World Energy Outlook is a dry, statistics-laden annual that rarely generates much heat outside the energy sector. But the 2012 edition, published in November, made international headlines with its prediction that by utilizing new extractive technologies to exploit oil and natural gas reserves once considered inaccessible, the United States would surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil producer by 2020 and, in partnership with Canada, would become a net oil exporter by 2030. These gains, the International Energy Agency (IEA) observed, would have significant economic and geopolitical implications: “Energy developments in the United States are profound and their effect will be felt well beyond North America—and the energy sector.” By approaching self-sufficiency in the production of oil, the report suggested, the United States will acquire greater clout in international affairs at a time when its rivals—including China—risk losing influence due to a growing reliance on oil imports.

A few weeks after the report’s release, its narrative of American triumphalism was reinforced when the National Intelligence Council (NIC)—an independent arm of the intelligence community that focuses on long-range perils—issued a quadrennial assessment of future international developments, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds. Among the claims that garnered the greatest attention was the prediction that “energy independence is not unrealistic for the US in as short a period as 10–20 years,” and that during the next fifteen to twenty years there will be “a huge growth of the global middle class,” resulting in increased economic innovation along with a clamorous demand for democracy and individual rights—all to the greater advantage of the United States. Resources Futures, produced by a team of analysts at Chatham House in London and published in December 2012, draws similar conclusions. Although a bit less sanguine than the other two agencies about the prospects for satisfying anticipated world resource needs, Chatham House is largely convinced that the extractive industries—private and state-owned—are capable of meeting future energy demand if sufficient investment is directed toward this sector and greater efficiencies are practiced in the consumption of vital materials.

In contrast to the many analysts who have been predicting that global oil output will soon reach a “peak” and then subside (followed, a decade or so later, by a peak in natural gas production), the three assessments see a significant increase in future oil and gas production. Actually, there has been a peak in oil output—but only of easily acquired “conventional” oil, the sort that comes gushing out of the earth in liquid form when a drill strikes a porous oil-bearing formation. But so much additional oil is being acquired from “unconventional” sources—shale rock, Canadian tar sands, Arctic and deep-offshore reserves—that the total supply continues to increase. According to the IEA, global output of conventional crude oil will rise slightly over the next few years before commencing an irreversible decline, while the output of unconventional oil will soar by 238 percent, from 3.9 million to 13.2 million barrels per day.

The picture for natural gas is roughly identical. Only a few years ago, energy analysts were predicting an imminent shortage in North American gas supplies, and there was talk of plans to build multiple facilities for the importation of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Africa, Russia and the Middle East. Then came the “shale gas revolution,” or the use of hydraulic fracturing (also known as hydro-fracking or, simply, fracking) to extract natural gas from shale formations in Texas, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and neighboring states. The US Department of Energy says that unconventional gas provides about 34 percent of domestic gas output, up from zero a few years ago, and is expected to reach 50 percent by 2040. With so much additional gas entering the market, US producers are again talking about building new LNG facilities—but this time for exporting gas. And according to the Energy Department, as fracking techniques are applied to shale formations elsewhere in the world, unconventional output will boost gas supplies on a global basis, eliminating any risks of future shortages.

From this picture of plenty, the reports derive two major subsidiary conclusions: the United States will rebound as a vigorous industrial power, and the resource and consumer needs of the rapidly expanding global middle class will be successfully met (or at least there is a high likelihood of this happening). The first of these conclusions arises from the fact that US energy companies first mastered the critical technologies—horizontal drilling and hydro-fracking—necessary for extracting oil and natural gas from hard (or “tight”) shale formations. Not only has this given the United States an advantage in exploiting its own unconventional resources, but it has also forced any foreign country hoping to tap black gold from shale to strike a deal with US energy firms in their quest for the necessary technology. China, in particular, seeks to develop its domestic shale resources to offset its ever-growing reliance on imported oil and gas, but finds itself with no choice but to acquire junior partnerships in US and Canadian companies in order to gain experience in using the new extractive technologies.

World energy demand is expected to grow by 35 percent over the next twenty-five years in the principal IEA scenario, jumping from approximately 12.7 billion metric tons of oil equivalent in 2010 to an estimated 17.2 billion tons in 2035. This is a staggering increase; to put it in perspective, the 4.5 billion tons in added annual demand that must somehow be procured is approximately equal to the current energy consumption of the United States and Europe combined. The demand for most of this additional energy will originate in the developing world, to satisfy the needs of the poor and lower-income people who are projected to join the middle class during these years and buy their first cars, computers, air conditioners and other energy-guzzling devices. Of the 4.5 billion additional metric tons needed by 2035, 4.2 billion, or 86 percent, will satisfy the demand of China, India and other nonmembers of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the club of wealthier industrialized nations.

