Game Over: Hoffert On Unconventional Gas & Oil And Unconventional Self-Destruction Of Civilization

Can we preserve a livable climate if we exploit any significant fraction of unconventional oil & gas resources?

The CEO of ExxonMobil, which has been a major funder of climate disinformers, says it will be “manageable” through adaptation.  Actual climate scientists disagree, as does the recent scientific literature.

CO2 emissions by fossil fuels [1 ppm CO2 ~ 2.12 GtC, where ppm is parts per million of CO2 in air and GtC is gigatons of carbon] via Hansen. Significantly exceeding 450 ppm risks several catastrophic, simultaneous, irreversible warming impacts. Hitting 700 to 1,000+ ppm — which is our current emissions path and the inevitable outcome of aggressively exploiting unconventional fuels — means 7+°F global warming and the near-certain destruction of modern civilization as we know it.

Marty Hoffert — an energy expert and climate modeler — posted this blunt comment on a recent DotEarth piece about a report on potentially large unconventional oil resources:

However welcome the news may be to market economists — and I’m confident Exxon-Mobil and company are licking their chops over continuing our highly profitable to them fossil fuel energy infrastructure — it’s an unmitigated environmental disaster for climate change: “Game Over,” as Jim Hansen rightly says.

Shale gas, shale oil and tar sands don’t fundamentally change estimates of total fossil fuel resources; but these “unconventional” sources, now more cost-effective to extract as fuel for the bottomless pit of world energy demand, will make disastrous climate shifts from the CO2 greenhouse a near-certainly. Forget solar, wind and nuclear fission. They can’t compete costwise now with coal-fired electricity, and unconventional cheap hydrocarbons could become as cheap as coal on a dollars per Joule of energy basis.

The result will be a hothouse planetary climate as different from today’s as the middle Cretaceous a hundred million years ago was, when sea level was a hundred meters higher and both poles were de-glaciated; when dinosaurs roamed a verdant Antarctic continent. This will happen virtually instantaneously from a geological perspective as fossil fuel resources accumulated over hundreds of millions of years are burned in a hundred years or so and CO2 in the atmosphere rises as much as fourfold over pre-industrial values.

The best analogy I can think of is watching the rise of Hitler from an isolationist USA in the late thirties as the threshold for stopping him early enough to matter is passed and a holocaust of some as yet unknown horror becomes inevitable. Optimists might observe that Homo sapiens survived WWII and the subsequent cold war. But the coming inundation of coastal zones and cities along with massive species extinctions will likely be far worse. We will need to burn even more fossil fuel to “adapt” to this change by building seawalls and air conditioning, an option perhaps for rich countries, or mass migration inland and poleward for everyone else. Moreover, any attempts by our descendants to rebuild high tech civilization will be seriously hampered by the depleted state of both conventional and unconventional hydrocarbon fuels. Maybe they, unlike ourselves, will learn to go straight to solar and controlled fusion power, necessity being the mother of invention. More likely is a feudal agricultural economy in high latitude lands still fertile for crops and habitable in climate; or in the worst case scenario, hunter-gathering capable of supporting perhaps a million or so humans worldwide.

Many climate researchers breathed a sight of relief when Jim Lovelock backed off from nightmare scenarios with humans huddled in polar refugia against a greenhouse-induced waterworld. Too many accept the GOP denialist scam claiming human-induced global warming is a hoax to risk being perceived as alarmists, or worse. We didn’t sign on for this. We went into science and engineering, many of us, not only for the thrill of learning new by mastering objective nature, but to avoid the crazy subjectivity of human behavior. Give us labs and computers and some money and let us be geeks. We make mistakes, but we didn’t sign on for abuse. Thank you Ben Santer, Michael Mann, Jim Hansen, Ken Caldeira and all my other climate/energy colleagues for your courage to speak truth to crazy. The truth is that if we burn identified fossil fuel resources, particularly the so-called unconventional ones now making free marketeers dance with joy, it is only a matter of time before a transition to “hothouse Earth” occurs.

A technology optimist, I like to believe that some genetic evolution of the human genome can produce intelligent Homo superior better adapted to living in a high tech world wrought by scientific revolutions. I hope the spark of self-awareness survives, even if our particular experiment by nature doesn’t adapt and survive.

