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Posted on 21 May 2014 by Marcin Popkiewicz

Carbon history of the world

Take a look at the history of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels burning. Note - this is not just the story of emissions. This is also the story of the growth of the industrial civilization based on fossil fuels. This is the story of prosperity - people were getting well-off where emissions were growing. This is also the story of political might – countries with high emissions were more powerful economically, politically and militarily - they ruled the world.

This is a world of Great Britain in 18th and early 19th century. This is a world of colonial powers of Europe and USA in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Those, who didn’t participate in emissions, didn’t also have a real say, even regarding their own issues. Even the most populous countries of Asia were just pawns on the global chessboard – with a notable exception of Japan, who joined the club of powers through fast industrialization. Today is still no different.

Have you been paying attention to the bottom right panel of total annual emissions? Have you noticed their growth in time?

Exponential fossil fuels

Every person interested in climate change has seen the graph of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels burning.

Figure 1. Growth of carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels during the period 1751-2012 (black line); source: CDIAC. Blue line represents exponential function growing at a rate of 2.8% per year (i.e. doubling every 25 years).

It’s worth noting that for generations we have witnessed an exponential rise of emissions (growing by constant percentage every year). Sometimes emissions grow more slowly (periods of the Great Depression/WW2 and Oil Crises), sometimes faster (turn of 19th/20th centuries, post WW2 boom), but they go up faster and faster.

A blue line on figure above marks an exponential function growing by 2.8% every year. Such a rate of growth means doubling after 25 years. After 50 years emissions are quadrupled, after 75 years they increase 8-fold, and after 100 years 16-fold. During one doubling (25 years) we emit as much carbon dioxide, as during the whole earlier period since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. During 27 years, between 1986 and 2012, we have emitted more CO2 from fossil fuels burning than in the whole earlier history of humanity. This is past. What will the future bring? A continuation of the more than 250 years old trend would mean that in period 2010-2050 emissions would triple to 100 bn tons of CO2.

Exponential world

The exponential nature of growth of CO2 emissions is not something unusual. Our world is changing really fast and it is completely different from what it was just a few decades ago. Populations and the global economy are growing: global GDP is increasing, as well as the amount of money in circulation, production and trade exchange. The faster those indexes increase, the more jobs there are and wealth is growing and economists and politicians are pleased as they perceive economic growth as the most important indicator of prosperity and progress.

Figure 2. Key economic trends. Sources: Population: World Population Prospects, UN; Global GDP [USD]: USDA Economic Research Service; Money in circulation [USD]: Estimated Global Monetary Aggregates, M3, Dollar Daze, Global export [USD]: Values and shares of merchandise exports and imports, UNCTADstat; Cars manufactured: Motor vehicles production statistics, OICA; Paper production [tonnes]: Paper+paperboard, FAO; Cement production [tonnes]: Bureau of Mines Minerals Yearbook, USGS Minerals Information.

There is also another side of this coin. With the increasing scale of our economy, we need more and more energy, metals, water, wood, food and a number of other resources.  Many of them constitute non-renewable reserves, while others (fish, forests, ...) regenerate only with a certain pace, which should not be exceeded as this may lead to their degradation and depletion. Our economy’s growth is also accompanied by the increase in the amount of produced waste, loss of natural habitats and accelerating species extinction.

Figure 3. Key trends in resources and environmental exploitation. Coal consumption: BP Statistical Review of World Energy [tonnes], Oil consumption [barrels]: BP Statistical Review of World Energy; Iron ore extraction [tonnes]: Bureau of Mines Minerals Yearbook, USGS Minerals Information; Water consumption [m3]: Water withdrawal and consumption, UNEP/GRID-Arendal; CO2 emission from FF burning [tonnes]: Global Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions, CDIAC, BP Statistical Review of World Energy; Species extinction rate: Rachel Carson Endangered Species, USGS; Number of low-oxygen dead zones: Global Biodiversity Outlook 3, UNEP Convention on Biological Diversity.

These are not only abstract charts on a piece of paper but a picture of a real world you live in. If it seems to you that pace of changes is accelerating, this is exactly what is happening. You came to live in times where people will have to face the fact that our reserves consumption and impact on environment meet unalterable physical limits. Particular charts, examined separately could raise an alarm every responsible person concerned about our planet, but we have to understand that they are all interconnected. Rising red line of CO2 emissions on the graph above is just one aspect of this world of growth.

