Thursday, November 12, 2009

Peak Oil and conspiracy theories

It hasn't gone away
Just when you thought discussion of peak oil had peaked, it's back. For those unfamiliar with the debate and why it is important, you might like to check out this brief introduction to the concept. Written back in 2003, it is one of the best short intros I've seen.

Even though global demand for oil has dropped due to the economic downturn, that doesn't mean that some of the underlying causes behind it hitting US$147 per barrel a couple of years ago are not still around. For those who might be new to this debate, the estimates used by governments are usually based on figures from the International Energy Agency. However, even figures inside the IEA question their own numbers (or if you prefer, there is the SMH version).

Peak Oil and Conspiracy Theories
Peak Oil shares a number of features with conspiracy theories. It is held by a minority who reject the "official" version (in this case, the IEA numbers) as hopelessly partisan or influenced by powerful stakeholders. Telling the truth would unsettle these interests and so those in the know seek to spread the world that the world is darker and scarier than we thought.* Think The Matrix: there is a moral responsibility to face the truth, even if it is less pleasant than the "official" story. This is part of the appeal of accepting the alternative account. By doing so, one joins the ranks of the enlightened and is by default on the side of the angels, fighting a David-and-Goliath battle against the powers whose interests are served through the truth remaining suppressed. Such heroic skepticism draws on a variety of powerful western narratives from the myth of Promethius, through one popular account of the Enlightenment as the triumph of reason over tradition, to contemporary celebrations of investigative journalism. We've all been told often enough that we ought not to believe everything we've been told.

In this context, is peak oil simply another loopy conspiracy theory put forward by misguided figures who have lost touch with reality? Perhaps.

Yet the basic concept of global oil production one day reaching a high water mark is more or less widely accepted by all sides; the debate is really about when this is most likely to happen. And even the most optimistic numbers from the IEA and oil companies put this within two to three decades at the very best. The darker option is that we are now at the peak or have just passed it, and the current slump in production due to the global economic downturn may not ever decisively turn around.

Either way, there are huge changes ahead, whether we like it or not. And this is what makes peak oil different from other conspiracy theories. Everyone acknowledges uncertainty about the precise amount of oil able to be recovered (and the rates at which it may be extracted); for all kinds of technical and political reasons, the calculations involve too many unknown variables. Yet all acknowledge that oil is indeed a finite and non-renewable resource that is deeply woven into the fabric of contemporary society. And so no one is saying that business-as-usual can continue with oil production in terminal decline. Thus, peak oil is not a typical conspiracy theory and cannot be dismissed as such. Even those with the rosiest outlook acknowledge the need to move beyond oil, more or less urgently.

And this is what the debate is really about: the appropriate degree of urgency. The timing and rate of decline are crucial. A slow decline in a few decades could enable a transition to other forms of energy (though nothing is as powerful and easily transportable as oil). A rapid decline from here on would mean long term economic depression, food shortages, spiraling costs, more wars, social instability and governments collapsing.

Some dismiss peak oil as a bad joke. But as with all jokes, timing is everything.
*Even conspiracy theories that apparently claim the world is lighter and less scary than we thought, like Climate Change scepticism, still assume an enormous world-wide cover-up based on self-interest. I will be writing more on CC denial sometime soon.


michael jensen said...

You seem to be conceding more than you were previously on this, though. I thought I was gonna have to sail home from Oxford at one stage!

byron smith said...

Yes, this does represent something of a shift or maturation of my thought on PO, though is not a huge change. I have long thought that PO is one issue amongst many that could sink industrial society and have never really known what to think about the timing (though I guess I've generally felt that the truth would probably lie somewhere between the most pessimistic doomers and the oil companies). Yet even acknowledging that we might not yet be at peak doesn't mean that we're not in deep trouble. The US government's Hirsch Report stated back in 2005 that at least two decades of drastic mitigation prior to peaking would be needed to avoid a huge economic downturn and starting at least a decade early would be needed to more or less save something we recognise as industrial civilisation. So the news that the peak might be five to fifteen years away rather than two or three years ago is not necessarily all that rosy. In any case, the scale of the current response is orders of magnitude smaller than is required.

