Putting the life back in science fiction

Two bits of news
March 10, 2016, 1:19 am
Filed under: book, Hot Earth Dreams, news, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

Just another quick entry with two bits of news, one about Hot Earth Dreams, one about carbon production peaking (???) in 2015.

Today I had lunch with a fan–not a family member or close friend!–who really loved Hot Earth Dreams, as you can see from the picture below.  He loved it so much that he went through and marked all the typos he found, along with some parts that weren’t clear or where the stats didn’t quite make sense.  Then he loaned it to me for a month, to help me with the revision!

HED  20160309.JPG

I’m thrilled to have this on loan, and while it’s going to take some work to go through it, it makes revising the text so much easier.  I’ve gotten some great feedback from others, too.  While I’m not planning on preparing a revision in the next few months–my job as an environmental activist just got a lot busier, thanks to some developers and city planners–I will get one out this year, and being able to borrow this copy  makes it that much easier.

The second bit of news was my spit-take on reports (starting with this graph in the MIT Technology Review) that global CO2 emissions peaked in 2015 (link to Cassandra’s Legacy blog).  So far as I can tell, the dip was real.  Still, there are multiple interpretations:

The simplest interpretation is that it’s a temporary decrease caused by China struggling economically, and that once the (cough, cough) “inevitable” growth resumes, CO2 emissions will start climbing again.  This is what’s happened in the past.

Some in the deindustrialization and peak oil crowd think 2015 might be Hubbert’s Peak, and a sign that we’ve at long last hit Peak Oil.  Assuming that the 7th commenter on the Cassandra’s Legacy blog post was right and that oil and coal production actually increased in 2015, I’m not buying that this dip marks Peak Oil.  As the commenter and blog author noted, what this means is that there’s a big pool of unburned oil out there, along with a big pile of unburned coal, stuff that’s been extracted but not purchased for use.  I’m certainly naive, but I’d assumed that if we were past peak production, there wouldn’t be much in the way of reserves, let alone surpluses, as the global economy would be consuming everything produced and fighting for more.

The optimists’ take is that renewable energy is finally taking off, climate change is getting taken seriously, and the industrialized world is starting to try to shake its addiction to fossil fuels (and it is an addiction, in the sense that if we quit cold turkey we’re in a world of hurt).  This is better supported than Hubbert’s peak, because that flood of surplus oil certainly suggests that consumption no longer blindly follows supply.

The pessimist’s take–okay, my take–is that it’s too soon to tell.  Even if CO2 emissions start falling, it all depends on how fast they fall.  Hot Earth Dreams assumed that fossil fuel consumption trailed out over the next century, as we never quite kick the habit before supplies run out as global civilization collapses.  Personally, I hope that we do kick the fossil fuel habit, soon and permanently, but only time will tell if we can get on that wagon and stay on it.  Sobriety is a day-at-a-time process, after all.

Still, good news is good news, and even pessimists need to celebrate once in a while.





15 Comments so far
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Except that this appeared yesterday.


2015 showed the highest ever rise in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.

Which makes me think:-
– The slight reduction in the rate of fossil fuel consumption was due to a slight slow down in global GDP
– The stats are all being economical with the truth
– Even if they really did drop slightly, it was from the highest they’ve ever been
– Maybe atmospheric CO2 concentration is a better measure of GDP and fossil fuel consumption than any other official figures

Comment by Julian Bond

Any idea whether CO2 is tied to type of oil production, i.e., some production sources are cleaner to burn or cleaner to obtain?

Comment by SFreader

My take is that the oil and coal numbers are probably correct, and the CO2 concentration is certainly correct. They’re not equivalent, since the CO2 concentration is the balance between gas coming into the atmosphere and gas leaving the atmosphere, which it does. Things like forests thinning out in drought and big fires burning vegetation can keep CO2 in the atmosphere, and for all I know, methane leaking out of thawing tundra can add some as well, although apparently fracking has been the biggest source of methane emissions for the last year or two (and these are poorly documented, but also much smaller than CO2 emissions). I do know that, for a long time (and possibly even now), scientists were having trouble identifying at least one major sink for CO2 (IIRC, it had something to do with Siberian forests). Earth’s carbon cycle is not simple.

