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Forever Summer

I'm back home, recovering from jet lag. And it's summer.

Summer in Edinburgh means: I have my office window open, overlooking the rumbling traffic and the street chatter and the occasional raucous discussion outside the pub on the other side of the street twelve metres below me. It's pleasantly warm, with a daytime temperature in the range 17-20 degrees, dipping to 12-14 degrees at night. (Anything over 24 degrees is a heat wave.) Humidity is 60-70%.

Last week, in Montreal, summer meant keeping the hotel room window curtained and shut, with the air conditioning on full blast: outdoors it was 27-35 degrees, with 70-80% humidity. A good ten degrees celsius hotter than it is here.

I didn't like that much. (Confession time: I moved to Edinburgh when I found summer in London to be unpleasantly hot. I can cope with warm weather as long as I've got a cold place to retreat to, but after two months in which the temperature in my apartment never went below 25 degrees at night, I gave up on London for good.)

Anyway — waving an obligatory finger at the inaccuracy of long range climate models — it looks like by the end of the century global average temperatures are going to be up by somewhere between 5 and 10 degrees. Assuming that the local consequences don't include shutting down the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation, Edinburgh in summer will feel more like Montreal. Even with the postulated shutdown, summer's going to be no cooler than it is today (but winter would be a good bit chillier).

There are productive vineyards in Yorkshire these days. Meanwhile, the Boredeaux and Rioja vineyards are under threat as the vine-growing temperature zones move north. (To put a fictional hook on it: the late 21st century natives of England will sell wine to France to pay for the imported nuclear-generated electricity that spins their air conditioners — assuming they're not devastated by tornados, which are already showing up with increasing frequency as hotter summers pump more energy into the atmosphere.)

As for Montreal? Think in terms of regular 40-45 degree summers. That's not going to be fun at all. But it's going to be better there than in the vicinity of Sydney (destined for routine 45-55 degree summers — the kind of heat that kills) or just about anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa.

(Postscript: to those of you who want to quibble over whether current climate change is anthropogenic in origin, I ask this question: if you wake up in the night and smell smoke, do you think to yourself, "oh, it's just a nearby lightning strike/bush fire — that's perfectly natural" and go back to sleep? Or do you get out of bed and do something about it anyway? To my mind it doesn't matter why climate change is happening, except insofar as it might affect our choice of technologies for remediation work — whether or not it's induced by human activities, we ignore it at our peril.)




I'm glad I'm going to be dead before then, because I think half of California will be unlivable for half of each year, and the other half (of each) will be more like our current summers.


The anti-climate-change crowd are moving beyond that anyway.

In the 1980s it was "Temperatures aren't rising".

In the 1990s they switched to "Temperatures are rising but it's not caused by humans".

In the 2000s it's "Temperatures are rising, it's due to humans, but it's too late to do anything now, if only we'd known twenty years ago."


I'll have Theophile Escariot know that here in the United States we're only just now getting past the Temperatures aren't rising phase and are considering bypassing phase two and moving straight into the "God wants the world to be hotter" phase. Furthermore, might I point out, that there will be no more phases after that.


OTOH what *can* be done if it's a natural development? Other than passive measures like "move to the mountains", "go underground" or "build new powerplants to power air conditioners", it's pretty much unavoidable.

Of course, this leaves out superhero-style schemes for modifying the global climate, which *will* fail in interesting ways.


Ironically, before the Worldcon started we hadn't had a single week of warm weather in Montreal since the beginning of June. All through July, you would have felt quite at home. OTOH, for the last few days there has been constant high heat and humidity warnings, so it could have been much worse.

Anyway, I was very happy to meet you at Anticipation, hope you had a good time.


Where do you get the temperature increase of 5-10 degC by end C21st? IPCC estimated 0.2-0.3degC per decade (for the world as a whole) and their most extreme change is ~3 deg C by 2100. The regional forecast changes are not that different for latitudes including the UK (Edinburgh 55N, Montreal 45N) and Canada, implying low single digit changes. I also think it is a big misleading to compare continental climate Montreal with coastal climate Edinburgh. The North Sea and Atlantic have always had huge impacts on the UK climate, as witnessed by subtropical plants on the isle Of Skye (Gulf Stream effect).

I see sun baked Scottish beaches as a tourist destination this century as purely fictional (Snowball's Chance).

Which is not mean that I don't think we should be doing something about GW. This is one of the big challenges of the C21st, and so far inaction is leading us inexorably to corporate involvement via geo-engineering.


I guess my answer is, will everybody stop whining and get on with the adaptation thing already? It doesn't matter if it's happening because God told it to or because God told us to be fruitful and multiply and have dominion over the earth. It's happening.

I mean, the old Europeans went through an ice age or two with stone tools, the aborigines have been dealing with killing heat with millenia, and those people in the Sahel have to deal with this kind of heat routinely.

Oh yeah, that's right, low tech is more resilient than high tech. Not supposed to say that on this blog. Sorry.

As for the "well it would happen anyway" crowd, says what climatologist? So far as I know, we're still in the Ice Ages, and I'm in the camp that says, without global warming for the last 8000 years, we'd be watching the ice sweep south again right about now.

Does that mean I think global warming is a good thing? Not really. I'm a biologist. Pointless extinction sucks. Smallpox deserves to die more than do elephants.

As for the, "In the long run we'll all be dead" crowd, can I remind them that Keynes never had (or wanted) kids? We've got genes and or memes that deserve to be passed on, and perhaps we should be thinking about how that's going to happen, hmmm? In the long run even?

So, can we start dealing? Insulate the houses, use more solar, eat more veggies and less factory meat, go fly a three kilowatt power kite, that sort of thing?

Anyway, glad you're home Charlie. Hopefully, all that hot air from Washington won't mess up your weather like it did in Montreal.


Alex: the IPCC estimates are notoriously conservative -- they had to be, to get the stamp of multilateral government approval.


I have no problems with treating world temperature as an engineering problem, but my question to you if you want to do that is, 'what is the target temperature'? Do you arbitrarily, say, want to pick 1980? How about the 30s when things were within confidence intervals to today's temps? How about during the Maunder Minimum when things were significantly colder, or during the Medieval Warm Period when things were warmer? Or moving to a larger scale, do you want the average in the Pleistocene (colder than present) or the Paleocene-Eocene(warmer than present)? Before we start the engineering process we need to pick a temperature, and defend and define why that temperature is 'best'.


Picking a target temperature is easy. "Stay with the darn status quo as much as possible" - Our agriculture, and very large parts of our infrastructure is based around the current weather patterns - changing them wont break industrial societies, because in extremis, anything short of "venus" can be dealt with via hydropondics, greenhouses, and robust and airconditioned housing - Very expensively, but the thing is that there is a virtually bottomless supply of labour that can, and will, be mobilised if things get bad enough.
But less advanced countries will potentially be fucked to a nearly unimaginable degree. - You cant adress rising temperatures with airconditioning if you dont have electricity.


Skip@9: There's a pretty serious consensus that an atmospheric CO2 concentration of more than 350ppm is "incompatible with life on Earth as we know it". How's that for a nice simple engineering target? Currently we're at 389 and rising. And the 1930s were NOT within the confidence intervals of today's temps, go read someone who doesn't cherry-pick their data.

Charlie: Scotland doesn't have the topography for regular tornadoes, unless I missed hearing about the Great Plains of Edinburgh. Likewise, Sydney's weather depends a lot on where the wind is coming from: it only gets to 35+ on the relatively rare days where an air mass moves in from the West (and those days are BONE DRY, I much preferred them to the 30 degree days where the air was coming moistly off the sea). Not that I'm trying to be picky, but I don't think a blanket temperature rise would work the way you seem to think. By the way, are you sure about summer temperatures in the event of a thermohaline shutdown? You have a maritime climate, if the sea is 10 degrees colder it's going refrigerate the coastline year-round...


We need not decide how far to move before stArting to move nor should we


It will not be a simple move of climate belts.

Will the pattern of Hadley Cells change.

Look at the changes in the width of oceans as you move away from the equator (and remember that a Mercator Projection distorts that a lot).

Maybe the main grain belts (Northern USA and Canada, the Ukraise) can move north. There's room. Most of the machinery is mobile (annual migrations of foraging combine harvesters). But thawed out tundra could take a long time to become usable farmland.

Will we see big changes in crops. What plants from sub-Saharan Africa can be grown to replace wheat? Modern European-style agriculture, with 10 Mg/Ha yeilds of grain, depend on plant breeding and pesticides, as well as fertiliser. Can the support systems adapt to the changes quickly enough? It can take a decade to breed a new crop variety.

Why haven't we started building new nuclear power? Yeah, I know the screaming that will provoke.


Chris L: Edinburgh isn't in Englandshire, which, however, does have enough flat terrain for whirlwinds. (Yet another reason I'm glad I live up north.)


With nuclear power, my primary concern is that we are going to wait. And then wait some more, and then wait, and then panic, and do a crash construction programme where safety gets neglected really quite badly compared to current standards because suddenly we need that power right now. And containment domes arent fast.


Come on, you're supposed to speculate and be a bit contrarian. You know, where global warming is proven to be a temporary climate variation, science is discredited in the public eye, etc.

Then we have a real crisis, and no one takes it seriously because activists have cried wolf too many times.



Don't get too complacent about those tornadoes Charlie. A few years back we were living in Birmingham when a big (for the UK) tornado went ripping roofs off not to far from us (half mile down the road). (Birmigham tornado of 2005 - 19 injured).

2 years later and we're living on top of a hill in Derby - and got our roof damaged by a tornado.... (and the topology of Edinburgh isn't that different to the peaks).

Turns out the UK actually has has a higher number of tornadoes for it's land area than the US - it's just that they are generally much, much smaller.

Flat terrain helps - but it turns out some hilly topograhy aids the formation of tornadoes under he right conditions (the Birmingham ones path was a repeat of a tornado in the 1930's).

Amazing how having something that sounds like a freight train going over your house makes you read up on this stuff!

Having had those experiences I suspect something totally unexpected will be coming out of the left field at some point. Sandstorms in Norfolk, typhoons in Torbay, monsoons in London..........


Charlie: IPCC may be conservative (Hansen certainly says so), but what is the source of your temperature rise scenario?

heteromeles @7" "the old Europeans went through an ice age or two with stone tools"

What did the population fluctuations look like? I don't think a 50% population reduction will be pretty. Want to offer yourself first? We have to no only adapt, we have to do it without causing massive changes in mortality and preferably without destroying economies and possibly even our current civilization too.


