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Fact A: Climate change is predominantly caused by fossil fuel usage (focusing only on what we humans control).

Fact B: Many people do not believe that climate change is an important issue.

Fact C: Fossil fuels are a limited resource. We will eventually run out.

In the United States, I see many politicians point out fact A but struggle to get any overwhelming support for such ideas from the American public, which has instead elected as its president a person who is described in fact B.

Why don't these politicians instead employ fact C which, unlike fact A, is obvious and uncontested across the political spectrum? After all, if people are told that fossil fuels are a limited ressource, the obvious response is that we must manage that ressource for the important aspects of our society. Then by managing that ressource, we accomplish the same thing that climate change prevention policies due: a limitation of our fossil fuel usage.

The only difference is that now we've accomplished it without making it about the climate. Rather, we're just doing something logical and rational: we have this thing that we all really like, and we're soon going to run out, so let's not use so much of it and also try to focus on what we might be able to substitute it with (aka renewable energy).

I think anybody, no matter their views on the climate, would think that's a reasonable way to go about it. So why don't US politicians talk about this aspect more?

  • Comments deleted. Please don't use comments to answer the question. Also, please do not use comments to engage in debates about other topics than how the question could be improved. For information on what comments should and should not be used for, please review the help center article about the commenting privilege. – Philipp Aug 20 at 9:08
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    About Fact A: I won't negate that it is at least one of the main causes (maybe the 1st, maybe the 2nd). But there is another one which is rivaling: Carnic Industry. You have to count: Deforestation to plant food for the animals; Wildfires to deforestate those forests; Animal production of CH4; And more indirect effects. Don't forget this. – Cacahuete Frito Aug 21 at 10:47
  • @CacahueteFrito: the link in the OP explains that humans activities are the main causes of the increase of CO2 levels. From how it is written, it seems that the use of fossil fuels is the main source of the increase of CO2 level, and "land use, ozone depletion, animal husbandry, and deforestation" are an important sources but not the main one, but I reckon that the text is not clear. Do you have any source about the contributors of the CO2 levels? – Taladris Aug 22 at 16:27
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    @Taladris He didn't talk about CO2, but about climate change, for which CH4 is a lot more powerful. I don't have actual numbers, but I wouldn't trust any numbers I can find on the web, given that Carnic industry is powerful enough to hide it's numbers. Also the effects are so many and different and indirect that it would be very difficult to calculate. With fuel consumption it's much easier, because we have clear numbers of what is produced and consumed in the whole world. – Cacahuete Frito Aug 22 at 18:35
  • @CacahueteFrito: have you read the article linked in the question? It explains that 'The scientific consensus on climate change is "that climate is changing and that these changes are in large part caused by human activities"' and that 'Of most concern in these anthropogenic factors is the increase in CO2 levels.'. The main cause of the increase in CO2 levels seems to be the use of fossil fuels (see my previous comment). As anything in Wikipedia, it is source-based and made by people that have "actual numbers" and if you think it is unclear or inaccurate, you can participate to the article. – Taladris Aug 23 at 2:00
91

The issue used to be popular in '70s. Not only there had been an artificial oil scarcity caused by OPEC cartel but also there had been a famous book The Limits to Growth that were based on best computer models of that era, finite amount of resources and exponential growth. The problem is, that if one took their calculation at face value, then we should have run out of most resources somewhere in '90s. (Yes, I know, right now fans of that book claim that's misinterpretation did by some evil rightwingers, nevertheless, that's exactly the conclusion that one should reach by adding number of years of resources left to book publication year).

Technically claims A, B and C are correct. However there is catch - apparently we are nowhere near actual end of those resources. The problem is that stone age haven't end because of lack of stone, neither transition from coal to oil has not been caused by scarcity of coal. The thing that people usually miss is:

  • we discover new resources all the time, especially when price justifies prospecting efforts (known reserves of oil are not only nominally higher that they had been a few decades ago, they are even higher in years of annual consumption left)
  • technology at exploring gets better
  • merely price shift could change amount of resources (Canada is an oil rich country when the price is high enough to justify squeezing oil out of tar sands)

You know what would be the answer for "resource scarcity argument"? If they are indeed as scarce as claimed, then soon the issue would solve itself - scarcity purely by market forces would cause long term resource price to dramatically increase. Relative price would make renewables highly competitive and with no government intervention they would be embraced by markets. Relax, assuming that scarcity is a serious issue, then anthropogenic climate change is about to stabilise. Government intervention would not help much, it would be at best taking credit for market driven process or even worse distorting market and artificially picking winners (solar vs. wind vs. biomass; storage vs. long distance transfer). Yes, I know it would be an oversimplification and some R&D government spending would make sense under such assumption, but I'm simply saying which argument could be used to counter.

