Monday, April 25, 2005

The solution to the greenhouse problem?


/ peak / climate /
As Mother Jones brings up the shady financing of "skeptical" environmentalist greenwashers, with regard to the climate change issue - the MoJo story discussed here, tabled here and presented in flash elegance here - I wonder whether the problems associated with burning fuel like we're running out of hydrocarbons, might take care of themselves (anyway, after the widespread havoc that global warming is about to bring) because, well, we are running out of hydrocarbons. In fact this last link from the Guardian quotes an unnamed american analyst, calling us to "kiss our lifestyle goodbye", because everything you have come to depend on via cheap oil (and that's a lot of stuff), is about to become vastly more expensive - unless alternative technologies are invented which are practical - and soon.
You know that some serious storm is brewing up ahead, when chairmen of energy investment groups casually remark that 100$ a barrel isn't too high a price for oil:

"The current tightness in global oil markets is likely to be a permanent feature as the world nears peak output," said Matthew Simmons, chairman of energy investment group Simmons & Company International.

"Prices are going to go way higher -- $100 isn't very expensive," he told Reuters on the sidelines of the Peak Oil UK conference in Edinburgh.

The theory of peak oil -- that describes when global production will peak followed by a decline -- attracted an unlikely alliance of oil geologists, greens, nuclear power advocates and bankers to the conference in Scotland, where North Sea oil production has already peaked


Note that what is considered by many to have been the most widely read public case for the "peak oil" eventuality, namely Colin J. Campbell's and Jean H. Laherrère's, The End of Cheap Oil [pdf, html version here], published in Scientific American back in 1998, suggests that the year oil production peaks is 2005. Others differ on this though, claiming that we don't yet know if there is going to be such a peak in the near future (or 2014 - depending). The difference is that, if it's happenning already, there's very little we can do anymore to prevent some sort of catastrophic effect in the near future. If it's to happen in 25 years there's plenty that can and should be done (assuming that someone is seriously looking already into the various alternatives). There seems to be more of an argument of "when" nowdays, rather than one of "whether". Although there are people writing in the WSJ who would argue otherwise... Of even greater note however in this WSJ editorial is the endorsement of Chinese "good governance" by the neo-maoists at the WSJ editorial page: "...Demand for oil grows daily in China and India, where good government is finally taking root..."

(I also note in passing that -as in the climate change "debate"- it seems to be economists and not geologists or engineers that have trouble coming to terms with the concept of "natural limits" of one sort or another... I'm starting to wonder whether economists as a profession are aware that infinities do not exist in nature - I suspect that were economists doing QFT they would see no need for renormalization [obscure physics joke - ignore]).
Anyway, there seems to be compelling, yet indirect evidence that the oil companies are aware of the problem and taking steps to protect themselves.

More on Peak oil: ASPO and Hubbert's Peak. See also "Plan War and the Hubbert Oil Curve"

12 comments:

ιονκ said...

some useful links:

government policy [uk]: the carbon trust

an example of energy efficient housing [~50% of energy consumption is associated with buildings]: bedzed

a place to learn practical solutions to environmental problems: center for alternative technology

scientific research, data, monitoring, climate change projections, etc.: hadley centre

lazopolis said...

I am really not familiar with the global warming issue, but to my understanding there is only one serious argument against the environmnentalist theories of global warming, and that's poor statistics.

I can imagine that there has been spurious funding of spurious people to promote spurious anti-environmentalist propaganda, but are there compelling environmentalist models that don't shift the total disaster scenarios by ten years every ten years ?

[BTW only one way out for the economologists: to stay at TREE level...]

PS: amazing flash site the one with the EXXON connections.

talos said...

Lazopolis: There's two parts that are being denied: whether climate change is happenning (which even the "skeptics" seem to agree on nowadays), and whether it's anthropogenic (see this for the evidence).

The worrying thing about the climate models is that most of the models, under a wide range of plausible parameter values, predict warming. The amount is debated. The quality of the simulations increase with computing power and climatological understanding, so that's important too, but there seems to be a consistent pattern of warming predictions since the early nineties.

BTW, there are no *total* disaster scenarios being suggested by the people who actually are doing the science. There is a spectrum of future scenarios provided by the IPCC, most of them to some degree catastrophic over the next century, but nothing "Day After'-like.

