The Climate Debate May Not Be Settled, But It Is So Over

At least for now. Despite the best efforts of skeptics, conservatives and a few lobbyists, Those in power in countries with high emissions and high populations are proceeding as if there was no more debate to be had. (The exception is India, which quite rightly feels as if their developmental pathway is being constrained in a manner no other country had to submit to.)

China is all on board, although pragmatic concerns over conventional pollution, coupled with their position as manufacturer to the world for both solar and wind power might have just a little to do with their newfound green conscience. There’s no room for debate in China and no opportunity for it either.

The United States, number two emitter behind China, may not have the votes but it does have an EPA controlled by the executive branch of government and that branch is foursquare behind cutting emissions. Despite the protestations from the sidelines, the greens and the government have quit debating. When Republican candidates say they don’t believe climate change is primarily caused by humans, it is ignored. We lukewarmers, like skeptics, are allowed to say whatever we want–but we’re speaking to ourselves in an otherwise empty room. (Oh, yeah–almost forgot. Want to buy my book?)

Japan, busy reviving their nuclear fleet despite its unpopularity, can use emission control as a shield while they bring the nukes back on line. They’ll continue funding solar and a little wind to look good, but it’s all about the nukes. And they don’t have time, money or desire to debate the point.

Russia–well, Russia. Their economy is in such dire straits that they may go green because they don’t have two sticks to rub together and make a carbon dioxide emitting fire. Their fossil fuel of choice is natural gas and they have just enough hydropower and nuclear plants to claim green fame. But they have no patience for debate on anything, let alone nuclear power.

That leaves only India. This article (h/t to Judith Curry) explains the situation India finds itself in clearly and succinctly:

  1. India must be the first country in the world (of size and significance) to successfully transition from a low-income, agrarian existence to a middle income, industrialised society without burning even a fraction of the fossil fuels consumed by other developed countries. China was the last country to enjoy this privilege. India will be the first that will have to cede this option and of course this may well be the new template for other developing countries to emulate.
  2. The scale of this transition and the current economic situation in some parts of the world, alongside the complex and privately controlled innovation landscape, means that there is limited ability for the Annex 1 countries (the developed world) to offer any meaningful support in terms of financing or technology transfer. Official Development Assistance (ODA) is a small fraction of what is necessary today, and India will therefore need to mobilise domestic resources to power the non-fossil-fuel-fired Indian story.
  3. Even as India adopts this ‘exceptional’ approach to industrialisation, and creates the necessary financial and commercial arrangements to achieve it, mostly through its own endeavors, the developed world and others want to retain the right to judge Indian performance. India will be monitored with an increasingly extensive system of compliance verification, and will be criticised for its missteps on the journey despite the novelty and scale of its undertaking.

China and Russia are dictatorships, Japan dominated by a privileged elite. The U.S. is rich enough to afford the inefficiencies inherent in a premature race for green gold.

It is only India that has both a lot on the line and a desire for debate. Expect to hear a lot from them in Paris. And expect to hear a lot about them (most of it unflattering) from the green gurus who have succeeded in other big countries.

These five countries will account for 60% of human CO2 emissions by 2040. The stakes are high as there is a lot to play for. But the playing field will shift to Delhi and Mumbai as the last battlefields.



10 responses to “The Climate Debate May Not Be Settled, But It Is So Over

  1. I try to look at things a bit more long term. First we need to factor the disconnect between climate model projections and incoming data. There is a real disconnect, and we see a growing gap between the predicted surface temperatures and real life. The gap increases as we move higher in the atmosphere (as you probably know the satellite troposphere measurements are not showing much warming). If the trend continues over several years the climate sensitivity will have to be reduced.

    Second, I’ll repeat my song and dance about the fossil fuel resource limits. I’m convinced the limits will lead to very high market prices. And this will dampen demand. A couple of days I tried to educate Richard Tol about this issue, because he has the delusion that resources will last “1000 years”. I outlined for him where he’s missing some nuts and bolts in his dynamic economic models, but I suppose it’s a long shot to get the ivory tower inhabitants to revise their work.

    Third, we know the current crop of “emissions pledges” is inadequate IF the models are right. This may drive that herd to undertake geoengineering research, which seems to be a viable escape hatch.

    By the way, I don’t believe much about China. I worked there and my number two daughter used to teach at a Chinese university. Our personal observations support the idea that both Chinese statistics and state aims are distorted. We also know their economy is slowing down. This means China will do whatever it feels it ought to do, and USA/EU pressures to reduce emissions won’t work.

