Starting a New Blog About Climate Change

Well, I am going to split my blogging time. I find that I want to write more about climate change, but I don’t want to do it here. I want to keep this blog’s focus on energy consumption, so I have started a new weblog called The Lukewarmer’s Way. Feel free to drop by and say hi.

Dangers of a Data Monoculture

For almost a year I have been trying to alert readers to the strong possibility that  organizations charged with estimating future energy usage are consistently underestimating totals. I think the source of their error lies in miscalculating the take-up of energy in the developing world, compounded by their ignoring current latent demand and, perhaps most importantly, their stubborn refusal  to acknowledge that energy demand is not very elastic. It’s the last bill to go unpaid, so to speak.

Because of these errors, I think they have underestimated short term energy demand (through 2030) by a third. And I’ve spent a lot of time here showing why and discussing the possible consequences.

How do organizations like the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, the International Energy Administration, World Resources Institute, the IMF, the World Bank and companies like Exxon, BP and others who produce energy estimates get tied up in knots about things like this?

I think the answer, implied by the title of this post, is fairly easy to illustrate and explains a lot of problems with forecasting both within and outside the energy sector.

Take the DOE’s EIA. They spent a lot of time and energy developing a model of future growth of energy. I’m sure they were diligent and thought hard about it. (I think the defect is that it’s based on energy supplies, not demand, and that it thinks that people will quit using energy if it gets expensive.)

But the problem with their recent forecasts lies in their model-dependent analysis. After spending all that time and energy building their model, obviously they’re going to use it a lot. Sadly, it seems that they’ve tunneled their vision onto the model to the exclusion of a lot of data in the real world. (This is then exacerbated by the confirmation bias of looking at friendly analysis of the same sources by other organizations and feeling relieved when they arrive at similar results.)

Model dependency crops up in other areas as well. Economics, climate change–both are examples where tunnel vision is hurting analysis. We saw in my recent post that nobody had published a simple mash-up of CO2 emissions and recent temperature trends and my modest posting of the two together got quite a reaction. In finance, many of the great and the good seem determined to ignore Nassim Nicholas Taleb in charting paths to economic recovery, with one side making the (almost forgiveable) error of wanting to adopt one-half of the Keynesian prescription (deficit spending for investment in the face of a liquidity trap) without making a good faith commitment to practicing the other half (creating a budget surplus) when times are good.

The other side (the ECB and U.S. Republicans) are making the far more grievous error of looking at deficit numbers in isolation, thinking that the gross totals and their increase are reasons to abandon social programs and reduce debt at any cost. It makes me wonder if any of them have ever had a mortgage on a home. The cost to borrow money for governments with floating currencies has never been lower and the U.S. and the UK in particular should be spending their way to recovery. It will be tougher for the Eurozone countries, but they need to find a way.

In climate change discussions both activists and skeptics have found a comfort zone of data they are willing to use to advance their arguments. Activists like models, as real world observations are not exact enough to help them make their case. Skeptics like statistical rules and laws, which highlight the deficiencies and call arguments into question. Neither side has spent enough time examining the sources of data used by the other team. Activists still, in the waning days of 2012, show a surprising naivete and ignorance about statistics, while skeptics stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that models can be useful, if users keep their limitations in mind and a copy of The Black Swan on their desks.


The other fields that suffer from the same tunnel vision–healthcare, gun control, genetically modified organisms and their utility/safety or lack thereof–tend to comprise, with those examined above, most of the things we fight about.

I don’t consider that surprising. I don’t consider it unintentional. I do consider it as potentially fatal to the cause of solving any of the real problems that confront modern society.

Recapitulation and Rededication

My last post got linked, republished and talked about, apparently. We got a lot of traffic as a result.

I suppose I should be tempted to sink back into the morass of the climate wars and go for the big traffic that might justify my adding ads to the site. For now I’m going to resist. There are too many places where people can go to talk about climate change, and too few where energy is the focus. And I think this might be the only one with a micro focus on energy consumption.

