Why bury coal?

Leaving coal and other fossil fuels unburned and underground is very important for the long-term safety and prosperity of humanity, as well as the future of natural ecosystems. The same is true for unconventional fossil fuels like oil sands and shale gas.

There are three major reasons to leave coal underground, along with unconventional oil and gas:

1) Burning all the coal could produce catastrophic climate change

If you ask a scientist how much more CO2 do you think we should add to the atmosphere, the answer is going to be none. All the rest is economics.

-Gavin A. Schmidt

Because of climate change, coal is no longer a source of energy that can be acceptable for humanity. Its continued use is incompatible with the stable climate upon which human prosperity and civilization depends.

The amount of warming the Earth will experience depends fundamentally on what portion of the planet’s total stock of fossil fuels humanity chooses to burn. The total quantity of carbon dioxide emissions that could result from burning different reserves of fossil fuels is shown here:

The higher the bar, the higher the risk for humanity and for natural systems.

Burning all that coal would produce far more warming than burning the world’s stocks of conventional oil and gas. Furthermore, the warming caused by burning those fuels could be enough to melt permafrost and methane hydrates, releasing the carbon dioxide in the rightmost bar. That possibility – known as runaway climate change – could conceivably render the Earth uninhabitable. Because of this risk, and the less severe but more probable risk of dangerous climate change of more than 2°C of warming, coal is dead as a safe and acceptable source of energy. Now, it needs to be buried by people who have the foresight to understand the risk it creates.

2) Coal, oil, and gas are non-renewable resources

Even ignoring climate change, humanity cannot rely on fossil fuels forever. If they are not abandoned, they will eventually run out and, long before that, people will find themselves expending more and more energy and wealth to track down the world’s most inaccessible fossil fuel reserves, located in places like the Arctic and the deep sea.

Even coal, the most abundant fossil fuel, is far from limitless in its quantity. Indeed, if coal use keeps increasing at 3.4% per year, the world’s reserves may only last for 60 years.

Moving beyond fossil fuels offers humanity the opportunity to end our dependence on an energy reserve that was inevitably going to run out anyhow. The question is not whether we make transition to renewable forms of energy, but when. For all manner of reasons, we stand to benefit from starting that transition immediately and with enthusiasm.

3) Coal has many hidden costs

When you consider all the factors, coal costs more than people think. That cost includes deaths from air pollution, the destruction wrought by coal mining, the risks being imposed on future generations by greenhouse gas emissions, and more. These costs do not appear on utility bills or on the financial reports of coal companies, but they do have a concrete impact on real human lives and the integrity of natural systems.

In short, if we want a planet that remains hospitable to human beings, we need to bury coal. At the same time, we can benefit in many ways from doing that. The purpose of this site is to help that happen.

Most of the information on this page is summarized in this five minute video presentation.

The objections category contains posts that respond to the various counterarguments to the points above.

Last updated: 1 November 2010

{ 61 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan February 19, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Simply using fossil fuels more efficiently will not solve our problems.

Here is a nice quote that relates to why we need to leave fuels unburned, not just burn fuels more efficiently:

“It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.” (William Stanley Jevons, 1865).

Humanity’s cumulative emissions are what will determine how much climate change we experience, not how efficiently we burned this or that bit of coal, oil, or natural gas.

Milan February 22, 2010 at 3:46 pm

This chart from James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren shows the size of possible emissions from global coal reserves, compared to those from oil and gas:

Notably, it does not include all forms of unconventional oil and gas, such as the oil sands, oil shales, and methane clathrates. Those reserves are substantial, and thus carry with them an additional risk of inducing catastrophic or runaway climate change.

. February 23, 2010 at 9:59 am

The resulting imperative is an immediate moratorium on additional coal-fired power plants without CCS. A surge in global coal use in the last few years has converted a potential slowdown of CO2 emissions into a more rapid increase. But the main reason for the proposed moratorium is that a CO2 molecule from coal, in effect, is more damaging than a CO2 molecule from oil. CO2 in readily available oil almost surely will end up in the atmosphere, it is only a question of when, and when does not matter much, given its long lifetime. CO2 in coal does not need to be released to the atmosphere, but if it is, it cannot be recovered and will make disastrous climate change a near certainty.

The moratorium must begin in the West, which is responsible for three-quarters of climate change (via 75% of the present atmospheric CO2 excess, above the pre-industrial level), despite large present CO2 emissions in developing countries. The moratorium must extend to developing countries within a decade, but that will not happen unless developed countries fulfill their moral obligation to lead this moratorium. If Britain should initiate this moratorium, there is a strong possibility of positive feedback, a domino effect, with Germany, Europe, and the United States following, and then, probably with technical assistance, developing countries.

A spreading moratorium on construction of dirty (no CCS) coal plants is the sine quo non for stabilizing climate and preserving creation. It would need to be followed by phase-out of existing dirty coal plants in the next few decades, but would that be so difficult? Consider the other benefits: cleanup of local pollution, conditions in China and India now that greatly damage human health and agriculture, and present global export of pollution, including mercury that is accumulating in fish stock throughout the ocean.”

. March 16, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Why ending coal emissions is 80% of the climate solution

1. The amount of carbon contained in coal is vastly more than in oil and gas.

2. Coal use is more concentrated and therefore more controllable than oil and gas

Milan March 16, 2010 at 12:37 pm

This chart does include a bar for unconventional oil and gas stocks, though it does not indicate how high it could be:

It just shows that estimated reserves of oil sands, shale oil, and methane hydrates could collectively emit more greenhouse gases than all the world’s coal reserves, and far more than conventional oil and gas reserves could.

. April 13, 2010 at 3:15 pm

“A market-based system would create decentralized incentives to do the right thing, and that’s the only way it can be done.

That said, some specific rules may be required. James Hansen, the renowned climate scientist who deserves much of the credit for making global warming an issue in the first place, has argued forcefully that most of the climate-change problem comes down to just one thing, burning coal, and that whatever else we do, we have to shut down coal burning over the next couple decades. My economist’s reaction is that a stiff license fee would strongly discourage coal use anyway. But a market-based system might turn out to have loopholes — and their consequences could be dire. So I would advocate supplementing market-based disincentives with direct controls on coal burning.

. August 27, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Am I an activist for caring about my grandchildren’s future? I guess I am

Concerted action to tackle climate change will happen only if the public demands it for the sake of future generations

James Hansen
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 26 August 2010 16.59 BST

What had become clear was that our planet is close to climate tipping points. Ice is melting in the Arctic, Greenland and Antarctica, and on mountain glaciers worldwide. Many species are stressed by environmental destruction and climate change. Continuing fossil fuel emissions, if unabated, will cause sea levels to rise and species to become extinct beyond our control. Increasing atmospheric water vapour is already magnifying climate extremes, increasing overall precipitation, causing greater floods and stronger storms.

Stabilising climate requires restoring our planet’s energy balance. The physics is straightforward. The effect of increasing carbon dioxide on Earth’s energy imbalance is confirmed by precise measurements of ocean heat gain. The principal implication is defined by the geophysics, by the size of fossil fuel reservoirs. Simply put, there is a limit on how much carbon dioxide we can pour into the atmosphere. We cannot burn all fossil fuels. Specifically, we must (1) phase out coal use rapidly, (2) leave tar sands in the ground, and (3) not go after the last drops of oil.

Actions needed for the world to move on to clean energies of the future are feasible. The actions could restore clean air and water globally. But the actions are not happening.

. September 21, 2010 at 5:04 pm

“No. No. No to geologists and other “pundits” decoupling the issues of human energy systems from climate change.

Without the possibility of catastrophic climate change radically changing Earth’s environment in decades to a hundred years or so, creating a new global energy system would be a problem for the 22nd Century plausibly tackled in a leisurely way without failure posing an existential threat.

