I was surprised to see a several-minute story about peak oil on the 10 o’clock news last night. Granted, they spent about a quarter of the story on a long list of terrible things that could happen if we run out of oil, so it was probably doomsday sensationalism as much as anything else that made them cover the issue — but still, they did cover the issue. A San Francisco Supervisor (i.e., city councilman) is a peak oil activist, so they interviewed him along with a Berkeley economist who thinks that technological advances (he didn’t specify what kind, of course) will come along in plenty of time to fulfill the energy hole left by our vanishing petroleum supplies.
As expected from a TV news report, I didn’t learn anything that couldn’t be gleaned from a one-paragraph summary of the peak oil debate, but I was still impressed that they devoted so much time to the issue. It reminded me how much the public debate on energy and the environment has changed in the last decade or so. Who would have predicted during the 2000 election that in February 2008 the four presidential candidates left standing (I’m not counting Ron Paul) would all support, at least in theory, mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions and an increase in fuel efficiency standards?
Similarly, peak oil seemed to be a pretty marginal notion when the Times Magazine had a long cover story about it just two and a half years ago, at least as far as the general public was concerned. Now my local Fox affiliate is doing features on it, and even the Chief Executive of Shell Oil admits that “After 2015, easily accessible supplies of oil and gas probably will no longer keep up with demand.” That’s only seven years from now!
The growing acceptance of global warming and peak oil isn’t really good news, of course. On the contrary, the increased discussion of climate change and energy problems is mostly due to a steady accumulation of bad news. There are the big movers — An Inconvenient Truth, the IPCC reports, and so on — but also the steady flow of smaller news items that seem to add up to looming catastrophe. Two examples from just the last few weeks: A recent study said that there is a 50% chance that Lake Mead, the giant reservoir on the Colorado River created by the Hoover Dam, will be dry by 2021 due to global warming and high water use (the chance that it will be dry by 2014 was estimated at 10%). Will they have to evacuate Vegas and LA and the metastasizing sprawl in between? Or will it be enough to stop putting golf courses, swimming pools and suburban lawns in the middle of the Mojave desert?
Another study found that global warming is likely responsible for the “dead zones” that have been occurring off the Oregon Coast every summer for the past half-dozen years. In 2006, an area of the Pacific as large as Rhode Island had oxygen levels too low to sustain life, and videos of the ocean floor apparently show a graveyard of dead crabs and dead fish.
Scary stuff! But if accepting that you have a problem is the first step toward solving it, then I guess we’re at least heading in the right direction.