I have been long interested in questions of sustainability and the environment, and the global warming problem is one that has concerned me for some time.  The scientists say that we don’t have long to get our act together, or we will set changes in motion that we will be helpless to stop.

Sustainability and resource exhaustion is also an interesting topic – the question of oil depletion is one that comes up frequently under the heading “peak oil”.   We have choices in terms of how we deal with this issue – some options will help with global warming, others will probably make it worse.

The question I have had for some time though is whether Peak Oil will force us to act before it is too late to begin action on global warming.   In theory, oil scarcity and the higher prices that seem inevitable may have the side effect of reducing carbon emissions, but will it be enough??

It was with these questions in mind that I attended the “Sustainable Energy Forum 2006” conference a few weeks ago.  There were a number of speakers that many of you have heard of.  Governor Brian Schweitzer spoke on energy issues and coal liquefaction.   James Hansen (NASA scientist who has studied global climate change) spoke on the very question of whether or not peak oil will help force us to solve global warming, and Lester Brown (World Watch Institute) spoke about the need to restructure the global economy.

Many of these talks are now available for MP3 download, as are PDF files that contain the powerpoint slides (for those speakers that used them).

More after the flip….
I am going to focus on just a few of the talks here – you are of course free to look at the others.  This is a huge subject, and there are many aspects to it.  My own belief is that we must consider all of these questions together at the same time and not focus on quick fixes that may buy us some time from Peak Oil.  In fact, I believe that this is one of the first conferences that I have seen that has taken a multi-disciplinary look at these questions.

I should start by saying that the audio quality for many of the talks is only mediocre – the organizers of the conference are aware of the problem, and they say that they have other sources that may be available in the future.   There may be downloadable video at some point in the near future in fact.  I should add that they do not yet have downloadable audio for the 2nd day on the website, but it should be available at some point in the future.  In any event, the audio that is available is generally intelligible enough for my purposes, so I decided to go ahead right now.


Let me start with James Hansen.  As many of you know, he is the NASA scientist who has studied global warming for many years, and the Bush administration has tried to muzzle him – trying to prevent him from speaking out, and trying to ‘fudge’ his reports by editing his conclusions.  

I should mention that none of this is new – this past weekend I saw “An Inconvenient Truth”, and there was a short section where a much younger Senator Gore was ‘grilling’ none other than this same James Hansen.  In this case it wasn’t that Gore took issue with what Hansen was saying – it was that at the time some political hack in the Reagan administration had edited the conclusions in a scientific paper that Hansen had written to make it seem like there was more uncertainty about global warming:


When James E. Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Science, topped the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post earlier this year by describing Bush administration attempts to muzzle government scientists’ attempts to convey their findings on global warming to the public, he may have experienced some deja vu. Almost exactly a quarter century earlier, a landmark paper in the journal Science by Hansen and colleagues at G.I.S.S. provoked a Reagan Administration attempt to shut down the institute. In the meantime, temperatures have risen steadily, along with the political heat.

And for those of you that have seen “An Inconvenient Truth”, the CO2 level and temperature data that Gore presents is Hansen’s.  In fact, that movie is probably a better reference to the question of what the actual evidence is for global warming, so I will limit my comments here to have to do with the question of how does Peak Oil play into all of this.

Now, on to what he actually had to say on the subject.  Audio quality starts out quite poor, and the first few minutes are missing, but you can listen here (once you get to about the 1 minute mark, the sound improves considerably to the point where it is intelligible).  His slides can be viewed as a PDF here.

I should also add that he spent a lot of time talking about various levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, the temperature rise that he would expect, and the effect on sea levels.  He defines a ‘safe’ threshold that if we were to exceed it, then it is likely that we would lose the ability to stop melting and sea level rise, so essentially the objective is to keep the CO2 level below that threshold.

Note: This quote is my transcription from the audio, and is rather ambiguous without looking at the slides – look for slide 51 for the start point.

Now what is the impact of peak oil?

The bottom sections are the fossil fuels that have already been used and emitted to the atmosphere in units of giga-tons or CO2 PPM, and the EIA estimates for proven reserves would put you up to this level, and with their estimates for reserve growth to this additional level.  

Now if we use those amounts, and use the simplest carbon cycle model – just take the bare model – published in the IPCC report, then those emissions – the fossil fuel use –  would give you this increase in CO2.  The observed increase in CO2 is this, and presumably the difference is the fact that the preceding fuel use was wood and deforestation, which is now getting to be a relatively small difference relative to the total.

Then using for this standard calculation, assume that we are going to use all of the oil and gas, and the coal with the IPCC estimate for the amount of coal, then that would end up doubling CO2, which would get you clearly into the dangerous level.  This is assuming 2% per year growth up to the peak, and then when you hit the peak you have a decrease of 2% per year after that.

