Sunday, February 26, 2017

Catastrophism is popular, but not necessarily right. Debunking the "Hill's Group" analysis of the future of the oil industry



"The Hill's Group" has been arguing for the rapid demise of the world's oil industry on the basis of a calculation of the entropy of the oil extraction process. While it is true that the oil industry is in trouble, the calculations by the Hill's group are, at best, irrelevant and probably simply plain wrong. Entropy is an important concept, but it must be correctly understood to be useful. It is no good to use it as an excuse to pander unbridled catastrophism. 


Catastrophism is popular. I can see that with the "Cassandra's Legacy" blog. Every time I publish something that says that we are all going to die soon, it gets many more hits than when I publish posts arguing that we can do something to avoid the incoming disaster. The latest confirmation of this trend came from three posts by Louis Arnoux that I published last summer (link to the first one). All three are in the list of the ten most successful posts ever published here.

Arnoux argues that the problems we have today are caused by the diminishing energy yield (or net energy, or EROI) of fossil fuels. This is a correct observation, but Arnoux bases his case on a report released by a rather obscure organization called "The Hill's Group." They use calculations based on the evaluation of the entropy of the extraction process in order to predict a dire future for the world's oil production. And they sell their report for $28 (shipping included).

Neither Arnoux nor the "Hill's Group" are the first to argue that diminishing EROEI is at the basis of most of our troubles. But the Hill's report gained a certain popularity and it has been favorably commented on many blogs and websites. It is t is understandable: the report has an aura of scientific correctness that comes from its use of basic thermodynamic principles and of the concept of entropy, correctly understood as the force behind the depletion problem. There is just a small problem: the report is badly flawed.

When I published Arnoux's posts on this blog, I thought they were qualitatively correct, and I still think they are. But I didn't have the time to look at the details of the report of Hill's group. Now, some people did that and their analysis clearly shows the many fundamental flaws of the treatment. You can read the results in English by Seppo Korpela, and in Spanish by Carlos De Castro and Antonio Turiel.

Entropy is a complex subject and delving into the Hill's report and into the criticism to it requires a certain effort. I won't go into details, here. Let me just say that it simply makes no sense to start from the textbook definition of entropy to calculate the net energy of oil production. The approximations made in the report are so large to make the whole treatment useless (to say nothing of the errors it contains). Using the definition of entropy to analyze oil production is like using quantum mechanics to design a plane. It is true that all the electrons in a plane have to obey Schroedinger's equation, but that's not the way engineers design planes.

Of course, the problem of diminishing EROEI exists and can be studied. The way to do that is known and it is based on the "life cycle analysis" (LCA) of the process. This method takes into account entropy indirectly, in terms of heat losses, without attempting the impossible task of calculating it from first principles. By means of this method we can see that, at present, the EROEI of oil production is not so bad as described by Hill/Arnoux. It still provides a reasonable energy return on investment (EROEI) as you can read, for instance, in a recent paper by Brandt et al

But if producing oil still provides an energy return, why is the oil industry in such dire troubles? (see this post on the SRSrocco report, for instance). Well, let me cite a post by Nate Hagens:


In the last 10 years the global credit market has grown at 12% per year allowing GDP growth of only 3.5% and increasing global crude oil production less than 1% annually. We're so used to running on various treadmills that the landscape doesn't look all too scary. But since 2008, despite energies fundamental role in economic growth, it is access to credit that is supporting our economies, in a surreal, permanent, Faustian bargain sort of way. As long as interest rates (govt borrowing costs) are low and market participants accept it, this can go on for quite a long time, all the while burning through the next higher cost tranche of extractable carbon fuel in turn getting reduced benefits from the "Trade" creating other societal pressures.
Society runs on energy, but thinks it runs on money. In such a scenario, there will be some paradoxical results from the end of cheap (to extract) oil. Instead of higher prices, the global economy will first lose the ability to continue to service both the principal and the interest on the large amounts of newly created money/debt, and we will then probably first face deflation. Under this scenario, the casualty will not be higher and higher prices to consumers that most in peak oil community expect, but rather the high and medium cost producers gradually going out of business due to market prices significantly below extraction costs. Peak oil will come about from the high cost tranches of production gradually disappearing.
I don't expect the government takeover of the credit mechanism to stop, but if it does, both oil production and oil prices will be quite a bit lower. In the long run it's all about the energy. For the foreseeable future, it's mostly about the credit

In the end, it is simply dumb to think that the system will automatically collapse when and because the net energy of the oil production process becomes negative (or the EROEI smaller than one). No, it will crash much earlier because of factors correlated to the control system that we call "the economy". It is a behavior typical of complex adaptative systems that are never understandable in terms of mere energy return considerations. Complex systems always kick back.

The final consideration of this post would simply be to avoid losing time with the Hill's report (to say nothing about paying $28 for it). But there remains a problem: a report that claims to be based on thermodynamics and uses resounding words such as "entropy" plays into the human tendency of believing what one wants to believe. Catastrophism is popular for various reasons, some perfectly good. Actually, we should all be cautious catastrophists in the sense of being worried about the catastrophes we risk to see as the result of climate change and mineral depletion. But we should also be careful about crying wolf too early. Unfortunately, that's exactly what Hill&Arnoux did and now they are being debunked, as they should be. That puts in a bad light all the people who are seriously trying to alert the public of the risks ahead.

