The climate of change and the danger of stasis. 

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch

As the San Francisco bureaucrats on the dais murmured about why they weren’t getting anywhere near what we in the audience passionately hoped for, asked for, and worked for, my mind began to wander. I began to think of another sunny day on the other side of the country 13 years earlier, when nothing happened the way anyone expected. I had met a survivor of that day who told me his story.

A high-powered financial executive, he had just arrived on the 66th floor of his office building and entered his office carrying his coffee, when he saw what looked like confetti falling everywhere—not a typical 66th floor spectacle. Moments later, one of his friends ran out of a meeting room shouting, “They’re back.”

It was, of course, the morning of September 11th and his friend had seen a plane crash into the north tower of the World Trade Center. My interviewee and his colleagues in the south tower got on the elevator. In another 15 minutes or so, that was going to be a fast way to die, but they managed to ride down to the 44th floor lobby safely. A guy with a bullhorn was there, telling people to go back to their offices.

Still holding his cup of coffee, he decided—as did many others in that lobby—to go down the stairs instead. When he reached the 20th floor, a voice came on the public address system and told people to go back to their offices. My storyteller thought about obeying those instructions. Still holding his coffee, he decided to keep heading down. He even considered getting back on an elevator, but hit the stairs again instead. Which was a good thing, because when he was on the ninth floor, the second plane crashed into the south tower, filling the elevator shafts with flaming jet fuel. Two hundred to 400 elevator riders died horribly. He put down his coffee at last and lived to tell the tale.

The moral of this story: people in power and bureaucrats seem exceptionally obtuse when it comes to recognizing that the world has changed and the old rules no longer apply. The advisors in the towers were giving excellent instructions for a previous crisis that happened to be profoundly different from the one at hand. That many had the good sense to disobey and evacuated early meant the stairwells were less crowded when the second round of evacuations began. Amazingly, the vast majority of people below the levels of the impacts made it out of both buildings—largely despite the advice of the building's management, not because of it.

Going Nowhere Fast

Sometimes the right thing to do in ordinary times is exactly the wrong thing to do in extraordinary times. That’s easy to understand when something dramatic has happened. It’s less easy to grasp when the change is incremental and even understanding it requires paying attention to a great deal of scientific data.

Right now, you can think of the way we’re living as an office tower and the fossil fuel economy as a plane crashing into it in very, very, very slow motion. Flaming jet fuel is a pretty good analogy, in its own way, for what the burning of fossil fuel is doing, although the death and destruction are mostly happening in slow motion, too—except when people are drowning in Hurricane Sandy-style superstorms or burning in Australian firestorms or dying in European heat waves. The problem is: How do you convince someone who is stubbornly avoiding looking at the flames that the house is on fire? (Never mind those who deny the very existence of fire.) How do you convince someone that what constitutes prudent behavior in ordinary times is now dangerous and that what might be considered reckless in other circumstances is now prudent?

That gathering in which I was daydreaming was a board meeting of the San Francisco Employees Retirement System. Ten months before, on April 23, 2013, in a thrilling and unanticipated unanimous vote, the city’s Board of Supervisors opted to ask the retirement board to divest their fund of fossil fuel stocks, $616,427,002 worth of them at last count—a sum that nonetheless represents only 3.3 percent of its holdings. That vote came thanks to a growing climate change divestment movement that has been attempting to address the problem of fossil fuel corporations and their environmental depredations in a new way.

Divestment serves a number of direct and indirect causes, including awakening public opinion to the dangers we face and changing the economic/energy landscape. As is now widely recognized, preventing climate change from reaching its most catastrophic potential requires keeping four-fifths of known carbon reserves (coal, oil, and gas) in the ground. The owners of those reserves—those giant energy corporations and states like Russia and Canada that might as well be—have no intention of letting that happen.

Given a choice between the bottom line and the fate of the Earth, the corporations have chosen to deny the scientific facts (at least publicly), avoid the conversation, or insist that retrenching is so onerous as to be impossible. At the same time, they have been up-armoring political action committees, funding climate change disinformation campaigns, paying off politicians, and, in many cases, simply manipulating governments to serve the corporations and their shareholders rather than humanity or even voters. It’s been a largely one-sided war for a long time. Now, thanks to climate activists worldwide, it’s starting to be more two-sided.

The Things We Burned

An extraordinary new report tells us that 90 corporations and states are responsible for nearly two-thirds of all the carbon emissions that have changed our climate and our world since 1751. Chevron alone is responsible for 3.52 percent of that total, ExxonMobil for 3.22 percent, and BP for 2.24 percent. China since 1751 is responsible for 8.56 percent—less, that is, than those three petroleum giants. It’s true that they produced that energy, rather than (for the most part) consuming it, but at this point we need to address the producers.

The most terrifying thing about the study by Richard Heede of Climate Mitigation Services in Colorado, and the chart of his data that Duncan Clark and Kiln, a data-visualization firm, made for the Guardian is that 63 percent of all human-generated carbon emissions have been produced in the past 25 years; that is, nearly two-thirds have been emitted since the first warnings were sounded about what was then called “global warming” and the need to stop or scale back. We on Earth now, we who have been adults for at least 25 years, are the ones who have done more than all earlier human beings combined to unbalance the atmosphere of the planet, and thus its weather systems, oceans, and so much more.

It’s important to note, as so many have, that it’s we in the global north and the rich countries for whom most of that fuel has been burned. And it’s important to note as well (though fewer have) that, according to the opinion polls, a majority of individuals north and south, even in our own oil empire, are willing to change in response to this grim fact. It’s the giant energy corporations and the governments in their thrall (when they’re not outright oil regimes) that are stalling and refusing, as we saw when a meaningful climate compact was sabotaged in Copenhagen in late 2009.

