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The peak oil crisis: the end game

It is becoming clearer all the time that mankind is approaching a major turning point in its tenure on this planet. Recent reports on the speed with which our climate is deteriorating suggest that much of our earth will become uninhabitable sometime within the next 100 to 200 years. Small pockets of humanoid DNA may make it through the climatic catastrophe ahead to establish new civilizations in coming millennia; however, very few of the some 7 billion of us running around on earth today are going to have living descendants a few hundred years from now.

Without going into the myriad of details, the new reports forecast that the temperatures will get very high; the oceans will flood the coasts and no longer contain much fish; pandemics will be prevalent; and the storms will be so fierce that there simply will not be enough food or habitable areas to keep us all going.

As recently as five years ago we badly underestimated just how quickly climate change would seriously affect civilization as we know it. The reason the climate problem has become more serious in recent years is that nobody has done anything of real significance to control carbon emissions since the problem was recognized 20 some years ago. Moreover, there is no indication that any of the earth's major carbon emitters are planning to do anything but keep emitting the same or still more carbon in the foreseeable future

We, our children or grandchildren are likely to be living on a world where atmospheric carbon hits 800 to 1000 parts per million and higher – far worse than had been forecast as likely in previous studies. New analyses, while varying in numbers, put global temperatures by the end of the century some 9o to 11o F higher in the mid-latitudes and 20o higher in the arctic leading to sea levels that would flood most of the world's coastal cities. Some studies even have temperatures 13-19o F higher over much of the US and 27o higher over the arctic. Sea levels could be as much as six feet higher by the end of the century and then rise as much as a foot each decade thereafter to 20 or 30 feet.

As these misfortunes will build up gradually over the rest of the century, somewhere along the line, be it 5, 10 or 50 years from now, climate change will become so harmful to everyday life that a critical mass of people will coalesce around the idea that anything, even giving up "economic growth", would be better than letting life on earth dry up around us. Whether the day of taking carbon emissions seriously comes before the fabled "tipping point" where the forces of nature take over and drive temperatures ever higher, remains to be seen. Some serious observers believe that day has already past. If so, there is not really much left to do except carve our history in granite in case some successor or extraterrestrial life form comes along before our tectonic plates sub duct below the planet's surface.

Assuming however that we still have some choice regarding atmospheric carbon left, and that mankind decides to become serious, what can be done? It should be noted that sometime during the rest of the century emissions of fossil fuels will slow of their own accord simply because that which is left cannot be extracted economically or the global economy has fallen into such a state that the demand will not be there.

Except for those with vested interest in the immediate future of the fossil fuel industry and those politicians who see an advantage in denying that global warming is caused by carbon emissions, the rest of us should hold that carbon emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels need to be halted worldwide, as soon as possible.

Now deliberately halting the combustion of fossil fuels is a rather tall order, since some 80 percent of the world's energy comes from oil, coal, and natural gas, with the rest from nuclear, biofuels and renewables. While some reduction in fossil fuel consumption, let's say a third or maybe a half, might be accomplished in the short term by draconian efforts and regulation, if we can agree that it is necessary, the costs in terms of social and economic disruptions would be considerable.

Moving beyond say a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions would involve giving up much in terms of energy-provided luxuries, and massive investment in renewable energy projects required to hold together the complex urban societies that have grown up in the last 200 years.

There is, however, one other way out of this mess and that is new and exotic forms of energy. The most promising of these at the moment is Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR). Validations that this phenomenon is real are coming in each month so that a clean and inexpensive replacement for fossil fuels looks possible. The problem, of course, is that it is a long and time-consuming trip from the lab bench to replacing a sufficient share of fossil fuel burning devices to stopping the buildup of atmospheric carbon. Interestingly, there seem to be a number of even more exotic sources of energy under development which their inventors say will be a source of cheap renewable non-polluting energy. For now however, LENR devices, which have been under development for over 20 years, seem to be the most promising candidates to replace carbon emitting devices – if there is still time.

Somewhere along the line this discussion of just where the carbon emissions problem is taking us becomes a theological one -- with the question being "Is it time for our tiny corner of the universe to shut down – either temporarily or permanently?"

Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years
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