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The limits of red alerts

When you’ve already declared a “Climate Emergency” based on the belief that we have just eight years left to prevent global warming of two degrees above pre-industrial levels, then it is difficult to find further words to describe the seriousness of our predicament.  This is why lazy media editors around the world simply repeated the IPCC press release idea that their latest report was “code red for humanity.”  On Monday, it was all but impossible to find an establishment media outlet using different terminology.

This was hyperbole of course.  The IPCC report contains a list of five scenarios which lead to higher temperatures depending upon the extent to which we continue with or accelerate business as usual.  And an establishment media that increasingly uses clickbait headlines to grab people’s attention used the upper scenarios (SSP3-7.0 and SSP5-8.5) to put the worst possible spin on our likely future.  There is a big problem with this, however.  Those scenarios assume that “CO2 emissions… roughly double from current levels by 2100 and 2050, respectively…”  On an infinite planet, that might be possible.  On Planet Earth though, we already passed peak oil in 2018, and are expected to pass peak gas and peak coal in the next 10-15 years.  Put simply, we do not have access to enough fossil carbon to release anything like the amount of carbon dioxide assumed in the worst-case scenarios.

So does that mean there is nothing to worry about?  Sadly, no.  The IPCC panel are almost certainly correct when they point out that we have already exceeded one degree of warming; and that as a result we can expect more and more severe weather-related disasters – droughts, heatwaves, storms, floods, etc. – for hundreds of years to come.  Moreover, the mid-range scenarios (SSP2-4.5) based upon fossil fuel use remaining at today’s levels until 2050 to 2100 will still cause us to exceed 1.5 decrees of warming by mid-century; with the worst of these exceeding two degrees sometime between 2041 and 2060.  Only in the lowest (SSP1-1.9-2.6) scenarios in which we dramatically curtail fossil fuel use and deploy various methods for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere would we avoid two degrees of warming in the longer term; and even the lowest of these projects a rise of 1.6 degrees by mid-century.

Even in the best-case scenario then, we face a pretty unpleasant future.  And the obvious – but incorrect – response ought to be to cease using fossil fuels immediately.  And it is precisely because the media treats climate change as yet another form of disaster porn, that so many people – who respond emotionally – believe this to be a potential solution.  This, perhaps, is because we treat “Big Oil” in the same way as we came to view Big Tobacco and Big Pharma – as cartels which hide and play down alternatives, twist the science to their own ends, and corner markets so that we have no alternative than to buy what they are selling.

There is a degree of truth to this, of course.  The oil companies spent a lot of money denying the existence of fossil fuel-driven climate change.  They set up sock-puppet think tanks and pseudo-experts to challenge anyone warning about the risks from greenhouse gases.  And for a long time they were able to lobby governments to act against the development of alternatives.  Nevertheless, Big Oil is not the same as Big Tobacco or even Big Pharma insofar as the latter tend not to be demand-driven.  Nobody has to use tobacco – although, of course, once addicted it can be extremely difficult to kick the habit.  Big Pharma is a little different insofar as in many cases – for example synthetic insulin – users would die if they ceased using the drugs.  Nevertheless, a massive volume of drugs – both prescription and over-the-counter – are consumed unnecessarily.  Oil is a different matter entirely.  Even in the UK, which is one of the world leaders in the deployment of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies, almost all of our heavy transportation depends on oil… forget food shortages caused by eastern European drivers going home because of Brexit and the Pandemic, if for some reason the oil ran out, all but a few thousand of the 68 million of us living on these islands would starve to death in a matter of weeks.  The same goes for the heavy oil which fuels the convoys of container ships which bring almost everything we consume into our ports.

There’s a reason why none of the mainstream environmental organisations or green parties have ever attempted a boycott of the oil industry.  Even Extinction Rebellion – who have been more than happy to bring city centres to a standstill for days on end – have stopped short of organising a blockade of Britain’s remaining oil refineries in the same way as farmers and truck drivers did in September 2000.  What we learned then was that even if 85 percent of our transport system was able to function as normal, the loss of the other 15 percent was sufficient to bring the real economy to its knees.  It is very hard to sell the idea that we must give up fossil fuels more or less immediately when the consequence of doing so – even in a country that has a high amount of alternative energy – is that tens of millions of people end up dying.

Nor, in reality, do we need anything so dramatic as a boycott to send adrenaline levels soaring among those who understand just how dependent on fossil fuels we have become for our life support.  While the headline writers were playing up climate change, the business and financial columnists were raising the alarm about a different – but more immediate – potential crisis… inflation.

