Climate change discussions seem to have changed in the last two or three years. The message used to be on the lines of, “We need to persuade people that something needs to be done, then technology will allow us to control greenhouse gas emissions such that we can maintain our current lifestyle.” Now the tone seems to have changed to something on the following lines, “No one seems to be listening, and it’s getting very late. But it’s still not too late to do something”.
But something else that has changed in the last two or three years, and that is the reality of climate change. It used to be that the topic was communicated through the use of complex charts and dense, nearly impossible-to-read reports. Now climate change is showing up on our TV screens and media feeds almost daily in the form of wildfires, floods, droughts and intense storms. Could this exposure to reality change the way that people think? May people recognize that the world has changed irreversibly and that we cannot return to the “old normal”?
Another profound change that has occurred in the last year and a half is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. The death toll in the United States alone is approaching 700,000; many people have suffered long-term health consequences; and the pandemic has caused wrenching economic changes which seem to be getting worse, not better. It is becoming increasingly clear that we are not going back to the “old normal”. Maybe these recent changes to do with the climate and the pandemic will lead to a change in attitude with regard to climate change and what to do about it.
If so, a starting point is to look at the warnings that we have had in the past to do with climate change and energy depletion, and to see what lessons we can learn from them. In this post we will look at three of those historical markers:
The work of M. King Hubbert;
The Limits to Growth report; and
The warnings provided by James Hansen.
M. King Hubbert
In the year 1979 Alfred North Whitehead said,
The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.
Those of us analyzing energy and climate issues can paraphrase the above as follows,
The safest general characterization of energy depletion analyses is that they consist of a series of footnotes to Hubbert.
(Hubbert may even achieve mythical status. In one of John Michael Greer’s fictional stories a character says, “By Hubbert!” in a way that we might now say, “By God!”).
In the year 1956 Dr. Hubbert of Shell Oil published his seminal paper Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels. (Hubbert did not coin the term ‘Peak Oil’, but that was the concept he was driving toward.) His paper was profoundly important for three reasons.
First, he came up with what we now call the Hubbert Curve. He predicted that the production of oil from any location would rise to a peak and then decline. The concept is well understood now, but in his day it was a new and difficult-to-believe insight. After all, this was the time of ‘Happy Motoring’. Gasoline was cheap and abundant — what was there to worry about?
Nevertheless, Hubbert’s predictions turned out to be eerily accurate. He forecast that the production of conventional oil in the lower 48 states of the United States would reach a peak around the year 1970 and then commence an irreversible decline. He nailed it.
The second aspect of Hubbert’s paper, one that is often overlooked, is that it is fundamentally optimistic. He anticipated that, as oil supplies dwindled we would smoothly adopt a new way of life based on nuclear power. That transition did not take place for a variety of reasons. We now know that nuclear power comes with its own formidable set of challenges — indeed, the phrase “too cheap to meter” has become something of a parody of the entire alternative energy scene. Nevertheless, had we made an unremitting effort to move from fossil fuels to nuclear power 60 years ago we may have avoided many of our current crises.
(The picture is of Ford’s concept car — the Nucleon — developed in 1957. The nuclear reactor is in the truck bed. It generates steam that drives the car in a similar manner to nuclear submarines of that era. There does not appear to be a door for the driver to actually get into the car.)
The third and most discouraging aspect of Hubbert's paper is that it was well and truly ignored except by a handful of people who founded the Peak Oil movement.
Limits to Growth
In the 1970s a group of scientists working within a non-profit organization known as the Club of Rome published the book Limits to Growth (Meadows and al. 1972). In spite of the fact that they did their work before the advent of today's high-power computers their predictions are uncomfortably close to being correct so far.
The book presented a set of charts based on different assumptions as to what future may hold. The following updated chart is taken from that publication. I have added the vertical date lines.
Charts such as this are not intended to make specific predictions about the future. None of us know what the future holds in detail. Circumstances change. For example, in the year 1972, when this chart was published, global warming was not on the horizon, so it is not shown. Nevertheless general trends seem to be developing on the lines that were forecast all those years ago.
