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Regaining perspective on things that matter

Everything flows and nothing abides,
everything gives way and nothing stays fixed

— Heraclitus

It is easy nowadays to get caught up in the latest update to the S&P Case-Shiller Home Price indices or the slight rise in producer prices reported recently by the Labor Department. These indicators tell us about our immediate economic future. I noted last week that we are likely in the Post-Peak Era for oil, or very close to it, and ended by saying I would examine petroleum demand this week to determine when someone might notice that this invisible line has been crossed.

I believe at least 5 years will pass before the oil supply once again sends prices through the roof, but I can’t really know the exact timing of such events, so it really doesn’t matter what I think. I’ll revisit the subject when we’re closer to the bottom. We’ll know then how long and how deep the impact of the recession on oil demand will be. Assessing the oil supply over the next decade is actually much easier than figuring out how the economy will do in the next few years because most of the facts are in.

What matters now more than ever, and what is getting lost in all the immediate economic turmoil, is the unprecedented scope of the problems we face in the 21st century. Great change is inevitable. Trying to hang on to the way things have been—seemingly endless exponential GDP growth— is a mistake. Focusing exclusively on fixing the economy to get back on the business-as-usual growth track obscures much bigger problems coming down the road.

Today I will try to regain some perspective—sanity—on where we’re headed in the coming decades. I will tell some of the story in pictures. I am going to eschew overly technical discussions, but follow the links if you want to know more.

Two Energy Related Crises in the 21st Century

Of course I am referring to anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change and fossil fuel resource depletion. Perspective on our energy problems is best gained by considering long time scales. Look at Figure 1 and Figure 2.

Figure 1 — The Epoch of Fossil Fuels in human history. Taken from geologist M. King Hubbert’s Exponential Growth As A Transient Phenomenon In Human History. The age of fossil-fuel exploitation is ephemeral on a millennial time-scale (-5000 to +5000 years).

Figure 2 — Carbon Dioxide Levels in the Holocene. Taken from the IPCC’s AR4 Synthesis Report (Figure 2-3). Again on millennial-scale, -10,000 to the present. Annotated to reflect the Epoch of Fossil Fuels (small gray pyramid lower right). W/m2 is watts per square meter. Imagine a small Christmas tree light bulb (≈ 1.6 watts) shining over every square meter of the Earth. That’s the additional radiative forcing (added to the incoming solar irradiance) resulting from putting greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2, the main culprit) into the atmosphere. “ppm” stands for parts-per-million in the atmosphere.

The Age of Fossil Fuels, including the harmful release of CO2 to the atmosphere from burning them, is just a blip on millennial time-scales. The reserves/production (R/P) ratio divides “proved” reserves by the current production level and serves as a rough measure of how much remains for finite resources. For oil the R/P ratio is about 40 years, for natural gas it is about 60 years and for coal it is about 144 years (and falling). R/P ratios are a bit misleading, however. Production profiles for the resources will look a lot like a Hubbert (bell, gaussian) curve when viewed on long time-scales. Thus deficiencies in available supply start much earlier than 40, 60 or 144 years in the future because we’ve been ascending the upside of the curve for some time now. For oil, we’re probably past-peak or close enough that it doesn’t matter.

We always think and act as though we live in “normal” times, but our first two graphs tell us that we actually live in very interesting times. The unique dangers of our situation are hard to grasp. We can keep them in mind only if we make a conscious effort to remember—that’s our human nature getting in the way. Let’s stand even further back from the moment in Figure 3 and Figure 4.

Figure 3 — Pleistocene Carbon Dioxide And Temperature Levels. Reconstructed from various sources, especially the EPICA Dome C Antarctic ice core. The cold spikes correspond to ice ages. The warm spikes correspond to interglacial periods like the present one (the Holocene). “LGM” stands for Last Glacial Maximum (about -18-20 thousand years ago). MIS 11 refers to the 11th Marine Isotope Stage, part of a standard paleoclimate yardstick. MIS 11 occurs corresponds to a long interglacial period (≈ 20,000 years) that occurred about 400,000 years ago. Some scientists consider this period to be an analogue to the Holocene, partly because the Earth is in a more circular rather than elliptical orbit at present. The Ice Ages are thought to be triggered by changes in the Milankovitch variables (eccentricity, tilt and wobble). The Age of Fossil Fuels is invisible at this scale. For it to be barely visible at 2 millimeters = 1000 years, the graph would need to be over 5 feet wide.

