While many lifestyle choices require attention to protect the planet’s health, arguably the most concerning is energy generation. The issue is not energy per se, but its fossil fuel (coal, oil, and gas) generation. By the late 1950s, environmental science began to voice climate change concerns. Subsequent research connected the growing presence of fossil fuel greenhouse gases (methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, hydrogen) to catastrophic environmental events. By 2000 rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide had increased 12-fold. Climate science connects adverse environmental changes; for example, after 2010, the United States experienced five years of annual climate disaster recovery costs averaging $148.4 billion. Between 2019-2022, the United States led the world in billion-dollar recovery cost disasters. Science is clear on these points.
Human existence depends on energy. Its ever-growing demand for energy-dependent activities increases fossil fuel consumption, in turn, the likelihood of adverse environmental consequences. To abate continued environmental degradation requires reducing energy demand, replacing fossil fuels, or both. The path to each requires a social reckoning, as both are contentious. Demand is driven by the interests and needs of people; reduce population, reduce demand. An alternative renewable fuel (biomass, solar, wind, geothermal, and wind) requires lifestyle adjustments with individual cost implications. Change is uncomfortable; both are necessary and achievable but require social and political commitment.
The causal effect of population growth on energy demand is evidenced in the following: the world’s population is over eight billion – a 700% increase over the last two centuries. Projected to reach roughly ten billion by 2050. Over the two centuries, fuel consumption rose from 10 billion barrels of equivalent oil annually to 80 billion barrels – a 700% increase. While energy consumption rose roughly 2,500%. Present-day demand is growing about 5% annually. Renewables are not near levels sufficient to sustain demand or address intermittent unreliability (when renewables are demand insufficient, for example, limited full sun or wind days). Failure to address the root cause of climate change, instead advocating minimally stress-tested renewable fuels, is a speculative strategy.
Forty years ago, 90% of energy was generated using fossil fuels. Today fossil fuel produces 80% of energy. While a positive proportionally, aggregate energy demand is nearly twice what it was forty years ago, pushing fossil fuel consumption to its highest level. To effectively reduce consumption, movement on two fronts is necessary; stabilize demand and spread fuel usage across all sources (including nuclear) until alternative fuels can satisfy energy demand. The fuel industry is rightfully weary of any approach bent on a rapid transition to unproven alternative fuels that leaves the world vulnerable to global geopolitical instabilities; for example, international conflict. Mike Wirth, CEO of Chevron, summarized the Oil & Gas industry’s assessment of the environmental challenge in recent PBS and CNN interviews.
His contention was considered action requires targeting demand and fuel sources. As history has demonstrated, transitioning energy production from fossil fuels to any non-stressed tested fuel alternative is risky, complex, and lengthy. Second, energy demand is far from stable, increasing by a third over the past 20 years. Lastly, without addressing the driver of demand, fuel will continue as a concern; for example, consumerism from nations with burgeoning middle classes and advancing economies will continue to drive up energy demand.
Energy is best discussed from three perspectives, scale, speed, and solution. Scale is demand, higher than at any time in history. The speed of transition is determined by scale; for example, coal replaced biomass in the 1870s, then oil and natural gas replaced coal in the 1980s; both transitions took decades. When considering the replacement of an existing fuel, scale, and speed are success factors. Evidence: four and a half trillion dollars have been invested in wind and solar over the last decade, only raising their level of energy production from one to three percent of global demand.
According to Worldwatch Institute, humankind’s overriding challenges are truncating climate change, slowing population growth, and reducing consumption. The National Academy of Sciences predicts slowing population growth will afford a 16-19% emission reduction necessary by 2050. To avoid further climate change, per the United Nations, the other 81-84% must come from reduced energy consumption and clean energy production. In short, the Worldwatch and the United Nations are encouraging a balanced approach that emphasizes focus on population management. To do otherwise is perceived as analogous to health care addressing illness by focusing on symptoms instead of the cause, making short-term relief a false sign of causal abatement.
Dr. Stephen M. Wolfe, an Instructor and Health Service Administrator, combines 30 years of experience as a graduate-level educator with 26 years of healthcare leadership, including a role as a Colonel in the USAF Medical Service Corp. His career also spans 13 years of leadership in County Government probation and mental health. He holds a Doctorate in Business Administration, specializing in Health Service Administration.