Energy Literacy 4. How to gauge whether your politicians are faking it on climate change commitments


Saul Griffith is an inventor and entrepreneur. He did his PhD at MIT in programmable matter, exploring the relationship between bits and atoms, or information and materials. Since leaving MIT, he has co-founded a number of technology companies including Optiopia, Squid Labs, Instructables, Potenco, and Makani Power.

On the day before Thanksgiving, while everyone was distracted buying (or pardoning) turkeys, the Obama team announced that the president will go to Copenhagen and promise to try to commit to a carbon reduction schedule for the United States.

(More links if you want to see the news repeat it over and over again: 1, 2, 3)

On one hand, I want to be excited about this because unless the US makes a commitment to CO2 reductions, it's exceedingly unlikely that the rest of the world will bother. On the other hand, no one should be jumping in the aisles till we look at the numbers more carefully.

It's probably useful to first update yourself on the climate science. Here's a well-written, critical, and objective summary of recent scientific results released a few months ago. It was prepared as an update between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of 2007, and IPCC AR5, which will not to be completed until 2013. The PDF of the full report is well worth reading.

In summary, the science news isn't so good. Greenhouse gas emissions have increased nearly 40% between 1990 and 2008. The temperature has been increasing at a rate of 0.19 degrees C, (0.34 F) each decade for the past 25 years. Ice-sheets, glaciers, and ice-caps are exhibiting accelerated melting. The existing sea-level rise predictions look to be underestimates by at least a factor of 2. Delaying action risks irreversible damage and we must peak in emissions soon, preferably between 2015 and 2020, if not earlier.

Those who claim recent cooling trends are ignoring the fact that we are currently at a solar minimum, a period of low solar activity that is partially offsetting the long term global heating trend. This is a bit like saying you don't need to change your eating habits because you lost weight while having the flu.

So, in light of this science, how can we understand what Obama's pledge means?

For starters, any public dialogue that talks about "percentage reductions in emissions" by a certain date is misleading. Because of the long residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere, it makes far more sense to talk about the amount of CO2 remaining to be released before we hit a peak CO2 concentration. Let's call this the "remaining cumulative carbon emissions" method. After those emissions, we essentially need to emit zero carbon. This way of looking at the climate was first popularized by Krause, Bach, & Koomey, in an excellent book called "Energy Policy in the Greenhouse" (1992). It was revisited as a tool of understanding the climate challenge in two great Nature magazine articles this year. (Nature magazine is probably the most prestigious, and rigorous, of all the academic journals.) In one of those, Meinshausen et al., used this method of analysis to look at how you would limit the planet to 2 degrees C of warming.

Two degrees is what most industrialized nations see as the upper limit of tolerable climate change, and it has become something like the default target before we see "dangerous levels of climate change." (Incidentally, the least-developed nations and the 43 small island nations of AOSIS are calling for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.) The Copenhagen Diagnosis Update referenced above summarizes: "Meinshausen found that if a total of 1000 Gigatons of CO2 is emitted for the period 2000-2050, the likelihood of exceeding the 2-degree warming limit is around 25%. Between 2000- 2009, about 350 Gigatons have already been emitted, leaving only 650 Gigatons as the emissions budget for 2010-2050. At current emission rates this budget would be used up within 20 years."

The remaining cumulative carbon emissions is a useful framework by which we can now assess the pseudo-commitment (meaning unratified by Congress) that Obama will present in Copenhagen. According to the New York Times, "Mr. Obama will tell the delegates that the United States intends to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 'in the range of' 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050, officials said."

The first problem here is that most nations, including Europe, are committing to reductions based on 1990 levels, but the US is basing its reductions on 2005 levels. Here's the historical US data.

And I've put it into a public spreadsheet for you to see. This spreadsheet assumes meeting these targets with a linear fit between 2010 & 2020, and the same from 2021-2050. That is very likely an optimistic assumption.

As you'll note, a 17% reduction over 2005 levels means only a 0.3% reduction over 1990 levels.

