Drought, Peak Oil, and Climate Change: the Future is Now
Climate change denialists are crackpots of the worst kind. In this article, I will demonstrate how they are also dangerous. Whether or not they are also creationists, tin-foil-hat conspiracists, or resource cornucopians is immaterial. They all use the same flawed modes of thinking, including head-in-the-sand dismissals of mountains of evidence. Why give them any time or attention–since they are so clearly misinformed and off-base? Because tacit agreement with them is distressingly common in a distracted and uninformed population, and this denialist mind-virus underlies a great deal of politically motivated mismanagement of resources. Defeating the crackpots’ arguments also educates the uncommitted. Thankfully the tide is turning, but far too many voices of denial remain.
Water is poised to be the next oil in terms of scarcity and importance. The two resources are related, in that both are essential, both are overconsumed and underappreciated, and we need each to produce the other. Many of us will come to regret our ignorance of these facts in the coming years. Actions we casually take today without a second thought will become unthinkable–possibly even criminal. Our gap of understanding is so wide as to practically defy description. “Fiddling while Rome burns” would be a monumental understatement. As long as even one Escalade or Navigator is still being sold in the U.S. for personal transport, we know we have failed. As long as one person remains who is still afraid to drink recycled water (or worse, doesn’t even know what that is), things haven’t gotten bad enough. As long as one newspaper still prints the blatant misrepresentations coming out of the Middle East that “refinery problems” are the cause of high oil prices (because refiners can’t yet take the increasing share of sour crude that’s left in the ground after we’ve used up most of the light sweet variety). Of course, they paint the problem as anything but our consumption, anything but running out.
Only when the final stages of this slow-building catastrophe slam their way into the headlines will most people wake up about energy and environment issues. Only when society’s craven “live-in-the-moment” neglect of the future becomes so glaringly obvious will most people wake from their slumber, rub their bleary eyes and hold their politicians to account. But by that time, the damage will be so pervasive and irreversible that the inevitable disgrace for the gladhanding pied-pipers will provide us no comfort or relief from the sad reality.
Lest you think it’s hyperbole, read the following two items, one from the Guardian on peak oil, and one from the New York Times on the fresh water crisis (H/T the Cost of Energy). The Guardian article cites a study from the German-based Energy Watch Group, which states without fanfare that world peak oil was reached in 2006, and oil production will now decline at a rate of 7% per year. Underscoring this is a startling figure: world oil production was 85 million barrels per day in 2006, and the Guardian now claims it is 81 million and falling. Contrast this with the ridiculously rosy projections from the EIA, which shows world oil production ranging well over 100 million bpd in 30 years. If the Guardian figure is even close to true, it will change the world as we know it for the worse, and quickly. One of the first responses will be an “export crisis” whereby the leading oil-producing countries decide to keep more of it for themselves. The study also predicts a sharp increase in resource wars.
The NYT article concerns the “other” warming related water crisis (aside from rising sea levels), scarcity of fresh water. As the climate warms, snowpack is reduced, aquifers dry up, water tables drop, and drinking water becomes extremely difficult and expensive to obtain. As can be seen from the above picture of lake Mead, we are starting to feel these effects already in the American west. Georgia also faces a critical drought. One would be hard pressed to find a more critical issue for human development or security. Energy scarcity reduces our ability to deal with drought, and drought hampers our ability to feed ourselves or grow biofuels–for example–in a worsening spiral.
This all sounds very distant and trite on paper. But watch the shock and horror set in once it becomes clear what these abstract concepts actually mean to the average person–in an economy no longer ebullient on the prospect of ever-increasing resources. Life will get a lot more difficult and complicated. Even if just some of it comes true, it will not be pretty. Expect a lot of “wailing and gnashing of teeth,” and rationing of many basic commodities, including fuels of all types. Few people alive today can even fathom such a scenario–which would make the 1973 Arab oil embargo seem like a picnic.
Remember, this is not some fringe conspiracy theory. Oil output is now falling in the face of rising world demand and near-record prices. The cratering dollar is also connected to the high U.S. oil-import-dependence, among other factors. We are in uncharted territory–not in some imaginary future–but right now, today.
I hold strong hope for a positive outcome, but only through facing the reality. With the right leadership, we have the ingenuity and resources to transition to a low-carbon economy fueled by renewable energy. John Edwards talked about this recently on the Bill Maher show. (Whether or not he’s the best candidate remains to be seen. But the Democrats have certainly been far better on energy policy than any Republican administration.) We have the potential to manufacture biofuels in a sustainable manner. We have the ability to electrify transportation. We have the ability and duty to re-engineer society from top to bottom: to close the loops, eliminate waste, live better and more efficiently, and to finally work in harmony with nature instead of stubbornly fighting against it. Many have referred to this transition as the soft-landing scenario, which maximizes prosperity and minimizes loss of life.
But every time morons like Tom Stelene or Michael Crighton open their mouths, (or their blogs) to the denialist rhetoric, they are simply attempting to postpone the day humanity stands up or grows up and takes on this challenge. They are dragging that same rusty anchor from the past as religions. Why do I devote this time to speaking out against them? It’s about promoting sustainable human prosperity and saving lives. Because the denialists provide intellectual cover for doing nothing and prolonging our childish follies and dangerous flirtations with things like coal-fired power plants, buying cheap but utterly unsustainable goods from places like China, or the manufacture and use of obscenely monstrous vehicles for personal transportation. By justifying these practices, they are setting us up for a hard-landing many people in the world will not survive.