The Next 60 Years of Lukewarming

Yesterday I looked briefly at the major impacts of anthropogenic global warming observed so far. The most notable impacts are changes in the climate in the Arctic region and modest sea level rise that nonetheless contributes to damages during severe storms on coastal areas.

Today I would like to advance a hypothetical scenario for climate between now and 2075. This isn’t science–I’m  not a scientist. But it isn’t science fiction, either. I’ve been following this for a while and have done the sums.

Global warming has proceeded very unevenly, with short bursts of warming followed by periods of stasis. The 0.8C of observed global average temperature rise since 1880 has actually occurred in two sharply defined periods–from 1910 through 1940 and from 1975 through 1998.

GAT 1880 2012

I will assume that this pattern will continue.

Global average temperatures have risen 0.8C since 1880, as I said. As a Lukewarmer, I believe atmospheric sensitivity is low, around 2C. I expect to see something close to 2C warming this century over what would otherwise be the case, but some part of that warming will come from other contributions from deforestation, black carbon and other human causes, mostly related to land use changes.

For the sake of this hypothetical exercise I will assume that the static period in temperatures that started in 1998 will continue for about 25 years–much the same as previous periods of stasis. I therefore assume that temperatures will begin rising again in about 10 years, or 2023. (By that time we’ll have all forgotten about it and Judith Curry and Michael Tobis will be laughing about all the blogfights over a drink in a bar in West Texas.)

By that time the world’s CO2 emissions will have increased from 31.6 billion tons of CO2 to 42.5 billion tons each year, an average growth rate of 3% that is probably too conservative. And eventually it will overcome the inertia that characterizes global average temperatures now.

It will be helped by the behavior of other  factors that influence climate–phenomena like the alphabet soup of ENSO, AMO and PDO ‘pseudocycles’, (events that can look cyclical from the outside but probably are not–they’re just periodic). Currently some of them are probably pushing temps down. Solar activity is low–although we really don’t know how much of an effect solar variation has, whatever effect it has right now is moving in a different direction than during the warming of 1975-1998. And at some point these phenomena will return to pushing temperatures up. And that’s where temperatures will go.

And I honestly think, in my Lukewarm heart of hearts, that temperatures will rise another 0.5C between 2025 and 2050 (give or take five years either way). And I think that then temperatures will pause again–maybe until 2075.

I think using history, combined with lower math analysis of credible numbers, is actually a useful guide to looking at the near term. (I actually think higher math often does a poorer job in forecasting, tempting as it is.)

I don’t actually know if temperatures will take the same path as that which I describe here. But I don’t think my scenario does violence towards history, what we know of the present and what we can confidently project about the near term future.

My big fear is what happens after 2075–by that time energy consumption will have climbed dramatically, possibly reaching six times the total energy the world used in 2010. Because we’re not planning for it, most of that consumption will be powered by coal.

And at that point my crystal ball goes black.

33 responses to “The Next 60 Years of Lukewarming

  1. Tom, your assumption of repeating periods of ‘no warming’ would only make sense if you could identify what caused the cooling from 1940-1970 and then show that the same factors are in play now and will be in play again ~2050.

    Given that the 1940-1970 period was largely the result of massive air pollution blocking out incoming sunlight that seems unlikely to come again so long as clean air laws hold in the industrialized world… though similar pollution from China is believed to be a (smaller) factor in recent temperatures along with a preponderance of La Nina conditions, low solar activity, and of course the statistical flimm-flammery needed to turn a period too short to achieve statistical significance into a ‘hiatus’.

    In any case, even if the major conditions behind the 40s-70s cooling WERE to repeat… there have been too many other changes for a repeat of that scenario to seem likely. All Arctic sea ice which isn’t connected to or recently broken off from land ice will almost certainly melt out in Summer before the end of this decade. When that happens i expect Arctic warming will only continue to accelerate as the albedo shift (from reflective ice and snow to absorptive land and sea) becomes longer and longer in duration each year. Also, the growth in the heat content of the oceans hasn’t slowed down at all… that energy must eventually impact atmospheric temperatures as well. To me it seems likely that the ‘hiatus’ period from 1998 to 2021 will show roughly the same amount of warming as the ‘rapid spurt’ from 1975 to 1998. It will certainly show statistically significant warming at a rate far greater than that which ended the last glaciation.

