Leaked UN Report Shows Failure to Swiftly Act on Climate Change Results in Catastrophic Harm

Over the past week, various sources have leaked information passed on to them by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The reports highlighted stark consequences for continued failure by policy makers to act, providing a general view of rapidly approaching a terrible and very difficult to navigate global crisis.

Dancing on the Edge of a Global Food Crisis

The first weak link for human resiliency to climate change may well be in our ability to continue to supply food to over 7 billion people as weather and sea level rise takes down previously productive agricultural regions. And the leaked UN report hints at a currently stark global food situation in the face of a risk for rising crisis.

For the Mekong Delta, as with more and more agricultural regions around the world, by August of 2014, global warming was already a rampant crop killer.

The Vietnamese government this year made efforts to stem the effects of warming-driven sea level rise and saltwater invasion as 700,000 hectares of rice paddy farmland in one of the world’s most productive regions came under threat. But the efforts have not entirely prevented intrusion and many plants show the tell-tale yellowed leaves that result from salt water leeching into the low-lying freshwater fields that have, for so long, yielded a bounty of grain. Many farmers are now facing losses of up to 50% for crops that used to produce like clockwork year-in, year out. This year, the salt water has intruded as far as 40 to 50 kilometers inland, delivering a substantial blow to the region’s agriculture. But the potential effects, given even the IPCC’s conservative projections of sea level rise in the range of 29 to 82 more centimeters this century, are stark for this and other low-lying agricultural regions.

FAO index August 2014

(UN FAO food price index since 1961. Note the spike since the mid 2000s coinciding with energy price increases and ramping crop destruction due to climate change. The first price spike during 2008 was primarily energy price related, but the second spike during 2011 coincided with a string of some of the worst spates of crop-destroying weather on record. Note that prices remained historically high following the 2011 spike, an indication that global agriculture was having difficulty meeting increased demand, despite the price signal. Image source: FAO.)

Around the world, tales from agricultural zones are much the same — ever-increasing challenges due to climate change driven droughts, floods, fires, spreading diseases, invasive species, and sea level rise. Since mid 2010, these added stresses have driven the United Nation’s FAO food price index — an indicator for global food security — above 200 for four years running. Historically, international insecurity and food-related unrest have sparked when prices hit and maintain above 208. And though the price of food has fallen somewhat from highs nearing 230 during 2011 to a range near 204 during 2014, the ongoing and worsening impacts of climate change mean that new and starker challenges to feeding the world’s 7 billion and growing population are just over the horizon.

Instances of food riots correlated with food price

(Instances of food riots from 2004 to late 2012 correlated with global food prices. Image source: ABC.)

These climate change related impacts are ongoing and, according to recent scientific reports, have resulted in a 3-5 percent loss of annual grain production for maize and wheat and could result in 10 percent total losses in grain production through the early 2020s. But even if agricultural difficulties are somehow delayed through the next decade, the UN report shows climate change eventually winning out by compounding damages that cause:

“slow down [of] economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing poverty traps and create new ones, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger.”

Wide-ranging and Terrible Impacts

Of course, damages from climate change aren’t just limited to crops. More extreme weather, vicious heatwaves, rising seas, ocean acidification and anoxia, loss of glacial and ocean ice, rampant wildfires and other jarring impacts are likely to coincide as warming continues to spike higher.

At 0.85 degrees Celsius and 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit warming since 1880, we already see some rather radical impacts. But, according to IPCC, these impacts are likely to seem paltry if human business as usual emissions continue and hit the IPCC projected level of warming by 5.4 C or 9 F by the end of the 21st Century.

For illustration, IPCC provides the following impacts/risk graph:

IPCC Level of Risk

(Projected risk related to a given level of warming according to IPCC via Bloomberg.)

As a risk-related graph, the analytical function is notably vague. The graph defines risks to unique systems (primarily natural ecosystems or human systems such as agriculture and tourism related to those systems), risks associated with extreme weather (which is self-explanatory), risks associated with distribution of impacts (which generally defines how widespread climate impacts will become), risks associated with global aggregate impacts (this attempts to define the level of net positive or net negative impact, with some positive impacts resulting in an almost neutral net impact early on but overall and increasingly severe net negative aggregate impacts going forward), and risks associated with singular large-scale events (related to catastrophic weather or Earth changes such as glacial outburst floods, methane release, slope collapse and other unforeseen catastrophic, large-scale instances).

