You can’t negotiate with Physics

In the comments on my previous post Rachel mentioned a recent article by Bill McKibben called we can’t negotiate over the physics of climate change. Given that he makes an argument that’s similar to what I’ve said myself, I should probably like it. However, I think he kind of fluffs it a bit.

When discussing drilling in the Arctic McKibben says

They think the relevant negotiation is between the people who want to drill and the people who don’t. But actually, this negotiation is between people and physics. And therefore it’s not really a negotiation.

Because physics doesn’t negotiate. Physics just does.

In a sense he right. How a system (our climate) responds to changes (increasing anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) is set by basic physics, and no amount of wishful thinking will change that. However, this is essentially always true. That something will happen doesn’t immediately tells us what we should do. That our climate’s response to anthropogenic influences is set by physics doesn’t immediately mean that we should, or should not, do something specific. In my opinion, we should be using physics to make an argument for why we should – or should not – do something, not simply say “physics says we mustn’t do this”.

To be clear, Bill McKibben’s underlying argument is reasonable; that responding to climate change may be inconvenient does not influence what will happen. Neither do our values or what is politically feasible. We can’t negotiate with physics; we simply need to decide how best to proceed, given our understanding of how the physical system will respond. My main issue with much of this debate is those who either suggest that it won’t respond how we think it will, or who select a possible – but unlikely – outcome to justify their preferred policy.

In my opinion, we really should be accepting our best scientific understanding when trying to motivate a particular policy option. Although I suspect that Bill McKibben does accept this, I think it’s a pity that he didn’t use this to motivate his argument, rather than simply essentially claiming that not being able to negotiate with Physics makes the option obvious. It might be to him, but maybe not to all.

Of course, I realise that I’m looking at this from the perspective of a scientist who would like people to at least gain some understanding of the physical system, and then use that understanding to inform their decision making. It’s quite possible that this is naive and unrealistic. Maybe – as a campaigner – Bill McKibben’s goal is simply to get a message out, and to try to make a strong and convincing argument. In fact, one reason I thought I’d post this is to get some views from others as to what we should expect from campaigners, compared to what we might expect from professional scientists. I don’t think we can hold them to the same standards. There’s a difference between using the scientific evidence to support a preferred policy option, and explaining our best scientific understanding.

Given that this post is about how Physics should motivate our policy decisions, maybe I’ll express mine. I think our basic understanding of physical climatology tells us that we should reduce emissions as fast as possible. Okay? But what do I mean by “as fast as possible” and and how do we actually do so? As I think I may have said before, this – in my opinion – is the most difficult aspect of this whole topic, and I don’t know the answers to either of those questions (well, apart from the fairly obvious step of introducing a carbon tax). Also, since I’m having a brief discussion with Richard Betts about this type of thing on Twitter, I’ll also make clear that this isn’t an argument about “mitigation” over “adaption”. Some level of adaptation is unavoidable and clearly our understanding of the physical system will inform both what mitigation strategies we should be pursuing, and what type of adaptation we should be adopting.

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75 Responses to You can’t negotiate with Physics

  1. Rachel M says:

    I don’t understand what your gripe is with what he said. Isn’t saying, “we can’t negotiate with physics” the same as saying we need to follow the science?

  2. Rachel,
    My issue is mainly that “follow the science” stills refers to using scientific evidence to inform policy. It doesn’t immediately tells us what we should do. I don’t think it would have been hard for McKibben to have actually made the case for drilling in the Arctic being a bad idea (carbon budget, for example) but he didn’t seem to do that. To be fair, I like the general argument (physics doesn’t negotiate) but I just think he was appealing to the authority of physics, rather than using our physical understanding to motivate his position.

  3. Rachel M says:

    In the same article he quotes scientists from Copenhagen in 2009:

    development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil production are incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 degrees C.

    .

    He also says mentions a paper in Nature which lists deposits of coal, oil, and gas we need to leave buried. How much more do you want for an article in Grist?

  4. Rachel,
    Okay, you make a fair point. I did look through the article to see if I could find some examples of actually trying to justify his position, and I did miss that. As I was trying to get at a little in the post, what should we actually expect from such pieces? Campaigners don’t need to add all the caveats and uncertainties that we might expect in a scientific paper. That would be unreasonable. However, they should – at least – present an argument that is consistent with our current scientific understanding. I don’t he did badly in that, but I did wonder if he could have focused less on an appeal to physics and more on what physics says will actually happen and – therefore – why drilling in the Arctic is a bad idea. I realise that I’m looking through this with a lens that slightly influenced by my own position, so I should be careful of expecting that same from those who are openly campaigning.

  5. Rachel M says:

    In other articles he’s written he focuses more on those things. The famous Rolling Stone article from 2012 is all about the carbon budge – http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719

    This article was really a response to why you can’t be in favour of addressing climate change and sticking to the 2C limit and also dig up more fossil fuels to burn.

