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Why do political and economic leaders deny Peak Oil and Climate Change?

Since there’s nothing that can be done about climate change, because there’s no scalable alternative to fossil fuels, I’ve always wondered why politicians and other leaders, who clearly know better, feel compelled to deny it. I think it’s for exactly the same reasons you don’t hear them talking about preparing for Peak Oil.

1) Our leaders have known since the 1970s energy crises that there’s no comparable alternative energy ready to replace fossil fuels. To extend the oil age as long as possible, the USA went the military path rather than a “Manhattan Project” of research and building up grid infrastructure, railroads, sustainable agriculture, increasing home and car fuel efficiency, and other obvious actions.

Instead, we’ve spent trillions of dollars on defense and the military to keep the oil flowing, the Straits of Hormuz open, and invade oil-producing countries. Being so much further than Europe, China, and Russia from the Middle East, where there’s not only the most remaining oil, but the easiest oil to get out at the lowest cost ($20-22 OPEC vs $60-80 rest-of-world per barrel), is a huge disadvantage. I think the military route was chosen in the 70s to maintain our access to Middle East oil and prevent challenges from other nations. Plus everyone benefits by our policing the world and keeping the lid on a world war over energy resources, perhaps that’s why central banks keep lending us money.

2) If the public were convinced climate change were real and demanded alternative energy, it would become clear pretty quickly that we didn’t have any alternatives. Already Californians are seeing public television shows and newspaper articles about why it’s so difficult to build enough wind, solar, and so on to meet the mandated 33% renewable energy sources by 2020.

For example, last night I saw a PBS program on the obstacles to wind power in Marin county, on the other side of the Golden Gate bridge. Difficulties cited were lack of storage for electricity, NIMBYism, opposition from the Audubon society over bird kills, wind blows at night when least needed, the grid needs expansion, and most wind is not near enough to the grid to be connected to it. But there was no mention of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) or the scale of how many windmills you’d need to have. So you could be left with the impression that these problems with wind could be overcome.

I don’t see any signs of the general public losing optimism yet. I gave my “Peak Soil” talk to a critical thinking group, very bright people, sparkling, interesting, well-read, thoughtful, and to my great surprise realized they weren’t worried until my talk, partly because so few people understand the Hirsch 2005 “liquid fuels” crisis concept, nor the scale of what fossil fuels do for us. I felt really bad, I’ve never spoken to a group before that wasn’t aware of the problem, I wished I were a counselor as well. The only thing I could think of to console them was to say that running out of fossil fuels was a good thing — we might not be driven extinct by global warming, which most past mass extinctions were caused by.

3) As the German military peak oil study stated, when investors realize Peak Oil is upon us, stock markets world-wide will crash (if they haven’t already from financial corruption), as it will be obvious that growth is no longer possible and investors will never get their money back.

4) As Richard Heinberg has pointed out, there’s a national survival interest in being the “Last Man (nation) Standing“. So leaders want to keep things going smoothly as long as possible. And everyone is hoping the crash is “not on my watch” — who wants to take the blame?

5) It would be political suicide to bring up the real problem of Peak Oil and have no solution to offer besides consuming less. Endless Growth is the platform of both the Republican and Democratic parties. More Consumption and “Drill, Baby, Drill” is the main plan to get out of the current economic and energy crises.

There’s also the risk of creating a panic and social disorder if the situation were made utterly clear — that the carrying capacity of the United States is somewhere between 100 million (Pimentel) and 250 million (Smil) without fossil fuels, like the Onion’s parody “Scientists: One-Third Of The Human Race Has To Die For Civilization To Be Sustainable, So How Do We Want To Do This?

There’s no solution to peak oil, except to consume less in all areas of life, which is not acceptable to political leaders or corporations, who depend on growth for their survival. Meanwhile, too many problems are getting out of hand on a daily basis at local, state, and national levels. All that matters to politicians is the next election. So who’s going to work on a future problem with no solution? Jimmy Carter is perceived as having lost partly due to asking Americans to sacrifice for the future (i.e. put on a sweater).

I first became aware of this at the 2005 ASPO Denver conference. Denver Mayor Hickenlooper pointed out that one of his predecessors lost the mayoral election because he didn’t keep the snow plows running after a heavy snow storm. He worried about how he’d keep snow plows, garbage collection, and a host of other city services running as energy declined.

A Boulder city council member at this conference told us he had hundreds of issues and constituents to deal with on a daily basis, no way did he have time to spend on an issue beyond the next election.

