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A critique of Chapter XVII of the new book by Hirsch, Bezdek, and Wendling.

Dr. Samuel Johnson, in his Preface to Shakespeare's Othello, famously said of the strangulation of the "fair Desdemona": "I am glad that I have ended my [rereading] of this dreadful scene. It is not to be endured." Such is my response to Chapter XVII of the book The Impending World Energy Mess by Hirsch, Bezdek, and Wendling. It is perhaps the most terrifying thing I've read in the peak oil literature. Reading between the lines, (as I believe we must) we find nothing to be hopeful about.

This chapter is a scandal to the peak oil movement (if there is such a thing as a "peak oil movement"). I suspect it will go a long way toward discrediting peak oil as an oil company conspiracy to both raise the price of oil and destroy the planet in the process. They attempt to create doubt about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in order to advance their own thesis about how to best mitigate declining oil production, which may be phrased as follows:

BURN EVERYTHING. Coal, oil, gas, bitumen, lignite—burn it all.

Here's the authors' position on AGW:

We do not know whether global warming has been or will be caused by man-made carbon dioxide emissions. However, after many years of following the literature on the subject, we are concerned by a number of troubling issues: 1) The absence of a temperature rise over that last decade; 2) Inconsistencies and inaccuracies regarding various earthly changes; 3) Potential research data manipulation and contradictions; 4) The politicization of the science; and 5) Some unprofessional and ethically questionable behaviors by both global warming analysts and special interest groups.

I regard their claim to agnosticism at the outset to be a ruse. This is by no means an even-handed look at both sides of an argument. It's boilerplate denialism. It's clear by the end of the chapter that they don’t believe in human-caused climate change (or, at least they don't want us to believe it):

... there is just too much that is unsettling [in climate change research] for us to believe that a scientific basis exists to justify draconian, expensive, civilization-changing measures.

I can't claim to know much about this issue, as it's not something I follow. I do believe that, regardless of whether or not AGW is true, this mass of 6.9 billion human beings is simply incapable of implementing the changes that would be necessary to stop climate change if it were true. So in a sense I agree with their conclusion. I just disagree with their roundabout, cowardly way of communicating that conclusion.

Reading the chapter in question, I am struck—shocked, even—by the contradictions, absurdities, and selective quoting of their critique. One need only be a critical reader, not necessarily an AGW proponent, to see that their arguments are deceptive and inconsistent—a shotgun blast of everything they can muster instead of a logical line of reasoning. >From a writing teacher's manual I've used for years:

What goes wrong in most arguments, in our experience, is that the arguer is writing a list of reasons for or against something. [Some] writers think that the more reasons there are, the stronger the argument will be. Just the opposite is true. An argument is one line of reasoning resting on a single base. . . . [E]ach of the reasons on a list of reasons rests on a different base, and asks the reader to accept a different assumption as its starting point. The more the hapless writer adds reasons, the more the argument becomes a tissue of assumption and the more insubstantial it becomes.
Marie Ponsot, Rosemary Deen, Beat Not the Poor Desk

I decided to spend just a couple of hours researching some of their arguments—I work three part-time jobs and struggle to have some semblance of a life—but it didn't take long to find the authors misleading readers in Chapter XVII.

Global temperature rise. "Temperatures have been flat or slightly declining over the past decade." Just look at the charts here and judge for yourself what the trend looks like. The last ten years look like a fly speck on a mountain to me. Near the top of the page it even says that 2010 has been the warmest year in 131 years. Even if we grant the authors' claim, it doesn't mean that the preceding 125 years of warming (coinciding neatly with the oil age) didn’t happen, nor that the cause wasn't human carbon emissions. Need I add that oil production (and therefore consumption) has been "flat or slightly declining" for six years of that "past decade"? Might that have something to do with it?

Inconsistencies and inaccuracies regarding various earthly changes. I'd rather call it "inconsistencies and inaccuracies with which Hirsch, et al. represent these various so-called inconsistencies and inaccuracies." Just a couple: They argue on the one hand that "remarkable weather events" (Hurricane Katrina, floods, etc.) are no basis on which to decide whether human emissions are causing climate change. Point granted. Then, on page 221, one finds this:

In the 1990s when temperatures around the U.S. Seemed higher than normal, we were told that we were experiencing global warming. In the winter of 2009-2010, we experienced record-breaking snow and cold weather along the U.S. East coast and in the south. Indeed, we were told that on February 12, 2010, snow existed in every U.S. State other than Hawaii for the first time in recorded history.

