Seawalls for oil refineries and other ironies of climate change adaptation

August 26, 2018

A friend of mine includes a saying with each of his emails that goes like this: “It shouldn’t be easier to imagine the end of civilization than the end of air conditioning.” But in most depictions of the end of civilization at the cinema these days, the air conditioning (or heat, if it is winter) is going full blast until the very moment of civilization’s demise.

What he is alluding to, of course, is that we can’t imagine ourselves giving up much of anything even in the face of the biggest man-made threat to human survival ever, namely, climate change. To make sure that we don’t have to, the oil industry is championing a plan that will use federal money to build a seawall along the Texas coast in order to protect—you guessed it—oil refineries, a large number of which are located near the water’s edge.

It will protect a lot of other stuff as well. But the irony is not lost on the reporter of the linked piece who in droll understatement writes: “But the idea of taxpayers around the country paying to protect refineries worth billions, and in a state where top politicians still dispute climate change’s validity, doesn’t sit well with some.”

Elsewhere, efficient use of water, especially in agriculture, is deemed wise policy as water demand rises and water supply becomes more uncertain in the face of climate change. The U.S. Department of Agriculture states the following on its website:

Agriculture is a major user of ground and surface water in the United States, accounting for approximately 80 percent of the Nation’s consumptive water use and over 90 percent in many Western States. Efficient irrigation systems and water management practices can help maintain farm profitability in an era of increasingly limited and more costly water supplies.

This seems like sage, indisputable advice. But recently researchers writing in the journal Science reported that highly efficient irrigation can actually undermine natural water systems and result in net losses of water availability.

How can this be? The researchers explain that efficient irrigation such as drip irrigation tends to increase water usage among farmers who see opportunities to grow high-value, but more water-intensive crops and to expand the land area which they irrigate. Thus, cheaper water bills can cause more consumption if there is profit to be made from consuming more water.

The second issue is that drip irrigation, for example, returns only 5 percent of the water it uses back to the water basin from which it comes versus a 30 percent return for regular surface irrigation. That water can be reused.

The authors highlight several examples. Here’s one: “[In] Snake River, Idaho, where farmers have increased their IE [irrigation efficiency],…this has reduced groundwater recharge and led to a decline in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer by about 30% since the mid-1970s, despite increased precipitation.”

The phenomenon the researchers describe is often called The Jevons Paradox. Wikipedia rightly describes it as occurring “when technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used (reducing the amount necessary for any one use), but the rate of consumption of that resource rises due to increasing demand.”

We pursue efficiency because we believe it will accomplish two things we like at once: reduce our economic costs and reduce our total resource consumption. But we usually achieve the first while exacerbating the second.

For example, even as the global economy becomes more energy efficient each year on the whole, it consumes more energy including more fossil fuel energy as overall demand rises. The result is, of course, rising carbon emissions from energy use. The only way to prevent this increase would be to reduce fossil fuel energy consumption. In a world where 80 percent of all energy is produced by fossil fuels, that will only happen if there is a worldwide cap on fossil fuel consumption that is lower than present usage. And, substantial declines won’t occur unless the cap is lowered over time.

Such a scheme has been proposed, and it’s called Tradable Energy Quotas. TEQs are similar to cap and trade systems used successfully to reduce sulfur emissions responsible for acid rain and carbon emissions in some jurisdictions. It is difficult, however, to imagine that such a system would be adopted worldwide anytime soon.

I have said before that the central intellectual challenge of our age is that we live in complex systems but we don’t understand complexity. Seemingly commonsense approaches to resource management such as drip irrigation and energy efficiency backfire inside the complex feedback loops we have created within our global system. Even when we endeavor to do the right thing, we may end up making things worse.

All this suggests that we humans are not good at tracing the possible consequences of our actions, especially when they involve complex systems. And this suggests a principle which I take from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author and famed student of risk, probability and complexity, to wit: It is dangerous to perturb complex systems upon which our survival depends because we cannot foresee the results.

Climate is one of those complex systems. The excuse for doing nothing about climate change is that we don’t really know where it is headed. Using Taleb’s principle, the reason for doing something dramatic to curb our interference in the complex climate system is exactly the same.

Alas, building seawalls to protect Texas Gulf Coast refineries does not seem like our first task. But apparently, several climate change deniers in the Texas political establishment aren’t deniers after all. They just don’t want the industry which got them elected (and could get them defeated just as easily) to pay anything to protect itself from the very dangers to which the use of the industry’s products exposes the entire globe.

“Back!” Satirical cartoon in Punch magazine showing King Canute ordering the tide to halt (1908). Artist Samuel D. Ehrhart. Via Wikimedia.  


Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: climate change, Jevons paradox, oil and gas production, rising sea levels