Monday, November 9, 2009

Because I Haven't Gotten Extremely Depressed About Global Warming in the Last Couple of Weeks...

The British government recently came out with a new interactive map, posted by The Guardian here, that shows the likely impacts of global warming, assuming our species continues our sit-on-our-asses-till-we're-all-fried approach to this looming catastrophe:

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Says The Guardian:
The map was launched to coincide with the London Science Museum's new Prove it climate change exhibition by David Miliband, foreign secretary and his brother Ed Miliband, energy and climate change secretary. It comes in advance of key political talks on climate change in December in Copenhagen, where British officials will push for a new global deal to curb emissions.

The Miliband brothers said a new deal needed to be strong enough to limit global temperature rise to 2C, although many involved in the negotiations privately believe this to be impossible. A joint press release from the government and the Met Office released to promote the map says the government is aiming for an agreement that limits climate change "as far as possible to 2C".
The map presumes a global average rise of 4 degrees Celsius, a disastrous scenario which is nonetheless where we are very probably headed (as the UK Met Office says itself). That is, again, assuming that we don't take significant action to thwart such a catastrophe.

I personally consider such action highly unlikely for a number of reasons, which is really too bad, because this forecast is a terrible one. It calls for temperatures to be 6-7C warmer across most of the continental US, for instance. That's about 10-13 degrees Fahrenheit; that's like the difference between spring and summer. The "hottest days of the year could become as much as 10-12C (18-22F) warmer [!] over eastern North America," says the map; it's even worse for the Arctic, where a rise of 15C is so off-the-charts huge that's it's just impossible to predict what sort of effects it will have; beyond the prospect of a positive feedback from Arctic methane release, it's really not much fun to think about it anymore.

I will just stand up on my little digital soapbox here and make the point, not for the first time, that this dystopic future is the price we're paying for our cheeseburgers and our SUVs. It is really a profoundly, spectacularly, stupidly high price to pay for a lifestyle that, frankly, is not all that great to begin with. But no doubt this lesson will sink in... oh, right about the time that Bangladesh does.

Via The Map Room.


Andrew B said...

"price we're paying for our cheeseburgers"


The idea that cows contribute to global warming doesn't compute.

Any methane or CO2 cows emit comes from eating the carbon in green plants. Green plants have carbon because they've taken CO2 out of the atmosphere to grow it with. This is the essence of a closed system, with no net contributions. Same thing goes for people. People being alive are carbon neutral (ignoring technology), because any CO2 emitted must have originally come from CO2 taken in by plants which we consumed or some animal we ate consumed.

"our SUVs"

The vast majority of carbon emissions are from electricity generation, not driving SUV's. The difference between driving a car and driving an SUV in carbon emissions is pretty negligible, especially considering that SUV's generally have a higher occupancy.

If you really want to "do something" for the planet in this regard, start living like the Amish.

Gus SNarp said...

@Andrew B:

You have committed the fallacy of false dilemma. We don't have to choose between living like the Amish and just ignoring global warming. We can reduce carbon emissions without giving up all technology.

Why do cows matter? Because in order to raise enough cows for McDonald's to be able to afford to throw away hamburgers while keeping prices low, trees (which store way more carbon than grass) have to be cut down to make room for the cows, who recycle any vegetation into atmospheric carbon. Left as forest, or even grassland, more of the carbon would be sequestered. And that doesn't count the carbon in fertilizers and fossil fuels involved in growing the grass that also ends up in cow flatulence.

As for cars vs. SUVs, high occupancy is generally meaningless. Most cars on the road have one occupant, no matter what type of car they are. Most modern SUVs are not even built to be used as real utility vehicles, they are luxury cars that never go offroad and rarely carry a load larger than one person.

Just for fun, lets take the difference between a 2010 Prius and a 2009 For Expedition (they seem not to be making on for 2010, wonder why?). To take this to the extreme, if every car on the road were a prius, there would be 3.5 Billion tons less CO2 per year compared to if every car were an Expedition. Now don't go nuts on me and say that's not realistic, of course it's not. But when one of the worst cars in terms of carbon emissions emits 3 times more carbon in a year than one of the best, that's hardly a "pretty negligible" difference, given that there are 469 million registered passenger vehicles in the U.S.

