Two Problems

We are most likely facing two significant problems in this century. The first is climate change due to increased greenhouse gases. The second is the loss of our major energy source due to oil depletion. I think it’s interesting that solving one problem is likely to solve the other one at the same time.

The only way to address the potential of climate change is to develop new energy sources and/or to develop new ways to doing what we do today while using significantly less energy. In principle, we could address climate change by reducing our energy use by doing less. In practice, that will not happen. No government is both strong enough and tough enough to enforce that. The sacrifice is too great for people to do it willingly. If we can’t find new energy sources or large energy savings, we will wind up spending our time figuring out how to deal with the consequences of climate change.

The only way to address oil depletion is to develop new energy sources. If we can’t do that, we will have to struggle through sweeping changes to our society, which is based on cheap and portable energy.

Theoretically we could postpone the oil depletion issue by moving to something like liquified coal. That would not help with climate change, and would only help us for a couple of hundred years at most. A proper fix for oil depletion will be to find a renewable energy source. Finding such a source will address the climate change problem at the same time.

We’ve seen these problems coming for a long time, more than thirty years. Unfortunately there have been few organized efforts to address them. We can only hope that that will start to change in the near future.


  1. jldugger said,

    July 7, 2008 @ 12:36 am

    Proven oil reserves can last us for a good while. The recent price explosion I think is a conflation of several factors. Firstly, cartel behavior. Not just OPEC, but Russia as well. Secondly, a large increase in instability in oil producing countries. Thirdly, the dollar just plain sucks.

    Finally, I think some of it is speculation in oil futures. Economists are saying other commodities are up to, and some are. But sugar is noticably down. Some of this is simply the dollar falling apart, I’d say. The better argument is that speculation shouldn’t cause prices to stay high, in theory. The problem with theory is run up times. Higher prices don’t translate to more production in the short term. Oil fields take time to start up. I recall hearing during the 1999 era that OPEC was intentionally forcing prices lower to close down wells and reap profits later, knowing it takes time to reopen a well.

    Asking for the development of new energy sources isn’t quite right. Development of existing ideas is better. Nuclear power seems like a step forward, along with wind farms and solar. If oil really does run substantially low, smart nuclear seems like a winner. Opening our markets wider to cheaper sugar and cane ethanol, perhaps by trading corn (and beef?) to Brazil, might help, but I’m not sold on food burning as the solution to an American energy crisis.

    But we also need more efficient users of energy. Ideally, we should be improving energy consumption per capita on a pace equal with population growth. Energy star is an example of this, but lately most people know them as “the reason dell came out with those goofy solar powered PCs”. Fuel efficiency standards is another one; letting SUVs off the efficiency hook was a large mistake (that consumers are growing to recognize). As one guy said, we’re the Saudi Arabia of buying oil. Small shifts can buy the world a lot of time on oil depletion, maybe climate change.

  2. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    July 7, 2008 @ 10:15 pm

    Thanks for the note.

    Oil reserves can last for a while but they will be increasingly uneconomical. Maybe speculation is having a large effect, though I don’t see how. Maybe the cartels are holding back, although I see little evidence of this. But the fact remains that demand is increasing, and the Earth is not making more oil. I think this will be a significant problem in this century. Do you disagree?

    By “new energy sources” I didn’t mean brand new ideas, I meant new energy production. This was intended to include the ideas you mention.

  3. ncm said,

    July 7, 2008 @ 11:32 pm

    These are not problems, they are crises.

    Lots of people think losing 30% of extant species is no big deal, but those tend to be people who don’t understand about interdependence.

    Speculation is only a problem when it takes oil off the market, e.g. hoarding or failing to pump it. Nobody is hoarding it, but production certainly isn’t keeping pace with demand. Neither is refinement capacity. That all is looking more and more like deliberate policy. Of course we knew that all those meetings in Cheney’s office in 2001 were not just social gatherings.

    I’m beginning to think that the only way we can address the crisis with any hope of success is to develop non-polluting power sources that are so appealing, and so much cheaper for the Chinese to use than coal, to lead them to shut down their coal generation plants. Otherwise it’s all for naught; China will outfit its population with efficient electric cars charged up from coal-fired mains.

    We need to field a standard solar-thermal/wind kit designed to mount over the top of an existing industrial warehouse complex. Costs are offset by increased life of the roof and reduce cooling load.

  4. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    July 8, 2008 @ 6:23 am

    We are already in a biodiversity crisis quite apart from climate change. Climate change may accelerate it in some cases, but I think the concerns there tend to be somewhat overstated. A steady but gradual change in climate is the type of thing which evolution copes well with. r-selection species adapt quickly. K-selection animals pick themselves up and go elsewhere. The only major species which potentially can’t adapt are trees, but they generally have a large enough range to avoid extinction. In other words, I see loss of biodiversity as a crisis, but I don’t see climate change as a significant driver of that crisis.

    I agree with your other comments, with the proviso that the Chinese will use it if it is even remotely competitive with coal. The Chinese government has already demonstrated their ability to combine long-term thinking with enforced constraints on freedom to address future problems.

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