The IEA has pretty much conceeded peak oil, announcing that growth to meet demand in the coming decades will come from entirely mythical sources. Ok, they didn’t say that, what they said in the latest World Energy Outlook was that the majority of oil production by 2030 will be coming from “fields yet to be developed or found.” But what that means is “we’re hoping someone with magic powers will come and reverse the long-standing trend towards decline in oil discovery.” Because we know that oil discovery peaked in 1964 and has been declining ever since, so that we are consuming oil five times faster than we are discovering it. According to energy consultants IHS, 90% of all known or suspected reserves are in production already. In a world that consumes 40,000 plus barrels per second, that’s a pretty big deal.
And this comes after an IEA whistleblower accused the IEA of intentionally overestimating reserves in order to please rich world countries and avoid a financial panic. If that turns out to be the case, which from all the independent research into reserves being done, seems likely, the decline of oil is going to come a lot faster and harder than many people think.
So you’d think that peak oil writers would have enough to write about – after all, this is pretty much the nail in the coffin. So why are they still banging hard on the idiotic “peak oil is more important than climate change” drum?
Consider the latest by Kjell Aleklett, who just published a piece at Energy Bulletin that claims that the IPCC scenarios are “pure fantasy.” in which he argues, yet again, that we don’t have enough fossil fuels to hit the worst case IPCC scenarios.
To a certain extent, Aleklett is right – he (and James Hansen) have shown repeatedly that actual oil reserves can’t get us to the old tipping point numbers, and he’s done a great deal of good work in re-estimating coal figures. The problem is Aleklett doesn’t seem to grasp that this work was important once, and is now obsolete, and the emerging consensus among climate researchers is that climate sensitivity is much greater than it ever was. And this is a profound failure of analysis – the nature of scientific inquiry is that at times your work will be found to have been superceded by new knowledge. The appropriate response to that is to go do all the other important work that now needs doing – not to spend time whinging that no one is paying attention to you any more. And this is particularly troubling because the questions he raises – for example about world coal reserves – are so enormously important – it is simply his conclusions that are wrong:
“The climate change negotiators main question should therefore be, “How will we use coal in the future?”.
Today’s coal production – hard coal and brown coal – is approximately 3000 million “tonne of oil equivalent” (toe). For the “Business as Usual” scenarios coal production must increase seven-fold by 2100. That is an increase of 600%. In the last 20 years, global coal reserves have been revised downwards by 25%. The most recent case was India that halved its declared reserves. The USA is the “Saudi Arabia of coal” with 29% of global reserves. The former Soviet Union has 27%, China 14%, Australia 9%, India 7% and South Africa 4% of global reserves. That means that 90% of the fossil coal reserves exist in these six nations. We can also assert that the same six nations today produce 86% of the world’s coal.
If emissions of coal are to increase by 600 percent this cannot occur without the USA – that has the worlds largest coal finds – increasing its coal production by the same amount. In an article published in May 2009 in the International Journal of Coal Geology we have studied the historical trends and future possible production of coal in the USA. The production of high-grade anthracite is decreasing while the production of brown coal in Wyoming is increasing. Future coal production is completely dependent on new coal mining in the state of Montana. According to the constitution of the USA, federal authorities cannot force Montana to produce coal. In Montana they do not want to produce coal since the mining will destroy the environment and large areas of agricultural land. If the constitution is changed and mining of coal in Montana does occur it is possible for the USA to increase its coal production by 40% but not by 100%. An increase of 600% is pure fantasy.
Today, the world’s largest coal producer is China. Its reserves of coal are half the size of the USA’s and China has no possibility of increasing its coal production by 100%. A 600% increase there is also pure fantasy. Russia, with the world’s second largest coal reserves, can increase its production significantly but the untouched Russian coal reserves lie in central Siberia in an area without infrastructure. Russia is not dependent on this coal for its own energy needs but if mining did begin there some time after 2050 it could only ever be equivalent to a small fraction of today’s global production. Therefore, it is impossible for global coal production to increase by 100% and 600% is, once again, pure fantasy.”
There is an emerging consensus that 350 ppm is the critical point, and that we have a short period, maybe less than decade to reduce our emissions. Chief NASA climate scientist James Hansen and IPCC chief Rajendra Pachuri are among a rapidly growing number of scientists that have shifted the terms of the discussion, because of emerging evidence that climate change is happening faster and harder than even the IPCC suspected. The Copenhagen Update released recently supports the idea that climate sensitivity is much greater than expected, and suggests that sea level rises may be double what was anticipated.
