Climate change vs. Peak Oil

I’ve been wondering for the past year about the interactions between climate change and peak oil. They’re twin problems, rooted in our dependence upon fossil fuels (and oil in particular).

But there’s a lot of misunderstanding out there. Many people who know about climate change know little about peak oil. Many who know about peak oil dismiss climate change. Why? How can two problems have roughly the same cause, potentially major global consequences, and be understood so poorly? Why do some people dismiss one and not the other? Is one group right and the other wrong? I’d like to take a shot at explaining this mystery from a few angles.

Spreading the meme.

Let’s start with a bit of history, as that may provide an initial explanation. It seems that climate change is well understood (by those who don’t deny it) – ask most people and they can probably tell you at least the basic facts (i.e. we burn fossil fuels, the emissions warm the planet). For the moment I’m going to ignore the climate change deniers, because that seems largely political to me (and never mind that some studies indicate people believe in climate change based upon recent weather they’ve experienced). But it seems far too many climate activists, and even climate scientists, are unaware of peak oil. Or maybe they dismiss it as a challenge. Might this be because it didn’t enter the public eye until recently?

While the basics of global warming (though wouldn’t it have been great if it had been termed radiation entrapment – seems it would have more political punch) have been known since Svante Arrhenius’s calculations in the 1890s, I wouldn’t say that it entered mainstream discourse until James Hansen’s 1988 testimony to congress and Bill McKibben’s 1989 book, The End of Nature. Even then, it wasn’t really understood widely until Al Gore’s presentations featured in An Inconvenient Truth in 2006.

If we look to peak oil, I’d say the equivalent to Hansen’s 1988 testimony was Campbell and Laherrère’s article in Scientific American in 1998. What did it say? Among other things:

Barring a global recession, it seems most likely that world production of conventional oil will peak during the first decade of the 21st century.

Which, as it turns out, looks to be holding up pretty well as a prediction. The thing is, I didn’t read their article then, and I’m guessing you didn’t either. I imagine most folks have never heard of it, just as I’m sure most people didn’t hear about Hansen’s testimony in 1988.

Does that mean we’re waiting for someone prominent to bring the discussion of peak oil into the mainstream, say around 2016? The only thing about this parallel is that it isn’t really one—there should have been plenty of awareness of peak oil among those who lived through the 1970s oil shocks, but the impression I get is that those events were seen by most as temporary and geopolitical rather than fundamental and geological.

Dismissing peak oil — climate change is what matters.

Maybe you’re thinking to yourself that peak oil doesn’t matter – climate change is what matters. Oil is just one source of energy, and one that hasn’t been dominant for even a hundred years at this point. While it’s transformed the world, we won’t even be using it for another hundred. The climate, on the other hand, typically changes on the order of thousands or millions of years. To see warming within a single human lifetime is rare, and the changes that are predicted if we keep burning fossil fuels won’t be reversible in anything less than many thousands of years. (Just imagine how long it might take for Greenland or Antarctica to collect enough precipitation to re-form glaciers after melting.) I have to admit, before I really started reading up about peak oil (in late 2007 or so), my basic thinking was along these lines. I knew that oil was finite so it wouldn’t last forever, but didn’t really understand the effects of stagnating or declining oil production on our way of life. Plus it seemed that the climate issues I’d been reading about for over a decade at that point were just getting worse by the day (as they still are). Plus, I’d read many climate projections, and most don’t factor in peak oil. I figured there must be a reason.

Forget about the climate?

As I’ve read more about the two issues, I’ve found that the peak oil and climate change research communities don’t interact much. Many peak oil researchers seem to come from the oil industry and some tend to deny that the climate is changing. Climate change is more broadly understood, but I get the sense that researchers rely upon global energy agencies for their forecasts of future fossil fuel use, and these agencies have been wrong time and again.

Setting that aside, why do peak oil folks often ignore climate change and vice versa?
Consider eminent peak oil researchers like Robert Hirsch, who deny climate change and spout nonsense on the issue. Is it about urgency/timescale, a matter of ignorance, or a matter of politics? Maybe it’s all three? Check out Hirsch’s recent presentation giving an update on peak oil. It’s clear, concise, and informative. I highly recommend going through it. But his throwaway line at the end sums up the division:

While the environment is important, humans are more important.

That tells me three things:

  1. That Hirsch is more concerned about the short-term problems we’ll face due to peak oil rather than the long-term problems we’ll face from climate change (or other environmental impacts of fossil fuel production and use).
  2. That he doesn’t understand that a changing climate will have far more comprehensive and severe impacts on humans than peak oil ever could.
  3. That he sees it as an either/or issue – it’s either humans or the environment: take your pick.

On the other hand, climate change researchers and bloggers tend to not want to think about peak oil because it’s a complicating factor. (I’ve tried to ask Joe Romm of Climate Progress about what the studies show regarding the impact of peak oil on emissions trajectories, but he dismissed my question with a one sentence response.) And often I see ridiculous responses regarding peak oil among those who understand climate change (statements to the effect “peak oil is fake: the Exxons and Shells of the world are conspiring to hold oil production down so that they can jack up the price to make more money”—never mind that national oil companies control over half of global production and over 80% of global oil reserves, and are typically highly dependent upon oil revenue to keep their governments’ lights on).

