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.
You can download or listen to this 23 minute interview with Dr. James H. Brown in CD Quality or Lo-Fi.
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.
Really, Alex? You've been reporting on environmental issues for years, and this is the first time you've encountered the concept of peak oil / limits to growth in a way you can believe? When the oil companies finally start to admit it? I suggest you start reading the Resilience.org website, especially the contributions by Kurt Cobb, Richard Heinberg and Gail Tverberg, the latter of whom also explains the connections between financial markets and demand destruction and resource availability in great detail. (Fracking is largely a ponzy scheme based on cheap credit, not actually economically viable gas / oil production, by the way. Most of those companies never have been out of the red.)
Brief explanation, because your interviewee was kind of unclear: The oil price collapsed because people couldn't afford 100 Dollar/barrel oil (which is why the economy is in a recession). But at 50 Dollar/barrel, all the marginal oil production that was started at 100 Dollar/barrel (such as shale oil, deep water drilling, or the tar sands) isn't economically viable anymore. So the oil glut will drop again quite quickly, back to a level that can't support economic growth (because peak conventional, high-EROEI, cheap oil was reached around 2008 and can't raise production anymore). So the prices will rise again, and probably some idiots will finance low-EROEI marginal fossil fuel production again, but the market won't be able to sustain the cost of that for long then either. Rinse and repeat a few times, with each cycle the recession getting a little worse. Because more and more money / energy has to be put back into fuel production to keep getting the same amount of oil (or actually, you need to keep producing more, because of the necessity for constant growth inherent for our debt-based financial system to function) instead of being available to the rest of the economy and for social investments such as infrastructure or hospitals (that's what "low Energy Returned On Energy Invested" really means; the renewables all have a low EROEI as well, by the way, so they just can't power our current lifestyle, barring miraculous breakthroughs in efficiency). These price fluctuations are exactly what was predicted by the peak oil theorists for when peak conventional oil had been reached.
If we're 'lucky', this up-and-down will affect the economy badly enough that further investments in marginal fossil fuel extraction won't be possible anymore quite soon, before we mine the 2/3 of known fossil fuels reserves that have to stay in the ground if we want to avoid runaway climate change. And hopefully the crash won't be so sudden that all the nuclear power plants can't be powered down in an orderly fashion (instead of exploding one day because the grid goes down a couple of days in a row and they run out of back-up fuel for the pumps cooling the spent fuel storage pools). Sure, such an economic collapse will kill millions, even billions (through the old Horsemen: badly managed epidemics, lack of availability of fertilisers and argicultural machinery in not-anymore-developing countries deprived of support from the struggling industrial countries, and of course civil wars sparked by mass migration to and unemployment in the industralised countries). But at least it might prevent a Venus-style mass extinction in a thousand years, if we can keep the temperature increase low enough to keep the methane clathrates in the ocean floor. Unfortunately, this economic collapse or long-term depression also means there will be no excess economic power (= money) to invest in renewable technology either. If your country can't or won't invest in a renewable build-out large enough to sustain industrial production (at least enough to build windmill / solar replacement parts) right now, your grandchildren will be pretty much screwed. (Oddly, Germany is one of the few countries that probably could sustain at least a 19th century lifestyle for a couple centuries more, even without renewables, because lignite is very cheap to mine and still abundant there, and there's no point in trying to export it (transport over more than a few km takes more energy than the lignite contains). But of course they don't actually want to go back to peasoup smog and acid rain, and bringing down the price of renewable technology for everyone else through (expensive and therefore only possible while we still have affordable oil) technical R&D and by encouraging China into mass production is one of the very few things that might – MIGHT – stem the tide of migrants and refugees, given that the countries economically dependent on oil exports now also have very good solar resources.)
…And yet my mother still tells me that I'll regret my decision not to have children when I hit 40. In my eyes, not contributing to the steady population increase (especially in an industrial country with a large per-capita-footprint) is the only ethical thing to do right now, both in terms of not forcing my potential children into a World War II type situation (as in: hunger winters, compulsory military service in resource wars, draconian governments trying to keep control), and to make things a little bit easier for the children of those people who can't avoid having them.
That comment about the Catholic republicans just shows that these people just use their professed religion as an image ploy to attract a particular voting demographic, not because they're honest believers in the ethical principles of their religion. No real Catholic would ignore the Pope, even if their financial backers tell them to. I mean, it's not even a question of backbone or reason or goodwill – the Pope could excommunicate them for this, and according to their supposedly held religious beliefs, that would mean the'll be tortured in Hell forever. Even a greedy sociopath wouldn't dare to cross the Pope if he actually believed in his authority and the whole metaphysical world of Catholicism.
Lastly: I know you mean well, but your musical efforts will never get anywhere if you don't find people to sing it who aren't tone-deaf. Sorry, I wouldn't criticise if you were just doing it as artistic self-expression, but few people are going to voluntarily listen to it as it is (this time the vocals in the piece after the first interview were particularly painfully off-key, even though the instrumental parts are fine), which kind of defeats the educational purpose you say you're aiming for.
