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Bill McKibben on Global Warming
Emily Gertz, 7 Jul 04

The End of Nature book coverBill McKibben writes an omnibus review of several recent books on global climate, energy, and the Bush environmental record in the June 10, 2004 Issue of the New York Review of Books.

He notes an interesting tidbit that was news to me:

...Frank Luntz, the veteran Republican pollster...told Bush to stop using the phrase "global warming" (in a leaked memo, he stressed that "while 'global warming' has catastrophic connotations attached to it, 'climate change' sounds a more controllable and less emotional challenge") and to emphasize the (false) statement that there is no consensus among scientists on the issue. "Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly," Luntz wrote. "The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed."

So what do you think: should we ditch the phrase "climate change" and stick to the more visceral "global warming"?

McKibben goes on to say,

Bush has evaded energy and climate issues, but Bill Clinton and Al Gore weren't conspicuously better. That's because dealing with global warming is not a matter of simply paying a relatively small price to clean the air or water. It will demand nothing less than the overhaul of the entire global economy, which is currently based on the very fossil fuels whose combustion we can no longer afford, but whose replacement remains technologically, economically, and politically more challenging than perhaps any transition in modern human history.

We linked to McKibben's conversation with John McCain for NRDC's OnEarth magazine earlier in the year.

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Good post, Em. I read the McKibben article when it came out, but didn't realize it was online. As for the "global warming" vs. "climate change" issue, it's a tough call.

I've been defaulting to "climate change" of late because "global warming" carries the implication to some that temperatures are simply getting warming, period, so every time we have an even-nastier set of blizzards in the winter, we hear "so much for global warming!" The increase in storm activity, the alteration of rainfall patterns (increasing in some areas, decreasing in others), the change in ocean cycles -- these, to me, are not adequately captured in the term "global warming."

But McKibben is right to say that "climate change" sounds like something we can handle. We deal with "change" all the time! And change can sometimes be for the better!

I'd lean towards "climate disruption" as a replacement meme, but I have a bias towards terms which sound vaguely sophisticated and technical.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 7 Jul 04

Weather violence was always kinda appealing to me ;-)

Posted by: Vinay on 7 Jul 04

It's especially easy to get a consensus if you simply pretend that everyone who disagrees with you doesn't exist.

Climate change is a more intelligent term, since the globe is not warming uniformly. When people say "global warming", they are really saying "human caused increase in greenhouse gases with forced global warming that overwhelms all other climatic inputs." Climate science has not matured enough to support that implied claim.

Posted by: RB on 7 Jul 04

As perceived changes have occurred from the Arctic to the southern Pacific with mean differential increases in atmospheric temperature and as more 'odd' weather happens in points between, hyperbole is probably more useful for both public and political mobilisation than a descriptive phrase.

Already, there appears to be sufficient evidence from the Antarctic ice-core drilling programme to justify the combined usage of 'global warming' with 'climate change' in that the latter is affected by the former.

Posted by: Richard Clark on 8 Jul 04

I read McKibben's article when it came out too - very good review of the issues. I pointed out to him a couple of books he'd missed (Goodstein's "Out of Gas" for example is a short statement of the science issues) - he's written several other very good articles on these issues.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 8 Jul 04

Climate disruption works for me. Disruption-->Bad! Lack of order, ruptures, pain!

Climate violence--highly motivational! Sounds like a good 21stC catch-all for the /results/ of global warming, a linguistic upgrade of Bruce Sterling's "heavy weather." What were those heat waves and floods in Europe in the past few years, if not unprecedented climate violence?

I like McKibben's writing too, Arthur--he's clear, a good analyst, and wonderfully literate.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 8 Jul 04

One simple question... How do you know america wouldnt come out better letting global warming happen then if it were to fight it and win or worse fight it and lose?

And do you know the odds as far as fighting it and winning vs losing? People keep saying its our only chance... just what odds is that chance? 1% 5% 15%? I sure as heck dont think any sane people think its above 40%....

A very simple fact is there are contries that wont suffer badly from it but would suffer badly from a "fix" even if the fix failed. And the cold hard fact is even if we did fight we almost asuredly will lose that fight.

