Monday, December 31, 2012

What we learned in 2012

2012: the last flight of the Space Shuttle "Endeavor." They had promised us the conquest of space, but all we got was Facebook.

2012 was a special year. So many things happened, and so many things didn't happen. That gave us a chance to learn a lot; probably more than we would have liked to learn. So, we learned that:

- It is so easy to scare people with fancy stories and so difficult to use logic and data to persuade them of real and imminent dangers.

- It is incredibly easy to convince people that resources are abundant and will last decades. They will believe that even if it is based on faulty data and sloppy reasoning.

- Climate change is hitting us faster than anyone could imagine. It is in this year that we realized in horror that it is going to affect us, and not just future generations. Even more in horror, we realized that nobody is going to do anything about it.

- When people are hit hard by climate disasters, such as droughts, floods, hurricanes and the like, they narrow their viewpoint to their most immediate concerns and forget all about climate change.

 - People convinced that climate change is all a conspiracy will never change their mind, no matter what happens. Their capability to construct complex logic arguments to deny the evidence is bewildering.

- When the economic situation becomes difficult, the first reaction is to cut on renewable energy and conservation.

- We can only fiddle with small problems, while we just don't seem to be able to solve big problems.

- The monoculture won the battle for our hearts and minds. Not only we can't solve big problems, we can't even see that they exist.

- We are stuck on this planet and this planet seems to have had enough of us.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Occupy is not dead, just resting

Guest post by Graeme Maxton

The desire for collective action remains strong

What happens when you bring a group of young political activists together?

You might be surprised.

Over the last five days, in a sleepy part of Switzerland, we brought together members of the Occupy Movement, the Pirate Party and some of the biggest political NGOs for the first time, ever. We also invited some edgy film makers, alternative-thinking academics, popular online journalists and controversial bloggers to sit in. The odd banker was asked to take part too. And also a radical feminist from Ukraine, famous for grabbing the headlines topless.

All those who came to the meeting had two things in common. There were all in their 20s or 30s. And they were all passionate about wanting to change the world.

The conference was the culmination of months of work by my colleagues and was the first of its kind. The 60 attendees had been selected after we received a deluge of applications from all over the world.

We had representatives from more than 40 countries – not only the mainstream countries of America, Germany and Japan but also from Namibia, Iran and Bolivia, countries less used to being given an equal voice when it comes to driving the international agenda. We had green party politicians from Australia, environmental lobbyists from China and animators with something radical to say from Venezuela.

We started by inviting Holocaust survivors, climate change scientists, economists, politicians, writers and religious thinkers to give us their perspectives on the world and its future. Then we asked the attendees to spend three days working together. We asked them to think about the world. We asked them to discuss the future of humanity, and our relationship with nature. We asked them to consider the purpose of our societies. We asked them to look at what our priorities should be over the next 30 years. And we asked them to think about what is right and wrong. We also asked: does the next generation have any rights and where do our obligations to them lie?

What we got in return was unleashed passion and anger in equal measure, from a group that no longer believes in the traditional political process, because they simply don't think it works. People who said economics had got it wrong. That it should focus on people and not just growth. That we need to think about the long term, not just next week. They talked about a finance sector that was out of control, which only served its own needs. Some called for revolution.

They were worried by two trends more than any others. They were concerned about the accelerating pace of climate change and they fretted about the expected rise in poverty, almost everywhere. Both could be fixed they thought, and easily. It was politicians who were standing in the way, as well as the greedy, those “who keep buying stuff they don't need with money they don't have”, they said.

When 60 political activists come together, what do they want to do? Well, for one thing, they want to redefine the word 'education'. It should not just be about teaching children at school and university. It should also be about learning sustainable values and the social skills to make good decisions. It should be about teaching entrepreneurship and about developing the next generation of leaders who can take the right long term decisions.

Humanity as a parasite

They were also concerned about the media, which they thought was manipulative and often dishonest. It was not informing people as it should, and it was not connecting with these people in particular. There was also a concern that many of our problems are global, but that almost no one was thinking globally. Climate change should be an issue for the UN security council, they said. Not just that. Those who abuse the planet, or cause it harm, should be charged with violating everyone else's human rights. There should even be a principle of climate justice; those who create environmental problems for others should be made to face criminal charges. They felt that while it is not in our nature to be destructive, to ruin our home, humankind is behaving like a parasite too often. Our society has become like a weed, they said.

They wanted change. They wanted to change our values. They wanted to change our education systems. They wanted to change our economic and political systems. They wanted to change our relationship with nature. They wanted to hold the greedy to account.

More than anything they wanted to be heard. And they felt that no almost one was listening.

At least, in that, they were wrong.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The World ended on Dec 21st, but they didn't tell us!

Translated from "Attack on Earth"

On Dec 21st, at 9:00 pm, Greenwich time, humankind was wholly exterminated as planet Nibiru collided with Earth generating giant earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.

However, these news were not reported by the media. As the result of the work of disinformation agents, the public never came to know of their own cataclysmic end.

You didn't even suspect that planet Earth is at present a fiery ball of molten rock miserably orbiting around the sun. What you see around you does not exist. Trees, people, roads, buildings, other people - nothing like that exists any more. You have been transferred into a simulation.