If, as Carl Sagan speculated, technological civilizations are time bombs triggered by the inability of species evolved in technology-free environments to adapt to the technologies they themselves create, then we may be destined for self-destruction. Short lifetimes of technological civilizations is a reason for the absence of intelligent life in our Milky Way galaxy according to the Drake Equation for computing the number of contemporaneous technological civilizations in a galaxy. Too bad, if true, as we have now discovered that extrasolar planets sound other stars are a dime a dozen, and may discover potentially habitable “other Earths” soon with NASA’s Kepler Planet Finder.

Hear! Hear!

At least it would be an unconventional way for civilization to go, not with a bang or a whimper but the inevitable and widely predicted collapse of a self-destructive Ponzi scheme.

I tend to find the people who are most concerned about the climate situation are energy experts who understand a lot about climate science or climate scientists who have studied energy.

NASA’s James Hansen, who is in the second category, has made a similar point to Hoffert’s for a similar reason, though he believes 500 ppm is the cut-off for climaticide:

That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinctionCivilization would be at risk.

That is the long-term outlook. But near-term, things will be bad enough. Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.

If this sounds apocalyptic, it is.

For the recent literature supporting Hansen’s dust bowl claim, see “Hansen Is Correct About Catastrophic Projections For U.S. Drought If We Don’t Act Now.”

Hoffert’s bio is quite interesting:

Marty Hoffert is professor emeritus of physics and former chair of the department of applied science at New York University….

Prof. Hoffert has published broadly in fluid mechanics, plasma physics, atmospheric science, oceanography, planetary atmospheres, environmental science, solar and winds energy conversion and space solar power. His work in geophysics aimed at development of theoretical models of atmospheres and oceans to address environmental issues, including the ocean/climate model first employed by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess global warming from different scenarios of fossil fuel use….

He is also Chairman of the Board of the Aspen Global Change Institute, Senior Fellow of the Breakthrough Institute….

Whoa! Stop the presses! One of those two groups has spent years trashing folks who make statements like Hoffert’s as “Malthusian” or worse. And it isn’t the Aspen Global Change Institute!

In any case, Hoffert joins a long list of distinguished energy and/or climate experts who are telling it like it is:

41 Responses to Game Over: Hoffert On Unconventional Gas & Oil And Unconventional Self-Destruction Of Civilization

  1. Lou Grinzo says:

    As I’ve been saying for some time, unconventional natural gas (and oil) is humanity’s ultimate test, our final exam, if you will. Will we find the maturity and ingenuity to turn away from these energy sources, leave them in the ground, and rely instead on renewables and conservation? Or will we continue to exploit whatever energy sources are cheapest — especially without a price on carbon — and ignore the horrific costs we’re guaranteeing we and our children will have to pay?

    The clock is ticking, measured by the continued rise in the atmospheric level of CO2…

  2. Joan Savage says:

    The doomed technological civilizations increase their net entropy, also known as complexity, disorder, heat.

  3. Jeff Poole says:

    Sleep-sprinting to Oblivion…

  4. M Tucker says:

    It wasn’t just the US that didn’t want to go to war to stop Hitler. Not one single European nation was willing to do that. After WWI the European leaders had no stomach for another war, no matter what calamity Hitler might unleash. Stalin was happy to sign a nonaggression pact with a mad man in order to avoid war. When war came all the tough talk about defending Poland and the “this mean war” threats evaporated. France and England were caught with their thumbs up their asses. France quickly surrendered (surrender monkeys) and England was lucky to flee the continent in time to avert complete disaster. Much like today: All talk but no stomach for real action, and let’s wait until unimaginable suffering materializes. That’s how it went down then and that is exactly what we will do now. The analogy is we will wait for disaster and attempt to achieve a come-from-behind victory.

    “A technology optimist, I like to believe that some genetic evolution of the human genome can produce intelligent Homo superior better adapted to living in a high tech world wrought by scientific revolutions.”

    Seriously? You think we have time to evolve our way to a solution? We created the scientific revolutions. We created the high tech world. That world would not exist without fossil fuels. Our history would not exist without fossil fuels. This is the greatest challenge facing mankind ever since the end of the last ice age and it is much more challenging than anything we have ever faced. Oh, we still have not dodged the nuclear bullet. We are still a very war loving species making cooperation now just as challenging as it was for those trying to deal with the mad expansionist obsessions of Hitler 80 years ago.

