Michael Mann Interview: Very Little “Burnable Carbon” In Our “Budget”; Emissions Ramp-down Must Start Now

By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, Americablog, and Naked Capitalism. . Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. A version of this interview first appeared at DownWithTyranny.

One of my hats is as a climate interpreter to the interested lay person. I have something of a science background and can read the papers “in the original.” Another hat is as an occasional interviewer for Virtually Speaking. This month the two hats merged on the same head, and I got to interview the “Hockey Stick graph” climate scientist, Dr. Michael Mann.

For this interview I focused on the basics:

Can humans burn more carbon, create more emissions, and still stay below the IPCC’s “safe” +2°C warming target?

Is the IPCC’s +2°C warming target truly “safe” at all?

We’re already experiencing warming of about +1°C above the pre-industrial level. Even if we stop now, how much more is “in the pipeline,” guaranteed and unavoidable?

How do we defeat the Big Money ogre that stands in our way?

And my personal favorite:

Will the answer to global warming come from the “free market”?

The always-defended, sacred “free market” — as close to a religion as you’ll find in modern thought. I’ll have more about the nonexistent “free market” (you read that right) shortly. For now I want to present what Dr. Mann has to say. He was surprisingly plain-spoken, understands the urgency, and says so. I found the interview fascinating, and I hope you do as well.

Just one added comment. Virtually Speaking is broadcast with a studio audience in Second Life. A number of questions came in during the broadcast, some of which are worth repeating. All answers are mine. I hope you find these helpful. Again, I just want to put the basics in your brain — no reason to learn more than needed. Once you master the main ideas, the subject is not hard at all to follow.

[QUESTION] What level of CO2 is reasonable?

[ANSWER] Most still think that 350 ppm (parts per million) CO2 is what’s needed to keep us at the upper end of Holocene (era of civilized human culture) temperatures. For contrast, the ice ages averaged about 180 ppm CO2 at the bottom, and pre-industrial (pre-1750) concentrations were about 280 ppm CO2. Pre-industrial temperatures were at the bottom of the Holocene (post–ice age) temperature range, so there’s some headroom above that 280 ppm number. How much exactly? No one knows.

It looks like we’re headed for a IPCC-“safe” 450 ppm CO2 unless we stop. Not safe, in my opinion, nor in Dr. Mann’s. For starters, this “450 ppm” measures CO2 only, not other GHGs like methane and nitrous oxide. The effective ppm in “CO2 equivalent” with those other added GHGs is higher if only CO2 is at 450.

It’s thought that the original ice sheet formations of 35 million years ago, which gave us modern Antarctic, Greenland and Arctic ice, occurred in a cooling environment that crossed roughly below CO2 concentrations in the range of 550-400 ppm or so.

First, that’s a wide range. Second, that’s no indication of what will happen going the other direction, where the warming tipping points are. Hansen writes, correctly IMO, that real climate sensitivity depends on (a) the starting point (i.e., how near we are to tipping points), and (b) the direction (effect of warming of X amount is not necessarily correlated to the effect of cooling of that same amount).

Nevertheless, the massive uncertainty, plus the world-historical consequences, gives most of us pause. I personally worry that 450 ppm CO2 is ultimately a death sentence for civilized humans. Back to life as hunter-gatherers for our third- or fourth-generation descendants. And if worldwide social chaos takes over before we stop, the process could run to conclusion, which, the old IPCC A1FI scenario says, tops out at +7°C warming.

[Q] (What’s the ppm) for a 90% chance (of staying below 2°C warming)?

Dr. Mann says 405 ppm CO2 (just above where we are now), assuming we start removing, or failing to add, cooling coal-generated air particles. In other words, we have no carbon headroom for a 90% chance of “success” as defined by the IPCC, say a number of studies. (IPCC is silent, at least in the material I read, on the 90% chance itself. Their Working Group 1 Summary for Policymakers of 2013 discusses only the 33%, 50% and 66% chances. The underlying chapters may be more detailed, but I’m not sure of that.)

[Q] Why are we asking him political questions? … I like him, and I more-or-less agree with him, but his opinions on politics and economics are not educated opinions. (And this also applies to Hansen, who I am fairly sure is just wrong on important political matters.)