Setting this aside IPCC models for CO2 emission are based on assumption that we have more than enough of fossil fuels for next century. Also long term contracts (10 years) for oil show that markets also expect abundant and inexpensive oil in future.

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    Re: "The issue used to be popular in '70s": And later; for example, the term "peak oil" has become popular quite recently: books.google.com/ngrams/… – ruakh Aug 18 at 23:54
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    "Relative price would make renewables highly competitive and with no government intervention they would be embraced by markets." This is starting to happen. Coal plants in USA & Australia are being closed down, as they are too expensive/inefficient to run in comparison to solar, wind, or gas. Parts of Europe have already stopped burning coal, I think. – Adeptus Aug 19 at 0:39
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    @Sjoerd, the driving force on coal-plant closures isn't rising coal prices (either naturally or artificially caused) or renewable-energy subsidies, it's falling natural-gas prices. Natural-gas power plants are far more flexible than either coal or most renewables, so power-grid operators are switching to them. – Mark Aug 19 at 1:43
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    @Sjoerd I can only speak for Australia, but we have almost ended subsidies for renewable energy (completely gone by 2020) and still subsidise coal power (mostly capital investment). Even in this environment, coal plants are being shut as Adeptus points out – Fred Stark Aug 19 at 2:40
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    In fact, government intervention did have a lot of negative impact - fossil fuels are subsidized in much of the world. You can imagine a perfect government that would always do "what's right", but reality is that it's simply a method of political power. People abuse that power to give themselves a nice benefit all the time. – Luaan Aug 19 at 7:09
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Because nobody would pay any attention. There are huge amounts of coal left – the World Coal Association says that currently proven reserves amount to 150 years' worth at current levels of extraction. People have been saying since the 1970s or earlier that we'll run out of oil and natural gas in a couple of decades, but we've always found more. Any politician who starts talking about running out of oil will be ignored as crying wolf.

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    Counting quantities of oil, coal, gas, etc is pointless if you ignore how much it costs to extract them. The most obvious example is tar sands, which account for a huge amount of hydrocarbon reserves, but for most of history it's been cheaper to buy crude from elsewhere than to separate/refine it. – bobsburner Aug 19 at 15:55
  • @bobsburner Of course it's pointless, but the same is true of a politician who would try to influence people to stop using fossil fuels because they are scarce. It's a great answer to the question asked, regardless of how valid the counting is. Even renewable resources are scarce - and the reason we use fossil fuels instead of renewables is that renewables have been scarcer than fossil fuels over the past two centuries at least. If carbon dioxide wasn't a factor, we'd simply stop using fossil fuels as renewables became relatively less scarce (give or take some bias from political meddling). – Luaan Aug 21 at 10:54
  • @bobsburner Actually, I think tar sands show that extraction costs aren't very relevant. First, we go for what's cheap to extract. As we start to run out of that, the price of the resource increases to the point where it makes economic sense to go for some of the more expensive deposits. If you have some reserve of oil, either people will eventually be desperate enough that they'll pay you enough to extract that oil, or people will stop wanting to use oil. In the first case, it's important to include your oil in the reserve calculations; in the second, it doesn't matter either way. – David Richerby Aug 21 at 11:31
  • But they will run out. We are extracting them at an enormous rate and nothing is creating new deposits, so at some point there will be no more. How many decades will it take to build out the new energy infrastructure to match the existing one? We can't afford to wait until we can see the last drops. – Mark Wood Aug 21 at 13:38
  • @MarkWood Nothing I've written contradicts your comment, yet you write as if you're disagreeing with me. – David Richerby Aug 21 at 13:46
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This would be too weak an argument.

According to climate science (e.g. this paper from 2015 in Nature, endorced by UNFCCC), to preserve a 50% chance to keep global warming under 2°C compare to pre-indutrial era, we need to dig and burn much less than the remaining known fossil fuel ressources. This means that the political resolve to limit our consumption must be much stronger than the physical limit of the ressources.

Actually, about 82% of the carbon contained in the fossil fuels underground should never be released in the atmosphere. Limiting coal extraction is the main target, but a lot of natural gas and oil will also need to be left untouched.

That's why many movements develop around the motto "Leave it in the ground". Several governments already made commitments in that respect, in spite of serious economical pressure.

