Sunday, November 25, 2012

How the myth of fossil fuel abundance actually impedes progress on climate change

The great fear among those working to address climate change is that the seemingly vast resources of fossil fuels waiting to be burned will send the world hurtling toward certain catastrophe. By invoking fossil fuel abundance, climate activists believe that their argument for a rapid transition to alternative energy is made more persuasive. But, it is poor strategy to reinforce the myth of fossil fuel abundance when doing so actually makes many people less open to such an argument. And, as it turns out, the abundance argument is also contrary to the available data, logic and prudent risk management principles.

Here is what I mean. First, despite all the hype about marginal gains in U.S. oil production, world oil production has been on a plateau since 2005. Small gains in U.S. production have been offset by declining production in the rest of the world. The news for coal production is only slightly less discouraging as one study suggests that the rate of coal production worldwide could peak as early as 2025. In the United States, while coal tonnage has remained essentially flat from 1998 through 2011, energy content has actually declined. Has the available energy from U.S. coal production already peaked? We can't be sure. But the trend suggests caution. One recent study even concluded that world coal production from existing fields may have peaked last year. But, even if the authors are 10 years early, the prospects for creating a coal economy to follow the oil one are poor at best.

And finally, natural gas--much touted as a less polluting "bridge fuel" to a renewable energy future--may not be so plentiful as we are led to believe. Natural gas derived from deep shale deposits was first portrayed as so abundant that wells could simply be drilled anywhere in the vast shale basins of North America. But the record of drilling to date suggests that such deposits will yield far less than anticipated and be far more costly to develop.

Simple logic and prudent risk management suggests that we should already be making a rapid transition to renewable energy. No one--not the fossil fuel industry, not government, not private forecasters--can know for certain what our future supplies of fossil fuels will be. If those supplies are constrained as current trends and data suggest, then we will be forced to make an energy transition whether we want to or not. If fossil fuels turn out to be more abundant than current trends portend and we make a rapid transition to renewable energy starting now, the worst that can happen is that we will have completed that transition a little earlier than was absolutely necessary. But, if fossil fuel supplies begin to decline in the near future and we've made little additional progress on deploying new energy sources, we will surely be in for considerable economic and social pain, pain that might be so severe as to challenge the very stability of our global system. That's how central fossil fuel energy is to our society.

Many climate activists continue to believe, however, that the above data will make people less concerned about climate change. These activists think that the danger from supposedly overflowing fossil fuel abundance will somehow make it clear that we must move away from such fuels. But, I would contend that the current public relations campaign by the oil and gas industry designed to convince us that oil and natural gas will be abundant for decades to come is actually making the public less supportive of a transition away from fossil fuels. And, I believe that if the public understood the true risks to our energy supplies that come from relying so heavily on fossil fuels, it would be more inclined to support a rapid transition to alternative energy and increased efforts in conservation and efficiency.

Let's look for a moment at the public the way a political campaign does. Every campaign starts with basic triage. First, there are the people who are going to support you no matter what. These people need to be nurtured and encouraged to spread the word about your candidacy to those who can be persuaded to vote for you. Then, there are those who are never going to vote for you. You can't persuade these people, so you shouldn't spend any time on them. Your job is simply to beat them and their candidate on election day. Finally, there are those who can be persuaded to vote for you. Perhaps these people haven't made up their minds. Perhaps they are leaning toward your opponent, but can still be persuaded to vote for you with the right argument.

Naturally, those who support addressing climate change aggressively will be especially concerned about the amount of carbon-based fuels left to burn. But, those who are on the fence--or who, more likely, haven't really put much thought into the issue--are currently being bombarded with the industry's abundance message. Without much commitment one way or the other, their path of least resistance is to accept the industry position. It's an easy path that requires no changes in behavior. And, after all, isn't the fossil fuel industry promising to bring us cleaner burning natural gas in copious quantities? Won't that help use reduce our carbon emissions? And, what about "clean coal"? That should address our concerns about coal, shouldn't it?

Of course, activists will immediately spot the problems embedded in these assertions masquerading as questions. But, none of this would seem relevant to a persuadable member of the public if the myth of abundance hadn't already infected his or her mind. Once the abundance myth is undermined, it follows that we must move quickly to alternative, noncarbon-based energy. All the promises of clean natural gas and clean coal don't matter if their supply is in question. It's dead certain that all fossil fuels will at some point peak in their production and then decline irreversibly. Nobody knows for sure when, and that's a good enough reason to make an energy transition sooner rather than later.

Sowing doubt about the claim of fossil fuel abundance is the surest way to move the persuadable public toward supporting many of those actions which are consistent with addressing climate change. Those so persuaded don't even have to believe that climate change is a problem (though it would certainly help if they did). Why concede the abundance argument--an argument the fossil fuel industry is using like a club against climate change activists--when we don't have to?

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Torbjörn Larsson, OM said...

The same could be said for the myth of non-abundance.