Climate models rarely take into account oil production decline because energy agencies don’t consider it in their projections. While I don’t believe that peak oil will “save us” from climate change (we’ll still be burning plenty of oil and will probably step up coal consumption to compensate), it would be interesting to hear from some experts on this. I looked around, and found that Hansen had one study on this and seemed to conclude that peak oil won’t keep us from overshooting on carbon emissions. But from the peak oil side, Aleklett seems to think peak oil will keep emissions in check. (Note how they’re talking their own books.)


Not all responses to climate change will help with peak oil, and not all responses to peak oil will help with climate change. Peak oil is a near-term liquid fuels problem, which means it’s mainly going to affect transportation (and agriculture to a lesser extent). It is not, at least in the short-term, an electricity problem.

That means that many standard climate change responses—moving from coal to renewables, etc.—will not help address peak oil. Similarly, many standard peak oil responses—producing syncrude from coal, tar sands, etc.—are bad for the climate. We need to consider both challenges simultaneously and select responses that will help with both. That means moving to non-carbon energy sources, and targeting transportation.

To do that, we’re going to have to move past the notion of individual vehicles. I’ve done the calculations, as have many others, and the time, money, and energy it’d take to switch to an electric car fleet just doesn’t exist in the face of peak oil and the end of growth. That means electric-based public transit in every form: bus, light rail, subway, long-distance rail (both freight and passenger), along with bike-friendly streets, walkable neighborhoods, carpooling, lower speed limits, etc. And for agriculture it means small-scale, local organic farming. It remains to be seen whether we will do any of these things at any scale. But before we’ll see any changes, we need more people to get on the same page.

Who gets it?

There are folks who get both issues. Bill McKibben may be one of the few climate change authors / activists who also really understands peak oil and discusses how the two in combination shape his thinking of what needs to be done. (His book Eaarth in particular discusses how we need to consider both factors, and is the best I’ve seen at combining the discussion of the two.) But if you’ve watched him speak, you’ll note that he rarely mentions it except in passing. Maybe that’s because he comes from the climate change side of things and doesn’t want to step beyond his comfort zone? Or maybe he knows his audience.

Richard Heinberg is another who gets both and comes from the other side—the peak oil side—but once again he tends to focus on his topic—oil (and the financial system)—and less on the climate. And of course there are many more on both sides who get it (Sharon Astyk, Ugo Bardi, John Michael Greer, James Howard Kunstler, and Stuart Staniford come to mind—if you know of others, I’d be interested to hear about them). In the political world, there’s the prominent old guard who clearly know both issues well (Jimmy Carter, Jerry Brown, etc.) and the not so old guard (Steven Chu, etc.), but these days they’ll only talk about climate change, maybe because peak oil isn’t yet widely understood.  Al Gore’s among them—he knows about peak oil, but rarely mentions it unless asked.

What might actually happen?

Setting aside the non-debate about these two parallel issues, what might actually happen? That’s really what matters at the end of the day.

A recent post from Gail Tverberg at The Oil Drum discussed how both energy consumption and emissions have been increasing faster in the past decade (relative to GDP) than they did before. That is, in the past, GDP outpaced energy consumption, but now GDP growth has slowed. As we go forward, a possible extrapolation is (and this is my take) that between those three (emissions, energy consumption, and GDP), we might see them decouple: we might see emissions growth exceed energy consumption growth which will exceed GDP growth just by virtue of peak oil and low EROEI alternative fuels. If so, this would be bad news all around: it’d mean that while emissions would keep rising, making runaway climate change still a possible outcome, each incremental unit of energy would do less for our economy, so we’d face both an economic decline due to peak oil and severe climate change.

It seems there are only a few ways that one or both of these challenges might be mitigated. Suppose the production decline slope of peak oil (say a median case of about 4% annually starting around 2014/2015) causes enough of an impact to the global economy that we have an energy demand collapse (that will bounce back, but that takes a while) and the consequence of this will be to make it hard for us to invest in expensive and dirty alternatives like tar sands, so we won’t be able to afford substitutes to make up for lost conventional production. (This goes against the usual argument economists make that ‘high oil prices will make it financially worth it to use unconventional oil sources’—high prices alone won’t be enough if demand collapses or credit dries up.) In this scenario, the economic impacts of peak oil are sharp enough that emissions really do start going down globally. If this happens, and is sustained, and natural warming feedbacks don’t kick in, the climate might stabilize at some moderately warmed state (say maybe 2 or 3 degrees C above pre-industrial). But that has a lot of ifs—it seems unlikely that governments will just allow sharp economic decline to take over without some ill-advised efforts to excavate and burn any carbon they can get their hands on.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the economic impacts of peak oil are averted through preemptive conservation programs that both help decrease dependence upon oil and decrease emissions at the same time. That’d be great to see happen, but it’d require concerted and sustained government action at every level—international, national, state, and local.

Why don’t we do anything on either of these?

We’re facing two parallel global challenges stemming from the same underlying problem, and yet nothing is being done. Why? In 2009, Dan Miller gave a nice talk about why the IPCC’s climate projections are too conservative and don’t account for many possible climate feedbacks. In it, he discussed one possible answer to this question. He observed that humans evolved to respond to certain types of threats. The properties of these threats are uniformly the opposite of the type we’re facing with these two challenges:

  • Visible. (vs. Invisible: we don’t generally see the impacts of climate change or peak oil in our daily lives.)
  • With historical precedent. (vs. Unprecedented: neither has happened in recent history.)
  • Immediate. (vs. Drawn out: it’ll take years if not decades or centuries for them to fully play out.)
  • With simple causality. (vs. With complex causality: even experts have a hard time figuring out how peak oil will interact with the economy or climate change with the global ecosystem.)
  • Caused by others. (vs. Caused by all of us: there’s no enemy to blame for these problems.)
  • Have direct personal impact. (vs. Unpredictable and indirect: most of us aren’t affected directly by these issues yet, and even if we are, it’s hard to pinpoint how.)

