Engineering approach to global climate change

I'm at the O'Reilly Emerging Tech conference in San Diego -- the highlight of my conference-going year, every year, for most of a decade now -- and I've just caught Saul Griffith's presentation of hacking and understanding energy consumption and production. Saul's a brilliant polymath geek, an MIT Media Lab alum who's responsible for everything from Howtoons to Squid Labs to a new alternative energy company (he was awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant this year).

Saul's talk was a fast-paced discussion of the cold, hard, engineering reality of CO2 production, its relationship to energy consumption, climate change, and the human cost of all that. Saul sliced and diced the numbers every which way from joules per nanosecond to total wave-energy of the entire Earth, and laid out the program we need to adopt if we're going to do something about it.

This was a refreshing, engineer-oriented, can-do approach to climate, one that actually ended on an up note (if you do the stuff you want to do: exercise more, buy better stuff, do fewer business trips, live closer to your loved ones, and so on, you can reduce your energy consumption by 90 percent).

I took notes as fast as I could through the talk and I've put them online.

What does 2C mean?

Reports from BP and others are pretty conservative: 1.5 deg == 10% species lost, 3.5 deg 1-4 billion people in water shortage; 4.5 deg == entire cities and countries vanish

But none of these account for the environmental consequences of these consequences, e.g., what happens when 10 million people leave a drowned city and go somewhere else (war, famine, etc)

At 450 ppm CO2 temp goes up 2C.

We have to accept 2GtC into oceans/year, even though ocean acidification has its own grave consequences

There are long time-lags in the system -- CO2 is a lead indicator. Curve down the CO2 for 50 years, reap the rewards over 300 years.

It takes centuries after CO2 stabilization to reap temperature stabilization -- we've never deployed this kind of foresight before

2C gives you 7.3 GTCO2

Link to my notes, Link to talk precis


  1. There’s a new book coming out next week that participants in the EmergingTech conference will find interesting. It’s called “Earth: The Sequel”, written by Fred Krupp (president of EDF) and Miriam Horn.

    Full disclaimer: I work for EDF. But this is a great book – you’ll like it!

    It’s all about emerging technology in the fight to stop global warming. People are doing such cool things. You can find out more about the book and pre-order copies here:

    Sheryl Canter
    Environmental Defense Fund

  2. The engineered solution is the only viable solution.

    It is important regardless of one’s views on climate change and its causes. I don’t understand why doubters claim and believers deride the idea that it isn’t man made.

    If global warming _isn’t_ caused by man, doesn’t that mean we’re even more fucked? If it isn’t us, we still need to deal with the consequences, and can’t just stop doing what we’re doing.

    I find it hard to believe that government regulation or voluntary cutbacks will solve this issue. If the cheapest solution is also best for the environment, we’ll all win.

    This means not only traveling less, working from home, riding bikes, etc.
    It also means buying solar power because it is cheaper than coal. That is the only solution, and it is up to the hackers and geeks to make it happen.

  3. The Vikings successfully colonized Greenland, raised crops and livestock, and lived there continuously for about 300 years prior to the 16th century. Now the same areas are under hundreds of feet of snow and glacial ice. Until Al Gore conveniently explains that away, I am not even remotely swayed by hand-waving “science” trying to re-interpret what is clearly a several hundred year long solar cycle.

    “Global warming” is a political movement until proven otherwise.

  4. @Ivan, if it isn’t man-made, then the problems likely don’t have man-made solutions (unless you have a clue how to turn down the thermostat on the sun.)

    BTW, polar ice caps on Mars are retreating just like they are on Earth. Odds are that the few thousand pounds of gear we’ve lobbed up there are NOT the cause. Wanna take bets on whether it’s the natural solar cycle or cow farts causing it here?

  5. Oh bah! The debate about alternative energy should not be so closely focused on global warming/climate change.

    There are three sufficient reasons to advocate renewable, carbon-neutral tech.

