A Hole Atop the World

I’m a contrarian, so I tend to believe that it’s darkest before dawn about a lot of things. And things are pretty dark when even the IEA is saying things like “we are seeing the door for a 2 degree Celsius target about to be closed and closed forever.” I do think we may be headed for an awakening of sorts regarding the confluence of peak oil and climate change. While this awakening might not be acknowledged as such, let alone lead to appropriate action, it may be in the cards. I’ve long thought that the apocryphal Gandhi quote on this—”first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”—might be quite applicable, except the thing won in this case isn’t so positive.

These issues were long ignored: consider that climate change in its modern form (i.e. caused by human fossil fuel combustion) has been known for over a century and peak oil for over over half a century. We’ve moved through the “laugh at you” stage and are well into the “fight you” stage on both. The general public, though, has been left out of the fray, and many people don’t know what to think about these issues any more. However, there’s often a quick transition in public awareness from “that’s crazy” to “that’s stupid” to “that’s obvious”—so quick that the people who follow that arc often don’t even realize they have.

A shock might do the trick. And 2015/2016 might be when it happens. Specifically, I’m looking at three physical phenomena that may converge around that time:

  1. Summer arctic ice may reach zero or near-zero for the first time in human history.
  2. World oil and/or liquid fuels production may begin a decline for the first time in human history.
  3. Atmospheric CO2 may hit 400 ppm for the first time in human history.

There’s a fair bit of evidence that these are likely to occur in that timeframe.

Take arctic sea ice: sea ice volume trends from PIOMAS data indicates that we’re likely only a few years away from zero September sea ice. (Though “near-zero” is probably more accurate, since it’s unlikely that there will be zero ice floating around somewhere in the arctic.)

Oil and liquid fuels production is harder to project; I’ve been looking to Hirsch (video, slides) and Skrebowski (slides), who are both expecting a liquid fuels production decline to begin around 2015.

The final, easiest of the three to justify is atmospheric CO2. One look at the Mauna Loa data and you can see that we’re very likely to hit 400 ppm by 2015.

It’s important that these are physical phenomena, because besides the 27 percent in the population who will deny even well-understood scientific data, it’s hard to make a case that these facts are politically or otherwise skewed. The first two are likely to also have a number of major consequences. Those of peak oil are well known and often discussed. Those of an ice-free arctic are less often discussed, but still important. Consider, for example, that the minimal sea ice cover this past winter may have been and may continue to be a cause of abnormal weather in Europe.

What might be the reaction to these happenings? I imagine that a number of those who previously denied that climate change was a problem will quickly shift to “it’s too late to do anything about it” or, among those who never miss an opportunity, “we have to geoengineer our way out of this problem.” While I hope that these three events would lead to a wide-spread realization that we need to down-scale our human footprint—rather than throw up our hands or dig the hole even deeper—the only way that might have even a slight chance of happening is if we all plant the seeds of that thinking now.

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Responses to “A Hole Atop the World”

  1. As a lifelong progressive – I weary from the Chicken Little-ism of the climate camp. There is only so much political capital available – and, sadly, a huge portion of it is used for bewailing Arctic ice – while millions go jobless, homeless, without basic healthcare.

    How much did the Copenhagen Conference cost? How many of the world’s glitterati attended? When was the last time such a conference was held for the working poor and poor?

    And you wonder why those most impacted by neoliberal downsizing have turned to right-wing answers in Europe and the U.S.

    Yes, the environmental issues facing humans are daunting – - but unless one addresses the material base first, then there is no change for political success in the environmental.

    Many of the most struggling in the U.S. have to drive twice the mileage of the normal commuter in directions without a hint of public transportation and in vehicles that are a far cry from a Prius. Just to get a $9 an hour job without benefits.

    Double the price of gasoline?
    And see who they vote for.

