Archive for the ‘fossil fuels’ Category
The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone!
I know this has been said many times. Most recently it has been said by one of my favourite environmental commentators/campaigners, Executive Director of CIWEM (the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management), Nick Reeves OBE. If any new readers are not familiar with him, they may wish to start by typing his name into the Search this Blog box (in the right-hand column) and see what happens…
CIWEM publishes a monthly magazine, to which Reeves nearly always contributes an article. Last week, my copy of the May 2013 issue arrived early. It includes an article by Reeves entitled, ehem, “A bonkers energy solution”. However, the online version is indeed entitled “Fracking Mad“. Reeves begins with a seemingly bizarre discussion of the failings of the UK’s education system. However, it soon becomes clear that he considers this to be at least partly to blame for the fact that the general public are willing to accept a “bonkers energy solution” such as hydraulic fracturing. However, it is UK government policy that is “bonkers” (the general public just don’t seem to realise it):
Last December, the energy and climate change secretary, Ed Davey, gave the go-ahead for fracking (the controversial technology for releasing underground shale gas) as part of a plan for maximising the use of (so called) low-cost fuel. In so doing the government has thumbed its nose at legally binding carbon emissions targets and cuffed the country to a fossil-fuel future. Worse still, its commitment to fracking will undermine investment of billions of pounds in renewables, geothermal and energy efficiency. We now know that the ‘greenest government ever’ tag was shameless and that ministers are back-sliding on their commitment to a low-carbon and green economy.
Reeves goes on to recount the recent history of fracking in the UK and mentions all the (probably spurious) safety concerns. Like me, he focusses on the fact that we probably cannot afford to pursue fracking because of the long-term consequences doing so will have; and that we simply must find a way to do without it. However, he is more blunt than I have been, and criticises the reviews the Government commissioned for not making this point:
The scientists appear to have ignored the fact that no amount of control and regulation can stop shale gas from being a fossil fuel or from releasing carbon dioxide.
This is an important point well made. However, in defence of the scientists (and engineers) asked to determine whether fracking is ‘safe’, I would have to point out that the questions of the long-term environmental sustainability, sensibility and/or survivability of fracking were carefully excluded from the remit of the reviews that the Government asked them to undertake. Reeves therefore concludes that fracking is “a reckless move driven by ideology” that “will commit the UK to being a fossil fuel economy and not a low carbon one” for decades to come… And so, you can almost hear the frustration in Reeves’ voice as he asks:
What will it take to get people to understand the seriousness of the climate change catastrophe that awaits us?
Reeves then goes on to talk about carbon budgets and our rapidly-declining chances of limiting global average temperature rise to 2 Celsius (compared to pre-1850) and makes the point many others have made that global reserves of fossil fuels are five times greater than that which we would have to burn in order to guarantee at least 2 Celsius temperature rise. As Reeves puts it:
In other words, we can only avoid devastating climate change if we keep most of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground. But, is that possible? Can we deliberately forgo what many regard as our most precious energy resource – the fuels that have powered 200 years of industrialisation – for the sake of future generations? It is absolutely possible, and we must. The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone. (my emphasis)
The remainder of Reeves’ article (which I would encourage all to read) is a typically incisive summary of how this problem is entirely solvable. We do not lack the technology or the resources to produce the electricity to provide for the needs of even 10 billion humans. What we (or at least our politicians) lack is the intellectual honesty to admit that the game is up. Fossil fuels are not the solution; they are the problem. Furthermore, the longer we (or they) fail to acknowledge this, the greater the problem will become.
Reeves looks at the situation from a range of perspectives, UK, EU and global. However, in the end, this is a problem that will only ever be solved by people demanding that their politicians solve it:
The dash for oil in the Arctic and the dash for shale gas elsewhere, shows that we are as addicted to fossil fuels as we ever were. But a low-carbon future is the one we must all fight for – our gift to the unborn.
Today is Earth Day 2013, apparently. This would be a good day for everyone on Earth to accept that, given the incontrovertible operational reality of the exponential function in Nature, technological optimism is not a good idea.
I am grateful to a couple of my regular readers who have, completely independently, directed me towards complementary sources of information that go right to the core of what this blog is all about. Before getting into the detail, I will start by simply stating what these two sources of information are, as follows:
1. Thanks to Pendantry, I have discovered an incisive presentation (circa 2002) of Dr Albert A. Bartlett, entitled ‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’, which High School science teacher Greg Craven (who gave the World the ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ video) has been posted on You Tube as a series of eight 9-minute videos.
