14 Mar 2007
Peak Oil and Beyond – Q&A with Heinberg, Campbell and Leggett – Part 2.
**Q4. I’m Lucy Care, I’m a councillor in Derby. I’m aware of a number of cities and towns which are aware of climate change and have been down sizing from the point of view of energy because of climate change, but I don’t know of any who are addressing it from a peak oil perspective. The government in the UK is obviously not clued up to that either, but I wondered if you could say, in super-national organisations – the EU, the UN – whether you are aware of any movement in those directions that could feed down from the top, to compliment the work that is going on in communities that could feed up – whether it could meet in the middle?**
C. Well, all I could say about the EU is that a fairly middle level official in Brussels has been trying to raise the issue of peak oil within the EU for a long time, and this poor chap is just intensely frustrated because every time he gets it up the agenda, he’s told, ‘No, no, no, this is something we’d rather not talk about’. But surprisingly enough, in September he did manage…there was reorganisation or something and he had his moment, and he did organise a workshop in Brussels on peak oil itself. I was included in this thing, and it was sort of a confused meeting – a lot of people from Finland to Greece speaking unknown languages – but backgrounds in economics or law, and so they’re very poorly equipped to understand energy issues and make decisions accordingly. Then the people who do have the technical backgrounds and are tasked with that in the Department of Energy mostly have their hands tied, they’re under-funded, they’re asked to do work that is actually not the kind of work that needs to be done by such a department, so there are very few officials that I’ve encountered in the US who have any real understanding of the situation.
But I’ll be speaking to the Green Party members of the EU at the end of February. That’s a pretty small sub-set of the whole organisation as I understand, so I think we’re just going to have to keep working away as we can to educate these folks, because that’s really the key. I think it’s probably incorrect to assume that the people at the very top actually understand everything that’s going on, and they have some plan to deal with all of this, and maybe it’s nefarious and so on…there may be a few people in that category – perhaps Dick Chaney is one of them – but I think for the most part, the people who are calling the shots, making the decisions, just aren’t very well informed. They don’t understand the situation that we’re in.
C. I think it’s awfully difficult – the DTI for example seems to be… they say the market will resolve it. As far as I know, the DTI – officially at least – cannot begin to accept this. I think one reason is, the implications are so monumental that if they would accept it, people immediately ask the question, ‘What should we do? What policies do you have?’, and there aren’t any. So I think it’s much easier to deny and escape from it. The DTI did, without really intending to do so, did put out a CD at a conference a year or two ago that showed Britain’s oil and gas just about exhausted by 2015. So they evidently know within the organisation that this is the situation, but to come out and say it in so many words is very difficult for them.
J. Just an observation on this, because when I was on the government’s renewables advisory board for the energy white paper, I tried quite hard, with Colin’s help, using some of his material, to get the DTI to take this seriously…set up at least some sort of scenario planning strategy group. They didn’t do that, and they haven’t responded. I’ve tried with Number 10 … I did talk to his officials and I followed up – I wrote a paper for no.10. I think the situation is really bad, because… let me tell you what one of these officials said to me – this is a true story!
He will of course be nameless, but this guy said that the trouble with this issue is that there’s nothing in it for politicians. If it happens while you’re in office…if you talk about it in opposition, it will be easy for the incumbents to defend with some kind of response as a scare mongerer, and it will put people off, you’ll lose votes. If it happens to you while you’re in office, and the tsunami washes over you, you’re dead anyway like Jimmy Carter was when the second oil crisis hit him. The opposition is going to pin the blame on you, and the voters are just going to kill you whether as a President you’re trying to do something about it or not.
So I’m paraphrasing what this person said to me, but accurately. So I believe that the extent we can ameliorate we can effects of this… it’s bottom-up, it has to be bottom-up. It’s going to be things like the tipping point, your initiative in Totnes, and what we can do as individuals and as communities. I think that’s the only way to achieve any kind of soft-landing, if indeed there is one.
One other observation – I don’t know how many people are aware here…you may have read the exposé in the Guardian over prisons, where the Guardian put an under cover reporter in the British National Party, and he got quite high to the top, and learnt their strategy. And their strategy is not to win elections – their strategy is to wait peak oil out, and they think that’s what’s going to sweep them to power. And that’s one of the aspects of all this that worries me most.
