The flowering cherry trees in our front yard are magnificent.
The flowering cherry trees in our front yard are magnificent.
The last few weeks have been, as the Chinese say, “interesting times”, both for myself and for society as a whole. At a personal level we embarked on a 10-day trip to Israel about four weeks ago. It was the first time that I had been to that nation and I really enjoyed it. Israel must have more history per square mile than any other country in the world. Such a trip brings to life so many of the stories and events that we read about in the Bible. I now find it much easier to visualize, for example, Jesus giving his Sermon on the Mount (even if we do not know the exact location of that event).
On our return to the United States I went down with a fever. The symptoms were mild. But, given all the concerns to do with the corona virus, I decided to check in at our local health care facility since I had just returned from an overseas trip. The good news is that I only had a case of the normal flu (Type A). I have also had to work through one or two other health issues — all of which are working out well, but all of which required me to step back, which is why there have been no posts for the last couple of weeks.
During the same time period the world around us changed a lot, maybe irreversibly, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. How it will all play out remains to be seen, but we have already learned much about ourselves and our society.
Our church was quick to respond. In the very first stages of the crisis our bishop issued instructions prohibiting gatherings. For at least two weeks (and probably much longer) all group activities, including Sunday morning worship, will not happen. In response, we quickly organized a successful Sunday morning video church service.
All of these events created a period of enforced idleness for me and so gave me an opportunity to reflect on the goals of this blog — ‘Faith in an Age of Limits’ — and of the associated Facebook page: ‘Climate Change Theology’. In particular, I took advantage of the downtime to write this rather lengthy post — it summarizes some of my thoughts to do with the Age of Limits and with the implications of the pandemic that is suddenly upon us. Although we face lots of difficulties, and although the future looks challenging — to put it mildly — the predicaments that we face do provide an opening for the church and for people of faith to provide leadership.
What form that leadership may take, and how people of faith and the church overall can provide that leadership, best serve their communities, both through service and spiritual support, both for the long-term crisis that I refer to as the ‘Age of Limits’ and the short to medium-term issues raised by the pandemic is the focus of this series of posts.
I started this blog in August of last year and have published about 49 posts during that time. I have also completed the first draft of my book A New City of God — Faith in a Changing Climate. Now is a good time to back up and to provide an overview of what I see as the challenges that we face, and how they present an opportunity for church leadership.
I first took an interest in what I now refer to as the ‘Age of Limits’ about ten years ago. This was the era of ‘Peak Oil’ — the idea that crude oil is a finite resource that we are using irreversibly and that will eventually be depleted. (We now understand that the issue is not to do with the amount of crude oil in the ground per se, but the amount of oil that can be affordably extracted. The same idea applies to all other natural resources.)
This initial interest in peak oil was a starting point in understanding that we are facing many other types of limit, including climate change caused by our CO2 emissions, population overshoot, destruction of the biosphere and an end to continuous economic growth. Some of these factors are shown in the following sketch.
A key insight, and an idea that threads through much of what I write, can be summarized as follows,
We are confronted with predicaments, not problems — problems have solutions, predicaments do not. There are no solutions, only responses.
I am an engineer who has worked in the process and energy industries for many years. Like most engineers my mental model is that there are always solutions to the challenges that we face. Indeed, given sufficient money, commitment and time we can not only maintain Business as Usual (BAU), but we can even expect life to be better and better. Material progress is part of our faith system. The idea that progress has come to an end, and may even be going into reverse, challenges our fundamental view of the world.
A second key insight is to do with the concept of the 300-year party. All living beings — humans are no exception — live by taking in energy. That energy is used for basic survival, growth and reproduction. If we take in more energy that we use then we can grow and prosper. If, on the other hand, we expend more energy that we take in then eventually we die.
The energy used by all living species, including humanity until recent times, comes from the sunlight that strikes the earth’s surface. That light is used by plant life. Some of that plant life is eaten by animals, including ourselves. (The post ERoEI discusses this background in greater detail.) Such a lifestyle is — to use a currently fashionable word — sustainable. It is the world of biblical times.
But then, quite suddenly, we found a new source of energy: fossil fuels — first coal, then oil and natural gas. No longer did we have to live in energy balance with our environment. We learned how to exploit millions of years’ worth of stored sunlight. (If I were to pick a date for that event I would go with the Thomas Newcomen’s invention of the atmospheric engine in the year 1712.) The use of this stored sunlight meant that we no longer needed to live in energy balance with our environment, we started a party that is now coming to an end.
