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Our Next Climate Crisis Will Be Much Worse

Our Next Climate Crisis Will Be Much Worse

Human carbon output will eventually peak and decline. That may be a tough reality to accept during a week when Portland roasts at a mind-boggling 114 degrees, but that time is coming. At some point over the next three decades or so, carbon output will not just decline, but collapse. When that time comes, humanity will wake up to a strange new power over our planet with no clue how to use it.

Coal is already dying. Natural gas is next. Exelon, America’s largest producer of natural gas-based electricity, is also already its largest carbon-free energy producer. It appears likely that the peak US natural gas consumption is already behind us, with other countries following soon. Global demand for oil appears to have reached its peak in 2019. Oil companies are scrambling to rebrand themselves as energy companies, not to protect themselves from regulation but to retain their ability to attract investment and talent. 

Carbon energy is dying mostly from innovation in renewables that render old energy sources vastly more expensive than new alternatives. Compounding the trend is a shift in wealth toward less energy-dependent industries along with a long-term collapse in global population growth, especially in the developed world, where populations are entering a phase of absolute decline. Unfortunately, collective political action has played almost no part in the end of fossil fuels, leaving us entering this phase about 15-20 years too late to prevent permanent changes to our planet. A post-carbon age looms in our near future.

Picture a time perhaps 40 to 60 years in our future. Carbon fuels have been abandoned. Atmospheric carbon levels have been in sustained decline for many years. Now, humans are beginning to notice a new climate change, a shift back toward a cooler planet. Not everyone is happy. What happens next?

For the first time in our history, humans will have acquired a remarkable power. We will have our collective hand on the planet’s thermostat. Continue to let atmospheric carbon levels drop, and the planet will enter a new phase of environmental disruption as the wrenching adaptations of global warming become the wrenching adaptations of global cooling. Or, we could open up the methane wells to achieve some compromise temperature. Humans will have to reach some form of agreement on where to set the planet’s median temperature.

Remember, by the time we confront this possibility, Miami Island will be (at best) a charming new tropical Venice. And Venice will be an attractive site for snorkeling. Kilimanjaro’s glaciers will be gone, along with the communities and species that depended on them. Same for many of India’s Himalayan glaciers. There will be no Great Barrier Reef to save.

Returning to an earlier global climate won’t necessarily bring those glaciers back. Even if it were possible to restore some parts of the planet to their pre-warming conditions over a very long time horizon, what are the odds people will have the patience to sustain that journey. Yesterday’s coral reefs and ice packs may be gone, but creating conditions for their return would mean killing off the reefs then forming in new places. How will Russians and Canadians feel about abandoning their sunny new farmland and vacation sites so that long-abandoned lands in Iraq, Australia and Nigeria can become inhabitable again? If wars over oil seemed awful, wait till we see wars over temperature.

While we made jokes about Al Gore, our opportunity to prevent a global catastrophe slipped away. Pure happenstance is likely to end our dependence on fossil fuel much sooner than most people expect, preserving our capacity to carry on life with a semblance of normalcy into the indefinite future. But our world will be changed. Like Adam and Eve in the Biblical myth, our failure will bestow on us a terrible gift of power and cast us from a garden we didn’t even recognize.

Global warming will place in our hands the power to set Earth’s thermostat, while giving us no tools to use this power deliberately. It would be wise to begin thinking of ways to tame this frightening responsibility.

In order to govern, one needs, after all, to have a precise plan for a certain, at least somewhat decent, length of time. Allow me to ask you, then, how can man govern, if he is not only deprived of the opportunity of making a plan for at least some ridiculously short period, well, say, a thousand years , but cannot even vouch for his own tomorrow?

Mikhail Bulgokov, The Master and Margarita


  1. So, Panel of Prognosticators, your input is requested.

    Given that I may have up to 30 years remaining on this planet, and given that I live in a state led by poop-for-brains Republicans whose devotion to “markets” doesn’t allow them to effectively manage a power grid, and given that the final 30 years of a human life can be tempestuous, should I invest in:

    1-Solar panels
    2-Battery back up for the solar panels
    3-Natural gas powered back up generator
    4-Tri-fuel back up generator
    5-Some combination thereof

    Which would be most suitable for me? Which would be best for the planet? Should I even bother

    The only thing more alarming than Mary’s post about opposition to solar energy generation in LA is living in TX, where local media say Texans are more concerned about immigration at the border than anything else.

