Gaius Publius: The Only Solution to Climate Change — Outlaw Fossil Fuel Production

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. This piece first appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.

I once had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with one of our leading progressive politicians, someone who is on the right side of everything I care about, including climate change. As we were discussing solutions to the climate problem, I mentioned the carbon industry and said, “You realize, fixing the climate crisis means we have to kill the carbon industry, right?”

She (or he) stopped, thought, then said (paraphrasing): “Huh. You know, I think you’re right.”

Why do I bring this up? Because this person, who’s right about everything I want her (or him) to be right about, hadn’t thought through the climate problem to the obvious solution. If you don’t want it burned, you can’t dig it up. That means, we have to kill the industry. There’s just no other choice.

The problem we seem to be facing is this: The industry gets that, and they’re fighting back. But most people who care about climate don’t. So we’re stuck, year after year, with more of this:

If they dig it, they will burn it.

This has to stop, right?

Do We Really Have to Impoverish the Whole Industry?

Yes. If we don’t make them poor — or make them switch to a completely different business — they’ll make us extinct, or at least hunter-gatherers again, with only the odd pocket of “civilized” (agricultural, settled) humans in the odd, eco-friendly location left to show for everything we’ve done with our time on earth.

Future atmospheric temperatures look something like this if we we don’t stop burning carbon:

CO2 concentration since the Cambrian, about 450 million years ago. The dotted line at 400 ppm shows CO2 concentration today (source).

Atmospheric temperature tracks pretty closely with atmospheric CO2 concentration, among other factors (this is temperature over the same period). The blue line near the middle of the chart above and also toward the right shows atmospheric CO2 in parts per million (ppm) prior to the Industrial Revolution. For most of the time humanoids have inhabited the earth, CO2 concentrations have been near 280 ppm. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, we’ve brought that number up to 400 ppm, which is where we are today (this year in fact).

As to the future, the tallest red line on the far right shows CO2 concentration under the IPCC definition of a “business as usual” (BAU) scenario … almost 2000 ppmby 2100.

(By the way, if you find 34 million years ago on the chart — look at the top in the second panel — you’ll see the point at which polar ice first started forming. Think about that.)

To double-check those numbers, this recent paper by James Hansen (Figure 2, repeated below in simpler form) calculates that burning all “unconventional” oil in the ground, such as tar sands, would add about 300 ppm CO2 to the current number. Burning all unconventional (frackable) gas now in the ground would add another 900 ppm CO2. Burning all available coal would add about five times as much, or 4500 ppm CO2.

How much carbon we could dig up if we really wanted to (source; after Hansen, Fig 2). Left scale, in billions of tons of emitted carbon. Right scale, in ppm of atmospheric CO2.

Obviously, we’re never going to get to those high numbers; we’ll have devolved to pre-industrial humans by then. We clearly don’t want to go there, but you have to ask: If we keep allowing the carbon extraction (fossil fuel) industry to be profitable, when will we stop burning carbon?

At some point — and a sooner one rather than a later one — that industry will have to die or be killed, most likely by government force, if global warming is going to be arrested at all.

The Problem Is to Constrain Production, Not Consumption

George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian, has it just right. Solving the problem by constraining consumption of fossil fuel is not going to solve the problem at all. Everything extracted will be sold and used.

Monbiot starts by noting all of the pictures of cheering men and women after each of the climate conferences of the last 20 years (my emphasis):

If you visit the website of the UN body that oversees the world’s climate negotiations, you will find dozens of pictures, taken across 20 years, of people clapping. These photos should be of interest to anthropologists and psychologists. For they show hundreds of intelligent, educated, well-paid and elegantly-dressed people wasting their lives.

The celebratory nature of the images testifies to the world of make-believe these people inhabit. They are surrounded by objectives, principles, commitments, instruments and protocols, which create a reassuring phantasm of progress while the ship on which they travel slowly founders. Leafing through these photos, I imagine I can almost hear what the delegates are saying through their expensive dentistry. “Darling you’ve re-arranged the deckchairs beautifully. It’s a breakthrough! We’ll have to invent a mechanism for holding them in place, as the deck has developed a bit of a tilt, but we’ll do that at the next conference.”

Then he adds:

This process is futile because they have addressed the problem only from one end, and it happens to be the wrong end. They have sought to prevent climate breakdown by limiting the amount of greenhouse gases that are released; in other words, by constraining the consumption of fossil fuels. But, throughout the 23 years since the world’s governments decided to begin this process, the delegates have uttered not one coherent word about constraining production.

Compare this to any other treaty-making process. Imagine, for example, that the Biological Weapons Convention made no attempt to restrain the production or possession of weaponised smallpox and anthrax, but only to prohibit their use. How effective do you reckon it would be? (You don’t have to guess: look at the US gun laws, which prohibit the lethal use of guns but not their sale and carriage. You can see the results on the news every week.) Imagine trying to protect elephants and rhinos only by banning the purchase of their tusks and horns, without limiting killing, export or sale. Imagine trying to bring slavery to an end not by stopping the transatlantic trade, but by seeking only to discourage people from buying slaves once they had arrived in the Americas. If you want to discourage a harmful trade, you must address it at both ends: production and consumption. Of the two, production is the most important.

To repeat just one of his comparisons: “Imagine trying to bring slavery to an end not by stopping the transatlantic trade, but by seeking only to discourage people from buying slaves once they had arrived in the Americas.”

You may not want to solve the climate crisis; or you may not want to believe there is one. But the greenhouse effect is a hard fact of science. (You can test it. Build a greenhouse, then sit in it on a sunny day.) If you think there is one, and you don’t want to face the need to kill the carbon industry, you may as well just spend time playing with your children, or creating them.

The Silence Surrounding the Need to Kill Carbon Production

Monbiot gets that naming the problem is difficult. It’s difficult for us, and also for the U.N. negotiators attempting to deal with it:

The extraction of fossil fuels is a hard fact. The rules governments have developed to prevent their use are weak, inconsistent and negotiable. In other words, when coal, oil and gas are produced, they will be used. Continued production will overwhelm attempts to restrict consumption. Even if efforts to restrict consumption temporarily succeed, they are likely to be self-defeating. A reduction in demand when supply is unconstrained lowers the price, favouring carbon-intensive industry.

You can search through the UN’s website for any recognition of this issue, but you would be wasting your time. In its gushing catalogue of self-congratulation, at Kyoto, Doha, Bali, Copenhagen, Cancún, Durban, Lima and all stops en route, the phrase “fossil fuel” does not occur once. Nor do the words coal or oil. …

The closest any of the 20 international conferences convened so far have come to acknowledging the problem is in the resolution adopted in Lima in December last year. It pledged “cooperation” in “the phasing down of high-carbon investments and fossil fuel subsidies”, but proposed no budget, timetable or any instrument or mechanism required to make it happen.

Then he cautions:

You cannot solve a problem without naming it. The absence of official recognition of the role of fossil fuel production in causing climate change – blitheringly obvious as it is – permits governments to pursue directly contradictory policies. While almost all governments claim to support the aim of preventing more than 2C of global warming, they also seek to “maximise economic recovery” of their fossil fuel reserves. (Then they cross their fingers, walk three times widdershins around the office and pray that no one burns it.)

Is prayer the answer? Possibly, but I recommend combining it with action of our own.

The Answer Is You and Me

I still contend that this problem isn’t insurmountable if enough people are determined to stop it. Nor is it too late to avoid the very worst of the consequences. If we stopped burning fossil fuel today, dead-stopped in 2015, atmospheric CO2 concentration would return to 350 ppm by 2100 (same Hansen paper, Figure 4b). That would very likely allow us to avoid completely the worst of the tipping points, like loss of polar ice.

