Dr. Timothy Garrett with Alex Smith



University of Utah Physics Professor Dr. Tim Garrett explains why fossil-based wealth leads to both hyper-inflation and a ruined climate. All from a published, peer-reviewed paper in Journal "Climatic Change". According to our energy and wealth equation, only a sudden economic collapse could save us from 5 degrees Celsius global temperature rise (or more) by 2100. And we'll get over 100% inflation along the way. One of the most important interviews of the year. From Radio Ecoshock show 101119 - this interview is 24 minutes, 6 megabytes.






Ecoshock Host Alex Smith: Hello.  I'm Alex Smith - with a serious question for you.  What if the past determines our future?


Are we headed for success?  Or a lasting economic Depression, perhaps on an overheated planet? 


Dr. Timothy Garrett is Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, at the University of Utah.  In February 2010, Tim joined us on Radio Ecoshock, to discuss his disturbing new scientific paper. It outlined a direct relationship, between the energy we burn, the wealth we create, and the growth of greenhouse gas emissions.


Now he's gone a step further, with some new work.  So Dr. Tim Garrett, welcome back to Radio Ecoshock.


Tim Garrett: Thank you for having me.


Alex: I do appreciate you coming on this show, and I think we're going to learn something here today. 


I think we should start with your original formula for energy and wealth.  Can you take a shot at explaining it, for the intelligent listener?


Garrett: Yes sure.  I mean it really started as just a simple query, as to where the economic value comes from.  Coming from a physics background, and being totally naive in economics, I thought "well maybe it has something to do with the rate of energy consumption by civilization.


In other words, perhaps that our wealth, the wealth of civilization, has a direct link to how much energy we can consume.  To me, that seemed like a reasonable assumption, because in order for us to do anything, which I suppose is perhaps a measure of our wealth, we need to consume energy. 


That's a basic law of the physical universe.  It is through energy transformations that anything happens. 


And so what I tried to do was just simply look at this, using some available data.  And it turned out that this relationship is in fact fixed.  That there is a constant relationship of about 10 miliwatts that is required to support every inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar of economic value. 


That was the core result of the first paper I did into this.  And what I tried to do is go from there, to see what this implied for subjects such as global warming, which are closer to my primary field of research in atmospheric sciences. 


Alex: Based on everything we know so far, if we grow the economy, as every politician promises, we'll put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  But what if the economy crashes?  Will we put we put less up there?  Will we reach safe levels if we have a severe downturn?


Garrett:  Well, this is where my work differed slightly from what other people were thinking.  Now the way I defined wealth is that it is the accumulation of our past production of economic value.  So what we have today is an accumulation of what we've been able to do in the past. 


Now, when you talk about the economy declining, usually what people think about it they think about GDP [Gross Domestic Product] going down - the Gross World Product declining with time. 


And what I showed was that if the GDP declines with time, which is normally what we would think of as a Depression, this would not in fact correspond to lower carbon dioxide emissions.  In fact, carbon dioxide emissions would need to grow. 


Instead, in order for carbon dioxide emissions to go down, what would be required is effectively a complete collapse of the economy.  A collapse in the sense that the Gross World Product would have to be almost completely offset by inflation.


So that in some sense - it would seem strange to an economist to think about this - but in some sense the global product would have to be negative, rather than positive.  In other words, would have to be in a situation of net consumption, rather than net production.


[An aside from Alex - a planned reduction of the economy is called "De-Growth".  See Radio Ecoshock Show May 14, 2010 here.


[ Dr. Garrett continues ]  We are consuming more of what we have produced in the past, rather than producing new, increasing wealth. 


So that's a rather extreme situation, but this is what the data bears out as being required to have lower carbon dioxide emissions. 


Alex: So, if I understand it correctly, your definition of wealth does not include the sort of fantasy money, like the Quantitative Easing from the U.S. Federal Reserve - but it includes everything that humans have produced that is still here from the beginning of time.


I mean even the Pantheon in Rome would be part of our accumulated wealth at this point...


Garrett: Yes.  That's a very good point.  Part of my wealth is my house.  But the house was produced back in 1926. 


