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“Energy in the Future”: a time capsule of energy concerns from 1953 (resilience.org)
72 points by herogreen 5 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 84 comments

Well hello Mr. Malthus!


Back to seriousness - the author claims there are limits to nuclear, wind, and solar, but does not state what those limits are. The limit on nuclear is not clear to me - France gets something like 75% of its energy from nuclear. It seems the main limit on nuclear has been public sentiment, which must be weighed with public sentiment on climate change.

Back in the 50s, nuclear was being treated as the magic that would solve all energy problems. There were ideas for making fission cars, trains, planes, etc. But since then, civilization has only benefited from nuclear reactors via power plants, naval ships, RTGs, and depending on how you see it, bombs. The magic of nuclear fission never provided the complete revolution it was setup to do. Just as we weren't responsible enough to plan for fission's partial failure back then, we are not able to envision the same partial failure with solar and wind. Fusion is the only thing I can think of that still has a chance to be the magic it is hyped to be. But that is only because its another 50 years away. And that is just too late to stop climate change in its accelerating state.




The problem with nuclear is the slow iteration speed and extreme cost of failure.

Those are not good properties if you want to push technology forward quickly. The great thing about solar and wind is that we can iterate very quickly and catastrophic failure costs are nearly non-existent.

Nuclear still has great potential but the costs are just too high (and maybe they should be).

Why do you need high iteration speed? Nuclear is pretty safe as it is. Chernobyl was using reactors that were obsolete in 1986. Fukushima was pretty fucked up in having the generators below sea level, but the result of that was 6 people got cancer.

Fukushima may not have caused much loss of life, but you also need to consider the economic damage.

Natural disasters, terrorism, and unanticipated design flaws (generators below sea level) are important considerations. Those add costs that aren't always accounted for.

Yes, exactly, consider the economic damage of NOT building nuclear plants and allowing the climate to continue to change! Surely that's a higher economic damage than that caused by Fukushima+Chernobyl.

Anyone who argue against nuclear while failing to acknowledge the issues of solar and wind, which are 10 times more problematic, can't be truthful.

Unless we enter a _major_ era of degrowth there is no way we'll get out of fossil fuels without nuclear.

What are the 10x more problematic issues with solar and wind?

Briefly: solar and wind energy requires sun or wind and tons of space relative to fossil/nuclear. Not every place has those.

"A reality check on renewables" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0W1ZZYIV8o

I think fusion is a lot closer than 50 years away.

We should know without a doubt whether it is workable by 2050, perhaps before then.

I strongly recommend the book "The Future of Fusion Energy"[1] as a good summary of the current state of the field. It's written by two fusion researchers and is legit (I have a Master's in Physics myself and almost did a Plasma Physics PhD so I am somewhat familiar with the field).

The book isn't dry either, it's honestly one of the best books I've read in years.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Future-Fusion-Energy-Jason-Parisi/dp/...

"It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter, will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age." - Lewis Strauss, chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission 1954


Fusion is not magic at all. It will most likely be a fairly expensive source of power. You might not need to spend a lot on fuel, but building large, technically very advanced installations is expensive.

Interesting, right?

If we believe the Titanic is sinking, why are we being picky about the lifeboat?

Anything beyond averting disaster is an over-optimization.

We just closed Diablo Canyon and Indian Point nukes, not a moment too soon. Money wasted propping up those ramshackle contraptions can now go into solar and wind construction, at a better marginal return on new construction than we got just operating them. But they will unfortunately drain another billion dollars just being decommissioned.

> France gets something like 75% of its energy from nuclear.

That's not quite correct. We do get 75% of our electricity from nuclear, but electricity is only ~25% of the energy consumed in France.

So in practice about 18% of our energy comes from nuclear, and way over 75% of it from fossil fuels.

Finding appropriate sites for generators would probably be the engineering limit for nuclear. I don't know if nuclear is easy or hard to get started in a black start condition; if they're hard to start, there's probably a max % of the grid you'd want to be nuclear.

But the will of the people and regulatory hurdles mean permitting and construction is slow and economics are not great. Also, there's probably a manufacturing capacity issue; if you wanted to get 100 new plants online in the next 5 years, and permitting and siting were a non-issue, getting the parts made would be.

There are also technical skills and geopolitical issues with nuclear don't exist with solar. You can deliver solar panels to the Southern Congo on truck.

Also you have a choice, build a nuke plant that will produce power for 50 years. Or buid a plant to produce solar panels for 50 years. That's an accounting problem that would be interesting to see the results of.

The limits to various forms of energy are well-known. It's a bit more than I can describe in an HN comment, though Tom "Do the Math" Murphy has a good guide, index to his posts here: https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/post-index/ Heinberg himself has written of them in earlier books and articles.

Essentially humans have access to the fluxes of solar, geothermal, and tidal energy, and the stores of fossil fuels, nuclear fission from naturally occurring uranium and plutonium, and potentially nuclear fission from hydrogen plus a few other essential light isotopes and/or elements.

All other energy sources are either carriers (as with hydrogen as a combustion fuel), or derivative. Notably hydroelectric, wind, biomass, and wave energy are all derivatives of solar flux. (Fossil fuels are derivatives of past solar flux.)

Solar is the most tractable large-scale power source. The raw rate of incidence is about 1 kW/m^2 at Earth's surface. This is reduced by a number of considerations, including land area, spacing factors, panel efficiencies, and losses through conversion (DC/AC), transmission, and storage. The net potential is perhaps 5% of the total incident quantity. And there's the small factor that all other life on Earth also competes for this resource.