Economy as well as the number of manufactured products is growing and at the same time our natural resources consumption and environmental impact is also increasing.
Is it possible that curves presented on the second chart will grow indefinitely, or will their growth begin to slowdown and stop at some point, and then head downwards? With regards to non-renewable natural resources, such as crude oil, gas as well as metal ores, it is the only possible scenario – the only question is, when it is going to happen. With regards to renewable natural resources like forests, fishing grounds and our planet’s ability to absorb our waste, there also exist certain limits breaching of which would be perilous.
When the growth of the resource consumption curves in the second chart slows down and then turns into decline, what will happen to economic curves from the first chart?
What is going to happen when the economy and the financial system requiring constant growth start hitting their limits?

It is not possible to sustain the economic growth when the economy is interlinked with consumption of "hard" natural resources. For example, energy consumption increases at the same pace as global GDP, while CO2 emissions grow even faster.

Figure 4. Changes in the actual global GDP, energy consumption and CO2 emissions from fossil fuels burning.

Let’s take a look at a simple dependency, beginning with identity:

OK, that’s obvious. Now let’s multiply the right side of the equation by two 1’s:

Now let’s slightly transform this identity relation:

Let’s consider this at a world scale. Politicians and economists do everything they can to maximize the GDP growth – and for a reason: current financial system is stable only in conditions of perpetual exponential growth. The second factor – quantity of energy used for a unit of GDP since 2000 didn’t noticeably change. In 2012 the world economy was 34% larger than in 2000. So was energy consumption. Whereas individual countries may quite easily decrease their emissions just be moving the energy-intensive production abroad (e.g. from EU/US to China), on the global level energy use follows the economy size. What about the third factor – CO2 emissions related to the unit of produced energy? In spite of huge investments in renewable energy sources this relation goes in the wrong direction – the main reason is growing coal share in the energy mix.

How can we visualize the magnitude of the challenge of CO2 emissions reduction? In order to avoid rise of the average Earth’s surface temperature by more than +2°C we will have to reduce our yearly emissions of CO2 from current  level of 10 GtC to no more than 1.5 GtC in 2050. This would require emissions reductions by 5% a year.

Meanwhile world’s governments and economists are doing their best to ramp up the GDP growth, saying that 3% is a minimum. In order to reduce the emissions to 1.5GtC a year, quantity of fossil fuels burned per unit of GDP would have to decrease by 8% every year. Currently, insted of falling, it goes in the opposite direction.

What if everyone in the world would enjoy the current way of living of a typical European (assuming the Europe will stop growing and American and Australian will reduce their consumption to the European level)? World GDP would rise 6-fold. We would have to reduce CO2 emissions/GDP to less than 3% of the current level. It means complete decarbonisation of the world’s economy.

Exponentially rising risk

If our natural resources consumption and waste production was low in comparison to biosphere’s size, that would not present a problem. However this is not the case, not even now. Furthermore, pressure on increasing natural resources consumption and environment, fuelled by increasing wealth of billions of citizens of China, India and other developing countries desiring to emulate Western lifestyle, is getting more and more intense. Looming growth limits manifest themselves as tension between growing demand and supply that is lagging behind, which is already visible in increasing oil and food prices, as well as wasted ecosystem services and climate change.

Strong economic growth was easy to achieve when with the aid of cheap energy sources we had been developing new areas (mines, agriculture, fishing grounds, etc.) Now easily accessible resources have all been used which makes us reach for those of inferior quality and which are less conveniently located, and the energy is becoming less and less accessible. Moreover, increasing costs of externalities (especially adverse costs of climate change), will take its toll, increasing burden on the economy,  and forcing us to allocate more and more resources to disaster relief, infrastructure overhaul and adaptation.

In the extreme case of unyielding adherence to outdated 20th century solutions and lack of proactive steps undertaken – economies may cease to function entirely. Investments level is going to drop, increasing debt is going to result in financial collapse, accompanied by loss of value and trust in currency and slump of the supply system. As a result of this we are going to see economic breakdown, mass unemployment, demise of governments and infrastructure disintegration, which eventually is going to lead to famine and total breakdown of the system.