Energy consumption. The worry of mine that gave birth to this weblog is that we are underestimating future energy consumption and as a result are sleepwalking into a world where coal becomes (again) the default fuel used to power the rise of the developing world. We’re not doing the infrastructure planning that will allow nuclear, hydroelectric, wind/solar/biofuels and even natural gas to take some of the burden off of old king coal.

Specifically, in the near term I project that the world will use 947 quads in 2035, far more than the 712 estimated by the DOE EIA, the IEA and the U.N. I also project it will only get worse after 2035, leading to an incredible 3,000 quads every year by 2075.

Of course this will have an effect on climate–even if atmospheric sensitivity is as low as I think (and hope), the brute force effect of the emissions associated with that much consumption of coal will impact our climate.

I’ve tried to show it and discuss it. So far, more than 22,000 visits to this blog have maybe convinced a few hundred people that I have a case. I hope so.

On to today’s topic. The Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration has published their Early Release of the U.S. Annual Energy Outlook for 2013.

U.S. Energy Production 1980 2040

Some key points:

  • Domestic production of crude oil is increasing and is expected to continue to increase, reaching 7.5 million barrels per day by 2019
  • Our consumption of natural gas is also expected to increase, from 6.8 trillion cubic feet per year in 2011 to 7.8 trillion cubic feet in 2019
  • They have increased their projections of generation from solar and wind, from 13% of the total in 2011 to 16% in 2040. The EIA is not so optimistic about advanced biofuels, lowering the predicted output from all biomass from their 2012 prediction of 5.4 quads to 4.2 quads by 2035
  • With improved efficiency of energy use and a shift away from the most carbon-intensive fuels, U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide
    (CO2) emissions remain more than 5 percent below their 2005 level through 2040
  • They have upped their prediction of GDP growth per year, from 2.5% to 2.6% CAGR through 2040.
  • As for the reason I was so eager to look at the report… they obviously don’t agree with me. They predict that total energy consumption will rise by a total of 7% by 2035, from 98 quads in 2011 to 104 quads in 2035 and then by 6% to 2040 to a total of 108 quads. (I think it will be higher.)
  • Their justification still centers around their belief that energy intensity will decline as total U.S. population increases by 29 percent from 2011 to 2040, but energy use grows by only 10 percent, with energy use per capita declining by 15 percent from 2011 to 2040. I want some of what they’re smoking

Overall, I still think they’re looking too much at the inputs to their models–pricing and supply constraints, availability etc., instead of accepting that the demand for fuel is not very price sensitive and will be driven by population and GDP growth. Energy efficiency will surely help us out. But we’ve picked a lot of the low hanging fruit from that tree, and future progress in energy efficiency will be progressively more difficult.

It is when you combine the analysis of different data sources…

I apologize once again for the usual reasons. First, for the length of time since last I posted–we’ve moved and that was more disruptive this time than the 44 other moves I’ve made as an adult.

Second, for returning to direct discussion of climate change, something that is closely connected to energy consumption but so controversial as to impede rather than inspire rational discussion. But as I don’t see this elsewhere I want to write this here.

The physics behind the theory of global warming are solid. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, we’re emitting industrial levels of it, a significant portion remains in the atmosphere for a fairly long time. This retards the cooling of the Earth and temperatures warm as a result.

One of the few non-controversial datasets in climate change is the Keeling curve, the graph of the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere reproduced here:


We see concentrations rising steadily from 315 parts per million in 1960 to 395 ppm last year. It’s close to 400 ppm now.

Human emissions of CO2 caused by burning of fossil fuels and production of cement have risen similarly:



Emissions have climbed at an even higher rate than concentrations.

And the third data source to look at (for simplicity’s sake–we could actually look at dozens of data sources) is temperature changes. This chart shows the global average temperature change from a ‘normal’ 30-year range from 1950-1980. It comes from the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, led by scientist James Hansen.

