By George, We Are All Going to Fry…

2012•08•06 Brendan F.D. Barrett Osaka University

My summer vacation was nearly spoiled by an article from George Monbiot (someone whose writing I greatly admire) in the Guardian entitled “We were wrong on peak oil. There’s enough to fry us all.”

My knee-jerk reaction was “There he goes again!” George certainly knows how to spark controversy. Just look at the nearly 900 online comments his article received. It was similar to the impact he had with his 21 March article “Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power.”  Great title, shame about the article!

In part, his 2 July article was in response to the recent report from Harvard University by the Italian former oil executive Leonardo Maugeri claiming that we face a comparative oil revolution as technological breakthroughs and new investments could increase oil production by over 17 million barrels per day by 2020 (to 110 mb/d from 93 mb/d today).

So, it looks like the great game is back on!

Well, maybe not. I thought I should wait and see how various peak oil experts reacted and I foresaw an immediate surge of rebuttals. They have been forthcoming and extensive. One of the most recent is from David Strahan (author of The Last Oil Shock) who argues that Monbiot made his u-turn on peak oil too quickly and that in fact Maugeri’s conclusions are based on “duff math”.

In particular, Strahan points to the work of Steve Sorrell and Christophe McGlade who argue that Maugeri’s assumptions on the decline rates of existing oilfields are overly optimistic, as follows:

“If we replace Maugeri’s 1.4% decline rate assumption with the IEA estimate of 4.1%, the projected loss of production capacity over the period to 2020 increases from 11 mb/d to 29.2 mb/d. In turn, the projected global production capacity in 2020 reduces from 110.6 mb/d to 92.4 mb/d (a reduction of 16%). Hence, a more realistic decline rate completely eliminates his projected increase.”

So is it time for Monbiot to make another u-turn?

Much more complicated than that

One reason for Monbiot’s pessimism could be his intense frustration with the lack of progress at Rio+20 and the snail’s pace at which the multilateral process is responding to the climate challenge.

At the same time, he points out in his article that many environmentalists appeared to view peak oil as a means to auto-correct the resource and climate-destroying machine that is our global economy. There is a lot of truth in this. I personally have wrapped climate change and peak oil together as the drivers pushing us towards a low carbon, post fossil fuel future. I can’t really see a way out of our current predicament that does not involve reducing per capita fossil fuel use, especially as the global population continues to grow. There might be another way to have our cake and eat it, I just can’t see it yet.

But lets just give Maugeri the benefit of the doubt and accept he could be partially correct. And if as a result the peak in oil production is delayed for a number of years, what does that mean?

On the plus side, Robert Hirsch and his colleagues warned us back in 2005 that we face major economic problems if we reach the peak of oil production and we have not made any efforts to transition away from our oil dependency (i.e., it takes around 20 years to transform our infrastructure to overcome this liquid fuels problem).

So we might surmise that if the peaking of oil production is delayed somehow then we would have more time to transform our economy. Well, that would be a good thing wouldn’t it? Yes, if we were actually taking action now to tranform our energy and fuel systems. Unfortunately, that is just not happening.

Moreover Hirsch, at the most recent ASPO meeting, indicated that oil production has been on a plateau since 2005 and will stay there for the next one to four years, before production levels would decline. If he is right then we should be deeply worried.

Monbiot, on the other hand, is concerned that we will fry the climate if Hubbert’s peak is indeed not a bell-shaped curve, but is actually a “roller-coaster” or an elongated plateau as others suggest — including Daniel Yergin in his September 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal.

Yergin, co-founder and chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates and author of The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power, is an energy optimist and has had several “run-ins” with the peak oil community. His fundamental point is that we can meet future demands for oil through technological innovation and investments and that, as energy prices rise, even currently uneconomical and challenging resources (vast oil sands in Canada, and the oil locked in shale in the United States) become accessible.

Maugeri mirrors this view and has been on a decade-long campaign to challenge the peak oil community and to provide evidence that the peak of production is not imminent, and could even be very distant. Yet it is important to recognize that both Yergin and Maugeri have made predictions in the past that have proven to be inaccurate. This matches Monbiot’s concerns in his 2 July article about inaccurate past predications made by some in the peak oil community with respect to when peak would occur. So the honours are pretty even for both the peak oil community and its critics, but the predictions on both sides are getting closer each time, rather than further apart.

However, the bigger problem is that the peak oil critics like Yergin and Maugeri are also trying to convince policymakers to ignore the warnings from the peak oil community. Another example is Professor Dieter Helm, economist at Oxford University, who wrote in October 2011 that the peak oil brigade is leading to bad policymaking on energy.

