Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Carbon Crisis 2014 Update: Planet Jenga

While this post continues as an update to last year's post on the same subject, that Peak Oil and Global Warming being flip sides of the same coin should be condensed and renamed the Carbon Crisis, I hope to explore the situation from a more anthropological level, as well as defining the impending danger.

On the economic resource front, we face a time of reckoning.  Peak Oil seems like a phantom from the past at this point, a crossroads we had to confront back in the summer of 2008 through which we emerged shaken, but not stirred to any meaningful change.  Oh, we've got a lot more hybrids, few electric cars here and there, but no railway revitalization, no permaculture, no economic relocalization, and God forbid we change the way money works!  Why should we when this wonderful new invention called fracking can just plow shit out of the deepest hardest rock and melted into the fuel we need?  Plus, hasn't shale made America 'energy independent' so that the Middle East doesn't matter anymore?  All our worries behind us?

Not quite.  Thanks to Wombaticus Rex (in his wise estimation, "shale will be much bigger than subprime.") from RI for finding this inconvenient piece of analysis:

It’s been only two months since I last -again – addressed the shale industry, but apparently it’s still not clear enough what a predatory scheme it is. Today, Bloomberg adds even more fuel to the fire. If you want to know how the combination of slip-sliding legal standards and ultra-low interest rates has perverted the US – and global – economy, you need look no further than shale.

The central point the Bloomberg article evokes is simple: does the difference between proved reserves, probable reserves and possible reserves (or resource potential), as reported by oil and gas extraction companies, constitute a lie? And the answer is just as simple: no, it doesn’t. But that’s not where the issue ends, it’s where it begins.

That is, if the difference between the two gets too wide, – potential – investors in company stocks and bonds are not getting the information they are entitled to. The industry may claim, as in the article, that investors are aware of the discrepancy inherent in the numbers, but that’s at best true for most investors, and the bigger ones. Still, the companies shouldn’t be able to use that as some unlimited excuse to claim whatever they wish. Because they can basically throw out any number they want in front of investors, no matter what it’s based on, and it’s legal.

And while there may be a kernel of truth in this bit …

“They’re running a great risk of litigation when they don’t end up producing anything like that,” said John Lee, a University of Houston petroleum engineering professor who helped write the SEC rules and has taught reserves evaluation to a generation of engineers. “If I were an ambulance-chasing lawyer, I’d get into this.”

… there’s also something missing. By the time investors can start any litigation, chances are the companies involved may be long gone. The greater public, and some of the investors, may be fooled, but the industry people themselves? They know about the depletion rates typical of shale wells, of the fact that few wells ever make their owners any real profit, and of the $500 billion(!) the industry lost over the past 5 years.

The shale industry runs on debt, not on energy. And as long as these companies can issue junk bonds at low rates, they will. But that doesn’t mean they will ever be profitable. For their owners, sure, they’re raking in dough like it’s Halloween candy, but for investors in those bonds things don’t look so rosy. Shale is a Ponzi.

Thanks to Raul Ilargi Meijer as well for researching that.   So if what we have on our hands is an expanding Ponzi scheme, when is the bubble going to burst?  I've seen a number of different prognostications; Thom Hartmann has already written a book called The Crash of 2016.  Now I haven't read it, so I'm not sure if he lists the collapse of shale as a reason behind the crash.  But I find it interesting how his timing coincides with the analysis of Dennis Meadows, one of the co-authors of the original The Limits to Growth.

Peak Energy & Resources, Climate Change, and the Preservation of Knowledge

Dennis Meadows Collapse inevitable 2015-2020
Posted on June 3, 2014 by energyskeptic

[Dennis Meadows spoke at the ASPO peak oil conference 2006 in Pisa Italy. Many of the scientists and speakers said Meadows was right about Limits to Growth in their presentations -- indeed, his model appeared to be ahead of schedule. Meadows hates to give dates, but when pressed, did say that although he thought 2030 the most likely time-frame for collapse back in 1972 based on various model projections, the exponential use of resources and population growth appeared to have moved the time-frame forward to around 2020. At the "Limits to Growth" conference in 2014 he said the time-frame appears to be 2015-2020].

