Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hypocritical modelers

Oil companies like to use models to estimate their reserves and the potential of unexplored fields. Exxon Mobil Corp., the world's largest oil company and a longtime supporter of the global warming denial lobby, tells us the following on page 8 of its 2007 annual report: "Using proprietary technologies and tools, including advanced reservoir prediction models and geological data visualization, we have significantly improved our ability to identify, model, and understand oil and gas reservoirs."

Exxon and its fossil fuel partners in the denial lobby seem to like models well enough when they use them for their own purposes; but through their hired mouthpieces they decry the use of models for climate change forecasting. (The Heritage Foundation to whose pages the previous link leads received consistent funding from Exxon throughout this decade.)

The companies support the dissemination of statements such as the following:
Scientific forecasting research has shown that experts aren’t able to provide accurate predictions in this kind of complex and uncertain situation. It doesn’t matter whether experts present their forecasts as certain outcomes, detailed scenarios, expectations, likelihoods or probabilities. Or that the forecasts are the product of hard thinking by many highly qualified experts, or even of mathematics or computer simulations. The expert forecasts are nonetheless worthless.

What could be more complex than the modeling suggested by this Exxon press release detailing projects around the world, some of them deep underwater, in which modeling was an important component? What could be more complex than modeling the oil and natural gas reserves of the world's largest oil company? Except perhaps modeling the entire world's oil and natural gas reserves. (See Exxon's claim about the extent of those reserves below.)

Exxon wants the public, their shareholders, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Minerals Management Service and the United States Geological Survey to accept their reported reserves and their estimates of potential new reserves all based on their models. The company's chief executive officer even wants us to believe that fossils fuels will still be the dominate fuels 100 years from now. Is that what the company's models are telling it? And, yet Exxon and its fellow travelers send forth messages into the world that implore us not to believe in models--that "expert forecasts are...worthless." That being the case, should these companies' forecasts of the fossil fuels they believe they can get out of the ground be considered worthless as well?

Clearly, it is not modeling which Exxon and others in the fossil fuel lobby want us to distrust. They merely dislike modeling which demonstrates a possible future that is disadvantageous to their executives and their shareholders. The truth is that corporations of all kinds, governments, nonprofits,and even individuals rely on forecasting models to give them some starting point for evaluating possible outcomes. And, while forecasts of many kinds often have wide margins of error, they can point out possible risks, which, if they indicate severe consequences, may cause us to act to head off those consequences or prepare to mitigate them.

Don't believe Exxon and its hired hands when they feign concern over climate change models. They, too, like to use models to substantiate their pronouncements. What the members of fossil fuel lobby are really telling us with their critique of models is that they are hypocrites of the first order. But, that's something that should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the activities of Exxon and the fossil fuel lobby in the public discussion of climate change.


Tomxyza said...


Exelent job of pointing out the exact nature of our friends in the oil industries tendency towards the hypocritical. It is too bad our news media does not point out such irony. It is also too bad that the puclic is willing to allow such behavior to pass as resonable information sharing from anyone.

Rick Dworsky said...

It is interesting that there are known groups of people who are actively working to destroy the planet and deny it... and there isn't much activity to stop them. Yes, it's true that these nefarious groups are very powerful. And that the few people who know what these evil doers are up to are very weak. If enough people knew what these Exxon's are doing they might have sufficient power to head them off. But the Exxon's also control the mass media and most of the schools and most of the churches and other public places. They also exert control over our government and it's policies, including it's military policies. The demon is large. It makes the job of detoxifying and saving this Earth, even more difficult.

Anonymous said...


You do know that a geological model is different, right? A geological model can be history matched. So you can compare the actuals vs. the predicted. GCM can also do the same, but they are wrong every time.

Now I believe in GM. I am not a hater, but those of us who want to make our case, need to understand the science. That article is not helping as anyone who knows math and knows modelling could see that the author knows nothing about either. That doesn't help.

Sorry to be a downer, but Mr. Kurt please refrain from talking about things you don't know about. It only hurts the cause in the long run.

Kurt Cobb said...

Anonymous is intentionally misleading readers that climate change models somehow don't produce descriptions consistent with past climate. This is precisely why we have a high degree of confidence in such models. They are extensively tested using historical data and recalibrated so they match historical records. In reality, those models have turned out to be far too conservative in their forecasts, that is, the events and changes which they predict are happening faster than the models have predicted. Climate change is turning out to be more severe sooner than we previously thought! This should be alarming to us all.