Formulas for growth stimulation, financial system stabilization as well as energy supply tested by many generations are no longer working – simply because the world without growth is governed by completely different set of rules and those who do not understand this and do not change their way of planning and operating, will land themselves in serious trouble. Short-term actions, oriented at specific problems are going to result in escalation of other problems and exacerbation of long-term situation. We cannot allow this – urgent precautionary actions need to be taken.

Even if we cannot be fully confident of such turn of events or believe it is still distant in time (which probably isn’t), we cannot rule it out completely – it is therefore prudent to „buy insurance” while we still have resources allowing us to effectively take actions. Lack of action may only mean that crisis is going to intensify and we, together with our economy, are going to go steadily downhill, focusing our attention, energy and resources even more on immediate „patching up of the holes” rather than on investments in our future.

What we need is vision presented and decisions made with a long term perspective. We also need systemic changes that are going to ensure that society enters sustainable development path with particular emphasis on Green Tax Reform (tax imposed on resources consumption rather than on work, especially Carbon Tax).

We cannot let ourselves a luxury of failing this “experiment”. We have only one planet.

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Comments 1 to 31:

  1. But surely, unless I've misunderstood something, CO2 emissions are not increasing at 2.8% a year. They're increasing at about 2.5 to 3 ppm. Given levels are currently at 400ppm, this isn't 2.8%.

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  2. The temperature forcing caused by Co2 is logarithmic in the concentration of Co2 in the atmosphere. Log of an exponential function is a linear function. So a rough prediction of the rise in temperatures is a linear rate. This is a fact which is barely understood by most of the public.

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  3. Antelope, that does seem confusing. But emissions are different from accumulation. Recall that about half of the emissions are taken up by ocean and land 'sinks.' There may be other problems with the math here, but do be sure to distinguish rate of rise in emissions from rate in rise of atmospheric concentration.

    SkS, there seems to be a graph missing after the first paragraph. Great post, by the way (as usual).

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  4. Ah yes. Thanks.

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  5. Austrartsua; Perhaps, but the real world is not necessarily going to respond in a linear manner. "Discontinuities" of various sorts are likely looming. As major reinforcing 'positive' feedbacks kick in, there are likely to be sudden surprises. Alley and others point out that sudden sea level rise cannot be ruled out, and recent research has tended to reinforce this claim. Arctic sea ice melt, especially if you look at volume loss, seems to be proceeding at an exponential rate. A number of systems are likely to undergo a rather sudden phase shift once pushed (linearly) passed a certain point. 

    In other cases, large-scale linear processes can create large local 'discontinuities,' as when expanding tropical cells cause shifts in long-term rain patterns at cetain latitudes, for example.

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  6. @austrartsua

    Temperature growth will be roughly linear with our emissions (they grow exponentially). See IPCC WG1AR5 SPM Figure SPM.10, also explanation on SkS.

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  7. @Will. There are also negative feedbacks which tend to keep the earth system stable in response to changes in forcing. As I am sure you are aware, the direct increase in radiative forcing cause by a doubling of the concentration of Co2 is about 1C. What else happens, is all down to feedbacks. Do we know what the tally of all these feedbacks is? Not really, it is an exciting area of research. However I would say that there is reason to believe the earth is reletively stable in the face of a change in radiative forcing of 1C, by argument of contradiction (not definitive, just a heuristic idea).

    Suppose that the earth was highly sensitive to changes in radiative forcing of order 1C. Then the system would be unstable. Small changes in radiative forcing would lead to large swings in the systems temperature. Such a system would probably not be long-lived and certainly would be unlikely to support a bio-sphere for billions of years. 

    Is this a water-tight argument? Of course not and we really do need to work out what the climate sensitivity is. However, you can think of this argument as a combination of the Gaia hypothesis and the anthropogenic principle. If the climate sensitivity was very high, life wouldn't exist here! 

    So I agree, we wouldn't expect to see a linear trend, but something else. What else? That's an open question.