  6. I see adaptation as a last resort, to be discussed when we’ve carried out all the mitigation we can. However, some people seem to think that one day when we reach crunch point—’if’ for many of them—we’ll just adapt (in unspecified ways); so in the meantime they think we can just ignore the problem. In recorded history society seems to always work like this, carrying on, BAU, until a problem suddenly takes over. Usually problems are relatively unpredictable, economic/political and they can be overtaken by other events. This is the ways things have always been from a political perspective.

    Unfortunately climate change is a problem like no other: it’s based in fundamental physics, very slow to pan out (in human terms), it knows no boundaries and, short of a sudden massive asteroid impact, it’s too big to be influenced by any other outside factors. Yet its path, generally speaking, is completely predictable to anyone with even a simple understanding of basic science and the solution is very simple—we must reduce atmospheric carbon. We put the excess there, we must take it out. Simple physics, but economic and political dynamite.

    So it comes down to the fact that the people who now and throughout history have run all countries, and those that aspire to—clever though they are—are just not equipped to understand either the problem or the solution. They’re typically lawyers and economists who to a man (which they predominantly are) are ignorant of the fundamentals of science. Worse than that, the power-seekers are typically egotists who believe they don’t need to know it. They think their classical education has equipped them with all they need to know and when some scientist tells them that climate change is a problem their belief is that that the scientist has tunnel vision and unaware of—to their mind—’overriding economic and political issues’ which demand immediate attention.

    How to fix that?

  7. Rachel,

    This article was really a response to why you can’t be in favour of addressing climate change and sticking to the 2C limit and also dig up more fossil fuels to burn.

    Well, yes, I do agree with that.

    john,
    One problem – I think – is that some form of adaptation is unavoidable. We will have to adapt to certain changes. That, however, might be somewhat different to an argument about “adaptation” versus “mitigation”. I’m not convinced that anyone has made a convincing argument that carrying on a we are and then adapting to what happens, is preferable to aiming to start mitigating now. One should bear in mind that a carbon tax is regarded as a form of mitigation.

  8. @ aTTP

    I’m sure you’re right that we’ll need to adapt. I just don’t agree with thinking about adapting ahead of mitigation. Too easily it becomes an excuse to do nothing.

    Agree completely with carbon tax (but definitely not carbon trading).

  9. john,

    I’m sure you’re right that we’ll need to adapt. I just don’t agree with thinking about adapting ahead of mitigation. Too easily it becomes an excuse to do nothing.

    Yes, I agree. What I was getting at is that there is some adaptation that we currently can’t really avoid. Baked in sea level rise, for example. However, I agree that not distinguishing between the adaptation that is currently unavoidable, and the adaptation that we could avoid if we effectively mitigated, could end up being an excuse for simply not doing anything now.

  10. BBD says:

    Just one more example of the way that contrarian rhetoric has poisoned the well for everyone.

  11. McK is indeed wrong. He starts off with “you can’t negotiate with physics” but that then subtly morphs into:

    “…a key paper in one of the planet’s most rigorous scientific journals, Nature… if we wanted to keep climate change from going past the 2 degree C red line set by the planet’s nations.”

    So no: we’re not “talking” to physics, we’re talking about a target set by pols, on advice from scientists. That’s a very different thing, and confusing the two is very unhelpful.

    He continues; “In this case, the scientists are serving as proxies for physics”, which is sort-of but not really quite true; and then “They’re not expressing an opinion; they’re reporting on the world’s actual limits.” which isn’t true, I think. People like to pretend 2 oC is an absolute limit, “please don’t think about that too carefully just take it as a given don’t look behind the curtain please”. But that’s not physics.

  12. Just one more example of the way that contrarian rhetoric has poisoned the well for everyone.

    I’ve often thought that people looking back on this time will wonder why we didn’t all simply agree that there was a problem worth solving and actually find a way to do so. It’s not easier, but it’s a damn site easier if we actually acknowledge that it exists, than if we pretend it doesn’t. That we’re still essentially arguing over the scale of the actual issue seems a bizarre to me.

  13. WMC,
    That is essentially the point. Physics doesn’t tell us that 2C (or any C) is the limit (okay, wet bulb might, but that’s quite a bit more than 2C). A target like that is a political decision. So, he’s largely right when he says something like “you can’t satisfy the 2C limit and continue extracting fossil fuels” (well, assuming we burn them and don’t develop something like CCS). He’s not right when he suggests that this limit is set by physics.

    I guess my one issue, though, is that as a campaigner he’s entitled to campaign for keeping below 2C. I can’t see anything wrong with that. He’s muddying the water somewhat when he tries to argue that this is a Physics limit. He’s wrong to say that, but he’s right that Physics tells us what constraints exist if we want to achieve this. My feeling, though, is that he could achieve the same without needing to make stronger claims about what Physics can tell us than is warranted.

  14. Agreed. I think though this chimes with your “people looking back on this time will wonder why…”. We already have good reasons. We don’t need to call in spurious authority.

  15. WMC,
    I should probably read comment smore thoroughly before responding. This part of your comment

    we’re talking about a target set by pols, on advice from scientists. That’s a very different thing, and confusing the two is very unhelpful.

    is largely what I was trying to get at above. Why confuse things, when you could probably get the same message across without doing so?