Maybe nothing will be done on either issue until one or more of these properties turns around (say the immediacy becomes clear, we define an “enemy”, or we start really feeling personal impacts).  My takeaway is this: by talking about these issues together rather than separately, we cover our bases—we’re both destroying our economy and changing our climate due to our dependence upon oil and fossil fuels.  Only through energy conservation and a shift to a low-energy, post-carbon society will we be able to resolve these twin challenges.

I’ve been exchanging emails with Alex Smith about this, and am looking forward to the program that he’s now putting together on this topic for his excellent radio show.  So keep an eye out for that.

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Responses to “Climate change vs. Peak Oil”

  1. Good article, I have been speculating about the joint effects of climate change and peak oil on the state of the world and interactions among them, it is an interesting topic for speculation. One organization that seems to understand both of these well is the US military.

    I think over the past year, both sides have been increasingly talking about the other e.g ASPO guys have been recognizing climate change. The climate side as you said Mckibben has been writing about it, although sometimes it seems each side is acknowledging the other perhaps because it helps on the solution side of their individual ones. One thing that is important though that I have commented about in other posts is that of the two, climate change has more potential to become a moral issue because it threatens life itself in an existential way. It is also more disruptive and unpredictable than peak oil. In case of peak oil, good geological studies provide guidance on how to adapt, and adaptations are easier to imagine compared to climate change, even though may be harder to implement. Mankind has existed before oil and organic farming, localization are responses most people can digest because there has been precedent [althogh scale is challenging]. But mankind has enjoyed very good weather for most part of civilizational stability and so climate change effects that are predicted because of AGW are something for which there is little or no history and therefore the danger to life itself can be very deeply motivating and is capable of raising moral consciouness globally to levels we haven’t seen anytime in history before. This can create a response far more powerful than peak oil would and fortunately it would as a side benefit address peak oil by averting the peak forever, and climate change response [other than patchwork geo engineering] would address all fossil peaks, not just oil. We are generally seeing moral consciousness rising fast now with movements like occupy springing up and that is good news.

  2. Barath, Great post (saw it on Kos.) It brings back fond memories of trying to bring Peak Oil and Global Warming to a sports audience at ESPN. This was my personal favorite in the series:
    Entire series is here:
    Yes, I’m blog-whoring for a dead blog, but I miss the good ole end of days.

  3. As background, I learned about, and have been aware of both, since high school (late ’60s).

    And I gained another insight then that has only one reference in this essay: credit—the lifeblood of global capitalism and fractional reserve banking. At the time, it had been caculated that oil could be credited with providing each citizen with the benefits of the manual work energy equivalent of something like 99 slaves. Consequently there is another peak unfolding—peak credit—and it parallels peak oil. As our oil effected slaves become less, so does our creditworthiness. Given that miscreants in the financial sector of the economy, at the bidding of greed, over-blew and burst the consumer credit bubble, which FDR’s policies initiated, the current propagandized “recovery” of the economy—a flash-frozen collapse—will thaw due to both peak oil and climate change. The latter because the fear of the consequences of radiation entrapment, when such fear is no longer able to be mitigated by denial (motivated reasoning), will demand changes which capitalism is not structured to provide.

    Also, the minimizing of the effect peak oil will have on agriculture suggest a thinking that is deluded by urbanized living. Is such your condition, and, if so, has it created a blind spot in your, otherwise, well considered thinking? Shifting agriculture back to a sustainable family farm scale is cataclysmic for urban sensibilities; for capitalism.

    Walt Smith’s cartoon character, Pogo, told us who the enemy is in the strip and poster Walt drew for the first Earth Day: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Psychologically, privileged folk tend to not want to add responsibility to their lives (to the same degree that greed covets wealth). We tend to try to avoid growing up; maturing. The coming ‘war’ is with ourselves—should we not choose the “easy” way out and scapegoat the consequences of our systemically irresponsible economic system on a different “enemy.”

    Also, consider what is going on in the Arctic regarding the tip into runaway climate change. There is an accepted scientific definition of the detonation of the methane time bomb. The USCCSP SAP 3.4 on abrupt climate change concludes that Arctic climate change will result in increased chronic emissions of methane from Arctic permafrost and methane hydrates. The assumption is that this will likely happen slowly, with large interannual variability superimposed on top of it (as with Arctic sea ice loss). The detection of this signal will take time with the existing surface air sample monitoring network.

    Consider that we can only hypothesize regarding the tabling of the rise of atmospheric methane in the late ’90s – early ’00s, and that what has been credited with that period’s leveling cannot explain the renewed increase of this gas in our atmosphere (7%, of which 30% is from Arctic sources; 2010). Do we know enough to trust that abrupt climate change hasn’t started? Is the increase in Arctic methane currently enough such that the 10 year window left to restructure the economy away from fossil carbon, which Hansen calculated about 5 years ago, is being reduced—or worst—was not there to begin with?

