Roy Spencer’s Peculiar Prescription

Roy Spencer came up with this rather counterintuitive suggestion in an interview with Catholic Online:

COL: Let’s say tomorrow, evidence is found that proves to everyone that global warming as a result of human released emissions of CO2 and methane, is real. What would you suggest we do?

SPENCER: I would say we need to grow the economy as fast as possible, in order to afford the extra R&D necessary to develop new energy technologies. Current solar and wind technologies are too expensive, unreliable, and can only replace a small fraction of our energy needs. Since the economy runs on inexpensive energy, in order to grow the economy we will need to use fossil fuels to create that extra wealth. In other words, we will need to burn even more fossil fuels in order to find replacements for fossil fuels.

h/t Brian Angliss


  1. Paging Andy Revkin.

    This is of course just the Breakthrough/Lomborg etc. view, and so is the least surprising fallback for the likes of Spencer. Apply some actual climate change pressure and he'll flip to geoengineering.

  2. I remember affactionately my favourite Mickey Mouse story where Mickey and Goofy are fleeing on a paddle steamer, run out of fuel and burn the entire superstructure of the ship down the water line to keep the paddles turning.

    After that, Spencer and Lomborg want to burn the hull as well.

  3. Wow! We've exploited our home to the brink of climate/pollution mayhem, so now we need to do it faster and bigger?

    Setting aside the seething emotions of all of us who are paying attention as we watch reality trump denial, is there any way to stop the headlong rush to more bigger faster louder? Is there any way to slow down the frenzied Roman Circus treadmill model of distraction hyped by all forms of media?

    You know, I would love to be corrected by any sane person who has a reasonable argument, but what surrounds us all is a level of escapism hitherto inaccessible and accelerating towards mayhem. And what do we get to fix it? More guns, more "security", more everything but what we need.

    When was the last time that people aimed to have quieter less consuming fireworks or designed any other public spectacle to be more modest and inclusive of real life?

  4. Huuurm... there's actually a good point in there. This really struck home talking to some folk from the Tyndall Centre working on input-output modelling. Whatever you think of the approach, its basic point is pretty irrefutable: increased demand for a given sector increases demands for its inputs. As it stands, increased demand for clean tech means increased fossil fuel demand. Or at least, it's hard to see it decreasing, save some drastic intervention.

    Alternatives? Demand reduction while its happening. Good luck with that. How are any of us doing, as examples? Perhaps some of you monitor your carbon demand - at the moment, I don't. Something more radical involving reshaping the production pathways of clean tech to minimise its carbon impact.

    Obviously, part of the answer is to make the right investment choices as we continue to burn carbon anyway - that's not happening anywhere near the scale it needs to. To the extent we *did* manage to scale up, this problem with increased inputs scales up too.

    I can imagine some clever restructuring; I've always had my own little economic geography fantasy that future tech would involve a radical change in economic morphology so that e.g. clean tech industrial clusters would develop around sites like NZ's Manapouri power station and smelter. Primary production sites near its power source generally. But that kind of restructuring would - save massive state intervention - be slow. And people would probably get a bit twitchy developing major industrial clusters around, say, nuclear power stations.

    What are we missing? What else can happen? I often wonder if there's something like the container ship that might alter our chances as profoundly as that technology altered globalisation. But again - that was a slow transition.

    So yes, anyway: anyone got ideas on how we develop a carbon-free infrastructure without burning carbon? Or specifically aiming to minimise it?

  5. "increased demand for clean tech means increased fossil fuel demand"?

    I don't buy it.

    Say I want more wind towers. You can argue that fossil fuels went into smelting the alloy for the blades. So what? If that cost weren't trivial compared to the energy generated by the windmill, there would be no point to the windmill. And then the wind power displaces a lot more demand for fossil power than it used.

    After you make the first few wind towers, you can use that power in manufacturing more of them, so in the limiting case of very large substitution, the unit carbon cost for renewable infrastructure goes to zero. But even to start with, you are replacing far more carbon energy than you are using to replace it.

    "increased demand for a given sector increases demands for its inputs" sure. Energy is an input for energy infrastructure. Sure. Some of that energy will in practice be dirty energy. Sure. But that doesn't increase the total demand for dirty energy! How could it?

    That also doesn't seem closely related to Spencer's idea that R&D is so expensive that we need to overheat the economy even more to make progress.

  6. "increased demand for clean tech means increased fossil fuel demand"?

    I meant in the short to medium term. I have no argument with a fully clean tech future being possible, my concerns are only about the transition.

    At one end there's people like John Michael Greer and others claiming a clean tech future is impossible because it'll never tally with the steady state result we ultimately need. At the other end, and you seem quite close to it, some say the carbon demand created is unimportant enough not to really consider.