    What crap, eh?

      1. Which is also a fun little mental economics game to play: the cost efficiency of cooling a house via tree vs. running an air conditioner plus erosion mitigation plus, for fruit trees, produce yield; offset by the increased insurance premiums from the risk of a storm sending parts or all of the tree through your house (and insurance companies are very much satisfied to price in climate change and its associated bad weather to their premiums now, moreso than other industries), plus cost of irrigation and water usage, plus attractiveness to pests and so forth; with a social good and carbon sequestration discount.

        My point here being that I suspect the math works out that doing things to mitigate your own household and property against climate change is itself profitable BEFORE the advantages of doing your own part to mitigate climate change, but require you have enough funds and resources to start it in the first place. I only suspect it instead of know it because I haven’t had the opportunity to do the math myself, having neither property nor knowledge of where I will be owning any in the future yet.

        I’m stuck as a renter in one of those accursed coastal liberal cities you hear Texans talking shit about. Alls I’m saying is that if owning your own property for cheap is so awesome as Texans say, they should be the more enthusiastic about personally doing the things that make their property more awesome and valuable.

      2. Aaron, I think you’re right.

        After every hurricane, I feel my vulnerability. There’s nothing quite like the heavy, humid, hot weather that follows a hurricane. Cleaning up in that soup is a workout.

        Local power generation is the way to go.

        Houston has instigated solar co-ops to provide information to members to help them deal with solar sales people. Apparently they’re not the greenies one might anticipate.

        The co-op took a look at a satellite photo of my address and said it might be shadier than some. But that their selected vendor would provide specific info.

        Remove a tree for the environment? Like that makes sense.

        The trees I planted are called service berry trees, a native tree I’d never heard of until I read an op-ed column in the NY Times. We’ll see how that goes.

        Good luck in your coastal village.

    1. If you have the money to invest in solar panels, it’s probably an investment that will save money or even generate dividends in future years. You’ll have to actually price and source that investment from available market options and the prices you think you should expect going into the future, but you can also add a “doing my part” discount if you want to do it for moral / political reasons. TBH right now I think solar investments in the Southwest stand on their own economically before even getting into the ethics stuff; that those economics function on a household as well as municipal level; and that those who can afford the primary investment are leaving money on the table if they’re not moving forward with it now.

      But I also am fond of backups and emergency support systems even where that investment never pays off, so I would recommend having at least some sort of power generator that should get you through at least about a week of energy use with rationing? Longer if possible? The economics there are price of storage and maintenance of the backup system over chance of power being cut in existentially threatening ways.

      One of the reasons I roll my eyes at Texans is that if their frontier libertarianism were real, you wouldn’t have these questions because literally every Texan would already have solar panels and backup generators and would be guffawing at the rest of the states for maintaining grids. This being regardless of whether such a system was more expensive (possibly) or left out the poor (definitely), because the not-having-a-grid-dependency would matter to the libertarian ethos itself.

  2. The climate crisis is just one of many crises the human species is running up against as we require more and more growth from an decreasing base of natural resources.

    Look at our wonderous billionaires using their hoarded wealth to attempt to build rockets to go and live on other planets that will require all of their hoarded wealth to acclimate other planets to support extremely small populations of humans, as in, hundreds of humans.

    We’re hollowing out our only habitable planet, giving most of the proceeds to a few billionaires who are soon-to-be trillionaires, who are also trying to escape the hellhole being created to create that wealth.

    It’s a fabulously tragic story. And the story isn’t just a story, it’s the observable objective reality that we try our best to ignore as much as possible. And it’s understandable, it can make you feel helpless, hopeless, and overwhelmed.

    The climate crisis is just a part of the larger problems that humanity and capitalism have wrought.

