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Why the Debate Over Global Warming is Academic

Robert Rapier's picture
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Robert Rapier is a chemical engineer who works in the energy industry. Robert has over 20 years of international engineering experience in the chemicals, oil and gas, and renewable energy...

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  • Oct 13, 2011 9:45 am GMT

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Steeling Myself For Inevitable Controversy


I am currently in the middle of writing a chapter on global warming for my book. This actually marks the deepest I have ever delved into the science of global warming. My approach is to explain the science behind global warming; explain which parts of the science are definitely settled, but then also explain why some people have doubts.

Of course this debate is so bitter on both sides that merely explaining why some people have doubts is bound to be characterized negatively by some who insist that there can be no doubts. But I can’t overly concern myself about that. I realize that my position is bound to be misrepresented by some. All I can try to do is clarify it as well as I can. My goal is to present information, not try to argue whether global warming is a clear and present danger or an overblown myth.

As I wrote the chapter, I created my own graphics. Some of them are quite eye-opening, and I want to share one of those here. The graphic below shows why I characterize the debate as academic.

Percentage of Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the U.S., EU, and the Asia Pacific Region

Developing World Will Dictate Global CO2 Emissions

The U.S. and EU have reduced their global share of carbon emissions as well as their overall amount of carbon emissions over the past decade. There are several reasons for that, but the demand drop due to rising oil prices played a big role. However, the reductions have been totally swamped by increases in the Asia Pacific region. That same trend holds true for Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South America (and I have created a graphic that details the carbon dioxide emission growth for each region). The Western world can debate and discuss all we want, but carbon dioxide emissions are going to be dictated by the developing world. In fact, all carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. and EU could go to zero, and it would only take us back to where emissions were in 1994 — and they would still be rapidly increasing.

Carbon emissions are declining across the developed world, but most of the world’s population resides in the developing world. Overall carbon dioxide emissions in developing countries are already higher than in the developed world, but per capita energy usage is very low. Thus, it is extremely hard to imagine any scenario other than carbon dioxide emissions that continue to increase at least until fossil fuels simply become scarce/unaffordable. This will largely be driven by countries like China and India that have huge populations who crave better living standards. Try to convince India that they have to reduce their carbon emissions when the average Indian consumes a fraction of the energy of the average Westerner, and they will probably laugh at you.

The Goal Of My Book: A Real-World Assessment

What I am doing with the book is trying to explain why things are the way they are, and predict where I think things are going. This is very different than presenting an idealistic version of how things could be in the future (there are plenty of books that do that), or speculating on far-reaching protocols or renewable energy breakthroughs that reverse the increases in the developing world. The latter is the approach many authors take, and yet for all the idealism not only are carbon dioxide emissions increasing, they are accelerating. My goal is to accurately predict the future. Whether that future is desirable is another matter entirely.

By characterizing the debate as academic, I don’t mean to suggest that the situation is in any way unimportant. I certainly think it’s possible that there will be devastating consequences as global carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise. But the reason I think it’s academic is that regardless of how much we debate it, global carbon dioxide emissions will continue to rise for reasons I lay out in the book, and that are evident in the graphic above. I view the debate over carbon emissions as akin to debating how to stop the arrival of an impending hurricane. We won’t in fact stop that hurricane because that is beyond our control, so what we really have to do is plan on how to ride it out and deal with the aftermath. I would argue that global carbon emissions are also beyond our control because they are being driven by individuals who use very little energy (although they collectively use a lot), but who will use a lot more if given the opportunity. That is the reason those emissions will continue to rise.

Note: This week I am attending the 2011 Gasification Technologies Conference in San Francisco. Next week I will be presenting at a conference in Brasilia, Brazil, and the first week of November I will be speaking at the 2011 ASPO-USA Conference in Washington, D.C. If any readers happen to be attending these conferences, please look me up.

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Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Oct 12, 2011

I thought the little “numb”ers article was applicable here.

Math got interesting when I started using Fourier and Laplace Transforms. They are composites of periodic (complex exponential) and real exponentials. Single variable analysis such as above is less helpful. And only serves to entertain the argument (as described in the “numb”ers article).

With some (confidential) awareness of the situation in Asia, I am more hopeful. They are working hard to attain basic services, like going to the bathroom in a bathroom. They are developing modern societies with great speed and skill, using different development paths. The composite of functions at work in projecting Asian development, and related “climate” impact, should not be oversimplified for the sake of argument..

Perhaps what struck me most powerfully, was when (by chance) I met a leading Chinese solar scientist at Oxford and asked him to meet my daughter, who works a lot in China. He followed me into the pub (neither of us drank) and offered his card inviting her to contact him and she would “find a friend.” These people are not the cultural stereotype perpetuated by media.


Amelia Timbers's picture
Amelia Timbers on Oct 12, 2011

Re complicated math… the simpler the analysis, the better when it comes to communicating complex science info to the public. While perhaps reductive, though I don’t think this one is, line grahs are useful tools to illustrate trends. It’s the difference between an article and a dissertation imo.

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Rick Engebretson on Oct 12, 2011

I expected you to moderate my comments, Amelia. Please indicate where you have edited, however. I meant what I said, but you did a good job editing.

As for the “complicated math:” it is essential to allow many concepts into the dialog before declaring conclusions. For example, perhaps the Gobi Desert will become an irrigated forest. We’ve done our share of greening up wasteland.

I met that Chinese scientist to discuss the zooming cars and gasoline exhaust pollution on the incredible Oxford extended campus. I wondered what he thought of electric cars and alternative fuel cars. He shared his concern that his people work too hard and are not happy. Only after we barged back into the pub and he handed my daughter his business card did I realize he was a Ph.D. with a Chinese solar agency. The point being, it was easier to have a constructive dialog with Chinese strangers than with all the bogus concerned experts in this country.

