Sunday, April 11. 2010
Reading Richard Heinberg's Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis (paperback, 2009, New Society) is quite the bummer. Heinberg has written a number of gloomy books about a near future where oil production has peaked and is in permanent decline (e.g., The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies and Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines). His most profound insight has been the upslope correlation between energy use and population, with the implication that once energy use peaks -- we draw so much energy from petroleum that the two are close to inextricably linked -- population too will be forced into decline. In previous books he has been similarly pessimistic about coal and nuclear. Here he addresses coal in much more details, and comes up with a triple whammy: peak oil is imminent (if it hasn't already peaked) with a fairly steep decline over the next 30-40 years; estimates of hundreds of years worth of coal reserves are shriveling as declining quality and increasing extraction and transportation costs marginalize coal fields; plus any coal that we do manage to burn just adds to a near apocalyptic climate problem. In short, he has combined three worst case scenarios into a massive economic decline in short order -- well within the expected lifetimes of today's youngsters.
Heinberg posits three hypothetical scenarios: a "do nothing" which actually allows for a lot of wind, solar, and nuclear, with disastrous results; a major "clean coal" push, which does little better (it does slow down coal depletion a bit); and a presumably recommended solution that involves a lot of government-managed rationing -- in some ways that's even more of a bummer than the "do nothing" trainwreck. I'm sympathetic to each of the arguments, and the long thrust of my thinking is to come up with ways not so much to solve these problem as to live within resource limits, but I always figured we have more time to work it all out. For instance, the way the world works now means that post-peak oil scarcity will be rationed through higher prices which will in turn reduce demand, first by wringing most of the unnecessary consumption out of the system, then eventually by imposing all sorts of hardships. This will mean that the world 30 years after peak will be much different than now, and it probably means that the economy will be somewhat smaller. There are things we can do about it to make the transition less painful, and most likely we will not do many of them, but even so it won't be for lack of understanding or ideas -- it's more because so many people only learn things the hard way.
Climate change is trickier for lots of reasons: it's less clear what's happening, and it's less clear how hard it will be to adapt to whatever does happen, but most of all because some climate change functions are catastrophic -- minor changes can push past thresholds where the results radically change. My impression is that thus far we've been pretty lucky that greenhouse gas warming hasn't disrupted the climate more than it has, but that happens sometimes when you're gambling, and there's no guarantee that luck won't change. (In fact, if luck is the right word, it will change.)
Paul Krugman: Building a Green Economy: Straightforward survey of most of the serious thinking on the economics of doing something about anthropogenic climate change. Sure, that means he ignores the people who deny that there's a problem or who deny that there is a solution, which leaves several arguments: command or market (cap-and-trade) approaches to limiting greenhouse gases, differences in urgency (gradual ramping or "big bang"; I would have named the latter "shock treatment," drawing an analogy to the forced privatization that wrecked post-Soviet Russia). One thing of note viz. Heinberg above is that Krugman cites various studies concluding that the costs of doing nothing, resulting in a global temperature rise of up to 9 degrees F, are on the order of 5% of GDP, while the costs of limiting emissions is more like 2% of GDP. Both of these numbers seem small, not things that would radically alter our way of life -- pace Heinberg. They are, however, far from certain. One key paragraph:
Andrew Leonard: Paging Paul Krugman: More apocalypse, please: A brief comment on the above piece, mostly dealing with the issue of whether Krugman was forceful enough in describing the dire consequences of unchecked global warming. More relevant to my concerns viz. Heinberg:
Krugman's stock-in-trade is explaining things with simple models. His models can be simple because they assume everything else remains essentially the same. That works all right most of the time, but almost by its very nature doesn't work so well here. In fact, we don't know what works. And the problem isn't doubting the science. It's our ability to understand what it all means. I suspect Krugman understands this well enough: that's why he cites Weitzman. Think of it as a hedge against a really bad possible scenario -- the sort of thing the banking industry didn't do because their models didn't admit the possibility of risk on the level that actually occurred, let alone factor in the cascading failures that ensued. Moreover, the sort of risk we are running on the climate isn't something we can easily fix just by inventing more liquidity. It impacts things like whether land is above or below sea level, whether we can grow food on it and what kind of food, whether we will have adequate water where we want it, at the same time as the fossil fuel energy we have depended on is certain to go into decline.
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