Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy

Yes nukes, fast trains, and no oil


A few years ago, while on vacation in Costa Rica, I read George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. While I don’t recommend it as vacation reading, it was interesting. The premise was how Britain (as example country) could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 90%, yet still maintain a decent standard of living.

I thought he had a number of good ideas, but one I didn’t agree with was his dismissal of nuclear power as one option. He struggled with it, and the fact that it produces no greenhouse gas emissions, but finally concluded he couldn’t live with the waste disposal issue. But I thought the issue was global warming?

So I was kind of pleased to see the very lefty This Magazine coming around to that same point of view. While they sadly haven’t made the whole article available online, you can get the gist from the cover: “Wind and solar can’t save us from climate change. Like it or not, nuclear power can.”

The Walrus’ “Off the Rails” focused on the sad state of train travel in Canada. Though I thought I basically knew the score here, I was surprised to learn that Canada did have high-speed trains; it just never had the infrastructure to actually run them at their maximum speeds. And also, that the US actually has some high-speed trains (Boston to Washington). And that they’re thinking of adding more—that might even connect to Canada! Toronto to New York by train, anyone? That would be awesome!

Pretty struck, too, by the graph of greenhouse gas emissions, per passenger, for train, plane, and automobile. First two — not as different as I thought. Last one — much better than I thought. (Too bad the graph is not in the online version of the article. Guess they need to give you some reason to buy the paper version.)

But most striking, for sure, was The Walrus article called “An Inconvenient Talk”. Which basically argues that, way before global warming becomes a crisis, we’re going to run out of oil. And that will be a crisis.

OK, sure, not the first time we’ve heard about this “running out of easy oil” point. But Chris Turner is a very good writer:

Here’s the upshot: if you plan to drive a car or heat a house or light a room in 2030, The Talk is telling you your options will be limited, to say the least. Even if you’re convinced climate change is UN-sponsored hysteria or every last puff of greenhouse gas will soon be buried forever a mile underground or ducks look their best choking on tar sands tailings, Dave Hughes is saying your way of life is over. Not because of the clouds of smoke, you understand, but because we’re running out of what makes them.

And he focuses on a pretty convincing subject in the form of Dave Hughes, whose life mission is now to inform people about this problem looming all too soon. (10-20 years, he says.)

And, Turner boosts this with views from others. Like the IEA:

As recently as 2005, well into Dave’s second career as a peak-hydrocarbon prophet, the executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) — probably the most trusted name in fossil fuel reserve prediction — was dismissing peak oil’s proponents as “doomsayers.” Mainstream media coverage, meanwhile, tended to focus on the hard-core survivalist subculture the science had inspired.

Two weeks after you ride along with Dave Hughes for Talk No. 155, though, the IEA releases the latest edition of its annual World Energy Outlook, which predicts a global oil production peak or plateau by 2030. In a video that appears online soon after, the Guardian’s George Monbiot [him again] requests a more precise figure from the IEA’s chief economist, Fatih Birol. The official estimate, he confesses, is 2020. Monbiot also inquires as to the motivation for the IEA’s sudden about-face, and Birol explains dryly that previous studies were “mainly an assumption.” That is, the 2008 version was the first in which the IEA actually examined hard data, wellhead by wellhead, from the world’s 800 largest oil fields. Monbiot asks, with understandable incredulity, how it was that such a survey hadn’t been conducted previously. Birol’s response: “In fact, nobody has done that research. And the research we have done this year is the first in the world…”

And from Alberta oil patch executives:

He calls the $150-a-barrel price shock of last summer “just a prelude.” “People take it for granted,” he told you, “that they can go to the gas station and fill it up. I don’t think in two or three years that’s something you’ll be able to take for granted. I really don’t.”

And as you read all this, you keep thinking to yourself what Chris Turner keeps saying you are thinking to yourself: “This can’t be right…”

2 thoughts on “Yes nukes, fast trains, and no oil

  1. Peak oil! Jon and i have been into that theory for years now. Also, the simple reality is that oil is grossly underpriced considering how 100% totally dependent we are on it. It should probably be selling for thousands of dollars per barrel. I mean, gold sells for nearly $1000 per oz and we can pretty much totally live without gold. Oil is used in everything – from toothpaste to getting your food to you. This planet is so screwed!

    Also, there was a study done… maybe in Australia. It was on the BBC awhile back, about the GHG emissions produced in mining uranium. It’s pretty awful. Nuclear power generation might be fairly cleaning, but the mining process is not. And it too is a finite resource. The reality is there isn’t enough uranium around to sustain us if most countries switched to that. Peak uranium, baby!!!

    Like i said – i don’t know why anyone wants to procreate – this planet and our race is f*cked.

    • Must agree that when I read this stuff, I am very glad I am not leaving progeny behind to have to live with it. (Bad enough that I’m going to have to live through at least the start of it… ) The Globe Book section had three alternative doomsday scenarios — rapid global warming, peak oil, and food shortages. So many ways we could be hosed…

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