I am currently reflecting a little on the distinction between pathological and healthy forms of scepticism, as well as working out an approach to the perception of societal unsustainability that doesn't require me to make all kinds of judgement calls on the precise state of the various ecological and resource sciences. And in the process, this has got me thinking about the mindset of conspiracy theorists as a classic example of short-circuiting moral reflection through denial of reality.

Mike Bull said...

Great stuff. Love the pic too.

Gordon Cheng said...

But as with all jokes, timing is everything.


Gordon Cheng said...

That is to say, when the moment arrives and we have tipped over into the point of no return, and we discover that in fact the moment has not arrived and somehow the canoe is moving upstream, the warmenist-oilist enclave say 'oh well'.

Not 'We are sorry for distracting you away from what you were doing with a prediction that according to our best models was true, but in fact has turned out to be false.'

Worse: they not only say 'oh well' (which is one of those things we all say from time to time).

They say: 'We were right to scare you then (though we turned out to be wrong) and we are right to scare you now.'

In other news, the Lord will return on November 11, 1977.

byron smith said...

Gordon, the post to which your first comment links puts you at odds with the Australian Bureau of Meterology, who say "Rainfall patterns have also changed - the northwest has seen an increase in rainfall over the last 50 years while much of eastern Australia and the far southwest have experienced a decline." These are not predictions, but observations. Is the BoM wrong?

The climate scientists are not saying "oh well" because nothing is happening, but "oh b*****, it's worse than we thought”.

The enclave of "warmists" extends to every scientific body of national or international standing, none of whom hold dissenting positions.

byron smith said...

However, this was not a post about climate change, but about conspiracy theories. So which conspiracy theories do you subscribe to?

It’s not getting warmer?

More carbon is a good thing?

The medieval warm period was hotter than today?

Ice melts are getting less severe?

Other planets are also warming since it’s all down to sunspot activity?

Climate change relies on unreliable models or is based on measurements skewed by the heat island effect?

Tens of thousands of scientists have signed a petition rejecting anthropogenic climate change?

These and many other arguments are repeated time and time again, but they have all been refuted for years. Andrew Cameron writes: “Too little scepticism is gullible, but there comes a time when too much scepticism is a crippling disconnection from reality.” Where are you Gordon? And how would you know if you were disconnected from reality?

Gordon Cheng said...

Good links, Byron, but none seem to address what is now undeniable, which is that none of the climate models have correctly predicted that the world has been cooling since 2001.

So even the BBC asks the obvious question.

Meanwhile, the foolishness of hitching up the gospel to a false apocalypticism is demonstrated, again.

byron smith said...

Gordon, the very first link addressed that issue, which is simply a false claim based on cherry picking data. The top 11 hottest years on record have all been in the last 13 years.

Here is the link again or if you prefer text.

Gordon Cheng said...

Byron, the first link, like all the rest, was very interesting, but didn't address the issue.

The global mean temperature has been going down since 2001. Now, various post-hoc explanations may well exist for why this happened (including the accusation of cherry-picking), but this doesn't at all help understand why the cooling was not predicted by any of the models in use back in 1998.

Science proceeds by setting up hypotheses (eg the world is warming), making predictions on the basis of those hypotheses (eg the Arctic icecap will disappear by 2008) and then changing the hypothesis in response to the facts.

Unless the syllabus changed dramatically, then like me, you would have learned that in about year 9 at Ruse!

byron smith said...

Gordon, sorry, I meant that first link to go here. Nonetheless, the link provided addresses the issue you raise directly and with a very cogent and widely accepted argument. The inclusion of the Southern Oscillation (El Nino/La Nina) is not a post hoc justification, but is widely used as a significant factor in global temperature analyses.

Here is a more detailed one discussing temperature trends beyond simply the atmosphere.

Note that six of the seven years since 2001 have been warmer than 2001.

I also note that the more honest/clever deniers don't use this argument because it simply gives hostages to fortune.

PS Did anyone predict that the icecap would disappear by 2008? Let me know when your own hypotheses change as the result of the evidence.

Gordon Cheng said...

Let me know when your own hypotheses change as the result of the evidence.

My views have changed. I used to be agnostic on the question of climate change, and I used to accept that there was a scientific consensus (although what that consensus means regarding policy is another question).

