Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Recognizing good science when you see it: climate change seen by depletion scientists


The panel of discussants at the first session of ASPO-9 in Brussels. From left to right, Pierre Mauriaud (Total); Jean-Pascal van Ypersele (IPCC); Kjell Aleklett (ASPO); Colin Campbell (ASPO); Paul Hohnen (Greenpeace). During the discussion,  Colin Campbell, founder and honorary chairman of ASPO, said "I am convinced," referring to the talk on climate change by Van Ypersele. A good scientist can always recognize good science when he sees it. Unfortunately, it seems that many people involved with peak oil studies don't often interact with serious climate science and their view of it remains linked to the distorsions presented in the mainstream media


One of the most interesting talks at the recent meeting on Energy organized by the Club of Rome in Basel, was the one given by Ian Dunlop, of ASPO Australia (photo on the right). It was not so much on energy, but on the interconnection of energy and climate change. It was up to date and saying the things that needed to be said. That is, Ian Dunlop didn't shy away from saying that climate change is threatening the very existence of our civilization and that we must do something quick about it. It was an excellent talk; give a look to the slides if you have a moment, here is the link.

What I found surprising were the several comments that I heard later on from people attending the meeting. Some of those who didn't have a specific background in climate science seemed to be shocked. They didn't know, it seems, that the climate situation is so bad and that it is so urgent to act - but they now recognized the problem. This experience of mine in Basel parallels well the one I had in Brussels for the ASPO-9 conference, when climate scientist Jean-Pascal van Ypersele gave a good talk on climate change. Also there, the reaction of some of the people attending the conference was of surprise; they never had a chance, apparently, to hear a comprehensive report on the climate situation.

Of course, I have no statistics about the average competence in climate science of the people who work with peak oil and similar subjects (let's call them "depletion scientists"). But my experience with this issue has been often disheartening: many depletion scientists are badly outdated in what they know about climate science. A few (just a few, fortunately!) make a banner of their ignorance and they fall for the most obvious propaganda tricks diffused by denialists or scoff at the whole idea with the simplistic statement "not enough oil for climate change". Alas, things are much more complex than that!

That doesn't mean that depletion scientists are not smart people; by all means they are. And it doesn't mean that there doesn't exist a parallel bias on the part of climate scientists who, often, appear to be totally oblivious of the situation in terms of resource depletion. The point is that we all suffer of narrow vision. The Internet is vast and we tend to go in depth only in the areas that we know well; the rest of our information often comes by a haphazard mix of what we read in the media. In this, we all suffer of "confirmation bias."  (see below)

So, what you get from the media about climate change is that it is all a question of small details: did we see a warming during the past 10 years? What is the meaning of "hide the decline"? Didn't scientists fear "global cooling" in the 1970s? And so on. Even people who are on the side of climate science often seem to engage in the debate worrying about minor details. How many tons of CO2 can we save if we install double paned glasses in public buildings? Should we use public transportation instead of a private car for commuting? So, the general impression that you can get is that climate change is a minor issue affected by great uncertainties.

That the results of more than half a century of work in climate science have been reduced to such narrow terms in the media is a victory for denial: it is a way to keep people in the dark about what is really happening. But climate change is not something that can be stopped by double paned windows. It is a major upheaval of the whole earth ecosystem and it has the potential to do to us immense damage. The problem must be faced for what it is, in its complexity, and with the risks that come with it. Uncertainty is not an excuse for doing nothing: what we don't know is what is most dangerous for us.

So, it is very good to see that a good scientist can always recognize good science when he sees it. It has been the case of Colin Campbell (left), founder and honorary chairman of ASPO, who stated to the audience "I am convinced" after having heard the talk by Van Ypersele at the ASPO-9 Brussels conference.  It was the same for several colleagues at the Basel meeting after the heard the talk by Ian Dunlop. I also noticed in other occasions that climate scientists can understand the depletion message when they hear it presented for what it is. They are good scientists, too.

So, it is time to recognize good science when we see it. And it is time to tell everyone how things stand, just as Ian Dunlop did in Basel.


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About confirmation bias:
From the Washington Post, by Ramesh Srinivasan

We’ve long heard that the Internet was supposed to unite people of different cultural and political persuasions. Yet, despite the explosion of online voices, social-media users rarely access opinions that differ from their own, and many social-media sites — with their bifurcated like/dislike, join/don’t join ethos — only perpetuate the sound-bite culture of older media.

Not only are our Facebook friends similar to us (we usually connect through mutual friends and shared interests), but researcher Ethan Zuckerman has shown that the sites we visit reaffirm our political and cultural preconceptions. This homogenization reaches the very machinery of social media — its algorithms — which tailor search results or Facebook feeds according to what the systems “think” users will find most interesting.

