Why you can’t fight climate change without peak oil

Requiem for a Species cover

Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change by Clive Hamilton. Published by Earthscan, 2010, 286 pages, $24.95.

Publishers of books on climate change seem to be competing to ratchet up the doom factor in their titles. Pretty soon you can expect to see “Dr Kevorkian’s Rx to Save Yourself from Climate Hell” or “Praying for Pol Pot: Genocide May Be the Only Answer.”

The title Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change helped draw me to Australian activist Clive Hamilton’s contribution to the genre of climate Jeremiad.

When it comes to gloom and doom, Hamilton doesn’t disappoint. “Worse than the worst case,” is how he sums up the grim conclusions of the latest science on greenhouse warming. “Hoping that a major disruption to the Earth’s climate can be avoided is a delusion.”

Despair, accept, act

But like every climate doomer, Hamilton is really a boomer who sees a happier, more democratic, more just and more spiritually connected life ahead if only humans take advantage of the slim chance we still have to get off of fossil fuels as soon as we can. “The situation is hopeless; we must now take the next step,” Hamilton quotes Pablo Casals.

So, we must all go through the stages of climate mourning — to despair at the magnitude of the problem, to accept it as real and then to take urgent and serious action. And to break the political gridlock among the world’s governments, that action may include civil disobedience.

Most compelling of all, Hamilton says that the only way to avoid total climate hell is to end economic growth. And to do that, we’ll have to de-throne corporate plutocrats who have hijacked national governments and turned them into churches for the cult of ever expanding consumption. Because growth doesn’t make us happier, we stick to it purely on faith. “At its core, the preoccupation with growth is a religious urge, but one displaced from the genuinely sacred to the nominally profane.”

That’s why ordinary citizens will need to un-brainwash ourselves out of a century of consumerism and materialism.

Hamilton also urges us to move away from human-centric thinking — no more man vs. nature — and bring the magic back into our relationship with the Earth. He wants us to have a little faith and he sees today’s eruption of radical atheism as the last gasp of the consumerist mindset. He urges us to liberate ourselves by seeing the world again as sacred, as people did and do in pre-industrial societies, to undo what Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world.”

Enough left to cook the climate

For all his nuanced understanding of consumerism, growth and psychology, Hamilton is entirely innocent of the idea of peak oil or peak energy of any kind. Maybe if he knew that all the stuff we’re burning now that creates so much greenhouse pollution was starting to run out, he’d be a little less gloomy?

But his problem is that he assumes that China will join the West in using ever larger amounts of oil and coal into the middle of the century. The only way to avoid more than three degrees Celsius of warming in his mind is to fit more than 200 new coal plants worldwide with still-unproven “clean coal” technology.

The IPCC estimates that by 2050 only 30-60% of power generation will be technically suitable for carbon capture and storage, and the IEA’s projections show the technology will deliver less than 20% of the emissions reductions needed by 2050 in order to stabilize concentrations close to 450ppm.

I think Hamilton, like the scientists at the IPCC, is too optimistic about the ability of industrial society to keep growing its energy usage at current rates for the next four decades.

If Hamilton took note of what the International Energy Agency said last year, that the world passed peak oil production in 2006 — and if he also recognized that peak coal can’t be far behind — then he would see that IPCC assumptions about the rate at which greenhouse emissions will increase are probably way too high. More likely, given energy depletion, is for the world to use less than half the energy it does today by mid-century. That is, if there’s any global industrial economy at all in 2050.

For the self-described former director of “Australia’s foremost progressive think tank” to write a book about climate and energy and not mention peak oil once seems either grossly negligent or intellectually dishonest. Certainly, Hamilton must have heard about energy depletion during his years of research and advocacy. My guess is that, like many climate activists, he just didn’t want to talk about it.

Who’s afraid of peak oil?

Maybe Hamilton thinks peak oil is a plot by the industry to justify dirty unconventional fossil fuels like tar sands or deep water oil, though that seems implausible given that the EROEI is much less for unconventional fossil fuels. Or maybe he’s afraid that if you accept peak oil that you also have to agree with energy analysts like Robert Hirsch that society should sideline efforts to fight climate change in order to find energy any way we can and keep the economy running at any cost.

But much as I respect Dr. Hirsch for sounding one of the earliest and most effective alarms on peak oil (the famous “Hirsch Report” done for the Department of Energy in 2005), I have to remind my green friends that most peak oilers are not climate skeptics, as Hirsch is.

Instead, most of us agree that climate change is a clear and present danger to our species. We believe that humans are causing most of the climate change we’ve seen recently and expect to see in the next century. We don’t like dirty energy any better than you do — we may even like shale oil or hydrofracked gas less than you do, because we know that the net energy from most unconventional fossil fuels may be too low. So, they may just not be worth the trouble to extract and produce.

Whatever Hamilton’s objections to peak oil might be, it’s clear that climate change activists need a better understanding of peak oil so they can integrate it into their analysis of the problem of global warming and their prescriptions to cut greenhouse pollution.

As Transition Movement founder Rob Hopkins has put it, you have to look at peak oil and climate change at the same time. “If you just look at climate change on its own and you don’t look at peak oil, the solutions you come up with aren’t much use when you get into an energy-constrained world of very volatile oil prices.”

Hamilton could take a lesson from other climate-savvy writers who give peak oil its due, including fellow Australian Paul Gilding, Sierra Club head Michael Brune and 350.org’s Bill McKibben. Their understanding of how peak oil will put globalization into reverse allows these experts to see the value of powering down the global economy and powering up local economies, as in Transition.

As our own climate hawk Guy McPherson has written so eloquently many times, because Washington and other industrial country governments are stuck in climate gridlock (as Hamilton and many other climate activists bemoan), an economic collapse driven by peak oil may be the only thing that saves humans from climate collapse.

And if you want a more spiritual relationship to the Earth, that’s got to be good news.

– Erik Curren

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  1. Sunny says

    It’s crazy that such a well respected climate change advocate would leave peak oil out of his message. I wish Al Gore would come out with a sequel: The Whole Inconvenient Truth. Then maybe we could get the environmentalists on board, and maybe even (dare to dream) put peak oil into the public lexicon.

    • says

      Sunny — Yes, Hamilton is obviously a very smart guy on energy and climate. I hope we can convert him into a peak oiler. And I’m a big Al Gore fan so I would love to get him on board too. It wouldn’t win any conservative converts, but it would sure help mobilize the green base.

  2. says

    Peak oil may damage our economy and financial system to such an extent that we can’t generate the funds necessary to get rid of our coal fired power plants. So peak oil will not necessarily bring CO2 concentration back to 350 ppm within the required time.

  3. says

    The “Inconvenient Truth” sequel I’d like to see would explore why Gore made these problems worse when he was in the White House for eight years. WTI toxic waste incinerator. NAFTA. WTO. Gutting pesticide programs. End of the most important food safety regulation (“Delaney Clause”). No effort for fuel efficient cars. Expanding the highway construction program (1995, 1998). No support for Amtrak. More oil drilling for northwest Alaska. Continued support for nuclear power. Genetic frankenfood and more food irradiation. Continued clearcutting.

    Making Gore the poster child for climate change is wrong not only because it makes it a partisan cause but also because having Gore as the leader of climate awareness is like having the owner of a bordello preach about chastity. Even George W. Bush had a more ecological house in Texas than Gore has in Nashville and it was GWB, not Gore, who put a token solar power system in at the White House (2003).

    Gore’s Inconvenient Truths

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