What you'll also see is that Obama is making a commitment to emit 59 Gigatons from the US alone from 2010-2020, and a further 88 Gigatons from 2020-2050, for a total of 147 Gigatons of CO2. This is 22.7% of the 650 Gigaton limit implied by Meinshausen. This helps to see why it's hard to get an agreement in Copenhagen. In order to avoid "dangerous levels of climate change" the US is committing to reduce its output to "only" 22.7% of global emissions, despite having only 4.5% of the global population. The other point to note is that even these reductions don't satisfy the "emissions go to zero" aspect of this CO2 budget, as the US would still be emitting a gigaton of CO2 per year in 2050 under this plan.

There are a few things we might hazard a guess at when we look at these numbers:

a) The US government doesn't think that we should bother aiming at even a 25% chance of staying below 2 degrees C.

b) The US government believes the rest of the world won't notice the disproportionality of its emissions based on population.

c) The US government believes that we'll invent a magic technology for sequestering atmospheric CO2 at some low cost powered by a magic new energy source.

d) The US government has lost its ability to make hard choices, and to rise to the urgencies of the moment in a way that is required of a great nation.

I like to think of the modern era as "the age of consequence." We are starting to understand the consequences of our individual and collective actions. Although it's early in the modeling revolution, we are learning to model the results of our actions now as the play out in the future. The upside of the age of consequence, and having the internet out there for lots of people to look ponder it (the age of transparency), is that the general public can analyze policy such as the announcements Obama is making in Copenhagen, and critique it. Perhaps we'll even be able to use this elegant framework of "total CO2 emissions" to quite frankly say, "this is not good enough, your words and commitments don't match up".

I don't think public policy alone, whether from individual government or the entire international community, will meet the climate challenge. Individuals will need to lead by example and make personal reductions by demanding products and services that will meet the real climate challenge. Fundamentally, that means massive installation of zero carbon energy generation technologies, and likely quite large reductions in personal energy use. It would be fantastic if we re-defined the climate challenge in terms of how we do both of those things while increasing the quality of our lives. Unless individuals do this, it is unlikely that governments will see the demand for action and act appropriately.

The main criticisms and resistance to climate action are often because we frame it as a challenge of denying ourselves and negatively impacting our lives and economy. By framing it instead as a "how do we improve our quality of life?" question, more people are engaged in the debate and the actions we need. It's no longer a purely technological fix; we can more accurately frame the problem for what it is: a challenge for us all, where we can win if we think clearly about what we are trying to achieve. That's a better quality of life for all.

ref: Meinshausen, M. et al., (2009) Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2°C. Nature 458, 1158-1162.


  1. Well, I don’t have no fancy MIT skoolin’, but I do remember being taught in 5th grade to label my graphs. Care to turn that nearly meaningless square of colors into something comprehensible?

    1. I’d agree, it’s not clear what the graph means. I guess the blue is how things will be if president obama’s plan happens, and the red is if the evil republican haters stop him, anyways it’s reassuring.

  2. What is this doing here? The science has been nonsense all along and the politics has been hijacked by greedy people who just want another tax. The only basis for this topic is the money that can be squeezed out of it.

  3. That graph is confusing and possibly misleading. It would be nice if it stated that it was cumulative starting in 2012, and scaled to a max of 200k so the meaning of the curve is more apparent. (Unless the pink area has some meaning, which it apparently doesn’t).

  4. but what do the blue and the redline tell me? what do they represent? otherwise, yes, the graph is worthless.

  5. “The US government has lost its ability to make hard choices, and to rise to the urgencies of the moment in a way that is required of a great nation.”

    Well said. The United States of the last century was willing to invest in energy for the future: witness the Columbia river or the work of the TVA. That’s indispensable infrastructure that we’re still using today.

    Only the government can afford to think on time scales of a half century. Private corporations need three year payback periods and have costs of capital that make large-scale long-term development all but impossible.

    The government needs to step in and start either financially backing, or better yet, actually building new electrical generating capacity. Not a megawatt or two here and there, but real amounts of power: concentrating solar thermal, nuclear, 200 unit wind farms… the kind of thing that might actually displace coal plants rather than just keep up with slow and steady demand growth.

    If you believe the overwhelming scientific consensus, then you’re pretty much compelled to act, and act decisively. I know the previous administration considered it a fundamental tenet of their ideology that humans simply couldn’t cause climate change, but the current one seems to think otherwise. So what’s missing? If you’ve acknowledged the problem and the solutions are clear, where’s the action?