Hydro is proven but largely exploited, and has environmental consequences now increasingly recognised and often untenable.

Total wind and wave power (the latter is effectively nil) are small fractions of total solar power. Wind power is attractive principally as in places where it HAPPENS to be prevalent, the capital costs are low relative to energy returned.

Geothermal, while independent of solar, is a small fraction of the latter, and is already largely utilised where available and practical, though there's significant undeveloped resource in Africa, and in the US in the Yellowstone Caldera, though official resource estimates exclude this due to its protected status as a National Park. (Pointed, the USGS utterly omits the Yellowstone Caldera in its geothermal resource survey of a decade or two back.) As baseload power, geothermal is attractive. Capital-intensive "enhanced" geothermal has proved disappointing to date (see Australia's Habanero project).

Tidal energy is worth mentioning only because it's independent of the usual solar/nuclear axis: tidal energy actually represents a tap on gravitational potential of the Earth-Moon-Sun system. It's slightly more viable than wave energy, but save for a few very limited local applications, not practicable. Tapping the entire tidal potential of, say, the San Francisco Bay would not even power the city of San Francisco at current electric utilisation, let alone full energy demands, or of the greater Bay Area. And this would require entirely damming the Bay.

Nuclear fission suffers from a fuel shortage problem: known nuclear reserves would power present human energy needs for about 15 years, total. At present rates of utilisation, that lifetime is extended, but still comes in at under a century. There's the standard bickering about definitions of reserves, and talk of seawater extraction (of uranium, other fuels not being salt-water soluable), breeding (of plutonium), or use of thorium, under either existing or novel reactor designs. All three options have significant limitations, though some may be technologically feasible. The resulting energy system and economy would be fragile and risk-prone.

Fusion is as it's always been, the power source of the future. And always will be, as the punch line goes.

That's the lineup. Murphy has a good overview of numbers. Vaclav Smil in numerous of his books (Energy and Civilization and Energy in World History, an earlier edition of the same book, though with somewhat different organisation, as well as others) takes a deeper dive into many of these issues.

Mind that solving the energy problem is only one of numerous stumbling blocks between now an a long-term viable technological human civilisation. Numerous others exist, and the fundamental fact remains that economic growth (and its concommittant and requisite resource and energy growth) simply cannot continue indefinitely.

> economic growth (and its concommittant and requisite resource and energy growth) simply cannot continue indefinitely.

Economic growth occurs in any situation where you increase productivity. But this means you can increase productivity in anyway, including by efficiency improvements.

Economic growth can't be sustained at the same rate it has been, but it can be sustained because while 100% efficiency is an asymptote it is approachable.

The assertion that economic growth can occur without an increase in resource consumption is one that's been made repeatedly, but that flies in the face of all evidence.

The story is somewhat complicated by the fact that primary consumption of energy and materials can be outsourced, giving the appearance of decoupling of growth from resource use. Once net imports and resource consumption at point-of-origin are accounted for, the connection is resumed.

Global GDP growth to date has occurred in lockstep with increased material and energy resource use.

I've looked at the relations myself simply using national GDP and energy use through about 2010, see: https://old.reddit.com/r/dredmorbius/comments/1vlksg/economi...

And more robustly:

"The material footprint of nations ", Thomas O. Wiedmanna, Heinz Schandl, Manfred Lenzenc, Daniel Moranc, Sangwon Suhf, James Westb, and Keiichiro Kanemotoc. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1220362110. PubMed ID24003158. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/08/28/1220362110

"The true raw material footprint of nations ", September 3, 2013. "The study, involving researchers from UNSW, CSIRO, the University of Sydney, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, was published today in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It reveals that the decoupling of natural resources from economic growth has been exaggerated." https://web.archive.org/web/20130906063246/https://newsroom....

"wave power (the latter is effectively nil) "

~30 terawatts, about double the electrical consumption of the whole planet, is effectively nil?

" [tidal is] slightly more viable than wave energy"

Why do you say this?

Distributed over the length of all coastlines of all continents. The per-linear-meter power density is extraordinarily low. Wave power doesn't concentrate. Capital is extraordinarily expensive, and salt-water environments are hell on materials.

See Tom Murphy's analysis for more: https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2012/01/the-motion-of-the-ocean/

(He also mentions currents and thermal gradient power from the ocean. OTEC might be more viable IMO.)

I read his analysis, I found it roughly to be back of the envelope math and I did not think it was authoritative especially when he uses phrases like "my crude estimate" and "my stupid calculation".

The "per-linear-meter power density" what some would call "wave energy flux" represents an order of 5x greater energy density than wind, which is roughly 10x more dense than solar. When T Murphy describes "third string solar" he highlights that a quantity of energy is lost in each conversion, yes but also the density is increased. Similar to following energy starting with biomass, fermenting to dilute alcohol, and distilling to pure ethanol. In this case there is no effort or external energy required for incident solar energy to generate a lesser amount of denser wind energy, and for wind energy to create a smaller still amount of high density wave energy. However, this quantity is still large enough that even a fraction of it converted to electricity represents an quantity of power that I strongly reject to being called "nil" or "puny".

Following a thorough analysis and R&D phase, the important metric, levelized cost of energy, relates to the quantity of material required to construct a device that interacts with a given quantity of power. Operating in a more power dense medium favors lower LCOE. There are challenges with the salt-water environment, that fact doesn't preclude the existence of industries such as trans-oceanic shipping, offshore oil and gas, navigational and observational buoys, and other such endeavors.

