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September 5th, 2008


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05:01 pm - Hopeful data on global warming
I've seen all manner of unlikely predictions about how much and how fast sea levels could rise in response to global warming. Now, there is at least somewhat hard data on what the maximum (by 2100) could be, with the answer being around 2 meters. That's definitely a non-trivial amount, but is also very far from the 6m-60m rises I've seen suggested by various alarmists and the disturbingly avid fans of various sorts of environmental apocalypses. What it does mean is that current plans (mostly being implemented in the EU) to switch over from fossil fuels to renewable alternatives that don't produce greenhouse gases are perfectly reasonable and the occasional lunatic calls to give up industrial civilization before the world floods or otherwise dies are (as I discuss in more detail here), the result of self (& other)-flagellating puritanism that is both utterly wrong and unworthy of serious consideration. Instead, it's clear that we need to switch to other forms of fuel, for both electricity generation and to power vehicles. Currently, the most hopeful thing I've seen for the later is a combination of various improvements in battery capacity along with what looks to be a fairly continuous development plan from hybrid cars to plug in hybrids to (presumably and hopefully) fully electric vehicles, which will require far less maintenance than conventional cars, while costing significantly less to power.

That said, two meters is definitely a non-trivial sea level rise and various plans will need to be made to handle problems in various low-lying coastal cities. Sadly, if things go as they have been, I expect much progress on this in the EU and Canada, some work on this in China, and next to no work on this in the US. With luck, this will change in a few years. One useful factor is that according to all reasonable predictions, the world population will peak between 2050 & 2070 and beginning declining, (as I discuss here), so there's a good chance that the world population will be only a little higher (and perhaps no larger) than we have now, and supplying their basic needs will prove much easier, since 80% of them (and with luck, of us) will very likely live in cities.
Current Mood: hopefulhopeful

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Comments:


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From:kitten_goddess
Date:September 6th, 2008 12:43 am (UTC)
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Thank you for yet another burst of sanity in an overheated landscape. I think you and I are two of the few vocal progressives who are not into the whole giving up civilization meme.

For me, the idea of giving up civilization is even less appealing than a three-way with Ann Coulter and John McCain.

And no one has brought this up yet - how would this call for giving up civilization affect the transgendered? Without modern medicine, they would be unable to finish transitioning, or even begin it.

On a far more common note, how would all this affect women? Ancient contraceptive methods were largely hit-or-miss and nowhere near as effective as the Pill. Must women then return to the double standard to avoid getting knocked up before marriage? Must women have children whether they like it or not? That is the condition of women in most of the world today and was women's lot in America and other First World nations until about 40 years ago.

*swats left-wing and right-wing Puritans upside the collective head with a clue by four*
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From:heron61
Date:September 6th, 2008 12:52 am (UTC)
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Indeed, far too many primitivists neglect such ideas. On a wholly unrelated topic, are you coming to CTT? I'd love to see you there (and according to all reports, it is almost certain to be disease free).
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From:heronheart
Date:September 6th, 2008 01:09 pm (UTC)
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It's not sea level rise that is the real threat behind global warming. It's changes in rainfall patterns. If rainfall becomes unpredictable, then grain production will decline, and that *will* threaten civilization. As it is, world grain reserves have become frighteningly low and have been consistently falling even in the face of record harvests due to population increases and increases in per capita meat consumption. From my reading, a world population of about 1 billion is about the maximum the planet can support on a continuing basis, so talk about a gradual decline starting in 2050 is very little comfort.
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From:heron61
Date:September 6th, 2008 06:09 pm (UTC)
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As it is, world grain reserves have become frighteningly low and have been consistently falling even in the face of record harvests due to population increases and increases in per capita meat consumption

I've seen a great deal of evidence that more than half of the problem with food shortages has been the whole biofuels idiocy.

From my reading, a world population of about 1 billion is about the maximum the planet can support on a continuing basis

6 to 8 billion might well be too much now, but using renewable power (the most obvious choice being solar and gas-cooled thorium breeder reactors) and the adoption of tech like this to grow food (which would also greatly reduce transport costs) can definitely change this equation. Obviously a fossil fuel economy is not sustainable, but even w/o changes in farming, it looks equally clear that a sustainable population is at least 3 billion, and I think we can do better at least in the short term (with luck, the world population will fall below current levels in 150 or so years).

[User Picture]
From:heronheart
Date:September 11th, 2008 11:29 pm (UTC)

World Grain Reserves

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I've seen a great deal of evidence that more than half of the problem with food shortages has been the whole biofuels idiocy.

Actually, if you'll check ( http://oakfire.com/Helpout/worldGrainSupply.gif ) you'll see that grain reserves have been falling since about 1987, well before the current biofuels boom.

gas-cooled thorium breeder reactors) and the adoption of tech like this to grow food (which would also greatly reduce transport costs) can definitely change this equation.

