November 11, 2008

The Overall Idea

This blog consists of notes toward the better understanding of our energy predicament. No easy depiction of that predicament is possible. Rather, there are a set of interlocking problems, including:

--climate change and other environmental costs of energy use and production;

--peak oil and other potential constraints on the use of natural resources;

--nuclear power, with its promises of abundance and specters of catastrophe;

--food and water crises (both of them closely linked to the availability of energy);

--financial markets that are necessary but volatile, sometimes dysfunctional; and

--grand strategy or geopolitics, where the emphasis is on the relationship of energy production to military power and realpolitik.

At the intersection where people worry and argue about these things, one finds a great deal of contention, a fascinating hodgepodge of irreconcilable nostrums and clashing empiricisms. My main purpose is to help readers better understand these fields of contention, both in their own right and in the relationship they bear to one another.

Though I set forth an argument here and there, I am impressed by how much I do not know about these things, as also by how much we cannot know. I sometimes think darkly of the blog as notes towards a book that I would be incompetent to write, alarming stuff I'm reading that I do not truly comprehend, an excursion into fields (all the natural sciences) for which my professional background is seriously wanting, but which seem to hold a vital key to the human prospect.

Take solace in one thing: the issues are sufficiently difficult that no one can pretend to expertise in all of them, or even most. That is, we all face the difficulty, in one form or another, of making judgments about things that we couldn't begin to evaluate as a true expert would. What seems, at first, a source of terror and inadequacy should also be a source of consolation, for nearly all the experts, taken out of their regular habitat, face the same difficulty themselves. And that is the nature of this energy problem: it has no one habitat. It is all over the place in its predicaments and devil's bargains.


Five Difficult Pieces

The five most difficult pieces of the energy puzzle are climate change, peak oil, nuclear proliferation, financial dysfunction, and grand strategy. We want to acquire an understanding of each of these in its own right, but also to be looking toward the ways they fit together.

My approach emphasizes the trade-offs and extremely difficult choices that await us in grappling with the energy problem, while seeking to find a provisional road map for sensible public policy.

Perhaps the most frightening problem is the climate change induced by global warming. That humankind faces a great threat and a great challenge in this regard is the conviction of the large majority of scientists who have studied the matter; those of us who are not experts need to take their warnings seriously and attempt to understand the contours of this problem. Any solution to the energy predicament that blithely ignores the potential impact on climate change is just hidebound. Realism on this score, as best as we can muster it, is a solemn duty.

The second piece of the puzzle is the possibility that oil production will peak in the not too distant future, beginning a decline that will forever alter our hydrocarbon-based societies. Some experts believe that "peak oil" is here now; we will try to assemble the most important pieces of evidence on either side of the debate. If the peak oil theorists are right, then revolutionary changes are in store over the next decades. An initial conclusion might be that diminishing supplies of oil (we'll never "run out" entirely) would definitely diminish the dangers from global warming, but it is also quite possible that “subprime” carbon fuels like coal or tar sands would supply the oil deficit, in which case the warming problem would be exacerbated.

The third conundrum concerns nuclear power. To those chilled by the prospect of global warming, nuclear power is a godsend. Any energy source that emits no greenhouse gases is like some sort of manna from heaven. On the other hand, more civilian nuclear power, here and abroad, might lead to the widespread proliferation of nuclear-armed states. And there are other serious drawbacks: both the construction and cleanup of nuclear plants are carbon-intensive; the operation of reactors requires huge volumes of water. A key nexus for considering the nuclear conundrum lies with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 and its application to Iran's nuclear program--the subject of reiterated threats of force by the United States and Israel. No other nuclear thicket--not North Korea's, or India's, or even Pakistan's--raises a more immediate danger of war than the Iranian program and the bellicose response it has evoked in the United States.

The fourth problem is the relationship between energy and the financial markets, in late 2008 in a state of serious disorder. The capital markets are in the business of allocating capital, but they do not necessarily do so in a fashion that contributes to vital public goods. Complicating this question is the long time frame needed to bring energy projects to fruition; another is the role that commodity speculation has played in the energy markets, of which the experience of 2008—in which oil rose rapidly to $145 in the summer, then crashed—was a dramatic reminder. So we want to know whether the capital markets are functioning, as it were, in optimal fashion. Are they regulated wisely? Is there a way of approaching them such that businesses can make a profit and the public can secure vital goods of its own?

The fifth nexus revolves around the significance for US foreign and defense policy of dependence on foreign oil, especially the oil of the Persian Gulf, where most of the world’s reserves are concentrated. Adverse consequences for the balance of payments, excessive dependence when oil prices are low, a huge transfer of wealth when prices are high, the role of US military forces in “ensuring access,” the prospect of "resource wars"—these are all very familiar aspects of the energy predicament as it has affected, and been affected by, US policy. A fundamental aspect of the rise in oil prices over the last three years was the shift in financial power that went along with it. Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and other “petro-powers” saw their coffers swell, whereas oil consumers saw their trade deficits expand. Oil politics, then, are part of "grand strategy." While we'll attempt to understand in general terms the influence of the energy complex on geopolitics and the shifting distribution of power among the nations, a key concern is to understand the lineaments of a prudent US policy toward these hazards. I take it as a given that military solutions to either energy dependency or nuclear proliferation are seriously misguided.

These five difficult pieces constitute the core of the energy predicament as I see it. I give an exploratory overview of these inter-relationships in the second chapter ("Defining the Problem"), followed by two chapters ("Capital Markets" and "Patterns of Dependence") laying out basic facts of the energy predicament.

In Capital Markets, I want to build up a picture of how energy figures in the equity markets. We'll look at the oil, coal, natural gas, wind, solar, and nuclear industries, show a few proxies for each one them, and then examine a range of ratio charts in which we look at their price movements in relationship to one another. Ultimately, the markets are asking a very simple question: who's going to make a profit, who's going to take a loss? At any given time, it very difficult to know for sure exactly what information the market is registering--on occasion it acts very erratically, as most people these days don't need to be reminded. At the same time, these price movements are of vital significance in determining what gets built and what gets put on the shelf. They determine, as it were, our future energy infrastructure. So anybody interested in the outcome--aren't we all?--should pay attention to them.