The analogy is with someone who lives on a modest income. She spends no more than she makes in wages and has only a small bank balance. Then she receives an inheritance. Her bank balance increases but her income stays the same. For a short while she can afford a wonderful life style: a large home, a new car, vacations around the world. But, eventually, the money runs out and she is forced back to living on her old income. But now she is saddled with expenses that she never had before, so she is worse off than she was before receiving the inheritance. She should, of course, have saved the inheritance and spent it carefully and with an eye to the future, and for her children and grandchildren. But she didn’t. We are in the same place as that lady. We inherited and then literally burned through an inheritance of stored energy with hardly a thought for what we would do when it ran out. We just assumed that “They” would “think of something”. After all, if “they” can invent the cell phone then surely “they” can find a new source of energy that can keep the party going.
But the 300-year period during which we have gobbled up the planet’s resources at such an astonishing rate is coming to an end. We are learning that our faith in science and technology is a false faith. Moreover, while we were consuming the earth’s resources in such a cavalier manner that we have created waste products — of which carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is probably the most important — and have just thrown them away — not acknowledging that there is no such place as “away”.
On top of all this, we have used the gift of stored sunlight to support an unprecedented growth in the earth’s population go from 1 billion to 7.5 billion. The chart shows that the population of the world in biblical times was well under a billion. In the late 18th century, following the start of the industrial revolution (which would be better named the fossil fuel revolution) we see a dramatic increase. There is a further sudden increase around the year 1950. The chart also shows how such increases closely track our production of crude oil.
We hear much talk about alternative energies, sustainability and “green living”. These are good ideas and they deserve our full support. But they are not even close to providing the energy base that we need to maintain our current extraordinarily, energy-extravagant lifestyle. Alternative energies do not provide a solution to the energy crisis that we face, they only help us respond and adapt.
If our faith in endless material progress is misplaced then maybe we need to consider the role of religious faith. Indeed, it is this thought that provides the inspiration for this blog and the book I am writing. In particular, people of faith should consider how they can help the world respond to the hard choices that we are all going to have to make in the coming decades.
As I was researching the material for this blog and the book I learned about that remarkable man, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE). Augustine lived at a time when the western Roman Empire was in decline. Indeed, during his lifetime the City of Rome was itself was sacked for the first time in centuries. He understood that all cities of men, indeed all human organizations, eventually fail (just look at all the “failed states” in the Hebrew bible). Only the City of God, he argued, is permanent. (Hence the title of his seminal work, the book City of God.)
It is this concept that is central to my interpretation as to what is going on now in our society. Our current ‘City of Man’ — an industrial culture based on the gift of stored energy in the form of fossil fuels — is winding down, and it is why I chose the domain name ‘New City of God’. What will our new City of God look like?
In his day Augustine recognized that the situation provided an opportunity for the church to provide badly needed leadership. So, it is in our time. There is, however, one major difference between our world and that of the western Roman Empire. Our “empire” in based on technological advance. This means that our leaders will need to understand concepts that would have been foreign to Augustine and the other church fathers. These include science, ecology, thermodynamics, systems theory and the management of very large projects.
A few years ago, our parish was looking for a priest. So, we set up a search committee. Members of the congregation were asked to tell the committee what they would like to see in the successful candidate. The normal attributes of the ideal candidate were listed: strong preaching, good at working with young people, sound financial management, a bible scholar, and so on. I suggested that, in addition to all these talents, that the successful candidate should have a good grasp of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. People laughed, and said that such a condition would mean that we would never find a priest. They were correct, but I was not joking. We cannot solve our problems/predicaments if we do not understand the root cause of those problems.
Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
In a startlingly short period of time COVID-19 has come to dominate our lives. This is obviously a rapidly changing situation, but already it has generated the following thoughts and questions.
I started this post by saying that I am an engineer who has spent a career working in the process and energy industries. For much of that time the dominant economic theme has been one of globalization and its cousins: Just-in-Time (JIT) management and the use of single-source suppliers. Over the years borders have become ever more porous — people, goods, money and (yes) diseases have found it easier and easier to travel the world.
Even before the corona pandemic, there were signs that globalization was running into trouble. Political movements such as ‘Brexit’ and ‘Make America Great’ showed that many working people had lost confidence in in the promises that were being made. But the pandemic has highlighted the brittleness of the supply chains on which we have come to depend. To take just one example, an oil company that operates platforms in the Gulf of Mexico is running into difficulties because some of its critical equipment comes from a single source — a source that unfortunately happens to be in Italy — a nation that is currently in lockdown mode.
