Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015: the Year that Changed Everything?


Recent wildfires in California, photo from the Independent

There has been no lack of disasters taking place in 2015. Some can be classified as "natural" others as human caused. In all cases, anyway, they are an indication of the stress felt by the ecosystem and by the economic system at the same time. We are, finally, reaching our limits as we knew we had to, from the time when we were warned, in 1972, by the study titled "The Limits to Growth."

But not everything was bad in 2015 and, in this post for the end of the year, let's concentrate on the good things that happened. If we do that, we see that 2015 has been a very special year. Not that any of the big problems we face has been solved; but there is something new going on; something unexpected, but that may give a boost to a new direction that the world may take; a direction that may lead us to a better world. We may be learning something, after all.

So, let me list some of the good things that happened in 2015

- The Papal Encyclical on climate, the "Laudato si'". This has really been something big. For one thing, it was clear from the way it affected the debate. Mostly, climate scientists, and scientists in general, are no-nonsense people, often atheists or agnostics, rarely churchgoers. So, the arrival of the Pope in the debate took them by surprise: "The Pope? What? Does he agree with us? Really? He said that God orders to us to safeguard the creation..... Eh....?" You can't imagine how happy these solemn scientists were; like children receiving a Christmas gift in August! But the main effect of the Pope's encyclical has been on the anti-science camp. They were, clearly, in difficulty. As a reaction, they could have demonized the Pope, saying that he is a communist, or he is possessed by the devil, or something like that. Some weirdos have done exactly that but, by far and large, the mainstream anti-science camp has decided that their best (and probably the only) strategy was to keep a low profile and hope that the "Laudato si'" would be ignored and then forgotten. It wasn't and it won't. The effect of the encyclical has been large on the public's understanding of climate change. It is an effect that's continuing and that can only increase in the future.

- The COP21 climate conference in Paris. I know that many people say that not enough has been obtained, which is true. But it is also true that the conference has been a success mainly in showing the marginality of the anti-science camp. They had spent so much money trying to demonize science and scientists, trying to ridicule climate science, spreading various conspiracy legends and then, what? They found that the delegations of 190 countries in Paris declared that climate change is real, it is human made, and something must be made to stop it. Now, think about that: if you were in their shoes, how would you feel? That's the main reason why the Paris conference was a remarkable success. It was just a first step, of course, but you can't go anywhere without a first step!

- The new perception of the need of clean energy. This year has seen a true explosion in the endorsements of renewable energy. A set of technologies that once were seen as just toys for Green Nerds, now are increasingly seen not just part of the solution of the problem of climate change, but THE solution. Among those who came out strongly in favor of renewable energy in 2015, I can cite Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Klare, Naomi Oreskes, Bill Gates, and, yes, the Pope himself! True, not everyone has understood exactly the terms of the problem. Some, like Bill Gates, still think that renewables need to be substantially improved before being deployed, without realizing how pressing is the need of the renewable transition. Others have understood that energy is the problem, but they picked up the wrong solution: nuclear energy - as James Hansen and others did. Within some limits, it is an understandable mistake on the part of people who are not energy experts, but, at least, they understood the need of producing energy. This is the real change in perception: we are moving from a perception that sees emission reductions as the priority to a perception that sees clean energy production as the priority. If we can manage to produce clean renewable energy at a cost lower than fossil energy, then we'll move to renewables without the need of laws, treaties, and special taxes (and we can do that, already!)

- The collapse of the oil markets. At first sight, low oil prices would seem to be exactly the opposite of what we need to fight climate change. But that's not the case: think that we have been telling people that we need to "leave oil in the ground" without much success, so far. But now low prices are doing the job for us by making extraction unprofitable! The low oil prices of 2015 show the impossibility for the market to keep producing from expensive (and dirty) sources such as shale oil. As a consequence, the shale oil industry giving out its death rattle and we are facing the start of the terminal decline of the world's oil production. That will carry with it the decline of all fossil fuel production. The importance of this event can hardly be underestimated. It means that the decline in emissions is likely to be much more rapid than anything that was even vaguely imagined at the COP21 in Paris and that the scenarios contemplated in the INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) will soon be as obsolete as flying cars and nuclear water boilers. The emission decline could even take the shape of a "Seneca Collapse" that might stop the growth of greenhouse gas concentrations short of the dreaded climate "tipping point". That would surely be a good thing but, of course, a Seneca collapse of the world's energy production would be a major disaster in itself; possibly able to destroy the world's economic system. But there is a middle way: the Seneca effect could help us manage to sharply curtail fossil fuels use, but not so much that we would be left without the resources needed to build a new energy system based on renewables. It is difficult, but not impossible, as shown by quantitative calculations.