    We'd need some numbers and models. IO models are some of the most established in answering this kind of question, though that doesn't mean they're right in the long-term as (AFAIK) most of those used in policy don't include the possibility for production restructuring. Which is fine by me, because they're good at what they do: indicating where input changes will occur in sectoral networks.

    I completely agree that Spencer's line of logic makes some classic pointless free-market leaps: we could manage R&D fine right now if we were pursuing sensible macro policies. But I think I've arguing something similar here before: if the transition involves medium term growth in boring GDP terms, fine. Why not? We need to very clearly separate out arguments about the ultimate, obvious need for some form of material equilibrium from the transition we need to make to a carbon-free global economy. Those two are most emphatically not umbilically linked - and more than that, linking them (if we managed it, which we won't) could scupper the chances of a successful transition.

    I could be wrong about that - more work needed - but it worries me that we get a package of ideas that we're meant to accept wholly, when those different ideas need careful separation. Steady state - yes. When? Now or in 70 years or a hundred year's time, when demographic transitions have happened globally and we're way further towards a truly functioning carbon-free infrastructure?

    I hope that sounds less blase than spouting the common "growth plus the innovation fairy will solve everything" line. I don't think we have the answers on this; I do think there are a lot of slogans thrown around. I don't know, given recent Excel-based events, if any kind of model or theory or rational thought is ever going to have a role to play, but let's carry on as if it might...

    This seems like a great topic to return to in ten weeks when I've either failed my PhD or got it done.

  7. Admittedly, my little hissy fit above was full of sound and fury and signified nothing. However, we don't have 70 years.

    There is the germ of a rational argument to be had between those who are convinced we need not give anything up and those who wish we could all get a grip and stop peltering towards the climate cliff. Going back to wedges and doing everything we can to improve clean energy and delivery and conserve, we might just squeak through.

    Instead, for example, I put in a comment on Nocera's latest Keystone promotion, and got a reply about not wanting airfares increased. That's the kind of nonsequitur we are stuck with, suicidal denial focused only on perks and luxuries.

    Until we act like the family of humankind and realize we have to labor hard and long and hammer out solutions, there's not much hope.

    Good luck with your Ph.D. work, probably best set this aside for the time being.

  8. I'm completely baffled by Dan's issue, which strikes me as very much different from Spencer's. The energy costs of building renewable or nuclear infrastructure are just not that high. Manufacturing is in no case the issue. Siting, licensing, installation and maintenance are the cost centers.

    The issue, therefore, lies in whether the plant will generate
    sufficient useable energy over its lifetime to justify the
    energy involved in its installation. In the case of wind farms,
    all the evidence suggests that this is the case: the average
    wind farm is expected to generate at least 20–25 times
    the energy required in its manufacture and installation over its
    lifetime, and the average energy payback time for a wind
    farm is in the region of 3–6 months. These figures
    compare favourably with other forms of power generation,
    as discussed in more detail below.

    "Producing electricity with photovoltaics (PV) emits no pollution, produces no greenhouse gases, and uses no finite fossilfuel resources. The environmental benefits of PV are great.

    But just as we say that it takes money to make money, it
    also takes energy to save energy. The term “energy payback”
    captures this idea. How long does a PV system have to
    operate to recover the energy—and associated generation
    of pollution and CO2—that went into making the system,
    in the first place?

    Energy payback estimates for rooftop PV systems are 4, 3, 2,
    and 1 years: 4 years for systems using current multicrystalline-silicon PV modules, 3 years for current thin-film modules, 2 years for anticipated multicrystalline modules, and
    1 year for anticipated thin-film modules (see Figure 1).
    With energy paybacks of 1 to 4 years and assumed life
    expectancies of 30 years, 87% to 97% of the energy that
    PV systems generate won’t be plagued by pollution, greenhouse gases, and depletion of resources.

    Based on models and real data, the idea that PV cannot pay back
    its energy investment is simply a myth. Indeed, researchers Dones
    and Frischknecht found that PV-systems fabrication and fossilfuel energy production have similar energy payback periods (including costs for mining, transportation, refining, and

  9. In my opinion, we may have rather more than 70 years to attain some semblance of sustainability, presuming we get the climate problem under control.

    We only have a few years to get a grip specifically on the CO2 problem, though, unless some sequestration method can be made to work at a vast scale.

    Natural ecosystems are going to be universally degraded and the ocean will probably be mostly dead by the time we actually grow up. But there is no clear reason that this will cause a human population collapse that I know of, and as long as we avoid the chaos of a sudden collapse (which would be called World War III no matter what the primary cause) there is hope.

