Why is peak oil politically incorrect?

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Don't you feel at times that peak oil is not only ignored by the media but that it is, actually, politically incorrect? I got this distinct feeling after that, at a recent conference, a member of the Italian parliament spoke after me and said he didn't believe a word of what I had said because “oil prices have gone down.” It is difficult to quantify political incorrectness, but the graph above does tell us that, of the two major issues that we are facing nowadays, global warming beats peak oil hands down.

The graph was made using Google “Trends,” a new service that gives you a measure of the number of times a certain term has been searched over the Internet. The blue line (lower) is for “peak oil”, the red line (higher) is for “global warming”. Google trends is still an experimental service lacking several features, for instance there is no scale for the number of hits, but it is already a valuable tool. You can get the same results using similar terms, for instance “global warming” instead of “climate change” or “oil depletion” instead of “peak oil”.

The graph tells us more. Not only there is more interest in global warming than on peak oil, but global warming is gaining in popularity whereas for peak oil the trend is the opposite. Global warming also shows a certain seasonality cycle: in December, with plenty of snowy landscapes and Christmas carols in TV, people seem to lose interest in global warming. Peak oil, instead, doesn't show a seasonal cycle of interest and it is unaffected by Christmas carols – possibly people interested in peak oil watch less TV. Note, finally, that when the interest in peak oil rises, that on global warming wanes, and the opposite is also true. Apparently, most people can't focus their minds at the same time on two issues that are perceived as different and unrelated.

But climate change and fossil fuels are not in competition with each other: they are two sides of the same coin. Most of the solutions proposed to fight global warming, higher efficiency, renewable energy, etc. are also solutions for the problem of fossil fuel depletion. But that is not always the case; for instance switching to coal to counteract oil depletion would worsen the problem of global warming. No matter how one sees the situation, the relation of depletion and climate change is complex and both issues must be considered and understood if we want to do something serious to manage the situation. For, instance, the IPCC may have badly overestimated the amount of fossil fuels available in their scenarios (see the recent paper by Kjell Aleklett http://energybulletin.net/29845.html). So, we should try to avoid that the growing popularity of global warming will overshadow the question of peak oil to the point that the latter disappears from the media and from collective consciousness.

But why is peak oil the Cinderella of the debate? After all, there are as many hints of an incoming oil production peak (high prices, geopolitical tensions, oil wars, etc.) as there are of global warming (melting glaciers, droughts, hurricanes, etc.) . Furthermore, it should be much easier for people to understand that “once burned, it is gone” rather than the complex chain of reasoning that connects the burning of fossil fuels to hurricanes and melting glaciers.

As it often happens, there is not a single reason for the situation. For one thing, very fact that depletion is easier to understand makes it more ominous. For most people, it is difficult to visualize the damage that could derive from an increase (1-2 deg. C) of temperatures, perceived as small. But everybody can understand long lines at gas stations and the ultimate risk of returning to the poverty of our not so remote ancestors. Clearly, however, a crucial advantage of climate change is the presence of a compact body of scientists who study the issue. The International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 and, at present, a search on the database “sciencedirect” that lists peer reviewed scientific literature gives more than 1800 papers citing the term “global warming” in the title or the abstract and about 5500 with the words “climate change”. There never was any doubt on who had the expertise to study the issue: scientists involved with the physical sciences: geologists, meteorologists, oceanographers, astronomers, and others. That global warming exists and that human activity is an important part of it, is the mainstream idea. If you don't agree, you are expressing a fringe opinion, if you aren't considered a nut or a crackpot outright.

That's not the situation with peak oil. The Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) is the closest equivalent to the IPCC in depletion studies. But ASPO lacks the numbers and the financing of IPCC. It is not even clear who should study depletion. Is it an issue for geologists? For economists? For physicists? For whom exactly? A number of talented individuals from various fields of science are producing good, and sometimes excellent work on depletion but on the database “sciencedirect” we find today only 24 papers which carry the term “peak oil” in the title or in the abstract; even a smaller number that mention the term “oil depletion.” Compare with the more than 1800 papers that mention “global warming”! The peak oil issue has simply failed to gain the critical mass of scientists necessary to attract the kind of prestige, attention, and funding that global warming has generated. Peak oil remains a fringe issue; politically incorrect. If you mention it, you are the nut or the crackpot.

It all comes from far away. Neither resource depletion nor climate change are recent discoveries, they both go back to 19th century (at least). It took time to understand that that the burning of fossil fuels was creating an anomalous rise in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and that the consequence was a major climatic change. Once that was clear, in the late 1970s, climate change became a legitimate subject of study and it expanded to the present level.

The path of depletion studies, instead, was different. The first modeling of the effects of depletion on the economy goes back to William Stanley Jevons, with his “The Coal Question” of 1866. Jevons's ideas were already perfectly modern and did show that economics was the legitimate field that should have studied the matter. But Jevons's work on depletion was nearly forgotten and economics science took a path that led to models that badly underestimated the importance of mineral resource on the economy. In the 1950s, Marion King Hubbert proposed his model of the “bell shaped” production curve. But Hubbert was a geologist and his work was simply ignored by the economists. In the same period an engineer, Jay Wright Forrester, had developed the first comprehensive models that described the interactions of the economy with the extraction of mineral resources. It was in 1972 that the issue was presented to the public in the book “The Limits to Growth.” Also that work went straight against the grain. It couldn't be ignored by mainstream economics, but it could be ridiculed. In the late 1980s, the fate of the issue of depletion was sealed by a series of political attacks, in particular by a journalist, Ronald Bailey, which had a huge success and which led to a situation in which the very concept of resource depletion was considered politically incorrect.

Only in the late 1990s, a group of geologists took a new interest in Hubbert’s work. Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere created the association for the study of peak oil (ASPO) in 2001. ASPO collected a number of high level scientists in various fields; their work attracted considerable attention but failed to generate the equivalent of the IPCC (IPOD today doesn't mean “international panel on oil depletion”). The issue was too new and interdisciplinary to generate a solid group of scientists interested in working on it. So, we have arrived to where we stand, with the threat of global warming being considered much more seriously than that of peak oil.

In the long run, the issues that are now clouded in a harsh debate will appear clear. By then, however, the damage will be done and we may be left without the resources needed to remedy it. Climate change and fossil fuels depletion must be understood together if something serious is to be done in order to mitigate their effects. If we want that peak oil is not forgotten with the next political crisis, we must try to build a solid scientific base to it with publications in the peer reviewed literature. Some people are doing that; it is growing, but slowly. Let’s just hope it is not too late.