The Peak Oil-Climate Linkage

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a short piece for the newspaper about a talk by David Rutledge on his analysis of the peak oil-climate linkage:

Humanity may be rapidly running out of fossil fuels, according to Dave Rutledge, but every cloud has its silver lining.
In this case, the California Institute of Technology professor told a University of New Mexico audience Friday afternoon, running out of coal, petroleum and natural gas sooner than we expect would mean less chance to damage Earth’s climate.
“If it’s true,” he said of his data, “it is good news for climate change.”

Now Andy Dessler has taken the discussion a bit farther, with a nice discussion at Nature Climate Feedback:

There is an emerging view among some experts that recoverable fossil-fuel reserves are far smaller than previously thought. If so, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) highest emissions scenarios could be unrealistically high, thus limiting the worst-case climate change during the 21st century. This view of a constrained fossil-fuel supply points to a potential convergence of thinking about policies and actions needed to address the seemingly divergent problems of energy supply and climate change.

There is much to think about here, because if Dessler and Rutledge are right, there is a linkage between energy and climate policies that is both tighter and more immediate than is conventionally assumed. I had a great talk with Andy about this yesterday afternoon, and I pointed out to him what I think is a weakness in the analysis that both he and Rutledge have offered. The classic Hubbert analysis they employ does not, I think, sufficiently account for the economic effects of permanently higher energy costs increasing the body of economically recoverable reserves. I don’t think this invalidates the argument, but I think the models they’re employing need to better account for that variable. (I’ve got a small stack of papers dealing with this issue to read. I’ll try to expand this argument as I get a better handle on it.)

I don’t think this is in any way a fatal criticism, though, and I think these guys are onto an interesting line of inquiry.


  1. Don’t we already have substantial evidence that increased oil prices (whether from increased demand or reduced supply) leads to increased use of things like tar sands, which often have greater rather than lesser CO2 impacts?

  2. Luis –

    Definitely. I think Andy’s argument is that tar sands and oil shale, for example, can never produce at rates comparable to the production rate of conventional oil, so it places a sort of cap on the greenhouse gas emission rate. But that’s the sort of thing I’d like to see more clearly included in their model. (I’d definitely add coal-to-liquids, which is going to be critical in the long term.)


    Here is an interesting report. It includes ‘ceteris paribus’, a standard economic assumption meaning ‘all other things being equal.’

    Unfortunately, all other things do not appear to be equal.

    In a book from fifteen years ago, “The Coming War with Japan,” the authors proposed that American trade policies would necessitate Japan going to war with us again.

    In the energy discussion, similar thoughts seem to be important.

    One of these thoughts, for me, is:

    “If we try aggressive measures to decrease planetary carbon emissions, with the idea that we are saving the planet, how many wars are we creating and how many people will die from war and starvation?”

    My simplistic version of Leontieff’s input/output theory says that a number of proposed solutions to climate change have immense cultural reverberations. For instance, if increased energy prices make it so that the average Chinese can no longer afford heating or electricity, who makes PCs and athletic shoes? At what point, does Putin decide that a war with Europe is politically better than decreasing GDP in Russia. When does Pakistan decide to attack India? Each of these events, based on history, are connected.

    Does anyone have a climate change model that includes reasonable estimates of cultural changes and wars?


Comments are closed.