Shifting baselines, oil and ice

One of the more interesting environmental blogs I read is Shifting Baselines: a fisheries focused site that concentrates on how our changing expectations about life in the sea conceal from us the gradual emergence of long-term changes. A couple of other shifting baselines have caught my attention recently. They have to do with the long term trends of Arctic sea ice depletion and increasing oil scarcity. In both cases, exceptional shifts in the recent past have given way to what look like temporary reprieves.

Last summer’s Arctic sea ice minimum was a major record-breaker. It sparked serious thinking about whether the Arctic summer could be ice-free within a decade. This summer’s melt now seems likely to be less severe. Does this mean our level of worry should diminish, or is this simply oscillation around a worrying downward trend? It certainly gives ammunition to those who would like to deny that there is a trend at all. In the long run, it probably doesn’t matter enormously whether the Arctic melts in ten years or thirty. Where it may matter considerably is insofar as awareness of Arctic melting either prompts the emergence of strong climatic policies or provides fodder for those who want to continue to delay.

The same might be said about the recent slip in the price of gasoline. That being said, the nature of the causal factors at work there seems more straightforward. Prices do not seem to be falling because supply constraints have been lifted. Rather, they are falling because people are cutting back on usage: both as a result of general economic weakness and as a result of high energy prices themselves. High gasoline prices are something of a double-edged sword for environmentalists. On the one hand, they do help to encourage investments in efficiency. On the other, they encourage the development of truly filthy alternative sources of fuel (like the oil sands), encourage the development of false solutions (like corn ethanol), as well as making it more challenging politically to support sound environmental policies.

Whether it is ice or energy under consideration, the general lesson of shifting baselines is pertinent. We need to see past short term trends and our focus on how the recent past and the present compare, looking onwards to fundamental forces and long-term developments. Of course, when it comes to systems as massive and complex as the global climatic and economic systems, doing so is enormously difficult.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

9 thoughts on “Shifting baselines, oil and ice”

  1. Hypothesis testing and long range memory

    By gavin

    What is the actual hypothesis you are testing when you compare a model to an observation? It is not a simple as ‘is the model any good’ – though many casual readers might assume so. Instead, it is a test of a whole set of assumptions that went into building the model, the forces driving it, and the assumptions that went in to what is presented as the observations. A mismatch between them can arise from a mis-specification of any of these components and climate science is full of examples where reported mismatches ended up being due to problems in the observations or forcing functions rather than the models (ice age tropical ocean temperatures, the MSU records etc.). Conversely of course, there are clear cases where the models are wrong (the double ITCZ problem) and where the search for which assumptions in the model are responsible is ongoing.

  2. Up Like a Rocket, Down Like a Feather

    By Robert Rapier

    That’s a very common saying in the refining industry. When oil prices are rising, gasoline prices generally rise pretty quickly. I say generally because during the recent oil price run-up, gasoline didn’t keep pace because demand was softening. However, when oil prices fall, gasoline prices are usually slow to follow, hence the saying “Up like a rocket, down like a feather.”

    While I have heard this saying a number of times, I wasn’t quite sure 1). Whether it was broadly true; or 2). If true, why it is true. A recent article at Environmental Capital – a blog on energy and the environment at the Wall Street Journal – shines some light on the topic:

  3. Ice bet
    Arctic sea ice declines sharply in August
    Posted by Joseph Romm (Guest Contributor) at 6:35 PM on 12 Aug 2008

    The National Snow and Ice Data Center reported Monday that in the first 10 days of August, Arctic sea ice extent declined one million kilometers. Sea ice is now disappearing on a daily basis nearly 50 percent faster than it typically does this time of year.

  4. Energy Demand Destruction & Brittle Systems

    Posted by jeffvail on August 20, 2008 – 10:08am

    I’ve seen a number of comments, both at TheOilDrum and elsewhere, suggesting that the US is now less susceptible to supply disruptions because we have reduced our demand for oil by several hundred thousand barrels per day over the past year. In general, I get the sense that people think we can insulate ourselves from supply disruptions, from our dependence on potentially unreliable foreign sources of oil, by improving our efficiency and eliminating “unnecessary” oil consumption. In my opinion, this is backward. In this post, I will argue that, because the demand that is destroyed first in a free market is the demand that is easiest to eliminate, the resulting consumptive system is more inelastic, more brittle, and more susceptible to systemic shock from supply disruption. I will approach this argument by outlining what makes a system either resilient or brittle and why market-driven demand destruction creates a more brittle system. I will conclude with a few thoughts on how we can increase the resiliency of our energy-driven economy in a future environment of declining energy supplies.

  5. Arctic sea ice now second-lowest on record

    Sea ice extent has fallen below the 2005 minimum, previously the second-lowest extent recorded since the dawn of the satellite era. Will 2008 also break the standing record low, set in 2007? We will know in the next several weeks, when the melt season comes to a close. The bottom line, however, is that the strong negative trend in summertime ice extent characterizing the past decade continues.

    Overview of conditions

    With several weeks left in the melt season, sea ice extent dipped below the 2005 minimum to stand as the second-lowest in the satellite record. The 2005 minimum, at 5.32 million square kilometers (2.05 million square miles), held the record-low minimum until last year.

    Recent ice retreat primarily reflects melt in the Chukchi Sea off the Alaskan coast and the East Siberian Seas off the coast of eastern Russia.

    Update 9:15 am MT August 27:

    Arctic sea ice extent on August 26 was 5.26 million square kilometers (2.03 million square miles), a decline of 2.06 million square kilometers (795,000 square miles) since the beginning of the month. Extent is now within 430,000 square kilometers (166,000 square miles) of last year’s value on the same date and is 1.97 million square kilometers (760,000 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average.

  6. Major ice-shelf loss for Canada

    The ice shelves in Canada’s High Arctic have lost a colossal area this year, scientists report.

    The floating tongues of ice attached to Ellesmere Island, which have lasted for thousands of years, have seen almost a quarter of their cover break away.

    One of them, the 50 sq km (20 sq miles) Markham shelf, has completely broken off to become floating sea-ice.

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