Former President Bill Clinton on Peak Oil, Peak Soil, and other depleting resources

Former President Bill Clinton. May 4, 2007. The Looming Crisis; Can We Act in Time? Harvard Kennedy School.

Excerpts from Keynote Address by Former President William Jefferson Clinton Kennedy School Spring Conference – Cambridge, MA

I think it is highly likely that before we see the worst consequences of climate change, we will reap the consequences of the combined impact of resource depletion and population explosion. It is projected that the world will grow from 6.5 to 9 billion by 2050 – with almost all the population growth coming in the countries least able to handle it.

Meanwhile, if you look around the world we have substantial loss of topsoil, substantial loss of forest cover, and certainly the biggest loss of plant and animal species in human history – for the last 150,000 years – and many people think for the last half million years. This is a combustible mix. It raises the prospect of places all over the world having a modern version of that old Mel Gibson – Tina Turner Road Warrior movie.

When you put climate change in that with agricultural production shifting, it’s a powerful mix. A small but increasing number of petroleum experts believe we only have 35 to 50 years of recoverable oil left. And the optimists say we’ve got 150 years left—but most of the other optimists say 100 years. Now let me remind you, the oldest city on Earth by carbon dating, that we know of, is Jericho in the Holy Land. It’s 10,000 years old so we’ve got 1% of civilization to figure out how to do without oil.

And there’s almost no discussion given to this in public circles today. It is, as far as I know, not part of the debate in the campaigns in either camp. We Democrats want to conserve, and the Republicans want to drill ANWR, and there’s a debate about what we should do with nuclear power. And nobody’s really looking at what we would do if we put anything like the money, time and effort into solar, wind, other clean technologies and a massive efficiency effort. So we’re trying to push that debate.

But nobody’s really talking about the resource depletion issue. And when you put it against population —- let’s just take farming. In the last decade, the United States, Canada, the breadbaskets of Europe, the major rice producers in Asia – they all held their own. But the only place on Earth that grain production increased significantly was Brazil and Argentina where they have 22 feet of topsoil. They still have the best topsoil on Earth. No place else was there a substantial increase in grain production.

Those places are impressive, but Brazil already is under stress and a big argument about tearing down the tropical rain forest, by the way which almost never yields good topsoil—-it’s normally a terrible mistake—-but the rest of the country has massive topsoil.

There’s no way in the world they can grow enough extra food to feed two and a half billion more people.

Unless you want to see sweeping epidemics of infant mortality rising again, children dying before they’re a year old. And I’m not even talking about AIDS, TB, malaria, infections related to dirty water, all the current disasters. I’m just saying this is coming. And I know there’s no great political constituency for it, but we can avert some of these things for not very much money if they can be put into the public debate and people understand clearly what’s going to happen. I think that’s quite important.

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