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.
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.