For +0.85 C warming above 1880s levels, we can add an imaginary line at +0.25 C above the 1986 to 2005 level. There we find current changes that are now visible and ongoing and that, to us, seem pretty substantial. Along that line, we see risks to some threatened systems from climate change (ramping damage to reefs, agriculture, rainforests etc), a moderate risk of extreme weather events outside the 20th Century norm (and we see these with increasing frequency), we are edging into increasing risks of disruption in some regions (as we’ve seen in Syria, the US Southwest and a shot-gun of other areas), we are edging into a zone where most people are starting to see impacts (though these are still comparatively minor for many, but increasingly bad for a growing minority), and we are at low but rising risk of catastrophic events (major glacial outburst floods, methane release, continent spanning megastorms etc).

And given this context, we can see how much worse things will be with just another 0.25, 0.75, or 1.5 C of warming. By the end of this century, under business as usual, we are at the top of the risk graph and would be witnessing events that many of us would now consider both strange and terrifying.

IPCC researchers add the following chilling and entirely apt caveat (Bloomberg):

“Many aspects of climate change and associated impacts will continue for centuries, even if anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases cease,” the researchers said. “The risk of abrupt and irreversible change increases as the magnitude of the warming increases.”

To this point, I would like to add that some changes are now irreversible, but the worst impacts are not, as yet, unavoidable.

The Terrifying Rate of Human Emission

IPCC now recognizes that human greenhouse gas emissions are at or near worst case levels. Current global volume of all human greenhouse gas emissions is now likely in excess of 50 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) each year. As of the latest IPCC assessment, the emission stood at 49 gigatons CO2e for greenhouse gasses each year by 2010 (more than 13 gigatons carbon). This rate of emission, if continued and/or increased through the end of this century, is enough to trigger Permian Extinction event type conditions over the course of just three centuries or less (the Permian Extinction took tens of thousands of years to elapse) a shock that is unprecedented on geological time-scales.

Global Greenhouse Gas Emission Levels 1970 through 2010

(Global greenhouse gas emissions from 1970 through 2010. Included are human emissions from CO2 through fossil fuel burning, CO2 through land use, Methane emissions, N2O emissions, and fluoride gas emissions. Image source IPCC via Bloomberg.)

This immense volume of emission is probably more than 6-10 times faster than at any period of the geological record. Its vast and violent outburst is worse than any of the great flood basalts of Earth’s long history. And its pace of out-gassing will rapidly overwhelm any of Earth’s carbon sinks, likely turning many of these into sources. The human greenhouse gas emission is, therefore, likely on track to be the worst greenhouse gas disaster the Earth system has ever experienced.

Rapid Mitigation is the Only Moral Option

To this point, IPCC recommends rapid mitigation to prevent the worst possible consequences.

“Risks from mitigation can be substantial, but they do not involve the same possibility of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts as risks from climate change, increasing the benefits from near-term mitigation action,” the authors wrote.

IPCC finds that the cost of mitigation is low so long as policies aim to rapidly reduce energy consumption, rapidly affix existing carbon emitting infrastructure with carbon capture and storage, leave new and unconventional fossil fuel sources in the ground while allowing existing sources to go into decline or be replaced outright by alternative energy, keep current nuclear capacity running until the end of its life expectancy, and provide all replacements and new additions for energy generation through various renewable energy sources (my personal opinion about the carbon capture policy position is that it creates moral hazard by giving the fossil fuel interests wiggle room, but that discussion is for another post).

IPCC model runs show a stark difference between business as usual fossil fuel emission based warming and warming by end century under rapid mitigation:

Warming Scenarios Rapid Mitigation vs Businesss as Usual

(Approximate 1.9 C warming by 2100 under rapid mitigation vs 5.4 C warming under business as usual. Note that potential substantial Arctic and marine carbon store feedbacks are likely not fully taken into account and may require additional mitigation to alleviate. Source: IPCC via ThinkProgress.)

The approximate 3.5 C difference between the rapid mitigation scenario and the business as usual scenario is a glaring contrast between a world in which humans can cope with and reduce the long term impacts of difficult to deal with climate change and a world in which climate change essentially wrecks all future prospects. Between these two choices, there is only one moral and, indeed, sane option.

Overall, the most recent IPCC report is likely to receive broad criticism from climate change deniers for its more direct language. And this is probably a good sign that it is on the right track. In my view, however, the report is still cautious and leaves out a number of key risks, including significant amplifying feedbacks from Arctic carbon stores and other carbon stores, or simply deals with them by implication without further analysis (such as through the use of the term ‘large-scale singular events’ in the graph above). So, in some ways, the report hides actual risks behind obtuse language and dense scientific terminology.

