Two views of the future

Insulation In quick succession this morning, I read two radically different views of our energy future.

First, Marc Gunther. Thesis: “Buying compact fluorescent light bulbs and hybrid cars won’t do it… I’m ordinarily a fan of incrementalism, and remain one—small steps lead to big changes and all that—but it’s clear that the way we live, work, travel and consume in the U.S., in particular, is unsustainable.” We need major changes and we need them quickly.

He’s mainly talking about greenhouse gases, but certainly about oil supply as well:

First, Americans (and Europeans and others in the developed world, not to mention China) are literally living off our past and our future. The past, because we are rapidly and aggressively exploiting tens of millions of years worth of the sun’s energy that is stored as coal and oil and natural gas. The future, because we are emitting carbon into the air at a rate so dangerous that we are putting the lives of future generations (including our own children) in jeopardy.

Then I read Eamonn Butler of Britain’s Adam Smith Institute. Thesis: “As developing countries like China suck in more and more oil, its price is likely to continue rising. That means those of us who can consume less will be forced to do so. But it also means that new sources will become economic.” We’ll be able to step off the sinking hull of the oil economy onto the rising iceberg of the green-energy economy, in other words.

I gave my head a firm shake and considered. We are in the realm of intuition here, but I think Gunther is closer to the mark.

Whether it’s peak oil or climate change, there are plenty of people who, like Butler, make the argument that prices and/or temperatures will rise so slowly we’ll have plenty of time to adapt and it’s only in retrospect that we’ll notice anything really significant happened. Usually, that claim is meant to oppose apocalyptic forecasts, or at least rhetoric, about the end of the world, which it itself overblown.

What’s at stake, I believe, is not the future of the human race, let alone the planet Earth as a bearer of life, but certainly our prosperity and comfort. Economists agonize over a few tenths of a percentage point of economic growth, and much more than that is at risk if the Earth begins to warm out of control or if we have to cope with an oil price shock that never lets go. That’s how these things seem to come — not as gradual increases, but in spikes that suddenly become the new normal, with a lot of pain along the way.

We have a powerful interest in heading off both those eventualities, and it happens that using less gasoline and other hydrocarbon-based energy serves both ends.

That said, I think Gunther’s underestimating the power of the market to cause people to make such choices by themselves. The low-hanging fruit, as it’s called, is energy-efficiency: we who live in temperate climates can get a long way to where we need to be just by properly insulating our damned buildings, and it’ll only take a few cold winters with higher energy prices to make us do it. Then maybe we talk about redesigning our communities and our supply chains.

(Update: Some numbers on the low-hanging fruit. Significantly bigger and juicier than even real-estate professionals realize.)

The key will be for legislators to avoid the temptation to subsidize dangerous ways of keeping on keeping on — kicking public money into ethanol and liquefied coal are obvious ways they can screw it up. We do need to make some changes, but if we don’t try to hold them off, we shouldn’t find ourselves having to force them, either.

Photo credit: Flickr/pdz_house

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One response to “Two views of the future

  1. Fair enough, David, but perhaps the real risk is not really that China will suck in more oil.

    It’s that they will burn more coal. They have so much of it, and it is cheap. I read recently China is currently opening 5 new coal-fired power stations every single week. Pump the sheer scale of that statistic into any CO2 model and its effect over time is catastrophic.

    That means it is even more incumbent on the US and Europe to take much more of the lead in developing and implementing lower-carbon alternatives. Because it is only through much wider domestic adoption of such technologies that we can bring down the costs, not just for our own consumers, but for China’s as well.

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