Comment by Heteromeles

Fossil fuel burning is almost certainly mainly reduced by the global economic slowdown, most especially in China. You’ve probably seem the massive increase in tariffs for steel, as countries start exporting their over produced inventory at rock bottom prices, as well as shuttering of steelwroks in China. There is also the property building slowdown in China as the real estate bubble is bursting.

The good news is that despite low oil prices, renewable energy is still rapidly gaining ground. In the US this is because power plants don’t want the uncertainty of fluctuating oil or gas prices.

I’m not sure if it is a sign of desperation, but I am aware of increasingly strident items about how solar and wind can never replace fossil fuels as an energy source, despite the declining costs and storage technologies for solar to allow power plants to run at night. You can’t read any story about renewable energy without what appears to be an increasing number of commenters piling on about how renewables don’t work, that their use is coercive, not market driven, blah, blah, blah.

Things that do bother me is that the sinks seems to be getting smaller, e.g. the claim that plankton in the Indian Ocean have declined over the last decade. If oceanic algal plankton have indeed declined, we could be in serious trouble, not just concerning CO2 sinks, but O2 production and ocean food chains.


Comment by Alex Tolley

I’d been debating about whether it’s worth writing a blog post about all the different narratives I’ve seen running around about the relationship between fossil fuels and renewables, but in the end I just folded it into the post above. Alex, you’re right, there’s a big FUD campaign on renewables right now, and it’s great that they appear to be growing despite the mess.

We do live in interesting times, and I do agree with those who say that the next 10-20 years are basically all the time we have left to keep civilization from really starting to fall apart.

While I agree that oceanic foodwebs are fraying, I’m not yet sure how much of a crisis phytoplankton losses that will turn out to be. We’ll see. One thing that I think works as a negative feedback on that is that the more dust blows into the oceans from deserts increasing in size, the more surface plankton can grow. Still, it’s a mess.

Comment by Heteromeles

Does weathered desert sand have the same nutrients as unweathered volcanic ash? I hope you are right, but if phytoplankton is decreasing, then is it decreasing because of increased predation or due to lowered productivity? With increased ocean acidity affecting carbonate deposition, this must be affecting the survival of larvae from organisms with calcareous shells and skeletons. I’d like to read any good study on the oceanic food web changes in response to natural acidification experiments. While jellyfish don’t fossilize well, is there any evidence of the changes in oceanic species in response to CO2 in the fossil record, or is the data too sparse to do an analysis, or the variables too many to make any conclusions?

Comment by alexandertolley

The shorts are:
–unweathered volcanic ash and older soils have more different nutrients (depending in large part on which volcano we’re talking about), and whatever’s in the dust that gets into the ocean depends on its source (normally the Sahara or Gobi for desert dust). One thing I don’t know is where airborne dust come from to get into the Indian oceans. The only three sources are East Africa, India, and northern Australia, but I don’t know enough about Indian Ocean wind patterns to know where the dust goes.

As for oceanic food webs, I don’t off-hand know of a good summary work, but that’s because I’m not looking. Also, human fishing impacts to the ocean are probably as bad or worse than climate change right now, and I don’t know how to disentangle the two entirely. The caveat is that I’m not an oceanographer, and there are researchers working on this.

Comment by Heteromeles

@Julian: The bird problem is real. I’ve known biologists who were employed to walk around the base of the towers to count and ID the corpses. I’ve also surveyed a wind farm site, and one of the crews out there while I worked on plants was a portable radar unit counting (and sometimes ID’ing, if they were big enough) the birds coming past. He also got work at airports, doing the same thing.

The basic problem on the very rugged, desert-edge site I worked on was that they wanted to line the ridges with big turbines, for good reason–it was freaking windy. Unfortunately, according to the radar, the migratory birds were using the updrafts from those same north-south aligned ridges to get a free ride as they migrated. The golden eagles (I think there were three on that site) also used the updrafts from those ridges to patrol. I’m not sure what state that wind farm is in now. I do know that the developers (they’d gone through at least three owners and five project designs–most consultants worked on it at some point) ignored all the environmental planning as soon as they got a permit, bulldozed the ridges into the canyons to make the site more accessible, and that Audubon took them to court to force them to follow their own plan. One of my botanist friends found what might have been a new plant species on one of those ridges, but it’s probably been bulldozed by now.

