Your Planet: Twilight of the oil age

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The past 150 years have been a freakish epoch in human history. On the one hand, they have brought unprecedented prosperity; on the other, they have caused undreamt of - and potentially catastrophic- environmental change. Now, says Johann Hari, we must recognise the party is over and explains why our world is at a crossroads

In September 2003, almost exactly two years after the massacres in New York City and Washington, DC, an even more ominous event occurred, although it featured on no front pages and inspired no rousing speeches from our leaders. The Ward Hunt ice shelf - the largest ice shelf in the Arctic, which had been in place for tens of thousands of years - suddenly ruptured and began to collapse. Warwick Vincent, a professor of biology at Laval university in Quebec, explained: "We'd been measuring incremental changes in the Arctic ice each year. Suddenly everything changed." The scientists witnessing the event later admitted to weeping with the same shock and grief felt by those who watched the Twin Towers fall to dust: this was global warming happening far more quickly than anyone had anticipated. Martin Jeffries, a professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska, said simply: "This kind of catastrophic event is quite unprecedented."

We are currently sleepwalking into two crises that will have to be confronted simultaneously and soon: runaway global warming, and the running out of the world's oil supply. The tale of how we came to this - how we set off on the road to the collapse of the Arctic and worse - begins on a bright white day in August 1859, when an old-time huckster called Edwin L Drake, standing on a farm in north-western Pennsylvania, became the first man ever to drill successfully for oil. Even when the black gold began to spurt, few people could have imagined Drake's discovery would end up powering the most vigorous, relentless, and ultimately dangerous part of the industrial revolution.

The discovery of vast reservoirs of oil below the earth's surface made an explosion of human productivity (and population) possible. Feats of travel, building and farming that were impossible before suddenly became easy with fossil fuel-powered technology. Millions of people were freed from the grinding, binding tedium of subsistence agriculture. Before the advent of oil drilling, poverty and hunger had been nearly universal: in the year of Drake's big find, the average European and American lived on 90 per cent of the resources used by the average African today. That's why - contrary to the beliefs of some weirdly reactionary versions of environmentalism - people did not burn up the earth's store of fossil fuels because they were "greedy" or "selfish". They did it because they were hungry and cold and desperate to live a decent life. It's easy to understand why they acted like this.

But there were two problems that lay dormant within this planetary experiment with fossil fuels, and their shape has finally become clear in the past 20 years. Oil is simply solar energy trapped by plant life millions of years ago, stored and repackaged by nature underneath the earth's surface. By releasing all that solar energy in a sudden burst over the space of just two centuries, humans unwittingly changed the physics and chemistry of the planet we live on. Levels of greenhouse gases - which trap heat in the atmosphere - nearly doubled, causing rising temperatures; a planetary fever. The results are now visible all over the world. All the hottest years on record have occurred in the past 15 years. The seasons are changing, with deadly results across the developing world. The peaks of Mount Kilimanajaro are now naked of snow for the first time in our own 10,000-year geological period.

Oil, it turned out, was an unintentional weapon of mass destruction. Many climatologists now warn that it has triggered a global warming "positive feedback loop". This is when a system begins to move in a certain direction, and then responds to this change in a way that makes the process faster and faster, like tossing more fuel into the engine of a runaway train. It sounds complicated, but in fact it is startlingly simple. Look at the world's ice cover. It currently acts like a mirror, reflecting heat radiated by the sun back into the atmosphere. But - because of global warming - it is melting away at a phenomenal rate (9 per cent a year on the Arctic Ocean, for example). So as the world warms, it is destroying its own cooling system, making the warming even more rapid.

As if this was not enough, there is a second crisis waiting for us, also set in train by Edwin L Drake's black discovery. At first, oil seemed to be infinitely abundant, a resource that would last until the end of time. So we built our lives on the assumption that the petrol party would never stop. We moved to suburbs that can only be reached by car, we became dependent on supply chains that fly T-shirts from Beijing to Boston, and we expanded our population numbers so we need, need, need massive petrol-fuelled megafarms to keep our stomachs full. We became petroholics.

But in the real world, the oil turned out to be finite. It is going to run out, in the next 30 to 40 years, no matter how much we may weep at the petrol pumps.

As New York Times writer James Howard Kunstler explains in his must-read book The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, many oil experts believe the world hit its oil production peak - the moment at which we had burned up half of the oil in the world - in 2004. And that was the stuff that was easy to find: the half that remains is in much harder-to-reach places, and a lot of it can't be mined at all because it takes more barrels of oil to drill and battle towards it than you could pump out.

This running-dry is occurring just as global demand for oil is spurting forward, with countries like China and India rapidly industrialising and (hardly unreasonably) demanding similar lifestyles to our own. We can expect the battle for the last remaining dregs of the fossil-fuel fantasia to be vicious.

In the long-term, this depletion of oil is obviously a good thing for humanity. Climatologists tell us we need to cut our use of fossil fuels by 70 per cent by 2050 if we want to stabilise the earth's climate (assuming it's not already too late). So a bit of help from the sickly oil fields themselves is welcome. But in the short term, unless we develop alternative fuel sources very fast, this means we will be dealing with two crises at once. We are going to have to confront the ruptures caused by global warming - from rising sea levels to extreme weather events - without the oil that powers our transport system and food networks.