You are not just disinformed: you are disinformation yourself, Indeed, you don't even exist!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Russian oil and the future of catalytic chemistry

Here I am, in Siberia, with Prof. Irina Kurzina (right in the photo) and Dr. Tamara Kharlamova (center) of the department of Chemistry of the University of Tomsk. Prof. Kurzina organized there a conference titled "Catalysis: from the laboratory to industry" and she has been so kind to invite me to give a presentation. This trip to Tomsk has been interesting for various reasons and I was impressed by the enthusiasm and the dedication of the young Russian scientists I met. Here is a version of my talk at the meeting; it is condensed and somewhat modified to cater for a larger audience than specialists in catalysis, but it maintains the substance of what I said. 

Tomsk - Nov 1, 2012
by Ugo Bardi

Ladies and gentlemen, first of all I'd like to tell you that it is a pleasure to be here in Tomsk to discuss heterogeneous catalysis. And I say this because I am one of you, even though I haven't been working in this field for some years. Let me show you this picture:

It was taken in 1994 and it is the earliest picture I have been able to find that shows me in a chemistry lab, studying heterogeneous catalysis. (what you see behind me is an apparatus for photoelectron spectroscopy). I had been studying that subject from 1980, when I was post-doc in Berkeley. As you can see, I look a bit younger in that picture. I looked even younger in 1980, but let's not harp on that! I just wanted to show you where I started my career as a researcher which, by now, has changed quite a bit.

Today, I am still very much interested in catalysis and surface science, but I tend to take a wider view of the field. I am not studying specific processes any more, but the whole subject of catalysis in its economic relevance. You know better than me that catalysis is strongly related to petroleum which, together with natural gas, provides the basic feedstock for most industrial catalytic reactions. It is with catalytic reactions that we create fuels from petroleum, and not just fuels, we create everything from plastics to fertilizers and everything else you can think in terms of chemicals.

Now, the point is, of course that once you realize how important is petroleum for so many things then you also wonder how long it will last. I am sure you have been asking yourselves this question, at least in the back of your minds. Occasionally, I was asking myself the same question when I was a young researcher studying catalytic chemistry but I must say I never placed much importance on it. It was only with time that I found that I couldn't ignore the question any more and so I started studying it as if it were another problem in physical chemistry. I am not sure I found good answers for this question, but at least I did find some answers. That's what I would like to discuss with you today.

I'll try to tell you about petroleum in general, but also about the specific subject of Russian petroleum. As a disclaimer, let me say that I am not a specialist in Russian oil. There are people who spent their lives studying oil production in Russia and they know everything about where oil is produced, resources, reserves, wells, fields, pipelines, refineries and all the rest. I can't claim to have that kind of knowledge but I'll try nevertheless to tell you a few things on this subject that I found interesting and that you may have missed.

So, the talk will start with a brief history of petroleum, then I'll tell you something about the problems caused by petroleum, climate change, then some perspectives about Russian oil production and finally on how catalytic chemistry can come to the rescue of a future world in which we'll have much less petroleum to burn that we have today. That means "CO2 activation", but let's go in order.

1. Introduction on petroleum

So, as fellow chemists you know that petroleum often arrives as an awful blackish goo that, as it is, is almost completely useless as fuel. It burns, yes, but very slowly and, in some cases it doesn't burn at all, at least if you try to ignite it at atmospheric pressure. It is catalysis, in particular what we call "catalytic cracking", that turns oil into fuels. But even before industrial cracking, people had learned how to distill oil to make a nice and clear fluid, called "kerosene" that could burn in lamps - that was in mid 19th century in the United States. Here is an advertisement for kerosene in Russia, there is no date in this image, but from the style it could be late 19th century.

Maybe you don't know that for some time Russia imported kerosene from the US. That sounds strange to us because we know that Russia has vast petroleum resources and you probably know that the Caucasus oil fields were exploited already in the 18th century. But the technology to transform crude oil into lamp fuel took some time to be developed here and so for some time Russia had to rely on the US for kerosene. Perhaps you also don't know that Dmitry Mendeleev - the one famous for the periodic table - traveled to Pennsylvania to study the American ways to process crude oil. Here is his publication, dated 1877.

Of course, Russian chemists quickly learned how to make kerosene and then how to process petroleum using modern methods. Today, the Russian oil industry is probably the largest in the world, but where does Russia stand in terms of future perspectives? To answer this question we must examine oil production in general.

2. Patterns of oil production

As I said, Russia started a little slower and a little later than America with petroleum but, with time, Russian production grew rapidly until it overtook the American production in the 1970s. Let's see a comparison of US and Russia (actually the former Soviet Union) in terms of oil production. This is an image made in 1997 by the French oil expert Jean Laherrere. (Link)

This is a rather old set of data, many things have changed since 1997. But I wanted to show to you this specific image to evidence how things appeared during the collapse of the Soviet Union.

You see how the Soviet production started growing rapidly later than in the US  but that eventually it overcame the US production with the 1970s (the graph doesn't show Alaska's production, but the change is not large). Note how both curves show the same pattern: first they grow exponentially, then they peak and decline. There is a difference, though: the US consumption continued to grow with imports from the Middle East and other regions. Instead, the Soviet Union was relatively isolated as an economic system and consumption declined together with production. That was a feature of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

You may be interested to know that there are two schools of thought on what caused oil production to decline in the Soviet Union. One says that oil production collapsed because of the collapse of the political system, the other that the Soviet political system collapsed because of the collapse in oil production. My opinion is that you can't think of answer this question with an "either-or". The right answer is "both". You need a functioning political and economic system to produce oil and you need oil as a source of energy in order to maintain a functioning political and economic system. So, eventually, the decline of both things came together. But why exactly?

