1953 Review Outlines Key Issues With Fossil Fuels: The Most Colossal Planning Failure in Human History. Rapid Shift and Attention to the Rights of Future Generations Needed.

May 2021

“War Time Footing” Said Needed to Correct Economists’ Climate Change Failings. Steve Keen, a fellow at University College London, recently told CNBC that economic forecasts predicting the potential impact of climate change have grossly underestimated the reality and delayed global recovery efforts by decades. Keen said that mainstream economists ignored scientific data and instead “made up their own numbers” to suit their market models. Now, says Keen, a “war-level footing” is required to have any hope of repairing the damage. Referring specifically to a report produced by economists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Keen said even their most severe estimates were a “trivial underestimate of the damage we expect.” Keen said, that is because they “completely and deliberately ignore the possibility of tipping points,” a point at which climate change can cause irreversible shifts in the environment. “I think we should throw the economists completely out of this discussion and sit the politicians down with the scientists and say these are the potential outcomes of that much of a change to the biosphere. We are toying with forces far in excess of ones we can actually address,” he added. CNBC, May 24, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/05/24/war-footing-needed-to-correct-economists-climate-change-failings.html

German High Court Speaks to Future Generations in Accelerating CO2 Reduction Targets. The German Federal Constitutional Court has just declared Germany’s climate-change law partly unconstitutional. Germany’s first climate law in 2019 decreed that by 2030 carbon emissions must be cut by 55% from 1990 levels, and laid out annual quotas for different sources of emissions. It also stated that Germany would aim to emit no net greenhouse gases by 2050. But now the constitutional court has said the law risked forcing future generations to “engage in radical abstinence” by leaving too much of the burden to the years after 2030. Young activists cheered the court’s novel approach to intergenerational justice. Germany’s government was given until the end of 2022 to specify binding targets for the years after 2030. Chancellor Merkel’s ruling coalition leapt into action, drawing up legislation that far exceeds the court’s instructions. The government now wants to lift the 2030 reduction target to 65%, and to bring forward the net carbon-neutral date to 2045. The Economist, May 8, 2021, https://www.economist.com/ europe/2021/05/08/a-court-ruling-triggers-a-big-change-in-germanys-climate-policy 

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May 19, 2021 by Richard Heinberg in Common Dreams. We have built up civilization to a scale that can temporarily be supported by finite and polluting energy sources, and we have simply assumed that this scale of activity can continue to be supported by other energy sources that haven’t yet been developed or substantially deployed.

Palmer Putnam’s Energy in the Future, published in 1953, addresses “What did [w]e know, and when did [w]e know it?”  about the climate and energy conundrum that threatens to undermine civilization today? Putnam understood that the fossil fuel age would be relatively brief. With regard to coal, he wrote: “. . . costs of extraction continue to rise, while the average heat value in a ton of coal has begun to decline, at least in the United States.” Similar symptoms of depletion would inevitably overtake the oil and gas industry, the author noted, even if the tar sands of Canada and shale oil (Putnam used these specific terms), as well as improvements in exploration and production technology, were all accounted for. In a section at the very end of the book, titled, “The Combustion of Fossil Fuels, the Climate and Sea Level,” Putnam wrote, “Perhaps such a derangement of the CO2 cycle would lead to an increased CO2 content of the atmosphere great enough to affect the climate and cause a further rise of sea level. We do not know this. We ought to know it.” Now we know, and it turns out that a lot more than just a hike in sea level is in the offing. But we still haven’t done much to change the worrisome trend of soaring greenhouse gas emissions...here we are, seven decades later, using fossil fuels globally at roughly three times the rate we were depleting and burning them in 1953. They still supply 85 percent of global energy.

Here’s the essence of our planning failure: we have built up civilization to a scale that can temporarily be supported by finite and polluting energy sources, and we have simply assumed that this scale of activity can continue to be supported by other energy sources that haven’t yet been developed or substantially deployed. Further, we have incorporated limitless growth into the requirements for civilization’s success and maintenance—despite the overwhelming likelihood that growth can occur for only a historically brief interval. Failing to plan is often the equivalent of planning to fail. Planning is a function of language and reason—of which we humans are certainly capable. We plan all sorts of things, from weddings to the construction of giant hydroelectric dams. Yet we are also subject to cognitive dysfunctions—denial and delusion—which seem to plague our thinking. In effect, we have collectively bet our fate on the vague hope that “somebody will come up with something.” Our failure continues—now with regard to the transition to renewable energy sources, primarily solar photovoltaics and wind power. Putnam himself, after surveying the limits to fossil fuels and nuclear power, seemed to settle on solar as humanity’s long-term hope; yet he acknowledged that the realization of this hope depended on the development of technologies to make solar electricity available “in more useful forms and at lower costs than now appear possible.” His wording suggests that he was grasping at straws.

The sun sets over container ships and oil platforms off the coast of Huntington Beach on Tuesday, January 12, 2021. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

The sun sets over container ships and oil platforms off the coast of Huntington Beach, CA on Tuesday, January 12, 2021. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

A couple of days ago I happened to pick up an old book gathering dust on one of my office shelves—Palmer Putnam’s Energy in the Future, published in 1953. Here was a time capsule of energy concerns from nearly a lifetime ago—and it got me to thinking along the lines of Howard Baker’s famous question during the Watergate hearings: “What did [w]e know, and when did [w]e know it?”  That is, what did we know back then about the climate and energy conundrum that threatens to undermine civilization today?