2. Thanks to Mike (of uknowispeaksense fame), I have been alerted to the very recent publication of a paper by economist Partha S. Dasgupta and biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, entitled ‘Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus’. The abstract is viewable on the Science journal website but, having done a quick Google search, I found the entire paper published as a PDF by Dasgupta on the website of Cambridge University.
Although a daunting task, I will now attempt to summarise both works; starting today with the presentation by Bartlett. So as to do both works justice, I will publish my summary of Dasgupta and Ehrlich separately.
‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’ by Albert A. Bartlett
Even if you have watched them before, I would encourage all readers to defy the viewing statistics and watch all eight videos. However, here is a summary: Bartlett starts and finishes his presentation by asserting that, “the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”. Somewhat incongruously, he repeatedly describes exponential growth as “steady growth”. This is a shame because exponential growth is anything but “steady”. Exponential growth describes any situation “where the time that is required for the growing quantity to increase by a fixed fraction is a constant”. This is most commonly expressed as percentage growth on an annual basis. Bartlett then goes on to highlight the curious coincidence of many things that have historically doubled every 10 years by growing at a rate of 7% per annum (including crime in Colorado, inflation in the USA, and the global consumption of oil). Having carefully explained all the mathematics, Bartlett spends a very large proportion of his presentation quoting from a bewildering array of journalists, economists and politicians who are either completely ignorant of – or deeply disingenuous about – the consequences of exponential growth.
Chillingly, Bartlett highlights the reality that, if the human population of planet Earth does not stop growing exponentially, Nature will intervene to stop it. We can either choose to stop it or it will be stopped; and doing the former (whilst involving some very difficult choices) will be a lot better than allowing the latter to happen. Bartlett’s presentation of population dynamics has been repeated many times before and since (but people are still ignoring it). Even more devastating, however, is Bartlett’s presentation of the history of global fossil fuel consumption (which has given rise to many misleading statements and a great deal of misplaced optimism). He points out that, even if it were safe to extract them, all the hydrocarbons that lie beneath the Arctic will be consumed by the USA in one year. There is so much in Bartlett’s presentation that I could mention but I will focus on his examination of resource depletion in the face of exponential growth of consumption – it requires the perpetual discovery of double the cumulative total resource consumed. On a finite planet, this is quite simply impossible. Bartlett dismisses the proposition that biofuels could solve this problem by pointing out that Agriculture is an industry that uses land and oil to produce food. Therefore, using agriculture to produce biofuels is likely to be a zero sum game.
However, most sobering of all, is Bartlett’s presentation of Dr M. King Hubbert’s predictions regarding Peak Oil. With regard to US production, history has found Hubbert was correct – production peaked in 1970 and exhaustion can be expected by 2050. Furthermore, since global oil production has now peaked, it is guaranteed to be exhausted by 2100 (because we cannot continue to find double what we have already historically used).
Bartlett’s discussion of Growthmania is devastating and, to me, the logic is incontrovertible: The First Law of Sustainability is that population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained. There can therefore be no such thing as sustainable growth. This is not an opinion. On a finite planet, this is mathematical fact. Somewhat surprisingly, in a roundabout way, this leads Bartlett to point out that the country with the World’s greatest problem with regard to population growth is the USA. This is because, in the USA, the per-capita consumption of the World’s resources is four times global average (and some thirty times that of the World’s poorest people).
Towards the end of his presentation, Bartlett counters all the misinformation and misplaced optimism with some telling quotes from a variety of people including Galileo Galileii and Aldous Huxley. However, perhaps the most telling quotation of all is that from Martin Luther King Jr:
Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we posses. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victim.
At the best part of 1000 words, this may seem like a long summary but, in truth, I have barely scratched the surface of all the information Bartlett presents. Therefore, if any of this is unclear or, in your mind, appears to be unjustified pessimism, please watch the videos.
As promised, my summary of Dasgupta and Ehrlich’s new paper will appear later this week.
As the Bishop of London said at the funeral service for the late Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven today, this is neither the time nor the place to argue about her legacy. Comments on this post are therefore disabled (until tomorrow at least). However, even putting aside politics, all those miners of coal who have have shown such crass disrespect for the late Margaret Thatcher need to bear in mind that mining coal is one of the most environmentally damaging things humans have ever done. Therefore, in seeking to make the UK less dependent upon coal, it could be argued that Mrs Thatcher’s greatest mistake was pursuing gas rather than renewable energy. This mistake, replicated the world over for several decades now, is a mistake for which we and our children and our children’s children shall pay a very heavy price.