Given the current behavior and mindset of policy-makers, an even more direct approach may well be necessary. That said, the current IPCC report, as alluded to by these leaks, appears to be a far more impactful summation than its previous iterations. Given the very narrow window in which we have to prevent the most severe future harm, such a shift is appreciated and highly appropriate.

Links:

Climate Scientists Spell Out Stark Danger and Immorality of Inaction in New Leaked Report

Climate Trends and Global Crop Production Since 1980

Irreversible Damage From Climate Change

UN Draft Report Lists Unchecked Emissions Risks 

Climate Change Impacts to Mekong Delta

Rising Sea Level Means Trouble For Vietnam’s Rice Farmers

FAO World Food Price Index

Hat Tip to TDGS

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52 Comments

  1. China is going through its worst drought in 63 years.
    SW USA ag is in big trouble
    Australia is estimating 1000 mice per hectare in South Australia and Victoria. The problem there is that it soon will be time to sow grain.

    I cannot see how prices won’t rise soon (more than they have already).
    That is possibly a curse and a blessing in that it might drive people to action. Right now it is just not impacting the average person enough for them to demand change. We have people such as the IPCC who are seeing the future through science and signs. But for the average person that is just theory.

    So in some ways I hope it gets bad quickly, so that the average Joe will demand something be done. Suffer now so what comes later might be eased slightly. Its times like these that you think maybe Plato was right, democracy is not so great.

    Reply
    • Part of the problem is that rising food prices drive demand so more land is cleared for farm use. This year we had record or near record acres planted, so there’s a lot of chasing that higher price margin. In an unlimited world, this wouldn’t be a problem…

      In this way, climate change compounds the land use situation. But there is some level of innovation going on. And the higher price is just one driver. People don’t want to go hungry and nations don’t want hungry people, so there’s a lot of effort.

      But at some point, the situation breaks down as you end up in a resource crunch. In microcosm, you can see this happening in many places. As an example, what would the global food market look like if California wasn’t using ground water to artificially extend growing through a terrible drought there? And how many more droughts before that option is exhausted?

      Reply
      • Yes, and as “…land is cleared for farm use.” I think of the tremendous amount of arable land that has been paved over for roads, shopping malls, parking lots, etc.
        In another vein, many of these areas are urban heat islands, or regional pockets of hot climates. Climate Central issued a report of American cities which create, absorb, and hold extra heat compared to surrounding non, or less urbanized, landscape.

        Our analysis of summer temperatures in 60 of the largest U.S. cities found that:

        57 cities had measurable urban heat island effects over the past 10 years. Single-day urban temperatures in some metro areas were as much as 27°F higher than the surrounding rural areas, and on average across all 60 cities, the maximum single-day temperature difference was 17.5°F.

        Cities have many more searing hot days each year. Since 2004, 12 cities averaged at least 20 more days a year above 90°F than nearby rural areas. The 60 cities analyzed averaged at least 8 more days over 90°F each summer compared to adjacent rural areas.

        More heat can increase ozone air pollution. All 51 cities with adequate data showed a statistically significant correlation between higher daily summer temperatures and bad air quality (as measured by ground-level ozone concentrations). Temperatures are being forced higher by increasing urbanization and manmade global warming, which could undermine the hard-won improvements in air quality and public health made over the past few decades.

        In two thirds of the cities analyzed (41 of 60), urbanization and climate change appear to be combining to increase summer heat faster than climate change alone is raising regional temperatures. In three quarters (45 of 60) of cities examined, urbanized areas are warming faster than adjacent rural locations.

        The top 10 cities with the most intense summer urban heat islands (average daily urban-rural temperature differences) over the past 10 years are:

        Las Vegas (7.3°F)
        Albuquerque (5.9°F
        Denver (4.9°F)
        Portland (4.8°F)
        Louisville (4.8°F)
        Washington, D.C. (4.7°F)
        Kansas City (4.6°F)
        Columbus (4.4°F)
        Minneapolis (4.3°F)
        Seattle (4.1°F)

        On average across all 60 cities, urban summer temperatures were 2.4°F hotter than rural temperatures.
        http://www.climatecentral.org/news/urban-heat-islands-threaten-u.s.-health-17919
        Tallyho.

        Reply
  2. Let us now pray at the altar of technology that it might mercifully deliver us from the disaster we have used it to cause!

    Reply
  3. Tom

     /  August 29, 2014

    vardarac: great comment.