Saying something like "let's slow down consumption so that we can use the existing resources during the next century instead of the next 30 years", even if it was heard, would leave us very far from the necessary effort to keep a sustainable climate on an inhabitable Earth.

TL;DR

Quoting Peter A. Schneider in a comment:

The necessary course of action can not be supported by a resource scarcity argument because the required action is to stop burning carbon long before scarcity becomes even a remote issue.

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    That's exactly my argument in the comments. The necessary course reversal cannot be supported with a scarcity argument (even if it were true). – Peter - Reinstate Monica Aug 19 at 9:37
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    @PeterA.Schneider : I included the end of your comment because it is better worded than my last paragraph. Indeed, we made the same point. – Evargalo Aug 19 at 9:44
  • "Saying something like..." - Though if consumption is slowed down say 70%, the world won't consume 70% less energy; maybe 50% will be recovered by using renewable energy, and maybe by the point 20% is used up, 100% renewable energy will be economical, as a result of the improvements needed to cover that shortfall. – user253751 Aug 21 at 1:25
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Because your "Fact C" is not a fact on the timescale of the human lifespan. No one has any idea how many years of fossil fuel reserves are left, because new reserves get discovered, and new extraction techniques get invented or become economically viable.

From Our World in Data (a collaboration between the University of Oxford and the non-profit Global Data Change lab):

To give a static indicative estimate of how long we could feasibly consume fossil fuels for, we have plotted the Reserves-to-Production (R/P) ratio for coal, oil and gas based on 2015 figures below. The R/P ratio essentially divides the quantity of known fuel reserves by the current rate of production to estimate how long we could continue if this level of production remained constant. Based on BP's Statistical Review of World Energy 2016, we'd have about 115 years of coal production, and roughly 50 years of both oil and natural gas remaining.6 Again, these figures are only useful as a static measure; they will continue to vary with time as our capacity to economically source and extract fossil fuels changes, and our levels of consumption rise or fall.

(emphasis mine)

Even if current estimates with known reserves and extraction techniques were accurate (below), we're looking at at least 50 years of both coal+oil+methane. This is plenty long to last the rest of US republican representatives' lifetimes. So, your fact c is not a fact on timescales short enough for immoral politicians to care about.

enter image description here

  • Fact C remains true since it describes fossil fuels as a "limited resource". You defend the case that the limit may still be far, but it is a fact that the quantity of oil avaiblable to mankind is finite. Actually, the peak production for conventionnal oil was already passed in 2006 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_oil#Conventional_sources, ecowatch.com/fracking-profitability-2018-2623840380.html), and the economical viability of exploiting tight oil by fracking is dubious at current oil price. So, to say the very least, cheap fossil fuels is a very limited resource. – Evargalo Aug 19 at 7:56
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    @Evargalo The point is that cheap is relative to other factors (like energy alternatives, or technology developments), so it's misleading to say that cheap fossil fuels is a limited resource. Oil companies will always figure out the cheapest way to get oil into a barrel--if they run out of the cheapest "conventional" oil, they'll find the next most easily extractable source and invest in figuring out how to do that as cheap as possible. It's naive to think that "we will run out" in any sense of the word. Our climate will crash and burn way before then. – spacetyper Aug 19 at 8:08
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    Also, reserves account for oil that can be profitably extracted given current oil prices. If the oil price doubles, many oilfields that have been closed down will be profitable again - most of the oil is still there, you just need to expend a lot of energy to get it back out. Of course, this means oil has lower EROEI over time, and without subsidies, you'd expect oil would eventually stop being used as a fuel. – Luaan Aug 19 at 8:55
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    @Evargalo People barely care about what happens during their lifetime; they're not going to care about resources running out a century after they're dead. This means that you can't really expect democratic voting to be affected by resource depletion if it doesn't directly affect the voters soon (TM). Everything is a limited resource on some time scale; the time scale cannot be separated from the question. – Luaan Aug 19 at 9:02
  • @Evargalo "it is a fact that the quantity of oil avaiblable[sic] to mankind is finite." By that argument, everything -- even hydrogen -- is a finite resource. – RonJohn Aug 21 at 5:36
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Partially, because - at least for oil - argument C has been overused and therefore is powerless now (with anyone over 30).

In the 70s+ it was a widely known fact AND predictions were to run out well before the 2000s. Then before the 2010s. Then the 2020s. And now we're here and there's still enough oil for now.

That's why the argument is powerless: it has been overused, the boy cried "wolf" too many times.