The most stunning thing about that chart illustrating Heede’s study is that it makes what can seem like an overwhelming and amorphous problem specific and addressable: here are the 90 top entities pumping carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere. With its own list of the 200 biggest fossil fuel corporations, the divestment movement is doing something similar. Next comes the hard part: getting universities, cities, states, pension funds, and other financial entities to actually divest. They often like to suggest that it’s an impossible or crazy or wildly difficult and risky move, though fund managers shuffle their funds around all the time for other reasons.

Once upon a time, similar entities swore that it was inconceivable to end the institution of slavery, upend the profitable economics of southern plantations, and violate the laws of “property”; once upon another time, you couldn’t possibly give women the vote and change the whole face of democracy and public life, or require seatbelts and other extravagant safety devices, or limit the industrial processes that produce acid rain, or phase out the chlorofluorocarbons so useful for refrigeration and destructrive of the ozone layer. Except that this country did all of that, over the gradually declining protests that it was too radical and burdensome. When radical shifts become the status quo, most forget how and why it happened and come to see that status quo as inevitable and even eternal, though many of its best aspects were the fruit of activism and change.

We tend to think that sticking with something is a calmer and steadier way to go than jettisoning it, even though that rule obviously doesn’t apply to sinking ships. Sometimes, after the iceberg or the explosion, the lifeboat is safer than the luxury liner, though getting on it requires an urgent rearrangement of your body and your expectations. The value of fossil fuel corporations rests on their strategic reserves. Extracting and burning those reserves would devastate the climate, so keeping most of them in the ground is a key goal, maybe the key goal, in forestalling the worst versions of what is already unfolding.

The curious thing about fossil fuel divestment is that many highly qualified financial analysts and, as of last week, the British parliament’s environmental audit committee suggest that such investments are volatile, unsafe, and could crash in the fairly near future. They focus on the much discussed carbon bubble and its potential for creating stranded assets. So there’s a strong argument for divestment simply as a matter of fiscal (rather than planetary) prudence.

According to many scenarios, divesting energy company stocks will have no impact, or even a positive impact, on a portfolio. The biggest question, however, is what constitutes a good portfolio on a planet spiraling into chaos. The best way—maybe the only way—to manage a portfolio is to manage the planet, or at least to participate in trying. How will your stocks do as the oceans die? Or—leaving out all humanitarian concerns—as massive crop failures decimate markets and maybe populations? Is the fate of the Earth your responsibility or someone else’s?

For the People Who Will Be 86 in the Year 2100

In that pretty room, a few dozen activists and one San Francisco supervisor, John Avalos, a great leader on climate issues, faced off against the San Francisco Employees Retirement System board and its staff who talked interminably about how wild and reckless it would be to divest. And it was then that it struck me: inaction and caution may seem so much more rational than action, unless you’re in a burning building or on a sinking ship. And that’s what made me think of the World Trade Center towers on the day they were hit by those hijacked airliners.

It was as though the people in that room were having different conversations in different languages in different worlds. And versions of that schizophrenic conversation are being had all over this continent and in Europe. Students at the University of California, Berkeley, and across the California system of higher education are launching this conversation with the university regents and I already dread the same foot-dragging performances I’ve been watching here for almost a year.

There’s already a long list of institutions that have committed to divestment, from the United Church of Christ and the San Francisco State University Foundation to the Sierra Club Foundation and 17 philanthropic foundations. Staff leadership at the Wallace Global Fund, one of the 17 divesting, said, "Who in our community could proudly defend, today, a decision not to have divested from South Africa 30 years ago? In hindsight, the moral case seems too clear. How then might we envision defending, 20 years from now, keeping our millions invested in business-as-usual fossil energy, at precisely the moment scientists are telling us there is no time left to lose?"

In fact, many climate activists point to the divestment movement that focused on apartheid-era South Africa as a model. That was a highly successful campaign, but also a relatively easy one for many of the companies being pressured to withdraw from their investments, subsidiaries, and other involvements in that country. After all, many of them weren’t all that involved, financially speaking, to begin with. What worked then won’t work now, because the situations are so profoundly different.

The San Francisco Retirement Board finally voted to engage in shareholder activism, their first and most timorous step. This is the procedure whereby shareholders chastise a corporation and ask it to change its sorry ways. Such activism, which was meaningful when it came to South Africa, is meaningless when it comes to carbon. Politely asking ExxonMobil or Chevron to divest from fossil fuel is like asking McDonald’s to divest from burgers and fries or Ford to divest from cars. It's sort of like a mouse asking a lion to become vegetarian. The corporations are not going to quit their principal activity and raison d'être; it’s we who need to quit investing in them—the step the board was balking at.

Climate activists speak the language of people who know that we’re in an emergency. The retirement board is speaking the language of people who don’t. The board members don’t deny the science of climate change, but as far as I can tell, they don’t realize what that means for everyone’s future, including that of members of their pension fund and their children and grandchildren. The words “fiduciary duty” kept coming up, which means the board’s and staff’s primary responsibility and commitment are to the wellbeing of the fund. It was implied that selling 3.3 percent of the portfolio for reasons of principle was a wild and irrational thing to support, no less do.

But it isn’t just principle. The pensioners receiving money from the board will be living on Earth, not some other planet. Exactly what that means in 10, 20, or 50 years depends on what we do now. That we, by the way, includes money managers, investors, and pension-holders, as well as politicians and activists, and you who are reading this. What, after all, does “fiduciary duty” mean in an emergency? Can you make sound investments on a planet that’s going haywire without addressing the causes of that crisis? In such circumstances, shouldn’t fiduciary duty include addressing the broader consequences of your investments?