    Aside from stopping coal and stopping tar sands, the best thing anyone could possibly do right now is to find a workable solution to the sequestration problem.

    Again, my take on the situation for what it's worth. As we said in the early days of the internet, YMMV.

  10. I am sad if I gave the impression that I thought Spencer knew what he was talking about. I mean: renewables are more expensive than fossil fuels, so the way to fix that is for everyone to get richer so they'll buy them...!?

    I presume you must be baffled by how I could be so dumb rather than what I'm saying! Will have to leave for now. I'm not sure I'm saying anything very much more than 'building stuff takes resources'. Particularly in transport, a great deal of lip service is paid to `decoupling' but I'm skeptical anyone really knows how to do it or fully understands what it would take to get us to the kind of carbon output levels we need to reach in the coming decades. But then, this is based on little more than my spidey sense! Maybe I should come to P3 comments better-equipped in future...

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  12. "we may have rather more than 70 years ... presuming we get the climate problem under control"

    It it weren't so tragic it would be funny.

    I give you five, if you're lucky, ten to twelve.

  13. Arctic melt for starters. In no particular order, off the top of my head, including but not limited to: Australian collapse. Floods. Wildfires. Hybrid and out of season storms. Water supply collapse. Wars. Famine. Very cold in northern midwest and Siberia, variable areas, until it's not any more, anywhere. Increase in ocean dead spots, possible anoxia. Tree toxicity, bug invasions, disease (pandemics). More methane. Failure of infrastructure. Breakdown of ocean circulation.

    We have current examples of most of these, but they are becoming more common. Who remembers the Pakistani floods?

    Tell me I'm exaggerating, do. Very depressing and all too obvious, though perhaps not as quickly or at the scale I fear.

  14. Hmm.

    A swath of horrors, to be sure, but there is a sort of overlap among the categories. Almost any large-scale failure mode will end up being called a "war" so I won't include that.

    I do say that on existential threats we need to bat a thousand.

    I think it is clear that nature only exists in tattered remnants and pampered zoos anymore. Young people will not have much more idea what we are talking about when we pine for it than the entertainment value they can glean from watching the science fiction movie Avatar. This is the real tragedy. In one generation we have made a complete mockery of the Endangered Species Act (and similar conservation legislation in many other countries). Everything everybody does nowadays is in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Ours is not a happy situation, and it's getting worse. Much is lost daily.

    But human ingenuity is immense and the world is immense and doom is still a long way off.

    In particular:

    Arctic sea ice becoming seasonal like Antarctic sea ice is an alarming symptom, and arguably it is having a lot of effect on the weather in the Northern hemisphere. But this will only happen once as an abrupt shift - we can adjust to a new equilibrium, dramatic though such a shift might be. The silver lining is that people are no longer joking about climate change.

    Australian collapse. Well I hope not, but that's an awful consequence, not a cause. Most likely you are talking about heat and drought. As for heat, people live in Edmonton, Alberta, where you cannot survive for a minute outdoors unprotected in winter because it is so cold. People will adapt. And as for drought, in extremis the Ozzies will combine sunshine, sea water, wealth and ingenuity and work something out. As we may someday do here in Texas, and we will supply the rest of the Southwest as well. This is not a pretty picture, but it is not doom.

    Floods. Yep. More infrastructure or else more suffering, but that's always true. Big money with or without suffering is the choice, and both the money and the potential suffering are likely go up quite a bit. But civilization-ending? Hardly.

    "Very cold in northern midwest and Siberia, variable areas, until it’s not any more, anywhere." I probably should get credit for predicting more variability all along. Now we see how serious it can get. This is horrible for niche species and climax ecosystems. But to human infrastructure, it's mostly just weather.

    Ocean dead spots. Well, the ocean is already as good as ruined and it's getting warmer and sourer by the day and by the hour. If people could only understand the devastation they might be less cavalier about the surface. But past ocean extinction events due to acidification had much smaller effects on land species. So this is a particular horror, perhaps the greatest of all. But it will not kill us.

    Tree toxicity, bug invasions, disease (pandemics). Not entirely climate-related, just as ocean decline is not. Not clear how this will topple civilization. Horrible fires are coming, though. Inaccessible, hilly forested lands will eventually be uninhabitable. Short Boulder.

    More methane. This is grossly exaggerated threat, fortunately. It may be big enough to make matters worse than we expect, but the methane bomb is not armed enough to actually blow us up all of a sudden.

    Failure of infrastructure - a consequence. But of what? Floods and fires. Extreme events, probably getting more extreme. But not unfamiliar things for the most part; things we can cope with. Until sea level rise kicks in as a serious disruption. Which it probably will, but it will take more than twelve years,

    Pakistani floods were supposed to have "covered a sixth of the country" but try as I might I have never seen a satellite image which confirms this. Most likely this is a mistranslation of sorts. Perhaps a sixth of the homes were flooded. This is a horror. Forgetting the past few summers somehow is getting harder and harder. But nevertheless an overstated impression was left.

