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If I could recommend just one book to someone with a business-as-usual outlook, someone who believes human ingenuity and free markets will always bail us out of any resource scarcity or environmental problem, it would be Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (henceforth LTG). After reading it, you may never look at the world in quite the same way again. This post contains a summary, but I really do recommend you go and read it all. It is well argued, eminently readable, and pertains to issues central to our common future.

Meadows, Donella & J. Randers, D. MeadowsLimits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2004). BUY THE BOOK!
Category: world systems, resource depletion, pollution; Rating: 5*/5
Summary: wiki; synopsis; WSJ story.

The first book was published in 1972, commissioned by a circle of statesmen, businesspeople, and scientists called the Club of Rome. The LTG models, using the latest advances in systems theory and computer modeling, suggested that business-as-usual economic growth on a finite planet would eventually lead to stagnating and then falling living standards, as ever more industrial capital has to be diverted towards mitigating the consequences of growth, e.g. soil degradation, resource depletion, and runaway pollution.

Cornucopians and establishment “experts” have tried to discredit LTG by claiming that its predictions of global apocalypse failed to materialize; instead, hasn’t the world seen remarkable economic growth since 1972? These criticisms are unfounded. First, the LTG modelers did not make any concrete forecasts, but merely a range of scenarios based on varying initial conditions (e.g. global resource endowments) and future political choices. Not all the scenarios led to collapse – a reasonable global standard of living is preserved under scenarios in which humanity makes a transition back below the limits towards sustainable development. Second, none of those scenarios projected a collapse before 2015 at the earliest, so the claim is invalidated even if you treat the worst case scenario as a prediction. As such, we can only conclude that these critics are either liers or haven’t actually read the book.

In this 30-year update, the authors note that their more pessimistic conclusions are already coming true – for instance, in per capita terms, global grain production peaked in 1984 and the marine catch reached an all-time high in 1988. Both have been on a slow, downward plateau since. (This finally culminated in the global foot riots of 2008 and rising “food protectionism” on the part of agricultural net exporters). Contrary to the hype surrounding globalization, the “new economy”, the flat world, etc, global GDP growth rates peaked in the 1960′s, and have since settled down to a lower level practically everywhere outside emerging Asia (and they may yet go into outright stagnation in the 2010′s due to the convergence of peak oil, geopolitical stresses, and the decline of the West). Furthermore, this slowdown was accompanied by rising inequality, between and within countries. Overall, the authors believe that humanity’s ecological footprint overtook the carrying capacity of the Earth sometime around 1980, ushering in “overshoot”.

A few things we should note before going further. LTG is not about particular phenomena, such as peak oil – though in itself very important, it is but a symptom of much deeper, underlying trends (the limits to growth). Second, the models indicate that growth will only begin to really falter once the system is in severe overshoot, so for the 1970-2010 period the LTG authors did not expect any major divergence between the unending growth predicted by neo-classical macroeconomics, and their own biophysical / systems dynamics models which account for the vital role of energy and ecological factors to sustaining growth. As the authors note, “we must all wait another decade for conclusive evidence about who has the better understanding” (and so far the economists are off to a bad start).

Exponential Growth, Limits, and Overshoot

 

The human population naturally exhibits exponential growth. Whenever total fertility rates are substantially above the 2.1 children per woman needed for simple population replacement, the population will usually grow very rapidly. In Malthusian, pre-industrial societies, this population growth typically exceeded the rate of growth of the carrying capacity; when the two drew level, population growth ceased as lower wages, elite predation, and food dearth raised mortality rates and lowered fertility rates. This increasing brittleness of the system, which made it vulnerable to shocks like poor harvests or peasant uprisings, is the single most convincing explanation for the cyclical emergence and collapse of empires.

In modern industrial societies, the effects of exponential population growth are modulated by the demographic transition, the tendency for fertily rates to transition to or below population replacement rates with increasing wealth. However, the effects of these gains on reducing the human impact on the environment is more than balanced out by the growth of the stock of industrial capital. This growth is inherently exponential, because the machine tool building sector that constitutes the base of the industrial ecosystem essentially reproduces itself, i.e. you need machines to build more machines. Labor and capital factor inputs, in their turn, are the motors of exponential growth in all other spheres of the human economy – food production, goods production, resource extraction, pollution emissions, services provision, etc.

Therefore, population and industrial capital can be said to have “an inherent system structure to produce the behavior of exponential growth”, which in turn drive increases in the food, energy, goods, and services needed to sustain that same growing population and industrial system. This increases the system’s level of physical throughput, the “continuous flows of energy and materials needed to keep people, cars, houses, and factories functioning”. However, both the materials-providing planetary sources (hydrocarbons, metals, minerals, etc) and the pollution-absorbing planetary sinks (soils, oceans, air, etc) needed to sustain a certain level of physical throughput are limited (the former can be depleted, the latter can be overfilled). There are hard planetary limits to the “rate at which humanity can extract resources (crops, grass, wood, fish) and emit wastes (greenhouse gases, toxic substances) without exceeding the productive or absorptive capacities of the world”. Once those limits are breached, development becomes unsustainable and we enter a state of overshoot.

To overshoot means to go too far, to grow so large so quickly that limits are exceeded. When an overshoot occurs, it induces stresses that begin to slow and stop growth. The three causes of overshoot are always the same, at any scale from personal to planetary. First, there is growth, acceleration, rapid change. Second, there is some form of limit or barrier, beyond which the moving system may not safely go. Third, there is a delay or mistake in the perceptions and the responses that try to keep the system within its limits. The delays can arise from inattention, faulty data, a false theory about how the system responds, deliberate efforts to mislead, or from momentum that prevents the system from being stopped quickly.

Although the planetary sources usually appear large on paper, only a small fraction of them tend to be economically recoverable due to the law of diminishing returns. All the low-hanging fruit are picked first, such as “supergiant” oil fields, rich copper ore deposits, etc, or in other words energy sources with high energy return on energy invested (EROEI), thus leaving only remoter, deeper and more dilute resources such as polar oil, unconventional liquids, etc. Their extraction costs soar exponentially and requisition an ever greater share of the industrial base, leaving less room for consumer products (vital for political stability), the agricultural base (to prevent starvation), investment in capital stock renewal (to prevent the depreciation of the industrial base), and environmental mitigation (to prevent runaway pollution from wrecking other sectors).

Due to the dropping EROEI of newer energy sources, ever greater volumes have to be excavated and processed just to keep standing in place (e.g. coal’s gross energy content peaked in 1998 in the US, despite that volumes have continued increasing since). These diminishing returns per unit of capital employed towards resource extraction lead to rising pollution, which negatively feeds back into the agricultural base and human health. We could divert resources from other sectors to combat this pollution, e.g. through emissions reductions or geoengineering. Alternatively, rapid climate change coupled with declining oil and fertiliser output may lead to catastrophic falls in agricultural output, which could only be mitigated for a time by diverting capital and energy into this vital sector – but which would hurt the long-term prospects for renewal in the energy extraction and industrial sectors! And so goes our Faustian trap…

Below are four examples of these phenomena in action.

An example of diminishing returns / lowest fruit being picked first. The quality of copper ore being mined is falling, and more and more energy needs to be expended to get the same quantity of copper. Eventually, the returns may become so low that mining it will no longer be at all profitable, at which point the system collapses to a lower level of complexity and salvage becomes an attrative strategy.