    Regardless, there is going to be a systemic redistribution of wealth created by the converging peaks and tips. The remaining choice homo sapiens are free to make is whether that redistribution is involuntary and violent, or voluntary and (relatively) nonviolent. For the latter to occur, the most rational approach for doing so is to embrace a currency that aligns the need with our propensity to trust greed. I advocate for a constitutional currency coined in carbon credits, which, by the way, means that Congress reclaims its power to coin money from the Federal Reserve, and establish the value of foreign coin—i.e. the Fed’s (worthless) federal reserve note—which, but for OPEC using it to denominate oil sales, isn’t much.

    To the degree such a rational approach to affecting, nonviolently, an economic paradigm shift, which is commensurate to what the converging peaks and tips portend, is inconceivable, is such proof that being rationally sapience is not a strong suit of our species?

  4. Piyush — you’re very right that climate change is really a much more major issue, and so from an activist perspective, I see peak oil as being an issue that can help reach those who are only persuaded by short-term economic arguments (and thus don’t want to do anything about climate change). Stuart Staniford had a nice post on these issues last year (leaving aside his discussion of the ridiculous notion of a technological singularity).

  5. Luke — Writing about peak oil and global warming at ESPN? Wow. How did people respond to it?

  6. Greg — You’re very right about credit, and how it’s basically allowed us to live on borrowed time. I’ve avoided talking about it in part because there are plenty of folks writing about the financial bubble and also because everyone has their own theories when it comes to economics. But I’ve liked Orlov’s way of describing it, despite the fact that he expects things to unravel faster than I think they will:

    One such untenable arrangement rests on the notion that it is possible to perpetually borrow more and more money from abroad, to pay for more and more energy imports, while the price of these imports continues to double every few years. Free money with which to buy energy equals free energy, and free energy does not occur in nature. This must therefore be a transient condition. When the flow of energy snaps back toward equilibrium, much of the US economy will be forced to shut down.

    Regarding agriculture—it’s quite possible I have a blind spot there. My thinking is that we will, except for stable grains, have to shift to local food systems. That means cities in regions that can’t support sustainable agriculture in their vicinity won’t be viable in the long run. It does seem plausible to me, however, that in many regions of the U.S. people on standard suburban lots can grow maybe half their calories if they were to learn biointensive or permaculture techniques.

    Regarding finding a scapegoat—do you think it would set us up to make similar mistakes if we were to “discover” an “enemy” and then take appropriate measures that succeeded in mitigating peak oil and climate change? (That is, is there a problem for doing the right things for the wrong reasons, at least in this instance?)

    In the past I read a fair bit on climate change, but don’t remember the scientific distinctions made between “abrupt” and “runaway” climate change? Am I remembering correctly that the former is about the pace of the change (i.e. seeing much faster warming take place—say a couple of degrees over a decade) vs. our ability to control it (i.e. natural feedbacks taking over)?

    About the currency—that’s an interesting idea. I’d be curious to read more about it, if you’ve written it up somewhere. I remember reading that Hubbert had proposed an energy-backed currency in the 1970s, but never read the details of how the scheme was to work.

  7. <>

    It’s not very major (i.e., cited) a piece, plus there’s still the misspelling of “somnambulance,” but at least I tried. See pdf pages 5-7 of:

    My opinion has been that both issues are and were trumped by the ozone layer issue. If we had not taken steps to address that, we would be in huge trouble.

  8. Chris — Cool. I’ll check it out.

  9. Dear Barath,

    I’ve been following both issues for many years. 30 years ago, while studying environmental issues at UC Berkeley, I gave a presentation on global warming (which I believe was the first time most of the future green activists present had heard of it.)

    But starting in 2000, when I was one of the 800 or so worldwide to tune in to Colin Campbell’s monthly newsletter, I began to seriously inquire whether peak oil would trump global warming. I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re approaching a discontinuous event, as peak oil pops the absolutely enormous debt bubble, leaving the global civilization more or less in ruins.

    I would like to suggest that you take a look through oil drum for “peak coal,” as there are several studies projecting peak coal in the 2020s. The US I believe peaked in net energy from coal in 1999, while China’s economy is crumbling even as we speak (50% of their economy is based upon investment!). We can expect all commodities, like copper, to plummet. And of course China is the biggest producer and user of coal.

    On a larger perspective, IPCC projections are based upon BAU, meaning ~ 3% annual growth through the end of the century, and beyond. We tend to think of that as a slightly elevated plain, but really we’re looking at exponential growth. 3% per annum means a doubling every 25 years. Which means by 2025 a doubling of fossil fuel use from 2000, and 16 times as much by the end of the century, and 250 times as much by the end of the next century. These are clearly unattainable. Indeed, it’s pretty clear we’ve reached peak oil now, and without cheap transport fuel, going after increased (or even maintaining the same) amounts of coal or nat gas will be increasingly difficult. On top of that, you can search automatic earth and see that the disintegrating banking system is heavily impacting energy exploration ability to finance exploration already. What will it be like after the Euro implodes, taking the world’s banking system with it?

    I’ve stopped warning people of peak oil (nobody wants to hear), and my wife and I build a paper adobe home and a large garden outside our small town, all solar. I keep hoping for the time when people will “get it” and then we can help our community make the transition. But I see no evidence that more than a miniscule percentage of people have any intention of altering their lifestyles until they have no choice.