Not that there is any certaintly that *really* catastrophic climatic events won't happen (there are a lot of things aching to go wrong far from our present range of climatic conditions), it's just that since they can't be predicted the IPCC doesn't seriously use them. For a "primer" of the things that could go wrong and of the case for global warming see here...

talos said...

Oh and it's good to know that I can share geeky physics jokes with some of my visitors!

niko: thanks for the links!

ιονκ said...

Well, Laz brings up some very valid points which are thoroughly addressed in The Sceptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg. A meticulous publication, perhaps the best of its kind. Higly recommended!

talos said...

Niko, I have to say that Lomborg's writings are, well, to put it mildly, questionable.
He is using the very old trick of adressing a general audience which can't possibly be aware of his highly selective and dubious data spinning... Lomborg, a political scientist and a statistician, claims that the scientific consensus in a series of scientific field is to put it bluntly *wrong* and that he has arrived to show them the light and calm everybody that despite those alarmist scientists things have never been as rosy.

Scientific American, hardly a bastion of unreason, had a whole feature devoted to debunking Lomborg's claims. Grist magazine pretty much did the same and has a series of articles by *real* scientists that, frankly tear Lomborg's claims to shreds. E.O. Wilson (hardly a poster boy for the left), prefacing his debunking of Lomborg's spin on extinction data, states succinctly all that's wrong with Lomborg's misrepresentations (which were *loved* by the financial press and hated by almost anyone working in the sciences Lomborg "corrected"):

"My greatest regret about the Lomborg scam is the extraordinary amount of scientific talent that has to be expended to combat it in the media. We will always have contrarians like Lomborg whose sallies are characterized by willful ignorance, selective quotations, disregard for communication with genuine experts, and destructive campaigning to attract the attention of the media rather than scientists. They are the parasite load on scholars who earn success through the slow process of peer review and approval. The question is: How much load should be tolerated before a response is necessary? Lomborg is evidently over the threshold."

Sorry to rave on like this, but Lomborg is on my personal list of "most misleading people of the past 50 years"...

ιονκ said...

I agree that one may find many of Lomborg's statements questionable. For example he refers to many environmental improvements in Europe while failing to mention the switch from industrial economy to services economy and consequently the transfer of pollution to other parts of the world. I have not read though the entire book therefore, I cannot pass complete judgement. There is also the case that scientific data and opinions are indeed dynamic and more than often inconclusive. Take for example only one of the so many issues at hand, Hubbert's Peak Oil Theory. The false claims of many enviromentalists on the other hand in conjunction with exaggerated scare tactics are not without blame for divorcing the public from dialogue and positive action. After all this is precisely the Achilles' heel that Lomborg aimed at.
Despite the many mistakes, which are inevitable when one is dealing with about 2900 sources, I believe that within the context of critical disourse, that ought to cover all the perspectives if it is supposed to have any claims on objectivity, Lomborg's thesis is an excellent source albeit an instigating one. In any real issues there are always confrontations, politics and different ideologies intermingled but we should not allow these human traits discourage any attempt for dialogue. I also believe if there is going to be any consensus and dialogue especially scientific it should be devoid of excessive pathos and fixation to any single point of view.

talos said...

Niko:
You're assuming some sort of goodwill on Lomborg's part (not to mention competence) which I find debateable. Lomborg is not after the "false claims of envioronmentalists" nor after the "Day After"-type scenarios. His is an attack (a misleading and indeed, IMHO, a consciously misleading attack) on the established scientific consensus regarding a whole spectrum of environmental issues.

Now if a political scientist / statistician, self-taught in the sciences, decided to challenge the consensus in, say, geology or genetics, it would certainly be widely dismissed as crankish. Yet, because there's a business interest in this particular aspect of science, he is somehow hailed as having corrected all these "misguided" earth scientists, that seem to converge on a particular opinion, that certain *very large* business interests find unfavourable to the short-term interests of their company.

So, call me cynical, but the Lomborg affair is certainly an artifact of large amounts of money pushing a particular agenda, in a way that was considered, until a few years ago, as undermining the scientific process.

