Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Global warming, peak oil, collapse and the art of forecasting

Predicting the future usually means to provide an accurate analysis of the present and extrapolating some trends. Therefore the forecasts that try to look at least some decades into the future need to be well informed of the current situation. However, we have various options; we may make different decisions that will influence the outcome. For climate change, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted will be a major factor that determines the amount of warming, and this is obviously the topic for negotiations.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

The IPCC thus operates with four "representative concentration pathways" (RCPs) of CO2 equivalents in the atmosphere and what effects that will have on the climate. The pathways stand for different strategies of coping with the challenges, from turning off greenhouse gas emissions immediately (not likely to happen) to sticking ones head in the tar sands and increasing the emission rates as much as possible. A part of the debate now revolves around whether or not the most restrictive pathway can be combined with continued economic growth, but more about that below.

The IPCC's fifth report from November 1 2014 comes with its usual summary for policymakers. However, having a policy is not restricted to the assumed readers of the report; we are all policymakers. IPCC's report sketches the facts (the melting ice, acidifying of oceans etc) and suggest mitigation strategies and adaptation to the inevitable worsening climate in many parts of the world. Perhaps the physics behind global warming is assumed to be known, but possible positive feedback mechanisms are worth mentioning. This is how the summary alludes to that:
It is virtually certain that near-surface permafrost extent at high northern latitudes will be reduced as global mean surface temperature increases, with the area of permafrost near the surface (upper 3.5 m) projected to decrease by 37% (RCP2.6) to 81% (RCP8.5) for the multi-model average (medium confidence).
Melting ice means that the albedo will decrease so that a darker sea surface will absorb more energy. Methane may also be released, either gradually or in a sudden burp, as permafrost thaws. For the record, methane has a global warming potential many times that of CO2 (the factor depends on the time horizon which is why different figures may be used).

As usual, the so called policy makers are reluctant of taking consorted action. From the debate it may appear as though the goal of limiting global warming to 2°C would be sufficient to keep up business as usual. Oil companies and their allied business partners either invest in campaigns casting doubt on climate science, or argue that their production is so much cleaner than in the rest of the world, and if they didn't drill for oil, then someone else would. Yet, we know that most of the known hydrocarbon sources will have to remain in the ground to minimize the impact of climate change. Even with one of the most optimistic scenarios, we would have to prepare for extreme weather; draughts, hurricanes, forest fires, flooding, and mass extinction of species. Perhaps there is an awareness of the unwillingness to take prompt measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that has tipped the IPCC's focus somewhat over on adaptation to shifting climate conditions rather than focusing narrowly on mitigation strategies.

Global Strategic Trends: a broader perspective

With this gloomy outlook in mind, one should not forget that there is a fast-paced development in science and technology in areas from solar panels to medicine and artificial intelligence. The British Ministry of Defence's think tank Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre has compiled a report that tries to summarize trends in several areas in a thirty year perspective up to 2045. Their Global Strategic Trends (GST) report does not make predictions with assertions of the likelihood of various outcomes, but rather illustrates where some of the current trends may lead, as well as providing alternative scenarios. The strength of this Global Strategic Trends report is its multifaceted view. Politics, climate, population dynamics, scientific and technological development, security issues, religion and economics are all at some level interrelated so that significant events in one domain has implications in other domains. Such cross-disciplinary interactions may be difficult to speculate about, but the GST report at least brings all these perspectives into a single pdf, with some emphasis on military strategies and defence. A weakness of the GST report is that it is perhaps too fragmented, and the most important challenges are almost lost in all the detail.

Peak oil, the debt economy and climate change

A better and more succinct summary of these great challenges might be one of Richard Heinberg's lectures. As Heinberg neatly explains, the exceptional economic growth witnessed the last 150 years is the result of the oil industry. In the first years, oil was relatively easy to find and to produce. Gradually, the best oil fields have been depleted and only resources of lesser quality remain such as the recently discovered shale oil across the UK. The production of unconventional oil is much less efficient than that of standard crude oil. The question is, how much energy goes into producing energy, or what is the Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI)? As this ratio goes down to 1, the energy produced is equal to that invested in producing it. Although exact figures are hard to estimate, it is clear that the EROEI of unconventional oil is significantly lower than that of conventional oil; its EROEI is so low in fact that even in strictly economic terms it is scarcely worth producing, leaving aside its potentially devastating effects on the environment.

Heinberg discusses three issues which combined seem to have very dramatic consequences for the civilised world as we know it: First, there is the energy issue and peak oil. It appears unlikely that renewable energy sources and nuclear power will be able to replace fossil fuel at the pace that would be needed for continuing economic growth. Second, there is debt as the driver of economic growth. As an illustration, Heinberg mentions the early automobile industry with its efficient, oil-powered assembly line production, so efficient in fact that it led to over-production. The next problem became how to sell cars to customers, because these were more expensive than people could generally afford. Hence came the invention of advertising, of "talking people into wanting things they didn't need" and subsidiary strategies such as planned obsolescence; making products that broke down and had to be replaced, or the constant redesign and changing fashion so that consumers would want to have the latest model. The solution to the cars being too expensive was to offer consumers credit. Money is created every time someone gets a loan from the bank with the trust that it will be paid back in the future, which again necessitates economic growth. This system has sometimes been likened to a pyramid game, and it is not a very radical idea to believe that it could collapse at some point. The third issue that Heinberg brings up is the climate change, which will lead to global disruption as large parts of the world become uninhabitable.

Two of Heinberg's recent essays deal with the energy situation and the coming transition to a society with a very different pattern of energy consumption. His criticizes the excessive optimism on behalf of renewable energy on one hand and "collapsitarians" on the other, some of which even think we are bound for extinction. The conclusion is that energy use and consumption in general must be reduced, either voluntarily or as a matter of necessity when there are no longer any alternatives.

An even more vivid account of more or less the same story is given by Michael C. Ruppert in the documentary Collapse. And after the realisation that this is probably where we are heading, it may be best to take the advice of Dmitry Orlov who has some experience of living in a collapsed Soviet Union: just stay calm, be prepared to fix anything that breaks down yourself and don't expect any more holiday trips to the other side of the planet!

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