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  • 10 mins
  • Level 1: Introductory

Is it over?

Updated Wednesday 14th December 2011

Dr Wendy Maples has a quick 'peak' at oil and climate tipping points

The Transition Town movement, which is part of the Transition Network, is predicated on two environmental ‘tipping points’; climate change and ‘peak oil’.

Peak oil is the point at which reserves of oil, known and potential, become too expensive to extract – either due to the law of diminishing returns, or due to the limits of willingness to pay. Some people argue that ‘peak oil’ has already passed – that tar sands extraction, or exploration of Arctic reserves are merely the desperate measures of an oil-dependent society in decline.

What constitutes a ‘tipping point’ – the moment of tipping from abundance to paucity – is in part an economic, or resource, question, but it is also a political and, ultimately perhaps, ethical, question - see this video below.

Watch

Read

“The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See 2”

or “How it all ends”

by wondering mind42

Presenter:

Here’s something I bet you haven’t thought of - you know that whole shouting match about global warming?

Devil’s Advocate:

Yeah.  And I’m sick of it! 

Presenter:

What’s with the hat and smoke? 

Devil’s Advocate:

I’ll be playing devil’s advocate.  Lay off it’s the best I could do for horns and brimstone.

Presenter:

Okay.

I know it seems like such a noisy mess that it’s easier to tune out, but here’s a thought for you, while we debate whether humans can really change the climate or not we are at the same time running the experiment.  The kicker is no matter what the outcome of the experiment we’re in the test tube.  So it seems pretty clear we better get to the bottom of the controversy as quickly as possible.

Devil’s Advocate:

But how do you know which side to believe? 

Presenter:

Well what if I told you I’ve got a way to look at it where you don’t need to believe anyone, but you can still decide with confidence what we should do?

Devil’s Advocate:

What are you smoking?  That sounds impossible.

Presenter:

Yeah I thought so too.  So I put it out there in a video and after being critiqued by thousands of people I think I’ve now got a conclusion that is pretty much undeniable. 

Devil’s Advocate:

We’ll just see about that. 

Presenter:

So here’s the reasoning in a nutshell.  If you want more detail watch for the index at the end of the video.

First off no-one’s perfect, so every choice you make brings with it a risk if that choice turns out to be a mistake.  Given that, which risk would you rather take?  Listen to the activists and take big action now, risking the possible harm to the economy that the sceptics warned us about, or listening to the sceptics and don’t take big action now, risking the possible destruction and upheaval that the activists warn us about.  Bottom line is which is the more acceptable risk: the risk of taking action or the risk of not taking action? 

Devil’s Advocate:

Oh jeez when you put it that way. 

Presenter:

Hey don’t just accept what I say, I’m just some guy, think it through for yourself.

Devil’s Advocate:

Okay, okay.  Wait a minute global warming isn’t caused by humans in the first place.  I’ve seen lots of evidence for that, so you’re presenting a false choice. 

Presenter:

Are you infallible?

Devil’s Advocate:

No.

Presenter:

Could you be wrong?

Devil’s Advocate:

Yes.

Presenter:

So the question which is the more acceptable risk still applies doesn’t it?

Devil’s Advocate:

Fine, but it’s still a loaded question.

Presenter:

Well take a look at where the question came from and see if you agree that it’s a valid one.

If you need to make a decision when things are unclear, like we do with global warming, it’s often useful to look at the different possibilities for the future.  The first possibility is whether human-caused global warming turned out to be true or not.  So let’s put F for the future where it turns out to be false and T for it turns out to be true.  The other possibility is what actually we end up taking.  Let’s make column A yes for significant action and column B no for little to no significant action.  So that gives us four boxes that spell out four different basic futures.  What might each of these futures look like?  First is the future where we did take action and global warming turned out not to be real after all.  Let’s take the most pessimistic view there and say all we get is a bunch of economic harm and zero positive benefits.  How about this box?  We didn’t take action and we didn’t need to.  Everybody celebrates: the sceptics because they were right and the activists because it wasn’t the end of the world after all.

