Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Sorry about the light blogging. I was participating in an interesting conference in Kyoto called Science and Technology in Society with a very interesting international mix of scientists, politicians and business people. There were lots of really interesting presentations from some really smart people. I'll try to post more later, but here are some notes from a lunch speech by Sherwood F. Rowland, Donald Bren Research Professor of Chemistry and Earth Systems, University of California at Irvine and Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (1995).

The population of the world is about 6B now and it is expected that it will stabilize at around 9B in the middle of the century. We've grown from 3B to 6B in the last half century so we've done this before. We output about 6B tons of carbon dioxide. That's an average of 1 ton per person. In the US the average is about 5 tons per person and in India and Nigeria it's about 0.2 tons per person. If you added the US and population to India's population, it would be about 1.4 tons, or approximately the rate at which Albania creates carbon dioxide. 85% of our energy comes from fossil fuels, coal, gas and oil which create carbon dioxide. These are green house gasses. In 1800 there was about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide and 800 parts per billion of methane in the air. Today we are at about 380 parts per million of carbon dioxide and 1750 parts per billion of methane.

A calculation of the natural greenhouse effect of the earth is 32 degrees centigrade. The enhanced greenhouse effect puts us at more like 33 to 37 degrees centigrade. The average temperature of the earth has increased 6/10th of a degree in the last century. The warmest days since we have begun recording temperatures about 150 years ago have all been since 1990. In order to stabilize the increase in carbon dioxide (at a much higher level than it is now), we would need to cut back 60% of our output. Conservation can help, but it is unlikely that conservation itself can take us to a sustainable situation. Alternative carbon free energy sources like solar, nuclear, and wind must be explored, but we must understand that we are in a situation that requires immediate action.

I was scribbling notes during lunch and I may have mangled some of this. Please let me know if I've misquoted something and I'll fix it.

One important "take-away" from this meeting was that global warming and the risk did not seem like some sort of disputed theory as some politicians seem to lead us to believe. All of the scientists involved in energy and ecology that I heard speaking seemed to believe that our earth was immediately at risk and that we had to act now. The combination of the increase in population and our addiction to energy would not allow us to stabilize at any sustainable equilibrium without drastic changes in the way we make and use energy.


i've been a moderate (for california) energy user, not because i've disbelieved that co2 was rising or that it had a climatic effect, but because i tried to be an optimist as long as i could ... hoping that natural carbon sinks (oceans, general increases in forest growth, etc.) would save us, or that the co2 data was overlayed on an independant climate cycle.

that optimism has crumbled in the last 2-3 years under the last waves of bad news, and i'm in more of a conservation mode (got my electicity bill down to $18 this month, and i am looking for a prius).

what really gets me is that more people aren't waking up. i mean, how can they buy H2s and VW Tuaregs *this* year? i see them all around me.

ah well, i predict 2006 as the year of the big wake up call - because that's the year a whole bunch of fuel efficient planned to be released to the US market.

i think they're going to sell everybody huge SUVs for another year or so ... and then start a new publicity cycle to sell them fuel-efficient replacements. maximum profit all around.


I think companies, seeing the demand for fuel-efficient cars, are going to make "fuel-efficient SUVs." I think Ford has one out now. However, I'm not sure how "efficient" these special SUVs are, but I am guessing it's not any better, or slightly better, the efficiency of a normal four/two door coupe. If both small cars and SUVs go hybrid, there will still be the gap, and the SUVs will be worse polluters. At least, in sum, the total output will be lower, so that's a good thing, I guess....

Until SUVs go out of fashion, I see them on US roads for a long time coming.

earlier this year people were talking about a better SUV being neccessary, but for what it's worth, i saw this link:

"How Hybrid Power Surprised the Car Industry"

(BBC, via MixedPower)

maybe there will be a cultural shift at the same time, at least reducing SUV frequence on the highway.

