Historical Perspective

We are living during the middle years of the “Fossil Fuel Era” which began with the start of the industrial revolution approximately 250 years ago.  It will almost certainly come to a close sometime within the next 250 years, and probably much sooner.

From an energy perspective, there are three basic eras in human evolution/history;   the “First Renewable Energy Era”, the “Fossil Fuel Era”, and the “Second Renewable Energy Era”.

The First Renewable Energy Era began some 800,000+  years ago and lasted until a mere 250 years ago.   Prior to the mid-18th century, the world was entirely dependent upon renewable energy in the form of fire wood, human and animal power, and a small number of windmills and water wheels.  Even as late as 1890 these fundamental sources of renewable energy accounted for more than half of the world’s energy consumption.  In 1750, at the beginning of the Fossil Fuel Era, world population stood at approximately 790 million.  Today it is over 7 billion and well on the way to at least 9 billion by mid-century and perhaps 11 billion by the end of the century.

The Fossil Fuel Era made possible all of the things that define what we think of as the “modern” world, e.g.,  central heating, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, television, the internet, rapid land and air travel, and a myriad other technologies that have arisen only within the past hundred years.  It is almost impossible for us to imagine that the Fossil Fuel Era within which we live, and which makes possible all of the inventions of the past hundred years, will inevitably come to an end within the next 250 years.  And yet that is truly the case.

The Fossil Fuel Era will come to an end in one of two ways.  On the current path, mankind will simply consume all of the oil, coal and natural gas that it can find and extract.   [The proven reserves of oil will last approximately 53 years at current rates of production, natural gas will last 55 years and coal perhaps 115 years.  With improvements in extraction technology and continued exploration it may be possible to double these projected lifetimes.] 

Unfortunately, we now know beyond any reasonable doubt that the current path will have a catastrophic climate impact.   The consensus scientific judgment is that, on the current emissions path, average global temperatures will likely increase by approximately 4o C  (7.2o F) by the end of this century, relative to the level at the start of the industrial revolution,  and that the temperature will continue to increase unabated for centuries and will lead to an environment that is likely to be incompatible with human survival.

The other alternative is to completely phase out the use of fossil fuels, and to do so at a rate that appears to be almost impossible from today’s perspective.   Simply put, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 80% by mid-century and to eliminate them entirely by the end of the century.

The consensus view, even among the segment of the population that is reasonably knowledgeable about climate change, is that the technologies to accomplish this feat are available today and that all that is missing is the political will to implement these technologies on a sufficient scale.  In effect, the common view is that what we face is a policy/political problem and not a technology problem.   Nothing could be further from the truth!   What we have is an engineering/industrial problem writ large for which we do not at the present time have a viable solution.   To reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by mid-century we would need to replace virtually all of the world’s energy, industrial, and transportation infrastructure within the span of approximately 35 years.

Anyone who claims to know what the world will look like, or how many of our species it will support, when we enter the Second Renewable Energy Era is either terribly ill informed or a charlatan. Perhaps the most insidious problem that we face is that within the past hundred years we have lost the ability to think critically about a whole range of problems, including the climate/energy problem.  The breath taking advancement of science and technology during the 20th century and early 21st century has led us to falsely believe that almost anything that the mind of man can envision is technically feasible.  All that is required is sufficient government investment in research, coupled with sufficient technological “innovation” within the private sector!  Sadly, this is not only a false assumption but a very dangerous one.