Pessimists, Optimists and The Straw Man Fallacy

Energy Aware

Marco Raugei and Chris Nelder spent 75 minutes tilting at straw men on Nelder’s The Energy Transition Show last month. After the discussion with Raugei, Nelder launched into a 30-minute soliloquy about how “doomers” oppose the energy transition based on shoddy scholarship, old data and poor methodology.

The conversation with Raugei was boring and lacked substance. Nelder’s monologue was interesting and lacked substance.

The premise of the podcast was to compare and contrast two opposing viewpoints on climate change and the renewable energy transition—the systemic pessimists and the technological optimists—taken from Raugei’s recently published paper, Addressing a Counterproductive Dichotomy in the Energy Transition.

In the episode “Doomers vs Transitionistas,” the optimists are described as the slightly naive good guys who believe that a renewable energy transition away from fossil fuels is the only sensible way to address climate change. The pessimists are the cynical bad guys who believe that growth of the human enterprise is destroying the planet’s ecosystem, and that substituting renewables for fossil fuels won’t change that outcome very much.

For Raugei and Nelder, these camps are locked in a Tolkien-type struggle that damages and devalues humanity’s need to achieve a sustainable future. Raugei offers a contemplative middle way that recognizes that there are elements of truth on both sides. Nelder thinks the systemic pessimists are just doomers who are out-of-touch with the advances of renewable technology.

The problem with the show’s premise is that neither opposing camp is real. They are caricatures of end-member positions. Despite Raugei’s attempts to be neutral and objective, Nelder’s bias in favor of renewables overwhelms the conversation.They both use a straw man fallacy that largely misrepresents the systemic pessimist position and then refutes it.

A straw man is an argument that distorts an opposing position into an extreme version of itself and then argues against that extreme version.

“The straw man fallacy avoids the opponent’s actual argument and instead argues against an inaccurate caricature of it.”

Lindsay Kramer

Calling the two camps “pessimist” and “optimist” reveals the obvious bias of the straw men. No examples are given to support either position beyond a brief discussion of Raugei’s published disagreements with Siebert and Rees (2021) late in the podcast. The show is a tiresome series of generalities without evidence except that Nelder and Raugei say that it’s so.

Nelder’s 30-minute monologue after his conversation with Raugei is more interesting. He departs from the niceties of systemic pessimists and calls this “tribe” the doomers. He acknowledges that a renewable transition will involve economic contraction and that the ecological overshoot concerns of the doomers are real and valid. The doomers that he mentions include me.

Nelder asks, why don’t the doomers want the energy transition to succeed, and don’t believe that anything can be done about climate change?

“Doomers are caught up in a terrifying rapture. For them, doom and collapse are a near-term reality, something I think many of them expect to experience in their lifetimes…Some of them seem to have an associated savior complex.

“It’s this massive, pervasive all-encompassing hallucination. It’s closer to generalized anxiety disorder than scholarship…They’re looking for confirmation not information. Believing that everything is futile and that we’re heading for extinction is a handy way of simplifying a complex world….

“All their standard talking points about why the energy transition will never work—EROI, Jevon’s Paradox, resource depletion, the monetary system and debt, etc.—are not problems that will meaningfully impede the energy transition. They just aren’t.”

Since he cites me as a doomer, I have to say that I don’t believe many of the things that he says characterize my “tribe.” I don’t think that civilization is doomed or that we’re heading for extinction. The world is probably going to be poorer in the future than it is today but I doubt that living standards will be lower than those in my youth during the 1960s and 1970s. I do not feel anxious about the future nor do I think that a simpler world will solve our ecological crises.

EROI is an elegant concept that doesn’t have much practical application in my work. Jevon’s Paradox is interesting but is hardly a guiding principle for me. I routinely remind my colleagues that oil depletion is not a problem today nor do proved reserves suggest that it will be in this decade.

Unlike Nelder, I take the fragility of the financial system and debt quite seriously along with most credible economic analysts and banking executives. I see great uncertainty and even peril in the collapse of the current world order and emergence of a multi-polar world. I see big problems with the ever-increasing levels of complexity in our society, and the deterioration of social structures and governance.