PS. Note the counter-intuitive spike in the early 1930′s, correlating to the Great Depression. Economic retreat forces the shutdown of the least efficient mines, because the efforts they have to expend on extraction now surpass what they get back in profits. Unless the state takes increasingly coercive measure to maintain physical output at all costs, requisitioning labor and capital in a last-ditch Stakhanovite effort to prolong industrialism in a game of “last man standing”, the end of the industrial age will see the same general pattern.

As the ore grade falls, more and more material has to be extracted and processed to get the same amount of copper. This naturally results in soaring pollution emissions, which will put increasing stress on regional and global biocapacity.

An explanation for the drastic improvements in air quality, river health, fuel economy, etc, in advanced industrial nations in the 1970′s-1980′s – picking the lowest-hanging fruit is pretty cheap. But beyond a certain point, reducing pollution becomes without a direct fall in physical output becomes prohibitively expensive.

One more example of limits (the main ones, resource depletion and CO2 pollution, are covered elsewhere in this blog) – arable land availability. The amount of land devoted to agriculture has remained constant in recent decades, though its quality has decreased as good land becomes exhausted and more marginal lands were brought into exploitation. Crop yields have risen and continue to rise, but 1) they are overly dependent on the intensification of farming, e.g. using (natural-gas dependent) fertilizers that mask the decline in natural soil fertility and 2) as noted above, they have not kept up with population growth since the 1980′s.

The graph shows possible food futures: if no more land is lost and crop yields double, then the world’s 8bn people can be fed on a comfortable West European diet. If on the other hand “erosion, climate change, costly fossil fuels, falling water tables… reduce yields from present levels”, then there will be a global Malthusian crisis. Possible solutions: “farming methods that conserve and enhance soil – such as terracing, contour plowing, composting, cover cropping, polyculture, and crop rotation”, and in the tropics, “alley cropping and agroforestry” – all methods that achieve high yields, improve the soil, and don’t require prodigious fossil fuel and fertilizer inputs.

Basically, LTG gives one a valuable sense of how interconnected all these global systems are, about just how universal the law of diminishing returns is, and how the failure to move decisively towards a sustainable economy now will lead to collapse further down the road (and the later we postpone this transition, the greater will be the eventual collision).

The most important thing is to make the human industrial ecosystem a closed loop, in which population ceases to grow, and a recycling sector feeds back wastes as inputs into the system instead of continuing drawdown to maintain an unsustainably-high “phantom” carrying capacity.

Why recycling matters: “undiscovered reserves” (sources) and the sinks for “solid waste” are both limited; hence, a high standard of living can only be preserved by 1) redirecting most wastes back within the loop and 2) directly reducing material throughput by technological innovation (energy efficiency, ecotechnology, informatics).

The World3 Scenarios

All of these are feedback loops that I’ve described form the basis of the World3 computer models that the LTG authors used in making their scenarios. They are reproduced below, in concise detail.

The central feedback loops of the World3 model govern the growth of population and of industrial capital. Two positive feedback loops involving births and investment generate the exponential growth behavior of population and capital. The two negative feedback loops involving deaths and depreciation tend to regulate this exponential growth. The relative strengths of the various loops depend on many other factors in the system.

Some of the interconnections between population and industrial capital operate through agricultural capital, cultivated land, and pollution. Each arrow indicates a casual relationship, which may be immediate or delayed, large or small, positive or negative, depending on the assumptions included in each model run.

Population and industrial capital are also influenced by the levels of service capital (such as health and education services) and of non-renewable resources.

The “initial conditions” and assumptions are overall rather optimistic, for instance, the ones dealing with the power of the environment to clean up toxic pollution. The model leaves out corruption, military expenditures, wars and political disruptions – although vital, they are too hard to model with any degree of rigor (I write about these in my posts on Collapse Ethics and Ecotechnic Dictatorship). Chronic food and energy shortages will lead to civil unrest and political instability, necessitating greater expenditures on law enforcement and assorted populist gimmicks (e.g. the tinpot dictatorships that will rise up in the pre-Collapse period), taking away industrial capital and managerial resources from the industrial base, agriculture, and other critical sectors.

Statistical bodies will manipulate inflation and GDP growth figures to preserve an image of stability, even as creeping normalcy converges to an ever darker reality. There will be a scramble to secure the world’s remaining sources of high-density resources, which will lead to a greater share of the industrial base being devoted to (unproductive) military production. Elites will mobilize support for permanent war and surveillance by citing the moral imperative of fighting freedom-hating terrorists, evil empires, and/or maintaining global peace, security and stability. And so on.

Basically, by excluding these political and geopolitical variables, the World3 model presents the uppermost possibilities for the “real” world, even in the standard run which leads to collapse. This standard run is reproduced below.

As you can see, it leads to overshoot and collapse. Why? Because signals and responses to problems are delayed, and limits are erodable.

Examples of erosion – 1) as hunger returns, resources are concentrated into intensifying agricultural exploitation at the cost of preserving longterm soil fertility, 2) as more industrial capital is needed to maintain a certain level of resource extraction, pollution abatement, and agricultural production, less is left over to counteract the depreciation of the industrial capital stock, which begins to wither away, 3) worst of all, increasing pollution can erode the pollution absorption mechanisms themselves, thus increasing the rate of pollution buildup – this is already evident in the reduced ability of the biosphere (forests, oceans, etc) to soak up human carbon emissions.

Symptoms of overshoot, many of which are already becoming self-evident:

Primary Physical Symptoms – Resource stocks fall, and wastes and pollution accumulate.

  • Capital, resources, and labor diverted to activities compensating for the loss of services that were formerly provided without cost by nature (for example, sewage treatment, air purification, water purification, flood control, pest control, restoration of soil nutrients, pollination, or the preservation of species) – AK: In the worst case scenario, geoengineering would mean that the most basic function previously performed by Gaia, maintaining planetary homeostasis, becomes a human responsibility.
  • Capital, resources, and labor diverted from final goods production to exploitation of scarcer, more distant, deeper, or more dilute resources. – AK: See the declining EROEI of oil sources, talk of seabed mining, the increasing emphasis on unconventional & remote energy sources like tar sands, deep-sea, polar oil, shale gas, coal seam gas, etc…
  • Technologies invented to make use of lower-quality, smaller, more dispersed, less valuable resources, because the higher-value ones are gone. – AK: See greentech (greenwash?), the “hydrogen economy”, electric batteries, etc.
  • Failing natural pollution cleanup mechanisms; rising levels of pollution. – AK: See climate change.

Resulting Physical Symptoms – As resource stocks fall and wastes accumulate the behavior of natural systems may change with consequences for ecosystems and human communities.

  • Growing chaos in natural systems, with “natural” disasters more frequent and more severe because of less resilience in the environmental system. – AK: More heatwaves, droughts, hurricanes, etc, are already observed.

Resulting Social Symptoms - Society tries to live with, compensate for, and adapt to the primary physical symptoms (note: these symptoms do not include responses that address the decline of the resource base in the first place, such responses are catalogued in Signs of Life Within Limits).