What does the future look like for a person paying into the pension fund who will be 60 in 2050? One of my brothers is a city employee paying into that fund. What will the future look like for his younger son, who will be 87 in 2100? A retirement board fund manager spoke of emulating Warren Buffett, who recently bought Exxon shares. Buffett is 83. He won’t be around for the most serious consequences of his actions or Exxon’s. My sweet-natured, almost-walking, brown-eyed nephew Martin, who turned one on Sunday, will. I likely will, too, because it’s getting wilder on this destabilized planet, and even two decades hence is looking pretty grim.

Here’s what I wrote the board before the meeting:

“Not only prosperity but human health and food supplies depend on a stable climate, but it’s getting less stable all the time. How much we will lose, how much we will salvage depends on whether we act now. I get it that the board’s first responsibility is to the financial wellbeing of the fund. Even more so it’s to the pensioners, from those now receiving benefits to the youngest person paying in. But nothing exists in isolation: the stock market depends, whether or not Wall Street remembers, on weather, crops, strong markets for products, and the rest of what a stable world provides. And even a nice pension would not assuage the need of pensioners afflicted by tropical diseases moving northward, extreme heat that disproportionately affects the elderly, rising sea levels that take away billions of dollars of coastal California real estate—including SFO runways and the city’s landfill areas. Crop failure and rising food prices, water shortages, dying oceans, climate refugees.”

Or as a leaked U.N. report recently put it, “The planet's crop production will decline by up to 2 percent every decade as rainfall patterns shift and droughts batter farmland, even as demand for food rises a projected 14 percent.”

I have great faith in the human ability to improvise, but there are limits to what can be done about a shrinking food supply and a growing population. The word not used in this cautious, conservative report is mass famine, which is very bad for your stocks. And infinitely worse for the people who are starving.

Another new report says, “Europe’s financial losses related to flooding, which now total about 4.9 billion euros a year, could increase almost 380 percent to 23.5 billion euros by 2050.” There are other versions of these dire projections about Asia, the Americas, and Africa. Studies about the future impact of climate change are one thing that’s not in short supply. You can focus on the oceans and fisheries, on polar ice, on species, on food supplies, floods, fires, hurricanes, and typhoons—and in the language of the market, indicators are that catastrophe is going way, way up. How much depends on us.

Your House Is On Fire

A few weeks earlier, I went to a demonstration at the State Department’s San Francisco office with a NASA scientist friend who’s an expert on what makes planets habitable. She told me that we on Earth have been blessed by the remarkable stability of temperatures over the long haul and that for any planet the window of temperature in which life will thrive is pretty small. We’re already at the upper end of the viable temperature for an inhabitable planet, she told me. I’ve heard the news delivered a thousand ways about what we’re facing, but her version made me feel sick—as if she’d told me my house was burning down. Which she had.

I was in Japan for the first anniversary of what they call the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that Americans often call Fukushima (a reference—speaking of the unforeseen and of the failures of authorities—to the six nuclear power plants trashed by the tsunami that began to fall apart in various highly radioactive ways). The country’s earthquake building codes worked well: hardly anyone was killed by the giant quake. Its tsunami alert system worked superbly, too: almost everyone was given plenty of time to evacuate.

But a lot of people didn’t move fast enough, or they trusted the sea walls and sea gates to protect them, or they evacuated to the right level for tsunamis in living memory. In many places, the waves were higher than any tsunami since 1896, and about 20,000 people died in the disaster. The most horrible story I heard as I toured the wreckage and talked to officials, survivors, and relief workers was about an elementary school. Its teachers argued about what to do: one of them took several students to safety; the rest of the school, teachers and small children alike, stayed put and drowned. Unnecessarily. Reacting strongly to a catastrophe is often seen as an overreaction, but the real danger is under-reaction.

During 9/11, survival meant evacuating the south tower of the World Trade Center. In 2011, survival on the northeast coast of Japan meant going uphill or far inland. Our climate crisis requires us to evacuate our normal ways of doing things. That will not always be cheap or easy, but divestment can be done now with no loss, even possibly with an upside, say many financial analysts. In any case, it’s the only honorable and sane thing to do—for the young who will be alive in 2064, for the beauty and complexity of the world we have been given, including all the other living things on it, for the sake of the people who are already suffering and will suffer more because of the disruption of the elegant system that is the Earth we inherited.

Rebecca Solnit is a regular contributor to TomDispatch, and the author of 15 books, including A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. If you're so inclined, you can contact the San Francisco Retirement Board at 30 Van Ness Avenue, Suite 3000, San Francisco, CA 94102. She'd like that.

Copyright 2014 Rebecca Solnit

Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video, licensed under Creative Commons.  


Congress or no Congress, Obama has plenty of room to address climate change.

At the heart of President Obama’s State of the Union address last week was the message that if Congress won’t pass meaningful legislation, he’s prepared to go it alone. On everything from minimum wage to job training to fuel efficiency standards, Obama laid out a plan to use executive orders to achieve his second-term goals.

Naturally, this didn’t make GOP leaders happy; some even threatened to “go to the courts” (whatever that means). But executive orders are nothing new for presidents. In fact, according to a new report by the Center for a New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, there are over 200 actions Obama could legally take to address climate change without Congress, writes Tim McDonnell at Mother Jones.

First on the list for environmental activists is derailing the Keystone XL Pipeline, a move scientists say is essential to avert catastrophic climate change. Since the State Department released its environmental report on Keystone last week (to much frustration from environmentalists), all eyes have been on the president to make a final decision on the project. “Now we’re going to find out whether John Kerry and Barack Obama are ... captives of the oil industry,” says 350.org founder Bill McKibben, “or whether they’re willing to really stand up when it counts for the commitments they’ve made about climate change.”

