Climate Change: The 24 Point Summary

Prepare to Come About

This is sort of a book review of Richard Alley’s Earth: The Operators’ Manual.

Well, it isn’t really much of a book review. It’s just the table of contents and the summary paragraphs.

The chapter summaries alone present a nice overview of the state of play, far more reasonable and less toxic than you often see elsewhere. In fact, these are twenty four points that ought to be common knowledge and conventional wisdom. They would have been, too, except for the intervention of malicious agents and the indifference of the press to their malice.

If any of the assertions in the chapter summaries are new to you, I highly recommend Alley’s book.

This book is a companion to a PBS TV series which will be available online shortly. On Google Plus, Anna Haynes pointed out that the associated “what you can do” page is hopelessly inadequate in the usual rugged-individualist way (as well as, I would add, being surprisingly commercial), and points to a much better list of suggestions elsewhere.

Planet3.0 will be focusing on “what you can do” as well, in the near future. We hope to build a community around people who are actually interested in the details of the science, and in addressing doubts and concerns fairly and respectfully, despite the disrespectable parties sowing doubt.

Without further ado, Richard Alley’s chapter summaries, being a good overview of the climate problem:

Prepare to Come About : We humans have always used energy and always will. We now rely greatly on fossil fuels, which promise to make our lives much harder before they run out. But there are plenty of ways to get rich and save the world by remaking our energy systems.

Burning to Learn : Humans burn things, and burning things was probably required to make us human. Despite many problems, burning has helped us, and the more we have burned, the better off we have been in the past.

Peak Trees and Peak Whale Oil : Our ancestors moved to new energy sources in part because the old sources were running out. Much of the natural world we enjoy now owes its survival to our use of fossil fuels instead. We cannot go back to our old ways as fossil fuels are exhausted.

Fossil Fuelish : We are using fossil fuels more rapidly than nature replenishes them by burying dead plants without oxygen. If we continue with business as usual, we may begin to run out of fossil fuels within this century or not much beyond.

Abraham Lincoln or your Brother-In-Law? Where science meets politics, public argument is virtually guaranteed regardless of how good or bad the science is. Starting with Abraham Lincoln in the United States, society has set up ways to assess science and provide useful results to people and policymakers. These assessments often are very different from the public debate, but they offer the best guidance for society on what we know and don’t know, and what our options are for moving forward.

Red, White, and Blue-Green : Military and civilian research in fundamental physics shows that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and that raising the atmospheric concentration of CO2 will have a warming influence on the climate. By itself, a doubling of CO2 warms earth’s surface by approximately 2 F (just over 1 C). …

Canting the Kayak : Warming increases the amount of water vapor in the air, melts reflective snow and ice, and causes other changes that amplify the warming. Over times of years to millennia, these positive feedbacks exceed the negative feedbacks that tend to reduce warming. Doubling CO2 in the atmosphere is expected to warm Earth about 5 F (3 C), more than twice the direct effect of the CO2.

Why Accountants and Physicists Care About the Past : The physical understanding of earth’s climate can be used to make useful estimates of future climate changes in response to increasing CO2, if appropriate care is taken developing and testing the tools used.

The Moving FInger Writes : The history of Earth’s many climate changes and their causes is written in the planet’s sediments. When combined with our physical understanding, this history shows that many factors, such as drifting continents and changing brightness of the sun, have affected climate. The changes caused from outer space or from deep in Earth have usually been small or slow.

And Having Writ Moves On : Earth’s climate has swung form hot to cold and back, with higher CO2 levels and warmer times occurring together. Although the [other] causes of climate changes have mattered, making sense of climate history requires the warming influence of CO2. A hint of a major difficulty is that climate seems to have changed slightly more as CO2 levels changed than expected from many models.

The Great Ice that Covers the Land : The ice ages of the last million years were not caused by CO2 but by changes in the distribution of sunlight on the planet driven by features of Earth’s orbit. But the growing and shrinking of ice were accompanied by changes in CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the air. And some places cooled with increasing sunshine and warmed with decreasing sunshine, behavior that is explained by changes in CO2 but not by competing hypotheses.

Kindergarten Soccer and the Last Century of Climate : Temperature changes over the last century have been small compared to … long-ago events … Because so many factors can cause such small temperature changes, analogy may be drawn to crowds of five-year-olds kicking a soccer ball in various directions during a kindergarten game. However, careful work shows that climate models are skillful in simulating these recent, small changes, and that CO2 has had the strongest influence over the last century.

But My Brother-In-Law Said… : Recent climate events, and recent blogospheric angst over purloined emails, have little importance to the big picture of climate change. The climate is warming, consistent with our scientific understanding.

