James Hansen, writing on peak oil, gets rejected

Hansen just sent around an email detailing why his article, “Implications of ‘peak oil’ for atmospheric CO2 and climate” was “firmly” rejected by Environmental Research Letters. I thought I would share the contents of the email, titled “Peak Oil, Balanced on a Doghouse,” for two reasons.

First, Hansen’s note offers a window into the arcane world of peer review. Second, it might help all you aspiring writers out there deal with the inevitable rejections — knowing that the nation’s top climate scientist still gets turned down by major scientific publications. Hansen himself notes:

The rejection was a bit like the one Snoopy received, which said, “Enclosed please find two rejection slips: one for the manuscript you submitted and one for the next one you write.” Snoopy always takes it lying down on the top of his dog house (and I always wonder: how does he stay balanced on that narrow strip?)

He continues with a discussion of the paper and the fascinating, if negative, referee comments:

Because the subject is important, we are submitting a slightly revised paper elsewhere. The abstract is below…:

The amounts of fossil fuel “proven” and potential reserves are uncertain and debated. Regardless of the true values, society has flexibility in the degree to which it chooses to exploit these reserves, especially unconventional fossil fuels and those located in extreme or pristine environments. If conventional oil production peaks within the next few decades, it may have a large effect on future atmospheric CO2 and climate change, depending upon subsequent energy choices. Assuming that proven oil and gas reserves do not greatly exceed estimates of the Energy Information Administration, and recent trends are toward lower estimates, we show that it is feasible to keep atmospheric CO2 from exceeding about 450 ppm by 2100, provided that emissions from coal and unconventional fossil fuels are constrained. Coal-fired power plants without sequestration must be phased out before mid-century to achieve this CO2 limit. It is also important to “stretch” conventional oil reserves via energy conservation and efficiency, thus averting strong pressures to extract liquid fuels from coal or unconventional fossil fuels while clean technologies are being developed for the era “beyond fossil fuels”. We argue that a rising price on carbon emissions is needed to discourage conversion of the vast fossil resources into usable reserves, and to keep CO2 beneath the 450 ppm ceiling.

The referee reports warrant comment:

Referee 1: The article addresses an issue deserving more attention in the climate-change literature: the relevance of peak oil production as determinant of future energy use, carbon emissions and climate change. Therefore the article is of high importance for the scientific debate on climate change.

Based on the construction of five scenarios (a BAU and four coal/oil phase out ones), it suggests that a low limit on atmospheric CO2 ­ one which does not threaten dangerous consequences for humanity — is possible if the vast coal and unconventional fossil fuel reservoirs are not exploited. These reservoirs can only be tapped if the resulting CO2 is captured and sequestered.

The paper should be accepted for publication, but only if the authors consider the following two amendments: (remainder of Referee 1 report is in footnote below).

Referee 2: The paper goes wrong in the second paragraph. The authors say that the IPCC SRES scenarios and the underlying models ignore resource constraints. That is simply not true. The paper then continues with some simplistic curve fitting where other people have used process-based models. The analysis is less advanced than the work in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Alan Manne, Bill Nordhaus, Jae Edmonds and John Reilly.

The paper is tainted by authors claim that 450 ppm is dangerous. This claim is repeated over and over again. It is not needed for the argument, and it is not true. There cannot be scientific proof that something is dangerous. That is a value judgement.

That is the entire report of Referee 2. We revised the paper to incorporate both amendments of Referee 1. We revised wording to mollify Referee 2. Based on the research areas of authors that Referee 2 refers to, he may object to the fact that we do not employ a socioeconomic model. That would have been inappropriate, as our purpose is to examine the impact of fossil fuel resource limits on the carbon cycle and climate. Our discussion does reflect a wide range of relevant socioeconomic factors, e.g., varying degree of emissions mitigation, varying size of economically recoverable fossil fuel reservoirs, and carbon taxes.

My sense is that there are two factors behind the curt review by Referee 2 and his emotional second review (below): (1) After publication of our “alternative scenario” paper in PNAS (2000), and again after publication of “Slippery Slope” in Clim. Change (2005), I received numerous angry comments form SRES/IPCC experts, who view those papers as being critical of them (I do not see anything personal in either paper), (2) The use of the word “dangerous” is considered inappropriate by Referee 2 (and by many others).I thought we had dealt with reticence about ‘dangerous’, making it the first word of a paper (which took 1½ years, and submission to two journals, to publish). We reduced use of ‘dangerous’ to mollify Referee 2, but elimination would be inappropriate. Referee 2 response to the revised paper (in toto in footnote 2) was (1) “your paper is nonsense”, and (2) “the methods used are some 30 years out of date. The results are therefore worthless. Alan Manne used a superior model to look at similar questions in the 1970s.”

