Climate Progress did us a service last week by reporting on an analysis of the impacts of rising oil prices by CIBC World Markets.  Think of these in terms of your life in the very near future:

  • 7-dollar-a-gallon gas in 2010
  • 10 million less vehicles on U.S. roads in 2012
  • the continuation of the steep drop in total vehicle miles travelled

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The U.S. Climate Change Science Program – yes, the one that reports to the current Executive Branch of our government – says – according to the Washington Post – that “as greenhouse-gas emissions rise, North America is likely to experience more droughts and excessive heat in some regions even as intense downpours and hurricanes pound others more often.” Extreme weather is just giving us a hint of what’s to come with more extreme droughts and heat waves, more torrential downpours, It doesn’t seem to matter to these scientists that the link between human-caused carbon emissions and the extreme weather can’t be proven.

In a conference call with reporters, Karl and the other co-chair, Gerald A. Meehl, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said there is no doubt that human-generated heat-trapping gases have helped intensify both the Southwest’s current drought and heavy downpours, which have been increasing at a rate three times that of average precipitation over the past century.

“That’s a certainty,” Karl said. “People aren’t questioning whether there’s been an increase in heavy downpours.”

By the end of the century, he added, models predict that intense bouts of precipitation that might have occurred once every 20 years will take place every five years.

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The state of California’s air board released a report last week calling for local governments to change land-use practices to help reduce the need for driving. In the state’s effort to reduce carbon emissions, it must deal with the fact that a third of those emissions come from vehicles on the road. And with current development and land-use patterns favoring suburban sprawl, it’s important that a reversal in that trend be initiated at the local level.

Americans maybe won’t vote to dial back their lifestyles, but money talks and rising gas prices seem to have reached a threshold where American driving behavior has radically changed. As Joe Romm reports on Climate Progress, “In March 2008, Americans drove 246 billion miles, compared to 257 billion in March 2007. Indeed, the March 2008 figure is lower than the March 2004 figure.”

We always suspected that Americans were capable of changing core behaviors (for what is more American than the love of driving the car-car?) but once again – after WWII, the gas crisis of 1973 and the immediate aftermath of 9/11- we have solid evidence that a significant behavioral modification has taken place.

As Joe warns, though, the learning may be extinguished if gas prices drop again to $3/gallon. As I observed with rats and pigeons, intermittent and irregular reward is a strong reinforcer. So unfortunately, I have to root for gas prices staying high and higher, which will cause people to internalize their changed habits for the long run. Now bring on the plug-in electric cars!!

Ch-ch-ch-changes. Gas prices over 4 bucks-a-gallon. Foreclosures still rising, housing values still dropping. It’s an election year. There’s increasing awareness of carbon footprints. Automobile design is accelerating to catch up with evolving priorities. It’s sounding more and more like overall petroleum demand will continue to exceed overall supplies. All of these facts add up to a market in transition, yet the same old sources continue to project the future based on…what?

In this NY Times article, “Adapting, With Gritted Teeth, to Higher Gas Prices” we find the following glass half full statements:

  • “despite the rise in energy prices, gasoline remains cheaper in America than in most industrialized countries”
  • “Americans pay less to drive a mile today than they did in 1980″
  • “The Energy Department expects gasoline sales to fall by 0.6 percent this year, the first drop since 1991, but it expects consumption to rebound in 2009 as the economy strengthens.”

First of all, most industrialized countries have not developed a suburb-based settlement pattern that forces people to drive long distances to work. And maybe we pay less to drive a mile now than we did in 1980, but so what? That kind of relativity doesn’t help people adapt. And expectations that consumption will rebound in 2009 are based in some kind of consumer psychology that I doubt can be applied to conditions today.

To the credit of the American citizen, we are making adjustments. Who’da thunk we’d be adopting adaptive behaviors this early in the climate change progression? (Answer: the peak oil folks) And, in truth, we’re well along in the climate change progression. Yet, until gas prices skyrocketed, most people were content to change their lightbulbs, if that.

Rational behaviors for doubled gasoline prices: Drive less. Cut back on unnecessary purchases, Buy more fuel efficient vehicles. Use mass transit. Don’t assume this will be a temporary passage. This is a transition. Dont’ look back. Things will be different on the other side.

Methinks that change is happening faster than we’re prepared for.

American Airlines announced today that it’s going to start charging $15 for your first checked bag. I watched Brian Williams report this news and he mentioned that one analyst predicted gas prices approaching $12/gallon. Then Jim (Mad Money) Cramer came on and disagreed, but wouldn’t be surprised to see gas prices at $6/gallon by the end of the summer. I think they’re all trying to put the best face on it because no one wants to recognize the reality of limits.

If, indeed, we see gas at 6 bucks in August, it’s going to have a tremendous impact on how people live and make their purchasing and travelling decisions. Very few of us have been planning for such an impact so soon. Not that people have been planning for it sometime in the future. We just don’t plan for changing externalities. We plan for putting our kids through college or for our retirement – OK some of us do. We don’t plan for everything becoming more expensive. We don’t plan for not being able to afford things.

Will we see increased use of mass transit here in the Bay Area? Will we see more stores and restaurants going out of business. Will we see more airlines going bankrupt? Will thousands of people be absolutely stuck with their unsalable SUVs? Will the price of bread, milk and eggs make them gourmet fare? Will many companies be forced to allow more employees to telecommute?

Will all of this happen before 2009?

Remember – this isn’t even about climate change or extreme weather impacts.