Richard Heinberg was interviewed for the April issue of the Italian magazine "Consapevole". Read original article
Heinberg: The oil industry has played a role in preventing discussion of peak oil by understating the challenges of maintaining production growth given the decline in discovery of new oilfields, as well as the declining rates of production in existing giant oilfields. However, it is also the case that new issues require time to be understood by the media, policy makers, and the general public. It is only within the past five years that general discussion of peak oil has emerged. By comparison, climate change has been a significant topic for well over a decade.
Consapevole: Do you have hopes that President Obama will face this serious challenge?
Heinberg: Our new President inspires many hopes, but in reality he must answer to entrenched economic and political interests. Thus, even if he fully understands the challenge of peak oil—and I am not entirely sure that he does—it may be impossible for him to speak openly about it. He is pursuing the development of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and public transportation, and these will all help mitigate the worst impacts of oil depletion. I am concerned, though, that the efforts along these lines that are politically feasible may be too little, too late.
Consapevole: The Post Carbon Institute, of which you are a Senior Fellow, wrote The Real New Deal to address it to the new admnistration of the United States of America. Can you sum up the content?
Heinberg: This is a document we wrote to inform the Obama Administration about the problem of energy resource depletion and potential strategies to mitigate that problem. It is important to understand that fossil fuel depletion will impact the food system, home heating, electricity generation, and public health as well as transportation. It is also essential to know that alternative energy sources, while essential, will likely be unable to substitute for fossil fuels entirely, and that therefore society must change how it uses energy and find ways to use much less. Other organizations have written energy briefing papers for the new Administration, but we believe that ours frames the problem and its potential strategic responses in a more realistic, integrated way than any of the others that I have seen have done.
Consapevole: In your latest book, "Peak Everything," you bring to the table a variety of peaks: most are negative (i.e. population, grain production, fresh water availability), but some are positive (greenhouse gas emissions, environmental destruction). Are you somehow confident that the positive ones may eventually overcome the negative ones?
Heinberg: Hopeful, yes; confident, no.
Consapevole: The economy is walking on a very thin line. Is it reasonable to think that this recession will eventually turn into a collapse once the prices of oil shoot back up over 100$ p/b? Also, would you say this could "help" the world to address the challenges of peak oil and climate change without wasting any more time?
Heinberg: Economic collapse could occur in any case, even without a run-up in the oil price, simply because of fundamental errors on the part of the world's banking and investment class. However, the most likely scenario would include a partial economic recovery that would be cut short by rising energy prices. The economic crisis will "help" only if we take this brief opportunity to implement drastic energy conservation measures and invest substantial sums in new renewable energy infrastructure. This is what we advise in "The Real New Deal."
Consapevole: What do you believe should be our individual goals for improving the situation and which are the goals to be approached on a governmental level?
Heinberg: The goal of both government and individuals should be to maintain coherent social structure during the economic contraction. If social cohesion fails, then we have lost our chance for survival, except perhaps as scattered bands of pitiful and violent creatures. The problem is that government tends to confuse the maintenance of social cohesion with its continuing support for various institutions that are in fact causing the collapse to occur—institutions such as the modern banking and finance system, or the military-industrial complex here in the US. We must abandon some of these institutions and substantially redesign others (such as our industrial food system and our transport system) while keeping the basic fabric of society intact. That will obviously require courage and intelligence at the governmental level, but also initiative and sacrifice on the part of the population as a whole. As individuals, we should be thinking about what will give our communities and families more resilience. That usually means cooperating more with neighbors, growing gardens, reducing debt, and bartering, among many other things.
Consapevole: Most people wait for the "experts" to save us (and the planet), usually through technology. What is your position towards technology in this sense?
Heinberg: Technology can empower us, but it can also disempower us. We can become dependent upon complex technologies that we barely understand, so that we feel helpless to question the status quo or to imagine life without our cars, computers, or televisions—even though everyone lived without these things only a century ago. The experts are perhaps even more frightened to think of a world without complex technology, because they spend all of their time in front of computers, gathering information and following trends. Witout their computers their way of life would come to an end! But we must begin to think of simpler ways to satisfy basic human needs, because the cheap fossil fuels that power most of our current technology will soon become more scarce and expensive.
Consapevole: You write that it is reasonable to estimate that we might see a 25 to 40% decline in energy available over the next 20-30 years. How did you figure that number out, and what consequences do you foresee worldwide as a result of this lack of energy?
