Peak Oil and Climate Change are two historic events for humans and life on earth. The first threatens modern industrial ways of living and the latter threatens the climatic systems that are an integral part of our world and the way we live and survive.
A quick recap on both. Peak Oil is the point of historic maximum global oil flow, Climate Change is the alteration of established climate systems due to (in this case, anthropogenic) global warming. The onset of both will affect food & water supplies, mortality rates, conflict, migration and much more. The evidence that climate change is underway and almost past the point of no return is very strong and Peak Oil day by day gathers more credence as many studies point to an imminent peak.
How do these two events affect each other though?
The decline of global oil supply and the increasing cost of everything as a consequence means we will see our ability to deal with the consequences of Climate Change reduced.
Let us take a look at Britain. The decline of oil and gas will of its own accord make it harder to keep Britain warm but if the Gulf Stream does switch off as a result of Global Warming, the gap between what is needed and what will be available will get wider. The change to a colder climate would have a negative affect on crop growing, at a time when declining oil and gas supplies make the agriculture business more expensive. Warming sea temperatures are pushing fish stocks further afield, out of traditional (and already over-fished) fishing waters. Fishermen, so dependent on oil for their boats, will have to pay more for their fuel to go after these already dwindling and increasingly distant fish stocks. The insurance industry is already facing increasing pressures from Climate Change, but when the economy nose-dives past the oil peak, this double whammy could knock out the insurance industry. Will those in increasingly flood prone areas be able to pay the insurance costs during the recessions brought on by the decline of oil supplies?
The European Environment Agency recently pointed to how Germany is now at risk from more extreme weather, such as heavy rain – which raises the risk of flooding, especially the densely populated plains of central Europe. Cleaning up and repairing that damage costs money and requires energy. The economic climate, post peak, is going to be less able to deal with it. At the other extreme, Italy’s coming crisis is drought, and there is a need there to improve irrigation to improve agriculture. Once again, money and energy are needed, and both will be harder to come by.
Further afield we are seeing glaciers melting and other regions becoming more arid and water flows changing. The ability to process and transport water to these regions will become more expensive, if it is at all possible, since drinking water is already tight in many areas. For example, desalination plants are an energy-intensive way of getting drinking water from sea water. Another option is to build pipelines to transport the water, but this is an expensive and complicated option. What we are likely to see, according to Tearfund, a relief and development agency, is an increase in water refugees.
As river and rain patterns change abruptly, the agriculture that has been grown for those climates will have to change, but the patterns may alter so much that the ability to grow food is severely impaired, and the need for oil and gas for fertiliser and food transportation will go up. This will lead to increases in, for example, famine and drought. With the world economy going into a long-term downturn as a result of Peak Oil, and the cost of everything going up, the willingness and ability from the wealthier (but increasingly less wealthy) world to deal with the problems brought on by Climate Change will decline.
The list goes on. Forest fires will increase, but the ability to fight them will decrease. Disease will spread but the cost and transportation of medicines will increase as a result of the great oil decline, while the ability to pay for them by those in need will decrease. As the world economy goes into recession as a result of oil decline, the ability and willingness of the rich to give to the poor in regions directly affected by Climate Change will wane. Cheap oil has enabled us to tackle many of the world’s problems – to varying degrees – when we have been willing, but Peak Oil marks the beginning of a very big change as far as that goes.
Worryingly, the decline of oil may simply exacerbate Climate Change if we don’t recognise what will happen and we don’t see the whole picture. In our attempt to keep business as usual while trying to reduce Climate Change, we are seeing more of the rainforests being destroyed to grow soya beans to satisfy an enlarged appetite for oil. Nobody needs to be told how important the rainforests are to the world. As for renewables, these are built from materials that need oil. Once again we see that the decline of oil means an increase in costs at a time when the ability to pay for it will be much lower than now. Developing alternatives will become more costly the cost of everything will increase – this is because oil is behind everything we do. And of course there is the likelihood of turning to dirtier hydrocarbons such as coal, when we could investing in things like microgeneration.
A recent article on the website Gristmill.org entitled ‘Peak Oil : Not an environmental silver bullet’ argued that environmentalists hoping that awareness of peak oil will increase support of renewable, decentralised energy is naïve when the likely situation is that there will be a stronger turn to environmentally damaging, dirtier fossil fuels. Does that mean that Climate Change activists should shun Peak Oil? Absolutely not. Peak Oil and Climate Change have to be understood as an overall package, not separately, and we should all be looking at this, shouting clearly that “If we’re not careful, we might just end up where we’re heading!”
The main thing about Peak Oil – and this could be what everyone needs to grasp hold of – is that it is symbolic of much more than just oil supplies. Because oil is so important to everything that modern industrial society is based upon, including the assumptions of continuous growth, we can see that the decline of oil will pose serious questions about how we live and the systems, structures and culture we have developed. Peak Oil is therefore a symbol of the high-watermark of the hydrocarbon human and everything associated with it. Care for our environment and our climate should be a big part of the answer because that is what we will have left when the hydrocarbons are gone, and we must place proper value on that. The confluence of Peak Oil and Climate Change means that it is now time to ask ourselves, as a species, the biggest questions we can.
So let’s ask those questions now. What do we want to achieve with our remaining oil (and gas) resources? What do we want our legacy to be? What are we aiming towards as a species and does that meet what we want to achieve as individuals? How do we want to achieve this? Do we want to make the transition as easy as possible? Do we eschew personal responsibility and have blind faith that ‘the markets’ or ‘technology’ will solve everything, thus putting off doing anything?
We can clearly see that things are going to change, but are we going to be led by events or do we lead them? Do we create a way of living that brings us more in balance with the environment and dramatically reduces greenhouse gases through a combination of efficiency and absolute reduction in greenhouse gas emissions? Or is the current way of doing things so important to try to cling on to (even though it is so ultimately futile that we’ll destroy so much in the process) way beyond the point of no return?
It simply does not make sense to expand the use of energy resources that will increase Climate Change if our ability to deal with those magnified consequences will be even more depleted further down the road. This is what has to be made absolutely clear. The great decline of global oil production is bad enough without Climate Change and vice versa – but do we want to make things worse for ourselves and those who follow? Is that to be our legacy? What kind of fool would cover an infected wound with a poisoned bandage?
Peak Oil and Climate Change are a bigger threat together than either are alone. Our biggest hope is to similarly converge our understanding of them, and how to deal with the problems they present. Peak Oil and Climate Change must be fused as issues – an approach is needed to deal with them as a package. If we are looking for answers, the environmental movement has pushed suitable ones for a long time. Peak Oil presents a tremendous chance to push those solutions ahead, failure to incorporate a full understanding of Peak Oil into the solutions argument for Climate Change would be an abject failure.
The bottom line is that business can live with Climate Change to an extent but it is the threat of declining oil supplies that really strikes fear into politicians, economists, and many other people who prefer to ignore Climate Change as a problem, because it will hit them financially, and soon. The Climate Change movement can sell the green solutions to the challenge of oil decline. The Climate Change movement has been saying for a long time that we should change, Peak Oil means categorically we have to change. Fuse them together and hopefully we’ll get more momentum moving us in the right direction.
Written by: James Howard of PowerSwitch.Org.Uk – Raising awareness of Peak Oil in the UK.