Oil Limits and Climate Change – How They Fit Together

We hear a lot about climate change, especially now that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently published another report. At the same time, oil is reaching limits, and this has an effect as well. How do the two issues fit together?

In simplest terms, what the situation means to me is that the “low scenario,” which the IPCC calls “RCP2.6,” is closest to what we can expect in terms of man-made carbon emissions. Thus, the most reasonable scenario, based on their modeling, would seem to be the purple bar that continues to rise for the next twenty years or so and then is close to horizontal.

Figure 1. Summary Climate Change Exhibit from new  IPCC Report.

Figure 1. Summary global average surface temperature change exhibit from new IPCC Report.

I come to this conclusion by looking at the tables of anthropogenic carbon emission shown in Annex II of the report. According to IPCC data, the four modeled scenarios have emissions indicated in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Total anthropogenic carbon emissions modeled for in the scenarios selected by the IPCC, based on data from Table All 2.a in Annex II.

Figure 2. Total anthropogenic carbon emissions modeled for in the scenarios selected by the IPCC, based on data from Table All 2.a in Annex II.

The Likely Effect of Oil Limits

The likely effect of oil limits–one way or the other–is to bring down the economy, and because of this bring an end to pretty much all carbon emissions (not just oil) very quickly. There are several ways this could happen:

  • High oil prices – we saw what these could do in 2008.  They nearly sank the financial system. If they return, central banks have already done most of what they can to “fix” the situation. They are likely to be short of ammunition the next time around.
  • Low oil prices – this is the current problem. Oil companies are cutting back on new expenditures because they cannot make money on a cash flow basis on shale plays and on other new oil drilling. Oil companies can’t just keep adding debt, so they are doing less investment. I talked about this in Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending. Less oil means either a rebound in prices or not enough oil produced to go around. Either way, we are likely to see massive recession and falling world GDP.
  • Huge credit problems, such as happened in 2008, only worse. Oil drilling would stop within a few years, because oil prices would drop too low, and stay too low, without lots of credit to prop up prices of commodities of all types.
  • Rapidly rising interest rates, as QE reaches its limits. (QE for the United States was put in place at the time of the 2008 crisis, and has been continued since then.) Rising interest rates lead to higher needed tax rates and high monthly payments for homes and cars. The current QE-induced bubble in stock, land, and home prices is also likely to break, sending prices down again.
  • End of globalization, as countries form new alliances, such as Russia-China-Iran. The US is making false claims that we can get along without some parts of the world, because we have so much natural gas and oil. This is nonsense. Once groups of countries start pulling in opposite directions, the countries that have been using a disproportionate share of oil (particularly Europe, the United States, and Japan) will find themselves in deep trouble.
  • Electric grid failures, because subsidies for renewables leave companies that sell fossil-fuel powered electricity with too little profit. The current payment system for renewables needs to be fixed to be fair to companies that generate electricity using fossil fuels. We cannot operate our economy on renewables alone, in part, because the quantity is far too small. Creation of new renewables and maintenance of such renewables is also fossil fuel dependent.

If any of these scenarios takes place and snowballs to a collapse of today’s economy, I expect that a rapid decline in fossil fuel consumption of all kinds will take place. This decline is likely to be more rapid than modeled in the RCP2.6 Scenario. The RCP2.6 Scenario assumes that anthropogenic carbon emissions will still be at 84% of 2010 levels in 2030. In comparison, my expectation (Figure 3, below) is that fossil fuel use (and thus anthropogenic carbon emissions) will be at a little less than 40% of 2010 levels in 2030.

Figure 3. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings.

Figure 3. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings.

After 2070, the RCP2.6 Scenario indicates negative carbon emissions, presumably from geo-engineering. In my view of the future, such an approach seems unlikely if oil limits are a major problem, because without fossil fuels, we will not have the ability to use engineering approaches. It is also doubtful that there would be as much need for these engineered carbon-take-downs at the end of the period. Population would likely be much lower by then, so current anthropogenic carbon emissions would be less of a problem.

The Climate Change Scenario Not Modeled

We really don’t know what future climate change will look like because no one has tried to model what a collapse situation would look like. Presumably there will be a lot of tree-cutting and burning of biomass for fuel. This will change land use besides adding emissions from the burned biomass to the atmosphere. At the same time, emissions associated with fossil fuels will likely drop very rapidly.

