“That would have been great”

A friend on Facebook recommended this segment of The Newsroom and someone else found the link and I see why the friend recommended it.

The Jeff Daniels character interviews an EPA guy, who says it’s too late.


  1. mildlymagnificent says

    I think the message is sort of like that, sort of not like that.

    Yes, it _is_ at least 20 to 30 years too late to avoid some pretty horrible things that we’ve lined up for and can’t avoid. No, it’s not too late to avoid the very worst things that we might suffer if we don’t, fer crissake, get up off our asses and do as much as we can as soon as we can.

    What can’t we avoid? Sea level rise and downpour levels of precipitation are the biggies here. Even if we eliminate emissions tomorrow the 400 ppm is still up there and the effects of everything that led up to it are working their way through the ice and the oceans. Tell your children not to buy sea level or riverside property if they’re looking for a long-term investment. There’s no way to tell how badly, nor how frequently, such areas will be affected by flooding in the next 2 or more decades. In the case of rivers and lakes, there’s also the issue of drought. Buying a property with a jetty will look pretty damn silly when the water edge shifts 20 or 30 metres away from your beached boats. If you want a seaside or riverside holiday property, be prepared to spend and not recoup your investment if its value is affected by flooding – either of the property itself or of access roads or other support facilities.

    What can we avoid? The very worst effects of population movements and infrastructure rebuilding _if_ we not only reduce emissions but also start work on reducing the absolute concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. That will slow down the unavoidable impacts and maybe give us time to reduce some of the really bad shit – floods, fires, famines and wars mainly.

    There’s one good thing about this happening now. The orbital effects on the planet are supposed to be leading us gradually into an ice age in 10000+ years time. We don’t have to reduce concentrations to below pre-industrial levels because planetary effects would be cooling things down anyway. It’s a small comfort, but it does mean that every effort now will pay off a few decades or centuries sooner than if we were moving in the other direction. We’ll probably skip that particular ice age anyway. But that’s better than us being reduced to another evolutionary bottleneck sized population in the meantime.

  2. says

    Bernard Hurley, people aren’t already dying due to catastrophic failure of the planet, as the planet has not yet catastrophically failed. People have died as a result of the warming we’ve experienced so far, yes, but nothing that can be called “catastrophic failure”. When catastrophic failure happens, we won’t be talking about it on the internet.

    I’m rather more pessimistic than mildlymagnificent. I suspect the EPA character nailed it. If we start now, we do everything right, and we’re lucky, we may be able to avoid extinction.

    I’m eager to be proved wrong.

  3. komarov says

    “Too late” sounds about right. There are lots and lots of pilot projects in various areas, but that’s all they ever are. Test cases, small(ish) scale, not widely implemented.
    – Efficient housing with greatly reduced energy loss
    – Carbon-neutral construction
    – Experimental power stations or other industrial facilities using combined heat and power, biomass, carbon capture, etc. etc.
    – Building-integrated solar power

    And none of it is ready. All of it has issues to sort out and because these are prototypes they are often more expensive and more difficult to build elsewhere or scale up. So whatever people are starting to develop now because climate change has sunk in just a little bit will take another decade or so to become ‘marketable’.
    Another issue is that a lot of this is high-tech and hence utterly unsuitable for the developing world. The local economy could never support it and the locals depend on industrial growth which would mean more emissions, except they don’t have the means to deal with those.

