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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Climate change: Confessions of a Peak Oiler

 Peak oil may well have arrived or be arriving soon, but that has not stopped CO2 emissions from increasing and climate change from going on, faster than ever. That may soon make the peak oil problem irrelevant. Here is a personal view of how I came to be a peak oiler who is more worried about climate change than about peak oil. (Image from The Daily Kos.)

In 2003, I attended my first conference on peak oil, in Paris. Everything was new for me: the subject, the people, the ideas. It was there that I could meet for the first time those larger than life figures of ASPO, the association for the study of peak oil. I met Colin Campbell, Jean Laherrere, Kenneth Deffeyes, Ali Morteza Samsam Bakthiari, and many others. It was one of those experiences that mark one for life.

In Paris, I learned a lot about oil depletion, but also about another matter that was emerging:  the conflict of depletion studies with climate change studies. That ASPO conference saw the beginning of a contrast that was to flare up much more intensely in the following years. On one side of the debate there were the "climate concerned" people. They were clearly appalled at seeing that their efforts at stopping global warming were threatened by this new idea: that there won't be enough fossil fuels to cause the damage that they feared. On the other side, the "depletion concerned" people clearly scoffed at the idea of climate change: peak oil, they said, would make all the worries in that respect obsolete.

My impression, at that time, was that the position of the climate concerned was untenable. Not that I became a climate change denier; not at all: the physical mechanisms of climate change have been always clear to me and I never questioned the fact that adding CO2 to the atmosphere was going to warm it. But the novelty of the concept of peak oil, the discovery of a new field of study, the implications of a decline of energy availability, all that led me to see depletion as the main challenge ahead.

That belief of mine would last a few years, but no more. The more I studied oil depletion, the more I found myself studying climate: the two subjects are so strictly related to each other that you can't study one and ignore the other. I found that climate science is not just about modern global warming. It is the true scientific revolution of the 21st century. It is nothing less than a radical change of paradigm about everything that takes place on our planet; comparable to the Copernican revolution of centuries ago.

Climate science gives us a complete picture of how the Earth system has gradually evolved and changed, maintaining conditions favorable for organic life despite the gradual increase of the solar irradiation over the past four billion years. It is a delicate balance that depends on many factors, including the burial of large amounts of carbon which previously were part of the biosphere and that, over the ages, have become what we call "fossil fuels". Extracting and burning fossil fuels means tampering with the very mechanisms that keep us alive. Climate science is fascinating, even beautiful, but it is the kind of beauty that can kill.

So, step by step, I went full circle. If, at the beginning, I was more worried about depletion than about climate, now it is the reverse. Not that I stopped worrying about peak oil, I know very well that we are in deep trouble with the availability not just of oil, but of all mineral resources. But the recent events; the melting of the polar ice cap, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires and all the rest clearly show that the climate problem is taking a speed and a size that was totally unexpected just a few years ago.

Climate change is a gigantic problem: it dwarfs peak oil in all respects. We know that humans have lived for thousands of years without using fossil fuels, but they never lived in a world where the atmosphere contained more than 400 parts per million of CO2 - as we are going to have to. We don't even know if it will be possible for humans to survive in such a world.

Right now, peak oil is not solving the problem of climate change - it is worsening it because it is forcing the industry to use progressively dirtier resources, from tar sands to coal. Maybe in the future we'll see a decline in the use of all hydrocarbons and, as a consequence on the emissions of greenhouse gases. But, if we continue along this path, peak oil will be just a blip in the path to catastrophe.


  1. Hello Ugo / Dr. Bardi....Your personal intellectual trajectory which you describe above, seems very logical and sensible to me. Climate change is the truly key aspect and peak oil is only a sub-plot. I particularly liked your reference to the "change of paradigm" which you say is comparable to the Copernican revolution of centuries ago.

    To put it perhaps too simply (and therefore simplistically) (but I think it makes a certain point that is useful to make, reasonably well)......as a result of the Copernican revolution man finally figured out that the Earth (and together with it, himself) were NOT at the center of the solar system, let alone of the Universe, and this regardless of what their religious doctrine of the times said.

    With the current Climate Change revolution (underway but by no means complete yet) man is currently being disabused of yet another totally narcissistic and self-centered belief...(also inspired and nurtured by certain religions and their "beliefs" ) namely that he (and she) are on this Planet (Earth) to "go forth and multiply" and to "enjoy its bounties", and to use the physical, biological and natural environment and its ecology, as their own private personal domain and playground.

    Instead the truth is that mankind is but ONE species on Earth and, if anything, it is he who revolves around the earth and its environment (and is totally dependent on it) rather than the other way around.

