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TTH Chapter 1: Peak oil and climate change - The two great oversights of our times
|The Transition Handbook 2nd edition
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- 1 What is peak oil?: why it isn't the last drop that matters
- 2 Some key indications that we are nearing the peak
- 3 Peak When?
- 4 Climate change
- 5 The greenhouse effect
- 6 Is there such a thing as a safe limit?
- 7 The intertwining of peak oil and climate change
- 8 Can peak oil engage people more effectively than climate change?
- 9 The contradictions of the Hirsch Report
What is peak oil?: why it isn't the last drop that matters
There are plenty of other people better qualified than myself to tell you about peak oil. I have never worked in the oil industry, am not a geologist, and other than having grown up in what is now one of the most rapidly depleting oil-producing nations in the world (the UK), I have no first-hand experience of oil production or geology. Prior to September 2004 I had never heard of the concept of peak oil, and had always assumed that oil in our economy worked in the same way as petrol in the tank of a car; that whether the engine was full or almost empty, it would run exactly the same. I thought we would potter along until some day in the distant future someone would put the very last drop of oil in their car and that would be that, a bit like the last truffula tree falling in Dr Seuss's The Lorax. I was later to discover that I was somewhat wide of the mark, as I started to delve deeper into this incredibly important subject.
For me, learning about peak oil has been profoundly illuminating in terms of how I see the world and the way it works: the precarious nature of what we have come to see as how a society should function, as well as elements that any community responses we develop will need to have. Don't take my word for it - read around, inform yourself. Climate change - an issue of great severity - is only one half of the story; developing an understanding of peak oil is similarly essential. Together, these two issues have been referred to as the 'Hydrocarbon Twins'. They are so intertwined, that seen in isolation, a large part of the story remains untold.
Without cheap oil, you wouldn't be reading this book now. The centralised distribution of books would not have been feasible, and if you did have a copy, it would be one of only a very few books you had, and you would consider it a very precious possession indeed. I would not have been able to type it on my laptop, in a warm house, listening to CDs. When you really start thinking about it, it's not just this book that would not be here. Most things around you rely on cheap oil for their manufacture and transportation. Your furniture, entertainment, recreation, food, household appliances, medicines and cosmetics are all dependent on this miraculous material. This is not a criticism - it's just how it is for us all, and has been for as long as most of us can remember. It is almost impossible to imagine anything else.
It is entirely understandable how we got into this position. Oil is a remarkable substance. It was formed from prehistoric zooplankton and algae that covered the oceans 90-150 million years ago, ironically during two periods of global warming. It sank to the bottom of the ocean, was covered by sediment washed in from surrounding land, buried deeper and deeper, and over time was heated under extreme pressure by geological processes, and eventually became oil. Natural gas was formed through similar processes, but is formed more from vegetal remains or from oil that became 'overcooked' when buried too deep in the Earth's crust. One gallon of oil contains the equivalent of about 98 tons of the original surface-forming, algal matter, distilled over millennia, and which had itself collected enormous amounts of solar energy on the waves of the prehistoric ocean. It is not for nothing that fossil fuels are sometimes referred to as 'ancient sunlight'. They are astonishingly energy-dense.
I like to think of fossil fuels being like the magic potion in Asterix and Obelix books. Goscinny and Uderzo's Gaulish heroes live in the only village to hold out against Roman occupation, thanks to a magic potion brewed to a secret recipe by their druid, Getafix. The potion gives them superhuman strength and makes them invincible, much to the chagrin of Julius Caesar. Like Asterix and Obelix's magic potion, oil makes us far stronger, faster and more productive than we have ever been, enabling our society to do between 70 and 100 times more work than would be possible without it. We have lived with this potion for 150 years and, like Asterix and Obelix, have got used to thinking we will always have it, indeed we have designed our living arrangements in such a way as to be entirely dependent on it.
It is estimated that 40 litres of petrol in the tank of a car contains energy equivalent to 4 years human manual labour. It is no wonder that we in the West consume on average about 16 barrels of oil a year per capita - less than Kuwait, where they use 36 (what do they do, bathe in it?), but far more than China's two, or India's less than one. The amount of energy needed to maintain the average UScitizen is the equivalent of 50 people on bicycles pedalling furiously in our back gardens day and night. We have become dependent on these pedallers - what some people refer to as 'energy slaves'.But we are, it should also be acknowledged, extremely fortunate to live at a time in history with access to amounts of energy and a range of materials, products and possibilities that our ancestors couldn't even have imagined.
Figure 1 presents one of the best researched graphic representations of what we might call the 'The Petroleum Interval', the brief interlude of 200 years where we extracted all of this amazing material from the ground and burnt it. Viewed in the historical context of thousands of years, it is a brief spike. Viewed from where we stand now, it looks like the top of a mountain.
Oil has allowed us to create extraordinary technologies, cultures and discoveries, to set foot on the Moon and to perfect the Pop Tart. But can it go on forever? Of course not. Like any finite material, the faster we consume it, the faster it will be gone. We are like Asterix and Obelix realising, with a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, that the cauldron of potion they have in front of them is the last one. We can see the possibility of life without potion looming before us.
The key point here is that it is not the point when we use the last drop that matters. The moment that really matters is the peak, the moment when you realise that from that point onward there will always be less magic potion year-on-year, and that because of its increasing scarcity, it will become an increasingly expensive commodity. This year (2008), oil has for the first time broken through the $100 a barrel ceiling. Chris Skrebowski, editor of Petroleum Review magazine, defines peak oil thus, "the point when further expansion of oil production becomes impossible because new production flows are fully offset by production declines". It is the midway point - the moment when half of the reserves have been used up, sometimes referred to as 'peak oil' or the 'tipping point' that is important. It is a moment of historic importance. All the way up the slope towards the peak, since Drake drilled the first oil well in Pennsylvania in 1859, demand has driven supply. The more oil the world economy needed, the more the oil industry could produce.
'Swing producers' - that is, nations with large reserves which could increase output as required - ensured that supply could be increased whenever necessary. During the 1930s and 1940s it was the US that acted as that swing producer; in recent years it has been Saudi Arabia. Once we pass the peak, supply begins to dictate demand, meaning that the prices start to rise suddenly and steeply, and the people with control of the remaining oil really get to start calling the shots.
