Posted by: JohnnyRook | November 24, 2008

Fixing the Climate: “On the Scale of WWII but Longer”

James Hansen and Joe Romm

A few days ago, Dr. James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and perhaps the world’s leading climate scientist, released a draft of a paper entitled Tell Barack Obama the Truth–The Whole Truth (PDF).

In response, another highly respected scientist, physicist and former acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in the Clinton administration, Joe Romm responded to Hansen on his blog Climate Progress with the post: An Open Letter to James Hansen on the real truth about stabilizing at 350 ppm

To give you some sense of perspective, this is the Climaticide equivalent of the Ali-Frazier fight. We are talking heavyweights here.

Now, before any denialist/delayer starts salivating about a disagreement between such high-level specialists let me make it clear that the disagreement between the Hansen and Romm is NOT about climate science but rather about the policy decisions necessary to stop global warming before catastrophic consequences are inevitable.

Hansen has argued and he has quite a lot of support that we must reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere to under 350 ppm (see technical paper–Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim? here: (remember the pre-industrial level was 280 ppm) if we are to avoid all sorts of disastrous consequences, but most specifically wide-scale species extinction and catastrophic sea-level rise.

Romm thinks that Hansen is probably right about this, but that it is politically impossible and technologically extremely challenging, to make the changes that Hansen recommends (complete phasing out of coal use that does not include Carbon Capture and Storage by 2030) fast enough to achieve this goal by 2050. Romm thinks that we should shoot for 450 ppm by 2050 and that even that is going to be extremely difficult to pull off, again principally for political reasons, and secondly for technological ones (the scale of the operation).

Anyone seriously interested in global warming should read both Hansen’s paper and Romm’s response in their entirety. The papers are not particularly technical, have lots of links to more information and can be understood by any reasonably intelligent person. The disagreements have to do, as already stated with how much we can get done how fast, but also include policy questions of carbon tax vs. cap and trade, the role of nuclear power, whether consumers should receive a dividend to offset the price increases from any carbon tax, how much of the change can be carried out by the free market and how much will require government direction and investment in infrastructure-all vital questions that need to be debated, now more than ever because we will soon have a president who appears willing to take action on climate change, although, at this point, probably not enough.

The Scale of the Solution…

The policy questions are interesting, and, I repeat, you should read both articles, but, at this point, the real significance for the public at large is not whose policies are correct, (if you’re not truly an expert, I don’t think you can even attempt to make that decision) but rather what both authors acknowledge: the effort required to solve the crisis is going to be enormous., more enormous than most people can even imagine and that includes most people already interested in the issue.

First Hansen:

The most difficult task, phase-out over the next 20-25 years of coal use that does not capture CO2, is Herculean, yet feasible when compared with the efforts that went into WWII.

Romm is even more emphatic when he quotes from his own book Hell and High Water to make the point

This national (and global) reindustrialization effort would be on the scale of what we did in WWII, except it would last far longer. [emphasis–JR] “In nine months, the entire capacity of the prolific automobile industry had been converted to the production of tanks, guns, planes and bombs,” explains Doris Kearns Goodwin in her 1994 book on the World War II homefront, No Ordinary Time. “The industry that once built 4 million cars a year was now building three fourths of the nation’s aircraft engines, one half of all tanks, and one third of all machine guns.”

The scale of the effort was astonishing. The physicist Edward Teller tells the story of how Niels Bohr had insisted in 1939 that making a nuclear bomb would take an enormous national effort, one without any precedent. When Bohr came to see the huge Los Alamos facility years later, he said to Teller. “You see, I told you it couldn’t be done without turning the whole economy into a factory. You have done just that.” And we did it in under five years.

But of course we had been attacked at Pearl Harbor, the world was at war, and the entire country was united against a common enemy. This made possible tax increases, rationing of items like tires and gasoline, comprehensive wage and price controls, a War Production Board with broad powers (it could mandate what clothing could be made for civilians), and a Controlled Material Plan that set allotments of critical materials (steel, copper, and aluminum) for different contractors.

So both experts agree that in order to stop Climaticide we are going to need an effort on the scale of WWII and not just for five years but probably for several decades. This will not be an easy sell.

is Bigger Than Most of us Realize.