America is not the major player of the worlds future and it hasnt been for some time now. Asia is and to be very blunt we have a snowballs chance in hell of changing that trains corse.

So what would YOU do facing that reality?

Now a related topic... Why did we invade iraq when we did? It would have been better politicaly to have done so now rather then earlier frankly so why did we do it? Was it wmd? Well maybe but that doesnt sound right as we now know they already were scattered and moving what they had long before we attacked and im sure that issue was thought of at the time...

So why ARE we there? To stabalize the region? Does it LOOK stable to you?

So why? Could it be to stress test the military machine? Why? Because soon we may be alot more stressed then we are now... Better to stress it vs saddam then vs north korea or some other nasty target and find out what we have found .. we arnt ready YET.

Until now the american military had never realy been tested to the breaking point and as far as I am concerned concidering what is comming its about time.

Posted by: wintermane on 8 Jul 04

I firmly believe, with a concerted effort on the order of $100 billion/year, we have close to 100% chance of licking the problem in time to prevent any major catastrophes. With a $10 billion/year effort, maybe 50/50. With the current $1 billion/year or so that goes into renewable energy R&D, our odds are perhaps 1%.

And yes, $100 billion/year is comparable to or less than what we're wasting on Iraq.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 8 Jul 04

Even if we spent 1 trillion a year unless china and asia are willing to switch over as well we are still going over the edge. The us could fall off the face of the earth and in only a few short years china would gobble up all the oil production freed up by it.

I wont even begin to mention how much metal and stuff they are now making.

Posted by: wintermane on 9 Jul 04

Arthur et al., suggest you read the interview with Dr. James White - I just posted a link in the item above this one, "Being Green in 2001." He gets to the complexity of climate change. I learned a lot from that conversation, especially that there's a lot we don't know - I mean, a lot that even the best environmental scientists don't know - about the nature of climate change and the contributing factors. We do know that it's happening, but we're not sure what it will mean long term, or what all the contributing factors are. However White was suggesting in the quote I excerpted that climate change might have a tipping point, where catastrophic change could happen fairly rapidly (kind of like "The Day After Tomorrow"), and we shouldn't wait til we get there to take action. Peter Schwarz of the GBN has suggested that we should approach climate change the way we approached the problem of reaching the moon, by focusing significant money and talent on the effort, which is pretty much the same as Arthur's suggestion above. However I'm not sure we'll have any certainty that we can *lick the problem.* What we will have, at least, is a much better hope for mitigation and at least adaptation.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 9 Jul 04

My assertion is of course my opinion, but it's based on my analysis of previous significant investments in renewable energy R&D. Specifically what was done during the Carter administration. In just 4 years photovoltaics went from ridiculously expensive and suitable only for spacecraft to just moderately expensive, and suitable for niche applications. Reagan and friends nipped that R&D funding in the bud in 1981 - of course dropping gasoline prices (thanks to their making friends with Iraq and the Saudis) also helped cut the level of interest in the subject.

The $100 billion/year level would involve both direct funding of R&D and indirect funding via production tax credits and other installation incentives of various sorts - the purpose of those would not be long term to pay for the whole transition, but short-term to build up the markets so that these energy solutions actually become economically efficient, as well as improving the energy situation.

Once you reach the economically efficient point, where solar and other renewables are actually cheaper than the fossil alternatives, you don't need to worry about China and India continuing to spue out greenhouse gases - they'll jump on the renewables bandwagon with the rest of us, because it saves everybody money.

But reaching that point means a big R&D and incentives investment, probably totalling about a trillion dollars. At $100 billion/year (WISELY SPENT!) we should reach it in 10 years, with a 20 year energy transition following. Most people don't seem to be seeing climate disaster before about 2030-2050 so far...

