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The War on Carbon

Written By: - Date published: 6:02 am, June 22nd, 2018 - 50 comments
Categories: climate change, disaster, Environment, global warming, science, sustainability, war - Tags: , ,

The climate isn’t out to get us.

Global warming isn’t out to get us.

It is we, by digging up sources of carbon from under the ground and releasing them into the bio-sphere by way of combustion, who are evidently “out to get” nature and a slew of the planet’s natural, physics bound processes of stability.

In terms of war then, calling for a war (whatever the level of rhetoric) against climate change or global warming, is akin to calling for a war against the buildings that are falling down in a city that’s being carpet bombed, by us diligently building bombers, flying sorties and dropping bombs.

Obviously, winning the war or battle against buildings falling down in our analogous city is forever lost and unwinnable until focus and energies switch to concentrate on simply not building planes, flying sorties, and dropping bombs.

Out here in the real world, halting the devastation of global warming and attendant climate change requires a similarly simple and obvious enough step of not adding any more carbon to our bio-sphere.

In other words, we should be fighting on the same side as global warming and climate change against carbon.

So please, don’t call on me to fight in any war against the reaction of nature, or of the laws of physics to our willful actions, because there’s no point in me fighting a war against myself, and it’d be insane of me to battle the immutable laws of physics.

I wonder how we wake politicians up to that? Should we even bother trying?

They keep casting physics and nature as the enemy “to be tackled/confronted/challenged” and (as it were) giving succour to carbon with empty rhetoric about spewing less carbon into our biosphere, some day… one day…never; or earnestly suggesting we run some accounting sleight of hand to make it look like we’re spewing less carbon into our biosphere; or imagining that physics will ‘take a holiday’ from reacting to what we’re doing, while we figure out some grand carbon sucking technology scheme that we’ll then develop and deploy all over the face of the planet.

It seems to me (and I’m pretty sure that if nature and physics had a mind, they’d agree) that these are insane times being buoyed along by dull lunatics who, one way or another, need to be either divested of their power and leadership, or shaken awake from their delusions. There’s a war we need to recognise and engage in.

50 comments on “The War on Carbon”

  1. Bill, there’s a whole lot more to climate change that still isn’t registering with ‘Joe Public.’

    We still think of it in terms of an annoying rise in sea levels which may endanger some of our best real estate.

    We still think of it as unseasonal and heavy rain which may cause the occasional flood.

    We still believe it is something happening to the rest of the world which may have a bit of an impact on us here in safe little New Zealand.

    The reality will be far different and with a much greater impact – no MAY about it!

    For example:

    Sea level rise is locked in. There is nothing we can do to immediately reverse the trend. Large areas of coastal NZ will become uninhabitable and have to be abandoned.

    Unseasonal and intense weather events will become the norm and will impact on agriculture. Crops will be destroyed and infrastructure washed away.

    Insurance companies will hike up premiums (this has already begun to happen) and more and more people, unable to afford the premiums, will be left to face the elements on their own.

    Globally, the next two decades will see global warming have a huge impact – in fact, it already has. Years of drought is thought to have been a contributing factor in the Arab Spring, and the chaos that has followed.

    Millions and millions more people will be forced to migrate because of drought, or ‘wet-bulb’ conditions in the tropics. Sea level rise in the near future will displace many people in our neighbourhood, the Pacific, and they will want to come to NZ or Australia. In fact, they will have no other alternatives.

    These mass migrations will cause enormous disruptions to the whole world political stability and economy – triggering the long overdue economic ‘correction’ which will likely be more severe than ’29.

    Warmer temperatures generally will facilitate the spread of disease, and the rise of resistant bugs will compound this phenomenon.

    All in all, the next twenty or so years will prove to be hugely disruptive and the impact even here in safe little NZ will be enormous.

    Are we at war? To quote W. H. Auden: ‘If anything was wrong, we would certainly have heard.’

    Enjoy the ride.

