Why do political, economic, and scientific leaders deny Peak Oil and Climate Change?

Since there’s nothing that can be done about climate change, because there’s no scalable alternative to fossil fuels, I’ve always wondered why politicians and other leaders, who clearly know better, feel compelled to deny it.  I think it’s for exactly the same reasons you don’t hear them talking about preparing for Peak Oil.

1) Political and economic leaders actually believe the neoclassical tenet that higher oil prices will result in more supplies.  This is the core religious belief of neoclassical economics.  Money — an abstract concept — will always triumph over geology, a finite world, and the laws of physics and thermodynamics.

Hard as it is for me to believe that anyone could believe in a “growth forever” paradigm, most of our leaders believe in capitalism and market economics.  Economists assume that higher oil prices will spur more oil discoveries, but they ignore what earth scientists have been saying for years: There aren’t any more big discoveries to be made. Most of the oil reserves we tap today were identified by the mid-1960s.

David Fleming writes in the British magazine Prospect (Nov. 2000),  many experts refuse to take the problem of peak oil seriously because it “falls outside the mind-set of market economics.” Thanks to the triumph of  global capitalism, the free-market model now reigns almost  everywhere. The trouble is, its principles “tend to break down when  applied to natural resources like oil” [as Hall explains brilliantly in Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy]. Once the pain becomes real, the Darwinian impulse kicks in and the orderly market gives way to chaos.  “The United States will fight hard and dirty,” Fleming warns, because we’ll have the money to feed our addiction. Other countries  won’t. “The United States will export oil scarcity to the rest of the  world,” adds Fleming, and he’s blunt about what happens after that: “There will be economic destabilization.”

2) As the German military peak oil study stated, when investors realize Peak Oil is upon us, stock markets world-wide will crash (if they haven’t meanwhile from massive, unreformed financial corruption), as it will be obvious that growth is no longer possible and investors will never get their money back.

A whistleblower at the IEA alleged that oil reserves had been overstated, and that the IEA had downplayed the lowering rates of production because it feared panic could spread on the financial markets if the figures were brought down further. ‘Politicians are terrified of mentioning peak oil,’ says Chris Skrebowski, director of Peak Oil Consulting and former editor of respected industry magazine Petroleum Review. ‘They are frightened of the social and financial reactions. Peak oil has been placed on the pile marked “too difficult” (Rowe).

3) Political (and religious) leaders gain votes, wealth, and power by telling people what they want to hear.  Several politicians have told me privately that people like to hear good news and that politicians who bring bad news don’t get re-elected.  “Don’t worry, be happy” is a vote getter.  Carrying capacity, exponential growth, die-off, extinction, population control — these are not ideas that get leaders elected.

4) As Richard Heinberg has pointed out, there’s a national survival interest in being the Last Nation Standing.  He wrote:  “I thought that world leaders would want to keep their nations from collapsing. They must be working hard to prevent currency collapse, financial system collapse, food system collapse, social collapse, environmental collapse, and the onset of general, overwhelming misery—right? But no, that’s not what the evidence suggests. Increasingly I am forced to conclude that the object of the game that world leaders are actually playing is not to avoid collapse; it’s simply to postpone it a while so as to be the last nation to go down, so yours can have the chance to pick the others’ carcasses before it meets the same fate.”   February 2010.  China or the U.S.: Which Will Be the Last Nation Standing?

5) It would be political suicide to bring up the real problem of Peak Oil and have no solution to offer besides consuming less.

Kjell Aleklett, professor of Professor of Physics at Uppsala University in Sweden, points out that one of the failures of democracy is that “It is very difficult for any politician to admit that something is wrong, and that we might need to do something about it. If they were to do this, another politician would come along and say, ‘There’s no problem; vote for me and we can carry on as we are’.”

The “solution” of both parties is Endless Growth, or  “Shop Until You Drop” and “Drill, Baby, Drill” to get out of the current economic and energy crises.  Capitalism ends when growth is no longer possible, all that our leaders can do is try to keep the gain going as long as possible, and not end while they’re in office.  Since golden parachutes and astronomical pay regardless of performance typifies most corporations, there’s less at stake for CEO’s and other economic “leaders”.

There’s also the risk of creating a panic and social disorder if the situation were made utterly clear — that the carrying capacity of the United States is somewhere between 100 million (Pimentel) and 250 million (Smil) without fossil fuels, like the Onion’s parody “Scientists: One-Third Of The Human Race Has To Die For Civilization To Be Sustainable, So How Do We Want To Do This?

There’s no solution to peak oil, except to consume less in all areas of life, limit immigration, and above all, encourage women to have zero or one child, which is not acceptable to political leaders or corporations, who depend on growth for their survival.

Meanwhile, too many problems are getting out of hand on a daily basis at local, state, and national levels.  All that matters to politicians is the next election.  So who’s going to work on a future problem with no solution?  Jimmy Carter is perceived as having lost partly due to asking Americans to sacrifice for the future (i.e. put on a sweater).

