Originally published on September 2, 2013. There was a follow-up a few weeks later called Confusion In The Twilight Zone (September 17, 2013). Nothing which has occurred subsequently contradicts the conclusions of these two essays. Nor will anything which happens in the future — Dave
You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the Twilight Zone.
— Rod Serling, introduction to the TV show The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
As I have written many times before, for humans, the economy is everything. All other considerations, including our Earthly habitat, which includes all non-human parts of the biosphere, take a backseat. If people were confused on this point prior to the global financial meltdown of 2008-2009, their confusion should be entirely dispelled in 2013. The human preoccupation with restoring economic health in the developed (OECD) world, and encouraging growth in "emerging" markets like China, Brazil and India, has dominated environmental concerns with a completeness which erases all doubt about what truly matters. Climate change and other environmental issues have all but disappeared from popular media and political discussions.
Like night follows day, it thus follows that if you want to motivate humans to work toward achieving some desirable end, you must dangle the economic growth carrot in front of them. Moral or commonsense appeals—let's do the right thing—will not get you very far unless you can demonstrate an immediate economic payoff. Desperate appeals regarding the long-term survival of Homo sapiens often fare worse.
More formally, if you want to motivate humans, you must assign costs to behaviors, for example the exploitation of some natural resource, and then demonstrate some short- or long-term benefit in behaving one way or another, which in this case might mean exploiting or not exploiting the resource in question (for example, coal, bluefin tuna, phosphorus, rainforests).
Thus we have entered, perhaps "officially" with the next IPCC report, what I call The Twilight Zone, which is bounded in Rod Serling's splendid phrase only by the human imagination. Unfortunately, as I will make clear, those boundaries are all too real, and are plainly discernible to shrewd observers.
Because of the universality of the human devotion to growth, there are literally countless examples to choose from which illustrate what goes on inside The Twilight Zone. I have chosen an example which comes from within the environmental community, a place where one might think that the usual rules governing human behavior might not apply. The example I've chosen comes from an academic paper explaining the rationale behind what are now called Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), formerly called Special Report Emissions Scenarios (SRES). These scenarios are perceived to be the most representative cases among the old ones, although one of them (RCP2.6) is new. The paper's abstract explains the role of RPCs in environmental scientific research.
Abstract — This paper summarizes the development process and main characteristics of the Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), a set of four new pathways developed for the climate modeling community as a basis for long-term and near-term modeling experiments.
The four RCPs together span the range of year 2100 radiative forcing values found in the open literature, i.e. from 2.6 to 8.5W/m2. The RCPs are the product of an innovative collaboration between integrated assessment modelers, climate modelers, terrestrial ecosystem modelers and emission inventory experts. The resulting product forms a comprehensive data set with high spatial and sectoral resolutions for the period extending to 2100.
Land use and emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases are reported mostly at a 0.5×0.5 degree spatial resolution, with air pollutants also provided per sector (for well-mixed gases, a coarser resolution is used). The underlying integrated assessment model outputs for land use, atmospheric emissions and concentration data were harmonized across models and scenarios to ensure consistency with historical observations while preserving individual scenario trends. For most variables, the RCPs cover a wide range of the existing literature. The RCPs are supplemented with extensions (Extended Concentration Pathways, ECPs), which allow climate modeling experiments through the year 2300.
The RCPs are an important development in climate research and provide a potential foundation for further research and assessment, including emissions mitigation and impact analysis.
In so far as it is anticipated that future climate modeling exercises will take the RCPs as their starting point, these scenarios assume some importance in predictions of how anthropogenic climate change will alter our Earthly environment up to the year 2100 and beyond. Thus it behooves us to look at these scenarios and examine the assumptions behind them. In so doing, we will better understand why humankind has entered The Twilight Zone.
Future Economic Growth Is Assumed
From our perspective, the central feature of the study linked-in above, called The Representative Carbon Pathways: An Overview, and henceforth referred to here as van Vuuren et.al. 2011, occurs in Figure 2 in section 3.1, Driving Forces.
Figure 1 shows the four RCPs in the right-hand graph. They are RCP2.6, RCP4.5, RCP6 and RCP8.5, and I will refer to them that way throughout the text. (The numbers reflect the expected rise in radiative forcing by the end of the century, see below.) RCP8.5 is also called Business As Usual (BAU), which is the emissions pathway humanity is currently on. Thus BAU is a simple extrapolation of current trends 87 years into the future. Straightforwardly, you can see that real global GDP (in 2000 dollars) grows in all four scenarios, albeit at different rates over time.
A second graph, which occurs in section 3.3.1, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, implies that economic growth over time is seen, to one extent or another, as independent of future emissions.
Clearly, CO2 (carbon dioxide) and CH4 (methane) emissions are "all over the place" in Figure 2, but global GDP is a smoothly rising set of lines in Figure 1.