    • Bewildered 1.1

      On a lighter note to cheer u up Tony the BBC where reporting there is a shortage of co2 in Britain and they will run out of beer in a month if something is not done

    • soddenleaf 1.2

      Arguably, Trumps withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights body is climate change related, as Human rights are the first to go in a crisis. Puerto Rico.

  2. Pat 2

    I suspect when the phrase ‘war on climate change’ is used it generally refers to the need (desire?) to apply the concerted effort of society in a single aim…as in a war footing.

    If that were to be the case then those acting against the effort would be expected to be treated as ‘traitors’ and all the resources of the community would be directed by a war cabinet.

    I note that the term ‘Marshall Plan’ is also used in this context…..a post war rebuild effort that applied considerable financial resources and expertise without traditional commercial (or economic) consideration.

    Maybe the war analogy could be applicable.

    • marty mars 2.1

      Yes – it denotes a full on, across the board, coordinated effort by all aspects of society. I don’t see it as bombing nature lol – the disconnect in fighting nature is the cause of all the problems imo.

  3. DB 3

    There is a grand carbon sucking technology known as trees. The carbon captured in said trees can stand for centuries au naturel, or utilised in buildings, biochar and other forms of recalcitrant carbon so as to sequester it while maintaining product streams (soil conditioners, biofuels, fruits, nuts, timber). Moving away from plastics, plant based products should be brought to the fore in industry and R&D.

    A permaculture garden will provide many benefits to personal users and also the planet. Food, fuels, medicines, value added products, biodiversity, resilience. Good design with climate change in mind will see many through times they may otherwise go hungry in. A simple food hedge could make all the difference. If everyone had one and diversified across a community, it’d make a vast difference.

    This is what we can do, personally. Opt out of big ag and big oil as much as possible. Yes it’s a transition but get on with it. Many constrained by budget would happily drive electric and power up with solar if they had the option. Likewise they’d eat food grown with ethical and ecological considerations. Here govt could stop pandering to exploiters and supplement innovators. While as previously stated, individuals can get out in the dirt and plant useful plants. Start learning how if that’s what you need.

    Also, have not seen the figures for the carbon that would be captured if we were to attempt to replace the topsoil lost to destructive agricultural practises through intelligent landscaping and plantings. This could be a total game changer.

    Be nice to have the planet on board. But folks will move when their ass is on fire. Avoiding panic requires having a feasible plan. Massive change is now inevitable.

    • Bill 3.1

      All else being equal, the planet has had a more or less net neutral carbon cycle.

      There have been times when it has been slightly net negative, and the world has cooled gradually over a long period as a result, and similarly, there have been times when it has been slightly net positive and the world has warmed over long time periods.

      The exception has been when carbon from outside the normal cycle has come into the picture. In previous times, that carbon has come from basaltic flows (eg – the Siberian traps) that over thousands of years have raised CO2 concentrations, and the world has warmed due to natural processes being overwhelmed, resulting in extinctions of various magnitudes.

      Apparently the atmospheric concentration of CO2 that accompanied the five great extinctions that have been identified was in the order of 1000ppm. That doesn’t necessarily mean that 1000ppm initiated those extinctions – but rather was the concentration that persisted while those extinctions unfolded.

      We’re currently just under half way to 1000ppm and we’re pouring carbon from outside the “natural scheme of things” into the mix far faster than from any basaltic flow in the past.

      My point is, that acting as a guardian for the land and doing all the good stuff you mention, while good in and of itself and something to be encouraged, simply doesn’t address the heart of the problem and can’t provide a solution. There is no “game changer” residing in natural processes that are over-burdened.

    • lprent 3.2

      Speaking as someone who did his first degree in earth sciences, trees and all plant life is a completely useless carbon store.

      You simply can’t get enough biomass to compensate for the volumes of fossil carbon already present in the oceans.

      Even a second thought would make that clear. We are talking about the release of many millions, even hundreds of millions of years of sequestered fossil carbon. Trying to cram that into plants in ten present day is like trying to cram the contents of a business skyscraper into a backpack.