As we saw, there seems to be a similar pattern in the two cases, USA and USSR. The first to note the existence of this pattern was an American geologist, Marion King Hubbert. In 1956, Hubbert foresaw what would have been the shape of the oil production curve in the United States. This figure is rather famous:

Hubbert saw this model as empirical, but whenever you have a pattern, a regularity in a phenomenon, then there has to be some deep reason for it to occur. That is, the fact that two very different economic and political systems such as USA and USSR showed the same pattern is telling us that something at the basis of the economy creates this pattern. That is, it was not political choices of the American government or of the Soviet government that generated this pattern. It is a general phenomenon of some kind that appears everywhere you have a large producing region.

Let me give you another example of this pattern; some data about the oil field of Samotlor, in West Siberia. It is not so far from where we are, in Tomsk. Well, "not so far" has to be taken in relative terms. Somewhat less than a thousand km, which, I figure, is not so much by Russian standards!

Samotlor is  "supergiant" - one of the largest oil fields in the world. You see how production reached a maximum level of more than a billion barrels of oil per year. That's a huge value; at that time Samotlor, alone, produced a significant fraction of the world's oil production. But then, production went down.

The case of Samotlor is interesting also because it illustrates how a mature field can be revitalized, at least in part. In the late 1990s, the two companies that manage the field, TNK and BP, decided to invest in Samotlor to revamp production. That meant "squeezing" more oil from the old field by various methods; it can be done and it worked because the decline was halted. But it was impossible to bring back the field to the levels of its heyday. Production has remained nearly constant up to now but there is no doubt that it will have to decline again. So, you see, there are strong factors that lead the curve to assume that shape and the fact that people don't want production to decline doesn't mean that decline can be stopped. Not easily at least.

So, what is that creates this pattern? Well, there is a theory that explains it, but I can't go in the details, here. Let me just say that the economy must, in the end, obey to physical laws and physical laws say that it takes energy to extract oil. The less oil you have left, the more energy it takes to extract it. That translates into higher costs and, in the end, nobody extracts oil at a loss. So, oil is extracted rapidly when it is easy to extract, but with time production tends to decline. These considerations can be set in mathematical form and the result is the "bell shaped" curve that you saw.

In a way, oil extraction is a big chemical reaction where oil and oxygen are the reactants and human beings are the catalyst. It is impressive that these models work so well in some historical cases - not all cases, of course: the world's economy is a complicated system. But the fact that it is a complicated system doesn't mean that it doesn't obey the laws of physics. When there are no more reactants, the reaction must end.

3. Oil: the present situation

So much for the so called "Hubbert model". It is an interesting model, but you have to remember that models are always approximations of reality. This is valid in chemistry just as well as in oil production. So, let's go see some data about the real world, here, for instance this one (taken from Wikipedia):

You see that there is a certain tendency for the production "reaction" to follow the Hubbert model, that is to flare up and then subsidize. But reality is more complex and there is always the possibility of restarting growth after an extended period of decline. You could say that the reactants are not well mixed and so the reaction goes on irregularly. You see that production in the countries of the former Soviet Union picked up speed again after reaching a minimum, around 1998 and now it has reached levels not far from those of the peak at the time of the old Soviet Union. That's because the system is not so simple as the models would want it to be and it reacts, among other things, to prices, to political events, wars, crisis and the like.

So, what can we expect for the future? Well, let me show you some recent data for the Russian oil production

You see that production growth has been slowing down during the past few years. Now, it doesn't seem to be able to grow any more; in this, it mirrors the general global trends: the world oil production is flat, or very slowly growing.

So, what's happening? Well, it is not because of lack of efforts; that is, the slowdown of growth is not a planned effect. From the data I have, it is clear that the Russian oil industry is making a tremendous effort to keep production at the present levels. They are investing money and resources, actively searching new areas, new fields, and using new technologies to get more oil from old fields. The problem is that many old oil fields, especially in West Siberia, are "mature" and slowing down - as we saw for the case of Samotlor. There is still plenty of oil to be extracted in the Russian republics, but it takes more and more effort to do so.

So, what's going to happen? Surely, we are not going to see a decline in production as long as the industry can keep up the effort of developing the available reserves. And that depends on several factors, including the international financial situation. I would say that, in the short term, we don't have to worry about Russian production declining; probably not even in the medium term. But, eventually, as I said, the reaction must run out of reactants. Whether that will take the form of a collapse or a slow decline, I cannot say, but I can say that  we must prepare for a world where, in the long run, there will be less petroleum available and it will be more expensive. The same is true for natural gas, even though Russian gas reserves are very abundant according to the data we have.

Note also that the high cost of extraction is not the only problem. As more effort is made to extract from expensive resources, we see that we produce more CO2 for the same amounts of energy generated. And this has an impact on climate. Even here in Russia. Let me just show to you the fires in East Siberia of this year - one of the consequences of climate change.

Probably, Russia will not be hit so hard by global warming as other countries, but it will still be a problem. Some people say that Russia will benefit from a warmer climate but I am not sure about that; especially if you consider these summer fires. Climate is a tricky subject that causes big changes everywhere. In some places, the changes may be for good, but I wouldn't bet on that for Russia. So we have to prepare not only for a world with less petroleum, but for a world in which we will not want (or we will not be able) to use the remaining resources.

4. Catalytic activation of CO2 as feedstock

So, if you have been following me up to now, I am sure that you have been asking yourselves how we are going to survive without petroleum. Of course, that will be for the future, we still have resources for quite a while; but we must be careful to avoid squandering them. In other words, we have to prepare for a future when there will be less oil (and also less natural gas). Where will we be able to find the resources we need?

