Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Carbon bubble: Pop vs. deflate, doom vs. hope

Pete Sinclair has a good roundup of some articles about the general topic of a “carbon bubble”, which I highly recommend: Carbon Bubble anyone? “The Scientific Trajectory is Clearly in Conflict”

Just to make sure we’re all on the same virtual page, I asked Google to define bubble:

1. a thin sphere of liquid enclosing air or another gas.

2. used to refer to a good or fortunate situation that is isolated from reality or unlikely to last.

When talking about a carbon bubble in the context of definition 2, that second “or” should definitely be inclusive: Our situation is both isolated from reality and unlikely (to put it mildly) to last. The question is: How long will it last and how quickly will modern civilization divest from carbon. In more basic terms, will the bubble deflate or pop?

Before the climate change activists start forming an angry/celebratory mob, complete with pitchforks, torches, and posters featuring the Koch brothers Photoshopped to look like demons, I want to point out that we’re in a very precarious position regarding divestment. While climate activists might want to fantasize about a neck-snappingly swift divestment that leaves the Kochs and their fellow fossil fuelers bankrupt, that would be a very bad thing for the economy and therefore the welfare of many millions, perhaps billions, of people. The problem, of course, is that the big coal, oil, and natural gas companies are so big, and their stock is so pervasive in investment portfolios, from individuals to pension funds and various other institutional holdings, that a swift divestment would trigger chaos in the economy. A deep recession, by which I mean one much worse than the one caused by the housing bubble bursting, or even a depression, doesn’t help anyone.

Yet, I have to ask: If we de-carbonize at anywhere near the rate that science says we must to avoid Climate Armageddon, then doesn’t that amount to exactly the same kind of too-swift-for-our-own-good economic transition? I can’t see how it could be avoided. Once investors saw that we were (finally!) serious about kicking our carbon habit, we’d be in the mother of all economic tipping points, the modern day equivalent of a bank run. Except the impacts of this one would not be confined to those with deposits in a particular bank; it would cut across the entire economy in the form of lost investments by individuals (including a lot of 401K money), university endowments, pension funds, etc.

So perhaps we should just sit back, stop all this divestment chatter, and let the “free market” do its thing, right? Well, no. People who worship the “free market” (for which, read: econo-unicorn) don’t realize that in the case of climate change and its long time lags, waiting to do something until the market forces our (visible) hand is the absolute worst possible approach. It results in higher costs and more human pain simply because so much of the impact of climate change will happen even after the long-sought-after and fantasized-about day when we finally get serious about reducing our global carbon emissions. Far better would be to look at the situation intelligently and respond (dare I say it) proactively and prevent the worst of those impacts and their human suffering and monetary expense from ever happening.

So where does that leave us? Am I saying that we have no choice but to intentionally pop the carbon bubble, even at the price of causing economic chaos, simply because that would still be a significantly lesser risk to humanity than waiting for the climate impacts to become so painful that we finally start to decarbonize with appropriate zeal? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. And it’s such a serious situation that I support the rapid decarbonization of both our energy supply (mitigation) and our investments (divestment).

I’m convinced that the people at the highest levels of various governments and institutions are looking at exactly this tradeoff, and it scares them more than they’ll ever admit. None of them want to be known in the history books for triggering a worldwide depression, even though they know it’s the best alternative.[1]

It really is this simple: The mess we’ve created is deeply and truly awful. The sooner we act like responsible adults and address reality and ignore the comfortable fantasies we prefer to tell ourselves, the better it will be for us and our kids and everyone to follow.

Related recent articles:

[1] Once more, a medical analogy, this time from personal experience: Some years back I developed a bad infection in one of my fingers. It was spreading and traveling up the afflicted digit and was about to venture forth into my hand. Since over-the-counter medications weren’t doing the trick, I went to a doctor who told me that this was a serious situation and that he had to “squeeze out” the infection and then put me on antibiotics. He said the squeezing part would hurt quite a bit, and while I believed him, I was sure he was overplaying it a bit just so I couldn’t accuse him afterward of not giving me a fair warning. I said do it. He turned his back to me, held my arm tightly under his, and squeezed the infection. I saw stars, had conversations with dead relatives, and generally swore to never, ever doubt a doctor when he or she told me in such serious tones that “something would hurt.” Of course, squeezing out the infection was the right thing to do, and in a week or so it plus the meds had fixed my problem. But during the squeezing process, which I estimate took 7 or 8 months, based on the unpleasantness of the experience, the good doctor was not exactly my favorite human being on the planet. In the case of climate change and decarbonization, no politician wants to be the doctor who causes necessary pain, only to have the benefits accrue to someone else years down the road. So they let the infection continue to spread and make token efforts to slow it with topical ointments that do nothing except give us false hope and waste our ever-so-precious time.

4 comments to Carbon bubble: Pop vs. deflate, doom vs. hope

  • mt

    This is why they hire economists with crazily skewed models to tell them that if we slow the pace of doom down slightly we will be correctly balancing the near term and the long term.

  • DC

    It won’t be possible to pop the carbon bubble because Fossil Fuels are in high demand. Everybody needs and wants energy. Another approach is needed.

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    Lou – I’ve two problems with the widely promoted notion of a carbon bubble, which I’m hoping you’ll address as nobody else will.

    First, the pace of change. If Obama were to end the brinkmanship of inaction with China and agree a commensurate treaty in Paris in 2015, that ended anthro GHGs by 2050, (BIG IF) that would come into operation in 2020 and cut an average of 3.3% off the 2020 output each year.
    From where we stand, even with such stringency, investors are looking at incremental changes starting at worst in seven years time. So why should that sudenly affect their present wish to own profitable fossil energy shares ?

    Second, with share prices are set by perceptions of profitability, not volume of goods traded, and given the near flat global oil production since 2005 alongside booming industry profits, why should investors assume that a gradual decline of goods sold will necessarily mean a decline of profitability on which expectations of share values are based ? If energy corporations maintain their campaign of share buy-backs (ably assisted by Bill McK et al) at what point does investors have reason to take fright ?



  • Lou, the analogy of your infected finger and the doctor’s responsible-and-unpopular role in the situation is spot on. Thank you!