is no reason to think that somehow because we have X number of people on the planet, stopping global warming is impossible.

It seems like people just want to pessimistic and apocalyptic and depressed, regardless of whether or there is actually any reason to do so.

And like I said. It's counter productive because it gives people the false impression that nothing can be done, in which case there is no reason to bother trying. The problem is political, and telling everyone there is nothing they can do to fix it, you're making the political problem more difficult.

Plus, like i said. It appears to be incorrect, at least with respect to global warming.
posted by delmoi at 7:47 AM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, also forgot: growing a second Amazon where once was nothing but desert doubles as a form of large-scale carbon sequestering, so there's that, too.
posted by Ryvar at 7:49 AM on May 24, 2012


delmoi, certainly you are correct. The earth could support lots more people if everyone moved into 100sqft of living quarters under enormous population density and stopped driving cars and burning fossil fuels. Maybe Obama can do a program like he did with old gas guzzler cars, except he pays people to demolish their McMansions and move to efficiency apartments.
Or, they could all get electric cars, and continue to live in McMansions, but with solar panels on their roofs.

Or we could look we could do nothing because it's apparently too much fucking work to do anything other then bitch and moan about how we're all fucking doomed so we might as well just curl up and fucking die alread.
posted by delmoi at 7:51 AM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Um, I'm not in charge of policy change, or stopping oil production in favor of solar or whatever, so yeah, there's not much I can do. And I'm not pessimistic or depressed. Just realistic about humans at the top being proactive enough to reverse anything.
posted by agregoli at 7:55 AM on May 24, 2012


I don't see how the current total population of earth is anywhere near a problematic number

Having lived in densely populated and sparsely populated countries I believe that lower density is vastly preferable. In a dense region there are always water and lumber and other renewable resouce shortages. In addition there is a feeling of disconnection to nature. When you can't step out your door and find something useful, more people live closer to economic disaster. For this reason alone I think we are overpopulated, regardless of the environmental data. I use this argument against people who don't believe in planet risk.
posted by niccolo at 7:56 AM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


So why would anyone invest in a nuclear power plant when they can invest in a solar plant instead?

Engineering-wise, nuclear power plants can be built anywhere, while solar plants have to be built where it's sunny. Which is why I think the most important thing we could do to avoid global warming is to find an alternative to lossy power lines for transporting electricity from power plants over large distances. The proposals I recall involved sending liquid hydrogen instead.
posted by gsteff at 8:10 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


We're all doomed. On the bright side we've done pretty good for just a bunch of monkeys.

We've been shambling around this planet for 40,000 years. For most of it we've been goofing off - lying around, playing music, fighting, eating, barfing. We goofed and we continue to goof. But we still figured out how to fly through the air in titanium machines, we deciphered the rainbow, we bottled the sun and put a boot on the moon. And that's just some of the noisy stuff. For sitting quietly, we have Bach, Beethoven, Lao-Tse, James Joyce and Margaret Wise Brown.

So here we are teetering at the apex of our years. We've fracked out the last of what we're about. Hopefully the fall will be kind. But regardless, we have a message to the random, cold heart of the universe. It's full spectrum, forty-eight prelude and fugues in all keys: You have been owned.
posted by storybored at 8:11 AM on May 24, 2012 [9 favorites]


I just got back home from a little vacation out to the Adirondacks, a couple Finger Lakes, and including a visit out to Niagra Falls (first time in my life I have been out to those areas). Some things really struck me about upstate New York:

- There's a lot of undeveloped land, bursting with trees and wildlife. On the other hand, the variety is pretty much that of Michigan's but with some taller hills and mountains, so I see a vulnerability where if the climate became inhabitable for wildlife and plant life in New York, then certainly Michigan is pretty much done too. Ignoring that, there's some hope.

- There's also a crap ton of developed industrial landscape, some deteriorating (the bridges along I-90 are a little unsettling). I have ventured out from the beautiful Washtenaw County towards suburban Detroit a few times for events, and I probably need to take a few more of those trips to see the expansive type of development here as I saw in New York. Kalamazoo may actually compete, but I doubt it. In any case, I kept on thinking to myself that if GM had not shut down the Assembly plant here in Ypsilanti back in the early 90s (and slowly started to shut down Powertrain/Hydromatic, completing in 2010), we'd be looking at an entirely different situation here, and I don't know if my current self would have appreciated it, let alone exist to have the conscience to realize how environmentally destructive it is.

- Consequentially upstate New York's suburban areas are large as well. Haven't seen such a thing since I went out to Cedar Rapids, Iowa last October for some fall break event. Again, I probably need to take a few more trips outside of my county in Michigan to find comparable areas.

So I look at/think about the above periodically and ponder 1.) Is the undeveloped land, filled with beautiful wildlife and strong plant life, enough to sustain us well into the future (meaning, we leave it alone to do its thing), so long as climate doesn't change as much as feared? 2.) Can we figure out a way to re-use a majority of what will or might become vacant suburban/urban structures to help create a sustainable yet not too horrible standard of living compared to what we have now, one in which we maintain the environment (treated as a tool that supports humanity) well and possibly put it on a long term path of sustained operation, strength and/or growth? I am optimistic on 1, lost on 2, although I have read news about how a good number of old industrial sites have been bought up and are in operation on new tasks.

In any case, those of us who have some level of understanding of the problems we face, and have some idea of what to do about it, shouldn't moan about it/sing the doom song and just get out there and try things out to see how they end up. Better than sitting in a puddle or sure. On the other hand, the doom song (or derivatives) should still be sung for other ears who have not paid attention: enough to get their attention, and tap into their ability to act, getting them to act, but not enough to render them depressed, anxious, and frankly unable to act. We need everyone we can get on this problem (species diversity is an important part in adaptability and survivability, and variation increases with size... I think), and we need leadership with derived clear instruction. I think the games are over at this point.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 8:19 AM on May 24, 2012


we have a message to the random, cold heart of the universe. It's full spectrum, forty-eight prelude and fugues in all keys: You have been owned

The horseshoe crabs will rightly consider us to have been a flash in the pan.
posted by Trurl at 8:30 AM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Um, I'm not in charge of policy change, or stopping oil production in favor of solar or whatever, so yeah, there's not much I can do. And I'm not pessimistic or depressed. Just realistic about humans at the top being proactive enough to reverse anything.
Sure. the fact that nothing is happening politically is a problem. But that has nothing to do with the practicality of solving the problem. Not in terms of technology, and not even in terms of the actual costs. In fact, if you look at solar production the costs are so favorable now that it's become profitable just on pure dollar cost.

In fact, solar energy accounted for about 0.5% of global energy production by the end of 2011, and it grew by 59%.

That means we installed enough solar in the world in 2011 alone to cover 0.295% of the worlds entire world's electrical generation capacity. Unfortunately, overall energy use seems to grow at about 5% a year, on average.

But, if the growth rate in solar energy continues for the next few years as it has for the past few, things should work out well. In 2006, we had about 7 GW of solar panels installed in the entire world. At the end of 2011, we had 67.4. That's a 962% increase in 5 years. If solar kept the same growth rate for just the next five years, it would mean about 5% of global energy production by the end of 2016. If it kept up for 10, at the end of 2021, we'll have enough solar to generate half the electricity that we used in 2011.

But, without government mandates, what would actually happen is that at some point the cost of electricity would start to drop, and new investments in solar would no longer be cost effective, even if they are today. But that would apply to all power plants, including coal, oil, and natural gas.
Engineering-wise, nuclear power plants can be built anywhere, while solar plants have to be built where it's sunny. Which is why I think the most important thing we could do to avoid global warming is to find an alternative to lossy power lines for transporting electricity from power plants over large distances. The proposals I recall involved sending liquid hydrogen instead.
HVDC

posted by delmoi at 8:57 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


gsteff, nuclear plants can't be built anywhere, they have to be near a source of water, they need it for refrigeration.
posted by samelborp at 9:01 AM on May 24, 2012


The biggest problem is social inertia. People don't want to have to think about doing things differently.