The good news is, we can cause this good thing to happen. We just have to be willing to, as in my playful “Easter Island” metaphor:

You’re a villager on Easter Island. People are cutting down trees right and left, and many are getting worried. At some point, the number of worried villagers reaches critical mass, and they go as a group to the island chief and say, “Look, we have to stop cutting trees, like now.”

The chief, who’s also CEO of a wood products company, checks his bottom line and orders the cutting to continue.

Do the villagers walk away? Or do they depose the chief?

There’s always a choice. We just have to choose it.

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  1. kimyo

    outlawing fossil fuel is like outlawing nyc. at the moment, there is just no feasible way to run nyc without fossil fuels.

    a small example: nyc used roughly 500,000 tons of road salt over each of the last 2 winters. perhaps over the next 5 years it would be possible to transport the majority of that tonnage via electric rail (which, in & around nyc, is still for the most part powered by fossil fuel). however, applying it is always going to require fossil-fuel-based trucks.

    another: shouldn’t all nyc construction projects be halted? as things stand, each and every square foot of commercial and residential construction will only lead to additional fossil fuel consumption.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      This post takes an extreme view, but extreme views are useful as forcing devices. They get people to say what more realistic versions of the basic premise might look like and define what its limits are.

      1. subgenius

        It’s not an extreme view, it’s a coherent view based in the reality of the situation.

        All we do is making it worse, The solution is to STOP it, and take the (MASSIVE) hit. But we won’t – because the vast majority will refuse to see. Once again, Upton Sinclair was right (but he was thinking too small..)

      2. TenneyNaumer (@TenneyNaumer)

        Correct, this is not an extreme view at all.

        The current target of limiting warming to 2 C means complete ruin.

        A better target would be -1 C, since we’ve already seen that the climate system is extremely sensitive even to the relatively smaller amount of change since pre-industrial times.

    2. equote

      kimyo is onto the real problem…
      At present there is no practical alternative to fossil fuels for transportation, power generation and etc. Even it such an alternative did exist (some do-but nothing comprehensive) the time and cost to convert would disrupt the economy and society. “Every problem is replaceable with a bigger one.” If not bigger, certainly different. Humanity has created a problem, we must be careful NOT to to create another.
      kimyo mentions NYC, I live in rural Texas, the details are different, but there is no way to get by here without reverting to the lifestyle of the 1870s and this is true for all the rural US.

    3. Jerry

      This is disconnected thinking! Why would you need road salt? Horses do fine on the snow. It’s all those rubber tired vehicles that need salt. If we stop producing the fuel for the cars—as we obviously must do–we won’t need more trucks to haul salt.

      If you foresee an all electric vehicle fleet, it should include electric salt trucks, too.

      1. Mel

        Snow is not why we use road salt. In nice cold regions, they grade the snow and cars drive on snow. It’s the places with a winter climate right around freezing where freeze-thaw cycles turn surfaces into glare-ice rinks. Horses hate ice rinks. Smart use of salt can move the average frozenness to keep the road clear.

    4. picklerope

      Uh, I think the key word to consider here is sacrifice. This is not an issue that can be surmounted if billions of humans are going to consider any pain a major deterrent to taking steps to ameliorate centuries of blind thinking. Those living today, and certainly, several generations to come are going to have to adjust to this. It’s what comes out the other end that is important. If you are worried about no road salt then I suggest you watch ‘The Road’ to see what that particular end could look like. Ain’t gonna be a catwalk.

      1. different clue

        Sacrifice will have to start with the upper classes first. Let us assume for ultra-simplicity of thought that one’s lifestyle roughly tracks one’s income. I have a $40,000/year income, therefor I have a $40,000/year lifestyle. I will accept sacrifices to my lifestyle and income ONly AFter I have seen everyone with a higher-than-$40,000/year income lifestyle busted all the way down to a $40,000/year lifestyle income. Once everyone is at $40,000/year with no one permitted to earn or live above that level, then if that level of sacrifice isn’t enough, we can all go down together to whatever lower income-lifestyle level is compatible with Winning The War On Coal. But it is my human nature to reject calls for me to sacrifice so that Ralph Ellison can maintain his lavish California estate . . . for example.

          1. Mel

            Larry Ellison founded Oracle.
            Ralph Ellison wrote The Invisible Man — excellent historical/political novel.

            A 20th century joke had a building foreman trying to use an intelligence test to weed out Irish applicants.
            “All right, the job is yours if you can tell me the difference between a joist and a girder.”
            “Ah, sure, sir — Joist wrote Finnegans Wake, Girder wrote Faust.”

            1. optimader

              Joist wrote Finnegans Wake, Girder wrote Faust.
              logged in the permanent file

              &strong>James Joyce Business School
              Saturday, March 4, 2000

              TR: Do you find it frustrating to write business letters and memos that say all that you want to say? Maybe it’s time you considered a business writing course at the James Joyce Business School. James Joyce was one of the greatest writers of the Twentieth Century. Now you can use his principles to improve your own business writing.


    5. R James

      I get tired of these fools that say things like “ban fossil fuel”. There is no alternative, and it gets worse as population increases. We demand the output from fossil fuels, and will continue to do this. Do we see the “greenies” throwing away their cars, mobile phones, computers, heating etc? Have they stopped cooking?Do they still have children?

  2. rjs

    it’s simple: outlaw use of gasoline and diesel fuel and other fossil-fuel based transportation, outlaw heating with natural gas or fuel oil, outlaw use of electricity from coal or gas, and shut down industry…if there is no demand for it, they will not extract it..

    1. James Levy

      Where are you going to move all the people who live above 40 degrees north latitude who would die in the winter without heat?

      1. Jim Haygood

        ‘The greenhouse effect is a hard fact of science. (You can test it. Build a greenhouse, then sit in it on a sunny day.)’

        The same experiment, run 100,000 years ago during the last Ice Age, would have produced the same result … if a mastodon didn’t kick it over.

        This essay is pure misanthropic flakery, from a middle-class pseudo-intellectual who relishes the thought of starving and freezing 95% of the human population by seizing their fuel at gunpoint.

        Molon labe, sucker.

        1. pretzelattack

          i don’t know how many people will die if we allow fossil fuel production to continue as it is, but it will be a very large number.

          1. optimader

            i don’t know how many people will die if we allow fossil fuel production to continue as it is vs alternative scenarios.
            Yes, well the ultimate actuarial probability matrix, eh?

            How about improving efficiency and inject some shred of EROEI into the Policy Sausage.

            Oh, wait I guess you first need to elect competent policy makers –globally.

            1. frosty zoom

              NEW WORLD ORDER ALERT!!!

              humans are so dumb. when we finally get around to harmonizing conduct regarding the environment, labour stuff and myriad other etceterae, “they” do it in secret in the greediest way possible while “we” watch people dance with stars and hang hydrocarbonplastic gonads from our pickups.

              and then we are convinced that one world government is inherently evil all the while it is being hoisted upon us behind a façade called “trade”.

              1. optimader

                “they” do it in secret in the greediest way possible while “we” watch people dance with stars and hang hydrocarbonplastic gonads from our pickups

                I have a hard time self-identifying w/ the “we” as described, but yeah, there are apparently enough pathetic “we”s that the “theys” can rig the game and it doesn’t even need to be in secret..

                Well, a couple of Toronto-based designers ….

                1. frosty zoom

                  oh, i understand you’re not “we”ness very well.

                  i chose stardancing and vehiculartesticular because american seems to be the major nc language.

                  telenovelas y gansitos..

                  les canadiens et poutine..

                  pick your poison.

                  as to the “adornments”: these are made of silicone. hahaha:

                  In mammals, it impairs fertility, damages the liver and has an estrogenic effect.[9]

                  kinda like old spice..