“An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it” — Orlando A. Battista.
However, as highlighted by Joe Romm on the Think Progress website on 17 March 2013, it is not one that will always be true. With the author’s kind permission, this article, entitled ‘The Dangerous Myth That Climate Change Is Reversible’, is reproduced in full below.
If you have not already read it, I would very much recommend that you do so. However, by way of a summary, here are the key points as I see them:
1. The burning of fossil fuels is causing change that will not be reversible in any timescale meaningful to humans: Although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) say this will be at least 1000 years, the Geological Society of London (GSL) has warned it could take at least 100 times longer than that to undo the damage we are now doing. That being the case, the longer we fail to address this issue the greater the likelihood that the GSL estimate will be correct.
2. Warming will only ever stop if total CO2 emissions are less than the rate of CO2 removal; and one is already twice the other. Any change (current and future) could only be reversed if the CO2 content of the atmosphere were to be reduced (i.e. if removal exceeds emissions). Artificial carbon capture and storage (CCS) is almost certainly impossible to achieve safely, at scale, and within the timescale required (to prevent unstoppable change). That being the case, change is effectively irreversible; and we must stop burning fossil fuels ASAP.
3. Wait and see is no longer a survivable option; we need to decarbonise our power generation systems as fast as possible. Burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels without CCS is very likely to cause unstoppable climate change (i.e. what is called a “runaway greenhouse effect” resulting from feedback mechanisms now observed to be mutually-reinforcing the change human activity has already caused).
Here, then, is Joe’s article in full:
The Dangerous Myth That Climate Change Is Reversible
The CMO (Chief Misinformation Officer) of the climate ignorati, Joe Nocera, has a new piece, “A Real Carbon Solution.” The biggest of its many errors comes in this line:
A reduction of carbon emissions from Chinese power plants would do far more to help reverse climate change than — dare I say it? — blocking the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Memo to Nocera: As a NOAA-led paper explained 4 years ago, climate change is “largely irreversible for 1000 years.”
This notion that we can reverse climate change by cutting emissions is one of the most commonly held myths — and one of the most dangerous, as explained in this 2007 MIT study, “Understanding Public Complacency About Climate Change: Adults’ mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter.”
The fact is that, as RealClimate has explained, we would need “an immediate cut of around 60 to 70% globally and continued further cuts over time” merely to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of CO2 – and that would still leave us with a radiative imbalance that would lead to “an additional 0.3 to 0.8ºC warming over the 21st Century.” And that assumes no major carbon cycle feedbacks kick in, which seems highly unlikely.
We’d have to drop total global emissions to zero now and for the rest of the century just to lower concentrations enough to stop temperatures from rising. Again, even in this implausible scenario, we still aren’t talking about reversing climate change, just stopping it — or, more technically, stopping the temperature rise. The great ice sheets might well continue to disintegrate, albeit slowly.
This doesn’t mean climate change is unstoppable — only that we are stuck with whatever climate change we cause before we get desperate and go all WWII on emissions. That’s why delay is so dangerous and immoral. For instance, if we don’t act quickly, we are likely to be stuck with permanent Dust Bowls in the Southwest and around the globe. I’ll discuss the irreversibility myth further below the jump.
First, though, Nocera’s piece has many other pieces of misinformation. He leaves people with the impression that coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a practical, affordable means of reducing emissions from existing power plants that will be available soon. In fact, most demonstration projects around the world have been shut down, the technology Nocera focuses on would not work on the vast majority of existing coal plants, and CCS is going to be incredibly expensive compared to other low-carbon technologies — see Harvard stunner: “Realistic” first-generation CCS costs a whopping $150 per ton of CO2 (20 cents per kWh)! And that’s in the unlikely event it proves to be practical, permanent, and verifiable (see “Feasibility, Permanence and Safety Issues Remain Unresolved”).
Heck, the guy who debated me on The Economist‘s website conceded things are going very slowly, writing “The idea is that CCS then becomes a commercial reality and begins to make deep cuts in emissions during the 2030s.” And he’s a CCS advocate!!
Of course, we simply don’t have until the 2030s to wait for deep cuts in emissions. No wonder people who misunderstand the irreversible nature of climate change, like Nocera, tend to be far more complacent about emissions reductions than those who understand climate science.
The point of Nocera’s piece seems to be to mock Bill McKibben for opposing the idea of using captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery (EOR): “his answer suggests that his crusade has blinded him to the real problem.”
