Carbon Targets I – Fermi Paradox solved?

This is the first in a new series I’m starting, which will look at the problem of what carbon emissions reductions and atmospheric CO2 targets are need to circumvent global climate disruption. I’ll consider this topic from many angles, and propose what I think is the only workable solution! [hint: it’s not an ETS or even a % emissions reduction goal – both are doomed to failure for many reasons].

But to kick this series off, the following opinion piece in COSMOS magazine was published late last year in the wake of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali. I’ve updated and hyperlinked it below. However, my views on this have evolved over the last year – so don’t consider this my last word on the value of the Copenhagen meeting…

The U.N.’s Bali climate change conference ended in drama last week – but is its outcome a blueprint for success or a roadmap to hell built on good intentions?

In the early 1950s, Nobel Prize winning Italian physicist Enrico Fermi described a conundrum now popularly called the Fermi Paradox. In brief, it asks the following: “If the universe is so old and vast, and if Earth is merely a typical planet like billions of others, then why have we never made contact with another intelligent civilisation?

There are many possible resolutions, but one of the most disturbing explanations is the so-called ‘doomsday argument’ – that it is in the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself. Half a century ago, the spectre of mutual nuclear annihilation loomed as a real possibility. At the opening of the new millennium, we have a new candidate: ‘carbocide’. Could it be that the industrial revolution, which allows a species to achieve interstellar communication also inevitably, dooms it to a fleeting existence?

Yet perhaps global environmental ruin via carbon is not a universal fait accompli. Time will tell, with the next two years of international negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change being absolutely crucial.

Kyoto testbed

The much-discussed Kyoto Protocol, defined in 1997, will expire in 2012. Its overarching goal was always to establish a test-bed process for a subsequent, more comprehensive international agreement on tackling climate change. Judged on that basis, I consider Kyoto to have been a moderate success. It was never intended to force through substantial global emissions reductions.

We are now a decade on from Kyoto, and the stakes have never been higher. The 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it abundantly clear that humanity has already caused a substantial disruption to the global climate system, and risks triggering catastrophic future changes should it continue to follow a business-as-usual scenario of greenhouse gas emissions.

Modelling of alternative ‘stabilisation scenarios’ by the IPCC, shows that by 2050, global emissions must be reduced by 50 to 85 per cent relative to 2000 levels, to avoid dangerous planetary heating. Moreover, under a globally equitable allocation of future carbon, even more drastic reductions will be required of developed nations, due to their disproportionately high per capita emissions and historical debt. Emissions, which are presently growing at around 3 per cent each year (with no sign of a decarbonising global economy), must peak between 2000 and 2015.

Paving the road

Given that we are, right now, in the midst of the period of time when this crisis situation must be turned around, the motivation for urgent global action is huge. This is why the Bali Climate Change Conference, and the two subsequent meetings to be held in Poznań, Poland in 2008, and Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009, are of paramount importance.

So now that the dust has settled following the tumult of Bali 2007, was anything useful achieved? My opinion is that, despite the widely reported diplomatic wrangling and difficultly in securing substantive commitments, the Bali Climate Change Conference achieved something very important – it laid down firm terms of reference for the future Copenhagen Protocol (‘Kyoto Phase 2’) that were based on the latest science rather than diluted political compromise.

Emissions reduction targets of 25 to 40 per cent by 2020 were tabled at Bali by the European Union. The cold hard reality is that there was never going to be any binding commitment of this sort made by the majority of developed or developing nations. However necessary such a short-term goal might be from a scientific standpoint, it was too much, too soon.

But equally, that was what was so clever about this audacious proposition. I strongly suspect that if such tough measures had not been touted in Bali 2007, it would have been impossible to convince the majority of parties to sign up to these in Copenhagen 2009. But now, the international community has close to two years to get comfortable with this idea, and to work out how such cuts might be practically achieved.

Bali’s big win

That was Bali’s big win – to define an ambitious ‘stretch goal’ for emissions reduction that will undoubtedly be tough for most nations to meet – and then secure a consensus agreement on the need for rapid, deep cuts.

