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Spread Reckoning: U.S. Suburbs Face Twin Perils of Climate Change and Peak Oil [Excerpt]

Sprawling metropolitan areas like Merriam, Kans., face fundamental challenges from global warming and the end of easy oil
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Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us (John Wiley & Sons, 2012), by Maggie Koerth-Baker.

Most people reading this would probably find Merriam, Kansas, very familiar. Not because they've been there, but because it's a lot like home.

Merriam is usually described as a suburb of Kansas City, Kans.—a small town that grew into a residential center for people who worked in the much larger city nearby. Yet the mental images that go with the word suburb don't really fit Merriam all that well. When I think suburb, I imagine something like Levittown, treeless insta-villages where rows of identical houses dot gleaming new cul-de-sacs recently carved out of some farmer's field. The greater Kansas City area certainly has its share of developments that would fit that description, but Merriam isn't one of them.

In fact, when I was a kid, I didn't even know Merriam existed at all. I thought it was Kansas City. Specifically, I thought it was where Kansas City began, the distinct point where you exit the Interstate and find yourself in the big city. This particular misconception has more to do with my family's regular travel plans than anything else—Merriam's main drag happens to be the same road that leads to the art museum my dad and I went to a lot and to the Christmas light displays I visited every winter with my mom. It also speaks volumes about what Merriam actually looks like, though, and it's tied to some important trends in the way most Americans live today.

Merriam isn't a small town. There's nothing really recognizable as a small town central business district. Instead, Merriam's stores and offices are mostly concentrated along two major thoroughfares—Shawnee Mission Parkway and Johnson Drive. These wide, multilane roads are dotted with clusters of shopping centers and big box stores, like necklaces strung with fat pearls. The municipal building and the police station are a couple of nondescript offices that sit off the frontage of Shawnee Mission Parkway, on a ridge overlooking the Interstate. Nothing about that says, "Classic Americana."

Yet Merriam isn't a suburb, either—or an urban city. It's too dense to be the first and not dense enough to be the latter. Merriam has a mixture of house styles. Drive down one street, and you'll see a 1930s bungalow standing shoulder to shoulder with a spare little 1950s Cape Cod. Next to that, there's a 1980s split-level with windows on the front and the back but none on the sides. More than three generations of the American Dream are living here.

Each house sits on its own little lot, generous by the standards of city dwellers, but those lots would seem cramped to anyone who grew up on an expansive, truly suburban range of lawn. Some neighborhoods have sidewalks; others don't. All in all, Merriam doesn't quite fit in with any of the paradigms we use to describe "place" in the United States, and that sense of befuddlement extends all the way to the edge of town—if you can find it. The truth is that Merriam's borders are hazy, known only to people whose jobs require them to be aware of that sort of thing. To most people, Merriam bleeds into Mission, into Shawnee, and into Overland Park. Those towns, in turn, nuzzle up against others just like themselves. You could almost call them neighborhoods, except that they have their own separate governments.

It's ironic that Merriam doesn't really fit any of the classic American paradigms, because, quite frankly, most of us have already left those paradigms behind. We talk about this country as if it's full of neatly defined small towns, big cities, and tidy suburbs. In reality, the places where we live are lot mushier than that. Merriam isn't the exception. Merriam is the rule.

The Brookings Institution calls places such as Merriam metropolitan areas. Each named community is just one part of a larger symbiotic organism. "Being in a metro means being tied to someplace else," wrote Jennifer Bradley and Bruce Katz, of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, in 2008. The collection of cities in a metro work together, economically and socially, and by the Brookings Institution's tally, this is how most Americans live—as much as 84 percent of the population.

That definition of "metro" is wide-reaching, encompassing places that might think of themselves as cities, small towns, and suburbs. That's certainly true of Tonganoxie, where my paternal grandparents lived. Thirty miles from Kansas City, it was a far-flung Hicksville when my dad was a teenager. Today, Tonganoxie is part of the metro—not really just a suburb, but not truly its own entity, either. The Brookings definition also includes such places as where I live now—a 1920s streetcar suburb that's been absorbed as a neighborhood of Minneapolis. We aren't urban, as visiting friends from New York City often remind us, but we're not suburban, either.

You can see that the Brookings definition is kind of broad, possibly overly broad. Residents of the places it describes might disagree with it, even vehemently. Yet if you're trying to figure out an objective way to group places by shared economic and social characteristics, it makes sense. This is better than a survey, which would tell you more about perceptions than about what places are actually like. It also makes an important point: Independent, small-town life isn't archetypal America anymore. The interconnected metro is.