The problem with what Aleklett says is that we know we can achieve 350ppm on existing fossil fuel reserves because we’ve already done it – we’re at 387 or so. We also know that we can achieve a close approximation of the absolute worst outcomes if the methane trapped in the permafrost begins to melt – something that the 2007 IPCC report spoke of as a distant possibility – but that we learned in 2008 was already happening. As Joseph Romm and David Lawrence among others have both shown, melting permafrost is more than sufficient to get us to 1000 ppm.
Given this, Aleklett’s claim that the *scenarios* are fantasy is ridiculous. It is true we can’t get there by directly emitting fossil fuels, but that doesn’t matter, because we can get there by emitting enough fossil fuels to lead to massive methane emissions. His work in documenting fossil fuel reserves is important and valuable, but he doesn’t seem to grasp that the terms of the discussion have changed. His demand that we keep talking about the old terms makes no sense at all – particularly when there is so much important work to be done on the intersection of climate change and peak energy. For example, developing an optimization figure for a rate at which we *can* safely burn fossil fuels, with both the goal of adapting for long term depletion and also preserving what we can of the climate would be nice.
The reason this frustrates me so much is that this doesn’t help Peak Oil’s cause, or help it enter into the discussion. Instead, it marginalizes peak oil advocates, giving people the impression that they have to choose between crises. It undermines the really good work done by people like Aleklett and makes people, myself included, take him less seriously – and that’s a real problem, because his knowledge of energy reserves is among the best in the world.
I wish it was just Aleklett, but it isn’t. John Michael Greer is a colleague, and I hope a friend of mine. We’re joint founders of the a Peak Oil Interfaith discussion, we have the same publisher, and I’m a profound admirer of this thought. While we’ve had some lively arguments over the years, we’ve done so respectfully. And Greer is precisely the sort of climate change skeptic that we can deal with – he recognizes explicitly that absolute need to reduce consumption radically. Indeed, I have no doubt he’d sign on for changes stronger than any government woudl ever approve. But I wish he’d be a lot more careful about what he writes about climate change, because he doesn’t seem to hold to his usual meticulous standards of research when writing about climate change. He says in last week’s essay:
“There’s good reason to think that the feedback loop by which popular attitudes generate their own supporting evidence via dubious science has distorted the global warming debate. The fingerprints show up all over the weird disconnect between current global warming science and the findings of paleoclimatology, which show that sudden, drastic climate changes have been routine events in Earth’s long history; that the Earth was actually warmer than the temperatures predicted by current doomsday scenarios at the peak of the current interglacial period only six thousand years ago; and that the Earth has been a hothouse jungle planet without ice caps or glaciers for around 80% of the time since multicellular life evolved here. Technically speaking, we’re still in an ice age – the current interglacial is on schedule to end in the next few thousand years, giving way to a new glaciation for a hundred thousand years or so, with several million years of further cycles still in the pipeline – and claims that setting the planetary thermostat a little closer to its normal range will terminate life on Earth are thus at least open to question.”
Here Greer identifies a breach that doesn’t exist (climate researchers generally work with paleoclimatologists, and the IPCC certainly included quite anumber of them), recites the oft quoted “it was warmer 6000 years ago” bit (yes, but only in the summer, and only in the northern hemisphere, according to the NOAA, “there is no evidence to show that the average annual mid-Holocene temperature was warmer than today’s temperatures”), and repeats, as though climate scientists have never heard this before that the earth has been warm for most of its history.
This is a technique that is commonly used by Global Warming Skeptics – to speak as though they alone have noticed obvious scientific facts – my favorite is the “it could just be the sun” standard, as though no scientists have never even thought that the sun might have something to do with warming. It is absolutely true that earth was warmer through much of its history. It is also true that human beings were not present through most of that period, and certainly there weren’t 6-9 billion of us relying heavily on a stable climate for agriculture. Climatologists are worried that agriculture won’t be viable in many of the places people live, and that those people will die, or migrate and start wars. They are also concerned that some of the places we live and grow food will be under water, or have salty groundwater. They are worried about more diseases. They are worried about more death. This is, IMHO, a good thing to worry about.
