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The Prince and the Peak

England's Prince Charles convened and keynoted a dialogue in San Francisco on "Peak Oil, Climate Change, and Business Action" on Nov. 7. The University of Cambridge Programme for Industry organized the event and invited 300 high-level guests from corporations, government, and non-profit groups to attend.

"We simply can't go on as we are," Prince Charles said to the select audience, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. He cited statistics and stories about global warming and oil depletion, contending, "Somehow we have to find the courage to reassert the once commonplace belief that human beings have a duty to act as the stewards of creation."

Prince Charles later added, "We have to accept that globalization comes at an alarming price for the future. That price may be paid in terms of displaced rural communities and the destruction of social and cultural systems built up over many centuries." He concluded his talk by encouraging "the United States (to) use its power and influence to help create a sense of purpose around environmental stewardship."

The Prince's Business and Environment Programme, set up in l994, is designed to challenge business leaders around the globe to understand and engage in environmental and social issues. His speech on oil and climate issues was the only major talk he gave on the final leg of his week-long US visit. The Prince and his new wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, have been well-received at both formal and informal gatherings during their US visit.

The dialogue was part of The Prince's launch of his Business and the Environment Programme on the West Coast. Prince Charles has been farming organically since 1985 and visited organic farms and the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley during his time in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he has been warming received. Renowned chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse restaurant was his host earlier in the day.

Ann Hancock of Sonoma County's Climate Protection Campaign, one of the guests at the dialogue, commented as follows to Energy Bulletin: "Prince Charles talked about all parts of sustainability. He said that the nature of growth needs further examination and that we need to accept natural limits in a resource-constrained world. It was gratifying to see someone of the celebrity of Prince Charles talk about these issues. The meat of the event was Charles saying that we need to change the way we do things."

"Peaking of World Oil Production: We Must Prepare Now" entitled author Richard Heinberg's presentation to open the day's dialogue. Heinberg's books include The Party's Over : Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies and Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World.

"The significance of the gathering was mainly who was there and the fact that Peak Oil was number one on the agenda," Heinberg said in an interview with Energy Bulletin. Most of the guests were members of major corporations (Ford, Shell, Dow Chemical, Daimler Chrysler, Cisco, Agilent), mayors (San Francisco, Oakland) and other government representatives (NASA, CalEPA), banks, utilities (Pacific Gas and Electric, Calpine) and universities, as well as a few environmentalists. Most were major members of the financial elite or their representatives."

Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope was on the panel that responded to the presentations by Heinberg and Prince Charles. In his blog after the event he noted, "Charles's speech was quite impressive." Pope described the panel as representatives of "two utility companies, the State of California, the biggest pension fund in the country, and representatives of the high tech industry." Pope reported that on the panel "no one thought that peak oil or global warming were myths or anything other than profoundly serious challenges. Unanimously, the panel urged that we should stop subsidizing fossil fuels and get the prices right."

In an email after the day Heinberg reflected, "The Prince's lecture was an excellent sermon on ecological economics. He used phrases like 'natural limits in resources' and 'rapidly rising oil prices.' To me, the greatest significance of the occasion was that this was a very high-profile event with peak oil at the top of the bill."

"Today petroleum provides 97% of our transportation fuel, and is also a feedstock for chemicals and plastics," Hienberg said in his speech. "It is no exaggeration to say that we live in a world that runs on oil. However, oil is a finite resource. Therefore the peaking and decline of world oil production are inevitable events-and on that there is scarcely any debate; only the timing is uncertain. Forecast dates for the peak range from this year to 2035."

"The question immediately arises," Heinberg added, "Will alternative sources be able to make up the difference?" as oil supplies diminish. He described various alternatives and concluded, "Each of these will require immense investment and well over a decade of intense effort in order to produce substantial quantities of energy to offset declines from fossil fuels." He noted that "most efficiency strategies will likewise require significant lead times."

Consequently, according to Heinberg, "The worse-case scenario for the impact of global production peak is very bad indeed. We are extremely dependent on oil for transportation, agriculture, plastics, and chemicals." He also indicated that "home heating costs are projected to be 40-50% higher this winter than last."

As Heinberg spoke the International Energy Agency, a watchdog that advises its 26 member countries, released its 2005 World Energy Outlook. The Paris-based agency predicts that the Earth's energy needs will surge 50 percent by 2030 and that global-warming carbon dioxide emissions will climb by 52 percent.

"These projected trends lead to a future that is not sustainable from an energy-security or environmental perspective," cautioned Claude Mandil, the agency's executive director. "We must change these outcomes and get the planet onto a sustainable energy path."

Similar ideas were expressed a week earlier at a major oil summit in Rimini, Italy. The event was attended by oil ministers and senior officials from the oil cartel OPEC, the UN, and a former British cabinet member and reported in the UK's Nov. 9 Guardian.

Jeremy Legget's article focused on the presentation by James Schlesinger, a former CIA director, "His message was clear: economic horror will descend on the world if we do not plan ahead, and the time to start is now. We are asleep at the wheel. Most people, and all governments, are in denial, he intimated." Legget is the author of a new book on Peak Oil scheduled to be published this week-Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis.

After laying out the problems that Peak Oil could create, in his Nov. 7 speech Heinberg suggested a specific solution: a global Oil Depletion Protocol. He described the Protocol as "an agreement whereby producing nations would plan to produce less oil with each passing year and importing nations would agree to import less each year." He admitted that this "may seem like a bitter pill to swallow."

However, without "a system for global oil rationing, we will see extremely volatile prices that will undermine the economies of all nations, and all industries and businesses." Heinberg also warned that "oil is a strategic resource: as supplies become scarce, there is increasing likelihood of international conflict."

"All of this will constitute an immense challenge," according to Heinberg. He urged that "we begin immediately." The Prince and his gathering provided increased international legitimacy to the growing acceptance of the importance of Peak Oil and global warming.

"The real power of a royal visit," according to an Associated Press story the day after the Prince Charles's gathering, "is the global media that follow the visitors and envelops everyone around them."

(Shepherd Bliss, [email protected], divides his time between Sonoma County, Northern California, where he owns Kokopelli Farm, and the Big Island, where he writes for the Hawai'i Island Journal. For reprint rights to this article, contact him at [email protected].)

Editorial Notes: Mainstream publications are invited to run this or other articles originating on Energy Bulletin - be sure to contact the authors for permission (in this case Shepherd Bliss at [email protected]). This particular article would seem to be a natural for widespread publication. -BA

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