    I would strongly suggest reading Joseph Tainter’s “Collapse of Complex Societies.”

    I’ve given up on the environmental organizations. Global warming fits into their “evil corporations spewing pollutants” meme, and they’re not about to change it.

    As far as feedback loops for climate change, remember that during the last interglacial (Eemian) 125k years ago, Greenland completely melted off. (ice corings only go back 125k years, when they hit bedrock). Also, geomorphologists working on the north slopes of Ellesmere Island discovered wave cut beaches suggesting that around 7k years ago the arctic ocean was ice free for perhaps a thousand years. It is an “inconvenient truth” that earlier in the Holocene temperatures were warmer than now. The recent records show things warming because we’re exiting the Little Ice Age. So, where was the runaway warming back then? Or earlier in the Pleistocene?

    I personally think the precautionary principal has corrupted much of climate science, as the research community feels it has to “enhance” the evidence because they feel if they wait until the real evidence is in, it will be too late. And so they blindly take the optimistic projections from energy agencies and assume there actually is enough fossil fuels to power civilization for many generations into the future.

    The evidence very strongly suggests otherwise.

    Sorry to go on for so long,

    jim burke

  10. Jim — That’s an interesting take. I’ve read Tainter, and there’s definitely something to be said for the peak of a civilization not being the point of maximum resource extraction but rather the point at which added complexity yields no marginal benefit.

    I do have a hard time believing, though, that there is a vast conspiracy (or just an intentional whitewashing of contrary views) going on among climate scientists. As I linked above, Hansen has studied the effect of peak oil on climate change. If you have any pointers, I would be interested in reading more studies (beyond Aleklett’s) that argue that due to peak oil / peak fossil fuels that severe climate change will be averted.

    I’ve seen two studies on peak coal; one is Heinberg’s survey from Nature last year on peak cheap coal, and the other is from Patzek on peak net energy from coal. I’m not sure either concluded that we’re near peak greenhouse emissions from coal, though—it seems to me that the net energy yield for all energy sources necessarily decouples from emissions as we reach for ever-poorer quality reserves.

    I’ve been of two minds about the projections and analysis at the Automatic Earth. I’ve definitely learned from their posts and talks, but at the same time, their predictions are uniformly of the a) economic collapse is imminent and b) that nothing can be done to mitigate it in response. Their projection in early 2010 of a six month to two year time horizon in which global economic collapse would take place…well I guess they’ve extended their forecast another year last I read. I agree that to an extent nothing can be done to properly resolve the current credit bubble, but that doesn’t mean governments won’t try (and doesn’t mean that people, out of desperation, won’t believe attempts to prop up failing financial systems).

  11. For me peak oil and climate change are two sides of the same coin. One side is human population size is so large today that mankind can have a very negative impact on the environment. The other side is that resource consumption is unsustainable and, simplistically, we will start running out of resources (peak everything).

    The solution to this problem (long term care/management of resources and the environment) creates two separate political camps.

    a) Those that propose reverting back to a low-energy life style and a more agrarian based society with the abandonment of most modern technologies.

    b) Those that want mankind to move forward on the technology path.

    Mankind can choose either path and resolve the environmental and resource problems. Which version of the future do you want?

  12. Alan — If we’re facing such serious problems, do we really have a choice as to the path? Or is it late enough that much of our path will be decided for us?

  13. Barath, not wishing to sound disrespectful, but that is quitter talk.

    We still have plenty of time and the problems are not that serious*, but I’m under no illusions that whatever happens there is going to be pain along the way. (yes its too late for a pain free replacement of fossil fuels)

    * even the worst case peak oil or climate change scenario’s will not mean the extinction of mankind, which I would deem as serious.

    Ignoring climate change will lead to population collapse, ignoring peak oil will lead to a population collapse. And the “solution” results in….. a population collapse. So how is that solution helpful? Should we not fight tooth and nail to find a better solution, as all other roads lead to population collapse?

    So again, I ask you “Which version of the future do you want?”. Do you politically want mankind to revert to a type of Amish lifestyle, or do you see the problem of fossil fuels insurmountable and you have given up?

    Barath, I’m not asking you specifically the question. But in the context of this article you cannot ignore the political aspects where a disproportional number of people care not about climate change, but use it to further their political aspirations of a anti-technology faux utopia.

    And the point I’m trying to make is that Climate change Vs Peak oil has a big political element to it that goes beyond the science of either subject.

  14. Alan — I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I think we’re past the point where it’s possible for a growth-based economy to fund a technological solution of the sort that we might want or expect. In that sense, we don’t have a choice of the path we take any longer. Beyond that, I’m not sure I buy that those are the only two options (i.e. work for technological advancement to maintain today’s lifestyles and population vs. an Amish lifestyle with a collapsed population). One of the things I like about Herman Daly’s work on ecological economics is that he takes a step back and asks the important question about the economy: “what is an economy for?” He’s not alone—there’s a lot of discussion these days about de-growth economics, about happiness as an objective, etc. It’s not clear that our materially-wealthy lifestyle actually makes us happy (speaking from the standpoint of psychological studies).

    Once re-framed, I’m not sure we have to see “technology” as we presently understand it as the solution, but at the same time don’t have to give up. As I mentioned in another comment, I think it’s quite possible that people can grow at least 50% of their calories in backyard gardens in (most parts of) the U.S. While not a technological solution by the usual definition, I think it’d lower per-capita fossil fuel use (helping address both peak oil and climate change in some non-negligible way), and it’d also increase the strength of communities, improve health, etc.

