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Unrealistic Analysis will not help Obama or the US

July 31, 2010

For the second time this week, a climate change article in The Guardian seems hopelessly unrealistic about the situation on which the author is commenting. The latest, called Where next for the wrecked US climate bill? by Eric Pooley, fails to account for the most pressing social and political issue of they day. Instead, he excoriates Obama for his failure to commit political suicide in much the same way as Jeffrey Sachs in his article “Obama must take a lead on climate change – and soon. Both call on Obama to take measures and make commitments that are deeply unrealistic given the poisonous atmosphere in US politics right now. And while they vent their frustration and disappointment at Obama, peak oil is not mentioned or factored in to their arguments, even as it is increasingly clear the likely timescale for energy shortages and market panic are far more immediate than the effects of climate change?

Right now, it seems that opposition to climate change mitigation in the US has two basic drivers. The first is ideology, where environmentalism is conflated with socialism (or victimhood, as in the rather ripe conspiracy theories the anxious are prone to indulge in), The other driver is economic, where self-interest and short-termism dominate strategic thinking.

I don’t know why it appears that the political right equate care for our planet with socialism or communism. Do conservatives not care about the air they breathe or the food they eat? This doesn’t seem likely, just hard to understand. (Well, I don’t understand it, but that may not be saying much).

I also find it hard to understand how the leaders of commercial concerns can be so cavalier in the name of today’s profit. Don’t they have children? Is the future really reduced to the next AGM, the next profit and loss account, the next dividend? It appears so, given the way some industries are trying so hard not just to ignore science, but each other.

Business lobby groups like the CBI support anthropogenic climate change (the CBI runs its own climate change site). Only last week, Lloyd’s of London and Chatham House produced a wide-ranging and unequivocal report on sustainable business practices, energy supplies and climate change impacts on industry and commerce. Major US companies are leaving the US Chamber of Commerce due to what they regard as the chamber’s ‘obstructionist’ attitude to environmental legislation. Institutional investors are unconvinced by ideological arguments that dispense with the inconvenient science, replacing it with a gambler’s choice, a bet on very long odds.

Perhaps some people are simply so greedy that tomorrow’s risk is always overpowered by today’s profit. Perhaps some politicians, especially in the US, are so beholden to special interests and focus groups, that they cannot demonstrate leadership qualities, as I think this author asserts about Obama to some extent, although I see it more as pragmatism, and an inevitable “America First” influence when prioritising the legislative agenda – healthcare before climate change.

Whether you agree with the details of my analysis or not, the fact remains that the US is deadlocked, the public and government polarised like two frozen sumo wrestlers; eyes bulging and full of hate, forearms trembling with effort, blood pumping through distended veins as they stand stock still, achieving nothing and going nowhere. And they are locked in. The right and their attack dogs cannot be placated, for there is no return to the mythical stability of a US-dominated world, even as it slips away from them towards the vast and implacable east. The left cannot bring about the statist socialism that they admire without the constant economic expansion that capitalism demands, which drives them into the hinterland of consumer socialism, a compromise that dooms every well-meaning socialist endeavour.

What could possibly break the deadlock? What could bring industry and commerce to its senses, while shaking complacent ideologues out of their entrenchment? The answer is the missing link between the past and the future: peak oil. Nothing will bring business leaders to the table faster that a serious threat to their profits. What threat could do it? Oil at $200 a barrel – a chilling projection that might be only four years away according to the Lloyd’s/Chatham House report in which it featured.

And this same shock to the global system will put paid to much demagoguery. Politicians of all stripes may indulge themselves when the public are insulated from the threats, but this cannot last long now because peak oil is almost on us. It is the price of heating our homes, of fuelling our cars, that will wake us all up. It will be the cost of food when petro-chemical fertilisers become so expensive many farmers will not be able to afford them and yields will drop.

In other words, we’ll get serious about climate change when the lights go out, literally or metaphorically. We need something to shock us all, because adaptation is best done in advance of whatever it is you are adapting to. Peak oil is that shock, and it can’t come too soon.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2010 1:11 pm

    Yes, a timely reminder.

    A small point, I was talking to a farmer the other day who is very concerned about peak oil, but he said that fertilisers are actually only a very small part of the costs of growing food, and so there is unlikely to be a major direct effect on food price via fertilisers. Where it will hit more is transport.

  2. July 31, 2010 1:16 pm

    PS While I do think that peak oil is going to hit well before the worst of climate change, it will not make climate change irrelevant. It may help to avoid some of the worst case scenarios by limiting economic growth severely, but we’ll still have enough momentum to burn a significant amount of coal (and the oil is almost certainly going to get used as much as possible, though perhaps there will be series of price spikes and market crashes, so I don’t think we’ll see a sustained price over US$200, though I could be very wrong on that).

    So while peak oil is more immediate, climate change is actually still a larger threat. Peak oil could see the end of hyper-industrialism and our current ways of life and severely limit population growth (or even see significant population losses over time), but climate change will be with us for millennia, making everything harder.

  3. Graham Wayne permalink*
    July 31, 2010 4:19 pm

    Hi Byron,

    You could be right about the fertiliser and peak oil prices, but the key thing is, as you say, that climate change is hardly made irrelevant, it’s simply in the queue waiting to up the ante, as it were. It seems to me that given the uncertainty surrounding so much that we currently take for granted, some rather more prudent actions and better commentary would be helpful, rather than harp on about how little Obama/Brown/Cameron/Clegg are doing, all the while knowing full well the electorate are having none of it.

  4. August 1, 2010 9:47 am

    What worries me is that as we slip down the Hubbert Curve in a post peak oil world we will accept dirtier ways of getting our hydrocarbon fix. Those signs are appearing now in the tar fields of Alberta, for instance.

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