First, he’s actually good on the politics, better than most. But second, I wanted to get his thoughts regarding next steps. For me the key, core messages are — Stop Now Zero Carbon “Budget”Free Market Solutions Won’t Work. He surprised me in agreeing with the third point, and I hope he carries that message to the public going forward. He was already mainly on board on the first two, but I wanted to hear him say so for the record, since I hadn’t encountered his public comment on this.

My suspicion is that, in interviews, most people of Dr. Mann’s stature and skill aren’t often asked real bottom-line questions. I tried to stay with core issues for that reason.

[Q] But, look, you don’t consult a political scientist on the physics of climate change, the reverse ought also be true.

But these things aren’t rocket science. I have a good physics background (two years in a top-end Physics program), but not a degree in it. Yet I’m perfectly “consultable” on the physics. No reason that Michael Mann and James Hansen wouldn’t be consultable on the politics. People like these can be very reliable sources (and voices) on political solutions. In fact, we really need them to address the politics, since that’s where the action is. His voice and Hansen’s, giving strong accurate advice, are worth a thousand of mine.

For another example of political writing by a scientist, look at the work of Dr. Naomi Oreskes, another frequent visitor to Virtually Speaking broadcasts. If I recall correctly, her background is in geology, yet her book comparing the tobacco denial war with the climate denial war is as good as there is — Merchants of Doubt.

[Q] The political system also has to change to reinstate progressive tax on income and add one on capital. … we’re fucked, we’re so fucked.

Not yet. Popular middle-class rebellion hasn’t kicked in, and it will. We have one more shot, unless the public is too apathetic for too long a time. But once property values — or water tables in the Colorado River basin, or insurance and development rates in South Florida, or … you name it — collapse, a whole lot of people could turn Depression-era urgent and “Government, save us” angry. Even so-called Tea Party voters will beg for government intervention. At that point, things get interesting.

That wake-up moment, still in the future, represents real opportunity, if it happens soon enough. Our job is to teach into it, teach ahead of it — show what a real solution looks like before that moment is co-opted by the carbon-captured media and lost.

[Q] Interesting and informative.

Thanks. That was the goal!

For more of my own climate writing, go here. As I said, I’ll write again on climate and the “free market” soon. Also, on climate and the NRDC (click through to the PDF, then search on “natural gas”). They and their first cousin, the EDF, badly need a comeuppance. They certainly need an outing. I’m hearing that between them, these two well-funded groups are why Democrats are so hugely methane-fueled these days.

Guess who else is hugely methane-fueled? Exxon. Interesting confluence of interests, yes?

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  1. wbgonne

    Popular middle-class rebellion hasn’t kicked in, and it will. We have one more shot, unless the public is too apathetic for too long a time. But once property values — or water tables in the Colorado River basin, or insurance and development rates in South Florida, or … you name it — collapse, a whole lot of people could turn Depression-era urgent and “Government, save us” angry. Even so-called Tea Party voters will beg for government intervention. At that point, things get interesting.

    Exactly. And it is coming any day now. it seems to me that when the federal flood insurance subsidies end, or after a couple more mega-storms and increased tidal flooding, the value of coastal real estate will begin to collapse. When Las Vegas runs out of water, its economy will collapse. These things are imminent and will require action because they are too big to ignore. That hard reality will squash the AGW-deniers. The goal, then, should be to keep as much carbon fuel in the ground as possible until the political will emerges to deal with AGW as intelligent human beings.

    1. beene

      What will save us is the failure of the Federal Reserve no longer being able to finance Wall Street; due to no longer having enough consumers in the USA to fund the debt.

        1. NOTaREALmerican

          Re: Nonsense

          Nonsense meaning that: the Federal Reserve should fund wall-street? Or nonsense that: the Federal Reserve could possibly fail?

    2. trish

      sad but likely true that it’s only when currently apathetic voters or developers see their property values, bottom lines, effected, will they start loudly complaining, rebelling.
      All those others who just simply care that we’re destroying the planet, harming all it’s organisms… that it’s not just about us…well, those environmental extremists don’t matter, I guess. Just a bunch of fringe left wing hippy tree-hugging fear- mongering socialists who hate capitalism, freedom and the american way of life, I guess.