With young people who didn't experience the "the oil is running out"-mentality its still a valid argument, but anyone who (even just from their parents) heard of the scare is basically "immune" to that line of reasoning

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    You could say the same for Fact A too - appeals to people's emotions that the world will end due to climate change have been pushed for decades now, like Al Gore telling us (in 2006) we only have 10 years to save the planet. Climate change would be better served if it didn't have so much political hype, but there's too much money in it for that to ever stop now! – gbjbaanb Aug 20 at 12:55
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    @gbjbaanb yeah, but that debate isn't fully lost (hopefully), as opposed to the debate around C which is - obviously- dead – Hobbamok Aug 20 at 12:56
  • It might be - Al Gore is on his way to making a billion dollars from climate change, and all that only serves to give ammunition to those saying its all bunk, and also serves to keep money from being spent improving things rather than giving it to the already super-rich to "raise awareness". Maybe I'm just too cynical :) – gbjbaanb Aug 20 at 13:01
  • @gbjbaanb - Al Gore is worth about $200M, almost all of that from media ownership and Google stock and Apple stock appreciation for shares he got for joining their Board of Directors. Your claim that he's making a billion from climate change is factually unsupported and untrue. You're not helping by posting misinformation as if it were fact. – PoloHoleSet Aug 20 at 20:47
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    @gbjbaanb And that is why Fact A also doesn't convince people. – user253751 Aug 21 at 1:26
1

Another problem is that the argument is not a good argument for the corner cases:

1.:

Assume all Oil and Coal is used up in five years if we don't drastically reduce our consumption:

  1. Forcing people to use less resources worldwide in less than five years is almost impossible
  2. waiting five years until everything is used up is easy and is a great solution to stop CO2 emissions

So this argument is very weak to support the need to reduce fossil fuel usage.

Of course you say five years is too unrealistic. So try that argument with more years:

2.:

Assume all Oil and Coal is used up in 100 years if we don't drastically reduce our consumption:

  1. 100 years is very far in the future, no one will really care about the difference between "doesn't run out" and "runs out in 100 years".

  2. you have to make the same arguments now for "runs out in 100 years" and "doesn't run out"

This argument is also very weak.

Of course now you say in reality the fossil fuels also don't run out in 100 years.

But you have a argument that is very weak on both ends of the scale. Trying to find a middle ground where the mix of this two weak arguments magically becomes a strong argument will not be possible.

0

Affordability

Whilst other answers address whether or not the scarcity argument is valid, even if it was, for example, one country dependent on an external source of fuel from another country that could cut them off, one of the key hurdles to switching to renewables is cost to the taxpayer.

Whilst wind power prices are falling, storage costs are dropping at a slower rate, and for example, in the US, according to Fortune's infrastructure costs chart, US electricity grid needs at least nearly $1 trillion to maintain (and it's underfunded) and overhauling a massive antiquated energy grid infrastructure to add renewables and storage, and bring it up to scratch, would likely cost trillions more. This is all whilst the US has already clocked nearly $22 trillion dollars worth of debt. (It's worth noting other countries, like the UK and France are similarly in-debt).

Even if most people agree renewables are a long-term solution, finding a suitable funding source for that solution is a key problem. Wage buying power is down (with it's peak 50 years ago), and any downward tax pressure on middle or lower classes would likely force already impoverished families into dire straits, and you can't simply tax the rich either - corporations and rich individuals hire accountants to make full use of tax loopholes and off-shore accounts, and if they aren't able to, businesses often flee higher taxation areas for lower taxation areas, for example, a lot of American businesses setup their HQs in the Republic of Ireland to take advantage of it's lower tax rate.

With many second-hand petrol cars readily available on the cheap, and renewable technology still relatively expensive (at least for the average person to readily afford), there is not much financial drive to switch from fuels to renewables, even if logically it makes sense.

-1

Another problem with this argument by limited resource...it's not as limited or as un-renewable as implied.

What's the difference between fossil fuels and bio-fuels... predominately age. Artificial diamonds vs real diamonds...molecularly the same but one is compressed and formed in a shorter time span.

Arguably, certain regions of the world have more plant matter than they once did (albeit others have less) and presumably the combined animal and human mass is greater than it's ever been thanks to crop and resource cultivation and improved efficiencies. But if there's more plant, animal, and human (all read together as living bio-mass) today than before, this also implies each year there is a greater amount of dying/dead bio-mass than before. That bio-mass converts partially into new fossil fuels.

Therefore, fossil fuels will be present even after there is no civilization or life of any kind left on the planet (unless everything burns at the same time).