It is Nocera who has been blinded. He explains in the piece:
Using carbon emissions to recover previously ungettable oil has the potential to unlock vast untapped American reserves. Last year, ExxonMobil reportedthat enhanced oil recovery would allow it to extend the life of a single oil field in West Texas by 20 years.
McKibben’s effort to stop the Keystone XL pipeline is based on the fact that we have to leave the vast majority of carbon in the ground. Sure, it wouldn’t matter if you built one coal CCS plant and used that for EOR. But we need a staggering amount of CCS, as Vaclav Smil explained in “Energy at the Crossroads“:
“Sequestering a mere 1/10 of today’s global CO2 emissions (less than 3 Gt CO2) would thus call for putting in place an industry that would have to force underground every year the volume of compressed gas larger than or (with higher compression) equal to the volume of crude oil extracted globally by [the] petroleum industry whose infrastructures and capacities have been put in place over a century of development. Needless to say, such a technical feat could not be accomplished within a single generation.”
D’oh! What precisely would be the point of “sequestering” all that CO2 to extract previously “ungettable oil” whose emissions, when burned, would just about equal the CO2 that you supposedly sequestered?
Remember, we have to get total global emissions of CO2 to near zero just to stop temperatures from continuing their inexorable march toward humanity’s self-destruction. And yes, this ain’t easy. But it is impossible if we don’t start slashing emissions soon and stop opening up vast new sources of carbon.
For those who are confused on this point, I recommend reading the entire MIT study, whose lead author is John Sterman. Here is the abstract:
Public attitudes about climate change reveal a contradiction. Surveys show most Americans believe climate change poses serious risks but also that reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions sufficient to stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations or net radiative forcing can be deferred until there is greater evidence that climate change is harmful. US policymakers likewise argue it is prudent to wait and see whether climate change will cause substantial economic harm before undertaking policies to reduce emissions.Such wait-and-see policies erroneously presume climate change can be reversed quickly should harm become evident, underestimating substantial delays in the climate’s response to anthropogenic forcing. We report experiments with highly educated adults–graduate students at MIT–showing widespread misunderstanding of the fundamental stock and flow relationships, including mass balance principles, that lead to long response delays. GHG emissions are now about twice the rate of GHG removal from the atmosphere.
GHG concentrations will therefore continue to rise even if emissions fall, stabilizing only when emissions equal removal. In contrast, results show most subjects believe atmospheric GHG concentrations can be stabilized while emissions into the atmosphere continuously exceed the removal of GHGs from it. These beliefs-analogous to arguing a bathtub filled faster than it drains will never overflow-support wait-and-see policies but violate conservation of matter. Low public support for mitigation policies may be based more on misconceptions of climate dynamics than high discount rates or uncertainty about the risks of harmful climate change.
Again, zero emissions merely stops climate change, and obviously, thanks to fossil-fuel funded Tea Party politicians along with the deniers and the ignorati, we won’t be going to zero anytime soon.
Finally, I recommend RealClimate’s 2009 post, “Irreversible Does Not Mean Unstoppable“:
But you have to remember that the climate changes so far, both observed and committed to, are minor compared with the business-as-usual forecast for the end of the century. It’s further emissions we need to worry about. Climate change is like a ratchet, which we wind up by releasing CO2. Once we turn the crank, there’s no easy turning back to the natural climate. But we can still decide to stop turning the crank, and the sooner the better.
Indeed, we are only committed to about 2°C total warming so far, which is a probably manageable — and even more probably, if we did keep CO2 concentrations from peaking below 450 ppm, the small amount of CO2 we are likely to be able to remove from the atmosphere this century could well take us below the danger zone.
But if we don’t reverse emissions trends soon, we will at least double and probably triple that temperature rise, most likely negating any practical strategy to undo the impacts for hundreds of years.
With my thanks once again to Joe Romm, for permission to republish the above, all that remains for me now is to wish you all a pleasant [Passover/Easter/Spring Equinox] festival of renewal!
Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, was interviewed by offbeat TV presenter Eddie Mair on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday on BBC1.
Salmond’s comments about energy policy highlight the intellectual incoherence and dishonesty to which our politicians are driven by growthmania.
Although Salmond should be commended for standing up to Donald Trump’s opposition to offshore wind farms, he still appears to be basing his aspiration for a future independent Scotland on future revenue from extracting crude oil and gas from beneath what would be its territorial waters.