      1. jrs

        But much of the middle class is already suffering economically, no not primarily from climate change yet of course, but nonetheless, and what of it? They then vote Republican! :D Things go from bad to worse. But never mind the vote as that’s arguable as the voting mechanism is so kabuki, but a much more important thing is they are NOT in the streets for the most part, not that it would get much coverage if they were. So maybe the middle class is not actually capable of fighting back. They believe in the system too much, they are too submissive by far.

        But I don’t disagree with “we be gone” (that’s always how I read wbgonne – we humans be gone because of how much we destroyed the environment) on the main goal of keeping carbon in the ground until change becomes possible. I just think much of the middle class is a poor choice of revolutionaries (the top 20-30% @#$# polishers of this system?) but more people fall out of it everyday …

        OTOH fairly well off people (the 30%) are those that often care the most about the environment, everyone else is too busy surviving and has no time to learn. But then they are too passive and obedient by nature to be much good for anything!

      2. different clue

        What if those MMGH-impacted mainstream citizen-voters demand 10,000 miles of seawall along the coast, NAWAPA and pipelines from the Great Lakes for the SouthWest, etc.?

          1. different clue

            Kevin Carhart,

            No, I am not involved with LaRouche PAC. I have to assume that you are asking because LaRouche PAC must have actually suggested Great SeaWall/NAWAPA/Great Pipeline/etc. as real solutions to Global Heating problems. And you must think that I was offering those as real solutions to Global Heating problems.

            Actually, I was offering them in a spirit of satire, and also in a spirit of warning . . . warning that when Global Climate DeChaos Decay drives the Silent Majority to demand the government Do Something . . . the Something that they will demand that government Do will resemble my satirical suggestions, not a rational program of managed degrowth and decarbonization.

  2. Brooklin Bridge

    Determining when, if and under what circumstances this can’t be ignored moment is going to come and how people will react is as difficult as forecasting the various stages of global warming. It looks like there is no actual limit to our ability to fool ourselves. The worse things get, the greater our capacity for deluge delu-sion. And no limit to the ruthlessness of the elite, not to mention their success, in bending catastrophe to their ends.

    I do think the major catastrophe = tipping point idea is highly plausible if not likely; 1) because it will almost certainly happen and 2) it will take something like that to penetrate the fog of propaganda and the pain of increasing misery we live in, but it may still not be the great revelatory moment one might hope for where we all suddenly see clearly and with single purpose. it will likely be a time of great confusion and misplaced energy where so called leaders are even more corrupt and incapable of rational behavior than now, and where people’s biggest concerns are immediate personal survival. There is no historical data that jumps out to suggest we will suddenly see things clearly and take appropriate steps to address the problem with collective might nor to suggest that enough time to react effectively – even if we were capable – will be available. This could easily be our Easter Island moment.

    On the positive side, if the TTP and it’s evil twin the TTIP come to earth scorching life, it will be fun, though perhaps impractical, to see who the mega international corporations will sue to regain their forecasted profit, lost due to humanity’s immanent extinction.

    1. jrs

      I think Chris Hedges predictions sound semi-plausible on this one, it will lead to doomsday cults, and widespread irrationality (rather than rational action – never mind our totalitarian society makes the odds against rational action huge anyway – even clear vision as such may not prevail).

    2. James

      Agreed all, and good points. And the “it’s too late to do anything about it anyway” idea (which unfortunately might actually even be be true) is already being floated as a justification to ignore AGW altogether and/or focus solely on technological fixes on the back end (sequestration and the like), or, even more troubling, view it as an economic “gift” of sorts to stimulate growth opportunities. As in foreign policy, we seem to have embraced the age of post-irony.

      There is no historical data that jumps out to suggest we will suddenly see things clearly and take appropriate steps to address the problem with collective might nor to suggest that enough time to react effectively – even if we were capable – will be available. This could easily be our Easter Island moment.

