Category Archives: Climate Change

Arctic Snow Cover: Another Shock

I have relaunched this blog under the new name The Rational Pessimist. I am currently only posting the headlines for new posts at this, my old Climate and Risk, URL.

The rest of each post is available at

Further, if you are a follower of Climate and Risk, could you switch to The Rational Pessimist at


Top 3 Images for 2012: # 2 Hurricane Sandy

While the unprecedented retreat in summer Arctic sea ice extent was by far the most shocking event of 2012 in terms of climate risk, Hurricane Sandy (and the images of a flooded New York subway system) did more to raise consciousness with the general public. Bloomberg Businessweek summed up the sentiment nicely:

Hurricance Sandy JPG

From a scientific perspective, of course, you can’t actually say that Hurricane Sandy “was solely due to global warming stupid”. However, Continue reading

Top 3 Images for 2012: #1 Arctic Sea Ice Extent

1. Arctic Sea Ice Extent for Summer Melt Season

By far the most disturbing image of any I saw in 2012 was that for Arctic sea ice minimum summer extent. Indeed, the chart below is nothing short of shocking. Sea ice extent plummeted to 3.4 million square kilometres compared with the previous low of 4.2 million square kilometres in 2007, an 18% decline.

Arctic Sea Ice Extent

In the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Assessment Report 4 published in 2007 we saw this statement: Continue reading

Climate Change: A Question of Caves and Mansions 2?

In my last post, I looked at the neoclassical economist’s view of a world undergoing climate change. The consensus within the profession is that global mean temperature rise will become a growing cost to humanity. Further, such a cost is not being borne by those causing it (a so called externality in the economics literature) and therefore justifies a carbon tax. Finally, and most controversially for some, the standard recommendation is for a slow and steady ramp in taxation from a very low starting point. This rests on the recognition that any investment to mitigate carbon emissions now will translate into lost economic output in the future. So the logic goes: it is often better to get rich and dirty first (before cleaning up), rather than staying clean and poor.

In sum, the economics profession calls for a calm, considered but, above all, slow response to climate change.  This is in stark contrast to the position of many climate scientists; for example, the sentiment expressed in the following statement by the climate scientist Lonnie Thompson:

Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.

Since the scientific and the economics communities inhabit completely different academic silos, it is rare to find any intelligent discussion that analyses this dichotomy of opinion. Economists cite scholarly articles published in the leading economics journals, and scientists cite scholarly articles in the leading scientific journals. The one exception is perhaps the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s periodic assessment reviews, which has provided a communal market place of ideas for a variety of disciplines to meet. However, the last report was published in 2007 and was based on an information set available a few years even earlier. Therefore, many economists are not very well placed to tap into the rising alarm of climate scientists as new data comes in and reports get published.

If I were a climate scientist trying to install a sense of urgency among economists, how would plan my avenue of attack? Continue reading

Climate Change: A Question of Caves and Mansions 1?

A can’t count the number of moribund discussions I have had over the veracity of climate change. Having spent the best part of my career in the financial industry, it is impossible not to come across certain colleagues, clients and brokers who see global warming as an affront to free market economics and therefore something that could not possibly exist.

Such questioning of the science, however, doesn’t particularly bother me: a contrarian mindset is a prerequisite for a successful career managing money so the multitude of climate skeptics within the industry should not be a surprise. What does frustrate me, though, is that many of those who argue so vehemently that climate change is a product of statist scientists trying to secure government funding don’t feel the need to acquaint themselves with the basic tenets of what they are arguing against (and yes I have had the painful experience of reading through the standard skeptic offerings from Ian Plimer‘s ‘Heaven and Earth’, to Nigel Lawson’s ‘An Appeal to Reason‘, to Bjorn Lomborg’s ‘Cool It‘ and many more).

When engaging with many skeptics, it is like arguing with someone over the merits of a novel when my opponent has only read the reviews in a newspaper and not the original text. Continue reading

Technology: Singularity or Collapse? (Part 2: The Ozone Hole)

In my last post, I made the point that techno-optimists, such as Ray Kurweil, see technological change transforming economies through the exponential growth of productivity as the present century progresses. Critically, the analysis of Kurweil and his fellow travellers makes no mention of societal costs—so called externalities in the language of economics. Each innovation or invention is basically self-contained—overcoming a particular problem but without creating any secondary problems in another part of the system.

