Putting the life back in science fiction

The Day After

Yay, it’s the day after Earth Day.  They’ve started signing the Paris climate accord, John Kerry photo-opping by signing with his granddaughter on his lap.  Obama will ratify it by executive action, the Senate Republicans will pass something nauseating telling him to stop chasing myths (unless maybe that doesn’t happen?), he’ll veto their attempt to quash him, and…

Well, what happens next?  In the real world, I’m not so sure, but after I finish the swarm of stuff I’m working on (I won’t be blogging for the next few weeks), I’ll start figuring out how to revise Hot Earth Dreams. There’s still time to get your comments in, but the window is closing.

Now that it’s the day after Earth Day, what have I learned?

One thing I’ve learned is that, for most people, talking about climate change is right up there with talking about defecation with a stranger.  Euphemisms are the order of the day (AGW, ACC, etc.), complexities are scary, and most people know less than they like to pretend.  It’s still something that engages more anxiety and fearful projections than sensible talk.  That makes selling a book about climate change tricky, sad to say.

So far as things to contemplate changing, I’ve got a bunch, in no particular order:

–Coral bleaching.  I still can’t believe I didn’t devote some space to this.  Does coralline red algae die in hot water?  This will get interesting because corals and red algae are the bricks and mortar of the reef.  The order in which they fall apart has a lot to do with how reefs die.  I think, anyway, from what I’ve read.

–The arc of carbonization: so what I’m seeing at the moment are suggestions that a) the PETM was cooler than I thought it was, and b) they’re focusing on 100,000 years, not 400,000 years (sigh), and c) we might pass 2°C real soon now, or at least the IPCC5 was way too conservative, and it’s now all about the methane, and anyway people are dying of heat stress in India, and…So how much do I change the basic model of the High Altithermal?  That’s my question.  Some parts, like the presumed paleotemperature of the PETM or the course of David Archer’s basic model probably need to change, in part because Archer’s changing his own model.  The others?  It’s harder to tell.  People have been dying in India from heat stress for years, and the western Persian Gulf hit Black Flag heat stress levels last year.  Some of this needs to be integrated, some not.  The big question is…

–Methane.  Somehow I think I need to shriek that, with an undertone of OhMyGawdWereAllGonnaDieNow (!)  What’s going on with methane is a complex mess: I think I can find how much methane climatologists model is in the permafrost, and hopefully soon we’ll have some estimate on the subsea methane clathrates.  How much of it comes out depends on the depth at which it’s buried, so it’s not just a simple matter of emptying the pool.  Then there’s the behavior of methane in the air (it decays over 1-2 decades into CO2).  Then there’s the fact that bacteria in the ocean and Arctic soils metabolize methane into CO2, but it’s not clear how much they can put a dent in emissions.  In the ocean, at least, metabolized methane ends up as CO2 in the water, which basically means that that amount of CO2 can’t be taken up from the air.  So it’s a mixed, complicated blessing.  Hopefully I can figure out how to make it less confusing in the book.

–Fossil fuels.  This is getting interesting: the coal industry is dying as we speak.  For example, The Indian Energy Minister said last week that solar is now cheaper than coal for them, and China’s switching from natural gas to coal (note the screwed up headline).  Even though Sun Edison is going bankrupt, so is Peabody.  Natural gas got a huge black eye from The Aliso Canyon natural gas leak, but I don’t think that’s going to shut down fracking nearly as efficiently as turbulence in international oil markets has.  US fracking is being kneecapped by persistent low oil prices as Saudi Arabia, Russia dump oil onto the market,  even as producers like Iran and Brazil come onto the market Curioser and curioser.

We’re now into a region where at least three different narratives are at play.  On one hand, conventional economists are saying that it’s only a matter of time before demand starts catching up with all that cheap oil, there’s an industrial boom, and oil prices go back up as the addicts get more hooked, and oil supplies tightened.  Why didn’t that happen months ago?  On the other hand, political wonks seem to wonder whether this is war by other means, as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, and the US oil industries suffer, and they’re seeing this race to the bottom as a beggar-thy-neighbor strategy that has certainly beggared Venezuela and is hurting Russia.  The idea is that whoever is the last fly on the dungpile gets to rake it in by cranking prices up.  On the gripping hand, environmentalists like Carl Pope are saying that the cheap oil is a sign that people are turning away from it, and that it’s flooding the market because global demand is decreasing.  We’ll see which story (or stories) prove(s) to be more right.