That's not true. Back in the 70s people seemed to be more open to the idea that we could, and should, make substantive changes to our way of life. In the time since then, media forces have conspired to make the public less certain that that way of life needs to change.

The problem isn't social inertia, the problem is that some people are trying to hide the signs that the problem is really bad, to paralyze our will to survive, all so they can buy some more mansions. The people with stupid opinions are being catered to, told their opinions don't have to change, and those voices are as loud as the ones screaming at them get your foot off the gas pedal the road is out.

And other voices in the media, less nihilistic but also less willing to make any sort of determination of truth, have even packaged that difference of opinion as a lifestyle choice, which is almost as bad.
posted by JHarris at 9:04 AM on May 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


Right, but the point is that billions of people already live within those levels today. Therefore, there is no reason to think that somehow because we have X number of people on the planet, stopping global warming is impossible.

There are also quite large areas of the planet where not many people live. So there's no reason to think that the rest of the world couldn't find the wisdom to reduce its population density to the same level as Canada. It's easy, all they have to do is stop reproducing so much, for a few generations.

It'd be more convincing if you could point to an economically advanced country that has succeeded in reducing its CO2 emissions to anything approaching the per-capita level of Brazil, or even to the current world average. It's not like they aren't out there trying, in Germany and Denmark. Only France and Sweden that I'm aware of have managed to get anywhere near that world average mark, thanks to their nuclear reactors. And of course the world average is way too high, and rising. Germany is on the verge of cutting back on its generous subsidies to photovoltaics, because they can't afford it.

Meanwhile you've got other problems that more directly depend on there being just too many people. Eating up more and more of the world's total biological productivity to feed people, for the obvious one. Not really easy to cut back much on per-capita food consumption. It's unclear to me what kind of measure the dude in that SciAm article uses to calculate that we're already using 150% of the capacity of the biosphere, but I've seen enough such estimates to convince me it's probably within a factor of two of being right. We're not going to need any less of it if we start trying to fuel cars on ethanol, following the example of Brazil.
posted by sfenders at 9:32 AM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


So I have a six-month old daughter. Two years ago I would have read this and thought, "Well, that sucks. I'm sure we'll get around to dealing with that" even though I know better than to ever be that optimistic about humanity and our tendency to generally be shitty at 'dealing with things.'

But dammit, my daughter. I can't read shit like that and NOT freak the fuck out because I'm 28 right now and life is Very Good for me. I bitch and moan about the particulars from time to time, but I pretty much have everything I wanted to have at this stage in my life. In my family (my partner and my daughter and I) dreams are a big deal, and something we take seriously. It's not enough to just say you want something: you gotta bust balls and do it.

Now I look at this article and I think, 'Is my daughter going to live in a world where no matter how many balls she busts, she's just not going to be able to live her dream?' That kills me. Sidebar: Not to mention how much worse it will be for the folks in the world who haven't won the genetic lottery like me and my daughter and find their dreams fulfilled by having enough food for the day. What will their dreams be like? I can empathize with the poorest of the poor but it is so far beyond my reality that ... well.

Anyway, back to my daughter. She's 2ft, 15lbs of pure potential, and I know that she will astound me at every stage of her life. I am, by my nature, an optimistic person and I fight very hard and very vocally against equally fervent proponents of societal decay. Even though things looks horrible, I can't lose faith that she'll rise above. So I am at odds when I read something like this:

How do I remain optimistic about the world and the future for my daughter while not allowing the terrible systems to gain more power and muck things up even more?

I do not believe that a once-pristine culture is slowly degrading due to the influence of social media/globalization/those damn kids/commies/capitalists, yet I also don't believe that our current trajectory will lead anywhere but cosmic junk heap.

Are those beliefs at complete odds with each other? Should I try to reconcile them? I'll be honest guys: I have no fucking clue.

So what I've decided to do is to plan and make decisions not a week, month or year in the future but 5 decades in the future. When I make a decision I ask myself: 'Would my daughter's daughter tut-tut what I'm doing right now? Would she shake her head and say 'he didn't know any better?'

At least it makes me feel better. Guess I'll find out in 50 years.
posted by Tevin at 9:50 AM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


How is it not true that humankind will die out? That is an absolute certainty. WHEN that happens is up for debate, but it will happen.

It matters a great deal to me whether we're talking about dying out at the heat death of the universe or next Tuesday.
posted by D.D. Harriman lacked vision at 9:51 AM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


In this scenario, population peaks around 2030 at between seven and eight billion and then decreases sharply, evening out at about four billion in 2100.

Reset to 1974.


Which is about the time that cool, progressive music peaked, so I guess I'm cool with it.
posted by philip-random at 10:00 AM on May 24, 2012


And also worth noting, 1974 was the year of the Oil Crisis. It technically started in 1973 but, as I recall, the effect of it really started hitting home in '74. I was just watching some footage from the Indy 500 of that year, and they were calling it the Oil Crisis Indy, because for the first time the teams were limited as to how much fuel they could burn over the 500 miles (1.8 mile per gallon was the figure, I think).
posted by philip-random at 10:05 AM on May 24, 2012


delmoi, thanks for the info on solar.

Also re: nuclear, the decommissioning cost is actually as much or more as it cost to build the plant to begin with. And it can take 40 to 80 years to decommission a plant that only was in production for 40 years ie. tearing it down takes longer than the usable lifespan of the plant. They are blights on the landscape and dangerous. It's turning into a huge problem in the USA where dozens of plants are sitting mothballed since they don't have the money to tear them down. Decommissioning is a huge problem and cost you never seen addressed by pro-nuke people.
posted by stbalbach at 10:09 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is possible to recognize the technological feasibility of dealing with climate change, and remain pessimistic. Technological solutions have to be implemented in order to work, and require large initial investment. Regardless of what measures are possible, a pessimist might argue, the only measures taken will be those whose immediate profitability exceeds the immediate profitability of sucking up and burning oil. Especially in North America, the public's sick love affair with the internal combustion engine would have to be dealt with, starting from a point of deep suspicion and hostility toward mass transit. (The tantrums of the Second Amendment whackjobs will be nothing compared to the wrath that will be aroused by the first serious attempt to replace highways with railways/remove the steering wheel from their cold, dead hands.)

I think delmoi's analyses are probably excellent, and in particular have no reason to doubt the technical and economic feasibility of massive-scale solar power. But any technological solution must be approved first by very powerful people whose profits are threatened by the proposed solution, then by a government partly owned by those same interests, and then by the same forward-thinking, imaginative public that makes all those enlightened comments on Youtube videos after church.

I'm not actually pessimistic, though. Instead, the idea that society should be able to engage in wanton overconsumption indefinitely is overly optimistic, and the negative consequences, should they come, will constitute the Correction, not the Apocalypse.
posted by kengraham at 10:20 AM on May 24, 2012


Great comment, Tevin. I have 5 and 7 year old kids and I also frequently think about the world they're going to inherit.

In addition to the actual problems themselves, people seem to get really worked up about how others react. There are people on this thread annoyed that people have a "doom-and-gloom" mentality about what might be a gradual but accelerating collapse of the modern Western lifestyle (!). There are other people who can't believe that people assume that technology will solve everything. It seems to me that any time you have a possible/probably approaching calamity, it's natural that people will have a wide range of reactions (denial, panic, resolve, etc.). I tend to side with those who worry a lot, because I am pretty cynical about the ability of individuals to dislodge the entrenched systems of power, or even to really grok the full nature of the problems and change their lifestyles appreciably.