And why stop there? After killing Keystone, Obama could also dive into the wild west of fracking regulations, says McDonnell. Now, drilling laws are mostly state-level, but feds have the authority to introduce guidelines for fracking on public land. These rules could address everything state lawmakers don’t wanna touch, from methane leaks to finding out just what’s in those mysterious fracking fluids. Obama could also get more specific about how long this “bridge fuel” is supposed to last, writes McDonnell.

That’s not all. The federal government happens to be the nation’s biggest consumer, and Obama has enormous power over what it buys and why. In fact, the president already requires federal agencies to favor energy-efficient products; why not go further? Obama could require agencies to take a product’s carbon footprint into account, or how it’s manufactured. Obama could also double-down on his promise that federal agencies will use 20 percent renewable energy by 2020. Measures like this would help create a larger market for sustainable products, McDonnell adds, bringing everyone’s costs down. 

Speaking of renewable markets, the government’s loan guarantee program for clean tech companies happens to be doing great right now. Last year Tesla paid back $450 million in loans a full nine years ahead of schedule. Today the program’s portfolio includes $32 billion in loans, supporting some 55,000 jobs—much of them in solar. Expanding this program could bring low-cost renewable technology to millions more Americans and bring costs down across the board.

Believe it or not, Obama can push every one of these plans without Congress lifting a finger. If the president is serious about fighting climate change, he should start here.

Image by Glyn Lowe, licensed under Creative Commons.


This valley houses the Kalu Yala community. 

Kalu Yala, the world’s most sustainable town, is a “tropical laboratory” in Panama.

A 7,000-acre valley in the heart of the Panama tropics houses the site of Kalu Yala, a settlement on the verge of becoming the world’s most sustainable and self-reliant modern town. Just an hour from downtown Panama City, Kalu Yala is the product of CEO Jimmy Stice’s ambition to create a community that is involved in its own management. All investors must own property on the settlement, and each shareholder must be dedicated to stewardship, collaboration, and environmental awareness.

In keeping with its goal of sustainability, Kalu Yala will be carbon neutral or carbon negative. The community supports local businesses over global ones and plans to minimize imports through its farm-to-table program, which will supply 80 percent of all food from within Panama. The houses are built with eco-friendly materials and are powered by solar energy. Clean water is collected from a natural aquifer located underneath the site, and rainwater is stored in preparation for dry seasons. "Kalu Yala is really trying to become the hub for sustainability in the tropics and a ‘tropical laboratory’ to experiment and develop products that can be exported to the entire tropical belt,” Stice told Mashable. The company has even started a regional happiness index to determine how Kalu Yala will affect Panama’s wellbeing.

Part of Kalu Yala’s appeal lies in Stice’s transparent and collaborative business model. Since buying the 575 acres of land from a Panama family in 2007, he and his team have been working closely with local villages. In 2011, they bought a house in nearby San Miguel so they would be able to interact and form a relationship with the villagers who will become Kalu Yala’s neighbors. Along with development company Studio Sky, Stice has been working with a group of interns from over 44 states. Kalu Yala prides itself on its internship program, claiming to be more than the “traditional study abroad [program].” The interns, who can participate in a variety of programs including Agriculture, Biology, Architecture, and Education, are integral to the development of Kalu Yala. Students have done research on environmental challenges, pitched projects, and built infrastructure to contribute to Kalu Yala’s expansion.

Although the town is currently under construction, Stice hopes to make Kalu Yala a 21st century model of sustainability and social entrepreneurship within thirty years. Studio Sky will begin building the first house in May, with a projected completion date of November. Stice plans to adjust development as necessary, selling only twenty houses per year to monitor the impact of the growth. He hopes that Kalu Yala will provide an open-source design that can improve the situations of impoverished regions across the tropics and inspire the development of sustainable models from urban developers around the world.

Photo by Kalu Yala.


bosco verticale rendering

The world’s first vertical forest paves the way for advances in urban ecology. 

As Earth’s population rapidly moves past sustainable levels, the need for groundbreaking advances in the reduction of C02 emissions has become increasingly apparent. Architect Stefan Boeri with Boeri Studio seeks to reduce pollution in Milan by creating the world’s first bosco verticale, or vertical forest.

Although vertical gardens, which are self-sufficient plots attached to the exterior or interior walls of buildings, have been around for over three decades, Boeri’s design takes the concept to a new level. Inhabit reports that his vertical forest, which consists of two apartment towers standing 260 and 367 feet tall, can accommodate approximately 2.5 acres of vegetation in the form of 20,000 plants, shrubs, perennial flowers, and trees. The trees are being placed on a series of overlapping concrete balconies and will work as a multipurpose filter as they absorb CO2 and dust, produce oxygen, and create a microclimate within the apartments. The buildings implement photovoltaic power to provide energy and a grey-water filtration system to water the plants with used sink and shower water.

The vertical forest is the first of six phases in BioMilano, an ecological vision that is hoping for a revitalized and greener metropolis in Italy. The project brought together a group of architects, engineers, and botanists who collaborated to make the vision a reality. The architects and engineers were responsible for designing terraces that can withstand the heavy weight of the trees, while the botanists carefully selected trees to be pre-cultivated in nurseries for two years. Uprooting and transplanting the trees from the nursery to the balconies is the most difficult step in the process, so these trees were specially chosen and grown to acclimate to their new environment. Once they have been relocated, the trees are held in place with specially designed soil made of organic compounds that keep the roots aerated and allow the trees to grow. When the project is complete, a team of gardeners will perform upkeep on the vegetation three times a year.