Still, the original Hot Earth Dreams story of us blowing all our fossil fuels into the air seems to be–Hallelujah!–wrong.  Most of that fossil fuel would have been coal, and it’s probably staying underground unless things get stupidly bad.  Unfortunately, we might have woken up the methane monster, which could just easily take coal’s place in trumpeting carbon into the atmosphere.  Equally unfortunately, we don’t hear about the role of oil in city reconstruction, military movements, and container shipping so it’s definitely premature to declare that deep decarbonization has happened yet.  They’re still thinking we’ll be burning stuff into 2050.  Whatever, I’ll probably have to change that story of us burning everything.  Life turned out to be more interesting and unpredictable, as life tends to be.  Yay!

–Oh, and I probably was wrong about the entire east Antarctic Ice sheet melting entirely.  Mostly, yes, but the modeling boffins aren’t showing a total melt-down.  So I should probably rejigger my sea-level rise projections.  Sigh.

What did I miss for big themes that need big rewrites?  One thing I’ll note is that you can still buy the original Hot Earth Dreams, figure out where it’s already outdated, and let me know.  I’ve gotten some really good feedback on those typos (thanks especially to Brad), as well as a couple of scientific gaffes on carbon isotopes and possibly meteor impacts that need to be fixed.  And that thing in the future languages section.  If you find anything else, let me know, and I’ll give you credit in the revision.

Happy Earth Day!




11 Comments so far
Leave a comment

“This will get interesting because corals and read algae are the bricks and mortar of the reef.” You mean RED algae.

Comment by Christine Robins

You’re right. Fixed it.

Comment by Heteromeles

I don’t think that there is a lot you need to change about fossil fuels. Coal is failing now, but when the fracking boom goes bust and conventional oil can no longer keep up with demand, countries will go back to coal mining. The decline of fossil fuels is a long road with lots of high frequency booms and busts superimposed on a long term downward trend. The time span over which this will take place is, I think, the difficult part to predict. But I have no doubt though that we will eventually consume all of the fossil fuels we can access with a positive energy return on investment (EROI) and the world will be so desperate for conventional oil sources that we will continue to pump even with a highly negative EROI – probably using coal energy. The unfortunate reality is that when those fuels become difficult to obtain humanity will burn the forests for heating and cooking and if population projections hold some 10 billion desperate people will deforest the planet trying to survive in the coming population overshoot.

Humanity is no different than the bacteria in a petri dish – we will continue to consume whatever energy we can access with little or no concern for the big picture consequences. We will continue to expand our population while that energy is available and crash when it’s gone. Concern about climate change will go right out the window for most people when faced with satisfying the basics of food and shelter.

Depressing as it all is I think that you got it right the first time except perhaps for the time scale. I think that you compressed into around 100 years a decline that will proceed over 3 or 4 or 500 years.

Comment by Jim Edwards

To take these in reverse order, it looks like crashes tend to happen fairly quickly, especially when drought is involved. Syria is a pretty good example of this, in that I don’t think most of the refugees that left are going to be able to return, simply because there’s not enough water for them. The Maya collapsed in a few decades, and the end of the bronze age in the Middle East happened in a few decades. That’s why I talked about global civilization falling apart in under 50 years, from 2050-2100. At the moment, I keep thinking about looming water shortages all over the civilized world, and wondering if even that’s a bit too optimistic.

As for fossil fuels, you’re right about the boom and bust part. What’s interesting for coal is that air pollution, as much as climate change, is driving China and India off of coal. They’ve got the worst air pollution in the world right now, and it’s literally choking their cities, as it has done with so many others. Worse (for them), we’ve already burned through a lot of good coal, and increasingly, what’s left is lower grade stuff with lower EROI and more pollution. I’m not sure it can be burned on a small scale in any case, simply because there’s so much rock in with the coal. The same goes with things like the new Brazilian off-shore oil field. There’s some oil there, apparently, but as with the Lula oil field, it’s under 2,000 meters of water and 5,000 meters of sediments. It’s extreme oil, and if people abandon the infrastructure to get to it, it’s going to take a major investment to go back and try to get it again, and the EROI of getting it is, again, pretty crappy. However, we play it, we’re coming to the end of coal and oil, and I’m not sure even desperation can make some of these things economical, especially if solar and wind continue to become cheaper.