    Robert: thanks for this informative post. The IPCC was ham-strung from the start by its reports being “vetted” through politicians, and thus watered down to ineffective. As we see below, nothing is changing from business as usual, despite all this climate calamity we’re causing.

    Normal people, upon seeing clear evidence that we’re ‘going the wrong way’ or doing something wrong would change direction and try something else.

    Nope, not “modern” humanity!

    http://blogdredd.blogspot.com/2014/08/deepwater-horizon-keeps-on-killing.html

    [quote]
    After years of preparation, ExxonMobil and OAO Rosneft have received the
    go-ahead to begin drilling a $700 million Arctic Ocean oil well in the Kara Sea. The well, which will be Russia’s most northerly, is to be the first of as many as 40 offshore wells planned for the Arctic by 2018.

    The well will access a geological formation roughly the size of the city of Moscow. The formation is expected to contain roughly 9 billion barrels of oil.

    Speaking from the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, Russian President Vladmir Putin lauded ExxonMobil, calling the company Russia’s “old and reliable [dirty oil] partner.”

    [read the rest]

    Reply
    • Harry

       /  August 29, 2014

      Statoil, Shell et al have already had their fingers burned, attempting to drill in the Arctic. Even if Exxon and Rosneft succeed, their capex costs are likely to be higher than the market can bear. Steve Kopits’ talk is highly enlghtening, if you haven’t seen it already:

      Reply
      • Well, let’s hope so.

        Reply
      • I’ve seen this talk before…

        Yet one more oil industry guy proclaiming the end of oil. And we’ve been hoping for a start to the end of oil since 2005 at least. Still hasn’t materialized.

        So why do I get this sneaking suspicion that the oil guys would rather have us talking about peak oil being the problem and not climate change?

        For my part, peak oil couldn’t come soon enough. Bring it on. We should be pushing for peak oil, not fearing it.

        Reply
      • wili

         /  August 31, 2014

        Good points, Robert.

        From a narrative perspective, oil men (they’re mostly men) have seen themselves as the Heroes of modern civilization, which they pretty much where. Oil facilitated humans zipping across the globe to interact with different cultures, made possible modern ag and the ‘green’ revolution that feed billions, and brought about all sort of other modern ‘wonders.’

        Now suddenly, faced with the possibility that they will turn instantly from the Great Heroes directly into the Arch-Villains of the big story, they (many, at least) grasp willingly at an opportunity to be instead the Victim (and to some extent, still, the Ever-More-Desperate Hero):

        “Poor us–The oil we make our living from and that we so valiantly offer up to the world so it can pursue its dreams, that life blood of modern civilization is running dry, and we must ever more bravely go to the ends of the earth to try to barely keep ahead of an inevitably downward slope of Hubbard’s fateful curve…”

        The need to not see themselves as the ultimate Villains–as drug kingpins pushing their addictive elixir on a pathetically hooked oil-junky society–also is part of what prompts many of them into deep denial of climate science. (Obviously, raw economics are a huge factor here, too, especially for companies and the industry as a whole; but I think it is a mistake to reduce everything to mere economics, especially for individuals.)

        Reply
        • Great points, wili.

          Opinion and human nature drives economics as do practical forces on the ground. We often get the economic reality we believe in for these reasons — together with the inevitable unintended consequences. It’s one reason why so many investors are still being duped into pouring boatloads of capital into fossil fuel based projects. It’s mysticism and voodoo. If we were practical we’d have driven the capital to renewables and sustainability/reduced materials consumption/population restraint long ago. Yet the investors have somehow been convinced that the only practical thing is to throw their money at an ultimate failure. Part of the reason for this is the myth that oil is at the center of all ‘good things’ modern. And part of the reason is the myth that ‘inevitable doom’ falls upon those who lose access to oil/fossil fuels.

          To me, this is bunk on top of bunk. Continuing to burn fossil fuels is what’s causing the problem. And, overall, what we’re dealing with is a resource curse situation where continued dependence will wreck economies more than helping them — even more so as time drags on.

    • With the Russians moving into Ukraine, I honestly can’t see how we are letting Exxon partner with Rosneft. In any case, anyone looking at the project and not seeing climate change game over has either no marbles or no scruples.

      As for the tech… Though the members of the church of all tech is bad have labeled me a pagan, I continue to support the tech that helps solve the current problem, while also supporting broader issues like reducing consumption of materials and energy and bending down the population curve long term. And my opinion remains that the pure anti-tech meme supports the fossil fuel interests by default — denying any solution except the one people can’t or won’t take part in — going back to the Stone Age.