Note that I find deeply disturbing anyhow, the process through which *controversial* alternative theories, having failed to earn much of a following among the relevant scientific community, turn to the media and the public in a general attempt to earn credibility through non-scientific support, or simply to confuse laypeople to believe that their views are enjoying far greater agreement in the relevant scientific community, than they actually are.

This is annoying when done subtly by, say, David Deutsch, regarding parallel universes and quantum mechanics. It is infuriating when done by an amateur who has hand-picked the data that support his "cause" - and ignored or misinterpreted all the rest - something that is unnoticable by the media or the general public, and understood by the relatively few specialists, who, when they point to this fraud, find themselves being labeled as "having an environmentalist agenda"

I think E.O. Wilson (again not exactly a minor figure in the biological sciences) as previously mentioned, has hit the nail on the head: this is a scam and a media event of some rather large fossil fuel corporation's PR team. It's not any sort of debate.

lazopolis said...

Incidentally, if we were to turn to nuclear fusion as an alternative energy source, we would have to wait until 2050 according to a talk I attended a year ago. Then, says the estimate, the first fusion plant could be connected to the grid, IF the solid state theoriticians work as good as they can to solve a number of high temperature bottleneck-problems, IF the projections of progress (!!) in other relevant scientific fields turn out to be correct, IF new unforeseen difficulties don't show up and IF the production of different prototypes makes it before a variety of deadlines...
The speaker (whose name I can't remember) mentioned statistics according to which by 2050 the oil reserves will be completely empty. His conclusion was that the fusion reactor can be ready on time, fingers crossed and everything.

ιονκ said...

Mixalh,
I am really surprised with your approach and some of the accusations. For example: claiming Lomborg's work is not really scientific since he is a statistician. Being in a related field (architecture and environmental design engineering) I know from my personal experience it involves a lot of statistics and similar data manipulation and yes assumptions. By the way I don’t think there is or ever was such thing as established scientific consensus. Science is all about calculated assumptions, trial and error - at least that’s my personal view. Also why wouldn’t Science magazine publish Lomborg’s reply to their article? Why would respectable scientists have to rely on condescending trashy type comments as if they are not manipulating the media and projecting their own ideological beliefs? In any case my point is not to find who is right or wrong. In the real world no one is completely right only ideologists who stick to their own opinions and won’t take anyone else’s point of view. Personally having read part of Lomborg I felt it helped me understand some of the conflicts and differences of opinion that are inherent and prepared me tackle the issue at hand from a different perspective. You think its all crap so let’s agree to disagree! I think this exchange shows that it’s probably more productive to discuss issues point by point rather than falling into a slippery slope of generalizations…For example oil is not going to be caput in 50 years perhaps not even 100.. It all depends on the reserves to production ratio(R/P) which is actually estimated by many to be currently ~40 years. Reserves-to-production ratio is the ratio of proven reserves to annual production. It is an indicator of how long proven reserves would last at current production rates. One might think that the R/P ratio would reduce with time but actually the opposite has happened. Estimated world oil reserves have increased considerably due to new discoveries (Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela). Yet in the future new discoveries will be made at a lower rate. Production may vary for practical reasons such as new technologies that can extract oil more efficiently. Further more when oil prices rise the level of economically extractable oil rises (North Sea oil). It is unlikely that oil reserves will be depleted in this century. Oil production in the R/P ratio does not take into account any strategic behavior for example the implementation of further oil taxation and increased use of other forms of energy (renewable sources) and implementation of new technologies (fuel cells) that will lead to reduced oil consumption and thus production. Yet even this is a calculated assumption there are so many factors we don’t really know - human behavior, trends, policy, developing countries like China and India will all have their share of impact. dammit went over the word limit and it all seems very geeky anyhow, sorry..wont happen again ;-P

talos said...

Niko: I'm not claiming Lomborg's work is not really scientific since he is a statistician. I'm claiming that there is not one instance historically of a complete outsider, with, what? a year's, two years' reading of (parts of) the relevant literature and no real training at all, that has overturned the existing consensus in any scientific field. None. That's for just *one* field. Lomborg is lecturing E.O.Wilson about species extinction rates amd the IPCC about climate change. Is this *plausible*?
Would Lomborg be taken seriously if he wrote a book refuting the Big Bang theory, the Standard model? RNA structure? Should he? If he wrote such a book (assuming he had the background to follow part of the literature) do you think *you* would be able to tell whether or not it's bunk? Why are you assuming that with the vast majority (I can repeat this often enough) of relevant scientists being decidedly underwhelmed, your opinion (or mine for that matter) on the scientific merit of the book is more important?

