Helping America Navigate a New Energy Reality

Reaping Whirlwinds: Peak Oil and Climate Change in the New Political Climate – By Sharon Astyk

By on December 6, 2010 in Commentary

Political prognostication is a dangerous game, but one of the certainties of the latest election was that the US will not be enacting any significant federal climate legislation. One could be forgiven for wondering what the election has to do with anything. In the two years previously during which the Democrats controlled Presidency, House and Senate, the US had failed also to enact any climate legislation, but we have moved from the faintest possible hope to none at all.

If inaction is certain on climate change, it may be that all is not entirely hopeless if we reframe the terms to addressing our carbon problem. Peak-oil activism could accomplish many of the goals of climate activists. Unlike climate change, peak oil doesn’t carry the ideological associations with the left that climate change does. Could peak oil provide a framing narrative for political action to address both climate change and peak oil? Certainly, a great deal would have to happen in order to accomplish this. But peak oil is a sufficiently powerful and pressing issue that its profile could be raised, particularly if current climate activists were willing to change their focus from the means of achieving consensus on climate change to the end of achieving emissions reductions.

I should emphasize that my subject is the political framing of these issues and that I take the scientific case for Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) to be more than sufficient. The question in front of us is not, “Is global warming real?” since the scientific literature is overwhelmingly clear on this point, but rather, “What is the most effective way to formulate our relationship to climate change so that the greatest good is accomplished?”

What might be necessary to craft a unified narrative that could get widespread and bi-partisan political support in the US that would serve the interests of everyone concerned with how we burn carbon? Peak oil has been called “the liberal left-behind movement;” but that doesn’t change the fact that peak oil is a bi-partisan concern. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Maryland, has been peak oil’s face in the House. The US military has been a leader in articulating the dangers of peak oil. Peak-oil discussions draw a fascinating and unusual range of participants, across political lines, and it is hard to overstate how uncommon and valuable such an issue is in our highly politically-stratified society. Given the stakes of both issues, this is ground we must build on.

The first requirement is that climate and energy activists need to understand each other better. While there are many important exceptions to my generalities here about the differences between the two communities, in many cases, we do not know each other’s data or political landscape well enough to collaborate well. For example, most climate activists persist in using IPCC figures that imply that far more coal, oil and natural gas will be available in the future than the evidence supports. Meanwhile, some strains of the peak-oil community argue that these resource limits will be sufficient to restrain the worst outcomes of AGW. They fail to grasp that the increases in our understanding of climate sensitivity documented by among others the IPCC update “The Copenhagen Diagnosis” mean that we do, unfortunately, have far too many fossil fuels to be saved by our resource limits.

Second, we need to fully articulate our common ground, and be prepared to compromise in the creation of a shared narrative. The climate-change story is one, broadly, in which we must constrain use of abundant resources voluntarily and consciously. Peak oil’s narrative shifts the emphasis: involuntary constraints will be thrust upon us. The former presumes we must also use our abundant resources to buffer the assaults of an increasingly unstable planet. The latter presumes that we will suffer primarily from failures of built infrastructure.

It is perhaps understandable, then, for those who view climate change as the primary problem to imagine that we can manufacture limitless renewable technologies to mitigate the effects of climate instability. Climate activists generally focus on optimistic predictions for renewable production, often ignore critical technical differences like EROEI, and generally imagine a world of economic growth, therefore understating the economic costs of addressing our future problems.

It is not entirely clear to most of us what life in an unstable climate will look like. On the other hand, it is easy to envision failures of access to gasoline, heating fuel, blackouts. Peak-oil activists tend to gravitate more heavily towards personal solutions, and because infrastructure failure strikes us so viscerally, in some cases, tend to dismiss the possibilities of political responses. Because peak oil has historically been marginalized politically, there is often an assumption that this marginalization cannot be overcome.

In order to accomplish change of the magnitude necessary to respond to each issue, both sides would have to come to terms with one another. Climate change activists have invested a great deal of their narrative in telling people that the new green economy will have plenty of jobs and comparatively low economic costs. Acknowledging that we lack the energy resources to maintain perpetual economic growth requires them to shift their narrative to one of sacrifice for the greater good; this is a much tougher row to hoe, but ultimately, the only viable choice. The strategic emphasis and a new understanding of net energy will have to be on conservation strategies and changing the industrial way of life towards one that is vastly less energy intensive.

The peak-oil community will have to give up its habit of dismissing the political process entirely, and its underlying assumption that no one is going to listen to it. This sounds easy, but may not be. Both parties may have to come to terms with the fact that the most important political responses may not be about renewable build outs, but about basic social protections of ordinary people made vulnerable by both crises.