TJ @15: Unfortunately in the US it is almost too late for nuclear to do much at all in the short term. We really need to be attacking via NegaWatts - making our energy use much more efficient to buy time to de-carbonize our energy sources. It seems to me that we could scale up alternative energy sources more quickly than nuclear, although this is not the case for all countries.


@18: Actually Alex, if you're in the UK and I'm in the US, we're both living in places with ruins of civilizations that were (so far as we can tell) destroyed by climate changes. This includes the Anasazi, the dudes who built Stonehenge, much of the Andes, and so forth.

We're different because.......? And for whatever you answered, you're sure that the people who used to live in those cities didn't answer the same because....?

I agree that 50% mortality would be horrible, and since I'm childless and both my partner and I have chronic diseases, we would probably not survive the rapid collapse of civilization. That doesn't mean we don't care about the future.

The answer isn't "let's keep the status quo as long as possible" (wasn't 8 years of Bush enough to learn that lesson?). Rather, the answer is to keep as many in the game as possible. What to keep in the game includes cultures, species, and much of our knowledge. It doesn't include us in the long run, because eventually we'll all die.

Anyway, the good news is that there are still Maya, Hopi, English (or people whose ancestors were in England in the neolithic), and a bunch of tribes in the Andes, despite everything they've gone through. Cities and high civilizations don't last, but peoples do, at least in part. Maybe we should be thinking more about that?


The latest best predictions for the UK climate is the UKCP09 work, which puts some probabilities to the expected changes at a regional level. £11 million quids worth of modelling, down to a 25 km^2 scale, pretty state of the art.

Key findings for Scotland East, by 2080 is a 50% chance of 3.5 C hotter in summer, 10% chance of more than 5.6 C hotter.

Of course, that's for a medium growth in emissions. For a high growth, matters are less rosy, with 8 C rises possible at the 10% level. Good luck with trying to growth enough food in those circumstances.

Oh, and that's all average temperature changes. What we really need to know are the effects upon extreme weather, heat waves, floods, droughts, storms and the like. It's those weather events that kill people directly or by ruining crops.

Thomas@10: Feeding the world based on "hydropondics, greenhouses, and robust and airconditioned housing"? Can we have some kind of cost analysis here? (That's my polite way of saying "are you crazy?")

Chris@11: Serious consensus that 350 ppm is "incompatible with life on Earth as we know it"? Reference please, coz we don't need to be alarmist (please see the four paragraphs above.)

DaveBell@13 (and Charlie too): We haven't started building nuclear power because the nuclear industry has a track record of failing to deliver against it's promises. The new 3rd gen European PWR was supposed to be an example of how to build a nuclear station on time and on budget. The first one (Olkiluoto in Finland) is now three years behind schedule and 50% over budget. And you want to give these people more money?


Haven't noticed a thread on it, so will just post here.

Just finished "Palimpset", fabulous read, can't wait to get it to my son. I thought the arguments in the postword tho, about why this couldn't be the novel it wanted to be, were weak.

Time travel almost makes it too easy, doesn't it? But, a very rich treatment of this rich subject. Eat your heart out, Kage Baker (I read the last The Company novel a few weeks ago).

Thanks for the great read.


The next big panic, that's what we need. When I was a kid in the 70s it was "OMG! The next ice age is coming!". Since then, what have we had? Bits of AIDS, nuclear war, bird flu, swine flu, ebola, large hadron collider, michael bay, asteroids, nerve gas, GM food, oil depletion and other stuff I've forgotten or didn't read the paper that week. So, to the cynics, global warming seems like one more thing in the long list of Things That Will End The World that never actually eventuate.

What would really screw the world over? Start with food. Imagine rice or wheat crops worldwide being wiped out in a hurry. Or cows, sheep, llamas etc. Even fish (losing all fish would be nasty). What else? Would losing cotton be significant?

And in an attempt to get somewhere near the topic, what would happen if the entire world actually did get together and attempt to stop global warming Right Now (and seriously, unlike the waste of time stuff that's happening). "Sir, step out of your car, driving has been illegal for 4 hours." "Sir, are you the manager of this cafe? Baked beans are now illegal due to methane emission regulations."

(my wife pointed out some "carbon-neutral" underwear while shopping yesterday and suggested they shouldn't be able to sell them to men).


sorry, yes I'm a sceptic who wants to quibble, I'm wide awake and don't smell smoke, because I take a geologic view, in the last couple of thousand years its been hotter and colder than today, and in the last few 100k yrs CO2 has been higher and lower than today. Climate has always been changing, the earth is dynamic in many ways. Many societies have been modified/destroyed over the last 8000yrs by climate change. So I do not believe in Anthropogenic climat change, but picking up your theme (and yes more 'sustainable' sources of energy are of course desirable) if climate change is coming whether hotter or colder (which is the more likely end to this pleasant Interglacial) it will happen regardless of any of our punys efforts, so lets not destroy our economies and export more jobs to china and India.

Having cuaght up with all your published work I am having to read non fiction!! Professor Ian Plimer 'Heaven and Earth - Global Warming - The Missing Science' presents a very authentic alternative to the screeching orthodoxy of current 'climate change' hysteria advocated by governments and addicted consultants

cheers ian


"in the last couple of thousand years its been hotter and colder than today, and in the last few 100k yrs CO2 has been higher and lower than today"

Bollocks. Your statement is exactly half right... the bits where you say "colder" and "lower". CO2 is higher now than it has been during human history... ALL of it, not just the few thousand years since we invented writing. Ditto global temperature.


Chris, with respect, in the 1800's it was colder than today (Thames freezing) and in the medieval warming, 1200's or so it was a lot warmer than today, vines grown in Norhtern England, all without the influence of man. Will have to check my facts on CO2 in last few 100k yrs, however in geological time, CO2 has been much higher than today, again all without the influence of puny man.

Cheers, ian


Chris L @11, Though it is rare tornadoes can form in mountainous areas, several years ago there was a small, harmless one in the Colorado Rockies, we usually get them in on the plains, though there was one in the Denver suburbs a couple months ago.

And Edinburgh's not exactly in the highlands.


Dave Bell has it right, in my opinion. This is not about whether the planet has endured similar change before. We know it has. What I see people failing to recognize is the change we will have to endure as a collection of cultures. Do lo-tech civilizations survive in conditions the wealthy world would find abhorrent? Yes. They do. But they do so at a cost. And that's a cost that most of us are not willing to pay. I want to have ready access to communication, education, reproductive determination, and inoculation. I like those things. But the infrastructure in place cannot support those things and the systemic poverty brought on by disruptions in resource availability. We cannot have it all.


Charlie, Edinburgh's summertime is remarkably similar to the winter we're having in Sydney at the moment except where you say warm we'd say coolish.

Chris L: I'm one of those Sydneysiders that prefers a 35+ degree dry westerly to a sticky humid 30 degree day any day.


@27: Madeline, I agree with your desires. I went down that list:
-reproductive determination
Most of these are can be had cheaply, in some form. For example, a years' flu vaccine is cheaper than a month of some of those statins they want us to all take. So are birth control pills. In fact, I think you Europeans are spending less on them than we yanks are, and we can still afford the basics.

What's not sustainable is the fact that my partner and I have to drive, in two separate cars, to work, that our house is only cold with air conditioning, and so on.

In other words (especially in the US) we've got some ridiculously wasteful and fragile infrastructure issues, and should water, fuel, or food not flow into the cities regularly, they will die in short order.

But Madeline makes an important point: we know that we can't support our current lifestyle. How do we maintain easy communication, education, reproductive determination, and public health with, say 10% of our current energy usage? I'll bet it can be done.

Another question is, especially in the US, how do we rebuild our idiotic cities into something that can be fueled by wind and solar, and fed under a changing climate? We'll probably have to abandon some of them, and how do we handle that?


Definitely not moving to Edinburgh then! 17-20 maximums is the tail-end of winter, in Adelaide. Not what I'd call warm. :)

Gabrielle Lord wrote a novel called Salt that has as a scenario your 50s type temperatures in Australia.


ian@25: It was colder in England and a few other areas around the North Atlantic. Those extreme eras you mentioned didn't even blip the trend for most of the world, my home included. Those of you who live in Europe and the American East Coast fail to appreciate just how powerful the Gulf Stream is. The equivalent lattitude to England in the Southern Hemisphere is glaciated almost to sea level. Whatever source you're getting your info from is either out of date or deliberately misleading (there's a lot of that about).

Heteromeles: if you're interested, follow through to my blog, I posted some thoughts on this a few weeks ago. I'd be keen to hear your ideas.


No matter what Gore and others say about fearing the worst case, when you have such a wide range of predictions as we have for global warming, the statistically smart way to take your bets is to toss the far extremes, and look at the clusters around the averages and median results. And that's what the IPCC's done, more or less. The Earth's been getting warmer - hi, NW passage! - but slowly. Slow increase in that slow change rate's the best way to bet, for the next century or so, until most of the developing economies've are rich enough to flatten their emissions.

I heard an actual climatologist say the Gulf Stream's no longer felt to be the reason for UK weather so much. Our Seattle's also pretty far north on our west coast, and rainy and moderate.

We're certainly getting warming here, with historic highs here in TX, though my Dad gets cold and likes the warming.... Oh, and remember to invest in Canadian real estate. Sorry, Indonesia.... I'm glad to see there's a start at a rich-world effort at helping not-so-rich places adapt.


Chris l @24, sounds as though your home is Oz, currently mine also, I refer you to Professor (Adelaide Uni) Ian Plimer and his book, 'Heaven & Earth, Global Warming the Missng Science' a serious, scientific (well cited) read. Yes the world may have heated in the last 30-80 yrs, this really is an insignificant period of time when many of the recognised climate influencing cycles have periods of tens of years and beyond. The above mentioned book is relevant, modern and certainly not misleading, I thoroughly recomend it to you...whilst waiting for Vol 6 of the Family to arrive....cheers, ian


It doesn't matter if climate change is real or not. Fossil carbon is a limited resource, which is vital for civilisation and technology. Using it as an energy source is stupid.

If you don't agree with the climate change theory, are you saying we don't need to change? Are you saying we should burn away the last of the fossil carbon and do nothing?