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    I don't think this takes into account the right time scales. In particular, biomass turning into fossil fuels probably takes a lot longer than the thousands of years during which we have 'made' a lot more biomass. – JJ for Transparency and Monica Aug 19 at 18:22
  • @JJJ I guess that depends on your belief of origins, but regardless, events like St. Helens have shown that fossilization can occur on the order of decades. So presumably could the petrol creation process. Been awhile since I read up on it so I'd have to dig to find sources again. – wolfsshield Aug 19 at 18:30
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    The sources I find after a bit of searching mention (hundreds of) millions of years, e.g. here. If you can speed that up to decades in some controlled process then you might have the beginning of a emission-reduction idea (for example compared to burning waste). – JJ for Transparency and Monica Aug 19 at 18:39
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    I read somewhere that either oil or coal could only form because some bacteria that digest biomass did not exist back then. Today, the biomass would be broken down by bacteria long before fossil fuels could form. So at least some fossil fuels are completely "un-renewable", even on a longer time scale of millions of years. – Alexander Aug 20 at 9:43
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    @Alexander It doesn't have to be natural. We have ways of turning biomass into coal/oil/gas. – Luaan Aug 21 at 11:00
-1

Then there is the "replace with what" argument

Electric cars are not as efficient as petroleum cars in terms of mileage. This is a problem for nations like the United States, as there are portions of it that are rather far from major population centers or Urban development. In fact, just about any state that doesn't have access to the ocean is not very densely populated, and the ones that do still have pockets where the nearest store is 10 minutes by car... the greater range of the petrol engine is still desirable to people living in these areas (to say nothing of Lithium batteries losing charge over repeated recharges... which is basically saying that not only is the electric car not as range efficient, but now you also lose space in your fuel tank every time you fuel up. Americans historically prefer reliablity in their cars (i.e. how likely is it to break down) above all else.

Solving that issue also doesn't solve the pollution issue as fossil fuels are still more cost efficient for providing power. All an electric car only market does is move the pollution of fossil fuels to the power plants only. Green Energy (solar, wind, hydro) is not as efficient to compete on the market with Fossil Fuels just yet. The only one with a higher efficiency I am hesitant to describe as a green energy: Nuclear Energy... which is much more controversial as it's only green while it's working... if a fossil fuel energy plant catastrophically fails, the environmental impact is preferable to a catastrophic nuclear power failure. Chernobyl, one of the worst nuclear disasters ever, was so bad it the clean up costs led in part to the collapse of the Soviet Union. (also, nuclear fuel isn't renewable... it's just releases more energy for longer per equivalent fuel.).

The problem with this question isn't that there are only so much fossil fuel resources, but that the tech to replace fossil fuels is not yet efficient enough to make the customer base switch off fossil fuels. And it isn't like there isn't a governmental need for renewable fuel. The U.S. Military is highly dependent on a massive fuel consumption and has a massive R&D budget (and the list of consumer products that first were developed by the U.S. military R&D is quite staggering). And the U.S. has historically preferred to fight wars as dirty as possible (as Patton famously told his troops, No U.S. soldier should see the job as dying for their nation, but rather making enemy troops die for their nation). Thus they put a lot of money into any edge they can get over the enemy. Shortages of needed supplies at the front is something they would no doubt like to eliminate from their fighting machine, and tanks are gas guzzlers of the highest order... it would be far nicer if we could drive a tank without it going bingo on the battle field while the enemy worries about getting oil to their tanks.

  • This is an argument against switching from fossil fuels in general. The question is specifically about the use of the "Peak Oil" argument against fossil fuels – divibisan Aug 20 at 20:28
  • "Electric cars are not as efficient as petroleum cars in terms of mileage." Potential range before needing to recharge or refuel doesn't sound like efficiency, per se, as much as capacity. The claim of the batteries losing charge needs to be sourced/supported, as well. cleantechnica.com/2018/04/16/… , and your claims about cost are a bit dated, as well - usatoday.com/story/news/2019/06/04/… – PoloHoleSet Aug 20 at 20:38
  • Biofuels are neither fossil fuels nor electric. Ethanol has something like 60% of the energy density of gasoline? But they could easily make cars with twice as big fuel tanks (if they aren't big enough already). – user253751 Aug 21 at 1:28
  • "Efficiency" is not the word you want. An electric powertrain generates far less waste heat than the equivalent internal-combustion powertrain, therefore is much more efficient. Your argument is about energy density, which is (decreasingly) greater for chemical fuel than for storage batteries. – Mark Wood Aug 21 at 13:49

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