Helm, like Yergin and Maugeri, is super optimistic, arguing that the Earth is riddled with fossil fuels and, with the right technology and the right prices to stimulate investments, we can get at so much more of it. He is an enthusiastic supporter of the shale gas revolution (seemingly ignoring its negative impacts) and considers that the way to tackle climate change is to switch from coal to gas in the electricity production sector.

Well yes, that sounds kind of sensible and it may be effective to some extent. But perhaps most interestingly is that what we are seeing here from Yergin, Maugeri and Helm is consistent with what we have found to be happening around the issue of climate change.

Luke-warmists and peak-deniers

Clive Hamilton, who has written on Our World 2.0 in the past, recently described the insidious, yet influential message on climate change that we hear from the luke-warmists. He pointed out that “luke-warmists” appear to accept the body of climate science, but interpret it in a way that is least threatening, emphasizing uncertainties, playing down dangers and advocating a slow response. The same can be said for the critics and deniers of peak oil and how they deal with the questions of potential resource depletion.

Hamilton’s list of luke-warmists includes Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, Roger Pielke Jr., Daniel Sarewitz and Mike Hulme. Perhaps the most recognized luke-warmist is Bjorn Lomborg, author of the best-selling Skeptical Environmentalist and producer of the flop documentary Cool It. Elsewhere they have been called “new environmentalists” or “neogreens.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ted Nordhaus when he visited the UNU in 2008, right before we launched Our World 2.0, and what he says makes a lot of sense. I also reviewed Pielke’s book The Climate Fix, which I highly recommend.

However, after reading Hamilton’s article I did have an “aha” moment because the characteristics he assigns to them seem on the mark. I also realized that these same characteristics could also apply to the peak-deniers like Yergin, Maugeri and Helm, as listed below:

  1. They tend to be conservative and anxious about the threat to social structure posed by the implications of climate science (interchange peak oil here).
  2. Their pragmatic approach is attractive to our political leaders who look for ways to justify “policy minimalism”.
  3. Their contributions sow doubt in the public mind about the credibility of warnings and the need to respond.
  4. They emphasize the inherent unknowability, uncertainty and systemic doubt.
  5. They express misgivings about the desirability of investments in renewable energy (but fail to address concerns with the technologies they support like nuclear energy or the shale gas revolution).
  6. They see the prevailing economic system as sacred and require that any change must work around it.
  7. They tend to be optimistic about pro-technological fixes.
  8. They use the same language and terminology of their climate science and peak oil counter-parts.

I added (7) and (8) to Hamilton’s list. Taken together the luke-warmers and the peak-deniers present a “relax and smell the roses” approach. Hamilton sums up his argument about the luke-warmers as follows:

“To agree with environmental critics that our social and economic system — its power structure, its inherent goals, the forms of behaviour it endorses — could so damage the Earth that our future, and that of the system itself, is now in peril would require them to discard their essential faith in the benevolence of the status quo.”

The same conclusion could apply to the peak-deniers and how they see the impact of peak oil. Yes, the planet is riddled with fossil fuels and, yes, with technological innovation and huge investments we can get more of it out. But at the same time, doing so would continue to lock us into a system that is inherently flawed (even though I personally benefit so much from it and I would miss it dearly when gone) and that could prove fatal.

It is clear the peak-deniers want us to continue to try to get as much fossil fuel out of the ground as possible because they are not prepared to contemplate any real alternative outside of the maintenance of the status quo.

One step forward and two back

I find myself thinking back to the heady days in February 2007 when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that climate change is unequivocally due to human activities. It seemed for a moment that the debate was over, at least until the advent of Climategate in 2009, which so effectively took the wind out of the sails of the Copenhagen climate negotiations. Instead of moving forward with real action, we lost momentum while inquiries were held and the scientists were finally exonerated.

Also, in 2007, former US Secretary for Energy James Schlesinger stated that the peak oil debate is over and the peakists have won.  This kind of statement must have annoyed the deniers like Yergin, Maugeri and Helm.

More recently, Kurt Cobb wrote an interesting piece entitled “How you can tell that the peak oil debate is (almost) over”. He welcomed all of the recent protestations in the mainstream media about peak oil because in his view they work to raise the amount of attention paid to this crucial issue. But these assertions in the mainstream media are also indicative of a new phase and to support this he quoted Gandhi: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.” He argued that what we are seeing now is the attack phase.

Yet, there is an associated problem where we find that peak oil is not catching on with the public, as pointed out by Keith Akers. He argues peak oil is not palpable, that we have no plan to deal with it and that it is closely tied into the limits to growth argument, which itself was extensively attacked and discredited in the past. People have heard so many times that resources are running out, but they haven’t yet, so why worry?

