Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Global Warming, Depletable Resources, Inconsistent Beliefs

A recent post on FuturePundit cites some interesting calculations by CalTech professor Dave Rutledge. Using the estimation approach on which current, widespread concerns about running out of petroleum are based, he finds that the IPCC global warming calculations overestimate future hydrocarbon burning by a factor of at least three or four--because the hydrocarbons are not there to be burned.

We have here two different arguments leading to the same conclusion and believed, on the whole, by the same people. One argument is that we are running out of hydrocarbons and should therefore reduce our use of hydrocarbons, reduce energy consumption and switch to alternative energy sources. The other argument is that we are, by burning hydrocarbons, increasing the amount of CO2 in the air and warming the planet, and we should therefore reduce our use of hydrocarbons, reduce energy consumption, and switch to alternative energy sources.

Both arguments claim, with some justification, to be based on scientific calculations. Both are, on the whole, believed by the same people. But, if Rutledge is right, the two sets of calculations are inconsistent with each other. Nobody who believes one ought to believe the other.

Which may reflect the fact that, once you know what conclusion you want to reach, there is always some way of getting there.


At 9:07 PM, June 26, 2007, Blogger Peter Bessman said...

"Which may reflect the fact that, once you know what conclusion you want to reach, there is always some way of getting there."

An eerie truth, my awareness of which has increased with age (along with my blood pressure).

At 5:45 AM, June 27, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! It reminds me of instances where two politically correct ideas collide.

"Which may reflect the fact that, once you know what conclusion you want to reach, there is always some way of getting there."

So true. I'd add that the way of getting there is probably going to involve increased government power and a brand new bureaucracy with new and intrusive powers.


At 9:15 AM, June 27, 2007, Blogger Michael Roberts said...

I'm not convinced that these are actually contradictory. Only that there is an interaction between the two.

A) we'd still run out of gas, even if the planet didn't get as hot as some poeple guess

B) the planet is still getting hotter, even if we won't keep making it worse at quite the rate some poeple guess.

It's still better to reduce the problems rather than expecting them to somehow cancel each other out. This is like expecting two jackhammers to be silent because the sound of one should cancel out the sound of the second. (They would _if_ the waveforms matched perfectly.)

Pretty much everything interacts with everything else. That doesn't mean that none of the things is valid.


At 1:54 PM, June 27, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So David, which one of these reasons has led you to reduce your carbon emissions? Or have the conclusions you want to reach charted an alternate path for you?

At 2:28 PM, June 27, 2007, Blogger David Friedman said...

Mark asks:

"So David, which one of these reasons has led you to reduce your carbon emissions? Or have the conclusions you want to reach charted an alternate path for you?"

A fair question. The conclusions I want to reach lead me to conclude that the future is sufficiently uncertain so that it is almost always a mistake to bear large costs now in or to avoid problems in the distant future. For more on that, see the webbed draft of my current writing project, Future Imperfect, at:


At 12:35 AM, June 28, 2007, Blogger Tim Lambert said...

Or, alternatively, the arguments about hydrocarbons don't work when applied to coal. Coal reserves are way more than sufficient to get us to 3xCO2.

At 12:42 AM, June 28, 2007, Blogger Beastin said...

Perhaps two years ago I went traipsing through the internet trying to figure out how much coal we had left. My best guess based on what I found was 300 years worth at the (then current) rate of energy consumption.

Never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by stupidity.
-Origin forgotten

If there really aren't enough hydrocarbons left to cause significant damage that's great. Burn 'em if you've got 'em.

But I think we should actually invest some research effort into determining this before declaring that global warming is not an issue. Dr. Rutledge's predictions are based entirely on production graphs with his past evidence coming (exclusively I believe) from high demand resources like oil, natural gas, and anthracite coal. There is no particular reason to think that lignite or subbituminous coals are extracted as quickly as possible. Indeed, environmental regulations and the low price of denser energy sources have probably been retarding their use. The upward kink in the end of Rutledge's China-coal curve is perhaps indicative of swelling demand and therefore extraction of coal.

At 1:05 AM, June 28, 2007, Blogger David Friedman said...

Tim and Beastin think coal is the answer. I'm no expert on the subject, but Rutledge's calculations did try to take that into account.

At 8:12 AM, June 29, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whether we can 'sequester' or 'trap' the co2 with clean coal technology should be irrelevant. Like oil, finding more sources of our addiction isn't the answer. We have more than an addiction to oil. So finding more of it isn't the answer.

So when people find huge deposits throughout the world, it ultimately just prolongs the inevitable decision of curbing ANY carbon fuel(oil or coal)as a source of energy.

The greatest mistake america has ever made was electing a president so closely tied to the oil industry.

Also, you will be hearing more about this: deforestation. In many ways, its far more of an important issue than an energy source. Since trees have the ability to 'intake' our crap(co2), the massive loss of forests throughout the world(bhutan, amazon, russia far east, us west, parts of canada)should be a great concern.

thank you-matt

At 8:45 PM, June 29, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The more co2 we emit the faster trees will regrow.

Oil is in principle compressed co2 taken of the atmosphere millions of years ago.

I learned that as a small kid in school.

At 9:34 PM, June 29, 2007, Blogger FuturePundit said...

I question David Friedman's assumption that the people who believe global warming is a threat are about the same group of people who think Peak Oil is a threat.

The global warming faction centered around a mixture of environmentalists and climate scientists. This faction has lots of academics and people who embrace political movements. These people are idealists (and I'm not saying that as a compliment).

The Peak Oilers are mainly petroleum geologists and engineers. You can read oil industry veterans at The Old Drum writing technical posts about the Saudi Ghawar oil field to make their points. This faction has lots of engineers and people who work in industry. These people are techies, not idealists.

While some Peak Oilers are basically preaching survivalism where industrial society collapses lots of the techie Peak Oilers look at the problem as solvable. That's a very techie attitude.

As for your aversion to paying a price now to avoid future costs: My own arguments against fossil fuels focus on shorter term costs such as ground level pollutants and the money that flows to Muslim regimes in the Middle East.

At 2:56 PM, July 05, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

phi1 said...
> The more co2 we emit the
> faster trees will regrow.

Wrong. That's only true if CO2 is the factor limiting the plant's growth, and if this outweighs the negative effects of greater acidity caused by higher atmospheric CO2 and of increased temperature.

For the large majority of plants, increasing atmospheric CO2 does more bad than good.

At 6:22 PM, July 11, 2007, Blogger dWj said...

I place more faith in the market to price in scarcity than to price in any environmental costs associated with CO2 emissions.

I don't think markets are perfect, but I do think, when there aren't obvious failure mechanisms, they tend to pretty well represent as good an aggregation of the thoughts of the smartest and most motivated people as you're likely to find. That oil prices are double digits makes me think that there's probably enough oil for a while still around. Whether global warming is going to cause a lot of future pain, though, lacks such a market indicator.

At 1:06 PM, July 13, 2007, Blogger Patri Friedman said...

Someone on my blog made an interesting comment. Given that there is lots more coal than oil, the IPCC's erroneous assumption may have the opposite effect. That is, rather than burning less fossil fuels b/c oil runs out, we will burn more coal, which has more CO2 per BTU, which means even more greenhouse gases than if we didn't run out of oil.

In which case, there is no contradiction betweeen the ideas.

At 6:17 PM, July 13, 2007, Blogger David Friedman said...

"That is, rather than burning less fossil fuels b/c oil runs out,"

We can't burn coal that isn't there, and the estimate I linked to is of hydrocarbons, not just of oil.

At 6:53 AM, January 21, 2009, Blogger wow power leveling said...

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