I first became aware of the intersection of politics and peak oil at the Denver 2005 Association for the Study of Peak Oil conference.  Denver Mayor Hickenlooper, now governor of Colorado, pointed out that one of his predecessors lost the mayoral election because he didn’t keep the snow plows running after a heavy snow storm.  He worried about how he’d keep snow plows, garbage collection, and a host of other city services running as energy declined.

A Boulder city council member at this conference told us he had hundreds of issues and constituents to deal with on a daily basis, no way did he have time to spend on an issue beyond the next election.

Finally, Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, head of the peak oil caucus in the House of Representatives, told us that there was no solution, and he was angry that we’d blown 25 years even though the government knew peak was coming.  His plan was to relentlessly reduce our energy demand by 5% per year, to stay under the depletion rate of declining oil.  But he didn’t believe in  efficiency as a solution, which doesn’t work due to Jevons paradox.

The only solution that would mitigate suffering is to mandate that women bear only one child.  Fat chance of that ever happening when even birth control is controversial, and Catholics are outraged that all health care plans are now required to cover the cost of birth control pills.  Congressman Bartlett, in a small group discussion after his talk, told us that population was the main problem, but that he and other politicians didn’t dare mention it.  He said that exponential growth would undo any reduction in demand we could make, and gave this example:  if we have 250 years left of reserves in coal, and we turn to coal to replace oil, increasing our use by 2% a year — a very modest rate of growth considering what a huge amount is needed to replace oil — then the reserve would only last 85 years.  If we liquefy it, then it would only last 50 years, because it takes a lot of energy to do that.

Bartlett was speaking about 250 years of coal reserves back in 2005.  Now we know that the global energy from coal may have peaked last year, in 2011 (Patzek) or will soon in 2015 (Zittel). Other estimates range as far as 2029 to 2043.  Heinberg and Fridley say that “we believe that it is unlikely that world energy supplies can continue to meet projected demand beyond 2020.” (Heinberg).

6) Everyone who understands the situation is hoping The Scientists Will Come up With Something.  Including the Scientists. 

And even many of the science-educated don’t have a clue — natural resources, ecology, and energy was not their field of study. I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s vacation on a rafting trip down the Tatshenshini-Alsek in 2003, but on  the last day of the trip I explained the situation to an astronomer, and he said in great shock, “But there has to be an alternative to oil!”  It had never occurred to him that solar, wind, geothermal, and so on couldn’t replace oil.

Scientists would like to win a Nobel prize and need funding.  But researchers in energy resources know what’s at stake with climate change and peak oil and are as scared as the rest of us.  U.C.Berkeley scientists are also aware of the negative environmental impacts of biofuels, and have chosen to concentrate on a politically feasible strategy of emphasizing lack of water to prevent large programs in this from being funded (Fingerman).  They’re also working hard to prevent coal fired power plants from supplying electricity to California by recommending natural gas replacement plants instead, as well as expanding the grid, taxing carbon, energy efficiency, nuclear power, geothermal, wind, and so on — see http://rael.berkeley.edu/projects for what else some of UCB’s RAEL program is up to.  Until a miracle happens, scientists and some enlightened policy makers are trying to extend the age of oil, reduce greenhouse gases, and so on.  But with the downside of Hubbert’s curve so close, and the financial system liable to crash again soon given the debt and lack of reforms, I don’t know how long anyone can stretch things out.

7) The 1% can’t justify their wealth or the current economic system once the pie stops expanding and starts to shrink. The financial crisis will be a handy way to explain why people are getting poorer on the down side of peak oil too, delaying panic perhaps.

Other evidence that politicians know how serious the situation is, but aren’t saying anything, are Congressman Roscoe Bartlett’s youtube videos (Urban Danger).  He’s the Chairman of the peak oil caucus in the House of Representatives, and he’s saying “get out of dodge” to those in the know.  He’s educated all of the representatives in the House, but he says that peak oil “won’t be on their front burner until there’s an oil shock”.

8) Less than one percent of our elected leaders have degrees in science.  They don’t have a clue — they studied law, maybe economics, but know very little about ecology.  The vast majority of political and economic leaders don’t have a clue.  And they’ve had no time to understand energy, environment, evolution, EROI, or any other relevant information after college to hear or read and acquire a “big picture view” of (systems) ecology, population, environment, natural resources, biodiversity / bioinvasion, water, topsoil and fishery depletion, and all the other factors that will be magnified when oil, the master resource that’s been helping us cope with these and many other problems, declines.

9) Politicians and corporate leaders probably didn’t get as far as they did without being (techno) optimists, and really do believe the Scientists Will Come Up With Something.   I fear that scientists are going to take a lot of the blame as things head South, even though there’s nothing they can do to change the laws of physics and thermodynamics.

Chris Nelder says that “We trust narratives that fit our emotions, associations and experiences, rather than actively assessing the evidence. This is why the peak-oil story gained currency in the press in 2008, when prices for oil and gasoline shot up — it fitted in with our experiences. When prices fell, the story faded. Similarly, extreme weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes capture the public’s attention in a way that decades of warnings about global warming have failed to do”. (Nelder)

10) Our leaders have known since the 1970s energy crises that there’s no comparable alternative energy ready to replace fossil fuels.

