Burning Over Oil - Peak Oil and Climate Change
By Julian Gibson
Civilisation as we know it may be coming to an end very soon.
This is the conclusion of some of the most respected geologists, physicists and investment bankers. As the world is reaching “peak oil”, and reserves begin to dwindle, a global scrabble for what’s left of this precious ‘black gold’ is on. It’s possible that the coming decades could be the most critical in human history.
Panning for gold
The industrialised world and its economy rely entirely on fossil fuels. Under this fossil fuel system, access to oil (whoever owns it) is access to power. Put simply, without oil modern society cannot function as it is.
One day’s global oil use is around 70 million barrels- representing a line of barrels long enough to encircle the earth. Half is used for fuel, half for plastics and chemicals. Oil and its by-products are indispensable in every aspect of modern day life: food production, medicine, water distribution, toys, clothes, food preservatives, footballs, toothpaste, shampoo, cosmetics, computers, detergents, fertilizers, cameras, car batteries, CDs, tyres…Vaseline, you name it. Our society is addicted to- and utterly dependent on oil. By 2010 we will need an additional 50 million barrels a day, and it is running out.
Oil consumption is now exploding. Huge new markets have opened in India and China. China is now the second largest importer of oil. Some suggest that the invasion of Iraq was- in part- in response to China’s growing thirst for oil, the invasion certainly annulled a 26 year oil contract China had with Saddam Hussein’s regime.
There are around 12 million cars on China’s roads. As China has eagerly embraced the ‘free market’, Ford and General Motors secured lucrative deals there, China’s need for oil has grown. It is estimated that by 2020 there will be 140 million vehicles on China’s roads. The construction of an average car consumes about 25-50 barrels of oil, not to mention the oil burned driving the cars, and the building of roads for said cars to toot along. In terms of environmental consequences this will be catastrophic.
Global oil supply- with the exception of the Middle East- peaked in 1997. At the current rate of production the West’s oil will have run dry by 2010, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union will run out by 2013 and Asia is likely to run out by 2018- it is likely that major conflicts will erupt in the fight over this dwindling oil supply. The war in Iraq- 23 years in the making- is just the beginning of a worldwide ‘war on terror’ that we are told “will not end in our lifetime.”
The US has half a million troops stationed around the world in areas of strategic interest- namely fuel and mineral rich areas. US military bases have replaced former Soviet bases in the oil rich nations of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakstan. Russia is nervous and China also wants a piece of the action: they have 4000 troops stationed in Sudan protecting oil interests there, and have strengthened ties with oil rich Venezuela. In the coming years we may see a three way conflict between these nuclear powers, none of which are known for their diplomacy.
Fuel prices are escalating sharply, the price of crude oil has doubled since 2001. The long term effects of peak oil shortages and escalating prices are not entirely known, but some scientists say we could find ourselves slipping into a “post-industrial stone age”. The chief economist at Morgan Stanley recently predicted that: “We have a 90% chance of facing Economic Armageddon.”
Oil depletion will lead to major energy shortages and increasingly severe blackouts beginning around 2008-2012. An oil based economy such as ours doesn’t have to deplete its entire reserves of oil before it begins to collapse. A shortfall between demand and supply as little as 10-15 percent is enough to shatter an oil dependent economy and reduce it’s citizenry to poverty.
Given the credentials of those sounding the loudest alarm bells, it may be extremely unwise for us to dismiss this as mere ‘doom mongering’.
In March 2005, the energy analysts at John C Herold Inc- the firm that foretold Enron’s demise- confirmed industry rumours that we are “on the verge of an unprecedented crisis.”
At least 98% of climate scientists agree that our planet is warming up due to the burning of fossil fuels. The oceans could reach CO2 saturation, and forests, if logged and burned at the current rates, will release more CO2 than they absorb.
The IEA World Energy Outlook predicts that CO2 emissions will increase 62 percent by 2030, committing the world to a temperature rise of between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees by 2100. The mass extinction at the end of the Permian period, 251 million years ago (which wiped out up to 95 percent of species on earth), seems likely to have been associated with 5 degree centigrade of global warming- exactly what we might be experiencing within this century.
A suggested solution to try to deal with the problem has been to chemically remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and bury it underground, but the technology is unproven and there is no guarantee that the carbon will stay put. However, most research, political support and economic subsidies in the industrialised world are still largely geared towards fossil and nuclear energy production.
Then there are the ‘climate sceptics’, pseudo scientists who corporations employ to try to deny the science. Between 1998 and 2004 Shell donated over 12 million dollars to promote these sceptics, and millions on advertising their eco-friendly credentials, but didn’t spend a penny on clean energy.
When one of George W Bush’s energy advisors, Matthew Simmons was asked if there is a solution to the impending natural gas crisis he responded: “I don’t think there is one, the solution is to pray. Under the best of circumstances there will be no crisis in maybe two years, after that it’s a certainty.”
Concerns about human survival in the coming century are all too realistic. The ten years between 2005 and 2015 could be the most critical in human history. If we are to have any serious impact on the problem, we need 80 percent cuts in carbon emissions within 20 years, and starting now…rather than 5 percent cuts by 2012, as agreed in the Kyoto treaty.
The current battle is over control for dwindling oil in the immediate future, with no thought for the long term. The suicidal policies of the governments and corporations are leading us into further conflict, environmental destruction and an increasingly bleak future.
Unfortunately the available alternatives to fossil fuels may be insufficient for supporting the transport, infrastructure, food, housing and waste that we have now. Even with huge technological breakthroughs, tremendous international cooperation and investment in sustainable energy, modern society will simply have to adapt, somehow.
There is much that individuals and communities can do to prepare for the coming energy crisis (home grown food, energy conservation and austere living.) However, the unsustainability of the modern world is not just due to individual’s choices and behaviour; it’s a result of fundamental socio-economic and political structures, of conscious and deliberate policies- that can, and must be changed. So long as we have a monetary system based upon debt, and locked into a reliance on fossil fuels, there will be no way out of this conundrum.
The transformation to a post-petroleum economy is vital. Capitalism is an economic system built on the assumption that growth is necessary, that profit is the natural goal of an economy, and that this race can go on forever. When global oil production peaks, as it will in the next few years, this illusion will come crashing down.
In order to change the consumptive patterns of millions of citizens, a concerted effort at educating the public will be needed. But the media currently consists of the advertising and entertainment industries, spreading a message the exact opposite of what is required- of consumption and waste. And while their interests lie in profit, the advertising industry is unlikely to willingly change its message.
It may be comforting for the mass media and the population to bury their heads in the sand and pretend this isn’t happening, but it certainly isn’t wise. People want to believe the climate sceptics, because facing the consequences of what the scientists are telling us is terrifying. But the consequences if we do not act may be much more terrible.