We have to find a way

September 2021

Last weekend, Merryn Somerset Webb, the editor of the UK’s MoneyWeek Magazine, wrote a leader in the Financial Times arguing that it is “time to stop demonising fossil fuels”. Her arguments are both sensible and compelling.

But is she right?

Much of what she says is certainly correct. Societies are hugely dependent on fossil fuels today, and for a lot more than heating, cooling and cars. They provide fertilisers to grow food and the dry ice that keeps it chilled on the road. They provide essential chemicals and plastics, as well as life-saving medicines. They are needed to make the disinfectants that keep viruses at bay. They make minor surgery easier and keep nuclear plants cool.

She is right too in saying that societies have been “beguiled into thinking that solar energy has become so advanced that fossil is no longer needed”. And she is correct in saying that people in the poor world cannot have the same standard of living as those in the rich world without fossil energy.

She is also correct in pointing out that humanity’s energy needs are growing quickly, and that fossil fuels still account for 80% of the power generated. She is also quite right to say that fossil energy is likely to remain part of the energy mix because it is cheap, easily transportable, and has very high energy density. Renewables still have a long way to go.

Her conclusion that our lives would be immeasurably more difficult without fossil energy is right too. To close the fossil business is hard to consider seriously because it would damage our economies and our way of life so badly.

But is she right in saying that societies should stop demonising fossil energy? Instead of divesting oil and gas company stocks, should investors buy them instead? Should regulators encourage more exploration but push to make fossil fuel use cleaner and more efficient?

Unfortunately, the answer is no.

As Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of the book The Limits to Growth says, to fix the climate problem two conditions need to be met: people need to understand it, and they need to care. From what Ms Somerset Webb says, she clearly cares.

But she does not understand.

Burning fossil fuels creates gases, known as greenhouse gases. As societies burn more fuel, increasing volumes of these gases are getting stuck in the atmosphere where they are trapping more of the sun’s heat, and warming the planet. Over the last 200 years, the concentration of these gases has risen steadily and it is now higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.

I’m sure Ms Somerset Webb (and you) know all this.

But what she does not appear to know is that humanity has less than ten years to avoid a catastrophe. If societies carry on releasing gases as they do today, the concentration in 2029 will reach the same level as it was 10 million years ago. This will kick off a chain-reaction which will last for centuries and be impossible to stop.

Unless we stop putting these gases into the atmosphere, the planet will gradually return to how it was long before humankind existed – to a time when only insects, reptiles and fish could survive.

The floods in Germany, China, Belgium and many other countries this summer, the fires in Siberia and California, and the droughts in the US, South America and central Asia are not a red light on the planet’s control panel telling us to check the fuses. They are a small foretaste of what is coming – and soon. By 2050 more than 550 cities will have to be partially depopulated because of rising sea levels, affecting 800 million people. Droughts in much of the poor world will cause more unwelcome migration, and much avoidable misery.

Humanity can’t adapt to ever rising temperatures or become more resilient to all this.

So Ms Somerset Webb is wrong.

It will be hugely disruptive and very unpleasant to do what’s necessary. Societies have to shut the fossil fuel industry, change the way they grow food and stop all deforestation – regardless of what this means for their economies. It is that, or nothing.

Should we demonise the fossil fuel industry?

We should. It is the devil incarnate: the biggest single cause of this crisis.

Pure hell

Image thanks to Paul Brennan Pixabay.