None of this suggests, however, that I believe in an end of days as Nelder says that I do.

I strongly support the advance of renewable energy and favor a rapid unwinding of fossil fuel consumption. I strongly disagree with Nelder that renewables will provide cheap, abundant energy but agree that it will be cleaner.

For all his claims of energy scholarship, I imagine that his expertise is in electric power and not the full energy spectrum. The importance of electric power will increase but no credible projection anticipates that it will dominate energy supply over the next two-and-a-half decades.  Figure 1 shows the International Energy Agency’s expectation that electric power will increase from 20% in 2022 to 30% by 2050.

Electric power
Figure 1. Electric power accounted for 20% of world energy consumption (89 EJ) in 2022. It is expected to increase to 30% (159 EJ) by 2050. IEA Stated Policies Scenario. Source: IEA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

That inconvenient fact is hard to square with Nelder’s testimonial that “the energy transition is necessary and it’s working and it absolutely will work.”

Electric power cannot replace fossil energy for the production of cement, steel, plastic and fertilizer (Figure 2). Without these products, modern society will collapse. We have no idea how to create these pillars of civilization without fossil fuels. That doesn’t mean that I support fossil fuels. It’s just a fact. No amount of energy transition optimism can change that, at least not within the current window of climate-change urgency.

Figure 2. Four pillars of modern civilization can only be made using fossil fuels. 4.4 billion tons of cement, 1.95 billion tons of steel, 0.47 billion tons of plastic and 0.21 billion tons of fertilizer were produced in 2021. Source: Our World in Data, USGS, Statista & Labyrinth Consulting Services.

Nelder has created a straw man that supposedly describes my views as a leading doomer. It’s wrong. Then he refutes his imaginary creation and many of his listeners are convinced that I think that civilization is ending, humans will become extinct and there’s nothing that can be done.

He says,

“The doomers have put out a lot of shoddy scholarship. I’m sorry but it’s the truth…The doomer views on the energy system generally rely on very grossed-up analyses and absurd simplifying assumptions based on very old data and poor methodology and, by and large, it’s wrong.”

He and Raugei show no data nor mention any specific information to support their positions or their straw men. I’d call that pretty shoddy.

Nelder claims to have read everything that I have written. He characterizes the doomer—and, therefore—my approach  as follows:

“We have analyzed this evidence and come to the conclusion that civilization is doomed. They perceive that civilization is doomed so they proceed to round up evidence that supports that view.”

I have not and would never say anything like that because that’s not what my work indicates.

Nelder presents a binary choice—be a doomer or “work as hard as we can on the energy transition to do something about climate change.”

That’s an absurd and simplistic way of thinking.

If he has in fact read my work, he would know that I recommend a reduction in the consumption of all energy, not substituting renewable for fossil energy.

Figure 3 shows that energy consumption correlates well with carbon emissions, global heating, overshoot of planetary boundaries, world GDP and population. Tinkering with incremental volumes of renewable vs fossil energy consumption is unlikely to change the other patterns very much.

Nelder and I agree about the urgency of doing something about climate change. Unless he has a more credible projection for electricity use than the IEA, EIA, BP or any other credible organization, why wouldn’t he agree with me that reducing energy use is a good idea? How is my recommendation inconsistent with doing something about climate change? Why is it doomy?

Figure 3. Carbon emissions, heating, overshoot of planetary boundaries unlikely to decrease as long as energy consumption, world GDP and population continue to increase. Source: OWID, Global Footprint Network , Global Carbon Atlas, NOAA & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

It’s unlikely that society will voluntarily reduce energy consumption but I believe that nature will impose limits if we humans cannot impose them on ourselves. That doesn’t mean the end of civilization or extinction of the human species. It means that circumstances will force us to constrain our behavior.

I have provided dozens of articles and presentations with hundreds of charts like the three in this post that are all publicly available for free.

Nelder has presented opinion without any reference to this supporting data. He has referred to Siebert’s and Rees’ research, claims that their work has been debunked but does not describe or explain what that’s about or why it matters.