Plenty of coal to run high tech civilization at least another hundred years even with substantial economic growth by burning it in conventional coal-fired electric plants and making liquid hydrocarbon automotive fuels from it. It is planet-transforming climate change — from coal-burning plants now on track to be built by China, India and the U.S. that, de facto, will become the energy infrastructure of the middle and late 21st century — that makes a push to urgently transform of our energy system away from fossil fuels the challenge of the century.

Revelle and Seuss’s “Grand Geophysical Experiment” — they had the luxury in the late ’50s to define it in that geologically detached way — will dump thousands of gigatonnes of carbon from gas, oil and coal into the atmosphere as CO2 as they are burned for energy a million times faster than these fossil fuels were made by nature.

This pulse, and its impact on climate, is precisely the problem. It is what drives the need to research, develop, demonstrate and deploy carbon-neutral and sustainable energy sources to power civilization in the coming decades to the end of the century. Of course, the impacts of human climate change will persist over deep geological time, just as for example, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum warming did. But the urgency for energy policy is very near term. Surely geologists should be able to understand how different time scales affect the planetary environment. The human fossil fuel CO2 emissions spike is more like an asteroid impact than the slow degassing of CO2 from metamorphic decarbonization of carbonate rocks at subduction zones by the slow grinding away of plate tectonics.”

. September 28, 2010 at 7:54 pm

“The second is to argue, as the current government does, that new reserves will help to bridge the gap between old and new technologies: Lord make me chaste, but not yet. But it doesn’t matter how much renewable energy we produce: if we burn more than 60% of current fossil fuel reserves we get more than two degrees of warming. If we burn all of them and still look for more, we’ll get four, five or six degrees, regardless of our spending on nuclear power, wind or sunlight. You cannot stop climate breakdown with investment only. There needs to be disinvestment too. Developing new fossil fuel reserves also delays the transition to non-fossil energy, as it keeps the price of hydrocarbons down while ensuring that the value of green investments remains uncertain.”

Tristan October 25, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Excellent graphic and discussion!

Milan October 25, 2010 at 5:22 pm

It has replaced this as my desktop background at home and at work.

. November 20, 2010 at 4:32 pm

“Lately science has shown us that contemporary industrial civilization is not sustainable. Maintaining our standard of living will require finding new ways to produce our energy and less ecologically damaging ways to produce our food. Science has shown us that Rachel Carson was not wrong.

This is the crux of the issue, the crux of our story. For the shift in the American environmental movement from aesthetic environmentalism to regulatory environmentalism wasn’t just a change in political strategy. It was the manifestation of a crucial realization: that unrestricted commercial activity was doing damage – real, lasting, pervasive damage. It was the realization that pollution was global, not just local, and that the solution to pollution was not dilution. This shift began with the understanding that DDT remained in the environment long after its purpose was served. And it grew as acid rain and the ozone hole demonstrated that pollution traveled hundreds or even thousands of kilometres from its source, doing damage to people who did not benefit from the economic activity that produced it. It reached a crescendo when global warming showed that even the most seemingly innocuous by-product of industrial civilization – CO2, the stuff of which plants depend – could produce a very different planet.

To acknowledge this was to acknowledge the soft underbelly of free market capitalism: that free enterprise can bring real costs – profound costs – that the free market does not reflect. Economists have a term for these costs – less reassuring than Friedman’s “neighbourhood effects.” They are “negative externalities”: negative because they aren’t beneficial and external because they fall outside the market system. Those who find this hard to accept attack the messenger, which is science.

We all expect to pay for the things we buy – to pay a fair cost for goods and services from which we expect to reap benefits – but external costs are unhinged from benefits, often imposed on people who did not choose the good or service, and did not benefit from their use. They are imposed on people who did not benefit from the economic activity that produced them. DDT imposed enormous costs through the destruction of ecosystems; acid rain, secondhand smoke, the ozone hole, and global warming did the same. This is the common thread that ties these diverse issues together: they were all market failures. They are instances where serious damage was done and the free market seemed unable to account for it, much less prevent it. Government intervention was required. This is why free market ideologues and old Cold Warriors joined together to fight them. Accepting that by-products of industrial civilization were irreparably damaging the global environment was to accept the reality of market failure. It was to acknowledge the limits of free market capitalism.”

Oreskes, Naomi and Erik Conway. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. p.237-8 (hardcover)

. December 15, 2010 at 6:38 pm

“Governments must recognize this stark fact: burning all fossil fuels would increase carbon dioxide to more than 550ppm and create a different planet – a desolate, ice-free planet with sea levels 75 metres higher than today.”

-James Hansen

Byron Smith April 20, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Hey, what’s the source of that excellent (or rather terrifying) graphic comparing potential emissions from different sources including non-conventional?

Milan April 20, 2011 at 11:03 pm

I am trying to find exactly where I got it from. I think a similar or identical chart is in Storms of my Grandchildren. One scholarly source on Hansen’s general argument:

Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?

Authors: J. Hansen (1 and 2), M. Sato (1 and 2), P. Kharecha (1 and 2), D. Beerling (3), R. Berner (4), V. Masson-Delmotte (5), M. Pagani (4), M. Raymo (6), D. L. Royer (7), J. C. Zachos (8) ((1) NASA GISS, (2) Columbia Univ. Earth Institute, (3) Univ. Sheffield, (4) Yale Univ., (5) LSCE/IPSL, (6) Boston Univ., (7) Wesleyan Univ., (8) Univ. California Santa Cruz)

Subjects: Atmospheric and Oceanic Physics (physics.ao-ph)
Journal reference: Open Atmos. Sci. J. (2008), vol. 2, pp. 217-231
DOI: 10.2174/1874282300802010217
Cite as: arXiv:0804.1126v3 [physics.ao-ph]

Milan April 20, 2011 at 11:06 pm

Storms of My Grandchildren
James Hansen

Scroll down to: “FIGURE 22. Fossil fuel and net land-use emissions (1751-2008).
(This date was incorrect in the first printing of “Storms”.)
(Data from Hansen et al., “Target Atmospheric CO2.” See sources
for chapter 8.)
Also in PDF.”

Milan April 20, 2011 at 11:17 pm

That’s still not the one with the estimated ‘Other’ bar, with tar sands, shale oil, and methane hydrates. I will keep hunting for the source of that version.

Does anyone have a paper copy of Storms on hand? Mine has been lent out.

. May 2, 2011 at 6:14 pm

THE natural processes which dispose of carbon dioxide are, in aggregate, rather slow, which means that an increase in the atmosphere’s carbon-dioxide level will, left to itself, last a long time. David Victor, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, has a keen eye for such simple basics and the uncomfortable ways they may fit together. He sees this one as underlying all three of the things that make climate change a particularly pernicious sort of problem.

In the face of such slow removal, the level of the gas can’t be lowered simply by stabilising the rate of emission; instead emissions must be cut nearly to zero. Because the harm the gas does is slow and cumulative, the benefits for any such cuts in emission will be delayed and uncertain, whereas the costs are all up front. And gas’s longevity means it is spread more or less evenly around the world, with the result that the fate of a country’s climate depends not on its own emissions, but on those of the world as a whole. A challenge that requires fundamental shifts in the energy economy for the sake of benefits that will be both a long time coming and subject to a pernicious free-rider problem was never going to be an easy one to solve. Little surprise that the world isn’t up to it.

. June 22, 2011 at 9:12 pm

‘Huge’ fish kill, power plants linked
Toll at U.S. generating station water intakes called astronomical
Doug Schmidt, The Windsor Star

Meisenheimer said his organization’s members have long known that power plants are guilty of killing large numbers of adult and juvenile fish, larvae and eggs -they just didn’t know how high.