Finally, Congressman Roscoe Bartlett told us that there was no solution, and he was angry that we’d blown 25 years even though the government knew peak was coming. His plan was to relentlessly reduce our energy demand by 5% per year, to stay under the depletion rate of declining oil. But not efficiency — that doesn’t work due to Jevons paradox.

The only solution that would mitigate suffering is to mandate that women bear only one child. Fat chance of that ever happening when even birth control is controversial, and Catholics are outraged that all health care plans are now required to cover the cost of birth control pills. Congressman Bartlett, in a small group discussion after his talk, told us that population was the main problem, but that he and other politicians didn’t dare mention it. He said that exponential growth would undo any reduction in demand we could make, and gave this example: if we have 250 years left of reserves in coal, and we turn to coal to replace oil, increasing our use by 2% a year — a very modest rate of growth considering what a huge amount is needed to replace oil — then the reserve would only last 85 years. If we liquefy it, then it would only last 50 years, because it takes a lot of energy to do that.

Bartlett was speaking about 250 years of coal reserves back in 2005. Now we know that the global energy from coal may have peaked last year, in 2011 (Patzek) or will soon in 2015 (Zittel). Other estimates range as far as 2029 to 2043. Heinberg and Fridley say that “we believe that it is unlikely that world energy supplies can continue to meet projected demand beyond 2020.” (Heinberg).

6) Political (and religious) leaders gain votes, wealth, and power by telling people what they want to hear. Several politicians have told me privately that people like to hear good news and that politicians who bring bad news don’t get re-elected. “Don’t worry, be happy” is a vote getter. Carrying capacity, exponential growth, die-off, extinction, population control — these are not ideas that get leaders elected.

7) Everyone who understands the situation is hoping The Scientists Will Come up With Something. Including the scientists. They’d like to win a Nobel prize and need funding. But researchers in energy resources know what’s at stake with climate change and peak oil and are as scared as the rest of us. U.C.Berkeley scientists are also aware of the negative environmental impacts of biofuels, and have chosen to concentrate on a politically feasible strategy of emphasizing lack of water to prevent large programs in this from being funded (Fingerman). They’re also working hard to prevent coal fired power plants from supplying electricity to California by recommending natural gas replacement plants instead, as well as expanding the grid, taxing carbon, energy efficiency, nuclear power, geothermal, wind, and so on — see http://rael.berkeley.edu/projects for what else some of UCB’s RAEL program is up to. Until a miracle happens, scientists and some enlightened policy makers are trying to extend the age of oil, reduce greenhouse gases, and so on. But with the downside of Hubbert’s curve so close, and the financial system liable to crash again soon given the debt and lack of reforms, I don’t know how long anyone can stretch things out.

8) The 1% can’t justify their wealth or the current economic system once the pie stops expanding and starts to shrink. The financial crisis will be a handy way to explain why people are getting poorer on the down side of peak oil too, delaying panic perhaps.

Other evidence that politicians know how serious the situation is, but aren’t saying anything, are Congressman Roscoe Bartlett’s youtube videos (Urban Danger). He’s the Chairman of the peak oil caucus in the House of Representatives, and he’s saying “get out of dodge” to those in the know. He’s educated all of the representatives in the House, but he says that peak oil “won’t be on their front burner until there’s an oil shock”.

9) Less than one percent of our elected leaders have degrees in science. They’re so busy raising money for the next election and their political duties, that even they may not have time to read enough for a “big picture view” of (systems) ecology, population, environment, natural resources, biodiversity / bioinvasion, water, topsoil and fishery depletion, and all the other factors that will be magnified when oil, the master resource that’s been helping us cope with these and many other problems, declines.

10) Since peak fossil fuel is here, now (we’re on a plateau), there’s less urgency to do something about climate change for many leaders, because they assume, or hope, that the remaining fossil fuels won’t trigger a runaway greenhouse. Climate change is a more distant problem than Peak Oil. And again, like peak oil, nothing can be done about it. There’s are no carbon free alternative liquid fuels, let alone a liquid fuel we can burn in our existing combustion engines, which were designed to only use gasoline. There’s no time left to rebuild a completely new fleet of vehicles based on electricity, the electric grid infrastructure and electricity generation from windmills, solar, nuclear, etc., are too oil dependent to outlast oil. Batteries are too heavy to ever be used by trucks or other large vehicles, and require a revolutionary breakthrough to power electric cars.

