Saturday, 5 February 2011

No need to worry?

Yesterday's Friday Seminar on ocean acidification had a very interesting "sting" in its tail about the anthropogenic emissions scenarios that we all use, and fear. The speaker, the great Andy Ridgwell from Bristol, brought in some economics work that's been done on actual patterns of fossil fuel extraction and consumption. Though this is entirely empirical, and doesn't shed much light on underlying causes, it suggests that, although there are large reserves of fossil fuels that could be used to kick us far into a warmed and acidified future, we won't use them. Economic factors will kick in long before then to make all of the alternatives more attractive. The model, which looked like it fit the data pretty well, suggested that the actual amount of fossil fuel consumed would be towards the lower end of the scenarios (or even below). And that's even without factoring in the direct actions (low/no population growth; switch to renewables/nuclear) that the lower scenarios envisage (or, at least, not doing so explicitly). The result of such a scenario, while still worrying from a climate perspective, would be far less so from an acidification perspective. So, very interesting. And, as Andy himself pointed out, the sort of news that liable to be picked up and distorted by so-called "climate skeptics" in short order.

The thing I drew from it was that I (and, presumably, much of the rest of the scientific community) unthinkingly go along with the assumption that we'll continue to consume fossil fuels so long as there are some. I guess I have a toy model of humanity in my mind which just malevolently keeps on using damaging fuels regardless of the consequences. In my defence, I read the evidence of human "progress" as supportive of my view, but I think that I'm perhaps being a little inflexible and unkind in my mental caricature of humanity. I guess that stems from my deep pessimism about civilisation's relationship with the Earth. Even, I fear, if we save ourselves, we'll doubtless have goose-stepped all over the rest of the planet's biota to do so. Anyway, it was a strange moment sitting in the seminar to think that perhaps, just perhaps, the scenarios which we've been taking as gospel are mistaken about just how much we'll pay at the pump. It was liberating, but alarming - in a climate-skeptics-will-just-love-misrepresenting-this way.

Of course, the model Andy used is only empirical (which he duly noted), and may fail to pan out in the future. Especially if there's more resistance to, or problems with, energy alternatives. Which, unless we get fusion going on a commercial basis soon-ish, might well be the case. Regardless of the cost, we'll use fossil fuels if nothing else is around to fill the gap in our energy-hungry civilisation. Further, as a questioner pointed out afterwards, the model ignores "unforeseen consequences", such as natural sinks for carbon dioxide suddenly becoming sinks under climate change. Those might just come back to bite us even if we do (grudgingly) switch away from fossil fuel.

Still, it's the first seminar in a while that's made me think (oh, and blog).

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