  • Capital depreciation exceeding investment, and maintenance deferred, so there is deterioration in capital stocks, especially long-lived infrastructure. - AK: See US infrastructure problems, paralleling that of the late Soviet Union.
  • Growing demands for capital, resources, and labor used by the military or industry to gain access to, secure, and defend resources that are increasingly concentrated in fewer, more remote, or increasingly hostile regions. - AK: See resource wars, of which Iraq 2003 is one of the first in a long series to come; the US, China, and Russia have all ramped up military spending since about 2000.
  • Investment in human resources (education, health care, shelter) postponed in order to meet immediate consumption, investment, or security needs, or to pay debts. - AK: We’ll see plenty of that in the next few years as Western states fall into insolvency like dominoes.
  • Debts a rising percentage of annual real output. – AK: Debt levels have exploded throughout the developed world since 2000, and went into overdrive following the 2008 economic crisis & bailouts of politically-connected corporate groups.
  • Eroding goals for health and environment.
  • Increasing conflicts, especially conflicts over sources or sinks. - AK: Conflicts over sources = resource wars (see above), over sinks = “ecological warfare” (PLA colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui wrote about this in their prophetic book on Unrestricted Warfare).
  • Shifting consumption patterns as the population can no longer pay the price of what it really wants and, instead, purchases what it can afford. – AK: That is basically another way of saying people will become poorer.
  • Declining respect for the instruments of collective government as they are used increasingly by the elites to preserve or increase their share of a declining resource base. - AK: Predatory elites always become a heavy burden on the peasantry and middle classes during times of imminent Malthusian dearth. Applied to the modern world, see the rise of the “surveillance state”, the emphasis on waging a (by definition endless) “war on terror”, the creeping militarization of internal security forces, universal databases, etc… Meanwhile, internal inequality has risen in every major region of the world – the US, Eastern Europe, Japan, China, India, etc – since 1970.

Do you observe any of these symptoms in your “real world?” If you do, you should suspect that your society is in advanced stages of overshoot.

Finally, here are the central assumptions in World3 that give it the tendency to overshoot and collapse: 1) growth in the physical economy is considered desirable and central to our socio-political systems; this growth tends to be exponential, 2) there are “physical limits to the sources of materials and energy that sustain the population and economy, and there are limits to the sinks that absorb the waste products of human activity”, 3) the world system receives signals about these physical limits that are “distorted, noisy, delayed, confused, or denied”, and responses are hence delayed and non-optimal, and 4) the “system’s limits are not only finite, but erodable when they are overstressed or overused”, and furthermore, there are “thresholds beyond which damage rises quickly and can become irreversible” (e.g. see tipping points in climate change). The authors note that if you want to refute LTG, you will have to show that one of the statements above is invalid.

Markets and Technology to the Rescue?

Maybe not. Here are three explanations. First from one of my older posts.

The criticisms from markets and technology also fall flat on their faces. Markets are implicitly modeled in World3 as resource allocations are typically automatically transferred to the sector of most pressing need. (Actually, if anything the models are more market-driven than our own world, since we don’t have perfect information and instant responses in the real world, as opposed to the model). As for technology, unless concrete steps are taken to reduce material throughput, improvements are simply soaked up by the Jevons paradox. Unless technological progress is extremely rapid (e.g. as envisioned by singularitarians), there will sometime come a tipping point when efficiency improvements no longer make up for decling agricultural and resource yields and soaring pollution, and world population and human welfare collapse.

Second from Limits to Growth synopsis.

The most common criticisms of the original World3 model were that it underestimated the power of technology and that it did not represent adequately the adaptive resilience of the free market. Impressive —and even sufficient— technological advance is conceivable, but only as a consequence of determined societal decisions and willingness to follow up such decisions with action and money.

Technological advance and the market are reflected in the model in many ways. The authors assume in World3 that markets function to allocate limited investment capital among competing needs, essentially without delay. Some technical improvements are built into the model, such as birth control, resource substitution, and the green revolution in agriculture. But even with the most effective technologies and the greatest economic resilience that seems possible, if those are the only changes, the model tends to generate scenarios of collapse.

One reason technology and markets are unlikely to prevent over shoot and collapse is that technology and markets are merely tools to serve goals of society as a whole. If society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimize for short‑term gain. In short, society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.

The second reason for the vulnerability of technology is that adjustment mechanisms have costs. The costs of technology and the market are reckoned in resources, energy, money, labor, and capital.

Third from my post on ecotechnic dictatorship to criticize the technology element of Korotayev’s cliodynamics model, but which happens to apply somewhat to LTG as well.

However, a closer examination shows that 1) their models of technological growth are flawed – they do not account for the diminishing returns seen for technological progress in recent decades, nor 2) do they note that in most cases post-industrial technology has not been in the form of low-maintenance knowledge, but embodied in the (fossil fuel-dependent) machines of industrial civilization.

I.e., 1) to get technological growth, you have to divert resources from industrial capital and services to sustain it, 2) many spheres of technological growth themselves show diminishing returns on investment, e.g. electricity-generating turbine efficiency has more or less plateaued, electric batteries are showing signs of plateauing, etc, 3) a lot of the technology we did create in the fossil fuel age is not even at all suitable for sustainable development and are thus essentially worse than useless, i.e. only ecotechnologies can be sustainably supported, and 4) technology requires a electro-industrial base for its very sustenance: if the latter gives way, so will technology, and we will see a collapse in spheres like energy efficiency, made even worse by the fact that the available energy sources would be increasingly depleted and low-EROEI.

Conclusion. Since technology itself relies on a material base for its sustenance, which in turn requires energy inputs to sustain itself. Thus, it will probably be one of the first things to be downsized when physical limits start pressing down on the economy. The hen that lays the golden eggs will probably be the first to get cooked. Second, there may be sudden and catastrophic increases in pollution. Climate change may be abrupt and catastrophic. A collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet would raise sea levels by several meters and wipe the world’s ports and more importantly, much of its prime agricultural land. The Amazon is increasingly vulnerable to a conflagration that will turn it into desert, releasing more CO2 than I care to look up in the scientific literature. Increasing temperatures may unleash uncontrolled methane emissions from melting Siberian permafrost and oceanic clathrates.

Past the point of irreversible decline a controlled retreat to sustainability becomes ever more and more unlikely, because of a) the inertia of past pollution emissions and capital investments, b) political crisis in a society predicated on permanent growth will lead to short-term thinking and ever more exclusively stopgap solutions and c) eventually institutional collapse will make it impossible to fund and implement new energy-efficiency or pollution-control technologies on any sufficiently large scale or even maintain already existing infrastructure devoted for those purposes.

Further Reading:

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Although I have several articles on the threats posed to industrial civilization by runaway global warming and ecological degradation on Sublime Oblivion (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), I have yet to cover the Charybdis of resource depletion in as much detail (1, 2, 3, 4). As such, I have assembled many links to relevant articles on blogs such as the Oil Drum and Energy Watch Group to provide a foundation for the layman interested in exploring these very important concepts. With time I will write short descriptions next to some of the more important links summarizing what they are about.

EDIT Dec 2010: The Best of TheOilDrum.com 2005-2010 is ultra-recommended.