Scotland may well already be near the top of the international list of countries with the greatest percentages of installed renewable energy generation, it may well be the home of European research and development into Tidal power, but, its would-be independent government still appears to be assuming it will be OK to generate revenue from oil production over the next 50 years equivalent to those of the last 50 years.
This does not sound like a good idea to me. It is one very good reason not to vote for Scottish independence.
Scottish independence does not look like it will be compatible with preventing anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD). Furthermore, ACD is probably making its presence felt right now across the UK in the form of unusually cold weather. Sure, it is not possible to attribute any single event to ACD but, all the same, ACD was predicted (from a basic understanding of atmospheric physics) to give rise to wider range of more extreme weather events of increased frequency and intensity. This is exactly what we are now observing. In fact, we have been observing it for about 50 years but, until quite recently, it had not been that obvious. This is what James Hansen and his colleagues showed us last August: The climate dice are now loaded – which means we get double-six a lot more often (and a few more double ones than we used to as well).
With apologies for the delay, here is the latest email received from Greenpeace:
Right now, we have a huge chance to help save the Arctic.
To tackle the threats posed by the disappearing ice and the invasion of oil drillers – like Shell – we need to reduce the world’s thirst for oil. We can do that by making greener cars. And the good news is we’ve already begun.
We know this can be done. When we first asked VW to make their cars cleaner and more efficient, they said it wasn’t possible. Then 526,000 of us piled pressure on VW and helped persuade the biggest and most powerful car company in Europe that clean technology is possible. That’s something we can be proud of. Now it’s time to move the whole of Europe (and the world) forward.
This isn’t just about our continent. If we make these big wins here, the global car market will feel the pressure to keep up with innovation in Europe. That means we could see less polluting cars in countries like China and the US too. That’s better for the Arctic, the air we breathe and the stability of our global climate.
Over the next few months European politicians are making decisions that will affect every new car in Europe – this is a huge opportunity – so let’s make sure we send the strongest possible message. We know that these politicians aren’t used to getting thousands of messages from people like us, so this could really have an impact.
Together we can show the world what can be done,
Nic and all the Greenpeace crew
PS Of course, not everyone drives – I don’t – and your bicycle is the most efficient vehicle you can use. But cars are a big part of society today, so please help make cars cleaner in Europe (and the world).
PPS You may have heard about the No Dash For Gas heroes who shut down a polluting gas power station last year and were being sued by owners EDF for £5m in an attempt to stifle peaceful protest. This week, we heard the amazing news is that, after nearly 65,000 people signed a petition, EDF have backed down! The activists still face criminal charges and you can get the latest updates on their website.
I must credit recent subscriber xraymike79 with apparently coining this term, in his recent post, entitled ‘Mankind’s Infantilism and the Death of the Planet‘. However, before clicking, please note that this contains adult themes that some might find disturbing. For example, here is just a snippet:
This Earth is all we really have. Start caring for it and respecting it with the same reverence and homage we pay to our electronic toys of mass distraction, i.e. TV, iphones, video games, computers, etc.. Know that this culture of self-worship and materialism is sending our species to the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments, most certainly by the end of this century if not mid-century. The evidence is all around us if only we care to open our eyes.
Now is probably not a good time to admit that I have been tempted back to Sky with a 75% reduction on my subscription for 9 months. However, the above chimes with an item written by John Hulburt, posted on Learning from Dogs yesterday, entitled ‘E Pluribus Unum’. For example, take this:
We know we’re in trouble when our legislatures have been purchased, when faith in our financial system has been willfully damaged, when political leaders engage in childish tantrums to get their way regardless of anything or anyone else, when awareness of moral reality has become meaningless and when we fail to appreciate the depths of a looming abyss. What do we gain by purposefully destabilizing our economy, reopening settled social issues and blatantly risking our inclusive future as a species for a mess of pottage? Who do we think we are?
Good questions, gentlemen. Who do we think we are; and when are our politicians going to stop lying to themselves and us? Here is a quote from James Hansen in Storms of my Grandchildren:
Ladies and gentlemen, your governments are lying through their teeth. You may wish to use softer language, but the truth is that they know that their planned approach will not come anywhere near achieving the intended global objectives. Moreover they are now taking actions that, if we do not stop them, will lock in guaranteed failure to achieve the targets they have nominally accepted. (p.184)
Hansen then goes on to at least six ways that governments are planning to fail (because they assume carbon capture and storage can be made to work fast enough to prevent catastrophe), by encouraging (1) construction of new coal-fired power plants; (2) construction of new plants to turn coal into oil; (3) development of tar sands (the dirtiest of all unconventional fossil fuels); (4) exploration for fossil fuels in wilderness areas; (5) hydraulic fracturing despite methane release; and (6) opencast coal mining everywhere. For more on this topic see: ‘Hansen says we should FART‘ (i.e. fundamentally alter resource trajectories).