Clearly the climate has been changing and will continue to change. At least part of our problem is that we have assumed that it is possible to have an unchanging world and have made huge investments assuming that climate would go along with our plans. Unfortunately, the way nature “works” is by repeatedly replacing one system with another system. The new systems that survive tend to be better adapted to recent changes in conditions. If we think of humans, other animals, and plants as “systems,” this is true of them as well. No living being can expect to survive forever.

Unfortunately economies are not permanent either. Just as the Roman Empire failed, our economy cannot last forever. In physics, economies seem to be examples of dissipative structures, just as plants and animals and hurricanes are. Dissipative structures are formed in the presence of flows of energy and matter in open thermodynamic systems–that is, systems that are constantly receiving a new flow of energy, as we on earth do from the sun. Unfortunately, dissipative structures don’t last forever.

Dissipative structures temporarily dissipate energy that is available. At the same time, they affect their surroundings. In the case of an economy, the use of energy permits the extraction of the most accessible, easy-to-extract resources, such as fossil fuels, metals, and fresh water. At the same time, population tends to grow. The combination of growing extraction and rising population leads to economic stresses.

At some point the economy becomes overly stressed because of limits of various types. Some of these limits are pollution-related, such as climate change. Other limits present themselves as higher costs, such as the need for deeper wells or desalination to provide water for a growing population, and the need for greater food productivity per acre because of more mouths to feed. The extraction of oil and other fossil fuels also provides a cost limit, as resource extraction becomes more complex, requiring a larger share of the output of the economy. When limits hit, governments are especially likely to suffer from inadequate funding and excessive debt, because tax revenue suffers if wages and profits drop.

People who haven’t thought much about the situation often believe that we can simply get along without our current economy. If we think about the situation, we would lose a great deal if we lost the connections that our current economy, and the financial system underlying it, offers. We as humans cannot “do it alone”–pull out metals and refine them with our bare hands, dig deeper wells, or keep up fossil fuel extraction. Re-establishing needed connections in a totally new economy would be a massive undertaking. Such connections are normally built up over decades or longer, as new businesses are formed, governments make laws, and consumers adapt to changing situations. Without oil, we cannot easily go back to horse and buggy!

Unfortunately, much of the writing related to dissipative structures and the economy is in French. François Roddier wrote a book called Thermodynamique de l’évolution on topics related to this subject. Matthieu Auzanneau writes about the issue on his blog. Roddier has a presentation available in French. One paper on a related topic in English is Energy Rate Density as a Complexity Metric and Evolutionary Driver by E. Chaisson. Causal Entropic Forces by Wissner-Gross and Freer provides evidence regarding how  societies self-organize in ways that maximize entropy.

The IPCC’s Message Isn’t Really Right 

We are bumping up against limits in many ways not modeled in the IPCC report. The RCP2.6 Scenario comes closest of the scenarios shown in providing an indication of our future situation. Clearly the climate is changing and will continue to change in ways that our planners never considered when they built cities and took out long-term loans. This is a problem not easily solved.

One of the big issues is that energy supplies seem to be leaving us, indirectly through economic changes that we have little control over. The IPCC report is written from the opposite viewpoint:  we humans are in charge and need to decide to leave energy supplies. The view is that the economy, despite our energy problems, will return to robust growth. With this robust growth, our big problem will be climate change because of the huge amount of carbon emissions coming from fossil fuel burning.

Unfortunately, the real situation is that the laws of physics, rather than humans, are in charge. Basically, as economies grow, it takes increasing complexity to fix problems, as Joseph Tainter explained in his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies. Dissipative structures provide this ever-increasing complexity through higher “energy rate density” (explained in the Chaisson article linked above).

Now we are reaching limits in many ways, but we can’t–or dare not–model how all of these limits are hitting. We can, in theory, add more complexity to fix our problems–electric cars, renewable energy, higher city density, better education of women. These things would require more energy rate density. Ultimately, they seem to depend on the availability of more inexpensive energy–something that is increasingly unavailable.

The real issue is the danger that our economy will collapse in the near term. From the earth’s point of view, this is not a problem–it will create new dissipative structures in the future, and the best-adapted of these will survive. Climate will adapt to changing conditions, and different species will be favored as the climate changes. But from the point of view of those of us living on the planet earth, there is a distinct advantage to keeping business as usual going for as long as possible.  A collapsed economy cannot support 7.2 billion people.