  2. Jamawani -

    Hmm…I’m not sure I agree with your premises. First, the consequences to human welfare worldwide will be severe if climate change really takes a turn for the worse; same goes for our dependence upon fossil fuels. (What’s already baked into the climate system is going to be major enough.) So that’s a false dichotomy. Second, climate change and peak oil, unlike most social issues, are physical phenomena that get progressively worse the longer we do nothing. Third, just because the status quo policy proposals for climate change aren’t very good, doesn’t mean that the entire issue should be ignored. Consider a clean energy dividend, which I wrote about a few months ago: it would not be regressive in the way a normal carbon tax would be and wouldn’t have the effects you describe. Instead, those who have a less-than-average carbon footprint (which closely correlates with income) would receive money via the dividend every month in excess of the surcharges they see. It’s those with lavish energy expenditures that would get hit hardest and would be incentivized to downscale their use. Such a policy might be the single best thing that could be done for both the working poor and the environment as a whole.

  3. Barath -

    It’s pretty clear that both of us belong to the educated elite – even if out incomes may not always reflect it. Such is not the case for many working poor – their economic opportunities continue to shrink in the neoliberal economic restructuring.

    Daniel Yergin and other energy researchers have long identified a stair-step price/production model. (You may say that the oil sands are not “real” oil, but tell that to the Chinese.)

    Today in the U.S. you can hardly give away natural gas – $2+ per mcf. It was almost $15 a few years ago. Why? Fracking.

    Now, you may not like fracking – and there is little doubt about its environmental consequences. However, what it has done is provide relatively high-paying jobs in areas that have faced long-term economic decline – such as NE Ohio and NW Penna. ($80k to drive a truck)

    Your original essay is full of “should” but rather thin on “could”. Politics is, of course, the art of the possible. Tell me, how can any policy you wish to see enacted come about if Obama loses Ohio and Pennsylvania – - not to mention the GOP controlling Congress, too?

  4. Jamawani -

    Ok, so it seems you’re bringing up a whole bunch of stuff (especially about neoliberal economics that you’ve mentioned a couple of times, and now fracking) that I didn’t write about at all in this post, which is fine, but I guess I’m not sure where you’re going with that.

    Honestly I don’t think any sort of meaningful reform will happen in the short term, which is why I didn’t write about what could be done politically. But I do subscribe to the (old) notion that in a crisis policymakers tend to grab the plausible but untried ideas that are laying around, and so the more ideas about effective responses are disseminated, the greater chance that they’ll be tried when the time comes.

    More than that I like writing, which is why I’m blogging. I have no illusions that blogs such as this one will have any political impact.

  5. I read the geoengineering article. I found interesting the passing mention of the decline of carbon concentration in 2009, due to the recession, and the fact that it wasn’t considered further. Apparently recession isn’t considered a viable option.

    This seems to be typical of most discussions of climate change — the assumption that, absent intentional measures to reduce carbon emissions, they’ll continue to rise, since _of course_ our economy will continue to grow, and thus our demand for energy.

    Meanwhile, the peak oil/peak energy community is warning that such growth is impossible, for well-publicized reasons.

    The few cases I’ve seen where peak oil has been introduced into a discussion of climate change, it’s been interpreted by the CC modelers/activists as an attempt to downplay or deny the seriousness of CC, leading to predictably unhelpful interactions.

    So, where’s the overlap between the camps? (I’d think there’d be at least some folks who are informed in both areas.) Where are the studies that take into account both the climate realities and the energy/economic realities? I’m no expert, but I see two possible aspects of the interaction, one positive and one negative.

    On the positive side, we’re going to be emitting less CO2 in the decades ahead, intentionally or not (as the 2009 “experiment” indicates). On the negative side, the energy constraints (and resulting economic difficulties) will diminish our ability to deal with the effects of CC. (Another effect may well be that geoengineering on a large enough scale to affect CC will be impossible, due to the lack of “free energy” to carry it out. This may be considered positive by some, negative by others.)

  6. Don -

    Recession (and the end of growth) are definitely likely, and like you say they’re often ignored as possible outcomes. As far as the overlap between the two communities (and the disagreements), I tried to explore that in a post last year. Though even if the rate of emissions doesn’t increase, the total quantity of CO2 in the atmosphere will continue to increase unless all fossil fuel use is phased out. It’s the area under the emissions rate curve that matters. Unfortunately, it’s possible to end up with the worst of both worlds: steady emissions due to lower quality fuels (i.e. more carbon intense fuels like tar sands) while those fuels are unable to sustain economic growth (and its accompanying quality of life).