Guest Post: Oil Limits and Climate Change – How They Fit Together

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Gail Tverberg via Our Finite World blog,

We hear a lot about climate change, especially now that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently published another report. At the same time, oil is reaching limits, and this has an effect as well. How do the two issues fit together?

In simplest terms, what the situation means to me is that the “low scenario,” which the IPCC calls “RCP2.6,” is closest to what we can expect in terms of man-made carbon emissions. Thus, the most reasonable scenario, based on their modeling, would seem to be the purple bar that continues to rise for the next twenty years or so and then is close to horizontal.

Figure 1. Summary Climate Change Exhibit from new  IPCC Report.

Figure 1. Summary global average surface temperature change exhibit from new IPCC Report.

I come to this conclusion by looking at the tables of anthropogenic carbon emission shown in Annex II of the report. According to IPCC data, the four modeled scenarios have emissions indicated in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Total anthropogenic carbon emissions modeled for in the scenarios selected by the IPCC, based on data from Table All 2.a in Annex II.

Figure 2. Total anthropogenic carbon emissions modeled for in the scenarios selected by the IPCC, based on data from Table All 2.a in Annex II.


The Likely Effect of Oil Limits

The likely effect of oil limits–one way or the other–is to bring down the economy, and because of this bring an end to pretty much all carbon emissions (not just oil) very quickly. There are several ways this could happen:

  • High oil prices – we saw what these could do in 2008.  They nearly sank the financial system. If they return, central banks have already done most of what they can to “fix” the situation. They are likely to be short of ammunition the next time around.
  • Low oil prices – this is the current problem. Oil companies are cutting back on new expenditures because they cannot make money on a cash flow basis on shale plays and on other new oil drilling. Oil companies can’t just keep adding debt, so they are doing less investment. I talked about this in Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending. Less oil means either a rebound in prices or not enough oil produced to go around. Either way, we are likely to see massive recession and falling world GDP.
  • Huge credit problems, such as happened in 2008, only worse. Oil drilling would stop within a few years, because oil prices would drop too low, and stay too low, without lots of credit to prop up prices of commodities of all types.
  • Rapidly rising interest rates, as QE reaches its limits. (QE for the United States was put in place at the time of the 2008 crisis, and has been continued since then.) Rising interest rates lead to higher needed tax rates and high monthly payments for homes and cars. The current QE-induced bubble in stock, land, and home prices is also likely to break, sending prices down again.
  • End of globalization, as countries form new alliances, such as Russia-China-Iran. The US is making false claims that we can get along without some parts of the world, because we have so much natural gas and oil. This is nonsense. Once groups of countries start pulling in opposite directions, the countries that have been using a disproportionate share of oil (particularly Europe, the United States, and Japan) will find themselves in deep trouble.
  • Electric grid failures, because subsidies for renewables leave companies that sell fossil-fuel powered electricity with too little profit. The current payment system for renewables needs to be fixed to be fair to companies that generate electricity using fossil fuels. We cannot operate our economy on renewables alone, in part, because the quantity is far too small. Creation of new renewables and maintenance of such renewables is also fossil fuel dependent.

If any of these scenarios takes place and snowballs to a collapse of today’s economy, I expect that a rapid decline in fossil fuel consumption of all kinds will take place. This decline is likely to be more rapid than modeled in the RCP2.6 Scenario. The RCP2.6 Scenario assumes that anthropogenic carbon emissions will still be at 84% of 2010 levels in 2030. In comparison, my expectation (Figure 3, below) is that fossil fuel use (and thus anthropogenic carbon emissions) will be at a little less than 40% of 2010 levels in 2030.

Figure 3. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings.

Figure 3. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings.

After 2070, the RCP2.6 Scenario indicates negative carbon emissions, presumably from geo-engineering. In my view of the future, such an approach seems unlikely if oil limits are a major problem, because without fossil fuels, we will not have the ability to use engineering approaches. It is also doubtful that there would be as much need for these engineered carbon-take-downs at the end of the period. Population would likely be much lower by then, so current anthropogenic carbon emissions would be less of a problem.

The Climate Change Scenario Not Modeled

We really don’t know what future climate change will look like because no one has tried to model what a collapse situation would look like. Presumably there will be a lot of tree-cutting and burning of biomass for fuel. This will change land use besides adding emissions from the burned biomass to the atmosphere. At the same time, emissions associated with fossil fuels will likely drop very rapidly.