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  8. Marcin, this is an excellent article, but the derivation of the formula is scientifically nonsensical (if mathematically imaculate).  I could as easily derive a relationship as follows:

    CO2emissions = CO2 emissions

    CO2 emissions = (Conspiracy Theories/Conspiracy theories) * CO2 emissions

    CO2 emissions = Conspiracy Theories * (CO2 emissions/Conspiracy theories)

    and conclude that to reduce CO2 emissions we need only eliminate conspiracy theories.

    Your final formula is based emperically based correlations that are also theoretically predictable.  Your derivation conceals rather than illucidates that fact.

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  9. @Tom Curtis

    This is the variation of Kaya identity (or I=PAT formula)  It's generally accepted.

    As to your theory that elimination of conspiracy theories would eliminate CO2 emissions. Well - that's not sure, because one would not only multiply by ZERO but also divide by ZERO in (CO2 emissions/Conspiracy theories) part.


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  10. Austratua- "There are also negative feedbacks which tend to keep the earth system stable in response to changes in forcing." Such as?

    I dont think there is much evidence of earth system stability in response to change of forcing. More like natural forcing only changes very slowly. The only known "thermostat" is the very crude weathering feedback which operates over million year timeframes.

    There is a high degree of confidence from both physics and paleoclimate, that climate sensitivity is between 2 and 4.5, mostly likely around 3. A value of 2 is more than enough to cause concern given the rate at which we are increasing the forcing. We do not have many examples from paleoclimate of changes in forcing that occur this fast. We do have evidence that rates of climate change slower than present have not been good for many species.

    While the direct response to CO2 increase on only 1C, water and albedo quickly get you to 3 so you need evidence a strong negative feedback if you want to posit a low sensitivity.

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  11. Marcin @9, are you suggesting that in a world which includes AGW deniers there are no conspiracy theories?  I'm sure we can find some, if we look around and so find that my formula requires neither multiplication nor division by zero.

    More importantly, I agree that the Kaya identity is accepted, and very usefull.  It is not, however, accepted because of a mathematical derivation such as the one you show.  It is accepted because a strong correlation between energy use and wealth (GDP) has existed throughout human history; and because the use of fossil fuels generates a strong correlation between energy use and CO2 emissions.  Your derivation of the Kaya identity draws the focus away from its emperical basis, and appears to suggest it is accepted because of an empty formalism.

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  12. Austratua... To add to what scaddenp said, you also can't get well know processes to operate at 1C. For instance, with only 1C for CS you don't get glacial-interglacial cycles. 

    There are many very good reasons, like glacial-interglacials, showing why CS below 2C is highly unlikely. The real challenges are with higher CS figures. We can't eliminate 4.5C. We have reasonable confidence that methane clathrates are not going to a problem, but we don't know for sure what could trigger releases.

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  13. Excellent observations. And since our luxury materialistic lifestyle is one of the prime drivers for growth - and hence fossil fuel burning increases in the developing world, I believe we should have a major focus on a more sustainable lifestyle in the developed world. Its no use jumping up and down and waving our arms about fossil fuel consumption and sounding the alarm about global warming if we are not prepared to change our own lifestyles. Ther best way to slow fossil fuel burning is to use less energy ourselves because we will never beat the fossil fuel industry while the demand (and hence profit) is there.

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  14. Whilst one could blame the British for starting the exponential rise of CO2 through industrialization one should ask is such blame well placed. For much of the period humans were ignorant of the effects of rising greenhouse gas levels on the atmosphere at Earth's temperature.

    Discussion of the legacy of wealth thus gained is too complex, and politically fractious to go into much detail here other than to recognise that those enjoying the benefit of riches thus gained should shoulder proportionally more of the cost of mitigation and adaptation. This goes for other industrial and developed nations some of which have contributed proportionally much more to the GHG content of Earth's surface systems over recent decades.

    But of course this does not escape from the reality that Britain became rich and powerful from rapid industrialization which was in turn made possible by the earlier agricultural revolution and the trade abetted by Britain being an island with strategic geographical advantages which made the rise of sea power for that nation almost inevitable.

    However the rise in the atmospheric content of two main greenhouse gases of carbon dioxide and methane over a longer timescale has been investigated by, amongst others, William Ruddiman who has written papers and books on this topic. Amongst the latter are 'Plows, Plagues and Petroleum' and the more recent 'Earth Transformed', these are both worth looking up.