In the next chapter, Patterns of Dependence, I compile some visual evidence laying out various "dependencies" associated with the energy complex--how much oil the US imports, natural gas pipeline networks, sea lanes of communication--things of that sort. We'll also introduce here a key metric of energy production, the energy return on energy invested.

The subsequent five chapters treat the five difficult pieces noted above: Climate Change, Peak Oil, Nuclear Quandary, Financial Dysfunction, and Grand Strategy.

That's the general prospectus. The idea behind this first iteration is not to present a completed work but to construct a good frame for further investigation, both for myself and others.

* * * * 

I've retained the above statement, written in 2008, to indicate to the reader "where I'm coming from," but since that time have made a few changes in overall plan and perspective.

First, I've added a section on food and water. When I started, I was seriously worried about "peak oil." Now, I've grown anxious about "peak water." It dawned on me that the food and water problem is intimately connected with the energy problem, and all of them reflect basic resource constraints. So now, officially, there are Six Difficult Pieces. Do I hear Seven?

I've also consolidated the "capital markets" and "financial dysfunction" sections, though I've only partially done the comparative review of the various energy sectors promised in the prospectus. I will do that one of these days. In "Peak Oil," I have brought together material on resource constraints more generally, while adding a separate section dealing with the oil market as such. I've also added chapters dealing with natural gas, coal, and wind and solar, plus a few other odds and ends.

I haven't done as much on nuclear proliferation and grand strategy as originally planned, but have not changed my views on the basic questions of U.S. policy, whether toward Afghanistan, Iran, or Iraq: I favor deescalation rather than escalation, steps toward withdrawal rather than ratcheting up our commitment, deterrence rather than preventive war. In 2008, I was seriously worried about the prospect of a preventive war waged by Israeli or the United States or both against Iran, a step for which there seemed a lot of momentum. Both Israel and Cheney wanted it; only Bush's veto of the idea prevented it from happening (an attitude from W. that I did not expect and for which I am genuinely grateful).

I remain keen on taxes on energy consumption, a vital step to limit dependence, check harm to the environment, and raise needed revenue (while allowing the U.S. government rather than foreign oil producers to capture more of the the "rent" from this resource). I've been convinced of the need for such taxes for over 30 years, soon to be 40, and at this point am immune to all counter-arguments. We ought to have had large taxes on gasoline consumption since the oil crisis first reared its head in the 1970s, as Europe and Japan have done. That this question remains unthinkable in American politics is a sad commentary on our "democratic distemper" and our "incoherent empire."As it is, America's transportation infrastructure, built on the basis of cheap oil, makes the country extremely vulnerable in the event of an era of expensive oil. 

On some other rather big questions, however, my convictions are unstable. I keep changing my mind, or rather can't make up my mind. The "climate skeptics," I believe, are not without some decent arguments. "Peak oil" might not seriously kick in for some time. While still being basically persuaded of the "climate change" and "peak oil" cases, I admit to various doubts, and know enough to know that I can't really resolve them to my satisfaction but must instead simply weigh the probabilities.

Paul Roberts' book on The End of Oil had a big effect on me when I first read it in 2005 or so; he looked on gas as the great and necessary "bridge fuel" to the future. Since that time, natural gas has boomed and busted. If you believe the gas companies, who say their reserves have doubled and are good for another 100 years, the attractiveness of natural gas has been greatly enhanced in the last few years. There are, however, unanswered questions regarding the long term status of reserves, the safety of "fracking" to water supplies, and the contribution of the entire natural gas production cycle to "greenhouse gas" emissions.

Wind power, which seemed to me an unambiguously good thing in 2008, looks much more dubious to me now. My expectations for solar power, primarily due to the hits it has taken in the capital markets, are also considerably diminished. I go back and forth on the possibilities, opportunities, and dangers of nuclear power.

In 2008, I took the danger of global warming as the overriding “environmental” problem raised by energy usage, but I am much more impressed today by the sheer diversity of environmental threats—the effect of removing mountaintops for coal on water supplies, for instance; or the susceptibility of the energy infrastructure to “accidents,” of which we’ve had an abundance the past few years.

I see more clearly now the adverse environmental consequences associated with all forms of energy production; I am also much more aware of the profound tension in environmentalism between climate change and more immediate threats to the physical environment. Which is the more important God to serve? That question did not really present itself to me in 2008.

The tensions within environmentalism are especially notable in the current debate over wind and solar power. Though there is something to be said for both forms of energy, they are not environmentally benign. Wind may have fiendish effects on our feathered friends and itself depends critically on rare earth minerals; solar may imperil wilderness and landscape. China, in any case, has developed something of a lock on both industries.

I was hostile to corn ethanol when I began in 2008, but don’t think I quite saw the sheer lunacy of depleting precious aquifers to grow corn for ethanol, as was official U.S. policy then and remains so now.

I like to think that an inability to make up one’s mind, or a willingness to change it, is a product of honest skepticism rather than intellectual flaccidity. But perhaps not! Despite these shifts in perspective, my basic and consistent purpose has not been to propagate a dogma but to gather evidence and to pose a set of questions.


My General Perspective

One conviction that runs throughout this work should be stated at the outset. Though I consider myself friendly to free markets and "market solutions," it is very evident that the mantra--let the market decide—is an profoundly inadequate basis for resolving the energy predicament.

Energy policy is closely tied to costs, whether in the form of hidden subsidies or external costs (like dirty air) for which the market pricing is non-existent.

One important subsidy for oil are the US military forces that hover in and around the Persian Gulf. Those forces are in some sense a cost of extracting the oil from the Persian Gulf, yet they not registered in the market price of oil. In that sense, the price of oil is heavily subsidized by the US government, a benefit accorded not only to American consumers but all consumers of oil (as there is a world price for the stuff). Other things being equal, the oil price would presumably be higher if those military forces were not “standing guard.” Because we pay the cost, it does not necessarily follow that we reap the benefit we intend, but in principle those military costs should be added to the overall public cost of depending on Persian Gulf oil.

Carbon emissions are another cost of energy usage that is not registered in the market price. They are an instance of what the economists call “externalities.” They are real costs, yet the market by itself does not incorporate the real costs into the market prices.