Some key indications that we are nearing the peak
How might we know we are at or close to the peak? Firstly, there is an observable pattern that gives us an indication. Most oil-producing nations follow the same pattern - the peak in discovery tends to occur 30-40 years before a peak in production. Clearly one has to discover oil before one can produce it, and we tend to exploit the larger and easier reserves first. This pattern has been seen in the UK, the US, Russia and many more now-declining oil producing nations (see left). Given that the world as a whole peaked in discovery in 1965, we might, if the same pattern applies, imagine that we are close to, or at, the peak of production. This was first observed by geologist M. King Hubbert, who predicted in 1956 that the US would peak in production in 1970 (it had peaked in discovery in the 1930s). He was ridiculed, but eventually proved correct.
Another indicator is that since January 2005, world oil production has stayed at between 84 and 87 million barrels a day (mbd), in spite of a very high price environment. While the world economy desperately wants to increase consumption (the International Energy Agency has predicted that world production will reach 120mbd, a figure few in the industry take seriously), and oil prices have risen from $12 a barrel in 1988 to come close to $140 a barrel in June 2008. Its inability to keep up with burgeoning demand (see Figure 4, p.29) is a strong indication that matters geological, rather than matters political or economic, are increasingly playing a role.
Discoveries have fallen since their peak in 1965. This downward trend in discovery is also due to the fact that although we are still finding oil, the average size of the fields we are discovering is falling. In 1940 the average size of the fields found over the previous five years was 1.5 billion barrels, by 1960 it had fallen to 300 million barrels, by 2004 it was just 45 million barrels, and it continues to fall. Indeed, during the Oil Age, 47,500 oil fields have been found, yet the 40 largest ones have yielded 75% of all the oil ever discovered. As Figure 2 shows (page 21), the fall in discovery has been accompanied by rising consumption. 1981 was the year this gap began, and it has widened steadily ever since, to a point where we now consume about four barrels of oil for every one we discover. In public, oil companies speak of high reserves and of a lucrative future. BP state that 'there is no reserves problem', Exxon that there is 'no sign of peak' and Aramco that there is 'no reserve problem'. Behind the scenes, however, they are increasingly aware of the nature of the problem. In November 2006, an event took place at Colorado Springs called the Hedberg Research Conference on Understanding World Oil Resources. The event was by invitation only, and brought together people from across the oil industry, as well as from bodies like the United States Geological Survey, the International Energy Agency and the Energy Information Administration. No press were allowed, and people's presentations weren't shared. The day featured open and frank discussions, along the lines of "my company says this, but the data says this."
The intention of the conference was to reconcile the enormous difference in the estimates of likely future reserves additions between, on the one hand, what the US Geological Survey, creators of the most optimistic scenarios, produces; and, on the other, what other organisations believe to be the case. Companies brought along their detailed proprietary data, which is not made public, and tried to see if there was a clear pattern emerging. The results of this "I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours" session were striking. The USGS had put forward a figure of 650bn barrels yet to be discovered, but the conference put the figure at just 250bn. It also argued that the non-conventional oils (tar sands, deep water etc.) would never produce more than 4-5 million barrels a day, and indeed would struggle to achieve that, again much lower than the USGS. This kind of behind-the-scenes confidential meeting was also instrumental in the early days of climate change, leading to the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
A further indicator that we are nearly there is the nature of the new discoveries that the market gets excited about these days, and which are increasingly being expected to make up the shortfall as conventional oil production begins to decline. One of the new 'unconventional' sources of oil generating excitement is the Alberta tar sands in Canada. The problem with the tar sands is that the oil is very dense and viscous, more like sandy bitumen than oil. There are two ways the oil is extracted. The first is to dig it out with huge diggers, move it around in trucks the size of a house, and 'wash' the sands in the equivalent of a huge washing machine. Around 20% of it is produced this way. The rest is extracted in situ, where steam is pumped underground and the oil sucked out. The resultant low-grade 'synfuel' is then refined into usable oil products. If the Alberta tar sands are the best we can do, we really are in trouble. Alberta is estimated to contain 175 billion barrels of oil, which makes Canada one of the top four or five oil-producing countries in the world. Oil from tar sands is far more expensive to produce than most other sources of oil, but with the price of oil rising, these harder-to-extract oil sources become increasingly financially viable. Oil companies are moving into the area, and Fort McMurray, the area's main town, is becoming a boom town. Clive Mather, CEO of Shell Canada, describes Shell's operation in the area as the biggest thing he has ever seen the company undertake. People from all over the world are moving there for the 'New Gold Rush'.
Tar sands production is somewhat akin to trying to remove the cocoa powder from a huge chocolate brownie. Greenpeace estimate that by 2011, annual carbon dioxide emissions from tar sands production will exceed 80 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, more than that currently emitted by all of Canada's cars. Tar sands production also requires the felling of large areas of ancient boreal forest. The two principal weaknesses of the process are how the steam that separates the oil and sand is produced, and where the water to make that steam comes from.
You take clean, precious natural gas (a resource also on its own trajectory of depletion), and burn it to make steam to produce 'synfuel', a poor quality dirty crude oil. It is madness. This is no 'gold rush'. Indeed, Matt Simmons, an energy industry investment banker, once described it thus: "Gentlemen, we have just turned gold into lead." It is literally scraping the barrel, and rather than negating the peak oil argument - as those who say "look, see, there's loads left" propose - this confirms the peak oil argument: that we have reached the mid-point of the Oil Age, and the era of cheap oil is well and truly over.
One tyre alone, on one of the huge trucks, costs over £40,000. Tar sands production requires the price of oil to stay high in order to be viable, but we should also ask how high does the price of natural gas have to rise before tar sands production becomes unviable again? The other limiting factor in tar sands production, alongside cheap natural gas, is water. It is estimated that it takes between two and four barrels of water for every barrel of synthetic crude produced from the tar sands. The amount of water that can be extracted from the Athabasca River is finite, and is a major factor limiting production. Despite the lunacy of tar sands extraction, large amounts of money are pouring in to make it happen, due in part at least to the fact that it is one of very few places in the world open to private investment in oil production.
We might at this stage use the analogy of a pub. Conventional drilling of sweet crude oil, such as occurs in Saudi Arabia, is like standing at the bar while a charming barman pours you pints direct from the cask in the cellar. Tar sands are akin to arriving at the pub to find that all the beer is off, but so desperate are you for a drink that you begin to fantasise that in the thirty years this pub has been open for business, the equivalent of 5,000 pints have been spilt on this carpet, so you design a process whereby you boil up the carpet in order to extract the beer again. It is the desperate, futile action of an alcoholic unable to imagine life without the object of his addiction, and is only viable because oil prices are high and natural gas prices are cheap (high oil prices being the only one of the two that we can depend on).