On the other hand, we said, “Let’s phase out coal” – you keep coal use constant up to 2020, and then we begin a phase out by 2040, which doesn’t mean you stop using coal, but means you use it only where you capture it and sequester it.  And that would mean that you were really going to phase out by 2040 that those power plants that would live past 2040 you would need to replace with CO2 capture or some other power plant.  That would keep CO2 slightly less than what we require for the alternative scenario.  And even if we doubled the estimate for the reserve growth, it would still be at a reasonable level of CO2.

Now some people think there is still lots and lots of gas and oil to be discovered….

Conclusions: If these peaks are really at this level, which is about 3 times what has been used so far in oil, and about 4 times what has been used so far in gas, then you could afford to use these and still keep CO2 at the low 400ppm.  But this scenario assumes that we are not going to then go from these to something like shale oil or tar sands, or something that’s really hard to get at.  It also assumes that there are no big feedbacks that we don’t know about – for example permafrost melting and beginning to yield a lot of CO2.  Based on the Earth’s history, if we keep warming to less than one degree Celsius, we probably won’t get a big feedback as we didn’t see any in the last several hundred thousand years.

To get this to work, you are going to have to have something after the present fossil fuel use, and that’s going to take decades – that argues that you had better emphasize energy efficiency in the near term to give you time to develop the replacement approach for energy use.

And it also assumes that we will want to keep the warming to less than 1 degree Celsius, we will also pursue the non-CO2 forcings which would require some additional effort.


Next let me go to Lester Brown.  Here we get the core of the issue of sustainable use of resources, and the reason I include him in the list here is mainly to highlight the fact that we heading in an unsustainable direction.   The real elephant in the room here is human population – there are many who believe that the human population currently exceeds the ‘carrying capacity’ of the earth (he also has a new book out – “Plan B, 2.0: rescuing a planet under stress and a civilization in trouble”).

And Brown considers the question of China, and speaks to the need to restructure the global economy (transcribed from the audio – if there is an error, it is my fault.  Audio downloadable here – he didn’t use powerpoint):

Those of us who have been working on Environmental issues for many years, and in some cases decades, including many of us in this room, have been saying that we need to restructure the global economy for environmental reasons.  We look at the environmental trends, whether it shrinking forests, expanding deserts, collapsing fisheries, eroding soils, rising sea level, ice melting, dying coral reefs..  You can go down the list, and it has been clear that we could not continue on this path and would have to restructure the economy.  And while many of us were convinced, most of the rest of the world has not been convinced.  And certainly most of the economists were not convinced.  But what is happening in China now may being to convince economists as well, that we do need, indeed, to restructure the global economy.

Almost ever since I can remember, we have been saying that with the United States with 5% of the world’s people consumes 33% to 40% of the world’s resources.  That was true.  It is no longer true.  China now consumes more of most basic resources than does the United States.

We look at the agricultural sector – grain and meat.  The energy sector – oil and coal.  The industrial sector – steel.  Of those 5 basic commodities, China now consumes more than the United States of all except oil.  And even here, China’s oil use is growing much, much faster, than that of the United States.

Now that China has overtaken the U.S., and more than overtaken us in some cases – meat consumption in China is now nearly double that in the United States.  Steel consumption is more than double 258 million tons to 104 million tons.  It’s not even close any more.

But now that China has overtaken the United States in the consumption of many basic resources, we have license to ask the next question, which is ‘what happens if China catches up with the United States in consumption per person?’.  And if we project the growth in the Chinese economy at 8% a year, down from the 9-10% in the last few years, at 8% a year, in 2031 income per person in China would be the same as that the United States today.

If we further assume that the Chinese will spend their money in more or less the same way we do, that is that they have similar consumption patterns, then we can begin to see what this means in total consumption.

It means, for example, that grain consumption in China, in 2031, 1.45 billion people, will be equal to 2/3 of the current world grain harvest.  Look at paper consumption.  At the U.S. per-capita level, then China in 2031 consumes twice as much paper as the world currently produces.  There go the world’s forests.

Or consider cars – 3 cars for every 4 people.  In China, in 2031, then you have 1.1 billion cars.  The current global fleet is 800 million cars.  China would have to pave an area in roads, highways, parking lots, comparable to the area now planted in rice.

Oil consumption.  99 million barrels a day.  As referred a number of times, beginning last night, we are currently producing 84 million barrels a day, and we may never produce much more than that.

What China is teaching us, is that the western economic model, the fossil-fuel based, automobile centered, throw-away economy, is not going to work for China.  If it doesn’t work for China, it will not work for India.  Nor will it work for the other 3 billion people in the developing countries who are also dreaming the American dream.  And in some ways, most importantly, in an increasingly integrated global economy, where we all depend upon the same oil, grain, steel, it won’t work for us either.

Emphasis mine.


