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« Biofuelishness | Main | A classic retold »

Jeremy Grantham gets it wrong

Nature magazine has continued to scrape out the green slime at the bottom of the enviro journalism barrel, giving Jeremy Grantham space to push the apocalyptic visions of the future that no doubt help his share portfolios along quite nicely: this kind of thing for example:

Then there is the impending shortage of two fertilizers: phosphorus (phosphate) and potassium (potash). These two elements cannot be made, cannot be substituted, are necessary to grow all life forms, and are mined and depleted. It’s a scary set of statements. Former Soviet states and Canada have more than 70% of the potash. Morocco has 85% of all high-grade phosphates. It is the most important quasi-monopoly in economic history.

Fortunately, Tim Worstall is on the case.

Oh dearie me, oh my. This is just a horrible mistake by Jeremy Grantham here. I agree that he’s a vastly better investor than I am, no doubt hugely more intelligent as well. But this really is a basic, schoolboy error.

Opinion among experts differs as to whether Worstall has got it quite right. Richard Tol, for example reckons this is an undergraduate error rather than a schoolboy one. But I think it is fair to say that there is a consensus that Grantham is talking out of his hat. It's hard not to recall Carl Wunsch's remarks about the kind of thing that gets published in Nature these days.

Readers will unsurprised to hear that Grantham's mouthpiece Bob Ward has been yapping furiously in response. It must be a thankless task having to defend your boss when he is talking nonsense.

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Reader Comments (55)

Why has Ward been rapping furiously? Oh, I see.

Nov 17, 2012 at 10:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

First line on the page: "Nature magazine has continued to scape out the green slime..."

Bishop: typo or a new word for me, "scape"?

[Meant to be "scrape", now corrected. Thanks. BH}

Nov 17, 2012 at 10:15 AM | Unregistered CommenterRoger Carr

It's difficult to envisage how we could run out of any stable element. There must be gazillions of tons of most elements, just in the earth's crust.

Nov 17, 2012 at 10:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Bratby

Well I am sure we can grow sufficient bananas & develop some method of extracting the potassium, unless we're all csared of the radiation with a half-life of billions of years (1.23?). It's radiating properties are very very low, & I am yet to hear of millions of deaths & cancers resulting from eating bananas!

Nov 17, 2012 at 10:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlan the Brit

Alan: Have you never heard of the "banana equivalent dose (BED)"? It'll scare the life out of you and you'll never touch a banana again!

Nov 17, 2012 at 10:19 AM | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Bratby

Interesting article. I found a similar piece by Worstall in Forbes about helium. Having seen a claim in the Daily Mail the other day that we will run out of helium in 25 years and can't make any more. It didn't sound right somehow....

Nov 17, 2012 at 10:32 AM | Unregistered CommenterMike Fowle

There are many more jewels in Grantham’s article that Worstall doesn’t deal with.

I have yet to meet a climate scientist who does not believe that global warming is a worse problem than they thought a few years ago...
James Hansen of NASA has screamed warnings for 30 years. Although at first he was dismissed as a madman, almost all his early predictions, disturbingly, have proved conservative in relation to what has actually happened....
Overstatement may generally be dangerous in science (it certainly is for careers) but for climate change, uniquely, understatement is even riskier and therefore, arguably, unethical.
As clear a statement as you could wish of the environmentalist’s idea of ethics.

Nov 17, 2012 at 10:33 AM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

Mike Fowle opines: "we will run out of helium in 25 years and can't make any more. It didn't sound right somehow...."

Why not, Mike? We've generally run out of sense, and I thought that was improbable.

Nov 17, 2012 at 10:36 AM | Unregistered CommenterRoger Carr

At the current pace of human knowledge we are dangerously close to running out of things to scare people with. Children just aren't going to know what irrational fear is :-)

Nov 17, 2012 at 10:37 AM | Unregistered Commenterssat

Breaking news: IPCC are not invited to next Climate Talks in Doha (just days away) and a month and a half till the Kyoto Commitment ends.

Nov 17, 2012 at 10:48 AM | Registered CommenterMikeHaseler

"These two elements cannot be made ..."

Unlike all the others?

It is true that the global easily get-at-able sources are diminishing, and at home the forces of obstruction are at work (North York Moors National Park - Sirius Minerals - Whitby). As fresh sources dwindle or become hideously costly to extract the economics of P&K recovery from waste will become more acceptable. There will of course be an effect on food prices.

