Recently, I wrote a post criticizing an article by Dr. Robert Laughlin, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in physics. In it, he argues that the Earth is more than capable of enduring human-induced climate change, and that human beings are nearly certain to burn all the world’s fossil fuels.
Since then, we have exchanged correspondence which is available in full below.
In addition to my post, I sent the following email to Dr. Laughlin, not especially expecting a response:
I am afraid your recent article – “What the Earth Knows” – contains a major logical fallacy. Just because the Earth has endured a great deal of climate change without extinguishing all life does not mean that climate change isn’t profoundly threatening for humanity. The ability of our society to endure depends to a considerable degree on stable climatic conditions, which we are in the process of very actively undermining as the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises ever-higher.
While we may take some comfort in knowing that bacteria will likely endure, no matter how much climate change we produce, we should pay more attention to the health and welfare of humanity. Moving beyond fossil fuels, which will inevitably run out anyway, before humanity causes a dangerous amount of climate change is surely the prudent way to proceed.
P.S. I have written a longer public response to your article, at:
Dr. Laughlin was courteous enough to respond, and has agreed to let me reproduce our unedited and ongoing correspondence here. His messages are rendered in blue text. Here is his initial response:
Your surname, Ilnyckyj, is most unusual. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I get a lot of mail from around the world. What nationality is it?
The responses I’ve gotten from that Scholar article are fascinating, as you might imagine. I’ve gotten a couple of “false logic” responses like yours, which I find amusing because the article contained no logic, at least of the political variety you imply. It was a chapter excerpt from a book I’ve written provisionally titled WHEN COAL IS GONE, the premise of which is that you travel in your mind to a time, about two centuries from now, when no one burns carbon out of the ground any more, either because people banned the practice or because it’s gone, and ask: What happened? The chapter is simply there to establish that the time scale of the carbon crisis is very short compared, say, to the age of the earth, or even to the many ages of Man yet to come. You need, in other words, to check your hubris at the door.
In any event, I’m not interested in arguing with you (or anyone else) about whether climate change is profoundly threatening for humanity. Let’s presume it is. I’m interested only in how you pick up the pieces, whatever they are, after the crisis has past, and move on.
And my reply:
Thank you very much for your gracious and detailed response.
My family name is Ukrainian, and spelled in a very unusual way. I am told this is the result of it being transliterated into German before English.
When you assume that all the world’s coal, oil, and gas will be burned, you make a political argument – or at least a prediction. Imagine it is 2050 and the concentration of CO2 equivalent in the atmosphere is around 500ppm. Further, imagine that some of the major predicted effects of climate change are really starting to manifest themselves: major changes in weather patterns, ocean acidification, drought and desertification, sea level rise, etc. This may not occur by 2050, but that is beside the point that it will occur eventually. By extension, eventually governments are going to realize how serious climate change is. At that point, they may be willing to accept alternative energy sources that are more costly and inconvenient, such as wind, geothermal, and solar.
To assume that humanity would keep on burning fossil fuels – in spite of mounting evidence of how harmful they are – is certainly to venture into the territory of speculation. It cannot be assumed. That is especially true given all the other benefits that would be associated with moving to a zero-carbon economy. Among those would be reduced air and water pollution, as fossil fuel fired power plants are phased out, and reduced geopolitical dependence, as the fossil fuel reserves of places like Russia and the Middle East lost strategic importance.
I agree that calling attention to the geological timescale is important. When people understand that it is the slow weathering of rock that will eventually remove the CO2 we have added to the atmosphere, they gain a sense of just how many future generations are being affected by our choices. That said, keeping that timescale in mind doesn’t require adopting a fatalistic attitude about how we will choose to power our society. Just as it was once unthinkable for the economy of the southern United States to operate without slavery, so it currently seems impossible to operate our global economy without fossil fuels. In the future, however, people may have the wisdom to succeed in the transition to zero carbon energy.
