This is a difficult topic.
The prosperity of the western world during the past 150 years since oil was first discovered, or rather its uses were first discovered, is truly historic. No other period of time has produced a comparable jump in the standard of living or the improvement in health conditions that most of the world has enjoyed. Virtually all of this is attributable to the use of hydrocarbon resources we are now so dependent on.
But, undeniably, the climate is changing. This is attributable to the natural climate cycles of the planet as well as the increase in manmade emissions. Neither of the extreme arguments around this situation—either the blind denials that it’s happening or the passionate railings that mankind is the sole cause and contributor—have currency. We need to move away from extremist arguments to focus on realistic and practical actions.
So, what can we do?
I don’t believe, as some have asserted, that we can wean ourselves off hydrocarbons in the next 10 years. Indeed every reputable forecast or research I have seen on the subject predicts that hydrocarbon use will actually increase during this period.
First, and most importantly, there is only one climate—the global climate. Any attempt to create a nation-by-nation solution will fail. Worse, attempts to impose costs on any one nation (as well intentioned as these may be) will impose a prohibitive tariff or cost which will undermine that jurisdiction’s international competitiveness and reward those countries which remain outside pacts like the Paris Accord. It would be fantastic if we could have a global carbon tax, a revenue neutral scheme which would charge for emissions and use the proceeds to reward the benign emitters. The prospect of that happening is, unfortunately, zero. So it fails the test of practicality.
Can a Democrat president, partnered with a Democrat majority in the House and the Senate, lead the United States down a path of varied green policies? A direction that would be underpinned by a carbon tax containing annual increases, to the point where they get very painful in say 15 years? It’s possible, but at a political and economic cost; the more profound the latter, the more significant the former. Would China or India, the two fastest-growing emitters in the world, follow suit? Or would they succumb to the huge (albeit short-sighted) temptation to defer such policies so as to give their growing economies a competitive cost advantage? That answer is impossible to know.
There are, at present, no attempts being made by these three countries (who are collectively responsible for approximately 60 per cent of global emissions) to work together on climate change. Given the current acrimony between them over trade tensions, human rights and differing foreign policy objectives, the status quo isn’t likely to change. Again, no obvious practical solution here.
I have every respect for the young Swede, Greta Thunberg, who has done so much to bring the climate threat to the forefront of public debate. But railing against global leaders at the United Nations, to the effect they should be ashamed of themselves was not helpful. She sailed to New York so as to avoid the use of hydrocarbons in getting there. Didn’t she understand that her boat and the sails upon which its mobility depended could not have been made without oil and its derivatives? Those who have been quick to condemn society’s dependence on hydrocarbons need to be more aware of just how and where they are used. As a species, we are dependent on hydrocarbons and their by-products: modern agriculture, clothes, air travel, appliances… the list permeates every aspect of our modern lives. Further, there is no current alternative to our dependence on oil.
Our appetite for fossil fuels and our dependence on the products created from them has been growing exponentially for 150 years; creating meaningful solutions and new directions can’t happen overnight. First, we have to understand and appreciate the extent of the problem. Second, we have to realize and accept that the burden of such change can best be born by those able to afford it the most. Third, there must be a commitment to invest in the innovation, research and entrepreneurial spirit necessary to solve such complex problems. Only then will we begin to make meaningful progress.
Next issue: Chapter II.