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Monday, December 06, 2010

The Peak Oil Crisis

Did We Vote Ourselves to Extinction?

by Tom Whipple

Falls Church News-Press (November 18 2010)

The disconnect between the American body politic and reality grows larger every day.

In reviewing hundreds of pages of commentary on the election, one searches in vain for analysis that even come close to describing what is happening to the nation - that is, we are in the midst of a massive deflating credit bubble and running short of affordable liquid fuels at the same time. There seems to be general agreement that the new balance of power in Washington means two years of gridlock. Despite an occasional bow in the direction of bi-partisanship, the new majority in the house is saying quite openly that it will work to lower taxes, cut spending, will stop any efforts to deal with climate change, and will spend the next two years investigating everything it can about the Obama administration in hopes it will be so discredited in two years that the President can't possibly win another term. Whether this agenda is what the voters thought they would get on November 2 when they voted yet again for change is another question.

Upon assuming office, the Obama administration faced the biggest choice of any American President since Lincoln - either face up to the fact that the industrial age, with its mantra of endless economic growth, was over and start making preparations for a new era, or try to revive the economy. Apparently the new President, unwilling to grapple with the downsizing of civilization, chose to prolong the deteriorating industrial economy for a few more years by increasing deficit spending, attempting to reform health care, and resorting to various monetary tactics that may or may not keep the financial system from ultimately collapsing. The basis of the problem is that without steadily increasing amounts of cheap energy, reviving economic growth as we know it is simply not sustainable for long. Borrowing and printing trillions of dollars may briefly slow the decline, but little more.

The trillions spent on bailouts and stimulation kept the illusion of recovery going for some months, but did little to increase employment or reverse the disintegration of the inflated housing market. Some polls show nearly half of US households have been seriously affected in some manner by the adverse economic conditions, yet the administration continued to express optimism rather than realism. In November of 2009 and 2010, the people spoke and the Congress and many statehouses were populated with many new faces. In most cases these newly elected officials had even less idea how the situation could be fixed, but they were new and that gave the voters a ray of hope.

The one policy area where the Obama administration tried to make major changes was in dealing with global warming by controlling carbon emissions. It is interesting that an issue on which there should be universal agreement - saving life on the planet - managed to degenerate into an imbroglio which approaches religious fanaticism. The reason of course is that controlling emissions is now thought by many as synonymous with further job losses.

Although a stream of studies conclude that global temperatures are rising, ice is melting everywhere, and people who study such things say increasing amounts of carbon in the atmosphere are to blame, over half of America believes man-made global warming is a giant hoax. A recent Pew poll says that only 37 percent of Americans and 41 percent of the Chinese believe global warming is a serious problem. Only in Pakistan, which ironically is on the cusp of being done in by global warming, and Poland of all places, are people said to be less worried than here in the US.

So where is all this leading? The new House majority can't cut the interest on the national debt, will be viscerally reluctant to make serious cuts in defense spending, and is unlike to have the stomach to make serious cuts in entitlements. Therefore, it will likely content itself with chopping a few marquis spending programs such as earmarks, declare victory, and go back to preparing for the 2012 elections. There is even a good chance that they will still be preparing when the next oil price spike occurs. If the spike is high enough and lasts long enough it could enter into the political debates in the 2012 election. But it really doesn't matter; very high oil prices are going to do serious harm to the economy one of these days, and when they come, the realistic discussions can begin as to what we can do.

Unfortunately the most serious of all issues facing us in the long run could turn out to be the failure of the United States to exercise any sort of leadership on emissions controls. As matters stand right now the new majority in the House of Representatives seems dead set on any kind of controls and says it will do its utmost to prevent the administration from controlling emissions administratively.

Now a few years or even a few decades of unchecked carbon emissions may not be of consequence. The problem, however, is: what if, as many believe, we are nearing a carbon tipping point. Some climate scientists say that an average global increase of six degrees Celsius leave the earth uninhabitable [by human beings]. Long before we get there, rising sea levels, droughts, floods, storms and what have you will make life very unpleasant for those of us still around or our descendants. Someday, those who are left will wonder just what we were thinking about when we let all this happen.

Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.

Bill Totten


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