While these are both interesting technologies, thorium reactors aren't without their issues ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pebble_bed_reactor#Criticisms_of_the_reactor_design ) and the skyscraper farms are still in the same category as flying cars. Moreover the skyscraper farms look to be aimed at high-value vegetables rather than grain production.

Even allowing a sustainable population of 3 billion, we're currently at 6.8 billion and by your own calculations liable to stay above that for the next 150 years. Given that we are almost certainly entering a period of climate instability I find that all rather scary. While I would prefer that our current civilization be transformed, I don't think a population crash is the way to do it. Leaving aside the question of all the human suffering, 6 billion humans struggling to survive a collapse of civilization would be an ecological catastrophe.

Humans as a species need to take global climate change seriously *now* if we're to avoid a very real threat to civilization.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:September 12th, 2008 06:15 am (UTC)

Re: World Grain Reserves

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Actually, if you'll check ( http://oakfire.com/Helpout/worldGrainSupply.gif ) you'll see that grain reserves have been falling since about 1987

That graph looks to me a whole lot more like grain stocks have been declining since 2000/2001 - the numbers for the 15 or so years before that simply look like fairly random variation. Given that this era is also the start of the most disastrous US policies (in pretty much any area you care to name) I'm wondering if there's a connection. There might well not be, but the timing is suggestive.

As for the pebble bed reactors, I've seen those criticisms, and if the biggest (and almost the only) major worry is someone planting a bomb in or against a reactor, I'm not particularly worried. It's not like that's ever happened, and in general terrorism isn't something I worry particularly about.

Also, what I meant is around 3 billion with current technology. Given that we've already increased the carrying capacity of the planet by at least 10-fold with industrialization, going 2.5 times higher seems far from impossible. The big issues are food and energy.

if this company is indeed being honest (it's often difficult to tell hype from truth) then the energy issue is closer to being solved than I thought, and if they can churn these things out fast enough, then we can start reducing CO2 levels within 30 years.

As for food, the issue is more problematic, but urban farming, vat produced meat, and similar projects are looking very promising indeed. We'll have to see where things are in 10-15 years.

If you solve both of those, then there's nothing remotely resembling any sort of collapse of civilization and nothing more than local problems (of which there will certainly be many). Actually making certain that everyone on the planet gets access to adequate food and cheap electricity is a very different issue (but one having far more to do with politics and diplomacy than science or technology), but increased urbanization will help somewhat and outside of Africa, conditions for even the third world poor are already improving (albeit slowly). Africa is a serious problem, and it's a problem w/o easy solutions.

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From:slothman
Date:September 6th, 2008 08:29 pm (UTC)
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The thing that really worries me is that we don’t know how to model some of the really scary feedbacks like methane release from melting permafrost. I hope they’re right that we’re only getting 1–2m over the next century, because if things get really dangerous, people will run even more risky experiments to try to tinker with the climate...
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From:alephnul
Date:September 6th, 2008 09:36 pm (UTC)
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In this paper, the 1-2 m is based on limitations on how fast the glaciers could possibly flow to the sea, so faster than expected warming and faster than expected melting would not change the flow rates significantly. This is why this paper's estimate is so much lower than previous possible estimates. If you neglect the "how fast can the glaciers actually move through the choke points" then even the current estimates of warming would suggest much faster rates of glacier disintegration and sea level rise.
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From:slothman
Date:September 6th, 2008 09:47 pm (UTC)
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If there’s enough flowing water, there could be some pretty spectacular erosion of those rocky bottlenecks.
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From:alephnul
Date:September 6th, 2008 11:09 pm (UTC)
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I worry more about spectacular erosion of the icy part of the bottle-necks (that is, massive glacial lake piles up behind and within the glacier behind the bottle-neck, until finally it lifts the glacier, and the entire lake pours into the sea). This is what happened at the end of the last ice age (repeatedly), filling the Columbia River 500 feet deep. Without the ice, the entire volume of Greenland's ice (if melted) could flow to the sea in days.

But then, only a little melt is required to slide massive volumes of ice into the sea, so the bottlenecks the paper described do indeed seem very likely to greatly slow the flow of ice in Greenland. If the paper's calculations are valid, the chance of greater than 2 m sea-level rise by 2100 is definitely shifted from very likely to very unlikely. Massive sea-level rise from Greenland would now seem to fall in the same category as a massive sea-level rise after a collapsed Ice Shelf in Antarctica.
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From:alephnul
Date:September 6th, 2008 09:33 pm (UTC)
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It sounds in that like there is still a lot of wiggle room in their estimate of what happens in Western Antarctica (also, they declare a Ross Ice Shelf collapse to be sufficiently unlikely to not be worth including in their estimates, which is fair, but leaves the upper bound due to an unlikely event completely open - research on the history of the Ross Ice Shelf strongly suggests that it does rapidly collapse from time to time). I also wonder what happens in Greenland at the bottlenecks. Does a massive build up of moving and melting glacier behind a bottleneck have the potential to produce a massive meltwater lake, with an eventual catastrophic collapse of the ice dam at the choke point, releasing the entire lake in to the sea in a few days?