    I agree with you that there are many who see climate change and peak oil as a way of reaching some sort of neoprimitivist hunter-gatherer faux utopia, and I don’t endorse that. However at the same time the current growth-based economic system can’t last. My hope is that we gracefully guide the now-done-for growth economy into the dustbin of history rather than letting it crash, and while doing that, start replacing it with something better along the lines of Daly’s ideas. So I’m not for quitting at all: I’m for figuring out how to transition to a steady-state, sustainable economic system. (And that will require new sustainable technology, infrastructure, etc.)

  15. Sadly. Tragically, the evidence for Peak Oil and Severe Climate Change are pretty much incontrovertible. I found that the two together produce a double whammy to the spirit. I have family and I don’t know what the future holds for them, it will require skill and a lot of luck. But the future looks very grim.

    Peak Oil will ‘fix’ Climate Change … though there is so much inertia in the system now, and with feedback mechanisms coming into play … well, the emissions will decrease dramatically but the temp and disruption will continue. Just when we will need all hands (literally) to be tending crops the weather is likely to get worse as climatic regions shift. What was once a great wheat growing region may soon become marginal. We don’t know the details because we are looking at chaotic processes, like turbulence in a stream. We are going to be riding the rapids. It should be ‘interesting’.

    Also, although our emissions will reduce the length of time for CO2 to clear from the atmosphere is measured in centuries. So this isn’t going to be over for a long time.

  16. Peter — I’ve been thinking that various permaculture techniques should make it possible to cope with climate change better than we might think possible. (Take, for example, Sepp Holzer’s garden in the Alps; I figure if he can grow citrus there, we can all probably find a way to adjust for some aspects of climate change.) Of course little can be done about drought, but I think most other extreme weather conditions can be coped with to a certain extent.

    On the interactions of peak oil and climate change, your view is pretty similar to mine, but honestly I have no idea how it might play out. I’m hoping more climate scientists try to study how the two interact.

  17. My previous comment is the first time I have used the term “peak credit.” Credit, like money, seems to be so integral to our world view, that we likely have a very limited understanding of it—at least such would explain your observations and choices concerning economics. To the degree our economics is the water that we, as goldfish, swim in, and post peaks and tips we’ll be swimming in something else, do we exclude economics when considering the risks unfolding around us and affect, with the best of intentions, a dynamic of mental masturbation? If we would be sapient as homo sapiens, doesn’t our thinking, to reflect and relate to reality, need to simply be complex . . . if it is to be other than delusional motivated reasoning?

    Since, mathematically, the economy that capitalistic theory affords us has collapsed, but for being flash-frozen in its implosion by central bank and government (at best) extralegal interventions, I see what we are in the midst of as a consequential and shared denial that is fraying fast (no matter how many blue pills we swallow and/or are force fed).

    My questioning you about agriculture is based the experience and wisdom I’ve gained regarding two periods of my life in which I homesteaded. The first, in the ‘70s, involved subsistence living off the land. And now, in an iteration of homesteading that primarily functions as a means for me to access oxytocin and mitigate the stress I experience as I ride the speeding bullet train of globalized debt-based capitalism off the plain of responsibility and plunge, free-falling, toward the valley floor of reality.

    The bullet train is not the best metaphor, It is self-serving relative to the delusions of those devoted to marketing greed and capitalism. I feel a better metaphor is that of a rocket. The false promise of capitalism is that, once launched—once we have left the real; the responsible—we will reach and maintain an orbit—relative to poverty—above where we are. In this metaphor, FDR’s policies ignited the rocket’s engines. Fossil carbon and antibiotics created the expanding credit, or fuel, for affecting the launch. In the early ‘70s, the breaking of the Bretton Woods agreement and OPEC denominating its oil sales in the US dollar—by then, fully, a federal reserve note—was enough to achieve liftoff. Deregulation was what enabled the rocket to achieved escape velocity. The injustices all this acceleration required are a growing weight within our economy’s space craft. With nothing* but ‘hope’ left to burn in the maneuvering rockets to maintain speed, the return into the atmosphere and responsibility is inevitable; in progress. As the responsibility gets more dense, capitalism and its wealth is burned up. Those who may survive the reentry back to the ground of responsibility will arrive on a different _Eaarth_ (one of _Hell and High Water_). In this crash, a trusted religion—capitalism—will be (as a means of satiating the demands of greed) systemically debunked as a means of creating wealth.

    *Social Security receipts and a separate central bank-centric currency remain, as yet untapped fuel for the maneuvering rockets (and any takers of a bet that they will not be burned as per _The Shock Doctrine…of Disaster Capitalism_?). And, in the interest of full disclosure, I have not read any of these books.

    Regardless, growing ones own food is a means of spending ones time that gives one very little credit (and the pun is intended) within our meme. At best it is an eclectic endeavor that bemuses the more practical, i.e. the more deluded debt-slaves. Systemically, the more sustainable one becomes in how one lives, the less creditworthy one becomes.

    Wealth generation within capitalism is predicated on being employed doing that which are skills that have the greatest value within the social meme, and hiring out all other work that can be paid for at a lower rate than what one earns, while investing the balance. Conversely, what generates sustainable wealth is a meme in which that behavior is exceptional . . . and any surplus time is invested in being charitable. Such behavior is, VERY inefficient within the precepts of capitalism. However, this ‘inefficiency,’ as an iteration of diversity, is, systemically, a powerful positive feedback supporting sustainability (environmental, social, and economic justice).

    I have read the 4 page summary brochure of the 459 page USCCAP SAP 3.4 ( What I included in my comment comes from the full document and is a comment NOAA’s Ed Dlugokencky made regarding the findings surface air sample analysis implied for the Arctic that was part of a summary of “things methane” and the planet from such an analysis (“Unusual Arctic Warmth, Tropical Wetness Likely Cause for Methane Increase”, 2009). The definition of abrupt climate change is as follows:

    “Abrupt climate change is defined as a large-scale change in the climate system that takes place over a few decades or less, persists (or is anticipated to persist) for at least a few decades, and causes substantial disruptions in human and natural systems.
    Four types of abrupt change in the geologic record stand out as being so rapid and large in their impact that, if they were to recur, they would pose clear risks to society in terms of our ability to adapt:

    • Rapid change in glaciers, ice sheets, and hence sea level.
    • Widespread and sustained changes to the hydrologic cycle, including drought and flooding.
    • Abrupt change in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, a critical component of global climate,
    characterized by the northward flow of warm, salty water in the upper layers of the Atlantic Ocean.
    • Rapid release to the atmosphere of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, trapped in permafrost and in
    ocean sediments.”

    Is it noteworthy that in the USCCAP SAP 3.4. Arctic methane is not anticipated to effect an abrupt change in its slow release? What is the noteworthiness of Andy Revkin’s implied dismissal of the exponential increase of methane from continental shelf methane hydrates in the Arctic between 2008 and 2011 (

    Of the four indicators for abrupt climate change, i.e. the tip into klimakatastrophe, all appear to be in play with what has been observed, studied, and reported on since 2008. Even Ed Dlugokencky’s work managed to average away an increase in atmospherice methane between 2007 and 2008 observe at Zepellin, Spitzbergen with his methodology. Is the methodology functioning as a miscreant; offering a false hope; effecting motivated reasoning?

    The etymology of the term “Scapegoat” includes a religious ritual. The Jewish people, when they affected a Bedouin lifestyle, would ritually place their sins on some goats and drive these out into the wilderness. Ridding ourselves of the psychological oppression of moral failures is a problem for which scapegoating is a rather infantile solution. In this context, I do not feel anything but the most mature (rational) ways of thinking and feeling about our moral affect is commensurate to the mess our irresponsible behavior has gotten us into. The red pill view is that the enemy is within. Nothing short of transforming what we are religious about and how we are religious is rational. This statement assumes we value being rational—perhaps such is my iteration of motivated reasoning!

    Anyway you query seems to be predicated on the wish that abrupt climate change has not yet been tipped. To the degree that possibility may turn out to be true, I can be political/pragmatic about what is scapegoated . . . if such unstops the ears of the blind and dumb (i.e. does not provide cover for behaviors like what the US has done regarding protecting our irresponsible investment and consumption choices from accountability, and sheltered a collapsed, bankrupt, and unsustainable economic paradigm from reasoned criticism).

    The currency matter is one of five constitutional crises I feel need to concurrently redressed. They are in a rough-draft form here:

    If you find this interaction meritorious of being a thread, I will continue it with you. My bias is that, with time, rational discourse will help counter, otherwise wishful thinking and/or denial. The fledgling #Occupy phenomena has a long way to mature in its economic thinking and feelings, and to integrate such with where we are in our journey into klimakatastrophe. Perhaps writing about how two peaks and a tip interact in reality and in our psyches and moral memes could become a valuable resource. If regardless, be forewarned, I am challenged to write good.

  18. The upward slope of petroleum extraction to Hubbert’s peak/plateau was CLOSELY accompanied by the increase in food production and population growth:
    How tight is the link between oil, food and population?

    Declines in food production and population might be expected to be similarly concomitant to the downward slope of petroleum extraction from Hubbert’s peak. The progressive decline in ERoEI will make the available net energy decline even steeper than the decline in extracted petroleum. The curve of net energy will approximate a shark’s fin rather than the camel’s hump of extracted petroleum:
    The Net Hubbert Curve: What Does It Mean?

    Food production decline and population decline (the “DieOff”)
    World Energy and Population Trends to 2100
    might be expected to follow the net energy decline.

    However, temperature changes of climate change will steepen the decline in crop yields and food production
    Nonlinear temperature effects indicate severe damages to U.S. crop yields under climate change with a correspondingly steeper population decline.

  19. Greg — Wow, that’s a lot to think about. I’ll definitely check out your writeup – I think that’ll help me more fully appreciate your points.

    Thanks for the excerpt on abrupt climate change; I guess that’s roughly what I was thinking it was, but it’s helpful to see how researchers define it.

    About climate tipping points, I honestly don’t have much of an idea as to whether the warming that is already in the pipeline is going to tip us beyond the threshold on any of them. (It does seem that there’s little scientific consensus on this question as of yet.) But I do get the sense that we’re very close to the point of no return in terms of emissions.

  20. Robin — I’m reminded of the Limits to Growth (30 year update) graph of population in the business-as-usual scenario (scenario 1)—it drops off fairly steadily (down to about 4 billion by the end of the century, though it probably keeps declining after that).

    However, I do wonder if this reasoning might be too energy-determinist. That is, we have the knowledge now of how to produce roughly the same amount of food per acre using intensive organic techniques as with industrial techniques in use today, and this knowledge didn’t really exist a hundred years ago (at least not in the way it does today). Of course these techniques require more human labor, but still—might we be able to ease the decline in food production? Sometimes I’m optimistic about this, sometimes not.

  21. Good Morning Barath,

    I see you’ve asked me a few question regarding my comment that I’ve ignored. I actually forgot I’d made this comment. I stumbled onto Guy McPherson at the same time as my comment, and was asked to do a couple of guest posts at Nature Bats Last. In an effort to use blogging and comments to affect a virtual Open Space Technology conference on motivated reasoning, I have given that blog’s comment ‘community’ my attention for the past month as I tried what I tried.

    Anyway, having stepped back from that work, I’ve discovered your questions. Here are some responses to them:

    Regarding suburban lots providing caloric needs [for suburban and urban populations]–in isolation, this hypothesis is viable. Cuba’s adaptation post-the-peak-oil the collapse of the USSR presented them with is an example supporting it. Countering it as a supportive example are that the constraints of a temperate climate and our individualistic mind set likely constitute. These constraints would, at best, likely extend the timeline for the transition beyond the stretching point of the adhesive of our society. In addition, the climate is changing fast enough now that the consequenced variablities in the weather are now a significant threat to this localism that was not in play as Cuba made its somewhat successful transition. Could an agency like Homeland Security be restructured to mitigate these social defects and weather challenges? Possibly, but what are our shared stories, as a culture, which would support such behavioral shifts?

    Building and maintaining the healthy soil needed is a much longer-term process in the temperate zone. Doing so in a post-peak credit and post cheap oil economy, is a choice to suffer and sacrifice that will likely be resisted “to the death” by the population of the United States. 

    This likely resistance is also an answer to the question of whether a scapegoat can be identified that would have us do the right things for the wrong reason. In some ways this is underway. The current ongoing use of quantitative easing and stress tests to keep banks from technical default, could, in conjunction with a ever more robust social safety net, give the US the economic means by which to become like Cuba. Like the hypothesis that localism can feed our current population and avoid a tip into social chaos and violence, hypothetically, this political shift is possible. The trap of such–from my perspective–wishful thinking is that the changing climate is going to increase the failure with which society (of any construct) meets its population’s caloric needs. I do not feel that water issues, which are also part of the challenges, need to be added to see that starvation and heat exhaustion are two horsemen of an apocalypse that are saddled, riding, and already creating the whirlwind that will encompass us all . . . and the horseman of drought and water shortage is riding too.

    My comment about Arctic methane, in particular, and Arctic carbon, in general, was not about such a differentiation (to the degree I’ve understood you). If I have understood what I’ve read about climate change dynamics correctly, the assumptions upon which planetary thermodynamic studies and modeling are based are too simplistic. Because feedbacks were poorly understood in the early ’80s, Arctic methane was seen, and still is (to much too large an extent), as a secondary or tirciary problem; carbon dioxide was the gas to focus on. 

    Was the definition I referenced for “abrupt” developed as a consequence of resources and careers focusing on CO2 and needing to maintain a policy-relevant focus within the dynamics of limited financial resources? Did such make the start of the “runaway” all but impossible to have a conversation about within the scientific community since such was assumed to be carbon dioxide?

    If you read the posts on methane at the RealClimate blog, you will see how motivated reasoning effected blindness may be playing out. Questioning the assumptions about methane’s role in runaway climate change elicits a ‘knowledgeable’ retort negating the questions. Apparently the questioning is not valid based on the yet trusted assumptions. This is an arguement based on circular reasoning.

    Was it wrongly assumed that an abrupt shift in atmospheric methane preceded it functioning as a positive feedback within runaway climate change? Was this because it was modeled as a greenhouse gas of 20 times the forcing as carbon dioxide within a 100 year time frame within relative simplistic modeling, and a knowledge that, with current atmospheric chemistry, it has a lifetime of about a dozen years? If so, now that it is know to effect 105 times the forcing in a 20 year timeframe (25 times within a 100 year timeframe), and modeling is more robust, are lifetime careers of good intention, thanks to motivated reasoning, a challenge for accepting such intentions as being as far off-base as observations are defining?

    I did not know of Hubbet’s proposal. I too would be interested to know the details, including the timeframe of that work. Since Saudi Arabia, by enforcing OPEC oil sales in the US dollar in 1971 (or thereabouts), was this the affecting of an iteration of his thinking that has allowed the United States it’s perceived economic ‘success’, the creation of the Anthropocene, and assured (in conjunction with CapitalismFail, peak credit, and a religious-like denial of these) the near-term extinction of life as it has existed in the Holocene?

    Anyway, I have written about my insight regarding a constitutional currency on my website. From the opening page of that site (www.OpenTo.Info) click the link to the virtual Occupy information tabling and chase the links associated with the constitutional crises. I feel they yet have social relevance, for the abdication they represent to protect and defend the constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic, is a shared responsibility we have had the hubris to be irresponsible about, even “religiously” and piously so.

    We have met the enemy…

  22. Not only didn’t I remember my first comment, nor your reply, some other Greg Robie, replied . . . or have I revealed a[nother] senior moment?!? ;)

    I do feel today’s reply may be an easier read.