Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Worst Mistake a General Can Make: the Pickett Charge of the Oil Industry

The Pickett charge took place in 1863, during the battle of Gettysburg, and it ended as a defeat for the confederates. Years later, when asked why the charge failed, General George Pickett is reported to have replied: "I've always thought the Yankees had something to do with it." It seems that the worst mistake that a general can make is to forget that there is an enemy. It seems to be the mistake that the oil industry is making: forgetting that there is such a thing as climate change.

At the conference, I sit in the audience in the session dedicated to fossil fuels. The person speaking is the representative from Exxon. She looks confident when she starts speaking at the microphone. Her talk is given in a rather droning tone, it is clear that she is used to these presentations.

I have in my hands a handout that was distributed before the session started and I see that she is closely following the data and the figures presented there. Most of the data are extrapolations of future trends in the production of fossil fuels. I still have the handouts that they gave to me at the conference, but it is easy to find the report on the Web. Here is how it is described:

Every year, a core team in ExxonMobil produces the acclaimed The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040. Based on historical data, current developments, trends, and assumptions about the future (e.g., how energy efficiencies will improve, the number of cars on the road going forward), the ExxonMobil team projects demand and supply for all energy sources, including fossil fuels and renewables, and the resulting global energy mix. 

and here is a snapshot of their main predictions to 2040:
As you see, everything keeps growing except, thank Lord, coal, but it contracts of only about 0.2% per year. The rest, it is all growth.

And so I watch the presentation coming to a close: the gist of it is that everything is well and will be well. We will keep growing oil and gas production, the economy will keep growing, and that's they way things have been and will be. The term "climate change" is not even mentioned. Then, the talk is over and there follow a few polite questions before passing the microphone to somebody else. I vaguely think of rising up and saying something like "but don't you think you are forgetting something with your projections?" But I don't, of course. I just keep sitting where I am, unable to do anything except shaking my head.

It was at that moment that the story of the Pickett charge came to my mind. Did general Pickett realize that he was sending his men to charge in the open against the well-defended wall of Cemetery Ridge? Did he really forget that there was an enemy, there? So, did the lady from Exxon forget that there is something called "climate change" out there? Did the people who prepared the report ever think about that?

I don't think they did. If you look at the Exxon site, they have several pages dedicated to climate change. It is all vague talk where they say, yes, it is important, yes, we are doing something, and yes, we understand, and yes, yes, yes, we know about it, but we will keep extracting and burning because it is our job. And, no, we won't show you quantitative data on the consequences of what we are doing.

So, let me show something quantitative: a little graphic that my coworkers recently prepared.

Graph by Ilaria Perissi and Sara Falsini

You see the black circles: business as usual; not very different than the Exxon Scenario. The colored dots mark the trajectories that we have to follow if we want to stay within the global carbon budget for no more than 2 degs of temperature increase. The trajectories assume a constant percentage yearly decline and, of course, the more we wait, the sharper the decline has to be. It is already so sharp to be unthinkable if we were to start in 2030. Then, if we wait too long, it will be simply impossible: at the BAU rate, we run out of the carbon budget in 2042. This is, more or less, the temporal limit of the Exxon analysis. If we follow their extrapolation, in 2040 we'll have zero carbon budget left. And they truly believe in their extrapolation. They don't think that such a thing as "peak oil" exists

It is the Pickett charge again: there is an enemy there but the oil industry keeps charging as if there were none.


  1. Please excuse a suggested grammar correction: Did the people who prepared the report ever thought about that? - should be "think"

  2. Dear Hugo, maybe the speaker would like to read this assessment...
    Or she just wants to avoid talking about...


  3. Where are the numbers for carbon budget coming from?
    Giving the delay in the heating and the fact that we are already past 1C I thought the 2C budget is already used up.

    The estimates based on paleoclimate (not political models) puts the eventual rise in temperature to 3-4C for the current level of CO2.

    Any reason to use IPCC over historical models?

  4. NomadicBeer, I attended a speech by Dr. Canadell where he implicitly said that 2 ºC will be passed over easily. How much over? he didn't said.
    Just to frame his comments: he said that all the scenarios staying below the 2 ºC needed of Carbon Capture and Storage technologies which are not well developed nor scalable at this moment, and we should be building those facilities by the hundreds. Instead there are just a dozen all over the world for research purposes.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)