Kansas is full of places that aren't like Merriam. There are also tiny towns such as Quinter—a Western Kansas community with a population of fewer than a thousand—and mid-size cities such as Salina, which is home to more than forty-five thousand people. If you want to know what's at risk in the future of energy, however, Merriam is the place to focus. It's the place that can teach the majority of us something important about the places where we live and about the risks we're taking when it comes to energy.

There are lots of reasons to care about energy, and lots of reasons to want to change the way we make and use energy in this country. For me, though, it boils down to a concern about climate change and about energy diversity. Those are the big reasons I think we need to seriously alter the way we make and use energy. Why do I think that? In a nutshell: that's what the majority of scientific studies tell me. When many different, unconnected scientists come to the same conclusions, after decades' worth of research, I listen. You should, too.

It all boils down to a preponderance of evidence—evidence collected by many different people, in many different ways, during the course of more than three decades. That's what "scientific consensus" really means. It's not only something a bunch of scientists choose to believe in. It's something they've seen. It's what the bulk of the evidence is telling them.

In Kansas, researchers have collected more than a hundred years' worth of data about temperatures, rainfall, and weather patterns. From the perspective of a single year or even a decade or two, you might not notice much of a difference. There are seasons. Winters are still colder than summers. Kansas is one of those states with a reputation for fickle weather, anyway. Don't like this cold winter day? Just you wait a week; you'll be wearing shorts. Yet if you zoom out and look at the century, patterns emerge. The average winter temperatures have gone up by 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Summer has been more stable, with an increase of only .6 degrees. In general, during the last century, Kansas has had fewer relatively cold days, while the number of relatively warm days has increased. When those increases happen also matters. During both winter and summer, average nighttime temperatures have increased more than average daytime temperatures have.

That doesn't sound like much, but it makes a difference in practical ways. In Merriam, Kansas, there are plants thriving today that probably couldn't have survived thirty years ago. When I was born, home gardeners in Merriam chose the seeds they'd plant outdoors by finding species that were rated to USDA Hardiness Zone 5—meaning that those plants could survive winter temperatures as lowa's –20 degrees. By the time I graduated from high school in 1999, the Kansas City metro, along with most of Kansas, had been upgraded to Hardiness Zone 6. Winter was no longer likely to be so frigid. If a plant could survive a few days of zero-degree temperatures, it could probably live in Merriam just fine.

That opens up more possibilities for creative green thumbs. There aren't a lot of buildings in Kansas that are covered with the trailing green fingers of English ivy, but today, if you wanted a little ivy-covered cottage on the prairie—or an ivy-covered fence surrounding your metro backyard—you could grow it, without much worry of winter killing the plants. If English ivy doesn't sound like a particularly horrible fate, that's because climate change isn't inherently good or bad, in and of itself. It's all about how those changes affect people. We might like some of the results—English ivy can thrive, and even Kansas's many food crops are likely to grow better, at least in the short term—but we won't like everything that happens.

For instance, the same warmer temperatures that favor English ivy are also quite favorable to ivy of another sort. Research shows that rising temperatures—even the small increases seen in Kansas—and rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere are combining to expand the range of poison ivy, allowing it to be active for a longer part of the year and making it more poisonous.  A walk through local parks or state lands near Merriam is now more likely to involve a brush with the less-than-friendly side of nature.

The warmer climate works in tandem with a wetter one. Merriam and much of the northern and eastern parts of Kansas have become a lot wetter, especially in the winter. The Midwest is experiencing heavier storms more often than it did in the past. Those storms can cause serious damage and cost communities some serious money. That's not all, though. Higher temperatures and more frequent downpours affect metro areas and their residents in a number of ways.

When you combine warm water and flash flooding, you get a risk of water-borne disease. That's because many harmful microorganisms favor higher temperatures. If floods overwhelm water-treatment facilities, those organisms can find their way into the pipes, out of the tap, and into your glass. This isn't something that happens only in underdeveloped countries or other places we can write off as "not like home." The sanitation infrastructure of American metro areas is impressive, but it's not infallible. Many parts of the Midwest have experienced increased precipitation from more numerous large storms. This isn't only a Kansas problem. In 1993, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, suffered an outbreak of gastrointestinal disease caused by the bacteria Cryptosporidium. This bacteria doesn't merely give you a tummy ache. Instead, it leads to a week or more of diarrhea, cramps, vomiting, and fever. Fifty-four people died. Just before the illness struck, the region had received its heaviest rainfall in fifty years.

Since 1993, researchers have found that heavy rainfalls are associated with higher levels of potentially dangerous bacteria. This has been measured in drinking water and in recreational waters. It's also turned up in floodwater. In 2008, when major flooding inundated Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, raw sewage came right out of the Cedar Rapids water-treatment plant and into the flood. Those contaminated waters sloshed into people's houses, and when the water finally receded, it left behind buildings full of muck and mold. The people tasked with cleanup duties suffered from what they called "flood crud," weeks of fatigue, cough, and other respiratory symptoms.