Personally I consider it a good thing for an energy technology to be distributed throughout the world, I think it is preferential than having the entire energy resource concentrated in one part of the world. Another benefit it offers is that its availability is decoupled from wind and solar, the waves don't stop at night, and once established continue traveling without wind.

There is no silver bullet and wave energy is no exception, there will always be a finite quantity recoverable, and a certain cost to recover it. However, to determine those specific numbers would require a herculean effort to thoroughly analyze all of the possible wave energy converter designs - which consist of a number of major of typologies, and within each topology an even greater number of specific designs and sizes, each with their own cost and performance, which also varies depending on seastate - you would need to analyze every possible device not just for power converting performance, but for an estimate of suitable materials and construction techniques, and their costs. Only then could you answer the important question, can any quantity of wave energy be economically recovered at a cost competitive with other leading renewable energy sources.

That's "Rev. Malthus". He was an ordained curate of the Church of England.

If you're interested in learning more about the big picture connection between our human society and energy, I recommend "Energy and Civilization: A History," by Vaclav Smil.

My biggest takeaway from his book is that transitioning a society to affluence requires, at minimum, 22.6 megawatt hours of energy per capita per year. High energy societies like the United States use far more. To de-carbonize, we have to plan new energy sources that provide at least this much energy for every person on the planet. Otherwise, people will understandably turn to carbon-based energy sources to meet their energy needs.

Producing this much energy from renewables is possible, but it is hard! Fossil fuels provide an exceptionally compact (in terms of land area) and effective energy source.

[edited to correct typo in the energy figure, what I originally wrote as 2.6 mw/h is 22.6 mw/h]

That's surprisingly low. 2.6 megawatt hours per year is 300 watts per person which is almost the same order of magnitude of what the human body can produce.

Arggh... I made a typo. It is 22.6 megawatt hours per capita per year, so an order of magnitude higher.

~60 kwH per day...that's actually pretty much inline with a normal household (also about the average of what my rooftop solar achieves).

But this number is per capita energy use across the whole society, including manufacturing and transportation. Not just household use. France only reached this level in the 1960s, Japan in the 1970s. China reached this level in 2012.

I would really doubt power estimates with three significant digits when I could reduce my total power demand by at least 30% by switching to a heat pump for heating instead of burning oil without changing my quality of life in the slightest.

This strikes me as a very defeatist and Malthusian take on the world, and, frankly, too US-centric.

While the US hasn’t managed the political will for significant climate reform, we are far from the majority of the world, and even if we magically had a green revolution and became the worlds first zero-emission nation, it’s unlikely that this would be enough to avert climate change. The developing world wants modern life, and if they have to burn fossil fuels to catch up, they will.

There are really only a few situations that lead to radical global change:

1. Severe crisis, such as a nation-ending war.

2. Extraordinary visionary leadership in the right place at the right time... which often leads to serious crises such as nation-ending wars.

Otherwise, progress comes from the chaotic, messy evolution of humanity. Perhaps we will innovate our way out of climate disaster, perhaps the ecology will gradually change and we’ll be forced to adapt, or (my guess) perhaps some of both. The good news is we actually have a lot of the technology we need, and more is being developed all the time. I for one am optimistic that between innovation and adaptation the future will continue to be bright.

> even if we magically had a green revolution and became the worlds first zero-emission nation, it’s unlikely that this would be enough to avert climate change.

It's actually quite likely that it would go a long way towards averting climate change. Sure, the US contributes only about 6 GT of greenhouse gases of the 50 GT emitted by the whole world annually, so it first seems that zeroing out this would still result in 44 GT worth of emissions left.

But going from 6 GT to zero cannot be done without huge innovation. Technological innovation, innovation in policy, oversight, enforcement. These pieces of innovation can (and will) be shared with the rest of the world. When the price of solar panels went down, it went down globally. If the US Navy implements a way to scrub CO2 out of seawater and make fuel out of it [1], others can use the method too. Even if the US won't share the technology outright, just knowing it can be done will let others know the idea is worth investing in.

[1] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/07/200715123120.h...

The innovation is the easy part.

The hard part is that the structure of our governance is such that extractive industries wield way more power than they would in other environments.

My sincere guess is that we'll kludge the problem with relatively low-tech geoengineering solutions. Primarily stratospheric aerosol injections. The technology is very well understood and fully mature. We know with certainty, from historical volcano eruptions, that a large enough dosage will lower global temperatures near instantly. And the cost is low enough that even a single mid-size economy could afford to unilaterally engage in it.

The downsides are secondary environmental effects (e.g. ocean acidification), the hesitancy of a single country to make a climate altering decision for the rest of the world, and the general bad optics of sweeping the problem under the rug for future generations. All that being said, up until now the tangible costs of climate have so far been relatively mild. If nothing big enough gets done on the carbon side, which seems increasingly likely, then warming will reach the point where it starts imposing major economic and humanitarian costs.

At that point, it's nigh inevitable that at least one major power will bite the bullet and start pumping the stratosphere full of sulfur dioxide.

I’ve seen enough sci fi movies and watched human behavior long enough that the aerosol idea terrifies me. I can see that going so wrong and plunging us into an ice age that we didn’t predict or many other scenarios because we didn’t understand everything as well as we thought we did. Let’s hope that is the absolute last resort.

And I’m not anti science. I’m a former scientist and almost all my experiments usually ended with me realizing I don’t know what I thought I knew, especially when I took something from a simple system I understood and added it to a complex system (the earth in this scenario).