The 'theory' word raises its head again. As with evolution, there is an alternative point of view which is worth considering - .

Personally I'm not completely convinced that the thinking on the greenhouse effect is definitive. But I'm smart enough to accept that something very bad could happen if we keep on tinkering with the atmosphere. What we're doing is just too risky.

What about biofuels (biodiesel, burning of wood, etc.) not figure more prominently as an alternative, CO2-free fuel source?

It's not just the effects of our use of fossil fuels on the environment that are at issue at the moment. There are also many well respected scientists, bankers and industry experts are predicting that we are soon going to go past the point at which oil is a cheap energy resource.

Oil is used not only to fuel our cars, planes and power stations, but also to make fertilisers and plastics, amongst many other things. Since the dinosaurs aren't making any more oil, it goes without saying that the consequences to our current mode of industrial civilisation are immense.

This situation is generally known as the 'Peak Oil' issue. Wikipedia has a good entry on the subject.

Dan, I've also been reading those things about Peak Oil and they sound reasonable to me. FWIW, I think it might help if this is all sold as a happy, soulution-oriented, future, rather than as a must-conserve downer.

I remember the 70's, and the negative reaction to an "age of limits", "put on a sweater", etc.

I think this newer "brighter and greener" thing might go over a little better:

What is very misleading and unfortunate about Rowland's remarks is the very crafty way in which he avoids placing the blame for carbon build-up squarely where it belongs: at the feet of the petroleum industry.

    In a forthcoming piece for MIT Press, amongst other matters I argue the following:

      "In terms of climate change, various structural inequalities also persist. By 2000 only 122 corporations accounted for 80% of all global carbon dioxide emissions. Oil produced by just FOUR companies-Shell, Exxon-Mobil, BP-Amoco-Arco, and Chevron-Texaco- accounted for 10% of all carbon emissions. Figure 4 contrasts the emissions of the largest firms, all petroleum companies, with other regions and nations. As this figure reveals, oil produced by Shell emits more carbon dioxide than most countries in the world including Canada, Brazil and Mexico. BP-Amoco's production accounts for more emissions than the entire United Kingdom, where it is based. The combined outputs of Exxon-Mobil and BP-Amoco’s production create more emissions than those from all of Africa and Central America combined. It is no wonder why an environmental advocacy group like Greenpeace took out ads in 1999 noting that the aforementioned firms “can actually change the weather."

        (Any who wants to the Fig. mentioned email me.)

          The shody scholarly games Rowland is playing easily enable one to conclude: "The combination of the increase in population and our addiction to energy would not allow us to stabilize at any sustainable equilibrium..."

            Whereas the reality is that this has hardly nothing to do with 6B folks (2B of whom live on less than $2/day, in conditions not even part of Rowland's worst nightmare gone haywire).

              The empirical data underscore that consumer demand and desire is vastly at odds with the exceptionally aggressive PR campaigning by big oil (i.e., the 'fossil fools') that for the past decade has made the climate crisis to be a hoax.

                Sorry to rain on the techno-parade, but for many doom is already present and fully underway. The recent spat of hurricanes (US) and typhoons (Japan) is just the beginning of worse to come.

                  I've said enough.

                    See our op-ed in the FT 2 weeks ago about how the latest form of petroleum industry stalling (i.e., trading carbon, instead of reducing it) will not be enough either:


                      (...fuel efficient SUVs...that's the best joke I've heard in a while.)

                      It may interest you to know that there is no correlation between the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere and global warming.


                      There is also no connection between the number of recent hurricanes/typhoons and global warming. If that was the case then there would be more typhoons each year.

                      Even if there was a correlation, it does not prove causation. The climate is always changing and that in past times there have been periods of cold and warmth, such as the "little ice age" and "medieval warm period".

                      The big questions are, taking into account natural variations in climate, are man-made emissions heating the planet, and if so, what to do about it?