Even the recalcitrant U.S., who now stands alone among developed nations in refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, has pledged in principle its support to the Bali agreement. There is a palpable hope that with a change of U.S. Administration in 2008, irrespective of which major party wins the next Presidential election, their Bali commitment will be followed through with gusto. The recent Australian Federal election illustrated amply where a fresh political perspective can lead.

The Bali Action Plan also explicitly recognises the need to develop positive policy incentives for reducing deforestation in developing countries. This was a missing element of the original Kyoto agreement, which was most unfortunate. Forest preservation has multiple benefits beyond carbon storage, including biodiversity conservation and the supply of critical ecosystem services such as water purification and pollination that would be expensive or impossible to replace.

The challenges in formally recognising the value of existing forests will come in implementing accounting systems that can distinguish between preservation and re-forestation, and in working out how such natural capital might be traded as carbon offsets on a global market. These are matters for later conferences of the parties to debate.

The Drake equation - the big question it this context, is whether T is axiomatically  100 years?
The Drake equation - the big question in this context, is whether T is axiomatically < 100 years?

Sticking point

The 800-pound gorilla that continues to traipse haphazardly through these and future negotiations, is the developed/developing world divide. The developed nations – largely the U.S., European Union, Japan, Canada and Australia – clearly need to take a lead in tackling this multifaceted problem. Yet global warming is already so advanced and accelerating in impact that the developing world simply cannot risk dragging its heels for too long, in the name of short-term economic self-interest.

Nations such as China and India will be amongst those most severely affected by more frequent extreme temperature events, greater water scarcity, and rising sea levels. The world’s atmosphere is a global commons, and like the famous prisoner’s dilemma, the maximum benefit for all ultimately lies in cooperation – if we can only convince no one to ‘defect’ from their responsibility, by putting in place equitable pathways for clean development and hastened technological transfer [Ed: This is the key!].

Therein lays the great challenge for Poznań, Copenhagen and beyond.

By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

15 replies on “Carbon Targets I – Fermi Paradox solved?”

You tease! You can’t tell us an ETS is not the solution, but then hide that solution away at the end of an uncertain number of interlinked pieces!

For mine I just don;t see how it can be done without a trading system… or some other cold economic tool. Sure it will take a lot more than just that but it is a bit like legs… it takes a lot more then them to walk, but without them you are buggered!


But I must… I need to give the proper context before I propose the answer, or it won’t seem obvious or the only ‘solution’ (at least as far as I can see). Only a couple of pre-solution preliminaries, I promise!

I agree the economic tool can’t be cold – it has to work with the market, not against it. But it must do it fast! So there needs to be a few key elements. There, I’ve given you half the answer already…


My science-fiction scenario: the vital use of fossil carbon is as feedstock for biology, because it can produce pure carbon-12 compounds without any carbon-14 contamination to destabilize the genetic material.

So any civilization with foresight carefully controls their fossil fuel use, carefully saves all the carbon-12 and its products, burning it only with nonradioactive oxygen isotopes, so all its animals and plants are produced without much in the way of internal radioactive contamination. Those civilizations, of course, move slowly enough and with enough foresight that they also skip the wasteful stage of broadcasting electromagnetic signals. They’re out there, just quiet.

If I’m right, we’ll every now and then detect a few decades or century-long blip from other civilizations like our own as they go through their brief fast burn.

And eventually some friendly well-stealthed aliens will show up and offer us a load of beads and mirrors and pocket sized fission plants in return for cleanly and thoroughly removing all our remaining fossil coal and oil for their own use and depart, chortling.

Hello out there?