Both examples—the military cost of extracting oil from the Persian Gulf, the environmental costs of carbon emissions—suggest the incoherence of the mantra: let the market decide. The public must decide; that is, it must create a coherent framework of policy that takes account of these various subsidies and costs.

My general perspective is reflected in these considerations. We need an energy policy

--that reflects the probable cost of carbon and other toxic emissions, looking toward the establishment of a tax and regulatory framework that favors the least emitting as against the most emitting;

--that anticipates, as accurately as we can, the cost and availability of energy sources in the future and prepares for potential interruptions in energy supply;

--that treats respectfully the rights and interests of developing nations to various forms of energy;

--that helps the capital markets look to the long term and ensures that markets function, like an invisible hand, for the public benefit;

--that registers the true cost of extracting oil from dangerous regions, of which the Persian Gulf is the most notable, and looks with grave skepticism on military solutions to our energy predicament;

--and that seeks cooperative solutions with other nations to address global warming, energy security, and other common problems.

A rational approach to energy policy would assess alternatives with appropriate foresight regarding costs and benefits in all their various dimensions. That, of course, is easier said than done. In fact, the energy business reflects lots of grubby realities; it can make an excellent case study in government of the few, by the few, and for the few. 

Our inherited energy infrastructure, too, is a case study in path dependency, or the idea that where you are depends on where you start. It is exceedingly difficult to change. That said, we must in principle hope that it is amenable to change. 

Energy is both indispensable to human development and threatening to the human and natural environment, another of those things that we can’t live with and can’t live without. Our objectives should be to extend its advantages and limit its disadvantages, even while acknowledging that finding the right balance is an extremely difficult task.   

We need both realism and idealism in addressing the energy predicament. Realism is difficult because the facts are often very uncertain; idealism is difficult because the values at stake are sometimes incommensurable. Rightly understood, however, I think these contrasting tendencies toward realism and idealism depend on and need one another. 


November 9, 2008

New Frontier

Map from the Atlantic

According to the BBC, Sepember 22, 2010, Russia is building eight nuclear powered platforms to explore for oil and natural gas in the Arctic.
When it is completed in 2012, it will be the first of eight floating nuclear power stations which the government wants to place along Russia's north coast, well within the Arctic Circle.

The idea is the nuclear reactors will provide the power for Russia's planned push to the North Pole.

Moscow is claiming more than a million square kilometres of extra territory in the Arctic, stretching from its current border in the Arctic Sea, all the way to the Pole.

The territory includes an underwater mountain range called the Lomonosov ridge, a area which some Russian scientists claim could hold 75 billion barrels of oil.
Here is a map of the conflicting claims:

Oil Conversion Factors

Oil Consumption by Country 2007

Comparative Costs for Generating Electricity

November 8, 2008

Crash of 08 and Energy

Nate Hagens of the Oil Drum:

"Those who rationalize the recent crash in oil prices as evidence of an oil bubble are only partially correct, and miss the greater point entirely. We are in the midst of a global deleveraging of an enormous bubble in financial assets, of which oil futures contracts, is just one. ... [R]ecent events in the real economy have put us in the liminal space where drops in demand will temporarily exceed drops in supply. Our energy future is a battle being fought between depletion and investment/technology in a world that is not only interconnected and complex but increasingly fragile. Counterintuitively to most, the lower oil prices go and the longer they stay below $80-$100 per barrel, the steeper the fall off of the crude oil plateau will be, and the dimmer our energy future." 11/12/08

November 7, 2008

Israel's Fears

Anxiety over the Iranian nuclear program is strongest in Israel, whose government has repeatedly declared that it would be prepared to use force to arrest the development of an Iranian bomb. In every statement of the U.S. position there is the affirmation that "all options are on the table," meaning the use of preemptive force. I will finally relieve myself of anxiety that the Bush administration is plotting some such attack on January 20, 2009, for it has been evident that strong voices within the administration, above all Vice President Cheney, wanted to do that very thing. The guessing game will doubtless go on. Will the Bushies do it in the interregnum? Will Israel do it alone? Did Obama mean what he said to AIPAC?

Shares of Nuclear Power Generation

This chart from BP shows global nuclear power generation by region. Apart from the small sliver on top, the category is dominated by North America, Europe and the Former Soviet Union, and East Asia.

The chart below details the percentages. North America has 34.7%, with the US alone at 30.9%. Asia has 19%, with Japan, China, and South Korea the major players. The "Europe and Eurasia" total, at 44%, is dominated by France, at 16%, followed by Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom.

Notice the total for the Middle East: 0.0.

click to enlarge

The Non Proliferation Treaty

The NPT was based on a simple bargain. The existing nuclear powers pledged to make every effort to disarm themselves of nuclear weapons. Civilian nuclear technology was promised the developing world on condition that they observed the treaty and submit their programs to safeguards.

The United States and the West generally are not satisfied with that arrangement. They have come to the conclusion that the construction of a nuclear infrastructure provides a ready means to building a weapon, if the state so desires. It can stay within the rules until it decides to withdraw, after which there is no choice but to submit to another nuclear power or to go to war. This claim has been especially pressed against Iran and its nuclear program.

Iran has refused to budge. Despite impressive pressures and promises of rewards from European states, in which Russia and China have partially joined, Iran insists on its right to develop its own nuclear industry.

Iran's Case

"A nuclear weaponized Iran destabilizes the region, prompts a regional arms race, and wastes the scarce resources in the region. And taking account of U.S. nuclear arsenal and its policy of ensuring a strategic edge for Israel, an Iranian bomb will accord Iran no security dividends."

The opening statement in a US demand that Iran renounce nuclear weapons? No, actually, it is the official policy of the Iranian government. The extract comes from one Hassan Rohani, identified by Time as "representative of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, on the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and Iran's former top nuclear negotiator." Rohani added that "there are also some Islamic and developmental reasons why Iran as an Islamic and developing state must not develop and use weapons of mass destruction."

Iran's case for nuclear power generation is barely audible in the West, but it is not the thread-bare case so often alleged.

