Is Fracking an Answer? To What?

The most important technical correction would be for all nations, and certainly the big ones, to impose graduated and progressively stiffer taxes on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.  This would slow down the emissions.  It would raise the cost of fossil fuels and thereby make them last longer for critical uses. And by raising the price of fossil energy, it would make more benign renewables competitive. Such a tax would be impartial, which would encourage producers and users to experiment to find the way to produce and use energy in ways that minimize carbon releases.  Contrast that approach with the present clumsy one of allowing bureaucrats or politicians to select a process or a company and then subsidize it.

… and that leads to another advantage.  Rather than costing taxpayers money, it would help to balance budgets. In the current worldwide financial crisis, that is a compelling  argument  for CO2 taxes. The stick is cheaper than the carrot. It does, however, require a strong social consensus that it is presently conspicuously lacking.

The one solution that cuts across all the others is to address demand directly.

Demand is the product of population X consumption.  Consumption will probably pretty much take care of itself, as eroding incomes face rising prices.

Population is another matter.  Human fertility has been halved in the past five decades.   That is a remarkable achievement, but the last mile is the hardest.  The great benefit of additional fossil energy could be to provide some more time to turn world population growth around before food production plummets.  More fossil energy will make the climate problem worse, but at least there would be a trade-off.

Even with the best of wills, the task will not be easy.  Elsewhere, I have cited and critiqued the UN 2010 population projections.18  I propose to examine their implications at greater length in a forthcoming FORUM.  For the moment, let me simply point out that world population is still rising, driven largely by the 58 most fertile nations. lt will probably continue to do so until hunger and turmoil bring their growth to a halt, which may well occur in this century. The industrialized countries will need effective policies to control immigration if they are to preserve their own societies.  The intermediate fertility countries (including the U.S.) will be faced with a continuing need to reduce fertility as well as immigration. The poorest and most fertile nations will avoid disaster only with a remarkable set of changes, including effective policies to bring about much lower fertility. Shale gas and oil have only a limited role in that scene, but they can be of some help by postponing the collapse of the world’s fossil fuel economy.

Back to Shale.  Where does all this lead us? It takes us back to the basic conclusion: shale gas and oil will for an unknown period prolong a world driven in the wrong direction by growth.  It will provide a temporary palliative but it will set the stage for a more desperate future. We can envisage policies that ameliorate the problem, if we are willing to shift to the finite Earth paradigm. That shift may happen as the seas rise, storms and droughts get worse, the price of food and basic necessities climbs, the turmoil that we see around us intensifies, and the perpetual growth paradigm becomes less and less believable.  Even a deliberate reversal to embrace a wiser vision of the Earth faces a multitude of obstacles and a highly problematic prospect. In any event, the war is worth fighting. The stakes are too high to run from it. It is not an either/or proposition. Any success in moving governments toward a more rational view of the world will be a gain.  And we don’t have much choice.

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Lindsey Grant

Lindsey Grant is a retired Foreign Service Officer; he was a China specialist and served as Director of the Office of Asian Communist Affairs, National Security Council staff member, and Department of State policy Planning staff member. As Deputy Secretary of State for Environmental and Population Affairs, he was Department of State coordinator for the Global 2000 Report to the President, Chairman of the interagency committee on Int'l Environmental Committee and US member of the UN ECE Committee of Experts on the Environment. His books include: Too Many People, Juggernaut, The Horseman and the Bureaucrat, Elephants in Volkswagen, How Many Americans?

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