I also want to mention a great book I recently read (disclaimer: the authors are old friends of mine) that dissects the "doomsday thinking" problem. It's called The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About America and takes an interesting tack: It starts with examining the origins of (religious) apocalyptic thinking, then moves to a discussion of actual problems facing us today (population, climate change) and some other over-hyped problems (meteor strikes, supervolcanoes). In the aggregate we tend to think of different types of apocalyptic thinking as equivalent (return of God = supervolcano = climate change) when in reality they are not. It helped me clarify my thoughts on some of these issues, and think about how I can be genuinely concerned and politically active without being paralyzed. There really is a tendency to *invite* and anticipate catastrophe because then, well, we'll know if we were right.
posted by freecellwizard at 10:28 AM on May 24, 2012 [8 favorites]


That's interesting, D.D., because it makes no practical difference to me. Regardless, we can't choose when so we might as well accept it. I just find it odd when people say things like, "humans will survive" when obviously, we won't.
posted by agregoli at 10:32 AM on May 24, 2012


That's not true. Back in the 70s people seemed to be more open to the idea that we could, and should, make substantive changes to our way of life.

And then that sentiment was mocked and vilified politically. Carter wore a sweater and it was perceived/portrayed as the height of wimpiness. Americans shouldn't have to sacrifice, going without is not the American option, taking what you want/doing what you want, regardless of the circumstances, is.

A few years back for a history class I read a book that talked about the myopia of the New England colonists, how they chopped every tree in sight until there were no more trees in sight, and they had to travel farther and farther to find wood, and it hammered their economy, their ecology. The lack of trees increased runoff, depleted wildlife stocks; it kicked their ass in terms of lost prosperity.

So why did they do it? Because man, at heart, is an idiot, built to exploit windfalls and not think too deeply about what happens when the windfall is over and done.
posted by kgasmart at 10:53 AM on May 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


There are also quite large areas of the planet where not many people live. So there's no reason to think that the rest of the world couldn't find the wisdom to reduce its population density to the same level as Canada. It's easy, all they have to do is stop reproducing so much, for a few generations.
Which, has nothing to do with anything.

Let me put it this way. Per capita, the average Canadian puts out ten times as much CO2 as the average Armenian.

So you can think about it this way: if a childless couple were to move from Canada to Armenia, live the standard Armenian lifestyle, and then have seventeen children, there would be no increase in CO2 emissions. Now, if they stayed childless in Armenia there would be even less CO2

On the other hand, let's take an average Indian couple, who wants to move to china. They'd been planning on having nine average children in India, but because they moved to china they are only allowed to have one average Chinese child in China. That would increase the amount of CO being released.

Do you understand? Population increases in poor, overcrowded countries don't increase CO2 emissions very much at all. There is no fixed amount of carbon that a person has to put out based on the fact they exist. And because of that raw population doesn't matter.

The U.S, European Union, Russia, Japan, and Canada combined combined have about 800 million people. And, combined, they put out about 43.6% of the world's CO2, and have about 1.1 billion people total. The rest of the world has 5.7 billion people and puts out 56.4% of the greenhouse gas emissions.

If those 5 countries/ regional unions were to drop their emissions by 40%, and the rest of the world decided to keep everything same and add an additional 1.75 billion people then the total amount of CO2 would be reduced, not increased.

Right now, the countries that are growing the fastest are poor, 3rd world countries, while rich western countries are actually seeing their populations begin to decline. That population kind of population growth wont' have much, if any effect on CO2 emissions.
And of course the world average is way too high, and rising. Germany is on the verge of cutting back on its generous subsidies to photovoltaics, because they can't afford it.
I think you may not understand the difference between 'afford' and 'want to pay for' They've been paying about $130 billion a year. But the thing is, the cost of solar panels have dropped more in the past 12 months then. It also looks like the subsidy cuts have been put on hold for the moment.

And check it out: fear of a subsidy cut has caused a massive influx in panel installs. In march alone, there were 1.15 GW installed. That is an enormous number. In fact that's almost exactly the same amount of electricity put out by $5-11 billion dollar the nuclear reactor I linked to earlier as an example of the costs a modern nuclear plant.

That's actually shocking even to me. That means, overall, based on a fear of losing subsidies, individual Germans installed twice the capacity of the Indian solar park I mentioned earlier.

Given the existing installed capacity in 2011, (25GW) and the power generated (18TWh) that means they installed enough panels to generate about 828GWh/year. in one month. At that pace, it would take just ten years to get to 20% power from solar, from the current 3%.

Solar isn't just a hypothetical anymore. We are past the point where solar goes from a good idea to save the planet, to straight up profitable in a short amount of time.
It is possible to recognize the technological feasibility of dealing with climate change, and remain pessimistic. Technological solutions have to be implemented in order to work, and require large initial investment.
That's true, and we should be arguing that those investments should be made and will have a good ROI, both for the environment, as well as society as a whole. Pissing and moaning about how the population count is too high is not only not making that argument isn't actually arguing against making the actual investments, by implying that they don't even exist and wouldn't work even if you tried them. Which is false.
posted by delmoi at 12:10 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


delmoi: "Solar isn't just a hypothetical anymore. We are past the point where solar goes from a good idea to save the planet, to straight up profitable in a short amount of time."

I'm pretty ignorant on all this, but what you're saying makes sense.

Maybe I'm showing my ignorance too much, but isn't the amount of power generated by solar heavily dependent on the amount of actual exposure to the sun? Or has the technology advanced to a point where power can be harnessed based on very limited exposure?

Additionally, would a move to solar require a decentralization of energy distribution or would new solar powered distribution step in to take the place of traditional electric plants?

Either way: thanks for the great info!
posted by Tevin at 12:25 PM on May 24, 2012


That's true, and we should be arguing that those investments should be made and will have a good ROI, both for the environment, as well as society as a whole.

I had no idea, until reading your posts, about the extent of solar energy's potential. Thank you for the education!

I think my pessimism is rooted in skepticism about whether making sound arguments is a good way to influence policy anymore. For starters, there seem to be too many people for whom "X benefits society as a whole" is actually an argument against<> implementing X.

However, if solar energy is already a quickly-profitable proposition, then maybe that's immaterial.

posted by kengraham at 12:53 PM on May 24, 2012


I don't think we're going to see a future where our grandkids need to move into communal dormitories or live in Mad Max Land.

Right. Only their grandkids will.

there's no reason to think that the rest of the world couldn't find the wisdom to reduce its population density to the same level as Canada.


The population of Canada is very highly concentrated, increasingly so, mostly next to the American border. The artificial entity created by this border does not provide a useful model for population density.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 1:13 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Which, has nothing to do with anything.

Pains me to have to spell it out, but that bit made no sense because it was just a variation on your own argument. The probability of everyone in the world spontaneously deciding that their ambition is to live like the average Armenian is for practical purposes exactly equal to the probability of everyone (Canadians included, naturally) deciding to have on average 0.5 children each until the global population is small.

In march alone, there were 1.15 GW installed. That is an enormous number. In fact that's almost exactly the same amount of electricity put out by $5-11 billion dollar the nuclear reactor I linked to

Sorry, no time to get into the economics of solar power, but those of you new to it might want to take that particular comparison as an example of how its proponents often go astray from reality. You're off by a factor of 30.
posted by sfenders at 1:30 PM on May 24, 2012


Time to have a Manhattan Project-scale research program into terraforming. The tech will fix our world's biosphere, or help us conquer Mars'. Win-win investment!
posted by Apocryphon at 2:08 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


If those 5 countries/ regional unions were to drop their emissions by 40%, and the rest of the world decided to keep everything same and add an additional 1.75 billion people then the total amount of CO2 would be reduced, not increased.

