Correspondence with Robert Laughlin

by Milan on July 21, 2010

in Climate change, Climate science, Objections, Power plants

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:

Dr. Laughlin,

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.

Sincerely,

Milan Ilnyckyj

P.S. I have written a longer public response to your article, at:
http://burycoal.com/blog/2010/07/19/robert-laughlin-climate-change/

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:

Hi Milan,

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.

Best,

Bob L.

And my reply:

Dr. Laughlin,

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.

Best wishes,

Milan Ilnyckyj

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:

Hi Milan,

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.

Best,

Bob L.

To which I recently responded:

Dr. Laughlin,

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.

Best,

Milan

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:

Hi Milan,

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.

Best,

Bob L.

[Update: 24 July 2010] Below is my latest response:

Dr. Laughlin,

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,

Milan

Report a typo or inaccuracy

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Byron Smith July 23, 2010 at 12:17 pm

He seems to know how to avoid answering a question and has not addressed your slavery example.

He also seems to misunderstand the role of water vapour as a feedback rather than a forcing.

Given that he thinks the U.S. Dust Bowl in the 30s was a genuine ecological disaster, do you think he is aware of the predictions of more dust bowls in the SW US and many other places due to shifting precipitation patterns?

S2 July 24, 2010 at 6:29 am

He follows his quip about Canada with:

“If it decides to melt Greenland, it might be best to unload your property in Bangladesh.”

Presumably that is supposed to be amusing.

Milan July 24, 2010 at 1:42 pm

I just sent off my latest response, beginning with “MacKay’s book does consider the economics of massive renewable deployment.”

Byron Smith July 24, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Good reply. Thanks for taking the time to so graciously engage him on this.

tumper July 26, 2010 at 1:52 am

You sure showed him, you sure did. You just keep right on believing that! You really don’t have a clue do you?

Milan July 26, 2010 at 3:12 pm

Above and beyond the errors described above, I think a key point is that it is irresponsible for Robert Laughlin to use his status as a Nobel Prize winner to argue that nothing can or should be done to try to combat climate change.

He ought to realize that anything he says to that effect will be seized upon by climate change deniers and delayers, and used to suggest that scientists remain divided about whether climate change is a problem we should take seriously. Laughlin may have given up on humanity being able to do anything to reduce the harm future generations will experience from climate change, but we shouldn’t do so ourselves so easily.

Thumper July 27, 2010 at 1:04 pm

I am flabbergasted when a man with a master’s degree in a non-scientific field (International Relations) has the gall to point out (what he perceives as) errors of scientific thinking and analysis committed by a man with both a PhD and a Nobel Prize in physics. Professor Laughlin must feel so humiliated to be “bested” in thinking by you.

As to his irresponsiblity for using his status in the scientific community in expressing his views on a scientific topic, perhaps it is also irresponsible for non-scientific celebrities, such as Al Gore and movie and TV stars, to use their entertainment status to shill for the climate allarmist’ cause. Your arrogance seems to know no bounds.

Milan July 27, 2010 at 1:23 pm

The extent to which a statement or argument is correct depends on the evidence and logic behind it – not the person making the claim.

Dr. Laughlin’s original piece, and his subsequent correspondence with me, contains errors that can be pointed out by anybody who thinks about them.

Furthermore, Juris Svenne did a good job of pointing out how a high level of scientific expertise in one area doesn’t translate into an abitility to speak authoratatively and accurately on any scientific topic: “I do not believe a high level of expertise in condensed matter physics, which is Prof. Laughlin’s field, automatically makes him an expert on climate change. Despite that, he is, of course, correct in saying that the Earth will survive human damage to the environment. But will we humans?”

By his own admission, Dr. Laughlin is also discussing subjects that are not purely scientific, such as politics and the economics of alternative energy. In these areas, he has no claim to special expertise, though he is obviously a very intelligent person.

. August 11, 2010 at 10:00 am

“I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy – and when he talks about a nonscientific matter, he will sound as naive as anyone untrained in the matter.”