I have a slightly different explanation of the Fermi paradox, at least for Earthlike planets in Solar Systems like ours:

a) The only possible long-term (even hundreds of thousands of years) civilizations are those with high-tech capabilities, including space technology capable of fending off dinosaur-killer asteroids. From past history, the latter’s arrival (in our case) is almost guaranteed, sooner or later, but no one knows when. When it comes, the extant civilization must be able to detect it coming soon enough to divert it, or else. “Powered-down” civilizations with 1900s energy levels can’t do that, i.e., as much as some people might like to “go back to nature”, it’s not a long-term solution. The worry is that if civilization ever collapses from that state, it never can get back. [Maybe the museums of “The Mote in God’s Eye” help :-)]

b) Fossil fuels are good because one can start using them with fairly minimal extraction complexity and technology, and then bootstrap upwards for a while, offering the high-EROI energy (50:1 coal?, 100:1 for US domestic oil in 1930s) needed to support lots of scientists/engineers and not need so many farmers. [In US, farm population dropped from 40% in 1900 to 2% now, thanks at least in part to petroleum.] Societies using draft animal and hand labor for food just don’t support a lot of researchers.

Fortunately, a lot of smart people think there is enough energy from solar+wind+hydro+geothermal, and (maybe) possibilities in third/fourth-generation biofuels to be OK, but of course, we have a lot of building to do, and we’d better be using oil+gas wisely to help us build while they’re still widely available.

c) Suppose a civilization uses up most of the fossil fuels, and then collapses, for any reason. Then, the next attempt has to be made without fossil fuels. If humans were to disappear, and a some million years off, the raccoons get a chance, they’ll have their work cut out for them. Maybe if something else comes along after enough time (hundreds of millions of years?) to get fossil fuels rebuilt…

Perhaps a collapse happens, but there are good records left, and some useful samples, and that lets people bootstrap to efficient sustainable technologies quicker than you could do from scratch. One can imagine some area with a good hydro plant knowing how to make high-efficiency solar cells.

But that’s still hard. Suppose we had all the records, but every computer stopped working, and every fab disappeared. What could we do? We’d probably skip vacuum tubes and discrete transistors, and go straight to (small) silicon wafers, and work our way up. Even then, it would be hard work, as one has to build the machinery to build the machinery to put into a fab. Also, every generation of microprocessors needs a lot of simulation from the preceding generation. One would go straight to DRAM and skip core memory.

Computing of course is the prototypical example of a technology area whose history includes multiple cycles of bootstrapping, such that modern computers use vastly less material. [I’m a trustee at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA … come visit and see what I mean, especially during the next 9 months while we have a working Babbage Engine built from the 1800s plans.]

But, it’s hard to imagine someone in the 1800s, with no fossil fuels, going straight to solar cells.

d) Hence, if we don’t make it *this* time, the chances of humans (or anything else) creating a sustainable high-tech civilization here, seem pretty low. So, the stakes may be larger than they seem.

e) So, back to Fermi’s Paradox: I make no assumption that Earthlike planets are the only ones to generate intelligent life, but I would claim that it seems pretty hard for such to get more than one chance every few hundred million years to use a fossil-fuel boost to get beyond them.

f) And, back on Earth: most poorer countries *cannot* follow the same infrastructure path to wealth as did the developed countries: they don’t have enough money to bid high enough for the oil+gas that’s left.

On the other hand, they can skip some steps, just as they did in skipping widespread use of telephone landlines in favor of cellphones. Likewise, there are places in the world where petroleum-powered tractors aren’t *ever* going to happen, given what it takes to support them.

But maybe, far simpler electric tractors, with batteries charged by forthcoming solar cells, may just get to be possible, the same way that one would never find a 1960s mainframe computer in many places now occupied by PCs.


Hank Roberts said:
If I’m right, we’ll every now and then detect a few decades or century-long blip from other civilizations like our own as they go through their brief fast burn.

That is, if we make it through the fast burn ourselves and so have the opportunity to reflect on the Promethean folly of others!

John Mashey – great feedback, here is my take:
a) Guaranteed yes, but it may only take, oh, I don’t know, 2 or 3 centuries beyond the industrial age to make the ‘breakout’ and leave the planet. Just think of the tech advances over the last century compared to the century before – the rate is exponential. The key to the Fermi paradox is whether this pace of growth turns into a -ve feedback.