As for numbers of eagles, in our county, we’ve got between 5 and 10 pairs (I forgot the exact number, but every single one is monitored). Two pairs are affected by proposed development. We’ve also got a brewing controversy, because a group of (developers) is trying to kill and/or silence the study, currently by claiming that it isn’t sufficiently scientific. That’s BS. It’s being run by respected government biologists and it’s got the best golden eagle data in the world. However, the last peer-reviewed study here was done in the 1930s, and that’s what the developers want used for their work. Unfortunately, the group I work with had to co-sign a letter to a local congressman. He’d gotten hoodwinked by the developers into asking the agency scientists to stop the study, and our letter explained, in tiresome detail, just how badly he’d been played.

So yes, there’s propaganda, but at least in my part of the world, it’s pretty clearly anti-environmental. The data support bird strikes as a major issue here. Now, we environmentalists are still mostly for wind turbines, but again, as with Ivanpah (which also has major bird issues–it’s solar mirrors fry birds that fly over it), we’re dealing with problems of bad siting, failure to follow data-based environmental plans, and compromise solutions that end up not protecting wildlife as they were supposed to. Bats actually have it worse with wind turbines (being weaker fliers that are generally unable to escape the vortices around the blades), but they don’t get as much press.

There are a lot of issues with renewables. Wind turbines kill birds and bats, occasionally catch fire and/or have blade jump (which is why they shouldn’t be near homes), and I’ve heard tearful testimony from people near wind farms about improper grounding electrifying their house pipes, or the flickering light of the sun setting through the blades causing a migraine for one housewife every afternoon. Solar’s got the mess at Ivanpah ( now with roasted birds, along with no profits and possibly not enough power being produced), solar panels that reflect light into the eyes of pilots at airports, or into desert homes in the afternoon, and other idiocy.

And there’s just as much idiocy on the gas side and on the nuclear side. It’s unfortunate all around, but there you have it. There’s no clean, safe power source, and we really are stuck with promoting the lesser of two evils and fighting the endless battle of trying to get people (including ourselves) to conserve, just so we won’t have to build every single stupid power plant plan that comes along.

Comment by Heteromeles

As regards bird kills, we really should only be really concerned with rare species. Domestic cats alone kill millions of small birds every year. While it would be good if we didn’t accidentally kill any birds, we accidentally kill 35,000 people in traffic accidents in the US every year. We cannot be perfect and accept trade offs.

I note that Julian’s arguments about context are validated by OGH’s points about bird and bat kills. No context other than for eagles (which species?).

While environmental impact studies can prevent unexpected consequences due to poor planning, we are getting to the state in the US where we cannot do anything because of red tape. If we want to transition away from fossil fuels quickly, regulations that slow everything down to a crawl is counterproductive. At some point we won’t be able to act at all if we are not careful.

Comment by alexandertolley

With the wind turbines, it’s golden eagles.

As for red tape–I *wish* that was the problem. The wind project I was on went through three owners that I’m aware of. It also went through, IIRC, five redesigns while we were doing the surveys, which meant that we had to repeat surveys in different areas as they were inserted and deleted from the project footprint. One redesign was because the biologists had to tell the engineers not to drive a road off a cliff. It seems the cliff wasn’t sufficiently visible on Google maps, and the engineer was too expensive/lazy to actually go out to the site to examine field conditions, so he did his design entirely from maps. Then someone else bought the project and they did the surveys again, since the old owners didn’t give them the documentation (as I know personally. My friend who found the new species was surprised when I told him I’d done the project three years before him. I’d surveyed a different plan and surveyed during a serious drought, so I hadn’t seen his plants). Then the final developer ignored his own plans, triggering a lawsuit.

I’m not sure where the red tape is here.

Meanwhile, wildlife personnel budgets have been cut back to 1950s levels, so when it takes six months for them to read the documents, it’s because they have a single person handling all the applications. I do a lot of volunteer work at a local preserve, precisely because they have two, maybe three people taking care of all the preserves in the County. If I’m lucky, he gets out there for non-emergencies once a year, since, unlike other preserves he manages nothing is going catastrophically wrong in my area.

There’s this standard trope that red tape can be strangled by cutting costs and making government more efficient. What has happened is that, at least with CDFW and USFWS, both are now bare-bones, and the people they regulate, like developers, are furious because it takes so long to work with them. The solution (more government spending) is obvious, but for some reason, the developers think this is a bad thing.

Comment by Heteromeles

The one I find deeply depressing is the pro-nuclear, Ecomodernist lobby consistently downplaying wind and solar and spreading the myths about base load, bird kills, land use, cost and so on.