Bridging disparate cultural and political backgrounds remains a challenge for social media. To learn from differing viewpoints, the technologies and cultures of social media must evolve so that they bring people together rather than keeping us in digital silos.

23 comments:

  1. The best comprehensive paper on the subject "climate deniers" I've read in long time.

    Regardings from Tor

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  2. Ugo, excellent!!

    And the third large amount of knowledge comes from the economy/finances (debt problem), which makes the whole situation that much worse... there are few people correctly understanding both climate change and peak oil, and there are even less understanding climate change (environment), peak oil (energy), and debt (economy). Correct knowledge of all these three issues put you almost into constant depression.

    Is depression a form of adaptation, as Dave Cohen hypothesised?

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  3. I don't know, personally I am not often depressed. But I do suffer of migraines, that must be the effect on me of the impact of the knowledge of climate change, peak oil and the financial crisis all together!

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  4. Clear that quite a few people that came to the issue more from the PO aspect than climate are, or have been AGW skeptic at one point, case of Campbell and Lahérerre, also Hisrch I think. Also my case in fact and had a "denier" period (3 or 4 years ago), especially after reading some Lahérerre stuff about it. What "cut" it was simply realizing the 35% CO2 growth since industrial revolution and very regular continued growth. And then 35% is 35%, even without talking temperature at all, a major variation in a key variable.
    But seems to me that this "climate skeptic" tendancy in some peak oilers, also come from the frustation of PO not being taken seriously enough.
    And on this, in the mass media or the press, the deficit is clearly huge on PO side (for instance in Le Monde this week end, two big climate articles, both very alarming, but none hinting at PO in anyway, and quite a lot of "skeptics" messages in the comments also). And this is truly a huge mistake, or let's say a reassurance that the PO message is indeed much tougher to give (although the concept much easier to grasp). And this is especially true for the US, as saying "current crisis is global po crisis" would also mean saying "by the way did you know we went through our peak in 1970", and everything possible has been made to cover up the event (or lie by ommission), and the vast majority of Americans still being in complete denial about it even after having gone from 10 millions barrels a day to 5, and today if you go through repub candidates webpages, what you have is either nothing on energy, or a set of variations around "drill baby drill we can be energy independent let's go".
    In fact you end up thinking that if CO2 wasn't an issue we would deal with the matter better, so also for CO2 in the end.
    And the mitigation measures are the same anyway, basically consuming much less fossiles. When they are not like with CCS, they almost for sure are "false good solution", which is more or less also hinted in the slides.
    By the way de Margerie (Total CEO) is giving a speech in Doha on Dec 7th, about "“Peak oil- ahead of us or behind us?”" let's see what he will say :
    http://www.gulf-times.com/site/topics/article.asp?cu_no=2&item_no=473819&version=1&template_id=36&parent_id=16

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  5. Ugo,

    the case may be that I am younger and I have to adjust the plans accordingly ;-)

    I have no kids yet, should I have them? (just one of MANY questions...)

    Alex

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  6. @Yves. Personally, I never was a "climate denier" but there was a period, up to 4-5 years ago, when I thought that the climate problem was minor in comparison to peak oil and that, anyway, peak oil would take care of it. Gradually, I came to take the diametrically opposite opinion: global warming is an enormously more serious problem than PO - and PO won't cure it, unless we crash really, really badly in a very short time, but that I think is unlikely

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  7. @Alexander. Yes, from your picture you look much younger than me (assuming it is an up to date photo!). But the problem is the same for all of us. We should plan for the future, but we don't seem to be able to do so. We are "seeing" what's happening, but it is like one of those nightmares when you are chased by monsters and you can't move; your feet are glued to the floor and you can just watch in horror as the monsters get closer.....

    About kids.... mine are old enough that they can fend for themselves, and they are doing reasonably well (incidentally, my son is a geologist and he works for the petroleum industry!). But having kids right now.... my gosh; that's a difficult question and I am lucky that I don't have to make this choice.

    One thing that I am doing is to help children from poor families. It is a desperate attempt: what do you do with a family with six children, mother is totally illiterate - can't read nor write. Father can read, just a little. These children are bright, smart, cute and generally wonderful; but they do poorly at school, they live in an environment where they'll most likely end up being part of a gang engaged in theft and drug dealing. So, I find myself trying to teach them math, literature and history. Last time, I was trying to teach to one of them about Sumerians........ Now, when I say it is hopeless, there is a reason....