Comment by Heteromeles

Coal is in bad shape. A few years ago I was afraid that declining domestic US demand would just lead to more exports. Happily, every proposal to export more coal from Washington or Oregon has been heavily contested and rejected or abandoned so far. I am betting that the proposed Oakland, CA port expansion for exporting Utah coal will fail too. Without access to West Coast ports, cheap-to-mine American coal becomes too expensive to compete internationally. (Appalachian coal is already becoming too expensive to produce even without the additional costs to export internationally.) So decreasing consumption at home really does mean keeping coal in the ground rather than just shifting emissions across a border.

Despite all the bad effects of fracking, I hope it keeps natural gas prices suppressed for ~3 more years in the US. That should be long enough to ensure that many more marginal coal plants get shut down permanently and not just held idle in reserve. Right now, if natural gas prices spiked you could see a rapid fuel mix shift back toward coal. If enough coal plants get shut down that can’t happen any more. Building a coal plant to even the environmental standards circa 2007 is too expensive and slow to make economic sense in most of the United States. It was only older plants that were already paid off (and/or operated with laxer grandfathered environmental standards) that made coal electricity cheap in the US. Kill off the old capacity and it’s a ratchet that won’t easily be reversed.

Fracking is the big driver for lower natural gas prices in the US but renewables also have an effect in suppressing natural gas consumption and keeping prices lower from the demand side. It’s sort of a pincer movement that keeps coal uncompetitive. Renewable expansion is a trend that is still accelerating. It’s faster to build new utility scale PV or wind than to build a new utility scale fossil plant of any sort. It’s faster yet to switch fuel mix between coal and natural gas among plants that are already built, which is why US coal-electricity output has dropped significantly faster than renewable-electricity output has risen, but renewables are for the long haul.

Chinese coal demand and infrastructure has several crazy things going on. The biggest might be horrific air pollution and a newfound determination to fight it. Another, less often mentioned, is that many of these Chinese coal plants built in recent years are makework projects initiated by local governments contrary to Beijing’s goals. The new plants are unneeded, they operate less than half the time after they’re constructed, and they’re money pits. Sometimes wind power would be wasted in favor of burning more coal at times it wasn’t required, because local governments wanted to keep workers busy emitting instead of idly letting the air quality improve. The central government is now cracking down on this waste. Environmental projections from the recent past naturally assumed that more coal plants were being built to feed relentless Chinese energy demand; few Western observers realized, until recently, that many of these were the Chinese equivalent of congressmen building Bridges to Nowhere in their district.

Indian coal demand is still rising but import dependency is falling. It’s increasing domestic production that is reducing imports. That’s a partial victory that I will happily take: better to have Western coal exports collapse, and then move on to fighting Indian coal, than for Australia and India to both have powerful, wealthy constituencies still making a good profit on Indian coal demand.

This is getting really long, but coal is also getting kicked hard as an industry in Poland, the Czech Republic, and the UK. Poland’s right-wing government is trying to rescue the coal industry by (among other things) providing bailouts from government funds and making it de facto impossible to build more wind power in Poland. European Union rules will probably block the direct bailout.

Comment by Matt

Solar: Things are going very well. I have to keep going back to the primary literature and crunch numbers to make sure I’m not becoming irrationally excited, but the numbers keep holding up.

If you search Google Scholar you’ll see that the one critical material constraint to scaling silicon solar PV up to terawatt scale was silver used in pastes for forming electrode contacts on silicon cells. (Try “terawatt scale” “solar” “silver” as search terms — quotes are important for getting relevant results quickly.) Every other material needed — copper, aluminum, concrete, steel, silicon, glass — was sufficiently abundant to supply terawatt-scale solar installation even without major further improvements in PV technology. The replacements are now out of the lab and into meaningful (though not yet dominant) commercial use. Major solar manufacturing supplier Meyer Burger offers a copper-based microwire approach called SmartWire for replacing front-side silver pastes, and solar major Schmid offers a similar concept called Multi Busbar. Both are now in commercial use. Schmid further offers what it calls Tinpad for replacing rear-side silver metallization with tin, and it is in commercial use too. Manufacturers SunPower and Silevo (now absorbed into SolarCity) use electroplated nickel/copper to replace sintered silver pastes entirely. Remarkably, each of these efforts to replace silver originally driven by cost-and-sustainability concerns have simultaneously increased the conversion efficiency of solar cells to which they are applied. It’s like finding out that cheap clocks actually keep better time than expensive ones. (Or maybe it’s not so remarkable; since the solar industry is not at present constrained by silver paste availability, silver replacement technologies have to offer something more than material sustainability in order to be adopted at present.)

