Meditations on the End of Civilization

Posted: February 15, 2007 in Environment

Anyone even remotely familiar with environmental issues finds it difficult these days to be optimistic about the future of civilization. Global climate change is now accepted, and the debate is not whether it is happening, but how bad it will be.

How bad will it be? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its most recent report, charts various scenarios. Leaving no doubt that the planet will continue to warm for centuries to come even if we stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at year 2000 levels, its worst case scenario suggests increased average temperatures (as much as 4 degrees Celsius) and higher sea levels (up to 69 centimeters) by the end of this century.

What this would mean in practical terms pretty much depends on where you live. While those of us who inhabit the frozen, mid-continental wastes of Manitoba might appreciate a bit of temperature relief this time of year, the implications of this kind of respite are serious enough that most thoughtful northerners would forego them.

The IPCC views the Hollywood’s nightmare scenario (in The Day After Tomorrow, the Gulf Stream shuts down, plunging the northern hemisphere into an Ice Age overnight) as unlikely. Neither is there any support for Al Gore’s predicted 6 meter increase in sea levels, however much he might secretly want Florida to disappear. That said, the impacts will be sustained and serious, especially for Asia, Africa and Latin America.

According to IPCC:

. . . all regions are likely to experience some adverse effects of climate change. . . Some regions are particularly vulnerable because of their physical exposure to climate change hazards and/or their limited adaptive capacity. Most less-developed regions are especially vulnerable because a larger share of their economies are in climate-sensitive sectors and their adaptive capacity is low due to low levels of human, financial, and natural resources, as well as limited institutional and technological capability. For example, small island states and low-lying coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to increases in sea level and storms, and most of them have limited capabilities for adaptation. Climate change impacts in polar regions are expected to be large and rapid, including reduction in sea-ice extent and thickness and degradation of permafrost. Adverse changes in seasonal river flows, floods and droughts, food security, fisheries, health effects, and loss of biodiversity are among the major regional vulnerabilities and concerns of Africa, Latin America, and Asia where adaptation opportunities are generally low. Even in regions with higher adaptive capacity, such as North America and Australia and New Zealand, there are vulnerable communities, such as indigenous peoples, and the possibility of adaptation of ecosystems is very limited. In Europe, vulnerability is significantly greater in the south and in the Arctic than elsewhere in the region.

The carefully measured language and the studiously academic tone of the IPCC report does not begin to convey the wide scale human suffering that will result from global warming.

Large numbers of people around the globe will either starve or be forced to move, retreating from floods and from droughts. Where will they move and how will they be received? Who will help and where will the necessary resources come from?

While the IPCC believes the impacts will be worst in the South, if anyone seriously believes that the more affluent North can or will escape, I have some soon to be flooded swampland in Florida they are welcome to purchase.

Perhaps it is this vision of the future that has scientist James Lovelock lamenting in the January 16, 2007 issue of The Independent that

. . . before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.

Lovelock is a highly respected scientist, best known for putting forward the “Gaia Theory” – the notion that the earth is a self-regulating organism. In his January 16th article, Lovelock observes

We have given Gaia a fever and soon her condition will worsen to a state like a coma. She has been there before and recovered, but it took more than 100,000 years. We are responsible and will suffer the consequences: as the century progresses, the temperature will rise 8 degrees centigrade in temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics.”

Lovelock’s prognosis is considerably more pessimistic than that of the IPCC, but perhaps unfettered by the need to appear scientifically objective he is freer to call ‘em as he sees ‘em.

Both the IPCC’s worst case scenario and Lovelock’s warnings are premised on continued unchecked use of fossil fuels. But what if they are wrong? What if we run out?

Peak Oil

The idea that we will run out of oil in this century is gaining adherents worldwide. The theory that has come to be known as “Peak Oil” was proposed in 1956 by American geophysicist Marion Hubbert, who predicted that US oil reserves would peak around 1970 and that world reserves would peak sometime in the early part of the 21st century (about now, in case you hadn’t noticed). Most observers have concluded that Hubbert was bang on in predicting the US peak; there is considerable debate as to whether world oil reserves have peaked already or whether they will in the near future.

I’m not going to quibble over whether oil reserves peaked in 2005 or whether they will do so in 2020. The significance of the peak oil discussion can be summarized as follows:

  1. The world runs on oil. Our jobs, our food supplies, our technology, our economy are all, in one way or another, reliant on abundant supplies of relatively inexpensive petroleum.
  2. If half of all the oil in existence has been used up, and demand continues apace, remaining supplies will be consumed more quickly. Not only will they be used more rapidly, they will become increasingly more difficult and more expensive to recover.
  3. Worse yet, there is no substitute. All of our proven alternative energy technologies, including so called renewable energy technologies, rely on petroleum in one way or another. And none of the alternatives, with the exception of nuclear power, are nearly as productive as oil.
  4. When oil supplies become severely constrained, economic collapse will not be far behind. And this collapse will occur in the context of a world seriously stressed by global climate change.

Try and imagine a world without oil. We lived like that once upon a time. But there weren’t as many of us. And it appears there won’t be as many of us the next time around. (Gandhi was once asked by a journalist what he thought of western civilization. He is reported to have said he thought it would be a good idea.)

Trying to imagine civilization, western or otherwise, without oil is a daunting task. The good citizens of Portland, Oregon are going through that exercise in a big way. Displaying considerably more imagination than most governments, Portland’s City Council established a Peak Oil Task Force to consider the impact of constrained energy supplies on that community.

Their draft report is available online, and contains recommendations that should be considered by all urban centres. You know they are taking the problem seriously when their first recommendation is to “Reduce oil and natural gas consumption by 50 percent over the next 25 years.”

It wasn’t lost on me that measures appropriate to addressing petroleum shortages will also help mitigate global warming.

Reading through Portland’s task force report shines one small ray of optimistic light on an otherwise gloomy landscape. If the government of one major city is capable of responding in this way, perhaps others will be similarly capable and motivated.

Can you hear me, Stephen Harper?

  1. I think it a real mistake to think that global warming won’t have a major impact on life in North America. The sort of system we have created is highly vulnerable. The only hope is, as you point out, is that peak oil will shut things down and slow down the warming. And of course, peak oil will have a major disruprive effect here with our suburbs, mini-mansions and shopping malls fiioled with stuff imported from thousands of miles. We are in for a rough ride. Better prepare now!

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