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  8. @Ugo
    Seems to me we are already entering the crash, but I'm also currently thinking the climate aspect is a huge problem. And again real mitigation measures are basically the same : high volume based taxes on fossile fuels (in parallel decreasing taxes on work, redistribution), and this to push products and way of life in the right direction more than state budget income. And it appears nobody is talking about taking them (whereas it was done in 73 when nobody was talking CO2). And I don't wish CTL coming on line when oil supply will start to decrease, but in fact I don't think it will, Chinese for instance dropped some projects on that, already having problems feeding their power plants with coal, but on the other hand there are already around 120 or 150 electric bicycle in China.
    Truth is : "an electric car cannot be a normal car except that it is electric", and agrofuels are totally unrealistic on a quantity based analysis.
    And the focal point remains to me the US telling the truth to themselves about their peak in 1970 or not, and switching from the Army and mercenaries to high volume based taxes as main mitigation measure or not.

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  9. 120 or 150 millions of course, sorry

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  10. Alexander, how I see it: make one kid at the most for the experience, and then adopt. There are so many children in the world who have an awful life.

    Thanks for this piece, Ugo. I remember when I was still hanging around at the Oil Drum, that one of the authors there, Heading Out, was a very extreme AGW skeptic. But his pieces on energy were very good. So that was weird.

    Coincidentally I just watched an excellent presentation (and Q&A session afterwards) by someone who does get the problems with the three E's as he calls them (economy, energy, environment): Chris Martenson from the Crash Course.

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  11. Yes, Heading Out of the Oil Drum is a strange case; a true Jekyll/Hyde of science. He is a great expert in petroleum geology and he has the rare quality of being able to explain it clearly. Then, when he moves to climate science, he becomes a different person: a rabid denier of everything that has to do with the AGW concept. He doesn't seem to be able to realize that climiate science is a field in which he doesn't have the same high level of competency that he has with oil.

    All that has to do with the fact of being human, after all. We all are sensitive to emotions and it is very difficult to take in a concept so vast and so important as climate change without being emotionally affected. (that's what Alexander was saying, after all)

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  12. Ugo
    I find your posts, and the comments to be personally important. (And the link to Dunlop's slide-pack above is particularly useful.) Unfortunately, though, increasing my own understanding can contribute small iota in the face of the world's predicament!

    Having worked in biological science (I liked history and the 'arts' perhaps more) I have been intrigued by differing 'mind sets' in the professions. There is no 'Chinese' maths or 'Italian' physics; even medical research adopts similar global 'frontiers' and methodologies, but in this latter case is subtly different from more mature fields of basic science.
    But 'engineers'?
    'Heading Out' on TOD is perhaps an extreme case - he is pretty weird on British coal as well. Perhaps he sees things in terms of engineering solutions? As 'Rockman' also on TOD keeps pointing out, Peak Oil has been an implicit understanding on the 'oil-patch' his whole career, but never stated! HO also has been 'successfully' battling PO all his career because he has inevitably participated in the reality of US production decline, in the face of increasing US oil consumption and society-wide technological 'progress'. However, these seem to me at heart BAU guys, who from experience think there must be solutions.

    Climate change is different and apparently, to an engineering mind-set, a bi-polar opposite. The more you do, (which is BAU and includes 'Progress'), the worse things get? What sort of world outlook is that they ask? Why should we take 'simplistic' mathematical models seriously? I have met these responses in my own personal discussions.

    Nearly 50 years ago I taught biology for two years to teenagers and included exponential growth and human population history. The same applied in my mind even then to financial 'interest-based' growth and by 1980 I realised that not remotely could we all become 'Americans'. The 'basic problems' had not been solved. The published climate science in Nature in the 1980s and ealy 1990s was compelling. (As YvesT says, an unprecedented rapid rise in a known variable resulting from industrialisation, with our increasing access to detailed records of climate history, must be compelling.)

    I have an old friend from school days, a chemist who worked at a high level in Shell, who 'gets energy', just like HO, and has the same climate-change denial. He tells me that CC (and Renewables) is all 'bad science'! Perhaps, tangentially, these examples suggest to me that scientists and engineers should stick to their early successful experimental or innovative phase, and then when that is over, make a determined effort not to join the club of eminent elder-statesman who think they know what the 'inside story' is really about. (Ugo, you are an 'escape artist'.)

    Looking after poor kids is better. (I take of my hat.) Our graduate youngest daughter has a job now helping with younger children who must look after their parents and/or themselves. There are inevitably significant numbers in this category in every community, and they do not do well at school. The outfit she works with has a good ethos and excellent methodology and makes a demonstrable big difference.

    Our son is finishing a difficult retrofit of an old (small) house for a 'low-energy' future as part of a related MSc, and our older girl with one child, works with community woodlands and translates from the Russian concerning the management and fate of the Boreal Forests.

    Me? I stopped flying round and am next in line for a retrofit (house)! My spouse grows vegetables/greens and berries and apples to help keep us healthy. And I still worry ... hmmm.

