• General Interest
Carbon shift: How the twin crises of oil depletion and climate change will define the future · 2009

Dangerous abundance

David W. Keith

We are simultaneously threatened by both the scarcity and the abundance of fossil fuels. The scarcity of conventional oil poses a serious threat to economic and geopolitical stability, a threat that is intensified by the hugely unequal geographic distribution of the remaining easy oil. Yet, while oil grows scarcer, the very abundance of fossil fuel resources poses a threat that is at least equally serious: climate change— the greatest global environmental threat of our age— is rooted in the extraordinary abundance of fossil resources and the growing ease with which our technology can exploit them. The scarcity of easy oil tempts many observers to assume that humanity faces an immediate and far-reaching crisis of energy supply, and it is not hard to see why. It is difficult to overstate the importance of energy in modern society. Coal, gas and oil enabled the world’s industrial transformation. Many of the technologies and institutions of the modern world first emerged during the eighteenth century’s “enlightenment,” but it was access to cheap energy that played the central role in accelerating the industrial revolution a century later. Access to abundant fossil fuels—first coal, then oil and now gas—has driven the growth in human population and led to the mobility, high-speed communications and widespread—though grossly unequal—material abundance that are the hallmarks of our age. Yes, oil is crucially important. But let’s not confuse oil with energy. Oil may be scarce, but energy is not. A great deal of energy is stored in fossil fuel reserves which, in their abundance, pose a threat at least as serious as the prospect of running out of oil. There are enough fossil fuels beneath our feet to push atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to well over ten times their pre- industrial levels. We may well have enough fossil fuel within the growing reach of our extraction technologies to nudge our planet’s climate towards that found on Venus. Not Venus the goddess of love, but Venus the planet, where the atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide and surface temperatures are hot enough to melt lead. So while it is possible to make a case that oil scarcity poses a threat to our civilization, I argue that fossil-energy abundance is where the more urgent threat lies. In this essay, I explore the interplay between oil scarcity and climate change, shaping the argument around two alterative scenarios. In the first, we will assume that an oil peak is imminent and explore our options while ignoring concerns about climate change. In the second scenario we will assume the converse: a world with abundant oil in which carbon emissions must be swiftly eliminated to minimize the risk of dangerous climate change. The two scenarios bound the likely path to the future; enabling us to see the some of the more onerous constraints and through them to imagine future opportunities.

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