It is little wonder, then, that Thomas L Friedman, writing in the New York Times on Sunday, said this:
Face it: The last four years have been a net setback for the green movement. While President Obama deserves real praise for passing a historic increase in vehicle mileage efficiency and limits on the emissions of new coal-fired power plants, the president also chose to remove the term “climate change” from his public discourse and kept his talented team of environmentalists in a witness-protection program, banning them from the climate debate. This silence coincided with record numbers of extreme weather events — droughts and floods — and with a huge structural change in the energy marketplace.
What was that change? Put simply, all of us who had hoped that scientific research and new technologies would find cheaper ways to provide carbon-free energy at scale — wind, solar, bio, nuclear — to supplant fossil fuels failed to anticipate that new technologies (particularly hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling at much greater distances) would produce new, vastly cheaper ways to tap natural gas trapped in shale as well as crude oil previously thought unreachable, making cleaner energy alternatives much less competitive.
Friedman’s ambivalence to hydraulic fracturing (elsewhere in his piece) may be deeply flawed but, sadly, I think his analysis of recent history and prediction of what Obama will now do are both probably right.
Therefore, it is also little wonder that James Hansen’s Fee and Dividend system is not being taken up: because it is not in the interests of big business to take it up. It is only in the interests of the Environment; and the Environment does not seem to matter. See Hansen’s recent ‘Fork in the Road’ [PDF].
The Earth is being sold to the highest bidder and most of its inhabitants are too busy distracting themselves to even notice. The whole thing is like an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror…
(In conversation with a “technological optimist”)
I was so impressed by the ‘Growth Delusion’ article by Nick Reeves (published on this blog on Monday), that I decided to bring it to the attention of members of my extended family and to one person in particular (who has asked to remain anonymous). What follows is just over 2000 words in length but it made no sense to me to arbitrarily divide it up into pieces (you will either be interested or you won’t)…
I started by pointing out what I feel sets this article by Nick Reeves apart – the facts and figures that he has compiled in order to back-up his argument that human civilisation cannot survive in the long term unless it acknowledges that technology alone cannot solve our problems. Here are two examples:
– Agriculture: It is true that, globally, we waste an awful lot of food. Therefore, we could feed a lot more people if we eliminated this waste. However, as Nick Reeves points out, global agriculture today is an industry that converts oil into food. Therefore, what will it do when the Earth runs out of hydrocarbons (and phosphorus)?
– Industry: The era of cheap energy has come – or is coming – to an end. Meanwhile: how can China consuming 53% of the World’s cement production; 48% of the World’s iron ore; and/or 47% of the World’s coal… be described as anything other than unsustainable?
In response, my anonymous relative insisted that Nick Reeves facts were nothing of the sort; and implied that he/she thinks I am misanthropic and unduly pessimistic. My anonymous relative is very clearly a technological optimist, but I prefer to think of myself as an environmental realist.
What follows are 10 points made by my anonymous relative; with my refutation appended to each one in bold text:
1. He [Reeves] claims that the economic crisis was a consequence of dangerous speculation on the part of the banks. This is not a fact. The alternative hypothesis is that it was a consequence of rotten policy-making by government leaders who believed that they knew what was best for society at large. I hope this is not a statement of faith in some vague global conspiracy to install global socialist government (of which I too would disapprove). I hope also that you are not suggesting that the solution would have been weaker regulation.
2. He attributes short-term trends in commodity prices solely to demand considerations, but gives no corresponding analysis to what might happen on the supply side, simply taking it as a given that reserves will wither and making no reference to the possibility of finding new reserves at any point. Thankfully, Antarctica is protected from exploration (which I am sure will one day become viable). Sadly, the Arctic is not so protected. I hope your faith in technology and human ingenuity can keep pace with increasing demand.
3. His “facts” about the growth of China are also disingenuous. He refers to a historical growth rate of 10% pa and then projects that this will continue, even though the available evidence shows that this growth has not continued and may well soften further over the coming years. Thankfully, China’s growth rate has dropped from 10%pa to 7%pa, which means the doubling time for its economy has increased from 7 to 10 years. This is still nowhere near being environmentally sustainable.