                      Many scientists can show
                      that global warming is not related to human activity. there are many reports that debunk conventional global warming wisdom. Should we really be spending money when there is such disagreement between scientists? Is it worth spending trillions of dollars (your money) to stop something that may or may not be happening? What are the alternatives? As Bjorn Lomborg has pointed out, for the price of one year of the Kyoto Protocol, we could provide clean drinking water to everyone on the earth for the forseeable future. Or if we leave it alone, several studies say that a moderate increase in Co2 will improve world food output and be a positive benefit to the world.

                      I suggest reading Junk Science: and Envirospinwatch both of which offer excellent insight into media manipulation by the environmental lobby.

                      Where can I get some good figures for US pollution?

                      I ask because I'm sitting here on Hong Kong island and I can barely see the other side of Kowloon less than a mile away. I've seen even worse in mainland China, and in Russia I've coughed my way down a number of streets and seen "goo" poured into water to the point I think it could have caught on fire. Less than a decade ago, if you sneezed in London your snot was black.

                      I'm sure the US is pretty high, but I'm always shocked at how much more polluted it is when I travel abroad. Maybe the geography/population issue makes it more concentrated. I'm not sure. Just curious....

                      The overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change is that human activity is indeed a major factor. For a highly credible account, see the "Scientific Basis" paper published by the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at

                      In the USA (and almost nowhere else) an unwarranted emphasis tends to be given to minority, fringe opinions to the contrary. This phenomenon affects other issues as well, and it is starting to come to the attention of journalists and others - see the article "Blinded By Science" in the Columbia Journalism Review at

                      It soon becomes evident that if one "follows the money", dissenting opinions on climate change tend to issue from scientists who are directly or indirectly funded by corporations with a vested interest in maximizing the use of fossil fuels - oil and coal companies, vehicle manufacturers, and the like.

                      For example - in a response here by Mark Devlin, reference is made to an article on the website. Who runs that site? Well, it's edited by one Steven J. Milloy, of the Cato Institute. And who funds the Cato Institute? Why, corporations, whose interests are substantially served by deregulation, exploitation, etc.

                      Joi, it's good to see you highlight this issue and I look forward to reading more about the conference.

                      >Where can I get some good figures for US pollution?

                      Not sure you would get these figures exactly, but I recommand you read warming for more information.

                      Since I joined wikipedia (3 years ago), I have seen this article regularly been the target of edit wars over lack of neutrality.

                      Between this observation and Lomborg book, I will not share Joi optimism when he states that "One important "take-away" from this meeting was that global warming and the risk did not seem like some sort of disputed theory as some politicians seem to lead us to believe.".

                      If most scientists agree there is global warming, there is no clear agreement about the causes of it. Hence no clear agreement on the best way to limit it.

                      Besides, there is no clear estimate about what the consequences will be. I tried to approach roughly some consequences it could have on this article soon after I joined Wikipedia : This would need much more information and references. I hope to go back to it one day ;-)

                      Agricultural scientists are primarily interested in consequences on agricultural production (which are quite rarely mentionned compared to gigantic floods in asia, disappearance of islands and generally increase in typhoons) so as to evaluate future areas of food shortage, and to plan ahead changes in practices.

                      At least in Europe, from an food production perspective, unless the Gulf Stream is diverted, global warming is generally seen as beneficial, but will impact habits (for example, grain corn which was only cultivated in south of France is expected in more northern areas of Europe).

                      To end on a sweet note : Joi says "All of the scientists involved in energy and ecology that I heard speaking seemed to believe that our earth was immediately at risk and that we had to act now."

                      Not really. It is not the Earth which is at stake here. Earth has very well survived extreme temperatures, higher or lower. Some species survived the changes, other did not. It has been going on for a very long time. What would be surprising is not that climate changes, but rather that climate does NOT change. What is at stake is the way we live here, the habits we have (warm house), the animals and plants we are used to see (we may see corn fields where there was mostly wheat before), the place we are used to go skiing in winter (we may have to go somewhere else), and the sunny weather at the nearby beach (it may rain more often).