Clearly the climate has been changing and will continue to change. At least part of our problem is that we have assumed that it is possible to have an unchanging world and have made huge investments assuming that climate would go along with our plans. Unfortunately, the way nature “works” is by repeatedly replacing one system with another system. The new systems that survive tend to be better adapted to recent changes in conditions. If we think of humans, other animals, and plants as “systems,” this is true of them as well. No living being can expect to survive forever.

Unfortunately economies are not permanent either. Just as the Roman Empire failed, our economy cannot last forever. In physics, economies seem to be examples of dissipative structures, just as plants and animals and hurricanes are. Dissipative structures are formed in the presence of flows of energy and matter in open thermodynamic systems–that is, systems that are constantly receiving a new flow of energy, as we on earth do from the sun. Unfortunately, dissipative structures don’t last forever.

Dissipative structures temporarily dissipate energy that is available. At the same time, they affect their surroundings. In the case of an economy, the use of energy permits the extraction of the most accessible, easy-to-extract resources, such as fossil fuels, metals, and fresh water. At the same time, population tends to grow. The combination of growing extraction and rising population leads to economic stresses.

At some point the economy becomes overly stressed because of limits of various types. Some of these limits are pollution-related, such as climate change. Other limits present themselves as higher costs, such as the need for deeper wells or desalination to provide water for a growing population, and the need for greater food productivity per acre because of more mouths to feed. The extraction of oil and other fossil fuels also provides a cost limit, as resource extraction becomes more complex, requiring a larger share of the output of the economy. When limits hit, governments are especially likely to suffer from inadequate funding and excessive debt, because tax revenue suffers if wages and profits drop.

People who haven’t thought much about the situation often believe that we can simply get along without our current economy. If we think about the situation, we would lose a great deal if we lost the connections that our current economy, and the financial system underlying it, offers. We as humans cannot “do it alone”–pull out metals and refine them with our bare hands, dig deeper wells, or keep up fossil fuel extraction. Re-establishing needed connections in a totally new economy would be a massive undertaking. Such connections are normally built up over decades or longer, as new businesses are formed, governments make laws, and consumers adapt to changing situations. Without oil, we cannot easily go back to horse and buggy!

Unfortunately, much of the writing related to dissipative structures and the economy is in French. François Roddier wrote a book called Thermodynamique de l’évolution on topics related to this subject. Matthieu Auzanneau writes about the issue on his blog. Roddier has a presentation available in French. One paper on a related topic in English is Energy Rate Density as a Complexity Metric and Evolutionary Driver by E. Chaisson. Causal Entropic Forces by Wissner-Gross and Freer provides evidence regarding how  societies self-organize in ways that maximize entropy.

The IPCC’s Message Isn’t Really Right 

We are bumping up against limits in many ways not modeled in the IPCC report. The RCP2.6 Scenario comes closest of the scenarios shown in providing an indication of our future situation. Clearly the climate is changing and will continue to change in ways that our planners never considered when they built cities and took out long-term loans. This is a problem not easily solved.

One of the big issues is that energy supplies seem to be leaving us, indirectly through economic changes that we have little control over. The IPCC report is written from the opposite viewpoint:  we humans are in charge and need to decide to leave energy supplies. The view is that the economy, despite our energy problems, will return to robust growth. With this robust growth, our big problem will be climate change because of the huge amount of carbon emissions coming from fossil fuel burning.

Unfortunately, the real situation is that the laws of physics, rather than humans, are in charge. Basically, as economies grow, it takes increasing complexity to fix problems, as Joseph Tainter explained in his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies. Dissipative structures provide this ever-increasing complexity through higher “energy rate density” (explained in the Chaisson article linked above).

Now we are reaching limits in many ways, but we can’t–or dare not–model how all of these limits are hitting. We can, in theory, add more complexity to fix our problems–electric cars, renewable energy, higher city density, better education of women. These things would require more energy rate density. Ultimately, they seem to depend on the availability of more inexpensive energy–something that is increasingly unavailable.

The real issue is the danger that our economy will collapse in the near term. From the earth’s point of view, this is not a problem–it will create new dissipative structures in the future, and the best-adapted of these will survive. Climate will adapt to changing conditions, and different species will be favored as the climate changes. But from the point of view of those of us living on the planet earth, there is a distinct advantage to keeping business as usual going for as long as possible.  A collapsed economy cannot support 7.2 billion people.

