Session 3: Richard Heinberg, “The End of Cheap and Easy Oil” and Bill McKibben, “What is Climate Change?”

Posted March 26, 2011 in Curriculum, Learning. Tagged: , ,



Richard Heinberg, Fellow / Post Carbon Institute:

The End of Cheap and Easy Oil (aka Peak Oil, or Oil Depletion)


Oil is a non-renewable resource, so it is subject to the low-hanging fruit principle of resource extraction:  we find and use the best first, and leave the hard, expensive stuff for later.

In the early 20th century, the US produced most of the world’s oil.  By 1970, US oil production had grown to about 10 million barrels per day, but many of the biggest onshore fields that had been discovered in the glory days of the industry (in the 1930s) were depleting.  Even though new technology was developed and new areas opened to drilling (Alaska, Gulf of Mexico), it became impossible for the US to maintain oil production at 10 million barrels per day.

Indeed, that rate has been falling for 40 years now, and we make up for it by importing more oil from other countries.  The problem is, other nations are now going through the same process — their biggest and best oilfields were discovered early on, and those are now depleting, so their production is peaking and declining.

This means that sometime in the foreseeable future (and that could be basically now) oil production for the world as a whole will reach a maximum and begin falling.  But in the meantime we have become overwhelmingly dependent on oil for nearly all transportation, and to power our modern industrial food system.  There are no adequate substitutes for petroleum.  This means the inevitable transition from cheap, abundant oil to expensive, scarce oil will have a profound economic impact.

One might think that the global peak in oil production would not necessarily be a big deal, as there will still be an enormous amount of oil left in the ground.  Also, higher oil prices will theoretically just create incentives for using alternatives, and for the development of electric cars and other methods of conservation.

The problem is that we have created an economic system that has only two settings–growth or collapse.  Growth requires energy (for manufacturing, transportation, even the powering of internet servers.)  Of all energy sources, oil is the Achilles’ heel of modern societies, because it supplies nearly all transport energy and powers our food system, and there are no good alternatives readily available.

A transition to all-electric surface transport (sorry, electric airplanes are a no-go) will take many decades.  Meanwhile, if oil is becoming less available and less affordable, that means economies can no longer grow (every oil price spike in the past 40 years has triggered a recession).  Without growth, economies unravel.  This is essentially what we are seeing happen right now with the global credit/debt crisis — but imagine this continuing and worsening year after year.

Fast-forward ten years.  Food has become unaffordable.  The few people who still have jobs can’t afford gas to get to work.  Cities have finally realized they need public transit systems, but no longer have the wherewithal to build them.  Welcome to the post-peak world.




Bill McKibben, / What Is Climate Change?


Beginning in the 18th century, humans began to burn coal and gas and oil to produce energy and goods.  The amount of carbon in the atmosphere began to rise, at first slowly and now more quickly.  Many of the activities we do every day like turning the lights on, cooking food, or heating or cooling our homes rely on energy sources like coal and oil that emit carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.  We’re taking millions of years worth of carbon, stored beneath the earth as fossil fuels, and releasing it into the atmosphere.  By now—and this is the second number—the planet has 392 parts per million CO2 – and this number is rising by about 2 parts per million every year.

Scientists are now saying that’s too much – that number is higher than any time seen in the recorded history of our planet – and we’re already beginning to see disastrous impacts on people and places all over the world.  Glaciers everywhere are melting and disappearing fast—and they are a source of drinking water for hundreds of millions of people.  Mosquitoes, who like a warmer world, are spreading into lots of new places, and bringing malaria and dengue fever with them.  Drought is becoming much more common, making food harder to grow in many places.  Sea levels have begun to rise, and scientists warn that they could go up as much as several meters this century.  If that happens, many of the world’s cities, island nations, and farmland will be underwater.  The oceans are growing more acidic because of the CO2 they are absorbing, which makes it harder for animals like corals and clams to build and maintain their shells and skeletons.  Coral reefs could start dissolving at an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 450-500 ppm.  These impacts are combining to exacerbate conflicts and security issues in already resource-strapped regions.

The Arctic is sending us perhaps the clearest message that climate change is occurring much more rapidly than scientists previously thought.  In the summer of 2007, sea ice was roughly 39% below the summer average for 1979-2000, a loss of area equal to nearly five United Kingdoms.