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Reaping whirlwinds: Peak oil and climate change in the new political climate

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent the ASPO-USA position.)
Political prognostication is a dangerous game, but one of the certainties of the latest election was that the US will not be enacting any significant federal climate legislation. One could be forgiven for wondering what the election has to do with anything. In the two years previously during which the Democrats controlled Presidency, House and Senate, the US had failed also to enact any climate legislation, but we have moved from the faintest possible hope to none at all.

If inaction is certain on climate change, it may be that all is not entirely hopeless if we reframe the terms to addressing our carbon problem. Peak-oil activism could accomplish many of the goals of climate activists. Unlike climate change, peak oil doesn’t carry the ideological associations with the left that climate change does. Could peak oil provide a framing narrative for political action to address both climate change and peak oil? Certainly, a great deal would have to happen in order to accomplish this. But peak oil is a sufficiently powerful and pressing issue that its profile could be raised, particularly if current climate activists were willing to change their focus from the means of achieving consensus on climate change to the end of achieving emissions reductions.

I should emphasize that my subject is the political framing of these issues and that I take the scientific case for Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) to be more than sufficient. The question in front of us is not, "Is global warming real?" since the scientific literature is overwhelmingly clear on this point, but rather, "What is the most effective way to formulate our relationship to climate change so that the greatest good is accomplished?"

What might be necessary to craft a unified narrative that could get widespread and bi-partisan political support in the US that would serve the interests of everyone concerned with how we burn carbon? Peak oil has been called "the liberal left-behind movement;" but that doesn’t change the fact that peak oil is a bi-partisan concern. Roscoe Bartlett, R–Maryland, has been peak oil’s face in the House. The US military has been a leader in articulating the dangers of peak oil. Peak-oil discussions draw a fascinating and unusual range of participants, across political lines, and it is hard to overstate how uncommon and valuable such an issue is in our highly politically–stratified society. Given the stakes of both issues, this is ground we must build on.

The first requirement is that climate and energy activists need to understand each other better. While there are many important exceptions to my generalities here about the differences between the two communities, in many cases, we do not know each other’s data or political landscape well enough to collaborate well. For example, most climate activists persist in using IPCC figures that imply that far more coal, oil and natural gas will be available in the future than the evidence supports. Meanwhile, some strains of the peak-oil community argue that these resource limits will be sufficient to restrain the worst outcomes of AGW. They fail to grasp that the increases in our understanding of climate sensitivity documented by among others the IPCC update "The Copenhagen Diagnosis" mean that we do, unfortunately, have far too many fossil fuels to be saved by our resource limits.

Second, we need to fully articulate our common ground, and be prepared to compromise in the creation of a shared narrative. The climate-change story is one, broadly, in which we must constrain use of abundant resources voluntarily and consciously. Peak oil’s narrative shifts the emphasis: involuntary constraints will be thrust upon us. The former presumes we must also use our abundant resources to buffer the assaults of an increasingly unstable planet. The latter presumes that we will suffer primarily from failures of built infrastructure.

It is perhaps understandable, then, for those who view climate change as the primary problem to imagine that we can manufacture limitless renewable technologies to mitigate the effects of climate instability. Climate activists generally focus on optimistic predictions for renewable production, often ignore critical technical differences like EROEI, and generally imagine a world of economic growth, therefore understating the economic costs of addressing our future problems.

It is not entirely clear to most of us what life in an unstable climate will look like. On the other hand, it is easy to envision failures of access to gasoline, heating fuel, blackouts. Peak-oil activists tend to gravitate more heavily towards personal solutions, and because infrastructure failure strikes us so viscerally, in some cases, tend to dismiss the possibilities of political responses. Because peak oil has historically been marginalized politically, there is often an assumption that this marginalization cannot be overcome.

In order to accomplish change of the magnitude necessary to respond to each issue, both sides would have to come to terms with one another. Climate change activists have invested a great deal of their narrative in telling people that the new green economy will have plenty of jobs and comparatively low economic costs. Acknowledging that we lack the energy resources to maintain perpetual economic growth requires them to shift their narrative to one of sacrifice for the greater good; this is a much tougher row to hoe, but ultimately, the only viable choice. The strategic emphasis and a new understanding of net energy will have to be on conservation strategies and changing the industrial way of life towards one that is vastly less energy intensive.

The peak-oil community will have to give up its habit of dismissing the political process entirely, and its underlying assumption that no one is going to listen to it. This sounds easy, but may not be. Both parties may have to come to terms with the fact that the most important political responses may not be about renewable build outs, but about basic social protections of ordinary people made vulnerable by both crises.

Peak-oil activists will have to fully come to terms with the reality of adaptation in an unstable climate. Relocalization is a viable tool in our box, and an important one, but simply may not be achievable for many communities that will be disrupted and rendered uninhabitable by climate change. More than a billion climate refugees are predicted in the coming century; it is unlikely that none of us will be among them. Strategies for localization and energy reduction must take seriously predictions of how livable each place will be.

Finally, and most critically, once we find our common ground, we’ll have to stick with it, and commit to working together. Environmental activism has been almost entirely a thing of the left in the US. Framing the narrative of our carbon crisis in terms of peak energy raises the possibility of bi-partisanship, but only if all the participants can actually work together without demonizing one another. That means putting aside the political fractures that divide us. Asking pro-choice and anti-abortion activists to work together, asking people who feel passionately about gay marriage or economic policy to simply table those issues is an enormous challenge. The rage that the right and left feel towards one another seems to be our birthright, and there are legitimate reasons underlying some of that rage, but we must put it aside.

It is indubitable that if we put these issues aside, we’ll be accused of throwing people under the bus. The only justification for tabling other political issues is this: the stakes are the highest in human history. The only justification for changing narratives to which we are attached, in which we believe fervently is this: that some of us will die if we don’t. The only argument for putting aside our rage and fury is simply this: that our rage and fury will be vastly greater when our children die of diseases we might have prevented, when the floods take our homes, when the food runs scarce. For these stakes, we can do almost anything — and we must.

Sharon Astyk is the author of three books on Peak Oil and Climate Change, a small farmer, and a member of the ASPO-USA board of directors. She also blogs at http://www.scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook

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