    Bill Ruddiman has also written more extensive texts such as 'Earth's Climate: Past and Future'. There is a useful introduction to William Ruddiman's research at RealClimate

    Debate over the Early Anthropogenic Hypothesis

    When it comes to the disproportionate GHG contributions of nation states then David JC MacKay has produced illuminating literature both web based and in handy book form with 'Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air' with Chapter 1 Motivations being of specific relevance here.

    Humanity faces many growing problems due to increasing development – mineral extraction, pollution, overconsumption and a huge, and growing wealth divide. The many ethical dimensions of the issues are encapsulated in a very small but topic rich publication 'The Little Earth Book' which contains over sixty small essay chapters, well worth looking up.

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  15. austrartsua

    "Suppose that the earth was highly sensitive to changes in radiative forcing of order 1C. Then the system would be unstable. Small changes in radiative forcing would lead to large swings in the systems temperature. Such a system would probably not be long-lived and certainly would be unlikely to support a bio-sphere for billions of years."

    There is a fundamental fallacy in this argument which is easy to miss if we just talk about feedbacks in a purely mathematical way. That the feedbacks have a consistent magnitude. So a positive feedback is seen as being continuously positive no matter how much feedback is applied. Such an implicit idea can lead to the notion that if feedbacks are strong then a system must be unstable.

    However in the real world many feedback, +ve or -ve, may be strong but of limited scope.

    A good example of this is ice sheets. Warming will melt ice sheets, changing albedo and producing a potentially strong +ve feedback. Right up to the point where the ice sheets have completely melted. After that point there is no more ice to melt and ice sheet change provides no further feedback at all. Similarly cooling expands ice sheets in a +ve feedback. Until the position of continents, percentage of ocean at different latitudes etc limits further ice sheet growth.

    So discussion of CS is really a discussion of CS relative to the current climate state. And there is no automatic argument that a higher CS in the current climate state (which is what we are interested in) implies a high CS in all climate states and thus an instability condition. Climate may better be described as a system that can fluctuate between several relatively stable states. Not stable. Not unstable. Metastable.

    Unfortunately a transition to a new metastable state may not be good for our health.

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  16. Lionel

    "one should ask is such blame well placed. For much of the period humans were ignorant of the effects of rising greenhouse gas levels on the atmosphere at Earth's temperature."

    I agree. While in principal we are responsible for the consequences of our actions, there is a  strong case to be made that our degree of responsibility is moderated/modulated hugely by how witting or unwitting we were when we took those actions.

    Conversely, if we were unwitting and then gained understanding later, how we respond to that discovery is of paramount importance. Discovering that we have unwittingly caused harm is sad and disturbing.

    Discovering that we have unwittingly caused harm and then continuing to do so is immoral.

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  17. austrartsua@7,

    Small changes in radiative forcing would lead to large swings in the systems temperature. Such a system would probably not be long-lived and certainly would be unlikely to support a bio-sphere for billions of years.[...] you can think of [...] a combination of the Gaia hypothesis and the anthropogenic principle

    Note that your "large swings in the system temperature" is not a correct statement. The main negative feedback, not mentioned by anyone yet, not allowing such swings is the increased outgoing IR due to increased temperature. This feedback does ensure that once the planet reaches the radiative equilibrium, it will not warm anymore. Well it'll warm slightly due to slow positive Earth System fedbacks like carbon cycle (e.g. thawing permafrost). But the system as a whole cannot axperience any "large swings", because the omnipresent outgoing IR negative feedback will counteract all Earth System effects.

    Your "Gaia hypothesis" can be viewed as a "spiritual take" of the theory of rock weathering, explained by scaddenp@10. However, I have no clue what your "anthropogenic principle" (?) is. I've never heard such term and am puzzled what you could have meant. Please explain.

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  18. chriskoz, that's probably some form of the anthropic principle. Possibly a stronger variant thereof.

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  19. chriskoz

    austrartsua has probaly the anthropic principle in mind.

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  20. Glenn Tamblyn @16:
    "Discovering that we have unwittingly caused harm and then continuing to do so is immoral."

