Friday, July 17, 2009

Bracing for Our Future

Here's the bottom line. The world is facing a number of critical environmental and social challenges that are going to require remedial action but also adaptation. The severity of these various impacts isn't going to be felt universally. Some nations will be extremely hard-hit. Some are already being extremely hard-hit. For others the impacts may be later in arriving and less hard-hitting.

Canadians don't get to control how severe these problems will become. We can certainly contribute to making them worse or making them somewhat better but in either direction our influence will be limited. We can, however, do a great deal by way of how we adapt and minimize the negative consequences and that is what we ought to be focusing on right now, today.

How we position ourselves to meet these challenges is up to us. As a general rule, however, this may well be the century of the quick and the dead. Those who are quickest to act will most greatly increase their prospects of doing as well as possible. The best off will be those who are cognizant of the changes they'll experience, who have both the will and the means to respond as early as possible in order to take advantage of opportunities that may be fleeting and who happen to inhabit one of the few "lucky" countries. We are fortunate in that ours is indeed one of those really lucky countries. That leaves the other two criteria - recognition and action - entirely up to us.

Some experts, like James Hansen, now figure we're already well past the safe carbon atmospheric threshhold. He warns we have to get off coal energy entirely within twenty years. Twenty years. Yet there is no other fossil fuel remotely so abundant in a rapidly growing energy hungry world.

Then there's Peter Odell, professor of international energy studies at Erasmus University, Rotterdam. This energy economist says we don't have a (pardon me for this) snowball's chance in hell of breaking our fossil fuel addiction in this century.

Painting a gloomy picture of the short-term outlook for renewables, Odell told Reuters that even with a growing global effort to limit carbon dioxide emissions, the world would still be relying on hydrocarbons by 2100.

"Oil use won't peak until 2050," Odell said in an interview. "It will decline thereafter but even by 2100 oil supplies will be 20 percent higher than they were in 2000."

He said alternative, renewable forms of energy would increase 15-fold over the 21st century to become the biggest single source of energy by the year 2100, but even then alternative energy would still only account for 35-40 percent of the total energy mix.

...Odell said global energy demand could increase four-fold this century under some scenarios to as much as 38 giga (billion) tons of oil equivalent (gtoe) by 2100 from 9 gtoe.

He forecast world use of hydrocarbons would rise to a peak of 16.5 gtoe by 2070, from 5.8 gtoe in 2000.

Now, I personally find Odell's model unrealistic. He has failed to account for the fact that, in his outlook, civilization will have collapsed probably by mid-century and we'll have trimmed the hydrocarbon consumers to what James Lovelock estimates will be a "few hundreds of millions."

But Odell's predictions can't simply be dismissed because the important kernel is that we won't be able to shed our carbon economy. How many people are alive to consume fossil fuels in 2070 or 2099 is pretty much irrelevant. The only thing that really matters is whether, as Odell claims, mankind and the community of nations will be unwilling or unable to stop catastrophic climate change.

Even if there's a 20% chance that he's right then the Canadian people and our experts and our elected officials need to do a serious, brutally honest and open risk assessment right now. Not ten years from now. Not when we see how the global community performs on wrestling with greenhouse gas emissions. Even if we began analyzing the risk potential in Odell's report, it is going to take some time for us to put together something meaningful but we need to get started on that now.

As Canadians we have pretty much everything going for us. That's a gift best appreciated.


LeDaro said...

Mound, are things really that gloomy or are you getting too pessimistic in your old age? Humans have ingenuity to work out problems. I believe in 18th century there was some English writer by the name of Thomas Malthus who thought that in few decades world will be finished through famines but it survived with new techniques of food production. However these new techniques are not without problems of their own.

The Mound of Sound said...

I guess the point, LD, is that we're talking about man-made problems created by our own technological advancements in energy production, resource extraction, industrial agriculture, transportation and, ultimately, overpopulation. Yet you and so many others think that another generation of technological fixes can make good the unforeseen and potentially devastating repercussions of the last generation of technological fixes. An interesting concept, just not particuarly logical.

One thing I'm pretty sure about is that if we go along with business as usual with a faith in solutions being miraculously found to these very real, very tangible problems, we're entrusting the future of our country to magical thinking.

LMA said...

LD, I sure hope these "unproven techniques" don't include the geoengineering proposals I've been reading about. The thought of humans seeding the stratosphere with sulfate particles doesn't exactly fill me with optimism for the future.

LeDaro said...

Mound and LMA, I primarily don’t disagree with you. I am no fan of big business and corporations as they are embodiment of greed and exploitation. I am hoping that as humans we will learn from the disasters of our actions and do something about it.

Obama and many European leaders are concerned about the looming environmental disaster and hopefully they will take some concrete action. However, I am going to contradict myself and say that when I look at our leaders, Harper and Iggy, I do become very despondent.

The Mound of Sound said...

LD your comment caused me no offence but did lead me to detail my thoughts in a post today called "The Power of Positive Pessimism."

I'm looking forward to your comments.



Saskboy said...

We're using capitalism to restrict our resource usage, but it cannot do that because not everything is replaceable. Before, humans had room to expand into new, untouched places. Unless alternate dimensions are discovered and invaded, there is little hope for us finding the resources we crave to expand into.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hey Saskboy! Thanks for stopping by. Any ideas? Is the answer in adapting or creating political movements? Christ, I've been so close to this for so long I'm not sure there is a reliable answer any more.