Oil Economy vs The Cost of Global Warming

Sep 5, 2010   //   Economy, Politics

A guest on CNBC’s Squawk Box was talking about shale being a source of oil; with the price of oil above $50-$60/barrel his contention was that extraction of oil from shale was an economically viable source and that we had vast reserves in this country.  It was also noted that oil consumption during this economic downturn had decreased from 22 million barrels/day to 19 million barrels/day and how the economy needed to improve to get consumption back to pre-economic crisis levels.  It should be noted that we have about 5% of the world’s population and yet consume about 25% of the world’s oil.  This level of consumption is unsustainable in the long run with the rise of emerging markets such as China and India (so it becomes an issue of national security as pointed out by others and can be source of future conflict), and increased oil consumption worldwide will notably increase carbon emissions.  I issued the following comment to the show.

September 1, 2010

I have written you before in the context of a businessman/executive/entrepreneur, but I began my career as a doctoral level scientist.  I listened to the discussion of shale oil and the desire for our economy to get oil consumption back up to 22 million barrels/day.  I contend that we need to be aggressively reducing carbon emissions for the reasons explained below.

Our planet is a buffered system, having a set of checks and balances that can endure/absorb ‘insult’ while keeping temperatures only marginally affected.  Ice is a key player in this balance in that it cools the water – water is a wonderful heat exchanger – we all know that cold water will rapidly draw the heat out of the unfortunate individual who gets stuck in it.  Over the past several decades we have witnessed a marked decline in the mass of the polar ice cap, a melting of permafrost in Alaska, and the accelerated melting of glaciers and snow masses (eg Kilimanjaro, Glacier National Park, etc) indicating that ice is absorbing more heat than the rate of ice formation.  A key characteristic of buffered systems is that once the tipping point is reached the rate of change increases markedly.  I would submit that our planet will behave no differently from what we know about buffered systems and we do not understand where the tipping point lies.  And with the unanimous opinion of the National Science Academies of the G8 that man is contributing to global warming (and the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere is also acidifying our oceans – CO2 + H2O forms carbonic acid) we should be looking to aggressively reduce carbon emissions [and working with other nations towards the same goal], not figuring out how we can get our consumption of oil back up to 22 million/barrels a day.  I also submit that the long-term economic impact (and societal impact) of global warming will likely be much greater than the short-term benefits of drill-baby-drill, or extract-baby-extract.  Oil is a limited, non-sustainable resource with many economies competing for it.  We need to be moving our economy forward on the technologies and jobs of the future.

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