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Peak Energy Vs. Climate Change: Stupidest Debate Ever

Kjell Aleklett should really pretty much stop talking about climate change, because he looks like a fool when he does. And that’s not a good thing, given that he’s not one - on energy he’s done deeply important work, and I’d hate to see people dismiss it because he says dumb things about the climate.

Here’s a good example from his screed:

“How will our well-being be affected by the expected growth in population? How will this affect our food supply, our climate, our economy and our hopes for peace? In Copenhagen the hungry will prioritise more food on the table before an unaltered climate. The poor nations want economic growth and we all know that this requires more fossil energy use. To see this we only need to study the development of China or India, or even Sweden from 1945 to 1970. In Copenhagen, this will mean that they will not want to sacrifice economic growth on climate’s altar. Ultimately, it comes down to we, the wealthy nations, not wanting to bear the cost of all the carbon dioxide waste we have dumped into the atmosphere without the poor and hungry also paying out.

In Copenhagen global emissions of carbon dioxide will be discussed and, for the sake of our future climate, it would be a good thing if emissions were reduced. However, according to the human well-being equation, it is not carbon dioxide but, rather, energy that is needed to produce food and to turn the wheels of the economy. By clever marketing of unrealistic future scenarios the IPCC has blinded the world’s politicians – particularly those in the EU – to these facts. Light was shone onto this issue when President Obama noted the importance of energy in a speech some days after his inauguration. He said, “No single issue is as fundamental to our future as energy” and I with many others began to hope for a brighter future when the Nobel prizewinning physicist Steven Chu was appointed as the USA’s Secretary of Energy.”

There’s not a single citation in this article, so, for example, his observation that we use a lot of energy to produce food now is left to stand with his presumption that we will require the same amount of energy to produce food in the long term. In _A Nation of Farmers_ Aaron and I observe that low-input agriculture has largely kept approximate pace with high input agriculture, and that in periods of climate instability, low input agriculture that improves soil actually does better than industrial agriculture. So no, we don’t need as much energy as we have been using for food. Will we have a hard time feeding ourselves? Undoubtedly, but “we use this much now, which means we must use more later” assumes that we can keep industrial society going on the same track – and even Aleklett knows we can’t.

We’ll also note that Aleklett simply doesn’t believe climate change is a serious issue, and has said so. He seems, in the article, to be implying that he does, but he’s been more explicit in other writings. He claims, again completely without evidence that the IPCC scenarios are “unrealistic” – which they are – but in the wrong direction. All the material evidence – and by this I mean not-up-for-debate stuff like “how fast the ice is melting” which you can see by looking at it, or by fairly simple measures – suggests that the IPCC scenarios are unrealistic in that they *understate* the rate at which climate change *is happening* – not is projected to occur. He gives lip service to the fact that we should put out less carbon, but then goes on to suggest we need more carbon sources.

But the biggest and dumbest gap in this is that Aleklett doesn’t seem to have any recognition that addressing climate change *is* about food. At the simplest levels, countries that are underwater don’t grow a lot of food. Neither do countries who depend heavily on meltwater from glaciers that dry up and disappear (again, this isn’t a hypothetical, you can go see it). Aleklett doesn’t seem to be familiar with research that higher temperatures will dramatically reduce yields of wheat, rice and corn, the staple crops that provide the vast majority of the world’s calories. And desertification (in part caused by climate change, but also caused by the very oil-infused agriculture that Aleklett says we desperately need to preserve) will take large chunks of grainland out of production. Copenhagen will almost certainly fail, but the idea that people in Copenhagen don’t get that this is about food is just laughably ignorant. It is Kjell Aleklett who doesn’t seem to grasp that this is very much about food.