I saw it myself: I was in Washington D. C. on February 18th, walking through snow drifts that were more like what we experience here in Maine.

However, you cannot argue out of one side of your mouth that extreme weather events are not evidence of human-caused global warming, then argue out of the other side of your mouth that extreme weather events are evidence that human-caused global warming is unfounded. You shouldn't be using extreme weather event arguments, period. According to NASA Earth Observatory:

In late January 2010, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies announced that the 2009 average global temperature was among the hottest observed since 1880. Looking at these maps, though, you can imagine how surprising that conclusion might have been to many residents of Mexico, the United States, central Canada, Sweden, or northern Russia. Each of those places experienced strong, sometimes deadly, cold-temperature anomalies, and in some cases, record-breaking snow this past winter.

Hirsch, et al. conveniently forget to mention that winter ended abruptly in late February. I saw that myself, too. In Maine, the snow was gone by March, and leaves were coming out in late April—unprecedented in my experience. To our shock and dismay, our apple orchard began blooming three weeks early, and we lost 95% of our crop due to a May frost. The local newspapers ignorantly reported that an unusual frost killed the apple crop, but the frost was right on time. It was the early bloom that caused the disaster.

Another inconsistency: The authors argue that data of retreating ice caps are insufficient to establish a case for global warming because "ice coverage data are only available back to the last 1970s." Compare that to their previous argument that a mere ten years of data ARE sufficient to claim that the global warming trend has stopped.

Using the same reasoning, one could ask: Are five years of data showing flat oil production sufficient to make the case for an imminent peak?

The politicization of the science. The authors lament, "the next time you see a statement regarding the so-called scientific consensus about human causation, you might question the knowledge and objectivity of the source." They then proceed—unbelievably—to present cases for "Climategate" and the "Oregon Petititon Project"! On Climategate they say:

The [University of East Anglia’s] climate research unit director, Professor Phil Jones, was accused of manipulating data and withholding scientific information to prevent its disclosure. He subsequently relinquished his post pending the completion of an investigation.

Compare their comment with the subsequent reality:

The Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry reported on 31 March 2010 that it had found that "the scientific reputation of Professor Jones and CRU remains intact". The emails and claims raised in the controversy did not challenge the scientific consensus that "global warming is happening and that it is induced by human activity". The [Members of Parliament] had seen no evidence to support claims that Jones had tampered with data or interfered with the peer-review process.

[...]

In July 2010, the British investigation commissioned by the [University of East Anglia],... published its final report saying it had exonerated the scientists of manipulating their research to support preconceived ideas about global warming. The "rigour and honesty" of the scientists at the Climatic Research Unit were found not to be in doubt.... At the conclusion of the inquiry, Jones was reinstated with the newly-created post of Director of Research.

Hirsch, et al.'s sources: Right-wing blogs such as Big Government and American Thinker. No politics there.

My source: Wikipedia.

Here's Hirsch, et al. on the Oregon Petition Project:

Over 31,000 technically trained skeptics of global warming signed the petition. More than 9,000 held technical PhDs. The number of signatory skeptics was estimated to be twelve times larger than the number of scientific reviewers claimed by the UN Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change.

[...]

The petition cover letter was prepared by Dr. Frederick Seitz, Past President, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, President Emeritus of Rockefeller University, and Nobel Prize winner in physics—not a scientific slouch.

Here's a little dose of reality from Skeptic Magazine (That's “skeptic” as in “rational inquiry,” not “deny everything”):

The petition drive was begun by Dr. Frederick Seitz, now deceased, and is now led by Dr. Arthur Robinson and his son, Dr. Noah Robinson. . . . Robinson asserts not just that his collection of 31,072 signatures on a petition has refuted the claim of “settled science” and “overwhelming consensus” among scientists with regard to global warming, but that “The very large number of petition signers demonstrates that, if there is a consensus among American scientists, it is in opposition to the human caused global warming hypothesis rather than in favor of it.” Not only has Robinson failed to substantiate either of his assertions, he is misleading the American public by implying that his petition fairly represents relevant expert opinion.