An article in the climate section of thinkprogress.org, called Report: Cutting Carbon Emissions Isn’t Necessarily At Odds With A Stronger World Economy (Updated), seeks to educate us further about this optimistic view of the future.
It’s important to note that the RCPs are drawn from separate models, which means the baseline assumptions they started with for GDP growth aren’t directly comparable.
Essentially, the starting line for the global economy before carbon reductions are factored in is different under each model. That means the differences in the above GDP paths [here, Figure 1] could be the result of reduced greenhouse gas emissions, or they could be due to other socio-economic differences between the RCPs’ design.
But they at least suggest that a future of extremely aggressive carbon-cutting can be compatible with a future of strong global economic growth.
For our purposes, RCP2.6 in Figure 1 and Figure 2, does more than suggest that future economic growth is compatible and consistent with a growing global economy; this scenario, if we take it at face value, embodies the assumption that deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions can be accompanied by robust GDP growth well into the future. Indeed, the growth rate in RCP2.6 is significantly higher than that of the other three RCPs. The author Jeff Spross seeks to enlighten us on this point too.
There’s a reason for this. Climate change means more droughts and altered rain patterns, leading to greater food insecurity. It means constricted freshwater supplies and heat waves, putting more strain on the infrastructure of cities and communities. It means less water to help run power stations and manufacturing processes, and altered river flows that can render shipping lanes useless. It means stronger storms and extreme weather that cause more damage, and it even means new and larger climate areas diseases can travel in.
Add it all up, and it means a lot of possible damage to the economy. The RCP2.6 is the course of action most likely to keep us under two degrees Celsius of warming — the threshold above which climate change becomes really dangerous according to most scientists. But the RCP8.5 is the scenario most likely to get us near five degrees Celsius of warming, an outcome summed up by David Roberts of Grist as “hell on earth.”
We can only agree that climate change means ... lots of bad stuff coming down the pike, events which will no doubt have non-trivial impacts on future economic growth. For example, among the hundreds one could cite, a new study appears to demonstrate that ocean acidification itself, aside from imperiling corals, echinoderms, molluscs and other marine life, will cause more warming than currently expected, in a range somewhere between 0.23 and 0.48°K (C), depending on the emissions scenario used. Warming is expressed in radiative forcing, as shown in section 3.5 of van Vuuren, et. al. (2011).
In so far as the best rule of thumb states that the more subsurface ocean and terrestrial surface warming there is, as expressed in radiative forcing , the worse things will get for the biosphere and human economies, this latest acidification result is not good news.
It is thus hard to argue with the assumption that growing emissions (as in RCP8.5, RCP6 and RCP4.5, left-hand graph above) will have a substantial impact on global GDP as the decades roll by. Nevertheless, it is reckoned that the effect of global warming on future global GDP will not reverse or even halt economic growth regardless of the scenario used; it will only hinder growth in the high-emissions RCPs.
Even in Dave Roberts' "hell on Earth" where humanity stays on the Business As Usual path, global GDP is still growing in the year 2100 (see Figure 1).
Taken at face value, this blanket growth assumption suggests that climate change itself is not being taken very seriously. If economic growth proceeds apace in all cases, including Business As Usual, we are entitled to ask what's all the fuss about? If human economies can grow (albeit at different rates) without apparent limit up through the year 2100 more or less independently of ongoing environmental degradation, then what's the point of making a concerted effort to decrease emissions now?
That's where RCP2.6 comes into play. Let us explore that scenario in the next section. Neither van Vuuren, et. al. (2011) nor Jeff Spross of thinkprogress.org seems to think it worth noting that economic growth is only weakly dependent on future greenhouse gas emissions. I will return to that omission in the conclusion.
A Miracle Occurs
RCP2.6 holds out the promise that deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, together with other assumptions in the scenario itself, can lead to global economic growth well over and above that which occurs in the high-emissions scenarios.
Naturally our thoughts turn to energy when we contemplate this possible future. Van Vuuren and his co-authors understand that a growing economy requires concomitant growth (and recently here) in primary energy consumption, as they make explicit in Figure 3 of section 3.1, Driving Forces, shown in our Figure 4.
According to RCP2.6, the largest shares of primary energy in 2100 come from coal, bio-energy and natural gas (right-panel above). Oil consumption declines rapidly starting in about 2025, and petroleum is no longer a major factor in the energy mix by the year 2100 (middle panel).
We are entitled to ask how this substantial transformation of the energy supply will be accomplished.
For energy use, the scenarios underlying the RCPs are consistent with the literature—with the RCP2.6, RCP4.5 and RCP6 again being representative of intermediate scenarios in the literature (resulting in a primary energy use of 750 to 900 EJ in 2100, or about double the level of today) [see Figure 4].
