Cross Your Fingers and Carry On

Our leaders' approach to risk is unbalanced: huge resources to guard against an extinct disease, and nothing on oil running out

Here's how the British government describes the risk of a smallpox
outbreak. "We are currently at alert level O. Smallpox remains
eradicated. No credible threat of a smallpox release."

So, in
response to this non-existent threat, it has published 122 pages of
central plans. Each of the nine English regions maintains a Smallpox
Diagnosis and Response Group, which in turn supports five Smallpox
Management and Response Teams, one of which is on duty at all times.
There are smallpox centres all over the country and lists of doctors,
nurses and support staff prepared to run them, laboratories ready to
multiply vaccines, and planning committees involving scores of
different agencies.

The plans, in other words, must have cost
millions. They use thousands of hours of specialist time every year.
But step forward the man or woman who believes the government should
abandon them.

The chances that this extinct disease might break
out here are extremely remote - one in a million perhaps - but they
cannot be dismissed while the US and Russia disgracefully refuse to
destroy their stockpiles. Stealing, weaponising and distributing the
virus would require capabilities beyond those of any known terrorist
group. The government's plans are almost certainly a waste of time and
money. But they are a waste of time and money that makes sense.

is what government is for: to prepare for the worst, however unlikely
it may be. The UK, like all rich nations, maintains an elaborate
network of agencies to defend us from unlikely events: the ministerial
sub-committee on protective security and resilience, the Civil
Contingencies Secretariat, the domestic horizon scanning committee, the
National Risk Register, the Research Capability Programme, the National
Recovery Working Group, the Regional Resilience and Emergency Response
Division, the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response, and
endless departmental and regional bodies.

But this great state
safety net is full of holes. The government has a strangely unbalanced
approach to risk, overemphasising some contingencies - terrorism,
anarchy, attacks by rogue states - while underplaying, even promoting,
others. It was Gordon Brown, for example, who told the bankers of the
City of London in his Mansion House speech of 2004 that "in budget
after budget I want us to do even more to encourage the risk-takers".

is one respect in which the government's approach seems utterly
bonkers: a threat with a high likelihood of occurrence, for which it
refuses to make any plans at all. I've been banging on about this for a
while, with my usual absence of results. But now I've received a letter
that makes its dismissive response look like outright lunacy.

is nothing certain about the hypothesis that global supplies of
conventional petroleum might soon stop growing and then go into
decline. There is a large body of expert opinion, marshalling
impressive statistics, which is convinced that peak oil is imminent.
There is also a large body of expert opinion, marshalling impressive
statistics, which insists that it's a long way off. I don't know who to
believe. The key data - the true extent of reserves in the Opec nations
- is a state secret. Anyone who tells you that oil supplies will
definitely peak by a certain date or definitely won't peak ever is a
fraud: the information required to make these assessments does not

In February 2008 I sent a Freedom of Information request
to the Department for Business, asking what contingency plans the
government has made for the eventuality that global supplies of crude
oil might peak between now and 2020. The answer I received astonished
me. "The government does not feel the need to hold contingency plans
specifically for the eventuality of crude oil supplies peaking between
now and 2020."

As it revealed in a parliamentary answer, the
government relies primarily on the International Energy Agency for its
assessment. When I made my first request, its cavalier attitude chimed
with the IEA's. But at the end of last year the agency suddenly changed
tack. Its World Energy Outlook report upgraded the annual rate of
decline in output from the world's existing oilfields from 3.7% to
6.7%. Previously it had relied on guesswork. This time it had conducted
the world's first comprehensive study of decline rates, covering the
800 largest fields.

The report also contained a word the agency
had hitherto avoided: peak. It proposed that "although global oil
production in total is not expected to peak before 2030, production of
conventional oil ... is projected to level off towards the end of the
projection period." When I interviewed the IEA's chief economist for
the Guardian, he tightened this up: "In terms of non-Opec, we are
expecting that in three, four years' time the production of
conventional oil will come to a plateau, and start to decline ... In
terms of the global picture, assuming that Opec will invest in a timely
manner, global conventional oil can still continue, but we still expect
that it will come around 2020 to a plateau as well ... I think time is
not on our side here." He told me that we would need a "global energy
revolution" to avert this prospect. Nothing of the kind is happening.

I sent the British government a new request: in the light of what the
IEA has revealed, what contingency plans has the government made? The
response has now arrived. "With sufficient investment, the government
does not believe that global oil production will peak between now and
2020, and consequently we do not have any contingency plans specific to
a peak in oil production."

I just don't get it. Let us assume
that there is only a 10% chance of the IEA, and everybody else
predicting that global oil supplies will soon peak or plateau, being
right. That still makes peak oil about 100,000 times more likely than
an outbreak of smallpox in the United Kingdom.

As the report by
Robert Hirsch - commissioned by the US department of energy - shows,
the consequences of peak oil taking governments by surprise are at
least as devastating as a smallpox epidemic. "Without timely
mitigation, the economic, social and political costs will be
unprecedented." Hirsch estimated that to avoid global economic
collapse, we would need to begin "a mitigation crash programme 20 years
before peaking". If he's right and the IEA is right, we are already 10
years too late. But my conversations with government officials suggest
to me that they wear the absence of plans almost as a badge of honour,
like the Viking berserkers who went into battle without armour to show
how mad they were.

The only explanation I can suggest is that the
concept of insufficient oil cannot be accommodated within the
government's worldview. Its response to a smallpox epidemic accords
with its messianic tendencies: government as superman, defending us
from crackpots carrying vampire pathogens. The idea that we might be
undone by an issue as mundane and unresponsive as resource depletion
just doesn't fit.

But at least we know where we stand: we'll have to make our own contingency plans. Does anyone have a spare AK-47?

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