One interesting conversation I had at SciBarCamp was on how to get science fiction writers talking more to climate scientists, so they can take the latest science and turn it into compelling stories. The idea would be to tell it like it is. Instead of techno-optimizism or space opera, stories set in the current century that explain what the climate crisis will really do to us.

Several people talked about the need for some more positive visions, rather than the apocalyptic stuff. So, how about a set of stories from the latter half of the 21st Century, set in the world in which we won the battle. We made it to a completely carbon-neutral world. There were heroic efforts along the way by colourful individuals. There were political battles, and maybe a few bloody revolutions. But we avoided burning the trillionth tonne. The world is a little warmer, and we lost a few coastlines, but we avoided the critical thresholds that trigger runaway warming. I’d like to read stories about how we made it.

Maybe a volume of short stories?

Chris Jones, from the UK Met Office Hadley Centre, presented a paper at EGU 2009 yesterday on The Trillionth Tonne. The analysis shows that the key driver of temperature change is the total cumulative amount of carbon emissions. To keep below the 2°C global average temperature rise generally regarded as the threshold for preventing dangerous warming, we need to keep total cumulative emissions below a trillion tonnes. And the world is already halfway there.

Which is why the latest news about Canada’s carbon emissions are so embarrassing. Canada is now top among the G8 nations for emissions growth. Let’s look at the numbers: 747 megatonnes in 2007, up from 592 megatonnes in 1990. Using the figures in the Environment Canada report, I calculated the Canada has emitted over 12 gigatonnes since 1990. That’s 12 billion tonnes. So, in 17 years we burnt though more than 1.2% of the entire world’s total budget of carbon emissions. A total budget that has to last from the dawn of industrialization to the point at which the whole world become carbon-neutral. Oh, and Canada has 0.5% of the world’s population.

Disclaimer: I have to check whether the Hadley Centre’s target is 1 trillion tonnes of CO2-equivalent, or 1 trillion tonnes of Carbon (they are different!). The EnvCanada report numbers refer to the former.

Update: I checked with Chris, and as I feared, I got the wrong units – it’s a trillion tonnes of carbon. The conversion factor is about 3.66, so that gives us about 3.66 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide to play with. [Note: Emissions targets are usually phrased in terms of “Carbon dioxide equivalent”, which is a bit hard to calculate as different greenhouse gases have both different molecular weights and different warming factors].

So my revised figures are that Canada burnt through only about 0.33% of the world’s total budget in the last 17 years. Which looks a little better, until you consider:

  • by population, that’s 2/3 of Canada’s entire share. 
  • Using the cumulative totals from 1900-2002. plus the figures for the more recent years from the Environment Canada report (and assuming 2008 was similar to 2007) we’ve emitted 27 gigatonnes of CO2 since 1900. Which is about 0.73% of the world’s budget, or about 147% of our fair share per head. 
  • By population, our fair share of the world’s budget is about 18 gigatonnes CO2 (=5 gigatonnes Carbon). We’d burnt through that by 1997. Everything since then is someone else’s share.

Here’s a challenge for the requirements modelling experts. I’ve phrased it as an exam question for my graduate course on requirements engineering (the course is on hiatus, which is lucky, because it would be a long exam…):

Q: The governments of all the nations on a small blue planet want to fix a problem with the way their reliance on fossil fuels is altering the planet’s climate. Draw a goal model (using any appropriate goal modeling notation) showing the key stakeholders, their interdependencies, and their goals. Be sure to show how the set of solutions they are considering contribute to satisfying their goals. The attached documents may be useful in answering this question: (a) A outline of the top level goals; (b) A description of the available solutions, characterized as a set of Stabilization Wedges; (c) A domain expert’s view of the feasbility of the solutions.

Update: Someone’s done the initial identification of actors already.

Many years ago, Dave Parnas wrote a fascinating essay on software aging, in which he compares old software with old people, pointing out that software gets frail, less able to do things than when it was young, and gets more prone to disease and obesity (actually, I can’t remember whether he mentioned obesity, but you get the idea – software bloat). At some point we’re better off retiring the old system rather than trying to keep updating it.
Well, this quote by Thomas Friedman that showed up on Gristmill over the weekend made me think more about how our entire economic system is in the same boat. We’ve got to the point where we can’t patch it any longer without just making it worse. Is it time for industrialization 2.0? Or maybe it should be globalization 2.0?
The question is, do any of our political leaders understand this? No sign of any enlightenment in Canada’ House of Commons, I’m afraid.