The RCP8.5, in contrast, is a highly energy-intensive scenario as a result of high population growth and a lower rate of technology development. In terms of the mix of energy carriers, there is a clear distinction across the RCPs given the influence of the climate target (for details, see the papers elsewhere in this Special Issue).
Total fossil fuel use basically follows the radiative forcing level of the scenarios; however, due to the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies (in particular in the power sector), all scenarios, by 2100, still use a greater amount of coal and/or natural gas than in the year 2000.
The use of oil stays fairly constant in most scenarios, but declines in the RCP2.6 (as a result of depletion and climate policy).
The use of non-fossil fuels increases in all scenarios, especially renewable resources (e.g. wind, solar), bio-energy and nuclear power. The main driving forces are increasing energy demand, rising fossil-fuel prices and climate policy. An important element of the RCP2.6 is the use of bio-energy and CCS, resulting in negative emissions (and allowing some fossil fuel without CCS by the end of the century).
We have reached a delicate juncture. A classic cartoon comes to mind.
The resource depletion community will not be pleased with what I am about to say. It behooves us to evaluate the energy scenario sketched above by what is known in 2013 regarding both the current data and trends, and not get into a "he said, she said" shouting match between optimists and pessimists over whether there are (or will be) sufficient exploitable reserves of coal and natural gas to meet the assumption of van Vuuren, et. al (2011)—all scenarios, by 2100, still use a greater amount of coal and/or natural gas than in the year 2000.
In so far as global coal and natural gas consumption are still rising on an annual basis, and that rise shows no sign of abating, there is no identifiable trend (e.g. from a logistic production curve) which would allow us to take obvious exception with the optimistic projections made. Lacking sufficient ammunition, I will not venture off in that direction, although my subjective sense tells me that the assumption in question has a very low likelihood of coming true. Moreover, RCP2.6 does indeed come to grips with oil depletion, where we are on firmer ground.
Fossil fuel depletion aside, miracles do occur with respect to both carbon capture and storage (CCS) and bio-energy in scenario RCP2.6. There is yet another, related miracle with respect to the timing of events shown in the left-panel of Figure 4.
I do not intend to review the CCS literature. Suffice it to say that those who have reviewed the situation find very little reason to believe that CCS will be implemented on a large scale anytime soon. Assessments like this one are typical.
Howard J. Herzog, who heads MIT's who has headed MIT's Carbon Capture and Sequestration Technologies Program since 1989, says [the failure to implement CCS is] a policy failure, not a technological one.
On his legal pad, he draws a vertical axis, which he says represents the cost of emitting carbon dioxide into the air. Extending along his horizontal axis are increasing volumes of the gas that might be captured instead. As he drags his pencil on a curve upward and outward from the axes' origin, the plight of carbon capture and storage — and really, the plight of any clean-energy innovation — is laid bare:
The more CO2 you want to capture, Herzog explains, the higher the market price of emitting the gas has to be.
"At the moment," Herzog says, "the cost of emitting carbon, for all practical purposes, is zero."
Herzog and others don't dispute that CCS is costly, but they argue that every other potential solution to the gathering climate crisis is equally if not more so. They also suggest that much of the skepticism surrounding CCS is unfounded, given the long history of capturing the stuff and a robust body of geological research and evidence suggesting that CO2 can, in all likelihood, be safely and securely stored underground.
But Herzog noted that until it becomes vastly more expensive to simply puff the stuff skyward — through a cap-and-trade scheme or a carbon tax, for instance, or tough government-enforced emissions limits — the technologies needed to tackle global warming will always remain out of reach.
"You have to remember," he says, "there's really no such thing as a free lunch."
Despite these substantial obstacles to implementing CCS at very large scales, RCP2.6 seems to assume that lunch is free. More speculatively, it is not at all clear that implementing CCS globally at the required scales, given suitably priced carbon emissions, is even compatible with global economic growth—period.
The situation with bio-energy, in particular, "advanced" liquid biofuels—these will allegedly be made from cellulosic, algal, microbial or genetically altered feedstocks, not corn or sugar cane—is even worse because the technology which would support commercial production at large scales is not yet available, and may never be. Not only is lunch not free in this case, but there is hardly any lunch to eat—the cupboard is nearly bare, despite ongoing efforts to put food on the table at reasonable costs.
Primary energy consumption in RCP2.6 (measured in exajoules) grows continuously starting about now (Figure 4, left-panel), but carbon dioxide emissions peak in 2020, a mere 7 years from now (Figure 2, left-panel). In so far as the required miracles are not in place, and may not be for a long time, or never will be, we can confidently assert that the RCP2.6 scenario, as written, has already failed.
Therefore, it appears that we are entitled to conclude that RCP2.6 is yet another alluring fantasy concocted to motivate humans to mitigate climate change by offering them large economic payoffs. As I mentioned in the introduction, that is the carrot. The much-dreaded effects of climate change on the biosphere (including Homo sapiens) and human economies are the stick.