How about this box?  We took action and it was a good thing, because the doomsayers were right.  We’ve still got the economic cost, but everyone’s okay with that, because we saved our cookies.  Now how about this box down here?  We didn’t take action, but the doomsayers turned out to be right.  Well if we did the most pessimistic view up here we should do the same thing down here and this you’ve heard before.  We have environmental, political, social, public health and economic disasters on a global scale, a disaster scenario.  Now obviously this is grossly simplified, the smiley faces give that away, but we can say that the future will fall roughly into one of these four boxes.  Most of the shouting match is about trying to predict which road the future will fall into, which we can’t know for certain until we actually get there, but what we can know because we control it is which column the future will not fall into, because by taking action or not we are choosing a column and that eliminates the risk in the other column.

So it’s a bit like buying a lottery ticket, we choose ticket A or ticket B and then wait to see what the laws of physics dish out as our result.  One way or the other we’re taking a risk, so which risk is more acceptable: the risk of taking action or the risk of not taking action.

Devil’s Advocate:

Hey that sounds good, but the logic is bogus.  Wouldn’t that great argue for action against any possible threat no matter how costly the action or how ridiculous the threat?  Even giant mutant space hamsters?  Because it’s better to go broke building a bunch of rodent traps than to even risk the possibility of being hamster-chow right?  So this grid is useless.

Presenter:

Yeah I totally agree with you.

Devil’s Advocate:

Huh? 

Presenter:

The grid by itself isn’t a silver bullet, but what it does do is it allows us to make a decision using uncertain knowledge by changing the question from are humans affecting the climate to the real question what’s the wisest thing to do given the uncertainties and the risks?  Really it’s just basic risk management.  So to get around your hamster argument we need to get a sense of how likely each row is.

Devil’s Advocate:

Why can’t we just wait until the science is finished and then we’ll know what to do?

Presenter:

Well for one thing that doesn’t avoid risk, because that’s the same as just choosing column B, which is where we sit right now, and for another thing science is never finished, we’re still understanding the law of gravity for Pete’s sake.  As a science teacher I can tell you that science, that most precise and geeky of all human endeavours is surprisingly never certain.  Every single scientific statement carries with it some sort of estimate of how big the uncertainty is, which is part of why there will almost always be some disagreement on any scientific issue.

Devil’s Advocate:

So where does that leave us, if anything any scientist says is accompanied by a sort of yeah but it could be wrong.

Presenter:

The trick is to not look at what individual scientists are saying, but instead look at what the professional organisations are saying.  The more prestigious they are the more weight you can give their statements, because they’ve got huge reputations to uphold and don’t want to ever say something that later makes them look foolish.  Probably the two most well respected of these in the world are NAS (National Academy of Sciences) and AAAS (American Associaton for the Advancement of Science).  These are not advocacy groups, but both recently issued unprecedented statements calling for big action now on global warming.  This isn’t a bunch of hippies; these are the nerdiest people on the planet.

Devil’s Advocate:

So trust the eggheads huh?  Basically you’re saying if AAAS and NAS said so who the heck are you to argue?

Presenter:

No.  Well sort of.  I mean who else are you going to believe on a scientific issue, but remember you still don’t have to believe in them, you’re just using the fact that two such stodgy institutions stake their reputations on this to get a sense of this row must be way more likely than this row pushing this line up.  And companies such as this are even calling for emissions caps on their own industries pushing this line up even further.  Now the conclusion is clear, because we’ve got our own solid reasons to believe that this must be a much more threatening risk than this, not only in likelihood but in damage as well.

Devil’s Advocate:

Okay.  I can see that, but if the statements from those groups are such a slam-dunk how can we still hear so much debate?

Presenter:

Well there is a handful of dissenting scientists like there always is and the media that knows that controversy sells, but I found a couple of polls that suggested for lack of absolute certainty and it’s holding people back, which is a little odd to me.  We buy car insurance without being certain that we’ll get into an accident, because we want to make sure that if it does happen we don’t end up broke.  And during World War II just the possibility that Hitler was developing an atomic bomb was enough of a threat to justify all our action.  If you were a voter back then and it was public knowledge, would you have insisted that every scientist interviewed thought such a bomb was possible before supporting the Manhattan Project, would you have held out until you understood the physics?  No.  So why are Joe Schmoes like you and me still debating the finer points of climate science instead of talking about risk management.

