I’ve been reading up a lot this week about peak oil. I’ve been dipping into my copy of “The Post-Carbon Reader“, which really ought to be required reading for everyone involved in discussions about climate change. It’s a collection of short essays by a large number of forward thinkers, put together by the Post-Carbon Institute. They take as their premise the evidence that we’re now reaching the limits to growth on a number of major planetary indicators (climate change, peak oil, biodiversity loss, agricultural sustainability, the nitrogen cascade, etc).

The existence of these planetary limits was first popularized by the Club of Rome, in the Limits to Growth study. Although many people criticized the original Limits to Growth study, most such criticisms focussed on the details. The central message still stands: long term sustained growth, based on ever growing exploitation of the resources of a finite planet, is simply not possible. So far we’ve manage to avoid such limits through the principle of substitutability: human inventiveness comes up with new technologies that allow us to keep on growing (e.g. in terms of population and in terms of economic activity). For example, the original Limits to Growth study worried extensively about imminent food crises. But in the event these were avoided through the green revolution, whereby farming yields were dramatically increased through new agricultural practices. But these practices are incredibly energy-intensive, and are only possible because of cheap fossil fuels. The challenge now is that now we’re hitting limits in a whole set of areas at once, but most notably in the supplies of cheap energy. The principle of substitutability doesn’t work if all the systems that might drive it are also under stress.

So energy is central to all these issues. The introduction to the Post Carbon Reader points out that the abundance of cheap energy that humanity has enjoyed for the last 150 years is an anomaly in human history, and we’ve become so used to it that it’s hard to recognize how anomalous it it. Peak Oil is the first sign that the anomaly might be ending, and that our access to cheap energy is effectively over.

Last time I wrote about peak oil, I did some back of the envelope calculations to figure out whether peak oil might save us from the climate crisis. My numbers showed that about half of the remaining fossil fuel reserves need to stay buried in the ground if we are to stand a chance of staying below the +2ºC of warming advocated by most commentators. The message was that peak oil won’t save us from serious climate disruption, largely because there are enough coal deposits that a switch to coal (using coal to replace natural gas and oil) will spell disaster. But there’s a worse problem. Once we hit peak oil (which might have already happened), production starts to decline while demand still grows. The result is that oil prices shoot up, making it ever more profitable to drill for every last drop. So, not only will peak oil not save us from climate change, it will exacerbate the problem by ensuring greater profits for those who extract those last remaining drops. The same argument applies to peak coal, which is probably only a few decades away. What would induce people to leave such valuable commodities unexploited?

There is, of course, growing evidence that we’ve already hit peak oil. The spike in oil prices in the summer of 2008 were a taste of what’s to come, and we’ve seen evidence in the last month that oil prices are on their way back up to those levels. The reasons for this are gradually becoming clear: the oil industry has apparently been telling pleasant lies to governments for the last few decades, greatly exaggerating their estimates of remaining oil reserves. The extent of this exaggeration was recently revealed by wikileaks. And the essay by David Hughes in the Post-Carbon Reader explains the context, by exploring how unrealistic US government projections have been.

Much has been made in discussions about climate denialism about the oil industries funding concerted attempts to discredit climate science. But within the oil companies themselves, there does seem to be a recognition that the party is over. Take, for example, this report produced by Shell earlier this month: Shell Energy Scenarios to 2050. The Shell report takes the climate science very seriously, and quotes from the Rockström et. al. paper on on planetary boundaries, along with the the work by Allen et. al. and Meinhausen et. al. on limits to cumulative emissions. There’s no mention from the Shell scenarios team of any doubt about climate change and peak oil – in fact they clearly state that “the longer the delay in climate policy action, the more likely shocks become” (p17).

What’s interesting about this report from Shell is the two different alternative scenarios they explore, which they call Blueprint and Scramble. The blueprint scenario represents serious climate policies that switch to clean energies more rapidly than any current political discussions would achieve. The alternative, Scramble, makes depressing reading. It posits a world in which nations focus more on their own energy security than on the long-term goals of reducing demand and switching to renewables. It’s a scramble for the dwindling fossil fuel supplies that puts supplier nations firmly in the driving seat (at which point we can forget any worries about human rights and equity), and in which we’ll see increasing international conflict:

Scramble in the west could also result in increasing anti-globalisation, more protectionism and political radicalism. […] As global order fragments, governments in developed countries will be pressured to protect the living standards of their populations”.

