Friday, August 03, 2007

You say tomato, I say tomahto

Brian Schmidt has an interesting post over at Back Seat Driving which Eli would encourage all to go read. Tokyo Tom, from the old Prometheus gang pointed Brian to a recent paper by Jim Hansen. Hansen's hair is on fire. He and his co-authors think that we are VERY close to a non-linear transition to out of control sea level rise as the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps start to disintegrate. You can read about that on Brian's blog and in the paper. Brian points to a suggestion from Hansen, et al.

We conclude that a feasible strategy for planetary rescue almost surely requires a means of extracting GHGs from the air. Development of CO2 capture at power plants, with below-ground CO2 sequestration,may be a critical element. Injection of the CO2 well beneath the ocean floor assures its stability (House et al. 2006). If the power plant fuel is derived from biomass, such as cellulosic fibres5 grown without excessive fertilization that produces N2O or other offsetting GHG emissions, it will provide continuing drawdown of atmospheric CO2.
about which
Tokyo Tom and I disagree somewhat about the last paragraph. He thinks it lends support for open-air carbon capture, the approach favored by Roger Pielke Jr. and the only semi-mainstream idea more speculative than geoengineering. I think Hansen's referring to carbon sequestration from biomass power generation, which is a means of extracting GHGs from the air.
Eli would have commented about this at Back Seat Driving, but comments appear to be turned off, or the Rabett has taken his stupid pills. It appears to Eli that they are both right, which is why the suggestion is elegant. Plants extract CO2 from the atmosphere on balance and convert it to biomass. The are evolved to work with low concentrations of CO2. In that sense TT is right, the plants are efficient at open air capture. By burning the biomass in a power plant the CO2 is captured in the smokestack where it is concentrated. This proposal separates the capture (diffuse) from the sequesterization (concentrated), optimizing each step. In the diffuse capture step plants are much more efficient and lower cost than the various liver in the sky schemes that have been suggest. The gas in a smokestack given efficient combustion, is almost completely water vapor and CO2. The former can be condensed, leaving almost pure CO2 to be sequestered.


TCO said...

That would be really cool if we could get one of those tipping point events. Global warming is just not something that I can see in my daily life. I live in Virginia and we ain't got no damn palm trees or alligators. Not even in the Dismal Swamp. I want to see those move north. Want to touch and feel the hot face of the sun. Oorah, muthafukkaz!!!

Anonymous said...

No method of open air capture makes sense as long as there's such a huge amount of coal plants and needless "transportation" spewing almost pure CO2 to the atmosphere.

It is very weird to talk about this.

There is a huge amount of energy that could be saved directly. A lot of it by simply paying attention.
Legislation, education, lifestyle...

-Flavius Collium

Anonymous said...

The issue is not whether CO2 capture works. It does -- although whether it could work on a scale that would make a significant dent in the amount of CO2 we are emitting remains to be seen. the other thing that remains to be seen is whether it would cost more to do CO2 capture than to reduce emissions through efficiency improvements and the use of renewables like wind power. I seriously doubt it. it makes sense to capture CO2 at the emission points like power plants, but open air capture remains an open question.

There is another issue.
All of this stuff -- CO2 capture, transition to hydrogen economy, building of renewable generating facilities -- costs money and unless there are incentives (in this case government incentives), no one is going to invest a dime in mitigation. The one exception is efficiency improvements, since they can actually SAVE money.

Based on the fact that the people in our government (both parties) seem happy ignoring bridges that are falling apart and are far more interested in spending a trillion dollars destroying a country that never presented a threat to us, I'm not optimistic.

The answers to our current predicament have existed for a long time. Pielke was not even born when people like Amory Lovins started touting energy efficiency, hydrogen cars and renewable energy.

Lovins basically invented the "no regrets" solution (and that terminology to describe it) that Pielke has referred to repeatedly in the past (with no attribution to Lovins by Pielke anywhere that I can find -- certainly not on his blog)

We should listen to people like Lovins because -- unlike Pielke -- they actually have a clue.

Anonymous said...

Correction to above:

"other thing that remains to be seen is whether it would cost less to do CO2 capture than to reduce emissions through efficiency improvements and the use of renewables like wind power. I seriously doubt it."

