Sunday, February 05, 2017

Risk, double-edged swords and imagining the worst

A friend of mine recently said that intellectual honesty often requires imagining the worst. Of course, in the study of climate change and natural resources one needs only to read the analyses of scientists to imagine the worst.

Imagining the worst is not necessarily the same as believing the worst is inevitable or even likely. It can be merely a standard part of both scenario and emergency planning. Of course, imagining the worst can also be a double-edged sword with a sinister edge, sometimes eliciting Richard Hofstadter's paranoid style of politics.

When we imagine the worst concerning our political opponents or our enemies (sadly often placed into the same category), this is merely a reflex designed to justify our own hatreds and also a tool for broadly smearing those with whom we disagree. Clearly, this is not the same as seeking out solid evidence and using logic to construct a worst-case scenario.

In scenario planning the whole point is to consider seriously a range of possible outcomes and formulate plans for dealing with those outcomes. For example, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reference case for world oil production (defined as crude oil and lease condensate) shows it rising from about 76 million barrels per day (mbpd) in 2012 to 99.5 mbpd in 2040. The low production case is 92 mbpd and the high production case is almost 103 mbpd.

You may feel that this range doesn't reflect more extreme scenarios, but at least the agency offers a range. Some forecasters pretend to know to the second decimal point the future of oil production and reserves decades hence. It's hard to put this down to anything but hubris.

Compare these forecasts to a forecast based on much sounder data, this one made by an EIA researcher in 2009 about how much oil we would have to find and deliver to meet rather extravagant future demand expectations:

The researcher demonstrated that we will have to find more than five new Saudi Arabias by the early 2030s (or 2040s if demand growth slows somewhat as the EIA anticipates) if we are going to fill the gap between production from existing fields and expected future demand (in this case for so-called total liquids which include natural gas plant liquids and other non-oil items). He based this on the estimated average production decline rate of 4 percent per year for existing fields, a fairly conservative number given that other estimates range as high as 6 to 9 percent. We know with a fair degree of accuracy what existing fields will on average be producing decades hence because we have a long series of actual field data.

This graph looks more like imagining the worst than the other forecasts. Without being hyperbolic, this one graph suggests that our confidence that future oil production will match our expectations--and that therefore we will NOT need to plan for a disappointing outcome--deserves considerable scrutiny.

What imagining the worst can do is allow us to discern the risks in our lives and our futures, collective and individual. This does not have to be a glum exercise. We can, as the saying goes, prepare for the worst and hope for the best. We can prepare responses to any anticipated challenges as a positive way forward.

The naturally optimistic disposition of humans tends to make them critical of those who point out possible catastrophic downsides, especially when those observations conflict with business-as-usual. But it is the ability to hold in one's mind both optimistic promises and the possibility of catastrophic failures that makes for intellectual honesty.

It is intellectually honest to acknowledge that we live in a tragic universe. Things often don't turn out for the best. The future of humankind is not assured either by technology or by religious prophecy (and sometimes it is hard to tell them apart). But, we can learn to live with uncertainty and risk without living in fear.

This piece on the so-called high-reliability organization tells us that "[t]o avoid failure we must look for it and be sensitive to early signs of failure." That is just prudence.

But we live in an age where unchecked technological optimism is treated as prudence, and intellectual honesty is treated with disdain. Questioning is not the same as gainsaying. But the questions are frequently batted away with protestations that "you just don't understand."

I am reminded of the film Melancholia in which the severely depressed character turns out to be the sane one in the face of global catastrophe. You don't have to be depressed to begin questioning the path we are on. But if depression comes from imagining the worst, then you have come by it honestly.

It will be hard in the years ahead to be intellectually honest. Like virtue that honesty will have to be its own reward. If you are intellectually honest, you may be made to feel like the narrator of Thomas Hardy's poem In Tenebris II who says: "I think I am one born out of due time, who has no calling here." But you can more easily remain true to yourself when you understand as Hardy does that "if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst."

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, 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


ChemEng said...

Thanks for the reference to the Hardy poem. The second verse, “The stout upstanders say . . .”, represents where so many of us are today.

With regard to risk, Nicolas Taleb, who wrote the Black Swan, suggests that we should prepare for an unidentified, high probability event — something that none of us can foresee because we do not really understand what is going on. It is interesting that Politico talks about Donald Trump as a Black Swan — none of the standard models predicted the rise of such a person.

With regard to climate change and resource depletion I suspect that none of the standard ways of communicating will have much impact. But a Black Swan event may. And it will take someone like Trump, who has strongly opposed these ideas, to change the way people think — analogous to a “Nixon in China” event.

Unknown said...

I puzzled as to why the author thinks it's discouraging that we might fail "to find more than five new Saudi Arabias by the early 2030s." Isn't it resoundingly obvious from climate science, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement, and so on, that we must reduce consumption of fossil fuels? To as close to zero emissions as possible? I don't understand how this article purports to have standing on the question of "imagining the worst" and "intellectual curiosity."

Kurt Cobb said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

Chem Eng suggests an improbable sounding scenario in which Donald Trump has a change of heart concerning climate change. That would be welcome and shocking. Another true Black Swan though I think we'll be getting use to those swans more and more in the next year or two.

Lewis Gannett is right to point out that rising oil production is not consistent with a good outcome on climate change. I most certainly agree. But I believe we face twin crises: climate change and near-term constraints in fossil fuel production that will only get worse. That would be good for climate change, but destabilizing for a society that does not recognize those constraints and therefore is ill-prepared to deal with them. My point is that we are prepared for neither crisis since we have failed to imagine the worst. A civilization that collapses because of climate or because it is destabilized by shrinking energy supplies (and has no realistic plan to adapt to that shrinkage) fails either way.

Perhaps the climate scientist I cited, Timothy Garrett, is right that the only way to prevent catastrophic climate change is for industrial society to collapse. And, that climate change if unchecked will lead to collapse. Pretty grim. I don't think that even a near-term (in the next 5 to 10 years) onset for fossil fuel production decline will solve the climate problem in time. We need conscious emergency programs to deal with both climate change and energy decline. But will we get them?