  5. Merrelyn Emery says:

    It is time to put away the tech fetishes both pro and anti. Creating and using tools is ubiquitous in the natural world.

    We went off the rails only recently when we shifted to the first design principle based on inequality of status which set person against person, nation against nation and humanity against the planet. Because people were forced to compete, money gradually assumed more importance to the point where we now have this ridiculous global financial system which is based not on substantive but hypothetical value. The human emotions of hope and fear fuel changes in this imaginary value.

    Until we return much more generally to the second design principle where people cooperate to achieve substantive common goals, we have little hope of stopping our rush into destruction, ME

  6. Solar Jim says:

    Lou, may I make a friendly suggestion. Refrain from referring to mined hydrocarbons as “energy sources.” They are not. They are substances existing in the three phases of matter, not energy. For example, a ton is not a unit of energy. Usage does not define true reality. Our ignition of these materials does not make an “energy resource” any more than slavery defines a human being, except under corrupt human law.

    The entire paradigm of the concept of “fossil fuel” is a suicidal societal error which is likely to destroy Creation. Our language seems to impede the necessary progress for any chance of survival.

  7. jEREMY says:

    Thank you for this plea of sanity. Unfortunately, folks are cut off from the impact of climate change and do not wish to deal with it as a public voting issue. Especially if it means adding “costs” to their pocketbook. I doubt we will ever see a climate legislation passed in the Senate. Copenhagen was really our last chance.
    I find it hard to belive the words of the Exxon-Mobile CEO, especially after their commercials on promoting science and math.
    Do not know what science he studies, probably the one with finacial terms inserted.

  8. David Goldstein says:

    Reading these quotes by Hansen and Hoffert is truly surreal. At first glance, one would assume they came from an ‘over-heated’ (excuse the pun) apocolyptic type frothing at the mouth or,perhaps, an imaginative sci-fi enthusiast. But no, these are the words of very sober, expert scientists based on objective findings. Even for myself, who is fairly deeply steeped in the climate arena- it is difficult to understand that this is for real.

  9. B Waterhouse says:

    The Weather Channel today was reporting the current
    US heatwave was due to urbanization and urban heat islands, not AGW.

  10. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    It is not civilization, as we know it, that is under threat; but the existence of humanity. We may well join the list of extinctions.

    Get to 1,000 ppm and we risk a Canfield State in the oceans. The oceans turn anoxic, methanogenic bacteria take over and produce massive amounts of hydrogen sulfide. Those that survive the H2S then have to put up with an extremely depleted ozone layer.

    Now we know as the world warms that the natural environment becomes a source of CO2 and not a sink. Yet we still do our sums on the basis that the environment will soak up a large proportion of what we emit. The loss of phytoplankton and the spread of wildfires is an ominous message.

    We are changing the environment faster than the lead up to the PETM.

    Be the Hummingbird.

  11. Mark E says:

    The only reason we would “never” see senate action is if too many rant over their despair and yet _do_ nothing.

  12. Spike says:

    The UK Climate Change Committee calls the government to task for its dash for gas

    David Kennedy, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change, said: “[Ministers] must rule out the dash for gas, and set clear carbon objectives in the context of draft energy legislation and the forthcoming gas generation strategy. Our analysis shows that power sector decarbonisation is economically sensible, even in a shale gas world.”

  13. Tom L says:

    The Weather Channel is a puppet show produced by General Electric Corporation.

  14. Tom L says:

    We’re apes who ‘discovered fire’. In the end that may be our most succinct final epitaph: They learned how to burn sh#t for creature comfort.

  15. jEREMY says:

    That has been investigated already, Dr. Hansen states most of the warming is in areas that are not densely populated (i.e. Arctic). These “news” outlets repeat the same old misinformation.

  16. otto says:

    Dear Son and Daughter,

    Here is what we leave for you.

  17. John C. Wilson says:

    Take a look at the current US Drought Monitor. It does not look at all like we’re waiting for 2030 or 2050 to see dust bowl conditions. Remember it’s only June when you look at the map.

  18. Don’t forget about the unconscionable water waste and water pollution from oil sands extraction. Each barrel of unconventional oil leaves behind 2-4 barrels of sludge. The sludge has been accumulating for decades in ponds blighting the landscape of Alberta. Naphthenic acids in the sludge ponds are deadly to migrating waterfowl. The ponds are not settling out as expected decades ago when they were started because suspended clay platelets (mature fine tailings) link up in an electrostatic house-of-cards arrangement to form a yogurt-like suspension that does not settle out quickly just by gravity.