Basic Summaries

Core Books on Resource Depletion

  • Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update (Meadows et al)
  • The Last Oil Shock (David Strahan)
  • Beyond Oil (Kenneth Deffeyes)
  • The Party’s Over (Richard Heinberg)
  • Twilight in the Desert (Matthew Simmons)
  • The Long Emergency (James Kunstler)
  • Global Catastrophes and Trends (Vaclav Smil)
  • The Long Descent (Michael Greer)
  • Our Ecotechnic Future (Michael Greer)
  • When the Rivers Run Dry (Fred Pearce)
  • The Collapse of Complex Societies (Joseph Tainter)
  • Collapse (Jared Diamond)
  • World Made by Hand (James Kunstler)

Peak Oil Projections

Energy Accounting & Geopolitics

Energy & the Economy

Limits to Growth

Coal, Natural Gas & Uranium

Renewables

Metals & Mineral Depletion

Energy & Societal Collapse

Regional Analyses

Politics & Psychology of Resource Depletion

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Smil, Vaclav – Global Catastrophes and Trends (2008)
Category: futurism, climate change, geopolitics, catastrophes; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Google Books

Vaclav Smil, an energy theorist and language connoisseur, brings his talents to bear on this idiosyncratic, incisive and balanced book on the global future. From the outset, he outlines his skepticism in universal theories of history and attempts at quantifying current trends to make point forecasts (e.g. predictions that nuclear power would make energy too cheap to meter in the halcyon days of the industry). Instead, he emphasizes the role played by the sheer complexity of human systems and their discontinuities – for instance, who could have imagined that a generation after the death of Mao, China would be the workshop of the world helping underwrite US military dominance?

Having established “How (Not) to Look Ahead”, Smil introduces his method – analyzing key variables categorized by a) unpredictable events – “catastrophes”, b) powerful trends (the effects of globalization, global demography, the energy transition), and c) the shifting balance of power between the Great Power (the marginalization of Japan, an unstable Islam, Russia’s partial resurgence, the uncertain rise of China and an increasingly faltering United States). It is one a method I highly favor and I agree with most of the arguments he makes in his book, albeit there are a few major exceptions.

Fatal Discontinuities

First, he classifies the catastrophes or “fatal discontinuities” into: 1) known catastrophic risks (asteroid strikes, earthquakes, super-eruptions), 2) plausible catastrophic risks (nuclear war, pandemic) and 3) speculative risks (“grey goo” or takeover by machines). [There is another classification of existential risks by Nick Bostrom].

The likelihood of world-changing natural disasters occurring is vanishingly small. Though floods and earthquakes killing up to 100,000′s of people happen about once or twice per decade, their global effects are very limited. An asteroid capable of terminating industrial civilization will need to have a diameter of about 2km+ (by darkening the sky with micro-particles and destroying the ozone layer), but the chances of such asteroids striking the Earth decrease exponentially with greater size. In any case the majority of large Near-Earth Objects have already been identified and identified as safe. Predicting super-eruptions is much harder, though again based on the geological record the chances of an unprecedented catastrophe are minimal – which would have to be on the scale of the Toba, Sumatra event 72,000 years ago, which ejected 2,000km3 of ejecta and reduced the world human population to 10,000. An example of a modern threat is a super-eruption of Yellowstone, which is about due though we’d have to be extremely unlucky to have it blow up during our lifetimes. Another possibility are submarine landslides forming tsunamis, such as at La Palma, the Canary Islands, where a 500km3 slide would create a mega-tsunami with repeated walls of water up to 25m striking Florida.

The second category includes pandemics and mega-wars. During the last generation, the onslaught against disease stalled and went into partial reverse, with a growing list of contagious diseases (the most significant of which is HIV / AIDS), failures in eradication (e.g. polio) and antibiotic resistance (multi-drug resistant TB – which now finished off many AIDS sufferers). There also remains the specter of an influenza pandemi c, which will be deeply disruptive and potentially highly virulent. Though a repeat of 1957 or 1968, or the current swine flu for that matter, aren’t going to have much effect, the consequences of the return of a Spanish Flu-like pandemic (1918) will be devastating. Arising out of the natural disease reservoir of South China, the flu can spread more rapidly (air transport, globalization, greater urban populations) and a mortality profile hard on the younger cohorts (15-30 years) will have devastating effects on aging European societies. Globalization will shut down as countries close borders, with highly disruptive effects on national economies. However, we are much better prepared for handling a pandemic today than in 1918 due to better nutrition and technological advances such as mechanical respirators, antibiotics for treating secondary infections, antivirals, and math models for optimizing quarantines and vaccinations.

Just as another pandemic is almost certain to happen, so there will continue to be violent conflict, terrorism, genocides, perhaps even another large-scale democide or mega-war with tens to hundreds of millions of casualties – despite that the incidence of violent conflict fell by 40% since the early 1990′s and the agreed reductions in the US and Russian nuclear arsenals. Some may be transformational and fundamentally change the course of world history (Smil identifies the Taiping Rebellion, the American Civil War, WW1 and WW2 as transformational). The risk remains of an accidental nuclear war between the US and Russia killings hundreds of millions, or the rise of an revisionist, expansionist power unleashing WW3. The potential deaths accruing to war are several OM’s (orders of magnitude) higher than for all natural catastrophes.

Smil points out that terrorism is 1) nothing new, having gone through four “waves” – a) Russia’s narodnaya volya assassinations, b) decolonization, c) PLO, IRA, Basque ETA, and Western left-wing groups favoring bombings and aircraft hijackings, and d) modern Islamic terrorism beginning with the Iranian Revolution / Hezbollah, later extending to the Palestinian intifada and al-Qaeda, at the symbolic start of a new century (1400) by the Islamic calendar, 2) has rarely been effective with a few exceptions like 9/11 (and even there its value lay mostly in symbolism – [the spirit of terrorism], disproportionate public fear and official overreaction), for the chances of dying from terrorism are extremely low. Since producing mass casualties is extremely difficult, terrorists have to settle for “mass disruption” instead of “mass destruction”.

His final category of fatal discontinuity are “imaginable surprises”, such as annihilation of the Earth by exotic particle experiments, unforeseen climatic shifts (e.g. a drastic cooling), grey goo eating the biosphere within a few days, etc. He correctly doesn’t put much stock into these sci-fi scenarios.

Unfolding Trends

Smil makes some general observations about trend analysis. First, they tend to follow a pattern of incremental engineering process (cheaper, more efficient) and gradual diffusion, yet are sometimes marked by profound discontinuities, e.g. fertility transitions, the continuing failure to control nuclear fusion. Surprises can occur because a) long-term trends aren’t recognized in time, such as the Soviet Union’s post-1965 stagnation, b) can’t predict which trends will become embedded in society, and which ones will veer off course, c) their unknowable effects on human society (e.g. will the oil peak be moderated by a smooth transition to gas or renewables, or does it herald the end of industrial civilization?). With that said, Smil now focuses on three things: 1) the coming energy transition, 2) Great Power dynamics and 3) the future of globalization.

Smil now moves into his forte – global energy systems. The first point he makes is that the basis of today’s industrial system was formed a long time ago and that improvements since then paled in significance. “The most important concatenation of these fundamental advances took place between 1867 and 1914″, when engineers realized electricity generation, steam and water turbines, internal combustion engines, inexpensive steel, aluminium, explosives, synthetic fertilizers, electronic components, thus laying the “technical foundations of the twentieth century” [much like men like Marx, Bismarck and Garibaldi laid its ideological foundations]. A second Golden Age occurred in the 1930′s and 1940′s, which saw “the introduction of gas turbines, nuclear fission, electronic computing, semiconductors, key plastics, insecticides and herbicides”.

This technological base requires huge, uninterrupted supplies of energy for its existence. The sources of energy remain constant for long periods due to the difficulty of substitution, which involves discarding old infrastructures and building anew. As a share of world total primary energy supply (TPES), coal went from 95% in 1900 (excluding phytomass), to just 28% in 2005, while crude oil rose from 4% in 1900 to 27% in 1950 and 46% in 1975, but dropped to 36% by 2005. Natural gas expanded significantly since the mid-century, reaching 24% of global TPES by 2005. All together, fossil fuels supplied 88% of global TPES in 2005, compared to 93% in 1975. Despite all the talk about environmentalism and energy security, there has been no walk; ours is still a predominantly fossil-fuel based civilization.

