Carbon Shift: How the Twin Crises of Oil Depletion and Climate Change Will Define the Future

Carbon Shift: How the Twin Crises of Oil Depletion and Climate Change Will Define the Future
Thomas Homer-Dixon (ed.)
Toronto: Random House Canada
2009, 224 pages

I first met Thomas Homer-Dixon, or “Tad” as his friends call him, a few months after I began working at the David Suzuki Foundation. We were back-to-back speakers at a conference on the theme of catastrophic climate change. He spoke first, passionately and persuasively I might add. His presentation was a compendium of current scientific evidence, convincingly illustrated by tables, graphs and a short but dramatic video about the loss of Arctic sea ice. By comparison, my first performance in my new role was tame.

After our presentations, and while he was signing copies of his most recent title The Upside of Down, we talked about researching and writing books. Homer-Dixon told me that it takes a good five years to do a substantive work, and that he felt that he may have one more major effort in his future.

Well, Carbon Shift is not that work – clearly, his next big piece is yet to come. Instead, what you get is a collection of essays from six different authors, all weighing in on the topic of how “oil depletion and climate change will define the future.” A more diverse group of writers would be hard to find: journalists, scientists, economists and energy analysts. In addition, the introductory and closing chapters, which are co-written by Homer-Dixon and Nick Garrison, amount to a seventh essay since they form a unifying statement about the topic.

I imagine that co-ordinating such a varied group requires a greater effort than writing the entire book oneself. First of all, you need to keep everyone on topic. Second, you want to avoid duplication, and third, you want to ensure that all the writers are somewhat agreed on the book’s overall message. The result is a series of essays that are as diverse as the authors.

University of Calgary physicist David Keith argues that there is abundant fossil-fuel energy available – enough to last for more than two centuries at twice the current rate of consumption. He states that the emissions that result from burning it, however, will lead to an accelerating climate “rate of change” that will be beyond our ability to mitigate – much less adapt to. Keith’s conclusion is that we should put a price on carbon and that solutions will follow.

David Hughes, a geoscientist and long-time employee of the Geological Survey of Canada, writes that the energy “rate of supply” is the problem. If we cannot meet growing energy demand, we will arrive at “the beginning of a civilization-defining moment.” After exploring each of the major fossil-fuel sources, Hughes says that we need to reduce our hydrocarbon consumption to address the challenges to come.

Next, Mark Jaccard echoes David Keith, by arguing that there is an abundance of fossil fuels. His essay is almost entirely devoted to a discussion of pricing, price elasticity and a long-term trend to equate price and production costs. Jaccard, an economist from Simon Fraser University, concurs with Keith’s belief that the solution to the twin challenges of energy production and climate change is to put a price on emissions.

Jeff Rubin, the chief economist with CIBC World Markets, focuses on the traditional supply-and-demand models favoured by those in his profession. His essay looks at consumption rates and oil exports, and concludes that the future looks rosy for Canada. Climate change and environmental challenges apparently do not trouble Rubin – as long as Canada can raise both fossil fuel production and exports concurrently. His solution is to exploit what we’ve got to solve the energy problem, period.

The next two writers, William Marsden and Jeffrey Simpson, are journalists, and their essays reflect the provocative style and content for which they are renowned. Marsden slams his home province of Alberta, claiming that the provincial Conservatives underpriced its precious resource, spent all the gains and left little to show for it. When I finished reading Marsden’s piece, I was ready to storm the Legislature in Edmonton! Simpson, for his part, outlines the federal government’s history of failing to tackle climate change – including Mr. Harper’s Conservatives and their Liberal predecessors. He concludes that Canadians get what they deserve. Simpson suggests that current public opinion means that carbon pricing is a non-starter for the immediate future and that it would be best to regroup and go at it again when the time is more propitious.

In the brief introduction and conclusion, Homer-Dixon and Garrison discuss the key messages that frame the book. They start from the premise that we need ever greater quantities of cheap fossil fuels to feed our lifestyle, but because these resources are finite, their price will eventually go up. In fact, the breathtaking changes our civilization has experienced over the past century are due to a remarkable resource that is incredibly undervalued. From this perspective, the future is not rosy. Our world order depends on cheap oil to support economic growth. But when oil prices undergo sustained price spikes, an economic downturn will inevitably follow. Given that “peak oil” is only apparent in hindsight, Homer-Dixon and Garrison conclude that we are likely at the tipping point.

But this is only the first half of the twinned challenges facing us. The other half is that burning this valuable resource is releasing vast quantities of greenhouse gases that are having a significant impact on our planet. Homer-Dixon and Garrison refer to it as an “existential” crisis: one that makes us question who we are and where we are heading as it affects billions of people, as well as countless other species. Echoing Jaccard, they conclude that putting a realistic price on carbon is probably our only hope if we are to proactively and positively address the world our children will inherit.

So there you have it – a diverse, sometimes contradictory, but readable series of essays purporting to answer the question of how oil depletion and climate change will define the future. But does the book solve the challenge it poses? Not really. It provides a variety of opinions on energy prices, carbon pricing, public attitudes and government policies. If anything, a reader looking for a solution will come away from the book thinking that humanity may not be able to reconcile the challenges of energy scarcity and climate change because we haven’t fully agreed that they are interdependent and, therefore, inseparable.

If the reader approaches this book in the spirit of exploring the issue as a complex problem for which there is no simple solution, however, then the essays reinforce the conclusion that it will take all of our ingenuity, will and perseverance to prevent catastrophe. In the words of Ronald Wright, who wrote the lively foreword to Carbon Shift, “…a swift transition to much cleaner energy is our only hope of escaping the dire consequences of our runaway success.”

After spending eight years as the CEO of Mountain Equipment Co-op, Peter Robinson has taken up responsibilities as the head of the David Suzuki Foundation.

Originally published in Alternatives Journal’s Subscribe to Alternatives Today!

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