One other point. One of the issues here is that whatever we do has to be quick. One can make a pretty good argument based on past experience that efficiency improvements and other conservation measures are probably the quickest along with cheapest solutions around.("Quick and clean" solutions)

If we changed all the incandescent bulbs in the US to high efficiency fluorescents TOMORROW, the US could immediately reduce our emissions by 4% -- and the emissions reductions would pay dividends in perpetuity. Not only that, the average consumer would save over $100 PER BULB replaced on electricity over the life of the fuorescent bulb.

The problem here is that there is no political will and then, of course, we have the people who keep trying to throw doubt on the reality of AGW by posting photos of weather stations on the web sans the descriptive data that explains how the station data is actually used (or not used).

EliRabett said...

It would be good AND efficient AND economical to do both.

bigcitylib said...

I think old school environmentalists (for example, I'm not saying that anon 7:14 is one) will have to swallow a bit of pride in the years to come. Maybe sequestration, maybe nukes, and etc.whatever gets the job done.

The Royal Societies--in a declaration that Eli linked to about a month or two ago--recommended throwing the book at the problem: sequestration, nukes, solar, you name it.

sidd said...

I am interested in the main body of his argument. I read the paper and could see no obvious fault in it. Bamber et al. (Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 257 (2007) is consistent with one of his points: that the timescale for icesheet melting in the paleo record reflects the timescale of the Milankovitch solar insolation anomaly and not the internal timescale of the icesheets. I quote the last sentence of Bamber here:

'Given this great uncertainty, we are able to confidently state that modern-day ice sheets can respond rapidly to external forcing, but if asked "Will ice sheets in the near future respond rapidly to external forcing?" we must give a qualified "maybe".'

Earlier in the paper they point out the model uncertainty in ocanic heat fluxes, (which are perhaps two orders of magnitude greater than atmospheric fluxes). Barnett et al. (Science, 309,pp 284-287) already find significant heating of the Southern ocean. Coupled with the ice albedo flip and vegetation changes decreasing (NH) high latitude albedo it may be that Hansen is correct when he indicates that the answer to the last question in Bamber is 'Probably'.


Steve Bloom said...

Flip? For those who don't pay close attention to these plots, it now appears inevitable that new record low Arctic sea ice area will be achieved at least a month ahead of schedule. The bottom point last September over on the left is the previous record low, BTW. UIUC has had some errors in the past, so I called Julienne Stroeve at NSIDC and she confirms that this is no illusion. NSIDC itself doesn't provide daily plots or even a monthly area plot (FYI they call it concentration rather than area), but the just-posted July extent plot (scroll down to see it) is a doozy. Julienne points out that pretty much all of what's left of the thicker multi-year ice is piled up against Greenland and the Canadian archipelago, meaning that there much of the remaining pack is eminently meltable thin first-year stuff.

We live in interesting times.

Magnus said...

IMHO the “extraction” part is easier to figure out then how to store CO2 with reasonable costs...

ChrisC said...

Big City Lib:

While this is going a bit OTT, a note on nukes. Nuclear power is not carbon neutral. Far from it. Each step of the nuclear cycle uses energy. Uranium Ore must be mined and milled, the elemental Uranium must be extracted. The Uranium must be then be enriched (separation of the U-238 from the fissile U-235) and contained and trnasported. The power plant must be constructed and decommissioned (which, given the nature of the plant is a much greater undertaking than for a conventional power plant). Finally, the nuclear waste must be processed and disposed of. ALL of this uses energy.

According to a study by Smith and Van Lueewin in 2001-2005 (see:, the CO2 emissions for nuclear power range from 20%-120% of that of high efficiency gas turbines. The study was critised by the WNA however. Personally, I find the WNA critique a little strange in some places, particularly some of it's comparisons with wind turbines that don't match the numbers I've dealt with in my own experience, but I haven't read it closely enough to comment further.

My point is that nuclear power is not a silver bullet. THe Gittus review in Australia found that it would take 15-20 years after the construction of a nuclear reactor to start seeing some of the bennefits in CO2 reduction.

Brian said...

Thanks for the link, Eli. Comments are working now at my site. Haloscan occasionally turns itself off for inscrutable reasons - maybe I should switch to another comment system.

ankh said...

>tco ... tipping point
The last big tipping point for the Americas was in 1492.

papertiger said...