Neither a Ross Ice Shelf collapse nor a Greenland made up of a vast glacial lake seem likely for this century, but I'd guess that the risks go up in the 22nd century. In Greenland in particular, this paper points towards eventual catastrophic collapse, since the previously estimated rates of melting and movement are larger than is possible through specific choke points. This seems like it would produce massive pile-ups at the choke points, creating the potential for catastrophic collapses.

Also, the maximum rates of flow through the check points are not actually maximum rates based on physical arguments, they are maximum rates based on historically observed rates of flow for glaciers, so there is definitely an open-end to the rates based on catastrophic events.
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From:heron61
Date:September 6th, 2008 10:10 pm (UTC)
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Neither a Ross Ice Shelf collapse nor a Greenland made up of a vast glacial lake seem likely for this century, but I'd guess that the risks go up in the 22nd century.

Very true, but the hopeful thing is that by 2050 or so we should ("should" used in both the sense of likely and as an imperative) be well on our way to independence from fossil fuels for all purposes. So, in the 22nd century, greenhouse gas levels should be falling and not rising, and they should have been falling for a while.

Also, the maximum rates of flow through the check points are not actually maximum rates based on physical arguments, they are maximum rates based on historically observed rates of flow for glaciers, so there is definitely an open-end to the rates based on catastrophic events.

*nods* that's the one big hole I see in this report. At this point, we simply don't know the answers to this. I suspect they are correct, but they might not be. I'm betting that they're correct as far as 2100 goes, but that if greenhouse gas levels are still rising in 2100, things could get very bad indeed. OTOH, it's difficult to imagine where the fossil fuels would come from in 2100.
[User Picture]
From:alephnul
Date:September 6th, 2008 10:50 pm (UTC)
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What it does mean is that current plans (mostly being implemented in the EU) to switch over from fossil fuels to renewable alternatives that don't produce greenhouse gases are perfectly reasonable and the occasional lunatic calls to give up industrial civilization before the world floods or otherwise dies are (as I discuss in more detail here), the result of self (& other)-flagellating puritanism that is both utterly wrong and unworthy of serious consideration.


I don't disagree with anything here except the first six words. These results are largely tangential to the question of whether we should add to the calamity of global warming the additional calamity of de-industrializing the world. If this paper were shown to have miscalculated the values, and future work demonstrated that we could indeed expect a 20 m change in sea level by 2100, would you respond by calling for the eradication of industrialized society? I know I wouldn't. I'd rather deal with a 20 m sea-level change with the tools of a fully industrial world than de-industrialize now, cut the sea-level rise in half (given that there is plenty of climate change already in the pipeline, whatever we do now can at best only reduce the amount of change coming, not prevent it) and deal with a 10 m sea-level rise with the tools of a de-industrialized society.
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From:heron61
Date:September 6th, 2008 11:01 pm (UTC)
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Fair enough, but there are also less insane proposals calling for significant cutbacks in various areas (mostly involving transportation) that would be non-catastrophic, but also very difficult and well less than enjoyable for everyone involved, and if the answer was that or a 20m sea level rise the answer becomes unclear. OTOH, when compared to a 2m sea-level rise the answer is quite easy - massive sacrifices are not needed. Instead, all we are faced with is having high and possibly energy prices for the next perhaps 40 or so years, until we have largely converted to renewable and non-greenhouse gas producing alternatives.

Of course, this report is equally useful for motivating citizens whose attitude seems to be ignoring the problem because they figure civilization is doomed within 20-30 years into conserving and supporting alternative fuels.
[User Picture]
From:alephnul
Date:September 6th, 2008 11:18 pm (UTC)
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Defense of developed areas of the US coastline against a 1-2m sea-level rise is estimated to cost $500 billion to $1 trillion dollars in new engineering, which seems like a noticeable amount, but not a staggering amount.

It does seem like a reason to invest a lot of money in the near future trying to salvage the Mississippi Delta. Even though 2 m of sea level rise will almost certainly turn the entire Delta into open ocean, the lessons learned in trying to restore the Delta from its current collapse into open ocean seems like they would teach us a great deal about how to successfully artificially build up coastal marshes so that they can be raised along with the rising sea. We need to learn how to have a coastal marsh rise by 2 cm a year of new soil, without simply turning into barren mud flats.

Of course, not losing 25-75% of coastal wetlands over the next century will cost a lot more than $1 trillion, but the same lessons will be needed elsewhere as well, unless we are willing to see Bangladesh vanish into the sea.

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