    I’m inclined to make a small exception for Renewables, that is the collection of solar, wind, tidal and wave power. In the EU solar power has lived off government support for many years and collapsed somewhat when that support faltered. Still, research continues and so does development, albeit at a reduced pace.
    Wind is in a similar position but seems to be on the uptake. It’s less complicated to scale up (bigger turbines are easier to build than more efficient cells) and actually not that high-tech, or at least it doesn’t have to be, which is another advantage.
    Tidal power is almost ancient, really, but depends on the right geography or requires massive building projects, so there are limits to what you can do with that. On the other hand, power yields can be fantastic and it has an in-built storage capacity unlike the other renewables.
    Wave power, sadly, doesn’t seem to be taking off just yet and may still take some time. In Britain people are always pointing out what potential wave and offshore wind power would have for the country but there are problems. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the North Sea is not a hospitable place and, as I recall, more than one prototype for wave power generators was sunk before it could even be installed. Likewise at least one coastal installation I know about was eventually smashed by the same waves that were driving it. And that, too, was a demonstrator not ready for large-scale implementation.
    But the biggest problem with renewables is energy storage. Humans are terrible at building batteries. If you need a demonstration, look at Philae. 60 hours on a high-tech space age battery doesn’t sound that great all things considered. And now imagine building a battery that gets your solar-powered city through the night. Nobody knows how to do it (economically), so we still depend on fossil fuel and nuclear plants. If you put different types of renewables (Solar + Wind + Tidal) together you can more or less guarantee a reduced output around the clock but even then you still need storage to smooth out the ‘ups and downs’ of the output (and demand) with stored energy or have some other powerstations ready to step in when needed. Of course renewables aren’t developed enough to even remotely cope with national demand anywhere anyway.

    Carbon capture from the atmosphere is another major problem in my mind. The carbon capture mentioned above only refers to collecting the CO2 emitted by plant and storing before it gets into the atmosphere. Along with biomas this may slow the increase in CO2 levels, which is certainly worthwhile, but since we are already at ‘lethal’ levels for our climate this can’t be enough.
    The CO2 already up there stays right where it is. Armies of scientists and engineers have been trying to find ways of capturing carbon from the atmosphere but, to my knowledge, this only ever goes as far as interesting lab results and yet more prototypes, which tend to be expensive and cannot be scaled up.

    So, yes, trouble ahead. And twenty or thirty years ago … just like he said. Maybe. Oh, and of course we do have a slew of other issues that may make humans (among other species) very uncomfortable in the near future.

    P.S.: Regarding the “So what?”, my answer would be, “Carry on regardless”. Things may still turn out awful, but at least they won’t be terrible. How’s that for optimism? (I’m not American)

  4. says

    There’s nothing unrealistic about the claims by the character speaking. There is one thing we can do that would make a difference – control human population – but it’s still a taboo, though that will start to change. “Food security” and insects as a food source have already become common discussion in the media.

    If human numbers dropped to two billion by 2050, we might have a chance. Unfortunately, discussing it usually meets with two responses: (a) “kill yourself if you believe that”, and (b) “you’re calling for genocide and euthanasia”. How can discussing our numbers be a taboo when we say it about other animals? We are not outside of nor exempt from nature. That’s the attitude of the religious (“the world was made for us!”) so I don’t understand why atheists take the same view. If the environment dies, we die.

    It makes me glad I chose never to have kids – not just because fewer people means less damage to the environment, but also so I don’t have to explain to a ten year old why she/he will never get the chance to grow up and grow old.

  5. Kevin Kehres says

    Well, the small consolation we have is that we will eventually be forced to move to green energy sources — just as soon as we suck every drop of oil and gas from every crevice.

    Won’t be long now. Fracking only makes sense because the “easy” energy is gone. We’re licking the plate after having eaten a HUGE meal.

    Too late for the polar bears and Miami, I’m afraid.

  6. Doubting Thomas says

    The good news (for me) is that I won’t live to see the worst of it. I do apologize to the younger and future generations for all that I did or didn’t do (enough of) to stop it. The realist in me says that people don’t change their behavior until they are forced to. Then of course in this case, it’s too late.

  7. komarov says

    Kevin #10:

    Once upon a time I would have thought so but economics seem to be a big problem. Like you said, fracking only makes sense now. Likewise today’s oil wells (like Deep Horizon) only became viable because of scarcity. And I see no reason to believe this trend won’t continue for years, even decades, to come. With moderate technological advancement (arguably inevitable) and fewer options companies could probably tackle ever more difficult reservoirs of fossil fuels and still make a profit. Strictly speaking these resources only become infeasible once their extraction takes more energy than is yielded by their use.
    Hence they’d continue as they always have and other energy sources would be stifled by the all-too-common lack of interest. Business as usual, business being the problem. (We have similar issues, for example, with next generation antibiotics. Not only are they difficult to ‘invent’, there are also much more attractive markets to invest in for the companies that would otherwise be doing the research.)