The numbers, according to an investigation by the Chicago Tribune, are staggering and represent a threat not only to commercial and sport fisheries, but to the Great Lakes ecosystem as a whole. Accessing industry reports through the Freedom of Information Act, the Tribune discovered that numerous older power plants have been exempted from environmental regulations designed to prevent enormous industrial fish kills. These older plants, employing socalled “once-through” cooling, pump massive amounts of water from lakes and rivers through the screens of water intake systems, some so powerful they could fill an Olympic swimming pool in less than a minute.

Young fish “have to run the gauntlet of these generating stations -huge numbers get sucked in,” said Meisenheimer.

The FirstEnergy Bay Shore coal plant on the Maumee River shoreline near Toledo, Ohio, for example, kills an estimated 46 million adult fish annually, as well as 2.4 billion eggs, larvae and young fish. Not far away, at the mouth of another important Lake Erie tributary, the Monroe coal plant in Michigan kills more than 25 million fish and almost a half-billion fish eggs and other organisms each year.

The Maumee, one of the Great Lakes’ most biologically productive rivers, is the source of probably “as much as a third” of all the walleye in Lake Erie, said Meisenheimer. This year’s Ontario quota for walleye, a valuable commercial catch, is about one million fish, down substantially from the high of 3.5 million in 2003.

Peer reviewed science! July 14, 2011 at 9:45 pm

Schmidt,G.A., Ruedy,R.A., Miller, R.L. and Lacis,A.A. 2010. Attribution of the present day total greenhouse effect. JGR 115, D20106, doi:10.1029/2010JD014287, 2010; Lacis,A.A., Schmidt,G.A., Rind,D. and Ruedy, R.A. 2010. Atmospheric CO2: Principal control knob governing Earth’s temperature. Science 330:356-359.

Two recent studies confirm that while only 25 percent of the Earth’s planetary greenhouse effect is caused by the presence of long lived greenhouse gases (particularly CO2), the natural greenhouse effect would collapse without these gases. Furthermore, CO2 concentrations are the primary control for the magnitude of this effect.

Public discussions about the natural greenhouse effect and climate sensitivity to rising CO2 concentrations often indicate a misunderstanding of the roles of long lived greenhouse gases (LLGHGs) relative to those of water vapour and cloud feedbacks within the climate system. Two new studies undertaken by scientists at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies have provided some updated estimates for these roles and reinforce the central role of LLGHGs in the greenhouse effect. In one of these, a team of scientists led by Gavin Schmidt undertake a review of related scientific literature and use the radiation component of their GISS global climate model to examine the role of each of the key components of the greenhouse effect for current and 2xCO2 conditions. They find that for current conditions, water vapour represents 50% of the effect, clouds 25% and CO2 20%. The remaining five percent is due to the minor roles played by other radiation absorbers. While the total effect increases significantly under doubled CO2 conditions, the ratios essentially remain the same. The second study, led by Andrew Lacis, emphasizes the importance of the initial radiative forcing caused by CO2 and the other minor LLGHGs in sustaining the natural greenhouse effect and in causing changes in its magnitude. They show that, without this initial forcing, the greenhouse effect would collapse, leaving the Earth a frozen planet. Increases in CO2 are also the primary driver of enhanced greenhouse effects and the resulting rise in surface temperatures. That is, while the roles of water vapour and cloud effects are very important in the net greenhouse effect, they function as feedbacks rather than primary drivers of change.

Summary courtesy of Environment Canada

Peer reviewed science! July 18, 2011 at 7:23 pm

Davis, S.J., K. Caldeira, and H.D. Matthews. 2010. Future CO2 emissions and climate change from existing energy infrastructure. Science 10 September, 2010 Vol 328 pp 1330-1333.

The long lifetime of existing transportation and energy infrastructure means that continued emissions of CO2 from these sources are likely for a number of decades. This ‘infrastructural inertia’ alone is projected to produce a warming commitment of 1.3°C above the pre-industrial era. This result emphasizes that extraordinary measures will be required to limit emissions from new energy and transportation sources if global temperature is to be stabilized below 2°C.

Climate modeling has demonstrated that even if atmospheric composition was fixed at current levels, continued warming of the climate would occur due to inertia in the climate system. This form of climate change commitment has become widely recognized. Davis et al. focus attention on inertia in human systems, by asking ‘what CO2 levels and global mean temperature would be attained if no additional CO2-emitting devices (e.g., power plants, motor vehicles) were built but all the existing CO2-emitting devices were allowed to live out their normal lifetimes?”. Barring widespread retrofitting or early decommissioning of existing infrastructure, these committed emissions represent ‘infrastructural inertia’. The authors developed scenarios of global CO2 emissions from existing infrastructure directly emitting CO2 to the atmosphere for the period 2010 to 2060 (with emissions approaching zero at the end of this time period) and used the University of Victoria Earth System Climate Model to project the resulting changes in atmospheric CO2 and global mean temperature. Projections with low, mid and high emissions scenarios led to projected global average warming of 1.3°C (1.1° to 1.4°C) above the pre-industrial era. Since new sources of CO2 are bound to be built in the future in order to satisfy growing demands for energy and transportation, the committed warming from existing infrastructure makes clear that satisfying these demands and achieving the 2°C target of the Copenhagen Accord will be an enormous challenge.

Summary courtesy of Environment Canada

. July 20, 2011 at 6:26 pm

An Underground National Park
July 19, 2011

To prevent climate breakdown, we need to declare most of the fossil fuels in the earth’s crust off-limits.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 19th July 2011

. July 25, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Earth’s Climate History: Implications for Tomorrow

By James E. Hansen and Makiko Sato — July 2011

The past is the key to the future. Contrary to popular belief, climate models are not the principal basis for assessing human-made climate effects. Our most precise knowledge comes from Earth’s paleoclimate, its ancient climate, and how it responded to past changes of climate forcings, including atmospheric composition. Our second essential source of information is provided by global observations today, especially satellite observations. which reveal how the climate system is responding to rapid human-made changes of atmospheric composition, especially atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). Models help us interpret past and present climate changes, and, in so far as they succeed in simulating past changes, they provide a tool to help evaluate the impacts of alternative policies that affect climate.

Paleoclimate data yield our best assessment of climate sensitivity, which is the eventual global temperature change in response to a specified climate forcing. A climate forcing is an imposed change of Earth’s energy balance, as may be caused, for example, by a change of the sun’s brightness or a human-made change of atmospheric CO2. For convenience scientists often consider a standard forcing, doubled atmospheric CO2, because that is a level of forcing that humans will impose this century if fossil fuel use continues unabated.

We show from paleoclimate data that the eventual global warming due to doubled CO2 will be about 3°C (5.4°F) when only so-called fast feedbacks have responded to the forcing. Fast feedbacks are changes of quantities such as atmospheric water vapor and clouds, which change as climate changes, thus amplifying or diminishing climate change. Fast feedbacks come into play as global temperature changes, so their full effect is delayed several centuries by the thermal inertia of the ocean, which slows full climate response. However, about half of the fast-feedback climate response is expected to occur within a few decades. Climate response time is one of the important ‘details’ that climate models help to elucidate.

BuryCoal September 7, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Total conventional fossil fuel emissions (purple) and 50% of unconventional resources (blue)

Source

Milan October 19, 2011 at 6:58 pm

This chart from this IPCC presentation re-affirms the above – namely that coal and unconventional oil and gas are the fossil fuels to worry about most, from the perspective of avoiding dangerous climate change:

peer reviewed science November 3, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Projections of when temperature change will exceed 2 °C above pre-industrial levels

Manoj Joshi, Ed Hawkins, Rowan Sutton, Jason Lowe & David Frame

Nature Climate Change 1, 407–412 (2011) doi:10.1038/nclimate1261
Published online 23 October 2011

Climate change projections are usually presented as ‘snapshots’ of change at a particular time in the future. Instead, we consider the key question ‘when will specific temperature thresholds be exceeded?’ Framing the question as ‘when might something happen (either permanently or temporarily)?’ rather than ‘what might happen?’ demonstrates that lowering future emissions will delay the crossing of temperature thresholds and buy valuable time for planning adaptation. For example, in higher greenhouse-gas emission scenarios, a global average 2 °C warming threshold is likely to be crossed by 2060, whereas in a lower emissions scenario, the crossing of this threshold is delayed by up to several decades. On regional scales, however, the 2 °C threshold will probably be exceeded over large parts of Eurasia, North Africa and Canada by 2040 if emissions continue to increase — well within the lifetime of many people living now.

