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The Eco Elephant

In response to:

Resisting Climate Reality from the April 7, 2011 issue

To the Editors:

In the global warming debate it is seldom discussed, and is not in Bill McKibben’s interesting article [“Resisting Climate Reality,” NYR, April 7], that the primary fossil fuels, oil, natural gas, and coal, are finite resources. They are collectively being consumed at a rate equivalent to the burning of 10,000 million tons of oil (abbreviated Mtoe) per year and this rate of consumption is growing (BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2010).

Over the last fifty years, and even over the last two decades when concern over global warming was the subject of the Kyoto Protocol, growth in their consumption has averaged over 2 percent a year. A growth rate of 2 percent corresponds to a doubling time of thirty-five years, so that if it continues fossil fuel consumption will be 20,000 Mtoe in 2046. And in less than fifty years the present known reserves (about 770,000 Mtoe) will have run out. The burning of fossil fuels will come to an end.

Clearly this will not happen overnight, but at some date in the not-too-distant future prices of fossil fuels will start to rise very dramatically and alternative energy will look like a bargain. The problem then will be, what alternative energy source can reliably supply 20,000 Mtoe of energy annually, and increase it by 2 percent a year? For an idea of the tremendous amount of energy supplied by fossil fuels, 20,000 Mtoe is the amount of electrical energy supplied by 10,000 power plants each delivering 1,000 megawatts of electrical power continuously for a year.

One of the main causes leading to the present crisis of global warming is the economic philosophy of growth: growth is good, and high growth is better. So when China’s annual growth rate drops from 10 percent to 7 percent economists start to ask if China is in trouble. And poor old Germany, with a growth rate of only 3.6 percent in 2010, is not a model for anybody. Even the economists favored by McKibben in one of the books he is reviewing, Isabel Galiana and Christopher Green, are in favor of growth. Many seem to forget or refuse to acknowledge that consumption of a finite resource must end sometime, and that growth in that consumption can shorten the time substantially. Surely it would be prudent to reduce fossil fuel consumption rapidly and substantially, both to reduce the speed of global warming increase and to husband fossil fuels over the long time needed for alternative energy sources to be developed and deployed.

John J. Simpson
Professor of Physics (retired)
University of Guelph Guelph,
Ontario, Canada

Bill McKibben replies:

Many thanks to Professor Simpson for mentioning one of the elephants in the ecological room, the constant demand for growth. As I have noted in several recent books, it’s possible to imagine the Western world, anyway, on a very different trajectory: much recent economic literature indicates that our continued growth is not only maldistributed but dysfunctional, leading to less happiness than the conventional wisdom would have us suspect.

In the rest of the world, growth of some kind is still necessary to produce more stable and secure lives. The question is, what will fuel it? Professor Simpson paints the possibilities with perhaps too broad a brush; it appears likely that we will run short of oil, but that we have enough coal to provide a temptation for many years to come. If we burn it, we will horribly alter the planet’s climate; hence the need for a concerted international effort to help those countries leapfrog the carbon age. I described one such plan in my piece, offered by Tariq Banuri and others. There are few questions that demand more urgent attention.

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