      We are, after all, having this discussion on the internet😉

      Reply
      • Apneaman

         /  August 29, 2014

        I think there are very few who think all tech is bad Robert. The problem is the many who think all tech is good and to suggest otherwise makes you a Luddite. It’s just another way to dismiss all opposition to their “vision”. I don’t consider you one of those. Most techno-utopians are looking for tech to replace fossil fuels and then carry on life as before. They don’t want to know or hear that things will never be the same. In reality, tech is a tool that at this point can only prevent suffering. It’s hard to back people who want to take something that could be of great piratical use to many just to fulfill their fantasies. Do you want Google glasses, endless apps and the internet or do you want flush toilets and sewage systems? Losing the internet would suck, but without toilets, within days the sickness starts then death for many. Time is running out and there will be only one chance to choose how it is going to be used.

        Reply
        • I’m for problem solving and reducing harm. The whole market based ever increasing consumption model is, to me, part of the problem. So I’m not supporting renewables as a means to perpetuate that kind of nonsense. I’m supporting them as a means to provide options for individuals, communities, regions, businesses and nations to jettison fossil fuel related industry. The decentralized nature of renewables, especially solar, also tends to fragment the kind of dominance based/monopolistic structures that make economies so dependent on the old growth model. Although taking down that level of centralization is another dragon entirely😉

      • Robert, that part about Exxon partnering with Rosneft I can’t seem to find. A few months ago you said it was a $500bn deal to exploit the clathrates in the ESAS (Gods forbid that should happen).

        Reply
    • Harry

       /  August 30, 2014

      We’re not hitting peak oil per se but rather financial limits which make its continued extraction impossible. The oil majors are in effect starting to self-liquidate, so, Robert, you will get your wish! I wish I could share your faith that something good is possible on the other side. I fear it will be messy.

      Reply
      • Peak fossil fuels is better than climate change. Another oil shock will bring more renewable innovation forward, will reduce energy consumption and will drive measures for energy independence and sustainability. My opinion is that we would have been far better off with less investment in fossil fuels. So the market whip lash will hurt more than it would have without the harmful laissez faire that has dominated for so long.

        We have these predictions ongoing, but I’m of the ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ mindset. So you could call me cautiously optimistic. And yes, the disruption would be painful, but climate change is worse.

        Reply
  4. Robert, I thought you might like to see this updated figure plotting the FAO Index against incidences of food rioting around the world….

    Reply
  5. Tom

     /  August 29, 2014

    Robert, you might like this:

    http://www.earth-policy.org/data_highlights/2014/highlights48

    Geothermal Power Approaches 12,000 Megawatts Worldwide

    In 2013, world geothermal electricity-generating capacity grew 3 percent to top 11,700 megawatts across 24 countries. Although some other renewable energy technologies are seeing much faster growth—wind power has expanded 21 percent per year since 2008, for example, while solar power has grown at a blistering 53 percent annual rate—this was geothermal’s best year since the 2007-08 financial crisis.

    [read the rest]

    Reply
    • Thanks for this, Tom.🙂

      The developed countries are both reducing consumption (slowly) and shifting to renewables (generally more rapidly). We let the genie out of the bottle when someone decided it was a good idea to try to help the rest of the world ‘develop’ using chiefly coal, oil, and gas… Add in a shift to industrialized farming and more meat intensive ag and you end up with the trouble we’re now in.

      Part of my issue, at least with the leaked reports is that they’re not fully taking into account the impact of industrial farming/meat based ag into the equation. If we manage to solve the obvious ff issue we still need to deal with the trouble inherent in supporting billions and billions of livestock animals, many of them ruminants. We count about 20 percent of the CO2e emissions there even after you take out fossil fuel inputs, though some of that is due to the increased land use problem inherent in keeping such a large livestock population.

      There are some folk pushing biogas + CCS, for which I am a bit leery — possibly due to my own moral compunctions RE mass consumption of animals in general and also just looking at the heavy burden to land, soil, and oceans.

      Reply
  6. Loni

     /  August 29, 2014

    Robert, welcome back from your, I believe camping trip. First off some old biz. My last comment to you used the analogy of a “log jamb”, which required the expert eye of, “an old guy”…………, yeah, sorry ’bout that, although you bravely brushed it aside and marched on answering my question in succinctly exquisite terms. I shant be so careless again.

    In terms of crops, is our current commercialized seed system, e.g. Monsanto business style, the best to handle the changes coming our way? Is there a better less centralized system we need to be looking at? I know this may not be in your “area of expertise”, but have you come across this discussion?
    Again thanks and my apologize.

