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Heat Waves and Energy Crunches: the Future is Now
Alex Steffen, 16 Jul 10

Two stories I came across yesterday struck me as particularly indicative of the gulf between the speed at which global change is unfolding and our perceptions of the urgency of the issues. There's often a presumption that we have decades to change (so change can begin gradually) and decades more before we have to worry about impacts. The evidence, though, increasingly points to a much shorter horizon for action and adaptation.


The first story reports on a big Stanford study which combined the latest suite of climate models to understand how climate change already under way is likely to affect the hottest extremes of weather in the Western U.S.:

"The results were surprising. According to the climate models, an intense heat wave -- equal to the longest on record from 1951 to 1999 -- is likely to occur as many as five times between 2020 and 2029 over areas of the western and central United States. ...

The Stanford team also forecast a dramatic spike in extreme seasonal temperatures during the current decade. Temperatures equaling the hottest season on record from 1951 to 1999 could occur four times between now and 2019 over much of the U.S., according to the researchers.

The 2020s and 2030s could be even hotter, particularly in the American West. From 2030 to 2039, most areas of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico could endure at least seven seasons equally as intense as the hottest season ever recorded between 1951 and 1999, the researchers concluded.

"Frankly, I was expecting that we'd see large temperature increases later this century with higher greenhouse gas levels and global warming," Diffenbaugh said. "I did not expect to see anything this large within the next three decades. This was definitely a surprise."

The second story told of a new report from the venerable insurance company Lloyd's of London and the Royal Institute of International Affairs (often called Chatham House) finding that Peak Oil, rising global demand for energy and the need for emissions reductions (not to mention the vulnerability of energy infrastructure to climate change and political turmoil) are very likely to bring big shifts in energy prices in the relatively short term:

The review is groundbreaking because it comes from the heart of the City and contains the kind of dire warnings that are more associated with environmental groups or others accused by critics of resorting to hype. It takes a pot shot at the International Energy Agency which has been under fire for apparently under-estimating the threats, noting: "IEA expectations [on crude output] over the last decade have generally gone unmet."

The report the world is heading for a global oil supply crunch and high prices owing to insufficient investment in oil production plus a rebound in global demand following recession. It repeats warning from Professor Paul Stevens, a former economist from Dundee University, at an earlier Chatham House conference that lack of oil by 2013 could force the price of crude above $200 (£130) a barrel.

You can read the Lloyd's/Chatham House report directly here.

Both of these studies bear further examination and debate, of course, but the overall trend which I see them contributing to has become increasingly clear: a growing chorus of those tasked most explicitly with responsibility for our future -- doctors, generals, diplomats, scientists -- all telling us that when it comes to planetary crisis, the future is now.

Contrast that urgency with the political debate in most countries. What we see is an appalling gap between our elected leaders' perception that these are problems for future generations to solve and the reality that we're already dealing with them today.

There's a quote that's been bouncing around the Worldchanging office recently: "When there’s a gap between perception and reality, more reality won’t close the gap." The gap between the political perception of our problems being slow and distant and the reality of acceleration and imminence points again at the importance of stories that help change our perspectives on scope, scale and speed.

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Yes, I think there is much truth in what you say and quote. It's always easer to close your eyes and make yourself believe everything is OK.
Why do leaders always take the easy road and want to wash their hands of having to change their philosophy and their actions? It is usually the man in the street who has to struggle to open the leaders' eyes to show them the reality of our world and the future we face. It seems we do not love our children enough to give them a better heritage.

Posted by: Rebeca Correa on 17 Jul 10

Well, I'm looking through the Sunday Seattle Times, "Short-snouted dogs face extra peril on airplanes", "painting may be work of Caravaggio", "lake sammamish shooting kills 2 men",... Nothing about Steffen's weird alarmism. If it isn't in the paper, it can't be true. Right? If you close your eyes, then you can't see the gap. And we can continue to build giant car tunnels under Seattle.

Posted by: Colin Wright on 18 Jul 10

It's a shame that the ordinary man on the street always suffer for the mistakes our leaders make. Let us all join hands to make the world a better place for our children.

Bio Oil

Posted by: Abbue on 18 Jul 10

Now that people are not only aware of the outcome, they are also experiencing the consequences of their past actions and because of that, more and more are starting to act to reverse the effects but let's hope that it is not yet too late.

Posted by: Saar Herman on 20 Jul 10

Regarding the quote at the end of the article: as a society we respond most readily to disasters - driving by looking in the rear view mirror, as a friend puts it -it appears that it actually IS more reality - having our noses pushed into it - that closes the gap.

Posted by: blobtwice on 20 Jul 10

"The City" to which the Chatham House report refers and contrasts with them crazy environmentalists is London's equivalent to Wall Street. They attribute the looming oil supply crunch to "insufficient investment in oil production plus a rebound in global demand following recession." It's a barely-coded plea for deregulation, tax incentives and subsidies for the petroleum industry. According to the City, the oil companies have been racking-up record profits yet investing insufficiently, probably a mechanism for manipulating the price. Are we, at some point, going to have demand 10% above supply? 20%? How hard would it be to use 10-20% less energy? The City concerns itself not at all with the social, political or environmental effects, only their narrow economic interest in oil supply.

Posted by: Gary Paudler on 20 Jul 10

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