Unfortunately, this tunnel vision of the benefits of technology does, on many occasions, not correspond to the actual historical record. One technology I have in mind is Thomas Midgley Jr.’s creation of a compound known as chlorofluorocarbon (CFC-12), better know as Freon. CFCs are a classic Kurzweil type solution to a particular problem, in this case the need for a substitute for the highly poisonous gases used up until the 1930s for refrigeration. At the time of their creation and for many years later, CFCs were believed to be inert and totally harmless to human health. In reality, as the CFCs accumulated in the upper atmosphere, they led to the creation of the Antarctic ozone hole. The journalist and author Dianne Dumanoski in her book “The End of the Long Summer” described the ozone hole phenomenon as the most important single event of the 2oth century, even eclipsing Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, since it symbolised “the arrival of a new and ominous epoch when human activity began to disrupt the essential but invisible planetary systems that sustain a dynamic, living Earth.” Even more telling, the environmental historian J.R. McNeill described Midgley himself as having “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth’s history.” Continue reading

Technology: Singularity or Collapse? (Part 1: For Ever Exponential)

In the opening chapter of Ray Kurzweil‘s “The Singularity Is Near” we are presented with the following parable:

A lake owner wants to stay at home to tend to the lake’s fish and make certain that the lake itself will not become covered with lily pads, which are said to double their number every few days. Month after month, he patiently waits, yet only tiny patches of lily pads can be discerned, and they don’t seem to be expanding in any noticeable way. With the lily pads covering less than 1 percent of the lake, the owner figures that it’s safe to take a vacation and leaves with his family. When he returns a few weeks later, he’s shocked to discover that the entire lake has become covered with the pads, and his fish have perished. By doubling their number every few days, the last seven doublings were sufficient to extend the pads’ coverage to the entire lake. (Seven doublings extended their reach 128-fold.) This is the nature of exponential growth.

While ‘the water lily and the lake’ appears a strange choice of metaphor since if nothing else it highlights the importance of boundaries to growth, what Kurzweil was trying to communicate was how technology has barely begun to transform our lives.

By contrast, consider the 1972 report to the Club of Rome published under the title “The Limits to Growth.” Much maligned and mostly misrepresented, The Limits to Growth (LTG) was nothing more than a mathematical analysis of linear and exponential growth rates and ultimate constraints. According to the authors, the tyranny of exponential growth rates would eventually lead population and industrial production to explode, setting off a negative feedback in terms of burgeoning pollution and the eventual exhaustion of food and resources. The report never provided specific dates for the depletion of individual materials, although nine our of ten commentaries on the report claim it did (for a post I did on this particular urban legend, see here). Nonetheless, what the report did do was suggest that the idea of inevitable constant human progress was a dangerous myth. Continue reading

Climate Change, Boiling Frogs and Pearl Harbors

As we move further into 2012, media interest in climate change continues to decline. The chart below from  The Center for Science and Technology Research at the University of Colorado-Boulder shows a clear downward trend for world newspaper coverage. At the national level, a similar time series for US newspaper coverage can be found here and the UK here.

In my mind, media coverage of climate change is probably determined by four factors: 1) the setting of new temperature records, 2) visible iconic climate events, 3) media coverage of scientific studies that contain pessimistic forecasts of future climate and 4) extreme weather. Continue reading

Sex, Violence, the Amish and the IMF

If you like your Peak Oil raw, the blogosphere provides plenty of sustenance. At sites such as The Archdruid Report, Casaubon’s Book and The Automatic Earth, we see a small section of society actively preparing for a major discontinuity in the type of lives we lead. One of my favourite representations of this meme is provided at Clusterf**k Nation, a blog run by the author James Howard Kunstler. Kunstler jumps the divide between hard analysis of the perceived problem and fictional representations of how things could unfold. You may not agree with Kunstler, but you will not be bored.

In the non-fiction book The Long Emergency, Kunstler gives an explanation of how the global economy could reverse as oil production peaks. But for me, Kunstler’s fiction leaves a more enduring memory. In the World Made by Hand series we see society shrinking in upon itself. The death of distance lauded in the 1990s has become a cruel joke:  the principal means of transport are reduced to foot, horse or boat (bicycles even fall by the wayside through a  lack of tires). And political relationships relapse to those existing in the pre-modern period. We are faced with feudalism: medieval free towns, lords of the manor (or their scrap-yard equivalents), serfs, self-contained religious sects and marauding bands of muggers.