        2. R James

          When I read this comparison to a greenhouse (which operates on a different mechanism to a greenhouse gas), I realised that the author is a technical void, and isn’t qualified to write articles such as this. He probably does lots of cut and paste, with little in depth understanding of the content.

      2. optimader

        Rainbow powered district heating.
        Consider all the hair that is wasted at barber shops, that’s a lot of nice warm shirts

      3. frosty zoom

        that’s me. keep the ol’ apartment at 7ºC all winter long. i guess the lady downstairs pays to heat my feet, but if it’s 7ºC on a march day, people walk around in shorts.

        well, yeah, i get some heat. but just a wee bit. a wee bit, that’s the ticket. but to quote the onceler:

        Now, you listen to me, Pop, while I blow my top! Trees? Ha! You speak for the trees? Well I speak for men, and human opportunities! For your information, you Lorax, I’m figgering on biggering and biggering, and biggering, and BIGGERING, turning MORE truffula trees into thneeds! Which everyone, everyone, EVERYONE NEEDS!

    2. Carolinian

      Yes simple–nothing to it.

      This article is another in an endless series demonstrating why non scientists shouldn’t be writing about science. Consider

      But the greenhouse effect is a hard fact of science. (You can test it. Build a greenhouse, then sit in it on a sunny day.)

      Well that settles it then. Really, this is silly stuff on a serious topic. How about some climate change articles from actual experts on the problem.

    3. rjs

      as i pointed out last week, US light vehicle sales hit a 10 year high in May, with cars and light trucks selling at a 17.7 million a year rate, driven by a surge in purchases of gas-guzzling SUVs and pickups…in March, we learned that vehicle miles driven on US highways had reached a new high on a rolling 12 month basis, 4.9% higher than last year, after more than seven years of Americans driving less miles than they did in 2007…and it’s not just Americans who are driving more; the Chinese have been buying vehicles at a rate of over 2 million a month, around 40% more than Americans buy, with a 49% increase in Chinese SUV sales in the first quarter of this year now accounting for a quarter of Chinese sales…apparently they have a serious problem with road rage in China, and as a result Chinese drivers are buying more SUVs, for intimidation and defensive purposes, all trying to drive a bigger car than their neighbors…as a result, Chinese gasoline sales are up 20% from a year ago, and they have since surpassed US as the largest oil importer of crude oil… the point is, if OPEC holds their output steady at 30 million barrels per day for long enough, demand for oil and its products will outstrip their supply, prices will rise, and US frackers will be back in the drivers seat…

      1. susan the other

        The mad dash to do all the silk roads and railroads and dredge the clogged ocean lanes – all this push by China to catch up and build a transportation network to last the centuries and save the heartland from collapse is a staggeringly enormous effort – all this can be looked at through thef smokey prism of CO2. And there really is no time left – it’s now or never for China. For us here in the West – we are winding down but we’re on the verge of doing public-private partnerships to do sustainable infrastructure. The world, including China, has agreed carbon based fuels have gotta go. Even tho’ Nuke energy is a disaster waiting to happen, those utilities are going in almost as fast as silk roads. And those crazy Saudis? They have agreed to this too. They are getting rid of as much future stranded asset as they can, while they fuel China’s industrial debut. This will all be clearer soon. And I really don’t think anyone anywhere is going to sit in their apartment and freeze to death. We’ll all have our own stationary bike generator and other stuff which will also take fossil fuel to start manufacturing. It’s crunch time. Nobody is fooled.

        1. Gaius Publius

          I think this is well said, susan the other.

          And those crazy Saudis? They have agreed to this too. They are getting rid of as much future stranded asset as they can,

          I’m not sure what else explains this, except evidence of Saudis cashing out as fast as they can.

          They’re still sitting on a mountain of uncashed oil. If they sell too fast, the price goes too far down. But if they sell too slow, there’s a large amount they can’t sell at all. Nicely thought.


  3. James Levy

    The excellent military historian Gwynne Dyer who interviewed powerful types around the world for his book Climate Wars believes that the fix is in: they are planning massive expenditures on geo-engineering to counter climate change, and they are lining up The Usual Suspects to get the contracts for the projects. The Industrial Revolution got us here and they expect to use the same tools and mindset to deal with the problem as it arises. He thinks this will work at an ecological cost quite great but less than full-bore global warming. We’re going to find out.

    1. ChrisFromGeorgia

      Geoengineering to counter climate change is at best pseudo-science, and at worst outright quackery.

      If that’s the game plan of TPTB then God help us all.

        1. TenneyNaumer (@TenneyNaumer)

          That would be a good idea if it were not for the fact that tree mortality world wide is increasing exponentially due to the pollutants in the air like ozone, the wrong temperatures, droughts, floods, insects, etc. We can expect stunningly massive forest fires.

          1. different clue

            This problem has not been being mentioned very much. There is an amateur observer-blogger in New Jersey who has been writing and collecting material about this problem. Her blog seems to have a Total Doom bias, but still appears worth reading with that in mind.

  4. rusti

    Most all of those celebrating people in the climate conference pictures probably enjoy a fairly comfortable lifestyle and aren’t going to suggest provisions on either the supply nor demand side that would send them back down a few rungs on the civilizational ladder. I suspect we’ll stop burning fossil fuels when we either have lost the technological capability to extract, refine and incinerate them or when it becomes an absurd business proposition to do so, in the same way that whale oil imports started free-falling with the advent of rock oil. So for me the preferred alternative is to try to do everything possible to facilitate the latter.
    This is going to be wildly unpopular here but I would be content, in the short-term, with helping a new class of up-and-coming oligarchs enrich themselves taking over the energy and transportation industries in a manner that shifted the environmental burden elsewhere rather than the atmosphere. I suspect that a broader coalition could be built than one based on telling people they need to implement dramatic lifestyle changes for the sake of particulates in the atmosphere and this could largely be done within the existing framework of a Citizens United world. Maybe the changing-of-the-guard in the oligarchy might present an opening to squeeze in some other reforms as well.

    Unfortunately wind, solar, electromobility, energy storage and demand response are only in their infancy with regards to competing “unsubsidized” against other technologies. A huge additional problem exists in that Neoliberal ideological poison has facilitated stripping institutions accountable to voters of the resources necessary to create infrastructure that could minimize total energy consumption or fund the early-stage research required to make these things more viable on a mass scale. So instead we’re pursuing stupid and inefficient individualist policies like rooftop solar with home battery storage or electric cars and buses with thousands of small-format Lithium Ion batteries wrapped together to reproduce combustion engine range.

    Of course even a victory with this plan would only be kicking the can down the road but the fight for transparency and accountability can continue in parallel, and each victory there facilitates better decision making with resources that are available.

    1. pretzelattack

      the oil companies and coal companies are heavily subsidized. stop doing that, and fund solar and wind.

    1. Vatch

      Excellent point. Outlawing the use of coal and petroleum products would be about as useful as “outlawing” teenage sex is.

        1. Vatch

          Okay, now I understand. Abstinence (whether from sex or fossil fuels) only applies to bad people. Good people who have faith in the correct supernatural entity can indulge all they want.

          1. optimader

            Good People that have the correct Faith or at least give it appropriately sincere lip service –for seamless societal /organizational purposes –by definition only pursue Good! Therefore must have certain discretionary latitudes in service of their higher Mission, or Calling if you will.
            Bad People on the other hand, are not Good so,,,,,well I think you get’re a quick study.

