Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A few thoughts about Climate Change and Peak Oil

Al sent me a copy of the latest IPCC summary which includes this quote: "More importantly, the IPCC concluded that there is over 90% probability that this global warming is primarily caused by human activities"; Al asked me "Could you agree to that? How many % would you say?"

I initially said my answers were 'No' and 'I don't know'. However, on the latter, I would now suggest that the answer is 'less than 30%' (because of this and associated research).

Of course, I'm not a climate scientist so my opinion isn't worth much. What I would say, however, is that - as an interested layman - the quality of the science related to climate change seems much less robust than the science related to the problem of Peak Oil.

With oil, for example, the core science related to the development of an oil-field is extremely well understood and has proven robust in oil-fields in various unrelated countries worldwide over many decades. It is, after all, the science that the oil companies use when considering what flow of resource might be generated from particular prospects. Moreover, the phenomenon of 'peaking' has proven universal at the individual well, wider field, regional and continental scales (the only one not yet proven is precisely the world-wide scale - hence the problem). There is no need to rely on 'models' in exploring the question of Peak Oil - historical data and common sense are sufficient.

None of this applies to the issue of climate change. Not only is there a large amount of guesstimating judgement necessary (= 'computer models' and the GIGO principle) but the observable data themselves don't match up (eg the decline in temperatures over the last decade, vis-a-vis the increased output of carbon). Obviously the situation is 'very complex' - the atmosphere is a complex system - but that is precisely my point. The science is not yet hard enough to be robust, and therefore a dependable basis for public policy.

In addition to this, real world concerns render - to my mind - the climate change debate academic. Firstly, the IPCC reports hugely overestimate the amount of fossil fuels available; secondly, they ignore the negative feedback cycle that will kick in in terms of recession/depression. In other words, most of what the politicians and activists seek in terms of a rapid and drastic reduction in carbon emissions will be achieved no matter what, as a result of the peaking of fossil fuel production.

So in most cases (eg investment in windmills, changing lifestyles to pursue green transport options etc) the desirable way forward is the same for coping with Peak Oil as with climate change. The differences come at the margin, eg the costs of carbon capture (clean coal) which seems a bit pointless to me. Lomborg is very good on this - more lives will be saved by investing in clean water than scrubbing power station emissions. So, basically, I'm an agnostic-shading-to-sceptic on climate change, and I see it as a distraction from more urgent problems.

Does that answer your questions Al?



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