The project should be finished by 2015, and architects are hopeful that Milan’s vertical forest will pave the way for further advances in urban ecology. Perhaps this green architecture will be replicated on an international level, becoming a staple in cities across the world. Until then, Boeri says, “I really hope these two buildings can become the landmark of the new Milano.”

Photo by Carlo Alberto Mari.


Long live peak oil!

Among the big energy stories of 2013, “peak oil” -- the once-popular notion that worldwide oil production would soon reach a maximum level and begin an irreversible decline -- was thoroughly discredited. The explosive development of shale oil and other unconventional fuels in the United States helped put it in its grave.

As the year went on, the eulogies came in fast and furious. “Today, it is probably safe to say we have slayed ‘peak oil’ once and for all, thanks to the combination of new shale oil and gas production techniques,” declared Rob Wile, an energy and economics reporter for Business Insider. Similar comments from energy experts were commonplace, prompting an R.I.P. headline at Time.com announcing, “Peak Oil is Dead.”

Not so fast, though. The present round of eulogies brings to mind Mark Twain’s famous line: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Before obits for peak oil theory pile up too high, let's take a careful look at these assertions. Fortunately, the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Paris-based research arm of the major industrialized powers, recently did just that -- and the results were unexpected. While not exactly reinstalling peak oil on its throne, it did make clear that much of the talk of a perpetual gusher of American shale oil is greatly exaggerated. The exploitation of those shale reserves may delay the onset of peak oil for a year or so, the agency’s experts noted, but the long-term picture “has not changed much with the arrival of [shale oil].”

The IEA’s take on this subject is especially noteworthy because its assertion only a year earlier that the U.S. would overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s number one oil producer sparked the “peak oil is dead” deluge in the first place. Writing in the 2012 edition of its World Energy Outlook, the agency claimed not only that “the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer” by around 2020, but also that with U.S. shale production and Canadian tar sands coming online, “North America becomes a net oil exporter around 2030.”

That November 2012 report highlighted the use of advanced production technologies -- notably horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) -- to extract oil and natural gas from once inaccessible rock, especially shale. It also covered the accelerating exploitation of Canada’s bitumen (tar sands or oil sands), another resource previously considered too forbidding to be economical to develop. With the output of these and other “unconventional” fuels set to explode in the years ahead, the report then suggested, the long awaited peak of world oil production could be pushed far into the future.

The release of the 2012 edition of World Energy Outlook triggered a global frenzy of speculative reporting, much of it announcing a new era of American energy abundance. “Saudi America” was the headline over one such hosanna in the Wall Street Journal. Citing the new IEA study, that paper heralded a coming “U.S. energy boom” driven by “technological innovation and risk-taking funded by private capital.” From then on, American energy analysts spoke rapturously of the capabilities of a set of new extractive technologies, especially fracking, to unlock oil and natural gas from hitherto inaccessible shale formations. “This is a real energy revolution,” the Journal crowed.

But that was then. The most recent edition of World Energy Outlook, published this past November, was a lot more circumspect. Yes, shale oil, tar sands, and other unconventional fuels will add to global supplies in the years ahead, and, yes, technology will help prolong the life of petroleum. Nonetheless, it’s easy to forget that we are also witnessing the wholesale depletion of the world’s existing oil fields and so all these increases in shale output must be balanced against declines in conventional production. Under ideal circumstances -- high levels of investment, continuing technological progress, adequate demand and prices -- it might be possible to avert an imminent peak in worldwide production, but as the latest IEA report makes clear, there is no guarantee whatsoever that this will occur.

Inching Toward the Peak

Before plunging deeper into the IEA’s assessment, let’s take a quick look at peak oil theory itself.

As developed in the 1950s by petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert, peak oil theory holds that any individual oil field (or oil-producing country) will experience a high rate of production growth during initial development, when drills are first inserted into a oil-bearing reservoir. Later, growth will slow, as the most readily accessible resources have been drained and a greater reliance has to be placed on less productive deposits. At this point -- usually when about half the resources in the reservoir (or country) have been extracted -- daily output reaches a maximum, or “peak,” level and then begins to subside. Of course, the field or fields will continue to produce even after peaking, but ever more effort and expense will be required to extract what remains. Eventually, the cost of production will exceed the proceeds from sales, and extraction will be terminated.

For Hubbert and his followers, the rise and decline of oil fields is an inevitable consequence of natural forces: oil exists in pressurized underground reservoirs and so will be forced up to the surface when a drill is inserted into the ground. However, once a significant share of the resources in that reservoir has been extracted, the field’s pressure will drop and artificial means -- water, gas, or chemical insertion -- will be needed to restore pressure and sustain production. Sooner or later, such means become prohibitively expensive.

Peak oil theory also holds that what is true of an individual field or set of fields is true of the world as a whole. Until about 2005, it did indeed appear that the globe was edging ever closer to a peak in daily oil output, as Hubbert’s followers had long predicted. (He died in 1989.) Several recent developments have, however, raised questions about the accuracy of the theory. In particular, major private oil companies have taken to employing advanced technologies to increase the output of the reservoirs under their control, extending the lifetime of existing fields through the use of what’s called “enhanced oil recovery,” or EOR. They’ve also used new methods to exploit fields once considered inaccessible in places like the Arctic and deep oceanic waters, thereby opening up the possibility of a most un-Hubbertian future.

In developing these new technologies, the privately owned “international oil companies” (IOCs) were seeking to overcome their principal handicap: most of the world’s “easy oil” -- the stuff Hubbert focused on that comes gushing out of the ground whenever a drill is inserted -- has already been consumed or is controlled by state-owned “national oil companies” (NOCs), including Saudi Aramco, the National Iranian Oil Company, and the Kuwait National Petroleum Company, among others. According to the IEA, such state companies control about 80% of the world’s known petroleum reserves, leaving relatively little for the IOCs to exploit.

