[ExI] Why do political and economic leaders deny Peak Oil and Climate Change?

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Fri Sep 6 14:05:15 UTC 2013


Why do political and economic leaders deny Peak Oil and Climate Change?

Posted on February 10, 2012 by energyskeptic

Since there’s nothing that can be done about climate change, because there’s
no scalable alternative to fossil fuels, I’ve always wondered why politicians
and other leaders, who clearly know better, feel compelled to deny it.  I
think it’s for exactly the same reasons you don’t hear them talking about
preparing for Peak Oil.

1) Our leaders have known since the 1970s energy crises that there’s no
comparable alternative energy ready to replace fossil fuels.  To extend the
oil age as long as possible, the USA went the military path rather than a
“Manhattan Project” of research and building up grid infrastructure,
railroads, sustainable agriculture, increasing home and car fuel efficiency,
and other obvious actions.

Instead, we’ve spent trillions of dollars on defense and the military to keep
the oil flowing, the Straits of Hormuz open, and invade oil-producing
countries.  Being so much further than Europe, China, and Russia from the
Middle East, where there’s not only the most remaining oil, but the easiest
oil to get out at the lowest cost ($20-22 OPEC vs $60-80 rest-of-world per
barrel), is a huge disadvantage.  I think the military route was chosen in
the 70s to maintain our access to Middle East oil and prevent challenges from
other nations.  Plus everyone benefits by our policing the world and keeping
the lid on a world war over energy resources, perhaps that’s why central
banks keep lending us money.

Van Jones once said “People say that I am hard core about some of this stuff
because I have been to Davos, and I’ve sat with Bill Clinton, Bill Gates,
Tony Blair, and Nancy Pelosi. I’ve sat with all these people who we think are
in charge, and they don’t know what to do. Take that in: they don’t know what
to do! You think you’re scared? You think you’re terrified? They have the
Pentagon’s intelligence, they have every major corporation’s input; Shell Oil
that has done this survey and study around the peak oil problem. You think
we’ve got to get on the Internet and say, “Peak oil!” because the system
doesn’t know about it? They know, and they don’t know what to do. And they
are terrified that if they do anything they’ll loose their positions. So they
keep juggling chickens and chainsaws and hope it works out just like most of
us everyday at work.” (Van Jones)

2) If the public were convinced climate change were real and demanded
alternative energy, it would become clear pretty quickly that we didn’t have
any alternatives.  Already Californians are seeing public television shows
and newspaper articles about why it’s so difficult to build enough wind,
solar, and so on to meet the mandated 33% renewable energy sources by 2020.

For example, last night I saw a PBS program on the obstacles to wind power in
Marin county, on the other side of the Golden Gate bridge. Difficulties cited
were lack of storage for electricity, NIMBYism, opposition from the Audubon
society over bird kills, wind blows at night when least needed, the grid
needs expansion, and most wind is not near enough to the grid to be connected
to it.  But there was no mention of Energy Returned on Energy Invested
(EROEI) or the scale of how many windmills you’d need to have.  So you could
be left with the impression that these problems with wind could be overcome.

I don’t see any signs of the general public losing optimism yet.  I gave my
“Peak Soil” talk to a group recently of very educated people, and to my great
surprise realized they weren’t worried until my talk, partly because so they
weren’t aware of the Hirsch 2005 “liquid fuels” crisis concept, nor the scale
of what fossil fuels do for us.   I felt really bad, I’ve never spoken to a
group before that wasn’t aware of the problem. I wished I were a counselor as
well.  The only thing I could think of to console them was to say that
running out of fossil fuels was a good thing — we will soon be forced by
geological shortages and consequent political unrest to stop burning so much
fossil fuel, which means better odds we and many other species won’t be
driven extinct from climate change.

3) As the German military peak oil study stated, when investors realize Peak
Oil is upon us, stock markets world-wide will crash (if they haven’t
meanwhile from massive, unreformed financial corruption), as it will be
obvious that growth is no longer possible and investors will never get their
money back.

4) As Richard Heinberg has pointed out, there’s a national survival interest
in being the “Last Man (nation) Standing“. So leaders want to keep things
going smoothly as long as possible.  And everyone is hoping the crash is “not
on my watch” — who wants to take the blame?

5) It would be political suicide to bring up the real problem of Peak Oil and
have no solution to offer besides consuming less.