Nov 17, 2012 at 10:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterFilbert Cobb

I was at a farming conference on Tuesday, where the excellent Prof Philip Stott did his usual clinical demolition of CAGW. The new DG of the National Farmers Union sat and looked at his shoes somewhat unconfortably - the NFU is a fully paid-up cheerleader for it. The head of the NFU could be found berating us sceptics in the members' magazine recently, saying that CAGW is a certainty because Munich Re says so. Ho hum.

Anyway, Stott was full of the bright future for farming, the sheer immorality of growing ANYTHING but food on food-growing land, but his only caveat was the prospects for a phosphate shortage. He said it was serious. And I confess I tend to believe Stottie. And I'm a farmer who needs lots of phosphate on my clay land.

Nov 17, 2012 at 10:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterCharlie Flindt

When I was at school in the '60's, this would have been a schoolboy error. If it is now an undergraduate error, then that says something significant.

When I did O level maths, we did logs, trigonometry and calculus; all vital to applying maths to the real world. I'm told these are now AS level.

Nov 17, 2012 at 10:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterAllan M

Mike Haseler’s breaking news about the Bad Fairy not being invited to the ball connects nicely with the Nature article, in which Grantham worries that food prices are going to rise, (because, well, basically, because more people can afford to eat and not starve).
The Gulf Times article linked by Mike has this:

Dr Pachauri said a reduction of up to 50% in crop output could happen in rain fed areas by 2020.
“Climate change in mountain regions has a big impact on agriculture as mountains are the sources for over 50% of the globe’s rivers.
“This also affects the populated lowland regions that depend on mountain resources for domestic, agricultural, energy and industrial supply.”
Did you follow that? If the rain stops falling on the mountains, it will no longer flow downhill onto the plains. And then where will we be? given that roughly 100% of our crops grow in one or the other location.
Dr Pachauri has obviously been taking ethical science lessons from Grantham.

Nov 17, 2012 at 11:08 AM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

Interesting. It strikes me that some of Ward's utterances (e.g. see must have been an embarassment for Grantham, and now the boss's utterances must be an embarassment for Ward. Please let there be some positive feedback mechanism in there somewhere that will push each of them to more and more excesses and hyperbole, with each cycle driven by some subconscious need to make the last one look rational in comparison. The main driving force in this case is possibly vanity. But the driving force they want to exploit in their audiences is fear first and second the prospect of salvation through obedience to their dictates. Millenial cults provide illustrations of this, as do even more destructive totalitarian regimes of modern times.

The eco-cult is just a cult so far, but I think it has ambitions to be a regime. It has its prophets such as Al Gore and James Hansen. And while they await a suitably charismatic messiah figure to emerge, they are already pointing to what we must do for our salvation. Stop burning coal. Leave most of the oil in the ground ('most' not 'all' - these guys are not so dumb - they do need the oil for their jets, their cars, their yachts, and their central heating - see for example Stop eating meat. Build windfarms. Walk to work. Turn off lights. Don't leave your tv on standby Etc etc in a flurry of distractions that gives us all something to do. Meanwhile, others inch us towards dissing democracy itself - see this recent example:

As creatures who evolved amidst wild animals keen to have us for their lunch, we are readily scared into doing things without much reflection. When you hear the shout of 'fire!' in the crowded theatre, you are liable to stand up and make your way quickly to an exit. That helped save some of your ancestors when somebody shouted 'big beast comes!' as they sat by their cave. In recent years a veritable army of shouters has been writing articles, plotting programmes and films, lobbying the media/politicians, publishing speculations and computer model outputs as if they were evidence, giving scary talks in schools and church halls and conferences, and of course organising demonstrations and disruptions. They all seem to feed off each other, upping the odds, forgetting the missed deadlines for doom, inventing new ones - not too far, not too near. Quite a spectacle! Not a very edifying one for anyone who has chosen to do some reflection, and take a harder look at the arguments and the data.

Nov 17, 2012 at 11:19 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Shade

As I state in my comments at Nature, I am more appaled at Grantham's sheer hyprocicy. He is heavily invested in companies like Exxon, Suncor, CNRL and Nexen. These companies in turn are heavily invested in the Keystone XL pipeline, as they will need it to flow the oil from the Athabasca field they invested billions of dollars in.

So, from one side of his mouth, he tells scientists to rise up and protest the pipeline. On the other side he is telling the markets that he thinks the pipeline is a good investment.

Nov 17, 2012 at 11:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterLes Johnson

"I found a similar piece by Worstall in Forbes about helium. Having seen a claim in the Daily Mail the other day that we will run out of helium in 25 years and can't make any more. It didn't sound right somehow...."

There's two things here about helium.

The first is that we generally only bother to collect it from a very small number of natural gas fields. There are many more that we *could* collect it from if we wished. The cries that we run out in 25 years are ignoring that we can expend our collection activities.