At its best, life appears to resemble an Amish country idyll but with a lot more sex. At its worst, the break-down in social order and frequent bouts of extreme violence place us in the pages of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’.

For the majority of neoclassical economists, such visions are nothing but dystopian fantasies: doomer porn for those with a disposition toward the depressive. Nonetheless, the historical record gives one pause f0r thought: economies do suffer from shocks, which can in turn lead to political dislocations. Within living memory, we saw an economic discontinuity in the 1930s lead to social mayhem throughout Europe and the death of around six million Jews. People still living became unwilling participants in adaptations of Schindler’s Ark and Sophie’s Choice.

So is there any way to get from the existing economic consensus to the type of economic breakdown that Kunstler professes to see?

In my last post, I argued that there was no inherent contradiction between Peak Oil and neoclassical economic thought from a theoretical perspective. The argument was purely over the shape and dynamics of supply and demand curves. To take us into Kunstler’s ‘World Made by Hand’ would require a massive economic contraction sufficient to fracture our global political institutions, in turn setting off a second round of economic deterioration that demolishes our domestic political and social structures. Can Peak Oil take us into the first stage of this process? To do so, a neoclassical economic analysis would be looking for three things: 1) highly inelastic supply and demand curves for oil, both in the short and long term, 2) a supply curve that moves to the left and 3) a key role for oil in economic growth.

Surprisingly, the IMF published a section (entitled “Oil Scarcity, Growth, and Global Imbalances“) within its flagship Word Economic Outlook back in April 2011 that set out some scenarios that indirectly dealt with all these three things.

As regards the elasticity of oil demand to price, the IMF was not the first international organisation to warn of the world’s vulnerability to an oil price shock. In the International Energy Agency’s flagship 2010 World Energy Outlook report, the Executive Summary had a section entitled “Will peak oil be a guest or the spectre at the feast?” which led off with the following paragraph:

The oil price needed to balance oil markets is set to rise, reflecting the growing insensitivity of both demand and supply to price. The growing concentration of oil use in transport and a shift of demand towards subsidised markets are limiting the scope for higher prices to choke off demand through switching to alternative fuels. And constraints on investment mean that higher prices lead to only modest increases in production.

What this statement means is that the oil supply and demand curves are looking highly inelastic. In other words, when the oil price goes up there is not that much room to either substitute out of oil into alternative sources of energy or bring more oil into production.

For the demand elasticity, the IMF went further and applied some numbers to the problem. Over the short term, the IMF sees the demand curve as almost vertical. In their words “a 10 percent increase in oil prices leads to a reduction in oil demand of only 0.2 percent”. This is a pretty frightening statement: it says we have almost no ability to adapt to an oil price shock over the short term. So god help us if a) Iraq plummets into an internecine civil war, b) Israel attacks Iran or c) Nigeria descends into internal chaos. The short-term supply elasticity is also seen as very low at between 1 and 10 percent, and mostly consists of the production buffer held by Saudi Arabia. Should this buffer go, the short-term supply curve becomes in effect vertical (no increase in supply at any price).

Nonetheless, this is not the core of the peak oil doomer scenario; for us to approach collapse, we must see viciously steep long-term supply and demand curves, against which both substitution and technological invention appear ineffectual. And this, in effect, is what the IMF at least suggests on the demand side. It calculates a long-term price elasticity of oil demand (long term defined as a 20-year time horizon) of 7%. This again appears incredibly small. You can double the price but you can hardly make a dent in demand. How could this happen?

For this, we must understand the unique attributes of oil: energy density and transportability. These characteristics are incredibly difficult to replicate. Accordingly, where it has been possible to substitute out of oil, much of the transformation has already taken place. In other words, the shift to gas and coal for electrification previously provided price elasticity for oil, but that has now gone.

Now the IMF’s  baseline scenario for oil production is for 1.5% annual growth. However, in Scenario 2 of the report a contraction in supply of 2% per annum is also considered. The 2% decline number is taken from a paper by Sorrell et al in Energy Policy (that is unfortunately behind a pay wall). In this scenario, we move into a world where the supply curve is moving to the left as opposed to a cornucopian view of the world where technology always pushes the supply curve to the right.

