We need to be realistic about where we are, and ambitious about what we can do. Climate change is a massive problem, but the worst effects could still be avoided. Transition Initiatives are but one of many powerful carbon-reduction technologies which, if embraced in time, could mean that we avoid the extremes of climate change.
Jeremy Leggett has called peak oil and climate change the “Two Great Oversights of Our Times.” Both are symptoms of a society addicted to fossil fuels. However, it is too simplistic to assert that peak oil will mean climate change will be brought under control because we will run out of access to affordable liquid fuels. The real situation is much more complex.
We have a choice about how we respond to peak oil. We can use it as an argument for developing solutions that put in place infrastructure that will support us beyond the Oil Age, or we can use it to justify clinging to fossil fuels at all costs–even war, occupations, and oil spill disasters in the Gulf of Mexico. The danger is that the gap which emerges as liquid fuels decline in availability, could be filled with other fuels far worse in terms of their climate impacts than oil was – the turning of coal into liquid fuels, tar sands, biodiesel and so on.
IF WE DON’T FILL THE GAP with conservation and a concerted program of relocalization, and if we refuse collectively to acknowledge the reality of energy descent (the downward trend in the net energy underpinning society), we will rapidly drive ourselves beyond the climatic tipping points and could unleash climate hell.
If we see climate change as a separate and distinct issue from peak oil, we risk creating a world of lower emissions but one which is, in terms of oil vulnerability, just as fragile as today’s.
A good example of this is New York, which recently emerged in a study as having one of the lowest per capita CO2 emissions of any large Western city, less than a third of the per capita US average. This is due to the density of living, the walkability, good public transport and the low heating requirements of apartment living. So, from a climate change perspective we can argue that New York is a good model of low carbon living.
Now let’s weave peak oil into that mix. What happens to New York in the event of a power shortage, or when the price of importing food starts to rise sharply? New York experienced such a power cut in August 2003, and although it only lasted for a day, its impact was keenly felt. While New York may have a small carbon footprint, it has little or no resilience to declining oil supplies.
Climate change says we should change, whereas peak oil says we will be forced to change. Both categorically state that fossil fuels have no role to play in our future, and the sooner we can stop using them the better. It is key that both climate change and peak oil are given an equal degree of importance in any decision-making processes. The Transition model incorporates this approach, and emphasizes the rebuilding of resilience into our communities, as equally important as cutting carbon emissions.
It is important to point out that unless we plan in advance for peak oil, and adopt measures such as the Oil Depletion Protocol, the recession caused by runaway oil prices will blow responses to climate change out of the water. Responding to climate change on an adequate scale requires a lot of money and an unprecedented degree of global co-operation. An economic recession – or worse, collapse – will make keeping the lights on our priority, and tackling climate change will slide rapidly down our list of priorities. Facing runaway climate change with a collapsed economy is the scenario we really want to avoid, and we separate these two issues at our peril.