Here’s an excerpt from President Jimmy Carter’s speech in 1977 — why didn’t  we listen to him?  “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly. It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century. We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren…. This difficult effort will be the “moral equivalent of war” — except that we will be uniting our efforts to build and not destroy…. The world has not prepared for the future. During the 1950s, people used twice as much oil as during the 1940s. During the 1960s, we used twice as much as during the 1950s. And in each of those decades, more oil was consumed than in all of mankind’s previous history…. Now we have a choice. But if we wait, we will live in fear of embargoes. We could endanger our freedom as a sovereign nation to act in foreign affairs. Within ten years we would not be able to import enough oil — from any country, at any acceptable price. We will not be ready to keep our transportation system running with smaller, more efficient cars and a better network of buses, trains and public transportation. We will feel mounting pressure to plunder the environment. We will have a crash program to build more nuclear plants, strip-mine and burn more coal, and drill more offshore wells than we will need if we begin to conserve now. Inflation will soar, production will go down, people will lose their jobs. Intense competition will build up among nations and among the different regions within our own country….”

To extend the oil age as long as possible, the USA went the military path rather than a “Manhattan Project” of research and building up grid infrastructure, railroads, sustainable agriculture, increasing home and car fuel efficiency, tax incentives to have fewer children, lower immigration levels, and other obvious actions. I believe that’s because Project Independence showed there were no replacements, as has every study commissioned since then.

The Presidents of the United States know about the Peak Oil and other resources.  Representative Roscoe Barlett, mentioned above, formed a Peak Oil Caucus in the House of Representatives that educated congressional members.  First secretary of energy James R. Schlesinger, Matt Simmons, Department of Energy 2005 “Peak Oil” study, Robert L. Hirsch, current science advisor John Holdren, and many other scientists have informed Presidents Bush and Obama about peak oil and the implications.  Since they don’t have a solution and announcing the problem would bring on an instant Great Depression as the stock market crashed and people panicked — why on earth would they say anything?  It’s like shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater.

Instead, we’ve spent trillions of dollars on defense and the military to keep the oil flowing, the Straits of Hormuz open, and invade oil-producing countries.  Being so much further than Europe, China, and Russia from the Middle East, where there’s not only the most remaining oil, but the easiest oil to get out at the lowest cost ($20-22 OPEC vs $60-80 rest-of-world per barrel), is a huge disadvantage.  I think the military route was chosen in the 70s to maintain our access to Middle East oil and prevent challenges from other nations.  Plus everyone benefits by our policing the world and keeping the lid on a world war over energy resources, perhaps that’s why central banks keep lending us money.

Van Jones once said “People say that I am hard core about some of this stuff because I have been to Davos, and I’ve sat with Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Tony Blair, and Nancy Pelosi. I’ve sat with all these people who we think are in charge, and they don’t know what to do. Take that in: they don’t know what to do! You think you’re scared? You think you’re terrified? They have the Pentagon’s intelligence, they have every major corporation’s input; Shell Oil that has done this survey and study around the peak oil problem. You think we’ve got to get on the Internet and say, “Peak oil!” because the system doesn’t know about it? They know, and they don’t know what to do. And they are terrified that if they do anything they’ll loose their positions. So they keep juggling chickens and chainsaws and hope it works out just like most of us everyday at work.” (Van Jones)

11) If the public were convinced climate change were real and demanded alternative energy, it would become clear pretty quickly that we didn’t have any alternatives.  Already Californians are seeing public television shows and newspaper articles about why it’s so difficult to build enough wind, solar, and so on to meet the mandated 33% renewable energy sources by 2020.

For example, last night I saw a PBS program on the obstacles to wind power in Marin county, on the other side of the Golden Gate bridge. Difficulties cited were lack of storage for electricity, NIMBYism, opposition from the Audubon society over bird kills, wind blows at night when least needed, the grid needs expansion, and most wind is not near enough to the grid to be connected to it.  But there was no mention of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) or the scale of how many windmills you’d need to have.  So you could be left with the impression that these problems with wind could be overcome.

I don’t see any signs of the general public losing optimism yet.  I gave my “Peak Soil” talk to a group recently of very educated people, and to my great surprise realized they weren’t worried until my talk, partly because so they weren’t aware of the Hirsch 2005 “liquid fuels” crisis concept, nor the scale of what fossil fuels do for us.   I felt really bad, I’ve never spoken to a group before that wasn’t aware of the problem. I wished I were a counselor as well.  The only thing I could think of to console them was to say that running out of fossil fuels was a good thing — we will soon be forced by geological shortages and consequent political unrest to stop burning so much fossil fuel, which means better odds we and many other species won’t be driven extinct from climate change.