If oil companies understand this, why don’t politicians?

Hope everyone had a relaxing holiday and a great new year. I still have a whole pile of notes from the AGU meeting to polish up and post, but unfortunately they’re on a disk that crashed during my travels back from the meeting, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can recover them.

In the meantime, here’s three interesting upcoming workshops this year:

Three separate stories on the front page of the BBC news site today:

Death rate doubles in Moscow as heatwave continues“: Extreme drought in Russia, with heatwaves filling the morgues in Moscow, and the air so thick with smoke you can’t breathe.

Pakistan floods threaten key barrage in southern Sindh“: Entire villages washed away by flooding in Pakistan – as the Globe and Mail puts it, “Scale of Pakistan floods worse than 2004 tsunami, Haiti and Kashmir quakes combined”

China landslide death toll jumps“: “The landslides in Gansu came as China was struggling with its worst flooding in a decade, with more than 1,000 people reported dead and millions more displaced around the country.”

Lots of statistics to measure the human suffering. But nobody (in the mainstream media) pointing out that this is exactly what climate change is expected to do: more frequent and more intense extreme weather events around the globe. When the forecasts from the models are presented in reports as a trend in average temperatures, don’t forget that it’s not the averages that really matter for human well-being – it’s the extremes.

And nobody (in the mainstream media) pointing out that we’re committed to more and more of this for decades, because we can’t just turn off carbon emissions, and we can’t just suck the extra carbon out of the air – it stays there for a very long time. The smoke in Moscow will eventually wash out in a good rainstorm. The carbon in the atmosphere that causes the heatwaves will not – it will keep on accumulating, until we get to zero net emissions. And given how long it will take to entirely re-tool the whole world to clean energy, the heatwaves and floods of this summer will eventually come to look like smallfry. There’s a denialist argument that environmentalists are misanthropes, wanting to deny under-developed countries the benefits of western (fossil-fuel-driven) wealth. But how much proof will we need until people realize that do-nothing strategies on climate change are causing millions of people to suffer?

I was struck by a rather idiotic comment on this CBC story on adaptation to climate change in Northern Canada:  “It’ll be awesome….palm trees, orange trees, right in my backyard!!” Yes. Quite. I’m sure the folks in Moscow will be rushing out to plant palm trees and orange trees to replace the forests that burnt down. Just as soon as they can breathe outdoors again, that is.

Oh look, Moscow is further north than every single major Canadian city. Are we ready for this?

Update: (Aug 10): At last, the BBC links the Moscow heatwave to climate change.

Update2: (Aug 11): Forgot to say that the title of this post is a version of a quote usually attributed to William Gibson.

Update3: (Aug 11): There’s a fascinating workshop in September, in Paris, dedicated to the question of how we can do a better job of forecasting extremes. I’ve missed the registration cut-off, so I probably won’t be able to attend, but the agenda is packed with interesting talks. And of course, the IPCC is in the process of writing a Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events (the SREX), but it isn’t due out until November next year.

Update4: (Aug 12): Good reporting is picking up. Toronto Star: “Weather-related disasters are here to stay, say scientists“, although I think I like the original AP title better: “Long hot summer of fire and floods fit predictions

Here’s fascinating seminar, happening later this week:

Resilience in the Face of Climate Change and Peak Oil: Community-Building Responses
for an Equitable Transition to a Low-Carbon Society

Blake Poland, Associate Professor, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, UofT

THUR FEBRUARY 11, 4:10 p.m, Room 108, Health Sciences Building, 155 College St., at McCaul St, University of Toronto

The world, and North America in particular, is entering a period of unprecedented change. There is mounting evidence of the potential for (and pressure for action to avoid) catastrophic runaway climate change, unprecedented species extinctions and environmental degradation, the persistence (if not growth) of alarming inequities in health, and accelerated resource depletion. By many estimates we currently possess most of the technological know-how to solve the world’s fiscal, economic, environmental, social justice and climatological crises. In other words, the problem is not technical but social. Consensus is emerging that building resilience at 3 nested levels (psychological/ personal, community, systems level) is or must be at the centre of convergent social justice and environmental social change movements. Resilience is widely understood to refer to the ability of communities, persons, or systems to withstand shocks or stress without collapse, and perhaps the ability to accept and embrace (as opposed to resist) change. We are an interdisciplinary team principally from Canada and Brazil and we are working on the development of an arts-enabled transformative learning curriculum on the transition to a low-carbon society for application in educational and community settings, that draws on paradigms and sources of knowledge from the Global South and the Global North. We will describe work in progress.