      Not only that, but the plant life in the form you are describing is transitory in time. It recirculates back into the atmosphere of oceans within mere decades of centuries. More likely is that it won’t even last that long. It will probably get cut down, burnt, or eaten by bugs or fungi within mere years.

      It simply doesn’t sequester the excess carbon and is therefore completely useless unless you can put the carbon out of reach or usefullness.

      It may help if you feel like hugging trees or are simply after food production But it is completely useless for limiting the human induced climate change which has already been created.

      FFS: could people please get off the arses and learn some basic science so we don’t have to keep repeating the basic problems?

      • Draco T Bastard 3.2.1

        FFS: could people please get off the arses and learn some basic science so we don’t have to keep repeating the basic problems?


      • DB 3.2.2

        Pretty kneejerk there, went on a rant and did not read mine. I talked about sequestering carbon in recalcitrant forms, not as compostables. I’m happy for your degree I’ve a few of my own.

        In addition to carbon sequestration, the act of sustainable gardening starts to deny income to big polluters. All that transport, marketing, packaging/waste. Individuals can make things change, get started.

        When buying, vote with your dollars (and time) for business that gives a shit whenever possible.

        Yes things are beyond tipping point in many areas in that we will require decades to begin to repair some things, and perhaps never for others. Throwing your hands up in the air is not helping, no matter how educated you think you are. There’s issues with oceanic calcium, atmospheric nitrogen, supply of phosphate… we better learn to garden like champs, and fungi will be required.

        If there is a war, you’re flying a white flag. Screw that. We need resilient systems now, as I’ve tried to outline. We need to change how and where we build and grow and learn to bloody work together instead of some more fatalistic wank about how bad it is.

        We know.

        Bill is posting to promote awareness, you are saying:

        “trees and all plant life are a completely useless carbon store”

        Rubbish. Trees will not undo all the damage, they are going to help. They’ll also mitigate local climate conditions e.g. cooler in summer warmer in winter or did you get your degree from a weetbix packet?

        “Even a second thought would make that clear”

        Still waiting on that.

  4. Gosman 4

    Hypothetical question for you Bill.

    If it was shown that commercial scale Carbon extraction and sequestration was feasible, practical, and effective would you accept that we can continue to use carbon intensive energy sources (admittedly with efforts to reduce usage and find alternatives)?

    • Bill 4.1

      If ‘ifs’and ands’ Gosman…

      The fact of the matter is that carbon extraction at scale hasn’t been developed and the logistics involved, assuming it can be made to work, are so “out there” (hundreds of billions of tonnes), that any sensible approach would look upon it as a tenuous “maybe” and not, as politicians and policy makers do, embed it in future scenarios as a given.

      This linked post ran through the current state of affairs on the carbon capture front.

    • lprent 4.2

      More importantly I don’t see ANY technologies being developed that have a shit show of keeping up with current use. The scaling of any of the systems being developed for either extraction or sequestration simply don’t make any sense.

      They aren’t in any form economic compared to the cost of simply stopping using fossil carbon as fuel. And I see no way that they ever will be.

      What they are good at is extracting R&D money. Should continue to be supported.

      But after 30 years of observing them I have concluded it is like commercial fusion energy. A useless dream always receding into the future. High rewards of if could be cracked.

      But only an idiot would plan on it being available when required.

      Please check your mirror.

      • Gosman 4.2.1

        Except it hasn’t been very easy to stop using Fossil carbon otherwise we would have done it already.

        • Bill

          It’s very easy.

          All that’s required is the monumental effort involved in not doing something. That is – somewhat facetiously – just sit back and don’t participate in activities that involve the burning of fossil.

          How hard do you reckon that to be?

          The problem doesn’t lie in some natural and irresistible urge to spark and burn fossil fuels, but in economics, politics and imagination.

          Stopping fossil tanks the economy we have, and that makes it politically unpalatable – even though holding onto our economy will (at the very least) result in the end of a globally integrated expression of human civilisation.

