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Terminal Problem, Final Solution.

by Patrice Ayme Fri May 15th, 2009 at 02:45:26 PM EST

Paul Krugman, having visited China, concludes that "China cannot continue producing greenhouse emissions at an escalating rate because the planet can't handle the strain." OK, but China goes on, and so does the USA. The USA gets 71% of its electricity from fossil fuels. China, with supposedly one new coal plant a week, now emits more CO2 than the USA. What to do?

(Health warning: those who cannot tolerate stress should stop reading right here.)

Well, one has to realize we are facing the greatest extinction and cataclysm ever. And it could happen suddenly, thanks to thousands of billions of tons of buried methane. Then the earth would switch to its hot mode, with only the polar regions inhabitable. War for survival would erupt all around. Most of the seven billion humans would die. Drastic, counter intuitive methods have to be used swiftly to prevent or mitigate this. Bellicose pressure, first in economics, should not be eschewed, right away.


Enough fossil fuels have been piled up in the last 400 million years to guarantee that, if we burn them all, the biosphere will cook, simmer and boil. If we leave the energy markets to themselves, this outcome is certain. It does not matter what the advanced countries do by themselves, as long as they restrict themselves to the market, because, if they become saintly and do not burn carbon anymore, the price of carbon fuels will collapse, making them all the more irresistible to the rest of the world's markets. Thus there is no free market solution. It is not a free market problem, it is a survival problem. Survival, in case you missed out on the last few hundreds millions years of evolution, is the best reason there ever was for war. *

The Principle of Precaution requires to consider the very worst case possible, stop, and think carefully about whether it could happen. In the case of climate, the worst case is a runaway eruption of frozen hydrates of methane. And it could happen. There are enormous quantities of frozen methane, of the order of all other fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas), it seems. (Just oceanic frozen methane is of the order of all known oil reserves; the methane hydrates in the permafrost not included, but there are a lot.)

If the temperature rises, a bit more, it will become higher than any in the last three million years, plenty of time for more methane hydrates to have accumulated (from piled up organic sediments, say from rivers). The methane could, and will, bubble out catastrophically. Its greenhouse power over ten years is well above twenty times that of CO2. So if the eruption starts full on, the worldwide atmospheric temperatures would jump by at least ten times what they have risen so far. (We basically went up three quarters of one degree Celsius in one century, thus I am talking about perhaps seven degrees in a decade or two; it would be a heat cataclysm).

This has happened before, at least once in the last 50 million years: a brutal and enormous rise in global temperatures. Such swift brutality was long totally mysterious, until the gigantic deposits of frozen methane were discovered, all over the planet. These deposits are nasty, they can erupt, causing gigantic tsunamis (the last ones known in Europe were the 30 meters high Storegga tsunamis that occurred around 7,000 years ago, from warming post glaciation). There is audio, visual and seismological evidence that methane beds have been active in the last two summers off Siberia, releasing methane, with sound, bubbles and fury, an obvious forerunner of absolute disaster.

Most of the methane is up north, so the disaster may get in full swing one of these summers. It will be impossible to stop. It may happen this summer, or 50 years from now. On our present course, it will happen, that is the crucial point. And very soon.

On the positive side, the heat catastrophe would make the financial crisis look like absolutely nothing whatsoever. On the negative side, billions of human beings will die, and they will not do so without putting up a fight.

Even if methane does not erupt, other long linear thresholds are coming closer everyday. If temperatures rise significantly forests and oceans will become huge carbon sources, instead of huge carbon sinks. Here, too the process has started, it's not just bad taste science fiction. The Antarctic ocean has turned into a CO2 emitter already (because it's shaken too much by high winds and storms, like a carbonated beverage!) An enormous rise in sea level could be around the corner, if the ice shelves disintegrate.

To prevent the methane catastrophe, the only solution is to bring the CO2 creation to zero, ASAP. How to do this? Somewhat delusional minds have proposed geoengineering, such as voluntarily polluting the atmosphere so much that light will not go through (high altitude sulfates, mimicking volcanoes). Another lunacy would be to put sun shades in space for the planet. Such solutions may work in the following centuries for Venus, once we have mastered great energy sources such as thermonuclear fusion or Quantum vacuum energy. But this is now, and this is Earth, not a place for a science experiment.

