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The Peak Oil Crisis: The State of the Union

When peak oil first came to widespread public attention some 10 or 15 years ago, there was some debate about whether peak oil was the solution to climate change caused by carbon emissions. After all, if we are forced by geology and economics to burn decreasing amounts of oil, won’t carbon emissions and global warming take care of themselves? In the last 10 years, however, much has happened. Bad economic times have reduced consumption of oil in most of the OECD countries. This demand has been replaced by increased demand from China, India and other developing or oil-rich countries, which are rapidly turning themselves into “motorized societies” where nearly everybody owns a car or some form of oil-powered transport.

The other side of the peak oil/global warming issue is what has happened to our climate in recent years. Lower Manhattan under water; New England under feet of snow; Texas and the upper mid-west burned dry; the Mississippi flooding; and the South torn up by tornadoes is rather hard to ignore. Indeed, the respected Pew Research Center says the number of Americans saying they believe the earth is warming has increased from 57 percent to 67 percent in the last five years. Those believing that climate change is caused by manmade emissions are up from 36 percent in 2009 to 42 percent in 2012. The rather low percentage of those who believe that global warming comes from carbon emissions is a tribute to the power of the massive public relations campaign that fossil fuel companies and their political allies have been waging for many years.
 
However, given another five or ten years of increasingly damaging storms, floods, and droughts, it should become obvious to the overwhelming majority in the US and elsewhere that something has to be done or we won’t have much of a planet left. Indeed there is some evidence that, after the last two years of extreme weather events in the US, sentiment is starting to change. Reversing a core principle of one’s political philosophy is hard to do, so it will be a while before there is the necessary mass of politicians willing to vote for meaningful solutions to the global warming problem.
 
If the scientists are right, combating global warming is rather simple – cut carbon emissions as much as necessary. This of course would be neither cheap nor easy while maintaining civilization as we know it. In the US today 80 percent of everything that “runs,” from transportation, to furnaces, to iPhones, runs on energy that comes from burning of fossil fuels. Take away or heavily tax the use of fossil fuels and much of current human activity either slows or becomes much more expensive, reducing the likelihood of economic growth. For a society used to hundreds of years of steady growth, this is simply unthinkable. For many politicians, it is easier to ignore or deny that carbon emissions are not responsible for anomalous weather than to come up with solutions that cannot be readily labeled “job or growth killers,” and sell them to the public and legislative bodies.
 
Now we can, of course, learn how to use less fossil energy and still keep things running. Indeed this seems for now to be the best and cheapest solution. Everybody from President Obama in his recent State of the Union message to the Chinese Communist Party Politburo says energy efficiency and conservation are good ideas. Plans and programs are underway in most advanced countries to increase the efficiency with which fossil fuels are turned into useful work. However, the key question is whether increased energy efficiency can be implemented quickly enough, or whether it will be enough to slow carbon emissions to the point that the world’s atmosphere settles down.
 
In recent years binding international agreements to lower emissions have foundered largely because of the great discrepancies in economic development and fossil fuel use around the world. China, which is the world’s largest emitter of carbon, likes to point out that with a population of 1.3 billion, its per capita carbon emissions are well below the per capita emissions of the OECD nations. So the OECD should cut back their carbon use first and wait until China catches up. In the US, many Congressmen have adopted the position that the US won’t take on the obviously burdensome costs of cutting emissions until the Chinese do. Beijing, which is wedded to the notion that it must achieve a 7-10 percent increase in its economic growth each year, is not about to agree to constraints on this core imperative of its society and political system.
 
Is there any way out of this conundrum, short of waiting to see whether we run out of affordable fossil fuels first, or get so beaten up by bad weather that climate change starts to seriously constrain the global food supply? There are some glimmers on the horizon. In his inaugural address and State of the Union message, President Obama vowed to take action to control carbon emissions – with or without Congress. This is clearly a step in the right direction, but unless China reverses its rapid increases in emissions, efforts elsewhere in the world seem futile.
 
Prospects for changes in Beijing are mixed. The leadership clearly understands the problem, but the drive for economic growth continues to trump all; and the climate change induced natural disasters hitting China are still mostly at manageable levels. Beijing’s atrocious air quality problem is one of particles in the air and not so much one of greenhouse gases. Some of the remedy for the air quality problem will involve reduction in carbon, but this is likely to be overcome by the continued rapid economic growth.
 
How this all plays out in coming decades is impossible to say. For now the only bright spot may be the possibility of new technologies that will produce energy without emissions, but for now it is too early tell if they will come in time.
 
Image credit: US July 2012 temperature map/NOAA

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