12) Since peak oil began in 2005 (we’re on a plateau with decline coming in 1-4 years), there’s less urgency to do something about climate change for many leaders, because they assume, or hope, that the remaining fossil fuels won’t trigger a runaway greenhouse.  Climate change is a more distant problem than Peak Oil.  And again, like peak oil, nothing can be done about it.  There’s are no carbon free alternative liquid fuels, let alone a liquid fuel we can burn in our existing combustion engines, which were designed to only use gasoline.  There’s no time left to rebuild a completely new fleet of vehicles based on electricity, the electric grid infrastructure and electricity generation from windmills, solar, nuclear, etc., are too oil dependent to outlast oil.    Batteries are too heavy to ever be used by trucks or other large vehicles, and require a revolutionary breakthrough to power electric cars.

13) Some hope that denying climate change dill divert attention and argument to their idiocy as well as distract pundits from discussing the more immediate threat of peak oil.   I’m guessing their motivation is to keep our oil-based nation going as long as possible by preventing a stock market crash, panic, social disorder, maintaining a military to protect us and intervene in the Middle East to keep the oil flowing as long as possible, and so on.

14) Kurt Cobb, in his blog Resource Insights, writes this about why oil company executives are keeping quiet: “…their companies may soon find it impossible to replace all their oil reserves. Oil companies strive to replace at least 100% of what they produce so that their reserves don’t fall. If investors come to believe that a failure to replace reserves will be ongoing year after year, they will mark down oil company share prices significantly. In fact, it’s already happened, and it’s likely to happen with more frequency as more companies struggle to reach 100 percent replacement. Such share price declines would, of course, make a lot of oil executives significantly poorer as the value of their stock and stock options plummet. Essentially, oil companies would be recognized as self-liquidating businesses. All of this the oil industry wants you to ignore as it undertakes yet another public relations campaign to convince the world that supplies will only grow from here. Naturally, with prices near $100 a barrel, the public needs reassurance. The campaign is designed to lull both the public and policymakers into a somnolent surrender to a business-as-usual future that will leave us unprepared for the momentous challenges ahead. Oil is the central commodity of the modern age. As of 2011 it provided one-third of the world’s energy and the basis for countless petrochemicals necessary to the functioning of modern society. Oil’s role in transportation remains critical; 80 percent of the world’s road, rail, air and sea transportation fuel is derived from petroleum, and in the United States the number is 93 percent. Good substitutes for oil in transportation are still hard to come by”. (Cobb)

15) There’s plenty of misinformation out there, plenty of rosy, cornucopian “we’ve got plenty of oil” projections from all kinds of experts.  Why wouldn’t you believe them?  If I hadn’t joined peak oil forums, it’s unlikely I would have ever stumbled on the information to counter the Wall Street economic view of the world (see my book list and energy topics). People who understand the problem of limited resources are labeled “pessimists”, not realists.  Daniel Yergin, of Cambridge Associates (CERA), is the poster boy for calming worries about energy supplies.

16)  Tariel Morrigan, in “Peak Energy, Climate Change, and the Collapse of Global Civilization” puts the problem this way: “Announcing peak oil may be akin to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, except that the burning theater has no exits”. Morrigan says a government announcing peak oil threatens the economy, not only risking a market crash, but the panic that would follow would cause social and political unrest. What a conundrum – not warning people isn’t fair, but warning people will make the economic crash come sooner and doesn’t help to make a transition (it would have made a difference in the 70s, but it’s too late now).  In addition, announcing peak oil will make many lose confidence in their government because they’ll feel they were deceived, that the government failed to protect them, or was incompetent, corrupt, and colluded with private interests (especially oil companies and the institutions involved with the wide-scale economic fraud and recklessness).

17) A story must be positive or a problem must have a solution to be picked up by the media as an ongoing theme.  This is even more true for getting a book published.  Although this book appears to be quite doomer: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, it has a “happy” solution — we’ll just migrate to the Moon and Mars!  Hello! The only method of propulsion we have to escape the planet is fossil fuels, and they don’t come anywhere near to getting us to the speed of light necessary to get to the closest star. Nor will a space elevator do that — even if it could be built, it’s absolutely ridiculous to think we could survive on the Moon or Mars. Biosphere II was a failure, and that was right here on Earth. The idea of abandoning Earth is absurd, sad — pure science-fiction. But you can’t get a book published about how we face extinction if you don’t offer some hope.

18) Sometimes I wonder if some of our smartest energy scientists, who know that fossil fuels can’t be replaced with alternative and/or renewable energy resources, are playing a long game. Perhaps they’re trying to steer society away from war and social unrest by promising the public that renewable energy can work, with the added carrot that they’ll be doing something good for the planet and their grandchildren by slowing or stopping climate change.  They can’t ever be honest, or their long game won’t work.

If people knew that solar, wind, biomass, and so on wouldn’t work, they’d be very keen on building more coal (certain extinction) or nuclear plants (also a disaster because we still have no way of getting rid of nuclear waste and there isn’t enough uranium left to do that), drilling for oil in the arctic (disaster for salmon and other sea life after inevitable oil spills), and so on.