Of course, you are all chemists and you know where oil comes from - that was a discovery of the Russian chemist Mikahil Lomonosov, back in 18th century. We know that crude oil, just like coal and natural gas, is a product of photosynthesis. It is the reaction of water with CO2 that produces organic molecules. This reaction has been going on for hundreds of millions of years on our planet and some of the products have been buried underground and slowly transformed into what we call "fossil" hydrocarbons and coal.

Now, the point is, of course, if we can replicate this reaction in the lab. And the answer is "yes", of course we can. We can make long chain hydrocarbons in the lab. This is well known and we call it the "Fischer-Tropsch" reaction. It works in the presence of catalysts based, usually, on iron and cobalt.

But in order to run this reaction we need carbon monoxide and H2, which are normally produced by reaction of water with coal, it is the so called "water shift" reaction. But that doesn't help us so much since coal is also a fossil fuel, it is polluting, it generates global warming, and it is not infinite. So, how can we run this reaction without recurring to coal?

Hydrogen is something that we can get from the electrolysis of water. Water is abundant and splitting it doesn't produce greenhouse gases, at least if you use electric power generated by renewable or nuclear energy. But where can we get carbon monoxide without using fossil hydrocarbons? Well, it is possible, it is something called "CO2 activation".  Carbon dioxide is a stable gas, so we need energy to transform it into a "feedstock" that can react with hydrogen and produce carbon monoxide or useful products.

The main method for CO2 activation is something similar to photosynthesis, that is it is based on photochemistry. Activation is obtained by the promotion of an electron to a high energy state in a semiconductor. This electron then reacts with CO2; transforming it in an active compound that can react with hydrogen. Typically, TiO2 is the semiconductor used. Here, you see the electrochemical potentials that can be used in order to obtain the reaction, and the products you can obtain.

The reaction of photoelectrochemical activation of CO2 is still at the research stage but it is a promising idea. You see that there is plenty of interest in this concept and this year there has been the first conference on CO2 activation in Essen, in Germany

It is a hugely interesting field and very new: you notice that because it is the "first" conference on CO2 activation - there are not many subjects in chemistry that haven't been object of extensive studies and where you can have a "first" wordwide conference, today. So, a very interesting area. Unfortunately I could not attend this first conference for various reason, but I plan to be present at the next edition; in 2013. I think the concept of using CO2 as feedstock for the chemical industry is the real frontier of heterogeneous catalysis and I invite you to consider it for your future work.

6. Energy and CO2 activation

So, we saw that we need to start working in the direction of obtaining the chemicals we need from the activation of CO2. Right now, it is a route more expensive and more complex than the traditional ways of obtaining chemicals from fossil hydrocarbons, but in the future it is likely to became the chosen route. In the long run, it will be the only one.

Of course, we must be careful in what we are doing. Maybe you have read in some paper that people are claiming that they can "make gasoline out of air". It is referred to a particular path of reaction that starts with CO2 activation and leads to liquid fuels. In a certain way, it is true, but it is also clear that there is a fundamental difference. When you make gasoline out of petroleum, you use the energy embedded in petroleum (or maybe in natural gas) to power the whole process. But when you make gasoline out of CO2 you must provide the necessary energy. CO2 is a very stable chemical compound and to activate it you need to go uphill, thermodynamically, there is no way to avoid that. And you cannot use fossil hydrocarbons to obtain that energy: it would make no sense to burn hydrocarbons to make hydrocarbons.

So, if we want to substitute petroleum with CO2 as a feedstock, we must be careful that we need energy to power the whole process and this energy cannot come from fossil fuels; otherwise the whole thing would be self-defeating. Nuclear plants or renewable energy, possibly both things, but it is essential that we develop and install new forms of energy in the future.

This is the crucial point and the big challenge we face. Either we succeed in developing and using these new methods, or we'll have big, big troubles. And, as you saw, catalysis is a fundamental factor in these new perspectives. It is fascinating field to work in. It has always been one and now it is even more so!

7. Conclusion

I told you at the beginning that it was a pleasure for me to be here but now I would  like to tell you exactly why. You see, the first time I visited Russia was in 1993, almost 20 years ago. It was the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many of you are too young to remember those times, but I am sure you understand what I am talking about. Those were sad times; especially sad for scientific research: there was no money, not even for the salaries of researchers. You had this feeling that so much work was being lost: competence, culture, history; all that was disappearing.  But today, visiting the university of Tomsk and seeing so many of you so enthusiastic, so committed, and doing so well; I can tell you that it is a great pleasure for me. Really, it is something that I won't forget so soon.

So, after having visited Russia many times during the past 20 years, I have only one regret: that I couldn't give this talk in Russian. But I can, at least, thank you for your attention in Russian: Спасибо за внимание!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Recognizing reality

From Chris Vernon's blog.

2012 December 14
by Chris Vernon

We have a problem. I’ve known we’ve had a problem for a long time. It’s only in the last few years though, after I left my career in engineering to take a PhD in glaciology, studying the changing Greenland ice sheet, that the magnitude and timeframe has become clear. It is now all but impossible to limit global warming, the warming of mean surface air temperature, to less than +2°C from pre-industrial temperatures [1, 2]. Understand also that temperatures over land rise more than this global average, and extremes are likely to be further exaggerated by positive feedbacks. All but impossible because to have even a fifty-fifty chance of keeping warming below that somewhat arbitrary threshold, global greenhouse gas emissions would have to peak within the next five years or so then fall rapidly for decades: “…the threshold of 2°C is no longer viable” [3].