. November 7, 2011 at 9:15 pm

Here’s all you ever really need to know about CO2 emissions and climate:

  • The peak warming is linearly proportional to the cumulative carbon emitted
  • It doesn’t matter much how rapidly the carbon is emitted
  • The warming you get when you stop emitting carbon is what you are stuck with for the next thousand years
  • The climate recovers only slightly over the next ten thousand years
  • At the mid-range of IPCC climate sensitivity, a trillion tonnes cumulative carbon gives you about 2C global mean warming above the pre-industrial temperature.
. February 9, 2012 at 9:34 pm

The open question is why the industry persists in denial in the face of an endless body of fact showing climate change is the greatest danger we’ve ever faced.

Why doesn’t it fold the way the tobacco industry eventually did? Why doesn’t it invest its riches in things like solar panels and so profit handsomely from the next generation of energy? As it happens, the answer is more interesting than you might think.

Part of it’s simple enough: The giant energy companies are making so much money right now that they can’t stop gorging themselves. ExxonMobil, year after year, pulls in more money than any company in history. Chevron’s not far behind. Everyone in the business is swimming in money.

Still, they could theoretically invest all that cash in new clean technology or research and development for the same. As it happens, though, they’ve got a deeper problem, one that’s become clear only in the last few years. Put briefly: Their value is largely based on fossil-fuel reserves that won’t be burned if we ever take global warming seriously.

When I talked about a carbon bubble at the beginning of this essay, this is what I meant. Here are some of the relevant numbers, courtesy of the Capital Institute: We’re already seeing widespread climate disruption, but if we want to avoid utter, civilization-shaking disaster, many scientists have pointed to a 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) rise in global temperatures as the most we could possibly deal with.

If we spew 565 gigatons more carbon into the atmosphere, we’ll quite possibly go right past that reddest of red lines. But the oil companies, private and state-owned, have current reserves on the books equivalent to 2,795 gigatons — five times more than we can ever safely burn. It has to stay in the ground.

Put another way, in ecological terms it would be extremely prudent to write off $20 trillion worth of those reserves. In economic terms, of course, it would be a disaster, first and foremost for shareholders and executives of companies like ExxonMobil (and people in places like Venezuela).

If you run an oil company, this sort of write-off is the disastrous future staring you in the face as soon as climate change is taken as seriously as it should be, and that’s far scarier than drought and flood. It’s why you’ll do anything — including fund an endless campaigns of lies — to avoid coming to terms with its reality. So instead, we simply charge ahead. To take just one example, last month the boss of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Thomas Donohue, called for burning all the country’s newly discovered coal, gas, and oil — believed to be 1,800 gigatons worth of carbon from our nation alone.

. February 13, 2012 at 10:39 am

Alberta’s oil sands by the numbers

Total daily bitumen production in 2000: 667,619 barrels

Total in 2010: 1.6 million barrels

Total projected for 2020: 3.4 million

Annual investment in the oilsands in 1996: about $1 billion

Annual investment in 2008: more than $16 billion

Cost of building a project that produces 100,000 barrels per day: about $8 billion

Total sales revenues in 1998: $3.1 billion; net revenues: $1.3 billion

Total revenues in 2008: $37.8 billion; net revenues: $22.8 billion

Total royalties and land payments paid to Alberta in 1998: $35 million; in 2008:$3.8 billion

Percentage of Alberta’s GDP increases, until 2005, that came from oilsands: 79

Percentage of Ontario’s GDP increases from oilsands: 11

Percentage of Quebec’s: one

Direct jobs created 1998: 6,000; in 2010: 14,000

Total greenhouse gas emissions in 2008: 37 million tonnes

Percentage of Canada’s 2008 emissions: 5.2

Percentage of Canada’s total transport emissions: 19

Projected GHG emissions for 2020: 110 to 127 million tonnes

Projected percentage of Canada’s emissions: 17

Total projected GHG emissions for 2020 if regulations are imposed to reduce emissions: 55 to 91 million tonnes

Cost of capturing GHG emissions and sequestering them in old oil and gas wells: $50 to $70 per tonne of GHG

Penalty Alberta charges to companies that don’t reduce or sequester their emissions: $15 a tonne

Number of toxic chemicals heavy metals reported in oil sands emissions: 74

Sources: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers; Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel on Environmental and Health Effects of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry (December 2010); Energy Resources Conservation Board; Alberta Energy; National Pollution Release Inventory.

. February 22, 2012 at 9:00 am

All fossil fuels must be cut to avoid global warming, scientists say

OTTAWA — Two Canadian climate change scientists from the University of Victoria say the public reaction to their recently published commentary has missed their key message: that all forms of fossil fuels, including the oilsands and coal, must be regulated for the world to avoid dangerous global warming.

“Much of the way this has been reported is (through) a type of view that oilsands are good and coal is bad,” said climate scientist Neil Swart, who co-authored the study with fellow climatologist Andrew Weaver. “From my perspective, that was not the point. . . . The point here is, we need a rapid transition to renewable (energy), and avoid committing to long-term fossil fuel use if we are to get within the limits (of reducing global warming to less than 2 C).”

The commentary, published in the British scientific journal, Nature Climate Change, estimated the impact of consuming the fuel from oilsands deposits — without factoring in greenhouse gas emissions associated with extraction and production — would be far less harmful to the planet’s atmosphere than consuming all of the world’s coal resources.

“The conclusions of a credible climate scientist with access to good data are very different than some of the rhetoric we’ve heard from Hollywood celebrities of late,” said Travis Davies, a spokesman from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. “However, it clearly doesn’t absolve industry from what it needs to do: (To) continue to improve environmental performance broadly, and demonstrate that improvement to Canadians and our customers . . . in terms of GHG emissions, as well as water, land and tailings facilities.”

. February 28, 2012 at 12:33 pm

It would be a huge mistake to interpret our results as some kind of a “get out of jail free” card for the tarsands. While coal is the greatest threat to the climate globally, the tarsands remain the largest source of greenhouse gas emission growth in Canada and are the single largest reason Canada is failing to meet its international climate commitments and failing to be a climate leader. The world needs to transition away from fossil fuels. That means coal, unconventional gas and unconventional oil all need to be addressed.

Andrew Weaver is a professor and Canada Research Chair in Climate Modelling and Analysis in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Victoria. He was a lead author in the UN second, third, fourth and ongoing fifth scientific assessments of climate change.

. March 4, 2012 at 7:36 pm

A FREIGHT train, its dozen cars loaded with coal covered in a light dusting of snow, snaked through the narrow valley, sometimes following the two-lane highway and sometimes crossing it. The valley was silent and snowy, and though it was two days into 2012 it could easily have been 1982, 1942 or 1922: coal has been mined in Appalachia and carried out by rail for well over a century.

And by some measures, coal is still going strong. It provides more of America’s electricity than any other fuel. Production has fallen off since 2008, but it remains high, as do prices, for which thank the developing world’s appetite. In Appalachia, coal remains a source of well-paid jobs in a region that needs them: for the first three quarters of 2011 employment in the Appalachian coal industry was at its highest level since 1997. And the Powder River Basin, which spans Wyoming and Montana, has become America’s major source of coal in the past decade, relieving overmined Kentucky and West Virginia. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reckons America has enough coal to meet current demand levels for the next 200 years.

