The Unholy Trinity: Peak Oil, Climate Change and Soil Loss.

By Andrew Leslie Phillips.
Permission granted to use with due credit.

Graph courtesy of David Holmgren

When Hurricane Katrina roared across the Mississippi Delta and flattened New Orleans, she knocked out 167 of 4, 000 oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Gas prices shot up all over America – yet we lost less than five percent of inventory. The results of Katrina vividly reveal the fragility of our infrastructure to climate change and oil shocks.

Industrial civilization has changed the weather. There will be more droughts and floods, more devastating storms, entire climate zones are shifting as ancient glaciers and the polar ice caps melt. The seas are rising reclaiming the land and will force large-scale human resettlement.

More than seventy percent of the world's population lives on coastal plains, and eleven of the world's fifteen largest cities are on the coast or estuaries. It is impossible to know when Wall Street will be drowned but it may be sooner than we think. Most climate models turn out to be conservative. Things are happening more quickly than we think.

Oil is the lifeblood of modern civilization. It fuels most transportation worldwide and is the basis of pharmaceuticals, agriculture, plastics and other products used in everyday life. Without oil and petro-chemical fertilizers, the world’s food system cannot survive.

Destructive post-war industrial agricultural methods have poisoned our land and water and reduced biodiversity. We have lost two-thirds of our topsoil, blown and washed away. Between 200 - 400 tons of top soil per acre per year are lost because of modern agricultural practices which includes mechanized farming and monoculture of the five remaining major world crops – wheat, rice, corn, soy and potatoes. In the 1960’s there were twelve major crops.

As we enter the new millennium food production is now in decline. We destroy more forests to uncover more land but such destruction accelerates soil loss and climate change. Human settlement without attention to nature and local natural patterns and resources, detracts rather than adds to our environment.

Soil grows in forests. When we cut down trees and create grasslands we reduce nature’s ability to create soil. Already the world’s food system is struggling to feed rising populations as soil loss increases.

Modern agriculture replaces the loss of soil nutrients with petro-chemical fertilizers. The modern farmer burns oil sitting in air-conditioned machines equipped with lasers and global satellite positioning technology, installing millions of miles of straight line, monoculture agriculture that slowly kills the

Whether we like it or not, we have to change and seek more sustainable ways to produce energy and food. We need to audit energy use at every level with the objective of reducing energy inputs as we concentrate on designing softer energy outputs like solar and wind power as other industrial nations have done. But we will have to do much more.

The term “peak oil” describes the tipping point when world oil supplies reach projected maximum output. It occurs when about half of the total resource is used. From now on we are literally running out of oil. Gas reserves are the only high quality energy which can substitute for oil with high energy returns but gas production is set to peak in about a decade.

China and India, with one-third of the world’s population between them, know that their economic future is directly tied to finding sufficient energy resources to sustain rapid economic growth. They are negotiating with anyone willing to sell them an energy lifeline.

The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking approaches, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and without timely mitigation, the economic, social and political costs will be unprecedented.

An unholy trinity of climate change, peak oil and soil loss will force humankind to change.

It is possible that peaking of oil may not occur for a decade or more, but it is also possible that peaking is occurring right now. We will not know for certain until after the fact. However, the date is almost irrelevant because mitigation will take much longer than a decade to install.

Chinese officials have forecast the peaking of world oil production around the year 2012. China continues to make huge investments in oil and procurement deals internationally. China attempted to buy the U.S oil company, Unocal above market price. China is paying premium prices in many countries in order to secure future oil supplies.

Over the past century, world economic development has been fundamentally shaped by the availability of abundant, low-cost oil. Previous energy transitions
Like wood to coal, coal to oil, etc., were gradual and evolutionary. Oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary.

The world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation, at least a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and long lasting.

Until recently, OPEC assured the world that oil supply would continue to be plentiful, but now their position has changed. Some in OPEC now warn that oil supply will not be adequate to satisfy world demand in ten or fifteen years.
Dr.Sadad al-Husseini, retired senior Saudi Aramco oil exploration executive, is on record as saying that the world is heading for an oil shortage.

We live at a confluence in history. Peak oil and climate change have arrived at the same time. Unfortunately our leaders have been slow to act and we are not ready for what is to come. The debacle following Katrina and the subsequent attempt to rehabilitate New Orleans indicates our government doesn’t have a clue or is simply venal.

The year 2005 was the warmest year on Earth since recording began in the 1860’s. Humans are responsible. Science has eliminated ninety-nine percent of other possibilities. Greenhouse gases and aerosols have changed climate. This information is acknowledged by the world’s leading scientists despite the fudging protestations and manipulations of some in government and industry.

Climate models predicted climate change. But it has been very difficult for science to get the word to the public. In America, the Bush administration has actively discouraged discussion of climate change. Of course many in the Bush administration have vested interest in the oil industry.

Neither has the media been able to tell this story for fear of being branded Cassandras. It is not an easy story to tell as change happens incrementally. But according to scientists, climate change actually happens in jerks, called “magic gates” Paleontology, the study of fossils, shows that climate changes can happen very quickly and we don’t understand mechanisms of change.