  3. docg

    I’ve been reading Mann’s book (about 1/3 through). It’s well written and also well reasoned. He is clearly a competent scientist who very effectively defends his research and his theories, while nonetheless welcoming what he calls the “true” skeptics, as opposed to the anti-science “deniers.” What’s not to like?

    The problem arises when his very reasonable sounding analyses of climate change come up against his off the wall convictions regarding the question of what to do about it. Mann insists on the importance of cutting back radically on fossil fuel consumption and speaks of “tough decisions.” But the decisions are not at all tough, because there is no way such a program could be implemented in the world as it exists today. Sure, if you are a dictator in a totalitarian world government, you can simply shut down all the oil and coal companies, justified by your conviction that this is the only way to “save the world.” If hundreds of millions of your citizens freeze or starve to death as a result, well, that can’t be helped, because such drastic actions are justified by the “far worse outcomes” to be expected if nothing is done. For such a person, the end always justifies the means.

    The problem in a democracy, or even a pseudo democracy such as China, is that ordinary, low and middle income people are not willing to simply roll over and die because “important people” have decided there’s no alternative. Mann criticizes world leaders for not taking action NOW, but as he himself admits, the difficulties in taking such actions are immense. So he is essentially criticizing our leaders for not throwing caution to the winds and embarking on a reckless program that could easily end in disaster, long before climate change has had a chance to do its thing. No scientist should ever be so sure of his predictions that he can urge the world to take such far reaching and dangerous measures — on the chance his theories might be right. And in fact he could easily be wrong. (Imo, if we apply basic principles of science and critical thinking to the question of climate change we will discover that he IS wrong. See for example, http://amoleintheground.blogspot.com/2014/10/common-sense-on-climate-change.html)

    Fortunately, there is an alternative. Because the situation is not at all dire. As I see it we are in the throes of something very like a millennial movement, prompted by all the many REAL threats the world is faced with in the new millennium. “THE END IS NEAR!” Where have we heard that one before? “ACT NOW OR ELSE.” Sorry, but I’m not buying it. And no, I am NOT a right wing nutcase “denier,” nor am I allied in any way with any big company of any kind. For a more realistic discussion of possible solutions, see http://amoleintheground.blogspot.com/2014/10/fossil-fuels-and-common-sense.html

          1. docg

            I can’t imagine any legitimate organization of scientists in which everyone is in lock step agreement on any particular theory. The idea that any such organization can claim to speak for its members is disturbing to say the least. Suffice it to say that a great many scientists, including many climate scientists, are skeptics, and for good reason. The so-called “hiatus” in warming has continued for anywhere from 15 to 18 years, depending on where you see it starting. And no one has as yet been able to convincingly explain it as anything other than a falsification of mainstream global warming doctrine.
            Several different models have been proposed, but only time will tell if any are meaningful. No model, in all the time between the 1980’s and 90’s, predicted the hiatus, which suggests that none of the models “explaining” are likely to be correct. Only time will tell. But we are being told there IS no time. So what “the science” is telling us is, very simply: we have no time to do real science on this matter, so you must BELIEVE — OR ELSE.

            1. Legendary Bigfoot

              There has been no hiatus in warming. There have been lacunae in measurement. There has been a well-funded propaganda program to protect fossil industries. There have been efforts to misrepresent data and to malign researchers and to intimidate scientists. But there has been no hiatus.

              Denial is a religion.

            2. pretzelattack

              nobody said anything about “lockstep”, but it would be difficult to find a legit scientist who would argue the moon landing is a hoax, or that the earth is flat and if you sail far enough you fall off the edge–i do not find this disturbing. you’re completely wrong about the hiatus, and about the number of climate scientists who disagree with the consensus.

      1. docg

        Possible solutions, excerpted from my blog post:

        “While I can’t agree with the alarmists that emissions must be drastically reduced NOW or it will be TOO LATE, I do think fossil fuel reduction should be seen as an urgent priority.

        In any case, there are certainly many good reasons, over and above global warming, for reducing our dependence on oil, gas and coal. But any such actions must be done gradually and with great care, NOT in a panic over impending climate doom.”

