The end of fossil fuels? Nearer than you think.

Expect more panic and desperation soon from those heavily invested in their continued use.

Social change, when it happens, tends to happen faster than we expect. When opinions, practices or social norms shift from some position A to another B — from slavery is OK to slavery is an abomination, or from almost no one using cell phones to nearly everyone using them — there’s a natural accelerating factor in the process. It’s the influence of social conformity. Early on, very few people want to stick their necks out as first adopters. Socially, we’re a cautious lot. But as a few go ahead, their actions make it easier and even more attractive for others to do the same. At some point, change suddenly accelerates as the pressure of conformity flips, now encouraging further change rather than slowing it.

The hidden role of social conformity is what makes serious social change always seem unlikely if not impossible before it happens, and then obvious and even inevitable immediately after the social avalanche.

This isn’t just a theory based around a story or metaphor. A decade ago, a pair of physicists, Quentin Michard and Jean Philippe Bouchaud, looked at data on a number of historically important social shifts — including cell phone adoption and the abrupt decline in birth rates in Western nations — and showed that the pattern of change in every case falls onto a single simple curve. There’s a slow beginning phase, and then a rapid acceleration as social conformity and imitation trigger a flood of others to follow along. Even more interesting, they showed that the pattern of change is identical to the transition, at the end of an opera or other public performance, as an audience goes from silence to applause. Almost everyone wants to take place in the applause, once it’s started, but few want to stand out as the very first to applaud. The process of social participation, as people join a round of applause, turns out to be a simple archetype of a sharp transition describing many other, more complicated social transitions from one behavior to another.

Most importantly, the physicists showed that this process of social influence makes social transitions generally happen far more explosively than one might otherwise expect.

Now, take this general perspective, and imagine what it might imply about the prospects for the future of fossil fuels. To my mind, it should make the fossil fuel companies, as well as anyone with money invested in them, extremely nervous, for several reasons which make the scenario described above a pretty close fit to the present fossil fuel situation. Here’s why:

First, the pattern described by the physicists occurs when social change is driven by some real, external factor. Technology made the wide use of cell phones ultimately more or less inevitable. Demographers know that birthrates eventually fall in all sufficiently developed nations, as women gain opportunities to have careers or do other things besides raising children (among other factors). The influence of social conformity is what makes such driven changes happen very slowly at first, as there’s resistance, and then much faster once things get going. Well, a profoundly important external factor is driving the shift away from fossil fuels in favor of solar energy and other renewable sources. Many climate scientists think we’ve already gone past the stage of being able to reign in CO2 emissions to avoid global temperatures rising on average by more than 2 degrees Celsius, long considered the limit for safety. This is why many scientists — see this recent book, for example — are now exploring what we should expect in a world that is warmer by 4 degrees C, or 6 degrees C, or even more. If we burn the fossil fuels still remaining in the ground — something the fossil fuel companies very much hope to make happen — we can expect an average temperature rise of more than 6 degrees C, possibly as much as 10 degrees C (with temperatures over land higher still). As the consequences of such a change are utterly unknown, and potentially catastrophic, it is in the interest of the vast majority of people on Earth to make sure that most of those fossil fuels stay in the ground. There is, then, a powerful external force driving us away from fossil fuels.

Second, there is a clear route by which this change can happen, as solar energy is becoming more affordable very quickly, and investors are starting to flock into it. As Noah Smith notes:

The most important piece of news on the energy front isn’t the plunge in oil prices, but the progress that is being made in battery technology. A new study in Nature Climate Change, by Bjorn Nykvist and Mans Nilsson of the Stockholm Environment Institute, shows that electric vehicle batteries have been getting cheaper much faster than expected. From 2007 to 2011, average battery costs for battery-powered electric vehicles fell by about 14 percent a year. For the leading electric vehicle makers, Tesla and Nissan, costs fell by 8 percent a year. This astounding decline puts battery costs right around the level that the International Energy Agency predicted they would reach in 2020. We are six years ahead of the curve…
The United Nations Environment Programme recently released a report showing that global investment in renewable energy, which had dipped a bit between 2011 and 2013, rebounded in 2014 to a near all-time high of $270 billion. But the report also notes that since renewable costs — especially solar costs — are falling so fast, the amount of renewable energy capacity added in 2014 was easily an all-time high. China, the U.S. and Japan are leading the way in renewable investment. Renewables went from 8.5 percent to 9.1 percent of global electricity generation just in 2014.

Hence, there is a clear route by which the shift away from fossil fuels can happen; there is no immovable obstacle in our way.

Third, the direct shift away from fossil fuels — and more importantly, the seeding of this process in the awareness of people around the world — has been stimulated by the fossil fuel divestment movement. The frequency of student protest is increasing, as they urge university administrators to rid their endowment investments of links to fossil fuels. Encouragingly, as that article reports, the protests are triggering a response:

… the institutions that continue to invest in the fossil fuel industry are uncomfortably shifting in their seats. This Thursday, an email from Harvard President Drew Faust informed student leaders of Divest Harvard that she would be happy to meet (in private, off the record), but that first the group would have to stop “disrupting” business as usual on campus. Students responded that they’d be happy to meet, but wanted an actual dialogue about divestment — much like the open forum MIT recently hosted — rather than a lecture behind closed doors. And that they wouldn’t put a moratorium on protest until Harvard put a moratorium on its fossil fuel investment…

And a long and growing list of universities and other organizations have committed themselves to divestment. Of course, divestment doesn’t actually hurt the fossil fuel companies financially, as they have immense wealth and plenty of sources of alternative funding. But that’s not the point. The point is all about public consciousness, and the growing willingness of a large fraction of people and organizations to take action to move away from fossil fuels. The avalanche of changing social opinion is what should make the fossil fuel companies most terrified. This is what will trigger large scale political change, and ultimately cut the fossil fuel companies out of the global energy equation.

For these reasons, I think the end of fossil fuels is closer than we think. If you’re heavily invested in them, you should be in a panic. Change is beginning, and accelerating, and we have good reason to believe that, when the end game comes, it will come not slowly and gradually, but rapidly and explosively, far faster than we expect. Fossil fuels will be swept into the history books.

Of course, the idea may seem surprising now. Big and fast social changes always seem against the odds. But afterward, I bet, we’ll look around and say, “well, of course, we should have seen that coming. That was inevitable.”