Peak Energy Vs. Climate Change: Stupidest Debate Ever

Sharon November 16th, 2009

Kjell Aleklett should really pretty much stop talking about climate change, because he looks like a fool when he does.  And that’s not a good thing, given that he’s not one - on energy he’s done deeply important work, and I’d hate to see people dismiss it because he says dumb things about the climate.

Here’s a good example from his screed:

“How will our well-being be affected by the expected growth in population? How will this affect our food supply, our climate, our economy and our hopes for peace? In Copenhagen the hungry will prioritise more food on the table before an unaltered climate. The poor nations want economic growth and we all know that this requires more fossil energy use. To see this we only need to study the development of China or India, or even Sweden from 1945 to 1970. In Copenhagen, this will mean that they will not want to sacrifice economic growth on climate’s altar. Ultimately, it comes down to we, the wealthy nations, not wanting to bear the cost of all the carbon dioxide waste we have dumped into the atmosphere without the poor and hungry also paying out.

In Copenhagen global emissions of carbon dioxide will be discussed and, for the sake of our future climate, it would be a good thing if emissions were reduced. However, according to the human well-being equation, it is not carbon dioxide but, rather, energy that is needed to produce food and to turn the wheels of the economy. By clever marketing of unrealistic future scenarios the IPCC has blinded the world’s politicians – particularly those in the EU – to these facts. Light was shone onto this issue when President Obama noted the importance of energy in a speech some days after his inauguration. He said, “No single issue is as fundamental to our future as energy” and I with many others began to hope for a brighter future when the Nobel prizewinning physicist Steven Chu was appointed as the USA’s Secretary of Energy.”

There’s not a single citation in this article, so, for example, his observation that we use a lot of energy to produce food now is left to stand with his presumption that we will require the same amount of energy to produce food in the long term.  In _A Nation of Farmers_ Aaron and I observe that low-input agriculture has largely kept approximate pace with high input agriculture, and that in periods of climate instability, low input agriculture that improves soil actually does better than industrial agriculture.  So no, we don’t need as much energy as we have been using for food.  Will we have a hard time feeding ourselves?   Undoubtedly, but “we use this much now, which means we must use more later” assumes that we can keep industrial society going on the same track - and even Aleklett knows we can’t.

We’ll also note that Aleklett simply doesn’t believe climate change is a serious issue, and has said so.  He seems, in the article, to be implying that he does, but he’s been more explicit in other writings.  He claims, again completely without evidence that the IPCC scenarios are “unrealistic” - which they are - but in the wrong direction.  All the material evidence - and by this I mean not-up-for-debate stuff like “how fast the ice is melting” which you can see by looking at it, or by fairly simple measures - suggests that the IPCC scenarios are unrealistic in that they *understate* the rate at which climate change *is happening* - not is projected to occur.  He gives lip service to the fact that we should put out less carbon, but then goes on to suggest we need more carbon sources.  

But the biggest and dumbest gap in this is that Aleklett doesn’t seem to have any recognition that addressing climate change *is* about food.  At the simplest levels, countries that are underwater don’t grow a lot of food.  Neither do countries who depend heavily on meltwater from glaciers that dry up and disappear (again, this isn’t a hypothetical, you can go see it).  Aleklett doesn’t seem to be familiar with research that higher temperatures will dramatically reduce yields of wheat, rice and corn, the staple crops that provide the vast majority of the world’s calories.  And desertification (in part caused by climate change, but also caused by the very oil-infused agriculture that Aleklett says we desperately need to preserve) will take large chunks of grainland out of production.  Copenhagen will almost certainly fail, but the idea that people in Copenhagen don’t get that this is about food is just laughably ignorant.  It is Kjell Aleklett who doesn’t seem to grasp that this is very much about food.

But more importantly, and the reason I’m being so hard on him, is that this represents two sides of a strain of thought that I think is truly destructive to the agenda of both Peak Energy and Climate Change.  On the one side, you have peak energy thinkers, frustrated that climate change gets all the attention, who falsely believe that they have to poke holes the fairly iron-clad science of climate change, because they are competing for attention and resources.  On the other side are climate change advocates who ridicule or simply minimize the importance of peak energy, because their assumptions all presume a stable economy and energy supply to build upon.  There’s a “we’re only allowed to have one big central problem, and we have fight over it” attitude, that presents a completely false dichotomy - a dumbass logical error  that a freshman in high school should be able to dissect.