The fossil fuel age had begun over a century prior to 1953, and it was known by then that coal, oil, and natural gas represent millions of years’ worth of stored ancient sunlight…

Putnam’s thick tome wasn’t a best seller, but it was considered authoritative, and it found a place on the desks of serious policy makers. Remarkably, it explored both of the core drawbacks of fossil fuels, though these were as yet on almost no one else’s radar screen.

Putnam understood that the fossil fuel age would be relatively brief. With regard to coal, he wrote: “. . . costs of extraction continue to rise, while the average heat value in a ton of coal has begun to decline, at least in the United States.” Similar symptoms of depletion would inevitably overtake the oil and gas industry, the author noted, even if the tar sands of Canada and shale oil (Putnam used these specific terms), as well as improvements in exploration and production technology, were all accounted for. In a section at the very end of the book, titled, “The Combustion of Fossil Fuels, the Climate and Sea Level,” Putnam wrote, “Perhaps such a derangement of the CO2 cycle would lead to an increased CO2 content of the atmosphere great enough to affect the climate and cause a further rise of sea level. We do not know this. We ought to know it.” Now we know, and it turns out that a lot more than just a hike in sea level is in the offing. But we still haven’t done much to change the worrisome trend of soaring greenhouse gas emissions.

While the writing and publication of Energy in the Future were paid for by the United States Atomic Energy Commission, Putnam was not a single-minded proponent of nuclear power as a substitute for fossil fuels. The subject did get substantial treatment in his book, but he spent as much ink on limits and downsides as he did on the potential of nuclear sources to meet energy needs. Putnam concluded that, “Based on present knowledge, it does not appear likely that the fission of uranium or thorium could ever support more than 10 to 20 per cent of the energy system of the United States patterned as at present. The figures for the world energy system would hardly be higher.” Today, the US gets about 8 percent of its total energy from nuclear power, while the global figure is closer to 4 percent.

Putnam explored a range of alternative energy sources, including fuel wood, farm wastes, wind power, solar heat collectors, solar photovoltaics, tidal power, and heat pumps, but judged that these would not be sufficient to propel the continued economic growth of modern societies. Putnam, who died in 1984, was himself a pioneer in the development of wind power.

Energy in the Future was favorably reviewed in the prestigious journal Science, but it had negligible impact on public policy. And here we are, seven decades later, using fossil fuels globally at roughly three times the rate we were depleting and burning them in 1953. They still supply 85 percent of global energy.

Here’s the essence of our planning failure: we have built up civilization to a scale that can temporarily be supported by finite and polluting energy sources, and we have simply assumed that this scale of activity can continue to be supported by other energy sources that haven’t yet been developed or substantially deployed. Further, we have incorporated limitless growth into the requirements for civilization’s success and maintenance—despite the overwhelming likelihood that growth can occur for only a historically brief interval. Failing to plan is often the equivalent of planning to fail. Planning is a function of language and reason—of which we humans are certainly capable. We plan all sorts of things, from weddings to the construction of giant hydroelectric dams. Yet we are also subject to cognitive dysfunctions—denial and delusion—which seem to plague our thinking. In effect, we have collectively bet our fate on the vague hope that “somebody will come up with something.” Our failure continues—now with regard to the transition to renewable energy sources, primarily solar photovoltaics and wind power. Putnam himself, after surveying the limits to fossil fuels and nuclear power, seemed to settle on solar as humanity’s long-term hope; yet he acknowledged that the realization of this hope depended on the development of technologies to make solar electricity available “in more useful forms and at lower costs than now appear possible.” His wording suggests that he was grasping at straws.

There have indeed been significant technical improvements in wind and solar PV technology, along with huge cost reductions...(however), without planning, this is what will most likely happen: we’ll fail to produce enough renewable energy to power society at the level at which we want it to operate. So, we’ll continue to get most of our energy from fossil fuels—until we can’t, due to depletion. Then, as the economy crashes and the planet heats, the full impacts of our planning failure will finally hit home. It may already be too late to avert that scenario. But let’s assume there is indeed enough time, and that we suddenly get serious about planning. What should we do?

We should start with conservative estimates of how much energy solar and wind can provide…Then, planners would explore ways to reduce energy usage to that level, with a minimum of disruption to people’s lives…Putnam discussed the relationship between population and energy back in 1953), and then create and implement policies to begin matching population to those levels in a way that reduces, rather than worsening, existing social inequities. A comprehensive plan would detail the amount of investment required, and over what period of time, and would specify the sources of the money…It’s gob-smacking to think a planning process actually could have started as early as 70 years ago, and that, at this late date, it has still barely begun. Instead, today’s policy makers mostly just extrapolate PV price trends, hope for further technological improvements, and assume that huge systems for supplying society’s needs using renewable energy rather than fossil fuels will somehow self-assemble in an optimum way and at full scale—all in just a couple of decades.

Without planning, it just won’t happen.

Richard Heinberg is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of thirteen books, including his most recent: “Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for One Hundred Percent Clean Energy” (2016). Previous books include: “Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels” (2015), “Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future” (2013); “The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies” (2005); “Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines (2010); and “The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality” (2011).