The insurance industry understands these trends. People will not want to settle in vulnerable locations (once recognized as prime real estate) and insurance premiums already high will be out of sight! In the 1960’s-1990’s there was $4 billion in climate related damage. In 2004 the figure was $140 billon. In 2005 Katrina pushed the number to $240 billion. We have been subsidizing bad planning.

Current increases in green house gases are very fast compared with changes in the past one million years. Fifteen thousand years ago New York was covered in ice. The earth warmed by just eleven degrees in 7,000 years. The rise in temperature over the past 100 years has been thirty times faster.

Computer modeling of climate change has been conservative. Over the past 30 years hurricane events have increased 60 times. As we warm the atmosphere it becomes more energetic with more moist air to feed hurricanes. Warm summers are more frequent and there is a decline in snowfall and fresh water.

According to the New Scientist, the massive west Antarctic ice sheet, previously assumed to be stable, is starting to collapse. Antarctica contains more than 90% of the world's ice, and the loss of any significant part of it will cause a substantial sea level rise. Scientists used to view Antarctica as a slumbering giant but now see it as awakening. Glaciers on the Antarctic peninsula, are retreating. And glaciers within the much larger west Antarctic Ice sheet are also starting to disappear.

Ice reflects 90 percent of sunlight back into space. As ice melts there is less reflection and more dark color density on earth to absorb heat energy and it accelerates climate destabilization.

Thawing glaciers contribute fresh water to the oceans and affect the currents and marine life. The amount of daily melting has been compared to the daily flow of the Amazon River, the biggest river in the world with a flow volume equal to all the major world rivers combined.

By the end of this century there maybe no ice left at the poles. As the polar icecaps melt, polar bears and oxygen producing plankton move north to cooler waters. Everything is shifting. Nobody knows the tipping point. But we are probably close.

Since 1994 we’ve known about deep ocean warming - down two to four miles - in all the world’s oceans. And most warming occurred in the past century. The deep ocean has warmed more than twenty times faster than atmospheric temperature rise.

As the oceans warms they gives more moisture to the atmosphere already heated by solar energy reflected and refracted by carbon dioxide, back to earth in a vicious feedback loop. This warm moisture is fuel for hurricanes.

Most climate change occurs at the periphery of human experience so up to know it has been easy to ignore. But increasingly frequent and severe weather events all over the world are pressing the message home. Waves are bigger, winds more ferocious, floods more devastating, heat waves hotter and more sustained. Climate change is happening and the world is not ready.

Burning coal contributes 40 percent of greenhouse gases. The acid fallout kills trees and coral reefs. In Australia, the world’s largest coal exporter, the Great Barrier Reef is dying because of acid rain and the Australian government encourages more and larger coal exports. China burns very dirty coal to drive its industrial expansion that includes a massive infusion of automobiles and most of America’s electricity comes from burning coal.

At the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. in March, 2006, Senator Richard Lugar delivered a paper on energy security:

“With less than five percent of the world’s population, the United States consumers 25 percent of oil. If oil prices remain at $60 a barrel throughout 2006, the United States will spend about $4,320 billion on oil imports in one year.

Most of the world’s oil is concentrated in places that are either hostile to American interests or vulnerable to political upheaval and terrorism and demand for oil will increase far more rapidly than we expected just a few years ago. Within 25 years, the world will need 50 percent more energy than it does now.”

Senator Lugar went on to say:

“…life in American is going to be much more difficult in the coming decades. We have entered a different energy era that requires a much different response than in past decades. What is needed is an urgent national campaign, led by a succession of presidents and Congresses, who will ensure that American ingenuity and resources are fully committed to this problem.

We could take our time if this were merely a matter of accomplishing an industrial conversion to more cost-effective technologies. Unfortunately, the United States dependence on fossil fuels, and their growing scarcity worldwide, already has created conditions that are threatening our security and prosperity and undermining international stability.

In the absence of revolutionary changes in energy policy, we are risking multiple disasters for our country that will constrain living standards, undermine our foreign policy goals and leave us highly vulnerable to the machinations of rogue states.”

Government supported research favors bio fuels, a hydrogen economy and nuclear power. In all cases the net energy produced is low and these systems are predicated on maintaining an economic systems based on the current unsustainable growth model.

There are commercial options for increasing world oil supply and for production of substitute fuels from tar sands but the scenario includes extracting lower grade heavy oils from tar sands which will also soon run-out.

So along with climate change, peaking oil, soil and water depletion we have a recipe for world economic collapse and massive human die-off the likes of which we’ve never seem. The confluence of peak oil with climate change means steep energy descent for America and the world. The effects will be far reaching.

In the 1970’s the U.S. had the lead on sustainable energy development but now has been left far behind. Under President Jimmy Carter, there was a great leap forward. But Ronald Reagan tore down the solar panels symbolically mounted by Carter on the White House roof and we squandered the years that could have made the difference between crash and burn energy descent and more subtle change that alternative energy systems and food production can supply.

Traditionally, native American thinks ahead seven generations. This is common in all traditional societies. They plan for the future. It is evident that much of Western Civilization forgot that part.