Right now, the countries that are growing the fastest are poor, 3rd world countries, while rich western countries are actually seeing their populations begin to decline. That population kind of population growth wont' have much, if any effect on CO2 emissions.


You're not bolding the part you should be bolding. The rest of the world has most definitely NOT decided to keep everything the same; they've seen our concrete buildings and private cars and high material affluence on TV and they've decided that that looks a lot better than improvised squatter's housing and carrying water on their heads.

About three months from now, China - now the world's largest polluter - will have emitted more CO2 in the 21st century (all 12 years of it) than they did in the entire 20th century. The vaunted Brazilians sure as fuck don't want to live like Brazilians; they've increased their emissions per capita by 7% just over the last 3 years. The Armenians are up 46% over the last decade.

Pakistan has had a per capita increase in CO2 of 20% since 2003. Now, they live like a Vietnamese resident did back in '03. Except today, a Vietnamese resident now emits 52% more CO2 -- as much CO2 as an Indian did five years ago; meanwhile an Indian now emits as much CO2 as an Indonesian did five years ago, an increase of 41%. And the Indonesian now emits 31% more. China emits more CO2 on a per capita basis than the Swedes do.

The 10 largest "developing" countries (China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Mexico, Philippines, Vietnam) produced less CO2 than the United States alone, back in 2002. Now, they emit about as much as the "rich 33" United States, all 27 EU nations, Japan, South Korea, Canada and Australia put together. By 2030, if China halves it's emissions growth rate and the other 9 countries keep on increasing at their historical rates, and the rest of the world grows by the same rate it's grown over the past decade, then the rich 33 countries have to reduce their emissions by 102% to have no net increase in CO2 - from our currently unsustainable levels. I'm pretty sure that last 2%, once we've stopped emitting CO2 entirely, will be the hardest.

The only scenario where developed countries slash their emissions to a fraction of current levels and that alone is enough to affect global CO2 is the "fuck you, I've got mine" scenario you are implicitly envisioning, where we pull the ladder up right now, and it's just too goddamn bad for the half of India still living without a toilet. Except that the 6 billion people living on the poor side of the fence aren't going to quietly go along with the facile pronouncement that, tough shit, Bangladeshis, you never get to consume any more energy. Hope you didn't all want electrification, or roads, or houses.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 5:12 PM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


Sorry, no time to get into the economics of solar power, but those of you new to it might want to take that particular comparison as an example of how its proponents often go astray from reality. You're off by a factor of 30.
I went back to double check, and no. I was correct and you are wrong. If you had bothered tell everyone what you thought the numbers actually were, we could figure out what kind of error you made, but apparently that was too much work.

Here are the numbers again: solar installs in germany:
About 1,150 megawatts of panels were added in March after installations of about 200 megawatts and about 450 megawatts in February and January respectively, the regulator said.
The capacity of the AP1000
The AP1000 is a two-loop pressurized water reactor planned to produce a net 1154 MWe. It is an evolutionary improvement on the AP600,[2] essentially a more powerful model with roughly the same footprint. [1] [8]
That is: Solar installs in germany in march: 1,150MW. The capacity of the AP1000 1,154MW. Now, it is true that solar panels don't generate electricity 24/7365. But the same is actually true of nuclear reactors as well.

In order to get the total You have to multiply by the insolation per day. Obviously they do get closer to their theoretical peak output.

And here's the thing: rather then making estimates, we can just look at the real world data: In Germany, there were 24.8 GW installed in total, and total energy generated in 2011 was 18TWh. So every year, for every Watt of solar panels, the Germans generate 725Wh of electricity a year, or 1.9Wh a day. If the sun shined 24 hours a day, of course, it would generate 24Wh a day (And we would all burn to death). But that's a factor of 12.6, not thirty. And it doesn't count for nuclear reactor downtime. They don't actually run 100% of the time, you have to take them offline for months to change the rods and inspect everything every few years.

And if those panels were installed at the Indian plant instead, they would probably end up generating about 4Wh/W/day, or 4 hours of sunlight rather then 1.9, again based on the real world data, not hypothetical estimates.

But in any event, I was just pointing out the fact that the peak capacity was the same, to illustrate the scale of how fast solar energy is coming online. Because it actually surprised even me.
---
Maybe I'm showing my ignorance too much, but isn't the amount of power generated by solar heavily dependent on the amount of actual exposure to the sun? Or has the technology advanced to a point where power can be harnessed based on very limited exposure?
Yes, and as I said it's called insolation, and you can look how much annual insulation there actually is at various places. Whenever I talk about solar I always add that to my calculations. In fact, now that we have real world data on massive solar power plants that actually exist, all I have to do is point out how much electricity was actually generated in the real world. So for example the Gujarat Solar Park generated 86.191GWh of electricity in April.

(And you can't even compare month to month because its growing so fast. They generated over twice as much power in April as in February, more then three times as much as January, 10 times as much as last November, and over 100 times as much as last august)


---

Also, the population thing: holy crap some people just do not seem to understand. The claim is that increasing population will not cause very much global warming in the short term, because most of the growth happens in poor countries where there isn't much fossil fuel consumption. By the time those countries would ever become wealthy, there will be plenty of time for technology and global laws to be put in place, so it won't be as much of a problem. And, having wealth causes people to stop having as many kids, so it's a self correcting problem.

The only way global warming is going to actually be a problem in the next few decades is if rich western countries, and China (and to a lesser extent India and Russia) don't stop burning shitloads of coal and oil. If they do, the problem will be solved. If they don't, it won't. What happens in the rest of the world is basically irrelevant at this point and will be for a long time. It doesn't matter how many people are born there.

Now that I think about it, It's mostly probably just an excuse by rich westerners in order to try to prevent any kind of progress. Rather then fixing the problem, the claim is that nothing can be done because poor brown people won't stop fucking.

But it's totally false.
Pains me to have to spell it out, but that bit made no sense because it was just a variation on your own argument. The probability of everyone in the world spontaneously deciding that their ambition is to live like the average Armenian is for practical purposes exactly equal to the probability of everyone (Canadians included, naturally) deciding to have on average 0.5 children each until the global population is small.
It's not a question of "ambition", just because someone wants something doesn't mean they are going to have it.
where we pull the ladder up right now, and it's just too goddamn bad for the half of India still living without a toilet.
Toilets don't generate CO2. Neither do electric cars, nor do nuclear reactors or solar panels. Everything that we have we can we can substitute a lower or zero emission version that's just as nice.

Anyway, I have no idea what you people are yammering on about. If you do something like distribute carbon emission credits on a per-person basis, then those poor countries would be able to sell them to rich countries, and receive a massive cash windfall. It would be fantastic for them. Or we could subsidize green energy production in those countries, so they cost the same or less as fossil fuel burning plants, which would be pretty good for them.

Or we could just drop bombs on any new fossil fuel burning power plants they build, which would be horrible for them. How it's done is a political question that needs to be answered. But there are a broad range of different ways with differing amounts of fairness and benefit for all involved. I suspect they probably will get a raw deal, because that's just how the west operates. But it doesn't matter. If the US, EU, China, and Japan come to a consensus about what other countries should do, they aren't really going to have much of a choice.

The point I was trying to make was simply that raw population counts have nothing to do with CO2 emissions. Yes, it's related to wealth but that's not the only thing. NYC alone generates about 7 tons of CO2 per capita compared to 17.5 for the use as a whole. Japan generates 9, 5.5.

But more importantly, it doesn't matter what people want, it matters what they can actually get. And right now, the places with high population growth are countries where people can't get those things, no matter how much they want them, because they have no money. By the time they do have the money, lots of green tech should be available, and they won't have to worry about replacing existing infrastructure like replacing gas stations with charging stations or replacing coal plants with solar panels. You just build the charging station and solar plant first.