Of course, things might go wrong in other ways. For instance, a major war could push up the need of fuels and cause the oil industry to restart extracting resources that a market economy cannot extract. It is possible, indeed, that the current drive for war is the result of exactly this kind of considerations. Nevertheless, war is not unavoidable and, if we manage to avoid it, then 2015 may be remembered as the year when everything changed. A year of hope!


14 comments:

  1. Personally I think the collapse of oil and coal prices indicates several things, none of which are comforting to fossil fuel producers and major users. First, extreme volatility that greatly discomfits lenders funding major capital projects. Second, volatility that makes it difficult to carry out medium and long term planning and budgeting for regulated industries such as power generation. Thirdly, that major producers such as Saudi Arabia think that selling cheap oil today benefits them more than saving it for future sale at a higher price. Fourthly, companies that go bankrupt can no longer skew this debate with paid disinformation.

    In all, yes, 2015 was an important year and hopefully a turning point.

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  2. You are spot on. This is limits to growth but we have used debt to delay the consequences, as a result we have turned a slope into a "seneca" cliff. Lets hope we don't do too much damage with our solutions based on miss diagnosis of the problem. Happy new year Ugo

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  3. When I first attended Ugo Bardi's conference in Paris, I thought that he was fundamentally a pessimist, which is why I became interested in his viewpoint, to counteract the dogmatic party line optimism of liberal do-gooders.

    And now, what do we see? That Ugo is a disguised optimist. Where are we going to find honest contrarian viewpoints? But perhaps it's only a moment, a wave, a ripple in the flow of time. Our pessimism and optimism can fluctuate according to current events and our limited short-term prognostications.
    In the long run, we are all dead anyway, so the long run is not what we're interested in, but the foreseeable short-term run. And there, the issue is crystal clear: will new sources of clean renewable energy be successful in replacing fossil fuels, in a pretty tight time horizon of say, 5 to 20 years? Beyond that, all guesses are off, and the future looks densely dark.
    So pessimism, when it comes to climate change, is not dead, only put to sleep for the time being. Ready to be reactivated as soon as the political and technological scene changes and tilts towards premonitions of the coming climate apocalypse.

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    1. Aw, aw, aw..... people always say that I am too pessimistic! And now I am showing my true colors: I am a techno-optimist! Actually, not exactly that, but, let's say, not a Guy McPherson-like person, at least!

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  4. If this was happening decades ago, there would be hope, but it seems that our instant collapse is going to get rid of global dimming and kill everyone within weeks.

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    1. Come on, Liam, whatever it happens, it will take more than "weeks" to kill everyone!

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    2. Oh, Guy McPherson seemed convinced of everyone being dead within days or weeks due to the loss of global dimming, at least on one of the videos on his "Nature Bats Last" channel.

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    3. Oh, yes. He has overstrained a bit my "Seneca collapse" model. Take it easy, the Roman Empire took 3 century to disappear. I think in terms of orders of magnitude, we still have decades; if not centuries.

      Then, of course, if the glaciers start slipping into the sea....

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  5. For me, only the following will count as REALLY good news:

    - World's major policymakers see coming worldwide collapse and make serious preparations. They start using the remaining resources still at their disposal to reconfigure the socioeconomic structure of their countries so that people now learn to be self-sufficient, form local communities, practice subsistence farming, scrap the car etc, and gradually leave behind their dependence on cheap fossil fuels and anything that needs such fuels to exist.

    Will this happen? Seems like a very FAT hope to me.

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  6. I think the direction Cop21 takes us depends on who wins the 2016 Presidential election. If a Repub wins, we're in for a really crappy world by 2100. If a Dem wins, then the situation looks a lot brighter.

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  7. Not sure about other countries, but neither party in the US could make significant inroads against the Sacred Paradigm of Constant Growth (neither of them even wants to....)

    Dem, Repub, major differences around the margins, which isn't trivial....but as for climate change, no politician can advocate what really needs to happen.

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  8. You see, that's where you get into speculation about economics. I don't see small economic growth (which I see happening in the future) as being incompatible with emissions reduction. That's the thing that annoys me about people who say capitalism is the problem. What would you replace it with? Socialism? Becqause that would really work out well (eye-roll)

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  9. Just because I say capitalism IS the problem, doesn't mean there's anything we can replace it with that wouldn't be a problem. Remember, some predicaments don't have ANY solution. Humans at their peak are one of those predicaments.

    I agree with others who say it has to crash before something (unknown) can take its place...

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  10. I have to agree with you on that.

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Who

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)