But to your asteroid point, a ‘civilisation killer’ of, say 1km bolide, has a return time of 1-10 Ma. A mass-extinction bolide of 10km is ~100 my. Let’s take 1 Ma to be conservative, and a ‘breakout duration’ of 500 years. Then there is only a 1 in 2000 odds of a bolide being the terminator. So in the other 1999 cases, we’d see ’em. I’m backing my carbocide theory :)

b) No dispute with any of that.

c) Depends when the next attempt came. We’ve probably got another 1 Ga of a habitable planet left before solar evolution toasts the surface. The major oil fields were laid down in the Jurassic (180 Ma or so), and the coal seams in the Carboniferous (320 Ma), Permian (260 Ma) and Eocene (50 Ma). So we could replenish all the fossil fuel reserves and still have the equivalent of the entire Phanerozoic left to spare for another industrial civilisation to arise. So I don’t buy that either :P

But I do agree very much about skipping tech steps with some prior knowledge, even if it is a small inkling of what works and what doesn’t. The bow and arrow is stupidly obvious to us, but it took one very clever sod to put a stick on the fire-starter bow and twang off an arrow – probably a bunch of kids in a tribe who invented a game and the parents took up the idea and ran with it!

This will be critical for thinking about the China/India conundrum – we have to, desperately quickly, allow them to skip the Victorian model of industrial development entirely…

d) Don’t necessarily agree – see above – unless carbocide axiomatically turns the T in the equation to a 0 (or close to it…)

e) Agree but a few hundred million years gives another few rolls of the dice on Earth alone…

F) Agree totally, see my comment to c) above.


This whole discussion has some definite tongue-in-cheekiness; I’ll stick the one serious piece in another post, so people can skip this.

For any reader not already into Fermi paradox speculations, the Wikipedia entry is a good start.

a) I’d certainly agree that if our current civilization collapses, it is far more likely that the reason is (in no particular order and of course there are combinations):

carbocide (even the milder versions)
agriculture collapse
nuclear war
some kind of plague
supernova in wrong place

than the next bolide.

But, on rereading what I wrote, I see I wasn’t precise enough in the first two sentences. I’ll try again:

1) It’s essentially impossible for us to see the accidental emissions of a planet at our tech level (~Kardashev .7), because none are close enough, according to SETI FAQ analyses of visible distances. Hence, we will *never* see emissions from a nice peaceful, sustainable, even very-long-lived civilization that stays at or below our tech level. We won’t even see one that has enough space travel to take care of bolides.

2) The only possible civilizations we could *ever* see would likely be closer to Kadashev Type I’s with plenty of energy and longevity, willing to run multi-million year efforts to beam narrowband signals at nearby stars [~10,000 systems within 100 light-years] in hopes of finding one close enough in space and time to get a reply. I’d love to see the budget process for that! One needs to be willing to burn energy run high-powered transmitters for long periods, as well as keeping a bunch of receivers going.
[Maybe it is easier to travel, after all :-)]

3) Anyway, the Milky Way is supposed to have 200B+ systems, so there *could* be / have been billions of extant civilizations at our level, who got past carbocide, and we’d *never* know. Clearly, the couldn’t stay below bolide-protection indefinitely. Likewise, there could be quite a few Type I’s around, but for us to see them (right now) requires they be close enough, and persistent enough to be looking for us.

I.e., “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Of course, all we need is for a spaceship to land on the White House lawn (next year please, not now), prove that all some of those abductions were real, and the argument will be over. :-)

b) Energy, science, civilization, tech advances [that’s the serious post, later], although if people know the work of Bob Ayres, that’s where I’m going.

d) Fossil fuels and “the next try”. Well, we’re into serious speculation here. To create fossil fuels in the first place, we need the right combination of life, climate, avoidance-of-extinctions, and maybe continental placement, else we’d have a more gradual, consistent buildup of fossil fuels, rather than distinct periods and distinct geographies. Suppose we burn all the accessible fuel [i.e., from 320M years to more recent], and then disappear. The next species needs to evolve, not get nailed by one of the disasters, achieve civilization able to use fossil fuels, have the continents be in the right places to have formed oil & coal. [?? Current continents aren’t anywhere near where they were, except for the 50Ma period. Does that matter?]

