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Issues & Definitions
Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch, eds. The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises, 2010.
Tom Butler, Daniel Lerch, and George Wuerthner, eds. The ENERGY Reader: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, 2012.
Even more worrisome, over 150 years of burning more and more hydrocarbon fuels has released massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — more than the planet’s plants and oceans can absorb without changing the global climate. We increasingly face major economic, social, and environmental upheaval as sea levels rise, droughts and floods increase, and agricultural zones shift.
So at Post Carbon Institute, we aid the transition to a world in which we are no longer dependent on hydrocarbon fuels, and no longer emitting climate-changing levels of carbon into the atmosphere.
It would require enormous investments in a very new technology for unknown benefit; instead, those funds could go toward proven solutions like energy conservation measures (including redesigning cities and food systems to use far less energy) and the development of renewable energy sources.
It would risk worrying economic, environmental and social consequences, as the effects of manipulating weather and climate patterns at large scales over large periods of time are very much unknown (e.g., forcing rain for a drought-stricken area may well cause drought elsewhere) — with obvious potential for political abuse.
Finally, spending untold multiple billions of dollars on technological efforts to reduce atmospheric carbon contributed by the burning of fossil fuels makes little sense if the end of those fuels is in sight anyway. Coal, oil, and natural gas are dead ends from both economic and environmental perspectives. All of our scarce energy investment capital should be going toward transitioning to a post-carbon world — independent of hydrocarbon fuels, and resilient to the economic, social and environmental challenges of climate change and peak fossil fuels that are already unavoidable.
ETC Group, “Retooling the Planet,” ENERGY: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, 2012.
Funding & Donations
Donations can be made to either “Metafoundation” or “Post Carbon Institute.” Our Federal Tax ID number is 65-1208462.
At the risk of echoing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Post Carbon Institute gets the majority of its funding from “people like you,” through large and small contributions. We also receive some private foundation grants, and earn modest revenue from book sales and speaking appearances. We appreciate and respect all of those working to create a better future, through your good work, fine examples, and generous donations.
To support Post Carbon Institute please donate here.
- First, climate change, particularly global warming, is an undisputed fact. The mean global temperature has increased by .8 Centigrade degrees over the last century, glaciers are melting, the Arctic sea ice is disappearing, deserts are expanding and sea levels are rising-all ahead of climate model projections.
- Second, while it is true that Earth’s climate is primarily determined by various non-human factors, including solar output and shifting ocean currents, there have been no changes in these sufficient enough to explain ongoing temperature increases.
- Third, by contrast, human activities have significantly increased atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations. Carbon dioxide is up 38 per cent from a pre-industrial 280 parts per million to 388 ppm [in 2009]. Other GHGs have climbed proportionately even more — but the CO2 increases alone are more than sufficient to account for the observed warming.
- Fourth, increasingly severe weather events are already displacing or killing tens of thousands of people annually and this trend is likely to worsen.
For much more detail and point-by-point responses to common questions, visit the excellent science-focused website SkepticalScience.com.
The scientific work since then has consistently painted a more and more worrying picture. The controversy that exists is largely political. While some scientists disagree over things like the contribution of solar activity and other natural phenomena, these are very minor points that do not contradict the international scientific consensus that climate change is real, is caused by humans, and is a major threat to both human civilization and countless plant and animal species around the world.
Everyone in the modern industrial world needs to live a more sustainable—or “green”—lifestyle if for no other reason than basic social equity. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “live simply so that others may simply live.” (See also the ecological footprint concept, co-originated by PCI Fellow Bill Rees.)
Fortunately, living more sustainably turns out to be one of the best things you can do for both economic security and personal well-being. Spending less on fossil fuels decreases your vulnerability to rising energy prices and leaves more money in your pocket to spend locally, which supports your community’s economy. Getting more of your food from local sources means you’ll eat healthier and support local farmers, which helps protect your area’s agricultural land. These and other “green” lifestyle changes actually build the resilience of your family and your community against the increasing uncertainties created by peak oil and climate change.
The “post carbon future” will have more uncertainties and less sheer material abundance than we’ve become accustomed to, but there’s no reason it can’t actually be better and happier than what we have now. Countless studies (not to mention most of the world’s religions) tell us that material wealth, past a fairly basic level, has almost nothing to do with happiness. The international Transition Towns movement is one example of how we and our communities can respond to the challenges ahead with hope, planning, and even humor.