          The imagination (or lack thereof) comes in envisaging new ways to do those things that are worthwhile holding onto.

          • Gosman

            That’s your issue Bill. You are not yet able to even convince a significant section of society to voluntarily stop using fossil fuel even though the majority of people (at least in places like NZ) agree they should do something. That to me suggests you need to revisit the approach to getting action (or inaction).

            • Bill

              The “not fit for purpose” state of our economy, and the politics that are hedged around the economy are your problem and everyone’s problem, insofar as AGW is everyone’s problem.

              That’s the first point.

              The second is this notion your peddling again about “voluntary” cessation of fossil use. Went through this one with you very recently. The capitalist economy controls all resources, access to resources, and maintains the ability to enforce particular rules around their use.

              So there are plenty of people who I suspect would stop supporting the burning of fossil at the proverbial drop of a hat. But that introduces us to the ubiquity of our politics and economy.

              You see the necessary process yet?

              First comes the psychological break, such that (as I hear happened in the USSR) people stop with the abeyance. There, swelling numbers of people, apparently characterised or exhibited the discovery of their new found psychological space, at least in part, by routinely staring down known KGB personnel and/or giving the finger to passing KGB vehicles.

              The point is, there is no reason as to why currently acceptable expressions of authority will always be respected, and no need for force or violence to bring about a healthy culture of disrespect and autonomy.

              It’s all just a matter of belief and attitude.

              Then the difficult stuff can get tackled.

              • Gosman

                I disagree with your premise “The capitalist economy controls all resources, access to resources, and maintains the ability to enforce particular rules around their use.”

                To me that is just a poor excuse for not being able to convince people to do something different.

                Care to explain exactly why you can’t get large groups of people living carbon free lifestyles? That was the point of transition towns for example?

                You can quite easily get together and buy land to set up your new society and start doing the things you are very good at writing about.

                • Bill

                  You’re genuinely this thick?

                  Okay. Take 20 people. Imagine they constitute a broadly cohesive social group that possesses a fairly wide range of practical skills.

                  a) But they have no cash and no assets.

                  What land is this they are going to live on? Notions of private property rights kills their project dead before it starts.

                  b)Maybe they have enough for a deposit.

                  How do they service the loan without entering into the world of market relations – ie, earning income to pay the loan. Notions of private property rights empower the bank to repossess if payments aren’t met.

                  c) Maybe they have enough collective assets to ‘cash in’ and buy land up-front.

                  What do they do for ongoing costs such as erecting structures, building maintenance, or to manage general, every day regular costs without entering into the world of market relations? Most materials and services they’d probably need are accessible only by acquiescing to market norms.

                  And just to note. As per my previous post that I know you read, that market and ‘everything’ in it is figuratively and literally run on fossil.

                  • Gosman

                    All excuses for inaction Bill.

                    There are huge numbers of people who are wanting action on Climate change. Many of these people are very wealthy indeed. If your ideas have merit then it should be easy enough to get them to commit their capital and effort to a non-governmental solution.

        • Draco T Bastard

          Actually – it’s very easy. All that needs to be done is the banning of fossil fuels.


          From that comes the massive effort needed to install the replacements that we already have.

          The oil companies will go bust but that’s capitalism for you. They’ve known for decades that digging up fossil fuels was going to come to an end so they can’t say that they didn’t see it coming. They did – they just didn’t plan for it.

      • DB 4.2.2

        Speaking of idiots. The carbon content of a tree is around 50%. To capture billions of tons of carbon you bang on about like you’re the authority on everything would simply take a few billion trees.

        Trees, you know, where the fossil carbon came from in the first place.

        You are a moron and if you insult and belittle me without reading again, meanwhile making everything seem hopeless because you are, I will dissect everything you have to say with a fine tooth comb.

        You fucking fraud. Turning the climate change debate into a one side alarmist hopeless monologue to suit your purpose.

        Another prick who wants to tear society apart cos they’re ‘not happy’ so are prepared to lie and cheat their way into the publics hearts and minds just like the people opposed.

