Surprisingly, despite the importance placed on it in the University of Toronto fossil fuel divestment brief and in the divestment movement generally, I don’t have a post on the idea of the carbon bubble. If we start with the temperature targets countries have chosen as the upper limit for tolerable climate change, we can calculate that the world’s total fossil fuel reserves are much bigger than necessary to bring us to that target. Hence, if governments achieve their climate change mitigation goals, most of the world’s fossil fuels will need to be left unburned and the profits firms expect to make from them will be unrealized. Under such a scenario, fossil fuel investments will be stranded.

Back in February, The Economist explained:

Yet amid the clamour is a single, jarring truth. Demand for oil is rising and the energy industry, in America and globally, is planning multi-trillion-dollar investments to satisfy it. No firm embodies this strategy better than ExxonMobil, the giant that rivals admire and green activists love to hate. As our briefing explains, it plans to pump 25% more oil and gas in 2025 than in 2017. If the rest of the industry pursues even modest growth, the consequence for the climate could be disastrous.

ExxonMobil shows that the market cannot solve climate change by itself. Muscular government action is needed. Contrary to the fears of many Republicans (and hopes of some Democrats), that need not involve a bloated role for the state.

According to ExxonMobil, global oil and gas demand will rise by 13% by 2030. All of the majors, not just ExxonMobil, are expected to expand their output. Far from mothballing all their gasfields and gushers, the industry is investing in upstream projects from Texan shale to high-tech deep-water wells. Oil companies, directly and through trade groups, lobby against measures that would limit emissions. The trouble is that, according to an assessment by the IPCC, an intergovernmental climate-science body, oil and gas production needs to fall by about 20% by 2030 and by about 55% by 2050, in order to stop the Earth’s temperature rising by more than 1.5°C above its pre-industrial level.

If accepted, this argument torpedoes the idea that sticking with fossil fuels is a path to prosperity while turning away from them to fight climate change is an economic sacrifice. If we’re really going to make the transition, the people who kept investing in fossil fuels until the end will have the most to lose.


Andy Weir’s hard sci-fi novel The Martian has a protagonist whose sense of humour was part of why he was selected as part of a crew for a Mars mission: “They all showed signs of stress and moodiness. Mark was no exception, but the way he showed it was to crack more jokes and get everyone laughing.”

Apparently, this accords with real research on interpersonal dynamics:

Something researchers have already learned from these experiments is that certain personality characteristics are essential to helping groups work well together. A good group needs a leader, a social secretary, a storyteller and a mixture of introverts and extroverts. Intriguingly, by far the most important role seems to be that of the clown. According to Jeffrey Johnson, an anthropologist at the University of Florida who has spent years examining relations between people in Antarctic crews overwintering at the South Pole, the clown is not only funny, he is also smart and knows each member of the group well enough to defuse most of the tensions that might arise during long periods of close contact. This sounds rather like the role of a jester in a royal court. The clown also acts as a bridge between different groups of people—in Antarctica the clowns linked scientists on the base with the tradesmen who also worked there. In groups that tended to fight most or to lose coherence, Dr Johnson found, there was usually no clown.

Perhaps that helps explain the sometimes childish humour in Mike Mullane’s account of the space shuttle program?


As noted here before, getting humanity off fossil fuels requires more than replacing our electricity generation and transport systems with climate-safe alternatives. We also need to decarbonize the process of producing food and raw materials. Since most fertilizer is made from natural gas, engineering plant-fungal symbiosis to fix atmospheric nitrogen could be a promising route forward.

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“In nuclear physics, double beta decay is a type of radioactive decay in which two neutrons are simultaneously transformed into two protons, or vice versa, inside an atomic nucleus. As in single beta decay, this process allows the atom to move closer to the optimal ratio of protons and neutrons. As a result of this transformation, the nucleus emits two detectable beta particles, which are electrons or positrons.”


