2006 Boston ASPO: Global Warming

“IF YOU HAVE EVER peeled an onion,” writes Lemony Snicket in the first paragraph of his latest book, entitled The End, which is the last volume in his classic A Series of Unfortunate Events, “Then you know that the first thin, papery layer reveals another thin, papery layer, and that layer reveals another, and another, and before you know it you have hundreds of layers all over the kitchen table and thousands of tears in your eyes…”

“Tears in your eyes,” he says. My sentiments exactly, because if you have ever attended a real top-shelf conference on Peak Oil, you will understand why I am beginning my article with a quotation from the one and only Lemony Snicket. You can probably appreciate the depth of meaning in what Snicket wrote in another, earlier volume, that “If you want a happy ending, you should read another book, perhaps a book about bunnies.” There are no bunnies in the world of Peak Oil.

Welcome to Boston

But first, welcome to Boston. What a wonderful town, and what a great meeting on a critical subject. At the outset, my sincere thanks and note of profound respect go to the ASPO-USA organizers, too numerous to name, but you know who you are. Nothing on such a large scale happens by accident, and you all made it look easy.

Next goes my appreciation to the administration, faculty, staff, and many students of Boston University, which hosted this excellent event. Great job, all of you. Even when the shouting protesters interrupted that one guy’s presentation on Thursday afternoon (we will discuss it later, dear readers), the BU security staff acted like a bunch of professionals. The ASPO meeting was a private gathering. People paid good money to travel to Boston and to be there. The protest was rude and, when you understand the issues, uncalled for. Still, stuff happens, and it could have been ugly. But BU’s finest did their jobs and the ASPO meeting went on. Thank you.

Frequent readers know that we at Agora Financial, and in particular at Whiskey & Gunpowder, promoted the Boston ASPO conference through embedded advertisements in our publications. Agora Financial had absolutely no financial stake in the matter. But some things are bigger than we are, and Peak Oil is one of them. We believe in the cause; in our view, it is a worthy cause. So let me thank the management at Agora Financial who supported the idea of the ASPO-USA gig, at my request, and also thank those readers who signed up and journeyed to Boston. Nice conference, huh? Thank you for supporting ASPO-USA. And thank you, the rather large bunch of you, who walked up and introduced yourselves to me. It is great to meet the readers, and to share some thoughts up close and personal. Will I see you in Vancouver next July?

And while I am at it, here is a plug for JetBlue, whose fine Embraer aircraft served as my trusty steed to carry my spouse and me from Pittsburgh to Boston, and back again safely. Yes, I know. We burned up a bunch of jet fuel in the process, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do. The price was right, the planes were clean, the leather seats were more than comfortable and plenty roomy, and the service was great. I don’t watch much television (because I write a lot of articles for Whiskey & Gunpowder), but I kind of enjoyed watching The History Channel on the TV screen installed into the back of the seat in front of mine. There are many ways to get to Boston. It was too far for me to walk. JetBlue came through. Thanks for the ride, Clyde.


I have been studying in the field of geology for almost 35 years. I met M. King Hubbert, and heard him give his Peak Oil brief, about 30 years ago when he gave the talk at Harvard. Later on, in 1978, my first boss at Gulf Oil Co. told me in no uncertain terms that a big part of my job and career, if I kept on working as an oil company geologist, would be “nursing some great old oil fields through their phase of irreversible decline.” So I have been drinking this particular flavor of Peak Oil Kool-Aid for a long, long time. And I know a lot about Peak Oil, to include holding a respectful appreciation for how much else there is to learn, and that is one heck of a lot.

Along these lines, I have to say that the intellectual content of the ASPO-USA conference was truly like taking a drink of water from a fire hydrant. I mean it. There was so much there that I was learning something new with almost every presentation. I filled two fat legal pads with notes, and that does not include the content of the slides that were flashing up on the screen. It was coming fast and furious. I just plain loved it.