The truth is this - we know for a fact that peak oil is real.  Why do we know this?  Because we’ve seen it happen right here in the USA.  No matter what technologies we use, no matter how much we invest, the US hit peak oil in the early 1970s, and hasn’t passed Saudi Arabia since.  We can look at all the other countries who have done the same.   It is a geological fact of life - and the preponderance of the evidence, slowly, solidly coming in is that the world is at or past its peak, that Saudi Arabia has been fudging its numbers with seawater. 

We know that other resources are going to peak too - and many of them soon.  We’re not sure exactly how much coal there is, but we do know that North American Natural Gas, for example, is a likely near-peak.  We know that we are already seeing high energy price volatility, we know that it is affecting our economy, not to mention our ability to get by personally.  We’re never going to know, year to year, how much food (tied to energy) and heat are going to cost us.   We know that if it isn’t going to get worse in the near-term (which is the more likely scenario, IMHO, since it is already happening), it is going to get worse in the long term, and ethically speaking, screwing the next generation is how the last couple of generations have handled this, and is not ethical.  So there’s not much doubt about this - we’ve got to deal with an energy decline, and rapidly.

The same is true of climate change - the climate is changing.  We know this - we can look at the pictures of glaciers in 1950 and glaciers now.  We can look at the arctic ice.  Anyone who lives near an ocean can go see the houses, once comfortably back from the sea’s edge, now hanging precariously.  We can look at flower bloom, and bird migrations and climate (not weather) patterns and see a consistent and substantial alteration over a very short time.  This is not rocket science.

We also know why the climate is changing.  The Greenhouse effect is not controversial - if it didn’t exist, the earth would be a lifeless rock, so cold it couldn’t support life at night, so hot it couldn’t support it during the day, just like the moon.  We know without any doubt that the gasses in our atmosphere are what warm the climate.  We know that there are more of them.  We know that more of them correspond with warmer periods in history from ice core samples.  We know that each gas has demonstrable warming effect, and we can demonstrate that their concentrations are growing.   You can certainly get more complicated than this, but again, it isn’t rocket science. 

There is no question that climate change is going to radically impact our lives - and soon.  It already is, if, say, you live in a low-lying area, or if you rely on meltwater, or if you are noticing more heat waves and drought or worried about the health consequences to you or your asthmatic daughter or you aging mother.  And just like it is wildly unethical to pass off our energy problems to the next generation, it is even less ethical to pass off our climate problem - because both effect basic things like whether we’ll eat or not.

In both cases, there are sensitive bits up for discussion - precise climate sensitivity, and exactly when the peak is/was.  Nothing is perfect, but overwhelmingly, the debate on both subjects is effectively over.  And that means that the scientists and thinkers on both sides of who are sitting there waving their hands saying “My problem is more important!  No, Mine!” are wasting a lot of time and energy on the false idea that we can’t have two central problems at the same time.  This is dumb - and it delays creating an appropriate response.

The truth is that we have at least two central problems (the economic one is tied to both in the long term), and only people who can get their mind around the combined difficulty will have anything useful to offer.  Yes, we need to know how what fossil fuels are in the ground - and we also can’t burn them rapidly.  Yes, we need to address climate change - and we need to stop lying and claiming that we can have it all - a happy growth economy based on renewable energy, yada yada. 

Thankfully, ther are people doing good work on both issues - people who really get it, like James Hansen and Richard Heinberg.  They haven’t fallen into the false dichotomy.  They haven’t missed that this really is all about “who eats” - and that we can’t see the whole picture of our future just looking through one eyepiece of a pair of binoculars.

Independence Days Update:

Sharon November 16th, 2009

It was the quiet week in between weeks of chaos.  First I was away twice in two weeks, meaning Eric soloed for 10 days out of 14, or was away himself.  All the travel was good, but it meant a lot of things were up in the air.  Then, finally the travel and the event I ran at our shul were over, and things were back to normal for a week.  Now my Dad is visiting, followed by family friends of his, and Simon’s birthday party (headcount is up into the 40s - lots of family and friends -  which is cool, but requires some advance prep), and the morning after everyone leaves, we’re off to Boston for five days for Thanksgiving.  Getting ready for that is a project in itself - we don’t usually leave the critters with our kind attendants for so long.