    1) Global climate change. If that’s not convincing for whatever reason,
    2) Energy security. I’d rather trust my apartment’s heating and computer power to the Texans, North Dakotans, and Arizonans than the Saudis, Iranians, and Sudanese. If that’s not convincing,
    3) Renewability. We’re running out of the fossil fuels. Even if we don’t completely run out, prices will go up, which will suck for the economy unless we decouple ourselves.

    There’s also (4), the fact that fossil fuels produce nasty-smelling byproducts. Even if 1-3 were not true, there’s still smog, acid rain, and all the pre-1973 factors.

    Even if I was a global warming skeptic, I’d still support alternative energy.

  6. Something is very wrong with the units here. A watt is a joule per second. So “7.462 Watts/year” is a rate of acceleration of energy usage. Possibly it could be an average of 7.4W for a year, in which case the notation needs to be different!


  7. For everybody who can read German – here is the biggest free-information-site about Renewable Energies in the whole net:

    Just scroll down the content of part ‘C’ to have an impression about the quantity of items etc.

    In the ARCHIV(E) there are also some shorter articles in English and Spanish about a special solution which was also presented in English at Peswiki:–_The_Messiah_Machine


  8. So, CShottan, how is it that the “political movement” has so completely captured the peer-reviewed science world that every study concurs that human-generated CO2 is adversely changing the climate? Do you believe that the incredible might of arrogant scientists has completely conquered the pitiful strength of every industrial entity that stands to benefit from the status quo?

    Is it totally impossible to imagine that, say, climate change can have both human and “spontaneous” origins? Or that the European Warm Period was the result of the very long-term de-sequestering of carbon from human activity over the millennia preceeding it, a preview of the massive change that the much more aggressive changes since?

    Meanwhile, even if the European Warm Period was such a great period that we needn’t worry about global warming because Greenland was an Eden then, what about the rest of the world during the same period — the incredible droughts and catastrophic loss of human life experienced in the southern hemisphere during that period.

  9. Thanks Cory for taking that transatlantic flight again (“every year, for most of a decade now”) in order to report on how we can reduce our carbon footprint…

  10. ehhhh, it’s OK, you guys keep arguing. The rest of us will keep drudging away, driving while we can afford gas and watching American Idol. If nothing happens, nothing happens.If anything does happen,first we’ll kill all the rich guys in their Hummers and then we’ll kill all those smart ass scientists that didn’t tell us sooner or fix things.

    Quiet now, my show is coming on.

  11. Re: #5 CShottan
    “Global warming” is a political movement until proven otherwise.

    Answers can be easily found if one simply looks.

    Real Climate is very good, esp this entry:
    Global Warming Delusions at the Wall Street Journal

    Coby’s A Few Things Ill Considered is another but there are certainly plenty more. The Medieval warming period along with many other common fallacies are addressed at the old “Ill Considered” site on blogspot:

    How to Talk to a Global Warming Sceptic

    The evidence for the reality of global climate change is so overwhelming that even the Bush administration now admits it’s real. The important question of how bad it will get is harder to answer. It is very likely that humanity will survive, we’re tough critters. It seems to me that civilization may well collapse however, the odds seem to favor that outcome. Even worse, I believe that many wealthy elites think they can ride it out or see themselves benefiting from it. Read up on the Aztec water monopolies to see how that is likely to work out. This is insane and should be resisted. That’s my opinion anyway.

  12. By the way (forgot to mention this before)… Our Climate 411 blog is a great source of clearly explained info on climate change. It has all those numbers you talked about and more.

    You mentioned that at 450ppm, temperature goes up 2 degrees Celsius. From the post “How Warm is Too Warm“): “CO2 concentrations since the 1800’s have increased from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 380 ppm, causing global temperatures to increase by about 1.3oF. To undo that warming, we would have to return the CO2 concentration to its pre-industrial level. This would require removing 800,000 million metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, and we just don’t have the ability to do that.”

    To can find links to a collection of our basic science posts here:

    Take a look around our science section. We welcome comments and questions!

    Sheryl Canter
    Environmental Defense Fund

  13. Anthropogenic or not, engineered solutions are probably viable. Simply because we might not be causing the problem is no reason not to pursue solutions.

