Truth is like poetry

George Sharpe, Merrion Oil and Gas investment manager

“The truth is like poetry… and most people (expletive) HATE poetry.” That quote came from the movie “The Big Short,” where nobody believed, nor wanted to believe, the math that showed that the then-booming housing market was built on false hopes and faulty reasoning.

That is the funny thing about math…it has no ego nor political motivations. Math doesn’t care what the answer is or whether that answer will be popular or not. It just speaks the truth. The math behind energy use and climate change, frankly, is not very encouraging. Follow along, if you have the stomach for it.

  1. The economy is based primarily on the consumption of goods and services. Nothing makes Wall Street smile like a boost in consumer confidence and consumer spending. Any reduction in consumption means that whomever made that product is out of a job. Our economy, and perhaps your job, is dependent on ever-growing consumption. 
  2. Consumption takes energy. The cotton shirt you just bought may be “all natural,” but the tractor that farmed it runs on diesel, the mill that refined it runs on natural gas, it was packaged in petroleum based plastic, trucked to a heated, lit up super store near you, where you drive in your car to buy it. Nobody who wants to reduce their carbon footprint really wants to reduce their energy footprint. They want to keep on consuming, and the cotton farmer, truck driver, and store owner need them to as well!
  3. The current world population of 7.5 billion is expected to be 10 billion by 2050. That many folks consume a LOT of resources. And the only way to bring the Third World up to the standards of our world requires dramatic increases in their consumption of resources. Nobody who wants to bring economic equity to the world really intends to lower their own standard of living to meet in the middle.
  4. Speaking of world population, health care is an impending disaster because it is TOO successful, and frankly, we can’t afford it. Before we figured out how to do a heart transplant, people went ahead and died of a heart attack at 65. Now, for well over a million dollars a crack, they can live for another 20 years, paying all the while for meds and maybe a new hip or two along the way. Everyone wants their family to be provided the best available health care from cradle to grave, but nobody wants their premiums to go up. Unfortunately, that math doesn’t hunt. And every year that is added to every life means more consumption and more energy use. The worst thing that could happen to Earth from an environmental standpoint would be to cure enough diseases that we extend life expectancy for 7.5 billion people by another 10 to 20 years. 
  5. Improved life expectancy, improved standard of living, and the growth in the world population can all be tied to the industrial revolution…the harnessing of energy to do work for us, grow food for us, and make us stuff. At the same time, the correlation between the dramatic increase in the CO2 concentration and the start of the industrial revolution is indisputable, though the Deniers continue to dispute. Just because man’s CO2 emissions are less than 4% of the natural emissions doesn’t mean that their contribution hasn’t tipped the scale. 
  6. The Kyoto protocol aside, a world with 7.5 billion, most of them in poverty, is not likely to reign in its CO2 emissions. Climate change is a first world problem. The poor are more worried about keeping warm and fed than whether New York City is going to be under water in 50 years. They are going to use the cheapest form of energy available, which is likely carbon based. Even the rich consumers in the first world tend to do what is in their own economic self-interest. And finally, there is that annoying issue of reliability when it comes to renewable energy sources. Even if we can build wind and solar farms fast enough to replace all the carbon generation, that still doesn’t make them reliable to provide all our energy needs whenever we want.   
  7. If climate change is man-made, then the horse has left the barn. The goal is to reduce CO2 emissions to 1990 levels or below, but weren’t those the levels that got us into this fix in the first place?  

Yes, the world is changing, and there are 7.5 billion reasons why. I strongly support moves to mitigate man’s impact, but it is a fantasy to believe we can reduce it to zero. In addition, any such moves need to recognize the reality that we still want our standard of living, we still need an economy and jobs, all of which require energy to perpetuate. Therefore, the planet will continue to change, and the climate along with it.  Perhaps we need to spend more resources adapting to that change rather than thinking we can stop it in its tracks.

George Sharpe is the investment manager of Merrion Oil & Gas.