Moreover, if you take this Peak Oil decline scenario and combine it with the IMF’s previously calculated demand and income elasticities, global capitalism suffers a significant shock. In their words:

The most striking aspect of this scenario is, however, that supply reductions of this magnitude would require an increase of more than 200 percent in the oil price on impact and an 800 percent increase over 20 years. Relative price changes of this magnitude would be unprecedented and would likely have nonlinear effects on activity that the model does not adequately capture. Furthermore, the increase in world savings implied by this scenario is so large that several regions could, after the first few years, experience nominal interest rates that approach zero, which could make it difficult to carry out monetary policy.

It should be noted that ‘several regions’ are already experiencing nominal interest rates approaching zero. Thus if we are already entering the foothills of a Peak Oil shock, monetary policy is already incapably of easing the blow over large swathes of the globe including the United States.

Unfortunately, the IMF’s Scenario 3 paints an even bleaker picture since it recognises some of the more recent work on energy’s role in GDP growth. Under traditional approaches, the contribution of oil to economic output has been pegged at around 5% for the tradeables sector and 2% for the non-tradeables based on the cost of oil within the economy. New methodology suggests that these figures could be as high as 25% and 20%, respectively. The argument runs thus: certain technologies are premised on access to energy. Reduce the access to energy and the technology becomes defunct.

As an example, take the first Newcomen steam engine, developed around 1710, that allowed water to be pumped out of coal mines; in so doing, mines were opened up to exploitation at a hitherto unprecedented scale. But the Newcomen engine relied on a bountiful supply of coal. If the coal hadn’t been there, the steam engine could not be operated. The machine technology and the energy can therefore be thought of as a single package: remove one and you cease to have the other.

In a more up-to-date context, think of a sophisticated airline routing algorithm that minimises the number of empty aircraft seats and reduces ticket prices. Doubling the price of jet aircraft fuel not only reduces the number of planes in the air but also reduces the optimisation potential of the algorithm, so setting off second round effects. Oil scarcity can therefore lead to what is, in effect, the disinventing of technology.

Overall, a neoclassical framework built on a slightly more pessimistic premise can have some quite alarming implications. In the words of the IMF:

But if the reductions in oil output were in line with the more pessimistic studies of peak oil proponents or if the contribution of oil to output proved much larger than its cost share, the effects could be dramatic, suggesting a need for urgent policy action.

Nonetheless, even if we pile an oil supply contraction (IMF Scenario 2) on top of a greater role for oil in the economy (IMF Scenario 3), we still are not reduced to the existence of Kunstler’s post apocalypse Amish. The IMF does not give a compound figure for one scenario placed on top of another, but for the US we are probably looking at a 20-25% decline in GDP over a 20 year period against trend and a lot steeper drop for emerging Asia. Assuming trend is for modest growth, this type of oil shock would flat line growth overall.

The relatively benign worst-case outcome of no growth (but no descent), however, assumes that massive price and income shocks can be smoothly absorbed both within and between societies. Unfortunately, we have already seen financial systems struggle with shocks an order of magnitude smaller.

In conclusion, the IMF’s formal neoclassical analysis could easily take us to the brink of Kunstler’s descent, but we would still need something beyond a traditional economic shock to push us over. For that we would need to turn to the science of complex systems or to geopolitics, topics that I intend to return to in future posts.

The Conjoined Twins: Peak Oil and Climate Change

Of modern-day dystopias, the conjoined twins of climate change and peak oil energy (or rather peak energy) are poor dance partners, forever out of tune and stepping on one another’s toes. Despite being conjoined through carbon, the interaction between the two is complex and, at times, contradictory. Accordingly, while most of the environmental movement has embraced both issues, it is a somewhat awkward clinch.  At the most extreme, the thesis of one negates the other: a peak energy carbon constraint caps warming; while a carbon concucopia allows economies to grow head long into a climate crunch (that they may or may not have the wealth to cope with).

Peak oil’s path to respectability has been a little more convoluted than that of climate change.  Indeed, it is still quite far from becoming the consensus. Indeed, for peak oil theorists to emerge victorious they need to slay an even more entrenched existing consensus, that of neoclassical economics. Laurence Summers—a feted economist whose resume includes an academic professorship at Harvard, the role of Chief Economist at the World Bank and stints with both the Clinton and Obama administrations—had this to say about resource constraints back in 1991:

“There are no limits to the carrying capacity of the earth that are likely to bind any time in the foreseeable future. There isn’t a risk of an apocalypse due to global warming or anything else. The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit, is a profound error and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs.” Continue reading