Comment by Julian Bond

I don’t worry about base load, but bird kills are a big problem where I am, because they’re disproportionately taking out top predators like golden eagles. Bat kills are even worse. I’ve also commented as an environmentalist about the size of pads and clearances for wind turbines, and about siting them near homes, and that’s because of the danger from fires and blade throws. When they fail, they can make a mess, but it doesn’t take a huge amount of intelligence to figure out what those risks are and to take appropriate countermeasures. People shouldn’t get stupid about wind turbines, any more than people should get careless about putting heavy solar arrays on structurally unsound roofs, or setting up mirrors and panels where the reflect sunlight into the eyes of pilots. Also, don’t get me started about all the stupidity that went into and came out of Ivanpah. The more I learn about that plant, the worse it looks. That’s too bad, considering the destruction its installation caused.

In comparison to other forms of energy, renewables are pretty safe, which is why I (generally) support them, and always support them over coal and gas-powered plants.

I wish I could trust nuclear plants. The problem there, aside from figuring out how to store wastes for 10,000-100,000 years, is that, at places like San Onofre, they keep screwing up in such stupid, predictable ways, then sticking rate payers (that would be me) with the cost of cleanup.

One thing we have to clearly distinguish is between the theoretical advantages and disadvantages of the technology, versus what happens when politics, corporate greed, and technological shenanigans get into play in the designs, the actual plants, and the way mishaps are handled. Right now, all those practical issues are the real things to focus on.

Comment by Heteromeles

I really don’t know what to make of the bird kill argument around wind power (or most of the other argument against, for that matter). Here in the UK and EU we’ve got large numbers of migratory birds and some massive wind farms of massive wind turbines. They’re not surrounded by dead birds and the local, bird conservancy is mostly unconcerned about their effects on birds and bats. The on shore wind farms are in the middle of farmland which continues under and around them. We just don’t have catastrophic failures and if we did, these are not sited near houses.

Meanwhile trying to do some trivial research on the US experience is impossible because of the propaganda noise. There seem to be studies that say the problem (even for Golden Eagles) is inconsequential mixed in with numerous “Shock Horror: Birds Decimated” pop-sci articles. Maybe 60-70 Eagles have been killed but is that number real, is it large, what proportion of the population is it, how do they get killed, what is it that kills them, how does that compare with other power sources, and so on? These questions don’t get answered. I’m left with the over-riding feeling that the problem if it exists at all, is blown way out of proportion. Especially when most of the people raising it have an agenda to push alternatives to wind power or otherwise justify their existence.

Comment by Julian Bond

In the 1990s it was reality-challenged solar enthusiasts claiming that the “real” cost of solar was much more competitive than it looked, and if it wasn’t then it was the fault of a big conspiracy by power companies/oil companies/government propaganda to keep solar down.

At the turn of the millennium the argument for new nuclear power over new renewables was simple: nuclear cost much less per unit of electricity generated, even with the plant cost escalations since the 1970s, so with X billion decarbonization dollars to spend per year you did more good with nuclear than with wind or solar. Now this same simple cost argument favors renewables over nuclear in huge swaths of the world, so someone who already “knows” that the answer must be nuclear has to come up with increasingly crazy and complicated arguments to prove it. Now the simple number crunching favors renewables in many cases and the nuclear fanbois have to resort to arguments about invisible costs and conspiracies.

FWIW I think there is still a place for nuclear power if storage fails to get a lot bigger/cheaper and grids hit the limits of tolerable intermittency. That’s still an open question. Until nations hit the limits of how much decarbonization they can achieve without a lot of storage — and most aren’t even close yet — the “cheapest first” approach in much of the world is going to be renewables. And renewable generation costs are still falling at a decent rate.

Comment by Matt

Five years after Fukushima, Japan’s population is 70% against nuclear. The link below shows post evacuation events including discussion of findings re: cesium contamination via ocean currents, etc. Good reality check on what happened versus official expectations. Overall, the hard effects seem to have been overblown while the soft effects (how people would cope with massive relocation) were completely missed/ignored by politicians and those advising them.


Japan’s nuclear experience matters to most of the western world: they’ve been the gold standard in safety. So if Japan can screw up, it’s pretty obvious that nuclear is not the appropriate energy option in the hands of a less safety-obsessed detail-oriented culture.

Comment by SFreader

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