        “It’s nice to think we could forestall the inevitable crisis if we cut off that spigot right now. However, if you think a bit about all the automobiles, airplanes, factories, power stations, heating systems, etc., etc., currently dependent on fossil fuels, it should quickly become evident how disastrous such a cutoff would be. . . ”

        “The first thing to consider is, of course, conservation. . . ”

        “As for renewable energy: of course, we need to develop it. The research is moving along fairly quickly and there are signs that some significant breakthroughs could be on the horizon. Rather than expend vast resources in a vain effort to turn back the clock on global warming and sea level rise, we should be spending our money on our best hope for the future: research to maximize the efficiency, effectiveness and economic viability of those renewables. . .”

        I’ll add the following: if I thought that turning back the clock on g.w. and sea level rise was feasible, I’d certainly be advocating for it. As I see it, g.w. is due mostly to natural causes, which seem to be abating in any case. The sea level rise we see today began some years prior to the period when CO2 levels were increasing due to fossil fuel emissions. And according to official sources the sea will continue to rise for a very long time even after such emissions cease, so we will need to adapt in any case.

        1. wbgonne

          As I see it, g.w. is due mostly to natural causes, which seem to be abating in any case.

          And as I see it you are an ignorant fool. Or worse. But good luck getting your “view” peer-reviewed. Have a nice day!

  4. DJG

    Yves’s hypotheses and assessments above dovetail with that Naomi Klein writes about in This Changes Everything. (I’m looking at you, docg, and suggest that you head out to the local independent bookshop and buy a copy.) The markets will not provide a solution Grass-roots democracy is worth the risk, as are demonstrations, boycotts, and strikes. And someone I know is passing around a resolution from a part of the formidable Dakota Nation that says that they consider the Senate’s encouragement of the Keystone XL pipeline an act of war. And given the makeup of our Senate, it is.

    1. docg

      I agree with Naomi Klein on many things, including the need for us to get beyond capitalism to a truly equitable political system. As I see it, however, the climate change brouhaha is a distraction, i.e., NOT a meaningful avenue to change. Let’s try to change what can be changed and adapt to what cannot.

      1. wbgonne

        A “distraction”? Yes, like the oncoming train is a “distraction” to the guy in the tunnel. And a distraction from what exactly? Our soothing fantasies about power and control? AGW is real and it is the gravest threat humanity has ever faced. We cannot adapt to AGW. We either prevent it or we perish. Wake up. Or at least please spare us tbe Authentic Frontier Gibberish.

        1. docg

          And how, pray tell, do we “prevent it”? Whether or not global warming is affected by human activities, it functions nevertheless like a force of nature. You can’t simply perform some ritual to make it go away. What is now being proposed is in fact little more than an empty, feel-good, ritual. And what is currently being demanded by climate change activists is so completely self-destructive that no sane society would ever accept it.

          As for the feared “extreme weather events,” floods, droughts and the like, I refer you to this bulletin from the American Meteorological Society: http://www2.ametsoc.org/ams/assets/File/publications/BAMS_EEE_2013_Full_Report.pdf

          According to the many reports on various extreme weather events worldwide, most could not be attributed to climate change, including the California drought and the drought in Australia. The only clear cases of global warming contributing to extreme events involved certain heat waves. As for coastal flooding, yes, that threat is very real. But sea level rise began prior to heavy use of fossil fuels and those levels will continue to rise even if f.f. usage is discontinued completely. Here’s what a joint report from the Royal Society and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences had to say on this matter:

          “If emissions of CO2 stopped altogether, it would take many thousands of years for atmospheric CO2 to return to ‘pre-industrial’ levels due to its very slow transfer to the deep ocean and ultimate burial in ocean sediments. Surface temperatures would stay elevated for at least a thousand years, implying extremely long-term commitment to a warmer planet due to past and current emissions, and sea level would likely continue to rise for many centuries even after temperature stopped increasing.”

        2. docg

          I love the oncoming train bit, by the way. When confronted by an oncoming train, which would be the most effective response?

          1. Stand in front of the train, holding up a sign saying: STOP NOW BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!!!!