    1. The US government has lost the ability to invest in anything other than war. The neocons have been trying so hard to drown govt in a bathtub, they have forgotten it played a huge roll in making our economy great. Meanwhile China is making huge investments and slowly destroying us economically.

    2. “…better yet, actually building new electrical generating capacity. Not a megawatt or two here and there, but real amounts of power…”

      Under the current regulatory/legal regime, any ten citizens with a lawyer and a webpage can tie up this sort of project in the courts, effectively forever.

      And since the anti-energy Luddites and save-the-endangered-dust-mite environmentalists are significant elements of both the climate change movement and the Democratic party base, expect little change in the status quo.

      Do you think Hoover Dam – possibly the best bargain in terms of zero-emissions energy in American history – could be built today?

  6. jewels, you are an idiot. Greedy people don’t like taxes. Greedy people that own businesses oppose taxes by any means. Including, confusing the small minded.

    Anonymous, It has a title, and x and a y axis, but the data itself is unlabeled. Either the cumulative co2, is a big red square or a little blue triangle, it isn’t both and something is the other shape.

  7. One of the most lucid yet intelligent discussions of the matter I have seen in recent days, many thanks! I’ve bookmarked it and all.

    1. “Is this really relevant after climategate?”

      why read this blog if you can’t acknowledge scientific fact?

    2. > Is this really relevant after climategate?

      Yes, of course.
      Just because the same old men conspiracy-theorist loonies who have been calling climate change a scam for the past 10 years are yelling a bit louder now doesn’t make real science any less relevant.

    3. of course this is relevant after “climategate” a few emails where people talk about “tricks” and massaging data don’t discredit an entire field.

    4. hanoverfiste, you are quoting the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal. The news in the WSJ is excellent, but the editorial pages are just right wing nonsense. This doesn’t work.

  8. That graph isn’t terribly informative or user-friendly. I think this is indicative of the way the climate debate is being presented to the general public in the US. Most people don’t seem to care, but even if they did it’s not an easy subject to grasp. Graphs like these don’t help.

  9. So from what I gather from this graph is that we currently have zero carbon emissions… I’d say mission accomplished!

  10. I like how he emphasizes the need for individual action to solve this problem.

    I am a climate change agnostic because I am not a scientist and have not done any meaningfully deep study of the issue, but if we are truly headed for disaster then the last group I want to run to the rescue is the gang in Washington.

    Individuals have the ability to radically reduce their own impact by simply reducing consumption. The onus is on climate change believers to show that people can live an acceptably comfortable life while reducing their environmental impact.

    1. but if we are truly headed for disaster then the last group I want to run to the rescue is the gang in Washington.

      Then who? Who will tell Americans what to do? Foriegners?

      Please, educate yourselves or get out of the way.

      1. Does there really need to be someone to “tell Americans what to do” or are people free to innovate and act for themselves? All I’m saying is that people need to take the initiative to come up with peaceful solutions. You are free to install solar panels on your house, sell the car, and grow your own food. You are free to start your own company and built the cleanest, cheapest, most efficient energy source. And yes, if a *gasp* FOREIGNER comes up with a great idea to limit our environmental impact while maintaining living standards then I think it deserves a hearing.

  11. “unless the US makes a commitment to CO2 reductions, it’s exceedingly unlikely that the rest of the world will bother.”

    I resent that. I live in ‘the rest of the world’ and I can safely say that whether or not the US makes a move on CO2 reductions, my country (and many others) will still strive to reduce our impact. The world laughs at the US’s comfort with the death penalty – what makes you think we wont just laugh at the US’s position on CO2 emissions (if it turns out to be crap)?

    The sentence would be much more accurate if it read:
    ‘unless the US makes a commitment to CO2 reductions, it’s exceedingly unlikely that the rest of the world’s efforts to do so will make any difference as the US contributes more than 1/5 of the world’s total emissions.’


  12. Retrospectively, one can gauge the effectiveness of the policies by comparing growth in C02 emissions between different government’s terms in office in a country, or comparing comparing improvement in CO2/GDP.