    So maybe it's all very easy? Man(kind) is precariously orbiting around the Earth (and risks being shaken off) instead of the Earth orbiting around Man, and mostly for his pleasure?

    Seems simple enough, so how come more of the seven billion happy denizens of Planet Earth can't seem to quite get it through their heads and draw the right conclusions and implications?

    Or maybe the answer to that question too has to do with the same blind narcissism of at least a large number of people.

    But evidence and facts will eventually open their eyes. (either just in time, or. as likely as not, too late)

    1. Yes, humans have lived for thousands of years without fossil fuels, but not seven billion of them. Food production is highly dependent on fossil fuels, so fossil fuel depletion spells big trouble for food availability.

  2. Thanks for posting this Ugo. You describe the same journey I've taken over the last decade. In fact your conference in Pisa was the first ASPO meeting I attended. I too entertained the idea that fossil fuel depletion was the main challenge, partly mitigating the projected climate impacts. No longer.

    1. It's never been that I have been more concerned about peak oil than climate change, but peak oil is a problem that I think we have a realistic chance at addressing. I think climate change is hopeless. Even though emissions in the US and EU are declining, global emissions are still climbing rapidly as coal consumption rises in developing countries. So there isn't a solution here that I can see. The problem is low level per capita energy usage by a huge number of people. So to solve that problem, we need to ask people who use very little energy to stop. My analogy is that this is like an obese person telling a starving person they need to go on a diet, because lots of starving people eating a little food winds up being a lot of food.

  3. Could any of you who know more about Peak Oil than I do have a crack at the following question? (thanks)

    Just yesterday Goldman Sachs said (and it was carried by CNN and so I assume by all the rest of the mainstream press and media too) that Oil and more specifically Texas Intermediate might drop to as low as 50 dollars per barrel sometime in 2013. (which is about half of where it's at right now)

    I do understand that the notion of Peak Oil (which according to some of the top experts in the field would appear to have occurred near the end of 2007) doesn't mean either that we are running out of oil right now nor in the next few years, but simply that it has become (and will increasingly become) harder and harder to ramp up production (either out of depleted or depleting fields or out of new but much harder to extract fields) to be able to meet all new demand, and that therefore there will end up being supply constraints in the future and probably fairly soon. (and of course also that oil is a finite resource and that sooner or later...and whether we can measure accurately or not the amount which is left over....we will run out of it if we keep using it)

    In fact one article I read last year by a peak oil specialist suggested that one possible reason why oil went up to 145 dollars per barrel in mid 2008 was because "the earth was bouncing up against its limits" and a kind of oscillation was taking place, and would henceforth take place. Namely demand for oil would go up, supply could not be ramped up sufficiently, this would then drive up the price of oil and under certain conditions make it spike up significantly, after which demand would fall sharply, the world economy would contract, and the price of oil would fall back again. And then with the now much cheaper oil the world economy would start to grow again and the cycle would repeat itself , hence the term "oscillation up against the limits".

    If the above argument is correct (and I am not sure if it is) apart from the possibility that Goldman Sachs could either be wrong or be lying (or both) what might cause its models to predict that oil might drop to 50 dollars a barrel? Does that mean they necessarily see the world economy as "tanking" fairly soon? Or is this related to other fairly noticeable recent developments, namely that it looks like the Obama administration together with Big Oil, Big Coal and Big Media have launched a media PR campaign...(true or false as it may be) that the U.S. is heading for energy independence (due to shale gas fracking, Canadian tar sands, the Bakken and other areas) and soon also will overtake Saudi Arabia in terms of oil production. (or maybe if it does, this may be because Saudi Arabia is running out of oil much faster than earlier thought...or, at least, said)

    So perhaps Goldman is just trying to add its own voice to that particular chorus to be a "team player" and lend the whole fairly difficult to believe story more credence? (of course with its usual watchful eye towards making more money for itself and for its "clients")

    And a second related question is this: If indeed the world economy is bouncing up against some of its resource limits and starting to "oscillate" (as above) has anyone done some more quantitative analysis and calculations of what the top and bottom values of the oscillation might be? Both in terms of economic growth or shrinkage that might occur relative to World GDP and the top price of oil and the bottom price of oil that might occur during any single oscillation based on current total production levels? (from one top of the sine wave to the next).. And / or how these tops and bottoms also might vary over time and presumably get wider and wider apart going forward?

    Thanks for any comments or clarifications regarding the above.

    1. Max get yourself over to http://ourfiniteworld.com/ Gail has some great articles on limits

    2. Thanks; and in fact now I remember that the article I mentioned which I had read last year was by Gail Tverberg too. I just looked through her various articles at the above site and have just finished reading a couple... and they are all very good, so thanks for the reference....