[At this point I started to get insulting, and decided to stop.]


Dave@34, if your note is directed at me

I'm saying the transition should be progressive, not ruin our economies and if it doesn't include China, India and Russia then it merely exports the jobs and the carbon consumption somewhere else, no net benefit!

I indeed think we should change to sustainable sources, however, whilst finite the reserves of coal are hundreds of years at current cosumption, so we have time.

I do indeed think Anthropogenic caused Climate Change theory is quite wonky, lots of its adherents will not address the contra indicative geological evidence seriously presented and the debate is sinking into a 'burn them at the stake if they deny' hysteria. The causal Science in favour of Human caused climate change is far from proved. We all realise that public opinion currently supports the orthodoxy of doom unless CO2 is reduced to

And we also have a historical perspective on when hysteria around an orthodoxy leads to the desire to terminate those who have the temerity to disagree




DaveBell@34: Yes, yes, and thrice times, f*cking yes.

It is incomprehensible to me, and I have yet to receive anything resembling a coherent response from anyone who is sceptical on climate change to this simple question:

Given that fossil carbon is finite, and is integral to the production of plastics, fertilizers and pharmaceuticals, regardless of its role in global warming surely you would agree that we should stop burning the stuff?

The only response I've received thus far is: I'm sure there's more oil out there then we think there is.

Very reassuring, I'm sure you'll agree!




ian@24: And I refer you to the reviews of Ian Plimer's book, which called it:

If that's not enough, here's 38 pages of what's wrong with Plimer's book.


ian: Plimer is a crank, pure and simple, long and short. This isn't me dismissing him because I don't agree with him; his book is dishonest, selectively cites other sources to support his fruitcake notion of climate science, and pulls info from such august tomes as "the great global warming swindle".

I lived in Sydney for five years (and did my PhD at a university full of IPCC authors, although I don't really work on climate change myself) but I'm now in Auckland.


Chris, I guess we'll have to disagree, this isn't the place to resolve complex differences, and despite your assessment of Plimer, I believe that many of his questions require a serious answer rather than the dismissive 'play the man, not the ball' response I am becoming used to, cheers, ian


I recommend living in a basement. It is pleasantly cool in the summer and doesn't get very cold in winter. Yay for being a hobbit!


ian: The ball is flat, and has multiple holes. The man should be persuaded to drop it.


Dave Bell #13 - the wheat belts can't just move north into Canada, it doesnt have the same area of suitable soil for wheat.
Ian Wilson #25 - the "medieval warm period" was pretty warm in Europe, possibly as warm as today, but was not a global phenomenon. Poor proxy resolution doesn't help, but every study carried out so far shows that different bits of the globe had varying temperatures during the warm period, such that it was not global in extent. The curret one is global, and following the predicted pattern of increased warming at the poles, stratospheric cooling and increased night time temperatures.

Of course the question is, how much would it cost to refit the buildings in Edinburgh with air conditioning? How much to improve drainage so the increased extreme weather events don't cause flooding? How much to re-train and equip farmers with new equipment for new crops? How many species will we lose due to habitat loss exacerbated by climate change? How fucked will the ocean be? Ocean acidification is going to be one of the biggest causes of problems in a few decades, within the lifetimes of many of the readers:


Ian #38 - I think you'll find that this book review grinds Plimers book into the dust:

Click on the show transcript button.



did that cheers, unflattering and some fair points but hardly 'grinds...into the dust' the reviewer is playing the ball rather than the man however, would be good to see a 'right to reply' from Plimer, cheers, ian


Of course, temperatures have been higher in the past. 40 Mya was a lot warmer than now, and PETM (c. 55Mya) even hotter.

I don't think Earth's *ever* had our CO2 levels, though.


Ian @33: This would be a book written by the geologist (not climatologist, you'll note) Ian Plimer who is a director of three mining companies, an associate of an anti-Kyoto treaty lobbying group, and a member of a right-wing think-tank with ties to the Liberal Party of Australia?

I think you might want to vet your sources more carefully. Sometimes when a scientist speaks out against the scientific consensus it's because they're a Copernicus or Einstein; but much more frequently it's because they're ill-informed cranks speculating beyond their own discipline, or because they've got a personal financial interest in the scientific consensus being wrong.

(Incidentally? If you want bad environmental news, google on "Ug99", "Siberian tundra methane", and "arctic shrinkage".)

Where I'm getting a ten degree figure from: the IPCC report suggests a 1.1 to 6.4 degree rise in temperature by 2100. However, the IPCC works by comparing climate models and discarding the outliers. It doesn't take into account either the shrinking Arctic ice cap or the Siberian tundra methane emissions -- both of which are recent events that have only just begun feeding into atmospheric CO2 levels within the past few years -- or the risk of substantial methane clathrate eruptions as the oceans warm (which haven't happened yet). I'm betting on the actual outcome being significantly worse than the IPCC predict because of second order effects not yet integrated into their models -- we seem to be a positive-feedback process transitioning between climactic steady states, rather than in a steady rise. (I don't think we can survive a 20 degree average warming, for example, but in the worst case that's what we may be in for: Carboniferous 2.0.)


On the geologic view of climate change:
Mankind has got to get its act together before it gets to take such a long-term view. Yes, geologically the current CO2 numbers are not extremal (the rate of increase, however, is). But biologically, its critical. Mankind has never lived through this. Our current species life, at around 0.5 - 1 Myrs is nothing to write home about.
A 5 Metre change in sealevel is nothing special geologically; its devastating if 14 out of the largest 20 cities will be swamped.

Ian @35: What contraindicated geological evidence ? There has been previous non-anthropogenic climate change, of course, but what evidence that this isn't human-induced ? You have two questions to answer: (1) why something else is responsible, and (2) why dumping so much greenhouse gases isn't changing the climate.

Thames freezing:
A lot of work was done in the 18th and 19th centuries to deepen and straighten the path of the Thames, to stop it freezing over (important commercial river, remember). Its dodgy to compare the Medieval Thames, meandering slowly over swampland in the 1500's, to todays Thames.

Medieval vineyards in England:
See http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2006/11/english-vineyards-again/
The current geographical spread and number of vineyards in England is unprecedented, historically.

Air conditioning:
While 35,000 or so people died due to a heatwave in Europe in 2003, climate change doesn't kill (most) by heatstroke, but starvation and disease. The change of rainfall leads to malnutrition and susceptibility to disease. I'm back from Uganda where most food eaten is grown locally: in the North and West, as the rainfall fell by half, people are dropping down to one poor meal a day, and falling prey to Malaria and other diseases.


It is not possible to reduce global CO2 emmissions via reducing overall energy use unless you do it by reducing the number of people - The third world is full of people who would really kind of like their food to be refrigirated, their water to be pumped, their sevage to be treated, their access to education and information to be real, and their transport to be faster than walking. All of this needs power. - The iconic form of green and cheap transport is the bike, which needs steel (Coal and iron) or aluminium (Solidified electricity, pretty much) This demand for energy from more and more people lifting themselves up from grinding powerty will keep the global energy use on an rising curve as far out as the eye can see irregardless of any drive for efficiency we engage in, and this is a *good thing*.
Electricity is not inherently harmful to the planet. Coalfired powerstations are, but they can, and should, be replaced with nukes and any other technology that is locally appropriate. (Solar energy is a crappy, crappy idea in sweden. Much less so in marroco.)



Plimer's connections understood...
unless proxies have some level of acceptance then we only have a very small and recent data base and hence my leaning to a geological explanation rather than pure climate modelling. I'm neither a geologist or a climatologist, but I've seen numbers of crap models in other fields...
and perhaps he is right to question the orthodoxy assuming he is not in it for personal interest or is a crank, I'm 3/4 through his book and for all that there may be some inconsistences, his arguments add light (for me lol)rather than just heat, and perhaps they could be addressed without playing the man...
Looking hard finds new stuff and new stuff provides opportunities for modelling...and dire predictions...and I'm betting things wont be that bad, I think we overinflate the effects of the last 60 yrs industrialisation etc...
Climate and steady state sound incongruous to me, continents trundle around the planet, the moon's orbit wobbles around the earth, the sun cycles up and down with its energy output, the solar system slides around the galaxy, and many other contributions to the story of our planet, a complex and dynamic system we barely understand..... and if I'm wrong maybe I'll c u in Carboniferous 2.0, ....but if billions die some will survive and if not we won't be the first mass extinction brought on by a careless but non-malicious nature

whew that's enough from me today, cheers, ian


@17 You got there before me, England has the highest incidence of tornados in the world.

@27 Edinburgh isn't exactly the highlaands, but (as an ex-native) it ain't on the Great Plains either.

Passim, US President Jimmy Carter commissioned a study (the Global 2000 Report to the President) in the late '70s which looks pretty prescient now, although perhaps a little pessimistic in terms of timescale (supposed to be a look at how the world would be in 2000).


I strongly suspect that if GW starts getting bad, Something Will Be Done. It is quite likely that the whole geoengineering field is going to go nuts in the next few decades.

However, climate is global and global consensus on the climate ideal is not going to be easy to get. I predict battling national geoengineering projects by the 2050s, possibly earlier.


martin @53: It is almost alarming how geo-engineering has gone from "we should only do this as a last resort" to "better start working out which versions might work".

It's alarming for several reasons. Firstly we have almost zero knowledge of the effects of various proposals. The most popular based on costs is creating sulphur rich clouds to increase albedo. We've been controlling sulphur emissions for decades because of acid rain effects, now we want to restart it? In the meantime the oceans continue to get more acidic.
Secondly the "technological fix" just reduces the requirement to effect the changes we really need. It just becomes business as usual.
Thirdly the likely outcome will be some favored corporations will get control of the process. If the chosen solution was a soletta as suggested in Charlie's short story, "Snowball's Chance", the costs and diversion of wealth to the favored contractor[s] would make the Iraq reconstruction money scandal look like petty cash.
Finally, once geo-engineering is started, even assuming the approaches are rational, we've opened up the Pandora's Box of allowing sovereign nations to do teh modifications they want. If that means that nation A can do something that results in nation B's climate and weather being changed that negatively impacts their agriculture, how will those secondary effects be controlled?

IMO, geo-engineering projects to mitigate climate change are going to have a lot of unforeseen negative consequences.