We need to understand what are really up against, if we are to think rationally about the future. It would be helpful if more people tried to understand the physics of the situation, even if it is a difficult subject. While we can’t really expect to “fix” the situation, we can perhaps better understand what “solutions” are likely to make the situation worse. Such knowledge will also provide a better context for understanding how climate change fits in with other limits we are reaching. Climate change is certainly not the whole problem, but it may still play a significant role.

825 thoughts on “Oil Limits and Climate Change – How They Fit Together

  1. Japan deteriorates dramatically…. a perfect example of the impact of high energy costs on an economy:

    Japan posts largest-ever trade deficit

    Japan’s energy import bill has risen sharply in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011. All of the country’s operable atomic reactors are offline pending safely reviews, robbing Japan of a power source that provided 30 per cent of its electricity before the disaster.

    Utilities have been forced to buy more foreign oil and gas to make up the difference, and a weaker yen has made each barrel that much pricier. National fuel imports jumped by 18 per cent by value last year, according to Monday’s trade data.


  2. I continue to encounter suggestions that solar is the ‘Jesus’ of energy.

    Yet the facts indicate otherwise:

    – solar is a whopping 0.17% of energy supplied globally
    – investment has been dropping like a lead ball in recent years

    And the MSM claims this is ‘because costs have come down’

    So let me get this right — you have this awesome new source of supposedly cheap energy — you have nowhere near a glut (in fact it’s almost non-existent at 0.17% of the market) — yet investors are heading for the exits.

    Surely investment should be pouring in — by the hundreds of trillions of dollars — not out.

  3. Elections will take place in Europe by end of May; only the parliament members are elected.
    Is EU a democracy for all that?

    “The Brussels Business: a documentary about the issues of lobbying around european institutions”
    That’s not exactly what we’re told… but you in US already know how it works in Washington DC!

    a 2 min trailer:

    the 1h30 film: (you can also find a 1h00 version on Youtube)

    • Transatlantic trade agreement: an attempt against democracy.
      Suing the state: hidden rules within the EU-US trade-deal.
      An 8 minutes presentation:

  4. You can tell by the title that it is an intelligent article. I really don’t get all the low IQ articles that “side” with Russia. Are they just stupid or what? Kremlin propaganda relies on the low IQ, seriously, which is why the lefty classes are especially vulnerable to it – which the Kremlin has always understood!

    Russian oil motives in Ukraine


    • From what I am seeing the US is the instigator in the Ukraine and Crimea — which have been part of the Russian sphere for many years — I suspect the showdown here has a bigger picture — one in which Russia and China are challenging the USD as the reserve currency — the US can either do nothing – in which case their empire is over — or they can confront the Russians and try to stop them.

      Cornering an evil wounded beast (which is what the United States is) can lead to a very dangerous outcome

      • This is why the Chinese wisely avoid a confrontation and simply allow the beast to bleed to death all on its own.

    • Anything on that site needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
      Apart from anything else, who or what is “Sam Carana”? If anyone knows they’re not telling.

    • I don’t think humans will go extinct, but things could certainly get very dicey if methane hydrates in the Arctic ocean release en masse. The one area to look to most is the ESAS, eastern Siberian arctic sea, which is shallow by Arctic ocean standards at 50 meters. That is shallow enough that methane bubbling up will enter the atmosphere as methane, instead of what occurs from deeper locations in which the methane transitions into CO2, absorbed by the water, never releasing into the atmosphere. The ESAS is huge and in recent years is becoming unstable releasing some methane. If the whole thing goes quickly at some point it will be yet another tipping point in climate change and could initiate runaway GW.

  5. xabier says:

    April 13, 2014 at 3:32 am

    Life as an Art, not an industrial process.

  6. While I think it logical that the gross overpopulation of humans on the planet and their activities impact the climate, I have much less confidence in our ability to accurately and objectively measure those impacts, or project future impacts in meaningful ways and consequently our ability to do much about them. I am especially doubtful of the accuracy of past climatic bench marks on the bases of either historical, geologic or biological proxies which at best represent ranges of data and not precise units. Perhaps a few of you will recognize the term metrology (not the study of weather) – the study of and science of measurement. However, metrology is the greatest weakness of climate change theorists and modelers – whether they are projecting no, little or great climate change.

