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By Robert Rapier on Jul 1, 2009 with no responses

What If I’m Wrong?

Risk Assessments

I spend a lot of time playing “What if?” We all do this. I do this when I am driving – “What if that car at the next intersection pulls out in front of me?” – when I am working – “What if that high pressure line ruptures?” – and at home – “What if I wake up and find the house is on fire?” I also spend a lot of time pondering the question “What if there are energy shortages in the near future?

When we do this, we are generally trying to understand the potential consequences of various responses to a given situation. This sort of exercise is a form of risk assessment, and it is a very important tool for making decisions about events that could impact the future. Sometimes the consequences are minor. If I choose not to take an umbrella to work and it rains, there is probably a small consequence. If I choose to pass a car on a blind hill, the consequence may be severe, and may extend to other people.

In this essay I will explore the implications of the question: “What if my viewpoint is wrong?

What If I’m Wrong About Peak Oil?

I guess it was my training as a scientist that emphasized to me that conclusions are tentative (I was two years into a Ph.D. in chemistry before I decided the job prospects were better for a chemical engineer). They are subject to revision as additional data come in, and you have to always be willing to consider that you may be wrong. But acknowledging that I could be wrong has to go hand-in-hand with the consequences of being wrong.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the possible consequences of peak oil. My view on peak oil is that it presents an enormous challenge for humanity, that we will begin to face these challenges within 10 years, and that there is no easy solution. I see spiking oil prices and the subsequent fallout as a prelude to what lies ahead. These views have influenced my profession, where I have chosen to live, what I read, and what I say to others. Fear of peak oil has influenced some people not to attend college, or to quit their jobs and move away to remote locations. It has even caused some people to decide against having children. But what if I am wrong about the timing of peak oil? What are the consequences?

For me, this one has low consequences. If I am wrong and we have adequate oil supplies for the next 40 years, then perhaps I live a more frugal life than I might have otherwise. I prefer to walk, ride a bike, or take a train instead of hopping into a car to drive some place. When I drive, I probably drive a smaller car than I would have otherwise. Then again, I have always been frugal, so perhaps I would have done all of these things regardless. The one thing that it may have impacted upon in a major way is my interest in energy.

But if I am right, then I have plans in place to manage the impact as well as I can. Those plans start with minimizing my energy consumption. It is my small insurance policy. If the worst case doomers turn out to be right, then there isn’t a lot I can do except try to make sure my family and I are in circumstances that minimize the risk. Further, I have done a lot of work that is aimed at improving our energy security in the years ahead. That work includes promoting renewable energy technologies that I think can make a long-term contribution, but also arguing for conservation, and better utilization of our own natural resources. So if I am correct, then I have chosen to work on things that have the potential to mitigate the consequences.

But what if the other side is wrong? Government agencies devoted to monitoring our natural resources often reassure us that there is plenty of oil for decades to come. But what if the government, industry, etc. turn out to have missed the mark on peak oil? In that case I think we will be in for a lot of trouble.

If the peak comes quickly and the decline is steep, I believe we will be wholly unprepared. There is not a cheap, easy substitute for oil. Much higher prices will be inevitable in such a situation. Industries – such as the airline industry – won’t be prepared and we will see perhaps entire industries go bankrupt. While I do believe that over time we can transition to natural gas vehicles (and our supplies of natural gas look adequate for a while), that will take some time. If the government is wrong and the peak happens much sooner than expected, we will be in for a very difficult transition period.

What If I am Wrong on Global Warming?

Another question I think a lot about is “What If I am Wrong on Global Warming?” To me, this one is more complicated. If the Al Gore contingent is correct, then we are facing some very major problems. As I have written before, I don’t expect us to be able to rein in carbon dioxide emissions, so I see a future with ever higher atmospheric CO2. And while I tend to come down on the side that human activity is contributing to global warming, the scientist in me reminds me that “conclusions are tentative.”

On the one hand we have potential global devastation if Al Gore is correct (because again, I believe carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to climb). On the other hand are those who believe that human activities play little or no role in global warming. They view the opposition as putting global economies at risk by putting a price on carbon emissions. While I think global devastation is a much worse consequence than economic stagnation, the impact of that could be pretty severe as well.

So we have two camps, each of which thinks if the other side gets their way it will lead to global disaster. So we get a lot of vitriol in this debate, which I don’t like. I don’t know what the ultimate outcome on this one will be, but one thing I don’t want to see is the debate stifled by placing derogatory labels on those with whom you disagree.

I never discount the possibility that I could be wrong about something. I would say that precious few of my views are embedded in granite. That’s why I write this blog; to discuss, debate, learn, and change my mind when reason dictates that.