                      Of course, it may involve many deaths and many species disappearing (which is why it would be best to act to limit impact) but let's face it : Earth itself is not at stake here. It will promote changes which might be good in the long term as well. Island eruptions (Laki volcano) in 1783 are thought to be partly responsible of a collection of extremely cold and rainy years, which lead to very bad harvests and hunger in Europe. There is a strong belief that this lead in good part to the french revolution of 1789 (which I would count as a benefit). Similarly, the great discoveries made during La Renaissance were largely due to a very mild climate which allowed people to spend less energy and time satisfying their basic needs (food and warmth).

                      Nothing is ever simple. The big point is not to lose perspective.

                      If we're outputting 6B tonnes per year, then that's down from 6.633 billion tonnes in 1997.

                      This manmade production is only about 3% of the regular carbon cycle (ie natural production).

                      The IPCC recently reported that carbon dioxide is being removed from the atmosphere at an increasing rate. From 1980-89, 61% of carbon emissions ended up in the atmosphere, whereas from 1990-99 only 51% ended up in the atmosphere.

                      And Mark Scott, according to Wikipedia, only 10 percent of Cato Institute funding comes from corporations and foundations (and if you see a list of the foundations, I'm not sure where you get "interests...served by...exploitation").

                      Interesting that all comments are on CO2 and not on methane which I understand to be more potent as a greenhouse gas and is mainly produced by cows farting so can I encourage you all to be vegetarian....

                      Debating it is like a smoker with a cold pondering which is the cause of each cough and basing his decision to stop or not on that.

                      Even those who propogate doubt about human activitie's roll in global warming would (if they have any bit of credibility left) agree that systematically increasing sustances from within the earth (such as CO2) into the biosphere can not be continued without negative results.

                      Exactly what form the results take is still being debated in some circles, but one thing is clear to all. Just as a smoker's cough may be the result of a cold, it does not change the fact that smoking has deadly effects.

                      A major reason that the global warming issue does not get more press is the Kyoto Protocol. It requires that developed nations (like America) reduce their CO2 output while allowing so called undeveloped nations (like China) to increase output. The Kyoto Protocal is unfair to American workers, and until it is revised and turned into a useable document, the problem will only get worse.

                      People think they're so smart. The world is a giant machine. All parts work together. The environment is very complicated. Surely we haven't figured out all the mechanisms which keep it balanced. Nonetheless, we see something happening (global warming) that we never noticed before and all the sudden we feel the need to "fix" it. Perhaps global warming is bad. If so, something else we never thought of will arise to balance it. Or perhaps it signals an adaption of our world to it's inhabitants and will result in a more hospitable environment, even paradise. Obviously, concerns about global warming resulted from -- and feeds the fire of -- environmentalists pushing their agendas regarding pollution and deforestation. While I agree that these issues are important (I don't like to see trash littering my highways when people could use a wastebasket); I draw the line at the mention of global catastrophies ... alien abductions, and theories of Atlantis. Let the earth open a hole to excrete her waist products and to breathe: Or cover MY mouth and ass and kill me -- before these well-meaning scientific "experts" do it with their self-importance and hubris.

                      based on my semi-extensive reading, it looks to me like some climate change is under way, and some component of it is linked to human activity.

                      the critical factor is the word "some" repeated in that sentence above. i don't think the size of each "some" is going to be known absolutely until it's all over, but we will have a slowly increasing understanding.

                      i think people who aren't quite convinced yet that there is "some" human influence need to keep on reading, as i did. i really was a skeptic, and gave a good hearing to evidence pointing in every direction ... but without naming some single point or two, i think the evidence piled up.