Anyway, our evidence so far is that we’ve gotten one intelligent species in 320M years, so indeed, maybe that allows for a few more tries. But still, 5M years from now, intelligent raccoons will be wondering where the oil went :-)]


Anyway, this is all fun to play with, but:

We certainly agree we’d better solve the current problem, or else, regardless what anyone else out there is doing or has done. I think our main difference of opinion (and this is sure out in opinion-land :-)) is that:

a) I think it is quite possible for numerous civilizations to get beyond the problem, and never, ever be visible to us.

b) I think that fossil fuels have been important enough to technology development that the effects of using them up may last longer on Earth than their immediate effects on humsan civilization.


I agree it is fun speculation and I can’t really dispute what you say above John. Certainly the idea of ‘easy’ interstellar travel is a shaky one (I’m saddened to think) – one can deduce this much as one can deduce that time travel into the past is not, nor will ever be, technically feasible (otherwise, where are those future boffins?).

For interstellar travel, the network argument sort of kills it. Essentially, let’s say we had the great urge to spread across the galaxy. How quickly could we do this? Travelling at sub-light speed with a new improved ion drive, let’s say at 0.1c, we could get to Alpha Centauri in about 50 years. We could also fan out and get to Barnaard’s Star, Sirius, Wolf 359 etc. within a century – in fact dozens of systems within a century or two (e.g. see Let’s say on each of those systems with rocky planets, we set up a base, mine the resources for a while, and then build some more spaceships to continue fanning out in all directions. Our spread through the galaxy then ‘quickly’ (in relative terms) becomes absolute, because the fanning process is geometric.

So if a spacefaring alien civilisation with the urge to expand and the tech to travel at 0.1c (surely feasible based on known physics, perhaps within a century of now) had arisen at the dawn of the Holocene, a mere 10,000 years (truly a wink of the galactic eye), it should now occupy a whole quadrant of the galaxy, and number hundreds of trillions of individuals. Give it a million or so years, and they should have colonised every single planet in the galaxy and But it didn’t happen. And indeed it has never happened in any 10,000 – 1 Ma year span in the entire ~6-10 Ga history of the Milky Way.

So sadly, I can only conclude that Star Trek, or even much more primitive space travel of the sort described above, can probably be ruled out using logic alone. Or else we, humanity, are truly unique, and intelligent life which reaches the level of spacefaring is extraordinarily rare (or never, ever, gets to interstellar travel – due to carbocide making T=0 or very close to it, i.e. invoking step 7 of The Great Filter:, or we just happen to be the first to occur in a galaxy of 200-400 billion stars over a 10 billion year period.

If the latter is true, it’s a real ego booster! Let’s just make sure we get out of the current carbon-driven mess…

[If anyone hasn’t guessed, I’m a huge techno-optimist, and a SF fan to boot, and wish more than anything for us to leave this planet ASAP and explore the galaxy. It’s not deep green that drives me to fix the carbon crisis – it’s pure survival, or us and the biosphere…]


1) From Barry’s kind words over at Deltoid, he’d know my background at Bell Labs and in Silicon Valley, i.e., two of the heartlands of techno-optimism and happy places for me, so the rest of this should be read as cautionary, not doomsterism.

I’ve been a science-fiction fan for 50+ years, own thousands of SF books [having pruned many to recover shelf space], recruited Vernor Vinge to keynote last year’s Hot Chips conference, and got his autograph on my copy of Rainbow’s End. (Of course, he’s got several different ideas for why we don’t see anyone else.) I’ve probably read dozens of stories worried that no one has colonized the galaxy.