        Don’t swallow this idiots shit. You can change the world.

    • AB 4.3

      Gosman is hinting that even if there was a technically feasible means of removing sufficient carbon, Bill wouldn’t be interested. And why? Well the insinuation is that Bill’s ‘real’ agenda is not actually stopping climate change, the but overthrow of the current economic system. It’s just a more delicately expressed version of the: “climate change is a socialist hoax” rhetoric.

      Whereas the reality is actually the opposite – Gosman won’t accept the need to address climate change, because he knows that the probable solutions (collective action, self-sacrifice, sharing what wealth remains) are a dagger to the heart of the current economic system.

      This political impasse is why humans won’t do anything about CC until it is too late.

      • Gosman 4.3.1

        Quite possibly accurate. Therefore you have to ask yourself whether you have to force a revolution before people can address Climate change.

        • Bill

          Why force what you just have? (I thought you were against coercion anyway?)

          • Gosman

            I personally don’t agree with the approach in question. I’m just following AB’s argument to it’s logical conclusion.

            • Bill

              The only approach brought up, was the approach brought up by you (force).

              • Gosman

                I disagree. AB’s issue with me is that AB thinks people like me are anti-action on climate change because we think there is a hidden agenda behind it which is to overthrow the current economic paradigm. AB then goes on to state that these supposed concerns are real as that is the only effective way to tackle climate change. This tends to suggest the only way to counter such resistance quickly would to be remove people who think like myself from a position of influence in the political process. The quickest way to do this would be via something like a revolution. Anything else will take a long time to achieve.

                • Draco T Bastard

                  people like me are anti-action on climate change

                  You are as people like you refuse to accept the fact that part of the action needed is the removal of capitalism.

                  • Gosman


                    • DB

                      These clowns think tearing it all up is somehow going to, when the dust settles, ‘clear the air’.

                      Anyone who thinks solutions are impossible is a dangerous nutjob gunning for revolution. Make us all think we’ve nothing to lose, and then carte blanche.

                      Climate change and it’s implications are very dire. Tearing society apart as it goes on, great fucking plan. This is the state of emergency in which we are meant to work together on solutions. But not if you pretend it’s all hopeless, right guys.

                      The more I hear the left wing act like pricks towards everyone but their own yes men, the more I am attracted to the right. (not really, but moving away from expecting anything bar shouting from the left).

                    • Gosman

                      You raise a very good point DB. The proposed solutions by some here are so radical that they turn off moderates such as your good self. The fact they won’t even countenance solutions that don’t involve ditching the current political-economic paradigm means they are unlikely to win support for their more reasonable ideas.

  5. Stuart Munro 5

    The other side of the carbon equation is also a cause for concern. Direct health impacts of pollution are much greater than previously supposed: https://www.thelancet.com/commissions/pollution-and-health

  6. Pat 6

    the outlook dosnt improve…


    aside from the ice/sea level implications ,what of the tectonic ….increased earthquake/volcanic activity to complicate matters further?

    • lprent 6.1

      You are thinking about rebound and compression effects?

      Simply not worth worrying about compared to the ongoing effects of continental and seafloor drift.

      • Pat 6.1.1

        I am thinking of those…..seems im not alone in thinking such.

        “Scientists have also found a link between deglaciation and outflows of magma from the Earth, although they’re not sure why one causes the other. In the past five years, Iceland has suffered three major volcanic eruptions, which is unusual for the area. Some studies suggest that the weight of the glaciers suppressed volcanic activity and the recent melting is 20-30 times more likely to trigger volcanic eruptions in places like Iceland and Greenland.”


        • lprent

          It depends on your perspective I guess. Mine tends to look at levels of significance rather than simple awe at something I’ve looked at for a long time instead of just watching images on the discovery channel.

          The Icelandic eruptions aren’t major eruptions. They are very minor ones by any reasonable measure unless you happen to be within 10-20km of them.

          They were all basaltic. They don’t significantly out-gas, don’t toss too much ash, and are geographically limited.