    Reply
    • My personal option is that the centralized dominance of seeds by Monsanto compounds the problem by putting gross profits ahead of feeding human beings. GMO has been more about providing a means for this corporate monstrosity to run smaller farmers out of business than it has to add food security. In fact, there is a clear case where GMO foods acts as invasive species by crowding out other helpful and often more nutritious food plants. GMO is also a more extreme version of mono cropping, which is not a good option for food security.

      It is well established that GMO foods are less healthy foods. And this should be a no brained when one considers that the primary GMO vehicle thus far has been those plants that are resistant to organophosphate (essentially modified chemical weapons) based pesticide. So the plants are loaded up with pesticide and guess what ends up in your food? That’s right, traces chemical warfare agents.

      Could we feed the world without round-up ready wheat and GMO corn and rice? Absolutely, especially when/if you reduce meat consumption and free up land in that fashion.

      Reply
  7. RWood

     /  August 29, 2014

    Not moral, not sane:
    At FDL
    Obama Opened Floodgates for Offshore Fracking in Recent Gulf of Mexico Lease
    By: Steve Horn Thursday August 28, 2014 6:25 pm

    Reply
    • Let’s see…

      Who would I rather have? Maniacal drill baby drill republicans or Obama who is trying to regulate carbon through the EPA and pushed legislation, killed by republicans to introduce carbon pricing?

      Am I happy about Obama’s sometimes failures on fracking and ambiguity over Keystone? Absolutely not. Would I rather have a pure climate hawk in office? In a perfect world yes.

      I see Obama, on a scale of 1-10 for dealing with these problems as somewhere around a 5-6 — probably more helpful than destructive, but sometimes destructive, and nowhere near doing enough to solve the problem. The republicans are somewhere pushing negative 10 — or the ‘let’s drive off the climate cliff as fast as possible and pretend nothing is happening’ policy approach.

      I see a lot of attacks on Obama from you, Wood. So I wonder if the issue of concern for you is more to undermine Obama/democrats who generally support climate action, but have failures at points or to overall highlight policy failures?

      Given the communication style and laser focus on Obama, I sense the former, which leads me to believe this is politically motivated demonization.

      If we were responsible, we could say that we support Obama’s attempts to regulate carbon despite stiff opposition, but these other pro fracking measures are counter-productive to the overall goal of reducing emissions.

      Reply
  8. Nancy

     /  August 29, 2014

    Reply to Harry who posted the talk by Mr. Kopits:

    What a fascinating talk, even for someone like me who has no background in economics or business. I’m glad to know it’s getting more difficult to drill for oil and I hope that oil prices rise significantly as a result. My question to him would be about algae oil. There is a company (in Florida, I think) that is making great strides in ramping up algae oil production. They are so successful with their method of creating algae that they are regularly hacked by the Chinese to steal their formula. If algae fuel can be produced in large enough quantities to provide fuel for the transportation fleet in the US and worldwide, will that impact the big oil companies enough to shut them down? Especially if the price for algae fuel is less per gallon than gas. From what I read, algae fuel is carbon neutral. Robert, any comment? Thanks.

    Reply
    • Like any energy source, algae based biofuel has its negative impacts. However, the level of harm caused by these biofuels is far less than base fossil fuel burning. As the fuel simply recycles carbon in the growing/burning process, it is carbon neutral. If used with carbon capture and storage, the process is carbon negative.

      I generally support algae based biofuel as a replacement fuel for oil/gas and I believe it would be very wise for present day fossil fuel companies to shift far more resources than they already have into it.

      As for oil getting more difficult to access. Yes, that’s true. But, sadly, the technology for now is keeping pace.

      Reply
      • Ken Barrows

         /  August 29, 2014

        I’d say finance, not technology is keeping pace:

        http://www.willistonherald.com/most_recent/bakken-future-is-bright/article_4ebec138-bff9-11e3-b9ca-0019bb2963f4.html

        https://www.dmr.nd.gov/oilgas/stats/statisticsvw.asp

        It seems marginal cost to marginal revenue at $100/barrel is about 10:1. Technology is not keeping up fast enough to keep the extracting profitable; finance is the enabler.

        Reply
        • Chicken and egg. The tech stays on the table or in the lab until there’s money to finance it…

          But good point, so long as there’s scarcity, there’s finance driving new tech to solve the scarcity problem. How do you break that? Break fossil fuel reliance by adding in other energy sources (renewables), which lower the overall incentive to keep extracting.