Another recent story also indicates the less-than-reassuring nature of our new discoveries. It relates to a supposed huge find of new oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico in 2006, "between 3 and 15 billion barrels" according to over-excited press speculation (that's quite a range), which allowed many commentators to inform us that peak oil is now officially nonsense, and that we can all roll over and go back to sleep. This story was taken to show that there are still vast untapped reserves out there, that the peak oil 'doomsters' are wrong - and look, here in the Gulf of Mexico is the proof of that. When you read between the lines of this story, it isn't quite as exciting as it first appears (exciting that is, if you aren't someone who believes that the best place for oil is for it to stay in the ground). The oil, which could be bountiful or is more likely to be disappointing, is below one mile of ocean and four miles of rock, in the most hurricane-prone stretch of the Gulf of Mexico. Rental of the specialist rigs required to drill in such waters can cost half a million dollars per day. Contrast this to the ease of drilling on land in the giant fields of Saudi Arabia or Mexico, and combine this with the falling size of new discoveries. . . it's clear that we are scrabbling around for crumbs.
The International Energy Agency, in a 2007 report, talked about what it euphemistically called a 'supply crunch' in 2012. The reasons for this, they argued, are complex and diverse, but nothing to do with peak oil. Andrew Leonard at www.salon.com wrote:
"To drastically summarise the report: The problem is not that the world is running out of oil, but that right now, offshore oil rigs are scarce and expensive, skilled labor is tight, transport infrastructure is limited, and political considerations such as 'resource nationalism' in states such as Venezuela and Russia and geopolitical risk in Iran and Nigeria are hampering investment and development. Logistics are the real problem, the report seems to be saying, and not the actual amount of oil in the ground. This leads to the conclusion that even though nearly 3 million barrels of new supply will be needed each year just to offset the decline in established oil fields, 'above-ground supply risks are seen exceeding below-ground risks in the medium term.'"
However, Leonard is highly dubious of these given reasons, concluding "if it smells like peak oil, it probably is." Peak oil is the very large elephant in the room, one it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Although all of the issues identified by the IEA are valid, they are increasingly being exacerbated by geological constraints.
The final reason that convinces me that we are close to the peak is the changing financial practices of the major oil companies. Firstly, the increasing and steadily more spectacular mergers between different oil companies, a practice sometimes referred to as 'prospecting on Wall Street'. An oil company's share price depends on its reserves, on the potential future production it has secured access to. As the trend in discoveries continues to fall, as it has done since 1965 (see Figure 2, p.21), it becomes harder and harder for companies to sustain their reserves to offset against their production. It has become standard practice now for the larger oil companies to buy the smaller ones, thereby absorbing their reserves. Although oil companies have always done this, the scale of it has become increasingly dazzling.
A recent article by David Strahan examined the likelihood of a merger between BP and Shell, something that ordinarily would have been entirely unthinkable. In spite of their protestations that peak oil is so far away as to be not worth thinking about, the move, if it goes ahead, would be primarily driven by the fact that they are producing oil but are increasingly unable to replace what they are producing with fresh reserves. BP managed to temporarily reverse its declines by engaging in the TNK-BP project in Russia, thereby adding the Russian company's reserves to its own, but now, shortly afterward, the gap is starting to open up again.
Another fascinating recent development has been large oil companies buying back their own shares. It is estimated that if Chevron Corporation keeps buying back its shares at current rates (it plans to spend $15 billion over the next three years), it will have liquidated all of its shares by 2023. Exxon is doing the same, spending about $30 billion each year. With current high prices, oil companies are awash with money, but with few places to invest it. With discoveries falling, exploration is seen as yielding insufficient returns and providing a very poor investment. That peak oil is now a factor in the decisions of oil executives was spelled out in the '2007 Global Upstream Performance Review', which said:
"We believe that the issue (peak oil) has become part of the industry's long-term planning. If the peak oil theory is correct, and a decline in world production is imminent, a company must choose among four alternatives - try to become a dominant participant, find a niche operational talent, harvest assets, or liquidate quickly."
Share buybacks are a clear indicator of continued falling discoveries and return from investment in exploration, and suggest that oil companies are starting to plan for their own contraction.
These are, if you like, my top five reasons why peak oil is near. There are many more, as an investigation of the Resources section at the back of this book, or of some of the essential websites, will reveal. At the end of the day, oil and gas are finite resources. It is clear now that at least 60 out of the 98 oil-producing nations of the world are in decline, and that even mighty oil-producing nations such as Saudi Arabia are experiencing enormous difficulties meeting demand. Given that reaching peak oil will be a tipping point of unprecedented proportions, it seems reasonable then to ask:When might we expect to get there?
There is, as you might imagine, a wide range of predictions as to when exactly world oil production might peak, although recently this range has been narrowing. This diversity of opinion largely boils down to the fact that much of the information needed to make a precise prediction is not in the public arena. Around 80% of world oil is controlled by national oil companies, who have no obligation to make their reserves data public. In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, for example, actual reserves data are a state secret and are fiercely protected. The private oil companies - the Shells and Totals of this world, responsible for a relatively small portion of the world's oil - are obliged to make their reserves data public. However, they have to walk a delicate line between keeping the regulatory authorities and their shareholders happy, and not revealing information of use to their competitors. Given the gravity of what peak oil would mean to the world, what we are left with is a decision: do we believe government and oil company assertions that all is well and that there is no cause for alarm in spite of the mounting evidence to the contrary, or do we question this complacency, and look more closely at what the oil industry is doing than what it is saying?
Environmental writer and campaigner George Monbiot puts it in stark terms: "Our hopes of a soft landing rest on just two propositions: that the oil producers figures are correct, and that governments act before they have to. I hope that reassures you." In The Upside of Down, Thomas Homer-Dixon likens our situation to driving a car fast along a country lane in dense fog. We know we are moving fast, we can hear the engine, but other than that it is hard to assess how fast we are moving. Our map suggests a straight road, and we are, after all, in a hurry. "Driving in fog is of course not sensible," he writes, "but it's exactly what we're doing today." Driving blind.
Kenneth Deffeyes, author of Beyond Oil, publicly forecast his belief that peak oil for all oil would occur on Thanksgiving Day 2005 (that's Thursday 24th November for those of you outside the US). Despite receiving much of the same ridicule dished out to M. King Hubbert, if we look only at conventional oil, he may well have been very nearly right. Conventional oil production appears to have peaked in May 2005 at 74.2 million barrels a day and has been declining ever since (see Figure 3). Production of all liquids (that also adds in tar sands, biofuels, deep water oil, all the harder-to-get-at stuff) has also plateaued over the last two years, despite sharply rising prices and enormous surges in demand from China and India, but this does not necessarily mean that we have actually peaked yet.