GISS global temperature anomalies

This shows a fairly constant rise in temperatures since 1978.

Once again, you don’t have to be a climate scientist to think that there seems to be a connection. The physical theory published first by Svante Arrhenius over 100 years ago and elaborated on by a century’s worth of scientists has observational evidence that tends to confirm it. I certainly believe in it.

In fact, I believe that global temperatures will probably rise by about 2 degrees Celsius over the course of this century. The difference in estimated temperature rises from different sources almost always comes from the differences in estimated atmospheric sensitivity to concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. Having extra CO2 in the atmosphere warms the atmosphere, which is presumed to produce more water vapor, which is also a greenhouse gas and would contribute more warming than the CO2 by itself. How much extra warming would ensue is pretty much the heart and soul of the debate over global warming.

Those who think that there isn’t much of an additional effect (that sensitivity of the atmosphere is low) have been chuckling very publicly because temperatures haven’t risen very much (if at all) since the big El Nino year of 1998. This is not hugely surprising, as the shape of the data is uneven, a sawtooth with ups and downs that can last a decade or longer. But it is happening at an inconvenient time politically for those who are worried that sensitivity is high. They are trying to get the world to prepare for warming of 4.5C or higher, without much success.

Here’s what temperatures look like more recently.


By itself, this chart doesn’t explain very much. As I said, it is not uncommon or unexpected for the temperature record to have flat or declining periods that last a decade or more.

However, I have a problem. The Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) has estimates of how much CO2 humans have emitted since 1750. (Confusingly, they convert the CO2 to tons of carbon with a fixed formula.) That chart is the first one way up there at the top of the post. It rises dramatically

But looking at the data global.1751_2009 (3), one thing jumps out at me. CDIAC writes “Since 1751 approximately 356 billion metric tonnes of carbon have been released to the atmosphere from the consumption of fossil fuels and cement production.” And they helpfully provide an Excel spreadsheet showing their estimates by year.

And almost one-third of that number, 110 billion metric tonnes, have occurred since that time in 1998 when temperatures reached their temporary plateau.

1998 6644
1999 6611
2000 6766
2001 6929
2002 6998
2003 7421
2004 7812
2005 8106
2006 8372
2007 8572
2008 8769
2009 8738

Because heat moves somewhat sluggishly through the earth’s oceans, and because there is a lag factor in other earth systems, we do not expect a hair-trigger reaction to increases in CO2 emissions and concentrations.

But one-third of all human emissions of CO2 have occurred since 1998. And temperatures haven’t budged as a result.

This does not ‘disprove’ global warming–at all. I still believe that temperatures will climb this century, mostly as a result of the brute force effect of the 3,000 quads of energy we will burn every year starting in 2075–the reason I started this weblog.

However it makes it exceedingly difficult to use the past 15 years as evidence of a very high sensitivity of the atmosphere to CO2 concentrations. And it makes me feel more comfortable about my ‘lukewarm’ estimate of 2C temperature rises as opposed to the more alarming 4.5C rises put forward by some of those who are most active in the movement to reduce emissions drastically.

And it makes me wonder about why people don’t include relevant data when they discuss these issues. Is it really that politically incorrect to show real data, even if that data doesn’t advance your case?


Coal Trains to Coltrane

It’s Friday. That’s my only excuse.

Picture a train. It is composed of coal cars, the very coal cars James Hansen used as a metaphor harkening back to the Holocaust.

The coal cars are full–100 tons of coal in each and there are 100 cars to the mile. It’s a very long train. It stretches from Albuquerque New Mexico to Anchorage in Alaska.

The energy we get by burning all the coal in this train equals one quadrillion BTUs. We call it a quad.

Now picture 54 of these trains lined up side by side, each filled with 38 million tons of coal, each stretching from Albuquerque to Alaska.