          Cutting the 650 billion dollar per year fossil fuel subsidy globally would also help.

      • Robert, why did Exxon pull out from developing biogas after sinking $100m into it? Watching Algenol’s development has been interesting but it worries me that an oil giant doesn’t see feasibility, especially after a heavy investment.

        Reply
        • The strategy has been to double down on high price oil and to eliminate competition from alternative sources. The majors have bet that they can keep the oil price high while continuing to dominate the market, so why introduce a new fuel source which will lower the price of oil and cut off their marginal investments?

          The oil majors pulled out of other forms of alternative energy development as well. And all these moves were major mistakes, in my view. But it makes a sick kind of sense if you are pushing for single fuel domination, which is what these big corps are doing.

          Someone else will pick up the slack where the majors left off. They’ll do it better and cheaper and they won’t have an incentive to sabotage the fuel source.

    • Harry

       /  August 30, 2014

      Nancy, the situation in a nutshell is that the price of oil is too low for the oil majors (and some oil producing states) but too high for the wider economy. We are caught here in the noose of diminishing returns. It is interesting to note that the price of oil has actually fallen of late, despite chaos in Iraq and Libya. it seems that we are at the limits of what the global economy can bear. If the price does ever spike upwards it will only do so briefly because those high prices will then push the economy into contraction once more. I highly recommend Gail Tverberg’s Finite World blog if you want to learn more about the ramifications of this.

      I am no apologist for the oil industry but we have a built a civilisation that relies on oil for the bulk of our agriculture and transportation. I understand that this is climate-science blog, and an excellent one at that, so I don’t want to shift focus, but our predicament is multi-layered and there are no easy solutions. I’ll leave it at that!

      Reply
      • Oil becomes less important as it becomes more expensive and as the marginal costs increase. The reason for this is it drives replacement strategies. The problem is that the producers are entering a short-term glut situation due to newly available unconventional oil supplies.

        The falling price of oil is actually due to this glut — pushed by the fracking boom and by overall increasing oil production in North America. From the point of view of climate change — a very bad situation.

        In any case, we have structural support for continued expanding oil production through the exploitation of unconventional fuels.

        Gail has been calling peak oil since 2008. Hasn’t happened yet. We have more than enough oil, gas and coal to wreck the climate and we need to stop burning it as fast as possible. Fin.

        As for what we can do without oil — probably far more than what many peak oilers say we can do. We have replacement energy sources that are less expensive now — as is currently being witnessed in Hawaii.

        Reply
  9. If the peak oilers are correct, we will see peak carbon emissions roundabout 2030 or so, and the gradually decrease (probably in an S-curve fashion) until we return to the pre-industrial level of ghg emissions in about 2100. Would that be sufficient to ward off disaster?

    And you said that if the FF companies manage to exploit the methane clathrates, we will become like Venus. What length of time would it require BAU for the feedbacks to kick in to cause that to happen?

    Reply
    • It was a little bit of hyperbole.

      That said, there are estimated to be about 5 trillion tons of carbon locked up in all the ocean clathrate stores globally. If you add that to total fossil fuel reserve carbon including brown coal you end up with about 20 trillion tons of carbon.

      Previous hothouse events were triggered when an estimated 1 to 5 trillion tons of carbon hit the atmosphere. Clathrates alone, if they’re all burned, is enough to put us in the top range of this estimate.

      For reference, we’ve dumped about 600 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere so far.

      Burning all the fossil fuels probably gets us to a wet stratosphere and a hothouse extinction like nothing we’ve seen before. Models seem to indicate that we probably don’t hit Venus type conditions, but if we did, it would take millenia. In any case, it’s a disaster never seen before if we simply wait for all the fossil fuels to be burned.

      Reply
      • Well, that is “good” to know — no Venus syndrome but we still get the Mother of All Extinctions.

        Now, if we can get the fracking bubble to collapse, and the finance community shies away from unconventional fuel, we just might avoid said extinction even if we continue BAU until resource extractsbility constraints do it in.

        Reply
      • wili

         /  August 31, 2014

        “For reference, we’ve dumped about 600 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere so far.”
        Thanks for that figure. Do you have a source so I can use it in other fora?

        Reply
        • The IPCC’s 5th assessment report shows 531 gigatons carbon burned by 2011 since 1880.

          http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/#.UmY-FJTF1pe

          We now dump about another 10 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year bringing us to 560-564 gigatons approximate by this year.

          I add in the additional carbon emission since the 1700s to get to 600 billion tons approximate.

