Rephrasing the Energy Debate
Jan 23, 2011

Rephrasing the Energy Debate

We face not one but two distinct issues related to energy that have the potential to significantly disrupt the current social order and reduce the quality of life for many people. On the one hand we have Global Warming which claims significant ecological disruptions resulting from our burning of fossil fuels. On the other hand we have the decline in cheap fossil fuel supplies that goes by the tagline Peak Oil. It is perhaps the great irony of our times that the decline in the fuels that caused the former issue is what makes the latter issue.

These two issues are not, however, equally talked about in the public dialogue. Global warming overwhelmingly dominates peak oil in every level of discussion from grassroots involvement to live cleaner lives, to media coverage, to political attention all the way up to the big (but failed) international summits on global warming in Copenhagen and Cancun. Almost everyone is at least aware of the existence of global warming (although many follow the interests who claim it is not true) but many still are not aware even of the concept of a short or medium term decline in cheap energy that had the potential to significantly detriment society.

What I propose is a rephrasing of the energy debate to include both global warming and peak oil as future problems we are averting now. This broader scope not only brings light on the important but under addressed issue of declining cheap energy supplies, it will help to bring additional motivation and impetus on solving the problems for global warming. The main advantage of this dual crisis approach is that there is enormous overlap in policies to solve the two problems. For those to whom global warming is either not believed or unpersuasive there is a host of arguments on the peak oil side as to why we should invest in clean energy, increase the price of carbon now, etc.

The peak oil issue brings several unique motivating arguments to play that reinforce the set of policies beneficial for both problems. One problem in conveying global warming is that it is often not seen as having personal consequences; indeed, many (sometimes correctly, sometimes not) think in their locations it will be neutral or beneficial with the major detractors being those far removed in poor countries. However steeply rising oil prices and the associated rise in many costs is directly affecting all individuals so this can be played to appeal to peoples selfish side.

One possible consequence of peak oil is going to be increased volatility and conflict in the middle east as interests clamor for control of the oil and its profits. Thus the latent fears of such conflict which is embedded deeply in us through our multiple wars may also prove to be a powerful motivator. Especially if we correctly cast wars in the middle east as a partial subsidization (in dollars and lives) that lowers the cost of oil relative to clean energy, this fear of increased conflict as oil prices rise is compelling.

Perhaps the most important argument peak oil brings is the sense of inevitably to focusing on clean energy sources. There is a sense of defeatism at times with global warming where people think the costs of switching to clean energy is not worth the nebulous reduction in effects of a global warming phenomenon that is going to occur regardless. Rephrasing the argument to include peak oil underlines that moving to clean energy is not just desirable to abate global warming, it is absolutely necessary because of future declines in oil production. If we are going to need to switch anyways, this concept may reduce some of the barriers to switching now. With global warming there is the idea that we can keep the status quo and then possibly suffer some consequences, with peak oil we face the reality that the status quo is going to change and I think this message may be more powerful to people.

A corollary of the above is the competitiveness argument. Namely, if we accept that the world is going to move away from oil based energy to clean energy, there is a distinct economic advantage to having a competitive edge and in particular the competitive edge that comes from being the first leaders in the field. We are essentially being given knowledge of where new economic growth is going to be in the future, and any rational investor should be compelled to invest in that field. At national levels, this works out to supporting the kind of policies that promote green energy investment and infrastructure to gain a relative competitive advantage over other countries in this new field. This lets us argue entirely economically.

One final argument that can be brought in the energy debate is related to oil in general. This is the economic argument that western dependency on oil is equivalent to sending money to the middle east. If we can create energy independence it keeps our money at home and increases domestic demand helping to create jobs and domestic prosperity. While the nominal value per unit of energy is cheaper to purchase middle eastern oil the substantial positive externalities of retooling for domestic energy independence outweighs it. This argument stands independently of either crisis, and is actually quite commonly made even by republicans in the US who unfortunately advocate a drilling centric response that will temporarily increase independence (or slow the rate of foreign imports at any rate, US oil production peaked in the 70s and will never recover). If we acknowledge the twin crises of global warming and peak oil it lets us use this argument emphasized by the fact that it only gets stronger as oil gets more expensive but focused on clean energy because of global warming.

There are several factors that at least partially explain this asymmetry whereby global warming is firmly in the public consciousness but peak oil is not. Firstly, global warming is a much more dramatic and visual issue. The mental images of sea levels flooding the populated planes of Bangladesh, hurricanes in Florida or droughts in Australia are easy to conjure up and work as fearful motivators. That sharply rising energy prices may depress the global economy to the point that it causes perhaps significantly more social disruption than global warming is, if nothing else, a less visually frightening picture. It is less emotionally evocative.

Secondly, among those advocating for global warming issues there is a worry that peak oil will diminish this cause by offering a false solution. If there is no more oil to burn, global warming will go away or at least be uncontrollable by our actions, right? Unfortunately, a key component of peak oil is that remaining oil has significantly lower energy returned on invested, or EROI. The result is that while prices go up and consumption goes down (leading to the disruption), emissions actually remain high. Now I think this point is not actually too complex to convey and those that depress advocating for peak oil out of worries it displaces attention for global warming are wrong. The two issues have such similar policy implications that using them both to combine the motivation trumps the displacement.

Despite these factors, I still am surprised at the asymmetry. Scientifically, peak oil is actually on firmer ground than global warming and I believe may be the larger disrupter of this century. Importantly, the key interests such as big oil and military-industrial interests that wish for the status quo are the same in both issues, so it cannot be one issue over the other as a result of interests. It is also more firmly acknowledged in elite circles, with the Pentagon for instance in numerous occasions identifying quietly peak oil issues and in particular the geopolitical and strategic consequences of it (which they rightly acknowledge are very large). Perhaps it is merely an issue where, for the reasons I mentioned above and others, the issue of global warming got into the public consciousness and ballooned while peak oil has not. The positive feedback loops in public consciousness can make issues which seem close in importance end up significantly skewed in public consciousness. We saw with global warming that it was largely a bottom up change in consciousness which forced politicians to come along, opposed to being brought to our attention by politicians. That has not happened yet with peak oil, but we cannot wait around for the elites to tell us it is a problem and start acting, we must force them now.

It should be acknowledged that the overlap in policies is close but it is not perfect. On the peak oil side, there are several policies that still harm global warming, in particular focus on natural gas and coal. Both of these resources actually are going to peak just not as quickly as conventional crude oil. The issue is that for both of these there actually is a lot of it still in the ground, but the remaining is of significantly worse EROI. It is becoming harder and more expensive to get the same amount out of the ground and in the coal case what comes out is worse quality. Nonetheless, over emphasizing these solutions (as is done, investment in liquid natural gas and natural gas pipelines is skyrocketing) is still terrible for global warming even if it is at best a stop gap on the fossil fuel decline. Conversely, over emphasizing clean coal technologies, carbon capture and the like are only needed on the global warming side. Where the overlap is, however, is where the most important of the policies are: significant investments in clean energy supplies such as wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear (although this has its own difficulties and peaks) as well as directly increasing the price of carbon now to speed the transitions and ensure they happen smoothly.

It is our tragedy that we face these twin crises. However, despite the similarities in policies needed to combat them there remains a large asymmetry in the attention given to them in the public consciousness with the issue of declining cheap oil supplies largely ignored. By rephrasing the energy debate in terms of both crises we not only bring attention to an underrepresented issue but can use the host of arguments that come from peak oil to pursue policies common to solving both problems.

Related Posts:
A New Direction for Canadian Climate Change Policy
Why Fee-and-Dividend is superior to Cap-and-Trade

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