    As to coal power in 2075. I’m actually NOT worried about it. There is virtually no way that coal could still be economically viable that far into the future.

    • We’ll have to agree to disagree, then. I certainly disagree with every point in your comment. Every one.

      China’s contribution of aerosols and other pollution over the next 10 years will be quite high. Possibly higher over the next 10 years than the entire world’s in 1940-1970.

      And that’s why I’m sticking to lower math in my calculations–to avoid accusations of statistical flim-flammery.

      I don’t think the static periods of 1880-1910, 1940-1970 and 1998-present had the same causes and I don’t think that’s a requirement for forecasting cooling periods in the future. There’s a grab-bag of potential influencers and any number of them may be present or absent at given periods.

      And you evidently know nothing of coal. I’ll grab harrywr2 and have him give you a tutorial.

      • Calling 1998-present a “static period” is itself statistical flimm-flammery.

        As to my ‘lack of knowledge’ on coal. Tom, we recently demonstrated that your view of reality is so different from mine that the determination of what is or is not a question is up for grabs. Here in reality as I perceive it coal use has been increasing in China as they industrialize for the first time, but declining for the rest of the world. Coal use in France, Germany, Italy, the US, et cetera has plummeted over the past few decades. Natural gas is currently cheaper than coal for most of the world. Wind and solar are now cheaper than coal in small, but ever growing, portions of the globe. Finally, coal prices continue to rise while renewable prices continue to fall.

        If things are so different in your reality that coal will not only still be in widespread use, but have become the primary source of energy production by 2075 then that would indeed be a problem… because then we’d be talking about going well past a doubling of atmospheric CO2 levels and even the optimistic ‘2 C per doubling’ sensitivity you hope for would mean warming of ~3 C by 2100 and more in the future.

      • IEA: “As of March 2012, approximately 40% of the world’s electricity needs were provided by coal. Yes, coal is the second source of primary energy after oil. Is coal production declining? No, far from it. Since the start of the 21st century, coal production has been the fastest-growing global energy source. It is the second source of primary energy in the world after oil, and the first source of electricity generation. Coal consumption increased by nearly 60% from 4 600 million tonnes (mt) in 2000 to an estimated 7 200mt in 2010.”

  2. If you are correct, temperatures will not rise sufficiently for government to act in any meaningful way for at least the next ten years. There’s nothing anyone can do about China. The high sensitivity, existential threat tribe will not give an inch.

  3. Over the last 50+ years which environmental catastrophes were predicted that turned out to be prescient?

      • Ah, yes – that triumphant fruit of central planning.

        The Aral sea should stand as an example of avoidable catastrophe brought on by governmental intervention. There are some interesting lessons to be gleaned from that mess:
        – there are always unintended consequences to governmental actions, and these can swamp the original problem.
        – institutional inertia of centralized planning prevents flexibility in response to changing circumstances.
        – if challenging ideas/policy becomes unacceptable (or even, to those like Lewandosky, a sign of mental illness), bad things happen unchecked.

        All in all, the Aral sea is part of the reason I, as a libertarian, really, really distrust big governmental solutions to our problems.

        (Sorry, I don’t see any realistic way to discuss such a topic without reference to politics. It’s the central point of many of the ex-soviet enviromental disasters.)

      • You’re right (on several levels) kch. This was a political problem from day one.

      • I was hoping you would come up with something of global significance. However, if you were going to predict that communist and fascist regimes would destroy their local environments for short term gains, I wouldn’t particularly view that as prescient insight…

    • Where was that predicted?

  4. intrepid_wanders


    I agree with Tom, that I disagree as well on every point you tried to make.

    Check out this WRI Report (IEA reports can be dry and winded):

    Click to access global_coal_risk_assessment.pdf

    It uses the IEA data, so you will be on the same page as Tom.

    To curb coal consumption and reduce pollution, China’s
    12th Five-Year-Plan for the coal industry includes a target
    to cap the annual domestic coal consumption of 3.9 billion tonnes by 2015.

    Many observers are skeptical that this target will be reached given that China’s 2012 coal consumption is already likely to exceed it.