I know it sounds assholish to say it, but writing books makes life thrilling. It makes me aware of the individuality of every passing moment of time, the progress of the universe toward some state of complexity and development which doesn’t exist yet but which is palpably coming.

private to the other dot-orc, I hope you’re well


The National Trust – described by the BBC as “the biggest conservation charity in Europe” – has 4% of its £1bn stock market investment in fossil fuel corporations, but will now divest those holdings over 3-12 months.


Natural gas is often held up as a solution to climate change, or at least a transition in the right direction, on the basis of producing less CO2 per unit of energy than oil or coal. Other factors are also relevant, however. Natural gas is mostly methane (CH4) which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. If just a few percent of the methane extracted is leaking in the form of ‘fugitive emissions’ from production facilities and pipelines that alone can make it a worse energy source than coal. Methane also has a different atmospheric lifetime. It’s actually much much worse than CO2 in the short term, but unlike CO2 which largely endures for centuries methane breaks down comparatively quickly. This may be relevant to global temperature pathways as the frontloaded impact of methane may make the peak of warming worse and raise the risk of positive feedback effects where the warming we cause induces further greenhouse gas emissions and warming which we cannot control.

There are more complicated arguments about long-term infrastructure, with some arguing that gas is substituting for worse alternatives and others saying big new gas investments are locking in our fossil fuel dependence for decades to come. There’s also always the debate about any prospective energy source versus renewables, with some arguing that options like gas or nuclear are not needed because renewables are becoming cheap so quickly, and others arguing that energy sources like gas or nuclear complement renewables. With gas, the argument is that it’s a deployable energy source you can activate only when renewables don’t supply demand (many gas plants are peaker plants that only run at times of peak demand); with nuclear, people say it’s always-on baseload energy that would provide at least something during renewable dips.

All this is highly relevant because gas production is exploding, especially because of North America’s hydraulic fracturing (fracking) boom. A new Global Energy Monitor report describes $1.3 trillion being invested in gas infrastructure around the world. In particular, massive investments are being made in liquified natural gas (LNG) infrastructure, since unlike gas in pipelines it can be exported by ship intercontinentally.

Canada is hosting a very disproportionate amount of this investment: 35% of the global total, despite our much smaller global population and domestic share of world greenhouse gas production.


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The CBC is reporting on polling results pertinent to this fall’s federal election: CBC News poll takes snapshot of Canadians ahead of fall election.

They say the cost of living was the top concern identified, followed by climate change. This suggests a familiar Canadian dynamic: being notionally concerned about climate change, but rejecting action on the necessary scale because of a perceived threat to short-term economic growth and personal financial well-being.

This integrated nicely with Andrew Scheer’s Conservative climate plan, which follows the traditional formula of expressing concern about climate change, proposing only speculative and painless long-term measures to deal with it while insisting that the fossil fuel industry can keep growing, and vaguely hoping that the rest of the world will solve the problem while Canada changes little and continues to actively make it worse.

There’s so much about this election that is depressing: how Trudeau and his government have done a poor job but remain the only non-abominable party with a chance of winning, how the discussion on the left will largely remain a squabble about blocking each other which the progressive parties cannot overcome, and ultimately Canada being carried forward by inertia and the defenders of the status quo into an unliveable and chaotic future.

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Over the years I have written a variety of academic papers on various aspects of nuclear weapons and nuclear power:

1) Written for an undergrad international relations course at UBC and subsequently published in a journal and given an award:

The Space Race as ‘Primitive’ Warfare.UBC Journal of International Affairs. 2005. p. 19-28.

2) Written during my M.Phil at Oxford:

Climate Change, Energy Security, and Nuclear Power.St. Antony’s International Review. Volume 4, Number 2, February 2009. p. 92-112.

3) Written as part of my PhD coursework at U of T:

Climate change and nuclear power in Ontario (self-published on

Canada’s mixed nuclear policy experiences.