11) I think that those who deny climate change, despite knowing it is real, are thinking like chess players several moves ahead. They hope that by denying climate change an awareness of peak oil is less likely to occur, and I’m guessing their motivation is to keep our oil-based nation going as long as possible by preventing a stock market crash, panic, social disorder, and so on.

12) Politicians and corporate leaders probably didn’t get as far as they did without being (techno) optimists, and perhaps really believe the Scientists Will Come Up With Something. I fear that scientists are going to take a lot of the blame as things head South, even though there’s nothing they can do to change the laws of physics and thermodynamics.

Conclusion

We need government plans or strategies at all levels to let the air out of the tires of civilization as slowly as possible to prevent panic and sudden discontinuities.

Given history, I can’t imagine the 1% giving up their wealth (especially land, 85% of which is concentrated among 3% of owners). I’m sure they’re hoping the current system maintains its legitimacy as long as possible, even as the vast majority of us sink into 3rd world poverty beyond what we can imagine, and then are too poor and hungry to do anything but find our next meal.

Until there are oil shocks and governments at all levels are forced to “do something”, it’s up to those of us aware of what’s going on to gain skills that will be useful in the future, work to build community locally, and live more simply. Towns or regions that already have or know how to implement a local currency fast will be able to cope better with discontinuities in oil supplies and financial crashes than areas that don’t.

The best possible solution is de-industrialization, starting with Heinberg’s 50 million farmers, while also limiting immigration, instituting high taxes and other disincentives to encourage people to not have more than one child so we can get under the maximum carrying capacity as soon as possible.

Hirsch recommended preparing for peak 20 years ahead of time, and we didn’t do that. So many of the essential preparations need to be at a local, state, and federal level, they can’t be done at an individual level. Denial and inaction now are likely to lead to millions of unnecessary deaths in the future. Actions such as upgrading infrastructure essential to life, like water delivery and treatment systems (up to 100 years old in much of America and rusting apart), sewage treatment, bridges, and so on. After peak, oil will be scarce and devoted to growing and delivering food, with the remaining energy trickling down to other essential services — probably not enough to build new infrastructure, or even maintain what we have.

I wish it were possible for scientists and other leaders to explain what’s going on to the public, but I think scientists know it wouldn’t do any good given American’s low scientific literacy, and leaders see the vast majority of the public as big blubbering spoiled babies, like the spaceship characters on floating chairs in Wall-E, who expect, no demand, happy Hollywood endings.

References

If you want an article to send to a denier you know, it would be hard to do better than Donald Prothero’s “How We Know Global Warming is Real and Human Caused“.

Fingerman, Kevin. 2010. Accounting for the water impacts of ethanol production. Environmental Research Letters.

Heinberg, R and Fridley, D. 18 Nov 2010. The end of cheap coal. New forecasts suggest that coal reserves will run out faster than many believe. Energy policies relying on cheap coal have no future. Nature, vol 468, pp 367-69.

Patzek, t. W. & Croft, G. D. 2010. A global coal production forecast with multi-Hubbert cycle analysis. Energy 35, 3109–3122.

Pimentel, D. et al. 1991. Land, Energy, and Water. The Constraints Governing Ideal U.S. Population Size. Negative Population Growth.

Smil, V. 2000. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. MIT Press.

Urban Danger. Congressman Roscoe Bartlett youtube videos:

Zittel, W. & schindler, J. energy Watch Group, Paper no. 1/07 (2007); available at http:// go.nature.com/jngfsa

Editorial Notes: If Alice's outlook seems grim, the WSJ and Newt Gingrich have comforting words: What's Right With Gas Prices (Wall Street Journal)
History lesson: The price mechanism will keep our fuel tanks from running dry. ... the best therapy is a higher oil price. It makes it profitable to bring into production more costly resources around the world. The rise in recent years to $100-plus a barrel is a godsend. Peak oil theorists are being refuted; so are greenies who imagined a towering oil price would usher in a carbon-free future. The opposite is seen to be true. Oil sands, shale hydrocarbons and even biofuels have been made profitable with existing technology, and of course technology can be counted on to advance.
Newt Gingrich releases a soliloquy on energy: ‘I know that we can do better’ (Houston Chronicle)
... “Turns out, we may have more oil in the United States today, given new science and new technology than we have actually pumped worldwide since 1870,” he claims. “We may, in fact, by one estimate have three times as much oil in the United States as there is in Saudi Arabia.”
Sigh! -BA

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