What Happens When We Finally Panic Because Climate Change Really Is Real?

Stuart Staniford has a WONDERFUL post about what I think is the most likely scenario - we finally acknowledge the (obvious, scientifically clear) reality of climate change and panic, and try and fix it...having waited too long.  He asks...what might that look like?  He's not shooting for perfect accuracy here, just some general scenarios, and I think he comes to what is generally the right conclusion, always barring the real but harder to model possibility of a non-linear change;

The red curve shows what happens if we wait another decade - until 2030 - to start bending the emissions curve, with emissions then peaking in 2040. Now, atmospheric CO2 doesn't peak until around 2065, at a level almost double the pre-industrial concentration. Very scary.

By contrast, the yellow curve shows what happens if we start to bend the curve now and manage to constrain emissions to peak in 2020. That results in a concentration peak in 2040 at about 440ppm. Still pretty bad - we have already left it late to act. Nonetheless, I consider the yellow curve to be unrealistically optimistic - I don't see signs that the world is taking the issue seriously enough to cause an imminent reduction in the growth rate of carbon emissions this year or next.

It's worth emphasizing that the exact details of these scenarios are not likely to prove accurate - how long it takes for emissions to peak after starting to reduce the growth rate, how fast we will be able to get negative, and how negative, are all uncertain. These are generally indicative rather than precisely accurate.

It's also worth noting that peak temperature is likely to be decades after peak atmospheric carbon.  So, from the point we start to get really serious, it will then be around fifty years until peak temperature. Dealing with this is going to be a life-long effort for all of us, and all of our children and grandchildren.

The larger point is - however late we've left it to act, it's always possible to make it much worse by waiting even longer.

His last point bears repeating several times.  There is a tendency to either deny that we've left it too late (ie, minimize) or to claim that having waited so long, there's no point in doing anything.  Neither of those is correct, and it is simply time to acknowledge it and work with what we've got.


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What happens if your predictions are wrong?

Are you going to recompense people, with interest, for the money they have had to pay up front?

Gosh, the world might be better off, and more just! What an unacceptable sacrifice!

(Are you going to recompense the earth for all the carbon you've emitted?)

Nick, even if Sharon and others prediction on climate change are wrong, the "money [people] had to pay up front" would have gone towards less air pollution, cleaner waterways, less damage to environments due to extraction of resources, etc., etc., etc.

The recompensation, with interest, is in a cleaner environment overall. Even if anthropocentric climate change is incorrect, you can't possibly try to argue that industrial civilization is still VERY polluting to the environment, causing numerous other harms besides CO2 release into the atmosphere. You may not be concerned about the CO2, but aren't you concerned about polluted water, acid rain, acidified oceans, etc?

In my opinion, investing in reducing emissions is worth it no matter what. A cleaner environment is all the recompense, with interest, that I need.

Not just a cleaner environment - better survival of the ecosystems we depend on, and the interesting animals which inhabit them.

Why is it always about the MONEY with these people (Nick and friends, I'm talking about YOU)??? Never a thought for the evil things that result from the blind pursuit of the almighty dollar.

People like that make me wonder if there is ANY hope for mankind.

By GRinSoCal (not verified) on 14 Jan 2013 #permalink

They're not wrong, Nick, you are.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 14 Jan 2013 #permalink

I'm going to retrieve and re-post a comment I made back on Garden Contingency Planning a few months back that I posted so late, I don't think it was noticed, if I may:

It’s kind of off-topic, but what do you think of terra preta and the whole concept of adding charcoal/biochar to garden/farm soil? I don’t think we all have ever really discussed it much here, or if we did, I missed it.

The reason I ask is that, after reading about it for some years, this winter, I have begun shoveling some coals out of my stove, and quenching them it water and then putting them aside for later crushing and adding to some garden soil.

At some point, I am going to experiment with making a small biochar “cooker” out of some steel pipe. I plan on taking a 3 or 4 inch diameter steel pipe and fitting it with removable ends. I’m going to stick some smaller firewood pieces in it and place it in my stove fires (a masonry heater actually.) I am planning on drilling a few holes in it to let out the off-gases and then recovering the charcoal at the end of the fire.

I read recently that a ball park figure for adding charcoal to soil is about 2 pounds per square foot. Scaling that up to farm fields, that’s about 43.5 tons per acre. Given that a pound of carbon/charcoal equals about 3.65 pounds of CO2, that’s a lot of carbon tied up in soil if done on a world wide scale, though this assumes that the touted agricultural benefits of added charcoal are at least partially true.

Even making just 5 or 6 pounds of charcoal in this way, in theory pulls out all of the approximately 18 or 19 pounds of CO2 the gallon or so of gas that I burn in the chain saw for every cord of wood I cut. 5 or 6 pounds of charcoal is not even a full pail…!