One other factual matter worth considering is the claim about the unstoppable power of the Earth: “Were the earth determined to freeze Canada again, for example, it’s difficult to imagine doing anything except selling your real estate in Canada.” In my understanding, a single CFC factory venting its products would cause enough radiative forcing to counteract the changes in orbital dynamics that have been the cause of ice ages so far. As I said in my blog post: “When it comes to the thermostat of the planet, humanity is now firmly in control, though our addiction to fossil fuels means we are doing all we can to twist it towards ‘hot.'”
The main point here is that we should not take the burning of all the world’s fossil fuels as a given. For one thing, we will only ever burn those that it is economically justifiable to dig up and process. As such, some very hard to reach fuels are likely to remain buried even if humanity ignores climate change. Much more importantly, there is reason to hope that humanity might choose a different course, when it realizes the likely consequences of sticking to the one we are on.
Sorry for my lengthy reply, and thank you again for responding to my initial message.
P.S. If you would be willing to have my include this exchange in the thread of comments below my blog post, I would appreciate it very much. I spend a great deal of time trying to put quality information and discussions about climate change onto the internet.
To which he responded:
Understood. It should have been Il’niskii or something.
Yes you may post correspondence with me on your blog. You may not, however, edit it without my permission.
Now, when I said I wouldn’t argue with you about climate policy, I meant just that. I assure you that my anticipation of complete coal exhaustion isn’t funded by coal companies. It’s a guess based on what I know about economics, human nature and historical trends. You are quite right that, in political situations, spinning a false thing the right way often enough can make it true and vice versa. There is thus no such thing as absolute right and wrong, only rhetorical mass. You can indeed do a lot of damage by giving in to the enemy’s position, even if you secretly agree with it. However, I have thought a great deal about the primitive physical and economic factors underlying the the fossil fuel drama, and I am reasonably confident that they constrain the outcome completely. I want nothing to do with climate rhetoric wars for this reason.
For the record, you have mixed below things that are true (carbon dioxide levels are rising) with things that aren’t (orbital dynamics caused the ice ages). I recommend that you work hard, as I do, to expunge the latter from your life. It’s a path to health, like eating spinach.
To which I recently responded:
Regarding ice ages and orbital dynamics, I had confused how Milankovitch cycles affect the occurrence of glacial and interglacial with the cause of ice ages themselves. I will be more careful in the future. The climate system is astonishingly complex, particularly for a non-scientist like myself. I am simply trying to understand the situation as well as possible, to try to encourage the appropriate policies in response.
There are a couple of key reasons why I continue to dispute the idea that we will inevitably burn all the fossil fuels. For one thing, we already have the technology necessary to provide energy to everyone on Earth using renewable sources. Cambridge physicist David MacKay has spelled out a number of options in a recent book, available for free at www.withouthotair.com
He argues that: “To supply every person in the world with an average European’s power consumption (125 kWh/d), the area required would be two 1000 km by 1000 km squares in the desert.” Certainly, that is an unprecedented engineering and logistical challenge. That said, it is encouraging that it is possible. By using other renewable energy sources, such as geothermal and wind, and energy storage options, like pumped hydroelectric storage, it seems plausible that the scale of the challenge can be reduced further.
The second reason, as I mentioned in my previous email, is that I think we will eventually reach a point where governments like those of China, the United States, and the European Union finally realize how threatening climate change could be, and decide to dedicate themselves to achieving the transition to carbon neutrality. Obviously, the sooner that happens, the easier it would be to achieve, and the less suffering would occur in the interim. There does seem to be reason to hope that humanity will choose to stop burning fossil fuels, before we create a climate quite unlike any experienced by a human civilization so far.
I am curious what you think about NASA climatologist James Hansen’s concerns about methane in the far north. Specifically, his recent book raises the possibility that human-induced warming could kick off a positive feedback effect in which more and more of the permafrost and methane clathrates melt, causing more warming. Is that something you think could accompany the burning of all the world’s fossil fuels? If so, how much total temperature change would be involved?
Thank you again for taking the time to respond.
P.S. On the subject of my last name, there is occasionally talk within the family of changing it to something more sensible, like Ilnitsky. One benefit of the present spelling is that because it is so rare, it makes it easy to identify those who are closely related.
I will continue to update this page, as messages are exchanged between us.