We need to understand what are really up against, if we are to think rationally about the future. It would be helpful if more people tried to understand the physics of the situation, even if it is a difficult subject. While we can’t really expect to “fix” the situation, we can perhaps better understand what “solutions” are likely to make the situation worse. Such knowledge will also provide a better context for understanding how climate change fits in with other limits we are reaching. Climate change is certainly not the whole problem, but it may still play a significant role.

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So Close's picture

They were probably having similiar discussions when they were running out of whale oil.

GooseShtepping Moron's picture

"They" never ran out of whale oil. Commercial whaling actually continued to grow right into the early 1960s. Whaling was made vastly more efficient and profitable by the technological advances of the cheap energy age; so much so that international agreements had to be hammered out to limit the harvesting so that we wouldn' out of whales.

This is not the case with petroleum. There is no great, untapped energy source waiting in the wings capable of either replacing petroleum or making petroleum extraction more efficient, thus upping the EROI. Future oil extraction will have to be subsidized, which means it will actually weaken the larger economy.

Global warming was a politically contrived, phony crisis; and due to its reputation as such, many there are who would scoff at Peak Oil as if it were something of the same genre. Unfortunately, Peak Oil is very, very real.

TBT or not TBT's picture

We haven't reached Peak Dudgeon yet, evidently. We've been on high dudgeon since Rachel Carlson, hell, maybe Malthus, and we never seem to run out, alas.

NoDebt's picture

What a giant steaming pile of horseshit this article is.  Right after the 2016 elections all energy production is going to drop off dramatically?  I would bet any amount of currency (or gold) this doesn't happen.

Pinto Currency's picture


This planet is bathed in energy.

Energy production of all sorts will only collapse if the central bankers collapse society.

kindape's picture

i think that was her point

Poor Grogman's picture

Where's crack sister in all of this?

I feel like a good laugh

0b1knob's picture

Global warming AND peak oil in the same article.   Does Zerohedge get paid to run this nonsense?

I'm absolutely serious.   Obama is pressuring TV show to run pro Obamacare story lines.   Even as much as 20 years ago the DEA paid the TV series ER $250,000 per episode to include antidrug story lines.    Mass media is just a mouthpiece for the powers that be now.   Even Zerohedge.

CrazyCooter's picture

The article makes an excellent point; when economic activity collapses, so will carbon emissions. Therefore, it is dumb to spend billions on carbon this-and-that as the system will right itself.

If I am not mistaken, this is EXACTLY what happened to the Soviet Union when it collapsed (i.e. internal industry collapsed as did its emissions). This was a huge sticking point in negotiations between countries regarding adoption of global protocols because Russia wanted to keep the credits earned during those times for being under quota.

I don't buy the climate change crap. I have always viewed it one of two ways:

  1. A cheap source of CO2 for CO2 injection wells which will allow additional advanced recovery of any old oil reservoir. CO2, when injected in quantity, makes an emulsion which can be used to sweep a reservoir. Water doesn't mix, so it cuts and flows through the reservoir. CO2 mixes and pushes in a wave through the reservoir, almost like a sweep. It isn't economical (right now) due to CO2 prices. Find a huge source of cheap CO2 and a lot of oil production becomes possible from old fields.
  2. An ability to "tax" anything that emits CO2, such as you and me, so that if we don't pay they snuff us out (for the planet and all).

Or, maybe it is just a boondoggle. Or all of it.




Element's picture

What makes you think CO2 emissions even matter to warming? The data shows no close or unambiguous correlation.

See the medieval warming link I posted down the page.

venturen's picture

I will believe them when ONE of their "predictions" proves correct So far they are 0 for 100. No hurricane increase, colder winters, etc.

detached.amusement's picture

1896: Svante Arrhenius correctly predicts that increases in fossil fuel emissions would cause the earth to warm.

1938: Guy Callendar is the first to link observed rises in CO2 concentrations with observed rises in surface temperatures.

1959: Burt Bolin and Erik Eriksson correctly predict the exponential increase in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere

1961-2: Carl Sagan correctly predicts very thick greenhouse gases in the atmosphere of Venus, as the only way to explain the very high observed temperatures. His calculations showed that greenhouse gasses must absorb around 99.5% of the outgoing surface radiation. The composition of Venus’s atmosphere was confirmed by NASA’s Venus probes in 1967-70.


but dont conflate correlation with causation or anything.


and keep posting up those biased links, we all like a good laugh.  especially Sagan and Venus.  fkn numbskull, what's the atmospheric pressure?  nah, that cant have any effect.

detached.amusement's picture

run run run, post up biased analysis and call them 100% factual truth...really, go back to being a professor's aide, dude.  you fit right in the echo chamber there.