Kjell Aleklett, professor of Professor of Physics at Uppsala University in
Sweden, points out that one of the failures of democracy is that “It is very
difficult for any politician to admit that something is wrong, and that we
might need to do something about it. If they were to do this, another
politician would come along and say, ‘There’s no problem; vote for me and we
can carry on as we are’.”

The “solution” of both parties is Endless Growth, or  “Shop Until You Drop”
and “Drill, Baby, Drill” to get out of the current economic and energy
crises.  Capitalism ends when growth is no longer possible, all that our
leaders can do is try to keep the gain going as long as possible, and not end
while they’re in office.  Since golden parachutes and astronomical pay
regardless of performance typifies most corporations, there’s less at stake
for CEO’s and other economic “leaders”.

There’s also the risk of creating a panic and social disorder if the
situation were made utterly clear — that the carrying capacity of the United
States is somewhere between 100 million (Pimentel) and 250 million (Smil)
without fossil fuels, like the Onion’s parody “Scientists: One-Third Of The
Human Race Has To Die For Civilization To Be Sustainable, So How Do We Want
To Do This?”

There’s no solution to peak oil, except to consume less in all areas of life,
which is not acceptable to political leaders or corporations, who depend on
growth for their survival.  Meanwhile, too many problems are getting out of
hand on a daily basis at local, state, and national levels.  All that matters
to politicians is the next election.  So who’s going to work on a future
problem with no solution?  Jimmy Carter is perceived as having lost partly
due to asking Americans to sacrifice for the future (i.e. put on a sweater).

I first became aware of the intersection of politics and peak oil at the
Denver 2005 Association for the Study of Peak Oil conference.  Denver Mayor
Hickenlooper, now governor of Colorado, pointed out that one of his
predecessors lost the mayoral election because he didn’t keep the snow plows
running after a heavy snow storm.  He worried about how he’d keep snow plows,
garbage collection, and a host of other city services running as energy

A Boulder city council member at this conference told us he had hundreds of
issues and constituents to deal with on a daily basis, no way did he have
time to spend on an issue beyond the next election.

Finally, Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, head of the peak oil caucus in the
House of Representatives, told us that there was no solution, and he was
angry that we’d blown 25 years even though the government knew peak was
coming.  His plan was to relentlessly reduce our energy demand by 5% per
year, to stay under the depletion rate of declining oil.  But he didn’t
believe in  efficiency as a solution, which doesn’t work due to Jevons

The only solution that would mitigate suffering is to mandate that women bear
only one child.  Fat chance of that ever happening when even birth control is
controversial, and Catholics are outraged that all health care plans are now
required to cover the cost of birth control pills.  Congressman Bartlett, in
a small group discussion after his talk, told us that population was the main
problem, but that he and other politicians didn’t dare mention it.  He said
that exponential growth would undo any reduction in demand we could make, and
gave this example:  if we have 250 years left of reserves in coal, and we
turn to coal to replace oil, increasing our use by 2% a year — a very modest
rate of growth considering what a huge amount is needed to replace oil — then
the reserve would only last 85 years.  If we liquefy it, then it would only
last 50 years, because it takes a lot of energy to do that.

Bartlett was speaking about 250 years of coal reserves back in 2005.  Now we
know that the global energy from coal may have peaked last year, in 2011
(Patzek) or will soon in 2015 (Zittel). Other estimates range as far as 2029
to 2043.  Heinberg and Fridley say that “we believe that it is unlikely that
world energy supplies can continue to meet projected demand beyond 2020.”

6) Political (and religious) leaders gain votes, wealth, and power by telling
people what they want to hear.  Several politicians have told me privately
that people like to hear good news and that politicians who bring bad news
don’t get re-elected.  “Don’t worry, be happy” is a vote getter.  Carrying
capacity, exponential growth, die-off, extinction, population control — these
are not ideas that get leaders elected.

7) Everyone who understands the situation is hoping The Scientists Will Come
up With Something.  Including the Scientists. 

And even many of the science-educated don’t have a clue — natural resources,
ecology, and energy was not their field of study. I didn’t want to ruin
anyone’s vacation on a rafting trip down the Tatshenshini-Alsek in 2003, but
the last day of the trip I explained the situation to an astronomer, and he
said in great shock, “But there has to be an alternative to oil!”  It had
never occurred to him that solar, wind, geothermal, and so on couldn’t
replace oil.