I need to point this out again: this is a politically motivated book, quite probably funded for the express purpose of providing support to the ExxonMobil/WackyRight alliance in the US. In the process it invites corporate PR, greenwashing astroturf organizations and religious nutters to participate as equal players, both on matters of policy and scientific process.

I disagree completely about consensus in science. for all practical purposes it does exist. It exists everywhere from cosmology to invertebrate evolution. That doesn't mean, obviously, that there are no open questions. It does mean that there are a lot of questions considered more or less settled. Homo sapiens derives in some way from homo erectus, quarks are the building blocks of nucleons and mesons, the mechanism that drives the Gulf Stream is thermo-haline. Some part of the current global warming trend is anthropogenic and there's going to be more of it (though to what exact extent is a topic of discussion). This doesn't mean that science is static, rather that there are issues that (most probably) are and will remain settled- although surprises might be lurking. But consensus does not imply certainty- the world could become in fact *colder* for all I know. People who do know tend to think otherwise. Likewise the Steady State Theory might turn out to be a better cosmological model than the Inflationary Big Bang model. The consensus is that, as far as we know, it isn't...

Also why wouldn’t Science magazine publish Lomborg’s reply to their article?

That's not quite accurate.

Why would respectable scientists have to rely on condescending trashy type comments as if they are not manipulating the media and projecting their own ideological beliefs?

How about the possibility that they see this as a coordinated corporate attack on the scientific method itself. Anyway I don't understand: Is the scientists' condescending and trashy reaction to, say, creationists and flat earthers indicative of a desire to manipulate? Why is this different? Because its better funded by respectable corporations?

In any case my point is not to find who is right or wrong. In the real world no one is completely right only ideologists who stick to their own opinions and won’t take anyone else’s point of view.

No, I beg to differ. If I make a statement about, say, the Earth being created 6000 years ago, or decide to argue with a carpenter about the proper way of building a chair, I'm very, very probably completely wrong and there's nothing ideological about it. When UCAR/Dow Chemical states that they were in no way to blame for Bhopal, or that Agent Orange wasn't really a chemical weapon - they're lying. Plain and simple.

Nico, listen, this is a guy who never published *one* peer-reviewed article on matters environmental, who sold himself as an ex-Greenpeace member which he never was, who coincidentally quotes and uses the work of people coming solely from the American right, at a time when, we know for a fact, that the fossil fuel industry was spreading millions for greenwashing and "countering" global warming "claims". 99% of his support comes from the financial press (which knows precious little about climate) while very few scientists working in the fields he discusses come to his defence. Most of the pro-lomborg sites are either run by right-wing wingnuts and/or astroturf oil industry front groups. On the other hand Nature, Science and SciAm (to mention but a few) all are unanimous that this isn't a book to be taken seriously.

You think all this shows that Lomborg's book was written in good faith? Nothing suspicious about it? No agenda? No price tag?

Well I might be getting too cynical, but I don't.

About peak oil: I don't think anyone's talking about depletion. The catastrophic effect would be a huge price hike (remember that a lot of other stuff is made out of petroleum - they would be more expensive too). Energy-wise, there's always the quick fix of nuclear. If oil prices were to rise too much we'd all start building them again around the world (that's not necessarily *good*, but the most probable reaction to an oil catastrophe)...

ιονκ said...

Mixalh,
you raise several questions so I will try to respond point by point like you do:
"I'm not claiming Lomborg's work is not really scientific since he is a statistician." Well, I think you implied it but I also found it somewhere in your refences.
“no real training at all..” here you just contradict yourself. I think Lomborg states very clearly he approaches the subject via certain method of analysis, namely statistics and even urges readers to check with his sources. He was after all director of Denmark's national Environmental Assessment Institute. I would probably agree with you that he may twist a lot of that data. Of course it can be dangerously mis-informative especially for those outside the field. That’s the only plausible reason I can find for such vehement response to this book. But I think my whole argument which obviously did not come through was that it is always best to make any discourse more constructive. I think there is lots to learn form any perspective and that’s why I disagree with the notion of any established consensus. So yes I think that any position has to be dealt with the analogous feedback. I think we do more damage if we divide and insulate people on such issues rather than attempt to create positive links. I guess that’s just a difference in approach that we have expressed.