Speaking of breathing problems, warmer springs that bloom earlier in the year have also led to longer allergy seasons, and scientists say that the higher CO2 concentrations found in traffic-heavy cities and metros are causing plants to have higher pollen counts. This means that people who weren't affected by allergies thirty or forty years ago might be sniffling and stuffy today, and Merriam residents who have always had allergies now have to deal with them for longer periods of the year.

Air pollution is another big problem. In the heat of a hot and sunny day, tailpipe emissions from cars turn into lung-damaging, heart-straining smog. In any metro area, including Merriam, the more relatively hot days you have, the greater the risks of smog-associated asthma and heart attacks. Kansas City, Kansas, and Overland Park—two cities near Merriam—spent more than $13 million on asthma treatment in 2001. The more risk there is of smog-related lung damage, the higher those costs will rise.

During the next thirty years or so, a warmer, wetter Merriam might be, in some ways, a more comfortable place to live—the last few decades have brought longer growing seasons for plants and winter temperatures that are more reliably pleasant. Yet Merriam is also becoming a more expensive place to live and a place where the individual risk of illness and property damage is going up—and up and up. The more greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere, the higher the global average temperature will eventually climb. As that happens, Merriam and places like it all around the United States will be exposed to risks that are greater and more numerous.

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.

Finally, there's no equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for peak oil. This matters. Part of what makes the IPCC so important is that it does the job of consolidating many little theories into one big Theory. The IPCC reviews all of the scientific papers published on climate science and the impact of climate change. It looks at methodology and figures out which papers are more trustworthy than others, and it compiles all of that information into realistic estimates of what might happen and when.

If there are two competing little theories that should be given equal attention—because nobody knows yet which is correct—the IPCC tells you that.

In contrast, peak oil research is a confusing jumble of individual, often contradictory, papers. To a layperson, it's not easy to tell which little theories on this subject deserve more respect, and it's hard to get a sense of what the overarching scientific consensus is, if one exists at all. That means you have nothing to draw on when it comes time to judge the statements about peak oil that are made outside the scientific community. When you read an op-ed that claims oil production has already peaked and that our entire way of life is imminently going to collapse, do you know how much evidence supports that and how much doesn't? When another source tells you that peak oil isn't something to worry about at all, is there a reason to believe this statement? Without an IPCC-like entity, answering those questions requires a lot of time and a not-insignificant amount of scientific expertise.

There's been some progress made in solving this problem. In 2009, British researchers put together a sort of micro-mini IPCC aimed at answering the question "What evidence is there to support the proposition that the global supply of ‘conventional oil' will be constrained by physical depletion before 2030?" In other words, is peak oil a short-term problem or a long-term problem?

The researchers' report doesn't cover all of the questions surrounding the idea of peak oil. For instance, they specifically avoid predicting what economic, political, or social side effects peak oil could produce, and their research covered only supplies of "conventional oil"—no tar sands or fuels made from coal or natural gas. This group was also much smaller than the one that evaluates the evidence for climate change—only eight experts, drawn from the United Kingdom and the United States. Yet the project is an important first for peak oil: a group with no obvious bias had collected all of the available research, evaluated it in a transparent way, and summarized the whole body of evidence for non-experts.

Here's what they found. First, peak oil is a real occurrence. We know enough about how oil fields work and what happens during the life of a given oil deposit to say that production of oil will peak, and then it will decline.

Second, figuring out when that decline will happen isn't easy, for reasons I've already mentioned and more. Yet although the data on oil supplies are flawed and patchy and the methods used to forecast future supplies have some serious limitations, the researchers agree that there's still enough information available that we can start to form a clear picture of global oil supplies and make some adequate estimates about how long conventional oil will last. These estimates won't be perfect, but they're necessary, and they'll be accurate enough to help us plan for the future, at least until better data come along.

Finally, even if you factor in a wide range of reasonable estimates about the quantity of oil supplies, you're still left with a relatively narrow window of time during which oil production is likely to peak.

The peak is probably going to happen by 2030. To claim a later date, the researchers wrote, you have to start getting optimistic in your estimations of global oil supply. When we hit peak oil, it won't mean that gasoline will vanish overnight, or even in a few years. But it would most likely mean the end of cheap gasoline. You may not feel that gas is cheap when you're paying for a full tank. It's never cheap right then. Even when I first started driving, in the late 1990s, and paid less than a dollar per gallon, I still drove away from the pump feeling disgruntled. Today, in early 2011, I pay closer to $4 a gallon, but that gas is cheap, too.