Feynman, Richard. The Plearure of Finding Things Out. p. 142 (paperback)

Milan August 16, 2010 at 9:30 am

At the website of the Library of Economics and Liberty, there is a podcast interview with Robert Laughlin: Laughlin on the Future of Carbon and Climate.

Here is the summary: “Robert Laughlin of Stanford University and the 1998 co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about energy use and the future of the earth’s climate. Drawing on his forthcoming book on energy, Laughlin predicts that we will continue to use cars and planes and electricity long after coal and petroleum are exhausted and speculates as to how that might play out in the future. The conversation concludes with discussions of other concerns of Laughlin’s–the outlawing via legislation and taboo of certain forms of knowledge, and the practice of reductionism rather than emergence in the physical sciences.”

Carrick September 23, 2010 at 9:35 am

I would tend to agree with Dr. Laughlin here… Milankovitch cycles probably don’t “cause” ice ages (they aren’t nearly a strong enough forcing for that). It’s probably a better description to say they entrain what would otherwise be a quite variable chaotic swing between extended periods of glaciation and periods of interglacial warming.

Entrainment of a system by a weak forcing incapable of controlling the system by itself is a pretty well understand concept in math and science. (Recent reference: http://synchro3.ee.uec.ac.jp/literature/PhysRevLet.pdf) Laughlin may not know the economics, but I dare say he understands the physics better than you, and probably many climate scientists too.

On another note, is there really a “field” of climate science? It’s always struck to me as a conglomerate of a number of disparate fields (I won’t bore with the list as it is obviously very large). I’m not certain you could label any one person as an “expert” (this has important sociological consequences if true).

Milan September 23, 2010 at 10:02 am

Laughlin isn’t claiming that human greenhouse gas emissions do not cause the climate to warm. He is saying that people will inevitably burn all the world’s fossil fuels, so we should start thinking about how to live in a world where that has happened, rather than try to produce a different outcome.

When he claims that people will inevitably burn all the coal, oil, and gas, he is making an argument that his scientific credentials do not qualify him for. His is just another opinion. Given how damaging climate change could be, there is good reason to hope that people will switch away from fossil fuels before they run out.

Carrick September 23, 2010 at 11:27 am

Milan, I wasn’t saying anything about what Laughlin says other than addressing his comment on Milankovitch cycles, which I believe you agree with. It’s an interesting point to note because as a physicist the concept of entrainment is something he likely would have been exposed to, as opposed to a glaciologist counting sublimation layers.

I agree that his scientific credentials don’t aid him in being able to tell whether or not people will burn all of the coal, oil and gas (IMO he’s very likely wrong…for example, at some point oil will ceased to be burned because it will be too expensive to recover compared to other energy resources).

But the point I was making was a bit different: There really isn’t any single person who could be considered an authority on climate change, this is quite the opposite of suggesting that Laughlin should be considered one.

If one accepts my assertion (which I am pretty certain is true, climate science is too big of a field for any one person to be an expert on everything), that does have some pretty interesting implications. Like how does one decide who to listen to on a particular question, especially if you lack the background to be able to make an informed judgement on it.

If you don’t think that doesn’t have profound sociological consequences, ask yourself why scientists are having trouble establishing themselves as voices of authority with the general populace…it’s because of more than just a fossil fuel industry conspiracy, I can assure you of that.

If there were a comet on course to collide with the Earth, I’m pretty sure nobody would question the ability of astrophysicists to predict that collision. How is climate science different, and why is the proof so much harder? I find that sort of question interesting, so I thought it was worth raising here too.

Milan September 23, 2010 at 1:29 pm

There are a number of ways by which we can validate what we know about climate. First, there is the basic physics and chemistry behind it, which can be verified experimentally. We can test the effect of different greenhouse gases on infrared light passing through them, for example. At a larger scale, we have the paleoclimatic record. From it, we can build up a picture of how the climate changed over the course of thousands of years. From that, we can work out what factors drive climatic change. We can also use it to test our models. If we can build climate models that take in historical inputs and put out projections that match the historical record, we can have some confidence in those models. Of course, we can never be 100% confident that we have properly modelled something unprecedented – like the extreme rate at which we are increasing the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases now.