Since the economies of the G7 countries began to emerge from lockdown restrictions in the spring, renewed economic demand for goods and services has coincided with rising prices.  Most neoclassical economists – whose discipline is little more than a pseudoscientific fig leaf used to justify the wealthy becoming even wealthier by making the poor poorer – have wrongly blamed price rises on the huge volumes of new currency borrowed into existence by states and central banks to mitigate the pandemic. Most of that new currency, however, made its way into the pockets of the already wealthy and the offshore investment accounts of the giant corporations.  While the nominal stock of currency has gone up, the velocity at which it is circulating remains low.

In an interview with Intelligencer, J.W. Mason, an economist at the Roosevelt Institute, points to the supply side of the economy as the cause of the price rises we are currently experiencing:

“Inflation, right at this moment, is exactly two things. We’re seeing a big increase in the price of fossil fuels, gasoline, obviously, but also heating oil and so on. That’s one. And two, we’re seeing an increase in the price of automobiles, which is driven, I think, by some degree of supply chain issues plus pent-up demand. And that’s it. That is 100 percent of what we are calling inflation today. Neither of those phenomena has anything to do with the money supply. They have to do with factors specific to those particular two sectors of the economy. It doesn’t mean that they are not important, or that they don’t impose hardship on people who are paying those higher costs. But to think of this as somehow being related to something about money printing or the deficit, it’s just silly. And in any other context, we would recognize that whatever is setting the price of used cars, it’s not the Federal Reserve or the federal budget. It’s something specific to that industry.”

Mason points to the irrationality of responding to these supply-side problems by raising interest rates – something which led directly to the 2008 financial crash last time they did it.  It is the equivalent of attempting to solve the housing crisis by making your city so unpleasant to live in that people give up and go elsewhere.  If instead – at least in a free market – house prices rise, it is more likely that people will invest in building more houses.  And according to Mason, something similar might happen with rising oil prices:

“… the thing that I want to convince people of right now is that raising interest rates is absolutely not the appropriate response here. It’s very destructive, and it doesn’t even address the real problem. But the point is there’s a lot of prices, they rise for different reasons, and there’s not going to be one set of tools. If fossil fuel prices are rising very rapidly, we’re in luck, because we definitely know how to fix that problem: We need to become less reliant on fossil fuels. And we’ve got a lot of tools in place to try to move in that direction. We just need to deploy them faster.

“What I fear is that people will see this inflation and say, ‘Oh, well, I guess we’ve got to scale back our plans for investment in decarbonization,’ – when what the price data is actually showing us is that we need to transition faster away from fossil fuels! Because, aside from destroying the Earth, which is the fundamental thing, it also introduces a lot of instability into the economic system, because the price of these fuels is extremely volatile.”

As it happens, we don’t “definitely know how to fix the problem.”  Wind turbines and solar panels may have a role to play.  But if the aim is to continue operating a complex, globalised industrial economy, we are going to need far more powerful and more energy-dense alternatives to fossil fuels than are currently available to us.  Nevertheless, Mason has a point.  Rising fuel prices are a good thing because, first, they curb our excessive use of petrol and diesel for non-essential activities; and second, because investment in realistic alternatives to fossil fuels is only likely to reach the necessary levels if the price of fossil fuels rises steeply; generating the economic and political imperative to focus on the gathering energy crisis.

Given that as recently as Monday, political leaders around the planet were keen to use the IPCC report to show off how “green” their policies are, we might surely expect them to welcome both the increasing price of oil and the growing shortage of new cars – not least because in most countries there are plans to phase out those cars anyway.  But none of them seriously believe the policies they are espousing because they know full well that without realistic alternatives to fossil fuels, the cost in lives of giving them up would likely equal the cost in lives lost to global warming.  And so, when it comes down to it, they will do everything they can to keep the oil flowing, while desperately hoping that clever people somewhere else can come up with a solution which doesn’t involve more than six billion or so humans dying of starvation.  Which is why, just two days after the “Code Red for humanity,” Daniel Thomas at the BBC reported that:

“The world’s top oil producers must do more to help quell rising fuel prices or it could threaten the global recovery, the White House has said.  It said the price of oil was now higher than before the pandemic, leading to a spike in prices at the pump.

“Last month, members of the Opec cartel and allies agreed to boost supply to help stabilise the situation, adding 400,000 barrels a day to their output.  But the White House said it was ‘simply not enough’… President Biden has made it clear he wants Americans to have access to affordable and reliable energy, including at the pump.”

It is worth noting that just a year ago, one of the reasons that the US media was fawning over Grandpa Biden was that – unlike Trump – he was not committed to the fossil fuel industry and would likely deliver the “green new deal” that so many on the left had been campaigning for.  But Wednesday’s announcement marks the limits to green policy.  Like George W Bush said two decades ago, “America is addicted to oil.”  For all of the bright green words, under Biden, not much has changed.  Physical limits rather than green policies are what will finally wean us off our addiction.

As you made it to the end…

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