But if the raw numbers look good, the trends tell a different story. Regulatory uncertainty and the emergence of alternative fuel sources (natural gas and renewables) will probably make America’s future far less coal-reliant than its past. In 2000 America got 52% of its electricity from coal; in 2010 that number was 45%. Robust as exports are, they account for less than one-tenth of American mined coal; exports cannot pick up the slack if America’s taste for coal declines. Appalachian coal production peaked in the early 1990s; the EIA forecasts a decline for the next three years, followed by two decades of low-level stability. Increased employment and declining productivity suggest that Appalachian coal is getting harder to find.

. March 4, 2012 at 7:37 pm

“To some, regulations prove the current administration’s hostility to coal. To others, however, they are a long-overdue attempt to gauge a putatively cheap fuel’s true external costs. A National Academy of Sciences report estimated that the external costs unrelated to climate-change costs (to human health, crop and timber yields, building materials and recreation) of coal-fired power plants in 2005 totalled $62 billion. A study of coal’s effects on Kentucky’s budget in 2006 found that it contributed $528m in revenue, but its on-budget costs—training, support, repairs to the roads, R&D for the coal industry—totalled $643m. A study in West Virginia in 2009 also found the coal industry a net cost to the state.”

Lee March 10, 2012 at 9:12 am

you idiiots live in a fantasy world and are the reason i was laid off from the undergorund coal mine i worked at. people like you are nothing but a bunch of hippy wanna be’s and are ruining lives of families all over the united states especially in the appalachian mountains. nasa and all pro global warming fans are wrong.

Milan March 10, 2012 at 12:40 pm

I’m sorry you have suffered financial hardship because of the contracting of the coal industry.

That being said, the phaseout of coal is a positive and necessary development for the world as a whole. Climate change is a real threat, and we have better energy options.

. March 13, 2012 at 7:36 pm

Every year, one of the projects I give my students is to figure out how the global community can address the climate risk, given that it requires concerted global action, that some countries cause more emissions per capita than others, that some are endowed with abundant fossil fuel resources, and that some are richer than others. The students must also address the fact that the energy system is complex in that emissions reductions take time as we renew factories, buildings and vehicles, and that costs differ depending on energy forms (fossil fuels, renewables) and energy uses (electricity generation, transportation, buildings).

But every year, they produce the same answer: Action must begin immediately, rich countries must go first and poorer, lower emission countries must soon follow, even if tariffs are required to ensure compliance. And given current emission levels, they point out, emissions must be falling now in all sectors of the economy, although this may happen faster in some sectors than others, depending on relative costs of decarbonizing.

I also ask the students to address CAPP’s argument that tar sands development doesn’t matter. Since some of the students have studied philosophy, they say this argument is a variation of the “fallacy of composition.” This fallacy involves inferring that, since an individual component on its own is not a problem, then it isn’t part of a problem that exists when all components are added together.

Dr. Weaver and Mr. Swart are climate modellers. If they had consulted any of the world-leading independent energy-economy modellers at MIT, University of Maryland, Berlin, Vienna or Stanford, they would have done a different study by looking at combined sets of reductions around the world, and recognizing that all components currently or potentially in use are part of the solution.

What researchers who do this consistently find is that it’s already too late to prevent a two-degree increase because of the inertia in our global energy system, which is 85 per cent based on burning coal, oil and natural gas. We would have to blow up our factories, electricity plants and vehicles to achieve that goal.

They also show that, even if we just hope to keep the increase below four degrees, then we can’t allow any expansion of the tar sands, and certainly no new pipelines such as Keystone and Northern Gateway to support any expanded use of fossil fuels. An example is the recent 20-page report from MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, Canada’s Bitumen Industry Under CO2 Constraints (http://globalchange.mit.edu). The report shows how and why the Canadian tar sands must contract immediately as part of a global effort to prevent a four-degree increase in temperature and catastrophic climate change.

. March 18, 2012 at 11:55 am

“In the perfect moral storm [of climate change], our position is not that of idealized neutral observers, but rather judges in our own case, with no one to properly hold us accountable. This makes it all too easy to slip into weak and self-serving ways of thinking, supported by a convenient apathy and ideological fervor. Moreover, the devices of such corruption are sophisticated and often function indirectly, by infiltrating the terms of ethical and epistemic argument.”

Gardiner, Stephen. A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change. p. xii (hardcover)

. March 27, 2012 at 10:07 pm

The Washington Post deserves enormous credit for the editorial on climate change it ran this weekend. There is usually no more reliable barometer of elite conventional opinion than the Post, but in U.S. politics, CW has been running away from climate for the last few years. In this case, the Post is standing up for a plain truth that is almost never spoken in U.S. media: that climate change is a crisis, already upon us, and every bit of delay in responding raises the eventual (and inevitable) costs of doing so. Others will rehearse the Post‘s past journalistic sins on climate — they are many. I choose to hope this marks a new seriousness.

Rising concern on climate change

RISING SEA levels threaten to inundate low-lying roads in Louisiana, costing billions in port activity, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports. Northrop Grumman sees potential damage to billions in shoreline defense infrastructure, such as the imperiled drydock in Hampton Roads built to construct the next generation of aircraft carriers. Other factors are also at work in these examples of rapid coastline loss. But Louisiana and Virginia offer a picture of how further sea-level rise and higher storm surges — just one set of climate-related risks — could seriously disrupt human activity.

America, meanwhile, is fixated on . . . paying an extra buck per gallon at the gas pump.

A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) underscores how myopic the country’s energy debate is — and, consequently, how delinquent the United States has been in leading the world. The organization calculated that the world is on course to increase its carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2050. That’s because global energy use will increase by 80 percent by mid-century, with 85 percent of the energy mix coming from fossil fuels. That would likely raise global temperatures well past the target of 2 degrees Celsius, beyond which scientists say climate change could be extremely dangerous. It would also produce lethal amounts of air pollution, manifested in more heart attacks, asthma and other maladies.

. April 1, 2012 at 6:03 pm

Soaring emissions by 2050, says OECD

The world will face a 50 per cent increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 without aggressive and effective policy changes, said an OECD expert on Wednesday.

Deputy director of the Environment Directorate for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Helen Mountford, told reporters at an on-line media briefing that an OECD assessment of social and economic trends – outlined in its new OECD Environmental Outlook 2050 report – found that atmospheric levels of GHGs could reach nearly 685 parts per million, far above the target level needed to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius.

The increase in emissions will be driven by rising emissions from fossil fuel energy sources, whose percentage of the global energy mix will maintain its current level of about 85 per cent.

Unlike previous versions of the OECD report, the 350+ page report released on Thursday provided in-depth analysis of four areas relating to the environment – climate change, biodiversity, water and the health impacts of pollution

. April 7, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Nasa scientist: climate change is a moral issue on a par with slavery

Prof Jim Hansen to use lecture at Edinburgh International Science Festival to call for worldwide tax on all carbon emissions

Averting the worst consequences of human-induced climate change is a “great moral issue” on a par with slavery, according to the leading Nasa climate scientist Prof Jim Hansen.

He argues that storing up expensive and destructive consequences for society in future is an “injustice of one generation to others”.

Hansen, who will next Tuesday be awarded the prestigious Edinburgh Medal for his contribution to science, will also in his acceptance speech call for a worldwide tax on all carbon emissions.

In his lecture, Hansen will argue that the challenge facing future generations from climate change is so urgent that a flat-rate global tax is needed to force immediate cuts in fossil fuel use. Ahead of receiving the award – which has previously been given to Sir David Attenborough, the ecologist James Lovelock, and the economist Amartya Sen – Hansen told the Guardian that the latest climate models had shown the planet was on the brink of an emergency. He said humanity faces repeated natural disasters from extreme weather events which would affect large areas of the planet.

