Intellectual Honesty

Out of oil?

Out of oil?

Mr. X has been chastising me again, this time about writing the statement “though it’s only been three or four decades since we’ve truly realized it, the carbon emissions in the second graph are going to wreck the planet”, in my post “A Matter of Limits“. He says that it isn’t a fact that carbon emissions will wreck the planet, only a possibility. He’s right—I generally treat this statement as a given, an a priori assumption, and use it as a starting point for many arguments. The physics, the bulk of the evidence, and the majority of climate scientists concur. BUT—predicting the future is a hazardous thing, and Mr. X, I believe, is correct on this one.

This has also made me think because I’ve seen two lines of thought in the last week that have given me pause, and I want to be intellectually honest in my mental pursuits, and don’t want to be one of those people who is so committed to their own viewpoint that they become ossified in their thinking (see my post from early last month, “Half-Truths“).

So, line-of-thinking #1—I stumbled across a blog the other day, “Do the Math“, which is written by a professor at UC San Diego, Tom Murphy, and deals, generally, with the math and physics behind energy. I found it quite fascinating.The man is a real-life PhD-level astrophysicist, seems thoughtful and reasoned, and is a good writer. His opening statement to his blog, apart from the technical accomplishments, seems like a compilation of things I have written myself. So, finally back from Boston, and with my wife now out of town, I sat down the other day and started reading what he’s written. I read until almost 2 a.m., and then more yesterday; perhaps half of all the material on his website. Fascinating stuff. His general take—we live on a finite planet, economic growth must level off, there are real mathematical and thermodynamic reasons why our energy use can’t continue to grow exponentially, oil is peaking, we might get caught in a predicament as energy becomes more scarce, and there are no great energy alternatives out there. Because of all of this, we need to voluntarily slow down, conserve, and begin to adjust to a future of level population, zero economic growth, and constrained energy. Liquid fuels will be the first to diminish, and will have ripple effects on the whole economy, he writes, and the potential for efficiency improvement is limited in many areas.

So, I agree, completely, with most of that. The part that gave me pause—for all his concern about switching to renewable sources of power, the driving force behind his viewpoint is “peak oil”, and not global warming. I was, and remain, skeptical. Five or more years ago, I would have agreed—peak oil seemed like a rock-solid case as I pondered it. But I fairly quickly began to think of more and more avenues that would make “peak oil”, if not a non-issue, at least not a civilization-crasher. Likewise, five years ago I gave quite a bit of credence to those who felt the U.S. financial system was due to go off the rails, and I’ve also decided that this is far less than likely. Tom Murphy, for all his brilliance, and for all his very-useful articles about renewable power, and despite his 12.5 million website hits, might not be correct as to the things he emphasizes.

But, back to the part-that-gave-me-pause—one reason he is concerned about peak oil seems to be that he doesn’t think that global warming will be an issue (and peak oil is clearly inevitable, I’m just not sure that it will be a show-stopper. I might expound on that, but perhaps not in this post). And, reason to stop and take note—this isn’t some ideologue on the street parroting back something he heard on Rush Limbaugh about global warming ideas being a sham, this is a guy that can actually do, and has done, much of the math. Interestingly, he doesn’t deny global warming in any way, in fact, he claims that the physics behind it are rock-solid. He just doesn’t seem to think that a warming planet will be a show-stopper (read his post “Recipe for Climate Change in Two Easy Steps“). So, I’m pretty sure he’s wrong about the part about it not being a serious matter, but it’s something to think about.

The ocean-- a source of disparity.

The ocean– a source of disparity.

Reason-to-pause #2—Mr. X pointed out an article about recent warming data that shows that the planet isn’t warming quite like most models predicted. There seems to be much recent discussion of this. Bottom line—no one really thinks that warming has stopped, but it seems that something isn’t quite right with the computer models, likely in the algorithms that pertain to the thermal capacity of ocean water at depths deeper than 700 feet. The result is that the average temperature of the planet has remained somewhat flat for the last decade. Here’s a more complete reading list in case you’re interested, all recent articles: The Economist “A Cooling Consensus”, New Republic “Explaining the Global Warming Hiatus”, The Economist “Apocalypse Perhaps A Little Later”, The Economist “A Sensitive Matter”, and The Washington Post “Global Warming Appears to Have Slowed Lately: That’s No Reason to Celebrate”.

Climate science is notoriously complex, and this situation just shows that we might not know as much as we think we do. Again, no one thinks that warming isn’t happening or isn’t going to continue, and none of these articles argues with the idea that the burning of fossil fuels is the culprit, but the argument is over the speed at which this will happen. If it turns out that due to some heretofore unknown factor that warming is going to proceed slower than expected, then yay for the planet; it will give humanity a bit more time to adjust. In fact, it might shift the ball into Tom Murphy’s court, and back to concerns about peak oil (though I doubt it).

But the fact that models are still being perfected is reason enough to be a bit more careful with the dire predictions. Now, all that being said—the whole “global warming/peak oil/energy” ball of wax is only part of humanity’s problems. Trend lines are heading in the wrong direction in just about every arena (post- “It’s the Trend Lines that are Scary“). And, within the energy debate, it is interesting to note that in most cases, the potential downsides to business-as-usual, whether from global warming, or climate change, or peak oil, are potentially quite serious, or even disastrous. So, while Mr. X is correct, and these aren’t sure things, they are well within the realm of possibility (or even likely), and the safest course of action, in nearly all cases, is to begin to shift away from fossil fuels. And, in the vein of being intellectually honest, the risk of an all-out effort is that it may slow the economy in ways that might impact the world’s poor. But, I think this risk is vastly overshadowed by the risks of not acting in response to the potential downsides of continued profligate fossil fuel consumption.

So, despite all these pauses, my basic tenets remain—business-as-usual is a dangerous game, and we need to veer away from that course.

 Image credit: sgv / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: andreyst / 123RF Stock Photo