If an intellectual, academic-oriented conference can be compared to a gold mine, this was the equivalent of Goldcorp’s hole in the ground at Red Lake, Ontario, the richest gold mine in the world. There is so much to discuss, coming out of the Boston ASPO conference, that I can only try to hit some highlights just now. Bear with me, dear readers, over the next few weeks or so, and I will get far deeper into some of the details.

Highlighting Global Warming

The first evening of the ASPO-USA conference kicked off with three lectures, and a question session, on the subject of global warming (GW). Why global warming? Because it is what you get when you burn up lots of fossil carbon-based fuels and load the atmosphere with otherwise excess levels of carbon dioxide (CO2). GW is the other side of the coin of Peak Oil. That is, in the process of rapidly depleting the Earth’s supply of fossil fuels, mankind is also playing a life-threatening experiment with the Earth’s atmosphere. Life-threatening? You had better believe it. If you are not worried, get worried.

Dartmouth professor and climatologist Cameron Wake gave a presentation about the current buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere. Wake’s research includes reviewing more than a century of very accurate, chemical measurements of atmospheric CO2, a period that covers the vast majority of the industrial era. As one might expect, CO2 levels have increased dramatically over the past century as coal, oil, and natural gas have been burned in immense quantity and scope. Recent figures for CO2 releases, including the breakneck industrialization of China and India, yield charts that accelerate upward on a skyrocketing trajectory.

Wake also made reference to Antarctic ice core measurements, in ice strata dating back about 420,000 years, analyzed by Russian, European, and U.S. scientists. Paralleling the work of NASA’s James Hansen (about whom I have written previously), the bottom line is that CO2 levels have increased dramatically in the past century, to levels experienced, by comparison, only during the warmest interglacial periods during the past half million years. This has contributed to a consistent pattern of surface warming, on land as well as at sea, in the form of ocean warming. There have been measurable alterations to climates across the world, to include a measurable increase in the rate of ice melting in Greenland and Antarctica. So no, dear readers, “climate change” is not just some Internet conspiracy. It is empirically demonstrable.

Wake’s research on the climate of New England and the Canadian Maritimes has demonstrated relationships between increased CO2 and increased temperatures, and an increased occurrence of “extreme weather” events, such as longer droughts and more intense periods of rainfall and snowfall when the droughts break. We saw this in the serious rainstorms and related flooding that hit the U.S. Northeast in the past year or so. This has ominous implications for agriculture, forestry, flood management, emergency planning, and general public safety.

The Once and Future Planet

Harvard geology professor and former MacArthur Fellowship recipient Dan Schrag picked up where Wake left off. Schrag, a geochemist by training, noted that CO2 levels are rapidly increasing due to man-made causes, to levels that the Earth has not experienced in almost 30 million years, meaning since Eocene times. Back then, there were no ice sheets at all in the polar regions of the Earth, and fern trees and critters like alligators actually thrived where now there is only ice. Sea level was more than 200 feet higher than it is today, what with immense amounts of water presently locked up in ice sheets, and the “thermal shrinking” of the world’s oceans at the current, relatively cooler temperatures.

The immense problem with all of this is that mankind is fundamentally altering the character of the Earth’s atmosphere in the course of a mere century or so, and changing an atmospheric system that has otherwise taken hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years to evolve. This constitutes an irreversible experiment with the Earth’s atmosphere, and on a planetary scale. “Yes,” said Schrag, “science is uncertain about a lot of what is happening. But most of what we do not know about these rapid changes in conditions is dangerous.” Just a few feet of rise in sea level, which could occur in as little as 20 years if the Greenland ice sheets melted, would convert vast tracts of the world’s coastal areas into uninhabitable tidal zones. And Schrag believes that the ice of Greenland will eventually melt, probably sooner than later. Unless you are rather elderly, you will probably live to see it. Things could, of course, be worse, depending on how a great number of related and dynamic natural systems play out.

Where Do We Go With GW?