  5. Disturbed Voter

    People are free, like it of not. People will use fossil fuels if they are available and economical. As they get less available, they will become less economical … and eventually senseless to burn … thermodynamically.

    If you want a faster solution, then get rid of people … people who like global solutions can start with their own family. Large quantities of people is unsustainable. So I don’t worry about sustainment. And I care about humanity too much, to wish for most of you to die off.

    Deep geothermal and too much solar/wind will also be ecologically disruptive. The heat islands formed by all that pavement in LA … is ecologically disruptive. Heat from nuclear plants are disruptive, even if you have fusion, even if you had no radiation risk.

    1. cnchal

      If you want a faster solution, then get rid of people … people who like global solutions can start with their own family.

      Wake up from your nightmare.

      1. Disturbed Voter

        Thermodynamics says it is real, not a nightmare. The world is a quasi-stable system, with massive solar and earth core input … small variations from those two sources, or from the biosphere apes … can tip the whole thing over. I didn’t make the world this way, I just have to recognize it, and realize that it is past the ability of individuals or collectives to change it … other than I have said previously.

        Can people per capita have a smaller impact on the environment? Yes. Can there be fewer people? Yes. But that only controls one of three sources of instability. If we have already overshot the carrying capacity (which is a variable trending downward) … then bad things are inevitable. Of course education can and has been tried … but it is pushing a rope. Getting people to voluntarily change isn’t coercion, it is simply self discipline. But I won’t be holding my breath.

    2. Vatch

      “Large quantities of people is unsustainable.”

      Well yes, sure, that’s absolutely true. The solution is for women to have fewer babies. This is necessary in wealthy industrial nations and also in poor nations. But don’t use the phrase “get rid of people”, because that makes people think that you are advocating killing. Overpopulation needs to be managed by reducing the birth rate, not be increasing the death rate.

      1. Steve H.

        “For the gods by that one’s loveliness joined Troy and Hellas in battle, causing death so that they might draw off from the earth the outrage of unstinting numbers of mortals.”

        – Euripedes

        1. Vatch

          From a summary of the ancient Mesopotamian epic Atrahasis (the precursor of portions of Genesis):

          Tablet I continues with legends about overpopulation and plagues. Atrahasis is mentioned at the end of Tablet I.

          Tablet II begins with more overpopulation of humans and the god Enlil sending first famine and drought at formulaic intervals of 1200 years to reduce the population. In this epic Enlil is depicted as a nasty capricious god while Enki is depicted as a kind helpful god, perhaps because priests of Enki were writing and copying the story. Tablet II is mostly damaged, but ends with Enlil’s decision to destroy humankind with a flood and Enki bound by an oath to keep the plan secret.

          If we don’t manage our birth rate, nature (or the gods) will manage our death rate.

      2. tejanojim

        As the Archdruid says, population is a lagging indicator. There are four basic ways to reduce human population, and they ride horses.

  6. rob urie

    Your premise is sound but Mr. Monbiot is a dubious ally. Nuclear power is his solution to ending the dominance of fossil fuels. With no solution of what to do with nuclear waste, the tradeoff is slowing global warming for future dead zones to add to those already created in world oceans.

    Geo-engineering is tomorrow’s failures not yet realized. The problem appears to be the approach to the world that is technology. Why would more of the same be expected to yield better results when today’s problems are the result of yesterday’s solutions?

    1. Steve H.

      “In the paper “Nuclear Power : the energy balance” by J.W. Storm and P. Smith (2005) download here, the authors calculate that with high quality ores, the CO2 produced by the full nuclear life cycle is about one half to one third of an equivalent sized gas-fired power station.

      For low quality ores (less than 0.02% of U3O8 per tonne of ore), the CO2 produced by the full nuclear life cycle is EQUAL TO that produced by the equivalent gas-fired power station.”

      [referred from /2013/04/ending-nuclear-power-decreased-carbon-dioxide-output-in-germany.html]

        1. subgenius

          …don’t worry about it, the whole thing fails absent ff inputs.

          Then there’s just the odd meltdown, and all the waste, to deal with…

          1. susan the other

            an incomplete technology… doesn’t this tell us that our technologies should recycle – and without deadly harm to all living things? The energy cycle of the planet recycles most efficiently – or it used to before we threw it all out of balance. There is no good reason to discount using the energy cycle of the planet as our model. What a relief it will be to not be a consumer of manufactured crap.

            1. subgenius

              What it tells us is that unless we have a coherent grasp of the entire lifecycle of a technological item, and have understood and developed mitigation techniques for the issues created (recursive…) then we are idiots to implement it. I don’t give a shit what anybody thinks, the truth is NON of it is sustainable, equitable or sound. But most people are too fucking stupid and demanding and thus we as a species are likely doomed. Anybody wanting to argue this better have AT LEAST a solid technical/scientific background, and have thought through a large number of the implications.


              Don’t make tech.

            2. optimader

              an incomplete technology
              horribly.. the eminently available potential energy in “spent” fuel rods make for a tragic energy balance. Always hated that.
              One of the ironies of Fukushima that ive never seen presented in the media is that much of the catastrophe could have been avoided had the “spent fuel” rods been reprocessed in a more rational uranium fuel cycle rather than stored in an energetically unstable condition waiting for a problem.
              Ultimately wrong choice of nuke fuel for utility power compounded by a wrong ( incomplete) fuel cycle
              But we know that.

              1. different clue

                How many laypeople really know that? I have read hints of it here and there but how much do I really know?

                James Hansen mentioned it in his book Storms of my Grandchildren, and a blogger called Engineer Poet has an energy blog called The Ergosphere some of whose entries are about these better nuclear cycles and reasons for their non-adoption, in his opinion.

              2. Lexington

                Could you please explain what you mean by reprocessing “in a more rational uranium fuel cycle” and an “energetically unstable condition”?

                Fukushima would have happened whether the fuel rods were stored in the (American designed) reactor housing or not since in any case the reactor core would have undergone meltdown.

                1. optimader

                  Heading home, but here’s a decent mainstream link

                  Imagine the mess if we mined one ton of coal, burned five percent of it for energy, and then threw away the rest.

                  That is what happens with uranium for nuclear fuel today. Currently, only about five percent of the uranium in a fuel rod gets fissioned for energy; after that, the rods are taken out of the reactor and put into permanent storage.

                  There is a way, however, to use almost all of the uranium in a fuel rod. ………….


                  …is that much of the catastrophe…

            3. Lexington

              What a relief it will be to not be a consumer of manufactured crap.

              Would that most people agreed with you, but as Dumbya was fond of saying, “The American way of life is not negotiable”.

              Unless we’re willing to go back to being hunter / gatherers (which will incidentally require the elimination of most of the people currently on the planet) we cannot come anywhere close to replicating Mother Nature’s energy cycle. That’s just an unpalatable fact of life – there are lots of those surrounding this issue.

              The key question is this: are we willing to seriously reconsider what constitutes an acceptable standard of living on a global scale? Gaius is kind of approaching this question indirectly, but it needs to be confronted head on, because at the end of the day it is probably central to the question of whether we’re even serious about considering any alternative to catastrophic climate change.

      1. Lexington

        You’re link doesn’t point to the original work by Storm and Smith but to a poor synopsis by Dave Kimble, whose argument doesn’t support his conclusions. Kimble is basically saying if you include ALL energy inputs in running a nuclear plant, for example the diesel consumed by mining equipment used to obtain uranium ore, you don’t necessarily come out ahead of fossil fuels. Of course, he doesn’t consider ALL the energy inputs required to obtain fossil fuels, and doesn’t offer any rigorous analysis of the EROEI of nuclear vs. fossil. Basically this is an amateur hit job on nuclear power.