. May 6, 2012 at 12:54 pm

There is no sign in today’s geopolitical landscape of anything like the ambition necessary to pull off serious climate mitigation. There are efforts all over the place, but they are desultory relative to the precipitous decline in emissions necessary to limit temperature to 2 degrees C. At this point, in fact, 2 degrees C is probably out of reach. Hitting 3 or 4 degrees C would be a huge challenge (and the science of impacts at 4 degrees C is not pretty). The available evidence — as opposed to hopes and predictions — seems to indicate that we won’t avert catastrophe. As Elizabeth Kolbert put it so memorably in Field Notes from a Catastrophe, “It may seem impossible to imagine that technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”

http://grist.org/politics/science-alone-cant-tell-us-how-bad-climate-change-will-be/

. May 9, 2012 at 8:02 pm

Politically speaking, Obama can not come out and tell the frank truth about coal. Its political roots are too deep in his own party. But in his energy rhetoric and strategy, he is implicitly acknowledging what is increasingly obvious: Coal is not compatible with a safe, secure, prosperous 21st century. It is responsible for most local air pollution — soot, mercury, ozone, coal ash, etc. — and, projecting out, it’s going to be responsible for the bulk of climate change, especially when burned in Asia. The only way to use coal without exacerbating climate change is to add wildly expensive carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) facilities that raise costs by a third and don’t do anything to eliminate local pollutants. Proper economic analysis of the actually existing coal sector shows that it imposes costs greater than the value of the electricity it creates.

http://grist.org/coal/u-s-coal-lobbies-frantically-to-save-its-doomed-ass-self/

. June 2, 2012 at 6:49 pm

“The dilemma is compounded, however, and this I can’t emphasize too strongly, by the fact that decisive action must be taken in the next two or three decades if profound climatic changes 50 to 70 years into future are to be avoided. And the reason for this is obvious when you think about it, it takes about 50 years for a new energy source to penetrate the worldwide market. If we are going to make a transition, for example, from fossil fuels to nuclear energy or to solar energy or to wind energy, if you think about that as a major source of energy during the next 50 years from now, you better start right now. Certainly, we need a 30 year leap time for any major change in the sources and uses of energy. Let me conclude, by pointing out the carbon dioxide problem has begun to invade public consciousness at a critical time, when the worldwide industrial civilization is beginning to be shaken to its foundations by the disappearance of inexpensive sources of energy. This is a time when critical choices must be made about future sources and uses of energy and the realization that all potential energy sources, quite apart from the carbon dioxide problem, have serious social, economic and environmental liabilities. Government and industry must decide whether to invest vast sums, of the order of hundreds, perhaps even thousands of billions of dollars in production of synthetic liquid fuels from coal or oil shale, an equally expensive and widely unpopular alternative is construction of many new nuclear fission plants for generation of electricity or production of secondary fuels. Nuclear fission, as you all know better than I, as a long term alternative to fossil fuels, depends on development and wide use of nuclear breeder reactors with concomitant problems of proliferation of atomic weapons materials. Energy conservation is another, at least partial, alternative, energy now used in transportation can be conserved by large investments in mass transit. With all that these investments imply the changed structure of cities. Fundamental decisions must also be made, whether to continue present patterns of central station generation of electricity and electrical transmission grids or to develop local community sources. In the bitter competition for dwindling energy sources, the less developed countries without fossil fuel reserves of their own will inevitable be the losers. This means, as I pointed out, most of mankind. Even development assistance from the rich countries to the poor ones is jeopardized because development of the poor countries will inevitably lead both to great increases in their demand for energy, and perhaps even worse, in their ability to compete with the present industrialized countries to acquire fuels in the international markets. There is nothing really cheering about this report on the carbon dioxide problem but I guess I am convinced, that for the moment at least, it is not a very cheerful world.”

. June 21, 2012 at 11:12 am

Coal: The rising star of global energy production

In a word, coal plays an increasingly important role in the great American energy renaissance. Oil production is on the rise. Natural gas production (and shale gas production) is on the rise. Coal production is on the rise. For the past five years, U.S. increases in coal exports have been quite remarkable.

Using 2005 as a base year, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reports that U.S. net coal exports increased 70 per cent in 2007, 107 per cent in 2008, 71 per cent in 2010 and 49 per cent in 2011. (In 2009, the year of the market meltdown, exports fell by a relatively restrained 23 per cent.)

Yet Americans themselves are consuming less coal – 5 per cent less in the past decade. As U.S. electrical producers shift from cheap coal to cheap natural gas, more coal will be released for export to other countries (where demand for coal increased by almost 50 per cent in the same decade, the energy equivalent of 23 million barrels of oil a day). Already the world’s fourth-largest coal exporter, after Australia, Indonesia and Russia, the U.S. could plausibly become the world’s largest exporter in coming years. The United States possesses more coal reserves, after all, than any other country.

. June 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Another very informative talk, on scale and climate solutions:

David MacKay: A reality check on renewables

. July 19, 2012 at 5:24 pm

But what all these climate numbers make painfully, usefully clear is that the planet does indeed have an enemy – one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization. “Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices,” says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, who is at work on a book about the climate crisis. “But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It’s what they do.”

According to the Carbon Tracker report, if Exxon burns its current reserves, it would use up more than seven percent of the available atmospheric space between us and the risk of two degrees. BP is just behind, followed by the Russian firm Gazprom, then Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell, each of which would fill between three and four percent. Taken together, just these six firms, of the 200 listed in the Carbon Tracker report, would use up more than a quarter of the remaining two-degree budget. Severstal, the Russian mining giant, leads the list of coal companies, followed by firms like BHP Billiton and Peabody. The numbers are simply staggering – this industry, and this industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they’re planning to use it.

The fight, in the end, is about whether the industry will succeed in its fight to keep its special pollution break alive past the point of climate catastrophe, or whether, in the economists’ parlance, we’ll make them internalize those externalities.

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719?page=3

. August 24, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Global reserves have been steadily increasing for at least 30 years. According to a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), published last year, world production has grown significantly too, rising by two-fifths between 1990 and 2009, twice as fast as that of oil. Only half a decade ago it looked as though the world might have only 50 or 60 years-worth of gas. Now shale and other unconventional as well as new conventional gas finds have increased that period to 200 years or more, by some estimates.

The unconventional-gas bonanza has roughly doubled the gas resource base, a measure of the total gas in the ground rather than what might be economically recoverable. In 2009 the IEA estimated the “long-term global recoverable gas resource base” at 850 trillion cubic metres (tcm), against 400tcm only a year earlier. The main reason for the rethink was shale gas and other unconventionals. Not just America but parts of Europe, China, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Canada and several African countries, among others, sit atop as yet unknown quantities of gas that could transform their energy outlook.

. August 26, 2012 at 1:02 pm

Roughly a quarter of the northern hemisphere, including most of the Arctic land, is covered by this layer of frozen rock, soil and organic carbon. Formed over millennia, it varies in depth from a few centimetres to up to 1,500 metres in Siberia. Much of the Arctic’s shallow continental shelf is also covered by permafrost. According to an estimate made in 2009, terrestrial permafrost holds about 1.7 trillion tonnes of carbon, roughly twice as much as the atmosphere. By another estimate subsea permafrost stores an additional 0.5 trillion tonnes. And underlying it there may be another 0.8 trillion tonnes in the form of methane hydrates, an icy white material discovered in the 1960s.

Though tricky to get at, methane hydrates could be a massive energy source. Globally they are estimated to contain more energy than all known deposits of fossil fuels. Yet if even a small portion of the methane contained in them were to be abruptly emitted, the warming effect could be catastrophic. Methane is a short-lived greenhouse gas—it stays in the atmosphere for 6-10 years before being oxidised—but it is 25 times more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. And no one is sure how stable the hydrates are.

