Summary: Oil company BP says recoverable oil runs out in 50 years. American scientist James H. Brown publishes study saying this means a crash of economy and population is “very, very likely”. Then Canadian climate scientist Andrew Weaver on our prospects, and why he ran for the Green Party. Radio Ecoshock 150923.
Warning: If you are already feeling depressed, this may not be the program for you. Maybe you should take a walk outside instead. Really. That would be OK.
For those still listening/reading, according to one of the world’s biggest oil companies, their primary product may not be around for much longer than 50 years. In this program, a senior scientist follows that logic to find a catastrophic crash of our economy – and world population is “very, very likely”.
We’ll follow up with a chat with one of Canada’s top climate scientists. He says we don’t need more science, we need action to save ourselves. So he ran for the Green Party and got elected.
Speaking of politics, Catholic legislators in the U.S. Congress saying they will boycott the Pope’s speech there because of his views on global warming, let’s go to our favorite source, the father of all that’s right, former President Ronald Reagan:
“Preservation of our environment is not a liberal or conservative challenge, it’s common sense. Let’s be sure that those who come after, will say of us in our time, we did everything that could be done.“
Australia’s great climate denier and coal-lover Prime Minister Tony Abbott just got the boot from his old party. His replacement is at least on record acknowledging that climate change is real and dangerous. One more to go: Canada’s Tar Sands Prime Minister Stephen Harper is up for election in October, with polls showing him running dead last in public opinion.
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Of course, the political theater may all be far too late. Pop a few anti-depressants for our next guest, as Radio Ecoshock rolls on into the dystopic future.
SCIENCE OF CATASTROPHE: DR. JAMES H. BROWN
In about 50 years, oil and gas will run out . But our bubble of economic growth and increasing population will crash before that. It has to. That’s according to our next guest James H. Brown, a Distinguished Professor of Biology at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque. He’s also the head of the Brown Lab.
This interview is not our usual fare. First of all, the crash will come less from climate change, although that is not minimized, but from the simple fast that economically retrievable oil and gas will run out. Eventually, Brown says, that means this planet will no longer be able to support billions of people. A great dying is likely, if not inevitable.
This all comes not from an out-there blogger, but from a highly reputable scientist. His paper on the subject was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) – one of the top American scientific journals. It’s peer-reviewed and inspected, and was published August 4th, 2015. The title is: “Human domination of the biosphere: Rapid discharge of the earth-space battery foretells the future of humankind“.
I begin by asking Brown to describe what is meant by “the Earth-Space battery“. Essentially, as I understand it, this is a system where solar energy is stored in two main forms on Earth: (1) the total mass of living matter, on land and sea (plants, animals, insects, the lot) and (2) the energy stored in longer-term forms like fossil fuels, and peat.
Brown makes the case that both forms of energy on Earth are being rapidly depleted. As they are exhausted (by us, and by systems stimulated by humans) – Earth moves toward the general state of (outer) space, becoming less hospitable for living things.
In the abstract for that paper we find this scary little sentence: “With the rapid depletion of this chemical energy, the earth is shifting back toward the inhospitable equilibrium of outer space with fundamental ramifications for the biosphere and humanity.”
Since the authors (the other being John R. Schramski from the University of Georgia) find that fossil energy drives most of our civilization, and that supply of fossil fuels is limited – therefore there can be no such thing as “sustainable development”. That is just a myth.
Long-time listeners will find echoes here of the peak oil theory, described by guests like James Howard Kunstler and especially Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute. But there are also parallels to the work of Dr. Tim Garrett of the University of Utah. Garrett likewise found a formula where the economy, indeed “wealth” are mathematically bound to carbon burned, and therefore to emissions. There will be no meaningful cut to emissions, Garrett told us, unless and until the economy drops so precipitously it will be a crash larger than the Great Depression of the previous century. Here is a link to a transcript of my 2010 interview with Tim Garrett.
Brown also shows, scientifically, how closely world population mirrors energy availability and use. Given that BP, a source of industry data trusted by others in the industry, says we only have 50 years of economically useful fossil fuels left – what else can we see coming but a concomitant crash in population sometime in the next 50 years. That’s a disaster beyond anything seen in human history, headed into the lives of anyone under the age of 30 now.
You can see this research developing in an earlier paper with Brown as lead author: “Energetic Limits to Economic Growth” as published by the American Institute for Biological Sciences on March 25, 2012. Find details on that here. Here is another Brown-led article in press for the journal Ecological Engineering: :Macroecology meets macroeconomics: Resource scarcity and global sustainability”
I have trouble with Brown’s argument that economic growth has stalled due to scarcity, whether it’s energy or other resources like copper or iron. It seems like we are swimming in excess oil right now, with prices dropping. Other commodity prices are also crashing, partly because Chinese demand has fallen. How can Brown you cite scarcity as a driver of a global recession, during a period of apparent abundance?
His answer is intriguing. Consider a sick person on a fixed income. If they are too sick to eat, their grocery bill might go down, and so they actually appear to have more available wealth. But really that “abundance” is a (temporary) sign of how sick the economy really is.
We also discuss the relationships between climate change and dwindling fossil fuel resources. It’s always hard to tell which will hit us harder or faster. Either way, in a presentation in Baltimore last August, one of Brown’s slides says : “A catastrophic crash appears inevitable.”
James Brown’s thinking also evolved around another big concept, the co-relation between metabolism and ecology. We won’t have time to develop the whole theory this time around, but you can learn about it in this You tube video (1 hour 4 minute intriguing lecture).