2) BUT, let me now head back in the direction of more serious territory [related to the Ayres reference several posts back], but by the way of the Great Filter, which has insufficient granularity of outcomes between 7 and 8, so I’ll add some more:

7. Tool-using animals with big brains.

7a) But doesn’t build technic civilization, due to temperament or lack of resources. Had humans arisen 400Ma ago, we wouldn’t have had coal or oil. I’m reminded of the tech level of different civilizations as per “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. Presumably, such can go on relatively indefinitely, until the next big bolide.
–but irrelevant to us— since we’re already into possibility of:

7b) Builds technic civilization, but wipes itself out, either quickly, with war, or less quickly via your carbocide/resource exhaustion.

7c) Builds technic civilization that arrives at a long-term sustainable state, but below bolide-fending. I.e., this is “go back to 1800s”.

7d) Like 7c), but with enough observational capability to track asteroids and enough space-launch capability to divert them. These could be the minimal facilities we (almost) have.

7e) like 7d), but with serious space capability, which might well be happy to capture passing asteroids for handy materials.

7f) Like 7e) or maybe 7d) but willing to do long-term send/receive. Such might be visible to other 7f)s, and who knows, maybe findign someone else might push somebody to want to do 8.

8. Colonization explosion, which really requires 7e) plus willingness to commit huge amounts of resources and especially ENERGY to sending out (slow) probes and starships that will never come back.

Anyway, just as companies sometimes fail because they’re in state X, and need to get to state Y, but need capital to get there, and can’t get it, it’s quite plausible to imagine scenarios in which civilizations stabilize at 7c), 7d), 7e), but didn’t invest the energy&resource when they had it to be able to move up, and the galaxy could be full of such and we’d *never* know. We might see 7f), and we certainly would see 8s, if there are any.

A: plausible existence of 7d) or 7e), which I think humans could accomplish, if we get our act together (next post).
B: No sight of 8s.
C: 7b) (incl. carbocide).

Your post says, I think:
B ==> C i.e., no 8s implies trouble

but I think
A ==> !(B ==> C) i.e., there are achievable intermediate states

Hence, C may well be true, and we may succumb to it, but we really can’t tell whether or not there are billions of 7d) and 7e) out there … or zero.

BUT, and this gets us back in the direction of energy, and as Charles Stoss writes one needs outrageous amounts of cheap energy, i.e., assuming Earth’s electricity production ~4TW, we need to use about 5 days supply to send a mere 1-2-ton probe to Proxima Centauri at .1c, with anything like current tech, no anti-matter conversion, etc. Interstellar expansion really needs sustained efforts over thousands or millions of years, and again, one always has the worry that if a civilization falls, can it get back up again. I recommend MS FND IN A LBRY for an amusing way in which that might happen in a society in which most information is kept electronically.

While I’d love to see humans make it to 8, I’d be happy to get past the next 100-200 years (i.e., Peak Oil+Gas, and don’t burn too much coal, avoid the worst of AGW) and get to 7d).

On the downside:
ANALOG Science Fiction April 1971, pp8-33 carried a story by Stanley Schmidt called “The Unreachable Stars”:

Earth has stabilized at 7c)-, with too many people on the planet, scientific progress minimal, resources consumed just to keep people alive. Someone discovers cache of old documents lamenting that humans did a few steps in space travel, and then stopped, because resources needed for other things. Aliens have been (secretly) visiting, are trying to figure out how this happened, get discovered. Humans ask how they can do interstellar travel:

Alien says “..for *you* it is impossible….Your ancestors played you a dirty trick…some of your ancestors took the first small steps… and then they stopped…You can’t get there from here…You *could* have…it can be done-but only with many, many man-years of dedicated work once you’ve passed the Moon-rocket stage. But *you* won’t even be able to get that far, now … and a subsistence economy can’t spare manpower and material of anything except keeping itself alive.”

Ugh. Schmidt of course (in 1971) didn’t consider the possibility that the resources were consumed in adaptation to AGW effects… and I suspect was mostly upset that the last moon landing was planned for 1972.