Kunstler explains how stressful the transition away from a fossil fuel economy could be: "Before fossil fuels came into general use, fewer than one billion human beings inhabited the earth. Today, after roughly two centuries of fossil fuels, and with extraction now at an all-time high, the planet supports six-and-a-half billion people. Subtract the fossil fuels, and the human race has an obvious problem. Fossil fuels provided for each person in an industrialised country the equivalent of having hundreds of slaves constantly at his or her disposal. We are now unable to imagine a life without them, and therefore we are unprepared for what is coming."

So what should we all do - give up in despair? No - alongside strict limits on carbon emissions, there is one thing we can lobby and campaign for. It is not guaranteed to solve either problem, but it is the best chance we have of clinging on to the lives we developed in the fossil fuel age.

During the Second World War, the United States (helped by Britain and Canada) launched the Manhattan Project, a programme of intensive scientific research to develop nuclear weapons before Hitler or Stalin. The climate crisis is as important as the battle against Nazism and Communism: it is, for once, a genuine threat to "our way of life". That's why the Pulitzer Prize-winning environmentalist Ross Gelbspan has argued for a Manhattan-style project to develop, urgently, renewable energy sources like wind, solar and hydrogen fuels to an industrial level. (We may even have to consider wider use of nuclear energy). The market will not do it alone.

It requires concerted and massive government funding. We need to make sure we have these replacements for oil sharpish, both to prevent even more disastrous global warming, and to ensure we have the softest landing possible when the petrol runs out. (Toss in the fact that our oil-grabbing policies have fuelled Islamic fundamentalism for the past 60 years and you have a triple-whammy.)

Of course, it is possible - as many environmentalists believe - that there simply isn't a replacement for oil that will allow us to maintain the same energy-intensive lifestyles. Kunstler argues: "The fossil fuel bonanza was a one-time deal, and the interval we have enjoyed it in has been an anomalous period in human history." After all, throughout history people have spent massive amounts of time trying to develop technologies - from alchemy to a cure for cancer - only to find they don't exist. If the desire for (say) a hydrogen-powered economy turns out to belong on this list, then we will simply have to drastically downscale, and condemn future generations to look back on our current lives with eternal envy.

It's also possible we will develop an alternative to oil too late, and the runaway climate change we have already triggered will soar ahead of us regardless. But the sooner we start, the greater our chances of success. Don't we owe it to ourselves - and to the amazing achievements of the past two centuries - to try? Isn't Manhattan Redux the only moral route we can take now?

So what would prevent our governments from adopting such a manifestly sensible policy? Partly it's denial. None of us wants to admit what is happening. Most smokers know they will get lung cancer, but they continue puffing away. When the harm is even more distant, when any one individual's contribution is tiny, when the future seems to so instinctively implausible, is it surprising so many of us lower our gaze and mumble that at least we recycle our old newspapers? Partly, it's because a fantastically rich group of individuals is determined to prevent us from following this sane course. Edwin L Drake's discovery was soon snapped up by mega-corporations, and today they stand to lose hundreds of billions of dollars if we begin to make the transition away from a fossil fuel economy. So they spend a fortune confusing the public - acting as though global warming is a "disputed theory" - and buying politicians. It's a classic example of a sub-group pursuing its own private interest at the expense of the wider group, even to the point of environmental suicide. The only thing that can counteract this global vandalism is if enough of us band together - through groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth - and lobby and fight and shout even harder.

The alternative is to wait while the drip-drip of news stories continues - an Arctic ice shelf collapsing here, the hottest year on record there - until eventually the sea rises to your doorstep, or you fall victim to an extreme weather event, or the oil stops coming and you don't have a replacement. You can start the car and tune out of the global warming crisis if you like, but, if you do, don't be surprised when climate change finally turns on you.

Global warming

* Global average temperatures increased over the 20th century by 0.6 deg C.
* Nineteen of the 20 warmest years of the past 150 years have occurred since 1980; 2005 is on course to be the warmest on record.
* According to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "most of the warming observed over the past 50 years is attributable to human activity".
* Global average temperatures are projected to rise by anything from 1.4 deg C to 5.8 deg C over the period 1990 to 2100.
* An international panel chaired by the head of the IPPC has identified a 2 deg increase as the threshold beyond which "the risks to human societies and ecosystems grow significantly".
* Such an increase is considered inevitable if atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide exceed 400 parts per million.
* Concentrations of carbon dioxide ( CO2) now exceed 370ppm - their highest level for at least 420,000 years - and are still rising. In 1958 the level was 315ppm.
* Since 1750, CO2 levels in the earth's atmosphere have increased by about 35 per cent.
* Britain is meant to be reducing its CO2 emissions by 1 per cent a year. In fact, emissions have risen by 5.5 per cent since 1997, and rose by 2.5 per cent in the first six months of this year.

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