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Ogmius Newsletter

Apocalypse Soon: Climate Change, the End of Oil, and the Perils of Limiting Choices
by Frank Laird

A recent spate of books and articles proclaim the end of oil and an imminent crisis for the world.   Likewise, global warming alarms sound from almost every corner of the press.  What are policy makers to do?  How should policy analysts help decision makers frame the debate and assess the alternatives?  Many advocates are trying to do exactly the wrong thing: narrow policy makers’ options through a rhetoric proclaiming that policy makers will have no choice but to adopt their favored technology, so the sooner they get to it, the better.  This approach both misunderstands how policy making works and does a disservice to policy makers.

Advocates of peak oil claim that the global rate of oil production will encounter its geological limit and start to decline just as world demand increases, due to greater consumption in both the wealthy countries and the rapidly growing economies of China and India.  Depending on the assumptions they adopt, analysts argue for different years of peak production, varying from a few years to a couple of decades away, i.e. soon.  Whenever it occurs, the result will be a rapid increase in oil prices, which in turn will make more expensive everything from transportation to food production.  The consequence of such increased prices will be at least global recession and  possibly depression, mass starvation, and resource wars.

When analysts start talking about possible alternatives to this disaster, the answers range from the possibly enticing to the truly grim.  For the latter, some people argue that there is no technical fix and that policy makers will fail to do things that could cushion the blow, due to entrenched interests that get large short-term benefits from the status quo.  The result will be several decades of global turmoil until societies gradually and painfully adjust to expensive energy as a permanent situation and eventually find lower-energy modes of life, which will include what we would now consider to be a greatly reduced standard of living.  At the more optimistic end of the spectrum some analysts believe that a combination of greater energy efficiency and alternative fuels can keep the wolf from the door.  However, the change to this more sustainable mode of life will be more difficult and painful the longer we wait, which means that the single most important goal for public policy should be strenuous efforts to start such a transition now.

Those books on peak oil dovetail nicely with another raft of books on global warming, most famously Al Gore’s new book and movie An Inconvenient Truth.  These books make popular what has been circulating in the scientific community for some time: climate scientists have moved toward a strong consensus that the climate is measurably warming now and that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are the primary culprit.  Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will further that warming, with serious consequences, though the nature and timing of those consequences are impossible to predict.  Climate skeptics have dwindled in number and reports from institutions like the National Academy of Sciences and the government’s Climate Change Science Program have pushed the skeptics to the margin of national debates.

These events make for heady times for advocates who believe that their technologies will solve such problems.  Ironically, both renewable and nuclear energy advocates see themselves as possessing the key to an energy-abundant and climate-safe future.  Both advocacy communities have been around for decades, have a history of mutual hostility, and think their time is nigh.  Yet both groups are using a language of inevitability that suggests a naïveté about public policy, short-changes the policy process, and makes it all the harder to have intelligent, nuanced discussions of the difficult policy choices that lie ahead.

Their central point is that society or governments will have “no choice” but to adopt their preferred solution.  They believe that the problems of peak oil and climate change present such severe problems to our society that policy makers will realize that they must adopt nuclear or renewable energy, that the lack of choice will be plain.

This language distorts the reality of policy making and short-changes society by trying to close off debate over the many and possibly creative solutions that policy could bring to bear on these problems.  The central fact of policy making is that governments always have a choice.  No circumstance, no matter how dire, leaves them with only one choice.  To be sure, not all choices are equally good, and anyone familiar with history will know that sometimes governments make bad, even disastrous, choices.  But they always have choices to make.  Pretending otherwise just misunderstands all we know about public policy.

Talking about inevitability also short-changes society because it is an effort to restrict the scope and creativity of policy making, shutting out competing voices and narrowing the scope of thinking about what are multi-dimensional problems.  In the cases of peak oil and global warming, nuclear and renewable advocacy groups are promoting straightforward technological solutions to problems that are political, social, economic, and cultural, as well as technological.  Historians of policy and technology have provided us with scores of cases in which simple technical fixes did not work as intended precisely because technologies interact in complex ways with those other variables.  Indeed, what are alleged to be simple technical solutions carry with them powerful assumptions about the kind of society and world in which they will function.

These are not merely abstract concerns.  By all accounts, global warming is already upon us, and no conceivable set of policies can prevent at least some additional warming.   Despite strenuous research efforts, the precise level of warming and the extent and distribution of its consequences remain highly uncertain.  Under such circumstances, to think only about energy technologies that emit fewer greenhouse gases, indeed to declare such technologies the inevitable solution to the problem, avoids the very necessary consideration of how to adapt to existing climate change, how to ensure that new energy technologies don’t create even worse unintended consequences, how to keep policy flexible so it can learn and adapt to futures that no one can predict, and how to integrate the social, economic, and other non-technological considerations into a policy that makes the world better instead of worse.

The same concerns hold for peak oil.  If the problem is that prices will keep going up, that countries will fight (literally) over diminishing supplies, and that the world will exhibit the political and social pathologies of rapidly declining economies, policy makers should think about more than new technologies to replace oil.  We know that they will have multiple choices in seeking out new energy sources.  We also know that many of those sources will have nasty political, social, and environmental consequences.  Now is the time to expand our thinking about everything from diplomacy to economic and social development, as well as technological innovation, not declare that governments have no choice.  As Roger Pielke Jr, has put it, the purpose of policy analysis is to open up alternatives for policy makers, not tell them the one best thing to do, much less try to persuade them that they only have one choice.  History treats such hubris harshly.

Frank Laird
Graduate School of International Studies
University of Denver