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  13. Well, Phil, I understand your comments. The point is that climate science is slowly percolating down to us from the realm of the specialists who have developed it. The unfortunate thing is that for it takes decades for this percolation to be successful, that is reach decision makers. Climate science is a complex field that needs some effort to be learned and it is totally appalling to people with the BAU mindset. So, we are very, very slow in this task.

    But BAU never is! Thing change all the time. The gist of my post is that I was surprised and encouraged by seeing at least another person - Ian Dunlop - going through the same learning path as mine, that is from peak oil to climate change. And connecting all the dots. I was also encouraged by the positive reaction of the people listening to him. You know, they had consistently ignored what they had been reading in newspapers about climate change. But they recognized good science when they saw it. So, there is hope and the task is with us: people like you and me; people who have the capability of understanding climate science without being climate scientists. It is us who can push climate science from specialists to decision makers: climatologists are not in sufficient numbers and often they are no good at communicating with non scientists. So, it is crucial that everyone of us does his/her job - we need to convince people that climate change is real stuff; not a joke, not politics in disguise, not something far away in time. You see, in half an hour in Basel, Ian Dunlop had a tremendous impact because he cut through the media screen and directly affected a number of people who have some decisional power in their hands. No single person can change the world, but that's the kind of action that can make a difference. Maybe we won't succeed; quite possibly it is too late; but we must try nevertheless. And, also, help our neighbors, if we can; it does no harm!

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  14. Ugo
    Thank you for that encouraging reply.
    I am very pleased to hear about Ian's "tremendous impact".
    Somebody said a few years ago (Morris Berman, IIRC quoted the thought), mostly of the USA but it could be more widely applicable: "What we need more of just now, is not so much 'actions' but better theories - long-term study and thought".
    With that in mind, there are three studies reported in this week's Science; one on fundamentals of empathy, another on familiarity/co-operation, and thirdly a study of economic diversification and cooperative benefits in hard-pressed pastoral communities.

    phil

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  15. Oh yes, and Science also reports a study that suggests climate sensitivity could be "slightly less than that of most current estimates", which to my mind helps confirm the overall case for CC while giving some hope that we might not have already passed the 'point of no-return' to a future 4 degC + world.

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  16. Thanks Ugo and Neven,

    BTW, I was born in 1980 - just about few year when the Collapse started (1973 and 1979 - peak oil per capita globally).

    Another (maybe) interesting point is that Charles Hall decided NOT to have children...

    Alex

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  17. Phil, we need everything we can use, but more than all we need people! There is nothing better than peer-to-peer interaction to pass an idea around.

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  18. Ugo

    This lot seem to be taking matters very urgently.

    http://www.arctic-methane-emergency-group.org/#/about/4558060537

    Spread the word - I will try.
    phil

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  19. I know about that. It is scary. I hope many other people find it scary enough to do something

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  20. Err ...
    I am not quite so sure it was a good idea to have posted the link to the methane emergency group.
    Though they are concerned and well-intentioned and have consulted climate scientists, they seem more of an engineer-mindset, rather than original scientists. What do you think?

    Anybody interested in atmospheric methane can start with http://www.epa.gov/outreach/index.html and there are graphs of global atmospheric levels over recent decades.

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  21. Phil, the methane question is a difficult communication problem. If we don't say anything, people will know nothing about it, as most people don't right now. If we mention the risks involved, we risk creating panic. Then, we risk an "LTG effect" as reaction (LTG: "The Limits to Growth"). LTG said in 1972 that the world economic system would collapse most likely within the first decades of the 21st century. That was enough to scare a lot of people, but they quickly forgot the time scale of the warning and when in the 1980s the economy started growing again, there was a tremendous backlash against LTG, accused of "wrong predictions". So, with climate, we face the same problem: most people know only two modes of operation: complacency and panic. What to do? Honestly, I don't know......

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  22. Ugo
    Thanks again - sorry to keep on about this, ("honestly ... don't know". Me too) but 'uncertainty' goes to the nub I think, and it is very serious.
    This discussion has sent me back to "The Frontiers of Illusion", Daniel Sarewitz, 1996. Unfortunately google books only gives page 83 and not 84 & 86, but Sarewitz discusses climate change in a chapter headed The Myth of Authoritativeness, and in particular, the bind implicit in the then constituted United States Global Change Research Program, USGCRP. He found the formula " predictive understanding ... will support national and international policy formulation" flawed at every level, and predicted failure to connect with global policy.

    This book was something of a 'bible' for me back then when I was writing technical reports on aspects of agricultural policy. Re-visiting some of DS' insights and examples helped me this morning, and could help others. His discussion of the Montreal Protocol on atmospheric ozone is a particularly good illustration of his justification for his thinking.

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