October 31, 2008

Peak Oil and Climate Change: Alternate Universes

Richard Heinberg has a terrific deconstruction of the sometimes clashing, sometimes complementary, perspectives of peak oil and climate change activists:

"Most advocates for the Peak Oil concept—sometimes known as “depletionists”—are energy experts, economists, journalists, urban planners, or workers retired from the oil industry (usually geologists or petroleum engineers). Among climate analysts and activists there are more environmentalists, fewer energy experts, and far fewer retired oil industry employees. It is my experience that, when placed in the same room together, the two groups often talk past one another."'

Heinberg notes that considerable internal diversity exists within each grouping:
Some individuals and groups working on issues related to oil and natural gas depletion are well informed about climate science, while some are not. Some climate protection groups are sensitive to fuel-supply vulnerability issues; others are not. Some Peak Oil activists are what have come to be known in the blog world as “doomers”—that is, they believe that there is no hope at this point for the preservation of modern civilization in any recognizable form; others are “techno-fixers,” who think that the world will adjust—painfully perhaps, but in the end successfully—to oil depletion through conservation and the development of alternative energy sources. Similarly there are “moderate” climate-change scientists and activists who see the problem as serious but solvable, while there are some who believe that the world has already passed a “tipping point” beyond which catastrophic impacts are inevitable. It is probably fair to say that the substantial majority of both groups find themselves somewhere midway between extreme positions staked out by some of their spokespeople."

...Some Peak Oil analysts seem to be of the opinion that oil depletion constitutes a solution to the dilemma of global greenhouse gas emissions, or that Climate Change is actually not a problem at all. This appears to be the view primarily of some former oil industry geologists, but is probably not that of the majority of depletion analysts. The view is rarely stated openly (I was unable to find a glaring instance in print, though I have heard it expressed in conversation).
Climate change activists, by contrast, "argue that, even if global oil production peaks soon, this will provide no solution whatever to Climate Change because society will replace oil with coal and other low-grade fossil fuels—which will simply worsen greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, since the remedies for carbon emissions that climate activists propose will inevitably lead to increased energy efficiency and a reduction in oil consumption, they often feel such efforts constitute an adequate answer to the Peak Oil problem."
For many Climate Change activists, theirs is primarily a moral issue having to do with the fate of future generations and other species. Their message implies an appeal to self-preservation, but since they cannot prove that the most horrific climate consequences being predicted (the drowning of coastal cities by rising seas, rapidly expanding deserts, collapsing agricultural production) will occur within the next decade or two, the motive of self-preservation is often downplayed. This emphasis on the moral dimension of climate activism is clear in Al Gore’s documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth."

Perhaps because Climate Change activists see that a dramatic reduction in emissions must be undertaken voluntarily and proactively, and that the depletion of fossil fuels will not occur quickly enough to deter catastrophic emissions levels, they tend to accept generous estimates of remaining fossil fuels as a way of dramatizing the need for action. They see the argument that depletion will take care of the carbon emissions problem as a threat, because it could lead to apathy. They argue that there are enough fossil fuels left on the planet to trigger a climatic doomsday; and, to underscore the argument, Climate Change often quote robust estimates of remaining oil reserves and amounts awaiting discovery issued by agencies such as the United States Energy Information Administration (EIA), and by companies like ExxonMobil and Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA)—most of whose forecasts seem unrealistically optimistic compared to the majority of expert forecasts.
After discussing the contending perspectives of the two camps over natural gas, coal, and unconventionals like tar sands, which I excerpt later, Heinberg comes to the main pitch:
the two problems of Climate Change and Peak Oil together are worse than either by itself. Strategies that might help to keep lights burning and trucks moving while reducing emissions are questionable from a depletionist point of view, while most strategies to keep the economy energized as oil and gas disappear simply increase greenhouse gas emissions.

With regard to both problems there are only two kinds of solutions: substitution solutions (finding replacement energy sources) and conservation solutions (using energy more efficiently or just doing without). . . .

Several questions become critical: How much of a change in energy supply will be imposed by the peaking of production of oil and natural gas? How much will be required in order to minimize Climate Change? And how much of that supply shortfall can be made up for with substitution and how much with efficiency, before we have to resort to curtailment?
Though noting various tensions among the two camps, Heinberg finds a basis for cooperation among them: "Taken together, Climate Change and Peak Oil make a nearly air-tight argument. We should reduce our dependency on fossil fuels for the sake of future generations and the rest of the biosphere; but even if we choose not to do so because of the costs involved, the most important of those fossil fuels will soon become more scarce and expensive anyway, so complacency is simply not an option."

At the same time, Heinberg does find fault with both camps:
Climate activists could start using depletion arguments and data in tandem with their ongoing discussions of ice cores and melting glaciers, but to do so they would need to stop taking unrealistically robust resource estimates at face value.

For their part, depletionists—if they are to take advantage of increased collaboration with emissions activists—must better familiarize themselves with climate science, so that their Peak Oil mitigation proposals are ones that lead to a reduction rather than an increase of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
The bottom line, Heinberg believes, is that "energy efficiency and curtailment will almost certainly have to be the world’s dominant responses to both issues."

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