    Thank you for this statement. It explains why some people want to repudiate the science of climate change: it clashes with their moral being as they find it hard to accept their past "immorality", even if it was unwitting. This understandable denialism also explains why most climate scientists continue to eat animal foods, despite the overwhelming evidence of disappearing forests that satellite images have brought into plain view (see ).

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  21. Lionel A @ 14,

    "Whilst one could blame the British for starting the exponential rise of CO2 through industrialization one should ask is such blame well placed. For much of the period humans were ignorant of the effects of rising greenhouse gas levels on the atmosphere at Earth's temperature."

    The Law of Karma has been well-known in the East for several millennia. It is the specifics of the Earth's reaction to a particular depredation that we're now beginning to unravel through science.

    The colonialists deliberately chose to deride every piece of wisdom that they found in the indigineous communities that they ruled by force. Therefore, the ignorance was wilful, not unwitting.

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  22. Everyone particpating in, or reading, this comment thread will want to check out Tom Engelhardt's new essay posted today on 

    Engelhardt's essay is titled, The 95% Doctrine - Climate Change as a Weapon of Mass Destruction

    It answers the question: Is Climate Change a Crime Against Humanity?

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  23. Marcin,

    I'm interested in more details of the "low-oxygen dead zones" in your figure 3. But it's hard to find more info/data in a general link you pointed. And the fact that the y-axis on figure 3 is nor quantified does not help. Can you provide more specific link with some detailed explanation what "low-oxygen dead zones" means, together with some data?

    PS: Thanks for that article which broadens the issue of AGW and touches sustainability. I've been enjoying your blogs and discussions in Polish media where you're doing terrific job explaining the science...

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  24. The graphs show what is increasing. Money is intangible so the inrease in the amount is not constrained by natural forces. The population is naturally reproducable so long as the essential sustenance is available. However, the tangible infrastructure of civilization is dependent on the availability of the declining stock of natural resources as it ages. Figure 3 gives the rate of exploitation of some of the resources. It does not show what is left. That exploitation cannot possibly continue. That assertion is simple logic. So the trend in Figure 2 cannot possibly continue, despite all the anthropocentric argument. Ironically the world model in "Limits to Growth" was a simple illustration of that stark reality decades ago. Yet society ignored that lesson so the future for the expanded population is becoming more dire. A dieoff is certain while the infrastructure disintegrates. Human decisions can do no more that ease the inevitable powering down.

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  25. That Real Climate link in my #14 above now goes to a very different looking page, this is the one I viewed (unless it is substituted again) Debate over the Early Anthropogenic Hypothesis. I have not previously seen this behaviour from RC.

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  26. I would like to join saileshrao in praising Glenn Tamblyn's insightful and articulate wording which I will reproduce more fully:


    While in principal we are responsible for the consequences of our actions, there is a strong case to be made that our degreeof responsibility is moderated/modulated hugely by how witting or unwitting we were when we took those actions.Conversely, if we were unwitting and then gained understanding later, how we respond to that discovery is of paramount importance. Discovering that we have unwittingly caused harm is sad and disturbing.

    Discovering that we have unwittingly caused harm and then continuing to do so is immoral."

    This is so well put (and something I have been trying to articulate but failed to do with this level of precision) that I hope GT will not mind if I use it elsewhere, properly cited, of course. I would add, though, that ignorance of consequences should not completely let us off the hook, since any marginally reflective soul should be able to be aware of his/her own ignorance and apply the precautionary principle accordingly.

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  27. Others have already addressed quite well most of  aust's points, but I would just add that Peter Ward has proposed a "Medea Principle" (or Hypothesis) to set against the Gaia--The earth does foster its 'children' for a while...until it suddently flies into a rage periodically and slaughters (almost) all of them in a mass extinction event. LINK

    We are now in the midst of just such an event, and it is getting worse.

    Note also that even with less than one degree C of warming above pre-industrial levels, we are already seeing non-linear, permanent changes kick in--Arctic sea ice will be essentially gone in the next few years or (at most) the next very few decades, and won't return any time soon no matter what happens. And now we hear that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is simillarly doomed, though that collapse will take a bit longer to play out.

    Unfortunately, the 'negative' damping feedbacks to raising of CO2 levels are both smaller in number and much slower than the positive feedbacks--think weathering of mountain ranges. The speed of our carbon 'forcing' is breathtakingly fast by any geological comparison.