One reason that silicon-based PV continues to grow in commercial efficiency and scale is that a lot of the good concepts were described a long time ago, and to the extent that they were patented, are now falling out of patent. For example, the PERC cell structure is being adopted across many manufacturers and increasingly high manufacturing volumes. It was first described in 1989, and it’s now patent-free and (perhaps just as importantly) now the equipment and process demands are achievable for large scale manufacturing. The PERC concept and many other great ones came and still come out of the University of New South Wales in Australia but weren’t/aren’t easy enough to manufacture at commercial scale when first described. The even newer, even more efficient silicon heterojunction concept has had core patents expire recently and now quite a few organizations (TetraSun, Silevo, IMEC, Neo Solar Power, others…) are pursuing designs based on it; for a long time Sanyo (Panasonic) had a monopoly.

Another under-remarked solar trend with great significance for energy return on energy invested: solar modules can last significantly longer than the usually estimated 20-30 years, with modestly increased care to select materials and assemble modules in ways that promote long life. Testing of the relatively rare solar modules left in the field since the 1970s or early 1980s shows that the median degradation rate is slower than manufacturers assumed at the time. To date, the median rate for silicon PV degradation in the field is 0.5% per year. Newer modules are being constructed to pass even more stringent durability tests. The old modules have also provided useful design guidance about how module failures actually happen over time. I would bet that a significant minority of modules installed today — and a majority of those installed by 2020 — will have useful lifespans of 40 years or more.

The marginal energy cost to build highly durable modules over typical ones is tiny. In some cases it actually reduces upfront embodied energy too — eliminating the aluminum frame and going to all-glass construction both eliminates backsheet failures from modules and reduces the embodied energy by eliminating the energy-intense aluminum needed for framing. Count triple or quadruple benefits when you consider that frameless dual-glass construction eliminates potential-induced degradation of cells and enables backside light gathering from ground-bounced light or cloudy conditions. That extra light gathering from bifacial operation can produce an extra 5-15% real world energy generation with no additional material consumption.

Comment by Matt

And finally for something less rosy: large swaths of India are well on their way to black flag weather during El Ninos. This is nearly as bad as black flag weather each year, since it’s not practical to move away every time an El Nino comes along. I have been reading some of these threads recently with interest and alarm: https://www.reddit.com/r/india/search?q=heat&restrict_sr=on

Comment by Matt

re the new and improved version of hot earth dreams, perhaps a list of acronyms used in the book and what they stand for might be added as an appendix. I read the book and am aware that you probably defined all your acronyms somewhere, but just in this post I am seeing a bunch that I should probably know but forgot the meaning of, e.g. ACC, PETM.
Perhaps not an oversight, but more a matter of lesser relevance to Hot Earth Dreams is topsoil mining and erosion as covered in David Montgomery’s book, Dirt. According to Montgomery, loss of topsoil brought down any number of civilizations in the past and will again in the future unless global warming, sea level rise or petroleum depletion will get us collapsing first. On the plus side, the world can recover from topsoil depletion faster than than it can recover from pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
In any case, collapse of industrial agriculture will surely reduce the growth rate of human populations and probably make it go negative.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

Two minor errors. The first was the kiloton / megaton typo for Little Boy. The second related to the Pantheon and Marcus Agrippa. Agrippa wasn’t an ’emperor architect’, but rather a close friend and architect (and general) to emperor Augustus. Also, although the first pantheon was built by Agrippa, it is not the building currently standing which was built later under the reign of Hadrian.

Thanks for producing a brilliant book. Please keep writing.

Comment by Craig Ireland

Thanks Craig. Do you have a reference for the building of the second Pantheon? The point is about the concrete, more than anything else.

Comment by Heteromeles

Since we have discussed dikes in earlier threads, I thought you might like thispiece in MIT TR.
Rising Seas Lift an Industry

Interesting because Dutch dike building is much more than just building walls, but includes new land use and employment. So while costly, the assets that get lost are even more so.

Sea level rise is going to have horrendous economic costs, and suggestions that this will be Keynesian spending are just reiterating the “broken window fallacy”. Nevertheless, we are facing a huge drain on our economy to maintain our asset infrastructure which we cannot allow to be abandoned.

If only we could redirect military spending to AGW mitigation.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: