Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Breath of Life: the elders speak

This recent film by Susan Kucera is a survey of the sad state of the world. The film presents stunningly beautiful imagery together with together with interviews with a group of scientists and intellectuals (including myself). The overall impression is of something primeval, certainly consistent with the many sections of the film shot in Hawai'i. The people speaking on screen give the definite impression of being the elders of the tribe telling to the young hunters that they should not kill that mammoth; it could be the last they'll ever see! But the young hunters don't listen. It is the story of our species.   

Watch it, if you have a chance.  Here is the film's site.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The ultimate limits to carbon burning: an order of magnitude calculation

Total amount of fossil carbon on the Earth, from Vanderbroucke and Largeau (1)

During the past few years, the development of "shale gas" and "shale oil" in the US, generated a wave of optimism that spread widely in the mediasphere. It was common to hear of "a century of abundance" or even of "centuries" provided by these new sources. However, with the recent collapse of the oil market, these claims seem to have gone the same way as those of the sightings of the Loch Ness monster. But there remains a point to be made: what is exactly the limit to what we can burn? Could we really keep burning for centuries? Or, maybe, even for millennia or more?

Let's see if we can make a calculation, at least in terms of order of magnitudes. The first question is how much fossil carbon do we have on this planet. The total is reported to be about 1.5x10+16 t (metric tons), mainly in the form of kerogen, a product of the decomposition of organic matter which is a precursor to the formation of fossil fuels (gas, oil, and coal) (2) .

It looks like a lot of carbon, especially if we compare this number with the amount we are burning nowadays. The data reported by CDIAC (Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center) report 9.2x10+9 t of carbon transformed into CO2 as the result of fossil fuel burning (gas+oil+coal) in 2013. As an order of magnitude estimate, at this rate, we could go on burning for more than a million years before truly running out of fossil carbon.

But, obviously, that's not possible. Simply, there is not enough oxygen in the atmosphere to burn all the existing fossil carbon. The total amount of free oxygen is estimated to be about 1.2x10+15 t or 3.7x10+19 mol O2⁠ (a "mole" is a unit used in chemistry to compare the amount of reactants in chemical reactions). One mole of molecular oxygen will react with exactly one mole of carbon to form carbon dioxide and, since 1.5x10+16 t of carbon correspond 1.25x10 +21 mol, there follows that we cannot possibly burn more than about 1% of the existing fossil carbon. Instead of a million years, we are down to about 10,000 years.

Of course, then, burning that 1% of carbon would mean to use up all the oxygen of the atmosphere and that would be bad for us, no matter how much we need fossil fuels. In practice, we can't use up more than a few percent of the atmospheric oxygen; otherwise the effect on human health and on the whole ecosphere would be likely disastrous. Let's say that we are willing to bet that a 5% loss is still safe, even though nobody could be sure about that. It means that we only have 500 years or so to keep on burning before we start feeling symptoms of suffocation. But the story doesn't end here. 

So far, we have been reasoning in terms of the total amount of fossil carbon as if it were all burnable, but is it? Kerogen, the main component of this carbon, can be combined with oxygen producing a certain amount of heat (3) but it can hardly be considered as a fuel, because it would be very expensive to extract and the net energy yield would be modest or even negative. In 1997, Rogner (4) carried out an extensive survey of the carbon resources potentially usable as fuel. At page 149 of this link, we can find an aggregate estimate of 9.8x10+11 t of carbon as "reserves" and up to 5.5x10+12 t of "resources", the latter defined as not economically exploitable at the current prices. "Additional occurrences" are reported to a possible amount of 1.5x10+13 t of carbon, but that is a rather wild estimation. If we limit ourselves to proven reserves, we see that at the present rate of about 1x10+10 t/year we would have about a century of carbon to go.

We are not finished, yet. We now need to consider how much carbon we can combine with oxygen before the increased greenhouse effect caused by the resulting carbon dioxide generates irreversible changes in the Earth's climate. The "tipping point" of the climate catastrophe is often estimated as that corresponding to a temperature increase of 2 deg C and, in order not to exceed it, we should not release more than about 10+12 t of CO2 in the atmosphere. That corresponds to 3.7x10+11 t of carbon (5). This is about one third of Rogner's global reserve estimate. So, at this point, we don't have a century any more, but only about three-four decades (and note that the estimation of what we can burn and still avoid catastrophe may have been optimistic. See also here for a more detailed estimate that takes into account different kinds of fuels).

You see how misleading it can be to list carbon resources as if they were soldiers lined up for battle. Not everything that exists inside the Earth's crust can be extracted and burned and we can't afford to extract and burn everything that could be extracted without wrecking the atmosphere. Taking into account the various factors involved, we went down from more than a million years of supply to just a few decades.

But, of course, calculating the number of remaining years at constant production rates is also misleading. In practice, fuel production rates have never been constant over history; rather, the production tends to follow a "bell shaped" curve that peaks and then declines. Today, we may be close to the peak (See e.g. here). Will the impending decline save us from catastrophic climate change? At present, we cannot say; too many are the uncertainties involved in these estimates. What we can say is that we are not facing centuries of abundance, but a decline which might even very rapid, considering the possibility of a "Seneca collapse." 

In short, the age of fossil fuels is ending. It is time to take note of that and move to something else.


(1) M. Vandenbroucke, C.     Largeau, Kerogen origin, evolution and structure, Organic Geochemistry, Volume 38, Issue 5, May 2007, Pages 719-833, ISSN 0146-6380, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.orggeochem.2007.01.001.  

2. Falkowski, P., R.J. Scholes, E. Boyle, J. Canadell, D. Canfield, J. Elser, N. Gruber, et al. 2000. “The Global Carbon Cycle: A Test of Our Knowledge of Earth as a System.” Science 290 (5490) (October 13): 291–296. doi:10.1126/science.290.5490.291. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/290/5490/291.abstract.

(3) Muehlbauer, Michael J., and Alan K. Burnham. 1984. “Heat of Combustion of Green River Oil Shale.” Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Process Design and Development 23 (2) (April): 234–236. doi:10.1021/i200025a007. http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/i200025a007.

Annual Review of Energy and the Environment 22 (1) (November 28): 217–262. doi:10.1146/annurev.energy.22.1.217. http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.energy.22.1.217?journalCode=energy.2.

(5) IPCC. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. (Cambridge University Press, 2014).


Thursday, April 9, 2015

An interview with Cassandra

This blog, "Resource Crisis" deals mainly with depletion, climate change, and the ongoing systemic crisis. However, up to no long ago, it was known as "Cassandra's Legacy" and its Cassandric roots remain strong. After all, the Trojan prophetess, Cassandra, is a perfect metaphor of what's happening around us; with scientists trying to warn the public and governments of various impending disasters, and not being believed.

At present, my more "mythological" musings appear in a blog that I titled "Chimeras" There, I just published a post titled, "An Interview with Cassandra" that is at the same time a climate-fiction piece and a personal interpretation of the saga of Cassandra.

As a post, it is a bit long and perhaps also off-topic, so I won't publish it here. But I thought that the readers of this blog could be interested in reading it. At least, I can say that I had a lot of fun in writing it!

So, just click here to access my interview with the Trojan prophetess. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Why democracy doesn't work (and how to fix it)

(image source)

This post is not supposed to be a proposal for reforming democracy. Any real reform seems to be impossible in a world where the main (and perhaps the only) rule seems to be "don't even think of changing anything important" (DETOCAI). This said, I noticed a recent article by Dean Burnett on "the Guardian" that attempted to answer the question of why people keep electing idiots. That set my mind in motion and I came up with some considerations based on the effect of "public relations" (PR) on the democratic process. I don't claim to be an expert in PR, but, if you deal with climate change, as I often do, it is impossible to miss the role of PR in a debate that has been based on lies and exaggerations aimed at demonizing science and scientists. So, this post is mainly a reflection of mine on the importance of PR in our world.

There seems to be no category more badly vilified and despised than that of politicians. Yet, theoretically voters can vote for whoever they want; why do they keep electing people they despise? (It sounds like the old joke: 'a masochist is someone who likes the things he hates'). Are most voters masochists; or what?

I think there is an explanation for this apparently bizarre behavior of voters. It has to do with the PR methods used in election campaigns and, in particular with negative advertising that has generated a general self-inflicted vilification on all politicians. Let me explain.

In public relations, there are two basic approaches to promote one's ideas or products: a negative one and a positive one. The negative approach (demonizing your opponent) is usually much more powerful and more effective than the positive approach (idolizing your friend). There have to be deep psychological reasons for this, but it is the way things are (*).

The problem with negative advertising is the same you have with chemical weapons: it works wonders, but it can backfire. This is something that the armies of the first world war armies learned when the wind blew back on them the gas they had directed against their enemies.

Indeed, negative ads are so powerful - and so dangerous - that they are almost never used in commercial advertising (**). Think of what would happen if, say, Pepsi were to mount a campaign based on the accusation that Coke gives you cancer. And imagine that Coca Cola were to retaliate by saying that Pepsi causes heart attacks. Not a good idea, obviously: would anyone ever try a soft drink again? It is a well known principle: if you throw it at the fan, it will spread all around.

But in politics? The same constraints do not apply. In politics, the market size is fixed: it is a seat in parliament (or in the city council, or whatever). It doesn't matter how many people show up at the voting booths, someone will always get that seat. For a politician, negative PR carries no risk of shrinking the market, hence, it is a fundamental tool. It is well known: vilifying your opponent works wonders (***). But, of course, if everyone uses it the result is the generalized demonization of all politicians. Again, you see the effect of throwing it at the fan; it does spread all around.

So, it is likely that the widespread mistrust of politicians is the result of a long series of demonization campaigns that have led the public to conclude that all politicians are thieves, liars, psychopaths, sex maniacs, bumbling idiots, and the like. Maybe some of them deserve to be defined in this way, but the problem is that these vilification campaigns keep away honest people from running. And this is the problem with democracy, in a nutshell.

Can we do something to improve? In principle, yes. After all, most governments have enacted laws designed to protect customers from misleading  advertising. Often, ads disparaging a competitor's product are forbidden and even comparative advertising is strictly regulated. But no such rules apply to politics, where everything goes and arriving to similar regulations seems to be just unthinkable.

Could we use a different tactic? Could we make negative campaigning a bad idea for those who use the method? We could, for instance, make the political "market" more similar to the commercial market in the sense that the total number of seats in parliament is like the market size for a product. That is, the number of seats in parliament could be proportional to the number of people who actually vote. So, if only half of the voters show up, then only half of the seats are assigned. The remaining ones go vacant, or maybe are assigned by a national lottery. In this way, politicians would be wary of using tactics which risk to reduce the market size (i.e. the number of seats assigned).

So, we could think of ways to fix democracy. But the problem is not that there is anything wrong with democracy. The problem is with PR - and negative PR in particular. We are not going anywhere in any field until we understand the awesome power of negative PR on our perception of the world. It is truly a weapon of mind destruction, witness how effective PR has been in attacking climate science and climate scientists and in convincing a large number of people that climate change is a hoax.

There is only one good weapon against this kind of PR: it is remembering that, as Baudelaire said, "The devil's best trick is to persuade you that he does not exist."


(*) about the higher power of the negative, see for instance "Bad is stronger than good".

Baumeister, Roy F.; Bratslavsky, Ellen; Finkenauer, Catrin; Vohs, Kathleen D.
Review of General Psychology, Vol 5(4), Dec 2001, 323-370http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=search.displayRecord&uid=2001-11965-001

(**) A well known case of negative commercial advertising may be the "where's the beef?" campaign used by Wendy's in 1984 to disparage the sandwiches marketed by their competitors, McDonald's and Burger King. Note, however, that it was not really a negative ad; it was, rather, a comparative ad ('our hamburgers are bigger than theirs'). Nevertheless, it was it was aggressive enough that it was picked up by Walter Mondale who successfully used the same slogan against his adversary in the primaries of that year.

(***) About negative campaigns in politics, there is plenty of documentation on the Web. You can start, for instance, from this article in Wikipedia. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Breaking News: the West Antarctic Ice Sheet starts collapsing, says IPCC

Huge rift in the West Antarctic ice sheet as revealed by satellite photos: the whole ice sheet has started moving toward the sea.

A new report released today by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  (IPCC) discloses satellite data showing a huge rift in the West Antarctic ice sheet, indicating that the whole mass of ice has started moving toward the sea. Recent reports had already indicated that the deglaciation process was taking place faster than previously expected, but the new data indicate an unexpectedly rapid collapse. According to IPCC, at the measured speeds, the total collapse of the Western Ice Sheet will take place in less than a decade.

The collapse of the Western Ice Sheet is expected to cause a sea level rise of 4.8 m (16 ft). If the same phenomenon will affect all the Antarctic glaciers - as it appears to be the case from other data in the IPCC report - the final result will be to raise the sea level of 61 meters (200 feet). The report does not detail the possible effects on coastal cities and on populated areas at elevations lower than the expected sea rise.

Most comments on the IPCC report seem to agree on the fact that the satellite data indicate a very rapid melting of the Antarctic glacier, as admitted also in "skeptical" circles. Anthony Watts, famed for his "Watt's up with that?" blog reports that he feels "vindicated" by the new results, since they prove that the IPCC models for climate change were "wrong" having been unable to predict how fast the melting was to become. Viscount Cristopher Monckton has commented that this event "shows that global warming has nothing to do with the Antarctic collapse" because "the warming pause is still ongoing."

Many scientists also commented on the news about Antarctica. Michael Mann, of Penn State University, stated that "Those glaciers got quite a blow by the hockey stick!" Others declared that they felt comfortable in seeing that they would not be branded any more as "catastrophists" and "alarmists", but several also expressed concern that, now that global warming was demonstrated beyond all doubts, their research grants on the subject would be curtailed.

On  the political side, the right sees the flooding of the coastal cities as "nothing to fear". Righteous people, it is said, will surely be spared by the incoming waves, just as Moses and the chosen people were spared when they crossed the Red sea. The comments from the left are generally positive, as it is hoped that the flooding of the coastal regions will reduce pollution. It is also hoped that flooding will generate opportunities for more resilient communities and a zero-growth lifestyle based on local resources.

The general reaction of the industry to the news has been of cautious optimism. Spokesmen from the oil industry and the mineral industry have reported great interest in the mineral exploitation of the newly exposed lands of Antarctica, expected to contain oil, gas, coal, and other important minerals. The construction industry is also reporting interest in the new business opportunities involved: such as barriers against the sea rise and the relocations of whole cities inland. "Never before" one spokesman for the industry said, "prospects for the cement industry have been so bright."

Also in Washington D. C., the new IPCC report is seen with cautious optimism. The US President has spoken of a "new frontier" opening up with the deglaciation of Antarctica and with the new lands being freed for human settlement. He used the sentence "go south, young man!" to indicate the new direction for the growth of the economy.

More news on this subject: "The Great Greenland Melting: Threat or Opportunity?"

Note: I have been told that someone could take this post as if it were a serious report. So, let me state it explicitly, just in case: this is an April's fools post. It is true that the Antarctic glaciers are melting down, but not as fast as described here. 

Note also that, the image at the beginning is from the University of Michigan, it is about ice calving in Antarctica but, again, it does not indicate a super-fast melting

Monday, March 30, 2015

The collapse of the shale bubble: does it bring also the collapse of climate denial?

The Western press has been engaged in a major PR campaign destined to convince the public that Climate Change does not exist or it is not human-made. Perhaps this campaign could end soon, together with the collapse of the shale oil and gas bubble in the US 

So, we have now a presidential candidate in the US who explicitly denies the human role in climate change (and compares himself to Galileo for doing that!). He is not alone, a majority in the US senate seem to take the same position. Also, the public in the US, by far and large, seem to be less inclined to see climate change as a serious problem than the public in every major country in the world (image below from Ecowatch.

Are Americans more stupid than the rest of the world? Probably not; on the contrary, the US has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, just as it has the best universities, the largest number of scientists, the largest number of Nobel prizes, and more. But then, why do Americans deny so strongly the human role in climate change? The favored explanation that can be read on the web is that it is due to cultural factors and, in particular, to a diffuse "anti-intellectualism" in the American culture.

That might be, but an entity such as "anti-intellectualism" is hard to define and one could argue for it being present in many other countries. I think we should look for something else. One element that we may examine is that the disbelief in the human role in climate change has a starting date: look at this image (from Gallup)

You see the remarkable dip in the belief in anthropogenic climate change that occurred approximately between 2007 and 2010. So, what happened that caused such an effect? Likely, one important factor was the 2009 "climategate" story, the diffusion of stolen e-mails exchanged among climate scientists. We may also see another, smaller, drop in 2013-2014 that might be related to the meme of "climate change has stopped" that started to be diffused in late 2012. But neither story, alone, is enough to justify such a major effect. Both had to be promoted and diffused in the media to have an impact. The real cause of the changing public perception is how both stories were managed as part of an anti-science public relations (PR) campaign. 

But, then, why is it anti-science PR so much more important in the US than it is in the rest of the world? Here I think that we can find an interesting correlation with some economic factors. The PR storm that attacked climate science goes in parallel with the development of the America shale oil and shale gas industry which grew to become a major component of the US hydrocarbon production in little more than ten years.

Bubbles grow on belief, and belief is the result of successful PR campaigns. It was PR that, for a while, managed to generate powerful memes such as the US "energy independence" or "a century of abundance" of shale gas. The main pitch for the shale industry came with the period of fastest growing production; approximately starting in 2005. As the industry grew, the public perception of the climate problem went down.

It is well known that PR works best when it is question of demonizing an adversary and it is no surprise that it was used in this way by the fossil industry. One target was their main competitor: renewable energy. But much more damaging to the shale bubble was climate science and the concept of "unburnable carbon." If ever this idea were to take hold of the law making process, then, it would have been the end of the legend of "a century of abundance". Hence, climate science and climate scientists were a legitimate target of the PR campaign by the fossil industry.

The toxic legacy of this anti-science campaign has left a deep impression on the American public. The "anti-intellectualism" that some people claim to be a cause of the skepticism of the public about the climate problem may actually be an effect of this campaign.

Now, with the collapse of the oil market, it is likely that we'll see the bursting of the shale bubble. Prices may recover, at least in part, but never again the industry will be able to regain the past momentum and to speak of "centuries of abundance" to come. So, in parallel, are we going to see the end of the anti-science PR campaign? Will climate science denial collapse together with the shale industry? Maybe not right away; the effects of these campaigns are often long lasting. But, at least, from now on, they'll have less and less money to use to spread lies around (*).

* Unless some other lie can be found

Friday, March 27, 2015

Oil Drilling: another Seneca Cliff


The concept of an impending "Seneca cliff" seems to be making inroads in the debate, even though it may not be given that name. For example, watch the animation above on "Bloomberg.com"

(h/t Joe Smith of the Doomstead Diner)


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)