Fossil fuels are more than just a bad habit

The benefits fossil fuels bring make them probably the hardest addiction ever to kick. Credit: Don Hankins, via Flickr Creative Commons licence

The benefits fossil fuels bring make them probably the hardest addiction ever to kick. Credit: Don Hankins, via Flickr Creative Commons licence

I’m increasingly realising how much of a creature of habit I am. I have the same bizarre sticky brown yeast extract goo on toast for breakfast each morning. I watch films in my lounge most evenings. And I wonder: How much of my personality is just a collection of habits? What about yours, and all of ours? Could our whole society just be a giant collage of habits? And most relevant to this blog: how much of the human greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global warming come from our habits?

Recently, I’ve been keeping track of how long I spend doing things, which has been helping me swap what I think are bad habits for better ones. It’s tempting to suggest fighting climate change in a similar way. Many people talk about how we burn fossil fuels to propel our cars or run our gadgets as a bad habit, and even an addiction. But it’s more complicated than other addictions. Fossil fuels have been to our society more like food and a salary are to us individually – they’ve helped produce many of the healthiest aspects of the modern world. They’ve powered more than a century of rapid social and technological progress, and given many countries their current rich, well-fed figures.

For an article I’m writing about employment prospects in the UK’s chemical industry, I recently spotted the table below. It shows ‘gross value added’ (GVA), a measure of the money contributed to the economy, per person across the country’s different industries. It was striking to me that while bankers may get all the headlines for their wealth, the energy industry has the greatest earning power per head in the UK.

Oil and gas extraction help the "Mining and Quarry; Energy & water" sector make the largest contribution per head to the UK economy, as they employ relatively few people relative to their large economic output . Credit: Office for National Statistics

Oil and gas extraction help the “Mining and Quarry; Energy & water” sector make the largest contribution per head to the UK economy, as they employ relatively few people relative to their large economic output. The ‘total’ figure is the overall GVA for the UK, averaged across all industries. Credit: Office for National Statistics

Much like I’d quickly struggle without food or money, today sharply taking fossil fuel energy away from our societies would immediately threaten our existence. In fact, some think even the small changes already happening taste bad. Again in the UK chemical industry, there are worries that higher costs from clean energy are making it less competitive with other countries. Part of the way it would like to avoid this issue is through unconventional natural gas supplies, presumably extracted through controversial ‘fracking’ methods.

A seemingly obvious choice

Each spring and summer, as the air warms up and the sunlight beats down on the Greenland ice sheet, sapphire-colored ponds spring up like swimming pools in a suburban neighborhood. As snow and ice melt atop the glaciers, the water flows in channels and streams and collects in depressions on the surface that are sometimes visible from space. In summer 2012, the surface layer of the Greenland ice sheet almost all melted, thanks to an unusual weather pattern linked to climate change. Image credit: NASA

Each spring and summer, as the air warms up and the sunlight beats down on the Greenland ice sheet, sapphire-colored ponds spring up like swimming pools in a suburban neighborhood. As snow and ice melt atop the glaciers, the water flows in channels and streams and collects in depressions on the surface that are sometimes visible from space. In summer 2012, the surface layer of the Greenland ice sheet almost all melted, thanks to an unusual weather pattern linked to climate change. Image credit: NASA

On this blog this year, I’ve been writing about the key scientists who revealed climate change. For example, Guy Callendar spotted Earth’s rising temperatures, and blamed them on CO2, as far back as 1938. Hans Suess published evidence that CO2 increases were coming from fossil fuels in 1955. Dave Keeling was getting one of the first cautious messages of the danger this posed to the wider community by 1969.

And the modern research I’ve been covering this year has shown the wide range of impacts climate change is having, and will have. It raises the risk of flu epidemics. It is altering weather patterns, bringing extreme cold to Europe and unusual warmth to Greenland. It makes extreme rainfall more severe. Maize crops have been increasingly exposed to temperatures that damage them during their flowering stage. It has driven fish into colder waters, leaving less for people in poorer, hotter countries to eat.

