The Climate/Peak Oil Divide

Last Friday I was on a radio program called Terra Verde with Tom Stokes from the Climate Crisis Coalition to discuss whether or not there was a divide between the movements of people focused on climate change and those focused on peak oil or peak resources in general.

Both Tom and I quickly rejected the notion, though perhaps for different reasons. From my perspective, any sort of tension would require some kind of equal status. The sad truth is that–as far as movements go–one clearly swamps the other (though neither has yet crossed the threshold from early majority to late majority, which means that both camps still have a lot of work to do). Of 100 people who are concerned about climate change, maybe one of them understands peak oil. And I think that generally extends to the activists.

Now, some peak oilers do dismiss concerns about global warming because they believe we’ll run out of oil before the worst case scenarios can come to fruition. I know people who feel this way. On the other side, I know even more climate change activists who either ignore peak oil because–to be blunt–they’re in denial, or because they fear that acceptance of it will diminish our collective sense of urgency to mitigate climate impacts. And that is despite the position of James Hansen, to whom many climate activists otherwise regularly turn.

This entire subject is pretty much irrelevant and ‘inside the beltway,’ until you get to this substantive question:  How does understanding of one crisis change our response to the other?

First, let me say that I think both positions are dangerously naïve.

On the climate side, the worst case scenarios seem to be leaping, not creeping, up at us. Virtually every new study points to more immediate and more severe climate impacts. It’s unclear whether or not we have passed the tipping point whereby positive feedback loops rapidly increase greenhouse gas levels, but it’s hard to deny that the global climate has already gone funky. Welcome to the new world.  

What that means is that we’re already faced with the question of adaptation. Therefore, any solutions to addressing our dependence on depleting fossil fuels better factor in a changed climate in the equation. Regionalized flooding, storms, drought, water scarcity, loss of forests and habitat, fires, heat waves, mass migrations of people, economic destruction–namely, all the impacts of climate uncertainty–are going to have a major say in what types of alternatives are available to us, not to mention how we adapt to a low-energy world. 

On the peak energy side, any large-scale solutions to address global climate change must be grounded in realism about fossil fuel production. I never understood the concern that awareness of peak oil would somehow take the wind out of the sails of the climate crisis. To me the exact opposite fear is true: Because we are facing declines in oil and natural gas production, and ultimately coal, our window for solving the climate crisis is even narrower. It will take massive investments of fossil fueled energy to produce the kind of renewable energy production we’d need to replace any meaningful amount of our current energy portfolio.

I have real doubts that we’ll ever come close to this goal. But we’ve got to shoot for as much as we can, as wisely as we can. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is a life and death issue. So we’ve got just one shot to get it right.

The bottom line is that peak energy and climate change are two sides of the same coin. Frankly, I don’t care which of these you care most about. But know that the solution to one is the solution to the other: Get off fossil fuels fast.  

And here’s one area where the two camps could really work together: coal. Coal is the climate’s worst nightmare. Of all fossil fuels, it’s the most carbon emitting. It makes up nearly 50% of US electricity production and nearly 70% of China’s energy supply. Since 2003, it’s the fastest growing energy sector and is estimated at having the largest reserves of all fossil fuels. Beyond its impact on the climate, coal production is also hugely devastating to the local environment. The combination of all these things makes it central to the problem, and the solution.

The climate movement is coalescing around the need to stop the production of new coal plants. In response, the coal industry has been waging its own campaign claiming that "clean coal is here." And the coal industry has friends in high places: the Obama Administration. The Administration is fast-tracking carbon sequestration projects and Obama himself has said that "Clean coal technology is something that can make America energy independent."

It may be that the administration’s push is because Obama comes from a coal state. Or maybe they actually understand that we’re facing the end of cheap, abundant oil and natural gas, and so assume that we had better find a way to keep coal as the major energy source in this country. But what if recoverable coal supplies aren’t nearly what conventional wisdom claims? Everywhere you look–including in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change–cheap coal is assumed to be available for hundreds of years.  

What if they’re wrong? Would the government still invest billions upon billions on "clean coal?"

Post Carbon Institute’s Senior Fellow, Richard Heinberg, has completed a book called Blackout: Coal, Climate, and the Last Energy Crisis (to be published in June 2009 and serialized in his Museletter) that blows a hole in the conventional wisdom. The climate activist community should jump all over his findings as a major weapon in the arsenal against a coal-fueled future.

For those in the climate movement (of whom I count myself as one) who read this post, consider this an invitation to work together.  


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