    There are at least three layers of global warming rhetoric that get packaged together:

    Level 1: Anthropogenic CO2, methane, and other gases are effectively adding heat to the troposphere by increasing IR opacity. This is the wide-spread consensus of the peer-reviewed science, although it is worth noting that we do get it wrong occasionally, especially when politics are involved. For example, the consensus on the nature of the weak nuclear force was spectacularly wrong prior to the experimental proof that it was V-A, and the wide-spread belief in the 1970’s that a global nuclear test ban could be adequately monitored using seismic data was proven to be embarrassingly false after the fall of the Soviet Union revealed that they had carried out a number of tests that our side missed completely.

    Level 2: The effects of said anthropogenic heating are going to change global climate in economically disruptive ways over the next century. This is much less certain, although entirely plausible. There will also be winners and losers. The weather is not, as some suggest, going to get worse everywhere.

    Level 3: The fact of global warming proves that my own political and ideological views are true, and everyone must do what I say or we are all going to die, and anyone who opposes me is eeevil. This is obviously nonsense, no matter what your views happen to be.

    Those who deal in the third type of rhetoric are viciously resistant to engineering solutions, for obvious reasons. Fortunately, they are increasingly losing their grip on the debate, and will eventually be sidelined by people interested in solving problems rather than gaining political power.

    Gotta go now and give my car its monthly fill up. I’m hoping to get it down to a seasonal fill up by this time next year… It really isn’t that hard to reduce your footprint, and you generally wind up with a) more money in your pocket and b) more time to spend with your kids than if you did otherwise.

  14. It doesn’t really matter what caused the European Warm Period. What matters is that everyone got fat and happy had lots of kids, and then wham: 10 years of spring rain and floods resulting in crop failures and 1.5 million people dead.

    This time lets stop arguing about who caused it or whether we can reverse it, and start thinking about predicting the progress of climate change, and WTF we are going to do to survive it.

    For example the United States southwest has enjoyed unusually high rainfall for the past century. The party is over. Running your car on hydrogen is not going to fix that.

  15. Sorry to double post but this whole debate reminds me of these famous five steps:

    1. Denial: The initial stage: “It can’t be happening.”
    2. Anger: “Why us? It’s not fair.”
    3. Bargaining: “If we all use paper bags and bicycles we can beat this!”
    4. Depression: “The planet is doomed!”
    5. Acceptance: “It’s going to be OK, I’ll just move to Antarctica…”

    Mostly 1-3 so far…

  16. #6 claims “BTW, polar ice caps on Mars are retreating just like they are on Earth.”
    This would appear to be wrong. Observations of the martian poles haven’t been made for long enough to be sure what is happening to them and anyway the sun has been losing spots for the last few years (with a possible upswing starting this year) so insolation has been *decreasing*.

    Or are the deniers claiming that there is some magical extra solar output that can’t be measured by ‘liberal science’?

  17. Nice post.

    Feedback loops make the engineering solutions more complicated. We have to keep in mind all the feedbacks between the atmosphere and the biosphere, especially forests. We could manage forests to help store carbon or we could exacerbate the release of CO2 from forests to the atmosphere. These problems are highlighted by, for instance, the recent report showing that biofuel crops are being grown on land cleared of native vegetation which has a counterproductive effect on climate.

    One of the last lines in the notes of Saul’s talk says that “We managed to stop cutting down rain forests.” This link indicates we need to keep working on that:

    See also this report on forest-carbon-climate:
    (self promotion disclosure ;-)

  18. @CSHOTTEN The funny thing about your post is that it uses the example of the Vikings in Greenland. Their mini civilization collapsed after 300 year (longer than Australia has been inhabited by Europeans). The reasons for its collapse has been attributed to climate change, environmental degradation and their unwillingness to properly adapt to the environment. For example, they kept on eating European-style meats instead of converting to fish like the Inuit. Eventually their lifestyle couldn’t be sustained and they all starved to death or were killed by the Inuit.
    Now allow me to draw a few parallels between the Vikings and modern day America…

  19. #18 In stage 5 maybe we also say, whatever happens, I will be able to handle it. But in any case, I believe you are right about the deep anxiety behind the denials.