Blake Poland is an Associate Professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, Co-Director of the Environmental Health Justice in the City Research Interest Group (Centre for Urban Health Initiatives), and co-principal investigator in the CUHI-funded Building Community Resilience pilot project. His work draws on complexity science, critical social theory, arts-enabled approaches, environmental justice, community development, and health promotion.

Many moons ago, I talked about the danger of being distracted by our carbon footprints. I argued that the climate crisis cannot be solved by voluntary action by the (few) people who understand what we’re facing. The problem is systemic, and so adequate responses must be systemic too.

In the years since 9/11, it’s gotten steadily more frustrating to fly, as the lines build up at the security checkpoints, and we have to put more and more of what we’re wearing through the scanners. This doesn’t dissuade people from flying, but it does make them much more grumpy about it. And it doesn’t make them any safer, either. Bruce Schneier calls it “Security Theatre“: countermeasures that make it look like something is being done at the airport, but which make no difference to actual security. Bruce runs a regular competition to think up a movie plot that will create a new type of fear and hence enable the marketing of a new type of security theatre countermeasure.

Now Jon Udell joins the dots and points out that we have an equivalent problem in environmentalism: Carbon Theatre. Except that he doesn’t quite push the concept far enough. In Jon’s version, carbon theatre is competitions and online quizes and so on, in which we talk about how we’re going to reduce our carbon footprints more than the next guy, rather than actually getting on and doing things that make a difference.

I think carbon theatre is more insidious than that. It’s the very idea that an appropriate response to climate change is to make personal sacrifices. Like giving up flying. And driving. And running the air conditioner. And so on. The problem is, we approach these things like a dieter approaches the goal of losing weight. We make personal sacrifices that are simply not sustainable. For most people, dieting doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because, although the new diet might be healthier, it’s either less convenient or less enjoyable. Which means sooner or later, you fall off the wagon, because it’s simply not possible to maintain the effort and sacrifice indefinitely.

Carbon theatre means focussing on carbon footprint reduction without fixing the broader system that would make such changes sustainable. You can’t build a solution to climate change by asking people to give up the conveniences of modern life. Oh, sure, you can get people to set personal goals, and maybe even achieve them (temporarily). But if it requires a continual effort to sustain, you haven’t achieved anything. If it involves giving up things that you enjoy, and that others around you continue to enjoy, then it’s not a sustainable change.

I’ve struggled for many years to justify the fact that I fly a lot. A few long-haul flights in a year adds enough to my carbon footprint that just about anything else I do around the house is irrelevant. Apparently a lot of scientists worry about this too.When I blogged about the AGU meeting, the first comment worried about the collective carbon footprint of all those scientists flying to the meeting. George Marshall worries that this undermines the credibility of climate scientists (or maybe he’s even arguing that it means climate scientists still don’t really believe their own results). Somehow all these people seem to think it’s more important for climate scientists to give up flying than it is for, say, investment bankers or oil company executives. Surely that’s completely backwards??

This is, of course, the wrong way to think about the problem. If climate scientists unilaterally give up flying, it will make no discernible difference to the global emissions of the airline industry. And it will make the scientists a lot less effective, because it’s almost impossible to do good science without the networking and exchange of ideas that goes on at scientific conferences. And even if we advocate that everyone who really understands the magnitude of the climate crisis also gives up flying, it still doesn’t add up to a useful solution. We end up giving the impression that if you believe that climate change is a serious problem you have to make big personal sacrifices. Which makes it just that much harder for many people to accept that we do have a problem.

For example, I’ve tried giving up short haul flights in favour of taking the train. But often the train is more expensive and more hassle. If there is no direct train service to my destination, it’s difficult to plan a route, buy tickets, and the trains are never timed to connect in the right way. By making the switch, I’m inconveniencing myself, for no tangible outcome. I’d be far more effective getting together with others who understand the problem, and fixing the train system to make it cheaper and easier. Or helping existing political groups who are working towards this goal. If we make the train cheaper and easier than flying, it will be easy to persuade large number of people to switch as well.