Atmospheric scientist here, currently non-practicing. You’re making the same mistake that climate denialists make, but in reverse. We actually know a great deal about climate feedback mechanisms now. We know the residence time of SO2 in the upper atmosphere. We know how to calculate the change in solar flux as a result. We can model what will happen — we know this because our past climate models did well with the uncontrolled experiment we're already running. Simply because the Earth system is complex doesn’t mean we don’t understand it enough to foresee catastrophic failure.

And if we overshoot cooling, we know how to fix it. Just pump methane into the atmosphere. Stuff lasts a few decades before breaking into ozone and CO2 (via NOx). We already know how that turns out because we’re doing it now.

Lack of perfect knowledge about the Earth-atmosphere system is not an excuse for inaction. The grand experiment was already begun in the 1800s, and it’s too late to call it off now. We must take both decarbonization and geoengineering strategies if we want to escape the worst of this.

I'll admit, I'm also skeptical about our ability to manage climate by pumping even more into the atmosphere. The CO2 models have been very accurate, but doubling the number of variables more-than-doubles the complexity. SO2, for example, is even more acidic than CO2, so we'd risk helping the temperature while making the oceans worse.

SO2's instability is somewhat reassuring, and I'm willing to consider a plan, especially if atmospheric scientists can come to a similar overwhelming consensus as they have on CO2. But until such a plan exists, I believe we need to focus heavily on decarbonization because that's a plan we are absolutely certain to be effective. To the extent that geoengineering reduces the urgency of that, it risks making things worse.

Not sure what you mean by doubling the variables. Climate models have to take as input levels of all sorts of greenhouse gasses: CFCs, methane, water, and CO2. And land use change, which changes albedo and CO2 and water. And aerosol emissions, which are often point sources, which vary from light reflective particles to black carbon on snow. And also feedback mechanisms like deglaciation and sea ice change and three different cloud feedbacks. And change in aviation as a direct creator of clouds.

The amount of geoengineering we are already doing is massive and multivariate. If you don’t believe we can handle one more variable of a well known aerosol’s effect in our models, then you should consider disbelieving all climate models.

Here's another way to put it: The "zero dimensional" model of CO2 is incredibly straightforward. You add CO2, temperature goes up. It's trivial and undeniable, and all by itself tracks fairly well with the observed warming.

Better modeling adds precision, and has been even more accurate, but is difficult for the non-expert to evaluate. It should be easy to trust its track record, but without that positive gut feeling I get from "We've been burning fossil fuels and it would be bizarre if the temperature didn't go up".

So I'm able to base my confidence in the models on a simpler model that I do understand. It's easy to accept that the existing additions (CFCs, methane, ocean currents, land, ice, etc) are valid (especially since they also track the data so well). But SO2 would be a brand-new variable, so I don't have as good an intuition.

I know it's not brand-new. As with CO2, the basic physics of SO2 are well understood, we've observed natural experiments with SO2 emission several times. It's definitely promising.

But I really want to see a full plan in place and become comfortable with it before we begin to rely on it. Because otherwise, having watched people deny that trivial, obvious stuff for ideological reasons, I expect them to seize on geoengineering as "stage 6 denialism": "It's real, it's our fault, it's not good, reducing CO2 would help, it's not too late... but only because somebody will dump SO2 into the atmosphere and so we should start all the coal factories up again".

No, that does not require some incredible earth-shattering event. It requires political consensus of a majority of nations. Like was done to forbid emissions of ozon-layer damaging chemicals.

People thought that obviously, all countries would see the common interest in protecting Earth's climate. There was ONE major rogue nation in this big plan: USA. G.W Bush was the one who presented climate change denial as a respectable policy. I am not sure people measure the impact of this position.

Most other advanced countries cut down their emissions, much more than the US did (no, it is not a matter of density, distance between cities or so on: even if you remove all emissions due to vehicles, USA is still way above EU).

> The developing world wants modern life, and if they have to burn fossil fuels to catch up, they will.

China will peak at a much lower level of CO2/capita than the US currently has. Given the current trajectory, it is quite possible that China will never in its history emit more CO2/capita than the US.

> Extraordinary visionary leadership in the right place at the right time

Give me a break. Listening to the consensus of experts, both international and domestic experts, on issues that threaten the whole ecosystem, is not "visionary leadership". It is called "not electing a cartoon villain in office".

> even if we magically had a green revolution and became the worlds first zero-emission nation

You would also need to nuke Bhutan and Suriname, two carbon-negative countries.

> frankly, too US-centric

Try buying petroleum from OPEC in anything but USD: https://www.opec.org/opec_web/en/data_graphs/40.htm

Corollary: http://www.cnn.com/2000/WORLD/meast/10/30/iraq.un.euro.reut/

USD is the world reserve currency. Most international trading occurs in terms of dollars.

It's amazing how long we have known about the impact CO2 would have on the climate. We're now talking about human lifetimes, and yet look at where we are in the public debate. We are still mostly ignoring the issue or debating its reality.

Who is "we"? The IPCC was created in 1988, at the alarmed demand of the Weather and Environment offices of the UN. In 1997 the Kyoto protocol was signed by 184 countries, recognizing the urgency and the need for CO2 reduction.

Only in the US is there a political debate about climate change denialism. Thanks to you it is coming to other countries, but before GWB it was a fringe position everywhere.

My read of OP's point was that the fundamental science has long been known. The problem was recognised at a global scale both publicly and at high levels of government by the 1960s. Denialism is strong in the United States, but as with other recent (and ongoing) global crises, also prevalent elsewhere.

