Click the audio player above to hear an interview with Thomas Homer-Dixon, co-editor of ‘Climate Shift: How the Twin Crises of Oil Depletion and Climate Change Will Define the Future‘ and author of ‘The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization‘.
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Thomas Homer-Dixon holds the Centre for International Governance Innovation Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada, and is a Professor in the Centre for Environment and Business in the Faculty of Environment, University of Waterloo.
Selected interview excerpts:
Professor Homer-Dixon, what is the Carbon Shift and why did you see a need for a book such as this?
THD: This book is an attempt to contribute to the democratic conversation we’re having in Canada about the climate and energy problems we’re facing. This book focuses on peak oil and climate change and the relationship between those two things. These two problems are really quite closely related to each other. We decided to bring a number of experts together to lay out the debate. These guys don’t all agree but there is agreement on the need for a carbon shift, which means focusing on carbon as a clarifying concept.
It is difficult to disentangle peak oil from climate change but focusing on carbon makes it simpler. Our solutions to the peak oil problem tend to make climate change worse and our solutions to climate change tend to make peak oil worse. For example, the best solution to peak oil would be to take coal and turn it into diesel fuel but it is a very dirty fuel from the point of view of carbon dioxide production. On the other hand, the easiest solution to the climate change problem is to reduce the consumption of carbon rich fuels like coal and tar sands energy but of course when you reduce the consumption of coal, you are actually eliminating the alternatives that could be available in the world of scarce conventional oil, so you make the peak oil problem worse in the sense that the economic consequences will be more severe.
If you focus on carbon, this whole problem starts to become more tractable. If we start paying a price for the emission of carbon into the atmosphere, it’s going to help the climate change problem by reducing carbon output. It’s also going to help shift us away from hydrocarbon fuels so it will address the peak oil problem.
You say in the book that we are going in diametrically the opposite direction to where we should be going. What do you mean by this?
THD: When you look at our carbon emissions and the trends over the last half dozen years or so, they have skyrocketed. As oil has become more expensive to get because it is scarcer, we’ve found that whole economies have started to use more coal. Carbon emissions from the use of fossil fuels have exceeded the worst case estimates put forward by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by a huge amount. We are now on a track to triple or quadruple concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the end of this century. That would produce, by any reasonable estimate, catastrophic climate change. So we are failing in mitigating our carbon output. We have to start paying a price for using the atmosphere as a garbage dump for our carbon.
How did we get this point in which our economies are entirely dependent on a cheap and abundant supply of fossil fuels?
THD: These hydrocarbon fuels have properties that make them incredibly valuable for us. They have incredibly high energy density and conventional oil is not particularly volatile; it doesn’t explode easily; it is relatively easy to refine. For a number of uses, hydrocarbon fuels have turned out to be an extraordinary boon for the development of human civilization. Three tablespoons of crude oil contain as much energy as would be expended by an adult male labourer in a day. Every time you fill up your gas tank, you’re putting the equivalent of two years of full time labour from a human being in your tank. It’s the best energy source we’re ever going to find on the planet.
Why have we seen such little action on a policy or governmental level? Will we require a crisis before we take action and could a crisis become a real to reimagine our society?
THD: When we are looking at changes of this magnitude, the only way they happen is when societies are galvanized by some kind of crisis. As I laid out in The Upside of Down, we are going to have some kind of systemic breakdown as we are seeing in the global economy now. But why are we so resistant to change? The science is pretty clear on both the energy and climate sides that we’ve got a real problem but there is enough uncertainty that we have scope for procrastination, denial and delay, especially when we’re talking about economic and social systems that are encumbered by enormous vested interests. In this case, we’re talking about some of the most powerful business, manufacturing and interests, all of which have quite an understandable resistance to change because the current system provides them with their status, wealth and power.
The reason Canada hasn’t made any progress at the federal level in terms of its climate change policies is because of the extraordinary power of the tar sands corporations all the way into the current Conservative federal Cabinet. The only way you can compensate for the power of these special interests is through sharp, systemic change. Crises will happen and at that point the current way of doing things becomes discredited. For those moments of opportunity to be seized effectively, people need to be prepared in advance. We need to be ready to mobilize ourselves to push ourselves in positive directions when the moment is ripe. There will be an opportunity to make real change on energy and climate policy.
You say in the book that “one of the most difficult challenge will be curtailing economic growth”. Why do we need to curtail growth?
THD: This is the elephant in the room that we need to start talking about but hardly anybody is. No matter how fast we advance in terms of improving the efficiency of our technologies, through economic growth we seem to be increasing our material lode on the environment – the throughput of energy and materials and the output of wastes such as carbon dioxide, which have steadily gone up for every industrial society in the world over the last 40 years because the economies have expanded so fast. We can’t do that indefinitely.
The World Bank predicts that we’re going to grow from a $70 trillion global economy today to $300 economy in the next half century. That’s just not going to happen. We are already seeing the consequences of climate change and a very seriously harmed environment as a result of a $70 trillion economy. There aren’t enough resources on the planet to support a $300 trillion economy. Sooner or later, economic growth is going to come to a halt whether we like it or not. It can be voluntary or involuntary. The question then will be how to maintain social peace because the lesson we learned in the 1930s is when you get high unemployment, you need to boost consumption. Keynes introduced policies that would allow us to grow economies indefinitely but now we’re running into the ecological limits of the planet. This may be the deepest conundrum we face. If we don’t have economic growth, what’s going to happen to the 2 billion people who live on $2 a day or less?
John Kenneth Galbraith has said that growth has been the best lubricant between rich and poor. In the absence of economic growth, we have to figure our how we’re going to keep our societies from ripping themselves apart in a fight between the rich and the poor. That’s a problem we haven’t solved.
How do you see all this unfolding and how do we get back on the right track?
THD: Our world today is not one that will be replicated in the future. We are going to see big changes. The systems we have developed just take too much energy to sustain. The changes will not be smooth and linear but sudden and non-linear, which is why I talk about breakdown but this is not necessarily a bad thing. We always learn the most in our lives from failure. These could be moments of extraordinary creativity around the world.
Everybody should fasten their seatbelts and get ready for a wild ride. We’re just seeing the beginnings of some of these changes. I’m not by any means prepared to write of the human species yet. We often do our best when times are tough.