Here is an interesting article on models that for the first time are better than the null models of random walk (!) by allowing for the natural shape of supply shocks. There is no random walk plateau or "peak oil" but an increased oil consumption (eventually at a much higher prize albeit with stable GDP): . (Yup, this very blog!) I take it frakking et cetera is enough data to make those predictions.

In any case, the best model is far from non-abundance. Admittedly it isn't unconstrained abundance either. But it can be used to predict that if AGW should be somewhat ameliorated without any other actions, it must come from the rapidly increasing oil costs. Yes, it is the worst case scenario of "this will fix itself, so we don't have to do anything".

I don't think those of us who are concerned about AGW for moral reasons* (extreme weather kills people; non-beneficial change hits the poorest hardest) are helped by skewing the observations away from what they say. Both because it hurts strategies to do anything about the problems, and because it hurts the groups trying to do anything about the problems when the "persuasive" arguments turns out erroneous and/or unsupported by published best-of-breed models.

* Note that I don't think it is moral to accept that the IMF models points to an improved situation, as we can do much better by being proactive about AGW.

Lewis Cleverdon said...

Kurt - while I tend to share your view that ignoring the constraints on fossil fuel resources discredits advocates for climate action, it has to be said that those constraints can also be proposed as a reason to dismiss those same advocates.

A singularly ill-informed person at or near the top of ASPO has been doing just that for years, claiming that even the shamefully understated warnings from the IPCC are inflated, owing to the finite scale of fossil resources.

The pressing case for climate action is best described not by better accounting of Gts of fossil carbon - including coal-seam gasification and methyl hydrates' extraction,
but by looking at the predictable outcome of the best case for mitigation by emissions control alone.

Assuming that a best case is the fairly radical goal of near-zero global emissions by 2050, we are going to emit enough GHGs by then to add at least 0.6 of warming to the 0.7C of 'pipeline warming' timelagged by ocean thermal inertia, on top of the 0.8C now realized, giving a first total of 2.1C of warming.

BUT, ending fossil usage will also end the output of fossil sulphates that maintain the cooling 'sulphate parasol'. Hansen & Sato reported that this will raise warming by about 110% (+/-30%). This gives a second total of 4.41C (+/-0.6C) realized by around 2080 after the ~30yr timelag from 2050.

To put this in context, global agriculture would be decimated long before we got near 4.4C of global warming.

BUT, we already have six out of seven mega-feedbacks reportedly accelerating under just 0.8C, and several evidently have the potential to dwarf anthropogenic emissions.

In the 68 years before 2080, with continuous warming to around 4.4C, it is highly likely that the feedbacks' interactive outputs would raise warming well to over 5.0C, and possibly much higher. Thereafter warming would continue at a pace dictated by the feedbacks' interactions.

It is thus very clear that even under the best case of early and efficient implementation, mitigation by a strategy of emissions-control-only is not remotely commensurate with our predicament. We must in addition deploy global programs of both Carbon Recovery (by which to cleanse the atmosphere - at best by 2100), and of Albedo Restoration (by which to rapidly restore planetary temperature for the interim and so prevent the feedbacks' further acceleration).

That these programs will need to be mandated under a global climate treaty of Emissions Control to ensure the stringent global accountability and scientific supervision of their objectives, research, trials and deployment, seems very clear, but it not an argument against their now inevitable necessity.

I suggest that the realization that we have left it much too late to resolve AGW just by cutting emissions is the level of shock required to spur the public into the requisite adamant demand for global agreement by American politicians - who have to date indulged in using the intensifying climate threat to food supplies as a potent lever within the superpowers' rivalry over global economic dominance. That approach could and should be decried as the bipartisan policy of a "Brinkmanship of Inaction", that was launched by Cheyney and has been adopted, and to date vigorously pursued, by Obama.



rjs said...

kurt, while i agree that we should already be making a transition to renewable energy - in fact, we should have started during the Carter years, there must be a strong belief among users as to coal's abundance; why else would they be planning another 1200 coal fired generators?

Chris Harries said...

I actually thoroughly agree with the article.

I am active in both peak oil and climate politics and have noticed amongst activists in the past year a marked decline in interest in the peak oil issue and a sense of defeat on the climate issue.

It dawned on me that much of the interest in the peak oil issue stemmed from a genuine hope (wishful thinking) that running out of hydrocarbons was a backdoor way to save the planet's climate. That hope was never real, as we know, but it was like clutching at straws for many people.

Then came all the news stories about the supposedly huge amount of new hydrocarbons that that could be exploited and all that wishful thinking was dashed against the rocks, and the peak oil issue lost its relevance to a lot of people.

Meanwhile, all that exciting news about the US outstripping Saudi Arabia in oil production is hardly good news for those others who were fixed on reducing emissions.

As an antidote to this trend in thinking, I focus a lot on the inexorable pathway to global recession – as the world can't afford the cost of keeping up energy supply. In a roundabout way this will have repercussions on climate, but more so a global recession will be more harmful in the short term than climate change will, and that alone calls for action on the energy front.

The growing price of energy is enough reason to change the way we live and run our economies. Renewable energy is a partial solution but can't replace hydrocarbon energy.