          2. Step aside and let the train pass, accepting the possibility you might get grazed and knocked down in the process, breaking an arm or leg.

          In other words: what is the better course of action, attempting to stop an oncoming threat in its tracks, despite the extreme unlikelihood that the brakes could be applied in time? Or adapting to the threat by taking action to minimize any damage it might cause?

      1. Malmo

        …and your belief in climate change, liberal litmus tests is BS. Betcha I’m more of a lefty than you–even under my bridge,.

        1. baldski

          I like to approach all climate change deniers from a common sense perspective, since I am not a scientist also, as our Republican politicos are fond to quote to the press.

          Have you ever wondered how all that carbon got in the ground in the first place? If you accept one modern petroleum theory, it came from algae phytoplankton in shallow seas. Huge algae blooms died and fell to the bottom of the sea and plate tectonics allowed subduction to bury the dead algae deep in the ground. This happened in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Now, what was the climate like in these periods? According to best evidence, it was fucking hot! Hence, algae blooms in Alaska, leading to oil on the north slope and oil in Siberia, also.

          Algae and phytoplankton use CO-2 and expel oxygen. A high CO-2 atmosphere would give those little critters plenty of food, and high temperatures would give them the right conditions to bloom. When they put all that CO-2 from the atmosphere in the ground, the earth started cooling until an equilibrium was reached and now man has pulled all that carbon out of the ground and started putting all that CO-2 back in the atmosphere.

      1. jabberwocky

        Yves said
        “But these things aren’t rocket science. I have a good physics background (two years in a top-end Physics program), but not a degree in it. Yet I’m perfectly “consultable” on the physics. No reason that Michael Mann and James Hansen wouldn’t be consultable on the politics. People like these can be very reliable sources (and voices) on political solutions. In fact, we really need them to address the politics, since that’s where the action is. His voice and Hansen’s, giving strong accurate advice, are worth a thousand of mine”

        It seems to me that the problems are beyond “rocket science” in terms of complexity/ difficulty, so I find myself surprised and disheartened to read this comment. That we have an immense, potentially (probably, in my inexpert opinion) catastrophic dilemma seems clear enough in terms of human “overshoot”, but the issues are not understood. Claiming expertise in this fashion weakens the case, and overlooking the frailties on some of the most prominent spokespersons and organizations does not help. Every scientist, or person, should be skeptical, particularly of those who claim to be “authorities.”

        This is an excellent resource, so I make this comment out of respect, and with admiration.

  5. davidgmills

    As I have posted on this board numerous times, an economics/political board is not worth wasting letters of the alphabet on the subject of global warming.

    It makes me ill that this subject is more political now than scientific and that scientists who have varying opinions are seldom permitted to express their real views if they have any issue with what Dr. Michal Mann or the IPCC thinks.

    I go to boards where people post who actually have some deep knowledge about physics and chemistry and geology and computer modeling and meteorology, and biology etc. and read their posts. When you read the varying opinions of people who have specific expertise in these fields, you quickly come to the conclusion that the science is not settled. Science seldom is. You quickly begin to understand that climatologists are jacks of all trades and masters of none and that the severest criticism of climatologists comes from people who really do understand particular things in depth; whereas, climatologists only have a superficial understanding of the matter and use this superficial understanding to draw questionable conclusions. As they say, the devil is in the details and climatologists don’t have the details worked out. You quickly see that even the experts in the basic sciences that make up climatology don’t have the details worked out, much less the generalists.

    No wonder the hiatus caught the climatologists by surprise.

    I seldom comment on those blogs because I know I am not in their league. But I enjoy the education and debate on these blogs.

    1. pretzelattack

      there isn’t a hiatus. the radiative balance is getting worse. try going to the sites of the major science organizations if you want the scientific view on global warming.

      1. Gaius Publius

        Exactly right. For another measurable, just look at ppm CO2. If that’s going up (and it is, constantly), the result will play out through the climate system. The bucket may have many chambers, some hidden, but if you keep putting in water, you’re going to overfill it. Pumping CO2 into the air is the one constant (driven by the petro-dollars too many are addicted to defending).


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