No silver lining in peak oil: is the realisation we’re running out distorting the global response to climate change?

The recent Canadian elections saw the return the Conservative government of Stephen Harper with an increased majority. For many concerned with climate change, this was dispiriting news. For years Harper’s government has been waging a war on climate science.

DeSmogBlog has been tracking the activities of the Harper government. It makes for depressing reading, as it means Canada has turned its back on global initiatives to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Indeed, the Conservatives have accelerated the dirty and environmentally destructive extraction of oil from “tar sands”.

However, it was comment by Michael Tobis on Canada (Only in it for the gold) that got me thinking:

“…There’s enough “peak oil” phenomenology in the mix to clinch this. I suspect few countries, unless they are oil-rich, will sustain GDP growth in the near future. (Canada’s horrifying defection from climate governance shows that at least one government sees the writing on the wall, albeit cynically and maliciously.)”

The basic concept of peak oil is that oil is “running” out, and as demand outstrips supply it will have serious economic and social consequences for a civilisation so reliant on cheap, abundant oil.

An argument could be made that Harper’s government may understand both the reality of climate change and peak oil, and reads it as an opportunity to promote their country’s standing as an “energy super power”.

Many of us assumed that “peak oil” might have a silver lining and act as a kind of dues ex machina, forcing our hand in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. But this may not be the case. As it has already been noted, we’re pushing record volumes of GHGs into the atmosphere.

But here is a scary thought. Peak oil was bad enough as a concept, but perhaps there is no silver lining: governments are reacting cynically across the board.

Recently the International Energy Agency admitted we may have passed peak oil in 2008 (see Guardian interview here).

We’ve been making up for the decline in “conventional oil” (i.e. from the already existing reserves) and from alternative sources such as tar sands.

We may be witnessing is a global game of “beggar thy neighbour”, with fossil fuel dependent countries and exporters willing to put naked self-interest over the common good. Global warming be damned, national sovereignty first. That large multinationals gain is the by-product of the geo-politics of peak oil.

Rather than forcing us to abandon a costly and polluting source of energy, our dependency is so great that countries are now racing to secure supplies.

One would have hoped our dependence on a dwindling source of energy would prompt the exploration and deployment of “cleaner” alternatives.

I fear this is not the case.

What we see is desperate dash to secure supplies across the globe.

Even in Australia the Federal government is prepared to open up the exploration in such pristine and iconic wilderness areas as the Great Ocean Road (Victoria) and Margaret River (West Australia) to oil exploration.

While talks on “controlling” climate change drag on, individual nations are showing resolve and decisiveness in either securing their oil supplies or enhancing their position as producers.

Might not binding treaty on climate change may have the potential prohibit individual nations from exploiting tar sands, opening up new oild fields and exploring other “unconvential” sources of oil? For some governments ignoring the science would be in their self interest.

The realisation that oil really is running out may have induced panic amongst decision makers. The oil is just sitting “there”, and is a proven source of energy. Why not grab the last “few drops” before its gone?

So governments have a choice.

Explore energy alternatives and agree to sign up for binding agreemetns or drill for more.

It would seem the global community has spoken as one: drill, baby drill!

And drill they will.

They’ll drill until a massive pulse of GHGs pushes the climate over dangerous tipping points.

Beggar thy neighbour?

Beggar thyself.

One thing we can confidently predict: they will be plenty of blame to throw around.


7 thoughts on “No silver lining in peak oil: is the realisation we’re running out distorting the global response to climate change?

  1. My largest related concerns over recent months has been the realisation that India and China are fast developing nations, arguably already gaining the purchasing power to really exaggerate the downward slope of the peak-oil supply/demand bell-shaped graph. Securing supplies is one thing, but I seriously doubt most westerners realise how much the per capita oil use is the result of purchasing power and, from that angle, there’s more than a billion new people in the same ball park and many more to follow. That will drive prices up also…

    It seems mindless that we waste so much time on this ridiculous “AGW debate” when peak oil / ocean acidification / dependence on foreign supply / improving the standard of living are already on the table; all demanding that we reduce our fossil fuel dependence and improve our energy use efficiencies under regulated means (ie. not efficiency for its own sake – leading to accelerated activity rather than resource management). This was my leading argument from 2009. We’re still not at that point which baffles me – we can’t be so stupid, seriously!


    1. A while ago, my boss got me to convert a Prof Bartlett presentation into an .avi file. It’s more or less the same presentation. I don’t know if I’d be allowed to distribute it; wanting to put it on Youtube. There is no sense in this growth economic model whatsoever.


      1. I suppose I could always pull it down if I get told to…?
        Personally, I’d prefer not to be sued if I could avoid it, however.


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