As I discussed in the first part of this blog, the “We” are those who believe energy availability will soon become a national and world problem, that burning fossil fuels is damaging our environment, that more action should be taken to prepare for living well with less energy, and less effort should be spent on trying to support growth and business-as-usual, especially by using increasingly dirty oil substitutes. In particular, the We are those who hold these concerns as day-to-day and long-term priorities.
To be sure, most people are aware energy prices are increasing and they are concerned about the increasing drain on their budgets, but this is not something they lose sleep over – it is just another of their many lower level concerns. When I say most people, I’m referring to the overwhelming majority of people in our region and in the United States. That is to say We are currently the underwhelming minority. I have come across several segments of this Majority the last few months and would like to share what I have observed.
I used to believe it was just the uninformed who weren’t concerned about the World’s oil situation and Global Warming, but here are fully informed, well educated groups who are not particularly concerned.
I gave a presentation of current trends affecting oil availability to a small group of scientists and engineers. Their response, or I should say lack of response, during the discussion period caught me off guard. As a group they believed oil prices would continue to increase, but they did not believe energy availability would be a serious problem in the next 10 to 20 years! Not surprisingly, they thought advances in technology would allow existing resources to keep pace with growing demand.
I updated the presentation with a few more “facts” and graphs and included some of my Global Warming concerns related to burning fossil fuels. I then presented “Oil and Our Environment” to a group of environmental engineers, consultants and lawyers. After sharing the main reasons I was concerned about oil and our environment, I conducted a brief survey to collect their feelings. A majority believed that availability would become tighter and all agreed that energy prices would continue to increase. And as you might expect most were concerned about environmental issues. Still there was no consensus that the World would begin fighting over oil resources. The general consensus was that developments in technology and additional discoveries would minimize disruption.
The third group I have gotten input from is real estate agents. I’m selling our energy efficient house and I asked several agencies informally over the last two years and three agencies formally last month, “Can we get a premium for our house due to its energy efficiency?” This is not as black and white as you might think. First all houses are somewhat different and since I built mine it is certainly no exception. Secondly the market analysis process is also somewhat subjective, based on personal experience and quantitative factors. All agents I talked with were encouraging but skeptical. Each looked into the idea and ultimately all said that I could not sell for a premium, primarily due to the assessment process and bank lending policies. Besides, the market was not educated enough to factor energy efficiency effectively nor was it especially concerned about energy. In other words, an upgraded kitchen trumps upgraded insulation, air sealing, solar gains and a geothermal heating system.
The next two groups’ feedback was not as direct to me, but interesting and relevant nonetheless. An economist, blogger, Mark Perry shares his thoughts and some real life “substitution” examples in his blog, Carpe Diem. Because of this economic principle in action, he and others maintain, “we never have, and never will, run out of scarce resources like oil because as a resource becomes more scarce, its price will rise, which will set in motion a series of actions that will counteract the scarcity.”
The final “group” I want to mention is Fisher Investments. This is an impressive, mid-size investment firm, but most interesting to me is that they wrote a book, “Fisher Investments on ENERGY” in 2009 and more recently they reviewed Richard Heinberg’s, “The End of Growth.”
I reviewed their book on energy separately, but want to add here a couple of points. First, the authors’ “voice,” in literary terms, is economical and analytical; it is not the critical and catastrophizing voice We are accustomed to in the Peak Oil genre. And yes, Peak Oil is acknowledged and discussed, but discussed in a rather detached manner; because after all, financial advisors have no dog in the fight – they are just analyzing the situation and making the best investments or recommendations. As a matter of fact, they suggest a course of action if you believe Peak Oil and rising energy prices are imminent. But the bottom line, Peak Oil is just another trend to be watched and worked around.
Finally, Naj Srinivas, a Content Specialist at Fisher Investments, reviewed “The End of Growth” in May. Again his (their) belief is that economic principles of substitution and supply and demand pricing will work with oil as they have worked with other scarce or depleting resources. He also addressed the concern about national debt. He doesn’t actually say it is not a problem, but puts it in context as not alarming. Read it – see what an informed, educated financial analyst believes!
Sure there are many uninformed who are not concerned, but there are also so many informed, educated people who are not particularly concerned about energy or the environment. I don’t think these are exceptions either, but the overwhelming Majority.
Why don’t we look at the same “facts” and come to the same conclusions?
What are We to do?
Certainly We should continue updating and sharing our understanding of the “facts” and The Problem. I share what I consider important in “Oil and Our Environment.” I discuss the trends (oil production, discoveries, self-interest, increasing energy cost to deliver energy, and an expanding demand base), I explain my understanding of the underlying causes of Global Warming (burning fossil fuels creates CO2, a lot of it; the greenhouse effect and CO2 correlation with the rise in temperature; and just because it may have been hotter when CO2 levels were lower doesn’t mean CO2 isn’t causing Global Warming now), and I outline the risks (minimally we will spend more for energy, worst case there will be global strife we could avoid or lessen; and we have just one planet, just one chance to get it right). I don’t expect to persuade the informed non-believers, but it is a good chance for dialog with them and it is a good introduction for the uninformed.
We haven’t needed positive proof that the worst will happen to see the need for change. Perhaps We are wrong, perhaps we’re just being pessimistic?
Perhaps the others are optimistic? Maybe overly optimistic? In her research and recent book, The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain (Vintage, June 2012), Tali Sharot shows that most of us have an “optimism bias,” a belief that the future will be better, much better than the past. Or maybe as my boss used to say, “we have happy ears and just pay attention to what we want to hear?”
Or maybe it is the confusion, the endless public debate that leaves minds dull and no longer caring? Is the debate real or contrived? Should there still be debate? Are the answers as clear as Bill McKibben outlines in his recent Rolling Stone article? Is there a true IPCC scientific consensus or might John Christy have a few valid points in his recent Senate testimony?
As time consuming as it is, to build an effective voting block for change, We need to continue to push for more discussion and for a better, more open process. If, as some have said, 97% of climate scientists agree on the data and conclusions of the current Global Warming science, then it should not take too long to address the concerns John makes in his testimony.
Whatever the reasons, whatever the true answers, time is wasting. We need aggressive leadership who demands transparent and honest science. If oil and our environment are not a concern, I’d like to focus on something that is. If they are a concern, we all ought to understand the concern and work hard to do what we can, or choose to ignore it at our own peril.
Dan Gibson is the Reporter and Chief Coordinator of Our Energy Independence Community (http://www.OEIC.us). Previously he performed home energy audits for five years in NYSERDA’s Home Performance program and new home ratings in the New York ENERGY STAR Home program. He is currently building a 100% Solar Home. He can be reached at DanG@OEIC.us.