This fall in emissions would have to happen against the trends of increasing wealth in growing economies and growing populations. Recent history, even with the largest economic slowdown in decades, offers us no hope as global emissions are currently rising faster than ever [2]. It is a fantasy to suggest that the global community is able to collectively choose to peak and decline emissions within the next few years.

The lack of action is not for lack of knowledge. The data and scientific understanding have been clear for a long time and yet over the last decade carbon emissions have increased by a greater amount than in any previous decade (between 2002 and 2011 emissions increased by 2.5 GtCyr-1 from 7.0 to 9.5 GtCyr-1 [4]). There is nothing in the data to suggest that we have recognised the seriousness of our situation. In fact the reverse is true: we are accelerating into disaster faster than the scientific community thought possible even a decade ago.

As a scientist, I’m not supposed to use emotive words like disaster; however, that is what we are facing – an avoidable disaster of our own making. Reticence amongst the scientific community has probably contributed to our civilisation’s inaction. We know enough to say, and importantly to do more. As I write this, however, my office is quiet, half empty. My colleagues are attending a conference on the other side of the planet, elevating their carbon emissions to some of the highest in the world.

Two glimmers of hope I held until recently are fading. The first was offered by researchers quantifying the Earth’s endowment of fossil fuels. Their evidence suggested there simply weren’t the hydrocarbon reserves available to greatly perturb the climate system [5]. This is the question I explored for my master’s thesis [6] a few years ago. However, as extraction of unconventional resources continues to expand and as Arctic melting unlocks probably significant northern reserves, the hope of these resource limits applying any meaningful and timely brake diminishes. Secondly, our emission growth is linked to our economic growth. Without increasing demand from the expanding wealthy population the hydrocarbon reserves will remain unexploited. The threat of economic collapse, in our case linked to unserviceable debts, is familiar and appears plausible at least for developed Western economies.

Exactly three years ago I blogged, with evidence, about the economically induced 2008 emissions peak. The global economy has proved far more resilient than I imagined. In any case, were western economies to collapse, the remaining four fifths of the global population are unlikely to need asking twice before taking up any hydrocarbon supply slack and attempting to resume the emission growth trajectory.

The time for hope is over; it is simply illogical to continue believing that dangerous future climate projections can be mitigated through national and international agreements, or through pro-active action. We now have to consider life in a 4 °C warmer world, described here in a report for the World Bank [7].

Our global civilisation appears to be facing a protracted period of decline. Most likely this will be due to the damaging impacts of climate change but if, against the odds, we are spared the worst climate impacts it will only be due to decline from crippling energy shortages or global economic collapse. There is no easy way down for our seven, going on nine billion population, not from the height we’ve now reached. The first half of the 21st century is likely to represent a new peak of human civilisation, the first truly global civilisation, eclipsing our species’ many previous peaks. From here, we can only now hope the cost of climbing so high won’t be so damaging as to deny our distant descendants their own future triumphs.

[1] PriceWaterhouseCoopers, November 2012.
Too late for two degrees? Low carbon economy index 2012.
[2] Peters, G. P., Marland, G., Le Quere, C., Boden, T., Canadell, J. G. & Raupach, M. R. 2012. Rapid growth in CO2 emissions after the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. Nature Climate Change, 2, 2-4.
[3] Anderson, K. & Bows, A. 2012. A new paradigm for climate change. Nature Climate Change, 2, 639-640.
[4] Boden, T.A., G. Marland, and R.J. Andres. 2012. Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A. doi 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2012
[5] Nel, W. P. & Cooper, C. J. 2009. Implications of fossil fuel constraints on economic growth and global Warming. Energy Policy, 37, 166-180.
[6] Vernon, C., Thompson, E. & Cornell, S. 2011. Carbon dioxide emission scenarios: limitations of the fossil fuel resource. Procedia Environmental Sciences, 6, 206-215.
[7] Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, November 2012. Turn Down the Heat: why a 4C warmer World Must be Avoided. Report for the World Bank.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Bicentennial of Napoleon's retreat from Russia

Two hundred years ago, on Dec 14 1812, the last French soldiers left Russia after a disastrous retreat from Moscow in freezing weather. Napoleon had marched into Russia with nearly half a million soldiers; only about 100,000 or perhaps just 25,000, returned.

In a way, Napoleon had been defeated becouse he underestimated the power of climate on human activities. More than that, however, it was a disaster caused by human stupidity, greed, and ignorance.

Unfortunately, in two hundred years, it doesn't seem that we have learned much from our mistakes. It doesn't bid well for our future.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Peak oil is dead (and global warming doesn't feel so well, either)

Interest in peak oil seems to have died out nearly completely during the past few years. Something similar seems to be happening for climate change. Of course, the fact that people are not interested in Google-clicking on some concept doesn't mean that the concept is wrong or it is nothing to be worried about. It only means that people are so worried about their everyday troubles that they don't have time and willingness to worry about issues that seem to be not an immediate concern.

I understood that something was wrong when I went to give a look to the stats of the Italian version of this blog; "Effetto Cassandra". That blog had been having a remarkable success; at least for a blog that deals with scientific matters. In a few years, it had climbed up to third place among Italian scientific blogs according to "ebuzzing" - not bad at all! And then, during the past few months, the ratings of Effetto Cassandra had been sliding down, until it was below the 100th position. What was I doing wrong with my posts?

It took me some time to find an explanation - I can't say it is the only one, but it makes sense. It is not my fault if Cassandra's ratings have been going down. ALL blogs dealing with climate change and peak oil seem to be losing ground - that includes even denialist blogs! At least, in this we have something in common.

