Global Warming/Climate Change

Not Even Wrong

We need a radical new approach to cutting greenhouse gases, and it might have arrived.

by George Monbiot: journalist, author, academic and environmental and political activist, United Kingdom

At least – until a few months ago – government targets for cutting greenhouse gases had the virtue of being wrong. They were the wrong targets, by the wrong dates, and they bore no relationship to the stated aim of preventing more than two degrees of global warming. But they used a methodology which even their sternest critics (myself included) believed could be improved until it delivered the right results: the cuts merely needed to be raised and accelerated.

Three papers released earlier this year changed all that. The first one, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in February, set the scene(1). It showed that the climate change we cause today “is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop”. Around 40% of the carbon dioxide produced by humans this century will remain in the atmosphere until at least the year 3000*. Moreover, thanks to the peculiar ways in which the oceans absorb heat from the atmosphere, global average temperatures are likely to “remain approximately constant … until the end of the millennium despite zero further emissions”.

In other words, governments’ hopes about the trajectory of temperature change are ill-founded. Most, including the UK’s, are working on the assumption that we can overshoot the desired targets for temperature and atmospheric concentrations of CO2, then watch them settle back later. What this paper shows is that wherever temperatures peak, that is more or less where they will stay. There is no going back.

The other two papers were published by Nature in April. While governments and the United Nations set targets for cuts by a certain date, these papers measured something quite different: the total volume of carbon dioxide we can produce and still stand a good chance of avoiding more than two degrees of warming. One paper, by a team led by Myles Allen, shows that preventing more than two degrees means producing a maximum of half a trillion tonnes of carbon (1830 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide) between now and 2500 – and probably much less(2). The other paper, written by a team led by Malte Meinshausen, proposes that producing 1000 billion tonnes of CO2 between 2000 and 2050 would deliver a 25% chance of exceeding two degrees of warming(3).

Writing elsewhere, the two teams gave us an idea of what this means. At current rates of use, we will burn the ration that Allen set aside for the next 500 years in four decades(4). Meinshausen’s carbon budget between now and 2050 will have been exhausted before 2030(5).

There’s another way of expressing these limits. The World Energy Council (WEC) publishes figures for global reserves of fossil fuels(6). A reserve means the minerals that have been identified, quantified and are cost-effective to exploit; in other words those that are more or less ready to be extracted. (The total amount of a mineral found in the earth’s crust is called the resource). The WEC says that 848 billion tonnes of coal(7), 177,000 billion cubic metres of natural gas(8) and 162 billion tonnes of crude oil(9) are good to go. We know roughly how much carbon a tonne of coal, a cubic metre of gas and a barrel of oil contain. You can see the calculations and references at the bottom of this article: the result suggests that official reserves of coal, gas and oil amount to 818 billion tonnes of carbon.

The molecular weight of carbon dioxide is 3.667 times that of carbon. This means that current reserves of fossil fuel, even when we ignore unconventional sources such as tar sands and oil shale, would produce 3000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide if they were burnt. In other words, if we don’t want to exceed two degrees of global warming, we can burn, according to Allen’s paper, a maximum of 60% of current fossil fuel reserves by 2500(10). Meinshausen says we’ve already used one third of his 2050 budget since 2000(11), which suggests that we can afford to burn only 22% of current reserves between now and 2050(12). If you counted unconventional sources (the carbon content is much harder to calculate), the proportion would be even smaller.

There are some obvious conclusions from these three papers. The trajectory of cuts is more important than the final destination. An 80% cut by 2050, for example, could produce very different outcomes. If most of the cut were made towards the beginning of the period, the total emissions entering the atmosphere would be much smaller than if most of the cut were made at the end of the period. The measure that counts is the peak atmospheric concentration. This must be as low as possible and come as soon as possible, which means making most of the reductions right now. Ensuring that we don’t exceed the cumulative emissions discussed in the Nature papers means setting an absolute limit to the amount of fossil fuel we can burn, which, as my rough sums show, is likely to be much smaller than the reserves already identified. It means a global moratorium on prospecting and developing new fields.

None of this is currently on the table. The targets and methodology being used by governments and the United Nations – which will form the basis for their negotiations at Copenhagen – are not even wrong; they are irrelevant. Unless there is a radical change of plan between now and December, world leaders will not only be discussing the alignment of deckchairs on the Titanic, but hotly disputing whose deckchairs they really are and who has the responsibility for moving them. Fascinating as this argument may be, it does nothing to alter the course of the liner.

