Like many people who read this blog, I’ve been following the climate change talks in Durban, South Africa and wondering what, if anything, will come out of them. Expectations are pretty low all around. It would be humorous if the consequences of inaction weren’t so dang important.
Regardless of what does or doesn’t happen at these talks, we will continue to face the effects of man-made climate change and a dwindling supply of economical, accessible energy supplies. There will be transitions from energy source to energy source to keep up with demand, avoid environmental hazards, or simply to make more money even if governments can’t decide on how to work together.
Transitions from one energy source to another have happened many times before as this chart from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows:
What I find interesting is that with each transition, the problems from the outgoing fuel source were replaced with problems of the new source. When petroleum replaced whale oil, whale populations were spared, but now an insanely carbon-intensive fuel source was introduced. Of course, massive technological innovations were literally fueled by the new petroleum economy.
The same is true for wood and coal. When coal replaced wood, deforestation was slowed at the expense water pollution, air pollution, and miner safety.
And you’ll also notice that along the way, new fuel sources popped up to add to a growing list of fuels – things like hydroelectricity and nuclear.
But who knows what future fuel transitions are in store. Perhaps the fuels stay the same while the mix moves around, or advances in energy storage and manufacturing alter the energy landscape. The Durban climate talks are unlikely to shed much light on that.
However, fuel transitions will happen. Change will happen.
As Isaac Asimov once famously said, “the only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”
I’m afraid that if we don’t start changing on our own accord, we’ll be forced to.