As it is, we are destroying the planet's natural sun shades, the polar ice caps. Antarctica seems to be doing fine, so far, because the wetter and warmer clime down there accumulates more snow; but this is a dangerous illusion: in truth we have passed the threshold of Antarctica's ice instability: there is too much CO2 EQUIVALENT gases up to allow for glaciation of the polar continent, so its ice cap is now unstable. Learn it here first. The threshold is at 425 ppm, we are above this (the CO2 itself is at 385 ppm, creeping up ever faster).

So what are we left with? According to the Obama administration, wind power and broadband. The problem with wind power is that it helps, but does not replace. Solar, of course has to be pushed, but it is still to expensive in photovoltaic form (in pure thermal, the problem is to transport electricity economically out of deserts).

So we are left with conservation and advanced civil nuclear power. To get conservation, one has to tweak the free market by making energy expensive. Since energy, at this point, means burning carbon (with the exception of nuclearized France), energy tax means carbon tax. That will make the renewable energy market much more profitable, so hasten its deployment.

For drastic, massive energy production, which is needed all around the world, we are left with nuclear energy. There 400 nuclear reactors, mostly obsolete, used around the world. Just as obsolete ecologists object meekly that we do not know what to do with the waste, and they forget to mention the millions of tons of extremely toxic waste that extremely deadly coal energy releases in the atmoshpere and the oceans, from mercury to radiation. True, there is waste, but mostly because wasteful methods were used 60 years ago, when a primitive form of nuclear energy was rushed during a nuclear arm race.

Advanced reactors are extremely efficient, extremely safe, and create little waste, and can be made to burn nuclear waste (as it the USA has 60,000 tons of highly radioactive waste that we better find a way to reuse again someday). But, whereas the Obama administration spends billions to put broadband Internet in rural areas, the research on advanced nuclear reactors is minuscule. (The details about making technology work durably and economically at very high temperatures have to be ironed out; efficiency augments with the temperature.)

Paradoxically, advanced civil nuclear power would be a factor of peace. Indeed, it would give a pretext to inspect, and check, that military nuclear power is not being developed. (Nuclear weapons should be totally unlawful, because of their instantaneous holocaust, and first strike capability; a world civil nuclear inspection regime looking in every nook and cranny is the only way to insure this.)

We face the greatest crisis of the biosphere since the extinction of the dinosaurs. As drastic as this. Some will say that I exaggerate. I wish. Therefore it goes without saying that it is the ultimate casus belli. If countries to not limit their CO2 emissions, they will face war. Total war, destruction of their fossil burning plants. This could be reality within twenty years. Economic pressure should be viewed as a better alternative to start with, a mitigating factor to be implemented immediately.

Indeed, the European Union has decided to take separate action in order to achieve reduction of the greenhouse gas emissions (of the order of 20% very soon). This separate action, the so-called "go-it-alone" scenario, consists of, inter alia, the imposition of "border adjustment measures" such as a "Carbon Import Tax" on products imported into Europe. The idea, pushed hard by France, instigator of the project, is to evaluate the carbon burned to make a product, and tax accordingly. Products made from Chinese electricity, mostly from coal burning would be taxed proportionally, and the carbon burned in transportation would be added to the tax bill.

It would be excellent if the USA joined the EU. Better late than never. We may still avoid, or mitigate, a cataclysm. We do not want to surrender to the devil, before we have to.
Patrice Ayme

to read previous diaries on the imminent threat of methane.

See here. With a follow-up comment here. And this one is a more recent one.

In my personal opinion, the science has been pointing that oceanic clathrates are not an immediate major concern.

I don't want to tip-toe through another pro vs anti nuclear minefield; the positions here are almost entrenched...

by Nomad on Sat May 16th, 2009 at 03:50:41 AM EST
I read religiously Science and Nature every week, and can see change passing by, and I am keeping a keen eye for things which are not what they appear at first sight.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared that:
"Methane levels rose in 2008 for the second consecutive year after a 10-year lull," CO2 up 2.1 ppm to highest levels on record, despite the economic slump"

Indeed, just in 2008, an additional 16.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) -- a byproduct of fossil fuel burning -- and 12.2 million tons of methane in the atmosphere at the end of December 2008. This increase is despite the global economic downturn, with its decrease in a wide range of industrial activities that depend on fossil fuel use.

