Global Warming and Peak Oil
Global warming, or climate change, is now well understood
by most people, at least the basic idea. On its own, dealing with global
warming would be a costly, immense and difficult task: combined with the
decline of oil and gas, it is likely to be calamitous.
Radiation from the sun, mainly as visible light, penetrates the atmosphere
and strikes the surface of the Earth. It is reflected back towards space
but mainly as infra-red or heat energy. Certain gases in the atmosphere
(such as carbon dioxide, methane and water vapour) are transparent to
visible light but not infra-red so the heat tends to be retained. This
warms the Earth and is vital to our existence. If there were no ‘greenhouse
effect’ (as it is known), the average temperature of the Earth would
be -18°C instead of 15°C and life would not exist. On the other
hand, if the greenhouse effect is too marked, the temperature could soar
and we might end up like Venus which has an average of over 450°.
It does not take much of a difference in temperature to effect the environment.
During the Ice Ages, the average was only 5° or 6° lower and scientists
predict that the temperature at the end of the 21st century could be between
1.4° and 5.8° higher.
Global warming is still subject to dispute and the main arguments seem
to be (a) whether it is occurring at all, and (b) whether man is to blame
for it. The first question is pretty much answered in the affirmative.
The Earth heated up by about 0.6° in the last century, and the 1990s
were the warmest decade on record. Also during the last century, sea levels
rose between 10 and 20cm worldwide, while recently glaciers have shrunk
and huge areas of the polar regions have receded. The vast majority of
the world’s scientists accept that the world is warming up.
The second question is harder to confirm as there have been natural variations
in the Earth’s temperature anyway and it could just be an enormous
coincidence that carbon dioxide levels have risen at the same time as
industrialisation. In a way, it is irrelevant. Even if we stopped all
carbon emissions tomorrow, the effects of the previous century will still
take effect. Also, as oil and gas decline, and world economies weaken,
the amount of energy used (and therefore carbon dioxide emitted) will
fall. The question is not whether we are responsible for climate change
or whether we can stop it, but how will it effect the post-peak world?
The first and most effect is, as the name suggests, a change of climate.
At its basis, this means that some areas will get warmer, some cooler,
some drier and some wetter. This will cause problems with agriculture
as certain crops will no longer be able to grow in their normal regions
and the wildlife (which often contributes to fertilisation and pest control)
dies off or moves on. Farmers who have specialised machinery for certain
produce, such as dairy cows, will find that they have thousands of pounds
of useless equipment on hand. There will also be problems in other areas
of society; you only have to compare how a country like Norway copes with
heavy snow compared with Britain. Transport, communications, government
– all are designed for a certain climate and, when that climate
changes, problems will grow.
Global warming is also expected to bring a rise in sea levels as glaciers
and polar ice melt. This will cost governments and people enormous amounts
of money as first flood defences are strengthened or built. Then, as many
of these defences fail, millions will have to be rescued and moved to
higher ground. Homes will be lost, thousands of hectares of essential
agricultural land flooded, vital commercial ports and airports abandoned.
The costs alone will be massive for governments already hit by oil rises
and economies in recession. The security problems as hordes of refugees
descend on other areas will be frightening.
A further problem will come from infectious diseases. Regions that grow
warmer will find that diseases previously unknown will appear such as
malaria and dengue fever. The large level of transportation will exacerbate
that danger (at least until oil decline reduces movement).
On its own, climate change would be a difficult threat to combat; in
a world of falling energy, it may prove the final straw for mankind.
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