Copenhagen Diary #6: Catching the climate train

A crowd of people set out to catch a train. The train had already left some time ago but was moving quite slowly, though steadily. It was still possible to catch the train if everyone ran. It was vital that they caught the train as disaster was chasing them. Also, no-one could get on the train unless everyone did.

They worked out at the start how fast they all had to run to make it. They set targets for how close they would be in five years. But people didn’t run that fast. Some walkied, some said “I will pay others to run faster so I don’t have to”. Others sat down for a rest. Still others wandered backwards because they didn’t believe the disaster was really coming.

At the end of the five years they discussed again how fast they had to run to catch the train which had  now disappeared over the horizon. If they had all run at the speed they agreed five years ago they would now be much closer to the train.They argued. “You sat down for a rest, so you have to run much faster now”. “No, I can only start from where I am. I will run a little faster than I have been and that should be good enough.”

And so their running targets all changed, to reflect the fact that they had only walked or sat down. A few caught up with the train but they couldn’t get on because the others were far behind.

If parties had met the targets in the Kyoto Protocol the reduction we need now for developed countries wouldn’t be 25-40%, but 20-35%. Instead, countries like NZ have to undo the 23% emissions increase since 1990 before they can count any reduction. Canada, the most recalcitrant of the developed countries had a bright idea – let’s measure our next targets against 2006 emissions. That gave the US the chance to say “We will reduce by 17%”- which is only 3% below 1990. But the climate doesn’t reset the clock at each COP. And the train has disappeared over the horizon.

9 Comments Posted

  1. Gravity wells are impervious to many things. I am not an advocate of growth as an answer to anything.

    I am however, very well versed in less conventional thinking about how to get out of a gravity well.

    A reasonably competent light personnel lift capability SSTO with winged return is and has been in reach for most of a decade now. A mass driver to get heavier objects up is fairly straightforward engineering. The combination would cut costs by a factor of at least 3 or more.

    If you aren’t throwing things away and you aren’t trying to use a space “pickup truck”, you have access. Then you live and work and BUILD THINGS UP THERE…. not down here to be shipped up there.

    I am SO tired of “conventional thinking”. The problem is getting people and supplies into orbit. If you do it by throwing away boosters and requiring even the delicate bits to survive multiple-G accelerations to reach orbit you’ve already lost the fight.

    Send the people with the knowledge and the parts into space and build the delicate bits THERE… where the high-vacuum, low temperature high energy environment you have to test for is right outside the airlock and if something doesn’t work quite right you can haul it in and fix it.

    That’s not the way most people think about this and that makes most people think that getting to space is more difficult than it is.

    Learning to live and work in that environment IS more difficult than most people realize, but that is work that engineers can handle.

    We don’t need ANY scientific breakthroughs to make this happen. It is really quite simple stuff.

    Once we know how to do it we own the whole Solar System, not just near-earth-orbit.


  2. I think that more effort should be put towards decreasing insolation or increasing the albedo. Should we be encouraging people to install light rather than dark coloured rooves? Should we opt for lighter highway colours? What about painting some mountain tops white – where there is bare rock? Could we build and fly a number of helium or hydrogen-filled silvered balloons? I am guessing that most of these ideas aren’t feasible, but we just need to find and then fund one that will work. It won’t solve all our problems but it could buy us some time.


  3. Cheap Access To Space? Gravity wells are rather impervious to economic growth.

    What do I want? Peak oil fifty years ago, cold fusion tomorrow, the LHC finding a free energy particle, world peace, a benevolent dictator with infinite wisdom. A pet dragon would be cool too. Whatcha got? ‘Cos all I see is the growing milk-powder mountain, new motorways, and governments that doesn’t believe in governance.

    What do I hope for? When the economy tries to restart, oil prices skyrocket, sending it crashing even further, and governments maybe think the next couple of trillion should go into saving the whole world, rather than just it’s bankers, because fossil fuels just won’t do it any more. That’ll be fifty years away for coal yet though.

  4. Tussock

    The only problem in the long term is the rate we’re burning fossil fuels, the only solution to that is to stop digging them out of the ground so quickly.

    I am not sure what your notion is about this. We can control where we shade the planet if we do it at all, and I guarantee that we can make the poles colder, selectively if you once decide that you are ready for an engineering solution and we give ourselves Cheap Access To Space. I’ve heard all of them I think. People want reductions and I want reductions AND WE ARE NOT GOING TO GET THEM UNTIL WE HAVE LOCKED IN 4 degrees of warming…. because the people involved aren’t going to get serious until the ocean starts rising in earnest and governments fall and bankers are beheaded.