    Some industry analysts predict that China’s coal demand will reach 4.8
    billion tonnes by 2016.

    That might have been a source of confusion. 363 new plants are on the books in China compared to 36 in the US. India has 455 new plants on the books.

  5. Conrad Dunkerson

    Tom, everything you quote the IEA saying about coal is correct.

    It just doesn’t change any of the things >I< said. Like large hydro, the recent growth of coal has been entirely in the developing world. In the developed world coal is on the way out… and the developing countries will inevitably follow suit once the initial rush of cheap easily extractable coal in their territory is played out and newer technologies become more financially viable.

    • The only reason coal in on the decline in developed coutries is because they’ve convinced themselves that CO2 is paramount. Germany has reversed this because they decided to ditch nuclear. The UK is trying to stick to its plans but we are facing power shortages and even higher gas prices. At what point will the demand for energy outweigh the fear of CO2?

  6. This isn’t a bad scenario to build from. It rests on past history and basic CO2 science. What it would also give us is a breathing space. Time to examine any negative impacts of renewables. To explore geothermal energy, tidal power and hopefully fusion. Or maybe there will be something novel round the corner?

    But most importantly it would allow us to observe the planet for longer. Too many theories have been built on only part of the regular functions of the planet. Even now we are making huge discoveries about the sun that may or may not change the way we understand its effects on the planet.

    The dire uncertainty of climate science allows people to think ‘yeah, but it might not happen’. Even the most ardent supporters seem to have this at the back of their mind because the number of people voluntarily living the CAGW lifestyle is miniscule.

    The time would allow other cultures to experience the heady fun of rampant consumerism and… grow up.

    Because without a magic new energy source the only real way we will cut CO2 is by living more frugal lives. That would require a huge cultural change. We’d have to stop aspiring to larger homes and be happy with apartments. We’d need to be satisfied with less possessions which in turn would raise the question – what will people be employed doing? Actually I expect we’re going to have to have this debate anyway.

    By panicking about CO2 we will be wasting incalculable sums of money on projects that make no difference or worse, cause net damage the environment. The public are being desensitised to the issue at a point where everyone knows the science is less than certain.

  7. Tom,

    I like your back of the envelope (lower math) approach. It allows us to see what’s actually going on in the calculation without sacrificing accuracy.

    Nonetheless, it has the same weakness as all extrapolations: it cannot account for technological innovation. The only way I know of to account for the impact of technological innovation is to understand the historical impact of technological innovation.

    CBD: the cost of extaction of resource does not determine the use of the resource. The use of the resource is determined by the ratio between the market price and the cost of extraction. The market price is driven by the lowest cost of extraction of all energy resources. IMO, solar is on a path to overtake coal in the next few decades – not because the cost of coal extraction will climb, but because the cost of solar production will fall substantially.

    • Hi jimmy,

      Well innovation will continue I’m sure in wind and solar. But those will be incremental improvements and their overall trend can actually be charted. It’s tough to see the needed innovation from biofuels, but some genetic genius might make a breakthrough. Nanotechnology might help batteries.

      I’d be looking more at innovation on the consumption side if I had my druthers. But energy efficiency has apparently become passe.

      • How can you say efficiency is passe when we’ve been doing it for years and it’s never gone out of fashion? What you mean is progress is slow. Efficiencies in one area may be swamped by increases in another (eg cars more efficient but heavier). We need advances in unsual fields to make leaps forward (eg Fullerene).

      • We’re slowing down at energy efficiency-ask Roger Pielke Jr. Wish it were not so…

  8. “My big fear is what happens after 2075–by that time energy consumption will have climbed dramatically, possibly reaching six times the total energy the world used in 2010. Because we’re not planning for it, most of that consumption will be powered by coal.”

    2075 is 62 years away. I’d be interested in knowing what it is we’re doing today as a result of a plan written in 1951. There certainly will be some examples-no doubt coal plants on the books in ’51 are still operational today. Of course, at one point over the last 62 years there were “plans” to replace coal with nuclear power in the US, but the environmentalists killed those (and now attempt to blame the resulting coal plants on the planners who once didn’t want them).
    I don’t think you can “plan” for 2075, but you can project what would happen if environmentalists are successful over the next 62 years in their fights against nuclear power and natural gas. Oddly, they don’t take credit (blame?) for those projections.