So last week was integral - we were supposed to get a lot of stuff done.  Of course, we also really needed sleep, and normalcy, so well, we didn’t.  We didn’t get the barn fully cleaned out (which means we have to do it tomorrow).  We didn’t get the turkeys into the butcher (this wasn’t slacking - they simply aren’t big enough to go - so we’re raising Chanukah/Christmas/Solstice birds, I guess).  We didn’t get new hutches assembled for the new bunnies.

We did, however, get the bunnies.  Michelle, who I met through the blog and classes bartered me four rabbits for one of my classes this summer, and Saturday night, as we drove back through Ida’s torrential rains from my book signing, we arrived to a van full of rabbits.  This was fairly awesome.  We received three cinnamon rabbits and an angora, named Parsley(cinnamon buck), Sage (cinnamon doe), Rosemary (cinnamon doe) and Thyme (french angora buck) by my children. 

My rabbit goals are two-fold - unfortunately, we can’t eat them ourselves (I like rabbit just fine), because they aren’t kosher.  But my goal is to seed the area with rabbit stock and encourage more people to breed their own meat, while also supplying our working dogs and cats with some of their feed.  The angora joins our other angora providing fiber to be mixed in with the wool I get in exchange for letting my neighbor use our pasture.  Now if only I actually had time to spin!  Fiber is building! 

Otherwise - we did clear out the kidding pen (which will be the rabbits’ winter quarters - by the time we need it for goat babies again, it should be warm enough to move the buns out for the season) and put some of the garden beds to bed.  I’ve had the goats eating down the garden wastes, and have a truckload of old salvaged cinder blocks coming sooner or later (another barter) to make new beds in the front.  I’m also collecting stone to do some terracing in the front yard in the spring. 

The rabbits officially belong to the children, and they are enthusiastic about their new jobs of bringing them greens, feeding and watering, etc..  They are also extremely excited because I’ve promised the boys that they can have silkie chickens in the spring, and take both the cinnamons and the silkies to the fair.  They are already debating colors.

Not many eggs these days - mostly because it is November, but also because they are hiding their nests again.  Goats are lowering their production as well as we head into winter - everyone is settling.

Otherwise, not too much to report - still harvesting greens and roots, still putting the last of the harvest up in the form of sauerkraut and kimchi, apple butter and quince jam, but mostly we used last week to recover our equilibrium.  Realistically, given what’s going on, it is just as well we did, since I don’t expect to see it again until December ;-) .

Plant something: Garlic, Tulips, a ginger root that was throwing a bud

Harvest something: Chard, sorrel, parsley, sage, beets, carrots, scallions, leeks, kale, turnips, arugula, celeriac.

Preserve something: Apple butter, kim chi, sauerkraut, sauerruben, quince jam, a few eggs

Waste Not:  Usual composting, etc… 

Want Not: Bartered bunnies, cinder blocks.

Eat the food: Root vegetable curry again, yum, stuffed cabbage, other good stuff.

Build community food systems: working on another school garden, lots of radio interviews.

How about you?


Does Richard Heinberg Ever Sleep?

Sharon November 15th, 2009

So there’s his new coal book, which I haven’t even had a chance to finish my review of, and now Heinberg and Jerry Mander have put together an analysis the possibilities of *any* energy resource to meet needs to 2100?!?!  The man writes books and major papers faster than I read them - and I have been accused of prolificacy m’self.

 It is definitely worth a look, and different from all the other many things like this in two respects.  First, it emphasizes the impact of net energy, which is an extremely important concept - the energy density and net return of our resources is not something even folks who do this stuff always pay full attention to.  The second thing worth looking at is that they actually sit down with all the major options, renewable and not, and ask the question - how do we go on from here.

 It has a typical Heinberg (I like Jerry Mander a lot too, but the language and careful balancing are very much Heinberg) delivery - a little on the dry side, but extraordinarily clear and comprehensible - and it is worth looking at for the compiled info on EROEI and on the possible costs of retrofit. 

