Friday, April 11, 2014

My view of the climate change problem

After my resignation as editor of "Frontiers" in protest over their retraction the paper "Recursive Fury," dealing with the attitude of climate deniers, I received plenty of support but also a lot of the usual pseudo-scientific criticism on the question of climate change. So, I thought I could repropose here a post of mine that I published in 2012 in order to clarify my views on this matter. In the end, it has all to do with the concept that forms the title of this blog: "Resource Crisis." One of the resources we are depleting fastest is the capability of the atmosphere to absorb the products of the combustion of fossil carbon.

From "Cassandra's Legacy", Dec 12, 2012. 

Climate change: Confessions of a Peak Oiler

 by Ugo Bardi

 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. Your past intellectual progress includes absolute fucking stupidity on the prospect of uranium becoming scarce. You should repudiate that occasionally.

    1. Example of the fucking stupidity that normally I don't let pass, but I do, occasionally.

    2. Good for you. Normally I don't use profanity, either.

  2. These folks were invited to DAVOS ... Perhaps yours is still in the mail??!topic/fbc-re/vpCKPOcMogM

  3. Surely they are awaiting Mr. Cowan to enlighten them!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Prof, what do you think about Gail's new post?

  6. Ugo,

    For me it was not so much of an eye-opener that there was a prospect of running out of the cheaper-to-extract oil (the low hanging fruit) or the prospect of over-cooking our planet (the boiled frog syndrome) but rather the question: Why do their eyes glaze over when you try to discuss it with them?

    By "them" I mean friends, family and the public in general.

    I sought the answers to what within our human nature it is that makes us close our minds shut to any information that constitutes an inconvenient truth? What is it that makes us grab for the message of Happy-Times-Are-Here-Again as sung by our politicians rather than heeding the dire and more rational warnings?

    Regretfully, the answer is out there in plain sight.
    We are not rational creatures.
    We cling to our delusions of man overcoming nature despite all evidence to the contrary. We are the monkey who has found the golden candy bar stuffed inside the coconut hole and who refuses to let go of the greedy hand grasp about the treasure even though it means certain death. The picture in the mirror is not very flattering.

  7. I like this post. It's very well written.
    Although I think, mankind as such is very very resilient, because we can change our behaviour in very short time scales, compared to animals (which actually do it too! Even polar bears change their feeding behaviour.)
    Probably our children and grand children will have to live through far reaching changes compared to our way of living. E.g. the habit of flying around the globe, which many have adopted, will probably have to cease.
    What's more worrisome is the prospect of hunger crisis'. More people, expensive energy, less than intelligent water use to say the least, droughts and floods, new pests, a phosphor depletion in the farther future... this may well add up to a deadly cocktail one day.
    On the other hand education and intercommunication is growing fast. The same holds for social cohesion and intellience of social systems, in the medium term. This is definitely on the plus side of the balance.

  8. It could be that we have already passed a tipping point to where the methane bubbling up from the tundras & ocean shelf's is a sign that a unstoppable loop has been triggered.

    We have dumped enough greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to destabilize that methane hydrates which will warm us even more further destabilizing & warming the air.

    Since only the unavailability of fossil resources will stop us from adding even more CO2 to our atmosphere, we have already doomed billions of us to a early death through climate change.
    Drought, rising sea levels, more severe storms, lower food production & resource wars.

    For far too long, we have believed ourselves to be separate from the rest of life on this planet & could ignore natures limits.
    We are about to be given a lesson that nature always bats last & she makes all the rules.

  9. I like Gail T., I met her at last year's Age of Limits conference. She is smart and practical and a very kind lady. I think she misses two things in her presentation. One, that the IPCC is far too conservative. Personally, based on the paleoclimatic record, I think it's pretty obvious the human race is done for even if we stop all emissions tomorrow morning. Secondly, she bases her expectation that peak oil and economic collapse will reduce CO2 emissions drastically. I'm not convinced because I think the elites in society will continue to extract and burn fossil fuels even if it's not "economic". They will enslave and steal from the 99% to do it - not at the same level as now, but as much as they can.

    Another thing she misses is all the nuclear power plants melting down due to erratic supplies of fuel for cooling; and the fact that so may are on the coasts where they will be inundated by rising seas.

    Another thing she mentions but doesn't quantify is the fact that people will burn every last tree for heating and cooking when fuel becomes too expensive. So that will remove a major CO2 sink, AND add emissions. I don't know how much effect this will have and neither does she; but I'm pretty sure it is not inconsiderable.

    The widespread perception that a scarcity of fossil fuels will lead to the development of alternatives in time to salvage the climate is wrong, Dr. Edenhofer said. That is because higher prices and improved drilling technology are leading to an intensified hunt for new fossil energy, and it effectively means that policies have to be found that will leave much of the world’s coal, oil and gas reserves in the ground.

    “The scarcity of fossil fuels will not solve our problem,” Dr. Edenhofer said. “We are in the middle of a fossil fuel renaissance.”



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)