    3. In fact one of the better articles by Gail Tvergberg which I found on that site (http://ourfiniteworld.com/ ) is "Climate Change: The Standard Fixes Don't Work". It is an exceptionally well-argued article (at least, so I thought) also providing many other excellent references. Unfortunately it makes a very good case for its own title, and not too many non-standard fixes seem to be available either other than to do what would have seemed simple and logical ex-ante, namely to reduce world population and to produce essential goods locally, both of which would have many benefits. But she concludes her article by saying that "it is hard to see that the steps outlined above would be acceptable to world leaders or to the majority of world population. Thus, I am afraid we will end up falling back on Nature’s plan, discussed above" And anyone who is interested in finding out what "Nature's Plan discussed above" is, can read the article itself on the following link: http://ourfiniteworld.com/2012/11/20/climate-change-the-standard-fixes-dont-work/#more-37395. Overall a great article but not particularly encouraging regarding what probably lies ahead.

    4. Max, it is the usual confusion between prices and costs. Prices are a measure of how operators perceive the balance of offer and demand. They go up and down, but have little relation with the actual availability of the resource. Actually, I am reasonably sure that in the near future we'll see a price collapse of fuels. That won't reflect availability, but the crash of the demand. And, if oil goes down to 50 dollars/barrel, as it did in 2009, that will be the death knell for a lot of unconventional resources. That would be a good thing, but it arrives too late. Alas....

    5. Nicole Foss -- who to my mind is several orders of magnitude more honest and reliable than anything coming from GS -- says that it's entirely possible that the dollar price of oil could very well crash right down for a while; but that would be at a time when people, organisations and states are so strapped for cash that they can't afford it even at the reduced price.

      It isn't so much the mere isolated dollar figure which counts, as the surrounding economic situation in which it's embedded. $30bbl oil isn't much use to people who now find that an unpayably high price.

      Trawling through Nicole's output, at The Automatic Earth, and on YouTube, is enlightening about this whole-systems approach.

  4. Thanks Dr. Bardi for the interesting post (and blog). I would like to add just a remark, not about relative importance of climate change against depletion studies, but about our set of cultural tools in respect of these two issues.

    When we are talking about climate change and its implications we give a hint of how powerful is mankind. Using technology, science and the brain we can do everything, say: no matter if we are doing good or bad, we are just doing powerful stuff, we are almighty.

    When talking about peak oil and its implications we give a hint of our society declining, our economic growth ending, our culture at a stake, disappearance of the idea of progress, say : we developed industrial civilization because we were plenty of cheap oil, we are declining because cheap oil (and other mineral resources) run out, we are not almighty.

    This I think is the big difference among peak oil and climate change, and this I guess is the reason why everybody has heard about climate change but not everybody has heard about peak oil: people hear only what they want to hear, people want to hear that people can do anything, that we are almighty.

    1. An interesting point. Maybe it is the same psychological attitude of those who commit suicide: the sensation of having at least some power on one's destiny. Shakespeare had already noted that in Hamlet.

  5. Similar journey for me, Ugo. Peak oil the game changer then gradually climate change (and environmental degradation generally) took over. It's by far the bigger problem, as you say. At least the world's so-called leaders do talk about climate change, from time to time, at international conferences but don't do that about resource depletion. Not that that is much of an argument, I suppose.

    Humans can get over the catastrophe of peak oil and resource depletion (obviously with a lot of pain) but it can't get over an uninhabitable planet.

    1. Seems that many of us have had the same experience. Unfortunately, it als seems that we aren't having any impact. So far, at least.

  6. Replies
    1. Thanks, Alex. I wish I hadn't had to write it, though....

    2. Exactly, and I wish I did not need to read it...


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  8. Great Post! like your writing...in austria as in italy we will see a decline in available energy==money so our societies will stick to hydrocarbonate to save the holy economy. this will lead into a negative spiral of using more and more dirty energy sources. people will do all to keep the old system of interest and return in the financial system. so climate change can't be solved if we do not let pass the old ideas of ever increasing our value in money etc. as graebner argumented there is no value in money itself but people won't see...but like vester and lem tried to explain it years over years, no one will understand the kybernetic interaction of the different problems, because people are used to regard problems isolated and so the big picture is too much for all the consumer-minded people....

  9. "So, step by step, I went full circle."
    " ... peak oil will be just a blip in the path "

    Perhaps the journey is not yet complete?
    Perhaps the circle's ends are not yet joined?

    Peak Oil (PO) --> Climate Change (CC) --> Fiat Monied Economies (FME) --> [What is next, what is the common denominator?]

    1. Don't know.... I figure that fiat money won't kill you... or does it?

    2. Ugo, thanks for the quick reply.

      Of course it will ... kill us that is.