The second is the almost absurd point that actually helium is a renewable resource. Which, however ridiculous it sounds, it actually is. For, while I know it's an element, it is constantly being generated here on Earth. It's one of the daughter products of the radioactive decay of uranium. Of which there's an awful lot in the rocks out there. And that's how it gets into the natural gas reservoirs. U decays, He gets produced, the He migrates through the rocks just as the CH4 does and concentrates in the same places.

It's true that this rate of production is lower than our current usage rate. But He is, weirdly, one of the few elements constantly being produced anew on Earth.

Nov 17, 2012 at 11:34 AM | Unregistered CommenterTim Worstall
Nov 17, 2012 at 11:36 AM | Unregistered Commenterssat

The half life of 40K is 1.248 Ba which keeps the planetary inner heat going fueling plate tectonics. Be thankful for bananas.

Nov 17, 2012 at 11:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

seems dear Jeremy is not the only one to get things wrong

this made the front page of the Telegraph

Green Deal anyone? Not today thanks, I live in the real world.

Nov 17, 2012 at 12:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterDolphinhead

Poor Jeremy Grantham. He has a day job which keeps him busy, and apparently he simply believes alarmist views fed to him by alarmists he supports with his considerable fortune. The folks at the Grantham institutes are not likely to tell him about natural variability, and the atmosphere refusing to warm as fast as the models predicted - they need his money.

In contrast, James Lovelock, once an uber-alarmist, when confronted by inconvenient facts, changed his mind. In 2006 he had predicted that billions of people would die from global warming by the end of the century, but in a MSNBC interview this year he admitted he was wrong. He said that 20 years ago they thought they understood the climate, but they didn't. He said he had been an alarmist, like Al Gore.

Nov 17, 2012 at 12:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon B

When I did O level maths, we did logs, trigonometry and calculus; all vital to applying maths to the real world. I'm told these are now AS level.

Nov 17, 2012 at 10:59 AM | Allan M


By chance, a few months back, I got hold of a copy of my 1960s 'O' level Maths textbook - Harwood & Clarke. I showed this to the very bright son of friends, studying Physics at Durham; he said that much of the book was what he studied in his second year Maths A level studies.

So that's two years "degradation" in 40 year, compounded by grotesque grade inflation. No wonder we are a dumbed down country producing illiterates by the wagon load.

Nov 17, 2012 at 1:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Poynton

I still remember my maths books were by Clement V Durell. He has a wikipedia entry now, but then one knew nothing about him and would not expect ever to find out. I think calculus was A level territory though, even then.

Nov 17, 2012 at 1:32 PM | Registered Commenterrhoda

It is an ever-present product of the narcissistic personality that everything they encounter must be the best, or the worst, the biggest and most scary: "the most important quasi-monopoly in economic history" or ''the greatest moral challenge of our time''.

It's simply an expression of personal vanity that any event at which they are present must by definition be super-important, because they feel themselves to be super-important

It has no connection to what is actually happening in the real world.

Nov 17, 2012 at 1:36 PM | Registered Commenterrickbradford

Don B - Was one of the most influential items in making James Lovelock change his mind about 'green politics' not an enormous gas bill for heating his cottage?

Nov 17, 2012 at 1:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad

Nov 17, 2012 at 11:48 AM | John Marshall

The heat produced by K-40 is vital for P availability because it helps to drive plate tectonic processes.

When phosphates are lost from farmland they end up in rivers and the sea. Once in a marine environment phosphates are removed as seabed deposits. On the geological timescale the P is recycled via plate tectonics in the rock cycle and made available on easily accessible deposits on land (which we are using up rapidly).

When plate tectonic processes slow down the re-supply of P will stop permanently. Ultimately we depend on plate tectonics and life will slowly die out as minerals are no longer returned to the surface. It is P that will be affected first.

(It won't happen next Thursday but it will happen.)

Nov 17, 2012 at 2:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Bates

Geoffrey Lean makes a bid for the prestigious "Cretin of the Year" award

Nov 17, 2012 at 2:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterDolphinhead

Jeremy Poynton / rhoda
I can certainly confirm that we did trig and logs and calculus for O-Level, and that would be 1957 (if the rest of my maths is still working!).

Nov 17, 2012 at 4:45 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Does anyone know anthing about this development? Is it likely to become a big deal?

A new Dutch book written by ‘the climate-lawyer’ Roger H.J. Cox has sparked a lawsuit being filed against the Dutch government, claiming that the Netherlands is under a legal obligation to reduce its CO2 emissions by as much as 40% by 2020 and up to 95% by 2050.