But fortunately, humans *should* be able to achieve at least 7d), if we can manage to do the right things, meaning:

a) We go all-out on energy efficiency.

b) We go all-out on sustainable energy sources.

c) We husband precious oil&gas [we will use all we can get], and actually save a little for people’s grandkids. I don’t ever expect to see $30/bbl oil again.

d) We do enough a) and b) to be able to leave a lot of coal in the ground (or at least sequester the CO2, which is TBD), and avoid the tar sands/shale oil thing.

e) We do all the other things to minimize AGW effects, i.e., like building/car albedo improvements, Nitrous Oxide, etc, and a lot of work on agriculture & water technologies. I’m fond of covering N. Canada with aluminum foil, but nobody buys that yet :-)

f) We do proper R&D & deployment portfolio investments, like the way Bell Labs worked, with long-term thinking, progressive commitment along R&D paths, and deployment *now* of what works, rather than waiting for breakthroughs.
Old BTL motto: “Never schedule breakthroughs.”

The worldview above is not at all foreign to California, especially Silicon Valley, which is trying very hard to rework everything to lessen the need for petroleum and natural gas, (we already use very little coal), before they get really expensive, and before we build stranded assets that depend on them. The goal is to build a post-20th-century economy&infrastructure as fast as possible, not just work on AGW.

Of course, one of the world’s best efficiency people is CA Energy Commissioner Art Rosenfeld, an awesome leader. (see Rosenfeld’s Law).

Venture capitalists around here read books like “The Last Oil Shock” by David Strahan, a good guy.

At a dinner a few months ago, a retired friend and I talked for 30 minutes about Peak Oil, which he certainly thought was Real Soon Now, and he spoke passionately about the need for efficiency improvements. He used to be Vice-Chairman of Chevron…


1) Some say “We shouldn’t worry about AGW, because our descendants will be rich (6-15X larger world GDP in 2100) and they can pay to adapt.

2) Some say “We can deal with AGW at a cost of ~1% less growth”

I’m beyond 2) via Bob Ayres and others:

3) If we *don’t* do a)-c) above, the world GDP is going to grow a lot slower (or not at all), and leave a lot of stranded assets around, and if we don’t do the rest, not only is world GDP not going to grow(much), but the adaptation costs will be a lot higher than people’s models think.

I usually write this as: “In 2100 a Terabyte iPod will be almost free, but that won’t help much if what you need is dikes and steel/concrete seawalls… and you don’t have $30/bbl oil to help you.”

Societies that are just staying above water don’t usually invest a lot of money in science and long-term thinking … i.e., as per Schmidt’s story.

4) A few of the best sources I know are mentioned in Strahan’s book, “biophysical economists” Charlie Hall and Bob Ayres, both of whom are very smart guys, but are part of a small minority among economists. Unlike many mainline neoclassical economists, these folks think that energy and physical resources matter a lot. They may be right, or wrong, but they are very much worth studying.

home page at SUNY.

Charlie Hall on EROI at The Oil Drum and

need to reintegrate the natural sciences and economics.

He and Gregoire Leclerc have also edited a fine, large volume called “Making World Development Work,” a real eye-opener to me.

Robert Ayres (and INSEAD colleage Benjamin Warr) have done a lot of work studying economic growth, technology, and energy.

Robert Solow got a Nobel prize for modeling GDP growth, accounting for about 40% via Labor and Capital. That left ~60%, called the “Solow Residual” or “technology progress” or “total factor productivity” … which makes me nervous, since it’s really not clear what that is [but then, I’m no economist].

Ayres&Warr have modeled various economies (US, Germany, Japan), where they find very good fits for the 60% from:

work = efficiency * energy consumed

with a boost over last 30 years, assumed to be from computing.

Accounting for growth…, and

ASPO talk: Economic growth (and cheap oil). See especially page 34, which models the future US GDP as a function of efficiency, and it’s not pretty.