More from Wikipedia:

Seitz began working as a permanent consultant for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, advising their medical research program until 1988. Reynolds had previously provided "very generous" support for biomedical work at Rockefeller. Seitz later wrote that "The money was all spent on basic science, medical science," and pointed to Reynolds-funded research on mad cow disease and tuberculosis. Nonetheless, later academic studies of tobacco industry influence concluded that Seitz, who helped allocate $45m of Reynolds' research funding, "played a key role... in helping the tobacco industry produce uncertainty concerning the health impacts of smoking."

[...]

In 1984 Seitz was the founding chairman of the [conservative think tank] George C. Marshall Institute, and was its chairman until 2001. The Institute was founded to argue for President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, but “in the 1990s it branched out to become one of the leading think-tanks trying to debunk the science of climate change.” ... In 1994, the Institute published a paper by Seitz titled Global warming and ozone hole controversies: A challenge to scientific judgment. Seitz questioned the view that CFCs “are the greatest threat to the ozone layer”. In the same paper, commenting on the dangers of secondary inhalation of tobacco smoke, he concluded “there is no good scientific evidence that passive inhalation is truly dangerous under normal circumstances.”

Seitz on the issue of second-hand smoking sounds like Hirsch, et al. on global warming.

I'd had enough of Hirsch, et al., at this point.

I remember when you could only get what came to be called The Hirsch Report from a high school website. It was a stupendous, even infamous achievement in the peak oil literature. But like Matt Simmons, who completely lost his mind over the Deepwater Horizon blowout, and Mike Ruppert, who went ga-ga with 9/11 conspiracies, Hirsch and Co. have just self-immolated.

Here is the crux of this whole, dismal chapter:

[W]e believe that the impending decline in world oil production will impose hardships that could be catastrophic to human well-being. To effectively mitigate the enormous oil shortage problem while also trying to reduce world carbon dioxide emissions is impossible in our judgment.

I am afraid the authors are right, but I believe they just don't have the cojones to come out and say what they want to say: We can't do anything about global warming, so we shouldn't worry about worsening it in our attempt to burn our way through oil decline.

Hirsch, et al., have expertise that exceeds my lay view by orders of magnitude; therefore, I simply can't believe they wrote this chapter out of incompetence.

And I would be abashed to say they wrote it out of connivance.

My conclusion: I believe Hirsch, et al., are simply appalled by our prospects. My translation of Chapter XVII: "AGW can't be true; because if it is true, in this new regime of declining oil production, we're toast."



About the author

Mike Bendzela lives on Dow Farm in Maine with Don Essman, his partner of 25 years. They and their landlords plan to open a CSA and market stand in the Spring of 2011. Mike's "real" job is teaching composition at the University of Southern Maine. He is also a licensed EMT and an Old Time fiddler.


Editorial Notes: An early version of this article appeared as a comment under the Oct 7 Drumbeat at The Oil Drum. Many interesting comments appear at the original there. Several long-time contributors saw this article and suggested that we post it. I've been aware of the climate skepticism/denial among some peak oil writers (for example, through Rob Hopkins 2006 report on the ASPO-Europe conference and in conflicts in the discussions at The Oil Drum). However I hadn't been aware the arguments were as poor as Michael Bendzela describes in this post. These arguments have been rebutted elsewhere in detail. It just goes to show how individuals can be brilliant in one field and mediocre in another. In a similar way, many environmental activists have been resistant to the ideas of peak oil and resource depletion. I don't think the climate skepticism/denial is the same within the peak oil community as it is in the outside world. From what I can tell, those within peak oil are sincere and rational. However, there seems to be a common thread among them -- a relationship of some sort with the fossil fuels industries. Within that environment, climate skepticism/denial seems to be a given. About how to handle this issue, I think I would agree with Leanan, TOD's news editor. In a comment to an early version of this article, she wrote:
I could see simply ignoring the climate change issue, if you want to reach those who would otherwise dismiss you. But to actually jump on board with the camp who thinks Phil Jones is masterminding a huge global conspiracy in order to secure more funding...oy. That alienates a whole lot more people.
-BA

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