A response to the IPCC report

In a lot of ways I feel like nothing has changed. The IPCC report confirms what we’ve known for a very long time, and I gave up on the world I know still existing when I’m old about a decade ago. We still need to eliminate fossil fuel use. Because the warming has gone so far, there’s also zero question in my mind that we need nuclear power – especially for industry, as one of my esteemed commenters has pointed out – as well as solar and wind power. The fact that the warming will continue for centuries or even millennia, unless we start pulling vast amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere at a currently unattainable rate means that our survival as a species now depends entirely on our technology. All other tools of survival are dependent on the climate conditions under which we’ve evolved, and those are gone. For all practical purposes, they are gone forever. We may be able to re-terraform the planet and return the climate to a temperature that’s more optimal for humanity, but that’s at least a lifetime away, and in order to get there, we have to survive.

We also need to stop driving our entire society based on what generates profit for rich assholes. There is no way that the scale of change we need will be more profitable in the short term than a continuation of the trajectory we are on. That means that our ruling class, who got and maintain their power by sacrificing the lives and happiness of others and who clearly believe they are the best people in the world to decide our fates, will happily drive us to extinction while believing to their dying breaths that nobody could possibly have done better. We are out of time. In my view we have been for many years. If we leave it to those in power, our response to climate change will be increasingly authoritarian societies, mass murder, needless destruction of land and resources through warfare, and ultimately an extinction that may have been preventable. I know this sounds alarmist to some, but I’d like to point out that I got the same response a decade ago when I said people should start thinking about storing food against emergencies, for the sake of their communities. These days it’s getting harder to find someone who would call that alarmist. Capitalism is driving us to extinction, and fascism is on the rise on a global scale.

I also want to repeat that I think extinction may be preventable. Based on where our society is at, right now, I do not think the odds are in our favor. I do, however, believe we can change those odds. I still believe both survival and a better, more just world is possible, but the longer we rely on our current rulers (some of whom have been involved in politics for longer than I’ve been alive, and yet haven’t come close to dealing with this problem), the worse our chances will get. I also believe that we don’t have a lot of room to screw up, which is why I’ve been advocating that we start the process of building a better society right now from the ground up, as part of building the power to create the political change we need. We need that resilience no matter what’s coming, and taking that approach seems to me to be the best way to save lives through both climate change and political change.

It’s a lot. It’s too much, really. There is no justice to what’s happening. Those responsible still wield unimaginable wealth and power, and the people suffering and dying the most are the poorest among us, not just in those nations kept in poverty by the rich nations, but also within the rich nations. Add in the pandemic, and there’s a burden of grief upon everyone who understands what’s going on. It’s hard to see any hope at all sometimes. We’re stuck in a fog bank, and not only can we not see a way out, we know there’s a very real possibility that the fog now envelops the entire world. Insofar as the temperature is going to keep rising, we may be stuck in that “fog” for the rest of our lives. Our best hope to get out is to build new spaces that are fog-proof, so that we can actually see each other and be whole again. In the meantime, we do what people always do when stuck in the fog. We call to each other, so we know we’re not alone. We feel our way forward, and guide those around us to better footing. We build fog horns to call those beyond reach of our voices, and warn them of rocks, or direct them to harbor.

I’m planning to post science fiction much more often here, and more regularly to my patrons, because I think a lot of people have trouble imagining how human society could exist on such a strange and hostile world. Storytelling – narrative of one form or another – is a method of communicating information and ideas that seems to be universal within our species. Hopefully I can find ways of doing it that can help at least some of you in that regard. I also decided, based on comments, to engage a little more directly with bad news and the darker end of things. Beyond that, I’ll keep trying to make content that will help people figure out their role in all this, and I’ll at least consider requests if there are particular things someone wants me to look into.

On that note, I think I’ll leave you with Rebecca Watson’s video about the IPCC report, because I like the tone:



  1. planter says

    I feel exactly the same way. My research program includes some work on how plants and soils respond to climate change. About a decade ago I and some collaborators published a paper showing some concerning lags in how arctic soils respond to warming (in a nutshell, climate impacts on soil processes such as nutrient cycling lag about 20 years behind the climate effects on the plants, which means that even if warming trends reverse tomorrow, it is likely that high arctic soil processes will take at least a further 20 years to reverse). Needless to say this is a bit of a problem given the amount of carbon stored in permafrost.

    The the fieldwork was fun, and the science was cool, raising a bunch of new questions that we could have continued working on. We did not pursue it because, frankly, what was the point. All we are doing is putting more precise error bars around the problem. We already knew that things are going to be bad, so what is the point of refining our estimate of precisely how bad things are going to be.