But more importantly, and the reason I’m being so hard on him, is that this represents two sides of a strain of thought that I think is truly destructive to the agenda of both Peak Energy and Climate Change. On the one side, you have peak energy thinkers, frustrated that climate change gets all the attention, who falsely believe that they have to poke holes the fairly iron-clad science of climate change, because they are competing for attention and resources. On the other side are climate change advocates who ridicule or simply minimize the importance of peak energy, because their assumptions all presume a stable economy and energy supply to build upon. There’s a “we’re only allowed to have one big central problem, and we have fight over it” attitude, that presents a completely false dichotomy - a dumbass logical error that a freshman in high school should be able to dissect.

The truth is this – we know for a fact that peak oil is real. Why do we know this? Because we’ve seen it happen right here in the USA. No matter what technologies we use, no matter how much we invest, the US hit peak oil in the early 1970s, and hasn’t passed Saudi Arabia since. We can look at all the other countries who have done the same. It is a geological fact of life – and the preponderance of the evidence, slowly, solidly coming in is that the world is at or past its peak, that Saudi Arabia has been fudging its numbers with seawater.

We know that other resources are going to peak too – and many of them soon. We’re not sure exactly how much coal there is, but we do know that North American Natural Gas, for example, is a likely near-peak. We know that we are already seeing high energy price volatility, we know that it is affecting our economy, not to mention our ability to get by personally. We’re never going to know, year to year, how much food (tied to energy) and heat are going to cost us. We know that if it isn’t going to get worse in the near-term (which is the more likely scenario, IMHO, since it is already happening), it is going to get worse in the long term, and ethically speaking, screwing the next generation is how the last couple of generations have handled this, and is not ethical. So there’s not much doubt about this – we’ve got to deal with an energy decline, and rapidly.

The same is true of climate change – the climate is changing. We know this – we can look at the pictures of glaciers in 1950 and glaciers now. We can look at the arctic ice. Anyone who lives near an ocean can go see the houses, once comfortably back from the sea’s edge, now hanging precariously. We can look at flower bloom, and bird migrations and climate (not weather) patterns and see a consistent and substantial alteration over a very short time. This is not rocket science.

We also know why the climate is changing. The Greenhouse effect is not controversial – if it didn’t exist, the earth would be a lifeless rock, so cold it couldn’t support life at night, so hot it couldn’t support it during the day, just like the moon. We know without any doubt that the gasses in our atmosphere are what warm the climate. We know that there are more of them. We know that more of them correspond with warmer periods in history from ice core samples. We know that each gas has demonstrable warming effect, and we can demonstrate that their concentrations are growing. You can certainly get more complicated than this, but again, it isn’t rocket science.

There is no question that climate change is going to radically impact our lives – and soon. It already is, if, say, you live in a low-lying area, or if you rely on meltwater, or if you are noticing more heat waves and drought or worried about the health consequences to you or your asthmatic daughter or you aging mother. And just like it is wildly unethical to pass off our energy problems to the next generation, it is even less ethical to pass off our climate problem – because both effect basic things like whether we’ll eat or not.

In both cases, there are sensitive bits up for discussion – precise climate sensitivity, and exactly when the peak is/was. Nothing is perfect, but overwhelmingly, the debate on both subjects is effectively over. And that means that the scientists and thinkers on both sides of who are sitting there waving their hands saying “My problem is more important! No, Mine!” are wasting a lot of time and energy on the false idea that we can’t have two central problems at the same time. This is dumb – and it delays creating an appropriate response.

The truth is that we have at least two central problems (the economic one is tied to both in the long term), and only people who can get their mind around the combined difficulty will have anything useful to offer. Yes, we need to know how what fossil fuels are in the ground – and we also can’t burn them rapidly. Yes, we need to address climate change – and we need to stop lying and claiming that we can have it all – a happy growth economy based on renewable energy, yada yada.

Thankfully, there are people doing good work on both issues – people who really get it, like James Hansen and Richard Heinberg. They haven’t fallen into the false dichotomy. They haven’t missed that this really is all about “who eats” – and that we can’t see the whole picture of our future just looking through one eyepiece of a pair of binoculars.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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