To increase output from the limited reserves still under their control -- mostly located in North America, the Arctic, and adjacent waters -- the private firms have been working hard to develop techniques to exploit “tough oil.” In this, they have largely succeeded: they are now bringing new petroleum streams into the marketplace and, in doing so, have shaken the foundations of peak oil theory.

Those who say that “peak oil is dead” cite just this combination of factors. By extending the lifetime of existing fields through EOR and adding entire new sources of oil, the global supply can be expanded indefinitely. As a result, they claim, the world possesses a “relatively boundless supply” of oil (and natural gas). This, for instance, was the way Barry Smitherman of the Texas Railroad Commission (which regulates that state’s oil industry) described the global situation at a recent meeting of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists.

Peak Technology

In place of peak oil, then, we have a new theory that as yet has no name but might be called techno-dynamism. There is, this theory holds, no physical limit to the global supply of oil so long as the energy industry is prepared to, and allowed to, apply its technological wizardry to the task of finding and producing more of it. Daniel Yergin, author of the industry classics, The Prize and The Quest, is a key proponent of this theory. He recently summed up the situation this way: “Advances in technology take resources that were not physically accessible and turn them into recoverable reserves.” As a result, he added, “estimates of the total global stock of oil keep growing.”

From this perspective, the world supply of petroleum is essentially boundless. In addition to “conventional” oil -- the sort that comes gushing out of the ground -- the IEA identifies six other potential streams of petroleum liquids: natural gas liquids; tar sands and extra-heavy oil; kerogen oil (petroleum solids derived from shale that must be melted to become usable); shale oil; coal-to-liquids (CTL); and gas-to-liquids (GTL). Together, these “unconventional” streams could theoretically add several trillion barrels of potentially recoverable petroleum to the global supply, conceivably extending the Oil Age hundreds of years into the future (and in the process, via climate change, turning the planet into an uninhabitable desert).

But just as peak oil had serious limitations, so, too, does techno-dynamism. At its core is a belief that rising world oil demand will continue to drive the increasingly costly investments in new technologies required to exploit the remaining hard-to-get petroleum resources. As suggested in the 2013 edition of the IEA’s World Energy Outlook, however, this belief should be treated with considerable skepticism.

Among the principal challenges to the theory are these:

1. Increasing Technology Costs: While the costs of developing a resource normally decline over time as industry gains experience with the technologies involved, Hubbert's law of depletion doesn’t go away. In other words, oil firms invariably develop the easiest “tough oil” resources first, leaving the toughest (and most costly) for later. For example, the exploitation of Canada’s tar sands began with the strip-mining of deposits close to the surface. Because those are becoming exhausted, however, energy firms are now going after deep-underground reserves using far costlier technologies. Likewise, many of the most abundant shale oil deposits in North Dakota have now been depleted, requiring an increasing pace of drilling to maintain production levels. As a result, the IEA reports, the cost of developing new petroleum resources will continually increase: up to $80 per barrel for oil obtained using advanced EOR techniques, $90 per barrel for tar sands and extra-heavy oil, $100 or more for kerogen and Arctic oil, and $110 for CTL and GTL. The market may not, however, be able to sustain levels this high, putting such investments in doubt.

2. Growing Political and Environmental Risk: By definition, tough oil reserves are located in problematic areas. For example, an estimated 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil lies in the Arctic, along with 30% of its untapped natural gas. The environmental risks associated with their exploitation under the worst of weather conditions imaginable will quickly become more evident -- and so, faced with the rising potential for catastrophic spills in a melting Arctic, expect a commensurate increase in political opposition to such drilling. In fact, a recent increase has sparked protests in both Alaska and Russia, including the much-publicized September 2013 attempt by activists from Greenpeace to scale a Russian offshore oil platform -- an action that led to their seizure and arrest by Russian commandos. Similarly, expanded fracking operations have provoked a steady increase in anti-fracking activism. In response to such protests and other factors, oil firms are being forced to adopt increasingly stringent environmental protections, pumping up the cost of production further.

3. Climate-Related Demand Reduction: The techno-optimist outlook assumes that oil demand will keep rising, prompting investors to provide the added funds needed to develop the technologies required. However, as the effects of rampant climate change accelerate, more and more polities are likely to try to impose curbs of one sort or another on oil consumption, suppressing demand -- and so discouraging investment. This is already happening in the United States, where mandated increases in vehicle fuel-efficiency standards are expected to significantly reduce oil consumption. Future “demand destruction” of this sort is bound to impose a downward pressure on oil prices, diminishing the inclination of investors to finance costly new development projects.

Combine these three factors, and it is possible to conceive of a “technology peak” not unlike the peak in oil output originally envisioned by M. King Hubbert. Such a techno-peak is likely to occur when the “easy” sources of “tough” oil have been depleted, opponents of fracking and other objectionable forms of production have imposed strict (and costly) environmental regulations on drilling operations, and global demand has dropped below a level sufficient to justify investment in costly extractive operations. At that point, global oil production will decline even if supplies are “boundless” and technology is still capable of unlocking more oil every year.

Peak Oil Reconsidered

Peak oil theory, as originally conceived by Hubbert and his followers, was largely governed by natural forces. As we have seen, however, these can be overpowered by the application of increasingly sophisticated technology. Reservoirs of energy once considered inaccessible can be brought into production, and others once deemed exhausted can be returned to production; rather than being finite, the world’s petroleum base now appears virtually inexhaustible.