Nor does he offer data to support his claim of shoddy scholarship by any of the other doomers that he mentions (Richard Heinberg, James Howard Kunstler, Gail Tverburg, Art Berman, Vaclav Smil, Nate Hagens, Charlie Hall, Pedro Prieto, Dave Hughes, Simon Michaux, Raul Ilargi Meijer, Alice Friedeman, Tom Murphy, Dave Cohen, Colin Campbell).

Nelder has presented an opinion piece in his “Doomers vs. Transitionistas” episode. But as he says, “Opinion is not science.”

Art Berman is anything but your run-of-the-mill energy consultant. With a résumé boasting over 40 years as a petroleum geologist, he’s here to annihilate your preconceived notions and rearm you with unfiltered, data-backed takes on energy and its colossal role in the world's economic pulse. Learn more about Art here.

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4 Comments

  1. TommerL on January 8, 2024 at 1:50 am

    Love your work Art.

    I did a 2 year college diploma in renewable energy technology back in 2014-2016. Had high hopes but then learned the hard truth. You CANNOT build renewable ( actually REPLACEABLE ) energy WITH renewable energy. A big eye opener for me was a pilot project in the Canary Islands. There was an IDEAL setup. Volcanic bowl elevated high up a reservoir for storage and many wind turbines on the Atlantic. They was great promise and excitement on the project at the start saying they would be able to get rid of the diesel generators. I think in there best period they might have got up to 70 to 78 percent renewable production but if they did NOT have the diesel they would have been in trouble it is now hard to find the stats for current production / utilzation.

    I was a subscriber of the Energy Transition Show but I will not renew anymore.

    I think we are in for a big shock before the end of this decade. Oil and affordable oil is just too important to everything in our present society.

    Keep up the great work.

    @randompartyguy at X

    • Art Berman on January 8, 2024 at 4:44 am

      Thanks @randompartyguy at X.

      The biggest problem with renewable energy is that it is only good for electric power and that’s only 20% of energy consumption.

      Civilization collapses without steel, cement, plastic and fertilizer. We have no idea how to produce any of those at scale without fossil fuels. I’m not arguing in favor of fossil fuels at all. I’m simply pointing out the obvious flaw in the renewable argument.

      The solution is to use less energy. Period. That won’t happen so Nature will force less energy use on us. It will be rough.

      All the best,

      Art

  2. Deb T on December 29, 2023 at 5:52 pm

    Hi! I wonder what you think about the effects of the sun on earths climate vs humanity’s effect. Also, what about the idea that CO2 always rises before a cooling (ice age?) period. What do you think of the scientists who are predicting a mini ice age vs those predicting global boiling? These ideas aren’t really given air publicly. We only ever hear one argument. Would like to hear your thoughts in the above .

    • Art Berman on December 30, 2023 at 4:31 am

      Deb,

      I’ve written about all of those tropes to falsely convince ourselves that there is no environment-climate problem or, if there is, it’s not because of human activity.

      Of course, the sun is important and high-frequency periods of solar activity increase and decrease temperature. Those are short-term fluctuations against a long-term relative constant. It’s the composition of the earth’s atmosphere that keeps the planet’s climate stable.

      CO2 levels do not correlate precisely with temperature changes in the near term because the world ocean absorbs CO2 and may buffer the effects of rising temperature for years or even a decade. The correlation between rising CO2 levels and ice ages is not causal and is largely a trope.

      The ideas that you claim do not get public attention have been aired for decades and have been repeatedly discredited as false science.

      You are wrong that we hear only one argument. Maybe YOU only hear one argument but there are many versions of arguments among those who read and follow the climate/environment discussions carefully.

      You may use whatever forms of deception you need to satisfy your cognitive dissonance about climate change. I assure you that these have all been objectively addressed and discredited by non-partisan organizations with no stake in the debate.

      Take a look at this from CBS that specifically discusses your concern about the sun and ice ages:

      Myth #1: It’s the sun.

      Myth #6: In the 1970s scientists warned about a coming ice age. They were wrong. So why should we believe them now?

      There’s so much more out there. Just google “addressing climate myths.”

      I’m a scientist concerned by data. I’m not a partisan trying to persuade people about climate change or anything else. When people–like you in this case–approach me and want to know more, that’s a different story.

      Good luck in your search for the truth.

      Art

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