Climate science is clearly a field that requires experts from a range of disciplines – from physics to computer science to ecology. The complexity of it is one barrier to public understanding, but I think the major barriers are the campaign of active disinformation you mentioned and fear that people will have to give up things they appreciate. People realize that if climate change is real, dangerous, and caused by humans, it will be necessary for most everyone to make changes in how they live. Their preference for avoiding change gives them an incentive to doubt the science.

That said, if we keep emitting as we are now, it won’t be long before the climatic impacts are so dramatic that nobody can credibly deny the link between human activities and climate change. Unfortunately, by then it may be too late to avoid truly catastrophic consequences.

Milan September 23, 2010 at 1:40 pm

There are some excellent books that describe how what we know about the Earth’s climate is validated by the paleoclimatic record. Among them:

Spencer Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming

Richard Alley’s The Two Mile Time Machine

Oliver Morton’s Eating the Sun

Carrick September 23, 2010 at 7:46 pm

Milan, to be clear, I don’t have any doubt about the earth warming, nor about the physical basis behind it, including the attribution of anthropogenic activity to most of the recent warming (the figure you linked, from the IPCC, makes it clear that anthropogenic activity is not needed to explain warming prior to about 1975). If we have disagreement, it’s about how much warming (I usually give 2.5°C±0.5°C per doubling of CO2 when asked what I think the range is) and how serious the impact of that warming is.

I do think the reason for the lack of public acceptance is more complicated than you suggest. For every dollar spent by fossil fuel concerns that go to “denialist” groups, there’s at least 10 that gets spent going towards mainstream science. So unless mainstream politicians and researchers “really suck” at making their arguments, there has to be another explanation that oppositional behavior from energy companies (for which I might add, it’s not even clear they would suffer economically from a transition to a non-CO2 based economy).

Anyway thanks for your comments and humoring me.

Milan September 24, 2010 at 12:17 am

Sorry for misunderstanding you. I spend so much time arguing with people who think climate change isn’t happening or we shouldn’t do anything about it, my default stance is pretty defensive.

I agree that 3˚C is the best estimate for how much warming would accompany a doubling of CO2, taking into account relatively short term feedbacks like water vapour. It’s possible sensitivity is higher when longer term feedbacks are factored in, such as the drying out of the Amazon and the melting of permafrost.

Comparing the total funding for science with the amount spend sowing confusion might not be the most sensible approach. Doing real science is costly – you need Large Hadron Colliders and the like. By contrast, it doesn’t cost much to have someone in a suit willing to go on a news show and argue that climate change is natural/not a problem/caused by sunspots/caused by the Chinese.

. November 9, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Challenges in Earth sciences: the 21st century
C. P. Rajendran
Centre for Earth Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore 560 012, India

“Another interesting blog discussion was between Robert Laughlin, a condensed matter physicist and a Nobel laureate with Milan Ilnycky [sic], a man with a Master’s degree in International studies (burycoal.com/blog/2010/ 07/19/robert-lauglin). It is educative to see how Milan Ilncycky [sic] questions and corners the Nobel Prize winner on his statement on climate change in the summer issue of the magazine ‘The American Scholar’. Laughlin made light of the global warming and argued that ‘Earth will fix things in its own time and its own way’, because according to him the geologic records show that Earth had gone through greater cataclysmic events and still it regained its balance. What this scientist has probably forgotten is that the Earth he was talking about was an Earth without humans, and the centrality of human welfare is the underlying key issue in the debate on climate change. In this case, a scientist of high calibre was questioned for his rather senseless statement on a blog by a lay person. The bottom line is that even Nobel Prize winners can be rather foolish outside the area of their specialization.”

DickyP February 12, 2014 at 2:18 pm

I remain fascinated that a C-student in political science recieved a Nobel Prize for fabricated stories about the dangers of the harmless gas exhaled by humans and absorbed by plants. Understanding the dark energy of the universe is akin to understanding weather patterns in Ohio…..both are subject to conjecture and postulates that are, as yet, unproven. Economics and the necessity for food will keep undeveloped countries burning fossil fuels. Taxing the use of fossil fuels in develped countries is a useless endeavor which will result in “zero” change in world carbon emmissions.

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