    From what scientists have told me, there is some warming on other planets, and the models for earth also include an increase in solar warming being a factor. However, the models indicate that the human portion of the warming far exceeds that caused by natural factors.

    I hope the evil, arrogant, conspiring scientists will give the poor, helpless corporations a chance to defend themselves.

  20. It’s kind of fascinating how people who used to deny the earth is getting warmer AT ALL have switched to saying “OK, it is, but it’s not anthropogenic!”

    So… it’s a slow-motion natural disaster, OK. And we have no obligation to protect against natural disasters, nor do we respond to their ill effects?

    Afraid you lost me there.

    Besides, the fact is that switching to alternative energies, finding ways to conserve water, etc. will help prevent wars over scarce resources.

    They’re already happening today, and hey, war is definitely anthropogenic.

  21. Peebz — I didn’t live overseas for most of a decade; I took the train to the frist several of these events. But I’m a vegan, I eat locally grown minimally processed food, I live in an insulated 700sqft flat with two other people, use public transit or walk exclusively in town, and have replaced every major appliance with high-efficiency equivalents in the past five years. Where I have discretion to reduce my energy consumption, I have. Where energy is necessary to my income, I expend it. You’re digging coal with your spacebar — but I’m willing to bet that my net consumption is median or below for the industrial world.

  22. Dr. John Christy, professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama, was the lead author for the 2001 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Dr. Christy has been awarded the Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement from NASA, the Special Award of the American Meteorological Society and the Nobel Peace Prize (yes, the same one Al Gore won). He is the leading authority on climate change, and it is his research which has generated the lion’s share of the data that less informed people are squabbling about.

    Dr. Christy has this to say about Global Warming:

    “I’ve often heard it said that there’s a consensus of thousands of scientists on the global warming issue and that humans are causing a catastrophic change to the climate system. Well I am one scientist, and there are many that simply think that is not true.”

    He goes on:

    “Mother Nature simply operates at a level of complexity that is, at this point, beyond the mastery of mere mortals (such as scientists) and the tools available to us. As my high school physics teacher admonished us in those we-shall-conquer-the-world-with-a-slide-rule days, ‘Begin all of your scientific pronouncements with “At our present level of ignorance, we think we know…” I haven’t seen that type of climate humility lately. Rather I see jump-to-conclusions advocates and, unfortunately, some scientists who see in every weather anomaly the specter of a global-warming apocalypse. Explaining each successive phenomenon as a result of human action gives them comfort and an easy answer. Others of us scratch our heads and try to understand the real causes behind what we see. We discount the possibility that everything is caused by human actions, because everything we’ve seen the climate do has happened before. Sea levels rise and fall continually. The Arctic ice cap has shrunk before. One millennium there are hippos swimming in the Thames, and a geological blink later there is an ice bridge linking Asia and North America.”

    But for those who prefer to get their science from the likes of Al Gore, here is what Gore had to say about Global Warming in the May 9, 2006, issue of Grist magazine:

    “I believe it is appropriate to have an over-representation of factual presentations on how dangerous it is, as a predicate for opening up the audience to listen to what the solutions are.”

    If you STILL believe in Anthropogenic Global Warming, I have some carbon credits to sell you that will make it all better.

  23. Cory, c’mon… Replacing all of your appliances is itself a major consumption of resources.

    And why be so vague? You must have put your data into a GHG-footprint calculator at some point. If not, I’d expect that a frequent flier wouldn’t come out looking so great.

    FWIW, I am still waiting for many of the people who promote eco-friendly telecommuting to do the same with their far-flung conferences. It is time to make more noise about the environmental benefits of videoconferencing and to follow through.

    Most people won’t go vegan (or even consciously reduce meat consumption as I have), but you have a chance to set an example by cutting back on air-travel as well.

  24. As long as

    a) population increases, and

    b) humans exhale CO2

    we’re eventually doomed without some clever engineering.

    Which may be why SETI has been such a bust; perhaps it’s part of the natural cycle of things that species discover fossil fuel, have an industrial revolution, and then blink out of existence in a puff of greenhouse gasses.

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