For a timeline of awareness of the problem we can go back over 200 years for early insights:

1800-1870: Level of carbon dioxide gas (CO₂) in the atmosphere, as later measured in ancient ice, is about 290 ppm (parts per million).

Mean global temperature (1850-1870) is about 13.6°C.

First Industrial Revolution. Coal, railroads, and land clearing speed up greenhouse gas emission, while better agriculture and sanitation speed up population growth.

1824: Fourier calculates that the Earth would be far colder if it lacked an atmosphere.

1859: Tyndall discovers that some gases block infrared radiation. He suggests that changes in the concentration of the gases could bring climate change.

1896: Arrhenius publishes first calculation of global warming from human emissions of CO₂.

1897: Chamberlin produces a model for global carbon exchange including feedbacks.

1870-1910: Second Industrial Revolution. Fertilizers and other chemicals, electricity, and public health further accelerate growth.

1914-1918: World War I; governments learn to mobilize and control industrial societies.

1920-1925: Opening of Texas and Persian Gulf oil fields inaugurates era of cheap energy.

1930s Global warming trend since late 19th century reported.

Milankovitch proposes orbital changes as the cause of ice ages.

1938: Callendar argues that CO₂ greenhouse global warming is underway, reviving interest in the question.

1939-1945: World War II. Military grand strategy is largely driven by a struggle to control oil fields.

1945: US Office of Naval Research begins generous funding of many fields of science, some of which happen to be useful for understanding climate change.

1956: Ewing and Donn offer a feedback model for quick ice age onset.

Phillips produces a somewhat realistic computer model of the global atmosphere.

Plass calculates that adding CO₂ to the atmosphere will have a significant effect on the radiation balance.

1957: Launch of Soviet Sputnik satellite. Cold War concerns support 1957-58 International Geophysical Year, bringing new funding and coordination to climate studies.

Revelle finds that CO₂ produced by humans will not be readily absorbed by the oceans.

1958: Telescope studies show a greenhouse effect raises temperature of the atmosphere of Venus far above the boiling point of water.

1960: Mitchell reports downturn of global temperatures since the early 1940s.

Keeling accurately measures CO₂ in the Earth's atmosphere and detects an annual rise.

1962: Cuban Missile Crisis, peak of the Cold War.

1963: Calculations suggest that feedback with water vapor could make the climate acutely sensitive to changes in CO₂ level.

1965: Boulder, Colo. meeting on causes of climate change: Lorenz and others point out the chaotic nature of climate system and the possibility of sudden shifts.

1966: Emiliani's analysis of deep-sea cores and Broecker's analysis of ancient corals show that the timing of ice ages was set by small orbital shifts, suggesting that the climate system is sensitive to small changes.

1967: International Global Atmospheric Research Program established, mainly to gather data for better short-range weather prediction, but including climate.

Manabe and Wetherald make a convincing calculation that doubling CO₂ would raise world temperatures a couple of degrees.

1968: Studies suggest a possibility of collapse of Antarctic ice sheets, which would raise sea levels catastrophically.

1969: Astronauts walk on the Moon, and people perceive the Earth as a fragile whole.

Budyko and Sellers present models of catastrophic ice-albedo feedbacks.

Nimbus III satellite begins to provide comprehensive global atmospheric temperature measurements.

1970: First Earth Day. Environmental movement attains strong influence, spreads concern about global degradation.

Creation of US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the world's leading funder of climate research.

Aerosols from human activity are shown to be increasing swiftly. Bryson claims they counteract global warming and may bring serious cooling.

1971: SMIC conference of leading scientists reports a danger of rapid and serious global change caused by humans, calls for an organized research effort.

Mariner 9 spacecraft finds a great dust storm warming the atmosphere of Mars, plus indications of a radically different climate in the past.

1972: Ice cores and other evidence show big climate shifts in the past between relatively stable modes in the space of a thousand years or so, especially around 11,000 years ago.

Droughts in Africa, Ukraine, India cause world food crisis, spreading fears about climate change.

1973: Oil embargo and price rise bring first "energy crisis".

1974: Serious droughts since 1972 increase concern about climate, with cooling from aerosols suspected to be as likely as warming; scientists are doubtful as journalists talk of a new ice age.

1975: Warnings about environmental effects of airplanes leads to investigations of trace gases in the stratosphere and discovery of danger to ozone layer.

Manabe and collaborators produce complex but plausible computer models which show a temperature rise of several degrees for doubled CO₂.

1976: Studies show that CFCs (1975) and also methane and ozone (1976) can make a serious contribution to the greenhouse effect.

Deep-sea cores show a dominating influence from 100,000-year Milankovitch orbital changes, emphasizing the role of feedbacks.

Deforestation and other ecosystem changes are recognized as major factors in the future of the climate.

Eddy shows that there were prolonged periods without sunspots in past centuries, corresponding to cold periods .

1977: Scientific opinion tends to converge on global warming, not cooling, as the chief climate risk in next century.

1978: Attempts to coordinate climate research in US end with an inadequate National Climate Program Act, accompanied by rapid but temporary growth in funding.

1979: Second oil "energy crisis." Strengthened environmental movement encourages renewable energy sources, inhibits nuclear energy growth.

US National Academy of Sciences report finds it highly credible that doubling CO₂ will bring 1.5-4.5°C global warming.

World Climate Research Programme launched to coordinate international research.

1981: Election of Reagan brings backlash against environmental movement to power. Political conservatism is linked to skepticism about global warming.


14 years ago Google started a project to make renewables cheaper than coal.


It feels like this slow train wreck will have to get worse before we do enough, giving us more time to advance technology.

