book jacketI’ve just read Challenged by Carbon: The Oil Industry and Climate Change, which was written by Dr. Bryan Lovell, a former senior executive at British Petroleum.

Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, a former CEO of Royal Dutch/Shell, appears on the first page in a reviewers blurb and tells us this book is “an authoritative insider’s view”. 

It is.

BP and Shell rank #2 and #3 respectively on the list of the biggest non state sponsored oil companies in the world.  Lovell writes about how it came to be that the senior European oil executives backed Kyoto while Exxon-Mobil continued on with its denial campaign. In the process, he also shows us what he and his European counterparts believe about how dangerous climate change is.  I was astonished. 

Lovell is also a top flight geologist:  he is the incoming President of the Geological Society of London, the largest such society in Europe and the oldest in the world.  Moody-Stuart is not only a former Shell CEO:  he is a former President of the Geological Society. 

The first third of the book is a description of the science that caused these senior figures from the European oil industry and many others in the industry there, as opposed to their counterparts in the US, to understand that climate change is actually serious

I wasn’t that interested in the rest of the book.  It contains a detailed chronology of when and how their attitudes changed.  There is a transcript and analysis of a high level debate between the VP of Exxon-Mobil and the VP of BP, "the senior representatives on environmental matters of [the] two major organizations", moderated by Moody-Stuart when he was President of the Geological Society.  The rest of the book is Lovell’s vision of what role the global oil industry should play as civilization comes to grips with this issue. 

On the other hand, I was riveted at times by the discussion of how these people see the science.  Princeton’s Dr. Robert Socolow, the co-originator of the concept of “stabilization wedges”, appears along with Moody-Stuart on the first page of blurbs from reviewers.  He says:  “Lovell’s voice is a new one on the climate change stage….” 

It took a while for Lovell to get my attention.  He begins by explaining that the oil industry is “dominated” by geologists and engineers.  He tells us that such types dismissed climatology, because it is a science based solely or mainly on “computer based models of complicated natural systems”, which, Lovell tells us, are not well founded and cannot be reliable.   

(Zzzzz.   I was drifting off already and it was only page 8I thought: no one, not even the CEOs of the multinational oil giants will be able to obliterate the records of what was known and when it was discovered.) 

I turned the page.  Lovell was droning on:  “So what does constitute really solid evidence for a geologist?” 

I perked up.  Lovell:  “for the oil industry, a message that comes from the rocks comes from a trusted source.  Then I found myself looking at this chart on page 24:

















Suddenly I woke up.  What this chart appearing in this book at this point means: 

The oil execs understand and believe that the amount of carbon that is being moved into the atmosphere as civilization accelerates its use of fossil fuels is going in at such a rate that the only comparable event in Earth’s history is the PETM (Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum).  They believe a recurrence of this event is not only possible but likely.  They can’t face being held responsible by history.  The European senior oil execs, unlike their American counterparts, and perhaps only briefly, lost their nerve about the denial policy, backed Kyoto, and confronted the Americans.  The science described by Lovell is why BP started its "Beyond Petroleum" campaign.  The science hasn't changed.  Obviously, BP has.  

 The PETM is the most extreme event in the paleoclimate record for the last 65 million years.  There was the asteroid impact that got the dinosaurs, and then there was the PETM.  It was caused by a relatively sudden, massive, natural accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere, an event that might be explained by the clathrate gun hypothesis i.e. something puts a lot of carbon in the air, a big load of carbon comes out of the heating oceans, the methane in seabed clathrates is released, this methane decomposes into a fantastic amount of CO2 in the air, and boom, the planetary system heats up until tropical conditions prevail in the Arctic.  Whatever caused the “blast from the past”, it can be proved the CO2 was there, and it can be proved the planet was that warm.  We’re not talking about some minor fluctuation such as an interglacial followed by an ice age.  The temperature of the water at the bottom of the ocean increased by 4 - 6 degrees C.  

Lovell:  “The crucial message recorded in ice and rocks is that release of carbon to the atmosphere at the rate now practiced by us is taking us dangerously beyond the range of geologically recent periodic increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide recorded in the ice cores”.  - page 28

This is a stark, clear view of what “dangerous climate change” is, certified by the most senior of the people who have the most interest in denying that something like this is even remotely possible. 

Perhaps that short “crucial message” quote needs some explanation. 

Lovell left ice out of the book until this passage.  The execs can only pretend they denied climatology because as geologists they only trust "observational science [which] requires no computer- generated models to carry conviction", until someone brings up ice cores.  The oil execs actually denied all of paleoclimatology.    

 (E.g:  I once saw Digby McLaren, former petroleum geologist,, former Director of the Geological Survey of Canada, during the time when he was the President of the Royal Society of Canada, in intense debate at the Changing Atmosphere conference in Toronto.  Behind doors closed to all but accredited delegates, a computer modeler implied climate change might not be that serious.  McLaren stared at him: “what about the Vostok Core?”  The man was stopped in his tracks.  This was in 1988.) 

 Lovell brings up ice at this point because he needed to show the difference between the big dog problem he sees that commiting the planetary system to anything like the PETM is compared to the relatively minor variations in planetary temperature that ice cores show.  All the ice cores show is that CO2 was the big thermostat driving the planetary system into and out of the ice ages.  Piddly little things on that scale, i.e. miniscule changes like where the planetary system went from almost all of Canada obliterated under one mile thick of ice one day to all this ice just disappears, weren’t going to and did not slow down these senior oil execs.  Lovell needed to bring up the ice cores to explain that what finally got to the European oil men was the prospect of being held responsible for something far worse.

I interject here a passage from page 5:  “Few of us involved in exploration and production in recent years can afford to be sanctimonious about the doubt promoted by sections of our industry.…”   Moving right along: 

Lovell asks:  “could we [civilization] survive even these smaller periodic variations now [ice age/interglacials] … without desolation?  Still more daunting, could we cope with something episodic and huge, on the scale of a 55 Ma warming event [PETM]?  - page 28

A repeat of anything like the PETM is a big nightmare.  Of course it is true that Hansen has a nightmare that is worse. That’s when the oceans boil away and Earth never has life again.  Hansen says the Sun is stronger now, that’s what a star of its size does as it ages, we’re moving the carbon in faster, and when the Earth system finally has to equilibrate to the total amount of carbon that ends up in the atmosphere, there may be more power forcing the system relatively than whatever the forcing was at the PETM peak.  There’s a lot of “ifs” in his theory.  He says if we burn all the natural gas, all the oil, oil sand, oil shale, and coal, it’s a “dead certainty”. 

But Lovell writes as if this one step back from Hansen’s ultimate nightmare possibility is what the rocks are telling the senior petroleum industry executives in a way they can't possibly continue to deny.  They believe the use of their products is going to cause this. 

Challenged by Carbon’s Amazon sales rank makes it their 780,620th most popular book.  People are dumping their used copies of it at Amazon for $2.18, plus shipping.  Act now, before popular demand makes copies impossible to obtain.  But you don't have to forego next month's mortgage payment or cash in Junior's College Fund to read Lovell himself.   Lovell wrote a Sunday Times article.  The Geological Society has a description of a Lovell lecture here.  The Geological Society also published a three part article by Lovell in their journal Geoscientist, in three successive issues, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3   All are free to view. 

Some US Republicans, flushed with electoral victory, have announced that a bigger priority for them than doing anything corporate America has to worry about is to conduct an Inquisition aimed at climate scientists.  My wife interrupted me as I twas telling her this to exclaim that something like this was not possible in this country she grew up in. I am writing this in America.