Here’s the Energy Bulletin link, but do read the whole thing - it’ll be worth it, not because the information is new - anyone who thinks hard about it knows that the energy bodied in a Toyota is “too damn much to keep up” - but because it offers another way of seeing the nails going into the coffin.


Just Don't Be Poor

Sharon November 13th, 2009

Robyn at her Adapting-In-Place Blog has what I think is a superbly dark and funny piece about the pains of accepting public assistance.  I think it is well worth a read:  She lists the rules that people who accept public assistance are forced to adhere to:

Two of her rules:

“3. Never engage in any luxury activity at all, ever. Remember, you are currently taking public aid, which means of course that you must never, ever, find any way to enjoy your life that costs any amount of money at all. Do not ever do any of the following: go to movies, rent movies, go to the theatre, go to a restaurant, take your children to amusement/skating/other fun activities, or anything else that might cost money. You are poor-you don’t deserve a moment’s enjoyment of life. If you did deserve it, you wouldn’t be poor, right?

3a. In addition to money-costing activities, also remember that free activities that you might enjoy are also forbidden. Every moment you are enjoying yourself is a moment you are not spending trying to find a job, keep a job, find another job, or find a third/fourth job. Obviously this must be your only focus. As such, all of the following activities are also forbidden: walks in the park, taking children to the playground, having a picnic, sitting on your porch with friends, visiting family, going to parties, etc.

4. Never possess any item which could be construed as you spending money. This rule is a bit confusing, so examples might serve well here: do not let your SIL give you a manicure for your birthday, or fix your hair in any fancy way. Do not dress in business clothes, even purchased secondhand. Do not borrow your parents/in-laws nice car to go to run errands. Never dress your children in the expensive clothing purchased for them as gifts by loving relatives. Do not use public aid to buy your child a birthday cake and soda, which was the only thing they asked for for their birthday. Obviously, if an upstanding, tax-paying citizen sees you in a grocery store with nicely done nails & hair, driving a nice car, and buying a cake and soda, they are entitled to decry loudly (and post everywhere possible online) how abusive you are being of the system. Just because they have no idea how or why you have these things is no excuse-it is your responsibility as a poor person to never make taxpayers have to think about, well, much of anything.

4a. To maintain the personal moral indignation of the taxpayer to our situations, it is acceptable to on occasion breach rule #4 in limited fashion. This allows the taxpayer to continue with their prejudices, which is crucial for our status quo.”

You really do need to read the whole thing - she brilliantly articulates the way that our society punishes you for becoming poor.


Movin' On Up

Sharon November 13th, 2009

I head off into the weekend with a reminder that if you are in the lower Hudson Valley and want to come say hi, I’ll be at Millbrook Winery from 1-4 on Saturday signing books and chatting people up! 

I’ve also got some news. Over on facebook, I’ve been hinting at big changes in my blog.  No, I haven’t been invited to be a guest columnist at Fox News Blog, nor have I decided to pretty up the space with ads from Shell, Monsanto and Satan himself.  Nor am I going to an all-celebrity format, since I don’t know any.

What is happening is that I’m changing internet digs.  Contracts have not yet been signed, but your friendly neighborhood Apocalyptic Prophetess of Doom has been invited to blog in new territory, and it looks like I’m going to be moving on up, to the Deluxe Blog Address in the Sky.  All the old rantings and ravings, challenges and such will come with me, and I’m going to be trying some new stuff as well. 

The new site will have more ads on it, I’m afraid - but the chance for me to blog at a high traffic, fairly mainstream audience site, where I’ll maybe have a chance of reaching more people and maybe effecting a bit more societal change is not one I want to miss. 

And they will pay me for blogging, at least a little (hence the ads), which gets me off the horns of a dilemma - you all know that once my Adapting in Place book is complete, I plan to go back to farming as a primary project, and spend less time writing and teaching.  The question is how I balance the time I do spend writing and teaching.  Agriculture is not so remunerative that I  can afford to give up all the work that I do that actually pays decently, but the blog is my first love. I was hoping the blog wouldn’t suffer from my need to balance agriculture and the stuff that actually buys your working girl’s stash of pinto bean seeds.  This means that there’s no conflict - the blog can be my primary project, because it is at least mildly remunerative. 

Look for an announcement of the new site next week, and an eventual transition over.  I’m excited about it.  I hope it is a good move for everyone.


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