By Chris Nelder
Posting in Cancer
Energy futurist Chris Nelder explains why we can't deal with peak energy, climate change, debt deleveraging, and our other existential crises: because we're stuck in a monkey trap.
We live in a very strange time.
The most serious existential crises that our species has ever faced, issues we have known for decades we'd have to deal with eventually, are now at our doorstep, yet still we fail to respond.
We know that fossil fuels, comprising over three-quarters of the world's total primary energy supply, are entering a new era of slow contraction. Oil supply hit its ceiling in late 2004, and will likely go into terminal decline by 2014-2015. Coal and gas will be right behind it, peaking circa 2020-2025. We've known about this potentiality since the 1960s. Yet official policy and models continue to deny it completely. In our most honest moments, we make up improbable stories about how we might get around it, without acknowledging it directly.
We've also known for decades that carbon emissions could change the climate. The climate itself frequently reminds us that it has broken with historical norms, and is now taking a heavy toll in human life, wildlife, damaged infrastructure, crop yields, and supply chain interruptions. Fresh indications of thawing permafrost and methane bubbling in the Arctic are but the latest of warning signals. Yet we continue to deny that it's even an issue (indeed, some call it a hoax, despite the obvious lack of any hoaxers). The best we have done is to squabble ineffectually at climate summits, accomplishing little.
We have known for centuries that debt bubbles always pop. We've known for several decades that driving economic growth through debt, instead of organic productivity, could leave us in an over-extended position, and that excess leverage could ruin the global financial system. Yet we knowingly let "financial innovation" run wild, and still cannot bring ourselves to rein it in, or prosecute abuses of fiduciary responsibility and the public trust.
Why? Why do we invariably choose to protect vested interests, rather than do what is sensible or rational?
Nobody really believes that fossil fuels are infinite, or that their exploitation won't look like a bell curve in hindsight. That's been true for our consumption of every natural resource.
Nobody seriously believes that carbon, sequestered naturally over hundreds of millions of years, then released into the atmosphere over a mere 150 years, would have no effect on the climate. That suddenly vaporizing over one trillion barrels of oil, over half a trillion tons of coal, and over 80 trillion cubic meters of natural gas would have zero effect. No. That's simply not rational.
Nobody really knows how this planet could sustainably support over 9 billion humans. All models in which that is possible require a liberal dose of magical thinking about technological progress, and human altruism and fairness. We know from biology what happens to populations with exponential growth rates: they rapidly increase, hit the limit of carrying capacity, then die off even more rapidly. Does anyone think the human organism is somehow exempt from this well-understood phenomenon?
Nobody has politically acceptable solutions for any of these problems. Surely we can put them off a few decades more. All we do is try to create enough uncertainty around them to avoid facing them now.
Even so, no one would dispute that any of these challenges can threaten our very survival. So why can't we deal with them?
Climate policy and energy policy
The answers to these questions inevitably circle back to a basic human foible: We value the present more than the future. It's a species-scale instance of a monkey trap. According to folklore, one can catch a monkey by putting some tasty treats in a jar, coconut, or other container with an opening just wide enough to put an empty hand into, then chaining the container down. If the monkey cannot remove its hand while still clutching the treats, it will remain with its hand stuck inside and allow itself to be captured rather than letting go of the treats.
The metaphor is apt. Consider the recent brouhaha over the Keystone XL pipeline.
The sensible, rational response to climate change is simple enough for any child to understand: transition from fossil fuels to renewables. Doing so would simultaneously address the problems of fossil fuel depletion and climate change.
But that's too threatening to the vested interests of the fossil fuel lobby, which utterly dominates our political system. So we tried to clamp down on emissions without providing a substitute energy supply, which isn't really a solution. When that proved too difficult in climate summit after climate summit, and carbon taxes remained a non-starter, we turned to trying to stop a single pipeline which would have permitted more synthetic oil from the tar sands of Alberta to reach our existing, underutilized refineries on the Gulf Coast. That challenge was a lose-lose proposition for the Obama administration. On the one hand, they would have risked alienating their base by approving the pipeline, and on the other, risked some modest job-creating bi-partisan legislation by killing the pipeline proposal. So the president punted the decision until after the election by sending it back to the State Department for more busy-work review. The Republican leadership countered by attaching the pipeline review as a poison pill to legislation that would have extended the payroll tax cut. If they had wanted to extend the payroll tax cut, as Ezra Klein pointed out in the Washington Post, they could have offered a clean bill approving the one-year extension, and it would have passed both houses in 10 minutes flat. Instead, they employed brinksmanship to try to force the president to approve the pipeline quickly.