    All to say that, while it is very useful to have an up-to-date summary of the science, there is nothing new here. We knew enough 20-30 years ago, and did nothing.

    These days I mostly work on grassland management questions, because maintaining healthy ecosystems through good times gives them the resilience to function through adverse conditions such as our current drought. Not something that will save the world in this context, but hopefully something that makes it a little bit better.

  2. says

    What really freaks me out is that the response of Our Masters That Rule The World is not “we’re stopping fossil fuel extraction and use, right away.” It’s “We are stopping licensing new extraction operations in the next 5 years.” Which means that they’re waving a flag for the “drill baby drill!” crowd that says “get it while you can!” Because, once those projects are underway, they’ll be able to yell “JOBS!” and keep them going. I forget where it was that I read it but someone in the USG said that the strategy is to tail off new fossil fuel extraction by 2050. They may as well grab us by our necks, haul our face close to theirs, and scream, “We are playing you, Gomer! We’ll worry about this after we’re dead, muaaahahahahaaha!”

    We’re being played. Greta Thunberg is right. It must be heart-breaking for her to be realizing how cynical politicians are. But they have generations of practice at lying to hopeful youth. At this point, I am convinced that humanity, collectively, will do nothing, because – like with the COVID-19 – the politicians will politicize solutions as a way of concealing their complicity. They won’t do it to destroy humanity, they’ll do it because they’re venal and stupid but the result will be the same. They’ve already been lining up the plans to exploit fossil fuels in Siberia and up in the arctic circle – they’ve got business to do. Where will this all end up? I think IPCC is being optimistic when they talk about +4C. It’ll go up around +6C if there aren’t runaway reactions that take it farther.

  3. StevoR says

    Bleak but very hard to argue with. I look forward to reading your SF here and we need to know and face the reality. Thankyou for this and for including Rebecca Watson’s video too.

  4. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    unless we start pulling vast amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere at a currently unattainable rate

    Quotes from above source, with my additional commentary / explanations.
    It’s obtainable, but barely. See:


    The basic idea is foolproof, but

    In all of what follows, bear in mind that the real issues are economics and scalability.

    The basic idea is to dig up lots of limestone, heat it up to turn it into quicklime and CO2, capture the concentrated CO2 stream and use water to pump that into basalt where it quickly forms chemically stable bonds, take the quicklime and grind it into dust, disperse that quicklime dust over the surface of the ocean where it will absorb CO2 out of the oceans, and thereby take CO2 out of the atmosphere.

    Here’s some more details.

    There’s a shortcut to mineralization that has been theorized and recently tested. If pressurized CO₂ is mixed with water and injected into the porous basalt of old lava flows, the acidic solution of water and CO₂ will react with base minerals in the basalt. The CO₂ content of the injected solution will be mineralized in a period of weeks to months. That was confirmed in a field trial [link in source] recently conducted in Iceland.

    That sounds well and good; there’s no shortage of old lava flows that should serve.

    If this approach were used to sequester CO₂ at the current 9.8 gigatonne (GT) rate of fossil carbon emissions (40 GT CO₂), the production rate for limestone calcination would need to be roughly 50 GT of CaO annually from just over 90 GT of calcium carbonate. Large as those numbers are, they’re not utterly impossible. Availability of limestone is not a limiting factor; there are millions of gigatonnes of accessible deposits around the globe.

    The big hurdle is thermal energy. 50 GT of CaO is roughly 40 times more than the cement industry consumes annually, and the energy needed to produce it would nearly double the world’s primary energy consumption. However, it’s thermal energy, not electricity.

    So, we only need something like 10,000 or 20,000 high-temp next-gen large nuclear reactors (more if we have to use electrical heating) running straight for like 50 years. In short, it seems like it will cost us about as much as we gained from burning the fossil fuels in the first place. Given basic thermodynamics, this makes sense. In a very gross manner of speaking, we’re reversing the chemical reaction, and so it’s going to take about as much energy to reverse it as what we got out in the first place.

    As I said, the brute force approach of limestone calcination is not energy efficient. Energy efficiency, per se, may not be as important as economic efficiency, and the fact that calcination is simple and requires only thermal energy, rather than electricity, does matter.

    And I forget where I read it, but I read that the scale of the mining for limestone would be comparable in capacity to today’s mining for coal. So, we might be able to repurpose the existing knowledge and technological base of coal mining to mine limestone. So, not impossible, but close. It’s on the edge of what’s possible by human civilization. AFAIK, approx 1% of humanity works directly or indirectly in energy supply. We’ll have to dedicate about that many number of people on this plan (or a plan like it) to pull CO2 out of the air, in addition to the labor force for new energy.