Figure 4 — The last glacial maximum (LGM) in North America

Figure 4 shows the maximum extent of the ice sheets at the end of the Wisconsin glaciation in North America about 20,000 years ago. In the lower left, you can see that New York City, the home of feckless, greedy investment bankers, was buried under a kilometer of ice. So much for these self-proclaimed “Masters of the Universe.” If there is seawater on Wall Street a few hundreds of years from now, that just reinforces the point.

Figure 3 implies that another Ice Age should arrive at some indefinite time in the future. A recent Nature study predicted a long, severe glaciation sometime between 10,000 and 100,000 years from now. Other studies based on the EPICA Dome C ice core postpone the next Ice Age until at least 15,000 years from now. Any prediction of another Ice Age is met with skepticism from climate scientists like James Hansen, who thinks all such discussions are “academic at this point unless humans go extinct.”

I’ll get back to you—or maybe not!—on that extinction question, Jim. On a related note, a Danish scientist believes we should prepare for when the Earth’s orbit once again becomes more elliptical. This story really puts things in perspective. I think it’s hilarious, so I’ll quote it at length with some added emphasis.

Professor Gary Shaffer of the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen has suggested that the peoples of the Earth should hold off from burning all the planet’s available fossil fuel supplies over the next couple of centuries, so as to be able to burn them thousands of years from now in order to stave off the next ice age…

The result of such a positive feedback loop [decreased summer insolation in the Arctic due to changes in the Milankovitch cycles leads to ice sheet build-up] is an ice age, which is at least as bad as global warming. According to Shaffer “the greatest climate challenge mankind has faced has been surviving ice ages that have dominated climate during the past million years”.

But there’s no need to panic. By burning fossil fuels, we have already put enough CO2 into the atmosphere to stave off ice ages for 55,000 years. Shaffer thinks it would make sense to save a lot of the remaining fossil reserves for the far future, when we’d need to bump up atmospheric carbon or face life in the deep freeze.

The prof says that if we carry on as we are now and burn up all the … fossil fuels remaining over the next couple of centuries, there will be a 5°C rise in temperatures much as global-warming worriers predict, with all the associated problems of rising sea levels, desertification and so on.

But that will be only temporary. After 170,000 years the Earth will have cooled, the orbit will go elliptical and the polar ice sheets will get out of control, an Ice Age.

[Note: I doubt there will be a 5°C rise. Climate sensitivity is about 3°C for a doubling of CO2 from pre-industrial levels, which is about 550 ppm in the atmosphere. I don't see how we get there. I must agree that an Ice Age would be "at least as bad" as global warming.]

And you thought the economy was a problem! I hope you’re revising your view of where we stand in the early 21st century.

There were humans indistinguishable from you or me mucking around during the Last Glacial Maximum. Our descendants—how many?—will still be living on Earth when the fallout from these Big Problems is all said and done. What will life look like in 100 years? 1000 years? 10,000 years? Shaffer seems to think we should leave some fossil fuels in the ground to stave off another ice age 55,000 years from now. Now that’s optimism! Personally I think there won’t be anything left on Earth to burn long, long before that.

Economic downturns come and go—the Panic of 1837, the Panic of 1857, the Panic of 1873, the Great Crash of 1929, the subsequent Great Depression, the Recession of 1980-82, the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-2009. The climate and resource problems we face in the 21st century are unique on geological time-scales. The late 21st century may end up looking something like the mid-Pliocene (3.3-3.0 million years ago) when temperatures were 2°to 3°above pre-industrial levels and the continents were more or less in their current configuration. Things cooled off a bit after that when Greenland froze over after CO2 levels fell for unknown reasons.

Confusion about the Twin Crises

As catastrophes go, climate change is quite popular but resource depletion usually goes begging. I’ve given a lot of thought to this disparity because depletion is no less a calamity than global warming and popularity is obviously not a gauge of correctness.

Resource depletion means that we’re starting to run out of the very thing that is causing the Earth to warm. The benefits of burning fossil fuels are incalculable but so are the costs. The most abundant of the Big Three, coal, emits the most carbon dioxide, so we shouldn’t burn it. These contradictory circumstances have engendered a lot of confusion. This derangement resembles the thinking process of drug addicts who are in constant turmoil trying to reconcile the imperative I need to stop using! with the worry Where’s my next fix coming from?