Given the scale of these risks, it is extraordinary how little research has been done on permafrost. “There are a lot of white spots in our knowledge,” admits Leonid Yurganov, a permafrost expert at the University of Maryland—Baltimore County. But a lot has recently been learned, which suggests that an explosive methane release is very unlikely. Ice cores going back 800,000 years show no trace of such an event. Nonetheless, the release of permafrost or subsea carbon could be gradual and still cause a lot of warming, and that does seem likely.

. September 4, 2012 at 8:52 pm

Very helpfully, the American Meteorological Society has updated its statement on climate change to reflect scientific research completed since the last one in 2007. The new statement is considerably stronger in its language than its previous one. Here are a few tastes of the new statement:

“Warming of the climate system now is unequivocal [...] many of the observed changes noted above are beyond what can be explained by the natural variability of the climate. It is clear from extensive scientific evidence that the dominant cause of the rapid change in climate of the past half century is human-induced increases in the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gases [...] Since long-term measurements began in the 1950s, the atmospheric CO2 concentration has been increasing at a rate much faster than at any time in the last 800,000 years. [...] Climate is potentially predictable for much longer time scales than weather for several reasons. [...] A helpful analogy in this regard is that population averages of human mortality are predictable while life spans of individuals are not. [...] Future warming of the climate is inevitable for many years due to the greenhouse gases already added to the atmosphere and the heat that has been taken up by the oceans. [...] Global efforts to slow greenhouse gas emissions have been unsuccessful so far. However, were future technologies and policies able to achieve a rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions — an approach termed “mitigation” — this would greatly lessen future global warming and its impacts. [...] In the 21st century, global sea level also will continue to rise although the rise will not be uniform at all locations. [...] Atmospheric water content will increase globally, consistent with warmer temperatures, and consequently the global hydrological cycle will continue to accelerate. [...] changes in precipitation patterns are expected to differ considerably by region and by season [...] more severe droughts and floods [...] significant regional shifts in precipitation patterns [...] heavy precipitation events will continue to become more intense and frequent [...] longer dry spells between precipitation events in the subtropics and lower-middle latitudes [...] Widespread retreat of mountain glaciers is expected to eventually lead to reduced dry season flows for glacier-fed rivers. Drought is projected to increase over Africa, Europe, and much of the North American continental interior, and particularly the southwest United States. [...] more extreme warm periods and fewer cold periods are expected [...] more severe episodes of extreme heat. Critical thresholds of daily maximum temperature, above which ecosystems and crop systems (e.g., food crops such as rice, corn, and wheat) suffer increasingly severe damage, are likely to be exceeded more frequently. [...] It is unclear if the land biosphere and oceans will be able to continue taking up carbon at their current rate into the future. [...] Another unknown is the amount of methane that will be released due to high-latitude warming. There are indications that large regions of the permafrost in parts of Alaska and other northern polar areas are already thawing, with the potential to release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere beyond those being directly added by human activity. The portion of the increased CO2 release that is absorbed by the world ocean is making the ocean more acidic, with negative implications for shell- and skeleton-forming organisms and more generally for ocean ecosystems.”

If you’re pressed for time, or already familiar with recent climate research, then you can just skip to the conclusion. Here it is in full:

“There is unequivocal evidence that Earth’s lower atmosphere, ocean, and land surface are warming; sea level is rising; and snow cover, mountain glaciers, and Arctic sea ice are shrinking. The dominant cause of the warming since the 1950s is human activities. This scientific finding is based on a large and persuasive body of research. The observed warming will be irreversible for many years into the future, and even larger temperature increases will occur as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. Avoiding this future warming will require a large and rapid reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions. The ongoing warming will increase risks and stresses to human societies, economies, ecosystems, and wildlife through the 21st century and beyond, making it imperative that society respond to a changing climate. To inform decisions on adaptation and mitigation, it is critical that we improve our understanding of the global climate system and our ability to project future climate through continued and improved monitoring and research. This is especially true for smaller (seasonal and regional) scales and weather and climate extremes, and for important hydroclimatic variables such as precipitation and water availability.

Technological, economic, and policy choices in the near future will determine the extent of future impacts of climate change. Science-based decisions are seldom made in a context of absolute certainty. National and international policy discussions should include consideration of the best ways to both adapt to and mitigate climate change. Mitigation will reduce the amount of future climate change and the risk of impacts that are potentially large and dangerous. At the same time, some continued climate change is inevitable, and policy responses should include adaptation to climate change. Prudence dictates extreme care in accounting for our relationship with the only planet known to be capable of sustaining human life.”

. September 11, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Global land temperatures have increased by 1.5 degrees C over the past 250 years

Berkeley Earth has just released analysis of land-surface temperature records going back 250 years, about 100 years further than previous studies. The analysis shows that the rise in average world land temperature globe is approximately 1.5 degrees C in the past 250 years, and about 0.9 degrees in the past 50 years.

Berkeley Earth also has carefully studied issues raised by skeptics, such as possible biases from urban heating, data selection, poor station quality, and data adjustment. We have demonstrated that these do not unduly bias the results.

Human Effect

Many of the changes in land-surface temperature can be explained by a combination of volcanoes and a proxy for human greenhouse gas emissions. Solar variation does not seem to impact the temperature trend.

. November 6, 2012 at 10:30 am

A global consensus is emerging that the increase in atmospheric temperature should be limited to around 2°C above pre- industrial levels in order to prevent the worst impacts of climate changes. In order to keep temperatures within this range, the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report argues that global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must start declining by 2015.2 For industrialized countries, which are responsible for most of the GHGs already in the atmosphere, this implies implementing drastic cuts immediately; the latest IPCC Report suggests that compared to 1990 levels, industrialized countries might have to reduce their emissions by 25 to 40 per cent by 2020 and 80 to 95 per cent by 2050.3 Thus, there is little time left to avoid the worst impacts of climate change—ambitious action is required now. As United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon aptly noted, climate change is “the defining challenge of our age”.

United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). 2009. Climate and Trade Policies in a Post-2012 World.

. November 19, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided,” (pdf) warns we’re on track for a 4°C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.

Moreover, adverse effects of a warming climate are “tilted against many of the world’s poorest regions” and likely to undermine development efforts and global development goals, says the study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, on behalf of the World Bank. The report, urges “further mitigation action as the best insurance against an uncertain future.”

. November 23, 2012 at 11:02 am

This European Environment Agency (EEA) report presents information on past and projected climate change and related impacts in Europe, based on a range of indicators. The report also assesses the vulnerability of society, human health and ecosystems in Europe and identifies those regions in Europe most at risk from climate change. Furthermore, the report discusses the principle sources of uncertainty for the indicators and notes how monitoring and scenario development can improve our understanding of climate change, its impacts and related vulnerabilities.

Climate change evident across Europe, says report

The effects of climate change are already evident in Europe and the situation is set to get worse, the European Environment Agency has warned.

In a report, the agency says the past decade in Europe has been the warmest on record.

It adds that the cost of damage caused by extreme weather events is rising, and the continent is set to become more vulnerable in the future.

The findings have been published ahead of next week’s UN climate conference.

They join a UN Environment Programme report also released on Wednesday showing dangerous growth in the “emissions gap” – the difference between current carbon emission levels and those needed to avert climate change.

. December 2, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Stark evidence of polar ice melt

Using satellite data, scientists reveal ‘definitive’ study that claims sea levels are rising, writes Naomi Seck.

Climate change study strengthens link to human activities

(Nanowerk News) New research shows some of the clearest evidence yet of a discernible human influence on atmospheric temperature.
Published online in the Nov. 29 early edition of the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (“Identifying human influences on atmospheric temperature”), the study compared 20 of the latest climate models against 33 years of satellite data. When human factors were included in the models, they followed the pattern of temperature changes observed by satellite. When the same simulations were run without considering human influences, the results were quite different.