People just seem to be losing interest in everything related with climate change and depletion. I would never have expected that: just now that evidence is accumulating for rapid changes both about depletion and about climate change. Come on, don't you see the writing on the wall? High prices of all mineral commodities, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and assorted disasters! How come that people can't connect the dots?

And yet, that is what is happening. You find the explanation in an article by Andy Revkin about the public perception of Hurricane Sandy. Citing George Marshall, it says "Disasters can reinforce social networks (and with them established norms and worldviews)". In other words, when people face immediate difficulties, they tend to emphasize short term solutions and have no time to worry about the ultimate reasons of what's befalling on them.

The article by Revkin makes for some sobering reading because it says, basically, that the worse things will get, the less people will care about fixing the reasons of the troubles. Unfortunately, it seems that this is exactly what's happening now with peak oil and climate change.

So, if people don't care about the real reasons of the troubles we are having, what are they clicking on google? Well, here is an example: "chemtrails" seem to be much more interesting than peak oil.

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.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Climate Science: the same destiny of "The Limits to Growth"?

Studies of resource depletion, such as "The Limits to Growth" of 1972 were attacked and demonized in the 1980s, and then consigned to the dustbin of "wrong" scientific ideas. Now it is the turn of climate science to be attacked and demonized. Two parallel stories unfolding at different times .

In the 1950s, the mineral depletion problem and the climate problem started to be recognized. In 1956 Marion King Hubbert published the first study that examined worldwide oil depletion; suggesting the model that today takes his name; the "Hubbert Model". At about the same time, in 1957, Roger Revelle coauthored with Hans Suess the first paper that noted that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was increasing as a result of the combustion of fossil fuels and pointing out the related climatic effects.

Both climate studies and oil depletion studies dealt with complex, non linear systems, so that quantitative estimates of future trends became possible only with the development of digital computers, starting in the late 1960s. The first general circulation models (GCM) was developed at NASA's NOAA in the late 1960s. The first world model that examined the world's economic system in light of resource depletion was published by Jay Forrester in 1971, with the title "World Dynamics". One year later,  in 1972, the more detailed study "The Limits to Growth" appeared. These events marked a rapid growth of two new fields of research: "Climate Science" and "World Modeling".

Already the 1972 study, "The Limits to Growth" had identified the main elements and the behavior of the world system. Here is the basic result from that study.

As you see, the model had already identified the "tipping points" of the system; where the gradual depletion of natural resources and the increase in pollution would lead to the collapse of the industrial and agricultural production and, later on, to the collapse of population. The choice made to build this model were to "aggregate" most of the variables involved, that is to lump them together to limit the unavoidable uncertainties when dealing with single variables. Lacking sufficient data to build a very detailed model, the approach of "The Limits to Growth" study was heuristic and oriented to the understanding of the system's behavior, rather than to making exact predictions.

On the other side of simulations, climate scientists found themselves facing the high complexity of the world's climate, for which they often lacked sufficient data. The result was that climate modeling grew together with a substantial experimental effort dedicated to measuring the parameters of the system. Several of these parameters required extensive studies to be understood and quantified. With time, models grew in sophistication, just as the data in input became more detailed and reliable. Perhaps because of this very sophistication, the models had troubles in addressing the question of "tipping points", abrupt changes that could result from enhancing feedbacks within the climate system. The result has been a tradition of presenting the results of climate models as smooth and continuous curves. Here are, for instance, the curves for the temperature rise in the first IPCC report in 1990.

The results of the simulations haven't changed very much in the latest IPCC report, in 2007. Now, here is the difference in the two fields of research: World modeling, with its vision of collapse, seemed to provide a more immediate and more worrisome threat than the smooth curves of climate science. This difference had consequences.

We know what happened to the iconic study of world modeling: "The Limits to Growth" of 1972. It appeared threatening enough to many people that it underwent a series of political attacks in the 1980s that moved it to the dustbin of the "wrong" scientific theories. The problem was not just the demonization of a single study, but the fact that an entire scientific field was cast in bad light and that led to the nearly total disappearance of research funds in the area. Only in recent years we are seeing world modeling laboriously trying to re-emerge as a legitimate field of study.

The problem with climate science, however, is that its vision of the problem has gradually become more and more dramatic. With the Northern Ice Cap on its way to complete melting, drought, floods, and hurricanes, the question of abrupt climate change can't be ignored any more. Scenarios that take tipping points into account start to look even more worrisome than those provided by world modeling in the 1970s.

So, it may not be casual that we are seeing a reaction against climate science  very similar to the one seen in the 1980s against world modeling. Apparently, people do not like to see threatening scenarios and many lobbies feel that such studies are bad for business. As a consequence, a concerted effort is being carried out in order to demonize climate science and climate scientists in the eyes of the public and to make the whole story look like a joke or, worse, a purposeful hoax. If anything, the present attacks against climate science are more aggressive and violent than any attack against world modeling has been. Today, demonization technologies are much better known and refined than they were in the 1980s. The "Climategate" fabrication, for instance, is a true masterpiece in how to deceive the public.

So, what we are seeing are two parallel stories unfolding at different times. It is not impossible that climate science will go the same way as world modeling did in the 1980s: demonized and riduculed by a concerted and well financed political attack and subsequently removed from the pool of legitimate fields of study. If that happens, we may very well lose a couple of decades before realizing that studying climate science was important. By then, it will be surely too late.

Perhaps, however, the recent wave of symptoms of climate change, from hurricanes to melting ice caps, will make the problem so clear that it will spare climate science from the fate of demonization that befell on world modeling. However, the anti-science campaign is still going on and we lost already a lot of time. Is it too late? Only time will tell. 