Now, I've moved somewhat into the sceptics camp on the basis that no computer generated climate models have predicted our current ten year period (nearly 11) of no warming.

And on the scientific consensus question, in the last few days I've become not only sceptical but cynical.

So that's two examples, which is plenty to be getting on with.

byron smith said...

The accuracy of models or a good text discussion, including this. All the models have always shown variability, not a smooth continuous rise.

As for the emails, it still too early for a full account of their import, but I have just read about 50+ of the "most inflammatory" ones and was entirely unshocked to discover that climate scientists have the same in-groups and departmental political squabbles as all other academics, and that they regard certain publications and authors with contempt for practising what they consider to be pseudo-science, and that some of them can be nasty when speaking about people behind their back. Perhaps the worst I saw are some instances of apparently breaking the laws about FOI requests. Yet the existence of none of these is much of a revelation to anyone who reads the Bible, despite being quite sad and stupid. That there may turn out to be some genuine instances of unfair treatment of intellectual opponents and some illegal activity does nothing to prove an international scientific "conspiracy".

Gordon Cheng said...

Even scarenik Tim Flannery now concedes that computer modelling has failed to predict the last decade of cooling:

We’re dealing with an incomplete understanding of the way the earth system works… When we come to the last few years when we haven’t seen a continuation of that (warming) trend we don’t understand all of the factors that create earth’s climate...We just don’t understand the way the whole system works… See, these people work with models, computer modelling. So when the computer modelling and the real world data disagree you’ve got a very interesting problem… Sure for the last 10 years we’ve gone through a slight cooling trend.

[bold mine]

From here.

byron smith said...

Given that I'm outside Oz, I can't see the full transcript. I wonder, might the elipses in your quote be relevant to putting those comments in context?

byron smith said...

[Two posts due to length restrictions]

OK, I've now heard the full interview as an audio recording and I noted more of the context of your quotes. Here are few important bits. They might not be 100% word-for-word as I was typing them up from audio, which is available internationally here.

Flannery on anthropogenic global warming:

"We know enough to be able to say as the IPCC said that we're 90% sure the warming is caused by humans."

The 90% confidence figure has been publicly available in the 4th IPCC report of 2007. They put it front and centre. This report is also quite open about the areas of knowledge where far more work needs to be done (which include such important things as cloud effects, dynamic ice-flow (i.e. what happens to glaciers), and, crucially, feedback mechanisms). These uncertainties are significant enough to mention, but not significant enough to prevent action.

One of the problems is that the public discourse around climate change is so polarised (and the media's attention so short and only interested in conflict) that climate scientists are sometimes reluctant to highlight these uncertainties because they know (from experience) the media will distort them. So they stupidly sometimes exaggerate and leave out the uncertainties, which hurts the message long term because some people then feel like the truth is being withheld. But the sceptics, by seizing on any error or admission of less than 100% certainty (and yelling about it even once it has been decisively answered) reduce the level of discourse further still by making a political climate in which small errors cannot be admitted without deniers claiming that the whole thing is a scam. Are you happy with this characterisation of the discourse? Are you willing to admit that the behaviour of some sceptics in continuing to run discredited arguments is also a contributing factor to the erosion of the sanity of this discussion?

byron smith said...

[Part Two]
On cooling, Flannery says this:

"The timescales are all important. If you take too short a timescale you won't get a climate signal. The scales that climate scientists use to look at the overall warming are century-long. Sure we [saw some variation]. But that does not negate the overall warming trend."

Flannery's overall point is not an admission that models have failed. He admits that we still have incomplete knowledge, but doesn't mean we don't have enough knowledge to act (while of course continuing to improve our understanding and predictions). The models used ten years ago might not have predicted this decade with precision, though the ones used today (which are getting more accurate all the time) "hindcast" it with a much higher degree of accuracy. Are you willing to concede that the models have improved considerably over the last few decades and that the present models offer many predictions that have been highly accurate (even if they have not predicted everything)? And that even the models used decades ago (e.g. Hansen's "most likely" prediction given back in 1988) have been broadly accurate?

And I haven't heard you answer the point about the effect of the Southern Oscillation, which seems to be at least a very significant part of the answer regarding the atmospheric temperature pattens this decade.