  16. Rachel M says:

    Poor old Bill McKibben. Hounded from both sides and if you ask me, you’re all being very nit-picky. But I’m really just a nobody. I am however, very thankful we have Bill McKibben.

  17. Rachel,

    Hounded from both sides and if you ask me, you’re all being very nit-picky.

    Maybe, but Cheeleading is boring 🙂

    I am however, very thankful we have Bill McKibben.

    I suspect that in time, many will feel the same.

  18. bill shockley says:

    I think McKibben’s argument is the same as what Hansen has been saying. Investment in new extraction infrastructure is going to guarantee that we blow through the global carbon budget. Once the money is spent and the infrastructure is in place, then the cost of using that infrastructure and the FF that are produced by it become very cheap and it will be very hard not to use them.

    For example, let’s put a tax on carbon that will make it very unattractive to produce oil from tar sands. If we do that, then no one will want to build the KXL pipeline, and in addition, we won’t NEED the oil so produced:

    An economic analysis indicates that a tax beginning at $15/tCO2 and rising $10/tCO2 each year would reduce emissions in the U.S. by 30% within 10 years [241]. Such a reduction is more than 10 times as great as the carbon content of tar sands oil carried by the proposed Keystone XL pipeline (830,000 barrels/day) [242]. Reduced oil demand would be nearly six times the pipeline capacity [241], thus the carbon fee is far more effective than the proposed pipeline.

    Hansen draws a clear and repeated line in the sand between conventional and unconventional fossil fuels and how that line relates to the global carbon budget. People really need to read and understand what he’s been saying. That’s where 350.org got its name.

  19. bill,
    I think that general argument is sound. Put a tax on carbon and the unconvential fossil fuels will probably be uneconomical, alternatives will become more viable, and further investment will fuel their growth. My main issue was simply that it’s not clear why we need to muddy the water between what physics can tells us (what will happen if we follow a particular pathway) and what it can’t tell us (what should we do given this understanding). Maybe I’m just being a pedantic physicist, but it’s also possible that framing it as McKibben has just provides an easy way for his argument to be shot down by those who would rather we didn’t do anything to address this issue.

  20. bill shockley says:

    ATTP, fair enough. I jumped into the conversation late, and didn’t see the original quote and context from McKibben. It just sounded so close to what Hansen says, and even the wording, that I ventured a guess as to his intention. Hansen often starts in by saying “We need to formulate policy based on what the physics is telling us….”

    Since I already looked it up, here’s another very clear excerpt from an old NYer article:

    Once you accept that CO2 levels are already too high, it’s obvious, Hansen argues, what needs to be done. He displayed a chart of known fossil-fuel reserves represented in terms of their carbon content. There was a short bar for oil, a shorter bar for natural gas, and a tall bar for coal.

    “We’ve already used about half of the oil,” he observed. “And we’re going to use all of the oil and natural gas that’s easily available. It’s owned by Russia and Saudi Arabia, and we can’t tell them not to sell it. So, if you look at the size of these fossil-fuel reservoirs, it becomes very clear. The only way we can constrain the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to cut off the coal source, by saying either we will leave the coal in the ground or we will burn it only at power plants that actually capture the CO2.” Such power plants are often referred to as “clean coal plants.” Although there has been a great deal of talk about them lately, at this point there are no clean-coal plants in commercial operation, and, for a combination of technological and economic reasons, it’s not clear that there ever will be.

    Hansen continued, “If we had a moratorium on any new coal plants and phased out existing ones over the next twenty years, we could get back to three hundred and fifty parts per million within several decades.” Reforestation, for example, if practiced on a massive scale, could begin to draw global CO2 levels down, Hansen says, “so it’s technically feasible.” But “it requires us to take action promptly.”

    In the same article is the anecdote about Hansen asking John Holdren to deliver a letter to Obama. The language is very similar (substitute “physics” for “science”):

    “It is still feasible to avert climate disasters, but only if policies are consistent with what science indicates to be required.”

    That was at the beginning of Obama’s first term.

    “A stark scientific conclusion, that we must reduce greenhouse gases below present amounts to preserve nature and humanity, has become clear,” Hansen wrote. “It is still feasible to avert climate disasters, but only if policies are consistent with what science indicates to be required.” Hansen gave the letter to Obama’s chief science adviser, John Holdren, with whom he is friendly, and Holdren, he says, promised to deliver it. But Hansen never heard back, and by the spring he had begun to lose faith in the new Administration. (In an e-mail, Holdren said that he could not discuss “what I have or haven’t given or said to the President.”)

    “I had had hopes that Obama understood the reality of the issue and would seize the opportunity to marry the energy and climate and national-security issues and make a very strong program,” Hansen told me. “Maybe he still will, but I’m getting bad feelings about it.”

    Unfortunately, Hansen keeps being correct in his prognostications.

  21. bill shockley says:

    PS, ATTP. I have thought at times that you were being pedantic, but after further experience, I think you are simply careful about what you say and think — things that are required of a scientist. You just have good work habits. As a blogger you are fair and humble and honest. I admire that and appreciate the opportunity to express my opinions among a quality group of commenters.