The world that we have created is extraordinarily complex; it has so many moving parts that it can be very difficult to understand what is going on. Richard Heinberg provides the following example of systems complexity.
Someone gets sick in China in December of 2019, and by March of 2020 the US shale oil industry is teetering on the brink. What’s the chain of connection?
I grew up at a time of high inflation. That was bad, but deflation is worse, and it is deflation that is likely to be in our economic future.
As I write, there is a run on the grocery stores as people give way to panic buying. But, if the above analysis to do with deflation is correct, there should not be many long-term shortages (in spite of the cracks in the supply chains). Instead, there will be a shortage of people with sufficient money to buy the goods and services that are available.
The image I have of the Great Depression is of farmers who have milk for sale but their hungry, unemployed customers have no money. So the farmers wound up pouring the milk down the drain. That’s deflation.
Churches around the world are responding in real time to the challenges of this pandemic. It seems to me that many of them are doing a good job — they are looking for innovative solutions to the rather frightening new world that we have entered. But the pandemic could also be a time when church leaders can think through the nature of their mission, both material and spiritual, in a world of declining resources, climate change and population overshoot.
As I thought more about the intersection between technology and faith I realized that I was circling the issue of “The study of God and of God’s relation to the world”, i.e., theology.
Theology does not have a good image. It is often seen as being an intellectual game that is neither relevant nor interesting to the ordinary person of faith. Theologians are jokingly perceived as those who wonder “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin”. That phrase has itself become a metaphor for time-wasting and irrelevant debate.
A leading theologian of our times is Rowan Williams, now retired from his post as Archbishop of Canterbury. Much of what Williams says, particularly with regard to climate change and the biosphere, makes a lot of sense and is excellent advice. But here is an example of his theological writing (from the year 2007).
A doctrine like that of the Trinity tells us that the very life of God is a yielding or giving-over into the life of an Other, a ‘negation’ in the sense of refusing to settle for the idea that normative life or personal identity is to be conceived in terms of self-enclosed and self-sufficient units. The negative is associated with the ‘ek-static’, the discovery of identity in self-transcending relation.
A person who is frightened about a pandemic disease or who is wondering how to juggle the requirements of holding down a job while looking after children who are no longer at school needs a theology that “speaks to their condition”.
For many people of my generation a writer that had great influence was C.S. Lewis. In books such as Mere Christianity. Lewis explained theology clearly and showed how it fit into our lives.
Some thoughts as to what a theology that is relevant to the times may look like are provided below.
If theologians are to provide guidance and understanding to the rest of us then they need to have a good grasp of systems theory. They need to understand how our highly complex and interactive world works.
Theology is often perceived as being dry, pedantic and dull. Maybe one reason for this perception is that theologians seem to be like theoretical physicists who are looking for a Grand Unified Theory that explains everything, including some of the deepest moral and spiritual questions that we face. The catch is that we not like scientists standing outside the system we are trying to understand; it is God that is outside the system, He is external to us. We are like people living in a two-dimensional world when God operates in three dimensions. We cannot come up with a theological Grand Unified Theory.
In fact, it often seems as if the best theology is personal in nature. This may be one reason I based some of my thinking on Augustine’s seminal work City of God. The ideas in his book are central to Christian thinking and to scholastic theology, but no one would claim that the book is an easy read. Indeed, it seems as if it remains in need of a good copy editor. But City of God is not his only work. Augustine also wrote Confessions — one of the first personal works in our literary canon. It is not quite a full autobiography, but the book does present Augustine as being fully human, with all that that means. It make his theology personal and relevant to us all.
Professional theologians divide their discipline into four major categories: biblical, historical, dogmatic and practical. Of these, the one that is of most interest to the person in the pew is ‘Practical Theology’. Osmer has organized this topic around four questions,
These questions seem to summarize many of the thoughts that have already been presented in this post.
In his posts at Experimental Theology, Richard Beck points out that the social justice movement is, at its heart, a moral movement.
. . . it is taken as axiomatic among social justice warriors that oppression and injustice are systemic problems requiring systemic solutions. Our problems are not moral. You hear this claim every time you hear a social justice warrior throw shade on the notion that change doesn’t happen by asking people to change their hearts.
. . . by pointing out the moral and spiritual dimensions of justice work in these posts I’m not denying the systemic side of the equation. My argument isn’t reductionist (systemic or moral?), it’s holistic (systemic plus moral!).