Heinberg: Part of this is fairly simple arithmetic. Assume a 3% annual decline in energy from oil beginning in 2010, a 3% annual decline in natural gas beginning in 2020, and a plateau of energy from coal beginning in 2015 with a 2% annual decline starting in 2025. Those decline rates will gradually increase, and are based on forecasts from Energy Watch Group of Germany. But then for the countries that import fuel there is the problem that available exports will decline much faster, because exporting countries will provide for their own domestic needs before they sell their surplus internationally. Then we must factor in the percentage of total energy coming from oil, gas, or coal—about 40 percent, 23 percent, and 25 percent respectively. We can hope for some of the loss in energy from fossil fuels to be made up by new energy production from wind or solar, but probably no more than 25% of the current quantity of energy being consumed will come from those sources in any but a very few nations by 2030. The result: for a fuel importing nation, it would be prudent to expect at least a 25% decline in total energy by that date.
The consequences will, of course, be significant. It is difficult to see how the world economy could grow under such circumstances; indeed, widespread disruption in transport systems and a decline in food production are just two of the more important consequences we can logically expect to see.
Consapevole: In your opinion when will the collapse strike and what countries will it strike first?
Heinberg: This is a more difficult question to answer today than it might have been just months ago. Global oil production is peaking now and declines will commence within two or three years, and the countries that import the most oil will be impacted first and hardest. However, in recent months we have seen a global economic collapse that has cause demand for oil to fall substantially. Because demand is still disappearing, the price of oil has also fallen, and there is now surplus oil production capacity worldwide. Depletion of oilfields continues, and the erosion of production capacity has actually accelerated, because low oil prices are discouraging investment in exploration, drilling, and production. Therefore when demand begins to increase again, or when production capacity falls sufficiently to meet existing depressed demand, severe problems will appear. But because we cannot know now how deeply the economic crisis will constrain demand, it is impossible to say when the oil supply crisis will come. It could come later this year, or it may come in three or four years.
Consapevole: Why aren't people able to see the problems of peak oil and climate change? Is it a psychological block? Is it denial? If so, is it caused by fear of change?
Heinberg: Sometimes people do not see things they don't want to see.
Consapevole: Why does the media talk more about climate change than peak oil?
Heinberg: It is understandable that more attention is given to climate change. Far more research has been done on this subject, and for a longer time. Moreover, climate change will have more far-reaching and longer-lasting consequences. However, unless society dramatically and quickly reduces its reliance on oil, it is likely that oil depletion and resulting scarcity will produce more dramatic and immediate economic and political impacts than those from climate change. If we do not address peak oil, society may find itself incapable of mobilizing a coordinated effort to mitigate climate change.
Consapevole: What is the importance of the media in informing people and promoting change?
Heinberg: If people do not know what is happening, there is no hope that they will make sensible decisions. They may choose to act irresponsibly even if they know the facts, but without accurate, freely available information there is simply no possibility of a coordinated, successful response to the threats of climate change and fossil fuel depletion.
Consapevole: Would you be able to identify which consequences of climate change are closest to us in time? When do you predict major problems will come about with climate change?
Heinberg: The first impact of climate change to affect humans substantially will be changes in weather patterns that make agriculture less productive. This is already beginning, and may result in lower crop yields over the next few years, with worsening impacts following that. Coupled with the impending fuel shortages, this creates the possibility of widespread famines. These may be only years away.
Consapevole: Carbon emissions were 275 ppm at the beginning of the industrial era. They are currently 387 ppm where the safest level is considered to be 350 ppm max. Is there a projection for the next, say, 20 years?
Heinberg: That of course depends on how close we remain to a "business as usual" consumption scenario. As a result of the economic crisis and peak oil, I think that it is now virtually impossible for society to continue growth in consumption of fossil fuels according to most of the projections of the IPCC. However, for society to reduce the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases to 350 ppm or below, we will need strong, coherent climate policy. Depletion and economic depression by themselves will not achieve that goal.
Consapevole: The position of most environmentalists is that everything that can aid in cutting the emissions should be pursued (this implies a technological approach). Do you agree with this perspective or would it be wiser to address the problem from a more holistic approach (for example, promoting a simpler lifestyle in order to reduce, not only emissions, but also resources consumption and so on)?
Heinberg: We must understand that humanity does not face just one crisis or two, but many. We are depleting a long list of resources, destroying habitat for other species, polluting the oceans, and so on. Even if we managed to solve the problem of climate change through some technology that captured and stored atmospheric CO2, we would still face several other dilemmas, each of which could cause the collapse of organized society. This will continue to be true as long as our population and our consumption of resources continue to grow. The only way to address all of these challenges is to reduce our population and reduce our consumption, so that we are living within Earth's long-term carrying capacity.
Consapevole: It would obviously be better to leave untouched whatever fossil fuels are still underground. What do you think are the chances of this happening?