    AFAIK, human extinction is not a remotely plausible outcome. The end of industrial human civilization? Yea, that might happen. Deaths of billions of people? Yea, that might happen. However, we’re not going to get human extinction. Humans are just too damned smart and resourceful.

  5. says

    @Marcus – One thing I will say is that even now we have the capacity to act against the warming trend. Just as we can farm algae for food, we can farm it to store carbon, too. Likewise we can steward ecosystems, move plants and animals, and work to maintain ecosystems, or even engineer new ones. We also don’t know if there might be suppressing feedbacks that we’re just not aware of, because the conditions for them have never existed in human history.

    My view is that if we stop CO2 emissions this decade, the warming will spike by around 2030, and then probably plateau for a short time, before warming more slowly than it would have done otherwise. Absent any other changes from us, I would expect it to keep working for between one and ten thousand years – we’d basically be jump-starting a more normal geological warming event. That will still be unpleasant, but it’s possible that that ecosystems will develop in a slow-warming scenario that will slow it down more, and so on. That does mean mass extinction, but we could see what amount to “natural” monocultures popping up, and then diversifying into more resilient ecosystems. Stuff like a fast-growing grass, or kudzu moving into the burned ruins of what used to be a forest. I think that kind of progression is more likely if we try to help it along.

    If we can make it through the next 150-200 years, I think we’ll have a real shot at more long-term survival, IF we have built a high-tech society with radically different priorities and practices. If it’s just billionaires and their serfs hiding in bunkers, the outlook is less pleasant.

    Either way, surviving that shorter-term window is the big worry.

    I also think we’re gonna see a lot of people trying to justify atrocities and authoritarianism in the name of “survival”. That’ll be super fun.

  6. says

    @Gerrard – What you describe sounds worth doing. With regard to human extinction, here’s my problem – if industrialized society ends, where does that leave us? The survivors will be engaged in some form of subsistence farming, as international trade and local ecosystems can no longer be relied on for food. What happens then? If we get to that point, I don’t see how the warming doesn’t continue for at least a thousand years, driven by fires, decaying permafrost, and so on. Under those circumstances, I think it’s pretty good odds that the surviving populations get hit with a heatwave, storm, or drought that they can’t survive.

    I thing we have an excellent chance at avoiding extinction, but at this point I don’t think it’s guaranteed. Human ingenuity is a powerful force – it’s how we got here in the first place – but it’s limited by the constraints of reality. It’s also limited by the constraints that we impose upon ourselves. As ever, we have met the enemy and he is us.

  7. klatu says

    I am so glad that the IPCC finally grew a backbone, at least. No more mealy-mouthed maybe-this-is-bad-but-we-can’t-be-100%-certain messages. It was–and always has been–a foolish idea to stay “politically neutral”. At leat now, the language of the report is very closed off to benign mis-interpretation. Anthropogenic climate change is a scientific fact. Its effects will last for centuries. The world is likely to become a living hellscape, if we surive at all.

    I don’t begrudge people for finding and promulgating hopeful, upbeat messages where they can, but–motherfucker!–at some point we need to face reality! Mental health is important, and whatever people need to tell themselves to cope, I support. But reality has this funny way of not giving a crap about our wellbeing. So… our continued existence is concretely fucked unless we fundamentally change our ways, collectively and comprehensively. In this vein, I fully support your intention to face the darker prospects of our future more explicitly.

    Unless people understand that a decent future is–sure–possible, but only possible in one of the least likely projections, then nothing will happen. We will happily outstrip those still too optimistic scenarios and head for a 6C° world in less than 80 years. Which, to my limited understanding, basically guarantees a PT-level extinction event. As hysterical as it may sound, I’m with Greta on this one: NOW is the time to panic!

    I guess what I’m saying is that the fully five million youtube videos about hope and positivity in the face of the looming darkness all feel fake and condescending to me. And that it’s too easy to just blame myself for feeling that way. Yes, I’m a pessimist. That’s just who I am. But being told over and over again that things aren’t really that bad feels incredibly disingenuous, when the facts are now official. Hope? Yes. Delusion? No. Then again, I wouldn’t want to tell people they’re fucked all day, either…

    Thank you for being a trooper, Abe. Your stuff is always appreciated, at least by me.

    PS: Rebeccas Watson’s video is kind of perfect, in this context ^_^

  8. says

    I finally watched Watson’s piece. I fully agree with her take on the similarities between our flubbed pandemic response and our to-be flubbed AGW response. It’s beyond depressing.

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