Other researchers give a range of dates. The Oil Depletion Analysis Centre puts peak oil in 2007, Colin Campbell and Chris Skrebowski give 2010, and Jean Laherrere 2015. The skeptics, such as Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), no longer debate if oil will peak, rather when it will peak. The CERA study, which generated a lot of 'peak oil theory is dead' media coverage when it was released in 2006, was thoroughly demolished (in my opinion) by an excellent piece by Dave Cohen, which analysed the CERA argument and found it lacking.
Countering the report's claim that "CERA does not agree with the simplistic concept of an imminent peak in oil production nor with the idea that oil will 'run out' soon thereafter", Cohen wrote:
"No one here or elsewhere is claiming that conventional oil will 'run out' anytime soon. Rather, the peak oil view is an evolving, sophisticated take on conventional oil production and the viability of substitutes to replace continuing demand for this paramount fossil fuel in the face of inevitable declines in available supply. Only the timing of such declines is at issue here. We can also only add that denial in the face of potentially very threatening events is a powerful force in the human psyche."
I am not qualified to give you an accurate prediction as to when this peak will occur. I am, however, by nature drawn to those who have no vested interests, who are independent of government or commercial interests, but who have analysed the data in depth. Predictions about peak oil range from 'it has already happened' to 'it will never happen'. However, given that even some oil companies now acknowledge not only the concept, but have started putting dates to it, anyone who argues that there are 200 years' worth of oil left is living in cloud-cuckoo-land.
Thierry Desmarest, CEO of French oil company Total, recently said he thought world oil production would never exceed 100mbd, telling a conference in Holland, "If we stay with this type of production growth, our impression is that peak oil could be reached around 2020."Lord Ron Oxburgh, former Chairman of Shell, recently said world oil production "could well plateau within the next twenty years, and I guess I would be surprised if it hadn't." He added: "We may be sleepwalking into a problem which is actually going to be very serious and it may be too late to do anything about it by the time we are fully aware."
In late October 2007, Germany's Energy Watch Group published a report which reassessed the data and argued very convincingly that world production had, in fact, already peaked in 2006, and "will start to decline at a rate of several percent per year". The report, which also argued that Middle East reserves are far lower than previously thought, concluded:
"The world is at the beginning of a structural change of its economic system. This change will be triggered by declining fossil fuel supplies and will influence almost all aspects of our daily life. The now beginning transition period probably has its own rules which are valid only during this phase. Things might happen which we never experienced before and which we may never experience again once this transition period has ended. Our way of dealing with energy issues probably will have to change fundamentally."
It is a great shame that the British Government continues, in public at least, not to acknowledge the peak oil issue. A recent report on transport commissioned by the British Treasury stated that "fuel costs are forecast to fall by 26% up to 2025. An oil price of $35 a barrel is assumed in 2025." This forecast was published even though the price of oil was already at $50 a barrel by the time the report was released! More recently, in response to an online petition about peak oil, the UK Government wrote that "on the balance of the available analysis and evidence, the Government's assessment is that the world's oil and gas resources are sufficient to sustain economic growth for the foreseeable future."
I think we can see Desmarest and Oxburgh's statements as the bookends in predictions of when the peak might occur. The majority of estimates are now falling between 2010 and 2015, with very few credible researchers placing their forecasts beyond this 2020 bookend. Having said that, the exact date of peak oil is really not so important. What matters is the fact that it is inevitable, it is going to be happening soon, and we haven't even begun to think what we might do about it.
How seeing the downward side of the mountain stretch away before us will affect our collective psyche remains to be seen. Figure 4 sums up our problem. We can see how closely supply and demand have followed each other, and how production has reached a plateau over the last two years. Once the peak is reached, though, the gap between supply and demand begins to steadily widen, and the price accordingly begins to rise sharply. It is often said that new ideas go through three stages. First they are ridiculed, then they are ignored, and finally they are accepted as having always been the case. At the Association for the Study of Peak Oil conference in Cork, Ireland, in September 2007, former US Energy Secretary, James Schlesinger, said: "Conceptually the battle is over. The peakists have won. We're all peakists now."
Until a year or so ago, climate change was seen as being such an unappealing subject to really embrace or get intimate with that most people felt happier looking the other way. Since then though, climate change has shifted much more towards the mainstream, with celebrities, governments and corporations falling over each other in the dash to become 'carbon neutral'. From the 'Live Earth' concerts to the Global Cool campaign which engages celebrities in raising awareness, the campaign against climate change has grown rapidly. Supermarkets such as Tesco and Walmart are engaging in far-reaching analyses of their carbon footprints, and appear to be taking the issue very seriously, as do (in theory at least) politicians and policy makers. Even more than with peak oil, I write this section on climate change with great trepidation, as it is such a fast-moving field. Whatever I write will almost certainly have been overtaken by events by the time this book is printed. Climate change is happening faster than most models are able to keep up with, continually confounding expectation; models are being constantly revised and updated as the scale of this challenge becomes apparent.
When you start to explore the issue, climate change is extremely scary. Indeed, if it isn't scary, then you really haven't understood it. It is an area where one can easily resort to apocalyptic scare tactics, although I will try to avoid that here; the information on its own is scary enough without dramatic embellishment. Sharon Astyk recently wrote: "One of the disturbing things about listening to scientists studying climate change is the fear in the voices and words of people not accustomed to be fearful, and the sense that generally speaking, scientists are far more worried than most of us are."
We need to be realistic about where we are, and ambitious about what we can do. Climate change is a massive problem, but the worst effects could still be avoided if we are collectively able to engage with the issue. Transition Initiatives are but one of many powerful carbon-reduction technologies which, if embraced in time (and it is of course a big 'if'), can mean that we avoid the worst extremes of climate change. The trends at the moment, I grant you, really are not looking good.
The global climate is definitely warming; there is now no doubt about that. I don't need graphs, charts and scientific papers to convince me of that. Just within my own lifetime, I have seen the climate changing. I remember as a child winters being far colder, having to dig the snow away from the front doors, and power cuts caused by snowfall. Then, unsettled weather was the norm. Now, the weather is just plain unsettling, and, as we shall see, it will continue to become more so. Records are constantly being broken. In the UK, April 2007 was the hottest April on record, June 2007 the wettest June, autumn 2006 the hottest autumn, spring 2007 the hottest spring, July 2006 the hottest month, and the summer of 2007 was only a few millimetres away from being the wettest summer. As someone on BBC Radio 4's The Now Show said recently, "I don't know about carbon emission levels but I do know that when a wasp lands on my Christmas cake something is not right."