And really, given the fact that the poorest people in the world are going to get fucked the hardest by global warming, they are actually far better off with an unfair solution that means they get to keep their current way of life, then no solution, which could potentially mean seeing their current way of life destroyed as floods ravage entire countries (which happened in Pakistan recently, as well as Thailand, I think) and farmland ceases to be productive due to famine, meaning mass starvation in poor countries, which happened in Somalia recently. Rich countries can deal with these things. We had massive flooding in the Midwest again in 2008, but since we are a rich country we could deal with it. Compare that to Pakistan.

So you are saying that people in poor countries would rather have the opportunity to drive a gas guzzling car in 100 years, then avoid starving in a famine or having their city wiped out in a flood in 10 or 20 years (Actually it's probably too late to stop GW in 10 to 20 years, but things will continue to get worse if we do nothing)

The only way your comment makes sense if you think global warming is, like, not actually a real problem.
posted by delmoi at 8:20 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


The only way global warming is going to actually be a problem in the next few decades is if rich western countries, and China (and to a lesser extent India and Russia) don't stop burning shitloads of coal and oil. If they do, the problem will be solved.
delmoi,

I really think you're missing the point entirely.

The reason many scientists have started to believe that Global Warming cannot be stopped is because they believe we've reached a point where natural warming feedback processes like the melting of permafrost releasing the greenhouse gas methane and the loss of icecap reducing albedo allowing more ocean surface to be heated by the sun, accelerate the warming of our planet.

So, even if it was possible for the whole of humanity to instantly stop producing CO2 or to come up with some solution to sequester 100% of human CO2 emissions tomorrow. It's likely that Global Climate Change will continue unabated due to these already started natural feedback processes.

Of course it's not possible to even sequester a tiny fraction of human CO2 emissions within any sort of timeline that would do anything to slow or stop Global Warming. Sure, everybody could switch over to electric cars, but it'll take 50 years, and by then we'll be riding gondolas through the streets of Miami and New York.

Global Warming is no longer a problem that can be solved; it's a predicament, a disaster that can not be averted. The outcome of which must be recognized and planned for.

Global Climate disasters will be an inevitable part of our future on this planet.

posted by j03 at 3:14 AM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


But that's a factor of 12.6, not thirty.

Yeah, I was mis-reading the bloomberg text thinking it said three months rather than one, and multiplying that by 10 rather than 12.6 partly out of laziness and partly to allow for some nuclear reactor down-time. Sorry.

Revolutionary plans already exist, but there are disputes over tiny steps.
posted by sfenders at 3:25 AM on May 25, 2012


I really think you're missing the point entirely.

The reason many scientists have started to believe that Global Warming cannot be stopped is because they believe we've reached a point where natural warming feedback processes like the melting of permafrost releasing the greenhouse gas methane and the loss of icecap reducing albedo allowing more ocean surface to be heated by the sun, accelerate the warming of our planet.

So, even if it was possible for the whole of humanity to instantly stop producing CO2 or to come up with some solution to sequester 100% of human CO2 emissions tomorrow. It's likely that Global Climate Change will continue unabated due to these already started natural feedback processes.
Well, there are a number of different points being made in this thread, some of which have nothing to do with eachother. The point I was making was about population and global warming. If the "many scientists" you're talking about are correct, then global warming would still happen if the population were zero.

And in fact, the earth's population has changed many times in the past. At one point, all of the oceans were covered in ice. At other points, the earth was much warmer and the oceans were at their full height. Gradual climate change is natural, so are habitat change and extinction and whatever. The problem here is that we are changing it at a very rapid rate, and human societies are going to be seriously fucked over by it.

Anyway, your point about global warming that's already been 'caused' continuing may be true, maybe it would be more accurate to say that the major emitters: The US, China, EU, along with Japan, India and Russia to a lesser extent are the ones who have the power to stop continuing to cause more global warming, whereas the population growth in the other countries doesn't really matter at this point and probably won't matter for several decades if not centuries.

Let me go over the math again.

(Now, I said before India is actually really good so far on global warming, and that's true. They have 16% of the population, and only put out about 6% of the CO2. Compared to China which has 19% and puts out 22% of the world's CO2. On the other hand, Japan and Russia are way over their 'fair' share)

So anyway, since India' s pretty good already, let's just look at the US, China, EU Japan and Russia.

Those 5 countries/EUs put out 65.15% of the world's CO2. Very close to 2/3rds.

If they cut their emissions by 50%, you would have a 32.58% reduction in CO2 emissions.

The rest of the world has about 4.5 billion people (I'm estimating here, I'm not looking it up again). So if they doubled their populations, the world would go from 6.8 billion people to 10.3 billion. However, the world's CO2 emissions would only increase by 33.71%

And here's the thing: the countries that are growing the fastest by population are also the ones who are not currently causing the problem as far as greenhouse gas emissions. The US's population is growing mostly by immigration, not birth. That doesn't increase global population at all. Many countries in the EU, as well as Russia and Japan are already seeing their populations decline.

So, there is no reason at all to worry about population increases when it comes to global warming, just looking at the current figures.

The counter argument people have been making is that, well, these people will want to live like Americans, and eventually their GDPs and per-cap CO2 will continue to increase. So we are screwed. There are a couple of problems with that argument.

1) It assumes that in order to live a 'good' life, you need to burn carbon. But that isn't true at all. All the stuff we enjoy doing can be done without emitting CO2 - Even if you don't "believe in" solar, it's obviously possible with nuclear, which does not emit CO2.

2) It assumes no global rules will never be put in place. If the U.S, China, the EU, Russia and Japan decide something, how on earth could any other country in the world seriously oppose them? North Korea does to a certain extent, but all their oil flows through china, and can be cut off at anytime (which China has actually done at various points)

3) It ignores the fact that it's much cheaper to build new 'green' infrastructure then it is to tear down and replace old infrastructure. Other countries can build solar plants instead of coal plants for about the same price. They can car charging stations rather than gas stations.

4) It ignores differences in time. It would take several decades, maybe even a century to be a problem, while the "major emitters" are causing problems now. arguing that doing something about the problem that is actually occurring is hopeless because of something that will happen in the future is like saying it's pointless to try to save your house from a fire because the sun will explode eventually anyway

5) It ignores the fact that we are running out of oil and coal. There is only so much in the earth, and by the time they are as wealthy as we are now, there won't be much left.

Anyway, the counter argument is actually pretty stupid. The whole thing seems like it's just an excuse people have to avoid actually doing anything about it in the countries they actually live in by blaming other people when they are the actual problem.
Yeah, I was mis-reading the bloomberg text thinking it said three months rather than one, and multiplying that by 10 rather than 12.6 partly out of laziness and partly to allow for some nuclear reactor down-time. Sorry.
Right, and I was only looking at the relative peak capacity, not what could be generated over a year. It's almost certain, though, that the overall cost was less then 1/12.6 as much as it would have cost to build that plant. And, if those panels were installed somewhere closer to the equator, the factor could be 1/6 or even 1/2
posted by delmoi at 12:16 PM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


So anyway, since India' s pretty good already

India is third on the list of countries by CO2 emissions, but your premise leads inescapably to the conclusion that it's unfair to break things up by country at all. Which is true enough.

Obviously in India they have much better and more immediate reasons to try and constrain population growth than worrying about contributing to climate change. It's more about trying to remain as prosperous as they are despite climate change and everything else. I like to check in and see how they're doing once in a while, so here's the latest news: India is likely to miss its target of reaching population stabilization by 2045. Now, the Union health ministry is looking at 2060 as a plausible target.
posted by sfenders at 3:17 AM on May 26, 2012


I fucking hate this whole "It's over, the environment is doomed" talk. It's just so damned defeatist.