But someone, at least, does have a radical new plan. This afternoon the team that made the film The Age of Stupid is launching the 10:10 campaign: which aims for a 10% cut in the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions during 2010. This seems to be roughly the trajectory needed to deliver a good chance of averting two degrees of warming. By encouraging people and businesses and institutions to sign up, the campaign hopes to shame the UK government into adopting this as its national target. This would give the government the moral leverage to demand immediate sharp cuts from other nations, based on current science rather than political convenience.

I don’t agree with everything the campaign proposes. It allows businesses to claim reductions in carbon intensity as if they were real cuts: in other words they can measure their reductions relative to turnover rather than in absolute terms. There’s an uncomfortable precedent for this: cutting carbon intensity was George Bush’s proposal for tackling climate change. As economic growth is the major cause of rising emissions, this looks like a cop-out. The cuts will not be independently audited, which might undermine their credibility with the government.

But these are quibbles. 10:10 is the best shot we have left. It might not be enough, it might not work; but at least it’s relevant. I take the pledge. Will you?


1. Susan Solomon, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti, and Pierre Friedlingstein, 10th February 2009.
Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions. PNAS, vol. 106, no. 6, pp1704–1709.
Doi: 10.1073/pnas.0812721106.

2. Myles R. Allen et al, 30th April 2009. Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions
towards the trillionth tonne. Nature 458. doi:10.1038/nature08019.

3. Malte Meinshausen et al, 30th April 2009. Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 °C. Nature 458, 1158-1162. doi:10.1038/nature08017.

4. Myles Allen et al, 30th April 2009. The exit strategy: Emissions targets must be placed in the context of a cumulative carbon budget if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. Nature

5. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, 30th April 2009. On the way to phasing out emissions: More than 50% reductions needed by 2050 to respect 2°C climate target.





10. On average, one tonne of coal contains 746 kg carbon –

One cubic metre of natural gas contains 0.49 kg carbon –

The figure for oil is less certain, because not all of its refinery products are burnt. But the rough calculation here suggests that the use of a barrel of oil releases 317kg of CO2 – There are roughly 7 barrels to the tonne, giving an approximation of 2219kg CO2, or 605kg of carbon.

So the carbon content of official known reserves of coal, gas and oil amounts to:

848 x 0.746 = 633
177,000 x 0.00049 = 87
162 x 0.605 = 98

Total conventional fossil fuel reserves therefore contain 818 billion tonnes of carbon.

11. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, ibid.

12. 667/3000.


  1. The whole question of CO2 residence time is strongly contested. Just because one scientist says a thousand years does not make it so.

    Peer Reviewed Paper: Residence Time Of CO2 Is About 5 Years
    5 Aug 2009

    In a paper recently published in the international peer-reviewed journal Energy & Fuels, Dr. Robert H. Essenhigh (2009), Professor of Energy Conversion at The Ohio State University, addresses the residence time (RT) of anthropogenic CO2 in the air.

    He finds that the RT for bulk atmospheric CO2, the molecule 12CO2, is about 5 years, in good agreement with other cited sources (Segalstad, 1998), while the RT for the trace molecule 14CO2 is about 16 years.

    There is dissent so there is no consensus.

    The Meinshausen paper is not transparent in that he does not disclose conflict of interest. Whilst based at Potsdam he is now part of a new “not for profit”, Climate Analytics, in receipt of German Government funds. He has also been a climate activist for a number of years, with Greenpeace, WWF and the Climate Action Network. Last modified: Monday, 01-Dec-2008. “I now work on the issue of climate policy at the UN Climate Change Conferences for Greenpeace International.”

    His co-author and Climate Analytics founder, Bill Hare, even as late as August 2008, was still described by the Greenpeace web site as Director of Climate Policy at Greenpeace International. “Too much time is being wasted arguing about procedural details and restating historical positions and not enough real substance is being put on the table,”said Bill Hare, Director of Climate Policy at Greenpeace International.

    There was no disclosure of Hare’s other activities in the Nature paper either.

  2. Hello George,

    If we stand back and examine the source of the figures, statistics and theories, we can see that it is all based on assumption. No really indisputable facts are available of any detailed nature.

    However those like yourself who have thought about this global or larger topic will have realized long ago that it is man’s goal to align with nature and eventually with whatever supreme power created it.
    Anyone doing anything harmful to nature is extremely short sighted.