Scientists would like to win a Nobel prize and need funding.  But researchers
in energy resources know what’s at stake with climate change and peak oil and
are as scared as the rest of us.  U.C.Berkeley scientists are also aware of
the negative environmental impacts of biofuels, and have chosen to
concentrate on a politically feasible strategy of emphasizing lack of water
to prevent large programs in this from being funded (Fingerman).  They’re
also working hard to prevent coal fired power plants from supplying
electricity to California by recommending natural gas replacement plants
instead, as well as expanding the grid, taxing carbon, energy efficiency,
nuclear power, geothermal, wind, and so on — see
http://rael.berkeley.edu/projects for what else some of UCB’s RAEL program is
up to.  Until a miracle happens, scientists and some enlightened policy
makers are trying to extend the age of oil, reduce greenhouse gases, and so
on.  But with the downside of Hubbert’s curve so close, and the financial
system liable to crash again soon given the debt and lack of reforms, I don’t
know how long anyone can stretch things out.

(8) The 1% can’t justify their wealth or the current economic system once the
pie stops expanding and starts to shrink. The financial crisis will be a
handy way to explain why people are getting poorer on the down side of peak
oil too, delaying panic perhaps.

Other evidence that politicians know how serious the situation is, but aren’t
saying anything, are Congressman Roscoe Bartlett’s youtube videos (Urban
Danger).  He’s the Chairman of the peak oil caucus in the House of
Representatives, and he’s saying “get out of dodge” to those in the know.
He’s educated all of the representatives in the House, but he says that peak
oil “won’t be on their front burner until there’s an oil shock”.

9) Less than one percent of our elected leaders have degrees in science.
They don’t have a clue — they studied law, maybe economics, but know very
little about ecology.  The vast majority of political and economic leaders
don’t have a clue.  And they’ve had no time to understand energy,
environment, evolution, EROI, or any other relevant information after college
to hear or read and acquire a “big picture view” of (systems) ecology,
population, environment, natural resources, biodiversity / bioinvasion,
water, topsoil and fishery depletion, and all the other factors that will be
magnified when oil, the master resource that’s been helping us cope with
these and many other problems, declines.

10) Since peak oil began in 2005 (we’re on the plateau with decline coming in
1-4 years), there’s less urgency to do something about climate change for
many leaders, because they assume, or hope, that the remaining fossil fuels
won’t trigger a runaway greenhouse.  Climate change is a more distant problem
than Peak Oil.  And again, like peak oil, nothing can be done about it.
There’s are no carbon free alternative liquid fuels, let alone a liquid fuel
we can burn in our existing combustion engines, which were designed to only
use gasoline.  There’s no time left to rebuild a completely new fleet of
vehicles based on electricity, the electric grid infrastructure and
electricity generation from windmills, solar, nuclear, etc., are too oil
dependent to outlast oil.    Batteries are too heavy to ever be used by
trucks or other large vehicles, and require a revolutionary breakthrough to
power electric cars.

11) I think that those who deny climate change, despite knowing it is real,
are thinking like chess players several moves ahead.  They hope that by
denying climate change an awareness of peak oil is less likely to occur, and
I’m guessing their motivation is to keep our oil-based nation going as long
as possible by preventing a stock market crash, panic, social disorder, and
so on.

12) Politicians and corporate leaders probably didn’t get as far as they did
without being (techno) optimists, and perhaps really believe the Scientists
Will Come Up With Something.   I fear that scientists are going to take a lot
of the blame as things head South, even though there’s nothing they can do to
change the laws of physics and thermodynamics.

Chris Nelder says that “We trust narratives that fit our emotions,
associations and experiences, rather than actively assessing the evidence.
This is why the peak-oil story gained currency in the press in 2008, when
prices for oil and gasoline shot up — it fitted in with our experiences. When
prices fell, the story faded. Similarly, extreme weather events such as
hurricanes and tornadoes capture the public’s attention in a way that decades
of warnings about global warming have failed to do”. (Nelder)

13) Kurt Cobb, in his blog Resource Insights, writes this about why oil
company executives are keeping quiet: “…their companies may soon find it
impossible to replace all their oil reserves. Oil companies strive to replace
at least 100% of what they produce so that their reserves don’t fall. If
investors come to believe that a failure to replace reserves will be ongoing
year after year, they will mark down oil company share prices significantly.
In fact, it’s already happened, and it’s likely to happen with more frequency
as more companies struggle to reach 100 percent replacement. Such share price
declines would, of course, make a lot of oil executives significantly poorer
as the value of their stock and stock options plummet. Essentially, oil
companies would be recognized as self-liquidating businesses. All of this the
oil industry wants you to ignore as it undertakes yet another public
relations campaign to convince the world that supplies will only grow from
here. Naturally, with prices near $100 a barrel, the public needs
reassurance. The campaign is designed to lull both the public and
policymakers into a somnolent surrender to a business-as-usual future that
will leave us unprepared for the momentous challenges ahead. Oil is the
central commodity of the modern age. As of 2011 it provided one-third of the
world’s energy and the basis for countless petrochemicals necessary to the
functioning of modern society. Oil’s role in transportation remains critical;
80 percent of the world’s road, rail, air and sea transportation fuel is
derived from petroleum, and in the United States the number is 93 percent.
Good substitutes for oil in transportation are still hard to come by”. (Cobb)