"One of the issues here is that whatever we do has to be quick."
Whoa there little doggy.
Why do we have to do anything at all? Because Hansen is a hysterical fool who thinks Barbara Streisand's beach front villa will be carried off on the next tide?
That's not a good enough reason. For one, there hasn't been any appreciable sea level rise in the last 387 years (Plymouth Rock is still at sea level just like back when William Bradford first "polluted" this continent with his presence, in 1620 ), and two, because Bab's can afford to move (heck she can afford to move twice).

Quickly - what is the danger of herd mentality?-> stampede.
Let's not stampede this climate change herd.

North Pole webcam says "shucks it's cold up here". Steve's squiggly lines be damned.

Brian said...

Quite the refutation of Hansen, Mr. Papertiger. Now I understand why his argument is wrong.

Actually, I meant to write something partially substantive earlier, which is that I expect the economic feasibility of sequestration scales with the emission output of any single source. Biomass plants tend to be small relative to coal, so sequestration could be problematic there.

OTOH, biomass sequestration should be offered twice the economic incentive that anyone else gets for sequestration, so maybe it'll work.

TCO said...

Flourescent lighting looks crappy. I like the warm feel of in can desce ence. Plus there is that little joy of hurting the planet. Like when I lived in SOCAL and used to flush the toilet a lot just cause I knew the NOCALs were mad that we take their water.

ankh said...

Chuckle. I love the way they claim to be skeptics, and fall for every bogus story someone's ever posted on a climate denial site.

You guys ought to learn to _look_ at the history to check for facts before you make up your stories or repeat what you've been told.

TCO said...

What if I had a neighbor who bought a hybrid and then ostentatiosly started burning kerosene (for no reason). Would that enrage him? Would he shoot me? Would it make the news?

Anonymous said...

tco, considering the good neighbor's practices that you confess yourself about your SOCAl living, if your neighbor some day shoots you, I'm sure that there will be no shortage of reasons for it. On the other hand, if all you want to do is make the news, there are many ways you can do that. However I recommend just being yourself, which could eventually take you there better than any concerted action you'd design.

EliRabett said...

Anon, I rather suspect TCO was raising the snark flag.

Steve Bloom said...

An up-to-date North Pole webcam shot looks a bit meltier, and as of this morning Cryosphere Today shows us as being very, very close to setting a new Arctic sea ice area record low six weeks ahead of the likely minimum. Limbo down!

Anonymous said...

In fact, here is a shot from today. Notice the meltwater ponds and the temperature of 5.5C, that's around 42F!

Rattus Norvegicus

Steve Bloom said...

RN, that 5.5C temp was probably more or less the daily high for today (8/7) since it was around 2:00 pm, but notice that the one from 8/3 that I linked was around 7:00 am and still showed *2C*; i.e. right now the ice seems to be melting all day every day. Well, that explains why the ice area is headed south so fast.

TokyoTom said...

Eli, thanks for the reference. My point to Brian was simply that Hansen, given the sense of urgerncy in his paper, probably intended that we should be looking not only at ways to capture and sequester CO2 at power plants (either conventional or biofuel) but also other means of extracting GHCs from the air (which could target not only CO2), including ocean fertilization or other means that Branson's awards program (refereed by Hansen) is designed to target.

I was not intending to make particular policy suggestions myself, but it appears to me that we are exceedingly unlikely to bite the bullet in time to avoid a doubling and significant pain. As a political approach, environmental groups might consider, both from strategic and tactical grounds, shifting to a discussion of the need to spend money now to prepare to adapt to the changes that are coming (and to help finance infrastructure and governance in more vulnerable countries). These adaptation costs can be funded by fees that would also tend to mitigate climate change.

TokyoTom said...

By the way, contra to Jim Hansen's concern that we may see significant ice sheet changes on a scale of less than a century, I note that a 2000 paper by UCLA's Glen MacDonald concluded that the eurasian arctic was 4-12 deg F warmer in summer for the period from 7000 to 9000 ybp - Presumably it was also much warmer in Greenland at that time, but it seems that we did not lose Greenland.

The only discussion I could find of this paper is by Pat Michaels.; Does anyone have any thoughts on how this and other evidence for a warmer early Holocene fits into Hansen's concern? Is there a dispute over the degree, location or duration of the warmth of that period, or some other explanation?

Dano said...

Hansen answers TT's speculation explicitly here.



Anonymous said...

oh Eli -- have you noticed that Ms. Byrnes is touted as a leading "surface station spotter" by Watts; although I'm not quite sure her total number of sites visited. It is pretty impressive considering she's too young to drive.