On the astonishingly wet night of Friday, 20th July 2007 (the night when floods submerged large parts of the Midlands), I remember hearing on the radio that four times the average rainfall for July had fallen in two hours. At the same time, Greece was having unusually hot weather, leading to the dreadful forest fires that engulfed the country a month later, with vast plumes of smoke visible in satellite photos of the country. We all have observations from our daily lives of the climate changing, whether it is seeing flowers out far earlier than previously, swallows arriving a month earlier than usual, as they did in 2007, or the fact that we have to turn on our heating in the winter less often. In some cases, people go to extraordinary lengths to pretend it isn't happening (see daffodils article on the following page).
The greenhouse effect
The greenhouse effect isn't something we recently invented - without it, no life would exist on this planet. Without the layer of carbon dioxide and other gases keeping the warmth in, our average global temperature would be -18°C. The Earth has gone through various ages of warming and cooling during its history. During the most recent Ice Age, 18,000 years ago, half of the UK was under a mile of ice, and so much water was locked up in the ice sheets that sea levels were up to 75 metres lower than at present. Scientists have recently found remnants of entire landscapes, with settlements, lakes, forests, marshes and hills under 450ft of water in what is now the North Sea. This discovery emerged from analysis of seismic data from oil companies, and has been christened by scientists 'Doggerland'.
Professor Vince Gaffney of the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity at Birmingham University, who led the research, said: "The coasts, rivers, marshes and hills we found were, for thousands of years, parts of a landscape that would have been familiar to hundreds of thousands of people and countless species of animals. Now it is all gone." So, although having the greenhouse effect has been one of the factors that has made life on Earth possible, the problem comes when the gases that form that layer (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and so on) build up and trap more and more heat in the Earth's atmosphere. It is akin to throwing more and more duvets onto a bed, which leads to the problems discussed below.
CO2 is such a small part of the overall atmosphere around us that it is measured in parts per million (ppm). Normally anything that is measured in parts per million is so insignificant that it is hardly worth bothering about. Pre-industrial levels of carbon were 278ppm, but by 2007 they have reached 385ppm. This seemingly trifling increase - caused by the incessant and ever-growing release into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels, from changes in land use, from deforestation and so on, alongside the increases in emissions of methane from mining, livestock and the drying out of wetlands, as well as nitrous oxide from agriculture and aeroplanes - has already had significant effects, disrupting the delicate balance of the planetary climate. Although anthropogenic greenhouse gases (i.e. those caused by human activity) are only about 30% of total emissions, they have been enough to tip a very delicate balance.
The rise of carbon dioxide concentrations from 278ppm to 384ppm has led to global average temperature rising by 0.8°C above pre-industrial levels. While this may not sound like much, just that level of increase has produced alarming changes around the world. These include widespread glacial retreat in the Himalayas, heavier than usual monsoons in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, encroaching drought in Australia, increasing frequency of tropical storms, as well as, it could be argued, the spectacular floods that hit the Midlands in the UK in the 'summer' of 2007. In Alaska, where average temperatures have increased 3-4°C, houses and roads are becoming unusable as the permafrost melts, which in turn releases more methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Sea levels are rising, and the rate of that rise is accelerating; the years 1993-2006 saw average rises of 3.3mm per year, far greater than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's prediction in 2001 of rises of 2mm per year. Here in the UK, we are having to rethink the trees we plant, and the weather is noticeably changing. There is now no argument that the world is warming dangerously, possibly catastrophically, and there is an unprecedented scientific near-consensus that our oil-addicted lifestyles are to blame.
So how high can we realistically allow world temperature to rise? The answer is that ideally we would stop all emissions today, but clearly that's not going to happen. As Mark Lynas describes so graphically in his book Six Degrees, each degree that we allow world temperature to rise brings new and unprecedented scales of catastrophe. We still haven't broken through the 1°C threshold, but even so, the changes are clear to see. The ice-sheets on the Arctic Ocean are melting (of which more below), the Northern Passage was open to shipping in 2007 for the first time since records began, droughts are increasing around the world, and weather records are being broken all the time. Hurricanes and typhoons are increasing, as are the number of heatwaves. Climate change is happening, and it's happening faster than the scientists' models can keep up with.
Is there such a thing as a safe limit?
If we break though the 1°C barrier, as now seems inevitable, we'll see a Mount Kilimanjaro completely bereft of ice, the almost complete collapse of the Great Barrier Reef, and a number of island nations submerged by rising sea levels. A 2°C rise would cause dreadful heatwaves, and increased drought around the world. Breaking through the 3°C barrier would mean that the growing season in Norway would be what it is in southern England today. The 3°C threshold would also bring about the complete collapse of the Amazon ecosystem, and the very real threat of conflict over water supplies around the world. Death rates from summer heatwaves in Europe would make the summer of 2003 (which killed over 30,000 people ) look positively tepid.
Beyond that, in a nutshell, runaway climate change is not something you want to experience, or leave as a legacy to your children, yet we appear to be sailing alarmingly close to it. The emerging consensus in recent years has been that the imperative is to keep below 2°C at all costs. Even doing that, there is no guarantee that we will not have triggered runaway climate change. As George Monbiot puts it, two degrees is "merely less dangerous than what lies beyond", and indeed a recent paper by James Hansen et al. at NASA argues that even 2°C is too high, given the rate of degeneration of the Arctic sea ice and the Greenland ice sheets, and that 1.5-1.7°C is more in line with adhering to the precautionary principle. The reality is that the carbon dioxide already released will continue to push up the temperature for years to come (a phenomenon known as 'thermal inertia') by at least 0.6°C, meaning that we are already committed to a 1.4°C rise whatever we choose to do now. The warming we are experiencing now is the result of greenhouse gases emitted in the 1970s.
Let's return to the Arctic sea ice for a moment, as it may well turn out to hold the key to the future of human civilisation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 said: "Arctic sea ice is responding sensitively to global warming. While changes in winter sea ice cover are moderate, late summer sea ice is projected to disappear almost completely towards the end of the 21st century." It appears, however, from a look at the increasing flow of literature on the subject, that this melting is happening far faster than that, and that the ice is far more sensitive to rises in temperature than previously thought. It has already reduced in size by 22% over the past two years, as well as becoming steadily thinner, halving in thickness since 2001. Some predict now that the Arctic will be completely free of ice by 2013, a hundred years ahead of the IPCC's forecast. This, in turn, will speed up the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which is what could lead to sea level rises of as much as five metres by the end of the century, affecting two million square kilometres of low-lying land and 669 million people.