His argument applies equally well to the manner in which we respond to the Age of Limits and to the corona virus pandemic. The challenges that we face are systems issues, and it is our responsibility to do our best to understand such systems. Indeed, much of my writing at this blog and in my book is to do with how the elements of systems interact with one another. These systems can be to do with basic science and thermodynamics, or they may be about human activities such as the management of very large projects. However, the manner in which which we understand and respond to issues such as climate change and the corona pandemic is fundamentally one of morality, not systems theory.
Just as Augustine and others of his time worked out a theology that provided a foundation of intellectual life for the coming centuries, so we need a theology that will have to involve a mix of traditional faith topics, such as prayer and the study of scripture, along with an understanding of science and technology.
It seems to me that a theology for our times must grasp the complex nature of the predicaments that we face before we can understand the nature of God and the meaning of religion in our time. I propose the following three points as the basis for discussion. It is my hope that professional theologians will find these points worthy of consideration as they think about the world that we are entering.
I will explore these three points in future posts. In this post I will jot down just a few words with regard to them in the context of current events.
It is the responsibility of people of faith and of church leaders to tell the truth — at least as they see it. We are already finding that those politicians who have consistently lied to us over the years no longer have credibility when they speak about the current crisis. (My impression is that our church leaders have done a good job so far of being honest and forthright. Congratulations to them.)
But telling the truth goes beyond simply not lying. It means that we have a responsibility to understand the nature of the complex systems that we have created. For example, is the relationship between the corona pandemic and low oil prices, as described earlier in this post, true? So, is it good that oil prices go down? After all, low oil prices can stimulate the economy (which is good), but low oil prices will lead to people in the energy industries being laid off (which is bad). What is the truth regarding this complex situation? It’s tricky.
The above statement is based on the assumption that we face predicaments, not problems. In the case of COVID-19 we will, presumably, eventually come to terms with the disease; it will not go away, but it is likely to become more of a background concern that we learn to live with (rather like the flu now). But many of the associated problems, such as the snapping of brittle supply chains, social distancing and the onset of deflation, could permanently alter our society, and not necessarily for the better. We will have to learn how to adapt to these new conditions.
Maybe the pandemic will serve as a rehearsal for the longer-term response to the Age of Limits predicaments that we have already described.
The root cause of many of our problems is that we humans have acted as if we are somehow outside of nature — the natural world is something that we control for our own benefit. The pandemic has taught us just how wrong this point of view is — we are not in control of God’s world, we are a part of God’s world.
Christians and people of the Bible face a special challenge; they may have to abandon some details of the older interpretations religious texts. For example, following the flood, in Genesis 9 God says to Noah and his sons,
Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands.
Well, we pretty much aced that one, and look where it brought us. But, in an over-populated, polluted, resource-depleted world this verse is hard to defend. We need a new way of living within the biosphere.
Maybe the following verses from Ecclesiastes 1 (which are, admittedly, taken out of context) are more appropriate.
Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.
We live in difficult and unprecedented times. The industrial/fossil fuel revolution — the basis of so much of our prosperity — is winding down; the future looks increasingly uncertain and bleak; we thought that we had built a society that we thought was somehow outside of nature. Now we are forcefully reminded that the forces of nature do not necessarily conform to our wishes.
These times do, however, provide an opportunity for the church to provide leadership. Many of the old answers to do with our political and economic systems will no longer work. (I found the following article in The Atlantic magazine to be particularly pertinent in this context.)
The situation provides an opportunity for the church not only to respond, but also to provide leadership. Church leaders will be called upon to explain why we are living in difficult times — they will be faced with the age-old question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” They will also be called upon to come up with new initiatives and practical responses. For example, if globalization is indeed moving into reverse, we will see more interest in the development of local communities — the parish concept.
I have completed the first draft of my book A New City of God — Faith in a Changing Climate. I will be looking for reviewers — more on this later. In the meantime, the current Table of Contents can be downloaded in .pdf format here.
Many people of faith, including seminarians and ordained clergy, are not trained in science or technology. They are charged with activities such as preaching, managing church finances, caring for the sick and leading spiritual retreats. These activities and responsibilities do not require an understanding of technology, systems engineering or quantification. However, as we enter the Age of Limits it will be necessary for us all to have a basic grasp of technology and its limits. Posts such as Essential Petrochemicals, Of Priests and Thermodynamics and Proper 23: The Enemy is Physics challenge such assumptions.
One technical issue that is fundamental to much of what is written at this site is the concept of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI). This topic is discussed in detail in the chapter entitled ‘Alice and the Red Queen’ in the ebook Age of Limits – 1. A summary is provided here.