The risks of the pipeline itself weren't even that significant, in my estimation. Look at this chart of the existing oil and gas pipeline network, helpfully provided by John Mauldin, and ask yourself why the Keystone XL would have been so much worse.
Yes, the Keystone XL pipeline would run across the giant Ogallala Aquifer, but so do dozens of others already. And yes, the tar sands are an environmental nightmare. I have called them the oil junkie's last fix. But stopping this pipeline would not stop the development of the Alberta tar sands; that oil would simply find its way to market elsewhere—probably Asia. In short, stopping that pipeline would be a vanishingly small win for the climate hawks, if it were a win at all. Conversely, approving the pipeline would probably reduce our imports from hostile countries only marginally, given the dynamics of our refinery industry and a free(ish) global market for oil and refined products. There is no requirement that the refined products made from oil delivered by Keystone XL would only be sold to American consumers.
But look how far afield from the original problem we've gotten. Now we're having twice-removed, picayune debates about how many jobs one pipeline might create, and arguing over a bile-soaked hairball of legislation that will accomplish nothing for the causes of climate change, nor energy transition. The pipeline wouldn't even create very many jobs when compared to the enormous infrastructure-building exercise of energy transition.
We're so far down the legislative rathole now, we can't even remember why we started down it in the first place. The latest bill failed due to another Tea Party revolt in the House yesterday, and as of the new year, a two percentage-point payroll tax increase will go into effect on 160 million workers, unemployment benefits will be terminated for millions of jobless Americans, and reimbursement rates for doctors who treat Medicare patients will be reduced. We went from climate change to Medicare in just a few turns of the political sausage-grinder. The actual merits and risks of the pipeline aren't even in play.
Even respected energy economists can't quite seem to grasp that climate change and energy policy are inseparable. A long essay by MIT lecturer emeritus Dr. Denny Ellerman, published in the inaugural issue of the new journal Economics of Energy & Environmental Policy by the International Association of Energy Economics, argued that we should not conflate climate policy with energy policy, because the latter has been a failure. "Energy policy has evolved since the 1970s into the promotion of whatever form of energy has the requisite political support at the moment," and therefore we should not let climate policy fall to the same fate. As if there were another option!
The root problem, as Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig argues in his new book, Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress, and a Plan To Stop It, is that money buys results in Congress. Just 0.05 percent of Americans max out the Congressional campaign, he says, and only 0.26 percent give more than $200 each. Meanwhile, Congressmen spend 30 to 70 percent of their time chasing campaign funding. Corruption isn't just a cancer on our electoral system; it's completely endemic to it. The vested interests of this country, an even smaller portion of the country than "the 1 percent," call the shots. Our leaders are stuck in a mon(k)ey trap, but rather than strike at the roots of the problem, as Thomas Jefferson put it, we flail uselessly at the branches.
As a final point, consider the recent comments by Olivier Rech in Le Monde. Rech was the point man developing the IEA's oil outlook scenarios for three years until 2009. I have followed the IEA's scenarios closely for many years, including those developed under Rech's leadership, as I reviewed two weeks ago. Nowhere in those scenarios did I find the sort of stark realism that Rech now offers. He believes that oil supply has peaked, and expects an annual decline of 1 to 2 million barrels per day (mbpd) beginning in 2015-2020, with initial tensions evident by 2013-2015. Unconventional oil, and new oil development in areas from Africa to South America, will not be able to compensate for the background decline of mature fields, which is running at 5 percent per year. Conventional and unconventional oil combined will remain below 95 mbpd, he says.