  22. bill,
    Thanks, that’s certainly what I aim for, but am not sure I achieve it as often as I would like. I also realise that there is a fine line between constantly critiquing people who are essentially being reasonable in how they use the evidence, but not quite getting it as right as a scientist might like, and critiquing those who are fundamentally wrong.

  23. matt says:

    Firstly, I don’t disagree with anything in the post. But there are some things that are obvious (I think). We need more renewables investment (irregardless of environmental concerns, that is, if you are only worried about economics – BAU is bad). Sure, the best solution may contain more nuclear and CCS (personally I think the former is true but I don’t consider it obvious). It is obvious enough though that a lot more renewables will be part of the solution, so we can confidently take measures that replace FF with renewables, for now, and adjust accordingly as things pan out.

    What am I trying to say? Don’t ask me I forgot… but lets not confuse “there is no obvious long-term solution” with “there are no obvious directions to push for in the short/medium term”.

  24. bill shockley says:

    I get the feeling that you are not totally bought in on the urgency of the AGW situation and I believe you’ve said as much. That’s why I was inflammatory in my remark about reading and understanding Hansen. He’s done the math. Anyone who hasn’t done the math needs to do it or make a decision whether to trust Hansen or not. Beyond that, it’s politics and public relations and understanding history and big picture conversations that are so fascinating as put forth by the likes of McKibben, Klein, Chomsky, Hedges, B. Sanders, K. Sawant, R. Wolff, D. Harvey (whom I was watching last night… simply fascinating), Cornell West…. How economics and politics and sociology and catastrophe dovetail with each other. How things are likely to turn out and what can we do as individuals. I think you maybe need to do the math. I’ve done some, but not all of the math. Seen enough to trust Hansen. Naomi Klein says this is decade zero — it’s now or never and it’s half over.

  25. anoilman says:

    Anders, I’ve long since held the belief that we should be talking over what to do, not whether its real. I really can’t argue if we don’t care about our fellow man or our children.

    Bill Shockley: I hadn’t really considered how much money is being driven into fossil fuel infrastructure. SOD has been running a series on how much renewables cost, and the tasks we have ahead of us;
    http://scienceofdoom.com/2015/09/01/renewables-viii-transmission-costs-and-outsourcing-renewable-generation/

    The other half of that equation is of course just how much of that aging infrastructure we have in use that is hard to compete with. (i.e. coal power plants that are paid off reduce electricity costs to tiny levels.)

  26. pete best says:

    Coal is the easiest fuel to replace as its used mainly for base load on the grid. However the coal industry is global and has access to politicians through lobbying. So in the UK it looks like we are going green coal. You see science is just deemed to be another pressure group to politicians and its impossible for science to buy politicians time.

    Physics does not negotiate is true for some but in politics it does not bid very high

  27. bill,

    I get the feeling that you are not totally bought in on the urgency of the AGW situation and I believe you’ve said as much.

    I don’t think I’d be doing this if I didn’t regard it as a serious issue that really needa addressing. The problem – as a scientist – is getting out the mindset where you’re careful about what you say and qualify everything with caveats, and into the mindset of someone who is actively campaigning for something specific. I find the latter difficult and I generally choose not to do that. I have no problem with others doing so and would have been completely uncritical of McKibben if he was simply campaigning for policies that would aim to keep us below 2C. He’s completely entitled to do so. That the 2C limit is political is not a reason to not campaign for policies that might achieve that.

    My issue was simply the idea that Physics tells us what to do and my reason for writing this post was partly because I do think it is an interesting argument and I do agree with the basic idea that we can’t negotiate with physics, but I do think that as a strategy it runs the risk of being dismissed because we might not be able to negotiate with physics, but that doesn’t immediately tell is what we should actually do.

  28. anoilman says:

    pete best: I don’t think coal is easy to replace at all. Your grid will see substantial reductions to carbon emissions with renewables to a point, but after that you need storage, back up (currently, coal), and long transmission lines, and and and… None of that is easy to address.

    Being an engineer, I’m happy to “ready, fire, aim”. I believe that the more we roll out, the better cost savings we’ll see, and the more inherent problems we inflict on ourselves, the more likely we’ll see solutions popping up from industry. Like Avian Radar… (.. also drives off pesky deniers who say wind is for munching birds)
    http://www.detect-inc.com/merlin.html

  29. Surely the issue with coal is that we expect to be delivering more energy in future than we are now. The easiest way to do that is using coal. That – I think – is why all RCPs have increased coal use. The only reason some show reduced emissions is because of CCS. So, either we have to develop CCS, or we have to find a viable alternative to coal, or we just carry on as we are and hope the physics is indeed wrong.

  30. Sam taylor says:

    About carbon taxes, I’m in favour of them fow what they’re worth (though they would probably cost me my job) but I don’t think they’ve a cat in hells chance of working. The recent experience in Australia bring a case in point. If a carbon tax was to be effective it would need to be priced high enough to basically drive a feedback loop that would kick the energy system into a new state, and given what most of the ecological economics literature says about the link between energy and economic wellbeing, it would probably be very wrenching in terms of economic growth for a while. So either you’d get carbon taxes which aren’t high enough and wouldn’t do anything (the revenue neutral model which is being touted about) or else you’d get a sufficiently high carbon tax that hits growth and then the government gets turfed out.