Most scientists see extinction from climate change as humanities biggest threat, especially burning coal or the dirty tar sands in Canada and heavy oils of Venezuela.   Far better to throw societies remaining energy resources into distributed energy — at least that way, as the grid flutters and dies from lack of coal and natural gas, people could still cook, heat, and cool their homes until their solar panels and back-up batteries wear out.  A great deal of the coal and oil would forever remain buried, because we’d no longer have the energy to mine the rare earth and other minerals essential to building and controlling the massive amounts of equipment and drilling rigs needed to get oil out from 8,000 feet of ocean water and another several miles below that, or coal from the very deep deposits left. After a long enough time, we wouldn’t have the expertise either.

19) Why bother to tell people when they won’t believe you?  James Howard Kunstler has an excellent book called “Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation” that goes into the Disneyesque, happy-ending mentality of the American public.  Most people — even scientists — believe we can overcome any limits with our ingenuity and technical know-how.  It is impossible for most people to accept, or even consider, that we might be limited by forces beyond our control, mainly limited fossil fuels and the impossibility of wind, solar, nuclear, and other low-net energy, high fossil-fuel dependent “solutions” to replace oil, coal, and natural gas.

Here he explains (May 5, 2014) the situation in his own inimitable language: “Despite its Valley Girl origins, the simple term clueless turns out to be the most accurate descriptor for America’s degenerate zeitgeist. Nobody gets it — the “it” being a rather hefty bundle of issues ranging from our energy bind to the official mismanagement of money, the manipulation of markets, the crimes in banking, the blundering foreign misadventures, the revolving door corruption in governance, the abandonment of the rule-of-law, the ominous wind-down of the Happy Motoring fiasco and the related tragedy of obsolete suburbia, the contemptuous disregard for the futures of young people, the immersive Kardashian celebrity twerking sleaze, the downward spiral of the floundering classes into pizza and Pepsi induced obesity, methedrine psychosis, and tattooed savagery, and the thick patina of public relations dishonesty that coats all of it like some toxic bacterial overgrowth. The dwindling life of our nation, where anything goes and nothing matters”.

20) Environmental groups are in denial too.  Here’s what happens to groups that form around the issue of “Peak Oil” with less consumption and “50 million farmers” as the solution.

The best, yet least “successful” group (in terms of numbers of members) I ever participated in was the first peak oil group in America. It was started by David Room in 2004 via meetup.com.  David did a fantastic job of bringing in parallel groups from across the San Francisco Bay Area to form coalitions with — local food, bicycle, simple living, organic farming, permaculture, alternate currency, scientists at the University of California (Berkeley) and LBL, climate change and national organizations like Post Carbon and ASPO.  These groups often shared our goal of reducing consumption. San Francisco and Oakland were among the first cities in the United States to form peak oil task forces.

But except for Post Carbon, these groups all thought we could replace fossil fuels with alternative energy (and even Post Carbon has to give some lip service to alternative energy to widen membership).  Climate change groups especially hate peak fossil fuels,  because it means peak oil is a more important issue to focus on near-term, and probably means that the lowest 4 IPCC projections are closest to reality (and therefore human extinction much less likely), and that makes them unreasonably fear people will  stop worrying about climate change.

Hundreds of people came to the East Bay / sfbayoil group over the next 6 years, but few returned, because we were not offering techno-optimist solutions.  We educated people about the limited EROEI of solar, wind, and other reasons why oil was impossible to replace (97% of transportation, takes 40-50 years before peak but we’re at peak oil since 2005), infrastructure built when EROEI was 100:1.  Several of us were very involved with debunking biofuels and the harm they caused to the environment (Tad Patzek at the University of California, David Fridley at LBL, and I — see “Peak Soil“).  We discussed how we were going back to the age of wood, the need for birth control and less immigration — which are terribly politically incorrect.  Despite how dismal sounding this is, we had fun — solar cooking picnics, great parties and food, many of us went to national and international ASPO meetings, and more.  But we lost members because you can not tell people the truth and give them hope.  You can’t grow an ecological organization if you educate people about carrying capacity, exponential growth, and other basic ecological principles.

21) Politicians can’t get re-elected if they cause their constituents to suffer economic pain

Here are another six reasons from Robert L. Hirsch’s book “The Impending World Energy Mess” (and his slideshow):

22) Incompetence for all the reasons it exists (Hirsch)

23) Intellectual rigidity. People are so tied to history and their training they don’t see other technologies require different thinking (Hirsch)

24) Self-interest, often connected to a person’s job. If realities were publicly understood then a company or environmental organization might suffer, so self-interest leads to less than full disclosure and smoke screen lobbying (Hirsch)

25) Conspiracy among people and organizations to protect their common turf, which leads to all of them working to obscure inconvenient truths (Hirsch)

26) It’s not obvious that a civilization changing problem is at hand to decision makers or the public (Hirsch)

27) Decision makers want clarity, a clear path before taking action. When oil prices dropped, it was back again to “don’t worry”

28) The situation is unprecedented: The world has never faced a problem like the decline in world oil production. No action will be taken until the public is aware of the problem and can’t deny it.  By then it will be too late to avoid serious consequences. (Hirsch)

29) Why the media doesn’t explain the situation to the public: Editors don’t understand it. The story is too complicated. The public is not interested, especially since it’s a bad news story.  The public is confused by reported quantities of oil and gas in the ground: Resources are not Reserves which are not Supply; only a small percentage of reported Resources will ever be produced and added to our usable Supply.