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    Moderator Response:

    [RH] Fixed excessively long url that was breaking page format. In the future, please use the link tool located on the second tab of the comments box to hotlink your urls. Thx.

  28. will@27,
    "The earth does foster its 'children' for a while...until it suddently flies into a rage periodically and slaughters (almost) all of them in a mass extinction event."

    Not to pick on will, but the language here is very interesting and speaks to the hubristic source of our collective predicament: the Earth is an "it," while the Earth's children contain billions of "he"s and billions of "she"s, along with thousands of "Your Highness"es, "Your Lordship"s, "Your Holiness"es and such.

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  29. My version of “Think Global act Local” has become “Think Globally about all life and the Future - Act Locally Now and Forever”.

    I recommend adding a global population line to fig 3 and fig 4. Actually, a more interesting presentation would be to add figures showing the consumptions and GDP as “Per person” so that the per person rate of growth of these items can be more clearly seen.

    The total population has not grown as rapidly as consumption, which is clearly not sustainable growth on a finite world. Yet, even with these indicators of success growing faster than the population, many people still suffer horribly through no real fault of their own. They suffer because of the success of people who do not care how they personally succeed. Even very few humans benefiting from burning up non-renewable resources, or consuming other non-renewable resources without full recycling, is fundamentally unsustainable.

    This article is in line with my best understanding of what is going on. It, and the comments so far, have prompted me to re-visit my thoughts and present them in a slightly different way. I have submitted all of my related thoughts one comment....

    This article is a great summation of what has been going on and continues to go on. And there are even more unacceptable consequences from the burning of fossil fuels, such as the horrible conflicts between people who have been able to get away with benefiting more than others. They fight each other to remain the most wealthy and the most powerful from the unsustainable damaging limited opportunities they strive to benefit from. They also fight against developing groups who desire to become the most powerful, aspiring to be like the current most powerful through similar unsustainable unacceptable activities.

    The constant development of the best understanding of what is going on, particularly understanding what is unacceptable, in spite of its potential popularity or profitability, is key to all of humanity succeeding at becoming a sustainable part of life on this amazing planet (the only viable future for humanity)....

    I appreciate the many different groups that investigate and develop better understanding of things related to sustainable human activity. And I am beginning to appreciate that using terms like sustainability without fully describing what they are intended to mean provides more opportunity for people to interpret things as they wish. The definition of sustain had a “permanence” to it. However, some groups now use the word in ways that do not actually suit its meaning. The Alberta Government refers to efforts to sustainably extract the oil sands. They should be referring to prolonging or extending the opportunity to get away with it, since extraction of any non-renewable resource cannot be sustained it can only be prolonged.

    One thing I have recently learned is that electricity generation in Alberta is so horrible that, from a CO2 emissions impact perspective, in Alberta it is currently better to drive a car with a gasoline fuel efficiency of 11 litres/100 km than an all electric car (based on 2.3 kg of CO2/litre of gasoline burned, and electric car performance of 20 to 25 kWh/100 km). Alberta's electricity generation produces over 1.0 kg of CO2/kWh. That is 4 times the Canadian average of 0.25 kg/kWh. Alberta's electricity generation is also worse than China's current national average of 0.75 kg/kWh. Alberta is even worse than the highest level China had of nearly 0.9 kg/kWh in 2003....

    It is very important to better understand the impacts of the CO2 emissions aspect of unsustainable pursuits of benefit from burning fossil fuels. However, it is also important to understand the bigger picture. There are many other harmful unacceptable consequences of trying to benefit from burning fossil fuels. And there are many other aspects of the current global socioeconomic system that are similarly unacceptable, having no real future and creating harmful impacts on the future.

    Some believe that GDP growth can be counted on into the future. So any “future costs” of the impacts of today's benefits can be discounted because the future will be better. That is essentially saying that benefits by today's most fortunate are acceptable as long as the created future consequences, as figured out by the most fortunate today, are larger but not significantly larger than the benefit today's most fortunate figure they would be giving up not to create those future problems. That is like one person justifying their bad behaviour by claiming that the problems they cause other people are only a little bit more than the benefit they thought they would be giving up by behaving decently, an absurd justification since the creation of problems others will face is never justifiable....