So, am I arguing that working on our carbon footprints is a waste of time? Well, yes and no. It’s a waste of time if you’re doing it by giving up stuff that you’d rather not give up. However, it is worth it if you find a way to do it that could be copied by millions of other people with very little effort. In other words, if it’s not (massively) repeatable and sustainable, it’s probably a waste of time. We need changes that scale up, and we need to change the economic and policy frameworks to support such changes. That won’t happen if the people who understand what needs doing focus inwards on their own personal footprints. We have to think in terms of whole systems.

There is a caveat: sacrifices such as temporarily giving up flying are worthwhile if done as a way of understanding the role of flying in our lives, and the choices we make about travel; they might also be worthwhile if done as part of a coordinated political campaign to draw attention to a problem. But as a personal contribution to carbon reduction? That’s just carbon theatre.

Brad points out that much of my discussion for a research agenda in climate change informatics focusses heavily on strategies for emissions reduction (aka Mitigation) and neglects the equally important topic of ensuring communities can survive the climate changes that are inevitable (aka Adaptation). Which is an important point. When I talk about the goal of keeping temperatures to below a 2°C rise, it’s equally important to acknowledge that we’ve almost certainly already lost any chance of keeping peak temperature rise much below 2°C.

Which means, of course, that we have some serious work to do, in understanding the impact of climate change on existing infrastructure, and to integrate an awareness of the likely climate change issues into new planning and construction projects. This is, of course, what Brad’s Adaptation and Impacts research division focusses on. There are some huge challenges to do with how we take the data we have (e.g. see the datasets in the CCCSN), downscale these to provide more localized forecasts, and then figure out how to incorporate these into decision making.

One existing tool to point out is the World Bank’s ADAPT, which is intended to help analyze projects in the planning stage, and identify risks related to climate change adaptation. This is quite a different decision-making task from the emissions reduction decision tools I’ve been looking at. But just as important.

I’ve been invited to give a talk to the Toronto HCI chapter as part of World Usability Day, for which the theme is designing for a sustainable world. Here’s what I have come up with as an abstract for my talk, to be entitled “Usable Climate Science”:

Sustainability is usually defined as “the ability to meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. The current interest in sustainability derives partly from a general concern about environmental degradation and resource depletion, and partly from an awareness of the threat of climate change. But to many people, climate change is only a vague problem, and to some people (e.g. about half the the US population) it isn’t regarded as a problem at all. There is a widespread lack of understanding of the core scientific results of climate science, and the methodology by which those results are obtained. Which in turn means that the public discourse is dominated by ignorance, polarization, and political point scoring. In this environment, lobbyists can propagate misinformation on behalf of various vested interests, and people decide what to believe based on their political worldviews, rather than what the scientific evidence actually says. The chances of getting sound, effective policy in such an environment are slim. In this talk, I will argue that we cannot properly address the challenge of climate change unless this situation is fixed. Furthermore, I’ll argue that the core problem is a usability challenge: how do we make the science itself accessible to the general public? The numerical simulations of climate developed by climatologists are usable only by people with PhDs in climatology. The infographics used to explain climate change in the popular press tend to be high design and low information. What is missing is a concerted attempt to get the core science across to a general audience using software tools and visualizations in which usability is the primary design principle. In short, how do we make climate science usable? Unless we do this, journalists, politicians and the public will be unable to judge whether proposed policy solutions are viable, and unable to distinguish sound science from misinformation. I will illustrate the talk with some suggestions of how we might meet this goal.

Update: talk details have now been announced. It’s on Nov 12 at 7:15pm, in BA1220.

This week, Ontario’s new Feed-in Tariff (FIT) program kicks in. The program sets specific prices that the province will pay to people who develop their own renewable power sources and sell the energy back to the grid. The key idea is that it sets up a guaranteed return on investment for people to build renewable capacity, and at a premium price, too.

The prices are set at different levels for different types of power generation and for different sizes of installations, with each price point designed to make it attractive for people to invest (with presumably some weighting in favour of the power mix the province would like to aim for). For example, a homeowner who puts solar panels on the roof will be paid 80c per kilowatt hour ($0.80/kWh), with the price guaranteed for 20 years. That’s for installations lower than 10kW; the price goes down for bigger installations (e.g. for 44c/kWh for rooftop solar larger than 500kW).