    We fail to realize just how imprecise our input climate data is, and especially for those proxy bench marks we try use to compare climate changes to. Or, know that in most cases our assessment of change measured – is less than the variability of the instrumentation we are using to record the data – especially in the recent past. Take global warming which is being projected to produce increased temperatures of 1.1 to 2.9C per century – or about 0.01 to 0.03 degrees per year. This assumes or historic data was accurate within these ranges. Yet, most thermometers until very recently were incapable of measuring within +/-2.0 degrees C accurately – and that doesn’t include thermometer brand, type, design, calibration protocols and or reader variably from far ranging and sparse historic meteorological stations around the world. The batch of laboratory grade thermometers I just purchased range +/- 1 C at best. Averaging our instrument, brand, type design and reader variations only produces the average variation, but doesn’t necessarily make our readings anymore accurate. So, no I’m not comfortable in short term measurements of climate changes of a few hundredths of a degree C per year, or 3.3 millimeter change in sea level per year when our most accurate satellite measurements only within 20mm. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea-level_rise#Satellite_sea_level_measurement – you should also note until recently this section with roughly the same verbiage was called Satellite Error – which tells you the sensitivity to possible input data error in some circiles). So, for all those who think science is absolute and pure – think again. That’s the goal, but it is seldom attained and new fields of science like climate science logically have less accuracy.

    Even if current climate change theory and estimates of changes were correct, they also state we can’t avoid them at this point. In fact, as a species we face far more dangerous and eminent threats than climate change. Gail’s topic direction is the correct one – we should worry about the interrelationships between energy and economy and our unsustainable population levels, because all solutions including anthropogenic climate impacts are dependent on resolving them. However, IMHO she fails to completely make the point that the collapse of energy and or economy both equal the same thing – the collapse of the human food production system required to keep 95% of the planets humans alive. Such collapses can mean far more than “financial embarrassment” and may mean the end of current civilization.

    There are clearly some very bright people making valuable contributions here – both appreciated and unappreciated. We all tend to see the future through the lens of personal experience (includes life and educational experiences). Most of us are energy users – car drivers, house heaters, electric lighting users, etc. We have no problem visualizing our immediate personal world limited by a shortage of energy, but mainly in terms of our energy uses of which we are directly familiar. However, there are many critical energy related economic and product relationships that we might never think or even know about. More so, how critical some of those energy products that come strictly from a massive petroleum transportation based economy might be, or that would change when that petroleum energy complex changes in scale – either by replacement or depletion.

    As I said we see the future through the lens of our experience. As a food production scientist, researcher and entrepreneur for the past 40 years I have watched the world continue to transition from manure based agriculture systems to the “green revolution” system using entirely petroleum dependent NPK fertilizers. Few people concerned about the environmental damages of petroleum seem to understand that our current food production system is not only entirely dependent on petroleum, but as well a stable petroleum industry economy of a scale to economically produce those chemicals necessary for food production.

    Only the most uninformed think that we can somehow convert back to manure and organic systems. In truth, our populations exceeded the natural phosphorus soil conversion cycle ability from the beginning of the industrial revolution forward. With current and future population growth there is no non-catastrophic conversion back to the supposed good old days of “natural” production methods. While I may sound pro-petroleum I have no relationship to any petroleum interests, and hate the environmental impacts of big oil as much as anyone else. I do see the innate wisdom in the saying that – “It’s alright to hate boats, but don’t hole the one that floats you.’

    Consequently, when I read Gail’s projections of a rapid collapse of the current petroleum economy – I see the first causality of this collapse as that of our petro-chemical dependent food production system. We really underestimate how dependent this relationship is between our food production and the petroleum industry. Or, how difficult it would be to replace with other energy sources and or how long the conversion process would take – especially in times of high stress and chaotic disruptions. If nothing else our current experimentation and attempts to develop other alternative economically equivalent sources (now going on about 80) years to petroleum energy should give us clear evidence of just how large and expensive (time and money) this task will be – if we ever succeed at it. Of course not succeeding is not a survivable option.

    To me, Gail’s most insightful comment was – “Ultimately, they (solutions) seem to depend on the availability of more inexpensive energy–something that is increasingly unavailable.” This is certainly true of our long term ability to continue to produce adequate NPK fertilizers and the 95% of global people they feed. To continue to produce NPK as its component resources become ever more dilute, scare and expensive to process – we will need new energy sources far less expensive than even current petroleum or current alternatives – including nuclear. Given that many petroleum economic depletion estimates also mirror phosphate economic depletion estimates – both reaching reaching critical points at about the same time in 30 years, its hard to imagine that whether a civilization collapse comes by energy or economic inadequacy, that most of us won’t die from a lack of food. And I suspect climate change will be the last thing on anyone’s mind. One of the few if not Polyannic bright spots in a future without near free energy sources – is that the global obesity epidemic will be cured.

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