“Four-Dollar Gas: Change you can believe in!” read a recent cartoon caption. The cartoon pictured ways people are finally taking fuel conservation to heart, including switching to a smaller car, riding a bicycle, or taking the bus. The irony is that is that if we had made those changes 10 years ago, as many environmental experts urged, we might not be paying more than $4 at the pump now, or at least we might have been better prepared for the shock of it.

Oil production is peaking worldwide, at the same moment that global warming has emerged as the greatest environmental threat of the 21st century. This perfect storm has finally convinced the world community that the time to act to avert disaster is now. In this sense, the current crisis has positive benefits. When a major catastrophe hits any community, our gut reaction is to set aside our differences and help each other prepare for and weather the storm together.

Here on the Central Coast, the work has already begun. The Community Environmental Council sponsored a Tri-County Energy Summit last month in Santa Barbara, bringing together a panel of national and local experts to help us plan for a fossil fuel-free future. Two of the panelists, Robert Hirsch and Robbie Diamond, gave us a global perspective on peaking oil.

Hirsch, the internationally acclaimed author of The Hirsch Report, painted a gloomy picture, referring to the clash between peaking oil and climate concerns as a coming “train wreck.”

“Since the world is ill-prepared for declining oil production,” Hirsch explained, “dire economic circumstances will ensue from 2010 and 2030.”

He predicted that by 2050 the crisis would be mediated through the development of renewable energy, but in the meantime mitigation would be needed to bridge the gap to sustainability.

“Technology and price will not save us,” he warned.

Lower highway speed limits, carpooling, four-day work weeks, telecommuting and fuel rationing will all be needed.

Diamond, president of Securing America’s Future Energy, or SAFE, emphasized the insecurity of the global oil market. There is “no free market for oil supply,” he pointed out, since 75 percent to 90 percent of all gas and oil reserves “are held by national oil companies that are … controlled by governments.”

The United States is the top oil consumer, gobbling up more than 20 million barrels per day, while China, the next in line, consumes around 7 million.  In the United States, 67 percent of oil consumption goes to the transportation sector, with 79 percent of that fueling cars and trucks. Gas and oil imports accounted for 45 percent ($320 billion) of the 2007 U.S. trade deficit. Diamond warned that improving U.S. energy security will demand “massive disruptions of the status quo,” starting with Washington policy-makers right on down to you and me.

It’s a global problem, but acting locally can make a difference. Well ahead of the curve in lessening oil dependence are cities such as Portland. Susan Anderson, director of Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development, described how local leaders were able to set and meet the challenge of returning to 1990 CO2 levels, while the rest of the United States rose 6 percent. A significant increase in the use of alternative transportation was one factor. Public transit use increased by 85 percent, and bicycling now accounts for 5 percent of all work commutes. Portland plans to be using 100 percent renewable power for all city buildings and vehicles by 2010. Now that’s forward thinking!

How does all of this affect Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties? I’ll have more on how local experts are planning for a future free of oil dependence, and what you and I can do to help, in a subsequent column.

Deborah Brasket is executive director of the Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN). She can be reached at 805.722.5094 or at deborah@sbcan.org. This is the first of two columns on peak oil; click here for the second commentary. This commentary originally appeared in the Santa Maria Times.