The articles refered to above point out that OCEANIC methane hydrates did not contribute to warming in the last 50,000 years, or so. That is more scary than the alternative. My argument was that they piled up in the last three million years, and are going to warm up, and then wake up. And that there is evidence this just happened. The recent peak means that the recombination of methane that caused the ten year plateau has been overwhelmed, so great is the production: the flat symptote has been broken by a new exponential, exactly what the methane cataclysm should announce itself with.

Anyway, thanks again for the references.

As far as nuclear is concerned, there are several total confusions going on. Some anti nuclear fantics have changed all around. I am myself stridently opposed to some forms of nuclear. The argument I used that a civilian program would be the Trojan Horse allowing to peek in all secret military programs is new.

The arguments for safe, efficient reactors are drastic. Some would be so efficient (99.5% fuel "burned" by opposition to 1%, in present US reactors)that the radioactive levels would not exceed natural minerals in 200 years (so waste disposal would disappear as a problem, except for medical industry).

Just the State needs to build and certify such a reactor, because private capital is not going to do it, for obvious reasons.

France, after trying to jump 30 years ahead with Super Phenix, a poor and very dangerous plan, has settled on III+ generation ("EPR"), while conducting modest research on generation IV. Meanwhile Obama has been busy directing many billions to his Silicon Valley Internet friends to put fiber optic lines where nobody wants them (except for the friends). As promised.

Patrice Ayme Patriceayme.com Patriceayme.wordpress.com http://tyranosopher.blogspot.com/

by Patrice Ayme on Sat May 16th, 2009 at 02:36:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
although you don't show me the evidence that this:

Patrice Ayme:

My argument was that they piled up in the last three million years, and are going to warm up, and then wake up. And that there is evidence this just happened.

is happening.

  1. I don't think it is (yet) understood what has caused the recent increase of atmospheric methane. As the article of MIT research I referred to (second link) shows, it also is speculated that there is a decrease in the breakdown of atmospheric methane.
  2. If there is actually increased degassing of captured methane, I don't think it is known either whether the source is predominantly from increased permafrost thaw, or from an increase of destabilising oceanic clathrates (or something else - as we still don't really understand either why atmospheric methane plateaud for 10 years in the first place).
  3. Finally, the articles I quoted are rather persuasive that in recent geological times, even when the earth was warmer than today, no indications have been found for degassing oceanic clathrates. To this day, I've not found any articles which have refuted this, but you're more than welcome to show me if they've appeared.

Lastly, what has caused the PETM incident is anything but certain. That PETM (or the Permian extinction for that matter) is all too often touted as an example of degassing clathrates is sensationalist, at best. It might've been that oceanic clathrates played a significant role. For the same money, it might've been another catastrophic trigger, with clathrates as an additional add-on.
by Nomad on Mon May 18th, 2009 at 05:29:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Nope. Nukes won't "save" humanity. Just as the prehistoric change of diet from meat to vegetables allowed a fixed set of resources to support a larger population, the best possible outcome of the nuclear power scenario would be to allow us to have more babies and defer the global carrying capacity problem perhaps another couple of decades.

The only solution, and the one that Mother Nature has in store for us--probably within the lifetimes of most of us--is a massive reduction in population. By war. Or plague. Or starvation. The four horsemen minus Spiritual Death. Which we could handle ourselves in a much more pleasant way, but won't.

The pro-nuke lobby will never be able to talk around the problems. Just two days ago:

NEARLY 370 farms in Britain are still restricted in the way they use land and rear sheep because of radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident 23 years ago, the Government has admitted.

Environmentalists have seized on the figure as proof of the enormous danger posed by nuclear power as Britain moves towards building a new generation of plants around the country.

David Lowry, of Nuclear Waste Advisory Associates, said the figures demonstrated the "unforgiving hazards" of radioactivity dispersed into the environment. He said: "Ministers describe nuclear power as 'clean and green', as they press for up to 11 new reactors to be built ... But these latest figures on Chernobyl fallout give the lie to these claims.

