By Matt Owens August 20, 2013
burlap: back in fashion!
The following will likely sound close-to, or even beyond-insane. If so, one of us needs a a reality check. If you're easily bothered, you may not like what follows, but not knowing can be worse than knowing. So here we are, wondering about climate change. It is, without any doubt, a critical time of transition for the global climate. And it could be a rough ride.
To appease the folks who're calling for "a safe 2 degree" climate limit, the scientists tell us that global emissions must now drop at a rate approaching 10% per year. At that rate, there would be massive economic losses. And consider how seriously people take their financial condition. In Egypt, the country is descending into violence because the citizens were tired of not getting their fair share of the economic pie. You can call it a fight for liberty if you want, but liberty from what - if not poverty or the threat of impoverishment?
Here's your problem: if we cut global emissions by 10% per year, there's a pretty solid chance a lot of people in your country, wherever you are on this planet, will have to go without power, both on an intermittent basis, and in the sense of losing the ability to use as much of it as usual. Power means gasoline, electricity, heating oil, and natural gas. These are all really central things to your life.
So let's cut to the heart and call this what it is: we are spiraling into a state of environmental collapse up against a wall of economic and social collapse that both independently could translate to what seems insane, but isn't: global or nearly-global collapse of civilization. This is serious.
Here's what 10% cut in emissions per year would look like [if started in 2018], versus natural growth in demand for global energy and what percent below that normal demand the world would be at:
For 10 years, the global energy use would be cut by 70% of what I'm calling natural demand. And on an absolute basis for those ten years, global energy consumption would be at 50% of previous levels. So if you, being someone with access to it now, only had your energy use cut by 50%, that would mean no other new people could gain access at all to any more during those ten years. That would mean if you had a child, there would be no extra energy use allotted.
The cuts would ease off as renewable energy was built and added to the grid (at a rate starting around 20% and falling to around 10% per year; see Jacobson et al. 2011 "Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar"), and that would help the job market out some, but what would you spend your money on that didn't use energy? The most difficult phase would last about 20 years where energy use would be cut to near 50% of global natural demand.
Maybe this is being too pessimistic, maybe we can install the energy at a faster rate. Maybe we can spend money and lead a life based on goods and services that didn't consume nearly as much energy. Maybe we can quit our jobs and find new ones closer to where we live.
You are probably living in a developed country, and if so, you could probably make due with only 50% of your normal energy use for a years or two. But 20 years? This would be a total collapse. I think you can probably start to imagine the picture. And every year we wait to cut emissions, the higher that 10% figure goes.
Now all this is not to say that a collapse might not be a good thing, a necessary thing, or otherwise positive. After all, if a system balloons in complexity to the point of actually harming the people charged with its upkeep and for whom it ostensibly is meant to benefit, then there becomes a limit, however high, of how much harm those people can take before they let the system collapse. I'm not prepared to say that the system is worthless and should be let collapse or not. What I am saying though, is that collapsing systems are usually painful for a lot of people and that our system is collapsing, even if there is still time to escape.
So is rationing feasible? Would it take military rule? A police state? Would a failed state be any less harmful to climate? Will climate change beat us to the punch and give us all a big F before we can do ourselves in? I plan to post more on at least some of these topics shortly.
I've also been working on making a climate model that includes permafrost and hydrate feed-backs, and I've run the most up-to-date version with the 10% per year forced cuts in energy use, as shown above. Take note, that because of emissions from industrial agriculture and non-energy industrial processes, about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions are not from energy, and so they cannot be eliminated without some new innovations, or the fortitude to pay for removing the gases from the air (which would also use up a big slice of the global energy pie). Here's one run of the model (the green line represents the radical 10% ration cuts plan which would start in 2014 as shown here, and the other two lines are less aggressive mitigation plans, with the red line essentially being our current path):
I plan to post a good bit more about this model, and use it for a number of demonstrations of the time hurdles we are coming up against. It's also convenient for showing other "perturbations" in the carbon cycle. Here, it shows a ~50 GtC methane release which it presumes to be in the works from the East Siberian Shelf, as we've been warned by Shakhova and others. It comes out starting about now, although levels are so low for a while that we won't notice it for sure for another handful of years (and then we just won't believe it..or are we already in that phase). The dashed lines represent what typical climate models use as their prescribed atmospheric greenhouse gas scenario, essentially just the atmospheric rise from human sources. Neither hydrates nor permafrost are included in the vast majority of climate models. And while there is some controversy over the outlook presented by Shakhova, there is [effectively] none on the issue of the permafrost.
If you'd like to see more charts of some of the components that go into the above output, I've posted three model runs as PDFs:
And here are some fun validations experiments I did on the clathrates:
More reading and some of the many references on the permafrost and hydrate feedbacks here: "What the models don't show Part 2."
More reading on our energy future with some of the many references here: "We can go carbon free. Now!"