    The CO2 from the natural gas that is burned for heat to make the steam for extraction is also an indictment of the primitive state of unconventional oil technology.

  19. David Lewis says:

    Regarding Hoffert’s statement about Lovelock. Most people don’t understand how whacked out Lovelock is.

    Lovelock has made it clear for the last several years he thinks climate scientists, such as those who work on IPCC reports, don’t have a clue about what they are talking about. He is saying a second rate climate science denier, Garth Paltridge, does know.

    Paltridge, author of “The Climate Caper” says IPCC scientists are the worst thing that has happened to the enterprise of science itself for the last several hundred years. According to Paltridge, IPCC scientists are on a “religious crusade”, “manipulating” the climate issue “into the ultimate example of the politically correct” acting as if “the science behind the issue” is “irrelevant”. Etc. Lovelock and his friend Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame are saying that Paltridge is a “sensible skeptic”.

    Those climate scientists who do understand what Lovelock is actually saying, according to Lovelock, now “shun” him. Lovelock can’t understand why.

    Either Lovelock never understood much about climate science, or his advancing age is leaving him witless.

    I wrote an article about Lovelock and Brand here

  20. Sailesh Rao says:

    So true. Saul Griffith said a couple of years ago that “the world’s most urgent environmental need is not for some miraculous scientific breakthrough but for a vast, unprecedented transformation of human behavior.” But perhaps, the second design principle should be amended to “people cooperate with each other and with Nature to achieve substantive common goals.” This is because people can also cooperate to destroy forests and strip mine the ocean, which won’t solve our problems.

    In the Universal Moral code of the world’s religions, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” nowhere does it specify “humans”. And yet we routinely interpret it with an anthropocentric bent, which needs to stop. I suspect that’s the change that Saul Griffith is alluding to.

  21. M Tucker says:

    From Lovelock to evolution of the human genome to speculation on why we have not found evidence of advanced life in the galaxy this guy was all over the place. It is good to know I am not the only one who gets so frustrated over the complete inaction that I am driven to wild rants. I sure hope he is not overlooking coal.

  22. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Yes Sailesh, absolutely correct. We need to get back to where we were with the ancient cultures, ME

  23. SecularAnimist says:

    “Short lifetimes of technological civilizations is a reason for the absence of intelligent life in our Milky Way galaxy according to the Drake Equation”

    We have no evidence of any other “technological civilizations”, no evidence that any such civilizations have “short lifetimes”, and of course no evidence for the “absence of intelligent life in our Milky Way galaxy”.

    Nor does “intelligent life” equate with “technological civilizations”. The Earth abounds with highly intelligent species that have never developed what we think of as “technology” (based on our extremely narrow-minded view which does not even recognize the highly evolved biotech of ants, termites and bees as technology).

    In short, given that we are unable to even recognize intelligence and technological capabilities in the nonhuman species with whom we share this planet, it is grotesquely fatuous to make such claims about the entire galaxy, which may be swarming with intelligent life for all we know.

    All we can say is that so far we have failed to detect any radio signals, in the very narrow frequency bands we have attempted to monitor, that appear to be of intelligent origin.

    But there is no particular reason to believe that other technologically advanced civilizations would emit such signals into space, and there are plenty of plausible scenarios in which they would not do so — perhaps they use other means of communication on their planet, or perhaps the electromagnetic fields of their planet prevent such signals from “leaking” into space.

    In particular, there is no reason to expect that other technologically advanced civilizations would destroy their biospheres with GHG emissions from fossil fuels. The fact that humans have had easy access to vast quantities of fossil fuels may be a fairly unique geological accident. It’s not hard to imagine an “alternate Earth” in which such deposits of fossil carbon either don’t exist, or are buried so deeply as to remain unknown and inaccessible to the planet’s inhabitants.

  24. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Excellent comment. Thats why I referred to ‘tech fetishes’ above. That anybody could believe that because we invented the bulldozer to destroy our home we are ‘intelligent’ only shows how arrogantly delusional this line of thinking has become, ME

  25. Mark E says:

    My money is betting on some fundamental principles of evolution and ecology being universal. For example, the notion that species expand to completely fill their ecological niche, and that carrying capacity, once exceeded, drops to a lower equilibrium at least for a while.