4. Likewise, his estimates of Chinese cement, iron ore, and coal use are all based upon an enormously imbalanced economy in China, where government policies have long repressed consumption and incomes among ordinary Chinese workers in order to drive through massive infrastructure projects, many of dubious value – a model of uncertain merit, but which some experts have deemed to be economically unsustainable. Consumption of resources is the problem – it does not matter who is doing the consuming. Think of all the rare earth metals required to give everyone in China a new mobile phone.
5. The claim that lost-cost hydrocarbons will be a distant memory by 2050 may prove true, but until we get a little closer to that date, this is not a fact, but rather an assertion, and one with considerable uncertainty attached given the volume of known coal reserves in the world. Higher retail prices for hydrocarbons increases oil company turnover but a fivefold reduction in EROEI for unconventional fossil fuels does beg the question as to when you stop flogging a dead horse.
6. The idea likewise that a depleted supply of hydrocarbons risks global economic collapse is also open to debate. Even if one agreed with his view (unproven) that we are about to run out of hydrocarbons, I would still question the inevitability of economic collapse. Everything would depend upon the timeframe and upon the extent to which prices throughout the journey are left to reflect the realities of supply and demand, as opposed to the political priorities of people who think they know better. Your questioning of it does not make it any less likely to happen. The last financial meltdown was triggered by lending money to risky people. The next one will be a global debt crisis resulting from the end of the era of “cheap” energy (which has made the success of the last 200 years possible). If we do not plan – and put into place – a transition, collapse is almost inevitable. This is a lesson we should learn from population dynamics in biology.
7. Similarly, his point about the recycling of metals is hardly a statement of facts. If these commodities were so precious as he makes out the fact is we would be recycling more of them, and many of our consumer products would have much shorter replacement cycles. To make these claims with no consideration either of the estimated reserves of un-mined metals still under the ground or of the history of metals exploration is surely a significant oversight? Please remember that I am a geologist, [name redacted]. I find it deeply depressing to admit that much of what my fellow geologists do is, in effect, treating the Earth as if it were a business in liquidation. However, denial is not a river in Egypt; and a business that is selling its assets to generate turnover will eventually be bankrupted.
8. The risks to food supply, to a greater extent than is true of other resources, I am inclined to take seriously. However, many of the issues here are not about resource constraints, they are about political constraints – immoral European subsidies, an unwillingness to support the development or application of GM crops, the shameful subsidies to turn sugar and corn into ethanol, and the diversion of water resources away from agriculture for environmental purposes are all excellent examples from the developed world. As a hydrogeologist, I am already aware that groundwater mining is a reality in almost every arid country in the World. Food supply problems are a little more distant but, just as a spike in food prices contributed to the Arab Spring uprisings two years ago, increased extreme weather events of all kinds are going to make such spikes more frequent in the future.
9. And his solution to the food problem – organic farming – is just hilarious. Every serious scientific study I have ever seen on this subject tells me that global-scale organic farming would lead to mass starvation. What is wrong, I ask with just letting prices do their work? In a resource-starved world, I would expect a much greater proportion of the world simply to go vegetarian. Now I have no problem with organic practices, but you tell me that the facts here speak for themselves. So where is his evidence that organic farming can do the trick? His comment here is again just an assertion. I am not opposed to GMOs because they could damage the environment. I am opposed to them for the same reason I disapproved of Nestle selling powdered baby milk to mothers perfectly capable of breast-feeding their babies. Technology may be very useful but it is useless if you have no fuel to use it. On a global scale, therefore, low-tech solutions locally-sourced may well prove more resilient.
10. The fact is, at every turn, he is looking for the angle, not the fact. Arctic ice levels are indeed very low – and lower than some (but not all) models predicted 15 years ago. But if he is going down this route, why just pick this piece of evidence? Why not also talk about the trends in temperature? Are they tracking ahead of schedule too? When one reads something like this, and detects zero scope for uncertainty, it is hard to take the presentation of his “facts” seriously. I am not sure what models predicted faster collapse of Arctic sea ice. The reasons for the hiatus in global surface temperature rise in the last 14 years (or so) are well understood. You are just parroting junk science peddled by merchants of doubt. I would like to see you dismiss all the other positive feedback mechanisms now starting to make their presence felt – such as thawing permafrost which last year released more CO2e that humans did in 2010.
