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Climate change vs. peak oil

I've been wondering for the past year about the interactions between climate change and peak oil. They're twin problems, rooted in our dependence upon fossil fuels (and oil in particular).

But there's a lot of misunderstanding out there. Many people who know about climate change know little about peak oil. Many who know about peak oil dismiss climate change. Why? How can two problems have roughly the same cause, potentially major global consequences, and be understood so poorly? Why do some people dismiss one and not the other? Is one group right and the other wrong? I'd like to take a shot at explaining this mystery from a few angles.

Spreading the meme.

Let's start with a bit of history, as that may provide an initial explanation. It seems that climate change is well understood (by those who don't deny it) - ask most people and they can probably tell you at least the basic facts (i.e. we burn fossil fuels, the emissions warm the planet). For the moment I'm going to ignore the climate change deniers, because that seems largely political to me (and never mind that some studies indicate people believe in climate change based upon recent weather they've experienced). But it seems far too many climate activists, and even climate scientists, are unaware of peak oil. Or maybe they dismiss it as a challenge. Might this be because it didn't enter the public eye until recently?

While the basics of global warming (though wouldn't it have been great if it had been termed radiation entrapment - seems it would have more political punch) have been known since Svante Arrhenius's calculations in the 1890s, I wouldn't say that it entered mainstream discourse until James Hansen's 1988 testimony to congress and Bill McKibben's 1989 book, The End of Nature. Even then, it wasn't really understood widely until Al Gore's presentations featured in An Inconvenient Truth in 2006.

If we look to peak oil, I'd say the equivalent to Hansen's 1988 testimony was Campbell and Laherrère's article in Scientific American in 1998. What did it say? Among other things:

Barring a global recession, it seems most likely that world production of conventional oil will peak during the first decade of the 21st century.

Which, as it turns out, looks to be holding up pretty well as a prediction. The thing is, I didn't read their article then, and I'm guessing you didn't either. I imagine most folks have never heard of it, just as I'm sure most people didn't hear about Hansen's testimony in 1988.

Does that mean we're waiting for someone prominent to bring the discussion of peak oil into the mainstream, say around 2016? The only thing about this parallel is that it isn't really one---there should have been plenty of awareness of peak oil among those who lived through the 1970s oil shocks, but the impression I get is that those events were seen by most as temporary and geopolitical rather than fundamental and geological.

Dismissing peak oil -- climate change is what matters.

Maybe you're thinking to yourself that peak oil doesn't matter - climate change is what matters. Oil is just one source of energy, and one that hasn't been dominant for even a hundred years at this point. While it's transformed the world, we won't even be using it for another hundred. The climate, on the other hand, typically changes on the order of thousands or millions of years. To see warming within a single human lifetime is rare, and the changes that are predicted if we keep burning fossil fuels won't be reversible in anything less than many thousands of years. (Just imagine how long it might take for Greenland or Antarctica to collect enough precipitation to re-form glaciers after melting.) I have to admit, before I really started reading up about peak oil (in late 2007 or so), my basic thinking was along these lines. I knew that oil was finite so it wouldn't last forever, but didn't really understand the effects of stagnating or declining oil production on our way of life. Plus it seemed that the climate issues I'd been reading about for over a decade at that point were just getting worse by the day (as they still are). Plus, I'd read many climate projections, and most don't factor in peak oil. I figured there must be a reason.

Forget about the climate?

As I've read more about the two issues, I've found that the peak oil and climate change research communities don't interact much. Many peak oil researchers seem to come from the oil industry and some tend to deny that the climate is changing. Climate change is more broadly understood, but I get the sense that researchers rely upon global energy agencies for their forecasts of future fossil fuel use, and these agencies have been wrong time and again.

Setting that aside, why do peak oil folks often ignore climate change and vice versa?
Consider eminent peak oil researchers like Robert Hirsch, who deny climate change and spout nonsense on the issue. Is it about urgency/timescale, a matter of ignorance, or a matter of politics? Maybe it's all three? Check out Hirsch's recent presentation giving an update on peak oil. It's clear, concise, and informative. I highly recommend going through it. But his throwaway line at the end sums up the division:

While the environment is important, humans are more important.