The work of Meadows and her colleagues provides two insights relevant to this post. The first insight is to do with non-linearities. Most of us tend to assume that the future will be a linear continuation of the present. We rarely foresee tipping points or step changes. Only in hindsight do such tipping points become obvious. However, the Limits to Growth model does show step changes. For example, the population of the world has grown steadily for the last 300 years, so we naturally assume that it will continue to grow. Why should that trend change? Yet the chart suggests that population will peak before the year 2050, and will decline quickly thereafter due to rapidly declining food availability. That is a tipping point that none of us want to think about.
A second insight relates to the comment to do with the Hubbert Curve. The predictions made in Limits to Growth and related works have been thoroughly ignored by all but a tiny handful of specialists.
In the year 1988 Dr. James Hansen testified to Congressional committees about climate change. This was a new topic for most people at that time so his testimony was very important. Since then he has been outspoken on climate change issues and has suffered arrest on a number of occasions as a result of his actions.
At the time of his testimony he was director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Therefore, like Dr. Hubbert who was a highly ranked and respected Shell Oil employee, Hansen was not some ill-informed amateur. They both spoke with authority and integrity.
It is probably not correct to say that his work has been ignored to the same extent as that of Hubbert and Meadows. Nevertheless, the fact that climate change trends have continued unabated since the year 1988 indicate that his testimony and later work has not had much impact.
Where We Are Now
I started this post with a suggestion that warnings to do with climate change and energy depletion may now have a greater chance of success than they did in previous decades because climate change is happening in front of our eyes.
Will such evidence make a difference? Pictures such as the this one tend to bely that hope. We see that, in spite of the fires raging around them, these golfers carry on as if nothing has changed.
In addition, the irrational manner in which so many people have responded to the COVID-19 crisis provides few grounds for optimism.
Therefore, it seems probable that the lack of response to the pioneering work of Hubbert, Meadows and Hansen will repeat. It seems unlikely that all of society will suddenly “get it” and act accordingly.
The theme of this blog site is to do with Net Zero. In particular, we consider ways in which people and organizations can develop practical Net Zero programs that deliver measurable results.
Even if society as a whole does not react to the changes going on around us quickly enough, that is no excuse for us not to take action, both as individuals and as organizations. We can and should continue to pressure our governments to develop top-down programs. After all, we may find to our surprise that the next “big thing” can be scaled up quickly enough to really make a difference. Maybe some new technology such as nuclear fusion, or hydrogen as a fuel, or direct air capture really will provide the scalable breakthrough that we need. Therefore research into these programs is justified and should be supported.
In the meantime, as Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” Even if it is too late to make a wholesale change in our energy supply picture we should not give up on implementing programs on a smaller scale that can make at least some difference. At the individual and local level, actions such as installing solar panels or starting a community garden will provide a miniscule amount of help in achieving Net Zero. Such actions are much better than doing nothing or merely complaining about the government and large corporations.
In future posts we will develop an example that shows how a local contracting company can develop a Net Zero program that matches its size and capabilities. The owner of the company may find that his actions not only are the right thing to do, they may even be good business and give him a competitive advantage.
In Other News
Evidently the Washington Post is in need of writers; they even published a letter of mine. It was written in memory of Bishop Spong who passed last month. In one of his books he compared our modern situation to that of the Hebrew people when they were exiled to Babylon almost three centuries ago. The comparison seems particularly appropriate when we consider climate change and the feeling of exile that it creates. No one wants climate change to happen; we all wish it would go away; we don’t know where it is taking us; we don’t even know if there is a destination — all that we can be certain of is that there is no hope of return to the world as it used to be, at least on a human time scale. We are in exile.
Exile is never a voluntary experience. . . . One does not leave one’s values, one’s way of life, or one’s defining beliefs voluntarily. Exile is not a wilderness through which one journeys to arrive at a promised land. Exile is an enforced dislocation into which one enters without any verifiable hope of either a return to the past or an arrival at some future desired place.
A more detailed discussion to do with the concept of exile and climate change is provided at the blog post Exile to Babylon.