The first is that they want it for the same reasons that others do. A modern industrialized economy requires diverse sources of power generation. Theirs is too dependent on oil. As the accompanying chart of gasoline prices shows, Iran practically gives away the stuff to its people. Domestic consumption has consequently grown rapidly, from 1.2 mbd in 1997 to 1.6 mbd in 2007, raising the prospect that satisfying Iran's own needs would lead in the not too distant future to having nothing left to export. This is a common feature of oil-rich developing nations and has been a big factor behind the rise in developing world consumption.

If you examine this from the standpoint of opportunity costs, Iran's case for nuclear generation is actually just as good as importers of energy like South Korea or India. The Shah wanted it, of course; it was the mullahs who got rid of the program, in part due to repugnance over its association with weapons of mass destruction. Over time, they changed their minds.

A second reason, in some ways as important as the first, stems simply from national or civilizational self-regard. The Iranians find it absurd that they should be treated as infants or pariahs. They look at that BP chart--the one that accords them and their region 0.0% in the way of access to this technology, though those who deny it to them enjoy it themselves--and they say, this cannot be. It isn't fair, not to humanity generally nor to us specifically. The sentiment of national independence, furthered by indignation over hypocrisy, joined with a sense of civilizational uniqueness--all this makes the Iranian people easy converts to the view that they are being denied something that in justice belongs to them, and on behalf of which they should hold out to the bitter end.

These sentiments would be powerful even if Iran's case for nuclear power generation was a bad one. As it happens, that case on the technical merits makes a lot of sense for them.

November 6, 2008

Changes in Temperature, Sea Level and Snow Cover

This chart gives a concise view of three interlocking developments: a rise of average global temperatures, a loss of snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere, and a rise in average sea level.

Rising CO2 Emissions, Rising Temperatures

The two graphs above from Richard Heinburg's Peak Everything seem to establish a correlation between carbon dioxide emissions and the rise in global temperatures. The third graph below completes the picture.

Global Leaders in Emissions

Go to the FT site for an interactive version of this map. Though China has surged ahead of the US in total CO2 emissions, US per capita usage is 19.4 tonnes per capita as against China's 5.1 tonnes per capita.

Growth of CO2 Emissions Since 1988

Another FT chart with interactive features. This snapshot shows the past growth in CO2 emissions from 1988 together with a steep projected rise to 2012. The Copenhagen conference, due to craft a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, meets in 2009.

Warming in 21st Century

This chart, from the 2007 IPCC report, shows six different pathways to warmer global temperatures, resulting in a potential point of no return in world climate.

Arctic Ice Cap Disappearing

In Homer-Dixon's disturbing work, The Upside of Down, he has a terrifying description of potential climate change in his unfolding of the consequences of the disappearance of the Arctic ice cap. Recent data, he wrote in 2007, indicates an alarming speeding up of the melt.

"The vast expanse of ice floating on the surface of the Arctic Ocean always recedes in the summer, reaching its lowest point sometime in September. Every winter it expands again, as the long Arctic night descends and temperatures plummet. Each summer over the past six years, global warming has trimmed this ice's total area a little more, and each winter the ice's recovery has been a little less robust. These trends alarmed climate scientists, but most thought that sea ice wouldn't disappear completely in the Arctic summer before 2040 at the earliest.

But this past summer sent scientists scrambling to redo their estimates. Week by week, the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., reported the trend: from 2.23 million square miles of ice remaining on Aug. 8 to 1.6 million square miles on Sept. 16, an astonishing drop from the previous low of 2.05 million square miles, reached in 2005."

Here's one of the charts from the National Snow and Ice Data Center that scientists are watching. It shows a slight recovery above 2007 levels.

That was in 2007; here's the latest chart showing data as of November 1, 2010. It shows a modest improvement from the alarming reduction in 2007. 

Update 10/17/10: Here's a long piece from the New York Times on the melting of the ice caps and what it means for rising sea levels. 

Scientists long believed that the collapse of the gigantic ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica would take thousands of years, with sea level possibly rising as little as seven inches in this century, about the same amount as in the 20th century.

But researchers have recently been startled to see big changes unfold in both Greenland and Antarctica.

As a result of recent calculations that take the changes into account, many scientists now say that sea level is likely to rise perhaps three feet by 2100 — an increase that, should it come to pass, would pose a threat to coastal regions the world over.
And the calculations suggest that the rise could conceivably exceed six feet, which would put thousands of square miles of the American coastline under water and would probably displace tens of millions of people in Asia.

Melting Ice Sheets, Rising Sea Levels


The greatest threat of climate change for human beings, I believe, lies in the potential destabilization of the massive ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. As with the extinction of species, the disintegration of ice sheets is irreversible for practical purposes. Our children, grandchildren, and many more generations will bear the consequences of choices that we make in the next few years. . .

Ice sheets waxed and waned as the Earth cooled and warmed over the past 500,000 years. During the coldest ice ages, the Earth's average temperature was about ten degrees Fahrenheit colder than today. So much water was locked in the largest ice sheet, more than a mile thick and covering most of Canada and northern parts of the United States, that the sea level was 400 feet lower than today. The warmest interglacial periods were about two degrees Fahrenheit warmer than today and the sea level was as much as sixteen feet higher. ...

Warming can be predicted accurately based on knowledge of how Earth responded to similar levels of greenhouse gases in the past. (By drilling into glaciers to analyze air bubbles trapped under layers of snow, scientists can measure the levels of each gas in the atmosphere hundreds of thousands of years ago. By comparing the concentrations of different isotopes of oxygen in these air bubbles, they can measure the average temperature of past centuries.) Climate models by themselves yield similar answers. However, the evidence from the Earth's history provides a more precise and sensitive measure, and we know that the real world accurately included the effects of all feedback processes, such as changes of clouds and water vapor, that have an effect on temperature.

How much will sea level rise with five degrees of global warming? Here too, our best information comes from the Earth's history. The last time that the Earth was five degrees warmer was three million years ago, when sea level was about eighty feet higher.

Eighty feet! In that case, the United States would lose most East Coast cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Miami; indeed, practically the entire state of Florida would be under water. Fifty million people in the US live below that sea level. Other places would fare worse. China would have 250 million displaced persons. Bangladesh would produce 120 million refugees, practically the entire nation. India would lose the land of 150 million people.