Hat tip to Bernhardt for having suggested the subject of this post

Pulling the coal barge

Translated and readapted from "Attack on Earth"

Pulling a barge upstream was hard work, but you had to do it. You pulled because someone had to pull. You pulled because it was less expensive than having a mule pull, you pulled because you had to eat, you pulled because if you didn't pull someone else would pull and be paid for it. You couldn't avoid to pull until you couldn't do it any more, until you fell on the ground, until you died of exhaustion...

If you have five minutes, think about letting yourself taken in by the fascination of this splendid video assembled by BasileMarie. It is the song of the Volga boatmen with the famous 1873 painting Ilya Repin in the background. The clip shows the details of this fantastic painting that, in a single image, manages to tell not one but many stories, nearly without end. Just as without end was the work of the Volga Burlaki, those who were pulling the barges upstream.

Think about that: for the whole 19th century, the century of coal, commerce was all based on waterways. Everything was transported in that way, including coal. Everyone of us has ancestors who pulled heavily loaded barges along rivers. Volga or Arno, or others, it was the same. It is strange to thing that it has been crude oil that freed us from this destiny. But just for a short time and we are paying a high price for that. And the real bill still has to arrive.
Yo, heave ho!
Yo, heave ho!
Once more, once again, still once more
Yo, heave ho!
Yo, heave ho!
Once more, once again, still once more
Now we fell the stout birch tree,
Now we pull hard: one, two, three.
Ay-da, da, ay-da!
Ay-da, da, ay-da!
Now we pull hard: one, two, three.
As the barges float along,
To the sun we sing our song.
Ay-da, da, ay-da!
Ay-da, da, ay-da!
To the sun we sing our song.
Hey, hey, let's heave a-long the way
to the sun we sing our song
Yo, heave ho!
Yo, heave ho!
Once more, once again, still once more
Volga, Volga our pride,
Mighty stream so deep and wide.
Ay-da, da, ay-da!
Ay-da, da, ay-da!
Volga, Volga you're our pride.
Yo, heave ho!
Yo, heave ho!
Once more, once again, still once more
Yo, heave ho!
Yo, heave ho!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The cloud: what are we doing to our minds?

Fred Hoyle's 1957 novel "The Black Cloud" is chock-full of ideas and of inventions; still amazing to read today. In particular, Hoyle was prophetic with the concept of an "intelligent cloud"  that reminds the concept of "Internet Cloud" as we understand it today. What is the cloud doing to our minds?

I grew up in a remote province of the Empire and for most of my life, there, I was starving for information. Bookstores carried mostly books written in the local, obscure language and of what was said in the Imperial language I could access only the minuscule fraction that was translated. Getting books from the Empire's cultural centers, overseas, was possible; but it was slow, cumbersome,  and incredibly expensive.

Everything changed when I had the chance to live in Berkeley. It  was like being able to breathe after having been drowning. It was so different: the libraries of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory were open the whole night just to let us, the researchers, stay there as long as we wanted, combing obscure tomes in search for truth. And the bookstores in Berkeley! My gosh: books, and books, so many more than anything I had ever seen - and so cheap!

The best feature of so much abundance was serendipity. You know the meaning of the term: is the sudden and unexpected discovery - the new idea that shatters your mental blocks and washes out your old ideas. You can't reach the fabulous world of Serendip by ordering books by mail - as I could do from home in my country. But in Berkeley, with so many books available, all lined up so nicely in shelves and stands, all what you needed to do was just to walk on and let serendipity come across to you. You pick up one by chance, you look at the cover and you say, "well, that may be something interesting." You buy it, maybe it was a used book on sale for less than a dollar. You read it, and then your life changes. It was in this way that I discovered the concept of "peak oil", in 2001, in a bookstore in Berkeley. It changed my life.

That was more than ten years ago and it is unbelievable how things have changed in such a short time. I haven't been back to Berkeley, recently, but I am sure that the bookstores there are now a pale shadow of what they used to be. Serendipity has migrated to the Web.

We use now the term "surfing" for that kind of serendipity searching that I used to perform in bookstores. I can't quantify how enormously larger is the amount of information in the Web than it was in the old bookstores. Surely, it has become so large that I am starting to feel scared. Too much information to absorb.

That feeling brought back to my mind the science fiction novel that Fred Hoyle wrote in 1957: "The Black Cloud". I must have read it in the 1960s, in an Italian translation, when I was, maybe, 14 years old. It may not be a great novel, but it surely was prophetic in many respects. Hoyle couldn't really imagine the Internet, although there are hints of something similar in the story. But where he hit the bull's eye was with the concept of "cloud."

Hoyle's Black Cloud is not the same cloud that we have today as part of the World Wide Web. It a sentient being: benevolent although not necessarily merciful; as it has no qualms in atom-bombing a number of terrestrial cities. But the focal point of the story is the enormous knowledge that the Black Cloud has accumulated over millions of years. The dramatic point comes when it turns out that the Cloud must leave the Solar System in a hurry. So, there has to be a way to transmit that giant mass of knowledge to earthlings before the Cloud disappears forever. Two scientists attempt to absorb that knowledge, but they both die; their brains literally fried up by the sheer amount of data. Apparently, the new knowledge conflicted with the old one. They couldn't change their views fast enough and the result was that their brain went short-circuit; destroying itself.