In the future, Smil foresees that a) there will be no oil peak, b) coal is unlimited except by concerns over climate change and c) gas will rise in importance because of its relatively low carbon per unit of energy ratio and advances in LNG technology.

Though I am in qualified agreement with b) and c), Smil ridiculing of the oil peakists in a) is singularly unconvincing. He claims the Hubbert model is “simplistic” in that it is “based on rigidly predetermined reserves” and ignores “innovative advances or price shifts”. The first point is flat out wrong. It applies to Hubbert’s first model, but in his later work he devised a method that did away with the need for guesstimates of URR (ultimately recoverable reserves) – and which gives pretty much the same results, indicating that the effects of technology and higher prices are limited. Taking the case of the US, despite the discovery of oil off Alaska and the Gulf, despite there having been more exploration in the country than in the rest of the world combined, despite the periods of high prices during 1973-1986 and 2002-2008, despite its light regulatory environment and access to cheap credit – American oil production has declined relentlessly since the early 1970′s. Quite simply, the evidence indicates that the power of depletion will eventually defeat ever greater and smarter extraction attempts. Read one of these overviews from 2007 or 2009 for a more indepth explanation of peak oil.

However, I agree with Smil that the transition to other non-fossil fuel sources will be a drawn out process, considering that most of the “prime movers” in our society are oil-based (the steam turbines that generate 70% of global electricity output, the gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine, the diesel engine, the gas turbine, and the induction electric motor). [I would note that these difficulties are going to be aggravated by peak oil].

Addition difficulties include a) the scale of the shift, b) lower energy density of replacement fuels, c) substantially lower power density of renewable energy extraction, d) intermittence of renewable flows and e) uneven distribution of renewable resource extraction.

1) Global civilization uses fossil energy at a rate of 12 TW, a twenty-fold increase from the late 1890′s (total world TPES is around 13 TW). Only solar power has a significantly larger than current TPES is solar flux at 122 PW, which is 4 OM greater; otherwise, wind (<10 TW), ocean waves (<5 TW), and today energy / geothermal (<1 TW). Though Earth’s net primary productivity (NPP) / terrestrial photosynthesis yields solid fuels (biomass) at the range of 55-60 TW, exploiting it will further degrade vital ecosystemic services, and besides humanity already appropriates 30-40% of global NPP as food, feed, fiber and fuel (with wood and crop residue accounting for 10% of current TPES).

2) Coal and oil are far more energy-dense than wood and in general biomass cultivation will take up 4-5 OM more space than conventional oil / gas infrastructure. “In order to energize the existing residential, industrial and transportation infrastructures inherited from the fossil-fueled era, a solar-based society would have to concentrate diffuse flows to bridge power density gaps of 2-3 OM”. As an example, even using Brazilian ethanol from sugar cane to replace all current gasoline, diesel and kerosene used in transport would require the subjugation of 1/3 of the world’s cultivated lands – or all agricultural land in the tropics. Corn ethanol has half the power density of sugar cane ethanol. Large-scale adoption will have catastrophic impacts on food self-sufficiency.

[source]

3) Renewables don’t satisfy base load power requirements of an industrial society. Load factors are 75%+ for coal-powered power stations or 90%+ for nuclear power stations, whereas wind power is just 20-25%.

4) Renewable flows are also unevenly distributed, just like 60%+ of easy hydrocarbons are locked up in the Persian Gulf Zagros Basin. Jakarta has as little sun as Edmonton (shared with equatorial zone). Many areas are either too still or too windy, i.e. will be heavily damaged by hurricanes.

5) Costs won’t necessarily decline. To the contrary, protovoltaic silicon prices have more doubled; prices of steel, aluminium, plastics, etc, for wind turbines also drastically increased due to the underlying rise in oil prices.

Smil reiterates some pretty standard arguments on nuclear and hydrogen. The nuclear industry expanded quickly until the 1970′s, but stalled at that point because it previously hadn’t included costs like state-subsidized nuclear R&D, decommissioning costs and waste disposal (and later negative PR like Chernobyl). Hydrogen is not a realistic option barring the mass spread of cheap solar power. Concludes that this energy transition will be fundamentally different from previous one, which was driven by declining resource availability (deforestation), higher quality of fossil fuels (energy density, easier storage, more flexibility) and lower cost of coal and hydrocarbons. According to Smil, none of these factors apply to the fossil economy – though he expresses some concern over its contribution to climate change.

Having outlined his idea of the main trend of the next fifty years, Smil turns to a standard analysis of the shifting balance of international power between the US, China, Japan, Russia, Islam, and Europe. He cautions against subscribing to the conventional wisdom, pointing out that a) the Soviet collapse and Japan’s post-1980′s stagnation were largely unforeseen, b) the tendency of the US to surprise, going from decline / deindustrialization in the 1980′s to a vigorous “new economy” in the 1990′s before becoming fiscally and militarily overstretched in the 2000′s.

Geopolitical Trends

Smil does not believe Europe holds out much promise, unlike some delusional commentators. It is in long-term, centennial economic decline relative to the rest of the world and its economies are mired in inefficiency, unemployment and bureaucracy, and are less technologically dynamic than Japan or the US. Both Britain and Spain face separatist challenges and are economic basketcases. France is over-regulated dirigisme and has problems with integrating its 10% Muslim population (remember the burning banlieues?), but is at least demographically healthy – unlike Italy and Germany, which are rapidly aging and about to depopulate rapidly with very negative economic effects (they might be in a fertility trap, in which ever smaller generations need to pay higher tax burdens which limits their reproductive freedom). In particular, Italy is sinking back into corruption and Mafia influence, its artisanal manufacturing is being destroyed by Chinese competition and there remain huge gaps between the Nord and Mezzogiorno. He reiterates Mark Steyn’s Eurabia theory arguments (crudely summarized as lots of under-reported young, fertility, fanatical Muslims simmering in ghettoes), which has a number of holes in it. Finally, the EU structure itself is disconnected from national electorates and reality in general, and has no inspiring sense of mission; further expansion will just weaken it further. [Agreed with most things - I believe the EU by 2020 will be a much less significant institution and European nations will be tottering, preoccupied with trying to solve their own internal problems].

After a period of euphoric hubris in the 1980′s, when it seemed Japan would be number one, the country crashed into a long, ongoing period of stagnation marked by crippling deflation, the fall of the Nikkei from a peak at 39,000 in December 1989 to below 10,000, and the appearance of the NEET generation (not in employment, education or training). Though it remains rich, well-off and technologically advanced, there is a moral anomie as long-term jobs vanished and fertility plunged to around 1.2 children per woman. Smil is pessimistic on Japan due to a) its ingrained conservatism [though would the recent electoral win by the Democratic Party of Japan later be regarded in the same vein as the Meiji reforms?], b) the continued hostility of neighbors reinforces its security dependence on the US, especially to counter challenges from China and North Korea, and c) the start of depopulation in 2005, retirement wave in 2010′s as the 1950′s baby boomers retire, and the prospective massive aging of the population (medium age 50 by 2025, more 80+ than 0-14 year olds by 2050). Japanese culture does not accept immigrants and it will not be saved by robots.

