World’s Top Energy Economist: Brace for Impact

According to the chief economist of the IEA, this is where we’re headed. (Photo by Cherryllynx/Flickr)

Fatih Birol is the chief economist for the International Energy Agency. Throughout most of its history, the Agency (like its American counterpart, the U.S. Energy Information Administration) gave short shrift to alarms about peak oil and global climate change. But now its top analyst says (in a recent talk to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)  that “the world is perfectly on track to six degrees Celsius [warming due to global climate change]…which is very bad news. And everybody, even school children, know[s] this will have catastrophic implications for all of us.” In other words, Brace for Impact.

The IEA was created in the 1970s by the 28 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to help them avoid any repeat of the 1973-74 global oil crisis. For nearly four decades, the Agency seemed to see its mission as one of comforting its member countries and repeating the blandishments of energy company executives and Saudi Arabian princes.

That changed in 2009. The Agency’s consistently rosy projections of steadily increasing world oil production, sufficient to meet all demands, came under increasing fire from more realistic analysts. There were increasing reports of internal dissension at the Agency because of pressure from the United States (a member country then wholly owned and operated by Big Oil) to remain optimistic no matter what the data said. The US was unhappy about hints, in the organizations World Energy Outlook for 2008, of  increasing danger from global climate change and peak oil.

In 2008, Fatih Birol (the former OPEC economist) stepped foreward, his hair fully ablaze, to say this:

“The public and many governments appeared to be oblivious to the fact that the oil on which modern civilisation depends is running out far faster than previously predicted and that global production is likely to peak in about 10 years – at least a decade earlier than most governments had estimated. One day we will run out of oil, it is not today or tomorrow, but one day we will run out of oil and we have to leave oil before oil leaves us, and we have to prepare ourselves for that day.”

His hair is still in need of flame retardant. He told the Carnegie folks that while the world’s governments have vowed to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, they have actually done precisely nothing to achieve that goal. They have, instead, made an absolute commitment to starting to begin to think about doing something in 10, 20 or 30 years, maybe.

Limiting greenhouse-gas emissions in order to mitigate global climate change would require a massive, painful, expensive, wrenching and difficult program of change on the part of the entire industrialized world. It would require transcendent political leadership — and the application of police powers. If everything possible were done by everyone imaginable, starting tomorrow, the effects of climate change would still be very serious.

But as Mr. Birol points out, in the name of the agency that has known more about this for longer than almost any other, “the world is perfectly on track” to catastrophe.

What he meant was, Brace for Impact.


[See also “Oil: More Peaked Than Ever.” For updates on this and other Daily Impact stories, and for short takes on other subjects, check out The Editor’s Log.]

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