The basic idea behind ERoEI is that all systems, including all living creatures and all human beings, need energy in order to live, grow and reproduce. But the act of acquiring energy requires the expenditure of energy. Expressed as a simple equation,
Available (Net) Energy = (Gross Energy – Energy Expended)
Gross Energy is the total amount of energy that is taken in. Energy Expended is the energy needed to find and consume the Gross Energy. Available or Net Energy is what remains. If Net Energy is positive then the system or organism flourishes. If Net Energy is negative then, once it has used up its own internal reserves, the organism will die.
Imagine a person living a simple hunter-gatherer lifestyle. He or she expends energy throughout the day gathering edible plants and hunting animal prey. That is the Energy Expended term. The person eats the food he or she has gathered, thus providing the Gross Energy. The Net Energy is the difference between these two terms.
A term that is frequently used in this context is Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI), which can be defined as,
ERoEI = Gross Energy / Energy Expended
If a living organism has an ERoEI of unity then it will spend all of its energy finding energy (food) just to keep itself alive. If the value falls below unity then the organism dies. Only if ERoEI is greater than one will the organism have surplus energy for growth and reproduction. Hunter-gatherers typically have an ERoEI of about 1.5. In other words, they spend 2/3 of their energy looking for and consuming new sources of energy (food).
About 10,000 years ago societies in different places started to develop agriculture. Doing so gives that society a much higher ERoEI value, probably in the 6-8 range. The surplus energy provides the foundation for civilized society, a society that can now afford luxuries such as armies, buildings, priests and writing.
Then, about 300 years ago we learned how to exploit the energy in fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. Doing so dramatically increased society’s ERoEI value. Now humans, through the use of this stored energy, have ERoEI values that can be as high as 100:1. This surplus provides the foundation for everything we take for granted in our modern way of living.
The catch is that we have used up the easy-to-find-and-extract energy sources, the low-hanging fruit. So now we are forced to spend an ever-increasing proportion of our energy simply finding and extracting new sources of energy to replace what we have used. The chart plots Net Energy against ERoEI. It can be seen that, as ERoEI falls from 100 to 20, most of the Gross Energy is available as Net Energy. But, below an ERoEI of about 5:1 Net Energy plummets. We fall off the Energy Cliff.
It is this decline in ERoEI, particularly the fact that we are reaching a point where we will soon be falling off the cliff’s edge, that is the root cause of so many of our difficulties. There are no high-density sources of energy available to use that would allow us to move back along the curve (with the possible exception of nuclear power, but that comes with its own set of problems).
It is difficult to calculate ERoEI values for various reasons. For example, government subsidies will skew any analysis. Nevertheless, we can develop some very rough ERoEI values for various energy sources.
Regardless of the energy source ERoEI for society overall is declining inexorably and new technologies and sources of energy have lower values than more traditional sources (with some exceptions — the cost of solar panels has come down a lot in recent years, although even in this case there is a large amount of embedded energy in a solar panel, and that energy likely came from oil, gas or coal.)
There are also qualitative issues to consider. For example, low ERoEI projects generally impact the environment much more adversely than those with a higher value. In the “good old days” all you had to do was “stick a straw in the ground” and high quality oil flowed under its own pressure into the production pipeline. No longer — now the development of resources such as the bitumen tar sands has a huge environmental impact. And the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo catastrophe showed just how severe the environmental problems to do with deepwater drilling can be.
Political issues can also be a factor. For example, ethanol produced from corn may have an ERoEI that hovers around one, hence it does not make economic sense to bother with this activity. But the ethanol does provide a local source of fuel thus providing those countries that grow corn and make ethanol with some political independence. And the production process provides jobs for the local population.
Like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, we are running faster and faster to stay in the same place.
The synod of the Anglican church has just passed the following Resolution.
That this Synod, recognising that the global climate emergency is a crisis for God’s creation, and a fundamental injustice . . . call upon all parts of the Church of England, including parishes, BMOs [Bishop Mission Orders], education institutions, dioceses, cathedrals, and the NCIs [National Church Institutions], to work to achieve year-on-year reductions in emissions and urgently examine what would be required to reach net zero emissions by 2030 in order that a plan of action can be drawn up to achieve that target;
(Additional sections discuss the reporting process.)
The following were my initial thoughts on reading this resolution.
Congratulations to the Anglican church on providing desperately-needed leadership. One of the themes of this blog is that climate change and related issues provide an an opportunity for the church. The Anglican church has stepped up to the plate.