    Leftoverunder, #9:

    Population control is also tricky thanks to our good friends, the Roman Catholic Church and it’s estranged relatives.
    There are serious concerns, however, on how you implement said control. As I recall, Ophelia had a post a while back on sterilisation in India being targeted at poor women. With such schemes there are always legitimate concerns about the ethics. For that reason alone and humanity will probably not seriously engage with this issue until after nature has done part of the work for us, with all the horrors that entails. Heck, people are dying now. We suck at Global Anything.
    Right now, even without religious groups like the RCC promoting unchecked growth and with a massive effort and budget for education and healthcare on a global scale, we probably couldn’t even slow growth. We’re headed for a cliff and some idiots are still flooring the gas thinking we’ll make it to the other side.

    Thomas, #11:
    I don’t pretend to speak for everyone, but no worries, mate. Unless you’re a billionaire, high-calibre politician or oil magnate. 😉
    But seriously, history sometimes looks like an endless string of terrible ideas. Of course every lucky streak ends sometime and the bullets we are constantly dodging seem to be getting bigger every time. I’d consider the oil age and all it’s wonders a necessary step to the next stage of technological advancement, except we seem to have become a little too comfortable with oil and may have taken things too far because of it. An earlier transition might have seen this as just another step, like coal before it and wood before that. Renewables could even mean this would be the first sustaninable approach to powering civilisation. Then we’d just have to figure out sustainable metals, food sources and some other, ah, minor details.

  8. throwaway, never proofreads, every post a gamble says

    Good news everyone!

    In about 20,000 years the earth will be aligned in such a way that it may give rise to a new ice age! That should cool things off a bit!

  9. mildlymagnificent says

    The CO2 already up there stays right where it is. Armies of scientists and engineers have been trying to find ways of capturing carbon from the atmosphere but, to my knowledge, this only ever goes as far as interesting lab results and yet more prototypes, which tend to be expensive and cannot be scaled up.

    Doesn’t need to. Apart from money, there’s no good reason why we couldn’t blow up the same kinds of huge holes in the ground or tops of mountains to get at the CO2 absorbing rocks that we already do to get at the CO2 releasing rocks. Last quote I saw was that it would probably cost $25 billion dollars to quarry, grind and release as gravels or dusts enough olivine (and similar rocks) to absorb one year’s worth of CO2 at current emissions rates.

    This is simply speeding up the exact same process that’s occurring in all the high mountain ranges as tectonic plates force them higher. The difference being that we’d target particular rocks rather than the whole lot as the natural process does and we’d do it in areas that are accessible to us. Our CO2 problem is that our emissions are out of balance with the normal cycles of release and absorption, both the biological (mostly short-term) and the geological (long-term) cycles are equally out of whack.

    My view is that, at some point, we’ll go onto a WW2 style footing. At that point, $25 billion to offset emissions each year will look like peanuts. It would also be a big incentive to reduce emissions even faster if we can get a system going that takes out more CO2 than that one year.

    The process need not be that elaborate/ expensive in the first place, and when all systems are Go!, there’ll be no need for refinements. Anyone and everyone will be looking out in their localities for olivine and similar deposits – they are much more common than the fossils are – and will get stuck into quarrying them for gravels for various purposes as well as grinding into fine dusts and blowing them over sensitive areas that could do with some emergency help.

    This is neither sophisticated science nor highly technical engineering. As a bonus, olivine is often the major compound left when ore bodies are mined out. So a lot of this activity wouldn’t even need to damage new areas, old mines can be reworked for a new purpose.

  10. mildlymagnificent says

    Sorry, I should have added my own version of pessimism.

    Miami’s toast, along with the Keys, and a whole lot of sea level cities in other places depending on their topography. It’s just a matter of time. That’s probably near a billion people all up who’ll need new houses, roads, sewage processing, ports, airports, trainlines, bridges. power supplies.

    The various productive deltas around the world, Nile, Mekong, Ganges won’t be as they are, but they’ll be able to partly maintain and innovate with floating farms/ housing which can’t be done with all that infrastructure dependent, heavily built up, stuff that places in America, Japan and others have.

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