Peak oil or global warming?
by John deJong
Which do you think has the most resonance, ‘peak oil’ or ‘global warming’?” A Coffee Garden cohort fueling up on his way to work at the University of Utah posed the question as we paused with our morning cups of joe.
The question sounded straightforward enough. My quick reply was “Peak oil!” preceded by a mumbled “that’s a good question,” as I began to weigh the arguments.
Peak oil is easy to understand. Anyone who has gleaned all of the pecans and cashews out of a can of mixed nuts or come to the bottom of the cookie bag will figure out supply/demand curves sooner or later, even if they never know that’s what they’re called. They may even be able to appreciate the effect of supply/demand curves on the price of a Prius or a photo-voltaic array.
But global warming, climate change, cooked frogs (legs on)—most folks’ minds go blank. Worse than inconvenient, its truth is incomprehensible. Most folks are hard pressed to plan next summer’s vacation, much less figure the effects of their energy choices today on the climate decades from now.
Not that we have many choices: Our cities have been built for automobiles, not pedestrians, and all the mass transit in the world is not going to offset the inherent disadvantages of suburban sprawl. Our houses are filled with energy-intensive appliances—including the so-called “energy-saving” ones. Non-renewable energy—coal, oil and natural gas—is subsidized to encourage consumption.
Let’s face it: We live in a society and economy that encourages consumption instead of conservation. Everything is cheaper by the dozen until it gets scarce.
Earth’s climate is a commons—that is, it’s a common asset. A few benefit greatly by exploiting it, and each of the rest of us pay only a small penalty.
So if the state of Alaska wants to give away coal leases at fire-sale prices to people like Snowbird owner Richard Bass so he can make a killing selling it to the Chinese, who’s to say no? If Dick makes a buck a ton on 12 million tons of coal per year—that’s capitalism. The side effects of the resulting 27 million tons of carbon dioxide per year formed when that coal is burned? That’s everyone else’s problem.
One might refer to any behavior detrimental to the commons as “uncommon” behavior. If Dick Bass never made another dollar, he’d still be set for life—as would all his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. So why is he trying to strip mine a couple thousand acres of Alaska tundra for coal to sell to China? It would seem activities that foster global warming would be antithetical to running a ski resort.
Maybe he’s covering his bets.
Of course, peak oil and global warming are connected. We’ve still got enough oil to get us a lot deeper into global warming. Peak coal is a long way off (though imminent, in geological term)—some estimates run to 400 years. Waiting until we run out of coal to do something about our profligate power trips and their effects on climate is akin to waiting for the limb to fall off before treating the gangrene.
Score points for creativity, still it’s not a good sign that hare-brained schemes to mitigate global warming—as opposed to prevent it —have begun to look appealing. For instance, soot on clouds could alter the course of killer hurricanes—imagine a phalanx of airplanes flying wingtip to wingtip spraying soot on certain portions of a hurricane to impart a little english on a category five. We could install freezer coils in the tundra to prevent the release of trapped carbon dioxide.
We could spend ginormous sums mitigating global warming so that no one has to change their “uncommon” behavior. But in the end, the costs of mitigation are likely to be as high as the costs of prevention.
The answer to the question of prevention versus mitigation will probably come down to who stands to benefit. The costs of prevention will be spread across society, as will the benefits. Mitigation, on the other hand, will yield enormous windfall profits for the corporate giants who land government climate control contracts. You’ve got to wonder whether Dick Bass’ next venture will be a partnership with Energy Solutions’ Steve Creamer to clean up after coal power.
In years past, even as it was coveted, coal was not an honored substance. Generations of parents warned would-be naughty children that lumps of it would replace food and toys in their Christmas stocking. Manipulative and a little kooky, yes. But the same offer stands: Behave thoughtlessly now and suffer the lumps (if any are left) later—or pleasure and sustenance later for doing the right thing now.
The answers to some quizzes are no-brainers.
John deJong is associate publisher of CATALYST.