The Future : Fundamental physics shows that our CO2 emissions will contribute to notable warming in the future. Initially, both positive and negative impacts will occur, but the negative will grow to dominate greatly. Increasing droughts and floods, sea-level rise, suppression of food production, and increasing threats of extinction of rare species are projected.

Valuing the Future : An economically optimal response to the rising effects of our CO2 emissions includes beginning now to notice reduce those emissions. Consideration of national security, employment opportunities, possible catastrophic events, and some ethical issues favors even greater effort to reduce emissions.

Toilets and the Smart Grid : Stabilizing the concentration of the atmosphere within a few decades to avoid major human-caused climate change is estimated to cost about 1 percent of the world economy per year, similar to or even less than the cost of clean water and sewage treatment. We have solved problems this big before.

Sustainable Solutions on the Wind : Vast renewable energy resources are available, but they are widely distributed and i some cases intermittent. Wiring large areas together with a “smart grid” can offset these difficulties by reducing fluctuations, allowing different sources to supplement each other, and offering novel opportunities for storage. Such a distributed system will have much less impact on climate than the greenhouse gases from fossil fuels, but will be easier to develop if the local people affected see it favorably.

Sun and Water : Solar energy is by far the biggest available source for our future, and it can be used in many ways in many places, Hydroelectric power cannot supply nearly as much energy as the sun, but it plays an important role in smoothing out the fluctuations from other intermittent sources.

Down by the Sea Where the Water Power Grows : Tides and currents move immense amounts of water in the ocean, while waves race across the surface. The energy in these can be extracted, and at least a little is being extracted already, Large engineering challenges exist, but some places will be able to get much energy from the ocean in future.

Power from the Land : Earth continues to produce plants that we can burn, and we can get much more power if non-food plants are exploited, but much care is required to avoid unintended consequences. Geothermal energy is locally important, with some chance for much more widespread use.

Put it Where the Sun Doesn’t [sic] Shine: Nuclear Energy and Carbon Sequestration : Nuclear fission contributes to our current energy mix and could be increased. Capturing and storing CO2 are [sic] technically feasible, which would allow fossil-fuel use without associated global warming, But escape of the waste from either of these power sources could cause serious problems.

Conservation – Why Saving Energy Doesn’t Mean Sitting Around in the Dark : Saving energy may be the cheapest and fastest way to make initial progress in reducing CO2 emissions. Deep cuts would notably impact quality of life, but modest cuts can be made with little, zero, or even negative reduction in standard of living.

Game Changers: Geoengineering, Fusion, and.. Among the options available for dealing with our CO2 emissions is “geoengineering”, to treat the symptoms rather than the cause of the problem. In addition, fusion or other radically new technologies might emerge. These are “unknown unknowns” – nothing is close to being engineering-ready, we are not sure that the will work or work well enough to be part of the mix, but they are interesting. If some game-changing technology should arise, an optimal path will allow changing the game.

Ten Billion and Smiling : Solid science shows that our fossil fuel burning will warm the climate and affect us in may ways, Fortunately, we have a wealth of solutions to power ten billion sustainably smiling people, and we know that we can reach the goal.



  1. > the associated “what you can do” page...

    FYI, I got a note back from a fellow who said they are planning to revamp the site before the show airs (on TV or online), though it was unclear what changes they planned.

  2. Don't much care for:

    "But there are plenty of ways to get rich and save the world by remaking our energy systems."

    For a very small minority, perhaps, as under the present system with fossil fuels. But it's an odd thing to put right up front.

  3. I think he means that we can continue to live in a bountiful way. I don't know that this is true, but only because energy is not the only limit.

    If it were just energy, I think the claim would be fine.

  4. Speaking as a capitalist and quite an energy hog, I'm still very troubled by "Fortunately, we have a wealth of solutions to power ten billion sustainably smiling people, and we know that we can reach the goal."

    It doesn't appear to me (and I've read and studied much more on energy than on climate or other sustainability issues) that it will simply be a matter of choosing which energy solution or set of solutions to frolic to.

    Maybe the quickest and simplest counterargument is at this Do the Math post. The changes we'll need to make will require a colossal expenditure of the very thing we're trying to change our source of.

    Time's a wastin', best we had get started.

  5. He says it's possible.

    He doesn't say it's easy, although he sort of leaves the impression.

    I just learned that the proven reserves that need to be left in the ground in most scenarios are worth twenty trillion, or about $3,000 per capita.

    I think one step is to pool our money and nationalize (really, internationalize) all the fossil fuel, paying market rates. Then gradually but drastically raise the price. I presume much else will take care of itself.

    Thanks for the link. Will reply further after I've read it in depth. I keep forgetting about Tom Murphy's blog. I shouldn't.

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