A rise in sea level, necessarily, begins slowly. Massive ice sheets must be softened and weakened before rapid disintegration and melting occurs and the sea level rises. It may require as much as a few centuries to produce most of the long-term response. ...

The business-as-usual scenario, with five degrees Fahrenheit global warming and ten degrees Fahrenheit at the ice sheets, certainly would cause the disintegration of ice sheets. The only question is when the collapse of these sheets would begin. The business-as-usual scenario, which could lead to an eventual sea level rise of eighty feet, with twenty feet or more per century, could produce global chaos, leaving fewer resources with which to mitigate the change in climate. The alternative scenario, with global warming under two degrees Fahrenheit, still produces a significant rise in the sea level, but its slower rate, probably less than a few feet per century, would allow time to develop strategies that would adapt to, and mitigate, the rise in the sea level.
* * *

Rob Young and Orrin Pilkey argue here and in their book The Rising Sea "that governments and coastal managers should assume the inevitability of a seven-foot rise in sea level. This number is not a prediction. But we believe that seven feet is the most prudent, conservative long-term planning guideline for coastal cities and communities, especially for the siting of major infrastructure; a number of academic studies examining recent ice sheet dynamics have suggested that an increase of seven feet or more is not only possible, but likely. Certainly, no one should be expecting less than a three-foot rise in sea level this century."

The authors note that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) did not assess the effect of the melting of the Greenland and Antartica ice shelves on sea level rise. 
Given the complexities of forecasting how much the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets will contribute to increases in global sea level, the IPCC chose not to include these giant ice masses in their calculations, thus ignoring what is likely to be the most important source of sea level rise in the 21st century. Arguing that too little was understood about ice sheet collapse to construct a mathematical model upon which even a rough estimate could be based, the IPCC came up with sea level predictions using thermal expansion of the oceans and melting of mountain glaciers outside the poles. Its results were predictably conservative — a maximum of a two-foot rise this century — and were even a foot lower than an earlier IPCC report that factored in some melting of Greenland’s ice sheet.

* * *
In the 20th century, sea level rise was primarily due to thermal expansion of ocean water. Contributions of melting mountain glaciers and the large ice sheets were minor components. But most climate scientists now believe that the main drivers of sea level rise in the 21st century will be the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (a potential of a 16-foot rise if the entire sheet melts) and the Greenland Ice Sheet (a potential rise of 20 feet if the entire ice cap melts). The nature of the melting is non-linear and is difficult to predict.

Seeking to correct the IPCC’s failure to come up with a comprehensive forecast for sea level increase, a number of state panels and government committees have produced sea level rise predictions that include an examination of melting ice sheets. For example, sea level rise panels in Rhode Island and Miami-Dade County have concluded that a minimum of a three- to five-foot sea level rise should be anticipated by 2100. A California report assumes a possible 4.6-foot rise by 2100, while the Dutch assume a 2.5-foot rise by 2050 in the design of their tidal gates.

Given the growing consensus about the major sea level rise on the way in the coming century or two, the continued development of many low-lying coastal areas — including much of the U.S. east coast — is foolhardy and irresponsible.
Rising seas will be on the front lines of the battle against changing climate during the next century. Our great concern is that as the infrastructure of major cities in the industrialized world becomes threatened, there will be few resources left to address the dramatic impacts that will be facing the citizens of the developing world.

The ramifications of a major sea level rise are massive. Agriculture will be disrupted, water supplies will be salinized, storms and flood waters will reach ever further inland, and millions of environmental refugees will be created — 15 million people live at or below three feet elevation in Bangladesh, for example. Governments, especially those in the developing world, will be disrupted, creating political instability.

The most vulnerable of all coastal environments are deltas of major rivers, including the Mekong, Irrawaddy, Niger, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Nile, and Mississippi. Here, land subsidence will combine with global sea level rise to create very high rates of what is known as “local, relative sea level rise.” The rising seas will displace the vast majority of people in these delta regions. Adding insult to injury, in many parts of Asia the rice crop will be decimated by rising sea level — a three-foot sea level rise will eliminate half of the rice production in Vietnam — causing a food crisis coincident with the mass migration of people.

The Mississippi Delta is unique because it lies within a country with the financial resources to fight land loss. Nevertheless, we believe multibillion-dollar engineering and restoration efforts designed to preserve communities on the Mississippi Delta are doomed to failure, given the magnitude of relative sea level rise expected. Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt said in 2008 that it was an “ineluctable fact” that within the lifespan of some people alive today, “the vast majority of that land will be underwater.” He also faulted federal officials for not developing migration plans for area residents and for not having the “honesty and compassion” to tell Louisiana residents the “truth”: Someday, they will have to leave the delta. The city of New Orleans can probably be protected into the next century, but only at great expense and with little guarantee that future storms like hurricane Katrina will not inundate the city again.

Pacific and Indian Ocean atoll nations are already being abandoned because of the direct and indirect effects of sea level rise, such as saltwater intrusion into groundwater. In the Marshall Islands, some crops are being grown in abandoned 55-gallon oil drums because the ground is now too salty for planting. New Zealand is accepting, on a gradual basis, all of the inhabitants of the Tuvalu atolls. Inhabitants of Carteret Atoll have all moved to Papua, New Guinea. The forward-looking government of the Maldives recently held a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the ultimate fate of their small island nation.

The world’s major coastal cities will undoubtedly receive most of the attention as sea level rise threatens infrastructure. Miami tops the list of most endangered cities in the world, as measured by the value of property that would be threatened by a three-foot rise. This would flood all of Miami Beach and leave downtown Miami sitting as an island of water, disconnected from the rest of Florida. Other threatened U.S. cities include New York/Newark, New Orleans, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Tampa-St Petersburg, and San Francisco. Osaka/Kobe, Tokyo, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Nagoya are among the most threatened major cities outside of North America.

Preserving coastal cities will require huge public expenditures, leaving smaller coastal resort communities to fend for themselves. Manhattan, for example, is likely to beat out Nags Head, North Carolina for federal funds, a fact that recreational beach communities must recognize when planning a response to sea level rise.