    Best regards


  3. Classic misdirection, in the same vein as the fable of Climate Change itself. Present a hypothesis, quickly briefly, and as if it were fact, then steer the discussion into one small subset of the details. Never make it about the underlying ‘facts’ themselves. Use this second story as the shield. Make the debate about the subplot, leaving the flawed central premise unscathed. Harbinger took the bait.

    CO2 is much heavier than carbon, or oxygen, or nitrogen. So the idea that it is rising, filling the troposphere and increasing solar irradiance defies every established scientific principle from gravity to the ideal gas law.

    CO2 also has a higher HEAT CAPACITY than carbon, or our standard atmosphere (which naturally includes CO2). So it can absorb more heat without a corresponding increase in temperature. So the fundamental statement that putting more CO2 into the air will incrase temperatures is WRONG.

    How this house of cards has managed to stand for so long on a foundation that only exists in mixed words is beyond me. But careful, manipulative tactics like this flawed argument is one reason…

  4. S. Fred Singer’s book “Unstopppable Global Warming” has maybe a dozen references that claim the “life” of CO2 in the atmosphere is from 4 to 8 years. 5 years may be about the average.

    It seems like an arcane detail, but the implications are profound.
    If the 5 year no. is correct, maybe we should just burn coal.

  5. absolute rubbish. our earth has had co2 levels MANY TIMES HIGHER than now and yet miraculously has not self combusted. instead, during some of these “dangerously high” co2 levels, the earth actually cooled. if the anthropogenic global warming crowd were correct about co2 and feedback, life as we know it could have never evolved on this planet. back to the drawing board again guys, this time get it right.

  6. There is a simple way to tell the difference between a scientist and a propagandist. If a scientist has a theory, he searches diligently for data that might contradict his theory so that he can test it further or refine it. If a propagandist has a theory, he searches carefully for only the data (or computer models) that might support his theory and diligently ignores any data that contradicts it.
    By his biased selection of data and his preference for half-baked computer models over real data, it is quite clear that Mr. Monbiot is a propagandist. Direct measurements clearly show that atmospheric CO2 has a lifetime of at most five years before it is recycled in the oceans.

  7. I don’t usually respond to fanatics as it just encourages them. However, inspired by the good sense of the comments so far, I will add my tuppence worth. No, George, I will not be taking the 10:10 pledge – I think it is both silly and irrelevant to the climate. I think you need to calm down, and find more productive uses for your polemical skills.

  8. There are plenty of good reasons to have a food garden without getting involved in the politics of ‘climate change’. Fresh, healthy, loving food and water. More free time. Peace, prosperity, freedom and a loving home ideal for children. Strong communities, pull the rug out from the corporations like Monsanto, big pharma etc.

  9. A simple back of the envelope calculation reveals CO2 lifetime in the atmosphere is about 7 years, probably less. Take the -slope of Mauna Loa monthly data at its steepest, and this will give you the MINIMUM absorption rate. Take the volume of atmosphere, multiply by 382PPM, and you can derive the natural exchange of CO2. It works out to a time-constant of around 7 years, but many studies show rates faster than that. The idea that CO2 will remain elevated for 1000 years has been smacked down so many times it isn’t even funny. There are a multitude of processes in effect, all with different time constants (some very long), but the net effect is 4 to 8 years. Anything beyond those limits should be studied carefully because there is, without a doubt, an error in the calculation.

  10. Concerning this “anthropogenic global warming (AGW) debate”, there is an important subtle point that is — as it seems — often missed.

    There are those who claim that “AGW is a religion” (or rather – this is not how it is worded, but more appropriately describes that position as it is held by most of its advocates: “a superstition”).

    And there are those who claim that the most important problem we are facing with respect to climate change actually is denial.

    So much about this. But now it really gets interesting. Among the “AGW is a religion” crowd, there are some who have concerns about whether quite some of those who by now consider AGW an extremely serious problem have started to adopt an attitude of “no observation ever could make me modify my views”.
    And I think there is (as always) quite some validity to that particular question, for something like that all too easily happens, regardless of what the concept in question is. We keep on seeing something like that time and again with all sorts of things related to nutrition, say – i.e. the emergence of “religious followers of the one and only proper diet”. And this always is an extremely worrying trend.

