Climate, Energy, Economy: Pick Two

7 07 2016

Another darn good read from Raul Ilargi of Automatic Earth…..


We used to have this saying that if someone asks you to do a job good, fast and cheap, you’d say: pick two. You can have it good and cheap, but then it won’t be fast, etc. As our New Zealand correspondent Dr. Nelson Lebo III explains below, when it comes to our societies we face a similar issue with our climate, energy and the economy.

Not the exact same, but similar, just a bit more complicated. You can’t have your climate nice and ‘moderate’, your energy cheap and clean, and your economy humming along just fine all at the same time. You need to make choices. That’s easy to understand.

Where it gets harder is here: if you pick energy and economy as your focus, the climate suffers (for climate you can equally read ‘the planet’, or ‘the ecosystem’). Focus on climate and energy, and the economy plunges. So far so ‘good’.

But when you emphasize climate and economy, you get stuck. There is no way the two can be ‘saved’ with our present use of fossil fuels, and our highly complex economic systems cannot run on renewables (for one thing, the EROEI is not nearly good enough).

It therefore looks like focusing on climate and economy is a dead end. It’s either/or. Something will have to give, and moreover, many things already have. Better be ahead of the game if you don’t want to be surprised by these things. Be resilient.

But this is Nelson’s piece, not mine. The core of his argument is worth remembering:

Everything that is not resilient to high energy prices and extreme weather events will become economically unviable…

…and approach worthlessness. On the other hand,…

Investments of time, energy, and money in resilience will become more economically valuable…

Here’s Nelson:



Nelson Lebo: There appear to be increasing levels of anxiety among environmental activists around the world and in my own community in New Zealand. After all, temperature records are being set at a pace equal only to that of Stephen Curry and LeBron James in the NBA Finals. A recent Google news headline said it all: “May is the 8th consecutive month to break global temperature records.”

In other words, October of last year set a record for the highest recorded global monthly temperature, and then it was bettered by November, which was bettered by December, January, and on through May. The hot streak is like that of Lance Armstrong’s Tour De France dominance, but we all know how that turned out in the end.

Making history – like the Irish rugby side in South Africa recently – is usually a time to celebrate. Setting a world record would normally mean jubilation – not so when it comes to climate.

Responses to temperature records range from sorrow, despair, anger, and even fury. Anyone with children or grandchildren (and even the childless) who believes in peer review and an overwhelming scientific consensus has every right to feel these emotions. So why do I feel only resignation?

We are so far down the track at this point that we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Remember the warnings 30 years ago that we needed 30 years to make the transition to a low carbon economy or else there would be dire consequences? Well, in case you weren’t paying attention, it didn’t happen.

While these warnings were being issued by scientists much of the world doubled down – Trump-like – on Ford Rangers, Toyota Tacomas, and other sport utility vehicles. The same appears to be happening now, with the added element that we are experiencing the dire consequences as scientists issue even more warnings and drivers buy even more ‘light trucks’. Forget Paris, the writing was on the wall at Copenhagen.


The bottom line is that most people will (and currently do) experience climate change as a quality of life issue, and quality of life is related to a certain extent to disposable income. Acting or not acting proactively or reactively on climate change is expensive and gets more expensive every day.

If the international community ever takes collective action on climate change it will make individuals poorer because the cost of energy will rise significantly. If the international community fails to act, individuals will be made poorer because of the devastating effects of extreme weather events – like last year’s historic floods where I live as well as in northern England, etc – shown to be on the increase over the last 40 years in hundreds of peer-reviewed papers with verifiable data.

And here is the worst part: most economies around the world rely on some combination of moderate climate and cheap fossil fuels. For example, our local economy is heavily dependent on agriculture and tourism, making it exceptionally vulnerable to both acting AND not acting on climate change.

Drought hurts rural economies and extreme winds and rainfall can cost millions in crop damage as well as repairs to fencing, tracks and roads. As a result, both farmers and ratepayers have fewer dollars in their pockets to spend on new shoes, a night out, or a family trip. This is alongside living in a degraded environment post-disaster. The net result is a negative impact on quality of life: damned if we don’t.

On the other hand, tourism relies on inexpensive jet fuel and petrol to get the sightseers and thrill seekers to and around the world with enough dollars left over to slosh around local economies. Think about all of the service sector jobs that rely on tourism that in turn depend entirely on a continuous supply of cheap fuel. (This is not to mention peak oil and the lack of finance available to fund any long and expensive transition to an alternative energy world.) I’m told 70% of US jobs are in the service sector, most of which rely on inexpensive commuting and/or a highly mobile customer base.

Any significant approach to curbing carbon emissions in the short term will result in drastic increases to energy prices. The higher the cost of a trip from A to Z the less likely it is to be made. As a result, business owners and ratepayers at Z will have fewer dollars in their pockets to spend on new shoes, a night out, or a family vacation of their own. The net result is a negative impact on their quality of life: damned if we do.


I suppose it deserves repeating: most OECD economies and the quality of life they bring rely on both moderate climate and cheap fossil fuels, but these are mutually exclusive. Furthermore, regardless of emissions decisions made by the international community, we are already on track for decades of temperature records and extreme weather events that will cost billions if not trillions of dollars.

The response in many parts of the world has been to protest. That’s cool, but you can’t protest a drought – the drought does not care. You can’t protest a flood – the flood does not care. And even if the protests are successful at influencing government policies – which I hope long-term they are – we are still on track for decades of climatic volatility and the massive price tags for clean up and repair.