That tells me three things:

  1. That Hirsch is more concerned about the short-term problems we'll face due to peak oil rather than the long-term problems we'll face from climate change (or other environmental impacts of fossil fuel production and use).
  2. That he doesn't understand that a changing climate will have far more comprehensive and severe impacts on humans than peak oil ever could.
  3. That he sees it as an either/or issue - it's either humans or the environment: take your pick.

On the other hand, climate change researchers and bloggers tend to not want to think about peak oil because it's a complicating factor. (I've tried to ask Joe Romm of Climate Progress about what the studies show regarding the impact of peak oil on emissions trajectories, but he dismissed my question with a one sentence response.) And often I see ridiculous responses regarding peak oil among those who understand climate change (statements to the effect "peak oil is fake: the Exxons and Shells of the world are conspiring to hold oil production down so that they can jack up the price to make more money"---never mind that national oil companies control over half of global production and over 80% of global oil reserves, and are typically highly dependent upon oil revenue to keep their governments' lights on).

Climate models rarely take into account oil production decline because energy agencies don't consider it in their projections. While I don't believe that peak oil will "save us" from climate change (we'll still be burning plenty of oil and will probably step up coal consumption to compensate), it would be interesting to hear from some experts on this. I looked around, and found that Hansen had one study on this and seemed to conclude that peak oil won't keep us from overshooting on carbon emissions. But from the peak oil side, Aleklett seems to think peak oil will keep emissions in check. (Note how they're talking their own books.)

Misconceptions.

Not all responses to climate change will help with peak oil, and not all responses to peak oil will help with climate change. Peak oil is a near-term liquid fuels problem, which means it's mainly going to affect transportation (and agriculture to a lesser extent). It is not, at least in the short-term, an electricity problem.

That means that many standard climate change responses---moving from coal to renewables, etc.---will not help address peak oil. Similarly, many standard peak oil responses---producing syncrude from coal, tar sands, etc.---are bad for the climate. We need to consider both challenges simultaneously and select responses that will help with both. That means moving to non-carbon energy sources, and targeting transportation.

To do that, we're going to have to move past the notion of individual vehicles. I've done the calculations, as have many others, and the time, money, and energy it'd take to switch to an electric car fleet just doesn't exist in the face of peak oil and the end of growth. That means electric-based public transit in every form: bus, light rail, subway, long-distance rail (both freight and passenger), along with bike-friendly streets, walkable neighborhoods, carpooling, lower speed limits, etc. And for agriculture it means small-scale, local organic farming. It remains to be seen whether we will do any of these things at any scale. But before we'll see any changes, we need more people to get on the same page.

Who gets it?

There are folks who get both issues. Bill McKibben may be one of the few climate change authors / activists who also really understands peak oil and discusses how the two in combination shape his thinking of what needs to be done. (His book Eaarth in particular discusses how we need to consider both factors, and is the best I've seen at combining the discussion of the two.) But if you've watched him speak, you'll note that he rarely mentions it except in passing. Maybe that's because he comes from the climate change side of things and doesn't want to step beyond his comfort zone? Or maybe he knows his audience.

Richard Heinberg is another who gets both and comes from the other side---the peak oil side---but once again he tends to focus on his topic---oil (and the financial system)---and less on the climate. And of course there are many more on both sides who get it (Sharon Astyk, Ugo Bardi, John Michael Greer, James Howard Kunstler, and Stuart Staniford come to mind---if you know of others, I'd be interested to hear about them). In the political world, there's the prominent old guard who clearly know both issues well (Jimmy Carter, Jerry Brown, etc.) and the not so old guard (Steven Chu, etc.), but these days they'll only talk about climate change, maybe because peak oil isn't yet widely understood. Al Gore's among them---he knows about peak oil, but rarely mentions it unless asked.