Congratulations to the Anglican church for leading by example. The church leaders are not saying that you — whoever “you” may be — need to take action. The leaders are saying that we need to live the life we preach.
But, and there’s always a but — the devil is to be found in his usual location. What exactly do the church leaders mean by the word “zero”? Consider the following questions that the Resolution raises.
A picture of Thomas Cranmer, one of the founders of the Anglican church, is shown at the head of this post. In his day the industrial revolution had not yet started so society made virtually no use of fossil fuels. If we are to follow the Resolution to the letter then we will need to return to the early days of the Anglican church not just spiritually, but physically. Are people ready for that? There were no flush toilets in his day. It takes (fossil fuel) energy to manufacture the chemicals that ensure our potable water is, in fact, potable, and to pump that water to where it is needed, and then to treat the sewage that we create. (Roughly 10% of a barrel of crude oil goes to make petrochemicals.)
(One response to these questions is that we could use “alternative/green energy”. Leaving aside nuclear power, which has its own environmental baggage, the sources of alternative energy usually referenced are solar panels and wind turbines, along with the massive battery banks needed for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. But these items are not “fossil fuel free” — their manufacture, installation and operation requires the use of existing energy sources.)
The Resolution calls on church institutions to work out how to reach “zero emissions” by the year 2030. We are now in the year 2020. Given that committee meetings and task forces will all take time to reach their conclusions, this means that the church has about eight years to organize and implement what would be a truly radical program. Is such a goal realistic?
Another of the themes of this blog site is that we need to understand project management realities (the posts 40 Gigatons and The Slow Train illustrate this point). The fact that something can be done on a small scale does not mean that it can be quickly implemented on a national or international scale. Such projects take time, engineering resources, funding and political will. Above all, they require that people willingly reduce their material standard of living.
Once more, congratulations to the leaders of the Anglican church for providing such important and badly-needed leadership. The next step is for them to make it clear to all church members that this Resolution will require everyone to sacrifice many of the conveniences and comforts provided by industrial society.
In the discussions at this site we have suggested that we need to develop a theology that is suitable for the times that we are entering: an Age of Limits. We have further suggested that a foundation for such a theology is that, “We understand and tell the truth”. This is not easy. In this context, telling the truth goes beyond simply not lying — it means taking the time and effort to understand and analyze the immensely complex systems that provide the background to our modern lives. Telling the truth also means that we need to avoid wishful thinking and giving in to “hopium” — a belief that “they will come up with something”.
As an example of wishful thinking, consider the following chart. It shows the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. The value has risen steadily from 310 ppm in the year 1960 to its current value of 420 ppm.
Overlaid on the chart are the dates of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports and the COP (Conference of Parties) meetings. These reports and meetings have been warning us for 30 years that, unless we do something to stop the increase in CO2 concentrations, we are facing a climate catastrophe. We see how effective those efforts have been. No wonder young people are angry.
So we face an uncomfortable truth: We will continue to burn fossil fuels regardless of the consequences. As we saw in the post Two Triangles, moral admonitions are of limited effectiveness.
If we are unable to stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere then the next logical step is to find some means of removing it. (Intuitively, this approach does not make sense. It is always better to avoid catching a disease than to have treatments for the disease once caught.) So we need to investigate the technologies that are grouped under the general heading of Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). But that statement brings us to another uncomfortable truth, and that is to do with scalability and project management realities — an issue that we have already discussed in The Slow Train.
As is to be expected, this is a complex topic, involving many different potential technologies. But we have to start somewhere, so let’s use the following parameters.
There are lots of assumptions and simplifications in the above statements, but they do at least provide a sensible starting point in our quest for finding the truth.
Based on the above assumptions, we can develop the following calculation.
But CCS technology is still in the development stage, with many unresolved issues such as, “Where do we put the CO2 once we have removed it?”. If it takes say ten years to fully develop this technology, then we need 4,000 of these facilities to be fully operational by the year 2030. Such a program would require an unparalleled, worldwide commitment of financial, engineering and project management resources.
But it becomes even more complicated. There are at least 50,000 power plants throughout the world, most of which use fossil fuels (coal or natural gas). So, maybe we need more than 4,000 CCS facilities.
There are so many unanswered questions and so many assumptions. Nevertheless, when it comes to reducing atmospheric CO2 concentrations our first-pass answers to Pilate’s question are,
Which leads us to the second of the theological points that we present, “Accept and adapt”.