The book provided not only the impetus but a blueprint for such lawsuits, and a call for similar suits to be levied against many other Western nations.

The book is backed by world-renowned American climate scientist James Hansen, who was the first to receive an English translation of the work at the book’s launch in The Hague.

Nov 17, 2012 at 4:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterRon C.

The disease is called apoctophilia. An excessive love of disaster scenarios.


Nov 17, 2012 at 4:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterTony R.

Never ever underestimate a fella like Jeremy Grantham,

He is a slick, skilled and rapacious salesman and a very dangerous man, his Global Warming institute peddles lies and mendacious misdirection. All of which keep many shills in our government in the money and in the dark - there will be no victory until he and his investment banker mates are marginalised and exposed as the duplicitous con artists they undoubtedly are.

The venal manipulation and manoeurvring behind the scenes by men like Grantham singles them out, as a very real threat to the well being of the British people and economy. Furthermore, as the world is sliding into another significant cooling period - spieling lies and untruths about a warming planet will turn out to be not only damaging but of a mortal concern for very many vulnerable people.

Nov 17, 2012 at 5:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

MikeJ I did trig, logs & calculus for maths O level in 1955

Nov 17, 2012 at 5:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterTom Mills

1966 O Level maths. For those leaving after O's, statistics was included. For those going on to A's, calculus replaced statistics. Different 'Board' for each so schools chose the one that fitted best with their expectations for their pupils.

Nov 17, 2012 at 5:55 PM | Unregistered Commenterssat

I think calculus was A level territory though, even then.

Nov 17, 2012 at 1:32 PM | rhoda

I took calculus in '62, trig in '58. Not even GSE o levels then. I took College of Precepters before Os.

Nov 17, 2012 at 6:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterStephen Richards

Geoffrey Lean makes a bid...

And getting well thumped in the comments

Nov 17, 2012 at 6:26 PM | Unregistered Commenterdcardno

According to the latest USGS report Phosphate reserves are 71000 billion tonnes and current consumption is 191 billion tonnes per year. Reserves should therefore last for several centuries.

However, these are just the reserves, which by definition "could be economically extracted or produced at the time of determination."

World resources, this are currently known deposits that may or may not be economically produced with current prices are over 300 billion tonnes.

On top of that has to be added, that these are only the known deposits. Exploration would increase reserves and resources, as Phosphorus comprises 0.1% by mass of the average rock and is hence abundant in the earths crust.

Nov 17, 2012 at 6:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterManfred

"trig and logs and calculus for O-Level"

Which I did in 1968. I also recall being taught equations 'both the simple and quadratical' when I was 11. Private school, admittedly, but a normal class.

Nov 17, 2012 at 6:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

"These two elements cannot be made ..."

Or destroyed. We've got just as much as we started with, which also applies to carbon!

Nov 17, 2012 at 6:55 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

replace billion with million in my posting above

Nov 17, 2012 at 6:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterManfred


World consumption: 191 million tonnes
Reserves (known deposits economical at current prices): 71000 million tonnes
Resources (known deposits): >300000 million tonnes
Phosphate in earths crust (0.1% of weight of earths crust, weight of earths crust = 1.9x10^22 kg):
1.91 x 10^10 million tonnes

At current consumption rate and without recycling lasting for:
Reserves: 371 years
Resources: >1570 years
Earths crust phosphor: 100 million years

Nov 17, 2012 at 7:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterManfred

Maths O levels included trig, logs, calculus AND stats in 1981 as far as I can recall, although we only got an O level back then for something called 'additional maths' - which was the same stuff again except much harder and compressed into one year. Probably IIii Honours these days - and a mere 'ordinary' level back in the 60s...

Nov 17, 2012 at 7:44 PM | Registered CommenterSayNoToFearmongers

Worstall is right. There is unending nonsense on finite resources by misunderstanding figures on economically recoverable proven reserves. The latter are linked to the commodity market price and extraction costs, including fiscal and contractual burdens, and assessed primarily for corporate property valuations and year-end audited book reserves purposes. There always has been and always will be chronic confusion between resources and reserves. I have had a lifetime fighting it as a geologist, even within industry itself let alone in literature which should know better and the media which never will.

As for phosphate and potash running out, thats hysterical. Quite apart from the mineral deposits, phosphates are in bones, why schools used to provide free cow's milk, and why gardeners use bone meal. And potash (the clue's in the name) can be got from burning wood.

There are mineral phosphate nodules ad infinitum on the ocean beds see for instance

And even Bob Ward (didnt he do some geology?) must have heard of the Zechstein evaporites blanketing the Southern North Sea. Its even mined for the last 30 years at Boulby in NE Yorkshire.