    But then, there are also many (I’d say: quite some majority) amongst the “AGW is a religion” folks who actually adhere to a thought that is very different from that articulated credo. And this is: “AGW is not real”. And that is a very interesting and relevant discrepancy: On the one hand, claiming to claim that “The acceptance of the concept of AGW is a superstition”, while actually claiming that “AGW is not real”. Now, it is easy to adopt the self-image of someone who adheres to a general attitude of scientific skepticism and pose a challenge to the proponents of the AGW idea along the lines of “tell me about conceivable observations that would make you abandon the idea of AGW”. But the fundamental discrepancy between what is claimed and what is claimed to be claimed then invites the equally interesting counter-challenge: “tell me about conveivable observations that would make you accept the idea that AGW is real”.

    And a fundamental problem here is: In some disciplines of science, we can do reproducible lab experiments, and there also is science which has to live with observations of systems that cannot be set up in specific configurations over and over again. It would be great to study star formation through laboratory experiments, but alas, all we have is measurements of “accidental” occurrences of such processes in nature, as well as computer simulations. By and large – that’s just how it is with astronomy. Nevertheless, astronomy is a valid science. The situation with climate science is, of course, pretty much the same, for obvious reasons. We don’t have much more than “recorded history”, in some form, plus some measurements of basic physical effects, such as absorption spectra, to base our reasoning on. This just makes one issue a bit more relevant: in the end, there always is some element of judgment involved. If there are 1000 “well-established” physical effects which are supported by experimental data at the 3-sigma-level, and all that work was done with utmost scientific diligence, would I be compelled to believe all of them to be valid? 3-sigma usually is (by consensus) considered to be the level of experimental evidence where one would normally consider the effect as valid. But that’s just a 99.7% certainty, so I should rather expect – on the average – about 3 of 1000 such effects to be bogus. When we cannot set up the experiment, and have to live with limited data, the situation immediately becomes even much more tricky to deal with. That situation is somewhat common in medicine, where you don’t encounter the same exceptional disease in thousands of patients, and may be constrained in your ability to do experiments by ethical considerations. (Guess why there is so little data on the effect of many drugs during pregnancies?) So, essentially, the question “whether the reality of AGW can be proven” suffers from pretty much the same conceptual problems as the question whether “it can be proven that the HI virus is the cause of AIDS”. And actually, you would be very hard pressed to experimentally disprove an idea such as “all terminal illnesses can be cured by a consequent intake of constantly increasing doses of arsenic” – for, if the patient dies, I’ll just claim that this was because he received too little of it towards the end of the treatment.

    So, yes, whoever considers AGW to be a valid idea should better be able to give sound reasons. But likewise, whoever considers AGW to be unreal also should better be able to give some real reasons, rather than trying to mis-present the difficulty of “proving it beyond doubt” as a proof against it. The simple facts are: (*) At our distance from the sun, simple radiation equilibrium would lead to a much lower average global temperature than the observed one. (*) Trace gases in the atmosphere do contribute markedly to IR absorption and hence heat retention. (*) The amount of carbon we are pumping into the atmosphere is quite relevant in relation to the pre-industrial amount. Hence, while there certainly is quite some burden on climate models to demonstrate their validity, but this just as much holds for models that say “CO2 has no effect” as it does for models that say “It indeed does have quite some marked effect”.

    Now, concerning the particular issue of atmospheric carbon lifetime, it is important to discern two things here. If I take Brady&Weil’s soil science textbook as a reference, there are roughly 800 Gton of C in the atmosphere, and human activities (fossil fuel burning and humus oxidation) create about an extra 5 Gton imbalance that causes atmospheric C levels to rise. (The actual figure is a bit higher than 5 Gton, but for the sake of the argument, only rough orders of magnitude are relevant.) Now, concerning the claim of an atmospheric life-time of about 5 years for CO2, I assume this comes from the observation that there is a transport of CO2 of about 100 Gton/year from the atmosphere to the ocean, and also a transport of roughly the same magnitude in the opposite direction (i.e. a carbon exchange). We also have an exchange of roughly the same magnitude with vegetation, so about 200 Gton of C in the atmosphere get replaced by C from the ocean and flora and fauna every year. That would nicely account for these mentioned short-term lifetimes, and I think this is what some of the previous commenters were referring to. Now, the problem is: That is not the number that really matters here. I think I could sustain myself quite some time on a pound of chocolate a day. So, similarly, a carbon molecule in my body “on average” perhaps stays in there for something like half a year or so. (If I were a small bird, that time would be much shorter.) That may be an interesting number, but, I fear, it has very little relevance to a much more interesting question: How long would it take me to reduce my weight by 10 kilos (or – rather, in my particular case, to add 10 kilos to my weight)? That depends on entirely different factors, and, depending on circumstances, the answer may well be “three years”. It may also be “three weeks”. The one question has nothing to do whatsoever with the other.

