What Kind of Energy Crisis?
Updated: Aug 18, 2019
Aloha from The Big Island of Hawaii! Summer travel means this Bulletin comes to you a week late. It is the sixth installment of The Weekly Better Bulletin and I hope you find it informative and, most importantly, hopeful. The theme of The Weekly Better, from now until November when my book The Daily Better comes out, will be gratitude. In particular, I will remind you the reader of the fantastic world we live in. Yes, there are many important problems, but it's easy to forget the good things in life.
Today our topic is ENERGY! And when I mean energy, I mean ALL the power that makes muscles move, cooks food, powers horses, propels jet planes, and cools your home. We humans have been harnessing energy ever since we captured and controlled fire. We domesticated animals and increased the energy output of our food through agriculture and cooking. Things sped up when we start using charcoal, coal and petroleum. Now we have a mind boggling diversity of energy sources at our beck and call.
But the recent history of energy can seem pretty negative. When I was a kid in the 70s we were told that there was an ENERGY CRISIS. We were going to run out of oil...and then what will we do? This fear continued through the 80s, 90s, 2000s and 2010s. I even bought a DVD in 2004 titled The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream. In 2006 the movie Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash came out. The both predicted that we’d run out of oil. Well, you may have noticed that we haven’t run out of oil. In fact, we have more carbon fuel at our disposal than ever. All the dire predictions that the world would fall apart because we would run out of oil didn’t happen. The energy crisis wasn't really a crisis.
Why did we not run out of carbon fuels? Human ingenuity. It's a character strength of our species that too often gets short shrift. When we have a big problem we shouldn't count on ingenuity to save our bacon, but we should take our problem-solving abilities seriously. Many pundits and prognosticators held onto their beliefs about Peak Oil even when it was clear that Peak Oil--like the Ozone Hole and acid rain (more below)--was a problem that was going to get fixed by human ingenuity.
But we do have an energy crisis: global warming. The carbon fuels that doomsayers thought we were going to run out of? Well, it's their abundant use that's the new problem. This is a very different crisis for many reasons. First, it's for real. Proven petroleum reserves kept increasing during the time of the peak oil doomsaying. The pessimistic prognostications flew in the face of the science. Global warming science is clear. CO2 levels and global temperatures correlate closely. Thousands of data points, from average temperatures to glacier thickness to winter polar ice levels point to the same conclusion: The earth is getting warmer because of anthropogenic climate change propelled by the burning of fossil fuels and other activities. And global warming appears to be a positive feedback loop. The more the earth warms, the better the conditions for warming (and worse our future looks).
However, I think we can solve the global warming problem the way we solved the energy crisis, the ozone hole, and acid rain: human ingenuity. We shouldn't have faith that human ingenuity is a deus ex machina that will come down and fix all our problems. We have to prioritize it, something many governments--notably the Trump Administration--refuse to do. It was innovation that led to the discovery and use of more and more petroleum reserves during the energy crisis. Effective government regulations and international agreements turned the tide agains acid rain and the ozone hole. I think we can do the same with climate change.
I wish there were more support for nuclear energy. The fears of nuclear energy are overblown. Radiation killed no one at Three Mile Island and Fukushima, and Chernobyl-type reactors have been decommissioned. Nuclear energy is the most reliable high-output 24/7 zero carbon electricity source. As the climate crisis gets worse, calls for nuclear energy will, I hope, become stronger.
So I hope you feel some gratitude for the problems and crises human ingenuity has solved. Let's harness human ingenuity to solve the new energy crisis: global warming.