      In my studies, "money" is a set of promises that society makes.
      But ultimately "they" will not be able to live up to their promises
      ... because of PO, because of CC, because the Earth does not expand to infinity and the beyond which compound interest promises.

      The bubble will burst.
      And yes, it (if nothing sooner) will kill us.

    3. Well, all money is debt, all debt is promises and not all promises can be maintained. Graeber says in his "Debt: the first 5000 years" that behind every promise made by a government there is a soldier with a gun. Broken promises won't kill you. Guns will.

  10. ... --> [What is next, what is the common denominator?]

    PO-->CC-->FME--> ... THB?

    The Human Brain (THB)?

    Why do "They" (the Denialists) think the way they do?
    Why do "I" (the CC/PO/FME Believer) think the way I do?

    Will it matter?
    Will all this thinking, talking, blogging change the world?

    That is the ultimate Cassandra Curse: the thrill of insight, the agony of knowing it won't make a difference, it won't change the world.

  11. I think that Climate Change becomes the primal concern for a subset of Peak Oilers who have given up on unlimited growth. Climate Change could theoretically be mitigated with massive amounts of energy and technology, but the realization there is not enough energy and then climate change becomes the hugest of problems. Peak oil is still primal for me, because I see it as not possible/too late to transition to carbon free energy sources. And since it is not possible to do an energy/civilization transition and there is very little time on the clock geologically speaking to reset the resource clock for a future , it appears that Earth's only experiment at proving the Fermi Paradox wrong will be over. Sure life has been around for a few billion years without tapping oil as a significant resource, but life has never been so close to creating a second DNA independent information system or traversing in interstellar space other than maybe a few sporulated bacteria or fungi. I think Unforeseen Energy is right: Peak oil is the death of our dreams, whereas Climate Change is just the realization of them.

    1. Brian, why did you say that the Fermi experiment is over? It may not be. Perhaps there is still a way out....

    2. Two things have lead me down the path of now or never for civilization escape velocity:
      1. You gave me an amazing smack down and schooled me geological weathering (The Great Unsuffocation), I realized how little time was left for higher order animals.
      2. Been reading too much Odum and his lack of faith in "renewable" energy. I know a lot of what he does isn't empirical, but his work seems to be such an easy explanation for so much stuff. I find myself just looking at EVERYTHING and in a probably non-scientifically substantiated way just imagining how energy flows and hierarchy go together and are explanatory for everything.

      I would love some optimism if you have any extra.

    3. Optimism and pessimism are ill defined categories. But flows tend to bifurcate ad infinitum and create hierarchies if there is enough energy and suitable substrates. The old substrate, clearly, cannot survive for long, but there is a chance to create a new substrate which, in large measure, will replace the old. There is a chance that the closure of the old cycle will be the start of a new one - a greater one - a much greater one. Unfortunately for those who belong to the old cycle, they'll have to go. But the universe continuously recreates itself. It has to be.

    4. Nicely said ;-) I like to think of it as going from a pioneer exploitation stage (weedy competitive grasses) to a climax conservation stage (dense cooperative forest), but I don't know how we get there and still have enough energy left to project out into the universe (Fermi's Paradox).

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  13. Ugo, Brian: try Tom Campbell's new Big TOE. Takes a bit of getting into, but very much worth the effort. Lots of hope there, once you've got the arrestingly-original, paradigm-changing theory which Tom is presenting.

    His website is here: http://www.my-big-toe.com/

    And I can recommend his YouTube presentations. The one at Calgary University, and more recently the one labelled 'Tom Campbell in Spain', are particularly good. Takes about 18-20 hours to work through the sequence of videos, and will probably take the unfamiliar several weeks or months to digest the sheer originality of the concepts. But Tom is a working physicist and mathematician, and his TOE is a major contribution to the new wave of digital physics. In fact, I'd say it's a paradigm-shifter.

    Ugo, you mentioned the Copernican revolution. Apropos of that, I'd say -- from my study of Tom's work -- that in that famous intellectual sequence in European thought:

    Copernicus/Galileo - Descartes - Newton - Darwin - The Quantum Mechanics - Einstein/Bohm - the next name in that celestial sequence is destined to be Tom Campbell.

    And there's LOTS of hope-generator in his ideas.

  14. "Climate Change" and "Peak Oil" are both imaginary boogeymen, which fulfill the need some people have for a boogeyman in their closet.

    1. Oh... thanks for reassuring us, RT, now I feel much better!

    2. Augustus CincinnatusFebruary 6, 2013 at 4:53 PM

      So, if "peak oil" is imaginary, that must mean oil resources are infinite. Is that what you're saying?



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)