    Finally, this is something I wrote late last year

    The latest update shows declining worldwide production. The USA Energy Information Agency has been steadily over reporting actual production, but they have had to cut back on the smoke and mirrors because the independent blogger community has been tearing their numbers apart. At this point the big forecasting outfits are predicting declining oil production until some point in 2016, when they say it’s supposed to rebound.

    But a rebound will require higher oil prices. The current $45 to 55 per barrel price range won’t allow production to rebound (investors can’t justify the wells and production equipment). Where am I going with this? I think that within 5 years the idea that fossil fuel resources are limited will start to sink in and become public knowledge. Prices will be cruising above $100 and climbing. Poor countries like Jamaica won’t be happy if they have to generate electricity with $150 per barrel oil.

    And at that time the global warming issue will become a lower priority. The top priority will be finding something to replace fossil fuels (for real, not the hot air we read about solar and wind).

    • Fernando,

      Very sensible comments. Do we actually know how much coal might be available? One can easily find numbers for proven reserves, but how much more might there be beyond that? I’ve read that the proven reserves in places like the U.S and U.K. are pretty much what they were a century ago, less what has been extracted, with the implication that there are no more reserves to be found. But it strikes me that people may have stopped looking for the simple reason that there was no need to find more. I’ve seen it claimed that China has vast unproven reserves; if they don’t then they have made a huge blunder by building so much coal burning capacity (their proven reserves will be gone in 30 years). Maps of reserves show very little in Africa or South America; I find it much more likely that the cause is lack of exploration rather than lack of coal.

      Of course, a question like “How much oil is available in the Earth’s crust?” is meaningless without specifying a price. At a high enough price, there are vast reserves of kerogen. So I think that the reality of limited fossil fuel supply will express itself not in shortages, but in rising prices. As you say, that will drive us to a replacement for real, not for show.

      • “Do we actually know how much coal might be available?”

        Using modern drilling technology, in situ gasification is likely to increase available coal reserves by perhaps orders of magnitude in the same way that the technology has – by hydraulic fracturing – increased reserves of gas and oil.

        A billion-pound plan to reach untapped coal reserves under the North Sea will be under way by the end of the year, as the vast scale of the energy source beneath the North Sea is made clear.

        Scientific data of the true extent of the coal deposits on the sea bed reveals that even a tiny percentage of them would be enough to power Britain for centuries to come, says a local expert.

        Dermot Roddy, chief technical officer of energy company Five Quarter which will be leading the much-anticipated extraction work, said there are trillions of tonnes of deeply-buried coal stretching from the North East coast far out to sea: an amount thousands of times greater than all oil and gas extracted so far.

        Injection of superheated steam through directionally drilled bores causes partial combustion of the coal and produces a product similar to the old town gas produced from carbonising plant. Its primary constituents are carbon monoxide and hydrogen – AKA synthesis gas – ideal feedstock for the good old Fischer-Tropsch coal to oil liquefaction process used inter alia by Germany and Japan for the majority of liquid fuel during WWII.

      • catweazle666,

        I suspect that underground gasification is another case of “available at a high enough price”. But what price? The fact that the North Sea project is being carried out entirely with government money says something about that.

        When I see a claim that a single deposit has 3 to 23 times the global total of all proven reserves, my hype detector starts to vibrate.

      • There is a ridiculously large amount of coal available.
        The delusion that we living on the top of the thin skin of Earth have tapped all of its mineral bounty would be entertaining if it was not leading to so many truly terrible anti-human policies.

  2. “China is all on board”

    I don’t think that’s the case, if you mean on board with emissions reductions.
    They have only made a very vague statement that they hope their emissions will peak around 2030.
    Meanwhile, their emissions continue to soar

    Related to this there’s a new paper
    Confronting the “China Excuse:” The Political Logic of Climate Change Adaptation
    see klimazwiebel for discussion and link to paper.

  3. This is very depressing, Tom.
    Bad faith, bad science, bad policy. What could possibly go wrong?

  4. Paul M beat me to it.

    “China is all on board,…”

    The gap between China’s words and China’s actions is as wide as the Great Wall is long.

    “China and Japan have plans to build massive amounts of coal-fired power plants, while the United States is not only not building new coal-fired power plants, but it is also shuttering many of its existing coal-fired power plants because of Obama Administration policies. China is building one coal-fired power plant every 7 to 10 days, while Japan plans to build 43 coal-fired power projects to replace its shuttered nuclear units.”

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