Twelve percent of the world’s open ocean shorelines are fronted by barrier islands, and a three-foot sea level rise will spell doom for development on most of them — save for those completely surrounded by massive seawalls. Impacts in the United States, with a 3,500-mile long barrier island shoreline extending from Montauk Point on Long Island to the Mexican border, will be huge. The only way to preserve the barrier islands themselves will be to abandon them so that they may respond naturally to rising sea level. Yet, most coastal states continue to allow massive, irresponsible development of the low-lying coast.

Ironically, low-elevation Florida is probably the least prepared of all coastal states. Hundreds of miles of high rises line the state’s shoreline, and more are built every year. The state pours subsidies into coastal development through state-run insurance and funding for coastal protection. If a portion of those funds were spent adapting to sea level rise rather than ignoring it, Florida might be ready to meet the challenge of the next century. Let’s hope the state rises to the challenge.

Sea Level Rises at 1, 3, 10, and 20 Meters

This sequence of maps from the US Geological Service shows the effects of sea level rises at 1, 3, 10 and 20 meters.

At 1 meter, southern Florida, the Gulf Coast around Louisiana, and parts of the Eastern seaboard would be affected.

Here's a snippet of the southeastern United States at an inundation of 3 meters:

10 meters:

20 meters:

The chart below shows the world population affected by a rising sea level.

This graphic gives the population affected and land loss for Florida, northern Europe, and East Asia assuming a 5, 10, 20, and 30 meter sea level rise.

It is not difficult to show that all the nations whose cooperation is most needed for limits on carbon emissions--China, India, Indonesia, Brazil--would be devastated by rising sea waters.

What are the main obstacles to such cooperation?
The three big ones, I would say, are the following:
1) Scientific uncertainty. This may be pulling the wool over our eyes, but it is real as a factor in preventing concerted action to deal with the crisis.
2) Generational selfishness. Who cares if a billion people are underwater fifty years hence?
3) The Problematics of International Cooperation. Why make sacrifices to limit carbon emissions if other states cannot be corralled into setting limits?
The selfishness and shortsightedness of "man"--women, alas, are short-sighted too--is the basic realist insight. The perversity of human nature is sufficiently displayed in history as to always make the pessimistic case worthy of respectful attention.

Time Running Out

McKibben: "All of a sudden it isn't morning in America, it's dusk on planet Earth."

Hansen: "if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm."

McKibben goes on:
Hansen cites six irreversible tipping points -- massive sea level rise and huge changes in rainfall patterns, among them -- that we'll pass if we don't get back down to 350 soon; and the first of them, judging by last summer's insane melt of Arctic ice, may already be behind us.

Two weeks ago came the news that atmospheric carbon dioxide had jumped 2.4 parts per million last year -- two decades ago, it was going up barely half that fast. And suddenly, the news arrives that the amount of methane, another potent greenhouse gas, accumulating in the atmosphere, has unexpectedly begun to soar as well.
Apparently, we've managed to warm the far north enough to start melting huge patches of permafrost and massive quantities of methane trapped beneath it have begun to bubble forth.
A beetle, encouraged by warmer temperatures, has already managed to kill 10 times more trees than in any previous infestation across the northern reaches of Canada this year. This means far more carbon heading for the atmosphere and apparently dooms Canada's efforts to comply with the Kyoto Protocol, already in doubt because of its decision to start producing oil for the U.S. from Alberta's tar sands. . .
In an earlier piece, McKibben wrote as follows: 
for the past twenty years, the period during which greenhouse science emerged, most of the effects of heating on the physical world have in fact been more dire than originally predicted. The regular reader of Science and Nature is treated to an almost weekly load of apocalyptic data, virtually all of it showing results at the very upper end of the ranges predicted by climate models, or beyond them altogether.
Compared with the original models of a few years ago, ice is melting faster; forest soils are giving up more carbon as they warm; storms are increasing much more quickly in number and size.

Varying Targets for Greenhouse Gases

Heinburg, Energy Bulletin 2007

"In 1996 the European Environment Council said that the global average surface temperature increase should be held to a maximum of 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, and that to accomplish this the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) will have to be stabilized at 550 parts per million (the current concentration is 380 ppm, though the addition of other greenhouse gases raises the figure to the equivalent of 440 to 450 ppm of CO2). But recent studies have tended to suggest that, in order to achieve the 2 degree cap, much lower CO2 levels will be needed. One study by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact in Germany concluded that—again, to keep the temperature from increasing more than 2 degrees C—the atmospheric concentration target should be 440 ppm of CO2 equivalents, implying that the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases will need to be stabilized at current levels. But, to make the challenge even more difficult, it turns out that the biosphere’s ability to absorb carbon is being reduced by human activity, and this must be factored into the equation; by 2030, this carbon-absorbing ability will have been reduced from the current 4 billion tons per year to 2.7 billion. Thus if an equilibrium level of atmospheric carbon is to be maintained through 2030, emissions will have to be reduced from the current annual level of 7 billion tons to 2.7 billion tons, a reduction of 60 percent. It is hard to imagine how, if that translated to a 60 percent reduction in energy consumption, it could mean anything but economic ruin for the world."

The Impossible Dilemma

Richard Heinburg explores the possibility of a great compact with the developing world as the "theoretically fairest solution," but simultaneously rejects its practicality:

"The theoretically fairest solution, from an emissions point of view, would be to assign each living human an equal per capita right to emit carbon, and to create a market for those rights, so that continued disproportionate fossil fuel consumption by already-industrialized nations would entail substantial payments to less-industrialized nations. Fairness would also imply a steeper rate of reduction in fossil fuel consumption by the heavy users—a cut in emissions of considerably more than 60 percent. However, to ask industrialized nations to share their wealth with less-industrialized nations while the former are engaged in a partially self-imposed energy famine seems highly problematic. What politician could demand the extra sacrifice? What public would vote for such a policy?"

Some Reasons for Skepticism

The scientists have credibility especially as against many naysayers, who just don't want to be bothered or whose economic interests may be adversely affected. The convenient course, because it doesn't interfere with anything, is just to ignore it as best as you can. So that initial asymmetry of motives--the scientist called by professional duty, the powers that be resisting change--gives the scientists a lot of street cred.

On the other hand, there are reasons for skepticism.