The "cooling" is very slight (will you admit that?) and really only appears in comparison to the extreme heat of 1998, caused by the strongest El Nino ever recorded - note that 2005 was almost as hot (or hotter according to NASA) and the El Nino that year was quite weak.

And I still haven't heard you respond to the far more important data about ocean temperatures (and rising sea levels from thermal expansion). Atmospheric temperatures are (a) a small fraction of the heat stored in the ocean, which continues to rise and (b) a far more erratic system than ocean temps, showing much greater short term variation.

byron smith said...

This is an interesting story: the data for global atmospheric temperatures were given to four independent statisticians who were not told what the data referred to. They were asked to look for trends. None of them said that there is any downward trend in the last decade.

Gordon Cheng said...

Trust me on this, it came from an e-mail on the internet:

I am seriously worried that our flagship gridded data product is produced by Delaunay triangulation - apparently linear as well. As far as I can see, this renders the station counts totally meaningless. It also means that we cannot say exactly how the gridded data is arrived at from a statistical perspective - since we’re using an off-the-shelf product that isn’t documented sufficiently to say that. Why this wasn’t coded up in Fortran I don’t know - time pressures perhaps? Was too much effort expended on homogenisation, that there wasn’t enough time to write a gridding procedure? Of course, it’s too late for me to fix it too. Meh.

I am very sorry to report that the rest of the databases seem to be in nearly as poor a state as Australia was. There are hundreds if not thousands of pairs of dummy stations, one with no WMO and one with, usually overlapping and with the same station name and very similar coordinates. I know it could be old and new stations, but why such large overlaps if that’s the case? Aarrggghhh! There truly is no end in sight… So, we can have a proper result, but only by including a load of garbage!

[bold mine]

I reckon with your research abilities, Byron, you'll be able to track this one down.

But let's assume it was an independent, unbiased researcher complaining about needing to provide a result that demonstrated something or other (possibly global warming), yet realised the data that he was being asked to work with was at least as useless as the data from the whole continent of Australia.

Don't feel you need to answer me on this, though. My mind is pretty much made up on the issue of how scientific consensus was achieved.

Gordon Cheng said...

PS Did anyone predict that the icecap would disappear by 2008?

With the usual 'maybe', it was here.

'Maybe' is of course an important qualification, but we're talking about attempting to influence public policy in every country on the basis of it. Which is mischievous, especially when 'maybe' means 'maybe not'.

So the world 'may' be warming, or it 'may' not be, and that pretty much brings us back to the position I've always held, with the added frisson of annoyance at having been distracted away from stuff that actually matters.

byron smith said...

Modelling has always shown periods in which the very significant rise in temperatures slows, pauses or briefly reverses in statistically insignificant ways. It is just that we usually only see graphs that compile hundreds or thousands of modelling runs and so these periods are smoothed out to show the overall trend. See this 2009 paper and discussion here.

byron smith said...

"The Arctic icecap will disappear" is very different to an ice-free north pole in summer. It's like the difference between Australia being in perpetual drought and Wagga Wagga having a winter without rain. The former is of a much larger area and implies year-round perpetuity. The latter is of a specific point in space and time. The prediction of an ice-free pole was given a 50% chance in the story you cite. It didn't happen. But nonetheless sea-ice volume in 2009 continued to fall much faster than anyone expected just a couple of years ago and an ice-free north pole in summer looks like it may only be a matter of time. When it happens, will that give you any pause for thought?

I know that if you can show me a long term trend demonstrating sustained Arctic sea-ice volume increase published in a peer-reveiwed paper, then I'd start sitting up and paying attention.

byron smith said...

Don't feel you need to answer me on this, though. My mind is pretty much made up on the issue of how scientific consensus was achieved.
I'm confused. Are your hypotheses vulnerable to evidence or not? If so, then since I also have some thoughts on how thousands of scientists across dozens of countries with vastly different political situations and agendas reach a significant level of mutual understanding and these thoughts seem to differ from yours, then talking about them might not be totally pointless.

byron smith said...

Independent: Conspiracy theories on the rise. But who is behind the phenomenon?

byron smith said...

XKCD: Conspiracies.

Gordon Cheng said...

bit desperate, byron ;-)

byron smith said...

Video: Take the red pill. Or not, since it's likely manufactured by Big Pharma.