Re: Central Scotland's weather patterns. The strongest landed hurricane ever recorded in the UK hammered Central Scotland back in 1962 aided in large part by its geography. It's a fault valley, dropped ground between the Highlands to the north and the Borders to the south, running east-west and ideal for ducting the prevailing winds and landed Atlantic storms across it. It's not Great-Plains flat along its length but not far off and Edinburgh is the bulls-eye at the end of the corridor.


@55 Lst time I check Edinburgh was on the north fringe of the Southern Uplands (Pentland Hills)


Alex @ 54: If you wake up and find your house on fire, do you form a study group to come up with the optimum way to put it out? And how much time do you use to investigate the possible negative consequences of polluting the neighborhood with smoke and debris?

Everything I read from climate scientists suggest that within a very few years, it will be too late to avoid a major catastrophe. Unfortunately, people are notoriously short sighted.


@56: Edinburgh is mostly level with the rest of the Central Belt. It has the two crags of the Castle and Arthur's Seat (both volcanic in origin) in the city centre and it slopes off down towards the coast to the north and east, but that's it, basically.

The weather patterns in the Central Belt run mostly west-to-east along the valley from the Atlantic. It's one reason Edinburgh gets much less rain than Glasgow and the Western Isles; a lot of moisture is dumped before the weather systems reach the east coast and the firth. The Pentland hills are to the south so they don't shelter the city much from any rainstorms.


I notice that nuclear power has been mentioned a lot lately, and not only in this thread. I have two problems with it.

(1) Supply. The World Nuclear Association estimates that the world's supply of uranium will last from 80 to 200 years at today's rate of consumption. If everybody jumps on the nuclear bandwagon and builds 10 times as many nuclear power plants, we would then run out of fuel in 8 to 20 years. (And consider that the WNA is pro-nuclear, so their estimates may be optimistic.)

(2) Waste. The U.S. has spent 40 years fighting over the nuclear waste disposal problem. We seem to be no closer to a solution now than we were then. I don't know what the situation is in the EU and other parts of the world, but the problem is only going to get bigger if everybody goes nuclear.


Alan: firstly, the supply of known uranium deposits will only last 80-100 years if we don't recycle it and start burning MOX. I'd like to note that today's light water reactors are horribly inefficient -- they only extract 3% of the available energy from their fuel before it is considered "spent" and reclassified as waste. If we use high burn-up reactors such as the EPR, we can get a whole load more energy out of the same amount of fuel. And if we use fast breeders and run a plutonium cycle we can convert U238 into Pu239 and burn that instead of U235: there's 500 times as much U238 lying around. If you put high-burn together with a Pu fuel cycle you end up with roughly 1000-10,000 times the energy output from the available reserves; I think the wheels just fell off the argument about running out of fuel in 8-20 years.

Secondly, we haven't even tried to build a thorium reactor yet, although we've got good reason to believe it would work -- and thorium is considerably more abundant than uranium.

Thirdly, we haven't built a working fusion reactor yet because annual spending on fusion R&D appears to be on the order of $1-3Bn, tops -- the reason "fusion is fifty years away" is because we're delivering a trickle of funding into research and approaching ten-to-twenty year long critical path bottlenecks in sequence rather than in parallel. Throw some real money at it -- on the order of the Orion/Constellation budget (that NASA say is too little to allow them to get back to the moon by 2020) -- and we will probably be able to have working tokamaks in the 5Gw range by 2025-2030, and large numbers of them shortly thereafter.

Fourthly and finally, the problem with nuclear waste disposal is twofold: firstly, each nation is only looking at disposal options on their own geographical territory -- which means most of them are hampered by inappropriate geology -- and secondly, high level waste is nuclear material from which we have not extracted all the available energy -- in other words, it is unburned fuel. We should be developing new reactor designs such as molten salt reactors and integral fast reactors, to consume the waste productively, rather than burying it.


Tornados do not depend on flat plains. rolling hills are just fine, particularly with prominent river valleys.

We get fairly regular tornados in the northeast. It's not as common as in "tornado alley", but there is a sighting every couple years within a fairly small area (1/2 of CT, western MA, and hudson valley NY), with at least 5 major cat-4+ big damage twisters in the last 30 years, one of which I personally witnessed, and another where I was in the storm but never saw the twister.

It's not as mountainous here as in the highlands, but it's probably comparable to most of England or to the area around Edinburgh.

Even tornado alley in the midwest isn't really flat plains. The area of greatest tornado activity is centered around the mississippi, missouri and ohio valleys, and has the Ozark mountains right in the middle of it. Once you get out into the flattest of flat high plains (western NE/KS, colorado, wyoming, montana etc.), activity scales down and eventually peters out. The western edge of the plains has almost no activity, while there is significant activity throughout appalachia and all over the east coast.

It's not about plains. Rolling hill river valleys are the most conducive areas to tornado activity.


alan@57: "If you wake up and find your house on fire, do you form a study group to come up with the optimum way to put it out? And how much time do you use to investigate the possible negative consequences of polluting the neighborhood with smoke and debris?"

We have established the mechanism for putting out house fires over centuries. The procedures used are well understood, the infrastructure to handle those are in place. All it takes is a call to the local emergency services to initiate. Interestingly, the things that you might do yourself are even discouraged in some cases, as loss of life can be higher.

Dealing with local fires is a poor analogy when dealing with global warming. There is no known procedure to mitigate GW with a geo-engineering approach. There is no equivalent of the fire brigade in this case. however we do know that de-carbonizing energy production is a good way to go as far as reducing GW trends, thus making it a safer way to proceed. The issue in this case is how fast can we do this and at what economic cost (there may even be benefits).


@59: point 1 -- The world has known reserves of about 200 years of uranium ore at current consumption levels. Because of that we've stopped looking for it, pretty much. If we need lots more uranium in the next fifty years we'll start prospecting for it again and find more of it, although it might be more expensive to extract than it is now. There are other reactor fuel cycles that don't depend on uranium -- thorium is promising although the uranium reactors are so well-proven that commercial takeup of Th reactors is still a long way off. Breeder reactors work too, but they're not yet commercially viable since uranium is so cheap and plentiful at the moment.

Point 2 -- the US is crazy. Russia, China, the UK and France reprocess their nuclear waste, breaking up spent fuel rods, recovering the unburnt fuel as well as the inert U-238 for recycling into new fuel rods and in passing they separate out the very small amounts of dangerous stuff for long-term storage. In an attempt to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons the US made a half-assed decision (I think it was under President Carter) to provide a lead to the rest of the world and not reprocess their spent fuel rods, instead deciding to bury the partially-consumed elements whole (see "Yucca Mountain" for details). Of course by that time the US already had enough weapons-grade Pu239 in stock to keep their existing fleet of tens of thousands of nuclear warheads viable for millenia. This anti-proliferation gesture was thus regarded as a stunt by the rest of the world.

Reprocessing spent fuel rods would vastly increase the reserves of fuel available for reactors. I suspect that if the US does decide to make a dash for nukes the existing stockpiles of spent rods will be mined out pretty damn quick. The fuel reprocessing technology is well-proven and it can be bought from the UK or France for mere money. Being the US I'd expect a long, painful and expensive attempt at reinventing the wheel so that the resulting decade-long trillion-dollar boondoggle will have "Made in the USA" on the side (see "Yucca Mountain" for details).


Alex @ 62: "We have established the mechanism for putting out house fires over centuries."

I see my sarcasm went right past you. :-)

My point is that we don't have centuries to establish the correct mechanism for dealing with global warming. We may not even have years. It is even possible that we have already passed the tipping point to global disaster.

We may still have a slight chance of avoiding catastrophe, but delays such as you seem to propose will almost certainly eliminate any chance of preventing it.


Charlie@60 "Secondly, we haven't even tried to build a thorium reactor yet, although we've got good reason to believe it would work -- and thorium is considerably more abundant than uranium."

India appears to be moving in that direction with a 300MW Thorium reactor that is supposed to come online in 2011. I think the US had an experimental Thorium reactor back in the 1960's which was abandoned.

"Throw some real money at it -- on the order of the Orion/Constellation budget (that NASA say is too little to allow them to get back to the moon by 2020) -- and we will probably be able to have working tokamaks in the 5Gw range by 2025-2030, and large numbers of them shortly thereafter."

Nice if it were true. It is certainly surprising how little money is spent on fusion (


Charlie @ 60: No doubt you are right that many of these problems could be overcome with sufficient R&D. However, I still believe the following:

* Nuclear fuel is finite. Even if it last 200 years, I expect the human race to be around significantly longer than that.

* Nuclear power is expensive. Plants are expensive, security is expensive, disposal is expensive. R&D to use thorium or current nuclear waste is expensive. Accidents at plants are potentially horribly expensive.

* Nuclear power is long-term. Do you really see any chance of a host of new nuclear power plants in the next ten years? We have a short term crisis. AGW needs to be handled now by eliminating CO2 emissions. Doing this ten years from now will likely be too late. (Do I expect us to accomplish this? Not really.)

* Nuclear power is expensive. In the long term (say 10 to 10 years from now), I expect that solar power and other renewable sources will be cheaper than nuclear power.

That's according to my crystal ball, Charlie. Let me know what yours has to say!

P.S. Keep your books coming! I love them.


Alex @ 54 - you may note I did not discuss the *desirability* of geoengineering, merely that I considered it inevitable.

Mostly because Alan @ 57 has a point - when GW becomes a serious issue, the political impact of the optimistic and aggressive folk promoting "trust me we can fix it" will overwhelm the namby-pamby "this is poorly understood, untested, and horrifically dangerous" 'lunatic fringe.' (I'd like to note that a lot of folk I personally know jumped straight from GW denier to "start pumping the sulfur now" cheerleader in the past few years.)

Do you seriously believe every industrialized country in the world will react responsibly when presented with this temptation? I suspect a *few* might ... but some will go in guns blazing. Shortly after that, we have competing nationalistic geoengineering programs, most likely with incompatible climate goals, unpredicted side effects, and nationalistic ****waving commitment.

The resulting climatic havoc will probably be quite interesting.


Mr Wilson.

Just about everything you have said in your comments is incorrect. If you are getting most of your arguments from Pilmer, that is no surprise.

It's not a matter of "a different ball", Pilmer makes up his own facts. For example, he claims that volcanos put out more CO2 than humans do. This is demonstrably false.