It depends. That could happen if the economy completely disintegrates, so that social cohesion disappears. Drilling for oil or mining coal in large quantities from deeply buried seams requires social organization; without social coherence, we might burn up the world's remaining forests but we wouldn't be able to get at the fossil fuels.
On the other hand, we could get serious about climate change and institute some form of effective cap-and-trade scheme that would get us off of fossil fuels entirely by 2035 or so. If I were laying odds, I think the former would be more likely than the latter; but since the latter is a far more desirable outcome, it still deserves every ounce of effort.
Consapevole: We should reduce the current generation of CO2 by ¾ within the next 2-3 decades. You stated that we may have 25 to 40% less available of energy within 25 years. Would this lead to a roughly 50% cut in emissions?
Heinberg: Not necessarily. On the basis of depletion alone, world oil production will begin to decline around 2010, and coal production around 2025 or 2030. Since coal will peak later, that means that a greater proportion of our energy will be coming from coal than from oil. Therefore emissions may not decline so much or so fast as total energy—unless we implement emissions reduction agreements.
Consapevole: The collapse of the economy will affect mainly the industrialized countries, which are also the ones that generate more carbon emissions. This would be an additional help to bring the emissions down, wouldn't it?
Heinberg: Yes, as long as we handle the economic collapse rationally. My fear is that when people find themselves unable to heat their homes they will burn anything they can get their hands on to avoid freezing. This could be just as true in the northern parts of the US or Europe as in China. If this happens, the result could be deforestation and a temporary increase in carbon emissions.
Consapevole: A huge problem, potentially much more threatening than the melting of the north polar ice cap, is the melting of tundra and permafrost. If that happens the stored methane will be released. Can you update us with this situation? Also, methane generates more CO2 than fossil fuels. What is the ratio?
Heinberg: The latest information is frightening: scientific observers are seeing the emergence of methane plumes in Siberia from the melting of permafrost. Methane is 20 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. The methane hydrates in arctic tundra and under the ocean floors contain enough methane to plunge the world's climate system into an entirely new regime, so that we would not be speaking of two or three degrees of warming, but rather six, ten, or twenty degrees. The survival of the human species would be highly questionable under such circumstances.
Consapevole: According to scientists the increase of the temperature will be between 2° and 6° Celsius by the end of the century. What are the consequences with the two extremes?
Heinberg: With only one degree of warming we are already seeing the disappearance of the north polar icecap and the melting of most glaciers. Civilization may not be able to persist with 2 degrees of warming, and our species may not be able to survive if the planet heats by 6 degrees.
Consapevole: I believe that pulling ourselves out of this situation will require a cultural shift, and ultimately our capacity to envision a better future. Do you agree?
Heinberg: Of course. It is useful to explore the process of cultural change to see how it occurs, because we will need a cultural shift of unprecedented scale and speed. Fortunately we have communications technologies that are capable of changing the thinking of the masses quickly; unfortunately, those communications media are mostly in the control of people who benefit from keeping people thinking along current lines.
Consapevole: The recession is causing loss of jobs, investments, trade, etc. In a way, you could say that we are already moving towards downsizing, which is probably the best and easiest thing we could reduce our impact on the planet. What is your position in this regard?
Heinberg: Yes, from the viewpoint of the environment this may be a good thing. But it will only be a good thing for humanity if we are able to maintain societal coherence during the contraction. Again, this will require some intelligence and willingness to share and do without. Much depends on whether our political and cultural leaders can understand what is called for and avoid the temptation to try merely to return the economy to a condition of perpetual growth—which of course is an impossibility—rather than make the difficult choice to build a very different, sustainable economic infrastructure.
Consapevole: How would you address the problem of cutting down emissions in different sectors such as food production, transportation, heating, industry in general and service based industry?
Heinberg: That question requires a very long answer—but fortunately it is mostly addressed in our "Real New Deal" document.
Consapevole: Reading your books I have the feeling that you want to inspire people to take action for a better and promising future. What can everybody do in order to accomplish this challenging task? What is your message to your Italian readers?
Heinberg: I believe that life can be better without fossil fuels and without economic growth in the forms we are familiar with. Instead of increasing our population and our consumption of resources, we could be increasing our quality of life—better public health, environmental quality, and greater cultural richness. It is simply a matter of what we aim for and how we measure "progress." It is the transition from one direction to the other that is crucial. We cannot continue with our current direction of favoring conventional growth—the economic collapse ensures that. But finding a direction that leads us to cultural richness and environmental stability will require some care and creativity. Fortunately, creativity is one of our great gifts as a species.