This outlook is very close to mine, as I have detailed in this column and elsewhere. But the IEA never said that while Rech was developing their outlooks. Clearly, it was politically impossible for him to tell the plain truth while working for the agency. Instead, we were given some pretty stories about how demand would fall and unconventional fuels would rise, meeting in perfect harmony. Oil decline wouldn't be an issue until well after 2020, they said.
Again, politics trumped reason. The vested interests the IEA represents simply would not allow the truth to be spoken.
It's quite a mess we've gotten ourselves into, and it seems now that only radical measures can clean it up. How far we have strayed from the ambitions articulated in the Preamble to the Constitution, to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty." A broad electoral revolt against all incumbents in the next election might shake some of the moneyed influence out of politics, but even that wouldn't be enough to restore true popular representation. We would need sweeping reform of lobbying, and bold new initiatives aimed not only at energy transition, but transportation transition as well. Ultimately, we'd have to shake off our hallucinations of endless growth, and start facing up to the Politics of Less.
A tall order indeed.
Illustration: Monkey trap artwork by Brian Call, used by permission
Dec 20, 2011
After weeks of reading Neider's columns, he's finally talking some sense. Yes, we humans don't like to look beyond tomorrow. Yes, we will argue endlessly over stuff such as pipelines that won't make a real difference one way or another. But the truth is that the human race has faced many such crises over its history. This is hardly the worst. Ancient humans back in the days of hunter-gathering would have overrun their food supply if they hadn't discovered agriculture. Back in the '60s, I remember people worried about how we would feed the 6 billion people expected by 2000 when back then starvation was very common. Around 1600 the English faced a crisis when they had literally chopped down just about every tree on their island to keep people warm. Fortunately, they discovered they could burn peat and then later they figured out how to mine coal. As usual, humanity is sitting on a knife edge. There's nothing new. As Neider says, we can't burn oil, coal, and gas forever. But if a solution is to be found, it won't be by wringing our hands. It won't be by suddenly stopping all fossil fuel burning and sending our civilization back to the Middle Ages. The truth is that solar and wind are promising, but they are no where near ready to take over for fossil fuels. There's nothing to be gained by forcing a transition now, and there's a chance for a great deal of harm. But history shows that when we do figure them out (particularly the storage problem), the transition will be a lot faster then even Neider might expect.
There is no doubt that many of the comments made in the article are quite relevant, however I take issue with the Carbon Emissions position. There is no question that the Human Race is contributing to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, however in comparison to the amount of carbon NATURE contributes, in the form of volcanic eruptions alone, the amount contributed by man is a fractional amount of the total. We should be spending time and effort to promoting and developing alternate clean energy sources. Over time effective alternate energy sources would help to reduce our petroleum consumption, and naturally reduce the minuscule amount of carbon output that mankind does contribute (in comparison to the whole). It is useless to carp about reducing carbon output, when, if we were to somehow completely ELIMINATE every bit of mankind's carbon output it would only represent a minuscule fraction of the total amount of carbon naturally released. This has become the 'siren song' of the 'false environmentalist'. Most of the people who promote this are only singing with that particular 'choir' because it lets them piggy back their other opinions onto an issue that has been hugely and artificially inflated into something that has become nothing more or less than a worldwide scare tactic.
And you didn't even mention the Citizen's United decision by the SCOTUS and its toxic effect on the political discourse. I think most people just want to live their lives without a lot of bother and they get annoyed when external circumstances force them to start paying attention. But once they do pay attention big changes can happen quickly. So the powers-that-be may be able to keep things bumbling along for another 5 or 10 years but at some point the shtuff hits the fan and a lot of clueless people are going to be wondering "Wha' happened?". I kind of think the middle to latter half of this century may get pretty ugly with the effects of the climate changing rapidly and wars over resources. I feel there's a good chance the world population of homo sapiens will be substantially lower in 2100 than it is now in 2011.