Indeed he has gone beyond his book and now says:

"Over the past 250 years, humans have added just one part of CO2 in 10,000 to the atmosphere. One volcanic cough can do this in a day."

which takes things to an absurd level. Look at, e.g. the Mauna Loa CO2 record. See any spikes due to large eruptions like Pinatubo?

Pilmer's a geologist, I'm a climatologist. Why is it then that even I can refute his geological arguments?

I wouldn't call Pilmer's book "non-fiction".


martin @67: I think I am in agreement with you.


The extractable reserves of uranium depend on the price you are willing to pay - at the current rates, yes, we will eventually mine those reserves out. This doesnt really matter much, because uranium extraction is currently around 2 % of the final cost of nuclear electricity (fuel is more, but refining and enrichment and so on dont go up in price because ore does.)
- which means that a tenfold increase in the price of uranium will up the price of power from a reactor by roughly 20% - Now, I didnt pick "tenfold" at random, but because the japanese have demonstrated that they can extract uranium from seawater for less than that. There are 4000 million tonnes of uranium in the sea. which will last us untill *after* the sun burns up the planet.


alan@64: So if you little about fires and I handed you water to put out a frying pan fat fire, you would use it?

Ill-considered actions can make things worse. Suppose we drained economies to launch solettas, would that necessarily be a good way to proceed? Can we afford to ignore the environmental effects of acidic oceans by continuing to burn fossil carbon fuels?

I agree with you that we have delayed too long and that there is a certain level of GW built into the system. But that doesn't mean that we should start or allow some expensive, possibly hare-brained schemes to be used.

IMO, the solutions are fairly evident.

1. Shift taxation to carbon production away from labor to discourage use. Simultaneously invoke cap-and-trade to cap CO2 production and allow import tariffs against nations refusing to follow.

2. Provide incentives to de-carbonize energy production. That includes: generation by non-fossil fuels from nuclear to solar. This may require building smart power grids to move energy long distances to where it is needed.

3. Increase energy efficiency, especially building heating and cooling. A huge retrofit plan would stimulate the economy as well.

4. Increase CO2 removal from the atmosphere (and by shifting equilibrium, the oceans) with tree planting and possibly mechanical atmospheric CO2 scrubbers.

None of these options requires unknown technologies, although fusion reactors might be very handy if they appeared. Price signals to shift business as usual consumption to reduce fossil carbon use would help economies to make the micro-decisions to change behavior patterns and incentivize new technologies. Tree planting is easy and cheap and could be financed by government with a small tax surcharge or redirecting energy revenues with tax incentives.

Only if all this really doesn't work should we consider other geo-engineering projects like sulphur cloud production or solettas.


RE: speed and cost - Nuclear is much, much cheaper than wind or solar, on a per kwh basis. if you count externalities, it starts looking cheaper than coal. Now it is, indeed, also capital intensive as all hell. When you buy a plant, what you are effectively doing is that you are paying up front for most of a million electric bills for more than a decade. This would be a much stronger objection if it wasnt for the fact that the world currently has a savings glut looking for productive investments.
Re time: France replaced the entirety of their electricity generation with nuclear and hydro in less than 20 years, and there is no reason why that example couldnt scale up without limit. Contrast this with danish energy policy - Denmark is, and has been for a very long time, the single most heavily commited country on earth when it comes to renewable energy, and the result has been a power sector which.. burns coal. We plants a lot of windmills to feel all warm and fuzzy, but the actual heat in the radiators and the power in the circuts is 80+% coal. And it will be 60+% coal in twenty years if we stick with our insanely ambitious goals for wind. Wind and sun is not a fucking solution, it is a way to kill the planet while feeling selfrighteous.


Two quick question/comments:

1. My understanding was that the rise in average temperature caused by global warming is likely to involve a decrease in night time cooling, rather than solely an increase in maximum daytime temp. So, do the models really predict 45 degree summers in Montreal, or just warmer nights? (the latter is ecologically very significant, but less likely to kill people outright)

2. It's pleasantly warm, with a daytime temperature in the range 17-20 degrees, dipping to 12-14 degrees at night.

It's a good thing there are people who like that sort of weather, or Scotland would be depopulated. For me, 17-20 is chilly; we heat our house to 21 in winter and wear long sleeves and sweatshirts -- I'd much prefer to sleep in a 25 C bedroom. Open windows weather is roughly 21-28 C, and we turn on the A/C (set no colder than 25.5) when the outside temp is higher than that.


Re #73

Yes, the warming at night is expected to be more than the daytime warming, just as the winter and arctic warming are larger than summer or tropical warming. Which, incidentally, is a problem for geoengineering - you can't invert that pattern by reducing sunlight.

In fact measurements of skin temperature (the soil/water, that is, not the lower atmosphere) already show a decreased diurnal cycle.

Re: 67

A consequence of reducing sunlight is to lower the land/sea temperature contrast, which is the driving force behind the monsoons. Climate model studies for reasonable aerosol levels show about a 50% decrease in rainfall over India and much of China. Both nuclear powers. Havoc, indeed.


TJ@72: "Nuclear is much, much cheaper than wind or solar, on a per kwh basis. if you count externalities, it starts looking cheaper than coal."

Is that nuclear industry propaganda? Nuclear is much more expensive than coal. Here is a report on that issue as part of a study of the future of nuclear.


In the US, wind is already moving to within reach of economic costs of fossil fuels, the outstanding issues being high capital costs and location.


Alex@69 I'm sorry, I came here for an argument. ;)


http://www.externe.info/ - The negative externalities of coal amount to roughly 5 euro cent /kwh. This is higher than the price of power from european new build nuclear as given by http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf02.html
So basically, externalities would still make coal a bad deal if it produced power for nothing. I really hate coal. Can you tell?
The MIT study gets (much) higher costs because it is about the US, and american new build gets soaked with a risk premium on their capital due to the severe regulatory risks. It still a better overall deal than coal.


The problem with geo-engineering: it doesn't actually reverse the process. Most geo-engineering proposals involve reflecting sunlight, whereas global warming is caused by heat being kept in. The trapped heat changes the patterns of world temperature (it's the warmer nights and warmer poles again). So to geo-engineer a solution to some of the more pressing problems (particularly melting icecaps) you'd actually have to make the equatorial and temperate regions colder than they are now. Such is my understanding: does that sound like a good idea to anyone?

Thomas@50: I think you make some unexamined assumptions. I wrote something fairly long about this here, and I'm not going to repeat it all on Charlie's blog. Care to have a look and tell me your thoughts?


Alex @ 71: I agree with your proposed solutions. All should help. But these need to be done fast. Opponents of change will use uncertainty and delay as tactics to avoid having to do anything that costs them money.

(Anyone who doubts this needs only to look at the U.S. health care debate. What a disaster...)


Thomas @ 72: The cost of solar power is dropping dramatically as new technology emerges. After all, it is still an infant industry. I expect its cost curve over time will look a lot like that of computers. (After all, its main raw material is sand!) Once solar power takes off, large scale production will also reduce costs significantly.

In the long term (say 10 to 20 years out), solar will be much cheaper than nuclear. In the short term, nuclear will be too slow to ramp up, ever if there were not a lot of political opposition.


Points on "Climate denial / cynicism":

Stating that the algorithms used to create projected trends in temperature, such as the "hockey stick" graph, are proprietary and can't be released to anyone else, make it difficult to reproduce the methods leading to those projected trends. The same goes for claiming confidentiality on raw historical climate data, or just getting rid of the raw data and relying on the processed result, as the Climatic Research Unit appears to have done.

If you reply to sensationalist claims that the Earth is heading into a new Ice Age on the lines of, "you can't extrapolate what's going to happen over the long term with such a short sample; it might get cooler, it might not, it's the climate changing the way it's been changing for millions of years", as was done in the 1970s, don't be surprised to have your comments thrown back at you when you claim the Earth is heating up from a set of equivalently short data.


Alan, it's only since 2001 that we've had solar cells that produce more electricity over their working lifetime than they take to manufacture -- smelting high-purity silicon isn't cheap.

Moreover, solar is less than useful at high latitudes (for example, up here we get only six hours of daylight per 24 hours in winter). Nor is it terribly useful at night. Sure you can build energy storage onto the back of it to sustain base load overnight -- but that brings its own efficiency drains.

Finally, we don't count all the externalities of solar power plants in when we're costing them up. Whereas the nuclear industry is obliged to internalize all its externalities -- waste disposal and reprocessing, for example -- so we have a good idea of its lifetime costs.

Regardless of what kind of energy mix we end up with (whether predominantly solar, or nuclear, or somewhere in between) one thing is for sure: the days of cheap energy are drawing to a close, because we can no longer afford to ignore the externalities of burning hydrocarbons.


August @ 74: I have commented on a number of blogs that one possible disastrous consequence of AGW would be a nuclear war between China and India, possibly spreading to other great powers. As monsoons stop and the Himalayan glaciers disappear, droughts in both countries will put a lot of pressure on politicians.

I wish I could believe that the U.S. will now take strong steps under Obama to stop global warming, but nothing looks encouraging so far.


Sorry. My #81 comment should have been directed to William @ 74.

By the way, I want to compliment everybody on this thread. It is a pleasure to not have to deal with the personal attacks and extremist language that I find in so many American political blogs.

Is everybody over there naturally polite, or is it just that the crazies haven't yet found this blog?


Charlie @ 80: Some of the advances in nanotechnology, especially in the creation of nanometer-scale shapes, may eventually lead to major breakthroughs in solar technology.

It is conceivable that with the right kind of nanometer-scale shapes, we could capture almost 100% of the incident light's energy. This would take care of you guys up north! I don't look for this anytime soon, though.

Finally, some externalities disappear with solar power. (If nothing else, there is no radioactive waste involved.) For example, we have a lot of rooftops which we could use for these devices, eliminating the need for some industrial power plant sites. If we ever get some decent electrical storage devices, we might even be able to eliminate the power grid, though I admit this is unlikely in the near future.


Alan @82: if the crazies discover this blog, they will shortly thereafter discover the moderation policy.


Hmm. lost a post in the machinery, I think - ExternE calculated the cost of the externalities of coal at.. well, actually at a lot of diffrent numbers depending on the exact details, but typically around 5 eurocent /kwh. This is higher than the actual production cost from european new build nuclear, so coal would have to cost less than zero to be competetive with externalities counted. The MiT study gets much higher numbers because the capital cost for US nuclear new build is extreme. (higher interest on the loans due to fear lobbying will manage to stop construction and the loan will default, basically) - But nuclear still comes out ahead, overall.