The Editorial Board conclusion to reject the paper (in toto in footnote 3) was based solely on Referee 2’s “concern about the appropriateness of the method”. Apparently Referee 2 has enough clout that he does not need to provide any valid criticism.The only model required for our paper is a simple (pulse response) carbon cycle model. In case there is any issue about that, we have also used a more elaborate model that permits nonlinearity in the ocean carbonate chemistry. As expected, this does not alter our conclusions. Thanks to Fortunat Joos for providing that model. The paper has now been submitted to Global Biogeochemical Cycles. I hope that you find it useful. Criticisms are welcome.



(1) Remainder of Referee 1 report (first two paragraphs are above): The paper should be accepted for publication, but only if the authors consider the following two amendments:

a) The authors recognize that the uptake capacity of the ocean decreases as the amount of dissolved carbon increases and that there are uncertain feedbacks that may add carbon to the air. Yet they state that the effects of such nonlinearities and feedbacks may remain moderate if further CO2 increase is limited. This is not necessary the case. Aware of the uncertainties involved in all these estimations, Grueber et al (2004) suggest for instance that a substantial amount of carbon in land and the ocean (several tens of Pg) is at risk of becoming mobilized and being released in to the atmosphere over the next 20 years and several hundred Pg over the next century. I suggest the authors to present a more nuanced discussion of this point.

b) There is a rich discussion on carbon sequestration and capture, a discussion which goes beyond recovering oil and gas resources and includes a portfolio approach. For some scholars (Caldeira et al 2004) the portfolio contains two sets of options: reducing sources of carbon (e.g. dependence on fossil fuels) and increasing carbon sinks.

For other scholars (e.g. Wigley 2006http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/314/5798/452), future climate change may be reduced through mitigation (reductions in greenhouse gas emissions) or through geoen- gineering. The point is that most geoengineering approaches, however, are not free of problems. For instance they do not address the problem of increasing ocean acidity. Wigley 2006 sustains that a combined mitigation/geoengineering strategy could remove this deficiency. A very brief summary of this discussion would increase tremendously the quality and the reach of this paper.

References:Gr¼ber, N. and 8 et al. 2004: “The vulnerability of the carbon cycle in the 21 st century: An assessment of carbon-climate-human interactions “Toward CO2 Stabilization: Issues, Strategies, andConsequences, edited by Field, C. and Raupach M. Island Press. Caldeira, et al 2004: A portfolio of carbon management options, “Toward CO2 Stabilization: Issues, Strategies, and Consequences,edited by Field, C. and Raupach M. Island Press.

(2) Response of Referee 2 to revised paper:The paper still goes wrong in the second paragraph. The authors have rephrased this to read “For instance, in the CO2 emissions scenarios outlined in the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2000), socioeconomic and technological changes are employed as the primary determinants of future energy use, without explicitly addressing the consequences of peak production of fossil fuels.” This remark is patently untrue.

The authors argue in their response to my previous comments that the burden of proof rests on me. I completely and utterly disagree. If the authors write a sentence like the one above, they should show that that sentence is true. It is not.

The models used in SRES, with the exception of the ASF model, all have physical resource constraints. All SRES models, with the exception of ASF, run out of conventional oil and gas somewhere in the 21st century.

The SRES report does not talk much about peak oil because (amongst energy economists and engineers) it is generally considered to be a silly concept. However, in all SRES scenarios the production of conventional oil starts to decline at some point. Therefore, peak oil is part of the SRES scenarios. The same is true, by the way, for the non-SRES scenarios that have been used in climate policy analysis.

Ergo, your premise is wrong. Your paper is nonsense.

In another response, the authors write something that I would paraphrase as “we cannot use up-to-date methods because that would be outside the scope of the paper”. This does not counter that the methods used are some 30 years out of date. The results are therefore worthless. Alan Manne used a superior model to look at similar questions in the 1970s.

(3) Response of Editorial Board: The second reviewer has reviewed the revised version of the ms and judges the revision as unsatisfactory. The concerns raised in this review are substantial (even after adjusting for the harsh tone of this review). While the issues surrounding the statement(s) about the SRES scenarios could be addressed with a careful rewrite, the concerns about the appropriateness of the method would require a major revision. As a result, the revised ms cannot be accepted for publication in ERL.