What might actually happen?

Setting aside the non-debate about these two parallel issues, what might actually happen? That's really what matters at the end of the day.

A recent post from Gail Tverberg at The Oil Drum discussed how both energy consumption and emissions have been increasing faster in the past decade (relative to GDP) than they did before. That is, in the past, GDP outpaced energy consumption, but now GDP growth has slowed. As we go forward, a possible extrapolation is (and this is my take) that between those three (emissions, energy consumption, and GDP), we might see them decouple: we might see emissions growth exceed energy consumption growth which will exceed GDP growth just by virtue of peak oil and low EROEI alternative fuels. If so, this would be bad news all around: it'd mean that while emissions would keep rising, making runaway climate change still a possible outcome, each incremental unit of energy would do less for our economy, so we'd face both an economic decline due to peak oil and severe climate change.

It seems there are only a few ways that one or both of these challenges might be mitigated. Suppose the production decline slope of peak oil (say a median case of about 4% annually starting around 2014/2015) causes enough of an impact to the global economy that we have an energy demand collapse (that will bounce back, but that takes a while) and the consequence of this will be to make it hard for us to invest in expensive and dirty alternatives like tar sands, so we won't be able to afford substitutes to make up for lost conventional production. (This goes against the usual argument economists make that 'high oil prices will make it financially worth it to use unconventional oil sources'---high prices alone won't be enough if demand collapses or credit dries up.) In this scenario, the economic impacts of peak oil are sharp enough that emissions really do start going down globally. If this happens, and is sustained, and natural warming feedbacks don't kick in, the climate might stabilize at some moderately warmed state (say maybe 2 or 3 degrees C above pre-industrial). But that has a lot of ifs---it seems unlikely that governments will just allow sharp economic decline to take over without some ill-advised efforts to excavate and burn any carbon they can get their hands on.

On the other hand, it's possible that the economic impacts of peak oil are averted through preemptive conservation programs that both help decrease dependence upon oil and decrease emissions at the same time. That'd be great to see happen, but it'd require concerted and sustained government action at every level---international, national, state, and local.

Why don't we do anything on either of these?

We're facing two parallel global challenges stemming from the same underlying problem, and yet nothing is being done. Why? In 2009, Dan Miller gave a nice talk about why the IPCC's climate projections are too conservative and don't account for many possible climate feedbacks. In it, he discussed one possible answer to this question. He observed that humans evolved to respond to certain types of threats. The properties of these threats are uniformly the opposite of the type we're facing with these two challenges:

  • Visible. (vs. Invisible: we don't generally see the impacts of climate change or peak oil in our daily lives.)
  • With historical precedent. (vs. Unprecedented: neither has happened in recent history)
  • Immediate. (vs. Drawn out: it'll take years if not decades or centuries for them to fully play out.)
  • With simple causality. (vs. With complex causality: even experts have a hard time figuring out how peak oil will interact with the economy or climate change with the global ecosystem.)
  • Caused by others. (vs. Caused by all of us: there's no enemy to blame for these problems.)
  • Have direct personal impact. (vs. Unpredictable and indirect: most of us aren't affected directly by these issues yet, and even if we are, it's hard to pinpoint how.)

Maybe nothing will be done on either issue until one or more of these properties turns around (say the immediacy becomes clear, we define an "enemy", or we start really feeling personal impacts). My takeaway is this: by talking about these issues together rather than separately, we cover our bases---we're both destroying our economy and changing our climate due to our dependence upon oil and fossil fuels. Only through energy conservation and a shift to a low-energy, post-carbon society will we be able to resolve these twin challenges.


The contraposition blog is written by a philosopher and a computer scientist trying to understand the world and the choices we make.

Editorial Notes: Author Barath Raghavan adds: "I've been exchanging emails with Alex Smith about this, and am looking forward to the program that he's now putting together on this topic for his excellent radio show. So keep an eye out for that."

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