I could go on, but I am not sure much would be served by it. Martin, you and I come at the world with very different world views, and also with different knowledge sets. When I read something like this piece, I am afraid I don’t see facts and logic. I see emotion and anger. I also see a lack of faith in humanity as a whole, a distaste for our species and for our civilisation that is frankly not only misguided but also profoundly depressing. I do not presume to understand your world view (apart from that imposed on you by your chosen career). However, for the record, I am neither a progressive nor a liberal, and I do not believe in ‘big government’. I just believe humans should take more responsibility for their actions. I am socially and politically conservative with the sole exception that I do not believe in the delusion of growthmania or that technology can and will invalidate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. What I find depressing is that so many think we can win the fight modernity has picked with science. The history of human civilisation is replete with examples of those who – whether they understood it or not – lost just such a fight.
Despite having rebutted all the points made, my anonymous relative responded by ignoring the opinions of the vast majority of climate scientists; focussing on what he/she repeatedly referred to as significant uncertainty; and personalising all predictions of near-term problems as if they were merely my opinions.
And so it went on, with emails backwards and forwards. I tried very hard to point out that: I am merely reflecting the opinions of the vast majority of climate scientists; the uncertainty is now vanishingly small; the IPCC has spent decades under-reporting the scale of the problem we face; and there is an ongoing business-led campaign to discredit the science and the scientists. However, the harder I tried to do this, the more (it seems to me) my anonymous relative appeared to feel I was attacking him/her personally.
I was told my moral certainty (about the need to act) was a cause for concern: I responded each time by referring to the facts of history and the opinions of the World’s professional bodies. However, each time, it was as if I was accusing my anonymous relative of personally orchestrating the campaign of denial.
When I highlighted my concerns regarding Richard Lindzen’s misleading and hypocritical presentation in the Palace of Westminster over a year ago (of which I had first-hand experience), I was told I was being “preposterous”. My suspicion of Lindzen was countered with suspicion of some (un-named) mainstream scientists.
When I cited the Geological Society’s carefully-worded public statement regarding climate change, I was told that believing my “doomsday scenario” to be suspicious did not require the invocation of conspiracy theory. What I never got, however, was any valid reason to dispute the scientific consensus.
Finally, my anonymous relative suggested that it would be best to bring our exchanges to a close but only after once more insisting that climate science is uncertain and/or corrupted and that I am misanthropic (with my final observations added [in square brackets]):
Nonetheless, climate science has implications that are clearly political rather than scientific [I agree]. This is true really of any area of science where the stakes are high and the uncertainties are significant [repetition of a lie does not make it true]; and this, unfortunately, does tend to encourage people to talk about things that are really based upon personal value judgements [yes it sure does], as if they were scientific fact. I have seen this, not just within the public domain, but in scientific establishments and within professional scientific bodies [i.e. equating consensus with the corruption of science]. You do it too, by discounting uncertainties [what uncertainties?], by interpreting everything as a contest of two polar-opposite world views [because they very probably are], and in your distaste for modernity [my distaste is for the collateral damage modernity has caused].
This is unbelievably frustrating, it is as if I have just wasted a fortnight trying to explain something to someone who is physically incapable of listening.
This is great news but, what we really need is an International agreement (like that which protects the Antarctic from resource exploitation). If we need to despoil the Arctic to get fossil fuels, then we are very clearly far too dependent on them: The time has come to invest in and/or subsidise the pursuit of renewable (i.e. infinite) alternatives. Here is the appeal for help from Greenpeace.
Last night, Shell announced it’s giving up on plans to drill for oil in the Arctic in this year.
It’s amazing news, because it means no drilling in the pristine waters of Alaska this year. And the pressure you put on Shell helped make this possible.
Right now I’m thrilled, this is a huge success for the Arctic. But the fight isn’t over. We’ve got a real opportunity to stop industrial exploitation in the Arctic, forever.
Last month, President Obama ordered a sweeping review of Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic. Meanwhile, Shell was found to have 16 safety and environmental violations on their rig that ran aground in Alaska. Now it’s time for Obama to abandon the idea of Arctic drilling completely.
I’m sure you won’t want the good news to stop here, and that in the days ahead you’ll still be part of the movement to keep Shell out of the Arctic forever.
But for the moment it’s all about enjoying what we’ve accomplished together. Thank you so much for all the work you have done to protect the Arctic.
Greenpeace Executive Director
P.S. This is great news, but there is much more to do. Our Arctic campaign and all the work we do to protect the environment depends entirely on your support. Can you make a donation now to help make a protected Arctic a reality? (Link to Greenpeace UK website here.)