Does this mean that global oil output will continue rising, year after year, without ever reaching a peak? That appears unlikely. What seems far more probable is that we will see a slow tapering of output over the next decade or two as costs of production rise and climate change -- along with opposition to the path chosen by the energy giants -- gains momentum. Eventually, the forces tending to reduce supply will overpower those favoring higher output, and a peak in production will indeed result, even if not due to natural forces alone.

Such an outcome is, in fact, envisioned in one of three possible energy scenarios the IEA’s mainstream experts lay out in the latest edition of World Energy Outlook. The first assumes no change in government policies over the next 25 years and sees world oil supply rising from 87 to 110 million barrels per day by 2035; the second assumes some effort to curb carbon emissions and so projects output reaching “only” 101 million barrels per day by the end of the survey period.

450 Scenario,” that should raise eyebrows. It assumes that momentum develops for a global drive to keep greenhouse gas emissions below 450 parts per million -- the maximum level at which it might be possible to prevent global average temperatures from rising above 2 degrees Celsius (and so cause catastrophic climate effects). As a result, it foresees a peak in global oil output occurring around 2020 at about 91 million barrels per day, with a decline to 78 million barrels by 2035.

It would be premature to suggest that the “450 Scenario” will be the immediate roadmap for humanity, since it’s clear enough that, for the moment, we are on a highway to hell that combines the IEA’s first two scenarios. Bear in mind, moreover, that many scientists believe a global temperature increase of even 2 degrees Celsius would be enough to produce catastrophic climate effects. But as the effects of climate change become more pronounced in our lives, count on one thing: the clamor for government action will grow more intense, and so eventually we’re likely to see some variation of the 450 Scenario take shape. In the process, the world’s demand for oil will be sharply constricted, eliminating the incentive to invest in costly new production schemes.

The bottom line: global peak oil remains in our future, even if not purely for the reasons given by Hubbert and his followers. With the gradual disappearance of “easy” oil, the major private firms are being forced to exploit increasingly tough, hard-to-reach reserves, thereby driving up the cost of production and potentially discouraging new investment at a time when climate change and environmental activism are on the rise.

Peak oil is dead! Long live peak oil!

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation.

Copyright 2014 Michael T. Klare

Image by Eric Kounce.


Prairie Grass in Winter
Planting just 10 to 20 percent of a crop field with patches of prairie can reduce erosion by 95 percent and runoff by 90 percent.

Gary Van Ryswyk's concern for how his farming methods impact the landscape is obvious. A practitioner of a no-till system that avoids disturbing a field's surface as much as possible, he is particularly focused on keeping soil in place.

"None of us who farm want the soil to move—we care," Van Ryswyk told me one summer afternoon while standing in a central Iowa soybean field he no-tills. "I was one of these guys who didn't think we were losing that much soil. I was shocked at how much was being lost."

He was referring to a waist-high pile of eroded real estate next to a collection flume at the bottom of the field. It was a reminder that even a cutting edge conservation system can't always prevent land from slipping away.

On the other hand, the researchers Van Ryswyk works with have been somewhat surprised at the lack of eroded soil being collected by a flume just a few hundred feet away. The soybeans above that particular collector are also being grown under no-till and the field slope is the same. But growing in strategic spots on the second field plot are patches of native prairie.

Van Ryswk is raising crops on the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and the prairie plantings are part of a study coordinated by Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Called STRIPs (Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie), the study has produced impressive results: planting just 10 to 20 percent of a crop field to native prairie “strips” (some of the plantings look more like ragged slices of pie) consistently cuts erosion by an astounding 95 percent. The plantings, which have been in place since 2007, can reduce phosphorus and nitrogen runoff by as much as 90 percent.

“It's hard to improve on 95 percent,” Matt Helmers, an ISU engineer and one of the STRIPs coordinators, said to me. It seems the thick stems of prairie plants are effective at slowing water, and anything along for the ride, via a kind of pinball effect. This works particularly well during extreme rain events, which are increasingly common in Midwestern fields.

Tallgrass prairies once covered 10 percent of the contiguous U.S., and its replacement by annual crops is considered the most substantial decline of any major ecosystem in North America. But when environmentalists suggest returning more prairie grasses and other perennials to the landscape, reaction from the agricultural community is often outright hostile. Farmers envision a “Buffalo Commons” scenario where rowcrops are replaced with thousands of square miles of nature preserves—leaving no room for food production or the people involved with it. 

What’s so exciting about the STRIPs research is that it proves the value of targeting conservation to critical, relatively small, areas, providing outsized environmental benefits in regions where working farmland is a key part of the economy.

Pauline Drobney, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prairie biologist who is working on the STRIPs initiative, said while patches of prairie are not as optimal as having grasslands extending to the horizon, targeted plantings of natural habitat do provide key ecological services. For example, numerous pollinators and grassland birds use the strips.

"It won't be all of the solution—we still need big blocks of grassland landscape. But these diverse prairies in these strips can providesome of the birds places to fledge; it can be a place for a whole host of invertebrates and other things we know that we depend on," said Drobney while standing in a prairie patch literally abuzz with insect life.

This is no silver bullet. For one thing, the strips keep soil from leaving a field and making its way into waterways, but erosion within fields still occurs.

"We really need a systems approach and think about how we protect that land all the way from the top of that slope to the bottom," said Helmers, adding that a systems approach could include cover cropping and no-till production, with the prairie strips serving as a "polisher."

That's an important message as the STRIPs team takes the next step: getting farmers beyond the refuge to establish prairie within crop fields. One potential barrier to adaption is that, as with many conservation measures, the strips have the potential to produce more benefits off the farm—cleaner water for example—than on. Van Ryswyk argues that even the most conscientious farmers aren't likely to notice the difference on their land given that erosion can creep by unnoticed.