    Maybe they don’t have fossil fuel, but its hard to imagine, even with all my sci fi creativity, a world where ET’s people do not have to contend with population dynamics and limiting factors. So maybe its not fossil fuels that confronts them with the need for self-regulating their population. But something’s gonna run them into that wall, and I’ll bet everything I have on that.

    The question is: Have any ET societies happily mastered true sustainability, free from growth in consumption and population?

  26. Solar Jim says:

    The environment is not truly “soaking up” anything. It is turning acidic.

    We have, and are, transferring carbonic acid from the lithosphere back to the biosphere (via oxidation) where it is now loaded for release as climatic thresholds are transgressed. This will regress the climate to prehistoric conditions as the planet “outgasses” on it’s on. Increasingly devastating forest fires are one indication of the tragic human activity of burning fossil “fuels.” Fuels of fools.

  27. Dick Smith says:

    Amen. Thank you Mark.

  28. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Forget ET – you can study human life on this planet in the past. The old cultures knew the carrying capacity of their land and limited their population so as to not exceed it. It is only when you lose respect for the planet,distance yourself from it and in fact elevate your species to dominance over it, that you would do anything as stupid as allow your species to assume plague proportions – which always crash, ME

  29. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Lou, it’s not humanity failing the test. We are being failed by our leaders, the pleonexic ruling parasite elite who control politics, and a steadily falling proportion of humanity from the shallow end of the gene pool. In the end, almost certainly too late, this will cause a global civil war, which was, in fact, launched long ago, although only one side, the Right, has been firing the shots, so far.

  30. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    We lost the plot long ago, when the insatiably greedy and aggressive members of our species began accumulating wealth and power. Now, when they totally dominate humanity, it is almost certainly too late. If a great moral leader emerged, to throw the money-changers out again, he would be crucified, just like before. When the great civil resistance movements finally emerge, the repression will be ferocious.

  31. Mulga Mumblebrain says:


  32. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It is for creatures like Paltridge, and the Rightwing shite-rags that publish his garbage, over and over, that we need draft laws pertaining to crimes against humanity through ecological destruction, awaiting institution with no statute of limitations. These are propaganda crimes, in my opinion, without precedent in human history, not even in the pages of Die Sturmer.

  33. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Self-destruction becomes assured when the worst, ie the most insatiably greedy, establish a kakistocracy. We are being destroyed by the most evil amongst us, while the great masses of decent people remain impotent. There is only one way left out of this suicide pact into which we have been conscripted by the evil ones, and it is truly dreadful to contemplate.

  34. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Yeah but there’s a lot more of us and there are times when numbers count, ME

  35. Mark E says:

    I’m not versed in the anthropological literature. Is the romantic notion of “the old cultures” supported by research?

    In my ignorance of the literature, I’d find it easier to believe that they opted to migrate into new territories when possible, and when that was not an option they appear to have regulated their population via warfare over local resources.

  36. NickM says:

    You can’t just blame the leaders – the people elected them. No conspiracy here. We simply need to collectively decide to elect the right people who will do the right thing for the long term instead of taking a short term selfish view that enables us to minimise taxes and continue to wastefully burn fossil fuels.

  37. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Nothing romantic about it Mark. There is solid research from all over the world and I have provided references to it on this site many times before.

    I presume you are in N America – just think about the continent amd its seas about 3-400 years ago, teeming with life. Try dipping into ‘The wisdom of the elders’ by Knudson & Suzuki, ME

  38. Joan Savage says:

    Take a look at recent work on Traditional Environmental Knowledge, sometimes called TEK.

    The indigenous people near me in the Northeast have oral tradition descriptions of re-establishing themselves as the ice sheets melted back (11.5K to 8.5K YBP). There were very carefully developed rules about when to catch certain types of game and fish and other land use practices. In the 1650s European explorers were stunned at the variety of fish caught and the miles -yes miles- of corn fields.
    European immigrants were clueless about the TEK rules and treated the environment as a ‘resource’ and ‘up for grabs.’

  39. Solar Jim says:

    Apologies: “on its own.” That is, the climate seems to be spring loaded for GHG outgassing above an as yet undetermined temperature increase.