Dennis Meadows is a co-author of The Limits to Growth. In 1972, the team of 66 scientists he assembled for the original Limits to Growth study concluded the most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.

Dmitry Orlov on Dennis Meadow’s presentation at the Age Of Limits conference 2014: “Dennis had agreed to present at this conference reluctantly. He has retired from Club of Rome discussions, and has found more cheerful uses for his time. But he seemed happy with the outcome, saying that this is the first time he faced an audience that did not need convincing. Instead, he took the time to add some details that I think are crucially important, among them the fact that his WORLD3 model is only accurate until the peaks are reached. Once the peaks occur (between 2015 and 2020) all bets are off: past that point, the model’s predictive ability is not to be relied on because the assumptions on which it relies will no longer be valid.”

At the 2014 Age of Limits conference he also said that in 1972 we had reached about 85% of Earth’s carrying capacity and today we are about 125%, and every month we delay in getting back within limits erodes Earth’s further ability to tolerate us. “The reason we don’t have a response to climate change,” he said, “is not because we don’t have better models. It’s because people don’t care about climate change.” That may be our epitaph.

“In 1972 there were two possible options provided for going forward — overshoot or sustainable development. Despite myriad conferences and commissions on sustainable development since then, the world opted for overshoot. The two-leggeds hairless apes did what they always have done. They dominated and subdued Earth. Faced with unequivocable evidence of an approaching existential threat, they equivocated and then attempted to muddle through.

Global civilization will only be the first of many casualties of the climate the Mother Nature now has coming our way at a rate of change exceeding any comparable shift in the past 3 million years, save perhaps the meteors or supervolcanoes that scattered our ancestors into barely enough breeding pairs to be able to revive. This change will be longer lived and more profound than many of those phenomena. We have fundamentally altered the nitrogen, carbon and potassium cycles of the planet. It may never go back to an ecosystem in which bipedal mammals with bicameral brains were possible. Or, not for millions of years”.

Video Presentation starts at 17:30, slides below ... s-meadows/

It Is Too Late For Sustainable Development

Smithsonian Institution Washington, DC; February 29, 2012

I will briefly describe what we did in 1970 – 1972 and summarize the main contributions of our study.
Then I will describe five reasons it is too late to achieve sustainable development.

Public discourse has difficulty with subtle, conditional messages.
Growth advocates change the justification for their paradigm rather than changing the paradigm itself.
The global system is now far above its carrying capacity.
We act as if technological change can substitute for social change.
The time horizon of our current system is too short.

As a result, I will suggest that it is essential now to put more emphasis on raising the resilience of the system.

What we did

A team of 16 people worked under my direction to elaborate a computer model representing the causes and consequences of growth in the main physical factors characterizing global development over the period 1900 – 2100. The model was first conceived by Jay Forrester, who described it in his book, World Dynamics. My team wrote and published 3 additional books on the project, The Limits to Growth, Toward Global Equilibrium, and

Dynamics of Growth in a Finite World.

Our focus was on:

Population Nonrenewable resources

Industrial goods Persistent pollution


Our Main Contributions

We did NOT prove that there are limits to physical growth on a finite planet. We assumed it.
We did present information about a variety of physical limits- water, soils, metals, and other resources – in order to make the idea of limits plausible.
We described the reasons growth of population and industrial output is inherently exponential.
We showed that exponential growth quickly rises to any conceivable limit.
Our computer scenarios demonstrated that prevailing growth policies will lead to overshoot and collapse, not asymptotic approach to limits.
We suggested that changes in the policies could lead to a sustainable state, if the changes dealt with both cultural and technical issues and were implemented soon.