Gas has always been cheap in the United States, both compared to other developed countries and compared to the finite supply and the amount of work and convenience we get out of burning it. Gasoline is so cheap here that we built our entire lives around the expectation of being able to burn it whenever we want, no matter the reason. Gas is so cheap, I don't even think twice about driving alone in my car less than a mile to the grocery store, just because I want an errand done faster. Gas is so cheap, my father-in-law can use a snow plow in the winter, instead of a shovel. Gas is so cheap, my mother can go for a ride through the woods on a four-wheeler, just for fun.

Peak oil means all of that will likely change. We'll have to start considering whether we can afford certain aspects of our lifestyles that we currently take for granted.

For instance, right now, living in Merriam means owning a car. The whole town is designed around the idea that cheap gasoline will always be available. The main shopping center is a strip mall off the Interstate. Sidewalks—and easily walkable grid street plans—come and go throughout the neighborhoods, following the whims of past developers. Merriam has two bike routes, but one is mostly aimed at recreation. It doesn't follow any path that people travel daily for business, school, or shopping. The other bike route begins and ends suddenly, covering only a small portion of busy Shawnee Mission Parkway. There are bus lines that pass through town, but the service isn't particularly robust. Most of the buses are strictly for commuters, offering a handful of morning trips to downtown Kansas City and evening trips back. The system isn't really meant for general mobility. A trip from Merriam's main shopping center to my favorite Chinese restaurant in nearby Overland Park is a nine-minute drive. By bus, it's forty-four minutes, and you can't go for lunch or a late dinner. The buses don't run between nine a.m. and four p.m., and they shut down for the night after six p.m. You see the problem here.

As the price of gas climbs, and middle-class Americans have to start seriously thinking about whether they can afford a given trip, the residents of Merriam will find themselves without an easy, all-weather way to navigate the crazy quilt of metro towns that surrounds them. For those who work outside Merriam, it'll be harder to get to work. Inside Merriam, businesses will suffer the loss of the heavy traffic that now passes by twice a day.

Metro towns aren't self-reliant. Their fates have been tied to the fates of the towns they touch for decades. That interconnection works now because gasoline is cheap. What happens to a metro town when travel from one part to another is no longer easy and frequent, no longer something that can happen daily or hourly? What happens when the parts of a metro can no longer rely on the direct support of all of the others but are still on the hook for funding shared systems? What happens to the city at the metro's heart when it can no longer count on the social support, the financial investments, and the intellectual capital of people who actually live elsewhere?

Maybe the parts of a metro can break down into tighter-knit blocks. In a world of high fuel prices, Merriam could theoretically band together with the cities of Shawnee, Mission, and Overland Park to make a smaller, more walkable version of the metro experience. Yet it likely wouldn't be as well-off as those places are today, when they can easily trade throughout the larger metro area and far beyond, when a local job doesn't have to be closely tied to local demand, when the cost of food and goods isn't also being driven up by the high cost of the fuel needed to make and transport them.

If you think about all of the parts of our lives that rely on cheap oil, it's easy to see how authors such as James Howard Kunstler can believe that peak oil will lead, unstoppably, to the collapse of modern, industrial civilization—where metros will descend into poverty and anarchy, and only independent small towns will be able to survive in a future that shares a lot of similarities with the nineteenth century. You don't even have to go that far, however, to be concerned about the impact of peak oil.

In a 2005 report (pdf) written for the Department of Energy, researcher Robert Hirsch wrote that total economic meltdown wasn't an inevitable consequence of peak oil. Yet he also pointed out that most economic recessions in the United States after 1969 were preceded by a spike in oil prices, and that every jump in oil prices was followed by a recession. There's a key quotation from the paper that really drives home the kind of risks we're talking about: "Economically, the decade following peaking may resemble the 1970s, only worse, with dramatic increases in inflation, long-term recession, high unemployment, and declining living standards." The 1970s, only worse. That's the pleasant outlook. Even that won't be possible, Hirsch says, if we don't start changing the way we make and use energy now.

Remember, oil is most likely to peak sometime before 2030. We don't know exactly when. It could be tomorrow, could be 2029. Yet if we want to really mitigate the impact of peak oil and keep the economy as stable as possible, Hirsch thinks we need at least twenty years of dedicated effort to sufficiently reduce oil consumption and create alternative fuels. As the prep time shortens, the consequences get larger. With only a decade of preparation before peak oil, we're likely to be stuck with ten years of chronic fuel shortage. If we don't start trying to mitigate the effects of peak oil until it actually happens, Hirsch thinks we'll be looking at more than twenty years of hardship.

We have two problems: our metro lifestyles require energy, but we also want to avoid the negative impacts climate change and peak oil will have on metro communities. The timeline for action: the sooner, the better. So, the question becomes "Now what do we do?"

From Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us © 2012 by Maggie Koerth-Baker. Excerpt reprinted with permission.

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