Top Questions Asked at Post Carbon Institute Events
U.S. proved reserves of natural gas currently amount to only about 12 years’ worth of supply. More gas resources will no doubt be discovered, adding to those reserves — but most of the new sources will be in “tight” shale deposits, where production costs and depletion rates are high. While it’s true that new technology has increased natural gas supplies over the short-term, the long-term outlook is more complicated. Natural gas is a depleting fossil fuel, and technology cannot change that fundamental fact. Natural gas will not substitute in any meaningful way for increasingly expensive oil, because very few vehicles currently are able to use natural gas and it will take decades to change that situation—and gas supplies won’t be sufficient even if we could retrofit the existing national vehicles fleet enough. Moreover, the climate impact of producing and burning gas from shale deposits may well be no better than that of mining and burning coal — so the environmental argument for using more natural gas doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
See our ShaleBubble.org website for our most recent work on this issue.
Yes, tight oil production in North Dakota is booming. Geologists have known about the Bakken oil deposits for a long time, and have long had the technology needed to get the oil out of the ground — but costs of extraction were too high to justify drilling. Now that rates of global crude oil production are failing to grow to meet new demand, oil prices are very high — and that makes production of marginal sources like tight oil economically viable. That, in turn, means continued production from these resources depends upon continued high oil prices: if the price level falls, production will slow. Several analysts have described recent claims for reserves and potential production rates from tight oil plays as over-optimistic. A realistic forecast shows U.S. crude oil production continuing to increase in this decade (as a result of additional tight oil and deepwater production), but soon resuming its decline. Unless Americans reduce their oil consumption significantly, the nation will still be hooked on imports.
See our ShaleBubble.org website for our most recent work on this issue.
Several recent studies (including ones by the U.S. Geological Survey) have concluded that coal supplies for the U.S. and the world as a whole have been exaggerated. Enormous amounts of coal exist, but the great majority of it is unlikely ever to be mined because of its depth, the insufficient thickness of seams, and the quality of the resource. As with other fossil fuels, we have already picked the low-hanging fruit. Meanwhile, as China’s consumption grows (that country now uses about 4 billion tons per year, fully half the world’s production), coal prices are set to increase substantially even in countries that are self-sufficient in supply, like the U.S.
Richard Heinberg, Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis, 2009.
Richard Heinberg and David Fridley, “The End of Cheap Coal” Nature, Vol. 468, November 18, 2010.
James Hansen, “Coal: The Greatest Threat to Civilization,” ENERGY: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, 2012.
In short, nuclear is too expensive and too risky. A detailed article in a 2012 issue of The Economist magazine—not known for any knee-jerk anti-nuclear stance—called nuclear power “the dream that failed,” and concluded that its role in the foreseeable world energy picture will never be more than marginal. The ongoing nuclear catastrophe in Japan has given that country second thoughts about nuclear power, and Germany is phasing out nuclear power entirely. Even though China appears to be doubling down on its nuclear bets, from a global perspective the industry is essentially moribund.
“Nuclear Energy: The Dream that Failed,” The Economist, March 10-16, 2012.
Tom Murphy, “Nuclear Options,” Do the Math blog, January 3, 2012.
Richard Bell, “Nuclear Power and the Earth,” ENERGY: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, 2012.
Yes, population is a vitally important issue. Population growth exacerbates every problem facing us. As the global economy stagnates or contracts, the impact of declines in per capita industrial output can be reduced by policies to rein in population growth. Moreover, a good argument can be made that family planning investments will benefit the poorest nations first and foremost, since large, poor families tend to spend all their income on food and shelter, leaving no surplus for education or the formation of a small business. But while good population policy is desperately needed, it is no cure-all: changing demographic trends is a slow process, and many of the challenges facing us will converge over the course of the next couple of decades—far too quickly to be adequately addressed by reducing birth rates. So we need to think systemically to address a range of economic and ecological issues simultaneously while doing our best to support seven billion humans and counting. And while we’re doing all that, we also need to reduce birth rates.
Bill Ryerson, “Population: the Multiplier of Everything Else,” The Post Carbon Reader, 2010.
First, address your mental state. If you’re emotionally overwhelmed by information about climate change and resource depletion, you may need to ration your news intake so as to increase your effectiveness at helping tackle these enormous global problems. Spending hours a day in front of a computer screen feeds depression. Take time off, go outdoors, do some gardening, and interact with other people face-to-face. You will probably find inspiration in community resilience-building projects, where you can see and touch the results of your and your friends’ efforts. Cultivate a creative hobby and spend time in nature. Your efforts to make the world a better place will be far more effective if other people perceive your mental and emotional state as being grounded and balanced. That doesn’t mean you should deny and suppress the pain and fear that any healthy human inevitably feels when contemplating the fix we’re in. Allow yourself to feel those emotions (otherwise you’ll be detached and inauthentic at best, unhinged at worst), but don’t let yourself be incapacitated by them.