          In any case, the official number since 1880 is probably in the range of 560 to 564 billion tons by late 2014.

      • PS That 15 trillion seems to me a huge overestimate, especially in the recoverable resources and estimated reserves for coal and unconventional oil and gas.

        Gail Tverberg has problems with the IPCC global warming BAU estimates, she thinks the panel just assumed that BAU will continue and will not be constrained by fossil fuel availability, or economically feasible extractability.

        http://ourfiniteworld.com/2014/04/11/oil-limits-and-climate-change-how-they-fit-together/

        Reply
        • Ed–

          When you add in brown coal — whose reserve base is many times that of traditional coal, tar and oil sands, and fracked and hydrate gas, the IPCC figures look far more realistic.

  10. Rex Wahl

     /  August 29, 2014

    Better model with paleoclimate observations suggest bleak future for the SW US.
    http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00282.1
    As analysis and data improves, notice the picture (probabilities) gets worse not better. And in my state they are contemplating new dams on free rivers, still! Likely those rosy projections of yield are based on historic data. Business as usual is not going to get us there.

    Reply
  11. Colorado Bob

     /  August 29, 2014

    Drought Conditions Wreak Havoc On Latin America

    LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: “The Worst Drought In The Last 30 Years Ignites 47,000 Forest Fires In Bolivia.” “Government Begins Emergency Water Rationing In Venezuela Amid Drought.” Here’s another one – “Colombia Drought Triggers Clashes, Some Communities Say They Haven’t Seen Any Rain For Two Years.” And the final one – “Desperately Seeking Solutions To The Worst Drought In Decades In Brazil.”

    http://www.npr.org/2014/08/29/344193332/drought-conditions-wreak-havoc-on-latin-america

    Reply
  12. hardly anyone among climate change activists even breathes a whisper of THIS:

    “When emissions from land use and land use change are included, the livestock sector accounts for 9 per cent of CO2 deriving from human-related activities, but produces a much larger share of even more harmful greenhouse gases. It generates 65 per cent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2. Most of this comes from manure.

    And it accounts for respectively 37 per cent of all human-induced methane (23 times as warming as CO2), which is largely produced by the digestive system of ruminants, and 64 per cent of ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain.

    With increased prosperity, people are consuming more meat and dairy products every year, the report notes. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes.

    The global livestock sector is growing faster than any other agricultural sub-sector. It provides livelihoods to about 1.3 billion people and contributes about 40 per cent to global agricultural output. For many poor farmers in developing countries livestock are also a source of renewable energy for draft and an essential source of organic fertilizer for their crops.

    Livestock now use 30 per cent of the earth’s entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including 33 per cent of the global arable land used to producing feed for livestock, the report notes. As forests are cleared to create new pastures, it is a major driver of deforestation, especially in Latin America where, for example, some 70 per cent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing.

    At the same time herds cause wide-scale land degradation, with about 20 per cent of pastures considered degraded through overgrazing, compaction and erosion. This figure is even higher in the drylands where inappropriate policies and inadequate livestock management contribute to advancing desertification.

    The livestock business is among the most damaging sectors to the earth’s increasingly scarce water resources, contributing among other things to water pollution from animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and the pesticides used to spray feed crops.”

    http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?newsID=20772&#.VAKGq8VdXTq

    for anyone who would like to learn more, please watch the movie COWSPIRACY

    https://www.facebook.com/notes/annie-mond/cowspiracy-the-sustainability-secret-urgently-important-powerful-documentary-mov/10152888644568149

    Reply
    • Don’t have enough money to buy solar panels? Don’t have enough money to buy an EV? Want to help deal with climate change?

      Go vegan, ride a bicycle wherever you can, and take the train instead of flying.

      Reply
  13. Dear Robert, the FAO food price index is a cynical trick used to help commodity and food trading markets camouflage true food prices. The FAO’s basket of agricultural commodity quotations use international trading prices as the input. These are not the prices found in consumer retail markets nor even the prices in wholesale markets in Asia, Africa and elsewhere. Since the end of the second world war there has been a struggle for control of food and seed, and the means of agricultural production (the Green Revolution was one such battle, the push for GM is another). Food as a foreign policy weapon is the reasoning behind what is innocuously called ‘climate smart agriculture’ now. None of it will work even with low to moderate climate change and will certainly not in the conditions you have described.

    Reply
  1. Leaked UN Report Shows Failure to Swiftly Act on Climate Change Results in Catastrophic Harm | Superiorecotour's Blog

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