Our fossil fuel addiction and climate change

Blog by Arthur Dahl - 30 January 2013

I was recently asked about the relationship between climate change and highly political issues around fossil fuels and energy independence. This raises an important issue about the linkages between all the different processes that make up our economy and human-planetary system, none of which can be resolved in isolation. Can we treat the scientific parts of the problem separately from the economic and political parts? How far can participation in dialogue go before it becomes too political and divisive?

Given the recent research on political mindsets and values and how they selectively filter what information we trust and believe, the answers are not obvious. Without a spirit of the independent investigation of truth, a rational dialogue is not possible. In these circumstances, its probably best to address the levels of scientific evidence and spiritual principle, without explicit reference to particular projects, companies or individuals. However I do think that it is important to emphasize the linkages between different issues like energy sources and climate change, as addressing one is essential to solving the other.

I recently came across Bill McKibbon's excellent article in "Rolling Stone" of 2 August 2012 entitled "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math". He first shows that, while the 2°C (3.6°F) global warming limit generally agreed by scientists and governments is in fact too high and leading to a long-term disaster, political realism has bested even these scientific data. To stay within that limit, the best scientific consensus is that we can only emit 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide by mid-century. Emissions in 2011 were 31.6 gigatons and are growing by 3% per year, so we are heading for 6°C (almost 11°F) of warming (the recent World Bank report is conservative at 4°C). He then shows what I have long suspected that existing fossil fuel reserves that companies/countries already plan to exploit amount to 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions, not counting unconventional resources like shale gas. These reserves are already capitalized in these companies' market value. This is five times the emissions limit for 2°C of warming, and if all these proven reserves are exploited as planned, climate catastrophe is inevitable. With remarkable prescience (last August, before hurricane Sandy in October), McKibbon even hypothesizes that only a giant hurricane swamping Manhattan, or a megadrought wiping out Midwest agriculture, might overcome the political power of the industry to resist regulation. The only solution to climate change is to leave that carbon in the ground, but that would wipe out 80% of the market value of the companies and the economies of fossil fuel producing countries. Talk about an irresistible force versus an unmovable object...

In this context, the more we invest in the fossil fuel industry, the less can be invested in renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency, and the more painful the transition will ultimately be, particularly in countries like America so committed to an unsustainable lifestyle. This is the logic of the Canada/US pipeline controversy. Anything that makes money now is good, and free enterprise will find a technological fix for any future problem, as the industrialists put it. The easy money is in fossil fuels, and climate change is an externality. Yet a recent study led by a Stanford engineer showed that the USA could replace 100% of fossil fuel use in 20-40 years using existing renewable technologies (without nuclear, carbon capture or biofuels), with such solutions as electric/fuel cell vehicles and large-scale energy grids to even out supply and demand (Mark Z. Jacobson and Msrk DeLucchi. 2009 project to evaluate cost, feasibility and environmental impact of renewable energy sources and technologies, Stanford magazine, July/August 2012, p. 32). The problem is not technical or scientific, but economic and political. What is lacking in the debate is reasonably positive alternatives that might eventually win out over vested interests in the present system.

At times, I try to imagine what would be left of the economy if we eliminate everything contrary to the Baha'i vision of future society: alcohol (the second highest contributor to mortality globally, according to WHO), drugs, tobacco, weapons and military equipment, luxury goods, planned obsolescence, fossil fuels and the automobile/truck/ship/plane transport system as we know it, fuel-intensive agriculture and unhealthy foods/drinks, most advertising and frivolous or corrupting entertainment, etc. This is a large share of any modern economy. The transition in terms of finding alternatives for economic wealth creation and employment is almost unimaginable, yet it needs to be imagined.

Personally, I think that the only thing that has a chance to save us from disastrous climate change would be a rapid collapse of the financial system halting most international trade and triggering the failure of the consumer economy. The potential human cost of such an event needs to be anticipated, and our resilience increased. Peter Turchin, a mathematical ecologist modeling the rise and fall of civilizations, predicted last year that political instability would lead to major crisis in the USA by 2020 (Turchin, Peter, Nature, vol. 463, p. 608; cited in Holmes, Bob, 2012, Revolutionary Cycles, New Scientist,18 August 2012, p. 46-49). The more people work at the local level to build a community spirit of solidarity and mutual collaboration in solving local problems, educating children and youth, and learning to share together at a spiritual as well as material level (what Baha'is call the core activities), the better protected they will be in such a scenario.

More generally, an economy based on growth, even if artificially maintained by borrowing, has created general expectations of things always getting materially better, salaries always rising, new technologies allowing us to do more. No one likes to hear bad news, and sacrifice is unpopular. The rich are still getting richer; it is just everyone else that is suffering. Most environmental messages fail because they are negative.

The heart of a more constructive Baha'i-inspired approach should be to emphasize the beauty and desirability of lifestyles based on spiritual principles and strong communities, meeting basic needs for everyone but avoiding excesses, and learning detachment from the consumer society around us in favor of higher and better things. We should try to set an example in our material lifestyle where conditions allow, but not feel guilty when we are trapped in a civilization now being rolled up. We should, however, use our knowledge of what must change to reduce our vulnerability to the fundamental transformations that have to come sooner or later.

I do think that it is essential to link the climate change and energy issues. Western consumer societies are addicted to fossil fuels (as is the Chinese economy, among others), but reducing foreign energy dependence through investment in renewable technologies at home should be the priority, not short-term fixes like mining tar sands and fracking for shale gas that make money immediately but add to long-term problems. For most well-to-do people, energy use per capita is excessive and unnecessary, and this also needs to be addressed through lifestyle changes that everyone can consider.

Reprinted from International Environment Forum blog

Return to Blog page

Last updated 23 February 2016