We are going to burn all of the oil and coal we have, because their benefits as energy sources are concrete, immediate, and local, while their costs are gradual, delayed, and global. Not to put too fine a point on it, but when facing similar choices, humankind has never chosen the more long-term view.
There are only three conceivable scenarios in which we stop burning fossil fuels at a massive scale. First and foremost, nobody will use fossil fuels if there’s a more effective energy source available. For that to happen, we need investments in science, development, and infrastructure that are orders of magnitude larger than what we’re doing now, because our technology isn’t there yet, and our energy transport infrastructure is still woefully inadequate.
A second scenario involves the impact of climate change being so harsh and destructive — and impacting directly the developed world in such a way — that the use of fossil fuels becomes an immediate casus belli. Of course, by then the proverbial horses will be out of the equally proverbial barn, but every megatonne of carbon is likely to have an impact, and, besides, this would be a matter of politics, not global climate management.
Finally, and perhaps most likely, we’ll stop burning fossil fuels simply because we’ll run out of them. More precisely, we’ll stop using them when they become so hard to extract that using alternative energy sources becomes more convenient. Given how bad those alternative energy sources are at the moment, by that moment we might also be well into the catastrophic climate change scenario.
What happens afterward will depend on whether or not we have upgraded our energy infrastructure by then. Make no mistake, we can and should try to get as energy-efficient as we can, but to an enormous degree civilization is simply about energy per capita, which is one of the reasons why we no longer have to dedicate 90% of our population to growing food. In terms of quality of life and political freedom, 17th-century Europe, Japan, and China are perhaps the highest you can go without massive non-human energy sources. If we have found a viable alternative to fossil fuels by the time or before we have used most of them, then we will “only” have to deal with climate upheaval of a scale unprecedented in human history. If we haven’t, then we’ll have to deal with climate upheaval of a scale unprecedented in human history… while dealing with an economic depression that will make 1930 look like a Golden Age, and WWII a minor inconvenience. And, needlessly to say, the longer we burn fossil fuels, the deeper the climate catastrophe is going to be.
The time for smooth, convenient solutions was decades ago, when scientists first began to raise the alarm about the greenhouse effect and peak oil, and the twin approaching disasters of a changing climate and an energy crunch. By now, the most we can do, and the least we have to, is to scramble however we can. Yes, even during a global recession, and even during the next ones. If you think upgrading the energy foundations of a planetary civilization is hard during an economic recession, imagine how hard it’ll be with a fraction of the energy available, and climate-related disruptions erupting everywhere.
We need to make extraordinary advances in energy sources, and we have to do if fast, or, to put it simply, the 22nd century will look like the 17th. We need to constrain our use of fossil fuels as much as possible. It’s one thing to have to deal with an oncoming train, and quite another to be running toward it. And we need to become much better at handling our atmosphere and ecosystems, mass human migration and infrastructure development, and political coordination and humanitarian support, because the latter half of the century is shaping up to be one ugly mess. We are in this fix because a few short decades ago we did nothing. If we do nothing, or even if we just don’t do enough, the fix we’re going to be a few short decades from now will be much, much worse.
If we fail, the best case scenario is losing most of what we’ve accomplished in the last few centuries. In the worst case, we also lose everything else.