Catastrophism is the other face of cornucopianism; both are human reactions to a difficult situation. Cornucopianism denies the existence of the problem, catastrophism denies that it can be solved or even just mitigated. Both attitudes lead to inaction. But there exists a middle way in which we don't exaggerate the problem but we don't deny it, either, and we do something about it!






Tuesday, February 21, 2017

MEDEAS: The Next Step after the Paris Climate Agreement


Jordi Solé, coordinator of the MEDEAS project speaks in Brno (Czekia) on Feb 15th, 2017. The European project MEDEAS has the ambitious goal of providing the tools necessary to put into practice the 2015 Paris agreement on climate


Let me start with something to dispel the confusion about what models are for. When you deal with complex, adaptive systems, models are NOT meant to predict the future. As John Gall said in his book on complex systems, "systems always kick back" - to which I may add, "and sometimes they kick back with a vengeance". (another way to express this concept is "forecasting always fails.")

But if dynamic models cannot predict the future, what are they good for? Simple, they are about being prepared for the future. Think of the Paris climate treaty of 2015. It was the result of millions of runs of various climate models, none of which claimed to predict "the" future. But these models are tools to prepare for the future; they tell you what may happen, depending on what you do. They are tools to shape political decisions. Out of all those runs, a goal was extracted, a setpoint, a number: "we don't want temperatures to rise of more than  2 °C and, for that purpose, there is a limit to the amounts of fossil fuels we can burn." It was a political decision that took into account not just what the models say, but what could be concretely achieved in the real world.  No model would give you that number as an output.The Paris agreement was a masterpiece of diplomacy and of communication strategy because it concentrated so much noise into a simple, stark, number: a goal to reach.

And there we stand: with Paris, we set the goal, but how do we get there? This section of policy planning was poor in Paris, where the best that could be done was to line up the INDCs, the intended nationally determined contribution; that is how single countries think they could reduce emissions. That's not planning, it is a first stab at the problem; it shows the good will to do something, but no more. As they stand, the INDCs won't get us far enough.

So, we are again at the task of getting prepared for the future. We know that we need to reduce carbon emissions, but how fast? Besides, it is not just a question of reduction, it is a question of substitution. We need to maintain the essential energy services to the world's population: surely, as a society, we can shed a lot of fat and keep going, but without a minimum of energy input, the system collapses. At the same time, we need to maintain the current input without exceeding the emissions limits. A difficult challenge, although not an impossible one.

Here, we need models, again. No model can tell you exactly how to get there, but models will tell you what is likely to happen given some choices and some decisions. And out of the models, you have to extract a concrete, politically feasible goal: how to invest the remaining resources into attaining the Paris objectives? In other words, what fraction of the world's GDP need to be invested in the transition to a renewable economy?

Giving an answer to this question is the ambitious task of the MEDEAS project which has now reached a full year of work and set up the basis for an extensive modeling effort. MEDEAS takes an approach mainly based on system dynamics, similar to the one of the well-known "The Limits to Growth" approach. It is not the only ongoing project in this area, others projects take different lines of approach. But in al cases the idea is to build up knowledge on what is needed for the transition. Some data are already available that tell us we need a major effort to replace fossil fuels fast enough. The transition that won't come by itself, pushed by purely economic forces. But we need to explore the issue more in depth before these considerations can be turned into a number that can be agreed upon by the interested parties. We need to take into account both what's needed and what is politically feasible. Then, we will have a goal to reach.

If you want to know more about MEDEAS, you can see the MEDEAS website. There is also a MEDAS newsletter, still in a preliminary phase. And, if you would like to be involved, contact me (ugo.bardi(strangething)unifi.it)


Below: an intense discussion held in Brno about the project with the coordinator, Jordi Solé from Barcelona and two Italian researchers from Florence, Sara Falsini and Ilaria Perissi. 









Thursday, February 16, 2017

Seneca and Medea



Sara Falsini (left) and Ilaria Perissi (right), researchers from Italy, illustrate their results at the MEDEAS project meeting in Brno, Czekia, on Feb 15-16 2017


I try to put up a post every week on this blog, but this week I was really swamped by a zillion things. Of these, two really overwhelmed me. The first is the MEDEAS meeting, right now ongoing in Brno, Czekia. The second is completing my new book, "The Seneca Effect". (the cover on the right is fanciful, also the title will be a little different),

Both things have a certain "ancient history" flavor, even though Seneca is a historical character whereas Medea is a mythological one (as far as we know). But they have many things in common, the book and the project are both aiming at understanding the future on the basis of the idea that the key of the future is in the past. (and, after all, Medea and Cassandra are similar mythological figures)

So, I can tell you that the MEDEAS project is going well, although it is an awful lot of work with several models being developed at different levels of detail and scope. The book, too, is almost finished, needs some retouching and some figures are being drawn. It should appear soon in English. Also the German version is being prepared.