Current electricity prices in Ontario are around $0.08/Kwh, so the province is paying 10 times the current market rate for small-scale solar generation. Which makes is a pretty major subsidy. However, the entire program is intended to be revenue neutral. The creation of a large network of small suppliers may prevent the province having to build so many new power stations (the province recently turned down bids of $26 billion for new nuclear plants), and allow it phase out the existing coal plants within the next few years.

So what does this mean for the homeowner? A typical household solar installation will be well below 10kW. I grabbed a few ballpark figures from the web. A small household solar installation might generate about 12kWh per day, i.e. about $10 per day, or about $3,500 per year at the FiT rate; while the average household consumption is about 12,000kWh per year, or about $1,000 at current market prices. So the panels will pay for themselves within a few years, and then become a source of revenue!

The idea of a Feed-in Tariff program isn’t new – they’ve worked well in Europe for a number of years, and indeed the province of Ontario has had one in place since 2006. However the old program was criticised for setting rates too low, especially for small-scale generation; the new program increases the rates dramatically – for example the new small scale solar rate is twice the old rate.

Full details of the new program are at the Ontario Power Authority’s site.

Here’s an interesting competition (with cash prizes), organized by the Usability Professionals’ Association, to develop a new concept or product, with user-centred design principles, that aims to cut energy consumption or reduce pollution.

And here’s another: A Video Game Creation Contest to create a playable video game that uses earth observations to help address environmental problems.

I gave my talk on SE for the Planet again this afternoon, to the local audience. We recorded it, and will get the whole thing up on the web soon.

I mentioned during the talk that the global greenhouse emissions growth curve and the world population growth curve are almost identical, and speculated that this means effectively that emissions per capita has not changed over the last century or so. After the talk, Jonathan pointed out to me that it means no such thing. While globally the average emissions per capita might have remained roughly constant, the averages probably hide several very different trends. For example, in the industrialized world, emissions per capita appears to have grown dramatically, while population growth has slowed. In contrast, in the undeveloped world the opposite has happened: huge population growth, with very little emissions growth. When you average both trends you get an apparent static per capita emissions rate.

Anyway, this observation prompted me to go back and look at the data. I’d originally found this graph, which appears to show the growth curves are almost identical:

Greenhouse gas emissions versus population growth

Greenhouse gas emissions versus population growth

The problem is, I didn’t check the credibility of the source. The graph comes from the site World Climate Report, which turns out to be a denialist site, full of all sorts of misinformation. In this case, they appear to have cooked the graph (note the low resolution and wide aspect ratio) to make the curves look like they fit much better than they really do. To demonstrate this, I reconstructed them myself.

I got amazingly detailed population data by year from digital survivors. They’ve done a wonderful job of collating data from many different sources, although their averaging technique does lead to the occasional anomaly (e.g. in 1950, there’s a change in availability of source datasets, and it shows up as a tiny glitch on my graph). I got the CO2 emissions data from the US government’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC).

Here’s the graph from 1850 to 2006 (click it for a higher resolution version):

Notice that emissions grew much more sharply than population from 1950 onwards, with the only exceptions being during the economic recessions of the early 1980’s, early 1990’s, and around 2000. Since 2000, emissions have been growing at more than double the population growth rate. So, I think that effectively explodes the myth that population growth alone explains emissions growth. It also demonstrates the importance of checking your sources before quoting them…

Many years ago, Dave Parnas wrote a fascinating essay on software aging, in which he compares old software with old people, pointing out that software gets frail, less able to do things than when it was young, and gets more prone to disease and obesity (actually, I can’t remember whether he mentioned obesity, but you get the idea – software bloat). At some point we’re better off retiring the old system rather than trying to keep updating it.
Well, this quote by Thomas Friedman that showed up on Gristmill over the weekend made me think more about how our entire economic system is in the same boat. We’ve got to the point where we can’t patch it any longer without just making it worse. Is it time for industrialization 2.0? Or maybe it should be globalization 2.0?
The question is, do any of our political leaders understand this? No sign of any enlightenment in Canada’ House of Commons, I’m afraid.