Twilight Zone "Logic"
The RCPs per se are not terribly important in the larger scheme of things. In the best case, climate modelers will use these scenarios for "compare & constrast" purposes. In studies which appear every day in the major science journals, a modeling experiment will conclude that if humans continue on a Business As Usual path, lots of bad stuff will happen. On the other hand, there is always a range of damage which, on the low end, looks much better if we follow a pathway like RCP2.6.
Have any of these modeling studies actually had a concrete effect on environmental policy? Not to my knowledge.
What makes the RCPs important is that, taken altogether, they form a nearly perfect microcosm of human thinking about the future, which I called The Twilight Zone in the introduction to this essay. For example, RCP2.6 is an excellent summary of the views of pro-growth environmentalists. RCP8.5 and the middle scenarios reflect the thinking of others who promote growth while dismissing or discounting environmental concerns—basically, everybody else.
Taking a dispassionate look at the "logic" which holds sway in this "wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination," we are forced into some very odd conclusions. As noted above, the salient property of the RCPs is that economic growth occurs in each one regardless of the assumed emissions pathway (Figure 1, right-panel). The standard economic story assumes that global GDP growth will be driven primarily by technological innovation.
We should therefore expect viable, cost-effective and game-changing technologies to emerge in the next 87 years. If global warming (among other environmental concerns) is causing pain which hinders global GDP growth, we should reasonably expect the emergence of powerful geo-engineering technologies which will ease or remove that pain at some unknown time in the future.
It then becomes "logical" in the Twilight Zone to do nothing about climate change now because actions which would decisively reduce emissions may cause a lot of (presumably transitory) economic pain. It makes more sense to simply wait for the next technological miracle to arrive in some future where the world is far richer than it is now. In that more fruitful world, humans will have sufficient wherewithal and flexibility to mitigate or eliminate any environmental problems which may arise.
A common variant of this kind of techno-optimism assumes that appropriate carbon pricing (market forces) will be sufficient to bring forth the required miracles. Paul Krugman embraces this view, which explains why he says "if we had appropriate pricing, we’d find it remarkably easy" to effectively reduce carbon emissions and thus tame the global warming problem.
Indeed, the debate between those who want to do something now and those who see the virtues of waiting has already taken place. Some of you may remember the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, which caused such a firestorm back in 2007. Look at a white paper called Debating Climate Economics: The Stern Review vs. Its Critics, which summarizes the heated debate the Stern review provoked. Undoubtably, some form of this debate will re-emerge in the future, although a renewed debate along these lines is very unlikely to make a difference one way or the other.
For better or worse, that is the "logic" which holds sway in The Twilight Zone. Waiting and doing nothing of course requires nothing from us—that is clearly its chief appeal. Humans will meet the future armed only with their faith in markets and their own astonishing technological prowess.
I noted in the introduction that there is no discussion (let alone debate) about the fact that all of the RCPs which will be bundled into the fifth IPCC assessment assume robust growth of the global economy up to the year 2100. To me, such an omission constitutes the strongest possible evidence that we are looking (albeit indirectly) at the workings of the human unconscious (the human shadow). You might review all the posts I wrote during DOTE's last three weeks before I ceased daily publication.
Even if you do not buy into my Flatland theory of how humans work, you must still explain the peculiar but inexorable "logic" of the Representative Concentration Pathways discussed in this essay. It is worth noting that these scenarios were written by academics; they were not written by representatives of the energy industry. These scenarios are "representative of the total literature" on climate scenarios, as this excerpt (among others) from van Vuuren et.al. (2011) makes clear—
The requirement that the RCPs are based on existing literature (criterion 1) is related to the scientific requirement of traceability, and follows existing IPCC guidelines on this. The term representative of the total literature is more complex.
In the context of the RCPs it refers to emissions and land use and signifies that, as a set, the RCPs should be compatible with the full range of scenarios available in the current scientific literature, including extreme as well as intermediate scenarios.
This requirement directly follows from the purpose of the RCPs to facilitate climate model runs that are relevant for policy-making and scientific assessment (and thus cover the full uncertainty range).
The Twilight Zone is a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. The boundaries of our imagination—economic and energy resource growth in all scenarios—have been clearly demarcated in the Representative Concentration Pathways.
The crucial moment at which humans might have seriously engaged with their self-created environmental problems has already come and gone. From now on in the 21st century, discussions and debates about those problems will take place within the idiosyncratic but self-consistent framework of beliefs I've described in this essay.
That's the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the Twilight Zone.
Decline of The Empire
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A
September 2, 2013
Contact the author at dave dot aspo at gmail.com
Note: this essay is closed to comments. An open thread will be provided for that purpose.