The Limits to Growth presented 12 scenarios. Four of them showed a relatively attractive global equilibrium without any collapse. However, it was written in the New York Times: “It is no coincidence that all the simulations based on the Meadows world model invariably end in collapseThe Limits to Growth, Peter Passell, Marc Roberts, and Leonard Ross, New York Times, April 2, 1972

We said: “These graphs are not exact predictions of the values of the variables at any particular year in the future. They are indications of the system’s behavioral tendencies only. P. 93, The Limits to Growth

However a Google today search on “the Club of Rome predicted” yields 13,700 hits, for example: “In 1972 Limits to Growth, published by the Club of Rome, predicted that the world will run out of gold in 1981, mercury in 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, and copper, lead and natural gas by 1993”.

Growth advocates change the justification for their paradigm rather than changing the paradigm itself. “At every single stage – from its biased arrival to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others, the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual good goal of appearing better than one really is“, Page 139, in The Folly of Fools; The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, Robert Trivers, Basic Books, New York, NY 2011

Evolution of the criticisms

1970s: There are no effective limits.
1980s: There are limits, but they are far away.
1990s: The limits are near, but technology and markets can evade them easily.
2000s: Technology and markets do not always evade the limits, but the best policy is still to pursue GNP growth, so we will have more resources to solve problems.
2010s: If we had been able to sustain economic growth, we would not have had trouble with the limits.

Given enough energy, minerals might be reclaimed from under the sea, or from seawater itself. A virtually infinite source of energy, the controlled nuclear fusion of hydrogen, will probably be tapped within 50 years. “The Limits to Growth”, by Peter Passell, Marc Roberts and Leonard Ross, New York Times, April 2, 1972.

“natural resources are not finite in any meaningful economic sense, mind-boggling though this assertion may be. The stocks of them are not fixed but rather are expanding through human ingenuity. p. 24, Julian L. Simon, The Ultimate Resource2, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1996

The global system is now far above its carrying capacity


Avoiding collapse will require a longer time horizon than our current system provides.

The Easy Oil is Gone

Oil discoveries peaked in 1960s.
Every year since 1984 oil consumption has exceeded oil discovery.
In 2009 discoveries were about 5 billion barrels (bb); consumption was about 31 bb.
Of the world’s 20 largest oil fields, 18 were discovered 1917 – 1968; 2 in the 1970s; 0 since

Global Oil Production is Nearing the End of its Plateau

1995 – 1999 + 5.5%
2000 – 2004 + 7.9 %
2005 – 2009 + 0.4 %

- data from the International Statistical Supplement – 2010 edition, International Energy Agency, p. 18

• 2010 – 2030 – 50%*

* Projection from Crude Oil – The Supply Outlook, Energy Watch Group, Feb 2008, p. 12.

By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 MBD.” – U S Joint Forces Command, Joint Operating Environment Report, February, 2010

“Peak Oil Production May Already be Here,” - Science, p. 1510, Vol 331, March 25, 2011

It is essential now to put more emphasis on raising the resilience of the system. It is essential now to start changing our behavior


Mukerjee, M. 23 May 2012. Apocalypse Soon: Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return? Scientific American.

Meadows holds that collapse is now all but inevitable, but that its actual form will be too complex for any model to predict. “Collapse will not be driven by a single, identifiable cause simultaneously acting in all countries,” he observes. “It will come through a self-reinforcing complex of issues”—including climate change, resource constraints and socioeconomic inequality. When economies slow down, Meadows explains, fewer products are created relative to demand, and “when the rich can’t get more by producing real wealth they start to use their power to take from lower segments.” As scarcities mount and inequality increases, revolutions and socioeconomic movements like the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street will become more widespread—as will their repression.