The existence of a scientific consensus does not mean that the consensus is right. There are many instances in the past in which “epistemic communities” took as an article of faith that which was subsequently shown to be “not so.” This skepticism toward the “scientific elite” can undoubtedly degenerate into a sort of know-nothing anti-intellectualism, and I am not counseling that we should all become yahoos, sublime as that prospect sometimes seems (it’s better than facing reality). But I do think the data is necessarily imperfect and scientists are sometimes fallible.

There is also the junction of scientific rationality and a sort of creedal belief in the vital necessity of addressing the threat. This, surely, is not a strange reaction, and in fact one must admire the scientists who, having reached this conclusion, have set out to spread the alarm. Indubitably, Hansen is a heroic figure, what we should all want to be when we grow up.

But I would still insist that the junction of scientific rationality and creedal belief, if that is the right way of expressing it, is a potential source of blindness. At a minimum, it creates a temptation to be clearer than truth. The ideological convictions that made the Bush administration twist the evidence about "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, egregious though the whole episode may have been, are human failings from which scientists are not exempt. If we really believe in something, human beings can readily overlook contrary evidence. Models can be tweaked, graphs artfully arranged, and this, too, without any conscious aim to engage in deception, but on the contrary with righteousness on behalf of the truth. 

Scientists also face a dilemma in portraying their findings to the public. Too much in the way of "we're freakin' doomed" makes efforts to deal with global warming seem pointless. Antinomianism--a fancy word for sex, drugs, and rock and roll--might be the response of hearers. Or strategies to deal with mitigation rather than prevention. So there is a sort of inexorable political logic in saying: "This is very bad, but if we act quickly enough we can deal with it." Those calculations--which are different from scientific calculations--are inevitably forced on scientists when they enter the political arena with a case to make and a plan of action to encourage.

Historians are duly warned against injecting too much moral fervor into their accounts. The reason is that if you are a hanging judge it is difficult to see things clearly. The natural scientists are subject to basically the same set of temptations and admonitions.

For students, your course is clear. You are to take nothing on faith. Your obligation is to read the skeptics and consider every point fairly and dispassionately, to the best of your ability. Remember that the lone dissenter is often more penetrating than the consensus "committee" report. Never compromise on your right to independent judgment. That is the true scientific spirit.

A good book to read on this score is Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper is not the most reliable intellectual historian--he was himself a hanging judge--but the work brims with wonderful moral clarity about the scientific calling and the readiness to submit all propositions to refutation.



Who are the best skeptics to read on the global warming question?

There's Lord Monckton, at the Forum on Physics and Society, appearing alongside the disclaimer that the "American Physical Society reaffirms the following position on climate change, adopted by its governing body, the APS Council, on November 18, 2007: 'Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth's climate.'" So they let him have his say. But they think he's a heretic.

Let's look at three Monckton charts, followed by his explication. The first shows a pronounced downtrend in global surface temperatures.

"Since the phase-transition in mean global surface temperature late in 2001, a pronounced downtrend has set in. In the cold winter of 2007/8, record sea-ice extents were observed at both Poles. The January-to-January fall in temperature from 2007-2008 was the greatest since global records began in 1880. The figure below shows mean global surface temperature anomalies (°C), 2001-2008"

The next chart compares predictions of Hansen (1988) and IPCC (1990) with actual changes in temperature.

"Hansen (1988) projected that global temperature would stabilize (A) if global carbon dioxide concentration were controlled from 1988 and static from 2000: otherwise temperature would rise rapidly (B-C). IPCC (1990) agreed (D). However, these projections proved well above the National Climate Data Center’s outturn (E-F), which, in contrast to the Hadley Center and UAH records (Fig. 1), show a modest rise in temperature from 1998-2007. If McKitrick (2007) (G,H) is correct that temperature since 1980 has risen at only half of the observed rate, outturn tracks Hansen’s CO2 stabilization case (A), although emissions have risen rapidly since 1988."

The third chart below shows fluctuating carbon dioxide levels but stable temperatures for 600m years.

"Throughout the past 600 million years, almost one-seventh of the age of the Earth, the mode of global surface temperatures was ~22 °C, even when carbon dioxide concentration peaked at 7000 ppmv, almost 20 times today’s near-record-low concentration. If so, then the instability inherent in the IPCC’s high-end values for the principal temperature feedbacks has not occurred in reality, implying that the high-end estimates, and by implication the central estimates, for the magnitude of individual temperature feedbacks may be substantial exaggerations. Source: Temperature reconstruction by C.R. Scotese; CO2 reconstruction after R.A. Berner; see also IPCC (2007)."

Monckton is no fan if the IPCC, as the following passage attests: "Such solecisms throughout the IPCC’s assessment reports (including the insertion, after the scientists had completed their final draft, of a table in which four decimal points had been right-shifted so as to multiply tenfold the observed contribution of ice-sheets and glaciers to sea-level rise), combined with a heavy reliance upon computer models unskilled even in short-term projection, with initial values of key variables unmeasurable and unknown, with advancement of multiple, untestable, non-Popper-falsifiable theories, with a quantitative assignment of unduly high statistical confidence levels to non-quantitative statements that are ineluctably subject to very large uncertainties, and, above all, with the now-prolonged failure of TS to rise as predicted (Figures 1, 2), raise questions about the reliability and hence policy-relevance of the IPCC’s central projections."

Here are some other sources on the skeptics and deniers:

Foreign Policy's Guide to Climate Skeptics, February 26, 2010

Richard Lindzen, Testimony before the House Committee on Science and Technology, November 17, 2010

Warren Meyer, a.k.a. Climate Skeptic: A Layman's Guide to Global Warming (2007)

Also by Meyer, Climate Presentation (Powerpoint)

The Medieval Warm Period: A Global Phenomenon (has links to multiple scientific papers showing the existence of a medieval warm period). See also this collection of refereed papers from The Resilient Earth on the medieval warm period.

John L. Daly, "The 'Hockey Stick': A New Low in Climate Science"

Thomas Gale Moore, "Global Warming: A Boom to Humans and Other Animals" (Hoover Institution, 1995)

Rudolf Kipp: Medieval Warm Period

National Post series on the Climate Skeptics

Freeman Dyson, "Heretical Thoughts About Science and Society"

Christopher Monckton, "'2010 Was the Warmest Year on Record'"

The Resilient Earth, "The Case for Doing Nothing about Global Warming"

Don J. Easterbrook, "2010: Where Does it Fit in the Warmest Year List?"