Kathy McMahon, “The Survival Mindset”; Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities
We wish we had a sure-fire answer to that one. Sometimes simple persistence pays off. If people have dug themselves into a certain worldview, it may take time for them to change their ways of seeing. It’s important for you to have the facts at your command, but it’s just as important to create “frames,” as George Lakoff calls them—stories that make sense of the data. Often simple metaphors, such as “low-hanging fruit,” help people grasp the essential character of situations that might otherwise require lengthy explanation. It’s also important to tailor the message to the audience: if you understand where other people are coming from, it’s much easier to connect with them. Unfortunately, there are many people who are completely invested in maintaining a cornucopian view of the world, and there may be no way of reaching those people. Don’t waste your time on them; focus your attention on people who can be educated.
George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant!, 2010.
Andrée Zaleska, “How to Talk to Your Friends about Climate Change,” 2010.
Kurt Cobb, “Peak Oil and Four Principles of PR,” 2010.
Nate Hagens, “Peak Oil and Mass Communication,” 2009.
As long as our economy is set up in such a way that it requires continued growth in order to function, then even if we distribute wealth more fairly we will still ultimately hit the physical limits of the natural world and fail. That’s not to say that equity is unimportant. As the national and global economy inevitably shift from growth to contraction, more equitable distribution is essential if we are to maintain social stability. If distribution of wealth becomes even more inequitable (and that’s the current trend), people will rightly conclude that the system is inherently unfair and not worth saving. They will rebel, and governments could crack down brutally to maintain the status quo, leading to chaotic, violent collapse of the entire system. It doesn’t have to end that way. If wealth is more evenly distributed as a result of reform, and if everyone is encouraged to understand the challenge facing us, then people can be persuaded to make shared sacrifices in order to build an economy that fits within Earth’s limits.
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone.
Cecile Andrews, “Everyone Is a Victim of Inequality.”
We’ve heard countless stories about suppressed energy technologies, and have never seen a single one verified. Typically the stories entail oil or car companies buying up patents and hiding them, but every patent ever issued in the U.S. is freely searchable, so it should be easy enough to find these “suppressed” inventions. On the other hand, many machines that have been patented don’t actually work, and that’s why they haven’t been commercialized. Now, it’s true that the automobile industry actively discouraged the development of new safety features, including seat belts, and also lobbied Congress for decades to delay energy-efficiency regulations. Moreover, fossil fuel companies have spent enormous sums in efforts to distort and mute both the scientific research and the public discussion regarding climate change. Such corporate abuses must be brought to an end, and we support activist efforts to do that. However, even if they succeed, that won’t solve the basic problem: we’ve become addicted to energy sources that are unsustainable, and there are no “silver bullet” alternatives that will enable us to maintain economic growth such as we’ve seen over the past century.
Rob Hopkins, “Film Review: Why ‘Thrive’ is Best Avoided.”
There are two answers to this question about the Transition movement.
First: We have to do what we can. Yes, fundamental national and international reforms are needed to deal with global problems like climate change and resource depletion, and activist efforts to address those issues are needed now more than ever. But we are seeing a general deterioration in the ability of national political systems to respond both to converging global problems and to the public’s concerns. Reforming national government is a big, multi-decade job, if it’s even possible to accomplish. Our economic and environmental problems will not remain on hold while we put our political systems in order, so we have to do what we can where we have more leverage—at the local level.
Second: There are good reasons for working locally anyway, regardless of difficulties in achieving national and international reforms. Localization is inevitable as transport fuels become more scarce and expensive. If we don’t increase local self-sufficiency proactively, the reversal of globalization will result in the collapse of essential support systems—so building local food, energy, and economic resilience should be our first priority. Also, local organizing creates the necessary basis for political, social, and economic change at higher levels.
Innovation will be essential as we adapt to our new economic reality. Some new technologies (such as renewable energy and ways to use energy and resources more efficiently) will need to expand significantly. But every technology has its costs. Economies cannot grow forever, even if they are based on renewable energy. We must adjust to the fact that our civilization has reached limits with regard to population, water, soil, raw materials, and, in all likelihood, energy. In the end, our adaptation will require as much social innovation as technological change, as we learn to live with less, and to live more equitably.
Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (Chapter 4), 2011.