This was far up the thread, but it was the sentiment I was referring to in my post. It's not defeatist so much as it is realism. The environment is doomed. Any actions taken now are decades too late to prevent disaster.

The US, China, EU, along with Japan, India and Russia to a lesser extent are the ones who have the power to stop continuing to cause more global warming

I agree. But they have no power to stop the already unfolding climate disasters. Maybe if they stop now (which no amount of complaining to your congressman will do) it might foreshorten some of the effects of climate change. Maybe? Manhattan will still be underwater, but things might turn around in 200 years instead of 210 years.

It assumes that in order to live a 'good' life, you need to burn carbon. But that isn't true at all.

I suppose this depends on what your definition of 'good' life is. Your definition might be eating ramen in a tiny studio apartment in Queens, but for most Americans it means living in big houses and driving big cars and buying fresh strawberries in the middle of winter. You can't heat a McMansion with solar power in the dead of winter in the midwest. No one wants to buy an electric Escalalade and ships and planes that bring us those fresh strawberries burn oil, not electricity.

It assumes no global rules will never be put in place.

You seem to be believe that it's possible that the US government or any other major carbon emitter would deliberately put policies in effect that would make it prohibitively expensive to heat a McMansion, drive an SUV and buy fresh strawberries in the winter.

I can only assume you don't follow politics very much. You think you could elect a politician whose campaign platform was "I'm going to raise gasoline taxes by 200% and tariff the shit out of imported fruits and vegetables so you can only afford to eat turnips and potatoes for Christmas?"

build solar plants instead of coal plants

I'm certain this will happen slowly over decades, but electricity is still only 40% of US carbon emissions. Massive climate disasters are sure to occur before any significant change will happen. Until millions of rich Americans start starving because of massive droughts and floods there's no political will to make any impactful changes.

It would take several decades, maybe even a century to be a problem

Weird climate is here now, 100 year droughts and floods are already starting and will only get worse.

it's pointless to try to save your house from a fire because the sun will explode eventually

I would argue it's more like putting lipstick on a pig on the deck of the titanic. The ship is going down. Tacking a few shiny new solar panels on it and telling the passengers to change their incandescents for CFLs isn't going to change the fact that they are going to drown.

we are running out of oil and coal

It's true that we're running out of CHEAP oil and coal, but again, the damage has already been done. Billions will die. Suffering will be global. Suppose we run out of coal and oil and gas in the next 10 years causing a drastic reduction in CO2 output... which obviously won't happen, but supposing it does, it's still too late to save the environment.

Savor your sushi and winter strawberries. It won't last much longer.
posted by j03 at 7:15 AM on May 26, 2012


India is likely to miss its target of reaching population stabilization by 2045. Now, the Union health ministry is looking at 2060 as a plausible target.
Which, as I pointed out, has zero to do with global warming. If they doubled their population and kept their per-capita CO2 emissions the same, it would be completely offset by a 10% reduction in emissions from just China, the US and the EU. And on top of that, that's 50 goddamn years from now! It isn't something that is a problem today.

In fact, because their current per-capita levels are so low, a 'fair' global agreement would almost certainly help them. They could sell off their emissions credits to companies in other countries, or even demand they invest partly in India to get them. That would give the country more money to fix those problems. So why would they be opposed to an arrangement like that?
You can't heat a McMansion with solar power in the dead of winter in the midwest. -- j03
Ugh, this is getting fucking ridiculous. I already linked to passivehouse thing. Those things are fine in the German winter, you need one 1m2 solar panel for ever 250 square feet of floor space to heat it, even in the dead of winter, with just 1 hour of insolation per day.
You seem to be believe that it's possible that the US government or any other major carbon emitter would deliberately put policies in effect that would make it prohibitively expensive to heat a McMansion, drive an SUV and buy fresh strawberries in the winter. -- j03
Again dude. You can power an SUV with electricity. Or hydrogen. Or biodiesel or ethanol or whatever. You can also run the trucks that carry strawberries around in them, or grow them in greenhouses. There is such an amazing lack of imagination here, along with a lack of ability to even click the fucking links that have been posted in the thread already.

Secondly, dude, the population argument has had to do with what will happen in India and other poor countries as they continue to get wealthier. Those people don't have those things now, and they are happy. Rather then replacing A with B, you are giving people who have nothing B. You start out giving people electric cars, etc.

Plus, those global rules would likely allow countries that don't emit a lot of CO2 currently to sell emissions credit, giving them extra money. Why on earth would they be opposed to getting free money?
Massive climate disasters are sure to occur before any significant change will happen. -- j03
They are already happening.
Weird climate is here now, 100 year droughts and floods are already starting and will only get worse. -- j03
OMG can you read!? This is what I said: "It would take several decades, maybe even a century to be a problem, while the "major emitters" are causing problems now."

What I clearly, clearly said was that the current major emitters are currently causing problems and to stop it (or keep it from getting worse) we need to stop them. Other people were pointing to third world countries that could, potentially, if nothing is done become a problem in 30-60 years or something. I was pointing out that the "population" argument is bullshit. Nowhere did I say that global warming, today, is not a problem. Nowhere did I say that global warming, overall, wouldn't be a problem for decades. I said that in order to stop it from getting worse, we had to cut emissions rather then worry about what kinds of places might be emitting more carbon 50 fucking years from now!

This shit is fucking ridiculous. You're making points that I've already addressed. You're completely misreading what I'm writing. I do not understand how people can be so incapable of processing basic straightforward information when it comes to the environment.

But you know what, you guys are starting to convince me it is hopeless. Not because no one cares about stopping global warming, but rather because even people who apparently claim to care are fucking idiots who are totally unable to understand what actually has to be done to stop it, and insist about winging on about irrelevant bullshit and incorrectly say there is no hope so why bother.
posted by delmoi at 1:38 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Which, as I pointed out, has zero to do with global warming. If they doubled their population and kept their per-capita CO2 emissions the same, it would be completely offset by a 10% reduction in emissions from just China, the US and the EU. And on top of that, that's 50 goddamn years from now! It isn't something that is a problem today.

I've learned to stay away from population threads on MeFi and I don't really like how the focus always ends up on climate change as if there weren't other more worrying environmental issues, but I have to point out that regarding the CO2 problem what matters are not emission rates but total carbon emitted, so whether emissions 50 years from now are larger or smaller only affects how quickly CO2 builds up. We can't offset anyhting unless we plant a lot of forests and not burn them (which given peak net energy, is almost certainly the opposite of what will happen).
Atmospheric CO2 stays there effectively forever from a civilisational timescale (centuries/millenia). If we intend to stop further disruption from climate change/ocean acidification than what is already in the pipeline due to past human activity, net emissions would have to completely stop ASAP, not just drop to some "acceptable" level.
posted by Bangaioh at 3:18 AM on May 27, 2012


but I have to point out that regarding the CO2 problem what matters are not emission rates but total carbon emitted
Uh, not exactly. All greenhouses gasses have an Atmospheric lifetime, which for CO2 is estimated to be about 30-95 years. So, if the natural level is X, and you want the level less then Y, then you can put out up to Y/95. The problem now is that we have well over 'Y', so technically we need to 'emit' a negative amount.

Anyway, there are other things you can do to cool down the earth. However the obvious first step we need to take is to get a handle on CO2 emissions, then start worrying about what to do with the stuff that's already there.
posted by delmoi at 8:21 AM on May 27, 2012


delmoi

I think you're still missing my point.

Maybe I don't understand what your point is, but I'll try to sum up what I think it is.
People in the major carbon emitting states like the US, Japan, China should radically and quickly switch to sustainable and environmentally friendly technologies...The technology exists to make the whole world carbon neutral if we just work hard enough at it and make it a global priority.
I agree 100% with this portion of your rhetorical platform.

major emitters are currently causing problems and to stop it (or keep it from getting worse) we need to stop them.