Why aren’t contemporary ecologists and economists addressing resource and energy scarcity: The major problems of the 21st century?  Charles A. S. Hall, in the 26 September 2013 journal Ecological Engineering, asked: Given the growing evidence that the interrelated problems of energy and resource scarcity will lead to grave problems for society, why is it that universities/science/funding agencies are generally ignoring these questions?

30) One possibility is that constraintists’ predictions were not that important and were indeed wrong. But the evidence shows that this is not the case. In fact, many of the earlier predictions have been shown to be correct with regard to peak oil (Brandt, 2007), peaking of global conventional oil production (Aleklett, 2012; Hallock et al., 2014), and many other resources (Heinberg, 2007), no substitutes for oil have been developed or even foreseeably might be developed on anything like the scale required, and most are very poor net energy performers. Renewable fuels remain less than 1% of world energy production, and most have low EROI (Hall and Day, 2009; Palmer, 2013).

31) Another possibility is that most were unaware of constraintists’ predictions. Although these predictions have had relatively little impact on public and private policy, their information has been widely disseminated over the past several decades in scientific articles, newspapers, magazines, and on the web. But universities, intellectual leaders, government, and media have largely ignored the constraintists’ information developed over the past half century.

32) Ecologists generally are no longer trained to think that resource constrainsts are important or within their purview and there is increasing academic fragmentation due to specialization. Our own graduate education was greatly influenced by broadly thinking ecologists who spoke loudly and often eloquently about global resource issues and the future of humanity and nature. There seem to be very few such leaders today, and there is little support from the current teachers of ecologists that these are even issues that their students should be considering. Ecologists, ideally the most integrative and interdisciplinary of scientists, have mostly taken up residence in biology departments so that ecology, which should be a broadly integrated science, is now mostly about biology. This is in part due to the present tenure system that discourages young faculty from taking on broad, systems oriented problems. Similar things can be said about our funding agencies that appear oblivious to issues such as peak oil, declining net yield of major fuels, and, more generally, the issues raised four decades ago that can be broadly characterized as “limits to growth”. Part of the reason is that these resource/population problems do not fit comfortably within any academic discipline

33) Although most ecologists, and scientists in general, have not addressed these issues, there are some who have focused strongly on them. There has been a plethora of books, mostly directed toward a more general audience, that have dealt with resource/population/energy scarcity issues (Kunstler, 2005; Heinberg, 2007; Deffeyes, 2005; Dilworth, 2009; Aleklett, 2012, and others). But publications in “mainline” scientific journals have been rare.

James Schlesinger First Secretary of Energy, 1977-1979, Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, US Secretary of Defense, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Below is from “James Schlesinger on peak oil In a candid 2012 interview, America’s first Secretary of Energy spoke about looming oil supply problems” by Mason Inman and Nov 1, 2010 Dr. James Schlesinger: “The Peak Oil Debate is Over” at ASPO-USA Conference.

Q: What is your hope with giving speeches in which you try to warn people? Do you think that even if there’s not a big shift, at least it will help a little bit?

Maybe, but they tend to brush it off. I don’t know whether you saw the speech I gave to the National Academy of Sciences. It was some years ago. I brought this all up, and basically they kind of shrugged it off. You know, that’s the National Academy of Sciences. That’s not the generality of American voters. I also gave a talk to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which I raised all this, and did not get a very good response.

And I think the reason for that is complex. It’s not because they’re sucking up to the American public’s views on this. It’s because the industry really does not want to publicize the fact that oil production is not going to be available in the future the way it has been in the past. Even if we don’t have a peak, we have a plateau at some point. And a plateau, with the Chinese and Indians using more and more oil, and other developing nations using more oil, there will be less oil for the developed nations. So, the consequence is that you’re going to have to get by with less, even if you have a plateau.

Q: So what do you think is the answer to that? Does it require a grassroots effort to get the politicians to change?

Well, if the public changed, the politicians would change. The problem is the public. The public does not want to hear about this—because this is an acknowledgement that prices are going to go up, and that they’re going to have more problems running their automobiles than they want…. The political process is very sensitive to telling the people what they want to hear, right? The political order responds to what the public believes today, not to what it may come to believe tomorrow. It is also resistant to any action that inflicts pain, or sacrifice, or those who vote. The payoff in politics comes from reassurance.  Jimmy Carter was kind of an exception to that, if I may say so—and few politicians want to emulate him.  But he kept trying to say things that were true.   I was an optimist in the ‘70s…. I’m a child of the World War II. And I had this nonsensical belief that if the American President called on people to react, they would. That was true in World War II—but we had the help of the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor to get public attention….   Anyway, it turned out that the public was less responsive to the President [Carter] than I had anticipated.  Well, you can do that if you’re Winston Churchill, you know. And Winston Churchill was very unpopular in Britain, right until the outbreak of the war, when what he had been saying came true….  It’s particularly tough in this country, because the Americans pride themselves on optimism, which means that you don’t really wish to acknowledge unpleasant prospective news.

one must remember one of the sagest of political comments, from Senator Russell Long, who basically represented the Louisiana oil interests. He once said: “The first duty of a politician is to get elected. And his second duty is to get reelected.  And remember that, in the case of President, you’re dealing with four years or possibly eight years of term. Maybe it will come after the election of my successor, but it’s not going to be a problem for me….