Misinformation. Since those making a ton of money from the status quo don't want things to change, they finance the FUDdites to sow seeds of doubt and deception so folks can feel justified in ignoring the writing on the wall. The eagerness of folks to ignore reality is what Jared Diamond wrote about in his book Collapse, and it appears that our culture is headed down that path because of our lack of motivation/ability to take the time to learn how our planet works. Most folks don't have a clue how the carbon cycle works, for instance, and yet feel perfectly comfortable in concluding that humans can't impact the climate. For those folks (and anyone else, for that matter), I think NASA's Earth Observatory has an excellent overview of the carbon cycle that puts everything in the context that we need to have in order to have a decent dialogue on the topic: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/CarbonCycle/page1.php
and if it falls apart, we get cut. So when you say that there is nothing to be gained by forcing a transition now and there's a chance for great harm, it's actually the other way around: a stitch in time saves nine. Now is the time to greatly reduce waste in our energy consumption pattern, reducing demand, while building a better grid, retiring polluting aging coal fired and nuclear power plants, and replacing them with ever-improving distributed energy sources, bi-directional electric vehicles, compressed air storage, etc. while investing in better energy storage technology. If we do this incrementally over time, we have a chance to avoid the worst effects of climate change and everything that comes with it: more frequent droughts and floods, large scale population displacement, political instability, environmental and ecological stressors and the rest.
BlackFireNova is wrong and Klassman is right about CO2 emissions from volcanoes. The annual rate of CO2 from volcanoes is insignificant compared with the current rate of man-made CO2 emissions. This is a feeble argument usually put out by uninformed climate skeptics. What is true, however, is that the rate of man-made CO2 emissions rate is miniscule (only about 2%) when compared with the rate at which the environment as a whole puts CO2 into the atmosphere (predominantly from from decay of vegetation. However, had you made your same point using that correct statistic, you would still have been challenged on the grounds that the natural emissions are balanced by natural carbon sinks (predominantly the uptake of CO2 by vegetation). So the argument goes that, since the natural ocean-atmosphere CO2 cycle is balanced, only the additional unnatural man-made CO2 emissions from fossil fuels should be counted towards the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere expected over the next century. But the trouble with that argument is that the amount of CO2 retained in the atmosphere isn't actually related to the net CO2 flows in or out anyway! It is only related to the water temperature and hence the solubility of CO2. So the rise in ocean temperature that has occurred over the past 250 years could be due to a combination of natural causes and the supposed warming effect of man-made CO2, the problem being to determine the proportionate contribution of each source. Hence the ongoing debate which is far from settled.
Promoting and developing alternate clean energy sources is, I agree, an important consideration in dealing with current climate concerns. However, until enough people are convinced that there is really an issue, funding by those holding the purse strings will continue to simply trickle instead of flow. The pendulum of human change swings only when pushed by leviathan efforts.
I suggest that you read the carbon cycle series put out by the earth observatory section of NASA (see link above). If you had done this, you would have found out that instead of human activity emitting only a "fractional amount" of CO2 when compared to volcanoes as you claim; humans actually are responsible for injecting 100-300 TIMES MORE than volcanoes, due primarily to coal combustion, which releases far more geologically sequestered carbon into the atmosphere than volcanoes do.
Sorry, but replacing current technology with technology which does not do the job as well is not a solution. It's a waste of resources. The increasing price of energy has done wonders to reduce consumption. Over the past decades the US has become much more energy efficient. If you compare our energy use with our GDP you will see that this is true. We have lots of new energy efficient technology that isn't nearly as good as what it tries to replace. Just look at the Volt and the Leaf. They are heavily subsidized, but still they fail to meet sales expectations. Most people buying these vehicles have to accept higher cost/mile, smaller size than vehicles at the same cost, and the ability to use these vehicles without major restrictions in range or other factors. It does not help our economy to force people to go to these vehicles, but only makes it worse.
and at least you are attempting to find areas of ambiguity in the current attribution models that provide enough "wiggle room" to discount the role of humanity's role over natural processes. Could you possibly be "isotopious" in another venue? There is some very instructive dialogue between "iso" and Gavin Schmidt of NASA in the Real Climate website where some natural warming of the oceans since the holocene is discussed that seems so familiar to me that I have to ask. Schmidt's answer, of course, is that the natural mechanisms cannot account for but a small fraction of what is being observed, but I congratulate you on your attempts to go beyond the descriptive statistics when trying to downplay what is occurring in the climate!