In other words, prairie strips in rowcropped fields are mostly a public good, and getting them established may require public support to prime the pump. A STRIPs economic analysis concluded that while the technique is cost-effective, federal conservation initiatives like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program or the Conservation Reserve Program may be needed to provide the financial incentives farmers require to actually implement them. Such incentives could be particularly attractive at a time when cost-conscious conservationists seek techniques that deliver proven results.

Paying for such a public good would help, says Van Ryswyk. But it also wouldn't hurt if more farmers were aware of how much runoff occurs in even well-managed fields. "One of the big barriers is, like me, most farmers truly believe they aren't losing as much soil as they really are."

Brian DeVore works for the Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit organization fostering sustainable agriculture since 1982. DeVore writes for and edits the group's publication, The Land Stewardship Letter.

Image by Daniel X. O'Neil, licensed under Creative Commons.


Green and black leopard frog
Connecting the dots between wildlife, fertile fields, and the Farm Bill

While walking a piece of North Dakota landscape under a withering August sun, one's thoughts turn to moisture—or rather, the lack of it. So when I and other participants in a farm tour kicked up signs of cool, shady places while traipsing across a hay field, it seemed like a mirage. Green-and-black leopard frogs were zigzagging out of our way, adding life to a field that had not gotten a decent rain in eight weeks. This part of south-central North Dakota is prairie pothole country, but no wetlands were in sight as wheat and corn stretched to the horizon.

"I've never seen so many frogs so far from a slough," said Douglas Miller of the Minnesota Natural Resources Conservation Service. "What's going on there that would bring them so far from cattails?"

When we reached the edge of the field where the couple who farms this land, Todd McPeak and Penny Meeker, were standing, they made it clear we weren't imagining things. "I hope you didn't step on any of my leopard frogs," Meeker said, smiling. We smiled too, and were especially concerned that we hadn’t hurt any frogs after she related a childhood story of using a stripped horse weed to "whip the crap" out of her brother and a cousin when she caught them shooting birds on their family's dairy farm.

Meeker and McPeak enjoy seeing birds, mammals, and yes, frogs, on the acres they produce grass, hay, cover crops, and beef cattle on. But these critters are also barometers of how the sustainable farming methods the couple use are affecting their business enterprise. As McPeak explains it, more frogs in a field connotes a healthier landscape that retains moisture in the soil more efficiently, which in turn translates into better quality hay and grass that's drought tolerant. That's money in the bank when you're farming in a place that gets only 16 inches of precipitation a year.

Conventional production systems that cover the land with monocultures of corn and soybeans have been a disaster for everything from grassland birds and waterfowl to amphibians and pollinating bees. In Apocalyptic Planet, Craig Childs describes being hard put to find even a couple of spiders and a toad while "camping" in an Iowa cornfield.

But innovators like McPeak and Meeker are proving that productive agriculture and wildlife can occupy the same piece of ground, and in some cases aren't just tolerating each other, but are mutually beneficial. In this case, the farmers are part of the Burleigh County Soil Health Team, a collaboration of farmers, government conservationists and scientists. Using rotational grazing, diverse plantings of cover crops between the regular cash crop seasons, as well as tillage systems that disturb the soil little, this team is building soil's biological health. The result has been less erosion and more farm profitability. It turns out healthy soil is also good for wildlife.

"There is no comparison," said team member Darrell Oswald in reference to how much wildlife is present on his farm since he started building his soil's microbial universe.

An increasing number of environmentalists are seeing that working farmland can be an ecological positive. I've been on farms in northeast Iowa that had, to the delight of an ornithologist with the Audubon Society, developed grazing systems where bobolinks and other troubled grassland species were thriving. Just this summer, I visited a gorgeous stream in southeast Minnesota that was being managed using "flash grazing" of cattle to control invasive plants and establish the kind of deep-rooted grasses that stabilize riparian areas while filtering out contaminants.

"It's a great relationship—livestock and streams," said Jeff Hastings, a Trout Unlimited project manager. On cue, a bluebird swooped over the bubbling waterway while a trout grabbed some air. So much for the old saw that cattle and creeks never, ever are a good mix ecologically.

In 2012 researchers reported that bumblebees, which are key pollinators, preferred visiting cucumbers raised with compost as opposed to those fertilized with petroleum-based fertilizers, even though both soils contained the same amount of basic plant nutrients. The study concluded that non-nutritional factors such as microbial interactions might be making the composted cucumbers more bee-friendly.

Wildlife friendly farming practices are not the norm, and producers who strive to diversify their landscape—above and below the surface—don't get much support from the market or public policy. On the latter front, one bright spot has been the Conservation Stewardship Program, a federal initiative that rewards farmers for producing environmental benefits on working farmland. It has been extremely popular in states like Iowa and Minnesota the past few years. But as Congress begins finalizing a new five-year Farm Bill this fall, the program faces significant budget cuts: 21 percent and 14 percent in the House and Senate respectively.

If these cuts go though, it will be a shame. They would come at a time when innovative farmers are linking healthy soil, healthy land and healthy bottom lines, and CSP adds that extra nudge their neighbors need to make key agro-ecological transitions. Too bad Congress can’t connect the dots as well as Todd McPeak does.

"From bees to badgers to beef, I see it all working together," he said as herds of frogs swarmed across his land.

Brian DeVore works for the Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit organization fostering sustainable agriculture since 1982. DeVore writes for and edits the group's publication, The Land Stewardship Letter. 

Image: Leopard frog by ImagesBYap, licensed under Creative Commons. 

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