Ah yes, except that my point is that it's too late to stop them from causing problems because the problems are already here. The damage has already been done and nothing short of massive global disaster will cause any of these major emitters to take the any action.

You continue to propose pie in the sky technological solutions for everything, but there is no implementation time frame that would have any impact whatsoever on the billions of humans that will be killed or starve to death due to the coming droughts and floods and hurricanes and tornadoes caused by anthropocentric warming.

Just to make my point crystal clear. Billions of people are going to starve to death. Flipping a switch to make the whole world carbon neutral tomorrow will not change this.

This shit is fucking ridiculous. You're making points that I've already addressed. You're completely misreading what I'm writing.

Right backatcha. You keep responding with technological solutions to problems that have already occurred. It's like we're riding together on a bus that has just driven over a cliff and as we tumble through the air you turn to me and say "If we strengthen the road barriers and improve the braking system the bus won't crash, or at least it won't crash so hard." Great ideas! After the bus explodes I'm sure they'll make great improvements in braking and barrier technologies. But we're still going to die a firey death!

Passive solar houses. I never suggested the technology doesn't exist to build NEW houses capable of using solar in the winter. I'm saying millions of already existing homes don't have this technology and can't easily be retrofitted for it, and are currently burning fossil fuels for heat and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future because tearing down a 10-year-old house and rebuilding a passive solar house in it's place is not economically feasible. Solar panels on a McMansion is lipstick on an energy pig.

The only way to stop people from living in giant energy pig CO2 emitting homes, driving giant energy pig CO2 emitting cars and eating CO2 emitting berries is to make doing those things economically untenable. No politician will do this, therefore status quo will continue as usual and no amount of screaming at your congressman will change this. I feel like I'm repeating myself here.

But, perhaps the human survivors of the great famines and resource wars will build and live in passive solar homes. I think they're called tee-pees.
posted by j03 at 9:49 AM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


the evolution will not be rational.
posted by philip-random at 10:09 AM on May 27, 2012


Uh, not exactly. All greenhouses gasses have an Atmospheric lifetime, which for CO2 is estimated to be about 30-95 years.

From the IPCC AR4 FAQ:
The concentration of a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere depends on the competition between the rates of emission of the gas into the atmosphere and the rates of processes that remove it from the atmosphere. For example, carbon dioxide (CO2) is exchanged between the atmosphere, the ocean and the land through processes such as atmosphere-ocean gas transfer and chemical (e.g., weathering) and biological (e.g., photosynthesis) processes. While more than half of the CO2 emitted is currently removed from the atmosphere within a century, some fraction (about 20%) of emitted CO2 remains in the atmosphere for many millennia. Because of slow removal processes, atmospheric CO2 will continue to increase in the long term even if its emission is substantially reduced from present levels.

[...] the rate of emission of CO2 currently greatly exceeds its rate of removal, and the slow and incomplete removal implies that small to moderate reductions in its emissions would not result in stabilisation of CO2 concentrations, but rather would only reduce the rate of its growth in coming decades. [...] A 50% reduction would stabilise atmospheric CO2, but only for less than a decade. After that, atmospheric CO2 would be expected to rise again as the land and ocean sinks decline owing to well-known chemical and biological adjustments. Complete elimination of CO2 emissions is estimated to lead to a slow decrease in atmospheric CO2 of about 40 ppm over the 21st century.


Your Wikipedia link cites this post from RealClimate stating pretty much the same thing.
posted by Bangaioh at 10:56 AM on May 27, 2012


Ah yes, except that my point is that it's too late to stop them from causing problems because the problems are already here. The damage has already been done and nothing short of massive global disaster will cause any of these major emitters to take the any action.
Yeah. That's what I disagree with. Lets look at them.
1: China, they have the least motivation to stop now, but keep in mind they are massively boosting their solar production. Solar is blowing up, and that cash is all heading china's way. If they have the chance to be the "Saudi Arabia of Solar" they might want to take it, and they're a net importer of energy anyway.

2: The EU. I talked about Germany above. Germany is the most powerful country in the EU and they've already done a ton. France has lots of nuclear power. Spain is another major purchaser of solar. Essentially, they're already doing something about it.

4: The U.S: If not for the filibuster in the US Senate, the US would already have carbon caps in place. Politically, it's an issue supported by a large part of the population. Politically, it would be easily doable if not for our dysfunctional political system.

5: Japan, they were highly nuclearized, and they were the country where the Kyoto treaties were signed. They are closing nuke plants, but they are also putting up lots of solar.

It isn't nearly enough, but with cheaper and cheaper solar, it becomes easier and easier to do.
You continue to propose pie in the sky technological solutions for everything, but there is no implementation time frame that would have any impact whatsoever on the billions of humans that will be killed or starve to death due to the coming droughts and floods and hurricanes and tornadoes caused by anthropocentric warming.
Well, unfortunately if you look at the recent droughts in Sudan, yeah, there are problems already. But remember, about 6m children die a year due to starvation anyway.

And a billion is quite a bit. Africa is unfortunately the poster child for this this kind of thing, but there aren't even a billion people in all of Africa (the continent's population is 840 million). In order for that to happen, you'd need to see major crises in Asia or Latin America as well.

Also, I just looked up the stats on global food production, There are 651 million metric tons of rice produced every year, 892 of corn, and 439 of rice. That comes out to around 2,900 calories per person, per day. Enough to feed everyone even if there were a 50% loss. And that's just for three crops, ignoring everything else.

So, we have way more than enough food to feed everyone. But unfortunately, as seen in the Sudan example, that distribution may not be able to distribute food everywhere. But a billion people (more then the entire population of Africa) seems really unlikely to me.

Where is the actual math that says it could happen? It sounds like you just pulled the number out of your ass.
Right backatcha. You keep responding with technological solutions to problems that have already occurred. It's like we're riding together on a bus that has just driven over a cliff and as we tumble through the air you turn to me and say "If we strengthen the road barriers and improve the braking system the bus won't crash, or at least it won't crash so hard." Great ideas! After the bus explodes I'm sure they'll make great improvements in braking and barrier technologies. But we're still going to die a firey death!


Are you seriously implying that things aren't getting worse? What you're arguing is akin to saying that because the bus already crashed, there is no need to call 911 and get some ambulances to the scene to help the injured. After all, the bus has already crashed! According to your estimate, a billion people are going to die in this crash so there is no sense in doing anything anyway. It's apparently totally inconceivable that, you know, maybe less people could die or maybe more people could die depending on what we actually, you know, do.

Apparently, you think a billion people are going to die, no less, no more, regardless of what's done. There isn't any actual mathematical basis for the number. But never mind. Pessimism is so much easier then actually trying to figure out what will happen and what's the best course of action.
Passive solar houses. I never suggested the technology doesn't exist to build NEW houses capable of using solar in the winter. I'm saying millions of already existing homes don't have this technology and can't easily be retrofitted for it, and are currently burning fossil fuels for heat and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future because tearing down a 10-year-old house and rebuilding a passive solar house in it's place is not economically feasible. Solar panels on a McMansion is lipstick on an energy pig.
I looked up the stats and it looks like we use about half as much energy to heat homes via fossil fuel as we do to generate electricity, overall (~2,000 TWh vs. 4,000 TWh). The total energy picture is about 25,000 TWh. That's a hell of a lot. But home heating is only 8% of the total. It's obviously more tricky since you need it more in the winter, and more at night, when you have less solar.

