Some people talk about thresholds for climate change—how many years we have left to act, how much CO2 we can afford to release, how high of a global average temperature we can accept before all hell breaks loose. I'm not sure that's really a great way to think about it, though. Our climate is already changing. The risks are already being realized, and every emissions reduction goalpost ever set is somewhat arbitrary. There's not a magic number that can save us. Instead, we should really just be trying to limit the continuation of climate change as much and as fast as possible.
If that isn't enough to worry about, metros such as Merriam are also likely to be hard hit when oil production peaks and higher gasoline prices follow.
There's an increasingly large collection of research telling us it probably isn't a good idea to rely solely on fossil fuels. Why? Because those fuels are finite. There's only so much of them to go around—although it is still open to debate exactly how finite the supplies of oil, coal, and natural gas are.
All three fossil fuels come from the same place—ancient plants and animals that died and were buried beneath layers of earth and rock, often millions of years before dinosaurs roamed this planet. Changed by heat, pressure, and the process of decomposition, these dead remains became the substances that make our modern lives possible. The coal that we burn to make electricity was once forests and swamps full of plants. The oil in your gas tank and the natural gas that heats your house are the remains of tiny sea creatures. Turning those plants and animals into fuel takes millions of years, and it can happen only under certain circumstances. Once we burn through these fuels—or, more important, once we burn through the ones that are relatively cheap to collect—there won't be any more. Not on any time scale that would be useful to you or to me.
That's worrisome. All of the conveniences, comforts, and wealth we've accumulated since the late 1800s have been largely based on the availability of relatively inexpensive fossil fuels. Those fuels pack a lot of energy into a compact space. Other fuels, such as cut wood, can't compete with that kind of energy density—a fact that becomes especially important when you need to travel somewhere and must carry fuel along with you. The weight and the volume of fuel definitely matter. More than a hundred years ago, oil, refined into gasoline, solved the transportation-fuel problem, but what happens if oil becomes too expensive for most Americans? What happens, eventually, when it finally runs out?
To answer these questions, we first have to know "when." If we have a hundred years before oil production peaks, then we'll be in a very different position compared to that peak happening next year—or last year. The timing of this peak isn't easy to figure out. The world's supply of oil is harder to measure than carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, for the simple reasons that nobody owns the atmosphere, and the atmosphere is well-mixed. Oil, on the other hand, is a business. It comes with trade secrets. It also comes without an industry-wide standard for calculating untapped oil reserves. If one company tells you how much oil it has left, you can't directly add that to another company's number and get a reliable total, because both calculations were figured in very different ways. Unlike the atmosphere, you can't just take a sample from anywhere on the planet and expect it to tell you something about conditions everywhere.