Ten years ago, an academic named Richard Heinberg published a book that landed like a bomb. The Party’s Over predicted that global oil production would soon peak, forcing tectonic changes for industrial society. The book – praised by environmentalists, name-checked by Bill Clinton – was the first in what would become a whole peak oil literature. A decade later, we still haven’t hit the peak, and new, extreme sources of energy threaten to fuel climate change for years to come. So, were the peak oil-ers wrong? And does the idea of energy depletion help or hurt the effort to break our fossil fuel addiction? Tom Athanasiou, director of Eco Equity, says we have enough fossil fuels to roast the planet, and that peak oil is a dangerous distraction. Aaron Lehmer-Chang, an advocate for locally resilient communities, argues that peak oil is a potent way to talk about our reliance on fossil fuels.
by Aaron G. Lehmer-Chang
If we environmentalists were honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that several decades of heroic efforts to curb carbon emissions have yielded little progress. Despite repeated warnings from scientists and the inspiring rise of climate activism, global emissions continue to grow, having recently passed the dangerous threshold of 400 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere.
“Passing the 400 [ppm] mark reminds me that we are on an inexorable march to 450 ppm and much higher levels,” says Dr. Michael Gunson of the Global Change & Energy Program. Such views are sobering, to say the least, especially knowing that it takes about four decades for the impacts of prior emissions to take full effect. We’ve already witnessed nearly a 1°C increase in average global temperatures from emissions between 1900 and the early 1970s. If you add the emissions “already in the pipeline” over the decades since, we’re almost guaranteed another 0.5°C in warming by mid-century. This would take us precariously close to the much-dreaded 2°C increase that scientists warn would have severe climate impacts on social and natural systems.
by Tom Athanasiou
Tom Athanasiou is the director of the Earth Island-sponsored project EcoEquity and a member of the Greenhouse Development Rights authors’ group. His interests focus on distributive justice within the global environmental emergency.
Is our civilization doomed?
I don’t think so, though I’ll admit that the case for doom is a pretty good one. But I wish to be clear on two points. First, it’s not too late to avoid disastrous climate change. We’re in trouble, no doubt about that, but we have the science, the technology, and the money to save ourselves. Second, we simply won’t do so if we give ourselves up to the habits of pessimism.
Is “peak oil” a good way to talk about all this? The short answer is No, and this despite the fact that it draws attention to planetary limits, and to the great resource crunch that’s now rising on the horizon. Still, peak oil – as a stance and as a reality – is essentially irrelevant, and even distracting, at least in the all-important climate context. We’re just not running out of fossil energy soon enough, not in time to prevent climate catastrophe. It’s not even going to be close.
Bottom line: If we even get close to burning the fossils we already have on our books, we’re toast. And yet we’re dead certain to discover a whole lot more.
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