  13. Um, if you read the article the graph makes sense.
    The red line is the 650gigaton (whats left of the 1000gigatons allowed before 2050) that will give us a chance of not exceeding a 2 degree rise in temp.
    The blue line is the USA contribution to this.
    The USA will contribute “22.7% of global emissions, despite having only 4.5% of the global population”

  14. Expand programs that eliminate/recycle methane/soot. Create a straight carbon tax on energy creating industries. Make it a slow, exponential one. All taxes will be put into a pool and given to people that use renewable energy (to offset the expensive cost).

    Simple, elegant and it would work without getting politicians involved. The EPA could do it tomorrow (they have the power).

    But, it will never be done. Because politicians know what a cash cow they have on their hands.

  15. The red line is the “emissions budget” for the world. The blue line is what the US is taking up. I know close to nothing about climate change but I took the time to actually read before criticizing.

    The graph does not say we have zero emissions. It says that we have, as of now, accumulated zero emissions between now and 2050. This is not controversial given most understandings of time.

    Could the graph be more user friendly? Sure. Are people who have read the post and can’t understand a simple graph in much of a position to criticize others? Probably not.

  16. Screeching about “deniers” is unhelpful, as any of you who are serious about actual ~science~ should be readily willing to admit. The IPCC’s temperature predictions are tainted by bad data and cannot be considered reliable.

    How can anything based on them be taken seriously right now?

    1. The IPCC’s temperature predictions are tainted by bad data and cannot be considered reliable. How can anything based on them be taken seriously right now?

      Yeah, Piltdown man totally discredited that stupid theory of evolution, too.

      1. Referencing Piltdown is a straw man, and a weak one. The IPCC’s predictive models are using data that, by admission of those who compiled the data, is unreliable at best, and just plain fakery at worst. Did you somehow read my post as suggesting that the CRU hack disproves AGW? If so, you’ve failed both at logic and at reading.

        Moreover, a quick wiki search will tell you that the Piltdown hoax did in fact have a dramatic effect:

        Discoveries of Australopithecine fossils found in the 1920s in South Africa were ignored owing to Piltdown man, and the reconstruction of human evolution was thrown off track for decades.

        Luckily for biology classrooms everywhere, scientists weren’t branded as Heretic Deniers when they questioned the paleontological consensus. Wouldn’t it be nice if the same could be said for climate science?

  17. “unless the US makes a commitment to CO2 reductions, it’s exceedingly unlikely that the rest of the world will bother”

    If the US and some other countries make such a committment, manufacturing activity will inevitably gravitate to the countries where no such commitment exists.

  18. It seems to me that this is being done to appease all the parties concerned. Right now, you can divide US citizens into three categories –
    1. Believers – AGW is real, and we better do something about it.
    2. Skeptics – Either GCC it is not real (based upon the 1998 – 2005 “cooling” event”) or it it is not due to human activity
    3. Acceptors – AGW is probably real, and it really doesn’t matter because there is nothing we can do about it (this is perhaps the most dangerous group)
    Pointing a finger at the developing industrialized countries in Asia overlooks the fact that the US, while having 5% of the world’s population consumes 20% of the world’s resources. We NEEDED to do something sometime back. We didn’t then. All our government is doing now is showing group 1 that we are doing something, group 2 that it won’t be that bad, and group 3 that they are in basic agreement.
    While I have read the data many times ( is a good current source for back links), I can see the real impact here in Florida now. That little bit of ocean rise that has been detected has ever so slightly increased the salinity of the St. John’s River lagoon system and is actively killing the environments along a number of creeks in northeast Florida.
    I’m old enough to remember cooler weather starting earlier and summer not being nearly so brutal. Oh, it’s changed alright.

    1. I agree with your 3 buckets of Americans. Indeed group 3 is the most threatening counter-theory that warming is a natural cyclical event on our planet.

      I believe humans impact the environment. This is undeniable. We do not know (accurately*) to what extent humans impact temperatures. Regardless, it is still better to explore cleaner, more sustainable technologies, but your memories of Florida temperatures are far from scientific. If you support AGW, don’t try to say its true just because of your feelings or perceptions. In the end you are helping bucket #2 because your rationale is unfounded.

      I’m with you, but lets not toss the opposition an underhand softball.