    If you read Donella Meadow’s list of places to intervene in a system ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve_leverage_points ) then she ranks things like taxes and subsidies are the least effective place to be intervening. Either you need to try and change the objective of the system (in our case, grooooowth) or the governing paradigm, or at least try to alter the rules or allow for more forms of self-organisation within the system. Point being, unless we fundamentally change what we’re trying to do (which the whole ‘green growth’ paradigm really isn’t), we’re going to keep on the track we’re on.

  31. bill shockley says:

    Sam Taylor, how is the recent experience in Australia a case in point?

  32. bill,
    I suspect Sam’s point is that an effective carbon tax would need to be quite high. This then becomes unpopular, a new government comes to power, and it’s reversed. This is roughly what happened in Australia.

  33. Joseph says:

    So either you’d get carbon taxes which aren’t high enough and wouldn’t do anything (the revenue neutral model which is being touted about) or else you’d get a sufficiently high carbon tax that hits growth and then the government gets turfed out.

    Pekka, has mentioned before about a carbon tax that starts out relatively low and then gradually increases with time. I think that might solve the problem related to economic growth and effectiveness.

  34. bill shockley says:

    anoilman says:
    pete best: I don’t think coal is easy to replace at all.

    Then make it easy. Make polluters pay. It’s only fair.

    How long does it take to replace coal with Nuclear? France substantially did it in a decade.
    In one decade (1977–1987), France increased its nuclear power production 15-fold, with the nuclear portion of its electricity increasing from 8% to 70%

  35. Gavin Schmidt said something on Twitter that’s an interesting point, and may be relevant here

    Maybe I’ve done something like this a little to Bill McKibben, but I do still think that distinguishing between what Physics tells us will happen, and what we should do – given what Physics tells us will happen – are separate, and getting this right is more of a big picture issue than a detail.

    It is, however, a very fair point. This is an important issue and focusing on details at the expense of the big picture is something to generally avoid.

  36. bill shockley says:

    ATTP wrote:
    I suspect Sam’s point is that an effective carbon tax would need to be quite high. This then becomes unpopular, a new government comes to power, and it’s reversed. This is roughly what happened in Australia.

    Yeah, the Australian carbon tax was effective right off the bat in reducing emissions but it was neither sufficiently revenue neutral nor transparent.

    The voting public got paranoid and it was removed by the next government with the voters saying good ridance. This is why Hansen insists on the tax being transparent and progressive, i.e., revenue neutral and distributed in a simple, inexpensive manner, i.e., on a per capita basis, via weekly or monthly deposits into debit card accounts.

    In British Colombia, where the execution was better it was popular to the point of the people wanting more tax.

  37. In British Colombia, where the execution was better it was popular to the point of the people wanting more tax.

    Yes, I gather than British Columbia is an example of where it’s been effective.

  38. bill shockley says:

    Joseph wrote:
    Pekka, has mentioned before about a carbon tax that starts out relatively low and then gradually increases with time. I think that might solve the problem related to economic growth and effectiveness.

    Exactly. And it’s important for voters to get a taste of the dividends. There would be no looking back.

  39. Pete Best says:

    anoilman

    no, coal is the easiest fuel to replace technologically but I doubt we can build enough nuclear power plants quickly enough and waste fuel is an issue along with uranium morning. CSP and Wind gotta be a better option as you can deploy it more quickly and with enough research make it solid on the grid (take out its intermittency). Replacing coal politically is what I mean by harder and what I am saying really.

    I don’t think swapping coal for nuclear 100% is an option either do you ?

  40. bill shockley says:

    BC was effective at first but now it’s lost the gains it had, I believe, although BC may still have a better emissions record than BC as a whole. The regression may have been due to the drop in the price of oil. This should probably be protected against in the formulation of the tax.

  41. Pete Best says:

    sorry uranium mining (not morning)

  42. bill shockley says:

    may still have a better emissions record than BC as a whole
    than Canada as a whole.

  43. bill shockley says:

    Maybe I’ve done something like this a little to Bill McKibben, but I do still think that distinguishing between what Physics tells us will happen, and what we should do – given what Physics tells us will happen – are separate, and getting this right is more of a big picture issue than a detail.

    I think it’s beneficial to talk about things whether it’s big picture or details. Very often the Devil is in the latter.

    Just as long as the talk is open and honest and sincere.

    That leaves Gavin out in some important cases.

  44. bill shockley says:

    anoilman,

    thanks for the SOD link. Will be looking at it.

  45. pete best says:

    Anoilman

    By easy to replace I mean easier than the other two fuels. Baseload power easier than on demand power and heating and transport dont you think?

  46. Magma says:

    Although I understand McKibben’s desired point, I’ve never been a fan of the ” because… physics ” style of argument. And that applies when coming from physicists themselves, let alone journalists and environmentalists without physics backgrounds. It’s a form of argument from authority that incorporates a faintly insulting oversimplification. Better to go on a bit longer and point to the scientific studies themselves, paraphrased or condensed as needed.

