Peak Everything Prophet Downgrades Peak Oil?

By Keith Kloor | April 17, 2013 10:06 am

Jeremy Grantham is a fascinating dude. He is a highly successful capitalist who blames capitalism for killing the planet. If you’re familiar with this “connoisseur of [market] bubbles,” as the New York Times referred to him in a profile, it’s probably due to his increasingly Malthusian outlook. In 2011, he warned that “accelerated demand” from developing countries was depleting the earth’s natural resources. He declared that we “now live in a different, more constrained, world in which prices of raw materials will rise and shortages will be common.”

This resource depletion (peak everything!), combined with global warming, poses an existential threat to civilization, Grantham argues. Though some of his recent peak claims have been questioned by experts and ridiculed by pundits, his message has deeply resonated with greens, peak oilers, and climate activists. Two years ago, climate blogger Joe Romm wrote of Grantham:

He is one of the few leading financial figures who gets both peak oil and global warming.

Those two concerns competed for our attention during the 2000s. Now it appears that one of them has been downgraded in threat level, even by Grantham, who said this week in a Guardian interview

Don’t worry about peak oil, worry about peak temperature.

I’m not sure if he was being facetious or just emphasizing climate change as the greater and more immediate threat. In any case, Grantham says a lot of interesting things in that interview, among them his belief that China will ride “to the rescue” with its massive investment in renewable energy technology. The thinking here, I guess, is that a Chinese breakthrough in clean energy will spell the end of fossil fuels and save us from a climate disaster.

But even if that comes to pass, what about Grantham’s other main bugaboo: resource depletion? After all, as he wrote in his latest quarterly newsletter, there is still capitalism’s growth paradigm and the aspirations of the developing world to contend with:

You don’t have to be a Ph.D. mathematician to work out that if the average Chinese and Indian were to catch up with (the theoretically moving target of) the average American, then our planet’s goose is cooked, along with most other things. Indeed, scientists calculate that if they caught up, we would need at least three planets to be fully sustainable.

Yes, the idea of the average Chinese and Indian sharing the same fruits of the planet as Grantham should give us pause. Can you imagine if everyone in the developing world got three square meals a day, an air conditioner and a flush toilet? After that, they’ll be wanting a car and some recreational income to fly to Disney World. And just think how bad things would get if some of these people wanted to live like a wealthy Malthusian:

Grantham leads what he calls “a reasonable fat-cat existence” — 10-year-old Volvo station wagon, 40-year-old 12-foot Boston Whaler, a country place near the ocean.

What if even a tiny, tiny percentage of Indians or Chinese had the carbon footprint of fat-cats? Our planet would be ruined.

Image/Flickr
CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, select, sustainability
  • JonFrum

    Half a century ago, such people were actively demanding against aid to third world countries, with the explicit intention of letting them starve to death. Now, they don’t actually say it aloud.

  • jh

    “You don’t have to be a Ph.D. mathematician to work out that if the
    average Chinese and Indian were to catch up with (the theoretically
    moving target of) the average American, then our planet’s goose is
    cooked”

    Good point! Anyone can plug invalid assumptions into a valid equation and produce an invalid result!

  • Tom Scharf

    China is going to innovate our way out of global climate change? That’s the most delusional thing I have heard in a long time. Maybe you should check the skies over Beijing for a first pass on how likely that is going to be.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Christopher-C-Bergan/1539199570 Christopher C Bergan

      Not so far fetched! China has > 150 scientists working on the Molten Salt Reactor, and have pledged to get the first commercial MSR running in 7 years. The US defunded it’s successful MSR program in 1973, & has since declassified that research! EnergyFromThorium.com

    • harrywr2

      I’ll go with it’s probable…not far fetched.

      The problem in the ‘West’ with nuclear power innovation is that we just don’t have the level of baseload demand that would justify a second ‘fuel fabrication’ infrastructure…so we are stuck with water cooled reactors with the attendant waste and safety issues.

      The US is the largest player in the West but we have ‘cheap coal’ that will take another 20 years to phase out if we really worked at it.

      That leaves China.

      Regular air pollution and the excessive cost of coal in China will provide the impetus for the population to demand energy innovation.

  • Buddy199

    Not In My Back Yard. Especially those uppity brown skinned third worlders.

  • jh

    It’s interesting that financial “experts” like Mr. Grantham claim that you don’t have to have a PhD to figure it out, but resource experts who have PhD’s don’t agree with Mr. Grantham’s math.

    Check out Michael Levi’s piece at Bloomberg re: the cost of burning US oil in climate terms. Tangential subject, yeah, but note there’s not the slightest hint that oil will peak any time soon – nor is there any hint that climate issues will decrease the benefits we acquire from oil.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-04-17/more-u-s-oil-probably-won-t-destroy-the-climate.html

  • Tom Fuller

    From Nick Stern to the IPCC, everybody’s calculations of CO2 emissions going forward start with the assumption that the developing world is going to develop. That the sons of peasant farmers will live as you describe in your post–cars, vacations, air conditioning (especially air conditioning).