                      ... which is why i think i can do "some" things in my happy lifestyle to reduce c02 production, without depriving myself or making myself sad.

                      don't be scared ;-)

                      btw joi, did anyone see the irony in flying around the world in jetliners to talk about global warming? ;-)

                      john jensen writes:

                      btw joi, did anyone see the irony in flying around the world in jetliners to talk about global warming? ;-)

                      Of course not; their role is to set up rules and regulations for the Little People; these rules and regulations do not apply to them.

                      did anyone mention how much money the oil companies are making these days?

                      their advertisements about the environment are like the tabacco advertisements educating youth on the sins of smoking.

                      Has anyone ever stopped to think about how their homes have been over taken by applicances and electronics?

                      My House 1994-- Me and Mother

                      1 Refrigerator
                      1 Microwave
                      1 Toaster

                      2 TVs
                      1 VCR
                      1 Computer
                      1 Monitor
                      1 Printer
                      1 CD Player
                      1 Tuner
                      1 Answering Machine
                      2 Alarm Clocks

                      4 Lamps

                      Total Appliances: 18

                      My House 2004-- Me and Wife

                      1 Refrigerator
                      1 Microwave
                      1 Stove
                      1 Toaster
                      1 Coffee Maker

                      2 TVs
                      2 Cable Boxes 1 Always on
                      1 VCR
                      1 DVD
                      1 XBox
                      1 Tivo Always on
                      1 CD Player
                      1 Tuner
                      1 Cordless Phone- Always on
                      1 VCR-
                      2 Alarm Clocks Always on

                      2 Cell Phones
                      1 PDA
                      1 Digital Camera – Always on
                      1 Mini DV Camera- Always on
                      1 Ipod

                      2 Laptops- Always on
                      2 Monitors
                      1 Printer

                      5 Lamps (2 used regularly)

                      Total Appliances: 35

                      Total Gain of 17 power sucking appliances in 10 years. Add two kids plus increase in housing square footage and new ‘must have’ technology and this number will easily reach 65 by 2014.

                      I am sure many of the readers out there can blow this number away. My buddy has a full Avid editing suite in his 1 bedroom NYC apartment—6 monitors, 2 PCs, numerous decks and storage. OUCH!!!!

                      Now think about how much more trash you throw away today then you did in 1994.

                      texan, i've got more electronic stuff too ... but i'm net down on energy use (my switch to a cheap/efficient sears refrigerator did it by itself).

                      even if you aren't too serious about this, a "kill a watt" monitor is cheap and (for a giznmo junkie) fun. froogle "kill a watt" for more info, or google-groups "kill a watt" to see what others have found in their homes.

                      (re. trash, agreed - esp. important to use rechargeables)

                      The reason I posted this comment was that considering the number of scientists at this conference, there appeared to be little debate that global warming was being caused by human consumption of fossil fuels and the debate was mainly about how to curb in and take it to an equilibrium state. My past position had been heavily influenced by Sir. Martin Rees who to had told me:

                      Sir Martin Rees told me that he thought it was probably true that global warming was happening and that CO2 emissions contributed to it. He said that his main concern with global warming with the possibility that something non-linear would happen. In other words, his worry was not just the melting of the ice caps or the increased heat, but that this would cause something unpredictable and significant, such as a change in the circulation of the oceans.

                      This seemed like a pretty reasonable opinion. The problem with issues like Global Warming is that most of the "facts" that we rely on are conclusions of studies by experts. Very few of us have the scientific background to interpret all of the data ourselves. Therefore, the number of smart scientists who are unlikely to be influenced heavily by political issues who believe in the risks is one indicator of the current state of the "theory" for me.

                      John 18: No, the irony of flying around in a plane and talking about global warming does not escape me. I wrote about this back in January.