The author sees Islam being in a fractured state (secular / spiritual, Sunni / Shia / others, etc) in a difficult relationship with modernity, fighting the same internal civil war that charactered early modern Christianity. His short exegesis of the Koran finds that there is support for many interpretations of just how restrictive Islam has to be, and this forms an ideological battleground between the extremists and moderates. Signs of this backwardness include the Iranian fatwa against Rushdie, the prevalence of bizarre conspiracy theories on the Arab street, and Islamic countries accounting for just 2% of the world’s scientific publications. [To this we can add the Mohammed cartoons controversy and the 2003 UN Arab development report that produced the astonishing statistic that more books are translated into Spanish per year than have been translated into Arabic in all history]. There are several inequalities within the ummah (e.g. oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) and internal instability, in part cased by the demographic explosion [usually in water-stressed environments, I'd add] which results in youth bulges – young men with no job prospects who are susceptible to joining violent groupings. Even as the region simmers, the outside world will be forced to take an interest due to its stranglehold over the world’s oil supplies (the five Persian Gulf nations produced about 1/3 of the world’s oil in 2005, and this figure is projected to rise substantially).

It is evident he knows his stuff when talking about Russia, or at least is well-read on it. Contrary to most analysts, he believes it is resurgent in a real way, even though its longer-term prospects are uncertain. He lists its strengths as being an energy superpower (especially with respect to gas) with a big intellectual capacity and a formidable military that is being rearmed with newer-generation weapons. However, he foresees significant challenges in the form of its cyclical, hydrocarbons-based economy [as confirmed by the 2008 crisis, though the deeper problem is dependence on foreign credit], its unstable democracy, the Islamist insurgence in the Caucasus, and above all its negative demographic trends [I've written a lot about this, just search the site].

China is gradually returning to its old position of global economic predominance, its growth helped by Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberalization, FDI, the one-child policy, a cheap, disciplined and relatively skilled labor force, mass urbanization and migration to the coasts, and a certain degree of innovation (state-funded research facilities, as well as flouting of IP and large-scale industrial espionage). It is “a Communist government guaranteeing a docile work force that labors without rights and often in military camp conditions in Western-financed factories so that multi-national companies can expand their profits, increase Western trade deficits, and shrink non-Asian manufacturing”. It is economically mercantile, seeking resources around the world and if current growth trends continue, China could match US military spending by 2020. However, there are substantial problems with a) the population (severe 118:100 male-female imbalance, rapid aging and undeveloped pension system), b) the economy (huge rural-urban inequality, high taxes on peasantry and violent expropriations by business-state symbiosis), c) the environment (deforestation and soil erosion from Maoist era, little arable land per capita that is shrinking from salinization, desertification and urban expansion, needs more food but irrigation is constrained by water shortages and crops are already very intensively fertilized, falling water tables and toxic rivers, very poor air quality and now leading CO2 emitter), and d) cultural mediocrity (not as much soft power as the US).

India is nowhere near as powerful as China, and the same factors limiting the latter militate against India. It’s GDP is twice smaller; though its Gini index of income inequality is better (35 versus 45), this is a product of its underdevelopment, besides its deep social stratification / de facto caste system persists; malnutrition, immunization rates and adult illiteracy are all much worse in India; China has 3x the electricity-generating capacity and 17x the container port capacity. Though democratic, it is likewise deeply corrupt, bureaucratic and ecologically degraded. It faces a nuclear-armed Pakistan and the prospect of tens of millions of Bangladeshi refugees spilling over once their country sinks under the rising seas.

Smil is an all-round pessimist, believing the United States may go the way of the Roman Empire. According to him, its woes include increasing economic and foreign policy challenges [see Shifting Winds], uncontrolled Hispanic immigration that threatens its long-term territorial integrity and Protestant “work ethic” values, and perennial budget deficits (in particular the structural nature of the current account deficit, formed due to its reliance on oil imports to sustain the suburban arrangements and the collapse of its domestic industrial base – mundane manufacturing, the auto industry, and now even aerospace and the food industry. It has a poor education system (see results of PISA international standardized tests), retiring baby boomers about to cash in on state obligations and their savings, obesity and a general cultural decline. However, the possibility of open discussion of these failings is a persistent American strength.

He then proceeds to make the argument that “US leadership is in its twilight phase” and that the “coming transition will be unprecedented” due to the global nature of its hegemony. He plausibly affirms that no nation is strong enough to replace the US as the sole superpower, meaning that there will probably be more chaos, instability and wars. Smil predicts that in sum the world will regret its passing.

Smil concludes with an analysis of globalization, making the points that it is an ongoing historical process originating in the 16th C and blossoming from the 1950′s with the arrival of the tanker revolution, now blossoming in the intricate production chains and JIT system exemplified by Wal-Mart’s relation with China. There is a stabilizing force, interdependence, which expands the economic scope of every globalized nation far beyond the limited autarkies of history, but at the same time makes them ever more vulnerable to disruption of these links; the destabilizing force is the growing inequality between nations (e.g. failed states), though a caveat is that when calculated by population there is an improvement mainly thanks to China (but nullified when taking into account the intra-national growth of inequality – which increase since 1970 in all the major countries like the US [35 to 47], Japan [25 to 37], China [25 to 50], Russia [25 to 40]. There is now no global “middle class”, according to Smil, which makes the system unstable. [Here I disagree - East-Central Europe, Latin America and even China fit the bill here].

Environmental Change & Conclusion

This next long section is a detailed analysis of the likely course and effects of global warming. Most of the stuff is pretty basic and I’ve already summarized in my reviews of Six Degrees (Mark Lynas) and The Last Generation (Fred Pearce).

His most interesting discussions are of human influence of the nitrogen cycle (which they’ve affected to a far greater degree than the carbon cycle) and the spread of antibiotic resistance. “Losses of nitrogen from synthetic fertilizers and manures, nitrogen added through biofixation by leguminous crops and nitrogen oxides released from combustion of fossil fuels are now adding about as much reactive nitrogen (c.159 Mt N/year) to the biosphere as natural biofixation and lighting does” (in contrast human interference in carbon cycle through land use changes and fossil fuel burning amounts to 10% of annual photosynthetic fixation of the element and sulfur is equal to 1/3. This leads to mass leaching, eutrophication, growth of algae and phytoplankton, and the subsequent decomposition deoxygenates water and kills bottom-dwelling aquatic species. The worst hypoxic zones are the Gulf of Mexico, the lagoon of the Great Barrier Reef, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the North Sea. Nitrogen oxides formed during combustion contribute to photochemical smog in urban areas around the world and acid rain. It’s use will increase as Asia demands higher crop yields and Africa needs to stop its increasing nutrient mining.

The other worrying trend he discusses at length is the rise of antibiotic resistance on the part of pathogens, as peniccilin and its descendants become increasingly less effective. This is inevitable, but is much facilitated by widespread self-medication, over-prescription and poor sanitation in hospitals. If these negative trends continue, influenza deaths will sky-rocket due to the inability to treat bacterial pneumonia, and treating tuberculosis and typhoid fever will become very difficult. A nightmare scenario can arise if this is accompanied by increasing malnutrition and AIDS, which make people far more susceptible to these secondary diseases.

In the last chapter, “Dealing with Risk and Uncertainty”, Smil sums up and embellishes his ideas, asserts the necessity of properly quantifying risks, cautions on the fallacies of linear extrapolation of current trends, and notes that even during a collapse there are silver linings, using the construction of the basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome (422-483) during the waning years of the Roman Empire (ended in 476) as an example.