        1. Steve H.

          Good point. The original work is based on entropy production and is also meant as a damning critique of nuclear power. (It points to solar as an energy input from outside the earth system.)

          One point they make is about the energy debt to contain the waste products in the future. When containment is needed for longer than most civilizations have endured, uncertainty increases. A tangent about perverse consequences: Shannon equated uncertainty with entropy. I haven’t seen anyone yet considering the time-scale uncertainty of millenia as an increase in entropy. There is a link between uncertainty and hyperbolic discounting, which is that the more uncertain the future, the more organisms lean towards ‘get-it-now’ without regard to future consequences. I think that means there is a positive feedback loop for the generation of nuclear waste.

          At any rate, I would like to see an extended EROEI comparing nuclear vs. fossil with the same depth as the Storm and Smith work. If you know of any, please post them.

          1. Dave Kimble

            In 2006 the Australian Government commissioned a report by Sydney University’s ISA Team (Menzel et al) comparing ERoEIs of all energy technologies, archived at:
            Life Cycle Energy Balance [2.7 MB PDF]

            This is a comparison table from the report:

            Note Energy Intensity is the inverse of ERoEI, and is measured in kW.h(th)/kW.h(el)

            The spreadsheets behind this fully transparent report are archived at:

    2. TenneyNaumer (@TenneyNaumer)

      Latest generation reactors will use spent fuel rods for fuel, solving a huge problem.

      1. andyb

        Nuclear is not the solution. Fukushima will be responsible for the death of half the world’s population within 50 years; thus there is only a 50:50 chance that you will have a line of descendants. I find it interesting that, 1)shortly after the cores melted, the EPA revised the acceptable level of radiation upward by 500%, and 2) the decimation of all animal species in the Pacific gets no MSM coverage.

  7. cnchal

    Gaius Publius is an idiot, and here is proof.

    I once had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with one of our leading progressive politicians, someone who is on the right side of everything I care about, including climate change. As we were discussing solutions to the climate problem, I mentioned the carbon industry and said, “You realize, fixing the climate crisis means we have to kill the carbon industry, right?”

    She (or he) stopped, thought, then said (paraphrasing): “Huh. You know, I think you’re right.”

    Why do I bring this up? Because this person, who’s right about everything I want her (or him) to be right about, hadn’t thought through the climate problem to the obvious solution.

    Politicians are narcissists. That occupation attracts them like flies to shit. When asking a narcissist’s opinion on anything, the answer you get depends on the narcissist’s objective and has zero to do with reality. In this case the narcissist was kind to Gaius and didn’t call him (or her) a blithering idiot to his or her face. If they did that, then they wouldn’t be the person who is right about everything I want her (or him) to be right about.

    The point is, Gaius can’t figure out that he or she has been played.

    As for thinking it through. Is burning wood to be outlawed too? When freezing hungry people knock on your door for help, what are you going to tell them? Go die?

    What Jim said.

    This essay is pure misanthropic flakery, from a middle-class pseudo-intellectual who relishes the thought of starving and freezing 95% of the human population by seizing their fuel at gunpoint.

    1. tegnost

      ok so, admitting that i too found this premise to be a little, well maybe a lot “out there”,name calling is also not called for, the author has written several interesting articles, and this one , as yves points out is really an extreme thought experiment. Archdruid might claim for instance that society as is can’t survive without fossil fuels, but when reading archdruid I get the feeling i’m involving myself in a thought experiment there as well. My personal solution has been to sell my truck and use public transportation. I’m a landscaper, and if i can do it so can most urban individuals. If i need a truck, which is not very often, i rent, and unlike i dare say most landscapers you see driving around, am fully insured, and if the truck breaks ( this is the best part) i call the rental company, leave the truck where it is and go on about my business. The cost of owning the truck is actually a huge savings, so i don’t have to put a weeks pay in the truck each month and thus less stress, more money, and the bus is an interesting place, lots of nice people a few crazies and yes some meanies, its getting hot out…i’ll add the thing that really trips my trigger, parking tickets, haven’t had my day ruined by one of those in years! This kind of action really rubs the mighty the wrong way as well, added bonus! Also, solution! Q “tegnost, when are you getting a truck” A. “Not gonna”. Q “why, can’t you see the economy has recovered? A (eyeroll) “Waste of money!”
      This leads of course to lower demand so fracking, something i don’t like suffers…Yay. So yeah crazy to think we can live w/o petroleum, but so are those who think we’ll invent a belt mounted personal cold fusion device to go with our robot assistant, cutting demand works in the world here and now. And it’s not idiotic to ponder the solutions to what may be seen as a problem in a closed system like earth planet.

      1. Carolinian

        Thought experiment. Is that like when Rush Limbaugh is caught making some particularly outrageous or offensive statement and then says he was only joking? Dog meet homework.

        And Archdruid is long on rhetoric, low on corroboration. One of the only links in his most recent piece supposedly showed that half of all science done these days is questionable and done for grant money or some other questionable motive. If you follow the link it is clear that the author is speaking to a biomedical conference and is really talking about drug and medical research. Pharma can indeed be very shady, but is only a small corner of “science.” When it comes to AGW there are too many bald assertions on both sides of the debate. As I said above lets have some actual experts and let them make their case. Simply bringing out the same talking points over and over goes nowhere.

        1. pretzelattack

          the real experts have already made the scientific case. the policy case has to rest on that.

          1. Carolinian

            It’s the policy case that I’m asserting needs attention from real experts rather than speculative journalism. Clearly this article doesn’t seem to fit the bill.

        2. tegnost

          are you saying that you’ve heard someone suggest banning petroleum before? I never have, first time for me…as to archdruid he’s sort of a futurist philosopher, while this is a policy proposal, ban petroleum, i say maybe a bit extreme, taking the bus works as a personal policy choice. starve the beast, is that your talking point? and since you mention agw, i’ll go back to grubbing around in the glacial till

    2. frosty zoom

      do you really like burning rotten plant belchings from millions of years ago? care for a glass of kerosene? wanna cook the ol’ barbeque on coal? would you set up a frackpad in your front yard so that your fellow humans won’t starve and freeze?

      hydrocarbons are poisonous. we’ve stopped making our hats with mercury, you know.

      it’s time to move on.

      and yes, there is an obvious need for hydrocarbons at the moment, but smack will kill you faster than methadone.

    3. tegnost

      oh and by the way wood burning is outlawed in certain circumstances including but not limited to air quality

  8. Jerry

    “Environmental pollution is an incurable disease. It can only be prevented,” Barry Commoner said.

    At that time he got away with saying so because we did not count carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

    The howls of protest in comments above show why we are unlikely to curtail carbon dioxide in time. No one sees how to maintain his lifestyle without more pollution. Our concern for ourselves in the present will always exceed our concern for our descendants in the future. Even I have not yet bought a horse to replace my car.

    1. frosty zoom

      Our concern for ourselves in the present will always exceed our concern for our descendants in the future.

      speak for yourself, thank you. i leave the campsite nice and clean.

      1. Jerry

        So you have already traded your car for a horse?

        The sacrifice you make to clean the campsite is trivial in comparison to what is called for now.

        1. frosty zoom

          i dunno..

          each of us in our house uses less than 100 kw/hrs per month of electricity and we only have one kid.

          our underconsumption may be trivial, but trivial times billions equals not so trivial.

  9. Dan Lynch

    Partly agree & partly disagree with Gaius.

    Disagree that we should focus on outlawing production rather than consumption. Producers produce because consumers consume. The simplest, most straightforward way to reduce consumption is to ration consumption. Then no matter how much fossil fuel is extracted, it could not be burned without a ration card. If you want to limit consumption to “X” amount, then you only issue “X” ration cards. It’s not complicated.