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 9 Jul 04

On solar we dont need to spend a penny to get there the military already spent the money and got there its planned to go into mass production in the next few years and will be as cheap or nearly as cheap as making a garbage bag. The military wanted it to slap on all sorts of places for powering all the tech goodies they have. Oh and that also works its way into battery tech wich is also needed and wich the military is funding ALOT to create batteries for again the tech goodies and vehicles and tanks and portable lasers weaponry and and and... expected results... some already out and about in life today others expected in 10 years time.

hydrogen fuel got a few billion for booster research but then what no one bothers to look into is the military has done conciderable work into hydrogen fuel cells hydrogen storage and transport and blah blah blah. The billion or so more is to speed up the work on civ use.

The money was already spent the work is already done now we just need to let the systems crunch on the tech and make it cheap and make it en mass.

That takes time that takes new process tech you cant speed up and it simply takes getting everything in place.

The final bits that WILL be costly will only come when the system is ready to go and we need to push it out and get it working and thats 5-15 years from now. That is stuff like making all the cars getting people into the new cars replacing old trucks old cars retrofitting old stuff and so on adding hydrogen to gas stations setting up standards for how to handle it and ship it and package it and blah blah blah.

But again we wont stop climate change. We will be ready to handle the end of oil thats for sure. We will be ready to handle the climate shift.. dont think for a second they havnt planned and plotted all that will likely happen in cold barren numbers and graphs and stuff.

We wont stop it we cant because we arnt in charge and those who are wont listen to the us wont listen to the world and dont care. Hell they may even WANT the climate change to happen.

And there is nothing america can do about that sept get ready in time to handle the fallout.

Posted by: wintermane on 9 Jul 04

Arthur: the questions to ask, I think, are 1) whether it's too late to reverse climate change, and 2) whether all factors contributing to the problem are within our control.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 9 Jul 04

Wintermane, can you please point at some or other reliable resource that documents this military research into hydrogen as an energy source? Even if it's not online.

McKibben spends a good deal of time discussing Joseph J. Romm's "The Hype About Hydrogen" and it doesn't sound very promising:

Romm is no opponent of hydrogen. In his years in the Clinton Department of Energy he helped to strongly increase funding for hydrogen research; later, as an investor, he helped back SurePower systems, which in 1999, amid much publicity, sold the first commercial, stationary, hydrogen fuel cell to an Omaha-based credit card processor that was willing to pay a premium for its promise of uninterruptible power for its office buildings...[but]Such technical obstacles, described in great detail in Romm's flatly written book, have turned him into a hydrogen realist. He considers, for instance, all the different methods of distributing hydrogen around the country for use by drivers of Bush's FreedomCar. Suppose you load compressed hydrogen into canisters and put them on the back of tractor trailers: you will need fifteen of these trucks to serve the same number of vehicles as one gasoline tanker does today, and if on average they're traveling three hundred miles, they're using 40 percent of all the energy they deliver just to transport it. Suppose you decide instead to produce the hydrogen at filling stations with small steam methane reformers. A recent study by Argonne National Laboratory, making fairly optimistic technical predictions, found that building the necessary infrastructure to service 40 percent of American vehicles by this method would exceed $600 billion.

But here's the really startling piece of news that emerges from Romm's book: if you worry about global warming, that investment won't necessarily get you much. For the last couple of years I've driven a hybrid-electric Honda Civic which has a gasoline engine and also a self-recharging electric motor to augment power. It works exactly like a normal vehicle, goes eighty miles per hour on the highway, drives easily up any hill, and gets fifty miles to the gallon without any of the problems of cost, technology, or infrastructure that hydrogen presents. Even if we manage to solve the huge number of difficulties that Romm invokes, in the end the hydrogen car that results will almost certainly use natural gas as the feedstock for obtaining hydrogen. It will produce about as much carbon per mile as my Honda Civic (which, in turn, should only get better with fifteen years of tinkering). Even diesel engines, which are as old-fashioned as automotive technology gets, may provide comparable reductions for far less money. Romm concludes:

"Hydrogen vehicles are unlikely to achieve even a five percent market penetration by 2030.... Neither government policy nor business investment should be based on the belief that hydrogen cars will have meaningful commercial success in the near- or medium term."

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 9 Jul 04

Well remember I said they made for when oil runs out? Thats why and how the hydrogen research got done in the first place.

It was all over the tech /sci mags of the day aka reagan years.