Much of this re-evaluation is due to scientists only now beginning to develop models for the complex feedback mechanisms that influence rates of melting. James Hansen of NASA writes that "ice sheet disintegration starts slowly but multiple positive feedbacks can lead to rapid non-linear collapse." While keeping below the 2°C threshold is vital, an increasing number of people are arguing that even 2°C is too little to prevent runaway climate change. David Spratt of Carbon Equity, having evaluated the latest evidence on the scale of the ice melting in the Arctic, writes that "[the IPCC's] most fundamental and widely supported tenet - that 2°C represents a reasonable maximum target if we are to avoid dangerous climate change - can no longer be defended." Given that we are not yet even at a 1°C rise, yet appear to have unleashed the catastrophic disintegration of the Arctic ice, 2°C is an absurd level to imagine as being 'safe' by any stretch of the imagination. He suggests that if we were able to wind back the clocks and start again, we would have based what constitutes 'safe' rises in emissions on what guaranteed the stable continuity of the Arctic ice sheet, which would probably have been around 0.5°C. The Industrial Revolution would have looked very different - or perhaps with the benefit of hindsight we would have decided to forgo it altogether.
Spratt concludes his study thus:
"The simple imperative is for us to very rapidly decarbonise the world economy and to put in place the means to draw down the existing excess CO2 levels. We must choose targets that can actually solve the problem in a timely way. It is not too late to be honest with ourselves and our fellow citizens."
Cuts on this scale won't happen without an extraordinary, unprecedented, global concerted effort. This would be from a starting position where there is still no area of the world where outputs of carbon emissions are actually falling. Until recently, it was believed that the scale of climate change necessitated cutting our emissions by 90% by 2050, or even by 2030, a mere twenty-two years away. Trying to imagine maintaining our current lifestyles but emitting just 10% of the current amount of carbon is extremely difficult - almost unimaginable. However, buried in a report earlier in 2007 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is an extraordinary piece of research. The IPCC researchers, using 'coupled modelling' (which basically means modelling including the impact of some feedback loops) concluded that to stay at under a 2°C increase in temperature, humanity has to zero its emissions by 2060. That isn't saying that we have to achieve zero emissions from burning fossil fuels in our cars, planes and power stations (which might seem hard enough); that's zero from everything we do - from cutting down trees, from using fertiliser (manufactured from natural gas) and from raising livestock.
Similarly, reflecting on the implications of James Hansen's recent paper on Arctic ice melting, George Monbiot told the 2007 Climate Camp at Heathrow Airport: "We're not talking any more about measures which require a little bit of tweaking here and there, or a little bit of political tweaking here and there. We're talking about measures which require global revolutionary change." 90% cuts are no longer adequate, he said, nor, even, are 100% cuts. We are looking at 110-120% cuts, in other words sequestering more carbon than we produce. What it might actually look like - if you or I went to bed in the evening having sequestered more carbon than we had generated - I will consider later in the book, but this is clearly a monumental and unprecedented challenge.
The intertwining of peak oil and climate change
One of the more absurd phenomena to emerge in recent years is that there are climate change activists who dismiss the peak oil argument, and peak oil activists who downplay climate change. It is as if people have discovered terrain which is somehow 'theirs', which they intend to gallantly defend against all-comers. I have spoken to a number of leading climate change activists who are doing great work on climate change, but who regularly want to downplay the peak oil issue. George Monbiot has expressed caution about emphasising the peak oil argument, fearing it will legitimise the case for biofuels, increased coal use, tar sands extraction and other climatically catastrophic approaches. "We don't have to invoke peak oil at all to see the sense and the logic in [the Transition approach], because even if the peak oil problem doesn't exist in any form, climate change does,"he told a public meeting in Lampeter. However, in a subsequent article he revisited peak oil, examining the UK Government's predictions for increases in road transport, and asking what might power those cars, finding that, unbelievably "no report has ever been commissioned by the British Government on the issue of whether or not there is enough oil to sustain its transport programme."
Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth acknowledges that peak oil is a real challenge: "We do need to have the peak oil question in mind, because, irrespective of what we do about climate change, there is going to be an additional shock that's going to be economically significant, if not quite dangerous, coming from the oil price shooting up at some point, very likely in the not-too-distant future." He concludes, however, by saying: "So the two are related, but I think we have to keep them separate in terms of how we present them and deal with them because otherwise we create inadvertently damaging responses."
I disagree. I will argue in this section that I don't think we can keep them separate, and that doing so does nothing to assist our development of realistic and potentially successful responses. Jeremy Leggett calls them the "Two Great Oversights of Our Times" and, to borrow from Al Gore, peak oil is as much an Inconvenient Truth for climate change campaigners as climate change is for everyone else. Both, of course, are symptoms of a society hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels and the lifestyles they make possible. It is, however, too simplistic to assert that peak oil will mean climate change will be brought under control because we will run out of access to affordable liquid fuels; the situation is much more complex.
We do have a choice about how we respond to peak oil. We can use it as an argument for developing solutions that actually put in place infrastructure that will support us beyond the Oil Age, or we can use it to justify clinging to fossil fuels at all costs. The danger is, as Monbiot argues, that the gap which emerges as liquid fuels decline in availability will be filled with other fuels each far worse in terms of their climate impacts than oil was - the turning of coal into liquid fuels, tar sands, biodiesel and so on. If we don't fill the gap with conservation and a concerted programme of relocalisation (a concept explored in depth below), and if we refuse collectively to acknowledge the reality of energy descent (the downward trend in the net energy underpinning society), we will rapidly drive ourselves beyond the climatic tipping points and will unleash climate hell. If we see climate change as a separate and distinct issue from peak oil, we risk creating a world of lower emissions but one which is, in terms of oil vulnerability, just as fragile as today's - if not more so - as energy prices rise.
A good example of this is New York, which recently emerged in a study as having one of the lowest per capita CO2 emissions of any large Western city, less than a third of the per capita US average. This is due to the density of living, the walkability, good public transport and the low heating requirements of apartment living. So, from a climate change perspective we can argue that New York is a good model of low carbon living we would all do well to emulate. Now let's weave peak oil into that mix. What happens to New York in the event of a power shortage, or when the price of importing food starts to rise sharply? New York experienced such a power cut in August 2003, and although it only lasted for a day, its impact was keenly felt. While New York may have a small carbon footprint, it has little or no resilience to declining oil supplies (a concept explored in depth in Chapter 3).