In the latest show, the mid-piece of music (the only one with vocals) was not by me, but by Dana Pearson. Unlike yourself, he's been a professional musician for years. Everyone has their opinion.
That said, I agree that some of my own music would be better sung by someone else. I've had a couple of people in mind, but so far haven't had the extra time to make it happen. On the other hand, search as I do, it's hard to find good climate music.
As to Peak Oil, you got me thinking back on my long years covering this subject. I've recorded and broadcast key speeches about peak oil, and of course interviewed some Peak Oil oriented folks, including Richard Heinberg, but also others from the Post Carbon Institute.
The tricky point, I think, about "understanding" mega-movements like Peak Oil, climate change, and astronomical debt in the economy – we can't really. It's like trying to imaging living on the moon – because we are so entwined in almost every act of daily life, not to mention the ideas and even language that we use – in the carbon-powered world.
So yes, from time to time I re-realize, so to speak, the solidity and the enormity of what these things mean. I accept that, hoping with each revisitation, I might penetrate a little deeper into it.
All that said, I like your summary of Peak Oil. I'm glad you posted it, as many other readers will appreciate the way you brought it together.
You blew it Alex, the most important question of your career. Dr. Brown's answer to your question about the vacuum of space kissing the surface of our planet as the bio-mass energy battery runs empty was evasive, and not really an answer. The non-answer is very suspicious. The real answer to your question is far too important to ignore. To not get an answer to this question is wrong, and very poor journalism. I know you're a media person, and like to delve into gloom mid-season and end your season on a note of blinding hope. But, don't forget what the blind man said to the deaf lady, "Looks good!"
Trees, Oxygen And The Thermodynamics Of The Earth-Space Battery
90% of U.S. trees gone since 1600. Most in the last 50 years. Only 10% are left.
50% of Europe’s "Renewable Energy" comes from burning wood shipped there from all over the world, including from Louisiana. North Europeans also burn palm oil from Indonesia and soy oil from South America in their diesel cars.
Indonesia has slashed and burned 80% of its protected parkland rainforests. They poisoned elephants and killed orangutans, to clear-cut forests, to sell wood, to grow palm oil plantations, to ship palm oil to Europe, to burn in European diesel cars. Shipping wood and oils all the way across the world to burn in European power plants and cars is a mockery the words, "Renewable Energy".
98% of Indonesia’s rainforests will be gone in 10 years.
Without Trees Our Atmosphere Disappears, Life Dies (The Thermodynamic Part)
50% of China’s rivers have disappeared since 1990.
60% of China’s groundwater is too toxic to even touch, let alone drink.
20% of China’s soil is too toxic to grow food.
In 10 years, 4 Billion People Will Be Short Of Water.
See "Did You Know" section in the following link.
In 15 years, World Water Demand Exceeds Supply By 40%.
In 20 years, Food & Water Wars Will Be Normal.
In 30 years, Cascading Mass Extinction Is Irreversible.
Trees Vs. Food
Mass Extinction Numbers
Why We Can't Git Nut'in' Dunn!
Someone calling herself Cheriola doesn't like the quality of singing in songs you posted. I would remind her that the most famous, poetical artist-performer of the 60's protest music movement was constantly derided by the establishment media for his lousy voice. (Dylan) Perhaps they were just reacting to his strong message, non?
Now, I would say the situation is much more critical. We're not talking about black people's rights, woman's rights or even the anti-war movement. (I've participated in them all and been arrested a number times, though I always managed to have someone take my guitar to safety first). This crisis is worse by an unimaginable order of magnitude – total extinction of life on Earth Ms. Cheriola. No well-known artists with a sweet, mellow voice is writing songs about our imminent extinction. It would be artistic suicide. If Alex would be so kind, he might post a recording of mine titled "The Last Selfish Generation" This is a direct message to my children. Yet I recorded it in the hopes it might wake others up. Generally, I can report to you that most audiences do NOT WANT TO HEAR THE BAD NEWS this time. The Peace movement was "groovy" but the anti-extinction movement just can't gain any traction because to ahve any effect folks in the affluent West, who are the worst per-capita energy gluttons, would have to give up TOO MUCH, to come down to less than one tonne of carbon consumption. Get out to to some remote hinterland Ms. C. and see if you can create a sustainable community with no outside inputs (like this computer I am currently typing on). It's a struggle. But the folks staying behind in the cities will die, as will most of the population. Climate books I was reading a decade ago theorized that a sustainable carrying capacity of a low-carbon Earth would be 500, 000 humans. We've gone so far beyond that -that we are doomed. Those of us who have retreated to sustainable communities far from the city hordes, may last a generation longer. I'm building this place up not for myself but for my children.
Now let's see – can I put all this in poetic language and write another song?? Maybe I'll have to send it to you first to check if it's "pretty" enough.
Good luck, where ever you are. And keep enjoying Doctor Who.