"Any breach-of-containment accident at Sellafield's high-activity liquid radioactive waste storage tanks would release many times the radioactivity released in the Chernobyl accident. And these tanks had an under-reported loss of coolant a month ago," he said.

Paul Dorfman, a former government adviser and a research fellow at the University of Warwick, said: "The revelations about the continuing Chernobyl legacy show the dangerous reality of atomic power."

In the Ukraine explosion, the world's biggest nuclear accident, 237 people suffered acute radiation sickness, of whom 31 died within three months. More than 130,000 people were resettled from the area and experts say there should be no farming there for at least 200 years.


Not Going To Happen. Spend Effort Elsewhere.

by asdf on Sat May 16th, 2009 at 03:17:11 PM EST
Meant to be phrased in the most polite terms possible. Probably not successful.
by asdf on Sat May 16th, 2009 at 03:18:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
waiting. Should never have been built. Everything was wrong about it, from its positive void coefficient, to having no containment building, to having a SCRAM that accelerated enormously the nuclear reaction initially.

Moreover the operators, who knew not enough basic physics by a long shot, removed all the safety features, one after another. When the reactor insisted to shut down, they removed all the control bars, basically throwing 10,000 tons of gasoline on a dying barbecue.

Whether it's better to kill 6.5 billion people rather than trying to take mitigating measures (including mitigating nuclear measures)is an ethical, sentimental and esthetic choice. You seem to have one opposed to mine.


Patrice Ayme Patriceayme.com Patriceayme.wordpress.com http://tyranosopher.blogspot.com/

by Patrice Ayme on Sat May 16th, 2009 at 04:03:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Chernobyl wasn't a nuclear bomb, it was a steam explosion in a nuclear plant. Nuclear power plants don't have the right parts in them to have nuclear explosions.

In any case, I think the problem is too many people, not a lack of resources. My solution--if appointed king of the world--would be to suggest a baby lottery. Without a ticket, you can't have a baby. Number of tickets is determined by what I want the global population profile to look like. I'm thinking of maybe 100 million people or so, total. Maybe 1 billion, at most.

Unfortunately, nobody's going to appoint me king, so instead we are looking at a population that grows to around 10 billion in the next 40 years or so. How many nuclear power plants will be needed to bring everybody in China, India, Indonesia, Africa, South America, etc. up to a modern western electricity utilization rate?

Of course, neither of these scenarios is going to happen. We will, I'm afraid, bumble forward for the next 20 years or so, reacting to (instead of planning for) a series of ever-increasingly-problematical crises in the areas of energy, food supply, disease, and war. There will be some nuclear power plants built, but mostly we'll keep on burning coal. Probably some nuke warheads will be exploded. Some crop failures in our global monoculture system. And eventually, perhaps within the next 50 years, the population will suffer the same sort of drop it did during the European plagues. 30%, maybe, at one go.

There is no politically practical scenario for widespread nuclear energy. If you ask me.

[asdf's Crystal Ball of Doom™ Technology]

by asdf on Sun May 17th, 2009 at 12:52:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]

The problem with wind power is that it helps, but does not replace.

It does not replace fossil-fuel burning plants, but it does replace fossil fuels.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sat May 16th, 2009 at 03:24:33 PM EST
It comes on top of base load. Base load should not be toxic fossil fuels, as now in the USA, but nuclear, as in France (this is not an apology for present French nuclear reactors, that I view as dangerously primitive and inefficient relative to what we should replace them with).

This being said, I am all for wind. Except in my backyard, of course.

Patrice Ayme Patriceayme.com Patriceayme.wordpress.com http://tyranosopher.blogspot.com/

by Patrice Ayme on Sat May 16th, 2009 at 04:07:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In the power engineering community here in the U.S., the traditional concept of base load is being revisited as the "smart grid" details and regulations are developed.

For example, if you have a distribution grid that can support wind power (from far away sources), local PV solar power during the day, local thermal solar with heat storage, and a customer-provided battery in every garage, the supply and demand can be matched at any time of day or night without a need for conventional spinning reserves powered by fossil fuel--or nukes.

It is expensive, though. And don't run your clothes dryer at 2:00 AM.

by asdf on Sun May 17th, 2009 at 01:07:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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