14) There’s plenty of misinformation out there, plenty of rosy, cornucopian
“we’ve got plenty of oil” projections from all kinds of experts.  Why
wouldn’t you believe them?  If I hadn’t joined peak oil forums, it’s unlikely
I would have ever stumbled on the information to counter the Wall Street
economic view of the world (see my book list and energy topics)

15)  Tariel Morrigan, in “Peak Energy, Climate Change, and the Collapse of
Global Civilization” puts the problem this way: “Announcing peak oil may be
akin to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, except that the burning
theater has no exits”. Morrigan says a government announcing peak oil
threatens the economy, not only risking a market crash, but the panic that
would follow would cause social and political unrest. What a conundrum – not
warning people isn’t fair, but warning people will make the economic crash
come sooner and doesn’t help to make a transition (it would have made a
difference in the 70s, but it’s too late now).  In addition, announcing peak
oil will make many lose confidence in their government because they’ll feel
they were deceived, that the government failed to protect them, or was
incompetent, corrupt, and colluded with private interests (especially oil
companies and the institutions involved with the wide-scale economic fraud
and recklessness).

16) A story must be positive or a problem must have a solution to be picked
up by the media as an ongoing theme.  This is even more true for getting a
book published.  Although this book appears to be quite doomer: Scatter,
Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, it has a
“happy” solution — we’ll just migrate to the Moon and Mars!   The only method
of propulsion we have to escape the planet is fossil fuels, and they don’t
come anywhere near to getting us to the speed of light necessary to get to
the closest star. Nor will a space elevator do that — even if it could be
built, it’s absolutely ridiculous to think we could survive on the Moon or
Mars. Biosphere II was a failure, and that was right here on Earth. The idea
of abandoning Earth is absurd, sad — pure science-fiction. But you can’t get
a book published about how we face extinction if you don’t offer some hope.


We need government plans or strategies at all levels to let the air out of
the tires of civilization as slowly as possible to prevent panic and sudden

Given history, I can’t imagine the 1% giving up their wealth (especially
land, 85% of which is concentrated among 3% of owners). I’m sure they’re
hoping the current system maintains its legitimacy as long as possible, even
as the vast majority of us sink into 3rd world poverty beyond what we can
imagine, and then are too poor and hungry to do anything but find our next

Until there are oil shocks and governments at all levels are forced to “do
something”, it’s up to those of us aware of what’s going on to gain skills
that will be useful in the future, work to build community locally, and live
more simply.  Towns or regions that  already have or know how to implement a
local currency fast will be able to cope better with discontinuities in oil
supplies and financial crashes than areas that don’t.

The best possible solution is de-industrialization, starting with Heinberg’s
50 million farmers, while also limiting immigration, instituting high taxes
and other disincentives to encourage people to not have more than one child
so we can get under the maximum carrying capacity as soon as possible.

Hirsch recommended preparing for peak 20 years ahead of time, and we didn’t
do that.  So many of the essential preparations need to be at a local, state,
and federal level, they can’t be done at an individual level.  Denial and
inaction now are likely to lead to millions of unnecessary deaths in the
future.  Actions such as upgrading infrastructure essential to life, like
water delivery and treatment systems (up to 100 years old in much of America
and rusting apart), sewage treatment, bridges, and so on.  After peak, oil
will be scarce and devoted to growing and delivering food, with the remaining
energy trickling down to other essential services — probably not enough to
build new infrastructure, or even maintain what we have.

I wish it were possible for scientists and other leaders to explain what’s
going on to the public, but I think scientists know it wouldn’t do any good
given American’s low scientific literacy, and leaders see the vast majority
of the public as big blubbering spoiled babies, like the spaceship characters
on floating chairs in Wall-E, who expect, no demand, happy Hollywood endings.

Posted by sean hufford at 4:02 AM 

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