In his most recent book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, Thomas Friedman describes picking up a copy of Working Mother magazine at the doctor’s office with an article entitled: 205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth (November 2007). Intrigued, he went home and Googled easy ways to save the earth and found a cornucopia of books and magazine articles on the subject ranging from commonplace titles such as 10 Painless Ways to Save the Planet and Easy Ways to Go Green to the more arcane 10 Ways to Save the Earth (and Money) in Under a Minute and Top Ten Ways to Green Up Your Sex Life. (pp 203-204)

Friedman goes on to recognize that greater public consciousness of the environment and specifically Climaticide is a good thing, but he is very uncomfortable by the constant repetition of the word “easy.”

You’ll pardon me, though, if I’ve become a bit cynical about all of this. I have read or heard so many people saying,” We’re having a green revolution.” Of course, there is certainly a lot of green buzz out there. But whenever I hear that “we’re having a green revolution” line I can’t resist firing back: “Really? Really? A green revolution? Have you ever seen a revolution where no one got hurt? That’s the green revolution that we’re having.” In the green revolution we’re having, everyone’s a winner, nobody has to give up anythng, and the adjective that most often modifies “green revolution” is “easy.” That’s not a revolution. That’s a party We’re actually having a green party. And, I have to say, it’s a lot of fun. I get invited to all the parties. But in America, at least, it is mostly a costume party. It’s all about looking green–and everyone’s a winner. There are no losers. The American farmers are winners. They’re green. They get to grow ethanol and garner huge government subsidies for doing so, even though it makes no real sense as a CO2-reduction strategy. Exxon-Mobil says it’s getting green and General Motors does too.

Coal companies are going green by renaming themselves “energy” companies and stressing how sequestration of CO2, something none of them has even done will give us “clean coal.” (pp. 205-206)

Friedman further emphasizes this (which is the same point that Hansen and Romm are making, despite their policy disagreements) by quote Professor Michael Maniates of Allegheny College who wrote in the Washington Post (November 22, 2007):

Although each [book about easy ways to go green] offers familiar advice (‘reuse scrap paper before recycling” or “take shorter showers”) it’s what’s left unsaid by these books that’s intriguing. Three assertions permeate the pages: (1) We should look for easy cost-effective things to do in our private lives as consumers, since that’s where we have the most power and control; these are the best things to do because (2) if we all do them the cumulative effect of these individual choices will be a safe planet, which is fortunate indeed because (3) we, by nature, aren’t terribly interested in doing anything that isn’t private, individualistic, cost-effective and, above all else, easy.

Maniates continues:

The hard facts are these. If we sum up the easy cost-effective, eco-efficiency measures we should all embrace, the best we get is a slowing of the growth of environmental damage…Obsessing over recycling and installing a few special light bulbs won’t cut it. We need to be looking at fundamental change in our energy, transportation and agricultural systems rather than technological tweeking on the margins, and this means change and costs that our current and would-be leaders seem afraid to discuss. [Remember this was written before the election–JR] Which is a pity since Americans are at their best when they’re struggling together, and sometimes with one another, toward difficult goals… Surely we must do the easy things. They slow the damage and themselves become enabling symbols of empathy for future generations. But we cannot permit our leaders to sell us short. To stop at “easy” is to say that the best we can do is accept an uninspired politics of guilt around a parade of uncoordinated individual action.(pp 207-208)

As Peter Gleick, of the Pacific Institute has pointed out “we have not agreed as a society on what being ‘green’ actually means,” which leads Friedman to note this “opens a door to everyone claiming to be green, without any benchmarks.” (p. 207) [see my post Growing Movement Debunks Greenwashing Ads)

Socolow and Pascala’s Wedges

Both Friedman and Romm make reference to Socolow and Pascala’s stabilization wedges. Romm’s article provides links to articles (technical and non-technical) on the wedges as well as his analysis of technical issues related to them. Romm explains

Wedges are strategies that reduce emissions steadily until they achieve a 1 GtC/year saving — in 50 years in Princeton’s original framework, but for those in a hurry like all of us now are, it must be less.