(Commenting system wouldn't let me post this paragraph with the previous one). Of the total CO2 emitted by burning fossil fuels about 43% remains in the atmospheric increasing CO2 levels. Some is absorbed by the biosphere but most of the rest is absorbed by the oceans. The level of CO2 is a function of the total CO2 in the carbon cycle and the balance between the atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere and some smaller source/sinks. The burning of fossil fuels is increasing the total carbon in the cycle The ocean is not a net source of CO2 in the atmosphere and that's easily proven by measurements of CO2 absorbed in the ocean.
The amount of CO2 absorbed into the ocean is still going up despite the rise in ocean temperatures. That's why the ocean's pH is dropping (commonly know as "ocean acidification" although the oceans will never actually flip over to being acid.) The concentration of absorbed CO2 in the ocean is affected by two things primarily. Temperature as you already noted but also by the partial pressure of CO2 in the atmosphere. So far the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere is winning.
And shows the dangers in letting such a bastion of falsehood operate freely. BTW, FUX could be LEGALLY reined in, by one measure: ending cable channel packages. Ala Carte program packages would only require payment for the channels actually WATCHED by the consumer. As it is now, FUX gets a share of EVERY CABLE BILL PAID, simply because FUX is featured in EVERY package! Yours and yours and yours, is what I'm talking about. YOU pay FUX to lie to us 24/7, if you pay any sort of cable bill in the U.S. Remember the term: Ala Carte Cable.
What does the Citizen's United decision have to do with SmartPlanet? Is SmartPlanet spending money on independent political ads without disclosing the source of funding?
which is that the dropping EROI of oil extraction is what has driven prices up, which is precisely why wind and solar have received a boost, AND why gas guzzlers/polluters are not the predominant vehicles found any more in places like Peru. Of course, it is not pure capitalism, as standards like our nation's CAFE standards has pushed change into a reluctant industry. Alas, the lack of leadership and poor labor relations resulted in Detroit losing valuable time in making needed changes....
Klassman: Did you not read and understand what Zacker was saying? As the price of oil goes up, so industry works to produce more energy-efficient ways of utilising it. All over the world, not just in Peru, cars that guzzled fuel have been replaced by more efficient models because the price of oil has increased. That's capitalism at its very best.
Even the old technologies aren't nearly as good as they used to be. The energy return on investment for fossil fuels used to be around 100 units return for every unit of energy invested back in the early 1900s; today it is lucky to be 10. Wind and solar are quickly coming down in price per kwh and going up in efficiencies and there is no reason to think that this won't continue to be the case. As far as transportation, the cheap, powerful cars of the 70s and 80s also guzzled fuel and belched lots of pollutants into the air. I was recently in Lima, Peru, and this city of 7-8million people had remarkably clean air. This would not be the case at all if instead of the plentiful small cars, buses and trucks, they were driving what we used to drive 30 or 40 years ago.
I've never paid a month of cable bills in my life and don't intend to. Why are you? Believe me, people will be amazed at how much you do because you aren't staring at the screen all the time. And about the lie: we're talking science here. I can give you journal articles that talk about the amount of CO2 released by humans compared to volcanoes - please give me your sources that say otherwise.
"Why should they get a free pass?" The New York Times is a News organization, and doesn't buy up political influence wholesale, like Citizens United was meant to approve of. Before Citizens United, if the Times had bought unlimited political advertising -- even their OWN advertising -- they, like any other business, would have been in violation of election laws. This is only a "fuzzy line" to those unequipped to think of it in the proper terms. Stop watching FUX, for starters, and you will have fewer lies to sift through.
If McCain-Fiengold proved anything, it's a very fuzzy line. Either way, do tell me the difference between a corporation like, say the New York Times taking a political position versus any other corproation? Why should they get a free pass?
is about political speech, not corporate speech (to the extent it is not political). I have nothing against corporations, just some of the actions they take.