"Why are you assuming that with the vast majority (I can repeat this often enough) of relevant scientists being decidedly underwhelmed, your opinion (or mine for that matter) on the scientific merit of the book is more important?"

My own opinion is first and foremost important to myself. Because I seek to know more about the known facts rather than simply take any side. On the other hand I wouldn’t underestimate the significance of this exchange albeit in smaller scale that’s is taking place right here. You have brought forth some very good points and sources that I was unaware. One day when I will de designing an environmentally friendly, sustainable structure for a client (perhaps you) I will have to be educated enough not only to produce the appropriate strategies but to also convince the client of the significance of sustainability and bioclimatics, even economic issues suchs as payback times and net present costs of simple measures such as extra insulation and low e-coating s on glazing. SOunds geeky again but hey thats my reality. By the way I have a couple of colleagues who have purchased the Skeptical Environmentalist and would also have something very useful to gain from this exchange.

" I need to point this out again: this is a politically motivated book, quite probably funded for the express purpose of providing support to the ExxonMobil/WackyRight alliance in the US. In the process it invites corporate PR, greenwashing astroturf organizations and religious nutters to participate as equal players, both on matters of policy and scientific process. "

Ok this is an assumption but hey lets say I am convinced; more so I say I'd bet my money that you are right. But treating this guy the same as those astroturf religious whacko’s is little extreme and to my humble opinion may do more damage by alienating people from serious dialogue and even achieve more publicity for Lomborg. Perhaps though I am wrong; perhaps the wider public would tend to remember the mud wrestling bravado statements rather than the real scientific proof! Who knows? This is just the perfect area for some good statistical analysis?! hehehe


"I disagree completely about consensus in science. For all practical purposes it does exist. It exists everywhere from cosmology to invertebrate evolution."

I think I responded partly to this statement. I don’t disagree that one can find shifting patterns of consensus in science that’s why I specifically stated that I disagree with the idea of an established consensus. Perhaps here I am overtly influenced by Popper and his views on science. There we have it a philosopher talking about science…oops!

"Also why wouldn’t Science magazine publish Lomborg’s reply to their article?
That's not quite accurate."

Lomborg states otherwise in his website; in any case I don’t think I am quite up to this whole thing of who said what. As long as you claim your sources are cool I will agree with you since I know you slightly more than the other guy..

"Is the scientists' condescending and trashy reaction to, say, creationists and flat earthers indicative of a desire to manipulate? Why is this different? Because its better funded by respectable corporations?"

Well I think I addressed this already. I think if you respond to these sorts of people in that manner you fall straight on to their astro-turf. In general better funded makes for better image which makes for better brand and that is so important in our day and age. I mean there is something to learn from all this propaganda business; we cant really ignore the wars waged on simple style alone and their implications of how we perceive things, can we?

"..No, I beg to differ. If I make a statement about, say, the Earth being created 6000 years ago, or decide to argue with a carpenter about the proper way of building a chair, I'm very, very probably completely wrong and there's nothing ideological about it."

Well I think it’s pretty obvious, that we weren’t or, at least I wasn’t merely comparing apples. Climate change and all that goes with it is a rather broad, complex subject. I think this whole dialogue for me was spurred mostly by differences in approach.

All your feedback on Lomborg’s right wing connections etc. is very interesting to say the least. Will have to pass these on. I don’t find you cynical. I just think you come across as very informed as well as opinionated and that may appear sometimes little deterring for nurturing broader dialogue. Hey, I feel I am very bad at this, so don’t take my comment too personally ok?

" You think all this shows that Lomborg's book was written in good faith? Nothing suspicious about it? No agenda? No price tag?"

I believe if we address all issues in an appropriate mode of communication we all stand a better chance of understanding each other. To solve problems and improve what is bad you must first get to grips with it… Right?

About peak oil: I was responding to Laz’s comment and used it as an example of a more scientific approach to such issues. Narrowing them down and responding point to point with established scientific facts; preferably that is.

Well, now folks, lets move on to our next subject... ;-)