Amelia Timbers's picture
Amelia Timbers on Oct 13, 2011

Re “Non Illigitimi Carborundum!” are you a Harvard man, Ed? My Harvard friends are the only ones I have ever heard use that phrase …

Robert Rapier's picture
Robert Rapier on Oct 13, 2011

… the developing world will not catch up with the damage the OEDC has done for many decades yet.

You’re correct if this was a post attempting to pin blame over global warming. Indeed the reason we are where we are is years of emissions from developed countries. But what I am trying to do is forecast the years ahead as we grapple with rising carbon emissions. So it wasn’t dishonest not to include that information, it just isn’t relevant to the theme of the chapter. (I do have graphics of per capita emissions in the book, and that shows the problem in the developed countries).

It takes a number of graphics to tell the entire story, and I only presented one here. As far as saying that there is nothing meaningful the U.S. can do, consider this. If emissions from the U.S. and EU all went to zero, we would be back at mid-90’s levels of emissions and they would still be growing strong. As far as showing them the way – the per capita emissions graph tells the tale there. Our per capita emissions are 13 times those of India. How exactly are we going to show them the way? If we cut our emissions in half, we still won’t have the blueprint for showing them the way. I simply see no viable plan for them to continue to develop without fossil fuels, and they have shown no inclination that they are willing to sacrifice growth for the good of the planet. I even saw a poll in India that said only 30% of the people there had heard of global warming. When a large portion of your population lives in extreme poverty, they will come up out of that poverty by using the cheapest energy sources they can. There exists no blueprint for showing them how to develop without consuming fossil fuels.

If nothing else we should strive to make ourselves into an example for the developing world by getting our own CO2 emissions act together, something we are in a far better position to do than they are. Indeed if we’d invested meaningful amounts of money in clean tech R&D starting with Rio in 1990, we’d be well on our way to getting our emissions under control today. Your second, and even more damaging, insinuation is that there’s no point doing that for another two decades if ever, because it would be cheaper to just “adapt”.

I constantly advocate for reducing our fossil fuel usage. But my metric isn’t global carbon emissions; if it were I would be resigned to failure. Further, I neither said that there’s no point in working on it now, nor that we can just adapt in two decades. I am forecasting what I see happening.


This is a very messy, inefficient and possibly violent process by modern standards.

I have said many times that Mother Nature can solve problems in very cruel ways, and it is best not to give her that opportunity. But I think you wholly misunderstand my point. As I said, I am not projecting the idealistic future (i.e., if we had only done this or that, or could invent a cheap clean energy option for them). I am projecting what will happen. In 10 years, have a look back and see if it didn’t play out like I predicted.



Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Oct 13, 2011

While in England enjoying the architecture, I reminded our group that those massive chimneys once spewed coal soot that sickened people. And that massive stone was assembled with horse carts leaving massive reminders whereever they went. Today’s tourist is lucky to enjoy all of the modern comforts and charm, often without appreciating our great progress.

Between London and Birmingham there is a “Green Zone” full of sheep that nobody uses, because England can’t grow more food than their quota set by the EU. Beautiful meadows and forests, too.

They do have a car problem, and they know it. I wish I had commented on the Honda CNG car article, but Charles already complained about it and I wanted to give the old guy his space.

So if you stretch your line back further and use other human slob factors besides CO2 we have absolute reason for hope. I’m keeping busy with good relations to people in India and China. Nobody on TEC or elsewhere cares too much, and that is fine. Perhaps that’s why I objected so strongly: those foreigners have more ambition than we Americans do. I welcome their talents to the scientific challenge of our time.

The only thing a different daughter agreed with me on the trip (she’s a liberal) was: The historic peaceful assembly of people from around the world in pursuit of knowledge at Oxford. Something to cherish and not let go.

Robert Rapier's picture
Robert Rapier on Oct 15, 2011

I will also repeat that if we’d gotten started after Rio in 1990, we’d be well on our way to solving our emissions problem by now and the economy would hardly know the difference (it might actually be better).

Two things are certain: We will be able to see if my predictions hold true, but we also have the potential to respond to my prediction. We do not have the ability to respond to your musings about how things might have been; we will never know so that’s really pretty useless, don’t you think? You are speculating and yet you haven’t the faintest idea of whether Rio would have made a smidgen of difference with respect to emissions in the Asia Pacific today. You are guessing, whereas I am offering a testable prediction.

You haven’t put me on the spot. You have just demonstrated the sort of idealistic thinking that has gone on all along on this issue; idealistic thinking that hasn’t resulted in so much as an inflection point on the growing carbon dioxide emissions. Because idealists fail to understand the root of the problem, they are impotent to resolve it. Obama doesn’t care about your protests. He cares about getting reelected. So the pipeline is a foregone conclusion. It will be loaded with caveats designed to appease the protestors, but it will get done. But whether it gets done or not, if you understand where the growth in carbon emissions is coming from, you can see that the Keystone contribution will just be lost in the noise.

Whether my prediction turns out to be correct (and I would bet money on it) I will spend my time working on things that are within my power to impact. Global carbon dioxide emissions is not one of those things, it is just a thing that idealists naively think they can impact. It may turn out that the idealists are worse than useless, because their unrealistic expectations will just ensure more of the status quo.



Amelia Timbers's picture
Amelia Timbers on Oct 17, 2011

Wow Robert – many comments… just imagine how the book tour will be!

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