    Or alternatively make McKibben’s point in a different way, such as the well-known quote of Gaylord Nelson’s, “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around,” or Robert Watson’s “Mother Nature always bats last, and she bats 1,000.”

    That said, I am more than willing to cut McKibben some slack when I read the likes of the following statement from John Christy:

    Whether you are a Baptist (like me), a Buddhist or a Baha’i, the numbers come out the same … and “science” is all about the numbers.

    The moral question is differently addressed. In science we measure things, but we cannot take a human life to the laboratory and measure its real value. Here is where the Pope, my Catholic friends, and I stand together by understanding that our faith is the source of our belief (yes, belief) that human life is of infinite value.

    Therefore, we are not morally bad people for taking carbon and turning it into the energy that offers life to humanity in a world that would otherwise be brutal (think of life before modernity). On the contrary, we are good people for doing so. As the Indian Environmental Minister P. Javadekar stated in 2014, “The moral principle … cannot be washed away. India’s first task is eradication of poverty … our first priority”, so that “… our CO2 emissions will rise.”

    When I look at the scientific results I and others generate, and then hold fast to what my faith earnestly speaks, I view sensible carbon-use as today’s liberator of precious humanity from the dangerous vagaries of nature. Carbon becomes, therefore, a positive moral imperative to consider.

    http://www.al.com/opinion/index.ssf/2015/06/uah_climate_scientist_question.html

  47. anoilman says:

    bill shockley: Well, I think you can make it easier to change… but you can’t change it all now. Base load needs to be provided at night with no wind, you know.

    By all means, implement a Carbon Tax, and keep pushing things in the right direction.

    In the UK they have poor sun (and they need 5 times more panels for winter), so its pretty hard to justify solar, and frankly I doubt there’s enough wind. Storage is currently very expensive, and transportation (power lines) are well understood and expensive. Its not impossible, but dang, its problematic and horribly expensive.

    UK’s position is pretty clearly spelled out here;
    http://www.withouthotair.com/

    FYI: I don’t like nuclear, but I’ve warmed up after looking at how hard all this really is. I also prefer free market solutions, but since nuclear has always required subsidy they operate, essentially, uninsured. Even with all the help nuclear gets its expensive, so I’m in favor of public owned nuclear stations in order to make it affordable. (I had to warm up to nuclear A LOT to get to this point. A lot.)

  48. anoilman says:

    bill shockley: Do you have a more recent set of data regarding BC’s carbon tax? My understanding was that they stopped increasing the tax a few years ago.

    Never the less this is the latest BC data… still trending down, but it could be up this year.
    http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/trade37c-eng.htm

  49. Sam taylor says:

    Carbon taxes operate within the paradigm of growth being the goal, and it being acceptable to externalise costs onto the earth system. Don’t change that you don’t change squat.

  50. bill shockley says:

    anoilman wrote:
    Do you have a more recent set of data regarding BC’s carbon tax? My understanding was that they stopped increasing the tax a few years ago.

    Never the less this is the latest BC data… still trending down, but it could be up this year.
    http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/trade37c-eng.htm

    No, I think yours is more recent than what I saw. Thanks for the update.

    Relative to Canada, BC is outperforming, but they’re back to where they started in absolute terms. This probably means that price + tax is back to where they it started.

    Here’s two pics showing the progression. Sorry I haven’t learned how to embed from Google Drive. tinypic isn’t working for me anymore.

    https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B6KqW0UlivnVbWRIWjdpbDctNUU
    https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B6KqW0UlivnVa3kzMl9iT3I4bGM

    As far as i know, the carbon-tax stopped increasing at $30/ton a few years ago.

    The Statistics Canada graph is from this Guardian article:
    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2013/jul/30/climate-change-british-columbia-carbon-tax

    The Excel graph is using the data you provided, but it differs from the Guardian graph by time period and data selection (“rest of canada” in The Guardian, “all of canada” in my Excel graph), so the difference in my excel graph would be a little more dramatic if I had subtracted BC sales from “all of canada” sales. Anyway, the very modest carbon tax appears to behave the way it should.

  51. jacksmith4tx says:

    I have come to the conclusion that the use of arguments based on just physics to motivate people will not achieve the necessary reduction in emissions to alter the trajectory of man made climate change. Perhaps at some point the degradation of the biosphere will convince the majority of people that we (as the apex predator of the planet) bare the sole responsibility to modify our behavior so that the other lower life forms can co-exist with us. As depressing as it may seem there is still a strong possibility we may reboot humanity with a nuclear war or biological catastrophe. Seeing that our US government has recently committed over $350 billion to new nuclear weapon systems does not inspire hope. I am also concerned about the explosive trend of genetic engineering made possible with CRISPR/cas9 and the new gene drive technology – a Pandora’s box if there ever was one. Maybe Humanity 2.0 will avoid the mistakes we made next time.

    I use to occasionally comment over on Curry’s blog but I have given up on her due to the total loss of objective posts. I think the last time I remember anyone posting anything remotely balanced was Steven Mosher or Zeke Hausfather and for their efforts they were mercilessly castigated and insulted. I have come to really appreciate the calm and reasoned approach ATTP has demonstrated. You have my respect and admiration.