They were basicaly preping in case either A oil ran out or B it was nuked.

Posted by: wintermane on 10 Jul 04

What about "climate collapse" ?
"That would be the mother of all national security issues." according to Fortune
Interesting blog and discussion btw.

Posted by: Frans Groenendijk on 10 Jul 04

A large injection of co2 may be necessary to stabilize the climate to prevent climate collapse. Natural cyclic changes affecting climate are leading to a profound glacial period within the next approximate thousand year period. Humans can prevent this with a sufficiently large infusion of co2.

How much will this cost? Perhaps $100 billion per year to gear up production. Remember, organic photosynthesis of land plants is necessary for climate stabilization, as is the large quantity of surface water on the planet with its organic photosynthetic content. But to increase co2 levels sufficiently to prevent the next ice age, we must overcome the tendency of oceans and organic photosynthetics to in essence buffer the high co2 levels.

Planting more rapid growth trees and bushy plants would certainly buffer co2 levels but in the long run would lead to a higher chance of climate collapse.

Posted by: Gwyn on 10 Jul 04

Actually, Gwyn, a not-unreasonable fear is that an over-abundance of CO2 could actually trigger an ice age. I wrote a brief explanation (with links to far more detailed discussions) here. In short, given that atmospheric CO2 is already around the highest it's been for as far back as we can determine (around 800,000 years now), a large injection of addition CO2 is pretty much the last thing we need.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 10 Jul 04

Lets be sane about this the fact is no matter what choice we make its prolly gona be the wrong one anyway. I mean since when has society as a whole ever made a good choice on anything?

Posted by: wintermane on 10 Jul 04

Curmudgeon alert!

Posted by: jesse black on 11 Jul 04

Yes I understand that some people believe that increasing greenhouse gases leads to both warming and cooling. That way all bets are covered--very clever. I don't buy it. The ice age is coming due to variable solar output and variations in the earth's orbit within the ecliptic. Something must be done quickly to raise co2 levels.

Rapid growth trees and bushes are a major hindrance to the rapid raising of co2 levels. The reforestation taking place in parts of the globe would set back efforts to stabilize climate through co2 raising.

So the question is, do we start tearing out some of the trees we have now, or simply stop planting new trees and wait for the co2 levels to rise more slowly.

Posted by: Gwyn on 11 Jul 04

I don't see where anyone has disputed or refuted wintermane's contention.

No matter what the US does to limit it's contributions, those reductions will quickly be surpassed by the increases from other countries. (Specifically Asia. )

Of course, this whole discussion is predicated on accepting the validity of computer models that may in fact be in error.
(Discussed in this book: )

Posted by: TrueReliever on 11 Jul 04

Frans: "Climate collapse"--forgot that one. Thank you for the kudos. Alex conducted an interview here with one of the Pentagon report's authors, Doug Randall:

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 12 Jul 04

The refutation to wintermane's "china will use much more energy than us anyway, what's the point?" was posted above.

Summary of it is that although the gross energy usage of the United States is not or will not be on a scale comparable to china, it is the world's largest and best research facility, and if we had some political will, we would have some sort of manhattan project and the hydrogen economy wil "get over".

Personally I think that any time you are talking about actually carting around big tanks of hydrogen in your vehicle, you are in the propagandistic land of the giant car and energy companies, who would like to make it extremely difficult for other companies or individuals to compete in energy generation and/or vehicle design opportunities.

I prefer the "solar economy", seeing as that's the only energy source that's actually renewable in the long run. (well, not the LONG run, but stay with me). This has a large component based on hydrogen, yes, but the kind of hydrogen created by photosynthesis, not photovoltaics: biomass. A living biofilm of e. coli can pump out quite a bit of hydrogen if you have a way to use the hydrogen in situ. This as a design choice, however, means small, scalable, extremely simple and safe systems, using fuels that anyone can get, hell, that everyone flushes away. I believe I saw _on this site_ a statistic for vehicular power systems: batteries v. fuel cells: the energy transfer to a battery is 90% efficient, vs. transformation to hydrogen is about 60%. This is before you even get into which engine is more efficient. Anyway: I say air conditioner sized biomass generators for everyone! and kit electric cars! and batteries as big as dogs!

