Late in the 19th century, we discovered and began to burn crude oil rather casually, as if an epoch-marking discovery of an incredible energy source was a routine event.
Crude oil is an enormous one-time bounty of highly concentrated energy that developed millions of years ago in the depths of the planet, from a soup of anoxic water, alga, sediment, heat and pressure. We have squandered about half of that gift in just 156 years.
Oil is the most valuable and versatile of the fossil fuels (crude oil, natural gas, bitumen and coal), and I will focus on it. Oil is the powerful change agent that enabled the physical transformation of our planet over about 150 years. However, our choices for oil’s use were focused on trivialities — expressions of wealth and power. We failed to plan the use of our bonanza, and that planning is still absent, especially in regard to the global warming that burning oil produces.
The purpose of burning oil and natural gas is the production of incredible amounts of energy, harnessed primarily for transportation. We don’t understand how incredibly useful and novel oil is, and we consume it casually, greedily and foolishly.
Today, the U.S. alone uses about 19 million barrels of oil each day — close to 25 percent of global production. We have now produced and burned perhaps half or more of what petroleum geologists believe is the ultimate available resource.
We cannot escape the consequences of burning all that fossil fuel — and producing all that CO2. Burning oil results in heating the planet plus myriad other negative effects — acidified oceans, melting global ice, substantial sea level rise, widespread extinctions, changed climates and much more. We have made profoundly ignorant and selfish choices by burning half or more of the world’s available petroleum without any coordinated attempt at mitigation or the production of replacement amounts of renewable energy.
We are passive in the face of our fossil fuel bonanza. Our oil use history was largely driven by markets. It was all about business: converting petroleum into mobility, machine tools, wealth, toys, comfort and convenience.
As folks began to think about the possibility that oil was finite (and that inescapable fact eluded many) a major PR/disinformation campaign was launched by the oil industry to discredit climate science and scientists — an intense campaign promoting ignorance that continues today.
American “exceptionalism” is a broad and variable claim that we are different from and better than other nations. This self-proclaimed advantage, part of the extreme individualism characteristic of American politics, allows us to imagine we are exceptional. We somehow imagine we deserve to burn all that oil, without a thought for others or the future. We haven’t set aside any oil for our children, grandchildren, etc., and there appear to be no comparable energy substitutes.
Our progeny will have to take care of themselves.
Now, the die is cast. We did not mitigate and thus we face temperature rises of 4 degrees Celsius and more, along with massive changes in climate, vegetation and species. There are reasons for radical pessimism:
• We don’t discuss the problem of warming — talking about it is verboten.
• The global community has done no successful broad scale planning for mitigation — or for adaptation — and we are just waiting for things to “happen” to us. Our rudders are disconnected and swinging wildly.
• We are at or beyond peak oil, when half or more of oil has been burned and the rate of production inexorably slows. Any work on energy transformations must be done soon, because only oil can power a transformation to renewables — there are no electric bulldozers.
• Dr. James Hansen and his coauthors produced a plan in 2013 to quickly reduce emissions 6 percent per year. It is a realistic approach to a difficult problem that will require sacrifices, while doing nothing leads toward total collapse as oil becomes scarce. Unfortunately, Hansen’s plan appears to be a non-starter: There is no broad movement to quit using oil. Collapse looms.
• More than 16 million new vehicles were sold in the U.S. last year (and likewise in recent years). We become eunuchs in the absence of automobiles.
• Eighty-two percent of U.S. total energy (2013) is fossil fuels. Reducing that to zero and developing renewables seems impossible. There simply isn’t enough will, time or money.
• These are global problems. CO2 is global in scope and requires global abatement.
• Today most economies are fragile and incapable of creating global change.
It is time we engaged in public debates on these issues on the practicalities, and not symbolically as part of fruitless culture wars. The time to worship those idols is over. In fact, our civilization’s time may have passed. — Tom Giesen