Chachy said...

Yeah, it's what Gus said re: cheeseburgers. Also, methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, and cow guts are like little methane factories. According to this, "livestock is responsible for 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gas problem." And according to the UN, "Rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars."

As for cars, SUVs are worse than Priuses. But Priuses are definitely worse than bicycles or trains or walking, and a world where everyone drove a Prius (or more realistically, a Tata Nano) would probably still be one facing catastrophic global warming. This is another one of those things where human psychology just doesn't fit well with the challenge of global warming: people buy Priuses and because it's branded as green, there's a sense that you've done something good for the environment. Really, it's just just less bad, though - you're still contributing to the problem. What's needed are far more extreme changes in the way society is organized. For instance, suburbia is out. It just is. I don't care how much you like your big lawns and strip malls, endlessly sprawling suburbia is just not compatible with a sustainably livabe world. But when do you suppose that opinion will actually be in a position to drive policy? Well, catastrophe at some scale is at this point pretty much a foregone conclusion, and we haven't done a damn thing about it so far; so who knows how bad it will have to get before we start to give a crap, let alone are prepared to significantly alter our lifestyles in order to accrue (enormous) benefits that are generations in the future.

Andrew B said...


"We can reduce carbon emissions without giving up all technology."

If carbon emission nirvana was the days prior to the industrial revolution, than any industrial activity involving fossil fuels inevitably contributes to global warming. Its merely a question of the speed with which it occurs, not the occurance (accepting global warming as true).

Reducing emissions 50% still leaves emissions 50% over the baseline neutral, so CO2 in the atmosphere is still growing no matter how much we cut emissions unless we cut to essentially zero.

It follows that the only way to end anthropomorophic global warming is to give up all but the most minor use of fossil fuels.

Andrew B said...

"trees have to be cut down to make room for the cows, who recycle any vegetation into atmospheric carbon. Left as forest, or even grassland, more of the carbon would be sequestered."

Umm ... the carbon is also sequestered as hamburgers in landfills, meat on the butt of a cow, or fat around your belly.

The only emission of carbon possible here is if the forest is burnt down. But forests burnt down naturally all the time, and in the America's at least, the Indians were constantly burning the forests prior to the advent of Europeans, giving them the park-like appearance noted by the early colonists, so its questionable if purposefully burning forests to make room for cows while simultaneously fighting other forest fires really causes a major net increase in carbon output vs. the stasis present in 1600.

"ends up in cow flatulence"

Again, cows cannot emit any carbon they did not first eat, and what they ate pulled carbon out of the atmosphere to grow. The entire process must be carbon neutral because cows do not create carbon ex nihilo.

Andrew B said...


According to this, "livestock is responsible for 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gas problem." And according to the UN, "Rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars."

That just shows you how scientifically illiterate these people are, or they expect us to be.

Again, cows do not create carbon ex nihilo. Anything they emit has to come from carbon they ate, and the plants they eat pull carbon from the atmosphere. The entire process is carbon neutral at worst, and a carbon sink at best, as (obviously) carbon is stored in the mass of flesh and bones making up a cow, and some of this carbon is eventually returned to long term storage in the ground (via excrement and the fate of remains of the cow after death).

Andrew B said...

Think carefully about this.

All global warming is the result of the release of carbon that had been previously stored in mass reservoirs (i.e. fossil fuels).

For purposes of evaluation, the earth is closed system as far as carbon goes. We do not have net inputs of carbon from beyond our atmosphere. It follows from being a closed system that carbon can only increase in one part of the system by being released from another. And the only major storehouse of carbon is fossil fuels.

Chachy said...

Methane, Andrew! The cows are methane factories, which is a for more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. So is nitrous oxide, which comes from their manure.

As for your comment that we need to approach zero carbon emissions, I pretty much agree. But of course that doesn't mean we necessarily have to return to a pre-industrial organization of society, since these days we have fun things like wind and solar power that can make up some of the deficit. Nonetheless, as you can see I'm a pessimist about us actually embarking on a zero-emissions path anytime soon.