Solar, as a technology, is dependant on geography. The financial case for solar looks very very good if you are in a sunny location with cheap land and peak power demand that strongly correlates with the sun. - Basically, "las vegas" and anyplace else in or near a desert. Its never going to work out well for sweden, canada, ect - the land costs alone make it unattractive.


@82: Thanks Alan. I suspect that our collective craziness doesn't extend to bad manners. Either that or people noticed the size of the linguistic arsenals toted around here, and decided that being polite is a better way to go. Either way, I'm enjoying it too.

That said: nuclear. Personally, I don't like it, for the same reason I didn't like it the first time. The waste problem lasts a lot longer than the benefits do.

Right now, assuming civilization collapses, billions die, and the survivors pick up the pieces, at least they won't have to worry about whether those pieces are radioactive. Note that I'm not worried about nuclear war, but about medical isotopes, smoke alarms, all the contamination from ordinary industrial stuff that happens to come from a reactor.

Another problem is that, in collapse situations, the technologies that tend to vanish are the large-scale, complex ones that only a few people really understand. In many past cases, those were the irrigation systems and canals (and feel free to check, there's lot of archeology on dead canal systems). I'd suggest that a nuclear reactor definitely fits the bill of a complex system that only a few understand, and therefore it's vulnerable. Not good.

As for wind and solar, those are easy. Even without solar cells, you can create a decent solar thermal system with a bunch of focusing mirrors and something to turn the heat into electricity. Not hard.

As for wind, I'm surprised that no one's talking about power kites yet. There's a lot of power up in the jet stream, and that's where I'd float a windmill. There are some interesting power schemes for using kites that appear (at first glance) to be in the range for fossil fuel.

As for using fossil fuel for plastics, pharmaceuticals, and all that--true. But all you need are the hydrocarbons, and people are already working on getting those out of organic wastes (trash to gas). I'll bet that, eventually, this will be close to a closed system, with plants producing readily convertable plastics that can be cooked down and remanufactured at the ends of their lifespans. We really should be doing that now, but you know, bureaucracies have a huge moment of inertia.

In any case, the biggest source of free energy is......

Conservation! Things as counter-intuitive as putting fewer bends in the HVAC pipes (or insulating the roof so that you need less HVAC) can bring in as much energy as plastering the roof with solar panels.

And people have been taking strong action on global warming. Did you notice that land rush in the Arctic last year? Sheesh.

BTW, Charlie, I must add in a gentle correction. If there's a runaway greenhouse with bubbling clathrate goodness, it won't be Carboniferous 2.0, it will be (take your pick) Devonian 2.0, Triassic 2.0, Jurassic 2.0, or Paleocene 2.0. In the Carboniferous, oxygen levels were actually higher than they are today, leading to those giant centipedes that the Walking with Critters studio loves so much.


"Postscript: to those of you who want to quibble over whether current climate change is anthropogenic in origin, I ask this question: if you wake up in the night and smell smoke, do you think to yourself, 'oh, it's just a nearby lightning strike/bush fire — that's perfectly natural' and go back to sleep?"

Actually I *do* go back to sleep. But, then, I live in California where we already have a fire season.


It isn't just Pilmer/Plimer, there's also Christopher Booker over at the Daily Telegraph, who conflates two SEPARATE argumentss.....
"Global Warming is a myth" - he's lying, and deliberately so.
- and -
"Governments will exploit it for more taxes, without any significant result" - which is, probably, unfortinately, true.
But separating those arguments is an uphill struggle.


The standard plan for disposing of nuclear waste is to bury it in such a way that it can be retrived if we find a use for it, but will stay there indefinetly if we all just drop dead, upload to the singularity or all play warcraft 3009 to the point of forgetting about things like "Sex". This is a perfectly sufficient solution, since anyone who is capable and motivated enough to dig it up from beneath 500 yards of bedrock by implication also know exactly what they are doing. If we never do find a use for it, well give it a millenia or two, and the waste will have decayed to the point where its no more radioactive than the original ore. - and there is a word for a pile of rock which has some slightly radioactive material buried somewhere inside, and it isnt "waste repository". its "Mountain"


heteromeles @ 86: Conservation is a big issue over here in the States. Obama was laughed at by Republicans when he told people to check the pressure in their cars' tires, but he was right.

Replacing incandescent bulbs is another big energy saver, especially if you replace them with LED lights. The Bush administration passed a law that all light bulbs must be 25 to 35 percent more efficient by 2012 to 2014. This should eventually get rid of incandescent bulbs over here.


The long term nuclear waste storage option is shape it into ground penetrator bombs and drop into subduction zones. Hey presto, very hard to get back and it ends up in the mantle for a few million years.

But as Charlie says it would be better to use it all up.
I am however more sure that the other main reason nuclear power isn't everywhere is the proliferation danger. I know there are technological ways around it, but our governments seem very bad at actually trying to do anything.

Ian #46 - I'm afraid you seem to have misunderstood things. If Plimer claims that the excess CO2 we have now is not human caused, but the science shows it isn't, that means we have lots of CO2 and it is all our fault. If he claims that CO2 does not drive climate, and also shows that it can, he contradicts himself and demonstrates that human produced CO2 is having an effect on the climate. Then trying to blame the sun falls foul of actual observations, because if it was down to the sun you would not get stratospheric cooling.

So following that chain of logic and evidence, Plimers argument no longer exists, because it is wrong in every way.


Charlie @ 80: Solar cells didn't reach energy breakeven till 2001? Schaefer & Hagedorn's paper in 1992 gave an energy return of between 3-6, depending upon latitude. Palz & Zibetta came up with much higher numbers in 1991.

Solar cells are a distraction from this debate anyway, the real energy production comes from solar water heating, which can produce kiloWatts per panel at comparable prices to fossil fuels. China has these on 30 million roofs and that's growing at 15% per year. Spain and Israel have made them compulsory on new buildings. It's low tech and you can buy them right now.

They're going on the house I'm building in Wellington, NZ, along with passive solar space heating. The goal is never to have to pay a heating or a gas bill ever again, and that's easy with existing technology in a climate not much better than Scotland.


Thats why we dont do that. Getting rid of it irretrivably would be daft, because it might very well end up being worth considerably more than its weight in gold. - this is more of a concern for a once-through cycle, but heck, even exotic actinitides could end up having uses we havent tought of yet.


@89: Thomas: two words: Yucca Mountain. If they can't figure out how to store waste in a hole in one of the driest places in the US, because golly darn, it's geologically active and there's groundwater that can move radioactive waste into an aquifer people use, I rest my case. There are few places on Earth where the waste will actually stay where we put it long enough for it to decay to the point of relative harmlessness.

Besides which, I don't think nuclear advocates are doing a great job of factoring waste disposal into the cost of nuclear energy. Someone can fact check me on this, I'd be happy to know that they actually care.

@90: Yep, I agree, although LEDs are still a bit expensive, and those darned fluorescent fixtures have enough mercury in them to make recycling them a pain. Still, I love LEDs. Not sure what the environmental problems associated with them, are.

Pretty routinely, on the way to work I'm puttering along in my little old semi-efficient jalopy, and getting cut off by these bronto-mobile SUVs with Bush bumper stickers (W'04. On a newish SUV). It's sad, really. If the republicans really were conservative in the truest sense of the word, I'd have more respect for them.

As it is, I see these guys who have saddled themselves with massive car and house debt to feel like they are something, and it's sad, if they weren't so dangerous on the highway and to their neighbors.

Danger to their neighbors? Yep, here in California, those republicans don't seem to support sane vegetation management for fire safety, nor do they think it's worth paying the taxes to support an effective fire department. Not safe people to be neighbors with, unless you need to borrow a big truck from someone.


What we really, ideally, need is: a source of combustible hydrocarbons that is carbon neutral with respect to the atmospheric carbon cycle -- i.e. not mined from fossil sources, but synthesized using atmospheric CO2 as input so that when it's burned it's just recirculating.

The work on bioengineering algae to produce long-chain lipids in significant quantities is one promising route; if it works it combines the advantages of solar with our existing fossil fuel infrastructure. Whether it can be commercialized on a large enough scale in time is another matter.


As amusing as this is, I think I will hit the sack - I will however say that yucca mountain has one, and only one, real problem as a solution to americas nuclear waste. "Reid" There is no way for radiation to escape from there before its decayed to the point of irrelevance - the flows mentioned are so slow that decay does, in fact, render the radiation harmless before it reaches the surface, and that presupposes that it leaches into the groundwater in the *first* place. Which will not happen. The swedes measured the rate of erosion of the copper containers waste is buried in under any remotely plausible conditions, and they will endure a minimum of 200000 buried in bedrock. And after that, the waste itself is virtrified. IE: a solid block of glass. Not encased in glass, its been turned into a solid block of glass. Glass simply does not disolve in water. Break the block and you now have smaller blocks of glass. That still wont disolve.


Boredeaux - freudian slip?


guthrie @ 91: Ground penetrator bombs are a nice idea, but subduction zones? Those are a long way under water, and I doubt you could get any kind of bomb down there with enough force to dig in very far.

But even without digging in, it would be hard for most people to retrieve anything from the bottom of the Mariana Trench - especially in a non-technical civilization.


@96: Pleasant dreams Thomas. Right under the screen, I've got a couple of hunks of vitrified material that washed out of a mountain Some time ago. They're called agate.

In any case, the whole discussion really is like an addict talking about how to keep up the habit and lead a normal life simultaneously. It's hard enough if you're only addicted to coffee, but if your life revolves around an addiction to non-renewable energy, that's scary.

Oh wait, mine does. Damn.

@98: I'm not worried about people retrieving stuff from the bottom of the Mariana Trench, I'm worried about it getting taken up by animals, that are eaten by animals that migrate up to near the surface, and there become part of the oceanic food web. Of course, we already have a pretty good model of how that works, thanks to the US and what they're fiddling around with in the Marshal Islands (think Bikini Atoll, think nerve gas).

It sort of works, but the addiction metaphor works here too: "what if I could take the effects of my addiction and throw them in the ocean where they won't hurt anybody?"


@93 I'm not sure the Old Ones would appreciate us nuking the subduction zones [g]


heteromeles @ 101: My guess is that glassification of the waste and enclosing it in non-corrosable materials should be enough to keep it out of the biosystem.