    What is complicated is taking care of people while this is going on. How will their homes be heated in the winter? How will the farmer plow his fields? How will people get to work ? (and before you say electric cars and mass transit, bear in mind that it takes energy to build electric cars and mass transit).

    Absolutely no one has put forth a realistic proposal to reverse climate change with our existing population. You wanna build solar panels — that takes energy. You wanna build wind generators — that takes energy. You wanna build mass transit — that takes energy. And so forth. Embarking on a massive green energy campaign would actually INCREASE greenhouse emissions.

    1. pretzelattack

      people consume oil products because that’s how the whole system is set up. if we don’t change to somehow get off oil, the system will crash anyway.

    2. lyman alpha blob

      ” Producers produce because consumers consume.”

      I agree to a point but consumers would consume less if producers would stop producing low quality crap that needs to be constantly replaced. Losing track of how many times I’ve bought something that looked OK only to find out it was crap once I took it out of the package. And the only reason for the packaging often seems to be so that one can’t tell for sure if something is crap until after opening which of course isn’t allowed until after purchase.

      And if it isn’t low quality crap, then it’s the planned obsolescence. Look at the tech industry where everybody replaces their phone or computer every couple years or more because old stuff doesn’t work after a while. Why not build a frame where just certain standardized parts can be replaced as needed without throwing out the whole thing? eg, if your processor is out of date, buy a new chip and plug it in to your existing machine rather than trashing the whole thing. Not a tech person so maybe there’s a reason that isn’t feasible but it sure seems like if we can put a man on the moon, etc etc….

      And if it isn’t that, it’s producing for “convenience” which often seems to be a synonym for lower costs for large producers. Go to the grocery store and try to buy ketchup in a glass bottle rather than one made from petroleum products. It’s increasingly difficult to do but not because everybody is demanding plastic, but because glass weighs more and costs more to ship. I’d bet any fuel saved from lower shipping costs is made up for with the plastics used for packaging. And if we had more localized production we wouldn’t need to ship products hundreds or thousands of miles any way and shipping costs would be much less of a factor.

      There are any number of ways we could produce fewer products that last much longer and put a big dent in this problem.

  10. Jagger

    The core of the climate problem is overpopulation and consumption. It seems the logical solution is worldwide rationing of energy sources, similiar to what was done during WW2, such that all have what is necessary to survive and reduce carbon PPM. And then a worldwide one child per family policy. We need major population reduction using methods other than war, famine or disease. Rationing combined with peaceful reduction of population and hopefully tech breakthoughs would solve the climate problem and the need for rationing sooner rather than later. And by skipping the war, famine and disease part, maybe we would preserve the knowledge base gained since the last dark ages.

    However, I just cannot see this happening.

  11. SoCal Rhino

    Back to Yve’s point, whether or not you think the author or the article lame, the point about stopping this at the source sounds valid to me. Rolling agreements with targets of reduced consumption decades ahead obviously haven’t been sufficient and maybe there’s a production limiting solution short of human extinction. Worth exploring to me.

    If you really buy the notion that this is hopeless what is the point of commenting on this topic, let alone readIng about it?

    Jared Diamond in Collapse makes the point that Wyoming miners aren’t evil people and it is the interest of environmental activists to engage them in finding solutions. Maybe there are steps short of outlawing FF production. Maybe not but given the stakes might be worth exploration.

    Getting ready to replace current shrubs around our house with more drought tolerant species (had enough foresight to use hardscape rather than grass when landscaping). Collective action is tougher, the statewide rationing was unbelievably behind the curve but real steps are being taken before the taps go dry in the cities (well, the bigger cities anyway).

  12. tim s

    Pie in the sky rubbish. GP goes from the title using “outlaw” to some voluntary agreement among mankind to no longer use fossil fuels, without even blinking an eye. Humanity has no history of global utopian agreement, but plenty of history of power grabs and might-makes-right, so this pending global agreement is BS.

    That takes us to the outlaw proposal. No mention of enforcement mechanism? The enforcer is undeniably the one with the power to impose their will on others. Name one power of any lasting significance today that is not based on some form of industrial capacity.

    Until there is an industrial power source that can supplant fossil fuels, fossil fuels will be burned, because those in power do not give up that power willingly, come Hell or high water (pun intended). If they did willingly give it up, there will be some in the shadows more than willing to grab it and run with it, damn the consequences, just to be in the dominant position.

    Wrap it up with the Easter Island metaphor is just icing on the cake. How does this support his point? I’d imagine that there were people on the island making warnings, which went unheeded for any number of reasons, and the population collapsed. No effective uprising or mutual agreement saved them. And that was a much less diverse population with likely a common culture.

    “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein

    1. Anarcissie

      What you write is correct, except ‘Until there is an industrial power source that can supplant fossil fuels, fossil fuels will be burned….‘ There are some other scenarios of non-trivial probability, such as radical reduction of the human population through plague, famine, or war, which might occur before the replacement or exhaustion of fossil fuels. Or, the events could be contemporaneous and reinforce one another.

      Except for entertainment value, it seems like a waste of time to fantasize about global changes which, as far as we know, are politically impossible, however clever they may be technically. It will do about as much good to pray to the god(s) of your choice to make the climate scientists be somehow wrong.

  13. vegeholic

    The issues of climate change, population overshoot, and resource depletion are all interconnected and all very real. I personally take many steps to realign my life in ways to mitigate these dilemmas. I will strongly support any candidate, public official, organization, or advocate who shows a willingness to similarly confront these issues and propose constructive responses. However I also recognize that there is, absent any immediate, impending catastrophe, ZERO chance that anything will be done collectively to address these issues. Humans are just not programmed to think like this. You see it illustrated every day in a thousand ways. Humans are only programmed to maximize their near term comfort, pleasure, and security and that of their family and tribe with whatever resources are at hand. That’s just the way things are. It’s in the DNA.

    As someone once said, “Don’t try to teach a pig to sing. You will frustrate yourself and it annoys the pig.”

  14. Luke The Debtor

    There is a lot of doubt and uncertainty regarding climate change. El Nino could be responsible for the majority of climate change. Fun fact, the NOAA did not blame climate change or fossil fuels for the 2015 Indian Heat wave.

    NOAA: What is the relationship between El Niño/La Niña and global warming?

    The jury is still out on this. Are we likely to see more El Niños because of global warming? Will they be more intense? These are the main research questions facing the science community today. Research will help us separate the natural climate variability from any trends due to man’s activities. We cannot figure out the “fingerprint” of global warming if we cannot sort out what the natural variability does. We also need to look at the link between decadal changes in natural variability and global warming. At this time we can’t preclude the possibility of links but it would be too early to definitely say there is a link.


    1. pretzelattack

      no what’s responsible for climate change is the emissions. there is virtually no doubt on this.

    2. Vatch

      Scientists rarely, if ever, attribute a single heat event to climate change or global warming. But they do say that such events will be more common because of climate change. From the article about the 2015 Indian heat wave:

      In the future, though, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), more frequent and intense heat waves in Asia (including India) will negatively impact vulnerable communities and increase mortality. In fact, it is likely that heat waves already occur more often now in Asia than they did in 1950. In a future with high carbon emissions, it is likely that a maximum temperature that occurs once every 20 years will at least double in frequency (to a 1-in-10-year event) by the end of the 21st century. Research focusing solely on India also concludes that heat waves will last longer, be more intense and occur more often in the future (Murari et al., 2015).

    3. nowhere


      I have yet to see one account that claims “El Nino could be responsible for the majority of climate change”. Try again.

