In 2003, I attended my first conference on peak oil, in Paris. Everything was new for me: the subject, the people, the ideas. It was there that I could meet for the first time those larger than life figures of ASPO, the association for the study of peak oil. I met Colin Campbell, Jean Laherrere, Kenneth Deffeyes, Ali Morteza Samsam Bakthiari, and many others. It was one of those experiences that mark one for life.
In Paris, I learned a lot about oil depletion, but also about another matter that was emerging: the conflict of depletion studies with climate change studies. That ASPO conference saw the beginning of a contrast that was to flare up much more intensely in the following years. On one side of the debate there were the "climate concerned" people. They were clearly appalled at seeing that their efforts at stopping global warming were threatened by this new idea: that there won’t be enough fossil fuels to cause the damage that they feared. On the other side, the "depletion concerned" people clearly scoffed at the idea of climate change: peak oil, they said, would make all the worries in that respect obsolete.
My impression, at that time, was that the position of the climate concerned was untenable. Not that I became a climate change denier; not at all: the physical mechanisms of climate change have been always clear to me and I never questioned the fact that adding CO2 to the atmosphere was going to warm it. But the novelty of the concept of peak oil, the discovery of a new field of study, the implications of a decline of energy availability, all that led me to see depletion as the main challenge ahead.
That belief of mine would last a few years, but no more. The more I studied oil depletion, the more I found myself studying climate: the two subjects are so strictly related to each other that you can’t study one and ignore the other. I found that climate science is not just about modern global warming. It is the true scientific revolution of the 21st century. It is nothing less than a radical change of paradigm about everything that takes place on our planet; comparable to the Copernican revolution of centuries ago.
Climate science gives us a complete picture of how the Earth system has gradually evolved and changed, maintaining conditions favorable for organic life despite the gradual increase of the solar irradiation over the past four billion years. It is a delicate balance that depends on many factors, including the burial of large amounts of carbon which previously were part of the biosphere and that, over the ages, have become what we call "fossil fuels". Extracting and burning fossil fuels means tampering with the very mechanisms that keep us alive. Climate science is fascinating, even beautiful, but it is the kind of beauty that can kill.
So, step by step, I went full circle. If, at the beginning, I was more worried about depletion than about climate, now it is the reverse. Not that I stopped worrying about peak oil, I know very well that we are in deep trouble with the availability not just of oil, but of all mineral resources. But the recent events; the melting of the polar ice cap, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires and all the rest clearly show that the climate problem is taking a speed and a size that was totally unexpected just a few years ago.
Climate change is a gigantic problem: it dwarfs peak oil in all respects. We know that humans have lived for thousands of years without using fossil fuels, but they never lived in a world where the atmosphere contained more than 400 parts per million of CO2 – as we are going to have to. We don’t even know if it will be possible for humans to survive in such a world.
Right now, peak oil is not solving the problem of climate change – it is worsening it because it is forcing the industry to use progressively dirtier resources, from tar sands to coal. Maybe in the future we’ll see a decline in the use of all hydrocarbons and, as a consequence on the emissions of greenhouse gases. But, if we continue along this path, peak oil will be just a blip in the path to catastrophe.