MeelionDollerBogus's picture

Paging Batman! Your climate-saving super-hero skills are needed!

Errol's picture

Ob1knob, actually, MSM gets paid to run climate-change denier nonsense.  Just look who funds deniers (oil and coal oligarchs), and the techniques used (same as the tobacco industry used: hire stooge "scientists" to pretend that there was a real controversy amongst scientists as to the bad effects of smoking).  Just like those who were addicted to cigarettes parotted the official denier party line despite the evidence before their own eyes, people addicted to the ease and confort provided by burning fossil fuels parrot the official 'denier' party line despite the evidence before their own eyes.

0b1knob's picture

You forgot the official party line when you didn't accuse me PERSONALLY of being a paid shill.

Errol = another Zero Hedge account created years ago that just recently (the last 5 weeks) started posting.   Another sock puppet account?  Things that make you go hmmm...

Element's picture



Let's see, if I post this real-world and actual most recent empirical measure of global temp records and its linear trend line, will you just flat-out deny it completely and go on talking ridiculous pompous crap about facing the facts and the general odium of 'deniers'?


Yup, damn right you will, as you're sniveling swanning mooching utter fucking hypocritical denier-burger with legs and a gob.  :-D


You and the kettle will get on just fine together.

BigJim's picture

 Even as much as 20 years ago the DEA paid the TV series ER $250,000 per episode to include antidrug story lines.  

link, please.

Errol's picture

Pinto, if by "bathed in energy" you mean sunlight, that's true.  The problem for industrial society is that sunlight is a very diffuse resource.  Current industrial society was designed around the availability of a MUCH higher energy density - sunlight that was gathered for literally 100's of millions of years and then concentrated by geologic forces.  Once that concentrated energy is no longer available (due to requiring more energy to extract than it yields), industrial civilization is toast.

You missed Gail's points:

1) disruption of commerce may stop extraction of some of the oil and coal that is still thermodynamically profitable to extract, and

2) central banks  expended their strongest medicine after the 2008 collapse; they will be less sucessful in papering over the next one.

spinone's picture

Oil extraction is already subsidized by externalities.

Seer's picture

I wouldn't say that global warming (which should really be "climate change" because people are too dense to understand the dynamics of how the glacial periods set in) is necessary contrived.  Its as real as "Peak Oil," though it's FAR more difficult to measure (therein which lies the issue).

"Future oil extraction will have to be subsidized, which means it will actually weaken the larger economy."

It's pretty much been subsidized from the beginning (and is most definately subsidized NOW- look at the military budget to understand some of this).

As we watch the miles-driven-per-capita in the US drop it points out that we've hit peak consumption, and with that we start the nasty turn of "economies of scale in reverse," wherein the drop in volume impacts production efficiencies, which then puts upward pressure on price, which further kills consumption, and round and round we circle the drain...

viator's picture

Ever hear of methane hydrates, among other sources of energy?

"The sedimentary methane hydrate reservoir probably contains 2–10 times the currently known reserves of conventional natural gas, as of 2013"

There have only been eleven oil fields that produce a million or more barrels of per day. Three of those eleven now exist in the US.


Landrew's picture

Wow, if you do the math, you will understand it TAKES MORE energy to bring that methane to market then the energy we recover. Unless you have some sort of magic energy, why not just use the magic and bypass the methane?

giggler321's picture

>>This is not the case with petroleum. There is no great, untapped energy source waiting in the wings.

Depends who's wings - ALIENS and not the kind that cross the border between mexico and texas.  I only mention this since it ranks up there with Peak Oil and Global warming, to some.

snodgrass's picture

This is a bullshit article from that collection of third world losers called the UN. It was warmer during the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages than it is today and guess what - they weren't burning fossil fuels back then. The global warming/manmade cllimate change scam is the banker's way of bringing back feudalism. It's a scam, a con. 

Anusocracy's picture

To install a world government, the control freaks must overcome the very strong ingroup-outgroup survival trait ingrained in the minds of most everyone.

To do so, they are attempting to circumvent innate ethnic groupings with an enemy to everyone that exists external to the social world. A fictitious example would be an invasion from outer space.

Their attempt is based on global warming.

Seer's picture

I tended to get out of this that the climate change ("global warming") issues would be mitigated due to declines in fossil fuels.

"The global warming/manmade cllimate change scam is the banker's way of bringing back feudalism. It's a scam, a con. "

Whatever... But know this: w/o abundant cheap energy there is ONLY going back... if you don't like feudalism then just hang in there, as we will push back past that and eventually end up with tribalism.