                      If we don't act soon, we'll be cooked...but there are answers. The best I've seen involves using any eight of 15 "wedges" (existing technology over the next 50 years; see:
                      "Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies," S. Pacala and R. Socolow, Science, Vol. 305, Issue 5686, pp. 968-972, August 13, 2004

                      Greenhouse gases from vehicles are a big part of the problem. But transportation is one of the hardest nuts to crack. "Plug-in hybrid cars" (PHEVs, like today's hybrids but with larger batteries and grid-charging capability) can be one component of a sustainable package that includes:
                      * much cheaper thin-film solar photovoltaics on our rooftops
                      * somewhat better batteries than we have now
                      * an increasingly clean power grid charging batteries off-peak at night
                      * PHEVs with batteries as the primary fuel, plus gasoline, natural gas, biofuels, and perhaps some day hydrogen fuel cells, as range extenders.

                      For more on PHEVs, see

                      sorry (re. jets), either i missed that, or it bubbled back up as a new-seeming idea.

                      Anthere: Yes. You have a good point. I have a geologist friend who says that it really isn't a problem for "the Earth" but rather a problem for our borders and our life styles and that in fact biomass may INCREASE with global warming as the deserts are irrigated. However, I do think that many of the scenarios of global warming included a great deal of human suffering.

                      "The problem with issues like Global Warming is that most of the "facts" that we rely on are conclusions of studies by experts. Very few of us have the scientific background to interpret all of the data ourselves."

                      Yes, and what we can do is to look at what scientists agree on, and what we know to be true. Namely that there are basically a few ways to screw up the ecosystem. Systematically increasing substances into the biosphere that are from the earths crust, or not naturally abundant there, and which can not readily be broken down or assimilated, be it chemicals, endocrine disruptors, CO2, mercury, etc...

                      While this does not dictate any concrete to-do list, it does allow us to make decisions in a strategic manner. I.e., look at the options, and decide which of them will go further to eliminating our contribution to the accumulation of "bad" stuff in the biosphere. For example, this may or may not mean stop flying tomorrow, but it does mean that we should be talking serious steps in our life that reduce our reliance on fossile fuels / air-travel, putting us in a position so that we can stop ASAP.

                      This not only protects future generations, but (maybe more importantly) it protects oneself. Imagine how much it is going to cost if your life is still so dependent on fossil fuels 5, 10, 15, 30 years from now. Of course, for most of us, the rising costs will force us to change our ways, but I would rather make the change on my own terms, then be forced to for financial reasons. What's more since everone is going to be forced to change at some point or another, it can only be a benefit for the early adoptors.

                      I must say, I am extremely pleased to see the high number of comments that this post has elicited. It signals that this is an increasingly important issue to people, and that hopefully, people will soon take action. Although it is not as high as some other issues wich are simply symptoms of our mistreatment of the earth, it is encouraging none the less.

                      Just how much HOT-AIR is produced by the enviro green weenies? i mean former vice president AL GORE was full of hot-air and all those GREENPEACE protesters are full of hot-air i mean what ever became of GLOBAL COOLING and the NEW ICE AGE? its proof that the whole global warming and the GREENHOUSE EFFECT is whole made up and based on junk science maybe the green weenies should put duct-tape over their mouths and stop watching all those dumb movies like WATER WORLD and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW

                      Though it might appear that the absence of a concrete to-do list is the problem, I suspect it is more than that; the real problem appears to be a disbelief that the problem is real and serious and also that any individual action is capable of making a difference.

                      Just look at this: The world is dumping a million plastic bags a minute (yes!). Plastic is wonderful material when used for things that benefit from it’s long life and non biodegradability, but to use it for plastic bags that get used just once and then stick around for an infinite period of time choking landfill and being eaten by innocent animals and marine life is just plain dumb. I suspect most individuals would agree.

                      But even though an alternative exists – reusable cloth bags – are people switching? Not as many as you’d like to think.

                      Yet, when Ireland put a 15 cent tax on plastic bags, usage dropped 90%, proving that folks can easily switch when forced to.

                      Most people may not know how economical cloth bags can be but I don’t believe knowing that would really make a difference. We appear to be a world that needs to be pushed into taking action.

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