    1. Hypothetically, what if we weren’t limited to “natural resources,” as least in a conventional sense? Ultimately, all a resource boils down to is a team of atoms arranged in a particular way to give us a desired item. Thus, overcoming the limit of nature’s set resources is really just a question of humans acquiring the power to bend the natural world, in a very small sense, to our will.

      That’s the fundamental idea behind nanotechnology – or, if you *really* want to start playing God, femtotechnology (rearranging elementary particles). And it’s not as far off as one might think.

      1. A brief aside: I’m a SpaceLibertarian™, in the sense that the only way Libertarianism™ will ever work, is if every human has a molecular assembler and can live in space free from Earth and the laws required to live on Earth among other humans.

        So, I’m all for molecular assemblers. The problem is that we don’t have nearly enough time as a species to get from here to there, given the current destruction of the planet, as measured by GDP. At least not for the vast majority of people currently alive. The SpaceBillionaires™ are, of course, working on getting themselves off the planet so they can be SpaceLibertarians™, as we speak. But, of course, it’s only for themselves, the rest of us can drown in a boiling sea.

        Oh, and while I try not to plus Youtube Videos, give this one a watch sometime. It’s about 10 years old, and it’s still relevant.

        The human species, if it were a bit more intelligent, could have been a space-faring species, but at this point I don’t think we’re going to accomplish what we could have, had we got our shit together 50 years ago. I think catabolic collapse is the future.

        I kind of see human society as a top that has just about spun its course and is swinging wildly from side-to-side before it falls.

      2. With all respect, there are nigh innumerable points in our history where you could say that humanity’s “just about spun its course” only to keep plugging along, however disgracefully. As is so often the case, the fear is often worse than the reality.

        Not to rant here, but the truth is is that humans honestly, genuinely suck at predicting the future – and yet we keep trying because it gives us a sense of control in an often maddening, chaotic world. We hear scientists lament the fate of intelligent life itself because one model of the universe predicts an unavoidable heat death billions of years into the future. Well maybe it does, but it’s worth remembering that humans once thought (not that long ago!) the Earth was flat and the center of the universe itself. How’d that work out?

        To put it a bit more succinctly…

        You know… You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan”. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds.” – The Joker

      3. Right now is far different than any other time.

        Exponential growth, and there isn’t exponential more resources.

        There are more crises on the horizon than just the climate crisis. To be clear, the climate crisis will be a crisis to most people, but not all. The billionaire class will be just fine.

        Give that Youtube video I linked a watch. It’s fairly short, easy to understand, and can explain why we can’t just hook up more solar panels and dig deeper for rare earth metals to continue the current way of life of 1+ billion westerners, for 10+ billion everyone.

      4. With all respect, let’s cut to the chase here, Ultimately, you’re of Dins’ mindset in that you think we’re screwed. Insofar as I’ve read (by all means, correct me if I’m wrong), you don’t seem to believe there’s any solution likely, or perhaps even possible at all.

        If we’re going to indulge in despair, perhaps the coup de grâce of all possible worlds – that humanity’s just an evolutionary anomaly and that there’s nothing waiting for us at the end of our all too short lives but existential annihilation; never to see, feel or love anything ever again for all eternity – is our reality, and exhausting our resources is just speeding up a process that’s as close to immutable fate as anything else.

        But you know what? Even if that horrifying possibility is our truth, I’m sure as s**t never going to acknowledge it. I’d rather try for a solution than give up.

      5. There are solutions, but a lot of the crises cannot be solved due to lack of political will and popular will. I’m not asking you to give up, or anyone for that matter. But the more you know, the better you can prepare.

        It’s not the end of the world. But it’s going to be painful for a lot of people.

  3. So what happens when Canada looks at what is happening in the western U.S., then puts 2 and 2 together, and starts up a nuclear missile program to protect its water resources, as the U.S. will most assuredly want those resources? Imagine what happens when the tyrant in 2026 decides that a 1700 mile pipeline from Lake Michigan, or one in Wisconsin pumping water out of Lake Superior, and dumping it in Lake Mead, is not only necessary, but legal.