Many observers protest that such apocalyptic scenarios discount human ingenuity. Technology and markets will solve problems as they show up, they argue. But for that to happen, contends economist Partha Dasgupta of the University of Cambridge in the U.K., policymakers must guide technology with the right incentives. As long as natural resources are underpriced compared with their true environmental and social cost—as long as, for instance, automobile consumers do not pay for lives lost from extreme climatic conditions caused by warming from their vehicles’ carbon emissions—technology will continue to produce resource-intensive goods and worsen the burden on the ecosystem, Dasgupta argues. “You can’t expect markets to solve the problem,” he says. Randers goes further, asserting that the short-term focus of capitalism and of extant democratic systems makes it impossible not only for markets but also for most governments to deal effectively with long-term problems such as climate change.

“We’re in for a period of sustained chaos whose magnitude we are unable to foresee,” Meadows warns. He no longer spends time trying to persuade humanity of the limits to growth. Instead, he says, “I’m trying to understand how communities and cities can buffer themselves” against the inevitable hard landing.

Keep in mind, Peak Oil happened in 2006.  We're eight years past the global light sweet crude production peak, what Meadows is talking about is carrying capacity exceeding resource demand resulting in what he describes as "a period of sustained chaos."

It gets worse.

On the environmental front, (thanks to RI's fruhmenschen for the link) Jason Box has done some extensive research that he shares with Slate through some shocking visual aids:

Isn’t ice supposed to be white?
Photo by Jason Box

Jason Box knows ice. That’s why what’s happened this year concerns him so much.
Box just returned from a trip to Greenland. Right now, the ice there is … black:

Photo by Jason Box
Dark ice is helping Greenland’s glaciers retreat.
Photo by Jason Box

Photo by Jason Box
Crevasses criss-cross the Greenland ice sheet, allowing melt water to descend deep beneath the ice.
Photo by Jason Box

Photo by Jason Box
This year, Greenland’s ice was the darkest it’s ever been.
Photo by Jason Box

Photo by Jason Box
Box and his team are trying to discover what made this year’s melt season so unusual.
Photo by Jason Box

Photo by Jason Box
Box marks his study sites, appropriately, with black flags.
Photo by Jason Box

Photo by Jason Box
Box’s ‘Dark Snow’ project is the first scientific expedition to Greenland to be crowdfunded.
Photo by Jason Box

What does it all mean, besides the obvious observation that the Arctic is getting ugly?  Well, as Eric Holthaus points out, dark ice melts quicker than regular ice.  But a more important factor that I didn't see noted in the article is that dark snow decreases the albedo of the Arctic snow cap.  Albedo is the reflective power of the earth's surface.  When sunlight hits white snow, it bounces back outside the atmosphere.  The darker the snow, the less reflective, and subsequently more heat is trapped.  This in turn warms the oceans in a self-reinforcing feedback loop where things just get hotter and hotter.

That is exactly what we're seeing happening right now, according to NOAA:

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Record June–August Global Ocean Surface Temperature

August 2014 record high land and ocean temperature

The combined average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces for August 2014 was record high for the month, at 0.75°C (1.35°F) above the 20th century average of 15.6°C (60.1°F).

June–August 2014 record high land and ocean temperature

June–August 2014, at 0.71°C (1.28°F) higher than the 20th century average, was the warmest such period across global land and ocean surfaces since record keeping began in 1880.

August 2014 record high sea surface temperature

The August global sea surface temperature (SST) was 0.65°C (1.17°F) above the 20th century average of 16.4°C (61.4°F). This record high departure from average not only beats the previous August record set in 2005 by 0.08°C (0.14°F), but also beats the previous all-time record set just two months ago in June 2014 by 0.03°C (0.05°F).

June–August 2014 record high sea surface temperature

The June–August global ocean surface temperature was 0.63°C (1.13°F) above the 20th century average, the highest on record for June–August. This beats the previous record set in 2009 by 0.04°C (0.07°F).

John Davies comments: 

This was the warmest August on record, primarily due to very high Sea Surface Temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere.
There is no El Nino event in this period, but some sort of event - hopefully an event not a climate shift - is taking place. If this is an event, the situation will become more normal when it ends, which will be in less than a years time at worst. If it is a climate shift, we are in desperate trouble, though I think it is an event.
It is worth noting that these very high Sea Surface Temperatures are likely to lead to high land temperatures soon, as normally land temperatures in the Northern hemisphere can be expected to exceed Sea Surface Temperatures.
The drought affecting California and the whole of the west of North America, Central America, and large parts of the Brazilian rainforest, though preceding this event was almost certainly down to changes which started before this event but ultimately caused it.