    • Hiya JeffN

      I’m tempted to pretend some of Robert Heinlein’s books of the 1950s qualify, but I doubt I could get away with that.

      I confidently predict futurology will improve to an amazing level of accuracy within the next 62 years 🙂

  9. Because we’re not planning for it

    Where does any evidence for this statement exist?

    Sorry…but Gen IV nuclear reactors are scheduled for ‘mid 2020’s’ because that is when the bulk of existing US coal fired generating capacity begins to retire.

    Sorry Tom…but how can you say we are not ‘planning’ for 2075 when you ignore the fact that the Gen IV Nuclear Initiative is ‘planned’ for the mid 2020’s.

    The Chinese have an immediate need for massive generating capacity…so they’ve taken one leg of the Gen IV Nuclear Initiative and moved it forward 10 years in the form of the HTR-PM.

    The US does not have a immediate need for substantial base load generating capacity(unless we listen to climate alarmists)…so we are taking the slow road.

    Here is a road map published in 2002…the last I checked we are still following it…six major reactor designs…all with different features…benefits and technology risks…all progressing…

    Click to access GenIVRoadmap.pdf

    Here is the US ‘plan’

    High Temperature Materials, however, is still identifying performance
    requirements—highly dependent on reactor type and configuration—to define the necessary activities to support startup date of 2021.

    • Hi Harry

      I say we’re not planning for it because the DOE EIA and the IEA and the UN are all projecting energy consumption at 2030 at around 680 quads. If it is 950 quads, as I project, there is a gap between the infrastructure planned for that time and the need for that time. It will not be a pleasant surprise.

      • Tom,

        We can both go back thru EIA energy projections and conclude that any projection more then 5 into the future is pure specualtion.

        The purpose of the US EIA projections is to give Congress a ‘heads up’ as to the possibility inadequate supply. I.E. The 1970’s oil shock was a ‘suprise’.

        As we have plenty of coal,gas and increasing supply of oil then the only reason for congress to act on anything is climate change and we have an R&D program for that.

        Even Wyoming has a 2050 zero carbon plan. No decision has been taken on implentation but they paid INL $250K for the plan. …it even includes synfuels. Of course it is dependent on a HTGR that won’t be available for purchase until at least 2021.

      • You know that (about the EIA). I know that. But people use their numbers for decision-making.

      • Hmmm…I’m kind of curious about the benefits of distant planning. I mean, you can plan your life, but unforseen events may – and for most people, will – occur and ruin all your planning. Then you have to start from scratch – the effort and cost you’ve expended on planning is a loss.

        There’s a limit to how far out you can plan anything. Five, maybe ten years, and after that you’re at the mercy of fate. If you make a 20+ year plan and all the chips fall into place, you can thank luck.

        The beauty of not planning too far out is that you have the flexibility to respond to new developments instead of being locked into a rigid plan.

        A few days ago I heard a nice piece on NPR by a guy who had the perfect plan for life in the 80’s: become a theater projectionist! Union wages. Indespensible skills. Now he’s in the unemployment line, along with film development experts and Segway salesmen.

      • I once started a science fiction story with a guy humming a song called ‘buggy whips and razor blades…’

      • Thomas, what you’re saying is that energy demand will exceed supply, so the projected 950 quads will never materialise.

        Although energy input per dollar of GDP has been steadily decreasing since 1850 when accurate statistics first became available, in the OPEC oil crisis of the 1970’s the world moved onto a path of faster decline of energy usage, or faster annual increase of energy conservation if you like.

      • Hi OldFossil,

        No. I’m predicting that the 950 quads will be supplied but without the benefit of adequate planning for efficient supply.

      • Tom,

        No one uses EIA numbers for decision making other then to conclude adequate supply of fuel.

        Southern Company isn’t building two nukes based on EIA projections. They will have their own internal projections based on changes they are seeing in their market.

        IEA is only 28 countries. How can an organization thar doesn’t include India and China in it’s membership be considered an expert on global energy? It’s basically OECD Energy Administration and everything they do is based on an OECD lens.

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