In conclusion, this is a very good and entertaining book. There are some East European-style grammatical mistakes and perhaps a bit too much personal boasting, but otherwise it provides a realistic appraisal of the real potential catastrophes facing humanity (i.e. big wars and pandemics, not terrorism, earthquakes or “grey goo”) and the dominant trends of the next fifty years (geopolitical flux / non-polarity, climate change & pollution, the energy transition). He approaches the subject very rigorously-scientifically so one gets a good perspective of possible futures, my only major disagreements with him being on his disbelief in the oil peak theory and paying too little attention to the social and geopolitical ramifications of climate change (he doesn’t really consider the catastrophic possibilities, sticking to the middle-of-the-road consensual IPCC forecasts).

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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I’ve long viewed the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) denial movement with a certain sense of bemusement. The causal links are rock-solid – could it really be a coincidence that atmospheric CO2 levels started rising at the very same moment as industrial civilization got into swing, within decades reaching magnitudes big enough to decisively interrupt the glacial-interglacial cycle that previously held steady for hundreds of thousands of years? Is it really surprising that given the heat-absorbing properties of CO2 (known to science since the 18th century), global temperatures entered into a period of steep ascent since the 1970s, rising by around 0.9C from the 1900-1910 period to the last decade? Occam’s Razor anyone? And considering that only 6C or so separate us from the Ice Ages, when ice sheets descended into central Europe, southern England was a polar wasteland scoured by icy, dust-laden winds and dessication affected even the tropics, should not even the possibility of seeing the world warm by up to 6.4C during this century – corresponding to the high end of the IPCC’s forecasts in 2007 – invoke a certain level of concern?

I plan to write more on climate change, since it is going to be one of the key trends of this century (along with resource depletion and growth in computing power). But for now – and to forestall any future objections – I would like to take a moment to expose the top myths and misconceptions of AGW deniers.

10

It’s all a conspiracy – scientists want research funding and environmentalists want to impose socialism on us.

Frankly the idea that tens of thousands are colluding in a massive conspiracy is risible. If anything it is the denier camp which has economic incentives to promote their views, given the funding they receive from the fossil-fuel industry. The Bush administration scientists pursued a campaign of disinformation and outright censorship regarding AGW. So who are the real conspirators?

9

In past warmings temperatures in Antarctica began rising some 800 years prior to rising CO2.

The warmings took 5000 years to complete, so CO2 can’t account for just 1/6 of it. The initial warming is likely related to the Earth’s orbital cycles around the Sun. After a certain critical level of temperature rise is passed, more CO2 is released into the atmosphere – perhaps from its deep ocean sinks, since it takes around a millennium to diffuse heat to the ocean depths. This further amplifies warming in a positive feedback loop. Read more here and here.

8

There is no scientific consensus on AGW. And even if there is, it doesn’t mean it’s right.

Yes there is. In a January 2009 poll, 97% of climatologists active in research today said they believed that “human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures”. A 2004 study by Naomi Oreskes of close to a thousand papers related to global climate change found that not one rejected the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.

Though consensuses are sometimes wrong, they are right in the vast majority of cases. Though Patrick Michaels may claim there is a “paradigm problem” (borrowing from T. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions) with the conservative IPCC which serves to suppress mavericks, it goes the other way too – the IPCC generally neglects to mention new, outlying research which suggests that climate may change at a much more sudden and violent pace because of previously-unknown positive feedbacks and underestimated climate sensitivity.

7

Satellite sensors and equipment on weather balloons show evidence of cooling, thus disproving that eight of the hottest years have been since 1998 and other sensationalist claims.

Satellites don’t just measure the troposphere (the lowest level of the atmosphere) – which is what matters – in isolation, but also the higher stratosphere. The latter is expected to cool during global warming, because more heat is absorbed by the Earth and less is re-radiated into space. Furthermore, satellites are dependent on weekly recalibration by weather balloons so they cannot even be said to be independent.

As for the weather balloons, the problem is that during the 1960′s and 1970′s their on-board thermometers were not shielded from the Sun’s glare – thus inflating temperatures for that time period. Since this (obvious) oversight was fixed in the past couple of decades, the juxtaposed records appear to invalidate global warming…appear being the operative word. For when the analysis is restricted to just night-time measurements, surely enough the data shows a clear warming trend.

6

With “friends” like Al Gore, the global warming lobby needs no enemies!

Al Gore is a popularizer who happens to make good money from his activities. He has an admirable spirit of capitalist enterprise. Good for him. For the record, I haven’t even watched An Inconvenient Truth in full (and don’t plan to any time soon – it is nothing more than a basic and long-winded intro to the subject). The pilot fishes who drone on about AGW-supporters being “Gore’s dupes” are (US-centric) idiots.

And though Jurassic Park was brilliant and Prey was very good, with “friends” like Michael Crichton the AWG denial lobby needs no enemies!

5

Surface measurements indicating warming are flawed because increasing urbanization over the past few decades skewed the global data upwards, since cities hang on to heat better than the natural landscape.

Intuitively unlikely, because the greatest warming took place over Arctic regions well away from big population centers (global warming is more severe there because retreating ice and reduces snowfall diminishes the albedo of the land, resulting in greater heat absorption). Furthermore, urban heat islands occur mainly at night and are reduced in windy conditions. A study showed that global temperatures have risen as much on windy nights as on calm nights, “indicating that the observed overall warming is not a consequence of urban development”.

4

The global warming alarmists base their theories of man-made climate change on spurious allegations of a “Hockey Stick”, and neglect the dominant role of water vapor as a greenhouse gas.

Late 20th century temperatures are indeed anomalously high relative to the past millennium, thus forming a hockey stick on a temperature over time graph for the period. Evidence for AGW is far more extensive that just this, however.

Although water vapor is indeed acknowledged to be the most important greenhouse gas, it is primarily a feedback because of its extremely short (ie measured in days) residence time in the atmosphere. This means it merely responds to forcings such as CO2 levels or solar radiation. Increased anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases will amplify the greenhouse effect, strengthen evaporation and increase the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere.

3

You can’t use computer models to predict something as complex and chaotic as the global climate.

Though the details are indeed hard to capture, it is easy to see that a thicker blanket of greenhouse gases will cause the Earth to absorb more heat and force the climate system into a new, hotter and more energetic equilibrium. It’s also clear that due to changes in albedo, some areas will warm faster than others and global water and air flows will be altered. There is nothing wrong with using computers to model them by solving lots of physical equations – it’s much quicker than doing it by hand (speaking of which, in the 1890′s the Norwegian chemist Svante Arrhenius solved the riddle of the Ice Ages, attributing it to and correctly predicting the lower CO2 levels of that time; using the same method, he forecast a temperature rise of 5-6C for a doubling of CO2 levels, thus almost mirroring the IPCC’s high-end scenarios). Finally, it’s not all computer models, of course – there’s also paleoclimatic studies, which if anything hint at an even more pessimistic state of affairs. Our current atmospheric CO2 level of 384+ ppm was last observed during the Pliocene 3mn years ago, when global temperatures soared by 3C.

2

Climate fluctuations are all down to solar cycles and cosmic rays.

This does not account for the strong warming seen since the 1970′s – as you can see in the graph below, direct measurements of solar output since 1978 show a steady rise and fall over the 11-year sunspot cycle, with no upwards or downward trend.