Alex: And you have a new paper in the journal "Climatic Change" and the title is "On the coupled evolution of inflation, wealth, and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide."  You go a step further here, predicting, it seems to me, almost the worst of all worlds: high levels of greenhouse gases - AND inflation.  I still don't really get what has inflation got to do with climate change.


Garrett: I was actually just down in New Orleans, for a scientific meeting. And I spent some time after that with my family.  We went to some local museums - and of course in New Orleans there's the lasting legacy of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. 


And with Katrina, as it was with perhaps all natural disasters, natural disasters historically they have been inflationary.  What they do is they destroy past production, while people perhaps still have the dollars in their pockets, but there are fewer things available for their dollars to be matched to.  So the cost of what is present goes up in value.  It goes up in cost. 


Now this isn't how I approached it in the paper, but I think this is how an economist would normally approach the topic.


The way that I approached it in the paper was that I showed that environmental destruction - whether is it by disease, or by weather, or whatever it is - is effectively a decay on our past production, that devalues what we have.  And that is effectively an inflationary pressure. 


Now what you can think about global warming being is, in some sense it's like a long-term natural disaster.  It is not only a long-term natural disaster that happens continuously, unlike Katrina which was momentary, but it also happens globally. 


So with Katrina, it was instantaneous, effectively instantaneous, and it caused short-term inflation.  But then people were able to come in from outside and provide new resources that stabilized the New Orleans economy.


[When] I was in New Orleans, things were expensive still, but it wasn't out of this world. 


But in a future world, you can imagine... now this is slightly speculative, but it is consistent with what you would expect from the Physics... you could imagine that there is an ever increasing environmental pressure on civilization that continually acts as an ever stronger force that eats away at what we have produced in the past. 


And this will be an inflationary pressure, that cannot be supplanted by outside resources, from outside.  Because it is acting globally, it will be affecting everybody. 


Alex: Right.  If we have rising seas, for example, eating up some of our best farmland, or salinating it, you can't make some more land like that.  It's gone. 


Garrett: Exactly.


Alex: So that pushes up the price of all the remaining land, and that's how climate change can create inflation, for example.


Garrett: Yes.


Alex: This is Radio Ecoshock.  I'm Alex Smith with Dr. Timothy Garrett, an atmospheric scientist, from the University of Utah. 


I'd like to get to the conclusions of your new paper.  Based on our past records of energy use and wealth, what does your model show as possible futures?


Garrett: Well, in fact, this was actually stimulated by our past conversation.  In my first study, I showed that carbon dioxide emissions and wealth were intrinsically coupled.  Without actually decarbonizing the economy by switching to renewables, or nuclear power, at an extraordinarily fast rate, you cannot have wealth without having carbon dioxide emissions.  The two go together. 


And in fact, since 1970, the relationship between the two has been very, very tightly fixed.  Now, that would seem to have implications for the future.  Because carbon dioxide emissions accumulate in the atmosphere. 


As carbon dioxide emissions accumulate in the atmosphere, some fraction goes into what we call "sinks" in the oceans and the land, but about half of what we emit accumulates in the atmosphere.  That is going to create an ever increasing pressure on civilization. 


By eating away at civilization's wealth, global warming will actually reduce our capacity to emit carbon dioxide.  So there's actually what you would call in Physics a "negative feedback." 


So our wealth is emitting CO2, CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere,  and then feeds back on our capacity to produce new wealth. 


Eventually one could imagine that civilization would enter into a phase of collapse because the carbon dioxide levels are so high, that we are simply unable to produce new goods, without them being destroyed by global warming. 


And at that point, perhaps, emissions would go down.  Eventually, if civilization collapsed fast enough, then perhaps carbon dioxide levels would be stabilized.


Now you asked me last time, what would be required to keep carbon dioxide concentrations at 450 parts per million.  And that's normally what's considered at a dangerous level, let's say during the Copenhagen Accord. 


And I made a guess that it would require actually flat out civilization collapse.  Based on some preliminary work that I did, and I decided to look into this more deeply.  I actually wrote a second paper, where it turns out that it true.


Not only would we have to have civilization collapse starting very soon, like within the next decade or so.  But we would also have to have extremely rapid decarbonization, in order to keep carbon dioxide levels below let's say 500 parts per million - twice pre-industrial levels.


