Guest Post By James Ward By Could Peak Oil Trump Climate Change?

I was sent the guest post below which readers may be interested in.  The open review process for his paper is quite an interesting approach.

Guest blog post: Dr James Ward 11th March, 2011  [his bio is at]

 Could Peak Oil trump Climate Change?

We have just had a discussion paper published in Hydrology & Earth System Sciences (HESS-Discussions), an open access journal that is freely accessible. Apart from the free accessibility, there are two interesting points that readers of Roger Pielke Sr’s blog may find interesting about this paper.

Point 1. The topic. Put bluntly, there’s not enough carbon fuel for dangerous global warming. We have put forward a comprehensive review of the peer-reviewed literature on peak oil, as well as peak coal and natural gas, and on the basis of this literature, we conclude that the most likely IPCC scenarios are the low emissions (B1 and A1T) scenarios. The upper scenarios (A2 and A1FI) are at odds with the latest fossil fuel studies and should be disregarded, and even the mid-range scenarios (A1 and B2) are looking increasingly unrealistic. Our paper goes into some detail (via a hydrological case study) about how this revelation could greatly reduce both the severity and the uncertainty attached to long-range climate change predictions for water resources. The conclusions would be equally applicable to other fields considering long-term climate change impacts (e.g. ecology, health).

One of the things I like about Roger Pielke Sr’s position on climate science is that he objectively considers the complex nature of climate and the likelihood that there are significant human forcings at play beyond just carbon dioxide. This is in contrast to the oft-repeated mantra that “the science is settled”, which all but closes the door on future improvements to our understanding of the climate system. Similarly, one of the issues that our paper alludes to is that there may be socio-economic problems associated with fossil fuels, beyond the changes they are causing to the atmosphere, and that by refining our forecasts of fossil fuels, we can constrain the range of future production and emissions scenarios. Moreover, if fossil fuels are soon to peak and decline, this brings into question the projections of increasing per-capita wealth that underpin many future scenarios, and in terms of climate it could increase the problem of poor adaptive capacity (especially in the developing world).

An analogy I have used in the past is that it is rather like the Titanic running out of fuel before it hits the iceberg. It would still be stranded at sea but wouldn’t be sinking! It is a suitable analogy, because it is simple yet captures the fundamental problem, and it can be extended if needed. For instance, the ship could continue drifting under its own momentum into the iceberg (the climate change “commitment” from past fossil fuels). Alternatively, the iceberg could be drifting towards the ship (the natural variability argument). On the social side, we could even say the engine crew are so focussed on avoiding the iceberg that they have put the engines in reverse and are going full throttle – this may or may not save them from the iceberg but it will certainly use up the fuel faster (this is analogous to energy-intensive mitigation strategies such as carbon capture and sequestration). I’m sure we could go on and on with the analogy!

Suffice to say, ours is an unpopular argument. Some people disagree that resources are limited at all, and do not accept the peak oil position. Some people believe that the feedbacks are so strong that we are already committed to catastrophe. Some people accept peak oil but not peak coal! Furthermore, the differing views people hold on peak oil (and peak fossil fuels) do not necessarily correlate with their views on climate change, and as a result the “Peak Oil vs Climate Change” debate seems to have been largely forgotten. My co-authors and I therefore hope that our paper sparks some much-needed debate, and this brings us to Point 2.

Point 2. The review process. The journal is open access, and open review. The paper was subject to an initial editorial review, which led to minor revisions, but is now open for public interactive discussion until May 3rd. That is, people read the paper online, and make scientific comment, and we (the authors) will have to reply as quickly as we can. The comments and replies are published rapidly, and remain published after the discussion closes (at which point the paper is finally revised for publication in the main journal). Even after the final paper is published, the initial discussion paper, and all comments and author replies, remain online. This means that virtually the entire peer review process is kept in the public realm, in contrast to the usual system of an anonymous and secretive review. It means that if someone wants to challenge our position, they have to be prepared to have their critique published, and possibly rebutted or disproven in public (it also means that we, the authors, could be publicly humiliated if we have made any glaring errors in our analysis that are picked up in the review). Under an anonymous review, neither the authors nor the reviewers have to worry about such things. However, several highly publicised examples have emerged in the blog-o-sphere which – if true – suggest that the traditional (anonymous) peer review process has allowed bias into the system, and controversial ideas are sometimes being blocked from publication without due cause. At least this should be minimised in the open review system.

You can read our paper and follow the scientific discussion at:

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