Climate change says we should change, whereas peak oil says we will be forced to change. Both categorically state that fossil fuels have no role to play in our future, and the sooner we can stop using them the better. It is key that both climate change and peak oil are given an equal degree of importance in any decision-making processes. It is interesting to observe that climate change is rapidly being taken on board by corporations, and increasingly by governments. Marks and Spencer now add labels to their clothes which say "If It's Not Dirty, Wash at 30," and supermarkets are falling over each other to be seen to be greener than their competitors. The idea of maintaining the global economy and just reducing its carbon output each year is attractive, and is now being seen as central to staying ahead of the competition. Apart from the Swedish and possibly the Irish Governments, no government or corporation is yet really addressing or even acknowledging peak oil, at least publicly, because their business models will struggle greatly to adapt to it. For this reason the drive for reducing carbon emissions is coming largely from the top downwards; while responses to peak oil, due to its being less palatable to government and industry, appear to be coming more from the bottom up.
It is also important to point out that unless we plan in advance for peak oil, and adopt measures such as the Oil Depletion Protocol proposed by Colin Campbell and Richard Heinberg, the recession caused by runaway oil prices will blow responses to climate change out of the water. Responding to climate change on an adequate scale requires a lot of money and an unprecedented degree of global co-operation. An economic recession - or worse, collapse - will make keeping the lights on our priority, and tackling climate change will slide rapidly down our list of priorities. Facing runaway climate change with a collapsed economy is the scenario we really want to avoid, and we separate these two issues at our peril. Perhaps one could also argue that while climate change offers globalised economies the possibility of gradual adaptation to a lower carbon way of continuing globalised international trade, peak oil asks much tougher, and possibly unanswerable, questions.
Figure 7 tries to set out what happens when peak oil and climate change are looked at together rather than in isolation. The Hirsch Report, which we will go on to explore, argues that we can mitigate peak oil with a crash programme of squeezing oil out of everything we can get our hands on. On the other hand, the Stern Report, commissioned by the UK Government to explore the economics of climate change, believes that climate mitigation and globalised economic growth are both possible and compatible. It does, however, completely ignore peak oil, stating that "there is enough fossil fuel in the ground to meet world consumption demand at reasonable cost until at least 2050", an utterly absurd assertion in the light of what we have looked at in Chapter 1. I argue here, as Figure 7 shows, that when the two are combined, our options look very different, that when we combine the two, the rebuilding of resilience (a concept we shall go on to explore) is as important as cutting carbon emissions.
Can peak oil engage people more effectively than climate change?
Here I enter the realm of the contentious - and I do so cautiously but determinedly. It has been my experience from my work promoting the Transition concept that peak oil, if presented in the way that this book will go on to elucidate, can do more to engage and involve people and communities than climate change. Peak oil educator Richard Heinberg uses the analogy of a car: "At the most superficial level, we could say that climate change is an end-of-tailpipe problem, while peak oil is an into-fuel-tank problem." One could add to this that people perceive themselves as being inherently more affected by rises in the price of a key commodity such as liquid fuels than by changes to the climate.
One of the things peak oil does very effectively is put a mirror up to a community and ask: "What has happened to the ability of this community to provide for its basic needs?" Allowing people to mentally explore what their current lifestyles would be like if the inflow of cheap oil were to cease is a powerful way to get people to think about the vulnerability of their oil-dependent state. It can focus the mind more than climate change because it can seem to be more obviously relevant to people's everyday lives. Also, for some, barrels of oil are easier to visualise than tonnes of gas.
If the 'early-toppers' such as Campbell and Skrebowski are right, peak oil will begin to visibly impact our lives within a few years. The impacts of climate change are still seen by many, despite the extraordinary flooding of the summer of 2007 and the accelerating collapse of the Arctic ice, as a more gradually unfolding process, while those of peak oil may be much more immediate.
Climate change is, rightly or wrongly, seen as a problem that will primarily affect the developing world before it affects the developed world, which, ironically, is largely responsible for creating the problem in the first place. The same is true, initially at least, for peak oil. While we in the West can theorise about what the impacts of peak oil might be, for many developing countries it is already a grim reality. Indeed, their enforced reduced consumption, sometimes termed 'demand destruction', could be seen as reducing consumption globally, thereby stopping runaway prices for those of us who can still afford liquid fuels.
Most countries in Africa, Asia and South America are already experiencing the effects of peak oil. Argentina is facing its worst energy shortage for twenty years, with widespread power cuts and natural gas shortages affecting public transport. Power cuts in Pakistan have led to riots, and in Iraq some provincial officials have begun disconnecting power stations from the national grid so as to keep the energy generated to themselves. Iran has introduced petrol rationing, and the UN recently warned the Sri Lankan Government that they will be unable to continue their humanitarian work in the country due to fuel shortages. In Uganda, grid power shortages have shut down the pipeline which brings diesel into the country from Kenya, a kind of peak oil 'feedback loop'.
In Nigeria only 19 out of 79 power plants work, and blackouts cost the economy $1 billion a year. Nicaragua is now running at a national energy deficit of 20-30%, with the national energy company having to shut down whole cities for 6-10 hours at a time. Costa Rica has regular blackouts, as does the Dominican Republic, where blackouts which originally only affected the poor barrio districts now extend to the exclusive residential districts.
Thus far, the wealthier nations have been able to keep peak oil at arm's length thanks to an economic cushion which insulates us from rising prices, but only up to a certain point. Where exactly that point lies is hard to assess and nobody know for sure, other than to say that, if the price of oil rises above $102 a barrel, it will break the previous (adjusted for inflation) figure that caused a recession in the 1970s. Beyond $102 a barrel we are into uncharted territory, but its impacts on the economy are unlikely to be beneficial. Peak oil and climate change must be seen as equally pressing drivers for change.
The contradictions of the Hirsch Report
When the US Department of Energy commissioned Robert Hirsch and his colleagues to write a report looking at mitigation strategies for peak oil, little could they have suspected what they were going to get. It also seems that Hirsch himself was unprepared for where the report would take him, and what he would end up writing. In an interview following the report's release he mused upon the report's conclusions:
"There's no question in my mind at least that peaking is likely to occur in maybe the next 10 or 15 years. So if depletion is as high as some people think it could be, we're in a very serious, serious problem. Much worse than the worst that we could think of. This problem is truly frightening. This problem is like nothing that I have ever seen in my lifetime and the more you think about it and the more you look at the numbers, the more uneasy any observer gets.