Those directly concerned about the twin catastrophes can be divided broadly into 2 groups.

  • Climate people who either subsume the fossil fuel resources problem under global warming if they recognize a depletion problem at all, or more typically, do not acknowledge any constraints on exploitable hydrocarbon resources (e.g. oil shales or unconventional natural gas including methane hydrates). These folks are usually techno-optimists who believe renewable energy and efficiency gains will successfully replace fossil fuels over time. They tend to ignore the implications of runaway exponential functions (and this additional graph), choosing to believe that we’ll just drive plug-in hybrid SUVs instead gas-guzzling SUVs.
  • Resource people who believe that fossil fuel depletion solves much of the climate problem if holding CO2 levels in the atmosphere at 450 ppm or less does indeed fend off the worse consequences of global warming. These folks place little faith in technological progress. They worry a lot about unfavorable net energy calculations and do not believe that unconventional hydrocarbon resources can be economically exploited. They believe exponential consumption patterns of all sorts are unsustainable. Resource people don’t think most of us will be driving anything in a few decades.

I prepared a handy table to help you sort these distinctions out.

Human Ingenuity Fossil Fuel Dependence
Climate Group
Plays Up Downplays
Resources Group Downplays Plays up

Table 1 — Differences in emphasis between those worried about climate and resources

I must admit my own point of view: it seems almost impossible to overstate our dependence on fossil fuels as things stand in 2009. Exponential functions are hard to ignore. The harmful consequences of anthropogenic climate change should be taken very seriously regardless of the inevitable depletion of exploitable fossil fuel resources.

Differences of opinion can be based on honest disagreement where large uncertainties exist, but in climate versus resources matters, simple ignorance plays a large role.

Those in the climate group uncritically accept inflated fossil fuel resource/reserves estimates. What they don’t know is that all these estimates come from the same unreliable sources (usually the USGS, but also the BP Statistical Review and the World Energy Council). How many times have we read “the EIA expects energy to demand to grow X% by 2030″? EIA resource estimates come from the USGS, one of the usual suspects. The U.S. geological survey always over-estimates recoverable resources (e.g. the Bakken Shale). Climate folks—James Hansen and Pushker Kharecha excepted— either don’t know all this or ignore it. Probably the former.

Those in the resource group often do not understand the climate science or disregard it. Those paying attention focus exclusively on CO2 levels following from reduced fossil fuel resource estimates. Thus they ignore potentially harmful positive feedbacks following from human meddling with the Earth’s carbon cycle, lessons learned from paleoclimate studies and the effects of land use changes on greenhouse gas levels.

Because we are talking about catastrophes here, emotions often get in the way of objective analysis. In extreme cases, those concerned about climate indulge in delusional techno-optimist fantasies (Table 1, box upper left). Some of those concerned about resources choose to believe that a new Stone Age is fast approaching (Table 1, box lower right).

And because there are two problems, not one, the discussion on the relative importance of these calamities is often little more than a pissing contest over which problem is worse in what time frame. Actually, there isn’t any real discussion or debate. Climate concerns are politically correct, so climate activists don’t have to acknowledge the resource issues. Doing so is not in their best interest anyway because the more fossil fuel resources there are to exploit, the bigger the potential problem to sound the alarm about. Instead of having a valuable exchange, climate and resource people usually just talk past each other. Resource people usually end up talking only to themselves.

The 21st century is bound to be long, unpleasant and destructive to human welfare and all non-bacterial Earth life. This will be true regardless of the confusions and disagreements about climate versus resources. The current infatuation with insolvent banks will have long ago faded away as the Earth warms and oil production rates decline in the coming decades.

The long view presented in pictures dispels the notion that we will be able to hang on indefinitely to our extravagant late 20th century lifestyles. Watching our political leaders trying get the growth train rolling again by fine-tuning the economy fosters the illusion that we can. As any Buddhist will tell you, the only constant in life is change.

Contact the author at

Editorial Notes: For me, the acute problem is political. Economic pain eventually translates into war and civil strife, making it much more difficult to respond to climate change or resource depletion. So far the political changes have been peaceful (e.g. new governments in the U.S., Latvia, Iceland), but there's a good chance that we're only at the beginning of a long depression. (For more, see Michael Klare's latest: Will Economic Brushfires Prove Too Virulent to Contain?.) -BA

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