And you can start your weekend on either an optimistic or pessimistic note–is your glass half-empty or half-full?

If you want to look on the bright side of life, you can make those 54 trains disappear. In fact, we did. That’s how much energy the world got last year from renewable sources–hydroelectric power, wind, solar, biomass and biofuels.

If being of good cheer is too much for you today, don’t worry–be gloomy. Once those 54 trains are magickally disappeared from the landscape, you have an unobstructed view of the 480 Infinity Trains that we used last year that were provided by sources that were not renewable.

Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, have a good weekend.

Barack Obama’s Second Term, Climate Change and Energy Consumption

Congratulations, Mr. President. Now let’s get to work.

Because you mentioned climate change one time in your acceptance speech, the writers and readers for whom that subject is of paramount importance (on either side) have let 1,000 flowers bloom in less than a day.

Andrew Revkin did the best job of it, talking through many of the items that should be on the agenda for your next four years. But he was hardly alone. Keith Kloor chimed in, as did the politics blog on my hometown newspaper, the SF Gate, which catalogued responses from the Energy and Environmental Great and Good.

I will be shorter and simpler. You will not be able to do anything useful regarding climate change if you do not look at energy consumption at the same time. With that in mind, the first step is screamingly obvious.

Institute a carbon tax at the low level of $12 / ton of CO2. Make it revenue neutral, lowering social security taxes on both employers and employees by the amount raised from the carbon tax. Add a provision that will re-evaluate the monetary value of the tax every ten years based on benchmark levels of CO2 concentrations, U.S. CO2 emissions per capita and global sea surface temperatures.

Do not hypothecate revenues to energy efficiency or renewables, or anything else. If you want Republican support, make the tax revenue neutral.

If you do this and this alone, you will have done more to solve the problems of climate change than any other government body or multinational institution. If you do this and this alone, it will have a real-world impact, serve as an example for the world and prove our commitment to climate change and responsible governance.

There are 100 other things you could do. But each of them come with caveats and trade-offs that will cause more controversy and delay in passage and implementation.

Do this one thing. Do it now.

Go Vote!

Umm, despite what my friend writes here…

” I am spending this election on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania and am exposed to both media markets.  I watched TV for 1 hour yesterday and saw over 20 Romney ads telling me how bad Obama was.  I saw no Obama ads and no ads telling me what Romney would do. My thoughts:

1. Obama does not deserve a 2nd chance.
2. Romney does not deserve a first chance.
3. Biden scares me every time he opens his mouth about foreign policy.
4. Ryan scares me every time he opens his mouth.
5. I can’t listen to any of the 3rd party candidates for 15 minutes without thinking that they are completely out of touch with reality.
6. My Democratic senator belongs in the Republican Party.
7. His Republican challenger belongs in the nut house.
8. My congressman — wait — who is my congressman?  I’ve been redistricted. My new district looks like a spiney anteater facing south east.  I’m in the thin part of the tail.  It’s about half a mile wide and five miles long and mostly white Republican.  The fat part of the tail isn’t white Republican.  My congressman brags about how he helped the fracking industry skirt the regulations. His challenger wrote a paper on how bombing mid eastern countries is a good thing, but liberals should vote for him because he’s gay and black.
9. A candidate for state senate is promising to restore cuts to health and education. His opponent inferred that he was a Marxist.
10. The candidate for state rep in my district is actually named “Bizzarro.”  He can’t keep his bumper stickers in stock.  A local reporter wrote an article on the “Bizzarro campaign.”  I thought he was talking about the national election.
11.  I keep remembering Pat Paulsen, Stag Party candidate for president, 1968 and 1988.  “What’s all this talk about lowering the voting age.  Another election like this, they should lower the drinking age.”
Go pull the lever and help create the future. Maybe a future that doesn’t resemble  what my friend wrote above. I’ll be voting for the incumbent for president–you’re free to join me or cancel my vote–just get out there.