    All very depressing. All very obvious. But far from doom.

    What can kill us? Environmental refugees, mostly, from sea level rise, from failure of traditional local practices, and from competition for bulk food resources with wealthier societies who can afford meat, as we see during recent crop failures. But I think we can muddle through for a while and gradually replace peasant society. Face it, nobody born a peasant wants to stay a peasant anyway.

    But in a money-saturated global society, staple crop zones moving poleward and luxury crops moving indoors doesn't mean mass starvation.

    Our twenty years of delay have so far bought us a lot of loss and a lot of suffering. I don't mean to suggest otherwise. Every further year of delay costs our future selves dearly.

    And who knows, some unimagined or unimaginable error may cause even more damage than our present behaviors and trends.

    But we are not yet doomed. Quoting Bruce Sterling, "the future is not yet written".

  15. WIth apologies for my sloppy hurried rant, I stand by most of its content, but it could use some organization and clarity. I get hot under the collar when I hear we have lots of time, just like the last four decades. A couple of quick responses, however. Here is one source for the Pakistani floods, which I followed with great interest at the time. This picture gives a good summary:

    contained here:

    wrt methane, I have been following the likes of RealClimate on the subject, but note that this moderation, while admirable, leaves the truth about the subject incomplete. It seems Shakhova and Semiletov keep finding new information, and they do not appear to be sanguine about what they are seeing. There is also the visible and shocking waste of burnoff at places like the Bakken oil fields. In any case, even if the quantity is relatively small, it is additive, which is a matter for some concern.

    I did appreciate the reasoned thinking recently provided on the leveling off of population. Now if we can get our population off their addiction to consumption, peddled by all their principal forms of entertainment, and think more about sharing and less about cosmetic forms of pleasure, we could get somewhere.

  16. The Russians playing up the methane thing are a problem, in my estimation. They imply without stating that they have demonstrated a trend in methane releases. They encourage the public to connect dots that aren't there. They keep discovering more plumes, and they lead you to believe that these plumes weren't there in preindustrial times.

    But you can measure methane globally. Methane rose rapidly in the 20th century and has been relatively stable since. A smallish uptick in the last couple of years probably attributes to fracking, not to environmental clathrate releases. There is no cataclysmic methane bomb in the present-day environment, as I understand it, although such things may have occurred in major extinctions in the distant past. Certainly nothing that will have a major effect in the next few decades.

    I am emphatically not saying we have time to kill. Future disasters are piling up every day. The economists' estimate of costs seem ludicrously small to me. But I don't see that we are committed to a collapse yet, and don't expect to live to see one if it happens.

    Young people need to feel empowered to address these problems, not be convinced that they are doomed. A generation without hope will fulfill their own prophecy. Contributing to a premature sense of inevitability is pretty much a subversive act insofar as consequences that are not actually inevitable go.

  17. DotEarth has an article about this and some of the comments respond IMO accurately. I have come to feel that the pressure not to tell it like it is for fear of creating fear is a favorite tactic of the diabolical denial industry who are good at setting us at odds with each other. On the whole, as is said well in some of the comments, the problem is not too much fear, but too little. I'd agree with your CO2 on trial article, though, that the problem of risk management is not sexy and that is a good statement of the issues:

    A quick dip dug up these comments:

    in the 'real' world, I see no real fear, but rather blithe disregard. We continue to burn fossil fuels at increasing rates globally, we continue to chase a growth-oriented economy globally, with consumption increasing all the time.

    We are not afraid. Instead, we are an unalterably greedy species consuming energy at amazing rates, altering our atmosphere and oceans in profound ways, and gobbling up the resources and ecosystems of a beautiful planet. We should be afraid, but instead we just go shopping. [Malcolm]

    The consequences of anthropogenic climate change were clear at the end of the 20th century. We pissed away the last 15 years doing almost nothing .... So yes, ... it will take further disasters to get our politicians off their collective duffs. If drowning NY in the liberal northeast was not enough, I wonder if a flooded DC or Charlston will start to change minds.[Andy}

    Placing the blame for worries about the environment on writers rather than on the fossil fuel industry and their corruption of the political process is reprehensible.[Fred Bush, San Antonio, TX]

    As for most young people, on the whole they're too busy with their fancy toys and as far as I've been able to discern, they're more worried about losing those toys than "fear fire floods".

    Yes, there is time, but only if we get busy. I don't see it happening, but I would love a good healthy dose of worldwide fear if that's what it would take.

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