Q: Do you have much hope that Americans might plan ahead for these problems you’ve been warning about the past several years?

No, nothing’s going to happen until reality hits them between the eyes like a two-by-four.

On why journalists don’t cover Peak Oil: Well, one has to remember that the American boy has been raised on his love of the automobile, and, you know, tinkering with a car was a preoccupation of young American males. And what this is saying is, “Hey, that was great fun while it lasted, but it’s not going to last forever, and you’ll have to learn to do something else than tinkering with automobiles.” And that’s bad news. That doesn’t bring in votes.

Peter Maas in the NYT on why oil companies aren’t eager to talk about peak oil:

34) In the political and corporate realms of the oil world, there are few incentives to be forthright. Executives of major oil companies have been reluctant to raise alarms; the mere mention of scarce supplies could alienate the governments that hand out lucrative exploration contracts and also send a message to investors that oil companies, though wildly profitable at the moment, have a Malthusian long-term future.   Peter Maass. The Breaking Point.  Aug 21, 2005 The New York Times.

Not on My Watch

35) Since there’s nothing that can be done, and it’s both hard and expensive  to keep up with the growing number of wars over oil, infrastructure falling apart, still massive unemployment and thousands of other problems, the goal now, and perhaps always has been, is just keeping it all duct-taped together while you’re in office.

Geologist Dr. Richard G. Miller’s explanation:

36) Policy makers are only in there for the short haul.  Policy makers answer to politicians and politicians answer to the electorate, and the electorate votes its pocketbook.  Politicians have to say whatever’s going to keep them in power, to get them re-elected; only when re-elected can they “do something useful” for the country.  To be re-elected, they have to grow the economy.  In the UK today that’s why whenever there’s a conflict between the Dept. of the Environment and the Treasury, the Treasury wins.  That’s also why the government wants to go fracking in the UK.  They will do anything to try to reduce the price of energy because that will help the economy to grow.  All of which means they cannot acknowledge the longer term problems.

The Chinese are more rational.  They get peak oil and they get climate change.  But they also get that they have to finish hooking up their far-flung populations to electricity supplies and to create a bit more personal mobility.  Without that they have civil unrest, with people still flooding in from the countryside where they might become useless and uncontrollable.  So their bigger problem for now is also growing their economy.

It’s just a mess.  Bottom line: we don’t have a shortage of resources, we have a longage of people and a serious longage of their expectations.

The worst case scenario is that we keep desperately trying to find and produce more oil such that it brings us to a sharp peak.  If we get a sharp peak, we would get civil unrest and collapse, maybe in the space of a couple of years because that’s how quickly it could be.  A loss of 5+% of global supply in two years would just be awful.  But if we have a long slow decline in production with slowly rising prices—a bit like being in a war situation—none of the price change points would be sufficient to cause riots in the streets.  So, that’s what I hope.

Miller joined BP as a geochemist in 1985. He’s studied peak oil for BP since 1991.  Most recently, Dr. Miller co-authored The Future of Oil Supply, which was published by The Royal Society, in a thematic issue of Philosophical Transactions entirely devoted to future world oil supply.

Nate Hagens, on why scientists don’t speak out (march 15, 2014 private communication):

A very famous ecologist Nate spoke with recently told him that his colleagues were afraid to speak about important issues like climate change because they feared being ostracized or losing status. The ecologist called his (very famous) university ‘little more than a well-painted whore’, given how the professors only focus on what they get funding for — funding that comes from government or corporations who are growth oriented and Business-As-Usual. [my comment: I assume this means talking about “Limits to Growth” is likely to lead to no funding].

Nate Hagens on why extremely wealthy people think alternative energy resources can replace fossil fuels:

After the meeting with the ecologist, Nate went to a fundraiser where the attendees were worth tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. Nate said the president of a top 5 environmental organization spoke there on behalf of climate urgency.  He said we have the technology and ability to entirely cease coal fired electricity and oil production within 5-10 years, and replace them with renewables at a 1-2% higher cost.  He suggested that  billionaires could get together and raise $50 billion, the current market cap of United States coal companies, and shut the plants down  (Kramer).

Nate summarizes why scientists, the rich, and famous are unable to see the coming energy crisis:

  • EVERYONE believes in their own world view.
  • The more power/influence one has, the less likely ones views will change. Ever.
  • Very few people can think in systems terms. They are experts in their one area.
  • People defer to the most respected, influential person in the room — a natural ape instinct.  And since the people at the top are techno-optimists who think fossil fuels can be replaced with renewables at little cost, everyone below blindly believes likewise.


We need government plans or strategies at all levels to let the air out of the tires of civilization as slowly as possible to prevent panic and sudden discontinuities.

