Flying in the face of climate science—Part 1

NASA released data last Monday indicating that the recent streak of monthly global temperature records has continued, with July 2016 being the hottest month since the modern temperature record commenced in 1880. Each month in 2016 has now been the hottest on record—in fact each of the last fifteen months running have now seen record maximum temperatures. The first seven months of 2016 averaged 1.3oC warmer than at the start of the record in the late nineteenth century. Arctic sea ice monitoring shows it at lowest recorded coverage for five out of the first six months of the year. 2016 is almost certainly on the way to being the hottest year on record.

It is now just seven months since announcement of the historic Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation. That agreement supposedly paves the way for keeping global temperature increase during this century ‘well below’ 2oC, with hopes even of a more ambitious restriction to 1.5oC. This is viewed—rather arbitrarily—as the threshold for a relatively ‘safe’ global climate. In light of the current warming trend though, that mitigation task, regarded only last December as achievable by signatories to the Paris Agreement, seems already to have slipped from reach. Continue reading

Responding to the Millennium Project’s Energy Challenge

An article providing a broad overview of the territory being explored at Beyond this Brief Anomaly has just has just been published in the Journal of Futures Studies (JFS):

Floyd, J. 2012, ‘Responding to the Millennium Project’s Energy Challenge: a futurist’s perspective’, vol. 16, no. 4, pp.21-32.

The journal is open access—click on the link above to open the pdf version on the JFS website. The article is part of a special issue of JFS comprising contributions from the Australasian Node of the Millennium Project for the 2011 State of the Future Report. Other articles from colleagues in the Australian futures and foresight practitioner community are available here. Continue reading

Energy transitions, feasibility studies and the limits of abstraction: the case for a (soft) systems approach

As noted in my introductory post, over the past five years a number of prominent reports have concluded that transition from fossil-fuelled to renewably-powered economies is technically and economically feasible on national and even global scales, without need for change in the cultural landscape. They conclude that entire national energy infrastructures can be replaced—over periods ranging from 10 to 40 years—with little need for us to adjust our socio-economic expectations. In fact, given the roles assumed for large-scale centralised infrastructure in these studies, relatively few of us would need to be involved in the actual implementation, let alone decision making, planning and co-ordination. A common message seems to be that we shouldn’t expect to be inconvenienced by these technologically significant but socially, culturally and economically benign changes.

To most observers, presentation of such findings in the language of technical and economic feasibility may pass without much remark. From an engineer’s perspective though, it raises an eyebrow. Technical and economic feasibility have quite a specific meaning in engineering parlance—in essence, this means that a) sufficient work has been done to be confident that overall cost will fall within a specified range; and b) that following from this, financiers’ expectations with respect to return on investment can be met. To be clear, none of the studies that I’m thinking of actually make such claims directly—this is just what is usually expected for infrastructure projects on the scale of millions through to multiple billions of dollars, prior to commencing engineering design. Given the enormous scale of the proposals we’re talking about—from hundreds of billions of dollars upwards—then they’d surely be expected to conform with established conventions in this respect. At least, this would be the case if approached as top-down, centrally-administered engineering projects. You may well query, though, why I’d assume such an approach. Given the unprecedented nature and scale of the proposals perhaps they would demand a fundamentally different approach to that which suits, say, construction of a single power station. That’s a question I’ll return to in due course. For now though, I’m simply taking my cue from the nature of the reports themselves, and the general method on which they are based: aggregation of generic public-domain data from a wide range of primary and secondary sources, along with original work involving a variety of desk-based modelling techniques.
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Thinking about thinking about energy

The landscape of human history is scattered with the remains of societies that, at the peak of their prosperity, presumably seemed to their members no less resistant to decline than industrial society appears to most of us today. If this presumption is reasonable—if a general tendency to base expectations about the future of one’s society on present appearances is indeed a recurring theme in human experience across cultures and time—then we also know that present appearances may prove to be a rather unreliable guide to the future prospects for contemporary ways of life. Thanks to the work of historians and archaeologists, today we have access to detailed records of the life cycles of numerous past societies, and to diverse views on the processes by which they grew in size, influence and complexity before peaking and declining. While each societal story obviously differs significantly in its detail from others, and while different perspectives in relation to any one story emphasise particular factors, energetic considerations represent a recurring, foundational theme in both describing and making sense of the rise and fall of human societies. While they don’t determine a society’s prospects, principal energy sources and the technologies by which they’re harnessed are fundamentally important enabling and constraining factors in shaping a society’s past history and future prospects. Energetic considerations set the available budget for what a society can do, and bound the policy options for how it does what it does.

Industrial society is fossil-fueled. Around eighty percent of global total primary energy supply comes from coal, oil and natural gas. Just under six percent is from nuclear fission of uranium-based fuels. While there’s abundant uncertainty relating to resource sizes and economic reserves for each of these, there’s very little debate regarding their ultimately non-renewable status: the principal primary energy sources with which industrial society has arisen and that it continues to rely on can be treated as finite. Pick a long enough time horizon—and as Tom Murphy at Do the Math demonstrates, we don’t need to look out too far if anything like historical growth in energy use is assumed—and all futures for industrial society based on continued reliance on fossil fuels and uranium run up against their absolute physical limits. Long before such theoretical limits are reached, we’ll be contending with economic limits in the form of diminishing returns on effort, and ecological limits associated with Earth’s capacity to deal with the consequences of all of that fossil-fueled activity. Whichever way you care to look at it, we can safely say that long term futures for human societies will depend not on accumulated energy wealth from the past, but on present energy income. In this respect at the very least, the future for renewable energy looks rather bright indeed!
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