The United States is no longer the biggest emitter. Now we need more global coordination.

Of course, the sooner we started addressing the problem, the longer we could have delayed the problem.

Fusion by 2050?

There's two reasons for that.

1. Trillion-dollar fortunes are built on pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. We, as humans have committed genocide against entire cultures over less money.

2. The wealth of industrialized societies is not built on money, or labour. It is built on energy. All of their wealth is derived from energy. Fossil fuels are an incredible source of energy. Cost-effective competitors to them had limited potential to replace them, for a large number of technical and political reasons.

Jules Verne was talking about coal depletion in the 19h century (albeit with a more positive note)

In the 60s France started switching to nuclear power because it worried about the depletion of oil wells in the areas it controlled. It is wrong to say nuclear power can't power more than 10% of a country.

Somewhat more substantively, so were William Stanley Jevons, in The Coal Question (1857),[1] and earlier by John Williams, a mineral surveyor, in Natural History of the Mineral Kingdom (1789).[2]

Thing is that since the time of Jevons, the only energy sources added to our knowledge are nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, and the rather improbable prospect of antiatter annihilation (an energy carrier rather than energy source).

Solar PV has emerged as an energy conversion technology, first discovered as the photoelectric effect in the late 19th century and scientific theory identified by Einstein.

We've seen considerable technical improvements to technologies known since the 1950s, but also clear limitations (fission and fusion most especially, but also maximal efficiencies of PV and battery storage). Efficiencies have improved, toward the bound of theoretical limits, and costs fallen.

But we're still largely living in the world of 1857 in terms of the options available to us.



1. Jevons: https://archive.org/details/TheCoalQuestion

2. Referenced by Jevons. Available at https://archive.org/details/naturalhistorym00millgoog

Solar power and batteries have come a long way, but there's still little political will to change things. Nuclear power could progress a lot further too, but again no political will.

There's no economic forcing function either since coal and gas remain on average the cheapest and easiest to deploy and manage sources of energy, and that won't change unless there's enough investment in alternatives to get them over the mass adoption hump.

The worst fears about fossil fuel depletion have so far not manifested, which might be a bad thing long term. We may have enough fossil carbon to cause truly catastrophic climate change if we actually burn a significant fraction of it.

I wonder though if the economic structural problem isn't even harder to solve. The entire financial system relies on eternal growth. Number must always go up or everything breaks.

Even if we put an end to most fears about supply side limits to growth by cracking fusion or developing super cheap utility scale batteries, there would still be demand side limits to growth from things like stabilizing populations and diminishing marginal utility of wealth. Mere stability without significant growth would bring about the collapse of the financial system and the economy as we know it, and probably quite a lot of political turmoil since we don't have a really great replacement sitting in the wings.

(No, planetary migration won't keep GDP growth going any time soon. Humans could settle on the Moon or Mars but they're too far away to contribute much to our Earthly GDP. They'd be mostly isolated economies of their own.)

> (No, planetary migration won't keep GDP growth going any time soon. Humans could settle on the Moon or Mars but they're too far away to contribute much to our Earthly GDP. They'd be mostly isolated economies of their own.)

I don't really agree with your take on things but this one stuck out to me as particularly wrong. If there were suddenly another population of humans on another planet, there would, at a minimum, be a regular flow of digital goods, as well as physical shipments, largely one way earth -> mars.

Good comment, don’t know why you got downvoted.

I will say I disagree about fossil fuel being cheapest though. The data show we’re at the inflection point now such that new renewables are cheaper even than natural gas and coal. That is very likely to get even cheaper.

I think the real exciting and interesting challenge is how to adopt society to energy that is incredibly cheap and abundant BUT not necessarily stable. Batteries are the most obvious and likely best solution, but are there other adaptations that we could make?

Consider, for example, and two-priority grid: your house could have one circuit that it “interruptible” and may cut off during severe shortages, while a second circuit is uninterruptible and powers things like your heating in the winter. This is just an idea off the top of my head, but there are many many other things that we could potentially do to adapt.

Why in the world is this comment being downvotes? There is nothing in this comment that I see is incorrect, and if you’re going to vigorously down vote because “I don’t like things that make me feel bad!” you at least ought to comment as to what could be wrong here.

It’s not a question of political will solar is now cheaper than coal in the vast majority of the world. It’s one of the reasons why coal went from 39% in 2014 of US generation down to 19.3% in 2020 with a lot more scheduled for decommissioning over the next 5 years. Even when Trump was making many pro coal speeches, industry viewed coal as a dead end.

China is often mentioned as adding new coal power plants, but even there coal fell from 80% of electricity generation in 2010 to 57.7% in 2019.

Natural gas on the other hand has become more popular, but it also produces significantly less CO2 per kWh.

Coal use had decreased quite a bit in the US but I believe it’s understood that cheap natural gas has been responsible and not solar.

So far as the importance of coal I think an overlooked aspect is that it’s a major ingredient in manufacturing steel. In the last year alone steel has shot up 37% in price, which has big implications for all sorts of industries.

The US also dropped total fossil fuels due to a mix of wind and solar. What specifically killed coal however wasn’t just prices but dispatch ability as natural gas is far cheaper to turn off and on daily. Crazy cheap solar means the ability to turn off generation every day will continue to become more valuable.