When you've hung all the bankers and politicians (not that that would upset me) you're STILL looking at populations that have over-borrowed from the future AND are facing resource shortages (with which to keep the game going).  Who are you going to blame then? (when, clearly, it's our premise of perpetual growth on a finite planet that's the fundamental source of our problems)

viator's picture

"Labour peer Viscount Simon, 73, raised concerns about the "smelly emissions" resulting from the UK's unusually high consumption of baked beans."

HardAssets's picture

'Climate change' ?  IPCC ?

Hahalhahahahaah !   :)    That's a good one, what a freakin'  joke !

This stuff reminds me of the propaganda that Baghdad Bob used to do.

Flakmeister's picture

Actually it's the deniers and clowns that are Baghdad's Bob's soulmates....

It's the living in complete denial of reality that "brings it all together"....

GetZeeGold's picture



You should pair up with the Westboro Baptist church.


When cults collide.

Flakmeister's picture

And you should take a University level science course at Junior level...

It is pretty clear that you have never...

Flakmeister's picture

Having a Ph.D. in physics is plenty enough to guide me in knowing who is bullshiting and who isn't...

Take your dubious propaganda elsewhere...

BTW, if you want to see what real academic fraud looks like, I suggest you read this:

If you are following the Mann trial then you will know what the Wegman report was all about....

snodgrass's picture

Are you sure you aren't really the queen of England?

Flakmeister's picture

Have you considered applying for the job of village idiot?

Anusocracy's picture

Probably not until you retire from it.

Flakmeister's picture

Re: VI, You went emeritus a long time ago...

And at such a early age no less...

Anusocracy's picture

I would never hold any public office.

Besides, you are far better at it. If they ever get to a world government, you would undoubtedly be the first pick for world idiot.

Then you could be both the Douglas Feith Dumbest Fucking Guy on the Planet award winner and the world idiot at the same time.

MeelionDollerBogus's picture

You saying that to Flak is like watching a retard who was dropped on the head many times as a baby call Einstein or Hawking an idiot. Flak's not Hawking but he's probably 100x smarter than you are.

Walt D.'s picture

And the reality is that there has been no global warming in the last 18 years - even the IPCC admitted this.

Flakmeister's picture

Could you show me the link backing your claim...


So  you are clearly admitting that it was warming before you say it stopped.

Why was it warming before?

So when exactly did it stop?

And what changed to make it stop?


Finally, could you explain the following fitted trends GISTEMP 

1970 to 1997:  0.146 +/- 0.067 C/decade (2 sigma)

1970 to 2014:  0.163 +/- 0.031  C/decade (2 sigma)

If the warming "stopped" why has the rate of warming increased if I add the last 17 years in?

It is mathematically impossible for what you claim to be true...

So shit for brains, what are you going to say now?

BigJim's picture

OOOh, gosh girlfriend, the trend (according to GISTEMP on that site) was 0.067 +/- 0.13  C per decade (2 sigma) between 1998 and 2014.

Wow! That sure is some statistically significant shit, wouldn't you say, Ms PhD wizard? Extrapolate that a century and you get... well.. you get almost* 1 degree C warmer than we are now.

I wonder why you back dateed it to 1970... hmmm... could it be because that gives a much more credible +/- 0.031  C/decade?

Let's do a little more digging.. according to NOAA, the 'rise' was 0.041 +/- 0.121  C/decade (2 sigma)

according to HADCRUT4, the 'rise' was 0.042 +/- 0.123  C/decade (2 sigma)

but wait! There's more! According to RSS (satellite) the 'warming' was  MINUS 0.05 C/decade +/- 0.217 (2 sigma) .

You're a complete joke. Where'd you get you PhD? Mail order?

*0.67 of a degree in fact

Flakmeister's picture

And this is an example of the math that deniers do to fool themselves...

You can draw no conclusions about such a short trend. Experts know you need 25-30 years to define a statistically significant trend given the year to year variance in the temperature data...

Not only that, you cherry picked the record El Nino as your start point....

And why was the 2000-2010 data the warmest on record, eh?

Finally what you really fail to grasp is that since the fitted trend increased by adding more data, it implies enough newer data was above the existing trend, i.e. still warming...

What an ignorant clown you are or pretend to be....

mumbo_jumbo's picture

"Experts know you need 25-30 years to define a"


mere micro second of earths 4 billion year old history, the global warming (renamed climate change so it actually fits with observations) zealots are really funny as they try and defend their religion.