Sunday, April 7, 2013

Get Behind the Mule


     Friday's NYT has a nice article about Obama's  fund raising efforts and what he is saying about the XL pipeline:

    "Mr. Obama appears to be leaning toward the approval of the pipeline, although he did not specifically mention it to the donors. But he acknowledged that it is hard to sell aggressive environmental action — like reducing pollution from power plants — to Americans who are still struggling in a difficult economy to pay bills, buy gas and save for retirement.
You may be concerned about the temperature of the planet, but it’s probably not rising to your No. 1 concern,” Mr. Obama said. “And if people think, well, that’s shortsighted, that’s what happens when you’re struggling to get by.
   This started me thinking about risk assessment, and in particular assessing the risks of Peak Oil and Climate Change.   First of all, let me be clear that I agree with the scientific consensus, that Climate Change is real, is human caused, and if not addressed in the near future will lead to horrific results.   But I can also understand why the president said what he did.  Because he is accurately reflecting the way people think.

      Call it discount rate, or "we'll cross that bridge when we get to it",  or even "eating the seed corn".  The facts remains, in most people's minds,  today's problem are much more important than tomorrow's.  Especially if we've never experienced the problems that are predicted for tomorrow.

      Now,   lets add in the potential that "today's problem" are reasonably likely to get much worse.   When we will decide to tackle Climate Change?
    Alternatively,  let's suppose, that things are really looking up.     At what point will people say "OK, things are going well enough.  I can take a reduction in my income so that we don't fry the planet."

Or  to put it in Dave Cohen's cynical style:


The Happy Ending

But wait!    I can't leave this without at least some hope.  OK, here it is. 

1. Climate change can't be stopped without stopping economic growth. 

 2. Economic growth runs on oil and will  stop when oil production shrinks.

  Here's one version of the "predicament". 

In addition to a collapsing economy, with all of its ensuing problems (high unemployment, loss of purchasing power due to inflation/deflation in no particular order, loss of capital and credit for investment, social unrest, war, etc...), a major concern is that the petroleum-driven food production system will experience a sharp decline as petroleum production declines.   In view of continuing population growth, even a modest decline in food production rates will cause starvation, which in turn, will lead to social unrest and ultimately, war, over the remaining fossil fuel resources, in particular oil.

Under this scenario, moderate global warming may still occur, but it is an after-thought, in view of all the other immediate problems.  As Dennis Meadows suggests, in a few years we will be talking about energy scarcity and food and water shortages, not climate change.

Can/will countries get ahead of this problem? 

Well, I think that positive steps could be taken to mitigate the problem, although the prospects of implementing mitigation scenarios any times some don’t look very promising to me. 

First, mitigation would require recognition and acceptance by governments, and the general population, that we are at or near peak oil now, and that there is no realistic energy replacement waiting in the wings—especially a replacement for the liquid transport fossil fuels.  

There are signs of government and other bodies starting to at least consider the problem (see e.g., Eric Townsend’s peak oil resources page) although I am unaware of any government that has actually taken legislative action aimed at curbing the future effects of peak oil. 

Second, governments could take several steps, such as suggested in The Impending World Energy Mess (e.g., fuel efficiency mandates, oil sands development, coal-to-liquids, gas-to-liquids), to mitigate the rate of decline in liquid fuels, and thereby slow the rate of economic and food production decline. 


Third, I would hope that about the same time price spikes and rationing starts, there will be a major effort underway to develop and implement a “Green Revolution 2.0” that is not so dependent on fossil fuel inputs to produce food.  Local food production on multiple small farms using permaculture principles and human and animal power, is a good candidate as Green Revolution 2.0.  Plus, having a much larger portion of the population being directly involved in food production would give the growing millions of unemployed people a meaningful livelihood. 

However, once again, I don’t see governments doing anything to promote a “back to the farm” movement. 


In my opinion, a combination of fuel conservation, alternative liquid fuel development and a Green Revolution 2.0 could moderate the decline in food production, but probably still not enough to totally prevent starvation and death.  But, perhaps it would be enough to prevent major resource wars and a rapid die-off.  Perhaps, what could emerge is a sustainable no-growth civilization. 

Living in a net no-growth or de-growth society, is a foreign experience to pretty well everyone alive today.  How people adapt to this reality in the coming years will be a major challenge at a personal level as well as at the community and country level.


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