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An Even Bigger Earthquake

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  • An Even Bigger Earthquake

    In my mind, it seems pretty clear that an epidemic of short-termism helped lay the groundwork for the current unraveling in global financial markets.

    Among other things, this disease helps explain why banks and other financial firms paid less and less attention to borrower creditworthiness and the extraordinary risks they were taking on in the years before the bubble burst; why managers, regulators and policymakers ignored or downplayed excesses and a build-up of imbalances that have, historically at least, been harbingers of disaster; and why current "rescue" efforts have been reactionary and ill-conceived, instead of having been coherently thought through and planned out beforehand.

    Blindness to long-term realities is also at the root of other budding catastrophes. For instance, even though it's been known for some time that the gap between the rising structural demand for and readily accessible supply of oil and other forms of energy has been widening, short run realities still dominate public policy and dictate societal behavior.

    As experts like Jim Kunstler have noted, for example, there is very little in the way of resources being directed towards establishing a viable railway network in this country, which might go some way towards addressing the supply-demand mismatch. Instead, the attention and the money continues to go towards roads and other aspects of a car-dependent infrastructure.

    With that in mind, the meltdown in global financial markets might turn out to be the least of our concerns. Indeed, some would argue that a similarly predictable unraveling stemming from the gnashing of tectonic plates in the energy sphere will set off a far more devastating earthquake. In "Financial Crisis? That's Nothing" the U.K. Guardian's Ethical Living blog gives us the details.

    The coming energy crisis is going to dwarf the financial crisis, says the head of Shell: if only he were wrong

    Why is anyone talking about anything apart from the looming power gap?

    The news that we're about to return to the age of coal is no surprise to anyone who's been following energy developments in this country or even globally.

    The simple truth is that we're in a pretty woeful position, thanks to government dithering: in the next couple of years some of the UK's aging nuclear and coal-fired plants are due to be shut down, and there is not really much - green or otherwise - lined up to replace them. Moreover we, like the rest of the world, are desperately in need of low-carbon energy sources, as CO2 levels in the atmosphere just rise and rise and rise.

    Yes, in the government's happy daydreams we will be providing much of our power through off-shore wind by 2020. Other countries too are working as hard as possible to find solutions to the problem, but most of them are a long way from being realised. In the meantime the head of Shell, Jeroen van der Veer, warned the Confederation of British Industry on Monday that we "had better make speed, or else the lights would go out. A sense of urgency is needed".

    Van der Veer pointed out that the financial crisis would be a problem for a couple of years, "but the energy challenge will be a problem for at least 50 years".

    He told the audience to face three hard truths. First, the world's population will increase from 6 to 9 billion over the next couple of decades and these people will all want electricity and transport.

    Second, oil and gas alone will not be able to provide this fuel: renewables in time will come into their own but we are a while away from that future at the moment.

    And third, CO2 levels will go up in concentration higher than the levels recommended by the scientists.

    This last idea is particularly depressing, given that scientists such as James Hansen of Nasa believe that these recommended levels are too high anyway. It is a grim little list, made even grimmer by the source: not a deep green thinker, but the head of one of the largest energy companies in the world.

    At Shell they have painted two possible scenarios. The first is called Scramble, and assumes that every government will go all out for itself. The second is called Blueprint, and hopes that a good follow-up to Kyoto will come along, and that the world will work together to sort out the problem. They are working on a global CO2 abatement curve in order to work out where the best carbon savings can be made, but van der Veer, with his pragmatic Dutch manner, refuses to see easy solutions and reiterates that the future is going to be tough.

    Is Shell making the problem sound worse than it is to distract us from its monster profits and withdrawal from certain key renewable projects in this country? Are they trying to justify their decision to begin extracting what van der Veer called "unconventional" oil — such as the tar sands of Canada? If only.

    The energy crunch is coming, and it may make the financial crunch look like a small squall. Is Gordon Brown ready for this one?
    The truth is incontrovertible, malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end; there it is.” Winston Churchill