    Concerning the comment on things such as the heat capacity of CO2, I think I can make the qualified comment that DubID seems to have not much of a clue concerning either gravity, or the ideal gas law, or equilibria. And concerning the issue of “much higher CO2 concentrations in the past”, I’d like to raise two questions: (a) How many watts/m^2 of shift in the radiation balance – roughly – are we actually talking about when we discuss global warming, and (b) how much does the solar constant change over, say, 10^9 years? (And, yes, I actually happen to be a physicist by training.)

  11. Just a comment on Fred Singer’s book “Unstoppable global warming”. It really pays to spend an hour or so to do a little bit of background research on “Fred Singer”.

  12. Monbiot and the retarded nature by which he conducts his polemical view of what is a wholly naturally cyclic phenomenon ensures that the history books will record him among many others as complete buffoons led by their noses by a political agenda that serves only big industry.
    I am heartened by many of the comments I have read here.

  13. Oh, my… I had no idea there were so many climate sceptics visiting this website :) The article about “irreversable” climate change due to CO2 emissions that George is refering to is available on-line, you can read it yourselves:

    The point that authors of this article try to make is that even though some CO2 will be quickly removed following the stop of human emissions, it does not mean that concentration of CO2 will quickly drop to the pre-industrial level. See the graph here:

    What is also important is that the oceans will slowly release accumulated heat not just over the years, but over the centuries, thus keeping global average temperature on the increased level.

  14. Hi Ed. Never fear. From my looking at the stats, these people all arrived via two dedicated climate denial websites (that I won’t link to, as I’m not interested to promote them). One of the gang has obviously discovered the post, and has then sent his mates around as well to gatecrash the party. The incoming visits are mostly to this post address with /#comments on the end of the link – which means they’re a rent-a-crowd type group following a link provided by one of their own, by someone directing people directly to his comment rather than to the post itself.

    Think of it as a dark cloud passing by. It will pass.

    I had enough of battling denialists on a previous site I was editing. For me, it’s a meaningless argument (to some extent) as all the other issues we face (soil and water depletion and contamination, peak energy issues, pollution, economic catastrophe, population growth, etc. etc.) all share the same solutions that would also solve climate change. Deny climate change if you want, but do recognise that it matters not – the same solutions need to be applied, and NOW, regardless. If someone denies all these other issues as well, or makes light of their significance, then their agenda is clear – keeping the status quo at all costs.

  15. When reading through these denialists comments I had the impression they were all written by the same person.

    I agree with Craig totally that it doesnt matter if you believe in it or not, if we dont change massively very quickly due to a multitude of converging factors, civilization as we know it, and likely most of everything else will be finished.

    Which makes one wonder, what is the end game of the powers that be? I wonder if a few of those underground cities were made unlivable somehow, things might change?

  16. I am a permaculturalist, I read your site regularly. These so called denialists bring up good points and you and your off hand dismissals just look silly. Permaculture is great and we need it to save our environment and to survive peak oil. But the whole global warming thing is quite questionable and quite frankly a distraction. Even if true its affects are often blown way out of proportion.

  17. Fred Singer’s book “Unstoppable Global Warming” predicted that the Arctic ice would not melt any further (written ~ 2005). The ice keeps melting, despite deniers’ present claim that we are now in a cooling cycle!

  18. Winds, ice motion root cause of decline in sea ice, not warmer temperatures

    Less Ice In Arctic Ocean 6000-7000 Years Ago

    So did humans cause it back then too? Or is it just that the climate is not static, it has been warmer than it is today before and it will likely be so again. You realize they used to grow grain on Greenland don’t you? Too cold for that today.

  19. It’s quite interesting to see how Singer works. Essentially, no matter what it is (climate, CFCs, tobacco, etc.) and how bad the data look like, it will always be possible to dream up some interpretation that is not immediately refuted by the data we have, and essentially says “stay the course – we are not on the wrong track”.

    As this always is possible (if you just come up with a sufficiently crazy model *after* the data is in), his behaviour essentially is a textbook example for a systematic lack of professional ethics.

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