Identifying human influences on atmospheric temperature

We perform a multimodel detection and attribution study with climate model simulation output and satellite-based measurements of tropospheric and stratospheric temperature change. We use simulation output from 20 climate models participating in phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project. This multimodel archive provides estimates of the signal pattern in response to combined anthropogenic and natural external forcing (the fingerprint) and the noise of internally generated variability. Using these estimates, we calculate signal-to-noise (S/N) ratios to quantify the strength of the fingerprint in the observations relative to fingerprint strength in natural climate noise. For changes in lower stratospheric temperature between 1979 and 2011, S/N ratios vary from 26 to 36, depending on the choice of observational dataset. In the lower troposphere, the fingerprint strength in observations is smaller, but S/N ratios are still significant at the 1% level or better, and range from three to eight. We find no evidence that these ratios are spuriously inflated by model variability errors. After removing all global mean signals, model fingerprints remain identifiable in 70% of the tests involving tropospheric temperature changes. Despite such agreement in the large-scale features of model and observed geographical patterns of atmospheric temperature change, most models do not replicate the size of the observed changes. On average, the models analyzed underestimate the observed cooling of the lower stratosphere and overestimate the warming of the troposphere. Although the precise causes of such differences are unclear, model biases in lower stratospheric temperature trends are likely to be reduced by more realistic treatment of stratospheric ozone depletion and volcanic aerosol forcing.

. February 22, 2013 at 9:58 pm

Be persuasive. Be brave. Be arrested (if necessary)

It is crucial that scientists take more career risks and sound a more realistic, more desperate, note on the global-warming problem. Younger scientists are obsessed by thoughts of tenure, so it is probably up to older, senior and retired scientists to do the heavy lifting. Be arrested if necessary. This is not only the crisis of your lives — it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave.

. May 10, 2013 at 6:48 am

350 is a popular number among people concerned about climate change. That is because 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere is the level that, in the words of James Hansen, a prominent climate scientist, is needed “to preserve a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted”. Today the ratio is nudging 400ppm, the highest since the Pliocene, 4m years ago, when Canada was a tropical jungle. This prompted some, including the UN, to suggest 450ppm, which should limit warming to 2ºC, as a more realistic goal.

All the same, 350 has become a rallying cry, especially for the younger generation which will bear the brunt of global warming but as yet lacks the political clout to do much about it. It is also the name of a network launched in 2008 by Bill McKibben, the aim of which is to shift the fight against climate change out of high politics and onto the streets—or at least to places where youngsters hang out.

Rather than lobby for change in dysfunctional, and old, Washington, DC, 350 has spent the past five years spreading the word around college campuses, religious organisations and municipal authorities, for instance pressing them to shed stakes in fossil-fuel firms. The outfit does not just argue that such investments are immoral, but also that they are risky (as we wrote last week, if governments were determined to implement their climate policies, a lot of energy firms fossil-fuel reserves, on which their stock valuations hinge, would have to be left in the ground).

Such arguments have so far convinced four American colleges and a big church in Australia to dump shares in fossil-fuel-related businesses and to invest in renewable energy instead. At the local-government level, ten American cities, including Seattle, San Francisco and Madison, have committed to similar divestments, persuaded, among other things, by 350’s lobbying.

Mr McKibben, a former journalist for the New Yorker and author of “The End of Nature”, published in 1989 and widely regarded as the first book on climate change for a general audience, co-founded the network with seven undergraduate college students. It now counts thousands of volunteer organisers in 188 countries.

Perhaps 350’s most famous day of action was October 24th 2009, when it co-ordinated 5,200 separate demonstrations in 181 countries. This was made possible in part thanks to 350’s 132 chapters in 57 countries and helped by its large social-media following: with 138,000 Twitter. In fact, Mr McKibben claims that 350 has now managed to hold rallies in every country on Earth bar North Korea.

In June 350 will host 500 young grassroots activists and climate-conscious political leaders at the Global Power Switch conference in Istanbul, to be followed by a slew of smaller, regional summits. The shindig was ten-times oversubscibed, says Mr McKibben.

. June 15, 2013 at 11:47 pm

MITT ROMNEY’S charge that America had declared “war on coal” may not have won him last year’s presidential election. Yet this once-mighty industry is struggling, squeezed by the plummeting cost of natural gas and a torrent of tough new environmental rules. Last year 37.4% of American electricity production came from coal, down from 48.5% in 2007. The Energy Information Administration expects a slight rise this year as gas prices begin to creep up. But further restrictions on power-station emissions are expected, and the shale revolution is marching on. If coal has a future, it is surely elsewhere.

Such facts make mouths water in the Powder River Basin, straddling Wyoming and Montana (see map), where more than 40% of America’s coal is mined. Some already makes its way to Asia, mainly via Canadian ports. But exporters want to build four new terminals on the western shores of the United States—two apiece in Oregon and Washington—to send up to 130m tonnes more a year. The largest, the 1,500-acre (600-hectare) Gateway Pacific Terminal near Bellingham in northern Washington, would handle up to 48m tonnes of coal a year, as well as up to 6m tonnes of other dry bulk, such as grain.

Press the naysayers, though, and you find deeper concerns. “Shipping coal to Asia is about as innovative as a tree stump,” says Reuven Carlyle, a Washington legislator who thinks the state’s future lies in emulating the high-tech achievements of Amazon and Boeing. The terminal’s main local foes call themselves Power Past Coal. Shovelling millions of tonnes of the stuff to China every year, say campaigners, will lower prices and encourage it to prolong its reliance on the filthy fuel.

http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21576401-rancorous-scrap-over-plans-send-american-coal-asia-dirty-war

. July 2, 2013 at 2:30 pm

America’s Energy Information Administration released an assessment of the world’s shale-energy formations and estimated that there are 345 billion barrels of technically recoverable shale oil in 42 countries. Shale oil and gas are more abundant than had been thought but the report also listed factors that may hinder extraction outside America, including lack of expertise and the absence of private land rights to spur development.

. August 18, 2013 at 4:30 pm

We Need a War on Coal
It’s wrong for affluent Westerners to inflict the damages of climate change on the world’s poor.

By Peter Singer

One thing is clear: If we are wish not to be totally reckless with our planet’s climate, we cannot burn all the coal, oil, and natural gas that we have already located. About 80 percent of it—especially the coal, which emits the most CO2 when burned—will have to stay in the ground.

In these circumstances, to develop new coal projects is unethical, and to invest in them is to be complicit in this unethical activity. While this applies, to some extent, to all fossil fuels, the best way to begin to change our behavior is by reducing coal consumption. Replacing coal with natural gas does reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, even if natural gas itself is not sustainable in the long term. Right now, ending investment in the coal industry is the right thing to do.

Milan March 4, 2014 at 12:04 am

U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the National Research Council: A Discussion on Climate Change: Evidence and Causes

. June 8, 2014 at 12:04 pm

For starters, Obama is aware that we can’t just keep burning oil, coal and gas until they run out. As the International Energy Agency warned, “no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050” — unless carbon capture and storage technology is widely deployed — otherwise we’ll bust through the limit of a 2 degree Celsius rise in average temperature that climate scientists believe will unleash truly disruptive ice melt, sea level rise and weather extremes. The rest has to stay in the ground, and we need to steadily find cleaner alternatives and more energy efficiency. I asked Obama if he agreed with that analysis.

“Science is science,” he said. “And there is no doubt that if we burned all the fossil fuel that’s in the ground right now that the planet’s going to get too hot and the consequences could be dire.”

So we can’t burn it all?

“We’re not going to be able to burn it all. Over the course of the next several decades, we’re going to have to build a ramp from how we currently use energy to where we need to use energy. And we’re not going to suddenly turn off a switch and suddenly we’re no longer using fossil fuels, but we have to use this time wisely, so that you have a tapering off of fossil fuels replaced by clean energy sources that are not releasing carbon. … But I very much believe in keeping that 2 [degree] Celsius target as a goal.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/08/opinion/sunday/friedman-obama-on-obama-on-climate.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0

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