    One only has to look at the Indus Waters Treaty between Pakistan and India to see what is inevitable. Two nuclear armed nations, that hate each other, facing off over a dwindling water supply. What could possibly go wrong?

      1. How about Canada will recognize that it is laughable to consider fighting the U.S. in a conventional fight, and asymmetric warfare is the only option. Why the hell do you think Israel has nukes? What the hell do you think MAD was all about. NATO has ALWAYS had part of their battleplan the use of nukes to counter vast amounts of russian armour running across eastern Europe.

        How about this from a Canadian PM: “You come for our water, and we launch. Yes, you will turn Canada into radioactive ash, but the U.S. will be set back 50 years”.

        That is how MAD works.

  4. I thought Ale Gore was a kook. And voted for the disaster of George W. Bush. Lived in Florida in 2000 as I do today. Bush is a good man but not competent in dealing with or recognizing bad or and incompetent apples. Gore was right and not only would of moved us sooner towards renewable energy sooner but not gotten us embroil in the middle East. That has took enormous amounts of money and lost lives. Might be the worst policy decision of the 21th century. Surely in the top 5. I think Cheney gave him very bad advice and sure something about his involvement with oil had something to do with that advice.

    I read years ago in a book titled Freaky Economics about injecting sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to cool the plant just like volcanoes do at times. This could be reverse in a few years if needed. We have that technology to do that right now. We have been changing local climates and ecologies for thousands of years. Now we do it on a planetary scale.

    I know solar farms are springing up all over Florida and Georgia as I travel the country side of both states . One of the things I have always strive for is to grow and adapt as new facts and reason lead me. I once doubt man was causing the warming of the earth. But the facts are now overwhelming. So I changed my mind. As I learned more of our real history and lived with a diverse people in my home city and country I have changed politically. More libertarian and progress in my thinking now. The old saw about as you age you get more conservative is not true about me. The reverse happen.

    I think we will survive our mistakes with releasing carbon dioxide. I remember our lakes and rivers dying in the sixties and early seventies. But we came up with the EPA and regulations that reversed that. I seen quite a few places come back and reverse the damage we inflicted. We will make it and the planet will be better took care of it the future. Our kids are quite adamant about that.

      1. Once it starts to work!

        It takes energy and resources to remove the surplus Carbon
        At a rough estimate about ten times as much as the energy that we got from burning the Carbon in the first place

        So we will have to CONTINUE spending the Megabucks for a long long time – Decades at least

        IMHO the pressure to STOP spending all of that money will leave us with a higher than “optimum” amount of CO2
        Not as much as today – but more than in the 1900’s

        There will be no “pressure” to keep spending Megabucks to drive it even lower

        Expanding on the “Cost” part

        Why is CO2 removal not equal and opposite to reducing emissions?

        We don’t emit CO2 just for the sake of it!

        Emissions are to DO something – we burn the fuels that contain the Carbon to get the energy that that combustion releases

        To “unburn” the Carbon – to remove the CO2 takes the same amount of energy

        That is a Physicist’s answer

        Engineers know that “energy” is not equal

        Burning the Carbon gets you “heat” – the next stage is to use the “heat” to do something – and the Gods of Engineering take a cut as in 60% or 70%

        So the energy that you have from burning the Carbon is only 30% useful

        Then we come to the other side

        Converting the CO2 back to Carbon – and the Gods of Engineering take another huge cut!

        The result is that to convert 1 kg of CO2 back to Carbon takes the same amount of USEFUL energy as you got from burning enough Carbon to produce 10 kg of CO2

        Reducing emissions is inherently ten times as efficient as removing CO2

        And that 10 times – is not a “until we get better at it” that is 10 times AFTER we have engineered it to death and hit the actual Thermodynamic limits

        Today we are probably looking at 20 times

      2. Duncan, if course you are correct. The Law of Thermodynamics always always wins. Entropy rules. The best option would be to plant 1 trillion trees, while at the same time limiting carbon emissions to about 5% of what it is today.

        But that is not going to happen. The population of the virus known as humans grows. The amount of carbon, per global capita, grows. Try telling the people in Nigeria or India they have to cut back on carbon pollution, let alone China.

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