  52. anoilman says:

    Sam taylor says:
    September 4, 2015 at 7:40 pm

    “Carbon taxes operate within the paradigm of growth being the goal, and it being acceptable to externalise costs onto the earth system. Don’t change that you don’t change squat.”

    I agree, but there are many ways to look at this.

    First, renewables and the related host of problems they will inevitably bring need to kick in the pants to get started. So.. tax, the bad (carbon) is a good first step. In fact taxing bads instead of goods just seems wise when you think about it.

    Second, I think that its impossible to legislate a true solution. If you want to see lobbiests, just say the word, ‘legislation’ and see what happens. (Did you know that BC is the only place on the planet earth where they don’t have natural gas emissions when the cap a well? At least in legislation they don’t…)

    Third, I really do believe in free market solutions. I’m no hippie. For instance, the reason we think we have lots of power to use at night is because we pay an average price. Yet the bulk the grid has been rolled out to supply peak demand. If we had spot pricing, then there would be incentive for storage solutions (yeah even for grids), and to adjust consumption behavior. (Right now, even if my clothes dryer had a timer, I wouldn’t run it in the middle of the day.)

  53. anoilman says:

    jacksmith4tx: Places like this exist because the denial crew has spent the last 20 years or so spreading BS about the science so they can make money.

  54. bill shockley says:

    anoilman,

    Regarding nuclear. I’m no expert but I sure can believe what I see. France made a RAPID transition and ended up not costing a lot. If they’re a few cents higher than Germany, so what? It’s better than squandering the planet and everyone on it.

    Now France wants to back away from Nuclear. I assume it’s cold feet in the wake of Fukushima. We don’t have the luxury of time anymore, so we gotta do what we gotta do.

    But we do have decades more experience than what France had and we could also, as Hansen suggests, find economies in modular, standardized units. He’s in favor of letting the market decide but in some situations I think he thinks nuclear will be the winner. He also foresees 4th generation nuclear somewhere down the road that will be able to burn nuclear waste from the current generation plants. He’s vague on the time-frame. I’ve heard maybe 20 years from others.

  55. bill shockley says:

    sam taylor wrote:
    Carbon taxes operate within the paradigm of growth being the goal, and it being acceptable to externalise costs onto the earth system. Don’t change that you don’t change squat.

    This is not clear language. But is it not obvious that if someone dumps toxins in my pond at night while I’m sleeping, he should pay for the damage?

    As Hansen puts it, if my child gets asthma from carbon particles in the air, either I or the taxpayer has to pay for hospital visits. Why is the polluter not responsible?

    OK, these are rhetorical questions because you are denying the obvious.

  56. bill,
    I don’t think Sam is saying what you think he’s saying. I think his argument is more to do with using Carbon taxes justify damaging the Earth system, than an argument that we shouldn’t be paying for the damage that we do. In other words, it might be better to consider not doing the damage in the first place, than to simply pay for it because we value growth above all else.

  57. bill shockley says:

    ATTP, thanks. If I misconstrued anoilman, I apologize, and I totally agree prevention is a lot easier than cure. But we are where we are. You can’t take back the past. Carbon tax is the best way forward.

  58. bill shockley says:

    misconstrued sam taylor, I mean.

  59. anoilman says:

    I came across this;
    http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/Value-of-Battery-Backed-Solar-in-California-25-Cents-per-Kilowatt-Hour

    Why 25 cents per kwh? I bet that has something to do with the cost of smoothing peaks. Peak prices for energy are often huge. Like building a coal power plant for those 4 weeks a year you need it. Cutting those peak prices is good thing.

  60. jacksmith4tx says:

    anoilman: Money is just a artifact of modern society and a direct consequence of buying the future by issuing debt today. I think it may be a more ingrained feature of human behavior. Wasteful material consumption is at the root of our problem. While it is pretty obvious to see at the top of society with their opulent life styles we can not ignore that the bottom 99% of us are the ones consuming most of the planets resources at an ever increasing rate. Just last month there was a flurry of news stories marking the day the planet exceeded it’s annual budget of resource consumption and I’m sure the “Overshoot” day will be later again next year. http://www.overshootday.org

  61. BBD says:

    Money is just a artifact of modern society

    Well…

  62. Just found an second opinion for http://www.withouthotair.com/. The DDPP just released a report on decarbonizing the German economy.

    The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) is developing scenarios how one could reach a 80% carbon emission reduction by 2050 for 15 countries, including the UK.

    I can’t judge this, but Oilman, Pekka and BBD may find it interesting.

  63. Steven,

    Off topic

    I think that roughly describes by general moderation policy. Where you trying to send me some kind of subtle message?

  64. BBD says:

    Victor V

    Thanks for the links.

  65. Steven Mosher says:

    “I came across this;
    http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/Value-of-Battery-Backed-Solar-in-California-25-Cents-per-Kilowatt-Hour

    Why 25 cents per kwh? I bet that has something to do with the cost of smoothing peaks. Peak prices for energy are often huge. Like building a coal power plant for those 4 weeks a year you need it. Cutting those peak prices is good thing.”