      1. jrs

        I’d ask for “better climate change deniers please” …. only I’m afraid we’d get them, an inundation of them.

      2. Luke The Debtor

        90% of heat production comes from the oceans. NASA is also uncertain about the relationship between El Nino and climate change. The only refutation is a linkto someone’s blog who states the following without citation to back it up:

        Data analysis, physical observations and basic arithmetic all show ENSO cannot explain the long term warming trend over the past few decades.

        . Wow, what any amazingly and incredibly strong source to cite.
        From the IPCC:

        Thus, whether the mean climate
        state change leads to more frequent emergence of CP El Niño or
        the other way around is not yet known. The increase in the frequency
        of CP El Niño during recent decades may be a manifestation of natural
        climate variability (Na et al., 2011; Yeh et al., 2011).

        1. nowhere

          Please be careful when quoting.

          “Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010 (high confidence).” – from the provided link

          Not sure what you mean when you say “heat production”, as that is not a valid statement in regards to the ocean/atmosphere/climate system. The oceans do not produce heat!!

          There are other natural phenomena (like the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation) that can impact El Nino events. That does NOT mean that the climate is NOT warming.

  15. Adam Eran

    Bill McKibbon says there is $27 trillion of proven reserves in the ground that need to stay there. What if the government (producer of fiat currency) bought those reserves with the caveat that the recipients of the money must spend it on renewables?

    Do we really have to fight about this?

    1. susan the other

      Well that’s a good idea and it would explain the fracking idiot frenzy – they’re just planning on selling those “in ground” resources to the government. Betcha.

  16. oledeadmeat

    Stopping fossil fuel production essentially guts modern agriculture – fossil fuels are used for transportation of food and for fertilizer production, and their efficiencies enable us to feed the current world population.

    If you abandon them, we have to use much less efficient methods of fertilizer production and transport.

    Less efficient means less food means people starve.

    So, who gets to decide who dies?

    1. Synoia

      Who survives? Survival of the fittest. Nature decides, because with the rate of death necessary for the reduction to a non-fossil fuel system, the “downsizing” probably cannot be managed.

      No billionaires will survive.

      The people best suited to survive are already living the hunter-gatherer existence (Borneo, parts of the Congo).

      North America will become uninhabitable as before, because of the climate extremes.

      Central and Latin America, see the history of the Mayan civilization.

    2. TenneyNaumer (@TenneyNaumer)

      Electric vehicles can and will be developed for transport.

      Less fertilizer is required when using advanced methods such as heavy cover crops during the winter, no till in the spring. Fewer Monsanto poisons required, meaning more profit per acre. The soils biome is restored meaning higher productivity. The soil will not runoff, and the land is less injured by drought.

  17. craazyboy

    Here’s my fav alt energy solution. Moore’s Law most definitely does not apply to alt energy and batteries, so watching progress here is like watching trees grow. But they have bio-engineered algea strains capable of excreting ethanol, syn-diesel and jet fuel(kerosene). It is supposed to be potentially lower cost than gasoline, as well as being nearly carbon neutral.

    They have a pilot demo plant in operation for about 2 years now. They are doing ethanol first, because corn ethanol is about the silliest thing humans have ever conceived. Only an oil man could decide to burn our food supply. Then they also have a partnership with Audi – whom is interested in syn-diesel.

    1. Carolinian

      Did an oil man decide to burn our food supply? I thought it was all those midwest congress critters and their corn farmer constituents.They were growing more corn than they could sell and needed new markets. While I believe the genesis of ethanol use was a lot more complicated than this explanation, the continuation of the boondoggle is now entrenched via farmer special pleading.

      1. craazyboy

        GWB did sign off on it, but, yeah, corn policy originates in Iowa, and now I guess Texas and Iowa do energy policy. Also, now we have the “entrepreneurs” who built the ethanol plants. They were getting subsidies, which were supposed to run out, then they complained and Obama renewed the subsidies. Bad ideas never go away either.

      2. nowhere

        Corn Production and Use

        At 27% of corn usage going to ethanol (which isn’t trivial), don’t forget to include America’s voracious appetite for animal flesh (~42% – and increasingly exports to increase other societies consumption of animals) is a major piece of policy that should be changed, and which would result in far less usage of petroleum and destruction of soil. Might hurt McD’s and Monsanto’s bottom-line, so don’t count on any changes.

  18. Robert

    One acronym – LFTR

    Stands for Liquified Flouride Thorium Reactor

    Not pressurized and enough existing spent fuel to run these breeder reactors for 1000 years.

    Does not meet current corporate capitalistic model however.

    PS. also solves fresh potable water problem because desalination plants can be powered by them.

  19. Gaius Publius

    Hi all,

    I wrote a partial reply a few hours ago and then had to step away. That reply seems to have gotten lost. I repeat it below. This thread has gotten long and, apparently, vigorous. Good to see the discussion. More in a bit, as I absorb what’s been said in the last few hours.

    Bottom line: The piece above isn’t about how to make the change (that’s not hard to describe, as you’ll see if you read this, but it’s beyond the scope of what I originally wrote). This piece is about the need to change and what to change — i.e., eliminate production. Obviously we’re going to replace carbon-based energy with something else.

    Anyway, thanks for reading.


    Thanks for the comments and discussion. It’s an important topic. I’m just starting to read through them (I’m West Coast) so I haven’t absorbed it all, but I want to address a few concerns.

    Greenhouse effect. This was discovered in 1824 and later confirmed. If you let light into a container of air, let it convert to heat (heat is just light at a different wave length), then prevent the heat from leaving, you heat the air in the container. You can do this with glass (a literal greenhouse). You can also do this by adding trace amounts of certain gasses and/or water vapor to the air in the container.

    The history (note that even A.G. Bell knew we were cooking ourselves):

    The existence of the greenhouse effect was argued for by Joseph Fourier in 1824. The argument and the evidence was further strengthened by Claude Pouillet in 1827 and 1838, and reasoned from experimental observations by John Tyndall in 1859, and more fully quantified by Svante Arrhenius in 1896.[12][13]

    In 1917 Alexander Graham Bell wrote “[The unchecked burning of fossil fuels] would have a sort of greenhouse effect”, and “The net result is the greenhouse becomes a sort of hot-house.”[14][15] Bell went on to also advocate for the use of alternate energy sources, such as solar energy.[16]

    The impossibility. I’m not arguing from the absurd. I’m arguing from the obvious and the necessary. If we don’t stop cooking our atmosphere, we’ll cook ourselves out of a place in it. In order for humans to (a) live, and (b) be civilized (settled), we need the greenhouse effect (a control knob) to stay set within a certain range.

    When the knob, which always exists, found that range roughly 12,000 years ago, our species (pl.) transitioned from hunter-gatherer (the so-called Old Stone Age) to settled and agricultural (the meso and neo stone ages).

    We’re now moving the knob outside that range. Keep doing it and we’ll reverse the process. We’ll create a climate in which, on most of the earth, we can’t be crop growers. Beyond that is the climate in which we can’t live, certainly not in robust numbers.

    At the rate we’ve moving the knob, we’ll be outside those ranges by 2100 (IPCC, MIT and nearly everyone else who looks at “business as usual” carbon-use scenarios). The CO2 uptake rates and the global heating rates track to each other. The only variable in rise of atmospheric heat is the uptake of heat by the ocean, in part via El Niño and La Niña seasons, which accelerate or dampen rise in surface air temperature. We’re due for (or looking at) a decent-sized burp of heat back out of the water and into the air (check the El Niño news).

    Overall, the rate of emissions is accelerating. The result is foregone, and again, will occur in the lifetime of many of these readers, or that of their children. We can also arrest the process, by stopping emissions.