Alexander Cockburn, "From Papal Indulgences to Carbon Credits: Is Global Warming a Sin?"

Energy's Bull Market Broken?

Let's take a brief tour of the dramatic developments in the energy capital markets as of early November 2008. We'll just look at this one sector; for a broader perspective, see my Cause for Depression.

Energy and other resource stocks had been the leaders in the bull market since 2003, but suffered sharp losses in the third quarter of 2008 as part of the general cratering of the markets.

The XLE (in black) is the Energy Select Spider. The XLE:SPX line (in red) is a ratio comparing the energy index with the S&P500, a proxy for the overall stock market. These charts make it seem that energy's bull is bruised but not necessarily broken. It still shows impressive relative strength against the large cap index.

Two Spectacular Crashes

Whereas the broader energy sector sharply corrected in the third quarter of 2008, two important parts within it suffered near ruination.

One was the Wilderhill Clean Energy Index ($ECO), which is a collection of solar, wind, and biofuel stocks.

The other is the Canadian Venture Exchange Index ($CDNX), which consists mostly of resource stocks (gold and base metal mining, oil, tar sands, natural gas, uranium). The Canadian exchanges are the most important stock exchanges in the world in the resource sector. Nearly all US juniors have their main listing in Canada.

Both sectors, to put it plainly, were annihilated in the third quarter of 2008, giving back the entirety of their gains over the past five to seven years.

The financial crisis is a credit crisis, so the companies dependent on credit or speculative capital get crushed when investors "rush to cash." The cognescenti call this a "Minsky Moment."

Whereas the correction in the energy majors could be seen as a sort of bull market correction among stocks that had gotten way ahead of themselves, these two charts show a cratering for both the alternative energy space and the junior resource sector.

This is very significant in terms of future energy supplies. The capital markets decide what gets built and what doesn't. Richard Heinberg comments that "Investment capital is being vaporized almost daily in a global deflationary bonfire of unprecedented ferocity. Oil production projects are being mothballed left and right." But it's not just oil. The "vaporization" is occuring across the board in the resource sector.

By a Waterfall, I'm Calling You-ou-ou-ou

Wildly inflated stock markets, writes Donald Coxe, fall in a recognizable pattern. There are "Six Stages of the Triple Waterfall," as Coxe shows in the following chart recording the rise and fall of the Nasdaq from 1997 to 2002.

Previous periods---The Great Crash of 1926-1933, The "Nifty-Fifty" market of 1972-1982, and the "Inflation Hedges Crashes" of 1977-1999 (in gold, silver, and oil stocks)--display this "tripartite waterfall stock chart pattern." The classic stages of the advance--what Coxe calls "optimism, faith, and fanaticism"--are paralleled on the downside, with two bouts of false hope when the nimble can get out while the getting is good, but which are followed by more eroding value on the way to long-term collapse.

It's a sound theory. It does fit many previous market episodes. It may yet, in some fashion, come to resemble this one, if we give it enough time. At the same time, the crash of 2008 would seem to fall outside these parameters in one basic respect.

Stocks in alternative energy and junior resources didn't fall 50%, rally 25%, fall another 50%, then rally again, in the two to three year sequence that marked past crashes. I mean, they just fell through the floor and kept on truckin,' taking back in three months the gains of seven years, with 80-90% falls in individual stocks altogether common. By comparison with the above charts of the Clean Energy Index and the Venture Exchange, the fall of the Nasdaq from its high in April 2000 to its low in the fall of 2002 seems positively tame.

Coxe was doubtless shocked by this development, having been a resource bull throughout this decade. It was one thing for crazed home builders and reckless banks to fall through the floor. But energy? We were supposed to be running out of that.

Estimates of Ultimate Recovery of Oil

Top Ten Original Oil Endowments by Nation

A key ingredient of Russian and American power in the 20th century was the vast oil reserves of both states. America's was exploited earlier; Russia came on strong in the last two decades. But both are declining. We saw previously the US oil production profile. Here is the Russian profile
The Financial Times reports, April 15: “Russian oil production has peaked, one of the country’s top energy executives has warned, fuelling concerns that the world’s biggest oil producers cannot keep up with rampant Asian demand… Leonid Fedun, vice-president of Lukoil, Russia’s largest independent oil company, told the Financial Times he believed last year’s Russian oil production of about 10m barrels a day was the highest he would see ‘in his lifetime’.”

November 5, 2008

Oil Prices: Trickier Than You May Think

The above chart of West Texas Intermediate Crude, a benchmark oil price, shows the parabolic rise and fall of oil from early 2007 to late 2008 (the snapshot was taken on November 6--click for updates).

The graph below, from BP's Statistical Guide to World Energy, gives Rotterdam product prices for gasoline, gas oil, and fuel oil to the end of 2007 (with a somewhat different visualization of the great movement).

Neither of these charts is adjusted for inflation. So how does the oil price look if it is so adjusted? Here's one look from Matt Simmons.

It's not clear what adjustment Simmons is using for inflation. Depending on the metric chosen, however, the chart will look very different. John Williams of Shadow Stats has pretty convincingly demonstrated the curious manipulations of the inflation statistics. Williams uses the methodology in place in 1980 to calculate inflation, a not especially strange notion. But when you do that, you get some surprising results.

An investment specialist, Bud Conrad, produced a chart of the oil price using the Williams data in June 2007, calculating its history using the 1980 CPI method. He finds that the 1980 barrel of $39.50 crude "is the equivalent of over $200 per barrel in today’s anaemic dollars." Conrad's chart doesn't capture the big surge in the crude oil price that took it from $70 at the end of the second quarter of 2007 to $145 in July 2008. $145 would equate to about the level it reached in 1990-91 before the First Gulf War, but falling well short of the big move up in 1979-1980.

While we're at it, we might as well look at the price of oil in terms of gold. This is also a good proxy for an "inflation-adjusted" oil price. The chart is interesting because it shows the oil:gold ratio at something of a critical juncture.

OK, everything should be crystal clear by now, so let's move on.