Without coal, the most catastrophic climate scenarios may not happen
NASA’s latest analysis of the intersection of peak oil and climate change argues that oil and natural gas alone probably won’t get us to 450ppm. If we can constrain our use of coal fairly quickly, we probably can avoid the worst outcomes — unless of course, the impact of reduced global dimming or methane from melting permafrost gets us. Still, it all sounds rather hopeful.
What are the chances that we’re going to constrain our use of coal, so that we can avoid this tipping point? So far, the world is engaged in a massive build-out of coal infrastructure, that has been only slightly, if at all, constrained by environmental awareness. Despite Al Gore’s call for 100 percent renewable electricity, the general path seems to be toward more coal usage, not less.
As winter approaches in the North, we begin to see how peak oil doesn’t just work for the climate, it works against us. Coal stove sales are up — my local AgWay recently posted a cheery sign saying “We Now Carry Coal”– and so are wood stove installations,which include reinstallations of older, inefficient stoves from the 70s and 80s. Long wait-lists and high prices for newer stoves drive people to heavily polluting wood stoves and thus to cut more forests to feed them.
Electric space heaters, powered by coal-fired electricity, are likely to be the saviors of many freezing households. Instead of getting closer to Gore’s goal, increasing gas prices drive customers off of comparatively cleaner fuels and on to coal fired electricity. The actual number of generating sources required to get anywhere even remotely near 100 percent renewable energy and meet demand is rising faster than the capacity for renewable energy generation.
Will customers care enough about climate to change to bear being cold in the winter and hot in the summer? Will they tolerate rising electric costs without demanding more cheaper coal? Will the preponderance of our populace democratically choose to accept less energy, and its matching lower economic growth for the good of the world? And will China, India, and other nations do so? It is not impossible, but we didn’t do it when oil and natural gas were plentiful. It is about to get much harder to do these things.
Meanwhile, one of the consequences of the energy peak is its widespread economic impact. The cost of energy, along with other factors, is driving many nations into recession — or worse. The U.S. economy is doing well only in comparison to some much worse-off economies — and the word “Depression” is being bandied about more and more. Meanwhile, more and more of our funds are being allocated to bailing out financial institutions, instead of the kind of massive investment in renewable infrastructure that is required. While we’ve lived on the principle that there is always more money — money is tied to energy, and it may be that for the U.S. — there isn’t always enough money for massive public investments. Again, the shift away from coal is looking further and further away.
The ugly truth is that peak oil and peak natural gas are going to push us toward coal very hard while we’re struggling to get away from it. What we could not do when both oil and gas were plentiful, and cheap energy fueled a booming economy will only be harder in a recession, as energy prices rise and the incentives to use the coal become greater.
How might we avoid a climate disaster? I think it is clearly time to stop selling the narrative that we can all keep things going much as they have been. The “no one has to make sacrifices, everything will be essentially the same, just driven by solar panels and windmills” account that the public has been given of climate change must be replaced with one that acknowledges that sacrifices will be required, and that contextualizes those sacrifices, just as the sacrifices of the World Wars were once contextualized.
Unless we draw together the links between climate change and peak oil clearly, and help people understand what they already viscerally know — that this is costing them — we cannot even remotely hope to bring the public around to the new reality. The only hope is a narrative in which self-sacrifice and powerful conservation now ensures a tolerable future for our posterity. That discussion cannot even begin until climate activists stop talking about the shift to renewables as though it will be comparatively simple and painless and start acknowledging the pain already out there.