In other words for each wedge adopted at the end of 50 years we would be saving 1 gigaton of carbon per year. When they originally expounded the idea Socolow and Pascala calculated that we would need to have carried out 7 wedges by 2050 in order to stabilize CO2 emission. Romm calculates that to achieve Hansen’s goal of ending coal use (that doesn’t employ CC) by 2030 would require 8 wedges that would have to be completed within 20 years (2010-2030), which would make a difficult task even more difficult. To make the whole concept clearer here are some wedges that Romm proposes we might try to realize in order to achieve Hansen’s goal. (These are not necessarily part of Socolow and Pascala’s original 15 wedges.)

Here is one possible list of all the (20-year) wedges the world must achieve simultaneously starting almost immediately:

* 1.5 wedges of concentrated solar thermal — ~2500 GW peak.
* 1.5 of wind power — 1.5 million large (2 MW peak) wind turbines
* 2 of efficiency — buildings, industry, and cogeneration/heat-recovery for a total of 10 to 13 million GW-hrs.
* 1 of nuclear power — 700 GW
* 1 of solar photovoltaics — 2000 GW peak [or less PV and some geothermal, hydro, and biomass]
* 1 wedge of vehicle efficiency — all cars 60 mpg, with no increase in miles traveled per vehicle.
* 1 of forestry — End all tropical deforestation.

(Joe has actually listed nine here so that if you don’t like one for some reason, you can throw it out.)

Romm provides the following link An introduction to the core climate solutions for those wanting to learn more about the wedges and what they entail.

Again, my point in providing this detail is not to discuss the merits of the individual wedges being proposed, but to demonstrate the magnitude of the changes that will be required. Even if you agree with Romm that Hansen’s plan is too ambitious and politcally impossible it doesn’t change the basic situation that we face. We will have some extra time to carry out a complete societal revolution but, because we will have waited until mid-century to stabilize emissions, we will be stabilizing them at 450 ppm instead of 350 ppm. Both Romm and Hansen are in agreement that 450 ppm cannot be the final stabilization level because it leaves us exposed to the danger of passing tipping points that might take us to 700 or even 1000 ppm which would be an utter disaster. So at that point we will have to find a way to remove CO2 that is already in the atmosphere.

Why I Write These Posts

Occasionally, someone tells me that my posts are depressing because what I am describing (either the problem or the solution) seems overwhelming. My intention is never to depress anyone or to make them feel powerless, but I do understand how one might feel that way. I write what I write because I can’t write any other way.

It has been clear to me for a long time now that the challenge we face is enormous, the greatest humanity has ever faced. To write anything that makes it seem smaller or less significant feels somehow less than honest. This is not to criticize how other people approach the problem. I believe that there is room for individual action and collective, governmental action. I am hopeful that President Obama will inspire us to join together to solve this problem, but I also believe that we have to be informed and ready to back him up and perhaps push him and his administration farther than they might feel comfortable going if they were uncertain about whether they had widespread public support.

I don’t see any dichotomy between personal and political action. Rather, I believe that in a democracy, making a commitment to political action is one of the highest forms of personal action. I hope that the information contained in this post will help to inspire readers to join in the upcoming struggle to save the only climate human civilization has ever known as well as the lives of untold numbers of future generations, human or otherwise, for whom this planet is will be their only home.

You can’t call something a revolution when the maximum changes that are politically feasible still fall well short of the minimum to start making even a dent in the problem. The challenges posed by the Energy-Climate Ear “can’t be solved at the level of current political thinking,” said Hal Harvey, an energy expert at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. “You cannot solve a problem from the same level of thinking that created it.” [Friedman p. 215]

Crossposted at Daily Kos



  1. Johnny, great summary of the current debate — “what will it take, and is it possible?” I wish I could feel more optimistic. Maybe, just maybe, we still have a chance. And if we do, it’s worth fighting for. What else can we, in all good conscience, do? Keep up the good fight!

  2. […] yet? I liked Rook’s analysis Fixing the Climate: “On the Scale of WWII but Longer” which helped me to understand it all as well as putting it into the correct […]

  3. […] I have pretty much zero hope that anything of consequence will come of it.  This fight will be “On the Scale of WWII but Longer”, and it is going to require us as individuals to […]

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