HENCE, this is the concern:

It takes $$ and long-term thinking to invest in sustainable infrastructure and research.

$$ (big chunk) ~ work=efficiency*energy

We’ve had a century or so of high-EROI fossil fuels, and if Ayres & co are right, this assumption is essentially baked into neoclassical economics models, BUT EROI is declining, new oil is much lower-EROI than 1930s Texas. [See Hall].

SO, there is nothing that guarantees that when Peak Oil really hits (in next decade, most likely) in next decade, and then Peak Gas in another few decades, that the past economic assumptions will still work very well….

I’d have been happier in looking at economics+climate models if there were more peak oil inclusions, the way the Kharecha+Hansen paper did for climate modeling itself. From many years of technology forecasting, it’s always scary predicting across major inflection points, and we have a bi one coming.

ANYWAY, I think if people invest (much of) the one-time inheritance of oil+gas into efficiency & sustainable energy systems, we can at least achieve 7d), and that’s probably good enough to get to 7e). As much as I love the idea of manned space travel, I’d happily suspend that for decades to get the energy situation under control.

But if not, and if we then go too deep into unsequestered coal, etc, we’re into 7b) (carbocide) or 7c), stuck at too low a level of infrastructure & tech to be able to get enough further, as people would face millenia of trouble with agriculture and rising sea level, with the best EROI sources all gone.

Put another way, I conjecture that for most of us (except coal producers, big in both USA & OZ), the issue is NOT:

– what economic sacrifices must we make to save the climate?

IT is

– can we decarbonize fast enough to avoid economic stagnation, followed by a bad climate mess that will really cost the economy?

Many of the things we need to do for climate are the *same* things we need to do for the world economy.

[Sorry about the delay in this posting John – the SPAM filter holds up messages with a large number of hyperlinks and I need to clear it manually]


John, why would any 8s want anything to do with species-cidal maniacs like ourselves? That raises the question of why we’d want to go out into the galaxy to begin with.

Also, you don’t directly address the issue of why we haven’t detected the emissions of even one 7)b-f or 8.

Related to that, I have a question for you: I assume there’s some distance beyond which it would not be possible for us to detect emissions like our own. Any idea what that is?


Steve: a lot of that is more in the realm of science-fiction stories, with the msot usual reason being “we’re in the zoo”, or “we have to progress to a certain point”, or …

– to paraphrase:

“Who can predict how aliens think? A: not us, they’re *aliens*.”

AS for detection range, that was in the SETI FAQ hotlink I mentioned. Basically, broadband: a small fraction of a lightyear, i.e., not much beyond Pluto. Like I said, civilizations at our level cannot “see” each other’s “leakage”.

From my categorization, we couldn’t ever see anything below 7f), i.e., a space-capable civilization willing to spend serious energy transmitting focused narrowbeam signals at nearby stars, and doing it at the right range at the right time. The distinction between 7f and the lower ones is that they not only had the capability but the very-long-term will to do it.

Assuming there’s a ~50year window when we might have detect something, that means we’d see anyone aiming at us within 50 LY that started as much as 50 years ago. Someone 1,000 LY away had to have been doing it 9950-1,000 years ago for us to have seen it.

Anyway, if there is somebody is a real 8), we should have seen them, but there is a big jump in energy cost to get there from 7f). There could be lots of 7d, 7e, and maybe even 7c around who just aren’t willing to bother.

Remember, being a 7f requires that you beam messages at systems for many years, hoping you get lucky, and somebody answers before the next budget cycle, and stays around long enough for a conversation.


How anthropocentric of us to think that every sentient race has enough hatred to exterminate itself. The truth is that human tendencies towards self-destruction are not required to be a part of every alien race in our galaxy.

The resolution of the Fermi Paradox is much simpler, the probability that a galaxy will evolve more than one sentient species in 10 billion years is well below 1.0. Therefore most galaxies including ours only evolve 0 or 1 intelligent species. We won the lottery in the Milky Way and that’s it, nobody else is coming. This entire galaxy is ours and ours alone.


Sean OBrien:

The resolution of the Fermi Paradox is much simpler

Resolving paradoxes is simple. Just believe what you want to be true.


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