'The UK is a net exporter of potassium chloride, the main potassium fertilizer material. Official figures for exports of potassium chloride have been witheld for a number of years for commercial reasons..'

see p3 of the following British Geological Survey report on potash ( a copy locked pdf file, unfortunately)

Nov 17, 2012 at 8:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterPharos

I can certainly confirm that we did trig and logs and calculus for O-Level, and that would be 1957 (if the rest of my maths is still working!).

For goodness sake! We did logs early back then because we had to -- we had no calculators. It was simple logs though, which there is absolutely no need for now (who would multiply 6345 by 2355 using logs today?). Only a moron would introduce logs for no purpose.

So logs are introduced later now, because they are only needed for theoretical purposes, generally solving exponential equations. Nothing at all to do with "dumbing down".

The later introduction of calculus is debatable. I certainly did not do calculus for School Cert (which was the NZ equivalent of O levels), and the amount of calculus in the modern NZ curriculum at Year 12 (lower 6th) far exceeds what I did in the same year back in 1980.

I know that while I was taught solving quadratics earlier than kids are today, there was barely a student in the class who understood what they were doing. Teaching 12 year-olds quadratics isn't clever or useful, it's a complete waste of everyone's time. That the clever ones can parrot a formula is no proof of anything.

This is one of the bugbears of education. People think that "I learned that at Year X when I was as school" means that it is the only correct way to learn. It isn't. Sometimes what you did in your day has been shown to be wrong. Progress does actually mean changing things. What you did in your day is not proof of anything at all.

This discussion is rather long on "it's worse than we thought" type thinking, led by emotion, and utterly short on any evidence.

Nov 17, 2012 at 10:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterMooloo

Meanwhile in Australia, several proposed phosphate mine developments are being cancelled or deferred as prices and economic conditions turn down. More than a dozen potential developments exist in the Central Australia - northern Auistralian region, some close to existing infrastructure and ports.

Running out? Not in this part of the world.

Nov 17, 2012 at 11:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterDaveR

from the gulf times link above Nov 17, 2012 at 10:48 AM | MikeHaseler

Dr Rajendra K Pachauri has said “Heat waves are going to be increased across the world and will occur once in two years instead of the current pattern of once in 20 years."
(i assume it was him, quoting somebody from IPCC ???) or this -

i especialy liked this quote from the article -

"The findings, especially the specific numbers attached to some extreme events, represent an increased effort by scientists to respond to a public clamor for information about what is happening to the earth’s climate."

Nov 17, 2012 at 11:18 PM | Unregistered Commenterdougieh

This is just a slight variation on the Malthusian fallacy. And it occurs for the same reason - people who do not know how the world really works learn a bare minimum of mathematics and modeling so as to scare themselves without bothering to learn whether the model is really valid. Add "progressive" tendencies, and you get predictions of armagedon(sp?) and an overwhelming need to control everyone (else).

Nov 17, 2012 at 11:50 PM | Unregistered Commenterrxc

Idly I just now looked at the CRC Handbook, which records that sea water contains 380 ppm of potassium and 0.07 ppm phosphorus.

I didn't bother to work out how much this comes to in tonnes, but I assure you its rather a lot.

Why is it that guys like this must preach 'woe all is rooned' when in less than ten seconds I can find that the claim is pure 24 carat rubbish.

Nov 18, 2012 at 3:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterBruce of Newcastle

Grantham is 40 years late for "Club of Rome" hysteria. They agonized about the same nonsense there and got it wrong in "Limits to Growth" nonsense. Potash deposits are so plentiful that miners are waiting in line to try and develop the next one - and that doesn't take into account the price drop in the past year due to over supply. And it doesn't account for those potash basins that are known but not yet exploited.
Surely Grantham can get better factual accuracy? oh I forgot - that doesn't serve his purpose does it.

Nov 18, 2012 at 4:19 AM | Unregistered Commentermikegeo

Here is a link to some 1960 "O" level papers -

Nov 18, 2012 at 6:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterDavid Jones

Mooloo, I also went through the New Zealand school system, but I took School Cert maths in 1968, the last year of "traditional" maths. New Maths was introduced in 1969, and calculus was removed from 5th form level. Mind you, the calculas involed at School Cert level was treally no more than derivation by first principals, and calculation areas under a simple fuction.

Even then, we were told that SC was not quite at the GCE ‘O’ Level, while University Entrance was the equivilent of GCE ‘A’ Level. Those who really expected to go onto Uni generally did an additional year for Bursary or Scholrship. However this work was usually just repeated in first year Uni work anyway.

Nov 18, 2012 at 6:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterJantar

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