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:
- Summer arctic ice may reach zero or near-zero for the first time in human history.
- World oil and/or liquid fuels production may begin a decline for the first time in human history.
- 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.