Devil’s Advocate:

Well there’s a gagillion causes out there already screaming for my time and money, save the planet and stuff.

Presenter:

Look it’s not the planet that I care about; it’ll do fine on its own.  What I care about is saving our bacon.  And I understand how overwhelming it is when you hear cries about save the whales or the rainforest or the children or air pollution, water pollution, light pollution, toxic waste, nuclear waste, government waste, corporate waste peak, oil, snake oil [gabbling] where do you start?  Let me suggest a way to prioritise, all of these - peanuts if the worst exists comes to happen.

Devil’s Advocate:

Ooh way to go Mr Smarty-pants you just managed to tick off pretty much everybody, how come your pet crusade trumps everyone else’s? 

Presenter:

Because even though it’s not likely if the worst of global warming does happen we’ll be so busy dealing with the fallout that most all other human concerns may seem like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.  I mean who’s really going to care if some protestor wants to burn the flag in the porthouse lawn when the whole city’s flooded?

Devil’s Advocate:

But why the hysteria?  What’s the big deal about a degree or two?

Presenter:

Yeah.  It turns out it’s not the warming that gets you, it’s the way that such a quick change throws a monkey wrench in the whole system, that’s why global warming is a misleading name and global climate change is only a little better.  Really what we’re talking about is global climate destabilisation.  And it gets worse because in just the last five years we’ve learned that this may happen very abruptly like within the span of a decade.  So it may turn out to be like pushing on a light switch.  Small pushes in the past have produced small results until you hit an unexpected tipping point.

Devil’s Advocate:

Man we’re totally hosed, we’re going back to the Dark Ages aren’t we?

Presenter:

Disturbing isn’t it?  Actually there’s a lot of reason to believe that we can fix this, maybe even without reducing our standard of living if we’re quick about it.

Devil’s Advocate:

But what do I do?  I’m just one guy with a stupid hat.

Presenter:

What you do is spread the word, because the only way we really get into column A is by policy changes, and those only happen when enough people demand it.  So we need nothing less than a change in the culture itself and you can help make that happen.  So you forward this video to others and they forward it to ten and so on.  In just four steps that’s over 10,000 people that may have their opinions influenced.  That’s power, use it.  This is likely to be the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced, think that’s overblown?  Maybe, but can you be so certain that you’re willing to bet everything, because we only get to run this experiment once.  Hopefully this idea of risk management will be what ends the debate.  How the world ends up?  Well that depends in part on you and what you do next.  We have greatness within us, innovative, giving, determined, it’s time for the best in us to come out. 

Captions:

Pascal’s Wager, you say?

Intrigued?  Ticked off?

Got questions?  Criticisms?

‘What if’s?”  “You missed a spot’s?”

Want to know what else you

Can do to save our collective neck?

Swami has read your mind.

Check out the

Series of videos

Which anticipate and answer

Every possible objection

To this argument. (!!!)

Find the videos on:

manpollo.org

wonderingmind42.com

or in “About this video” in the sidebar

Start with the video titled

“How it all ends: index”

to guide you

I dare you to poke a hole

that hasn’t already

been plugged.

Go ahead.

I double-dog-dare you.

10’00”

 In terms of peak oil, and our response to this, it is a question for individuals, community groups and nations to address – urgently. ‘Transition Town’ is one measure that links these three levels of engagement together, seeking ways of living that are less dependent on oil for transport, heating, housing, furniture, food and so on.

Related to oil dependency is, of course, climate change. Here is another crucial environmental tipping point. At what point, scientists, technologists, social scientists and politicians are asking, will the earth’s self-regulatory mechanisms compensate for the pollutants in the atmosphere such that our climate changes radically, and our earth becomes uninhabitable by humans? Some say we have already passed that tipping point, giving erratic and dramatic weather events, rising sea levels, glacial melting. Some say there is still some hope that we can help the earth to self-regulate in such a way as to ensure our survival.

At the OU, we have a number of modules that address the environmental, political and social issues related to climate change. See some of the links below. We are also involved in research that draws together academics from across the faculties to address these foremost issues in our changing world. These include Creative Climate and the Energy and Environment Research Unit.

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