    #######################

    The author is my friend, if you like I can ask him to come here and answer your questions

  66. Steven Mosher says:

    Better start adapting now.

    Here is a simple way to understand it.

    We are not prepared for the weather of the past, much less the climate of the future.

    The science is pretty clear. the next 30 years of warming is kinda in the pipeline. so, you better start with adaption enough to handle THAT, because you will see that regardless.

    And yes we can chew gum and walk at the same time.. so its not an either or, but as you look at plans and budgeting, you cant avoid the cost of adapting to the change that is in the pipeline

    you cant negotiate with THAT physics.

    even obummer gets that.

  67. Steven Mosher says:

    “I think that roughly describes by general moderation policy. Where you trying to send me some kind of subtle message?”

    me subtle?

    Know I found it and i thought it was interesting and that you would like it… cause U get it just about right…

    a

  68. Steven,

    The science is pretty clear. the next 30 years of warming is kinda in the pipeline. so, you better start with adaption enough to handle THAT, because you will see that regardless.
    …..
    you cant negotiate with THAT physics.

    Yes, I agree. My view is still largely that if people accept this basic reality, we’ll increase the chance that we’ll mke sensible decisions with respect to the adaptation that we need to do, and with respect to mitigation. It won’t be perfect (because it probably isn’t possible to do so) but it’ll be a good deal better than pretending there is nothing to address.

    Know I found it and i thought it was interesting and that you would like it… cause U get it just about right…

    Thanks.

  69. izen says:

    The role of physics in the political argument about what policies on adaptation and mitigation could, should or must be enacted is Popperian.

    It is not possible to use physics to justify or validate a particular policy, there will always be enough uncertainty in the physics, and variation in the policy to undermine the claims of an exclusive solution.

    However the real role of the non-negotiability of physics is in falsifying policy options. As people, and societies tend to choose what they want to do and then look for justification, the role of ‘Physics’ is to point out when the choice is incompatible with the desired outcome because for example, the gain in the human condition from unrestricted use of fossil fuels is offset by ocean acidification, sea level rise and warmer land surface temperatures…

    Its a reality check on what we choose to do, not a clear indicator of what we should do.

  70. redbbs says:

    On the previous thread (A Powerful Speech) Rachel M expressed her disappointment that President Obama could allow Shell to act on its existing federal permit to drill in the Arctic.

    I tried to explain why I was not disappointed in the President but I don’t think I did a good job. This morning I remembered a powerful essay Ezra Klein wrote 14 months ago in Vox titled 7 Reasons America Will Fail On Climate Change

    At the time of writing it was inevitably correct but following the President’s action on limiting burnt coal emissions and his strong and loud advocacy for mitigation I am not so sure.

    In light of the changes that have happened via the EPA’s regulation via the Clean Air Act and the President’s moral authority, there is a good chance that a Democratic Senate majority in 16 month’s time and a Clinton or Saunders presidency, will boost Obama’s momentum. Ezra’s piece is worth the read just to remind ourselves how far we have advanced in the face of the criminally negligent US Congress.

  71. redbbs says:

    Steven Mosher thanks for the lesson on civility. BTW your President’s name is Obama

  72. Pete Best says:

    The Role of physics vs the role of voters and the media. A great deal of people in society find that they are able to live a comfortable life with good holidays, kids going to decent schools, able to buy great stuff and eat and drink well. Try and combat that against a stark message you are having a life style way beyond what you should be having. Your carbon emissions are due to your wonderful lifestyle and because we don’t have agreements or the technology to replace fossil fuels as yet (too much political and economic wrangling about what we should do) we would ask you all to cut back on your emissions please.

    You see its all a technology thing, the above wont be asked for (not yet anyway) and due to this technology got us here so it must resolve the issue. Therefore please continue as you are, our way of life is not up for negotiation even though ultimately physics does not negotiate. Therefore we continue to argue over technologies that can possible mitigate the issue but due to the fact they all seem to have issues of some kind that the gas, liquid and solid of fossil fuels don’t then we keep on going along these global meetings every 2 years. Its a good job we have some time before the windows closes but lets fact the music already, The 2C limit is 2032 on current emissions and above that is whatever we cant agree on. Everyone here seems to be in agreement that 2C might happen but anything above that is unlikely. Why is it unlikely ? we consume more not less each year and more people want to join us in doing so.

  73. fbsaforum says:

    “Steven Mosher thanks for the lesson on civility. BTW your President’s name is Obama”

    sorry, the bushies weren’t my presidents either.
    I am a citizen of the world
    haha.

  74. Steven Mosher says: “Better start adapting now. Here is a simple way to understand it. We are not prepared for the weather of the past, much less the climate of the future. The science is pretty clear. the next 30 years of warming is kinda in the pipeline. so, you better start with adaption enough to handle THAT, because you will see that regardless.

    How do you want to organize adaptation when civil servants are not allowed to talk about global warming? When the economists compute the damages they assume behaviour will be rational. That is optimistic for some parts of the world. America is gonna suffer hard, especially the dont-talk-about-global-warming states. Obummer that.

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