best sources for in situ microbial hydrogen reformation (microbial fuel cells) are mostly in scientific journals . . . worldchanging posted one earlier by PSU that's alright, but it oxidizes most of the fuel in a way that's not applying electromotive force . . . good for cleaning, bad for power generation, and no real solution for the long term destruction of the platinum catalyst. For serious current densities, you want to get hold of the stuff coming out of germany, and I can't find it in non-journal form (if you're a nature news subscriber you can check it out at

or if you are lucky enough to have a decent university library, go over to the Angewandte Chemie International ed. periodicals (or search them online if you have access) and take a look at the paper, it's in english.
>> citation follows

"A Generation of Microbial Fuel Cells with Current Outputs Boosted by More Than One Order of Magnitude",
Angewandte Chemie International Edition
Volume 42, Issue 25, Date: June 30, 2003, Pages: 2880-2883
Uwe Schröder, Juliane Nießen, Fritz Scholz

>> in the last month they've also posted a followup article in Electrochemical Communications talking about how they made the PAni coating better and more secure and increased the current density some more, and it also has a much better explanation of what's going on in the first paper, but I actually had to physically go to 3M HQ in maplewood and scam the copy guy into giving me that thing (your library probably doesn't have it, either)

Posted by: Ben on 13 Jul 04

You dont get it.

They dont have the money.

They dont have the materials.

They dont CARE.

You can push all you want but china wont hop on the hydrogen bandwagon any faster nor will asia. Oh they will do pilot plants and studies but china will quickly have a far bigger oil based system then we ever had and wont be able to afford to convert it any time soon. Or want to.

Heck we cant even be sure we can do it any time soon anyway.

By my calculations by the time enough have converted hell will have frozen over mary cate and ashle will be the first lesbian pres and vice pres and eminem will be teaching classical rap at harvard.

Posted by: wintermane on 13 Jul 04

I think the integral point that you're missing, that maybe i should have been a little more clear on, is that if they have any hope of competing on actual markets, they will HAVE to buy the most efficient machinery. In theory, this stuff is the most efficient possible, until the sun goes out.

If american companies come out with a fuel cell design that allows, for example, as they have just done, for electricity generation from wastewater treatment (ie a net input where there was an enormous loss in money), and chinese companies refuse to buy them, for whatever reason, as long as it isn't government action, american companies will BUY FACTORIES IN CHINA AND MAKE MONEY OFF OF WASTEWATER GENERATION.

If the method in which people attempt to preserve our environment doesn't make any money, it won't work. Worldchanging is pushing this great idea that, you know , thats okay. We can do that. If our government will put some more money into this, we'll be in great economic shape AND we won't have to worry about minneapolis becoming beachfront property. An interesting idea.

as to what's the function of posting up people who think that the change is inevitable as soon as we elect a decent government, and the wording for how we should talk about it? I don't know. ..

maybe WorldChanging/McKibben are trying to "reunite the left after the rift left by post-modernism in the seventies" . . .

or possibly "take the power of language back from the right wing"? as has become so fashionable. . .

though i personally want less "doomsday scenarios" and more straight truth. we get a new "doomsday scenarios", especially from the pentagon, every few weeks . . . on christmas, new years, and the fourth of july, and now they want to put mechanisms in case to delay elections, "just in case". . . I get very sick of people telling me to be afraid of things they don't really know will happen for political gain. even people with my best interests at heart. It makes it hard to trust them, and harder to stop myself from just filtering them out with all the other spam. At least mcKibben has some (fairly soft, written for the public) facts at his disposal, instead of just a time and a few decapitations, and a color wheel.

Posted by: Ben on 13 Jul 04

Part of life is preping in case you fall. Just because I expect climate change doesnt mean ima gloomy gus. The fact is ive known for a lonmg time the climate would change soon even if we did things right it would change anyway due to other factors. I just am glad I live in interesting times and can see the changes as they happen.

Posted by: wintermane on 14 Jul 04



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