R. The gentleman over here?
**Q5. Can I just take that forward, because I’ve been thinking that as well, because a lot of us have come to this conference with many years of working on community issues. I was taken by your presentation yesterday, of doing it really elegantly which to my mind, hasn’t been done before over the last 15 years. It’s really important – that community level work. And a lot of us have been working on climate change, where the public have started to understand…possibly the time table for climate change, talking of 10 years, and politicians are also now talking about 10 years as well.**
**We are bringing in here an issue which is much more long term. As you’re all saying, the immediate response of the big battalions as this issue makes its way up on the political agenda, which it isn’t at the moment, is a) to deny it, b) to say we’ve got other solutions to this, the sort of things we’ve been talking about yesterday…and secondly to start demonising people who are responding to this in the short term as terrorists, as people who try and destabilise the world, so…and an additional point I make is that there are a lot of organisations – you were talking yesterday about setting up a network of transition towns, there’s already Community Action 20-20, the New Economics Foundation, Groundwork.**
**There’s a whole range of bodies working in these areas – let us at least unite our puny efforts against the big battalions is what I would argue. And I still tend to feel it’s not offered critically, because what I heard yesterday was so eloquent and elegant – I’ve not been to a better conference. But in the end, think hard about whether we want to move climate change, and bring yet another piece of terminology on, which probably obfuscates for the general public rather than illuminates. I really feel that very strongly.**
R. There’s a very important point there in terms of peak oil, climate change – the relationship between the two.
Ri. Yes, I’ve recently written an easy called *Bridging Peak Oil and Climate Change Activism*, which you might want to look at. I don’t think we can afford to ignore the problem of peak oil, even though it seems to complicate the situation to have to worry about two potentially civilisation crashing problems at the same time. Because they are two separate problems, and if we ignore the peak oil problem, and just focus on climate change – there’s certain aspects of the peak oil problem that could in fact make it difficult to impossible for us to deal with climate change. If, as Colin and I and many others think the global production peak is a near term phenomenon – we’re talking about within the next 5 years – the likely economic and geo-political impacts of that are such that within a few years we could see the world in depths of economic recession and geo-political chaos.
**Q5. …could I just interrupt and come back on that? I’m not arguing that we ignore peak oil at all. It’s quite clear we can’t, and we’ve got to think about it very hard. But I’m saying, let’s think about the way we promote, politically, these issues, the strategies we use, for what a damn short time we’ve got, and when we are the small battalions and the big battalions are out there denying this, and denying it very hard.**
**What I’m saying is, in climate change we say it’s bad to burn oil because it adds to climate change, and by the way oil isn’t going to last forever. That’s the political way I would like to portray it to the public, rather than…trying to establish a totally new way of presenting this problem when we’ve already more or less convinced a fairly diffuse public attitude that climate change is here, is about to get them and they better start thinking about something. Don’t let us lose that in what we’re arguing.**
Ri. I don’t disagree with that.
**Q5. Well, let us think about it then, because I’l go away from this thinking peak oil is going to go on the agenda, because the Soil Association is an effective promoting body. It will be on the agenda, and you’ve got to think very hard about the implications of that.**
R. I very much, with the work that I do, put the two things on the same level really. I think if you look at one without taking in the other, then the solutions you come up with don’t really address the real nature of the challenge, so…I suppose, in the nature of what I do when I’m doing talks and so on, I find that people are already more familiar with climate change, which is why I emphasise peak oil a bit more purely because people don’t know so much about it. But in terms of the weighting I give them, I would give them very much the same.
I think the two things are very powerful alongside each other. And like I said yesterday, what’s more powerful about peak oil than climate change, is its ability to put a mirror up to a community and to look at the resilience within that – where is this community’s ability to withstand shocks? Climate change doesn’t do that so much, it’s a longer term transition. A lot of solutions that are proposed for climate change might not work when oil hits $120, $130 a barrel. Richard’s point that he made when he was talking at Schumacher College a while ago was that peak oil is about what you put in to the tank of the car, climate change is about what comes out of the exhaust pipe. People instinctively tend to be more concerned about what they’re putting in than what’s coming out at the end.
But absolutely, I would always give the two an equal weighting. At the ASPO conference in Pisa last summer, I got very used to people talking about climate change, but with no peak oil perspective. But there were a couple of speakers there – it was the first time I’d heard people argue a peak oil perspective, with no climate change perspective. And that was almost more troubling. Robert Hirsch was talking there about a crash programme for keeping all the cars in the US on the road, which involves coal to liquids, tar sands… as a perfectly sensible proposition, with no account taken of climate change. So really, the two of them – as Jeremy refers to them as being the two great oversights of our time – they are the twin issues and we can’t separate them. But I find that if you do separate them, that one way or another you lose a certain amount of potency.