  Per person annual electricity generation was: 
  Fossil Fuel   8,626 kWh in 2014 vs 7,861 kWh in 2019
  Solar            55 kWh in 2014 vs   327 kWh in 2019
  Wind            570 kWh in 2014 vs   914 kWh in 2019
  All Renewable 1,689 kWh in 2014 vs 2,302 kWh in 2019
Fossil fuels actually peaked in 2007 at 9,922 kWh vs 1,170 kWh of Renewable.

Solar is only cheaper if you don't count storage. I think storage will eventually catch up, but it's not there yet.

You can hit ~60% of total electricity generation using solar with 0 storage. Wind is still cheap even if mostly used at night, add in existing hydroelectric dams and natural gas generators and you’re there.

You only need storage if you want to hit 100% green grid which is a great goal but separate issue from simply saving money.

He said that political will could fix problems where there is no economic forcing function to do so. For people who subscribe to an extreme Ayn Rand view of the world, that’s a heretical statement. Markets are believed to be a magic bullet that solves every conceivable problem and coordinated effort not done in search of profit is always bad.

Every utopian dream contains a totalitarian nightmare in it, unfettered capitalism is no exception. The truth is that different problems require different solutions, markets are good for some things but not others.

> But let’s assume there is indeed enough time, and that we suddenly get serious about planning. What should we do?

In the United States public planning is typically limited to figuring out how to prop up the private financial system for one more quarter. In the U.S. most money is created through real estate mortgages. Although people like to talk about gold, crypto, consumers, producers, and government spending the mainstream financial system in charge of allocating the resources is really a mortgage based system.

Suppose someone has an estate with buildings and structures with replacement cost of $200,000. A broker says the estate has a comparable sales price of $600,000. In a loose money system we just trust the banks and brokers to do all of the planning, publicly guarantee mortgages at the reported $600,000, and have federal reserve buy assets to prop up prices at whatever number private finance has fixed upon.

In a slightly tighter system, we might cap real estate loan guarantees at 200% of replacement cost of non-land fixed capital. So if property has buildings and fixtures worth $200,000 public loan guarantees max out at $400,000 even if broker says property is worth $600,000. In order to write up price to $600,000 the owner would need to install $100,000 more in fixed capital, the effect of which is to redirect a larger share of the money created through mortgages to other sectors of economy.

How to use this to promote green energy investment?

Suppose instead of a replacement cost cap of 200% there was a replacement cost cap of 150% for normal capital and 250% for green capital. Then in order to take out a property loan for $600,000 the owner would have to install at least $400,000 of normal capital (structures, fixtures, equipment) or at least $240,000 of green capital (solar panels, wind turbines, lifted mass storage systems), regardless of how high the land values in the location had been written up.

In our current system the incentive of brokers is really just to write up asset prices as high as possible until the financial system collapses in order to generate some nice asset gains during credit bubbles. We can take advantage of this greed and use it to promote green energy investment by tightening up rules for lending against speculative land values using fixed capital replacement cost caps, which are slightly looser for fixed capital which is green.

The very last sentence sums up this general ethos quite well:

> Agriculture may have set us humans on an unsustainable path, but fossil fuels broadened that path to a superhighway.

We need to put the "agriculture was our biggest mistake" trope to bed. Sustainability is an illusion. Nothing is sustainable in the cosmos, it just looks that way when you constrict the time horizon enough. Pre-agriculture, Homo Sapiens were on the constant brink of extinction, just like every other animal. The earth provides no safe comfort to any being. (The fact that we've created a society which provides for me to type this screed without glancing over my shoulder once is a miracle.)

Humans are unique, and agriculture was a monumental step in our epic journey. Without agriculture, the dunes of Mars would crumble in darkness and countless stars would radiate for no conscious creature to marvel at and wonder.

Fossil fuels were a tremendous gift: cheap energy. Without it, who knows how far behind our society would be? We almost certainly wouldn't yet have commercial air travel, 4+ billion people globally connected on the internet, or mRNA vaccines.

Yes, no gift comes for free. But let's not treat this like some deal with the devil. It is up to us to manage the costs (and they are real!) We don't master plan this stuff, but I'll bet on humans to figure it out every time.

So, is it any surprise that someone that calls agriculture "the biggest planning failure in human history" would have this conclusion?

> Without planning, this is what will most likely happen: we’ll fail to produce enough renewable energy to power society at the level at which we want it to operate. So, we’ll continue to get most of our energy from fossil fuels—until we can’t, due to depletion. Then, as the economy crashes and the planet heats, the full impacts of our planning failure will finally hit home.

If you're going to be a doomsaying pessimist (which, mind you, every era of history has had in droves), at least put some effort into it.

> “Based on present knowledge, it does not appear likely that the fission of uranium or thorium could ever support more than 10 to 20 per cent of the energy system of the United States patterned as at present.”

I think he was clearly too pessimistic about the potential of nuclear.

> Today, the US gets about 8 percent of its total energy from nuclear power...

Note this is of all energy including the gas in your car. Obviously we are reliant on electrification if our transport system to tackle that, which doesn’t seem considered here. Possibly he didn’t foresee the potential to electrify transport hence the pessimism. No one is expecting solar, wind, or nuclear powered cars. They’re expecting solar, wind, and nuclear powered electricity grid charging batteries in cars, third rails, and overhead catenary.

Nuclear is ~20% of all electricity output on that grid today in the USA. And in France it’s ~70%.

It’s clear it can go to much higher.

Given how long these problems have been staring us in the face, it's truly hard not to be totally pessimistic about the future. If we haven't changed yet, do we even have the capacity to do so?

This strikes me as the real question here.