Gus Snarp said...

I think you are both still guilty of false dilemma. Yes, we need to reduce carbon emissions a lot. Yes, it would be preferable to eliminate them entirely. It's also not going to happen. We have a choice between doing as much as we can and doing nothing. I prefer doing as much as we can.

Gus Snarp said...

@Andrew - In many places the forests ARE burned down to clear land for cattle grazing. Yes, cow's bodies contain a lot of carbon obtained from eating grass (though like humans most of the mass of a cow is water), but what you are ignoring is that cows are very inefficient at converting grass to body mass. They are even more inefficient at converting plant matter to human body mass, as opposed to a vegetarian diet. Too much of the grass cows consume DOES end up as methane. You are right that most of that carbon comes from the atmosphere (and watch this, I'm going to come full circle to cover a couple of other arguments), but forests ARE much better carbon sinks than feeding grass to cows because of the inefficiency of cows. This matters because, as you said the carbon at issue in global warming comes from fossil fuels, and we can't entirely eliminate our use of fossil fuels in the near term. So, a world with more forests (and other carbon sinks) is one way we can approach a carbon neutral world without entirely stopping consumption of fossil fuels. Burning down vast swaths of rain forest to clear land for cattle grazing is an issue. To sum up: eating beef requires far more land under cultivation than a vegetarian diet. That land could otherwise be a carbon sink. Cows are not a carbon sink because of their terrible inefficiency.

Gus Snarp said...

@Andrew - I do like how you actually understand the key point of global warming - that it is the net gain in carbon in the atmosphere due to consumption of fossil fuels that is at the root of the problem. I'm still not sure I get why you question global warming when you seem to get the basic science. Now I suppose I have opened the door for a lot of deceptive use of statistics pretending to be science trying to refute the overwhelming evidence supporting anthropogenic global warming.

Andrew B said...


Methane has a half life of 7 years in the atmosphere before it preciptates out as water and CO2 in the equation:

CH4 + 2 O2 = 2 H2O + CO2

CO2 has a half life of about 100 years in the atmosphere. If there is a global warming problem CO2, and its long life in the atmosphere is the source, not short lived methane.

Andrew B said...


Why do I doubt?

Firstly, the weather reporter can't get the forecast right for a couple of days from now, even in just generalities. Its very difficult to believe generalized weather forecast for 50-100 years from now. Its seems quite hubristic to both claim to know this with certainty and to claim that humanity can utterly transform the climate of the planet.

Second, having worked with weather data in engineering (specifically rainfall), I don't believe that we have any idea what is "normal" "average" or "expected" is when it comes to natural phenomena from our 120-130 years of records.

Gus Snarp said...

Andrew - It's climate, not weather. Weathermen try to tell you if it is going to rain on Thursday. Climate scientists care about whether global average temperatures will trend higher than they do now.

We have a lot more than 120 years of records. Something global warming deniers really like to do is use the wrong time frame for any given question to attempt to sow doubt. We have ice cores that give us a very good idea of global temperature regimes for a very long time.

Andrew B said...


We have interpretations of ice core data (or tree ring data) based on various theories, and none of which can of course be verified, because we do not have actual historical records by which do to accomplish that. Its like the claims of people who try to explain and interpret human history prior to writing - all manner of wonderful and interesting speculation which could never be empirically verified.

True science can be empirically verified in repeatable experiments. We cannot empirically verify theories about the past where we lack true measured data.

One of the things engineering teaches you is that outside the elegance of various scientific theories, reality can have significant differences from the theory simply because of normal statistical variances in the behavior of materials and their properties.

If you really want to understand this point of view, read David Macaulay's "Motel of Mysteries". It will be like the great debates that might be held in 2000 years when archaeologists dig up New York Penn Station in the New Jersey Meadowlands (where it was dumped after being demolished in the 1960's), and start a great raging debate about which side of the Hudson River this fine historical structure had actually been built upon.

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