Ri. The folks who talk for example just about climate change tend to promote natural gas as a transition fuel, because of course natural gas is much less carbon intensive. But from the depletionist perspective, natural gas is not solution at all – it’s an equal sized problem to peak oil because peak gas is probably coming in roughly the same time frame. So transitioning from oil or coal to natural gases, from a depletionist perspective, is no solution at all.
R. Also, just to add one thing – it’s not the case that adding the peak oil argument means that it somehow dismisses the really amazing work that has been done on climate change campaigning over a long time. My experience of working and collaborating with the groups in the area we are who have been working on climate change for a long time, that it really re-energises the whole issue and it adds a drive and momentum to it. So it’s not about displacing – it’s about weaving the two arguments together for added effect.
**Q6. My name is Chris Vernon, and I’m from The Oil Drum Europe. I have a point about climate change and peak oil, and it’s an academic point rather than a practical point. Given that we believe that oil supply is restrained by a reducing availability in the future, surely the CO² emissions on oil will be similarly constrained by this? And given that, how effective do you think campaigning – climate change campaigning and activism – focus on oil use? Say focused on SUVs, focused on cheap flights – how effective do you think that can be at reducing the CO² emissions on oil? Really what I’m saying is can reform and efficiency keep the depletion curve down, because if we can’t choose to keep the depletion curve down, i.e. reduce our consumption even quicker than peak oil is going to reduce our consumption, maybe the climate change debate should move away from looking at oil, and should focus on coal and other sources of CO²?**
Ri. Actually, Jeremy might have to say as much about that as we would…
R. Do you want to come up Jeremy?
Ri. From a climate change perspective, coal is really the main issue – there’s no question about that. The contribution of oil is maybe substantial but, I wouldn’t say trivial compared with oil, but certainly, coal’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is larger now, and potentially much larger in the future, unless our friend David Fleming is right and in fact the world’s coal reserves are much smaller than we’ve been lead to believe. So here’s a situation where perhaps the peak oil and climate campaigners could be working strategically together to a much greater degree. The peak oil folks working on oil and gas, and the climate change folks working on coals, and making sure that our solutions to these problems are co-ordinated and inter-meshed.
J. There was a slide in the presentation yesterday – I don’t know if you were there Chris – but there was a slide with the carbon arithmetic, and how much carbon there is in each these reservoirs, so far as we know. The point from that – I won’t reverse the statistics – but the point from that is, it doesn’t really matter, for the purposes of climate change, whether the early peak folks are right, or the late peak folks are right. The fact is that a good deal of the oil has to stay in the ground, a good deal of the gas, and almost all of the coal, so far as we use that statistic of 3,500 egatons of carbon in coal reserves – that just drowns everything.
We would go so quickly and so far over the threshold of danger that most climate scientists are seeing that it just wouldn’t matter. So Richard’s suggestion of focused campaigning is a really good one, and as I said yesterday, if we can ultimately survive and come out of the back of both these great threats – coal will be the deciding factor. If people go to the tar sands and go to liquids from coal, and just replace gas, diminishing gas and electricity with coal, will really will find out whether the climate scientists are right I think. And that’s one of the encouraging things in climate…the things that help us get of bed in the mornings, Marks and Spencer’s for example a couple of days ago – they’re going carbon neutral within five years. Don’t ask me how they’re going to do that, but anyway, that’s their target.
And Wall Mart for goodness sake – who would have imagined we would wake up in a world where one day Wall Mart was going to turn round and say, ‘guys, our objective is to have zero emissions from our stores worldwide, and here are the interim targets.’ And unlike governments of course, when the businesses say they’re going to do something, generally they tend to at least have a damn good crack at doing it. I know for a fact that Wall Mart are making great progress with this – they’re actually now rewarding store owners on how much carbon they save each quarter, as much as how much profit they make in their stores. This was almost an unimaginable thing a few years ago. The reason that people are going zero is because of what the climate scientists are saying. We can’t be sure that deep cuts are going to do the job. We’ve got to replace fossil fuels, and that message is beginning to get out, which is encouraging.