But I agree that we don't want it coming back to haunt us.


I beleive the only "large" (500 MW) power plants being built in the US today are gas turbine. Hydro is limited in location and coal and nuclear can't be built politically so their cost is currently essentially infinite. Solar and Wind are also geographically limited, use too much land per unit produced, and are not dense enough for industrial use, think aluminum production.


Bill @ 104: The biggest problem with solar and wind in the U.S. is the lack of a good nation-wide electrical grid.

Solar energy could easily be produced in the Southwest, where much land is otherwise useless. We have enough wind power, mainly in the Great Plains, to supply the 100% of U.S. electrical needs, but getting it to the east and west coasts (where most of it is used) is virtually impossible as things stand now. Obama has mentioned a nation-wide power grid as one of the things he wants to accomplish during his administration. No doubt Republicans will just say "No." We will see what happens...


"In the 1980s it was "Temperatures aren't rising".

In the 1990s they switched to "Temperatures are rising but it's not caused by humans".

In the 2000s it's "Temperatures are rising, it's due to humans, but it's too late to do anything now, if only we'd known twenty years ago."

And now we've moved on to Stage Four of the debate:

This is a wonderfull opportunity for our beloved corporate masters to unleash the power of geoengineering.

The title of the piece, by the staggeringly dishonest and opportunistic Bjorn Lomborg, is "Climate engineering: It's cheap and effective". Given that it's never really been tried before, I'd be interested to know what he bases his assesment on.

Given that just a year or two ago he declared global warming to be a hoax, I'd also be interested in who paid him for today's column.



Ian_M@106 - the Realclimate folks ripped the Bickel and Lane paper espoused by Lomborg here:


I agree that Lomborg is dishonest. Has been ever since he published "The Skeptical Environmentalist".


Charlie @60

Thirdly, we haven't built a working fusion reactor yet because annual spending on fusion R&D appears to be on the order of $1-3Bn, tops -- the reason "fusion is fifty years away" is because we're delivering a trickle of funding into research and approaching ten-to-twenty year long critical path bottlenecks in sequence rather than in parallel. Throw some real money at it -- on the order of the Orion/Constellation budget (that NASA say is too little to allow them to get back to the moon by 2020) -- and we will probably be able to have working tokamaks in the 5Gw range by 2025-2030, and large numbers of them shortly thereafter.

This is very true. What is even more irritating from my point of view is that government funding for fusion is dropping at the moment, at least in the UK. The Science and Technology Funding Council is dropping funding for all types of fusion from £11mil per year to £9mil per year. Whilst this is not the only source of funding for this research, it is quite a large one. This for a field that is attracting the very best students (my university had three funded PhD places available, all of which went to people who were the best undergrad. at their universities) seems like madness to me.

To get to the point, short-term thinking by governments will damn us all, and if anyone has any ideas on how to encourage funding of fusion, I would love to hear them.


Alan @ 83, a nuclear war between China and India would be disastrous for them, but the limited number of warheads would give the rest of us global cooling without being pushed into a full fledged nuclear winter. And it would cut the carbon dioxide emissions from one-third of the worlds population down to about zero.

Not a pleasant scenario, but maybe good for science fiction authors.


Charlie@48, Carboniferous 2.0? So Bob Silverberg's excellent _Our Lady of the Sauropods_ has predictive value? Excellent!

(that has one of the best last lines in all of SF)


Re: nuclear vs solar (or other renewables)
The elephant in the room with nuclear is security.
Security of supply: ultimately does anyone doubt that if it was required, the US or France would use military force to guarantee it gets its necessary Uranium ? Two or three large reactors could probably supply Irelands needs, but even being in the EU we would feel uncomfortable being down the pecking order for Uranium supplies.

Security as safety: running a complex engineering system means lots of properly trained engineers, open review, etc. You are seeding the ground with people who can misuse and build weapons.
What countries do you trust, politically, over the next 50 years ? If you think development is the way out of poverty, away from backwards religious fundamentalism, you can't deny countries like Iraq and Afghanistan as much energy as Japan. So if you're not in favour of putting reactors in eg. Kabul, stockpiling enough materials in Afghanistan that the country is independent of suppliers in the medium term, and training lots of local engineers, then you need to ensure there are non-nuclear energy sources, ie renewables.

Not that I don't agree with Charlie: development of new nuclear technologies is crucial. But security means a mix of sources, and power trading, is necessary in the future.


@Alan 104: The deserts are useless. Argh!

That's such an ignorant phrase. I'll list some of the problems in just a sec, but one massively important thing to remember is that there are many square kilometers of vacant, ecologically dead landscape across the US. They're called rooftops, and that would solve the problem of the distribution grid too.

Problem with this solution is that it's complicated and not that profitable. Right now, big developers are trying to put big solar plants on government land out in the desert (because BLM land is supposedly free) rather than putting them where they'd be appropriate (like where people have trashed the land through previous hare-brained schemes, inappropriate farms that are now wasteland, and yes, rooftops).

Where to start:
1. Diversity. There's a world biodiversity hotspot where they want to put the power lines, and there's a lot of biodiversity (including some wild crop ancestors) where they want to put the solar plants. That's a lose it forever type of resource.
2. Sand. Has anybody ever seen what sand etching does to equipment? I've been hearing about and reading the environmental impact statements for these plants, and keeping them working isn't a problem they're thinking about. There's a lot of blowing sand out there, and keeping the panels and mirrors scratch-free is going to be a massive maintenance chore.
3. Fire. Many of the fires in southern California are due to sparks from power lines during high winds. So, we need more power lines? Yes, I agree that the grid sucks, but I don't think that adding more lines haphazardly is a good idea, especially since the power companies seem to think it's appropriate to try subvert the environmental review process, rather than building good lines. Since the companies are starting to collect the responsibility for some massive fires, perhaps they're going to get a clue, but currently their idea seems to be to send the lines through parks and damn the consequences. It's not a way to build a smart grid, that's for sure.
4. Plant siting. I'm aware of one solar plant that is sited in part on a desert wash. Let's think this through. Desert washes *flood*. Aside from the fact that they're also where one finds a lot of that biodiversity I already mentioned, I'm really unhappy about the thought of losing some large section of the plant every decade or two when a flash flood wipes out a chunk of the plant. I haven't seen too many plans, but from the complaints I'm hearing within the environmental community, a lot of the other proposals are similarly destructive and clueless.

Now, not all developers are quite that stupid. There are others who have taken years to carefully design wind plants (to think of another example) to minimize the impacts of their work.

I'm not against solar and wind, and I think that there are plenty of reasonable locations for large solar and wind plants, or better yet, even more distributed solar systems that don't need a massive grid.

However, the attitude right now in the US green energy movement is that it's gold rush time at government expense, and many of the people who are pushing these projects seem to be focused on profit maximization alone, rather than on designing truly green projects.

Perhaps in Europe, people are talking about paving the Sahara with solar cells so that they don't have to fret about changing their lifestyles?

Sorry people, the best place to fix these things is starting in your own house and back yard, because there are no truly empty places on this planet. There are only people who think that, if they don't know what's there, then what happens there won't matter.


heteromeles @ 112: I mentioned roof tops in an earlier post (85). These are fine for homes and light industry, but if you are running a heavy industry, you have a real problem. I live in Oregon, which has had a role in U.S. aluminum production:

"The Columbia River has a key role in the history of aluminum production in America, as the industry was the first major industrial customer of Columbia River hydropower. Over time, the industry grew to employ around 11,000 people in the Northwest and consume 3,150 megawatts of electricity, enough to light three cities the size of present-day Seattle for a year."

You're not going to find 3 gigawatts of electrical power on a rooftop!

Personally, I love deserts. I have spent many months in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California. It is a fabulous place, though not so fun in the summer with temperatures in the 120° range.

Nonetheless, there are parts of deserts in the U.S. that are biologically dead and have little other value. I am prepared to sacrifice these areas to prevent a global warming catastrophe.

Your other concerns are real, but so is AGW. I'd rather work around your problems than have sea levels rise 300 feet in two or three hundred years (I may not be around then, but my great-great-grandchildren may be).


Hugh @ 109: While many of us would survive a limited nuclear war, I would be concerned about fallout and other long-term side effects.

The other problem is how to limit a nuclear war. China and Russia have long had problems with each other. Given a famine, I see no reason why China would not attempt to take over Siberia for its agricultural resources. The war won't be quite so limited if Russia responds with its nuclear weapons.

And don't forget that North Korea, South Korea, and Japan are geographically right at ground zero. If Japan becomes involved in the war, the U.S. could get dragged into it as well. Armageddon, anyone?


@ Alan 112: The solar plant I was railing about is near Anza Borrego.

I agree with you that there are lots of trashed areas of desert. Unfortunately, many are privately owned. Most of the proposed development is to take place on government land (BLM primarily) which, as you well know, is not so trashed. It's another one of those perverse incentive situations, and it's really frustrating to watch. I'd be thrilled to move some of the solar plants out of the BLM desert lands and onto the salted up farm fields, say, south of Bakersfield. However, the land costs and ownership rights seem to be getting in the way of letting the (former) farmers farm the sun and get some value from their land. Hopefully this will change.

I also agree with you about heavy industry needs energy that will be difficult to get from rooftop solar. Still, I'm not sure that rampaging greed and in-your-face development practices are good forces to drive development of a sustainable national electric grid. At least so far, these forces seem to be causing more problems than they are solving.


Re 81:

Code is not proprietary, it has to be supplied to the granting agency on request. It does not have to be supplied to anyone who asks for it. Nonetheless, free code is out there, Wahl and Amman put their temperature reconstruction code (written in R) on the web, there is plenty of free code on Mann's site as well. The "hockey stick" is a misnomer. Look carefully at Mann's old paper (1998). Error bars are supplied, the past temperature can be basically any sane curve within those error bars, and most such curves don't look like a hockey stick, though the mean does, to a degree.

You seem to think the heating/cooling predictions are a matter of extrapolating trends, they are not. It is a matter of physics, and today's predictions are not that different from those made by Arrhenius in the 1890s. And no, we were not calling for a new ice age in the 1970s, I was there, doing research, and climate change papers even then were overwhelmingly about the effect of increased CO2, e.g.