I guess having a psychotic right-wing stepdaddy helps! Although the pics of her standing next to temp gauges seems to me that she's quite bored with it all, so I guess the evil stepdaddy is forcing her around all these trips. But child abuse for "the cause" isn't so bad I guess....

TCO said...


Science Blogs and Climate Audit considering hosting CA on SB.


(Pretty genious move from a commercial standoint. Gotta hand it to Tim.)

Brian Schmidt said...

At Dano's link, Hansen says

"it may prove necessary to draw some CO2 out of the atmosphere; this will be feasible by burning biofuels in power-plants with sequestration, provided that we only slightly overshoot the “permissible” CO2 level."

Anonymous said...

> TCO said...

Ah,and elsewhere you're attributing this story to Eli.

Hmmm. You do seem to be an equal-opportunity kind of guy; over at CA you sound like a climatologist, elsewhere you sound like an auditor.


TCO said...

I think the rumor started on this blog. Eli??

TokyoTom said...

Thanks, Dano. It seems from the paper you reference that Hansen is mainly arguing for the burning of biofuels in power plants with CO2 sequestration, but he also also advocates other steps "to ‘draw down’ atmospheric CO2 via improved farming and forestry practices" that would enhance carbon retention and storage in the soil and biosphere. We shouldn't forget those.

Hansen notes that the biofuels should be derived from cellulosic fibres grown without excessive fertilization; if we ended corporate welfare (and refrain from subsidies for corn-derived ethanol) for farmers and created incentives for sequestration, could we not have the beginnings of an economic basis for recreating the perennial prairies that "buffalo commons" enthusiasts dream of, with annual mowings instead of burns? We will still need some type of certification authority to confirm that sequestration takes place in order to generate investor interest.

Dano said...

My issue with biosequestration is what is a ton? When did it become a ton? How long is it a ton? How does it become a ton again? Is the ton allowed to be tacked on to other ecosystem services?

Nonetheless, I see sequestration as a component of the solution, not the solution.



John Mashey said...

re: tokyotom, cellulosic

Corn is likely just a transient fuel-crop; a lot of smart people think miscanthus is *way* better as a fuel crop, even before the likely genetic engineering. On the other hand, corn ethanol will at least get the distribution network in place, and more vehicles built as flex-fuel designs, both of which are important.

If you haven't run into miscanthus, start with the Wikipedia entry and rummage around in UofI's and Argonne National Lab's web pages.

Steve Bloom said...

TT, given that we're seeing the effects of surface melt on Greenland under present conditions, I find it hard to imagine that there wouldn't have been an obvious sea level bump from 2,000 years of temps substantially higher then present. As well, wouldn't we expect to see a big melty gap in the ice cores?

Dano said...

I've been using Miscanthus for quite some time in my landscape designs.

Oh, wait.



TokyoTom said...

Dano, if the object is to reduce climate changes and their impacts, then we must aim not only to reduce net contributions of GHGs to the atmosphere but also to eventually actually LOWER GHG levels. Sequestration is useful for the first prong and essential to the second.

TokyoTom said...

Steve, good point, but still speculative. What do we know about about the sea level changes at that time? Maybe there is a significant chunk of Greenland that is very resistant to thawing.

Dano said...





Steve Bloom said...

TT, IIRC the sea level proxies show levels not much different than at present, and note that under present temperatures we're seeing a significant advance in summer melt area. Also, while there can be considerable regional temp differences at high latitudes (due in part to Milankovitch cycles, noting that northern Siberia is rather farther north than much of Greenland), I don't know if the difference implied by that paper is thought to be within a reasonable range. Did you GS it and check the AR4 paleo section, BTW?

TokyoTom said...

Steve, I`m still a newbie at what you suggest. I reviewed MacDonald`s article directly after seeing Pat Michael`s article and emailed both MaCDonald and Jim Hansen but haven`t heard back.

Steve Bloom said...

You might try emailing Xavier Fettweis, who likely has more time for such things than does Hansen. But I would still suggest that you try researching it for yourself first. Do you need links to those resources?

Steve Bloom said...

Noodling around a bit more, apparently a fair amount of temp variability is thought to have prevailed around the Arctic during the Holocene thermal maximum. McDonald notes several reasons for this, including that sea level was indeed much lower during the early part of the period when the forests got established (resulting in less of a cooling effect from the Arctic Ocean) and that the low albedo of the forests tended to make the warmth persistent. Per the ice cores, during that period Greenland never got more than about 2C warmer than present. Note that the McDonald paper doesn't claim that it was necessarily much warmer than that in their study area, but simply gives a possible range based on what the trees could have tolerated. Given that, it seems more plausible that temps were more toward the lower end of the indicated range.