It's so easy to sound alarmist, and I fear that part of what I'm saying may sound alarmist, but there simply is no question that the risks here are beyond anything that any of us have ever dealt with.â€¨The risks to our economies and our civilisation are enormous, and people don't want to hear that. I don't want to think about that. That's a very uncomfortable thing to think about. And I will tell you that it took some time after that realisation set in to be able to emerge and try to be positive and constructive about this problem. This is a really incredibly difficult, and incredibly severe problem."
"A really incredibly difficult and incredibly severe problem" - clearly not a man to mince his words. Short of just scrawling "Aaargh!", this was as close as one could get to really conveying the immensity of the challenge of peak oil. The Hirsch Report was dynamite, and is seen by many in the peak oil community as being a seminal document, the first 'official' document to really take peak oil seriously. However, it is also worthy of deeper inspection, as it is not just a document about peak oil but it also offers an illuminating and terrifying insight into the responses to the challenge of peak oil that our leaders might pursue in order to keep the lights on and the wheels turning, if we fail to come up with anything better.
The nub of the report's problems can be summarised in the term "viable mitigation options". This term appears in the oft-quoted paragraph from the executive summary:
"The peaking of world oil production presents the US and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and without timely mitigation, the economic, social and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking."
The report's definition of what these options might be are profoundly at odds with what this book will propose. For Hirsch, viable mitigation options are sought from the basic premise that the show must go on in its current form, that business as usual must be preserved at all costs. In an interview I did with Richard Heinberg, I asked him what he saw as being the report's limitations.
"The implied goal [of the report] is to keep business as usual going as long as possible by any means necessary, including using coal to make liquid fuel. Of course, if it were feasible on any large scale, this would produce a climate catastrophe, but that was completely overlooked in the report. There's no evidence of concern for climate change issues whatsoever in the report. The goal of the authors is to suggest how we could keep the engines of modernity running as long as possible."
In 2006, at the Association for the Study of Peak Oil conference in Italy, I heard Robert Hirsch give a talk called 'Mitigation of Peak Oil: Making the Case: more numbers and some questions', which built on the 2005 report and set out a 'crash programme' to keep all the cars in the US on the road. His plan, he told the assembled audience, would cost $1 trillion a year, and would involve a massive expansion of coal-to-liquids, extraction from tar sands, gas-to-liquids and so on. I appeared to be one of only a handful of delegates looking utterly horrified at this proposal and thinking I must have misunderstood what he had said. I hadn't.
Musing aloud later on Transition Culture about the implications of Hirsch's talk, I wrote:
"Hirsch presented clearly what happens when one takes a purely peak oil perspective without the integration of a climate change one. For me, Hirsch laid out a clear and perfectly reasoned argument why we cannot possibly keep all our cars going and why we need to break our addiction to the car. He just hadn't realised that that was what he was doing."
Imagine if the readers of this book were given a $1 trillion a year budget to initiate and drive a programme of global powerdown - think what could be achieved! There was some very dangerous thinking and there were some equally dangerous basic assumptions in Hirsch's presentation. I would not wish to take away from the usefulness of the Hirsch Report and his work on depletion profiles, but the recommendations in his talk, in the wrong hands, could lead to policy choices being taken which are in effect collective suicide.
The same really applies to the original Hirsch Report. If your starting assumption is that the show must go on at all costs, you will scrabble around for whatever strategies and technologies might, in theory, allow you to do so. The 'crash programme' advocated by Hirsch would greatly hasten the headlong plunge towards climate chaos.
Both the Hirsch Report and the Stern Report, as seen in Figure 7, illustrate the perils of looking at these two issues in isolation. Alternatively, when peak oil and climate change are seen as inseparable, we need to completely rethink our 'viable mitigation options', as well as acknowledge that business-as-usual is untenable. What 'viable mitigation options' might look like when the two are brought together will be explored as this book progresses, but the Hirsch Report offers us a clear exposition of what they absolutely must not be.
The other key aspect of the Hirsch Report is its assessment of timing. We will need, it argues, "more than a decade in advance of peaking" to prepare the economy for this transition, preferably twenty years. While this is a sobering way of looking at the scale of the challenge, I think that once a society decides to move, things can happen very quickly. Lester Brown cites the example of how the US economy re-geared itself entirely at the beginning of World War II. President Roosevelt, having set ambitious arms production goals, said: "Let no man say it cannot be done." The greatest expansion in output was in 1942, with the production and sale of private cars being banned, housebuilding and road construction halted, and driving for any non-essential purpose prohibited. Brown writes:
"The automobile industry went from producing nearly 4 million cars in 1941 to producing 24,000 tanks and 17,000 armoured cars in 1942 - but only 223,000 cars, and most of them were produced early in the year, before the conversion began. Essentially the auto industry was closed down in 1942 through the end of 1944. In 1940, the United States produced some 4,000 aircraft. In 1942, it produced 48,000. By the end of the war, more than 5,000 ships were added to the 1,000 that made up the American Merchant Fleet in 1939."
When society decides to put its weight behind change, things can move very fast. A number of relatively small changes in legislation, giving people more money for energy from microgeneration than they'd pay the grid, carbon rationing, and changes to planning (i.e. promoting local agriculture and co-housing) will accelerate things greatly. While some of this needs to be driven at a national government level, much of the momentum and pressure, as well as the diversity of projects and initiatives that need sanction or support from government, can come from the local level. People need to hunger for these changes, and to see them as infinitely more desirable than the present.
While peak oil is a crucial insight into what is ahead of us, it is also essential to be mindful of some unsavoury proposals being sneaked in on the back of it. Just as climate change is sometimes put forward as the justification for expanded nuclear power and the illusory hydrogen economy, so peak oil (as the Hirsch report so graphically illustrates) can be used to instil a fear that we urgently need liquid fuels from wherever we can squeeze them. Some argue that it will usher in a Golden Age of coal. It is important to remain alert to that. As we will see in Part Two, this is a crisis which is about much more than what we'll put in our petrol tanks.
The lesson from the Hirsch Report, then, is that in proposing solutions to climate change and peak oil we must always be sure that we are asking the right questions. The question is not "How can we keep everything going as it is?" We should instead ask how we can learn to live within realistic energy constraints. Rather than deciding our plan of action first and then picking the energy options to match it, we should start by basing our choices on asking the right questions about the energy available to underpin our plans.
The Hirsch Report fails to ask the right questions. When devising solutions, we must address both climate change and peak oil from the outset. The 'viable mitigation options' we come up with will depend entirely on the nature of the questions we ask. Hopefully, this examination of the Hirsch Report has been useful in establishing why just looking at peak oil or climate change in isolation is both futile and potentially dangerous.