No climate scientist I’m aware of prophesies human extinction – the single most extreme version I can think of would be James Lovelock’s claim of “a few breeding pairs of humans at the poles” but even he admits to overstating for rhetorical purposes, and his is hardly a mainstream viewpoint. Most scientists seem to spend their time worrying about ordinary, simple things like people dying without adequate crop irrigation or drinking water. They are fixated on saving millions, maybe even billions of lives over the course of the century, but not on saving the human race from extinction. IMHO, saving a few million lives alone would be enough to be worth doing.
Greer goes on to write that the narratives of peak oil and climate change are fundamentally different, in a segment of his writing that simply doesn’t make a lot of coherent sense. He says,
“The global warming story, if you boil it down to its bones, is the kind of story our culture loves to tell – a narrative about human power. Look at us, it says, we’re so mighty we can destroy the world! The peak oil story, by contrast, is the kind of story we don’t like – a story about natural limits that apply, yes, even to us. From the standpoint of peak oil, our self-anointed status as evolution’s fair-haired child starts looking like the delusion it arguably is, and it becomes hard to avoid the thought that we may have to settle for the rather less flattering role of just another species that overshot the carrying capacity of its environment and experienced the usual consequences.
It’s hard to think of a less popular claim to make these days. Similar logic may be behind the way that both climate change believers and deniers shy away from the paleoclimatic data that shows just how lively Earth’s climate has been in prehistoric times.”
Here Greer’s normal coherent reasoning falls apart. First there’s his premise that climate scientists don’t pay attention to paleoclimatic data – that’s just wrong. For example, paleoclimatic data is precisely why we worry about tipping points and rapid shifts being caused by anthropogenic activity – because we know that they have happened before. Ice core climate data is central to establishing the case for global warming – this is very basic knowledge, and I simply find it hard to believe Greer has never encountered it before. Again, we’re all concerned precisely because we have no idea how human beings will respond to the scale of climate change we may be facing. Just as we don’t exactly know how we will respond to peak oil – in both cases, though, we have ample reason to suspect the results will not be happy ones.
Perhaps as importantly, his claim that peak oil and climate change are stories with only one meaning, in opposition to one another is just another false dichotomy, the sort of thing he generally tends to deplore. It is certainly true that you could argue that the story of climate change is “we can destroy the world” just as you could argue that a narrative that a people built a fossil fuel dependent agriculture and society and then starved and froze because the energy resources to continue it constituted a similar narrative, and Greer agrees that there are people who tell that version of the peak oil story. Equally, you could read both AGW and Peak Oil as stories about banging up against natural limits – in one case a limit of resources, in another, the limit of the ability of the atmosphere to absorb our outputs. Greer should know as well as anyone that stories don’t have inherent meanings – they have the meanings we apply to them. His caricature of the climate change story seems to be based on misunderstandings about both what climate science is based upon and on what climatologists say.
If we are telling stories, I’d like to propose another one. In it, climate change and peak oil are both acute situations, coming together. It turns out that after using fossil energies to put off the material limits of our world, we found that there were real limits after all – both to the fossil energies we have to use and also to our environment’s ability to withstand degradation and absorb our outputs. This is not a strange concept – that is, if you are drinking beer and pissing in the stream, it is perfectly possible to imagine you will have to deal simultaneously with rendering the water undrinkable and running out of beer.
Both of these problems, treated separately, lend themselves to apocalyptic narratives that are probably largely untrue – unless, of course, you consider the death of many people who didn’t have to die to be apocalyptic, which some of us do. Together, they lend themsevles to narratives that are more complex – and simpler. They up the likelihood that things that even moderate people call apocalyptic might happen – almost certainly not the extinction of the best and most adaptive primate on the planet, but enough suffering and death to be a very, very bad thing. They also lead directly to a single solution. We can’t keep using fossil fuels for two reasons. We also know that we can’t build out resources fast enough to keep living our way of life. So we’re going to be using less energy – all the stories lead there, and decisively.
We really like dichotomies in our society. We like either/or stories, because we’ve been trained to like them. Every newspaper story is written as an either/or, every kid learns to write “pro/con” stories. Everyone likes a nice dichotomy, and it rarely matters to us whether they are false. But they often are – and the peak oil vs. climate change discussion is a false dichotomy. The claim that we can choose which side to be on is a false one – because we’re banging up against physical realities in both cases. One way or another, we will be addressing those realities – that is the way of the world. It would be so much better to get past the false dichotomies and do it now, and start telling true stories.