Distorting these results as Pat did is pretty much SOP for World Climate Report.

Steve Bloom said...

Just to note that the paper I looked at for the ice core record is available for free viewing at Climate of the Past. On page 5 it says:

"In the mid-Holocene, Greenland ice core stable isotopic data
point to a 1.5C multi-centennial warming above present-day
(Masson-Delmotte et al., 2005), compared to 2 to 2.5C inferred
from the borehole temperature profiles (Dahl-Jensen
et al., 1998; Cuffey and Clow, 1997)."

IOW, even the 3.5C Pat quoted for the Dahl-Jensen results seems to have been a bit of an exaggeration.

Finally, bear in mind that the GHG-driven kind of warming we're experiencing now is quite different from the Milankovitch-driven warming of the HTM. The latter doesn't increase global insolation ar all, but simply shifts some of it to higher latitudes. GHG warming, OTOH, warms everywhere and will have effects at lower latitudes that can then influence the Arctic.

Anonymous said...

paper tiger asks: "Why do we have to do anything at all?"

Because oil will run out eventually and because efficiency improvements save money and resources

Some of us need no other reasons.

We like saving money and the planet at the same time.

Surely, even a completely self-absorbed libertarian can understand such a simple argument.

With regard to the nuclear option, it makes more sense to take part of the huge capital investment required for a nuclear plant and invest in efficiency improvements. Over the long term, the emissions reductions to be had through increased efficiency will far outweigh those to be had through the nuclear option.

TokyoTom said...

Thanks, Steve for the additional information. Of course you're right about the significant difference between GHG global forcing and a Milankovich forcing.

Jim Hansen states his concerns more forcefully here (I imagine you've already seen it):

John Mashey said...

re: anonymous 6:25PM

Besides the various other issues of human civilization we face, there are two obvious&related global ones:

1) Peak Oil
2) Global climate change

For the former, a good source is Strahan's "The Last Oil Shock", which you can get from Google Canada or UK, or see some at

2015 +/-5 years is what everybody is estimating for the world peak, which is *not* when oil runs out, it's when half the production has been taken out, and production rates start the long decline. Since demand continues to grow, it is not that hard to expect oil prices to go up. I will be surprised if gas in California isn't $10/gal in 10 years.

The longer the use of oil is stretched, the longer we have to make non-catastrophic shifts of infrastructure. Longer stretch also means slower addition of GHGs, which maybe gives us time to figure out coal CO2 sequestration.

To a first order approximation, GDP/person ~ energy / person (i.e., take energy used x efficiency), and a major reason that human wealth has gone up with the industrial revolution is the increase in energy. This is why, 200 years ago in the US, 80% of the people were farmers, 100 years ago, 40%, and now 1-2%. Tractors make a big difference.

As gas/diesel prices rise, the US changes a lot, as do global supply chains {Walmart?], vegetables shipped from half the world away, air travel....

I'm sure the 30% of the population that has to leave the suburbs and go back to working on the fields will be real happy.

Note: for many oil & coal executives, their bonus will be higher if they convince customers *not* to conserve, i.e., given the time value of money, and quarter-to-quarter accounting, it is better to sell the fossil fuel quickly ... even if that means a serious train-wreck after they've retired. Under no circumstances do you want demand to flatten out or go down, as that would reduce your revenue. [This is no complaint, just an observation of the way it works, although it is certainly not true of all oil execs - I know some who are beyond this.]

Even if there were *no* global warming issue at all, Peak Oil is coming. For some bizarre reason, many economists act as though the world is on an easy track to keep getting wealthier, whereas a bunch of our wealth is from a one-time inheritance of fossil fuels that we're rapidly burning up. Also, the warming already inevitable will cost some of us a lot of money [certainly, here in California, those costs are already getting baked into government plans ... so expect you fruits and vegetables to get more expensive, not even counting the extra transport cost.]

Hopefully, we can make the transition to solar/renewables/biofuels fast enough both to avoid a big depression and the climate change tipping point that wrecks a lot of infrastructure.

The 21st century will be interesting, and I wish all you younger folks luck with it.