Once all this has been accomplished, I can go back to blogging. Soon, I hope.



Monday, February 6, 2017

Checkmated on the "Climate Pause". The Mistakes Scientists Make


David Rose popularized the concept of the "pause" in global warming in a 2012 article on the Daily Mail. There never was such a thing, but it became a highly successful meme (*), still widely cited today as proof that global warming doesn't exist or it is nothing to be worried about. By now, the rapid rising temperatures of the past few years should have been consigned the "pause" to the oblivion it fully deserves. But a group of scientists offered to Rose the occasion to double down and to accuse them of manipulating the data. 


Years ago, I used to play chess, even though I always remained, at best, at a low-medium skill level. Once, I found myself playing with a local high-level player and I was thoroughly trashed, quickly checkmated. I offered my congratulations to him and he answered to me with something like, "Ugo, it is not that I am especially good. It is you who made mistakes with your moves. Make no mistakes, and nobody will ever checkmate you."

I think that was good advice that I still try to remember after many years. If you are defeated, it may be that your opponent is especially good, but it is also likely that he or she simply exploited your mistakes. Avoid making mistakes, and your life will be easier. But you need to recognize the mistakes you made and admit them.

This seems to be the problem with the present debate on climate science. Facing aggressive criticism, scientists keep making the most elementary communication mistakes. The latest disaster for science is the recent article by David Rose in which scientists are accused to be manipulating the data. Rose, you may remember, is the journalist who first diffused in the media the idea that there had been a "pause" in global warming. His 2012 article in the Daily Mail was a milestone in the meme war; with the "pause" (or "hiatus") still widely known and repeated as "proof" that global warming doesn't exist or that, at least, climate models don't work (*).

Obviously, the "pause" never was anything more than a perfectly normal oscillation - amplified by carefully choosing a specific interval of temperatures. The recent temperature increases broke all the warming records and that should have buried forever the "pause", together with other legends such as the claimed arrival of the planet Nibiru in 2012. But, no. Now David Rose doubles down with a new article in which he, this time, accuses scientists of having manipulated the data in order to make the pause disappear.

I don't think I need to tell you that Rose's latest article is a textbook example of logical inconsistency. First, he claimed the existence of the "pause" on the basis of temperature data that, evidently, he trusted. Now, he says that the data shouldn't be trusted because they don't show a pause. If there ever was an example of motivated reasoning, this is it.

Yet, communication is not just a question of formal logic. Take a tour of the Web and you'll see how many people are gleefully commenting on Rose's latest broadside against science. It is a landslide; the dam has given way: it is a true disaster for science. Maybe Rose is an evil genius in communication, but I think he is not. He is just exploiting the mistakes made by climate scientists.

This story is all about an article published in 2015 by a group of NOAA scientists who claimed that there is no evidence of a slowdown in the world's temperature increase. The article was perfectly good in scientific terms, but it was a terrible mistake in terms of communication. Why? Because it ignored a simple fact of life: in the mass media debate, mentioning a concept, even if for debunking it, has the effect of reinforcing the public perception that the concept is real.

This is a well known concept. On this issue, you may read a good article by Chris Mooney describing the "backfire effect" or, sometimes, the "boomerang effect". Among the many cases, it was found that having Barack Obama explicitly stating that he is not a Muslim tends to reinforce some people's belief that he is. And you surely remember the story of the "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq. There never was any proof for their existence (and, indeed, they never existed). But the more the subject was debated, the more people became convinced that they existed.

In the end, it is simple: debunking doesn't work; on the contrary, it often reinforces the perception that the belief being debunked is true. So, it should have been obvious that a paper that attempted to demonstrate that there never was a "pause" would generate a backlash, one day or another. And it did.

Let me repeat: For what I can say, there is nothing wrong in scientific terms in the work by Karl et al. But place yourself in the shoes of a person who is not a scientist, won't you get the impression that the scientists are fiddling with the data? That's the point that the critics of science are making over and over and this message seems to be going through.

Maybe it was unavoidable that a review of the temperature data would lead to this result, but was it appropriate to publish a minor correction of a data set in a high-visibility journal? If it was in order to affect climate policies, it was a perfectly legitimate target, but only if based on rock-solid data. Didn't the people involved in this work realize that their corrections are debatable, to say the least? And how is it that no one in NOAA thought that in some quarters the corrections would be understood and described as politically motivated data manipulation? Do scientists always have to be so naive? 

Now, many scientists are trying to debunk Rose's article (**), but the problem remains the same: the more you mention the "pause", the more it becomes real for the public. And that's a victory for the enemies of science. It seems that, as scientists, we are falling over and over into the same traps. As long as we do that, we'll keep being checkmated by people who exploit our mistakes.





(*) About the power of the "pause" as a meme, note that even a Nobel prize in physics, Carlo Rubbia, became convinced that it was something real. You can hear him (in Italian) here saying that on minute 2.40 

(**) Note that climate scientists are debunking Rose who was debunking NOAA that was debunking Rose who was debunking climate scientists. Quite a trophic chain of debunking and counter-debunking. A true "metadebunking" that only confuses people and plays in the hand of the enemies of science.





Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)