Whatever you may imagine, “peak oil” has not been discredited as a concept, a statement no less true for “peak fossil fuels.” Think of them instead as postponed. We are, after all, on a finite planet that, by definition, holds a finite amount of oil, natural gas, and coal. Sooner or later, as such deposits get used up (no matter the new techniques that might be invented to extract more of the ever tougher stuff from the earth), we will reach a “peak” of production from which it will be all downhill. That’s a simple fact to which, as it happens, there’s a catch. Here, according to the New York Times, is the key finding from the latest leaked 127-page draft report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which manages to use the word “risk” 351 times, “vulnerable” or “vulnerability” 61 times, and “irreversible” 48 times: “The report found that companies and governments had identified reserves of these [fossil] fuels at least four times larger than could safely be burned if global warming is to be kept to a tolerable level.”
In other words, while “peak oil” may be a perfectly on-target concept, “peak existence” turns out to precede it by decades and from that far more consequential “peak” we are, unlike “peak oil,” already on the downhill slide. The scientists who produced the IPCC's draft report expect the average global temperature to increase by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century and at least 6.7 degrees by its end, which will leave humanity on a staggeringly less habitable planet.
The damage, including the melting of the Greenland ice shield, which alone could raise global sea levels by an average of 23 feet, will be irreversible (at least on a historical—that is, human—timescale). Faced with this relatively straightforward reality, as Michael Klare, the author of The Race for What’s Left, reports in his new essay “Oil Is Back!,” oil companies are using remarkable ingenuity and spending billions of dollars to reach ever deeper, ever more difficult to extract, and ever more environmentally treacherous deposits of fossil fuels. No less strikingly, the Obama administration has been working energetically to pave the way for them to do so—to, that is, make real headway in removing those deposits four times larger than will be even faintly comfortable for our future. Not only is it doing so in a thoroughly drill-baby-drill spirit of cooperation with the globe’s largest and most avaricious energy outfits, but it’s bragging about it, too.
In my childhood, I remember ads that fascinated me. I’m not sure what they were selling or promoting, but they showed scenes of multiple error, including, if I remember rightly, five-legged cows floating through clouds. They were always tagged with some question like: What’s wrong with this picture? Today, as in those ads, Klare offers us a picture filled with the energy exploitation and global-warming equivalent of those five-legged cows in the clouds and asks the same question.