Despite the record high combined average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces for August, the global economy will continue as normal and no specific action can be expected to be taken to curb emissions. This will change, if global temperatures continue to rise. Temperatures are high enough to cause global concern, however. More later.

Note: NOAA's most recent (Sep 4, 2014) prediction puts the chance of El NiƱo at 60-65% during the Northern Hemisphere fall and winter.

Sea surface temperatures (SST) can be expected to remain high in the Arctic Ocean, as SST anomalies are high in the North Atlantic (+1.65°C, image left) and high temperatures are forecast over the Arctic for at least the next seven days (anomalies as high as +2.87°C, image right). For a comparison with October 3 temperatures, see this earlier post.

Additionally, an increasing amount of heat has been going into the deeper parts of the ocean, and the Gulf Stream will for month to come continue to transport water into the Arctic Ocean, and this water will be warmer than the water already there, threatening to unleash ever larger eruptions of methane from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean, as discussed in this earlier post.

Where did humanity go wrong?  Now we get into the anthropological part of the post I mentioned at the beginning.  It's a concept I discovered earlier this year:  totalitarian agriculture.  This clip is the raw footage of an interview inside a great documentary that belongs on this thread, What A Way To Go: Life at the end of Empire which I highly recommend.

Which, of course, on a spiritual and philosophical level, ties back to the Michael Ruppert quote I posted earlier this year:

"There is going to be a die-off. That is a balancing. That cannot be averted. I cannot offer some happy Pollyanna solution to that. Love is the only vibration that's a higher vibration than fear. Our physical reality is a product of our consciousness which is a product of what we carry in our hearts. And if we carry fear in our hearts, to the point where the consciousness is one of fear, then all we would manifest would be more destruction. The means to save, to resurrect, to make amends with, to reconcile with, to heal ourselves with Mother Earth and everything that lives here, will only become available to us once we realize that cooperation rather than competition, that love rather than fear is the only state of consciousness in which we can successfully live, and lo and behold, those are the ways our ancestors lived 40,000 years ago."

Have you ever played Jenga?  It's a game I only recently discovered when someone brought it to work.  You stack 54 wooden blocks into a tower.  Each player in their turn takes one block out from the tower and places it at the top, building the tower higher and higher while being careful not to disrupt the rest of the tower.  The game ends when someone knocks the tower down, the winner being the last player to successfully put a block on top.

I believe, if I understand totalitarian agriculture correctly, that civilization has effectively turned Earth into Planet Jenga.  We've been approaching turbo speed ever since our infrastructure was shifted to be predicated on cheap oil production, whereas prior to that we were on cruise control when our infrastructure was predicated on cheap coal production, which we had been since roughly 1750.  But we were on that course even prior to that with the advent of agriculture.  Not because agriculture itself is inherently environmentally corrosive, but because of the human attitudes that made it totalitarian agriculture as described by Daniel Quinn: "it all belongs to us: everything; every bit of it and we can do with it what we want."

This attitude - this mindset - must be destroyed if there is to be any hope that humanity itself will not be destroyed.  That doesn't necessarily mean human existence must return to it's hunter/gatherer roots.  I don't think that's a very realistic proposition to expect people to willingly switch to.  Perhaps that might be the unwilling eventuality for survival in a post-Peak Everything, runaway climate scenario.  But as long as civilization continues wheezing along, I'm going to continue advocating a more sophisticated means of destroying the Planet Jenga mindset: change the way money works so that it represents energy instead of debt and foster a culture that values sustainability and vilifies greed.

Not that I think my proposition is very realistic either - it's just the only chance for civilization to survive.

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