Interestingly, immediately after the Maugeri report was released a close colleague sent me an e-mail asking “What does it mean for peak oil?” and recommending that I write an article about why peak oil is not gaining more resonance with the public. Well, I think that Hamilton and Askers have done an excellent job of explaining why. We have a long tradition of cornucopian optimists telling us that everything will be okay and that with our ingenuity and technology we can overcome every obstacle. They are listened to and become influential because we intrinsically want to hear this good news.

At the same time, the complexity of both climate change and peak oil means that discussions that do take place effectively exclude many due to their technical nature. How many in the public understand or even care about the difference between proven versus recoverable reserves, crude versus conventional oil, discovery versus depletion rates, or the importance of which decline rate you choose? We only want to know if, when and how. After peak oil happens, we will then want to know what to do.

So, at present, with respect to climate change and peak oil, I tend to feel that we take one step forward (as we did in 2007) only to take two steps back again (as we appear to have done this summer). This certainly helps to explain why George Monbiot threw his hands up in despair and claimed that we were wrong about peak oil. He is clearly distressed and concludes his article by stating:

“I don’t like raising problems when I cannot see a solution. But right now I’m not sure how I can look my children in the eyes.”

Just a fool’s hope

I still want to look my children in the eyes and to continue the search for solutions. That is why I still have hope, even if it may be a fool’s hope, that we can make progress in addressing these complex issues and that our better senses will prevail.

Looking back, July 2012 was a funny month, what with Monbiot’s article and all. I usually read the Guardian online, but this summer I was back in the UK on vacation and I bought the 2 July print edition at my local newsagent.

While holidaying, it rained every day (cue usual jokes about the British weather). I heard that June was even worse. According to the Met Office, it appears that the jet stream has shifted further south than normal. Signs of a changing climate perhaps? I guess when you worry all the time about climate change, you often end up seeing everything through the same lens.

Coincidently, on 10 July, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States put out a report arguing that back-to-back La Niñas had cooled the globe and influenced extreme weather in 2011. Roger Pielke Jr., one of Hamilton’s luke-warmists, blogged about it describing the press release as “breathless” and stating that John Neilsen-Gammon and Cliff Mass had effectively critiqued the report and pressed the “bullshit” button. That blog post kind of struck me as odd until I read Hamilton’s article a few days later. Consequently, I began to feel very uncomfortable about Pielke’s post.

But then, at the end of July, I had a pleasant surprise when I read that Richard Muller, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, and outspoken critic of climate change studies had commented that after undertaking intensive research involving dozens of scientists, he is now convinced that “global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct”. He continued, “I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.”

Muller’s research was funded by the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, set up by the billionaire US coal magnate and key backer of the climate sceptic Heartland Institute think tank. Nobody is claiming that Koch or the Heartland Institute have had a change of heart. They may absolutely hate Muller’s findings for all I know.

No, the point here is that it was very refreshing to see Richard Muller do this u-turn. It supports Monbiot’s view that if you become aware of new data you should alter your position. Likewise, if someone provides counter-evidence to the new data, you should be allowed to u-turn back again. That would make us all rather flip-floppy.

What I am trying to say is that we should try not to get fixated on certain positions (like that technological innovation will save us) or on defending the status quo, but should be constantly open to new evidence and new perspectives.

At the same time, we have to act upon the evidence we have at any give time and try to consider the full range of options, and not just exclude those that don’t fit with our ideological filters.

Like most people, I would rather believe that our climate was not changing and that I could continue to use as much fossil fuel as I liked. However, as yet, I have not seen enough convincing evidence to suggest that our current trajectory is viable, beyond the short-term. Yes, there are limits and boundaries that we should be aware of.

In this context, it is with hope that I look to people to find more common ground and to search for diverse solutions to our complex and pressing global issues.

My concern is that the longer that we continue in this kind of limbo state of forever taking one step forward and two back, the slower we will be in implementing effective action to reduce our fossil fuel use, to build resiliency and to shift to a low carbon society. The end result of all of these delays is that the way forward will become increasingly like trying to pass through the eye of a needle.

By George, if we can’t get our act together soon we may well fry the planet and our lovely economy with it!

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By George, we are all going to fry… by Brendan Barrett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Brendan F.D. Barrett

Osaka University

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a specially appointed professor at Osaka University in the Center for Global Initiatives and an adjunct professor at RMIT University School of Media and Communications. His core areas of expertise include ethical cities, urban transitions, sustainability science, and science/research communication.

Brendan worked with the United Nations in Japan between 1995 and 2015, with the UN Environment Programme and the United Nations University (UNU). He is currently a Visiting Professor at the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability.

Previously at UNU he was the Head of Online Learning and Head of Communications where he oversaw the development of interactive websites and video documentaries on complex social and environmental concerns. As a result, Brendan has extensive experience in science communications and launched the Our World web magazine in 2008.