The world is (one hopes) just beginning to emerge from a global disaster of a known variety, for which there has been longstanding scientific and technical understanding, as well as existing paybooks for dealing with the situation. Response by the most capable and technologically-advanced countries has often been abysmal.

The coming global energy transition is going to be orders of magnitude more complex and fraught than the COVID-19 pandemic has been. And this is uncharted territory, with no tested playbook (the IPCC guidelines and publications are at least a playbook), and ongoing dissent within and among countries as to measures to be taken and how costs are to be allocated.

William Ophuls studied this question beginning in the late 1960s. His PhD dissertation in political science at Yale was published as Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity[1] in 1977 (it's been revised since), and the question has been Ophuls's life work.[2]

In particular, Ophuls's assessment of the global situation in the 1970s, the likely developments in ensuing decades, which 44 years on we can compare against history, and likely sticking points yet to come, stand out. Ophuls is a realist, but an optimist (perhaps somewhat less of the latter with time). He does see a path out. But it hasn't been the path chosen over the past five decades.



1. Ophuls: https://archive.org/details/ecologypolitics00ophu

2. Bibliography: https://www.worldcat.org/search?qt=worldcat_org_all&q=au%3Ao...

Problems are solved by optimists. Dont be pessimistic, we will solve problems as they arise. If you are truly worries about your future the best way is to get into the trenches.

I admire the spirit of this comment but can't quite get onboard, because "the trenches" can be kind of a demoralizing place, especially when you're not winning the war. I've spent 30 years bike-commuting for example and have been car-free for much of that time. The lifestyle has many liberating aspects but it strongly encourages without quite requiring, that you forgo or reduce certain things, like day-trips, sightseeing, shopping for furniture or other large items, other kinds of shopping, social outings, playing drums in a band, fishing? I dunno, any location- or gear-intensive hobby. Consumption overall (not just on transportation) tends to go down, so it's great for saving money.

But do I feel like a hero for all the fuel I saved, the carbon I didn't emit, the road space I freed up? Do I feel like I made a difference? No, all I did was make it easier for others to do those things, and boy did they ever continue doing them, in increasing numbers, the entire time. Even my so-called people, transportation reform "activists," bend over backward not to "shame" each other for buying cars, and buying cars to replace the cars they bought before. So I feel more like a sucker than a hero when I consider all that. In the end it has to be about just getting outside and enjoying the fresh air.

Sounds like a great experiment and a lifestyle choice that should be available to those who want it. But individual action will always be trumped by invention. The fully optimistic way forward isn't self sacrifice, it's developing the things -- neighborhoods, vehicles, fuels, whatever -- that make it possible for everyone to do more stuff with less energy, and enjoy doing it.

With the trenches I mean get into into energy :)

That's the #1 area to solve for any future civilization and we are going to need a hell of a lot more than what wind, solar or even fossil fuel can deliver in the future. Energy-density is where it's at IMO.

How do you know that the problems you're solving are contributing globally rather than just getting you out of local extrema?

I imagine global warming will present many such problems with solutions that will have no impact on global warming itself.

I think the answer (at least to me) is obvious. Maybe because I think about climate a little different than most, who knows.

Climate and nature have always been a problem for humans, and will always be a problem for humans. The good news is that we have never been better able to deal with the problems that the climate throws at us even if some of them are partially self-inflicted.

If you are worried about climate change because of CO2 emissions there is one problem you need to solve and that is energy. Not by some low energy-dense and elaborate daisy-chain rube-goldberg constellation that will only make energy more expensive, require all sorts of backup and complex infrastructure and thus make it harder for poor people to get out of poverty and as you point to, not actually change much.

Instead look for clean, energy-dense solutions like Thorium, Fusion or maybe even some sort of fuel-cell that can scale at affordable economics. We are going to need a lot more energy in the future so better find something that actually works on large scale, that's the #1 problem to work on.

I just wanted to let you know this was a beautiful comment. I had a brutal day at work today and spent all evening moping about issues that arose that were intimidating and daunting. Seeing this was exactly what I needed

What's your data backing this hypothesis, by the way?

Problems are solved by realists, not optimists.

Unbridled optimists sell woo.

Realists just accept things as they are. Optimist believe they can change the future in ways realists can't. Optimism is the mental beacon for any progress not realism.

No. Realists accept reality as it is.

You're confusing realism with presentism, or perfectionism (in the sense that the present is "perfect" and fully developed).

Realism is neither.

Optimism is the rejection of unwanted, unpleasent, or inconvenient truths.

“As it is” is always temporary. Optimists change “what is”. Not all are going to succeed but some are and thats what moves us forward :)

"As it is" in this case is not static to time. It includes dynamics, values, relationships, and heuristics of evolution.

What I find hard to understand is that you pit realism as the antonym of optimsim. The correct antonym is pessimism.

Both optimism and pessimism are biases. Realism is the absense of bias.

I don't pit it as an antonym. I am simply responding to your claim that it's realism that moves things forward :)

Realists are navigators, optimists are starters, pessimists are never-starters :)

You need bias to move things forward.

The word you're looking for isn't "optimism", it's "hope".

That's perseverence without denial.

no optimist have hope, you cant be a hope. I am perfectly aware of the words i use :)

The word describing someone having hope is hopeful.

Yes thats still not the same as a A realist, A pessimist or AN optimist.

And the point is that you need multiple factors.

Realism to correctly assess the situation and dynamics.

Hope and/or perseverence to follow those through to their potential.

Again: optimism denies reality. It gets you into trouble eventually, even if it can glide over some rough spots. At best, optimism can limit self-sabotage or inhibition. It does nothing to change the Universe itself.

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