[Update: 22 July 2010] I received this yesterday:
You are welcome.
The best paper to read about the ice ages is J. R. Petit et al., “Climate and Atmospheric History of the Past 420,000 Years from the Vostok Ice Core, Antarctica,” Nature 399, 429 (1999). You can see clearly from the ice cores that Milankovich forcing doesn’t match.
You are quite right that the technology to get off fossil fuel exists today. Moreover, I have made the case in my book that it’s the technology that actually will be deployed. The energy research presently underway in universities, in other words, is largely immaterial. The future history of energy is already written. However, what you learn by studying the matter carefully is that technology is not the issue.
Economics is the issue. If you don’t understand the economics of the energy business, I fear you’re not even on the right page.
I think you would benefit greatly from trying to put some numbers about future man-made climate changes. It’s hard to do unless you know a little physics, but you don’t need to know a great deal. One of the more famous problems is in Charles Kittel’s thermal physics book. You assume that the earth is a perfect blackbody absorber and emitter and calculate its average temperature using the Planck blackbody law. It comes out to be more-or-less identical to earth’s present-day temperature. Things like the Planck law and the principle of detailed balance are big, important constraints. The major greenhouse effect comes from water, something that is virtually nonexistent in dry places such as the Sahara and the South Pole. Carbon dioxide and methane have relatively small lever arms compared to these things. Climate is indeed complicated, but a good rule of thumb is that anything you can’t understand simply stands a good change of not really being understood by the experts either.
As to governments doing the right thing, I’d like to recommend a book to you. It’s W. Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, (Penguin, 1992). It concerns a genuine ecological disaster, the U.S. Dust Bowl, and how government responded (or not) to warnings.
I have heard of Hansen’s idea, of course, but I have no opinion of it, in the sense you mean. Either calculations of such effects are understandable and believable or they aren’t. You can (and should) judge this for yourself.
[Update: 24 July 2010] Below is my latest response:
MacKay’s book does consider the economics of massive renewable deployment, as well as the physical challenges present. A good illustration of how moving to zero-carbon energy is economically feasible comes from the DESERTEC initiative, in North Africa. Between now and 2025, oil companies are planning to spend $379 billion to develop Alberta’s oil sands. For that price, it would be possible to build enough concentrating solar facilities and transmission lines in North Africa to supply 15% of all of Europe’s energy needs. There is considerable scope for redirecting investments in hydrocarbons towards investments in renewables, and there is good cause to make that redirection. Each drop of oil we collect from now on will be more costly and difficult to acquire than those that came before. Rather than chasing diminishing returns in fossil fuels, we should be making a smarter long-term investment. Economic analyses like the Stern Review in the UK and Garnaut Review in Australia also concluded that stopping climate change would only cost a few percent of GDP, each year.
It is true that water vapour is a powerful greenhouse gas. That said, the degree to which water is soluble in air depends primarily upon the temperature of the air. As such, increased CO2 concentration in the atmosphere cause a bit of warming, which puts more water in the air, which causes more warming. Water is a feedback, not a forcing. I think this effect is well understood, and has been incorporated both into climate models and into analyses of paleoclimatic data from ice cores, sediments, and other sources. The paleoclimatic record provides good evidence that for every time you double the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, you raise the temperature of the planet by about 3˚C. At the same time, there is broad agreement that warming of more than 2˚C would be ‘dangerous’ for humanity.
The U.S. Dust Bowl may have been a genuine ecological disaster, but there is every reason to believe that climate change will create many more. Low-lying areas will be threatened by rising sea levels and the infiltration of salt into fertile soils; the Amazon is at risk of turning to grassland or desert; coral reefs are threatened both by rising temperatures and more acidic ocean waters. More generally speaking, all of our infrastructure is designed for a climate much like that which humanity has experienced so far. It might prove poorly matched to the climate of the future.
Regarding Hansen’s concern about abrupt or runaway warming, it seems like the kind of question that must be very seriously evaluated. If there is any danger of such a thing taking place, the incentive to take a precautionary approach and start shifting aggressively to low- and then zero-carbon forms of energy becomes all the greater.
Have a good weekend,