Schrag noted that GW and climate change make up more than just an environmental issue. It is a critical economic and national security issue. It is of such importance as to be beyond a partisan issue, and Schrag believes that GW and climate change will (or at least certainly should) become major issues in the 2008 presidential election. Yet this is one issue that is now barely on the radar screen of the world’s policymakers, but is simultaneously an overarching issue that transcends what are otherwise considered the issues of supreme national interest of nations across the world.

Is there a solution to the GW problem? Certainly not in any short-term sense, and probably not in the medium term. There is far too much economic and political momentum for mankind to stop, let alone to reverse, the trends toward using more and more fossil fuels going forward (other than Peak Oil, of course). And much of the CO2 that has already entered the atmosphere has not even begun to reveal itself in observable changes to climate patterns. “Whatever mankind has experienced in the past 1,000 years, such as mini-ice ages here and there in the historical record, is trivial compared to what we are facing with the issue of atmospheric change in the next 100 years.” If you think that you will not live to see the worst of it, just recall the images in the past few years of coffins bobbing up from beneath flooded graveyards. Even in death, GW might just take you for a ride.

A quick rundown of Schrag’s proposed policy solutions include, over the long haul, replacing the use of carbon-based fossil fuel with carbon-neutral, if not carbon-free, energy sources. First, policymakers across the world must focus on driving economic activity toward exceedingly high efficiencies in energy usage, and simply burning less carbon. This will require a massive effort to educate people about the magnitude of the GW problem, if that is even possible in this great, big, collectively dumb world of ours. Energy production will have to trend rapidly toward renewable energy, with nuclear power included in the mix. And Schrag has some interesting thoughts on what is called “carbon sequestration,” meaning capturing CO2 at the exhaust stack and returning it to deep underground storage, or subsea storage under geological conditions that would keep the substance out of the atmosphere for many millions of years.

Making Markets Work

And the night was young. Another presentation in the GW theme of the first evening of the ASPO-USA conference, by an energy economist named Charles Komanoff, focused on how to make markets work to address carbon emission issues.

But first, I know that many readers of Whiskey & Gunpowder take umbrage when the topic of using government policy to “change” market behavior comes up. The libertarian-oriented among you become incensed at the thought of “more” government regulation. OK, I feel your pain, and we have had these discussions before. But bear with me on this.

Komanoff went through a series of mathematical explanations that were remarkable in demonstrating how relatively low-cost some of the policy solutions might really be. With a “carbon tax” on all fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) at the equivalent of about $1 per gallon of gasoline, it is possible to envision a stunning amount of change in energy usage patterns, and in the increased use of carbon-mitigating technology such as wind power and photovoltaic systems. Yes, changing energy technology will cost a lot of money. But then, mankind burns a lot of carbon, so a carbon tax will also raise a lot of revenue and alter a lot of behavior at the margin.

Komanoff was careful to emphasize that carbon taxes are, in essence, “use taxes,” that force people who add carbon to the atmosphere to pay for the deed. Thus, the people who are using the most carbon-based energy, and thereby contributing the most to GW and by implication drowning the world’s coastlines with Greenland and Antarctic ice melt, will be the ones who pay for it. And any revenues raised by government entities through carbon taxes should be offset, according to Komanoff, with tax reductions elsewhere, such as in reduced payroll taxes.

No Easy Answers

Well, I sure wish that it were that simple, but all of you who are reading this probably know that it is not. Still, we have to start thinking about global warming and climate change, and thinking seriously. We have a whole schoolhouse full of mush-headed politicians out there, gearing up to run for office in 2008. If they do not get it right, they will surely get it wrong. For now, the take-away point is that global warming and climate change is empirically demonstrable, and a serious issue that will both literally and figuratively alter the world for the rest of all of our lives. No one will outlive it. And you cannot buy your way out of it.

At the beginning of this article, I referred to what Lemony Snicket wrote in one of his books, that “If you want a happy ending you should read another book, perhaps a book about bunnies.” So as you can probably discern at this stage, there are no bunnies in the world of Peak Oil. Nor in the climate-altered world that is rapidly approaching. More on ASPO-USA and the Boston meeting in the next article. And thank you all for reading Whiskey & Gunpowder.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
October 30, 2006