Go ahead and protest, people, but you better get your house in order at the same time, and that means build resilience in every way, shape and form.

Resilience is the name of the game, and I was impressed with Kyrie Irving’s post NBA game seven remarks that the Cleveland Cavaliers demonstrated great resilience as a team.

As I wrote here at TAE over a year ago, Resilience Is The New Black. If you don’t get it you’re not paying attention.

This article received a wide range of responses from those with incomplete understandings of the situation as well as those in denial – both positions dangerous for their owners as well as friends and neighbours.

The double bind we find ourselves in by failing to address the issue three decades ago is a challenge to put it mildly. Smart communities recognize challenges and respond accordingly. The best response is to develop resilience in the following areas: ecological, equity, energy and economic.

The first two of these I call the “Pope Index” because Francis has identified climate change and wealth inequality as the greatest challenges facing humanity. Applying the Pope Index to decision making is easy – simply ask yourself if decisions made in your community aggravate climate change and wealth inequality or alleviate them.

For the next two – energy and economics – I take more of a Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight (credit, Thom Hartmann) perspective that I think is embraced by many practicing permaculturists. Ancient sunlight (fossil fuels) is on its way out and if we do not use some to build resilient infrastructure on our properties and in our communities it will all be burned by NASCAR, which in my opinion would be a shame.

As time passes, everything that is not resilient to high energy prices and extreme weather events will become economically unviable and approach worthlessness.

On the other hand, investments of time, energy, and money in resilience will become more economically valuable as the years pass.

Additionally, the knowledge, skills and experience gained while developing resilience are the ultimate in ‘job security’ for an increasingly volatile future.

If you know it and can do it and can teach it you’ll be sweet. If not, get onto it before it’s too late.

The Energy Cliff Revisited

22 10 2014

Gough Whitlam died yesterday.  The whole country seems to have paused for thought, many media outlets are even saying things like “where to from here”, and the cluelessness abounds.  Where to from here indeed……  Today, our politicians are elected to office based on false promises.  They promise things they can’t deliver, and we continue to be perpetually shocked when they don’t deliver.  We never seem to get tired of this game, we always lose.

I have spent little time posting here, mainly for fear of simply repeating myself.  As I am doing now, really…. but once you ‘get it’, what else is there to say?  As the price of oil fell to $80 last week, much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth occurred on the subject of how long the unconventional oil drillers of oil would last….  while some commentators were despairing at the thought that cheaper fossil fuels would mean the end of the current push for renewables, if you can still call it that.

When I pointed out to these people that the fossil fuel companies were actually going broke, I was met with the derision I am now accustomed to.  I’m getting quite immune to that now, if you don’t believe me, it’s your problem, not mine…  mind you, as we approach ‘the knee’ of the energy cliff curve, it is baffling as to why the price of oil dropped so much, when it should have in fact risen, and risen substantially.  The answer of course is that the global economy is on its knees.  Growth is fetid at best, and in Europe, things are going from bad to worse, even prompting some people to predict that ‘the big one’ was going to occur on the 27th anniversary of the Black Monday crash.  Didn’t happen, unfortunately…..  but the ducks have all lined up in waiting.

Most of us here have surely heard of the seven stages of grief…. Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Guilt, Depression, Acceptance. Where are we in our journey through these stages when it come to the financial crisis, and to growth? There’s only one stage that even remotely sounds right: Denial. We’re not even close to Anger yet, not when it comes to the larger population.  Me, I’d like to add another stage:  REACTION….!

justwalkawayIf enough people just walked away, the whole mess would end.  Any time people post whinges on FB these days, I reply with that picture.

Apart from denial, there is of course ignorance.  The concept of the energy cliff is foreign to just about anyone who doesn’t follow blogs such as this one.  It occurred to me that we have been sliding down the edges of the energy cliff for a very long time.  At the beginning of the oil era, when the ERoEI was 100:1, everything was easy.  We just had to invent it, and we had so much surplus energy that we could fumble our way around and build outrageous cars and airplanes, steel skyscrapers, huge ships, growth was easy…..  and when the ERoEI of oil dropped to 50:1, who noticed?  We still had 100:1 oil to make the equipment needed to get that oil (which, let’s face it, was still amazing value…)

As the easy pickings were exploited, it was still easy to burn 25:1 and even 15:1 energy sources…. but it is at this stage that we approach ‘the knee’ of the nett energy curve, and start falling off its cliff.

Building 5:1 solar energy gizmos with 15:1 oil, let alone with more 5:1 PVs or those appallingly inefficient tar sands and shale oil suddenly becomes a struggle.  This is what people who argue that we don’t need fossil fuels to make renewables do not understand.  Bad ERoEI compounds when you use one low source to get another.  Social complexity utterly relies on surplus energy.  It was with surplus energy that Europe’s cathedrals were build during the middle ages, and the same applies to building wind and solar farms.

If you are new to these concepts, I urge you to watch the video below from Chris Martenson’s excellent crash course series, a must watch program of videos for anyone who doesn’t yet know why the world is going to hell in a handbasket……  NOTE:  This video shows solar as having an ERoEI somewhere around 20:1.  This is because it was made in 2009, and in the intervening 5 years, it has been established that it is fact less than 5…. maybe even less than 3!  This is displayed more accurately in the more recent chart above……