    This amazing planet is expected to be habitable for several hundred million years. Humanity needs to be focused on constantly developing better ways to sustainable be a part of a robust diversity of life on this amazing planet, including a diversity of sustainable ways of living. Science and politics should both be focused on that clearly essential objective. Instead we see scientific pursuits wasted on developing unsustainable ways of gaining or prolonging benefit for a few through unacceptable actions. And we see political leaders beholden to people who became wealthy and powerful through their willingness to benefit from unacceptable unsustainable actions.

    When humanity has figured out how to be a sustainable be a part of a robust diversity of life it will have developed a gift worthy of spreading beyond this planet. And one key thing to be figured out is how to keep the few among humanity who will try to benefit from unacceptable actions from ever succeeding. Those trouble-makers spoil things for everyone else. They think life is a competition with the winner having the most stuff, no matter how they got it (like sports cheaters). And they believe that everyone else deserves what they end up with. They particularly enjoy “beating” caring and considerate people who are at a competitive disadvantage to a callous and cruel-hearted pursuer of personal benefit who can get away with the unacceptable things they are more than willing to try to benefit from regardless of the amount of evidence showing how unacceptable their desires are. And those are the kind of people who will persist at attempting to discredit and dismiss any evidence of how unacceptable they are. Those type of people want to enjoy their life as much as possible for as long as possible. Any delay of effective restriction on their unacceptable activities is a “win” for them. And they have been building many ways to keep their undeserved benefits after restrictions get imposed, their “safety-net”. And even if they can't keep all the undeserved benefits they know they enjoyed an undeserved better time for as long as they could get away with, which is really appealing to many people, should be appalling to everyone else.

    Those “successful” industrial powers were always fundamentally unsustainable. They all needed external resources to stay the power they were. And they all did unacceptable things to get control of those external resources for “their own maximum benefit”.

    And because the “basis of success” in the model has been getting away with success through unacceptable actions, those who are more than willing to behave unacceptably have been increasing in numbers among the successful and powerful, which is only accelerating the unsustainability towards its inevitable dead end.

    Some among the few who are more fortunate because of the over-consumption “their group” have been able to control and benefit from, are proposing going beyond the planet as the answer for their voracious unsustainable desires. That is the same as the unacceptable unsustainable way the British Empire prolonged its power, and that America did as well (after the unsustainable natural resource advantage America had was used up). The control of access to limited opportunity has also been the basis for prolonging the “superiority” of the wealthy powerful European nations. And Brazil, China, Russia, and India are following the same pattern, aspiring to be the most successful through similar unsustainable pursuits.

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  30. John Hartz @22.

    A very good read indeed.

    Of course, since the people benefiting from creating the harm of this weapon of mass destruction can easily believe they will not suffer more cosequences than the benefit they hope to get, future generations will suffer and have no means of getting even, it is easy to get popular support for this unacceptable behaviour among those who clearly see themselves benefiting from it and don't care how they benefit.

    Even better questions:

    "Is it a crime against humanity for someone who has the ability to be well informed and understand the unacceptability of pursuing benefit from burning fossil fuels to deliberately not understand things and instead pursue benefit from unacceptable activity?"

    "Is it worse than a crime against humanity for a wealthy and successful person to try to mislead or misinform others about the unacceptability of benefiting from burning fossil fuels?"

    If either of the above is true then: Anyone who is actually well informed and should appreciate and understand the unacceptability of already fortunate people trying to benefit from the unsustainable and damaging burning of fossil fuels but deliberately participates in the misleading or misinforming of others on this issue is "Aiding and abetting criminal behaviour".

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  31. I agree with placing the growth of the human population into the essay.  We're living in a "life bubble" much like our recent financial bubble.  We unfortunately don't have a central bank to come to the rescue.  The correction will likely be as hard as the beneficial rise as we've experienced over the past 300 years.

    Broadly living processes have little capability to control their growth rates.  There isn't one life form that fails to over-exploit its environment.  We have been shaped by evolution to reproduce, expand into environments, and wage war from verbal to physical when necessary or possible to sustain our groups.  Humans like to think of themselves as separated from nature by nurture, but that's a tenuous connection in the best of times.

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