      1. @Anonymous
        Admittedly, sentimentality will get you nowhere in arguments of this nature. However, the changes I’ve seen since I’ve returned to Florida really hit home. However, the changes I’ve seen are not my sole support for AGW. As I said, I have seen the data plenty of times. I should qualify that by saying I have seen the data for years. Seeing the effects just made it very real, that’s all. It’s like being told that streams of particles hit the Earth from the Sun all the time, but the first time you see an aurora, it becomes more than just a data set or theory. It becomes real.

        1. And what response do you have for the evidence that the data you’ve been seeing for years is tainted by bias and malfeasance?

          What response to the fact that you have not actually seen the data, but only results ‘adjusted’ by people who, by their own admission, have arbitrarily changed the raw data before showing it to you?

          What response to the fact that you can no longer look at the raw data, since it’s been destroyed?

          No one is arguing that the world is unchanging. You’re right, though… sentimentality gets you nowhere toward a casual relationship between human activity and the change you’re observing.

  19. Notary – Sometimes one country has to go first to get the the ball rolling. As an American (of the US variety), I’m hoping my country shows that leadership.

    In the end, of course it’s got to be a global treaty. The atmosphere doesn’t know about our national boundaries.

    Saul – Hi there! Wondering if you’ve been brought in by the boing boing team specifically to blog about climate change during the Copenhagen meeting?

    I think that’s a great idea.

    Thanks for calling Obama out on his attempt to shift the benchmark used when discussing emmissions from 1990 to 2005.

  20. I would like to add a couple of things:
    1. The U.S. is responsible for approx. 31% of the global GDP, thus being responsible for 22.7% of carbon emissions isn’t so unfair, IMO. I would hope that our proportion would fall as our role in the global economy inevitably declines.

    2. based on this statement “Meinshausen found that if a total of 1000 Gigatons of CO2 is emitted for the period 2000-2050, the likelihood of exceeding the 2-degree warming limit is around 25%,” the likelihood that it won’t exceed a 2-degree warming limit is 75%, therefore Saul’s ‘a’ statement should read “a) The US government doesn’t think that we should bother aiming at even a 75% chance of staying below 2 degrees C.”

    I think we should definitely work to reduce pollution (not just carbon) because it’s the right thing to do. However, setting binding (and potentially under-performing) 50-yr goals is not the best plan. I say we should set aggressive-but-realistic 10 yr goals with a binding commitment to revisit the topic and goals every 10 yrs. China has already passed us in emissions and India will almost certainly do the same very soon, so we need to make sure the sacrifice of developed nations is mirrored in those that are still “developing.”

    1. 1. The U.S. is responsible for approx. 31% of the global GDP, thus being responsible for 22.7% of carbon emissions isn’t so unfair, IMO.

      Funny that a comment without references has factual errors… who would have expected that?

      The three lists here all clearly suggest that the US contributes less than 25% to the global GDP. A quarter is much less impressive than a third.

      Furthermore, the US – with a population of just over 300mil – produces 20+% of the world CO2 emissions.

      Meanwhile the EU – with a collective population of very close to 500mil – produces less that 15% of the world’s CO2 emissions while contributing very similar ammounts to global GDP.

      Also it should be noted that comparing GDP and CO2 emissions doesn’t illustrate much, as not all activity which contributes to GDP produces CO2 emissions.

      Maths fail.

  21. I accept that global warming is happening, and I accept that in all likelihood we have a large part in causing it.

    What I don’t accept is the alarmism and “end-of-the-world” attitude everyone has about it.

    I have yet to hear any mutually accepted predictions about the harms of GW. Sure sea levels will rise over 100 years, but that is plenty of time to build sea walls where capable. Sure rising sea levels will cause major numbers of refugees, but when isn’t there something causing refugees and reducing carbon output isn’t going to magically prevent this. Sure weather patterns will change, but that doesn’t mean it is automatically a bad thing. Some places will get droughts, while other places will get rain for the first time in decades. Plant growth is already accelerating in numerous places due to the increased temperature which can hardly be a bad thing, and many places which may have difficulty with agriculture now may not in the future. Sure hurricanes might get worse here, but they may let up elsewhere.’