Peak-oil activists will have to fully come to terms with the reality of adaptation in an unstable climate. Relocalization is a viable tool in our box, and an important one, but simply may not be achievable for many communities that will be disrupted and rendered uninhabitable by climate change. More than a billion climate refugees are predicted in the coming century; it is unlikely that none of us will be among them. Strategies for localization and energy reduction must take seriously predictions of how livable each place will be.

Finally, and most critically, once we find our common ground, we’ll have to stick with it, and commit to working together. Environmental activism has been almost entirely a thing of the left in the US. Framing the narrative of our carbon crisis in terms of peak energy raises the possibility of bi-partisanship, but only if all the participants can actually work together without demonizing one another. That means putting aside the political fractures that divide us. Asking pro-choice and anti-abortion activists to work together, asking people who feel passionately about gay marriage or economic policy to simply table those issues is an enormous challenge. The rage that the right and left feel towards one another seems to be our birthright, and there are legitimate reasons underlying some of that rage, but we must put it aside.

It is indubitable that if we put these issues aside, we’ll be accused of throwing people under the bus. The only justification for tabling other political issues is this: the stakes are the highest in human history. The only justification for changing narratives to which we are attached, in which we believe fervently is this: that some of us will die if we don’t. The only argument for putting aside our rage and fury is simply this: that our rage and fury will be vastly greater when our children die of diseases we might have prevented, when the floods take our homes, when the food runs scarce. For these stakes, we can do almost anything – and we must.

Sharon Astyk is the author of three books on Peak Oil and Climate Change, a small farmer, and a member of the ASPO-USA board of directors. She also blogs at http://www.scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook.

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent the ASPO-USA position.)

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  • John Mack

    Over-population is a simplistic response. Does an increasing population put greater demands on oil and other resources? Sure, but the greatest population growth has occurred in developing countries as opposed to developed countries like the USA where one American’s oil consumption is equal to that of 25 Indians or 12 Chinese or 6 Brazilians (2006 figures).

  • Mrs._Dash

    Is scheduling a meeting by invitation/recommendation between peak oil and climate change activists a possibility as part of ASPO’s next conference, or sooner at one mighty special summit? It’s all the rage, these types of gatherings, with maybe a special keynote speaker to stir the right creative juices.

    Nice piece of writing.

  • Don Hirschberg

    “The problem as I see it, is not energy, but too many people.” Bravo, Robert Spoley.

    Unless we decrease world population all the other noble efforts are fatuous. My arithmetic says it’s already too late. I hope I am wrong – and I don’t much like being wrong. There are 3.5 times as many people today as when I was born. There are about 23 times as many people as a mere thousand years ago.

  • Doug

    Robert,

    Overpopulation certainly appears to be at the root of many of our problems, but we have the people we have and there isn’t any way to reduce those numbers (ignoring clearly horrific methods) quickly enough to address either peak oil or climate change in a timely manner. Significant further warming is already programmed into the climate, and our fossil fuel use has yet to slow down enough to significantly put off peak oil. They are two catastrophes that are heading our way and noone is doing research on both. The dynamics of this intersection needs to be examined closely and soon.

  • Robert Spoley

    Interesting! I believe in “Peak Oil” but do not feel that anthropogenic climate warming is a “done deal”. Enough data to be conclusive either way is not in hand. I fail to see the logic of NOT requiring more data before conclusions are reached and world domination accepted by elitist “knowledgeable scientists” who do not require more data to reach these conclusions. The problem as I see it, is not energy, but too many people. That issue impacts all “peak” issues yet never seems to be addressed. I can’t wait to see these “knowledgeable scientists” address the overpopulation issues which I feel are indisputable. Who do I see about that?

  • http://www.coveredinbees.org Dan Olner

    Interesting. But, something to think about via Michael Tobis, on the dangers of not being absolutely up-front regarding why you’re arguing for some particular policy:

    http://initforthegold.blogspot.com/2010/12/contrarianism-honesty-and-value-of.html

    Quote: “For example, we may argue for wind-driven electricity powering electric cars because of the national security aspect of imported oil, when in fact we are interested in the climate aspect. Others may enthusiastically support our argument and then use it to support coal-to-liquids, or Canadian tar sands.

    “Then suppose we turn around and say, “well we didn’t mean *that* because of the climate implications!” This would seem to mean that we were lying about (some of) our motivations in the first place. So we’d get the extra greenhouse gases and the loss of credibility, and only the secondary problem (security of liquid fuel supply) would end up addressed.”

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