    So we have to stop. It’s that simple. And there is an answer, at the bottom of my piece.

    There’s always a choice. We just have to choose it.

    I’ve written for almost a year about how successful we could be at a crash-course mass conversion off of carbon to renewables. There are now papers about how this could be done (completed) within 20 years. I’ve spoken with energy-industry types who say that a 10-year conversion is entirely possible, if the country was forced to act, to put its whole shoulder to the wheel.

    Of course I’m not consigning New Yorkers to die in the winter. I’m saying that the reason New Yorkers will die is our failure to convert off of carbon, not our trying to.

    Put differently, if the mass of Americans wanted to win WWII, they’d tell government to do it, and government would. The “free market” wouldn’t get to decide how many tanks to build, for example. If the mass of Americans wanted to take the U.S. off of carbon, government would do it. So to paraphrase:

    There’s always a choice. We just haven’t chosen it.

    People do have the right to stay on carbon and consign their species to the laws of physics. But it’s not a smart use of a narrow window of opportunity.

    What would cause us to change? Part of my writing, though not in this piece, also addresses what would cause a critical mass of people to tell government to “just do it.” That’s outside the scope of what I wrote above, but it’s another trip to the obvious.

    Think about recent uses of the phrase “keep us safe.” Even the right wing turns to government — especially the right wing, one could argue — and says “daddy, keep me safe” when something that looks frightening scares them. We’re on the cusp of a whole lot of things that do, and will, look frightening indeed.

    Just one: What will happen to the economy of Las Vegas when the “carrying capacity” of available water (Lake Mead; scroll down to graph here) forces town mothers and fathers to choose between thirsty citizens on the one hand, and golf courses and Bellagio fountains on the other? If you’re 20 years old, you’ll see that day and it will change what people want from government.

    I’ll read through these comments more carefully and try to address individual concerns through the day. Again, thanks for weighing in. It’s an important topic.

    1. kimyo

      cause a critical mass of people to tell government to “just do it.”

      when government ‘just does it’:
      war on drugs! (in progress, drug use increasing)
      war on terror! (in progress, terrorism increasing)
      war on cholesterol! (admitted failure)
      war on poverty! (non-admitted abject failure)

      you forget that governments declaring war on XXX inevitably results in endless efforts with absolutely no positive results.

  20. docg

    Irony of ironies. This post is exactly the opposite of what it claims to be. By making so very clear exactly what the stakes are, the writer makes a very convincing case for doing nothing. And I heartily agree. The project he and Monbiot have in mind would require the establishment of a totalitarian government on a worldwide basis, precipitating a veritable 1984 type of society that just about everyone on this earth would find intolerable.

    There is simply no way to get rid of fossil fuels in the manner he has contemplated. And yet, he is right, because, assuming the hysteria over CO2 emissions is for real, there is in fact no other viable alternative. The half measures now being proposed by our president and other world leaders would at best delay the worst effects of the coming “disaster” by only a year or so at most. Given the current panic over this issue, the ONLY viable solution is, yes, simply shut it down. Yet that is no solution because shutting it down would in itself precipitate a disaster such as the world has never seen. And it will never happen because people aren’t stupid.

    I’ve written a book about this situation, which considers it from just about every angle, and would urge everyone reading here to check it out (assuming you have a kindle capable device). It’s only 6 bucks. And Yves, if you send me an email requesting a copy I’ll send you one for free — you have my address. Here’s an excerpt:

    On My Soapbox
    If I may now address my fellow liberals. For a great many of you, the oligarchs and plutocrats that now rule the world are the ones behind all the climate change “denial.” However, as far as I can see they are the ones who stand to profit most from climate change hysteria. Take all that revolutionary fervor represented by a movement like Occupy Wall Street and redirect it into something perfectly harmless: increasingly frantic, but futile, efforts to “change the world” by — NOT undermining the “free” market of global capitalism; NOT forcing a huge wealth tax on all the world’s many multi-millionaires and billionaires; NOT finding ways to improve the lot of all the many starving and in many cases enslaved masses of the third world; NOT by forcing meaningful change down the throats of all those perfectly happy with the deadly, deadening status quo — BUT preserving that same status quo by incessantly “demanding” something that can never actually happen, because once the peoples of the world realize what it means to live in a world without fossil fuels, they will never permit it to happen.

    So we’ll continue to live in a world engorged with inequality and injustice while all the forces usually aligned for meaningful political and economic change will be forever distracted, looking for that next “extreme weather” event, the one that “proves” for all time that “global warming is real.” How pathetic!

    From The Unsettled Science of Climate Change:

  21. ewmayer

    Even if efforts to restrict consumption temporarily succeed, they are likely to be self-defeating. A reduction in demand when supply is unconstrained lowers the price, favouring carbon-intensive industry.

    Wildly oversimplistic. For example take oil: the recent “tight oil” boom was only rendered economic by demand — and especially demand growth in emerging-market economies (EMEs) — pushing oil prices above $100/barrel in a seemingly sustained fashion, coupled with bubble finance promoted by the developed world’s central banks. Now that the EMEs have reached the limits of their own debt-fueled growth bubbles, demand is collapsing, and the oil price is reflecting that. If it stays below $100/barrel for a few years, many of the actors in the highly-leveraged tight oil sector will go bankrupt, bringing that production boom to an end. In other words supply here is nowhere near unconstrained, so the author’s simplistic logic rests on a demonstrably false premise. Still, even if the world “stops growing” (in economic terms) today and flatlines for the next century, current production is still much too high. The problem is that the entire world – especially at the policymaking level – appears to be enslaved to the ruinous “exponential growth forever” economic paradigm.

    Lastly, given that “ban it!” is simply unworkable, it would have been nice had the author laid out a semi-credible multidecadal plan for ‘simply’ reducing FF production/consumption 50% from current levels, one which does not require societal collapse and starvation/freezing-to-death of billions. “Wax hyperbolic in order to spur thought” is easy — proposing plausible workable solutions, there’s the rub.

  22. juliania

    Responses to climate change are already occurring, and while insignificant in their individuality, they do affect ultimate consequences. This is happening on the natural scale, some of it catastrophic (and that too will ultimately affect the course of events.)

    Even though I don’t amount to a hill of beans on the grand scale of things, I search out in my pedestrian/public transportational perambulatory way the healthiest foods I can afford, grow (not very well) my greens and my worms and my soil, my inch square patch. And that figures in to the mighty arc of existence which is made up of many such insignificances. I read a lot of books from the library. Books are biodegradable.

    Life is going to be different, far different from anything I can presently imagine. Science will maybe become more humble and thus more productive. Society too. I won’t be around to see but I think after some really tough times, it will be better.

    The world’s mindset is changing. I cannot but be hopeful about this.

    Fare you well, planet. You are so beautiful. Fare you well, all earth’s inhabitants.

  23. Sibiriak

    GP: I still contend that this problem isn’t insurmountable.

    I contend that this problem IS insurmountable.


    …if enough people are determined to stop it.

    There are NOT enough people determined to stop it.

    If we stopped burning fossil fuel today…

    “We” won’t.

    That would very likely allow us to avoid completely the worst of the tipping points, like loss of polar ice.

    Prepare for the loss of polar ice. Prepare for the worst.

  24. Nathanael

    We don’t have a political method for outlawing production worldwide.

    We DO have an ECONOMIC method.

    Fossil fuel has a production cost. We need to guarantee that the sales price is *below* the production cost, which will shut down the industry.

    To do this, we need to make sure that the alternatives are priced below the production cost of fossil fuels; the price of alternatives provides a cap for the price of fossil fuels.

    Musk is working on it….

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