Given history, I can’t imagine the 1% giving up their wealth (especially land, 85% of which is concentrated among 3% of owners). I’m sure they’re hoping the current system maintains its legitimacy as long as possible, even as the vast majority of us sink into 3rd world poverty beyond what we can imagine, and then are too poor and hungry to do anything but find our next meal.

Until there are oil shocks and governments at all levels are forced to “do something”, it’s up to those of us aware of what’s going on to gain skills that will be useful in the future, work to build community locally, and live more simply.  Towns or regions that  already have or know how to implement a local currency fast will be able to cope better with discontinuities in oil supplies and financial crashes than areas that don’t.

The best possible solution is de-industrialization, starting with Heinberg’s 50 million farmers, while also limiting immigration, instituting high taxes and other disincentives to encourage people to not have more than one child so we can get under the maximum carrying capacity as soon as possible.

Hirsch recommended preparing for peak 20 years ahead of time, and we didn’t do that.  So many of the essential preparations need to be at a local, state, and federal level, they can’t be done at an individual level.  Denial and inaction now are likely to lead to millions of unnecessary deaths in the future.  Actions such as upgrading infrastructure essential to life, like water delivery and treatment systems (up to 100 years old in much of America and rusting apart), sewage treatment, bridges, and so on.  After peak, oil will be scarce and devoted to growing and delivering food, with the remaining energy trickling down to other essential services — probably not enough to build new infrastructure, or even maintain what we have.

I wish it were possible for scientists and other leaders to explain what’s going on to the public, but I think scientists know it wouldn’t do any good given American’s low scientific literacy, and leaders see the vast majority of the public as big blubbering spoiled babies, like the spaceship characters on floating chairs in Wall-E, who expect, no demand, happy Hollywood endings.

Also read:

Robert Hirsch’s May 16, 2012 Why oil companies deny peak oil

If you want an article to send to a denier you know, it would be hard to do better than Donald Prothero’s “How We Know Global Warming is Real and Human Caused“.

Aleklett, Kjell. 10 June 2013. Peak oil: preparing for the extinction of ‘petroleum man’. scienceomega.com

Cobb, Kurt. 2 Sep 2012. Why the oil industry doesn’t want you to remember the last 14 years. Resource Insights.

Fingerman, Kevin. 2010. Accounting for the water impacts of ethanol production.  Environmental Research Letters.

Heinberg, R and Fridley, D. 18 Nov 2010. The end of cheap coal.  New forecasts suggest that coal reserves will run out faster than many believe. Energy policies relying on cheap coal have no future. Nature, vol 468, pp 367-69.

Hirsch, Robert L. 2010. “The Impending World Energy Mess. What it is and what it means to YOU!”  with co-authors Roger H. Bezdek & Robert Wendling (forward by Dr. James R. Schlesinger, 1st U.S. Secretary of Energy)

Hirsch, Robert L. July 10, 2012 slide show “Peak Oil Guru Robert Hirsch Gives A Dire Outlook For The Future

Kramer, Felix. March 11, 2014. Deal of the century: buy out the US coal industry for $50bn What if Bloomberg, Branson and Grantham came together to buy out the coal industry, close and clean up the mines, retrain workers and accelerate the expansion of renewable energy? TheGuardian.com

Nelder, Chris. 20 Jun 2013. Positive energy To change attitudes towards energy scarcity and climate change, focus on transitions and solutions, not danger and loss. Nature. Vol 498, pp 293-5.

Patzek, t. W. & Croft, G. D. 2010. A global coal production forecast with multi-Hubbert cycle analysis. Energy 35, 3109–3122.

Pimentel, D. et al. 1991. Land, Energy, and Water.  The Constraints Governing Ideal U.S. Population Size. Negative Population Growth.

Rowe, Mark. July 2010. When will the oil flow slow? Oil is becoming more difficult to obtain, and research suggests that it won’t be long before we’re unable to meet global demand. Geographical magazine.

Smil, V. 2000. Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production.  MIT Press.

Urban Danger. Congressman Roscoe Bartlett youtube videos:

  • Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGE1omIaRMI
  • Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBiTrQuZuUQ&feature=related
  • Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGJHwzsPdpY&feature=related

Van Jones. 2 Sep 2007. Van Jones: Spiritually Fulfilling, Ecologically Sustainable AND Socially Just?  Pachamama Alliance Awakening the Dreamer Global Community Gathering.

Zittel, W. & schindler, J. energy Watch Group, Paper no. 1/07 (2007); available at http:// go.nature.com/jngfsa

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One Response to Why do political, economic, and scientific leaders deny Peak Oil and Climate Change?

  1. Jeff Strahl says:

    A friend of mine wants to know if the PBS program about wind power in Marin was this one from 2009, Climate Watch: Unlocking the Grid – KQED QUEST” (22:44) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvuWe-qen3w
    She was active in a recent campaign to halt the installation of big wind turbines, on the basis of ecological damage, not NIMBY, she lives in Oakland, not in Marin. They were successful in limiting the damage.

    Also there’s this new thing at Daily Kos, the latest “miracle bio-fuel,”
    The hype will never cease.