    Honestly the only thing I have heard of that is without a doubt going to be miserable is if the Atlantic gets too much fresh-water in it and shuts down the temperature cycling causing a mini-freeze throughout Europe and North America. But that is not a definite, and it won’t be the end of the world for billions of humans.

    It is very possible that global warming will end up putting more power back into the hands of developing nations and bringing them up to speed with our current level of development.

    I don’t know enough about the predictions to say that global warming won’t be a bad thing, so please tell me what you know about it so I can see if I’m completely off the mark here. But it doesn’t change the fact that a changing climate is not inherently bad, it just takes adjustment, adaptation, and time to get used to it. Humanity will keep chugging along, just more efficiently and with a stronger propensity for thinking about long-term effects of our actions.

    1. The5thElephant, probably the best report on the social impacts of climate change is that produced by the Global Humanitarian Forum. Here are some ‘highlights’:

      Already today, hundreds of thousands of lives are lost every year due to climate change. This will rise to roughly half a million in 20 years…Within the next 20 years, one in ten of the world’s present population could be directly and seriously affected.

      Over nine in ten [of these] deaths are related to gradual environmental degradation due to climate change – principally malnutrition, diarrhoea, malaria, with the remaining deaths being linked to weather-related disasters brought about by climate change.

      The majority of the world’s population does not have the capacity to cope with the impact of climate change without suffering a potentially irreversible loss of wellbeing or risk of loss of life… those who suffer most from climate change have done the least to cause it. Developing countries bear over nine-tenths of the climate change burden: 98% of the seriously affected and 99% of all deaths from weather-related disasters, along with over 90% of the total economic losses.

      In summary: weather-related disasters, failing crops, less clean water, desertification and increased incidence of diseases all spell catastrophe for countries that have done little to get us into this mess, and for the most part don’t have the resources to protect themselves from its effects.

      The full report also has detailed info on how the figures have been calculated, as well as the names and expertise of the authors. There are of course other reports that go into the environmental consequences of climate change – extinctions, habitat loss etc.

      Finally, you wrote: “Sure rising sea levels will cause major numbers of refugees, but when isn’t there something causing refugees and reducing carbon output isn’t going to magically prevent this.” I can’t believe you really think this is a valid point. Hope you read the report.

  22. Graph-labels aside, this is a cogent article, well done Saul. ‘Carbon budget’ approaches like this (or “remaining cumulative carbon emissions method” if you really want) are a good way of getting across how little room there is for dithering and vacillation.

    a) The US government doesn’t think that we should bother aiming at even a 25% chance of staying below 2 degrees C.

    A small correction: this sentence implies that staying under the 1000-gigaton limit would only give us a 25% chance of avoiding a 2℃ rise in temperatures. However, as is correctly pointed out earlier in the article, staying within a 1000-gigaton budget actually results in a 25% probability that the rise in temperatures will exceed 2℃; i.e., it gives us a 75% chance of avoiding that kind of rise.

  23. @Redshirt77 – In science everything is only theory. I enjoy many of the things on this blog, the tech, Corey Doctorows fiction, music, etc. I support EFF and the ACLU.

    @MDH – I am not trolling, I read a handful of blogs including this one daily. I haven’t commented on other subjects on here. In retrospect I would say my approach was a little blunt.

    @JorgeBurgos – The documents released in the “climate gate” emails prove that the data is tainted and that there was an effort to supress papers/researchers that did not comply with the expected result. This is now a released fact, not a theory.

    I do believe in alternative energy. I can’t think of a reason why every home shouldn’t have solar cells and a windmill. I do believe we should limit our pollution.

    But I also think more research should be done before we decide to tax every living thing that produces C0-2.

    I don’t think we should be signing the Copenhagen Treaty that says we will give 2% of GNP because we produce all of this CO-2. Especially when developing nations will be exempt and be allowed to produce even greater amounts of pollution.

    I didn’t come into this thinking over night, so it would be hard to expect anyone else either. As a matter of fact in 2000, I believed in Global Warming and voted for Gore. I don’t think that way anymore, but I am not a neo-con.

    I would just ask everyone to take a look at the other side. I would definately look at the case for global warming again with data that hadn’t been manipulated.

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