In order to keep them below 1,000... Well, without civilization collapse let's say we have continuing health.. let's say the civilization is very resilient to global warming...then carbon dioxide levels are going to go extremely high by the end of this century - probably above 1,000 parts per million. 


You think about 1,000 parts per million, that's probably - it depends on what the climate sensitivity really is - but that's something along the lines of 5 degrees Celsius warming at least. 


And when we think about 5 degrees Celsius warming, people who are familiar with this, usually start bringing up highly catastrophic scenarios.


In some sense, it's hard to imagine it's hard to imagine how civilization cannot be in pretty dire straights during this century.


Alex: I hear people suggesting we could make a big cut in carbon emissions just with energy efficiency.  We'll all get electric cars, and we'll put in the light bulbs...  I've heard that you don't think so much about energy efficiency as a way to save ourselves.


Garrett: Actually, it's almost counter-intuitive.  But no, in fact it's the other way around.  The whole reason that civilization has been so successful, and has grown so quickly is that we are energy efficient. 


It is our efficiency of taking material goods and energy, and converting them into production and net growth, that actually leads to us producing carbon dioxide.


The increasingly efficient we become, the more efficient we become at growing civilization and it's wealth.  I think this is just common sense.  We always strive for efficiency because we have some underlying sense that efficiency is good for our general well being.  But our general well being is generally measured in terms of economic wealth.  And as I showed, economic wealth has a direct correspondence to carbon dioxide emissions. 


So increasing energy efficiency leads to more energy consumption, and more energy consumption leads to more carbon dioxide emissions.   And I'm not the first person to say this.  This has actually been pointed out by energy economists ever since the late 1800's.  So I'm not sure why it's not more generally accepted today. 


Alex: Just on a personal level, I have a camper van.  But I don't drive it to Mexico any more, because I don't want to put all those carbon emissions up there.  But if it got a hundred miles to the gallon, well maybe I'd drive further.  Is that the kind of thing we're talking about here?


Garrett: Of course.  It's like the beer fridge in the basement.  I just bought one at the house, because my upstairs fridge is fairly efficient these days.


Alex: The study of economy has been called "The Dismal Science".  Your new paper certainly qualifies for that title.  The Abstract reads "There are no plausible, thermodynamically supported solutions that avoid inflation rates less than 100%, and lead to stabilized atmospheric CO2 concentrations, within this century."  We either get worthless money, or a dangerous atmosphere, or both?  Those are the choices?


Garrett: I don't see any other options.  I suppose what you could argue is that could decarbonize -  switch to nuclear and renewable power - at such an extraordinarily fast rate that, in some sense we decouple ourselves from the atmosphere.


In other words, we are able to keep consuming energy without affecting atmospheric composition. 


But even there, - in some sense it's rather amusing - well it's intellectually amusing at least - that decarbonizing civilization will not actually be as effective as one might expect.


Now, decarbonizing, let's say we were to approach this proactively.  Presumably it would cost money, and we would only do it with the expectation that it would help alleviate the worst damages of global warming.  And I think that makes sense.  Why would we do it otherwise?  We would put in the effort because it will benefit us in the long run. 


But remember, anything that benefits us in the long run is effectively measurable in an increase in our wealth.  And in increase in our wealth, will translate into an increase in our energy consumption.  In essence what happens is decarbonizing promotes our wealth, and our energy consumption, in the future. 


But increasing our energy consumption, as long as we are partly a fossil fuel economy, will correspond to increasing fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions.  That doesn't completely offset the decarbonization gains, but because it promotes society's health, we actually do not gain as much from decarbonizing, as one might initially expect.  Because it's a dynamic system, and we would continue to grow faster than we would otherwise.


Alex: I can see it.  I mean if we build a lot of nuclear power plants, it's gonna take some carbon shovels to get all that cement going, and all the materials still have to be brought out.  We're going to use oil to do it, and so there might actually be a burst of new emissions trying to do that.


Garrett: Oh yeah, there's that too.


Alex: Recently, I recorded a speech by the former Whole Earth Catalog guru, Stewart Brand. He calls for an all-out effort to geo-engineer the planet, to stave off a climate disaster.  He likes the idea of making clouds brighter by shooting sea water into them.  That's supposed to reflect more sunlight, hoping to cool the Earth.  You are a scientist with expertise in clouds.  What do you think about that?