S Manabe, RT Wetherald - J. Atmos. Sci, 1975 The Effects of Doubling the C02 Concentration on the Climate of a General Circulation Model. VOL. 32, NO. 1 JOURNAL OF THE ATMOSPHERIC SCIENCES JANUARY 1975

The heating we have seen in recent decades is a confirmation of model predictions, some, such as for example stratospheric cooling, going back to the mid 1960s. Is there any other explanation for stratospheric cooling?


Charlie, given your hope for algae, what other green technologies are you excited about or interested in? Will we be receiving a companion post to this one, about those other technologies? If so, I'd like to recommend it for WorldChanging.


Europe doesnt really have a common energy policy as such - there is the EU cap and trade system, and some efforts to create a common market for power, but the energy is still very much a national issue - that said, the cap and trade system has created some common incentives, at least, so everyone has some sort of plan for reducing carbon emissions - All of which are based on either nukes, windturbines, conservation, or some combination of the above - Germany also subsidises solar heavily, but this is, to be blunt, a complete waste of money - the geography, weather, and population density are all massively wrong for it. In theory, we could, indeed, get daytime peak power from north africa via HVDC superconductors, but this is not an idea with any political traction because.. ehh.. part of the idea of reworking the energy infrastructure is to become /less/ dependant on tinpot states, not more.


QUOTE: Our Seattle's also pretty far north on our west coast, and rainy and moderate.


Seattle is 47deg N and change, that's about the same as Nantes on the French Atlantic coast or Dijon in the middle.

On the other hand, London is 51deg N and Edinburgh is 55deg N - that's the same at Ketchikan Harbor, Alaska.

The US doesn't extend as far north as a lot of people think.


@44 I live (and grew up) in the Canadian grain belt. We fed the UK once dangnabbit and we can do it again! Also we aren't irrigation intensive...it can be done though, it was part of the reason for the creation of Lake Diefenbaker (though the irrigation program was massively scaled back prior to construction of the dams if I recall).

Also they grow wild rice in the northern lakes. I'd like to see the harvest in action sometime...


Dave @ 119: Yup. And speaking of placing common stereotypes about large North American countries in at least slightly more meaningful context, a majority of the major metro population centers in the Great White North (i.e., Canada) are further south than Seattle is. [1]

Indeed, parts of Ontario are at the same latitude as northern California. (I understand, however, that there are a few differences in the respective climates.)

Going south from the equator, the same general range of distances puts you in Patagonia, or on the South Island of New Zealand, or alternatively (if you really want to get away from crowds) somewhere in the general neighborhood of the Kerguelen Islands. This exercise may also serve as a useful reminder of just how unequal the distribution of large land masses is, on this planet . . .

[1] Including Ottawa and Montreal at about 45 and a half deg N, Toronto at about 43 and a half (same as southern Oregon), and Quebec at not quite 47 deg N.


@121: Yep, the northern border of California is 42 deg N, so there are two parts of Ontario south of the northern California border: part of Point Pelee National Park, and golly gee, New California among other coastal towns, on the Canadian Riveriera, aka the north coast of Lake Erie.

That was a fun use of Google Earth.


Those figures also show how unusual NW Europe is.

One theory, partly prompted by suspiciously similar stone tools in Europe and North America, which don't appear in Asia, is that there was some movement of people across the Atlantic, following the edge of the ice-pack.

The ice-sheet in North America reached down to New York and Chicago. In European terms, that's a far south as Madrid or Naples.

That's a very crude comparison, maybe as useful as the ice-age novels of the Seventies, which seem to have been based on a rough knowledge of glacials and inter-glacials. Not the real data, but the idea that there is a pattern, and the ice-sheets might come back now.

(Has it appeared since Fallen Angels?)

There's an alternate history in that, a world in which Europe gets a stone-age glacial scrubbing, and doesn't get as good a post-glacial start. India, perhaps, instead of Europe?

It'd probably get too different to be worth doing.


Clayton #120 - A quick search online produces figures suggesting that the USA produces at least twice as much wheat as Canada, but its hard for me to be sure because the USA uses bushels instead of sensible measurements like metric tonnes. I suggest that trying to feed ourselves on what Canada can produce might be a little hard.
Although the Americans might find something else which will grow in their area.


@124 I think that's probably because of the greater growing area the Americans get to play with. Ah well, least our aquifers aren't running dry (to my knowledge anyway :( ).


Guthrie @124, I came up with the following for US Wheat.

36.74 bushels to the tonne.

Predicted 2009 harvest is down--it's running late--at 51 million tonnes.

Highest recent figure for UK wheat production is around 17 million tonnes. More usually it's around 13 million tonnes.

Average yields in the UK are reported at around 8 tonnes per hectare, roughly 120 bushels per acre, but at the prices for much of the past decade that barely covered costs.

A quick Google comes up with a US figure of 60.1 million acres growing wheat for the 2007 harvest. British farmers are growing three times as much wheat per acre as the US manages.


Dave Bell - thats interesting, I tried some calculations involving pounds per bushel then turning that into tonnes, but wasn't too sure of the answers so didn't use it. I didnt' realise UK farming was that successful, however this site:
suggests that very small areas of Canada manage more than 3 tonnes per hectare, most doing more like 1 to 2.5.
With production in 1997 to 2001 of about 24.5 million tons. A ton is I think smaller than a tonne.


long tons or short tons?

I've been known to talk about megagrams when people start trying to be officious about units.

Isn't it odd how the American insist on using units which give bigger numbers.


Being more serious, that conversion figure between volume and mass, bushels and tonnes, could be misleading, because the bushelweight of wheat varies, and it can also be used as a part of a definition of grain quality.

It's possible that US farmers are really using "bushel" as a measure of mass, with a fixed conversion factor. The conversion factor I found is close to the bottom end of the bushelweights traded in the grain markets. Here in the UK, US and Canadian wheat is imported as a gluten source. Consistent protein behaviour in the grist is a key element of the high-volume bread-baking business. Most of the flour is milled from British-grown wheat, but the high-protein American hard milling wheats are needed for that final nudge.

A shriveled grain has a poor packing fraction, so that drops the bushelweight, and had a poor ratio between surface area and volume--less flour and more bran. Protein content affects the density of the flour. That American bushel/tonne conversion suggests a lot of low-end grain, animal feed rather than milled into flour.

The effect of climate change is going to change what crops can be grown. That is going to change the sorts of food we eat. Maybe it's a good thing that we've been exposed to Indian-style breads.


Dave @123: What, a world where most of the population is in China and India, 90% of the food crops originated on the Pacific rim, and all the good sports teams come from the Southern Hemisphere? Sounds quite familiar, actually :)


"it looks like by the end of the century global average temperatures are going to be up by somewhere between 5 and 10 degrees"

Charlie, I think there is zero prospect of this, because there is zero prospect that the human race will sit still for such a change. We actually can start removing all that extra CO2 from the atmosphere any time we choose to do so, and we assuredly will start to do so once the Arctic ice is completely melting away every summer. It would be extremely expensive to do right now, but I would say it is already doable in principle, and the further into the future you go, the less expensive it gets. And once we have processes in place which make human civilization net-carbon-negative, and CO2 levels are creeping back down towards preindustrial levels, we are definitely out of the situation the IPCC was formed to combat - out-of-control climate change - and into the new situation of having to decide exactly what we want the global radiative balance to be. In my not-so-humble opinion (because I'm very confident about this), if you really want to be a futurist about this, you have to be two steps ahead of the game: not just aware that if CO2 levels indeed went wandering up to big multiples of the preindustrial range, these enormous temperature increases would occur; but also aware that there is no prospect that the human race will allow that to happen. There is going to be some form of climate governance, and with time it will get easier, not harder, for human beings to deliberately shape the climate.

Your @97 is more on-target, though I wonder whether by the time we have cost-effective "carbon-neutral hydrocarbons", that we are still going to want energy in that form anyway.


Regarding algal sequestration of carbon for energy.

It is highly unlikely that any process depending on photosynthesis will ever supply more than a minute fraction of the 85 million barrels per day of liquid hydrocarbons that we consume. Havent got the ref for this unfortunately, but almost all the photons that enter a living cell (green leaf, alga) miss the chloroplasts thylakoid, which is why the energy of those photons captured has to be used with near perfect efficiency, and why trees have such a huge leaf area.

Even more difficult problem is the rate of capture of CO2 from the atmosphere - at a conc. 380ppb how much air do we need to process to collect those 85million bpd worth of CO2? In the long term we could sequester a lot of carbon this way but producing fuel at a rate anywhere near our current consumption is pretty unlikely


Mitchell@131 "..though I wonder whether by the time we have cost-effective "carbon-neutral hydrocarbons", that we are still going to want energy in that form anyway."

Aviation fuel is the obvious use I think.



Adaptation is strange. Responses to heat in my experience:


- Suffer in silence. Nothing is air conditioned; everything is made of two courses of bricks. Actually, forget the silence; a problem shared is a problem inflicted on others!


- Open all the windows and close the curtains, and sleep on top of the bed. Unfortunately this runs into the locals' adaptation tactic, which is to stay up in the streets until the temperature falls to a suitable value for sleeping, and live in a building with high thermal mass and albedo (white stone construction). Get dressed again and join them. Get started early (! rather you than me) and then compensate by napping later in the day...


- Air-condition every damn thing, and never go out of the airconditioning. Vaguely like a lunar colony...if Sun City in the Apartheid era had been moved to the moon. No meaningful circadian cycle - a real 24 hour city, in the sense that there is no reason to keep time. Try not to think about natural gas, terrorists, Indian labourers. Leave as soon as possible.


- Air condition a lot of things, but don't forget the classic pattern language of colonial architecture, nor the vital importance of the club.


- Maintain a British working day, although this is by far the hottest of the places surveyed. Drink.


French nuclear reactors stop working when it gets too warm.

Article in The Times


Charlie wrote: "the days of cheap energy are drawing to a close, because we can no longer afford to ignore the externalities of burning hydrocarbons"

What if we paid for the externalities for CO2 output and used that money for mitigation efforts? How much would that actually cost?

Most studies have found this to be on the order of $10/ton of carbon. That would add about 1 cent per kWh to our electricity costs. Cheap energy would still be cheap! It's a large amount of money, but when spread over all energy use in the world, it's not very much.

We survived oil going from $10/bbl to $140/bbl! a cent per kWh will be barely noticeable. If we could do that, the hardest part would be to figure out how to invest the proceeds usefully and not wastefully worldwide.