Friday, September 09, 2011

The Big Issues: When Should We Stop Burning Fossil Fuels?

I often hear people making statements like - "There is no point reducing my carbon footprint, because anything that I do is insignificant compared to increases in developing countries."

Realistic people convince themselves that this is a realistic position. Sensible people make the sensible choice to enjoy life now before the oil runs out. Rational people come to the rational conclusion that we are ripping ourselves off if we don't gorge on the cheap fossil fuel pie - Nobody will leave the last piece of the pie on the table out of politeness, right?

Sure, we'll move to cleaner, more expensive fuels later, but only when we really need to. You've heard this all before, haven't you?

This is, of course, one of the major arguments being made to expand mining in the Canadian Tar Sands and to build the Keystone XL pipeline. The US might as well build it, because if they don't, then the Chinese will!

This argument is fallacious on many levels - I don't intend to deconstruct it completely today, but will definitely revisit this idea more deeply in later posts - For now I just ask you to bear with me for a couple of minutes while I do a quick reality check on the fundamental premise. I hope that this will be enough to convince you to speak up next time you hear someone staking out such a "let's be realistic" position...

Is it realistic/sensible/rational to think that humanity won't stop digging up and burning fossil fuels until every last drop is gone? (or at least until it is no longer economically viable to do so?)

The Keystone XL project that I discussed earlier demonstrates that there is no limit to human ingenuity when it comes to finding and extracting fossil fuels. It seems clear that regardless of whether we've reached "Peak Oil" or not, it will be a loooong time before we run out of affordable fossil fuels.

As I mentioned previously though, it is widely understood by scientists that we have already burned more fossil fuels than is safe.

So, let's take these two ideas and tease out a truly realistic/sensible/rational conclusion...

The last slice of the “fossil fuel pie” will not be snatched from our selfish grasp by those pesky Chinese.

The last slice will most certainly be left on the table.

The pie will not be left on the table out of politeness, however.  Fossil fuels will be left in the ground because any attempt to get anywhere near them will be stopped by the extinction of all higher life forms on earth (and most lesser life forms.) 

Armed with this conclusion, it is clear that supply failure will not be the driver to a low carbon economy, so isn't it time for realistic/sensible/rational people to start to think differently? Surely, you don't think that humanity won't change our ways until we've ensured the extinction of pretty much all known life in the universe, right?

To me, the realistic/sensible/rational response to climate change is to acknowledge that there are unintended but catastrophic consequences of our current dependence on fossil fuels.

This acknowledgement then empowers us to quickly wind down our personal dependence, and to find ways to increase the pressure on governments and business to do the same.

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