Garrett: I'm quite skeptical that that would work.  With geoengineering, the main question is not whether we should do it, but perhaps when we will do it.  Because one can imagine that civilization will always try to do whatever it can, to optimize its capacity to grow.


But with regards to brightening clouds, that's been suggested as perhaps a viable way of doing it.  One popular was that's been suggested is to produce lot's of sea spray from some fancy ships.  This sea spray goes up into the clouds.  That makes them brighter, because it there are lots of small aerosol particles, these sea salt particles, then there will be more droplets in the clouds, and also smaller droplets.


That has two effects.  One is that, for some reasons I won't describe, it makes the clouds brighter, just by having a large number of small droplets, you have brighter clouds, than clouds that have a small number of large droplets. 


But it also tends to shut off precipitation of the clouds.  And because precipitation is a sink, a means of losing water from clouds, - it has been argued that the clouds will have longer lifetimes, and therefore reflect more sunlight to space for a longer period of time, and because they are brighter, they will reflect more.


These ideas have been around since the 1970's and 1980's.  It has since become apparent to a lot of researchers in this area that the effect is not nearly as strong as one might initially expect.  There are all sorts of, again, negative feedbacks.  These negative feedbacks often act to entirely erase the brightening effect that you might expect from these aerosols going into the clouds.


I mean, just think of one example.  The clouds that would be targeted would these large sheets of Stratus clouds.  And Stratus Cumulus clouds that are off the Western coasts of continents. 


So where you are, I guess you are in Vancouver, they are probably very familiar with low level clouds.  I used to live in Seattle and you know in Seattle the entire winter was covered with this large deck of low level clouds.


Now these clouds.  If we brighten them, they tend to be over the ocean - if we brighten them, then less solar radiation comes in to heat up the surface.  It is warming at the surface that enables these fluxes of moisture and heat from the oceans, and from the surface, upwards into the atmosphere that enable the clouds to form in the first place. 


So let's say the clouds become brighter.  They cool the surface.  And there's less flux of heat and moisture to form the clouds, and then the clouds dissipate.  It could be that adding aerosols to clouds does not make them brighter and more long lived, but actually shorter lived, and darker. 


Alex: You know... you're kind of a trouble maker, in a way.  Because we've got a lot of people who are looking for a realistic way out of this awful dilemma.  And you've got a really sharp mind that seems to me, you can stick some pins in the balloon, and away it goes. 


But I guess that really is what science is about.  We are looking for what is real, and what works, and what doesn't.


Garrett: Of course.  You know, these are interesting physics problems.  I mean one of the privileges of being a university scientist is of course, you get to think about these problems for the simple joy of thinking about them. 


And if the answers end up one way, rather than the other, well so be it.  That's the joys of trying to figure something out. 


For me, that was the fun of trying to do the economics problem.  I have no background in economics, but I am as much a player as anybody else in the economic system.  Wouldn't it be fun, if it is possible, to understand the economic system using the tools that I as a physicist understand from my research in doing clouds.


Alex: Well, as we've just found out, the economists don't understand the economy either.  Look, our guest has been Dr. Timothy Garrett, Associate Professor, Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah.  He's been researching the relationships between energy, wealth, and greenhouse gas emissions.  Tim, people seem really enthusiastic about your work - even though it shows us playing into some kind of End Game.  Isn't that strange?


Garrett: You know I don't know how much enthusiasm there really is.  But I think, in a lot of ways, people have some sort of hunch that things like energy efficiency actually leads to more energy consumption.  And we hear this repeated mantra that it leads to less energy consumption.  But we think that energy efficiency increases our ability to lead wealthy, happy lives.  And I know that healthy, happy lives tends to correspond to increased energy consumption. 


I think some people are just more receptive to really fairly intuitive obvious ideas. 


And perhaps another perspective is, you know, maybe this is a really cynical statement but... if things really truly are hopeless, well then we don't have to worry as much.  We can just enjoy the present.


Alex: Let's party, like it's 1999!  Well, thank you so much for sharing your time with us Tim Garrett.


I'm Alex Smith, for Radio Ecoshock.