    If that economic development does not take place, the emissions required to produce global warming will not occur.

    For those alarmed about model-generated values of high sensitivity, the sad news is that development is happening even more quickly than built into calculations. For the rest of humanity, of course, this is cause for rejoicing.

    • Marlowe Johnson

      what about those of us who are worried because of what deep time paleo tells us about sensitivity rather than models Tom?

      the ecological consequences of the developing world adopting the consumption patterns of the western world using today’s technology would be significant. To pretend otherwise is to be in denial tom. remember that word?

      However, it does not then follow that ‘alarmists’ like Bentham hate the poor. that’s a canard that deniers like you like to trot out every now and then. The trick of course is how to we raise living standards globally without fatally undermining the prospects for future generations.

      FWIW, I personally think the only way we’ll get there is if we adopt some sort of ‘contraction and convergence’ framework. Realistically, this can only be achieved within the time frames necessary if the west starts putting much more money into development aid and energy/materials R&D.

      or of course we could just hope for the best.

      • Tom Fuller

        Or you could listen to what scientists actually say. And observe what the data actually shows.

        Nah–that’ll never happen. Bet you like horror movies too.

      • jh

        In your understanding, what does “deep time paleo” tell us about sensitivity?

        As far as I know, it tells us sensitivity is low. We had very high pCO2 (well over 1000ppm) until the last 60my, but temps were not correlated strongly with pCO2.

        Whatever the case, no global temp estimate comparable to those derived for the last few thousand years, let alone the past few hundred, is obtainable from “deep time paleo.” Aside from the challenge of simply finding solid age constraints on proxies, you have to also work out the massive effect of the position of the continents, orientation of primary topographic barriers, and ocean currents. How would you assess ocean currents for a period during which the earth had only one landmass and 70+% of the geologic record is unknown?

        • Marlowe Johnson

          JH,

          A good place to start is here:

          http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2012/20120508_ClimateSensitivity.pdf

          I’d be happy to discuss specific issues once you’ve read the paper.

          cheers.

          • jh

            Thanks for the references Marlowe.

            The Nature paper gives climate sensitivity at 2.2-4.8 °C / 68% confidence, and a wider range for 95% confidence.

            These estimates agree with the range of estimates given by the IPCC, but they don’t rule out lower values of sensitivity. A lower limit of 2.2°C per double at 68% confidence, and lower still at 95% confidence, is well within the recent suggestions of lower climate sensitivity, which are around 2.2-2.6°C per double.

            So I don’t see any support from the Cenozoic for rejecting recent lower sensitivity values. The data are no more or less conclusive than recent data, which aren’t very conclusive.

          • jh

            I also think it’s a fairly safe bet that, if the actual errors of all the factors used in these calculations were carried through, the error estimate would be much larger.

            I’ve gathered and worked with a wide variety of geologic data and in a wide age range of rocks (2.7By to recent). My general view is that academic geologists under estimate the error, often dramatically, in everything they do, because they rarely consider the errors in their fundamental assumptions. It’s very rare that any of the fundamental assumptions can actually be tested. In cases where they’re frequently tested, such as U-Pb isotopic ages (which use two unique isotopic systems in the same mineral), these assumptions rarely hold.

        • Marlowe Johnson

          another recent study that provides a good summary is here:

          http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v491/n7426/pdf/nature11574.pdf

      • http://www.gci.org.uk Aubrey Meyer

        Marlowe, here is a GUI tool to help make that C&C point you sensibly allude to: – http://www.gci.org.uk/CBAT/cbat-domains/Domains.swf onus is on users to make the choices subject to the maths of UNFCCC-compliance

  • Marlowe Johnson

    do you disagree with the gist of his message Keith or are you just trying to score points with the hippie punchers?

  • fleetfeet

    The New Message from God puts it this way: “The world you will be facing will require immense human cooperation,
    compassion and contribution, or it will be a battleground over who has
    the remaining resources of the world. Who can protect their wealth while
    other nations fail and collapse? The demands upon humanity will be so
    great that it will take a great compassion and wisdom to respond to
    this. But the peoples are too divided. The religions are too shattered.
    This group opposes that group in the name of their national sovereignty
    or the Will of God, and it is all set in motion to collapse into chaos.”

  • stopthesocialism

    Peak Oil and Global Warming are popular myths.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeffery-Green/1442176838 Jeffery Green

      Acting together to solve problems is huge especially when 97% of of climate scientists agree.
      Stop the hate mongering.

  • polistra24

    Malthus and all his stupid descendants miss THE MOST BASIC CHARACTERISTIC of living things: Negative feedback. In the big picture, nothing goes linearly to infinity, nothing goes exponential. Everything goes sigmoid or sinusoid. Cycles, cycles, cycles.

    Individual organisms or cells may ‘go critical’ and die, but the overall population uses feedback to adjust its needs. China, India, and lately Africa, are quickly lowering their birthrates as they adjust to prosperity.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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