Here is another useful review of this important paper by the real journalist Andrew Nikiforuk in the Canadian publication the Tyee.
I don’t agree with everything Dr. Brown said in our interview. For example he says renewables cannot replace fossil fuels for cars and factories. But they can, although our lifestyles and expectations would have to change drastically. But certainly, if oil that is economical to get runs out in 50 years, we’re in for a crash, if not an age of crashes. We’ve had a lot of guests say that. Maybe it’s true.
AGE OF HUMANS MUSIC
Just to finish off that mood, we play a short song from Dana Pearson: “Age of Humans”. Find all of Dana’s work as Vastman on Soundclick.com.
FROM SCIENTIFIC STUDY TO POLITICAL ACTION: DR. ANDREW WEAVER
Let’s keep going, with a climate scientist who quit science, at least for now, to become a political activist.
Is climate change unstoppable, even if we drastically cut back emissions? Are these mega-changes on our planet “irreversible”? Our guest Dr. Andrew Weaver is one of Canada’s top climate scientists, most recently with the University of Victoria in Canada. He’s been a lead author in many reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, including the 2007 report that won the Nobel Prize.
Dr. Andrew Weaver has been featured in the film “Running on Climate“. As a Canadian climate expert, Andrew has been a cornerstone of a series of reports from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and published over 200 scientific papers of his own. Now he’s the first Green Member of the Legislative Assembly in the Western Canadian province of British Columbia.
Dr. Weaver was a Lead Author for the Working Group I contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC. Published in 2013, the title is: “Long-term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility.”
In the past couple of years, I am seeing more statements by official scientific bodies that some aspect of global warming is now “unstoppable” or “irreversible”. NASA says melting of the Totten glacier complex in Antarctica is now “unstoppable”. The most recent 2014 climate report of the American Meteorological Association says warming of the oceans is “unstoppable.” So it’s with great interest I ask Dr. Weaver about the “irreversible” changes to the climate system, and our ecological systems.
I ask him if he thinks that melting of the permafrost, during this century and the following centuries, has reached the state of “unstoppable”? And could emissions from melting permafrost and melting of Arctic methane ice cages, the clathrates, create more greenhouse gases than humans currently do?
Scientists have painted a frightening picture of massive changes to our climate, sea level, agriculture, weather extremes and extinctions if we proceed along the higher emissions pathway. I ask Dr. Weaver for his thoughts about possible results from the upcoming “Conference of the Parties” climate negotiations in Paris at the end of November 2015.
Despite his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which advises governments on pathways and climate decision-making) – Weaver says the whole series of COP talks have been a colossal waste of time. He likewise expects nothing of importance to come out of the Paris talks. In particular, Weaver finds talk of ending emissions by the end of this century (as the G8 countries agreed) is just posturing that actually delays the quick and big action we need right now.
DO WE NEED MORE CLIMATE SCIENCE?
Even more surprising from a long-time and well known climate scientist, Weaver questions whether we need more climate science. We already have plenty of data and proof of the nature and causes of the developing climate change. What we need is real action from our leaders. No more science needed? Shocking stuff.
Weaver told that to so many young people, he decided he should lead by example. Andrew ran for the Green Party in the Provincial elections in British Columbia Canada. He was elected on Vancouver Island, the first and so-far only Green in the Provincial government.
Like Michael Mann in the United States, Andrew Weaver was also attacked personally by a series of opinionated writers in some of Canada’s major publications. When they said he wasn’t even a bonifide climate scientist (among other weird accusations) Weaver sued for libel. He won the case, with damages. At least one publication often a home for climate denial issued an abject apology and fired the writer, removing all his past articles. Other publications have appealed the decision, so that battle is not over. But
it certainly set an example of climate scientists fighting back against calumny.
Although we didn’t talk about it this interview, Weaver is also the author of two books. As his Wiki entry says:
“His book, Keeping our Cool: Canada in a Warming World was published by Viking Canada in September 2008 (ISBN 978-0-670-06800-5). His second book, Generation Us: The Challenge of Global Warming was published by Raven Books in 2011 (ISBN 978-1-55469-804-2).“
In the interview, we return to the science, discussing many topics that listeners have raised with me in email and in Facebook comments. You can listen to or download this 29 minute interview with Dr. Andrew Weaver here, in either CD Quality or Lo-Fi.
LOVE SONG TO THE EARTH – MEGA MUSIC
We’ll close out this week’s program with one of those mega-productions that seem hopeful. The so-called Official “Love Song to the Earth” was directed by Jerry Cope and Casey Culver. If you listen closely, you’ll hear guest appearances by a long list of stars, including Paul McCartney, Jon Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow, Fergie, Colbie Caillat, Natasha Bedingfield, Sean Paul, Leona Lewis, Christina Grimmmie, and Victoria Justice.
According to the song notes at lovesongtotheearth.org, “Every time the song is purchased, streamed, or shared, the royalties go directly towards the efforts of Friends of the Earth to keep fossil fuels in the ground and lower carbon emissions, and to the work of the U.N. Foundation to inspire international action on climate change.”
Watch and listen to “Love Song to the Earth” on You tube here.
That’s a good reason to go get this song and share it with others. So maybe, just maybe, if we find the last wave of human will, we can avoid the coming catastrophe.
Despite the tsunami of warning signs coming our way, I remain, as South Africa’s Desmond Tutu says, “a prisoner of hope.”
I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for listening to Radio Ecoshock this week, and for caring about our world. Please don’t forget to help support this work. Find out how here.