Finding, developing and delivering all this energy—and the other vital materials needed by today’s increasingly urbanized populations—could prove the most difficult task facing the leaders of large and growing countries in the years ahead. “Up to now less than one billion people have accounted for three-quarters of global consumption; during the next two decades, new and expanded middle classes in the developing world could create as many as two billion additional consumers,” the NIC observes in an especially revealing passage. “Such an explosion will mean a scramble for raw materials and manufactured goods. With greater demand for products, economists worry that the number of bottlenecks will increase markedly and that supply of resources and goods will face at least temporary constraints.”

Were we facing an imminent scarcity of oil, as predicted by many analysts just a few years ago, one implication of the surge in energy demand could be an increase in the competitive struggle over access to dwindling supplies of petroleum, leading, in all likelihood, to crisis and war. But the NIC suggests that thanks to the shale revolution and other innovations, such a prospect is dim. The application of new technologies will permit an increase in oil and gas production, and so the rising expectations of those 2 billion additional consumers—at least for energy—can be met without crisis or conflict.

All three studies acknowledge that climate change is occurring and will have profound and largely negative consequences for human societies. The Chatham House report, in particular, warns of the risks posed by a warming planet—especially with regard to global water and food supplies. “Temperature increases and reduced precipitation are likely to result in increasing water scarcity in many parts of the world,” it notes, thereby reducing crop yields and causing widespread hunger. But none of the reports make the obvious and crucial connection: that the expanded production of fossil fuels they foresee with so much enthusiasm could result in greatly increased emissions of greenhouse gas (GHG), undermining any international efforts to slow the pace of global warming. In fact, the very opposite could be true: with their unalloyed backing of the new extractive technologies, the reports could make it harder, not easier, for policy-makers to impose curbs on fossil fuel consumption in the years ahead.

The reports also fail to draw another important conclusion: that the new technologies require more energy than conventional drilling methods to extract hydrocarbons and convert them into usable products, and so will increase the output of GHG emissions for every additional ton of oil equivalent added to the world’s energy supply. This is evident, for example, in the supplementary environmental impact statement produced by the State Department on the proposed Keystone XL tar-sands oil pipeline. The SEIS, released March 1, indicates that tar-sands oil produces 5 to 19 percent more GHG emissions than other crude oils (depending on the crude in the comparison and who performed the calculations); while most environmentalists believe those figures are way too low, they nevertheless demonstrate that the ever-increasing international reliance on unconventional oil and gas (as predicted by all three studies) will result in a corresponding acceleration of GHG emissions.

Under these circumstances, it’s reasonable to assume that global temperatures will continue their upward climb. To its credit, the IEA reported in World Energy Outlook 2012 that on our present path, the world is likely to experience an average world temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Celsius, assuming urgent steps are taken to reduce GHG emissions in the near future; if no such steps are taken, temperatures are likely to rise above 5 degrees Celsius. To climate experts, these predictions must be alarming: most scientists now agree that an increase of even 2 degrees is potentially catastrophic, and that anything over that amount is risking hell on earth. Yet none of the headlines generated by the 2012 IEA report bothered to mention these predictions about climate change. 

What will human life be like on a warmer planet? While it would seem an obvious question to address in studies that purport to explore the world of 2035 and beyond, none of these reports attempt to provide a serious answer. They assume that life will go on more or less as before, with existing societies remaining intact and functioning as they do today. But this is pure delusion, suggests Andrew Guzman, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Overheated. Even if average world temperatures rise by no more than 2 degrees Celsius, he explains, weak states will face unbearable and possibly lethal pressures, and even the richest countries, including the United States, will experience severe pain and hardship.

In contrast to other books on climate change, which largely concentrate on its environmental effects, Guzman’s sobering analysis focuses on its impact on humans, especially on food production, social harmony and government effectiveness. All, he shows, are at serious risk from rising sea levels and coastal inundations, the melting of glaciers, prolonged drought interspersed with massive flooding, and the worldwide spread of infectious diseases. As the glaciers melt, rainfall diminishes and droughts accumulate, it will become increasingly difficult for millions of people in Asia, Africa and Latin America to grow their crops and feed their families, forcing them to abandon their traditional lands and seek refuge elsewhere—in big cities, neighboring regions and distant lands. The numbers of the displaced will be staggering—in the hundreds of millions or more—and few societies will prove capable of addressing their needs in a peaceful and humane manner. Indeed, it is the risk to society, more than anything else, that we should fear from climate change. 

