Peak Oil versus Climate Change

by Chris Harries

Question: Which is the more serious problem: climate change or peak oil?

Some say it is peak oil, because that issue will impact much sooner – especially on the poor who won’t be able to afford skyrocketing costs. Others say it is climate change because we are threatening to take the planet’s climate system beyond the tipping point, and then the whole planet will suffer.

Clearly there is no right answer. It’s far more constructive to treat both peak oil and climate change as equally critical. Both can lead to collapse.

Climate change makes it essential that we reduce carbon pollution. Peak oil makes it inevitable that we do. Climate change tells us that we need to act, whereas peak oil may take any choice out of our hands. Peak oil may even motivate politicians to act on climate change, because there is no way of squirming out of it.

In truth, climate change and peak oil are both very serious in their own right, but the two issues are joined at the hip. Only by coupling peak oil and climate change can human society succeed in switching to a sustainable future. If we respond to either without looking at the other then we can just make things worse.

By way of example, if we try to respond to the depletion of world oil supplies by converting our huge coal reserves to liquid fuels, then we may (temporarily) keep all our cars and trucks on the road but that ‘solution’ will put more pollution into the atmosphere and only worsen the climate change problem. (The huge tar sand mines in Alberta, Canada is a gruesome real-life example of this folly.)

Conversely, if we respond to climate change by trying to make renewable energy supply as much energy as coal and oil does, then we will quickly find that such a conversion is impossible because the conversion itself requires immense investment in declining fossil fuel energy that we don’t have. Catch 22! (Manufacturing bio-fuels from crops is a real-life example of this folly – generally speaking it deprives us of land-for-food resources and increases the demand for petro-chemical fertilisers.)

Both problems boil down to energy problems—and energy is essential to the maintenance of agriculture, transportation, communication… and just about everything else that makes up our modern global economy. Fossil fuels are ingrained in our entire infrastructure.

The only way to bridge both peak oil and climate change is to develop a culture shift away from our heavy reliance on fossil fuels and develop what is called the ‘post-carbon economy’. Energy efficiency and deep cultural change have to be the dominant responses to both issues.

To put things in a nutshell, peak oil can be thought of as a ‘what’s in the tank?’ problem and climate change as ‘what comes out of the tail pipe?’ problem (quoting Richard Heinberg). Both of them are to do with the energy we use, both of them require us to look at where we get our energy from, what we use it for and how much we use.

Most importantly, the solution to both problems is a fundamental ‘energy transition’ – that is, a set of policies that reduce both carbon emissions and oil dependence.

The neat logo at left represents the duality that exists between these two critical issues. Interestingly, the logo was devised by David Holmgren, a Tasmanian based initiator / inventor of the huge global Permaculture movement.

See Bridging Peak Oil and Climate Change Activism by Richard Heinberg.

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3 Responses to Peak Oil versus Climate Change

  1. Mark says:

    Peak oil is only part of the problem. Olduvai theory really sums up the whole problem. You cannpot compare the dubious theory of climate change with the eventual outcomes of OLduvai theory. It’s not really a theory. It’s quite simple to undertstand. Current civilsation and our population of 7 Billion people is based on a finite resource. Fossil fuel. That doesn’t just mean making a decision about driving your car to work or your bicycle. It determines whether the lights go on. It determines whether there will be food at the local super market (fertiliser is made from LNG), whether you will have clothes to wear and ultimately will you get killed on the way to the supermarket by the starving masses. The single biggest hoax ever perpetrated on makind is currently being played out viz. That somehow, magically everything will chug along with windmills and solar panels. Nonsense. Look around you when drive home. There is no replacement for the most mobile form of energy known to man. Our population went from a Billion at the discovery of Oil to 7 Billion post discovery in the space of 150 years we increased our population to 7 times what it took us 20,000 years to achieve. SO no. You cannot compare climate change to Peak OIl/Everything. Peak Oil when it plays out is an extinction level event and it will simultaneously solve the climate change problem (if there is one) anyway. So really why bother considering it compared to peak oil. Fossil fuel resources are finite. In really layman terms. They run out. Like all mammals we are simply binging in a time of plenty. The binge is almost over. The solution no one will like which is why you will never hear it from a politician. 6 billion of us have to go. It’s simply unsustainable. WE have to turn away from capitilsim and move towards democracy and sutainable societies. I’m laughing as I type this. We haven’t got a hope.

    • Chris Harries says:

      Thanks Mark,

      I find it quirky that some deny climate change but accept the peaking of oil resources. Others propose solutions to climate change as if there are no resource limits. I guess it doesn’t matter which pathway people come to a realisation that our present civilization is not sustainable.

  2. Mark says:

    Permaculture and societal shift will only work if we all do it. What do you think will happen when the Millions of starving people discover a nice juicy permaculture farm? We should have started preparing 20 years ago. As long as the Government of the day keeps brain washing people and they can buy their Big Mac burgers nothing will happen. The problem of course is that when the plug is pulled it will be far far too late

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