I’m becoming of the mindset that it’s now too late to do much about averting a serious worldwide warming, but it seems to me that we still need to increase farm yields or at least repair agricultural soils in many areas of the world. Adding compost adds carbon as well, and of course that’s a good thing, but carbon added that way doesn’t persist in the soil as long as pure carbon/charcoal does. From what I’ve read, both forms of soil carbon seem to work together to increase soil nutrient retention as well as water retention which are thought to increase plant health and yield, all of which sounds good to me, even and especially if we end up living in a world where Greenland’s ice has washed into the ocean. A quick computation says even my 10 acres of presently tillable land up in Maine could hold 10X43.5X3.65=1587 tons of CO2 and it might help my crops (presently tenant-farmed by a neighbor) regardless of the sequestration.

One thing I do wonder is if the biochar will mess up the soil’s pH, this land being potatoes alternated with 2 years of grains and clover. Of course wood ash raises pH, but I wonder if biochar does? I suppose it depends if the biochar is rinsed in water before being added.

I envision local cogeneration facilities, burning local biomass crops, partially, down to charcoal in a modern, oxygen-deprived retort, generating heat and power, mainly in replacement for fossil fuels, with all ash and char being added back to soils. Over some time, this could return huge amounts of carbon to the world’s soils, return, in fact, more carbon than the Fossil Fuel Age has added so far. I don’t think burning biomass strictly for making biochar, without capturing and using the heat energy for other things is quite as desirable.

I know, nobody gives a damn about CO2 beyond our circle here…*sigh*

If not that, then I am still doing this on a small scale in my stove.

Even poorer farmers and gardeners around the world could add charcoal to their soils and increase their soil’s potential, though the poorest probably couldn’t afford to “waste” part of their meager fuel wood supply by foregoing a complete burn for charcoal making. I guess it’s really up to us “rich” nations to do this, which in a way makes some sense since we created so much of the problem by de-carbonizing our soils and putting so much CO2 into the atmosphere to begin with.

I guess I already laid out my thoughts. What say you or any other of your readers out there?

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 14 Jan 2013 #permalink

I read a posting on Science Daily magazine a few days back which stated a couple of interesting things. The insurance industry is the worlds largest industry money wise. It has accepted the reality of climate change and is putting a lot of money into studying things to do about it, alternate energy sources, for example. If this article is correct, it seems to me that climate denialists have been marginalized, whether they know it or not.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 14 Jan 2013 #permalink

I think wood ash still has a lot of potassium in it.

Biochar is supposed to have nothing other than carbon.

I should explain my comment about rinsing charcoal better.

What I've been doing so far to make biochar is to pull live charcoal out of a fire and dunk it in water. Even then, when I scoop up the charcoal, I get a fair amount of wood ash, and that is what I think makes my biochar a bit high in pH, and yes, higher in potassium as you say Wow. I therefore rinse this charcoal in water until I see no grey ash.

I don't think charcoal/biochar made in an oxygen-deprived container would have any ash in it as the char never really buns at all.

I wasn't really clear what I was referring to with my rinse comment previously I don't think.

I am surprised we haven't heard much about recarbonizing soils via biochar. I think it's about the only realistic scheme for sequestering excess atmospheric carbon that I can think of that might work on a worldwide scale and possibly help out agriculture as well.

Of course we still have to stop digging up and burning new fossil fuel carbon as well.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 15 Jan 2013 #permalink

I want Nick to recompense me for the time I wasted reading his post.

By Little Billy Ockham (not verified) on 16 Jan 2013 #permalink

Conversion by the routine similar to creating charcoal will produce a substance much closer to biochar than ash does.

Nick, are you going to pay for the damage done by AGW because you were denying it and stalling for time while it got worse?


There's potassium carbonate in ash, which is useful for making soap, because it is caustic, i.e. high pH.
The carbon in biochar will inevitably contain metallic impurities such as potassium, sodium etc, because you can't get them all out by simply burning it. But it won't do much to raise soil pH.

I've read and heard of biochar for years, it just isn't mainstream for whatever reasons - either the corporations can't work out how to make money out of it or educating the politicians is taking too long.

Stephen B: "It’s kind of off-topic, but what do you think of terra preta and the whole concept of adding charcoal/biochar to garden/farm soil?"

I did as much serious investigating as I could last year; met several of the very serious academic and industrial researchers in "biochar" as they tend to call it. My conclusions: nobody understands it very well; but every test seems to come up with "something is really going on here." That came from peer-reviewed type stuff.

We're looking into "doing", now. There's still a fair amount of mystery involved; the one guy I know in Illinois who is producing and selling biochar to researchers - refuses to disclose exactly how he makes it. That's typical.

So- go for it! And report back. : - )