Shrinking middle ground

June 3, 2013
Given the option, issue managers at most oil and gas companies probably would prefer to let others fight over global warming. For them, neither side of the question is comfortable.

Given the option, issue managers at most oil and gas companies probably would prefer to let others fight over global warming. For them, neither side of the question is comfortable. Supporting aggressive precaution forces them to support officially elevated prices of their products while temperature observations create doubt about the need. Yet questioning the need draws condemnation from pressure groups eager for an excuse to disparage oil and its suppliers.

Fence-sitting should be losing appeal, too. Activists are testing limits of the aggressive-response agenda. Their desire to shove humanity away from hydrocarbon energy as a warming precaution, whatever the cost, leads to extreme positions against important oil and gas projects. Environmentalist opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline thus poses as concern about pipeline safety but really is an effort to constrain a major new increment of oil supply—and supposed warming threat. Opposition to hydraulic fracturing, ostensibly a defense of drinking-water supply, scratches the same obstructionist itch.

Existential conflict

Antioil warriors treat scientific dispute and political disagreement as existential conflict. Their increasingly explicit opposition to fossil energy shrinks the middle ground on global warming. Support for fossil-energy projects now requires at least some level of challenge to activist orthodoxy. With global average temperature failing to rise in step with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, arguments strengthen against a panicky rejection of hydrocarbons. But that seems only to stoke activist desperation.

In this battle to the ideological death, an important source of information about oil markets has aligned itself with the antioil program. In a recent report on clean energy, the International Energy Agency sounds like the shrillest alarmists. Citing high oil prices and record-high CO2 levels last year, IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven said in the report's foreword, "The ways we supply and use energy threaten our security, health, economic prosperity, and environment. They are clearly unsustainable. We must change course before it is too late."

In fact, what's unsustainable is the argument with which IEA scolds a world it thinks isn't trading cheap for costly energy fast enough. The group's central worry is that interim targets it set for conservation and renewable energy in a report last year won't be met. Those targets are designed to deliver an 80% chance of keeping the rise in globally averaged temperature against preindustrial levels below 2º C. To achieve the goal, IEA believes fossil energy use must drop by 20% during 2009-50. At the end of that period, according to IEA, the world must use 60% less fossil energy than it would in a business-as-usual scenario, in which the temperature increase is presumed to be 6º C.

This calibration of temperature to CO2 from fossil-energy use is wonderfully tidy. It suits bureaucratic convenience well and simplifies politics. But it relates precious little to natural phenomena.

No one can predict what global average temperature will be at any future level of fossil-energy consumption. The relationship between temperature and CO2 concentrations is uncertain and poorly understood. CO2, which represents a fraction of a percent of all gases in the atmosphere, surely exerts a warming influence. By itself, however, the influence is minor. To produce consequential warming, CO2 must amplify warming induced by water vapor, a more-important greenhouse gas. It might do so. It also might have the opposite effect by increasing cloud formation. Predictions of catastrophic warming rely on computer models that assume water-vapor amplification. But the assumption might be wrong. Temperature behavior since about 2000 suggests that it is.

Challenging speculation

IEA's linking of temperature targets to levels of fossil-energy consumption is based on speculation unsupported by observation. It implies a degree of precision that doesn't exist in nature and a level of human influence over which scientists disagree. The position is not scientific or economic. It's political. And it happens to be a potent tool of obstructionism.

The industry whose important work IEA's position undermines should not hesitate to challenge it.