    You ask for something that is, for humans as a species, as likely as flying to the moon by flapping our arms, and the result from Copenhagen appears to prove this. You WANT what Kyoto failed to deliver and what Copenhagen just failed to deliver. How do you intend to force the rest of the world to do what you want it to do?

    I wanted Copenhagen to work. I REALLY wanted to see us grow-up and start acting like a bunch of civilized and competent humans instead of gluttons. The problem is that the world leaders weren’t REALLY at the summit. The world leaders are the ones who are in the BIS in Switzerland, roaming the halls of Goldman Sachs, and having their Christmas Parties at JP Morgan. If you saw them in the throes of some of their conspicuous consumption you’d realize that expecting them to stop voluntarily is optimism of the worst sort.

    So we got a bunch of weasel words and vague promises. Which I doubt seriously will lead to greater action next year than we saw this year. The world will get serious when it becomes undeniable and it WILL become undeniable at some point… and people WILL start kicking-ass and taking names… but it will be way too late by then…. unless someone does some serious engineering magic to knock down net insolation from orbit.


  5. bjchip: “reducing net insolation”.

    Not likely, you’d end up with a colder equator, warmer poles, and even less rainfall all over. The only problem in the long term is the rate we’re burning fossil fuels, the only solution to that is to stop digging them out of the ground so quickly.

    The discussion should all be on how to deliver that reduction, and how to allocate the remaining fuel resources without being grossly unfair about it (so, you know, people actually do it). But those digging won’t stop if it cuts back their yearly earnings, and those burning it won’t willingly pay the same amount for less, nor would their economies survive the attempt in their present form.

    So, we’ll boom and bust some more, build a few walls here and there to keep the sea out of the valuable places, mourn the lost species, cut the rainforests as we have the temperate ones, and keep blaming everyone else for the way we hurt ourselves.

    Yay for capitalism: plant me another cow and dig up some oil to feed it on, all to build ourselves a larger mountain of milk powder for a nice profit on paper (assuming prices always rise, like they always don’t).

  6. Satire, sorry: the wisdom of known knowns is to ignore them. Some wisdom.

    Seriously though, a short postponement – would this be sufficient for major (country) parties to overcome their present prejudices and past sensibilities in order they return to potential for transending planetary decision.

    Yes, short would have to be exactly that since time is not on humanity’s side and if it cannot agree to necessary reduction strategies now then what real chance of ramped up efforts later..?

  7. Logic says you’re most likely right BJ – though I’ll get homesick for earth.
    Catching the train is imo more than a metaphor for New Zealanders.
    In the large o/s cities I’ve lived in – commuting in cars has been rendered over-expensive and obsolete by effective Public Transport options.
    Here we are building ‘Transmiission Gullies’, whereas our future planning should be aimed away from cars and into Public transport.
    New Zealand has ridiculous traffic snafu’s given it’s population and geographic layout.
    Using Trucks instead of rail is little short of outright craziness.
    Short term solutions (raising Taxes) are not a solution at all – they are mechanisms to avoid the meaning of what is taking place.
    In Manhattan I could go anywhere on the island for $1.50.
    In Melbourne I could travel all day for $8 – faster cheaper and convenienter than any car.
    Cutting our O/S fuel and auto costs would do wonders for the economy.
    Far moreso than any range of Taxes could offset.
    New Zealand is already so heavily taxed that any more cost increases would render our society unaffordable for huge numbers of our people.
    One of the evening walks I took through Wellington’s town belt was a real education.
    There were dozens and dozens of people settling down for the night in their bush beds.
    This phenomenon was a rarity a dozen years ago – today it is a shocking reflection on the costs of living.
    Newspapers this week have been full of how bouyant our economy is – the obvious conclusion is that our Government is inefficient and is Not doing it’s job.

  8. The only chance humans have of saving the habitability of the planet they live on, is to learn how to leave it. This is due to the nature of humans, not science.

    We do not as a species, know how to share. We can only manage that trick within our own tribes. We cannot deal with self sacrifice and self-control in the global context, for people we don’t know, with people we don’t trust.

    We needed the full reduction, and now. We aren’t getting it.

    We are facing 3+ degrees. That’s what I see, and I think that is what Jeanette is describing… but the likelihood of feedbacks is better than 75% at that level, as opposed to less than 25% in the 2 degrees regime.

    We have no choice but to explore the technical means of reducing net insolation and doing that from orbit remains the best, most reversible, option.


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