Guzman’s insights about the vulnerabilities of states and societies to the competing needs of their populations expose the other major pressure point in the generally optimistic picture presented by the three agency reports: the mounting expectations of millions of new middle-class consumers in search of the goods and amenities promised by years of mass-market advertising and flamboyant political pronouncements. To satisfy them, political leaders will have to work ever harder to find the necessary resources and convert them into finished consumer goods; should they fail to do so, popular discontent could well materialize and many societies could face serious unrest and disorder. The three reports generally conclude that it will be possible to satisfy these ballooning expectations through the accelerated extraction of fossil fuels and other vital materials. Read the reports more carefully, however, and serious doubts about this arise. 

For one thing, it is far more costly to extract energy from tight shale formations, tar sands, the Arctic and so on than from conventional reserves, so the cost of production is rising and major producers are becoming more selective about when and where to deploy their operating funds. Royal Dutch Shell recently announced that it was suspending its plan to drill in the Arctic waters off Alaska, at least temporarily, because of the damage suffered by its drilling rigs while attempting to operate in those stormy waters. This leads to doubts as to whether sufficient investment will be made in all of the super-costly unconventional oil and gas projects that must be developed to achieve the higher production levels touted in the optimistic production scenarios cited above. Indeed, both Chatham House and the IEA suggest that this could prove a significant problem. “The shifting pattern in oil supply means rising oil production costs,” Chatham House observes. “Many resources such as oil shales, bituminous [tar] sands and the Arctic offshore oil are complex and expensive to develop in comparison with conventional fields,” discouraging investment in them when oil prices fall below $100 or more per barrel.

The same is true for many other vital resources, including critical minerals and food. As existing reserves of iron, copper, cobalt and other important minerals are depleted, mining companies have to extract and refine lower-grade ores or develop new mines in remote and dangerous locations, such as the Arctic, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This, in turn, is elevating the cost of production and scaring away some investors, raising doubts about the future availability of some key materials. “Meeting future demand for metals will depend on the successful expansion of existing mines and completion of new mining projects in a timely fashion,” Chatham House explains, “yet there are complex challenges in both areas.” The production of food faces similar challenges: even with increased utilization of high-yield seeds and other agricultural improvements, Chatham House adds, “the increases in output will not be sufficient to meet projected demand in the longer term.”

The NIC report is particularly infused with anxiety over the prospects for stress and conflict arising from unfulfilled expectations: “If new middle-class entrants find it difficult to cling to their new status and are pulled back toward impoverishment, they will pressure governments for change. Rising expectations that are frustrated have historically been a powerful driver of political turmoil.” Faced with such pressure, governments will, of course, respond with repressive force, but they will also do whatever they can to provide their publics with additional commodities—and with more and more governments trapped in the same situation, there is bound to be increased competition for whatever stocks of vital materials are still available, leading to international friction and war. As the NIC points out, “Competition over resources might lead governments to become increasingly involved in managing them, ramping up tensions with other countries vying for the same resources.”

In general, the NIC sees a low risk of serious conflict between states in the decades ahead. Even so, it assesses that risk to be rising, and it identifies resource scarcity and competition as a major potential cause for future strife: “Access to key resources—minerals in addition to energy—will be vital to many developing states’ continued rapid economic growth, and these states will be increasingly dependent on outside sources.” This could make it more likely that such states will fight over control of contested oil and mineral deposits, such as those found in disputed maritime territories in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Both the NIC and Chatham House also warn of conflict over shared water supplies, such as the Euphrates, Indus, Jordan, Nile and Tigris rivers. As water demand rises in these areas (due to growing populations) and supplies contract (due to climate change), “water may become a more significant source of contention than energy or minerals,” the NIC observes.

The good news, then, is really the bad news: there may be an increase in fossil fuel production over the next few decades, and it could contribute to a revival of certain American industries. The greater availability of fossil fuels will also allow some of the world’s newly minted middle-class consumers to power their cars and air conditioners and otherwise enjoy a consumerist lifestyle. But the cost of energy and other vital materials (including foodstuffs) will rise, and many who have entered the bottom rungs of the middle class may find themselves pushed back into poverty or unable to afford the comforts they were led to expect. Meanwhile, global warming will accelerate, and its effects will prove increasingly severe, especially for the poor and those living in highly vulnerable areas like coastal communities and arid inland regions. Life in the future will entail a schizophrenic existence: you will still be able to fill the tank of your car—if you’re so inclined and can afford the cost—but you will live in constant fear of war, food shortages and the next major climate catastrophe.

Wen Stephenson asks what it would mean if we were to walk in Henry David Thoreau’s footsteps in the fight against the fossil-fuel industry.