What if We Just Stop Oil?
Young activists deserve better from wealthy funders and scientists
Just Stop Oil is a UK-based campaign group that has recently sought to gain attention by disrupting transport and high-profile sporting events. As their name suggests, they want to just stop oil.
It just has to stop. If we continue down our current path it will destroy families and communities. We will face the starvation and the slaughter of billions of the poor – and the utter betrayal of our children and their future. . . In eight years we need to end our reliance on fossil fuels completely. . . Climate collapse will mean the end of workers’ rights, women’s rights, all human rights. It is already the greatest injustice visited on the global south in human history. If you are not in resistance you are appeasing evil.
Let’s take their demands seriously. OK, let’s just stop oil and gas. What would then happen?
For oil, according to the International Energy Agency, under a current policies scenario (called STEPS) and those announced by governments (called APS) the world is going to need new sources of oil supply to meet demand this decade, as you can see in the figure below.
Even under IEA’s hypothetical net-zero scenario that phases out oil consumption by 2050, the IEA concludes that new upstream investment in oil will be needed for the remainder of this decade.
Now, natural gas. The IEA similarly expects that natural gas will be central to all scenarios of future global energy consumption, including its net-zero scenario (called NZE). Projected annual investment necessary to meet future demand is shown below.
In fact there are no scenarios is the scientific literature that suggest that it is remotely possible to eliminate the use of fossil fuels over the next 8 years. Achieving net-zero by 2050 is almost certainly impossible. Immediately stopping investment in the continued development of fossil fuels is just not possible.
Let me remind readers here that I am fully on board with the importance of decarbonizing the global economy, a topic I wrote a PhD dissertation on almost 30 years ago and my book The Climate Fix much more recently. I am also a policy realist and pragmatist. Advocating for the impossible is a good way to get nothing done.
But let’s ignore impossibilities. Let’s say that commuters and sports fans become convinced by the theatrics of Just Stop Oil and mobilize to convince governments to just stop oil — and governments listen and act What then happens?
A global energy crisis, that’s what.
A mismatch between supply and demand would mean much higher prices for oil and natural gas. The 1973 oil crisis provides an example of what might happen with an abrupt change in supply led to oil prices spiking by 400%. A similar outcome in 2023 would result in oil prices of $300 per barrel.
Higher priced oil and gas would mean much higher prices for consumer goods and food. It would lead to inflation and depress economic growth. Transportation would become much more expensive. Degrowthers might celebrate, but higher-proced energy would also lead to a massive increase in hunger and malnutrition around the world. Children would die. There would be massive societal upheaval. There would be no rapture.
Why in the world would Just Stop Oil be calling for impossible policies that if possible would wind up causing immerse societal disruption, suffering and death?
The answer can be found in Richard Hofstadter’s famous 1964 essay on the “paranoid style” of politics.
The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse.
The paranoid approach to politics requires demands for the impossible to be achieved thus creating failure which sustains the sense of powerlessness among the movement’s adherents. Hofstadter explains:
As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.
The fact that Just Stop Oil and their fellow travelers believe that we face a looming apocalypse is not simply the result of some millenarian cult leader — it is in part the result of being egged on by scientists and political leaders. Below is the header found on the homepage of Just Stop Oil.
Here are some other quotes that Just Stop Oil cites in support of its impossible demands, based on a belief that “Further expansion of oil and gas production globally is putting us on course for human extinction”:
“If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year.” Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, 2021
“If damaging tipping cascades can occur and a global tipping point cannot be ruled out, then this is an existential threat to civilization. No amount of economic cost–benefit analysis is going to help us. We need to change our approach to the climate problem.” Lenton et al, 2020
‘If we go into a runaway climate effect, the damage may be between €100 trillion and the loss of civilisation” Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber
“The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future" Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Sixth Assessment Report, Working Group II Co-Chair Hans-Otto Pörtner, 28th February 2021
I am aware of no scientist — including those cited above and those leading the IPCC — who has offered any sort of corrective to the scientific misunderstandings advanced by Just Stop Oil. If I’ve missed such correctives, please let me know. To the contrary, I often see scientists quoted saying that we need to just stop consuming fossil fuels. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.
It turns out that Just Stop Oil is funded by wealth Americans whose fortunes came from fossil fuels — No, you could not make this up. The main U.S. funder of Just Stop Oil reminds us:
“Let’s not forget that we’re talking about extinction”
Ultimately, Just Stop Oil is exploitive. Wealthy funders and comfortable scientists are scaring normal people, many of them young, who express their fears and anxieties about an apocalyptic future as meaningless activism that places themselves and others in harms way, as they call for impossible policies that if implemented would kill many people around the world. How sad.
We need to do better by these activists, by stopping the millenarian rhetoric and sharing with them a range of real-world policies that can actually make a difference. We owe them at least that.
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