          They, like the current eruptions on Hawaii, are caused by a plume of magma welling up from the mantle. They can be dangerous, but only after the plume stays in place upwelling over millions of years – ie the Deccan Traps or the Siberian Traps which were just those kinds of large scale events.

          For perspective look at the volcanic timeline in the last couple of thousand years (plus Yellowstone and a couple of other major eruptions as a comparison). In fact that map is so nice, I’m adding it in.

          Clickable imagemap of notable volcanic eruptions. The apparent volume of each bubble is linearly proportional to the volume of tephra ejected, colour-coded by time of eruption as in the legend. Pink lines denote convergent boundaries, blue lines denote divergent boundaries and yellow spots denote hotspots.

          Yellowstone, Taupo, and Toba were major eruptions. Krakatoa and Mt St Helens were significiant eruptions – as in they cooled the earth and had large regional effects.

          These kinds of eruptions are pretty much all on the leading edge of subduction zones, or just behind it. They were all rhyolitic eruptions. And they have significiant effects in the short term – ie over decades.

          They also aren’t close to any glacier zones.

          Basalt plumes in Iceland or Hawaii or Rangitoto simply don’t rate as “major” at a climatic level. They also don’t rate at a local level except for frying the occasional idiotic sight seer and anyone who isn’t interested in moving 10-20km away..

          BTW: Neither the ice mass areas of Antarctica nor Greenland (the only significiant ice mass areas) are on any known significiant active subduction zones. Arctic ice outside of Greenland is either sea ice (irrelevant for rebound) or limited glaciers (have very limited and localised rebound effects).

          Here endth the basic science primer.

  7. simbit 7

    Currently at UN conf on disaster risk reduction. West Indian speaker, an engineer, noted concrete manufacturing responsible for 4% of CO2 production, same as civil aviation.

    • Andre 7.1

      CO2 emissions from concrete production are about half from the fossil fuels burned for process heat, and about half from the chemical changes during the calcination process to produce cement.

      Technically it’s entirely feasible for the process heat to come from renewables, it’s just a lot cheaper to use fossil fuels where there’s no cost to dumping the waste in the atmosphere.

      A significant proportion of the CO2 emitted during calcination actually gets reabsorbed back into the finished concrete product over its lifetime.

      If anyone comes up with a viable CO2 capture (which would be really easy for cement production since it’s emitted in an enclosed area) and storage (hmm, not so easy …) scheme, and the cement kilns change to heat from renewables, then concrete production has the potential to go from being a large emitter to a small net absorber of CO2.

  8. Jenny 8

    It seems to me (and I’m pretty sure that if nature and physics had a mind, they’d agree) that these are insane times being buoyed along by dull lunatics who, one way or another, need to be either divested of their power and leadership, or shaken awake from their delusions. There’s a war we need to recognise and engage in.


    Couldn’t agree more.

    It’s how we go about that is a matter of debate.

    I’m not anti-semantic, I love words

    Is calling for a war on climate change the right way to go?

    “We Need to Literally Declare War on Climate Change”
    “We’re under attack from climate change—and our only hope is to mobilize like we did in WWII.”
    Bill McKibben – August 15, 2016

    It’s not that global warming is like a world war. It is a world war. And we are losing.

    We’re used to war as metaphor: the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on cancer. Usually this is just a rhetorical device, a way of saying, “We need to focus our attention and marshal our forces to fix something we don’t like.” But this is no metaphor. By most of the ways we measure wars, climate change is the real deal: Carbon and methane are seizing physical territory, sowing havoc and panic, racking up casualties, and even destabilizing governments.


    Related posts and comments:


    New Zealand becomes the first country in the world to go on a war footing against climate change

    When you discuss ‘beating’ climate change what do you mean exactly? What is the definition of a victory?

    Victory = survival

    The species you save could be your own

    The question is not, are we in a world war? The question is, will we fight back? And if we do, can we actually defeat an enemy as powerful and inexorable as the laws of physics?

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