We have known about climate change for long enough now, and that there are impacts that are clear enough, to start swapping fossil fuels for something else. Governments are making small steps, with the aim to keep temperatures less than 2°C above the pre-industrial average from 1850-1899. To even achieve this, Steve Davis at University of California, Irvine found this year that the switch needs to happen much faster. And Marco Steinacher at the University of Bern similarly found that adding extra targets, such as limiting sea level rise and protecting food supplies, also urges faster cuts. When comparing the seemingly obvious need for action with the agonisingly slow progress being made, it’s easy to get despondent. But when you reflect on how important fossil fuels are to us, it’s also easy to see why moving away from them might be a ‘wicked problem’.

Best to divest

Students at the University of Massachusetts in April this year, campaigning for their university to divest its endowment from fossil fuels companies. Credit: Julia Cardillo/Daily Collegian via Flickr Creative Commons license

Students at the University of Massachusetts in April this year, campaigning for their university to divest its endowment from fossil fuels companies. Credit: Julia Cardillo/Daily Collegian via Flickr Creative Commons license

We can definitely do our own part by changing our habits. Trying to walk or cycle rather than driving. Not flying so often. Buying fewer products, and buying local produce when cutting out transportation emissions minimises the carbon footprint of getting it to our plate. It will take much more to get climate change under control though. The technology does exist to generate electricity cleanly, and is being deployed. But our financial dependence on fossil fuels is, to me, what makes them hardest to untangle from our society.

So, I’ve been intrigued by the latest efforts by climate activists to divest from fossil fuel companies. We can push large investment funds, like university endowments and our pensions, to sell their shares in these firms. I recently signed this petition to get the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to divest from them. If you’re in Europe, you could do the same. And if not, there’s a whole list of divestment campaigns that might be relevant to you here. As an individual owner of a personal pension, I am in the process of doing my own divesting. These actions may or may not hurt fossil fuel companies directly in their pockets. But they will help raise awareness of the problems we face in ‘getting clean’ – and most importantly, it’s a step towards removing fossil fuels from our lives.

Further reading and journal references:

Cutler Cleveland’s excellent analysis on “Breaking the Fossil Fuel Habit” is well worth a read.

Towers, S., Chowell, G., Hameed, R., Jastrebski, M., Khan, M., Meeks, J., Mubayi, A., & Harris, G. (2013). Climate change and influenza: the likelihood of early and severe influenza seasons following warmer than average winters PLoS Currents DOI: 10.1371/currents.flu.3679b56a3a5313dc7c043fb944c6f138
Zhang, X., Lu, C., & Guan, Z. (2012). Weakened cyclones, intensified anticyclones and recent extreme cold winter weather events in Eurasia Environmental Research Letters, 7 (4) DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/7/4/044044
Edward Hanna, Xavier Fettweis, Sebastian H. Mernild, John Cappelen, Mads H. Ribergaard, Christopher A. Shuman, Konrad Steffen, Len Wood, Thomas L. Mote (2013). Atmospheric and oceanic climate forcing of the exceptional Greenland ice sheet surface melt in summer 2012 International Journal of Climatology DOI: 10.1002/joc.3743
Westra, S., Alexander, L., & Zwiers, F. (2012). Global increasing trends in annual maximum daily precipitation Journal of Climate DOI: 10.1175/JCLI-D-12-00502.1
Gourdji, S., Sibley, A., & Lobell, D. (2013). Global crop exposure to critical high temperatures in the reproductive period: historical trends and future projections Environmental Research Letters, 8 (2) DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/8/2/024041
Lobell DB, & Gourdji SM (2012). The influence of climate change on global crop productivity. Plant physiology, 160 (4), 1686-97 PMID: 23054565
Cheung, W., Watson, R., & Pauly, D. (2013). Signature of ocean warming in global fisheries catch Nature, 497 (7449), 365-368 DOI: 10.1038/nature12156

2 Responses to “Fossil fuels are more than just a bad habit”

  1. andyextance Says:

    For those in the UK, ShareAction is building a team of grassroots activists to
    take on the investment industry to get it to act on climate change. It has a training session on September 14. See: http://www.shareaction.org.uk/sites/default/files/uploaded_files/greenlightposter4.pdf

  2. igorvlc Says:

    thanks! i have a summative test on it and you helped me very much! thank you, thank you!


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