Sometimes, I feel like I am attempting to do the same thing as the scientists of the novel; trying to absorb an enormous amount of knowledge from the cloud - the modern one. I don't know what's the experience of the average Web surfer but, for me, in the last few years, for me it has been a continuous bombardment of new ideas which have consistently replaced old ones. It has been the triumph of serendipity.

But, at the same time, it has not been painless. The new ideas are far from being reassuring. Peak oil, peak food, societal collapse, the climate tipping point. The universe is turning out to be a dangerous place and this planet a speck of rock that we are destroying because we can't even understand what we are doing. This kind of knowledge is so upsetting that I am starting to fear that my brain is going to get fried like those of the scientists of Hoyle's novel.

So, what are we doing with this awesome beast we have created, the giant cloud also known as "the Web"? We are changing ourselves at the same time as we are changing the world. In both cases, the change is not necessarily for the best, but - as usual - we are hurling ourselves head-on into the future without the smallest idea of what we are doing and where we are going.


Some links on how the "cloud" may be  changing our minds. People are not commonly complaining about having too much information available, but some are starting to recognize that there is a problem.

Is Google making us stupid? ...... (Nicholas Carr) Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle. 

The internet: is it changing the way we think? (Sarah Churchwell - as quoted), In 10 years, I've seen students' thinking habits change dramatically: if information is not immediately available via a Google search, students are often stymied. But of course what a Google search provides is not the best, wisest or most accurate answer, but the most popular one.

Yes, the internet is changing your brain. (Marc McGuinness) Every day, as you surf the internet, clicking on hyperlinks, opening new tabs and windows, flicking between e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and whatever it was you were reading just now, your patterns of thought are changing. And neuroscientists have amassed solid evidence that when we change our thinking, we change our brain. 

Your brain on line. (Sharon Begley) The Internet is also causing the "disappearance of retrospection and reminiscence," argues Evgeny Morozov, an expert on the Internet and politics. "Our lives are increasingly lived in the present, completely detached even from the most recent of the pasts ... Our ability to look back and engage with the past is one unfortunate victim." 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The unknown unknowns of the monoculture

Some people suffering of the "neglect syndrome" just can't see half of the world. For them, it is an unknown unknown. It seems that our society, that some have correctly defined as a "monoculture", is suffering of a cultural neglect syndrome facing such things as climate change and resource depletion. (Image from: "Spatial hemineglect in humans", Georg Kerkhoff , Progress in Neurobiology Volume 63, Issue 1, 1 January 2001, Pages 1–27.)

I don't know about you, but it seems to me that every month (or even more frequently) I discover something that completely changes my views of the world. Epiphanic changes; one after the other.

A recent epiphany I had came from reading the thesis in neuroscience that my daughter wrote this year. She has been studying something called "lateral neglect syndrome" which results from brain damage. It is a section of the general problem called "anosognosia" or "anosognosis." People suffering from this kind of cognitive impairment don't realize that they have a problem.

It is an impressive story to tell: a patient suffering of lateral neglect won't "see" one side of the world, won't draw it, and won't touch it. When asked why, the patient will answer that it was not important or that there was no reason to consider it; never that he or she couldn't perceive it. Anosognosia is what inspired Dunning and Kruger for the effect that takes their name: the "Dunning-Kruger Syndrome". It affects people who grossly overestimate their abilities or their knowledge. But Dunning and Kruger have been often misinterpreted by defining their effect as "stupid people don't realize that they are stupid". No, it is a much wider effect and it hits intelligent people in particular. It is typical of very intelligent people to be unable to realize their limits.

This kind of anosognosia is especially bad with science, in particular climate science. The Web is infested with people who suffer of a form of climate science neglect syndrome. They are not stupid;  on the contrary, some of them they can display considerable creativity and inventive to support the idea that climate is not changing, or that change is not caused by human activity, or that everything is an evil plot to enslave humankind. Their problem is that they completely fail to perceive the complexity of the subject. They can't see that climate science is not about whether grapes were cultivated in England during the Middle Ages or about the letters that some scientists wrote to each other more than 10 years ago. You just can't convince them that their vision of the world is limited. The same is true with a variety of conspiracy theories based on failing to understand the complexity of the subject: chemtrails, cold fusion, abiotic oil, and many more.

Anosognosia is easily recognizable in such extreme forms. But, in milder forms, it affects all of us. It is such an easy mistake to believe that we know something well enough to act on it and then suddenly discovering that we don't. I have my horror stories about myself to tell you on this point; I am sure you have yours. And those are cases where we understood that we were making a mistake. What's scary about anosognosia is when you don't even realize that there is a problem. Think that, most likely, there is something out there, something we can't even imagine, that's going to affect us deeply. But what? How can we perceive something that we cannot perceive? How do we manage "unknown unknowns"?

Still, as long as our brain is not physically damaged, we have at least a fighting chance to understand our mistakes and to be prepared for the unexpected that may crash upon us all of a sudden. But there is a much larger problem that has to do with society as a whole: it seems to be suffering of a bad case of cognitive neglect syndrome. Read "Monoculture" by F. S. Michaels and you'll see what I mean.

More and more, our culture seems to confine itself within narrow limits that don't include entities such as climate change, peak oil, ecosystem collapse, and much more. All that is relegated to the category of unknown unknowns, totally outside the bounds of perception; even outside the bounds of the imaginable. As it is not perceived, it is not understood, it is not discussed, it is not acted upon. And, whatever is going to crash on us all of a sudden, we are totally unprepared for it.

Unfortunately, one of the things I learned from my daughter is that there is no cure for this syndrome.


h/t to my daughter Donata and to Karl Wagner for telling me about the "Monoculture" book by F. S. Michaels 


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)