Right Opinion

Life After Energy: What if Fossil Fuels Disappeared Tomorrow?

Anthony Watts · Feb. 7, 2013

There is an anti-human TV program on the History Channel called Life After People, which portrays the aftermath of the imaginary scenario where all people on Earth suddenly vanished in a rapture-like event tomorrow.

I’ve often seen it flipping channels, and it has always been my impression that it represents the ultimate utopian vision of radical environmentalists, who see people as a scourge on the planet, sort of a Fear and self loathing in Las Vegas applied to Gaia.

I get word from Dr. David Deming, Geologist at the University of Oklahoma, of an essay he has composed asking about what would happen to people if fossil fuel based energy disappeared tomorrow. Deming asks this simple question: What would happen if we gave the environmentalists what they want?

It is an eye opener for those that really don’t think much about where the energy they use daily comes from. I’ve excerpted parts of it below, and I have a few observations of my own that follow.

What If Atlas Shrugged?
by David Deming

Atlas Shrugged is the title of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel in which the world grinds to a halt after the productive segment of society goes on strike. Tired of being demonized and exploited, the world’s innovators and entrepreneurs simply walk away.

What would happen to the US today if the fossil fuel industry went on a strike of indefinite duration? What would happen if we gave the environmentalists what they want?

Within 24 hours there would be long lines at service stations as people sought to purchase remaining stocks of gasoline. The same people who denounce oil companies would be desperately scrounging the last drops of available fuel for their SUVs. By the third day, all the gasoline would be gone.

With no diesel fuel, the trucking industry would grind to a halt. Almost all retail goods in the US are delivered by trucks. Grocery shelves would begin to empty. Food production at the most basic levels would also stop.

With no trains or trucks running there would be no way to deliver either raw materials or finished products. All industrial production and manufacturing would stop. Mass layoffs would ensue. At this point, it would hardly matter. With virtually all transportation systems out, the only people who could work would be those who owned horses or were capable of walking to their places of employment.

Owners of electric cars might smirk at first, but would soon be forced to the unpleasant reality that the vehicle they thought was “emission free” runs on coal. Forty-two percent of electric power in the US is produced by burning coal.

With natural gas also out of the picture, we would lose another 25 percent. The environmentalist’s favorite power sources, wind and solar, could not fill the gap. Wind power currently generates about 3 percent of our electricity and solar power accounts for a scant 0.04 percent. The only reliable power sources left would be hydroelectric and nuclear. But together these two sources could only power the grid at 27 percent of its normal capacity. With two-thirds of the electric power gone, the grid would shut down entirely.

Read his full essay here. (Note: this link does not imply endorsement of the website on which the essay resides.)

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Here are a few observations of my own about what would happen if fossil fuels disappeared tomorrow:

• After elevated tanks of municipal water systems were depleted of drinking water in a few days, there would be no more water supplies. This would force people to start looking for alternate sources, and we’d be back to a time when water treatment was unknown. Disease and death would follow for many as tainted water spreads disease. People with water wells would have to tear out electric pumps and install hand pumps or windmills to get water.

• Related to the first point, toilets would be useless without water to flush them. Fecal matter disposal becomes an issue as gravity fed sewage systems eventually clog, and eventually fecal matter will end up in streams and rivers contributing to the spread of diseases much like the Great Stink in old London.

• Garbage collection becomes a thing of the past. Garbage will be piled high in the streets.

• People that have grid tied solar power systems would be no better off than their neighbors, because the DC to AC inverters require an AC power grid presence signal. Otherwise they shut off for safety. Some people with electrical skills might be able to rewire them, but then they’d only have electricity during daytime.

• People who may have working solar energy might be targeted by the have-nots. They might wish they had paid attention to the Second Amendment to protect their home-based energy source. People who still have gasoline in their cars trying to escape cities might find themselves victims of mob attacks as the have-nots look for the last remaining bits of energy. Mad-Max world ensues.

• Windmill farms (that also need grid presence to operate) will stand as icons of folly, unusable, and cursed by the populace since they can’t make use of them. Eventually they’ll all look like these wind farms or fall down.

• Radical climatologists like Mike Mann and James Hansen will no longer be able to communicate their apocalyptic visions of the future to us, since there will be no Internet or radio/TV networks or newspapers printed to disseminate their views.

• Along the same lines, thankfully, we’d never see another episode of Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo.

• Climate modelers like Kevin Trenberth would never be able to run another computer model telling us how hot our future apocalypse might be, since his NOAA’s Gaea supercomputer will be DOA since it can’t run on recycled vegetable oil.

• Al Gore will no longer be able to jet around the world to tell us how the world will end soon if we don’t pay attention to his new book about The Future. He’ll be reduced to holing up in one of his many properties and hoping the Mad-Maxers don’t come for his solar panels.

• Congress would be reduced to debating in hot, sweaty, non air-conditioned rooms, just like the founders of our country did at the first Continental Congress and as they did in the summer of 1988, when Dr. James Hansen and his sponsor, Senator Tim Wirth, turned off the A/C in the hearing room for effect while they sold the idea of global warming to the Senators.

• Without air conditioning, city dwellers would truly experience the Urban Heat Island effect in the summer, that is when they weren’t scrounging for food and water, and fighting off the Mad-Maxer gangs who would take anything they could from them, including their life.

• Wood burning to stay warm during the winter becomes all the rage again. Smoke pollution returns to cities, especially in winter.

• Real climate refugees start streaming south from high latitude countries as people run out of fuel. Many towns in Alaska and Siberia that survive only because of regular supplies of heating oil and gasoline would be abandoned.

• Global warming, environmentalism, politics; all would be a thing of the past, since survival trumps everything.

Paul Ehrlich wanders the streets near Stanford, dressed in rags shouting at people “I was right I was right!”

I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

So which is the worse future, a slightly warmer one with fossil fuels or one without them?

Anthony Watts is a former television meteorologist who now operates the most viewed website on climate change and global warming in the world at wattsupwiththat.com.