But on the other hand, with AC, you use it more in the day, more in the summer, and more where there's more sun. And the thing to remember is that once you build solar infrastructure, it continues to pay dividends. At an average 4 hours/day isolation, it would cost $17 trillion in panel costs to generate that much power. An enormous sum. But keep in mind that it amounts to 14 billion barrels of oil, which at $100/barrel we'd already be paying $1.4 trillion a year for it. $1.7 trillion a year for 10 years, and after that we save that much money. With all the savings we could spend the money figuring out other ways to efficiently heat homes at night. Using hydrogen in place of natural gas, for example, which does not require much of an upgrade.

The problem with arguing it costs too much is that the cost, over the long run, is negative. It just requires the will to invest.

Anyway, look I am not saying that these things will happen, rather that they can happen. And people should be advocating that they do happen, rather than claiming that no one can do anything using numbers (1 billion dead!) that they pull directly out of their asshole.

Even if we can't prevent the earth from heating up by, say, 2°C, that's no reason not to worry about it going up by 4°C, 6°C, 12°C, whatever. And the 1 billion dead seems to have no basis in anything at all.
posted by delmoi at 7:40 AM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


jo3, I gotta say you're reminding me of Denethor here.
posted by philip-random at 9:40 AM on May 28, 2012


I'm not arguing it costs too much. I'm sure the transition will happen, investments in green energy are already happening, slowly. It's great that you are passionate about moving that timeline forward, but just because you want it to move forward faster doesn't mean it will.

Fossil fuel is the worlds most popular energy resource for many reasons.

  • It has a far greater energy density than any other fuel source making it light weight and portable.
  • It has a massive infrastructure supporting both it's production and consumption
  • It is a consistent and reliable energy source that performs the same whether it's night time or day time, cloudy or calm.
  • Even with the cost increases of the last decade, it's cheap in comparison to other energy sources.

    All of these things add up to massive inertia for continued use of fossil fuel as a primary fuel source well into the next few decades at which point we will already be suffering the effects of climate change.

    You want to replace the existing fuel source with sustainable energy resources such as solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, nuclear.

    Solar is becoming quite cost competitive, but several caveats hold it back from mass adoption.
  • Solar is dependent on sunny days. It underperforms on overcast days and produces no electricity at night.
  • As cheap as solar panels have become, it requires expensive battery storage.
  • It is still undergoing rapid development and improvements. I wouldn't want to spend $20,000 on a 2kw solar array with battery storage today when a new technology could come out tomorrow that costs half as much or is twice as efficient.

    Regardless of these problems, it has many obvious benefits including being carbon neutral that will slowly lead to it's eventual wide spread adoption.

    Wind
  • Wind, like solar, is intermittent.
  • Popular in rural areas, but not nearly as efficient, nor as practical in urban areas for residential use.
  • Industrial scale wind turbines are quite expensive and require lots of land and good windy geography to produce enough electricity to make installation economically feasible.
  • Good windy areas are often far away from the consumers of electricity leading to reductions in efficiency due to transmission line loss.
  • Suffers from NIMBY populations and legislators.

    Tidal
  • Still in experimental stages, only a few installations world wide.
  • Expensive to install and maintain. Deep underwater in the ocean means it must be engineered to deal with the corrosive saltwater environment and if something goes wrong you need to send divers or ROVs to repair.

    Geothermal
  • Limited to specific geographical areas, not practical on a global scale.

    Nuclear
  • Fukushima
  • Takes decades to build power plants
  • Uranium is not a renewable resource and there are limited quantities available.
  • Other technologies such as LIFTR require decades of R&D before implementation at scale.
  • Maintenance is expensive
  • Fukushima

    So, a lot of wonderful green, sustainable technologies exist and use is growing and expanding globally. But we're not going to stop burning fossil fuels anytime soon no matter what. And even with the growth in renewables, they're hardly keeping up with increasing energy consumption.

    Current CO2 PPM is 396 and will continue to rise even if drastic reductions are made. But drastic reductions won't be made within a decade because of the massive infrastructure changes that will need to be made and the lack of political will to execute them on a global scale.

    US Population is expected to grow from 308 to 334-350 million by 2020.

    Current production levels of meat contribute between 14 and 22 percent of the 36 billion tons of "CO2-equivalent" greenhouse gases the world produces every year. Producing half a pound of hamburger releases as much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere as driving a 3,000-pound car nearly 10 miles.

    The results suggest that the world will warm by between 1.4C and 3C by the middle of the century, even under a mid-range emissions scenario, where some cuts are enacted. That rate is somewhat faster than that predicted by other climate models.

    Yes, a billion people dead is a bit of hyperbole on my part.

    But my point is very simple. It consists of two parts.

    1. Climate change is inevitable.

    2. Climate change will cause droughts, floods and crop failures that will ultimately lead to starvation of many many people.

    Finally, I'm not saying we shouldn't do all the things you propose. I'm just saying they're ultimately too little too late. We will need to do them regardless and the sooner the better.

  • posted by j03 at 10:02 AM on May 28, 2012


    philip-random, It's called "Fantasy" for a reason.

    Just like believing against all evidence that a sudden moment of global consciousness will make everyone into carbon neutral vegetarians with cars that run on fry oil..

    Well that part could happen, but thinking that it would somehow prevent global warming from happening..

    Pure fantasy.
    posted by j03 at 10:12 AM on May 28, 2012


    It has a far greater energy density than any other fuel source making it light weight and portable.

    False: solar effectively has zero weight.

    It has a massive infrastructure supporting both it's production and consumption

    Other sources could too, once they're built up enough. This is actually an argument to start investing as heavily into other sources as we have in fossil fuels over decades.

    It is a consistent and reliable energy source that performs the same whether it's night time or day time, cloudy or calm.

    All energy sources have conditions and limitations on their use and availability. We users are just insulated away from them for fossil fuels -- they still have to be found, uncovered and processed. And climate change is a hell of an additional limitation.

    Even with the cost increases of the last decade, it's cheap in comparison to other energy sources.

    This is mostly because of the massive efficiency gains that come from it being the most popular energy source for many decades. The increased efficiency and usefulness of solar that have come in the past few years has always existed in potentia, it just took the financial will to find it, whereas fossil fuels have had so many resources poured into them, due to the many long years during which the drawback of pollution was considered insignificant, that the more obvious discoveries and processes relating to it have already been discovered. That's not an argument that we should thus keep pounding away at good ol' coal and oil, instead it's that we should consciously look for alternative sources, if not to halt inevitable damage (by our current understanding of the situation), then to try to limit it as much as is possible.
    posted by JHarris at 11:18 AM on May 28, 2012




    False: solar effectively has zero weight.

    LOL, good one. I suppose that's why we have all those solar cargo jets right?

    That's not an argument that we should thus keep pounding away at good ol' coal and oil,

    Look, I AGREE 1000% WE SHOULD COMPLETELY STOP BURNING FOSSIL FUEL AND SWITCH TO 100% RENEWABLE SOURCES. I'm not defending "good ol' coal and oil" I'm saying..

    Wishing doesn't make it so! Infrastructure doesn't appear overnight! People aren't going to change unless there is economic incentive to do so!

    Renwables are being invested in but it could and should happen faster "if if if if if" our government wasn't owned outright by the oil companies, "if if if if if" the vast majority of people on this planet weren't so myopic and acted in their own best interest, "if if if if if" we weren't in a global economic meltdown.

    I'd be way more impressed if you guys had some brilliant innovative plan to fix all those "if"s.

    We should also feed the hungry and clothe the poor and help the needy and educate our children. But you know, cutting taxes on millionaires and mega-corps is really the more important priority.

    My second point is: Global climate change is going to fuck up this planet anyway! It's too late to fix it! Not saying we shouldn't try! But nothing I'm reading in the reports on climate change give me much reason to be optimistic!

    I'm still waiting for someone to convince me with good data that accelerated CO2 reductions made on a realistic timeline would make any difference whatsoever with regard to the damage done by climate change.
    posted by j03 at 2:02 PM on May 28, 2012


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