Monday, July 19, 2010

Two graphs

Here's the first.

Here's the second.

Now, these are two graphs that concentrate a lot of complicated variables into very simple graphics. The first is the Keeling Curve, basically a measure of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. It has ticked upwards basically as long as we've been measuring it. When Charles David Keeling started in 1958, CO2 was at 315 ppm in the atmosphere. Now it's at 392 as of June 2010--a nearly 25% increase in 50 years.

The heat-trapping properties of CO2 have been understood for more than a century, and nothing has changed the basic scientific understanding that "more CO2 = more heat in the atmosphere". Yet, of course, as science becomes more precise the particular details of what "more heat" actually means are refined. But the same warning that the Charney Report gave 30 years ago remains fundamentally true: the effects are going to be major, negative, and unpredictable. Waiting to find out will mean waiting too late.

So that's Keeling.

The second graph is two variables instead of one: oil discoveries and oil consumption. There's continual argument about what and whether oil production will peak and decline in the imminent future--if I have any regular readers left, they'll know I am in the imminent camp--but the key argument can be distilled in much the same way climate change can be:

Before oil can be used, it needs to be discovered.

That's the big secret, and all the argument over when oil production peaks needs to be prefaced by that basic fact. Look again at the second graph. Oil discoveries peaked in the 1960s, have been on a long decline since then, and since the 1980s we've been using more oil every year than we've discovered. (There are some arguments about data sources, but the basic facts aren't really in contention.)

Of course, like climate change, there are lots of details that need to be sorted out--and they're crucially dependent on choices made in the real world, like whether Americans all decide to spend 10 years driving SUVs for no reason other than hastening the apocalypse.

Anybody who wants to argue against anthroprogenic climate change needs to argue that a) CO2 isn't rising (verifiably false) or b) the well-understood properties of CO2 are wrong (laughable.) Anyone who wants to argue against oil production peaking at all--and this is still a surprisingly prevalent opinion--needs to show where all the new oil is going to come from, and where Saudi-style volumes are being hidden. They should also try to explain how super-large reservoirs have stayed so well-hidden for so long.

This is all basic reasoning informed by a little bit of science. I mention it--repeating myself a little bit, I know--only because when you've got, say, climate scientists on the wrong end of death threats and oil companies demanding the unlimited right to destroy the planet in search of the last barrel of oil, it's worth going back to first principles.

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