Though there are arguments about the relative importance of solar forcing in the distant past, it is clear that in the present day its effects have been largely swamped by the sheer amount of CO2 we’ve emitted – though it continues playing an important role as perhaps illustrated by how the 1998-2003 period of mid-latitudinal drought coincided with the peak of the most recent wave.

Similarly, cosmic rays can’t explain the recent warming either.

1

Global warming my ass! There’s a mighty blizzard where I live right now!

Weather is not climate. Using this example as “proof” of the lack of AGW is about as valid as citing a particular heatwave as “proof” for it. That is, not at all.

Furthermore, global warming does not mean absolutely every place on Earth will on warm – due to heat redistribution, some places will warm much more than others, and some might even cool. For instance, the collapse of the ocean conveyor belt in the North Atlantic could theoretically plunge Europe in a new Little Ice Age.

Other objections

Not to worry. Though warming is happening, the IPCC is unduly alarmist since there are many negative feedbacks. Past changes were slow and we will adapt easily over the coming centuries. It will get warmer, nicer and crop yields will soar. And if not, there’s always geo-engineering.

Somewhat more intellectually valid…but still probably wrong.

As mentioned in #8, the IPCC is a slow, conservative institution that has up till now relied on conventional AGW models without accounting for potential catastrophic positive feedbacks (ocean acidification and the dessication of the Amazon rainforest removing vital CO2 sinks; melting permafrost and oceanic clathrates resulting in massive methane releases). Since Greenland and West Antarctica were recently found to be inherently much more unstable than previously thought, large-scale ice sheet collapse and inundations could occur over decades rather than the centuries and millennia projected in IPCC reports. Though there may exist negative feedbacks, such as a drier troposphere or increased cloud formation (yet even here the question of whether it will constitute a positive or negative feedback is poorly understood), they seem easily outnumbered by positively positive feedbacks.

There are plenty of examples of dramatic climatic shifts in Earth history. The Younger Dryas-Holocene transition 11,000 years ago consisted of a series of sudden jumps over a few years. Sea levels can also rise at rates far exceeding those needed for smooth human adaptation. Considering that greenhouse gas levels are rising at rates probably unprecedented in Earth history and that global dimming may have suppressed as much as half of the real warming (thus indicating that the climate sensitivity to CO2 levels used in conventional climate models is dangerously under-estimated), changes in coming decades are likely to be rapid and not for the better. Ocean acidification will finish off the world’s already depleted fish stocks and droughts in today’s temperate regions will break the world’s major breadbaskets; though agriculture can in principle be moved to Siberia and the Far North, the soils there are thin and acidic, and are unlikely to compensate in net terms.

Geo-engineering is, not surprisingly, rather risky – the climate system is not well understood, and fiddling with it could further worsen the problem. And not every country is expected to have absolutely altruistic aims when it comes to tweaking the world’s climate. Yet ultimately, for once we agree – I think it very likely that humanity will be forced into gambling with geo-engineering as the century unfolds. Perhaps climate stability is doomed and geo-engineering – in essense, humanity taking control of planetary ecological services previously provided for free – is already the only realistic choice left.

The hypocrisy of “Earth Day”, and other limp-wristed measures: the one issue where I find common ground with the deniers

Considering that there are 8760 hours in a year, turning off your lights for one of them is going to do absolutely zilch and is nothing more than an empty gesture of false atonement for one’s ecological sins; it is a kind of social placebo to delude people into thinking they’re doing something good for the environment, whereas in reality it is just an escape clause for guilt-ridden liberals that allows them to avoid making the real and initially painful changes society needs to attain long-term sustainability. As such, I join AGW-denying conservatives in boycotting this farce – albeit for obviously diametrically opposite reasons.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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In an article some months ago I suggested that “perhaps this crisis is simply an unconscious recognition of this inconvenient truth?” – namely, the peaking of oil extraction and all that it implies for the continued survival of a financial system built on assumptions of continuous economic growth. In other words, the fashionable approach of focusing on exotic financial instruments, regulatory failures, etc, if a case of mistaking the forest for the trees.

The Oil Drum had a nice graphical summary. According to the author, Gail the Actuary, the chain of causation runs thus: rising oil prices -> inflated asset values -> booming phantom wealth -> high energy costs undermine real economy -> more and more bubbles pricked -> banking crisis -> credit crisis -> cascaded economic failure -> oil demand destruction -> oil prices plummet -> so do ever costlier long-term investments in oil extraction -> economic recovery at lower level -> rising oil prices. Cycle repeats itself to oblivion.

This explains the extreme severity of the crash – record GDP growth at a time of plateaued oil extraction in the 2005-2008 period was patently unsustainable, so a very big “correction could not have been unexpected.

And it is quite a correction.

As of the September-November average, global industrial production was plummeting at an annualized rate of -13% and merchandise trade by a truly remarkable -43%. And it is obvious the collapse accelerated since then…

Already far worse than during even the worst month of 2000-2001, the last and only global slowdown for which the IMF has data.

Already far worse than during even the worst month of 2000-2001, the last and only global slowdown for which the IMF has data.

But this is not a strictly economic post, or meant to be long / detailed (I’ll post that kind of thing within the next few weeks). So on to the next point about the oil connection…

Another Oil Drum blogger, Phil Hart, wrote about the dramatic rise and fall in oil prices in terms of simple supply and demand curves. I’ve had the same thoughts tumbling about in my head but unfortunately didn’t come to writing about them in such detail…

Oil demand and supply.

Oil demand and supply.

His thesis is that because of the geological limits to oil supply, the marginal cost of providing ever more oil is generally low until it reaches some point – say, 85mn barrels a day – and then veers off into the sky (i.e. becomes very inelastic). Demand is also inelastic, since modern society basically runs on oil. Hence there comes a time when the demand curve reaches a point when its intersection with the supply curve – i.e., the market price – starts rising exponentially.

Exponential rise in oil prices; all exponents in a finite environment will eventually overshoot and collapse.

Exponential rise in oil prices; all exponents in a finite environment will eventually overshoot and collapse.

Supply can no longer be expanded to any significant extent, despite the market signals. All we managed was a precarious plateau, the big rate of natural decline of existing oilfields being compensated for by remoter and lower-EROEI sources. The strain got too big, we slipped up and are now falling to a lower plateau – at an annualized rate of at least negative 13% of global industrial production…

PS. Is it also a coincidence that possible the hardest hit major industry was the automobile sector, with production plummeting by up to 50% in most countries? Particularly when you consider that they are the sector that is most tightly linked to cheap supplies of oil products?

Calculated Risk compiled a graph of the fleet turnover (total vehicles divided by annual sales) to give a historical value for the number of years required to totally refurbish America’s car fleet – from hovering at 13-15 years, it soared to an historically unprecedented 27 years. Projecting this forward, the size of the fleet will decline AND age simultaneously since most vehicles don’t last anywhere near 27 years on the road.

Since most vehicles won’t last this long, unless situation turns around the size of the fleet will decline AND age simultaneously. (But of course it won’t, because of impending energy shortages).

This is a completely rational development from a peakist perspective, of course. Even though generally more fuel efficient on paper, a lot of energy needs to be spent manufacturing them; since these initial energy costs have already been spent in old vehicles, it makes sense to prolong their lifespans instead of trying to increase the turnover of the fleet. So unless oil magically remains cheap and plentiful in the years ahead, or hybrids / battery-powered vehicles become far more successful than they are currently, expect the cars on our roads to gradually get older, creakier and dirtier like in Third World places – albeit with much better, cheaper and more intelligent electronics (due to Moore’s Law and its siblings).

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.