Finally, Brian Schweitzer.  In the context of the conference, his talk came after Lester Brown and James Hansen, and thoughts from those talks were still bouncing around in my head as Schweitzer was speaking.   Schweitzer does talk a good talk though.

You can hear Schweitzer here: http://www.beyondpeak.org/files/SEF06_Schweitzer.MP3.  Audio quality for this one is pretty decent.  He spoke without powerpoint slides, so this is audio-only.  The focus of his talk was to find ways to eliminate oil imports (he actually had a diary on the subject here).

I cannot be too hard on him – he really does get most of it, and so many politicians have their heads completely in the sand.  He not only talks the talk, but he walks the walk.  And he really understands the stuff.  He spoke of the Carter ‘sweater’ speech:

What are some of the solutions?

Let’s talk about energy conservation.  Let’s start there.  We could, in my opinion, decrease consumption by 20% in the next 5 years.  But it starts by making conservation cool.  The mistake that Jimmy Carter had was that he asked for only sacrifice.  He didn’t talk about the potential.  He didn’t talk about the business opportunities.  And he didn’t talk about making conservation cool.  He wore a sweater, he looked frumpy.  He turned down the thermostat.  He drove an ugly vehicle.  Let’s make conservation cool.  I drive a Volkswagen Jetta, and I run it 100% on synthetic fuel, and it’s cool.  It will go very fast, and it will run on used oil coming from french fries, it will run on synthetic fuels, and we do.

But more than just the fuels we burn in our cars, let’s make it cool to wear clothes that have used less energy input and less carbon into the atmosphere.  Let us have more sustainable chairs that we sit on.  let us have more sustainable homes that we build.  Let us find out how low can you go.  Like limbo.  Let’s challenge each other, so Nancy and I at a dinner party say “We drive a Volkswagen Jetta with all synthetic fuel, and we get 45 miles to the gallon”.  The next couple says, “that’s cool, but we drive a Prius, get 51, and we only drive it 2 days a week.”.  The next one says “We have converted our bicycles to a family bicycle, and all 4 of us can ride together”.  How low can you go?

That part is fine, of course.  In the end, he outlines 3 components for making the U.S. energy independent, and this is the first one.  The 2nd one is biofuels, but these two alone in his view are insufficient to get us all the way.  The 3rd one is coal liquefaction.  On the surface it sounds good – we don’t have to worry about fuel shortages, but the underlying assumption behind all of this is that we are using coal as a bridge until we figure out what the ‘next’ fuel for our cars is – hydrogen, fusion, or something.

Only one problem with this.  This assumes that one of these things will actually come through for us before we run out of coal.  There is the real possibility that there is no scalable and sustainable ‘fuel’ that will allow us to perpetuate today’s car culture in the future (especially when you consider Lester Brown and the ever increasing numbers of people in the planet who desire to live the car culture), in which case all we will have done is dug ourselves even deeper in a hole, and mankind will have an even harder time digging itself out.

And then there is the question of CO2.  Coal liquefaction only partially deals with the CO2 issue – he talks about sequestration of CO2, but that is only the CO2 created in the process of making the synthetic fuel.  Here I was reminded of what James Hansen had to say and I could only wonder whether this is a wise course of action.


So what should we really do?  My gut tells me that coal liquefaction is really more of a band-aid – a way to keep the status quo functioning a few more years in the hopes that we will find a better solution.  But questions of resource exhaustion lead me to believe that no such better solution will be found, and if you accept that there are limits to what the earth will support, then perhaps a more productive approach for moving forward would be to reexamine aspects of our society that cause us to overconsume in the first place.

And for the coal in Montana?  Schweitzer spoke of how various Native American nations in Montana are viewing the coal that lies beneath their lands.   One of them – the Crow – is ready to start digging.  Another of them – the Cheyenne – have considered whether they should mine the coal beneath their lands (and become obscenely wealthy in the process), but their view is that perhaps the coal should be left in the ground for future generations.   It will still be there.   Perhaps it is best left where it is.

And perhaps that is how we should view it too.

I won’t try and argue that it will be a painless transition.  But the status quo, or even the attempt to maintain the status quo seems to be a questionable endeavor, and if we are going to have to make radical changes anyways, then sooner we get started, the better.  The challenge of course is that most people are just barely aware of the seriousness of the situation.


Downloadable notes for all speakers can be found here: http://www.beyondpeak.org/Register.html

Downloadable MP3 audio for half of the speakers (other half hopefully coming soon) can be found here: http://www.beyondpeak.org/Agenda.html

I should add that for pure entertainment value, the Deffeyes and Schweitzer talks are worthwhile.

Some of the other speakers were Joseph Tainter (author “Collapse of Complex Societies”), William Catton (author “Overshoot”), Richard Heinberg & Kenneth Deffeyes (frequent speakers on the subject of Peak Oil), and David Pimintel (Cornell ecologist, and frequent ethanol critic).

Cross posted to dKos and EuroTrib.

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