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Michael Klare: Have the Obits for Peak Oil Come Too Soon?

7:23 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Peak Oil chart graffiti

Is Peak Oil a myth? Or more important than ever?

So here we are in a record-breaking “polar vortex” with Florida’s Everglades going on a freeze watch and Minnesota registering wind chills of -60 degrees Fahrenheit.  This most extreme of weather systems, which should warm the hearts of climate deniers, may in fact turn out to be climate-change related (thanks to a melting Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet).  Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Australia has been experiencing a staggering heat wave, having just emerged from a year that included the hottest day, week, month, and overall average on record for that continent.

Still, give the climate deniers their due.  They have long claimed that climate science is, at best, a mistake-prone activity.  It’s a point with which Professor Steven Sherwood concurs.  He happens to be the lead author of a study that just appeared in the journal Nature, focused on future cloud cover and climate change.  It concluded that the planet will heat up faster than expected, minimally rising by 4 degrees Celsius by 2100 (which, of course, would spell unimaginable catastrophe).  Here’s his way of giving the deniers their due: “Climate skeptics like to criticize climate models for getting things wrong, and we are the first to admit they are not perfect, but what we are finding is that the mistakes are being made by those models which predict less warming, not those that predict more.”

Meanwhile, the year just past was generally a humdrum one in the new age of climate change.  Though final results won’t be in until March, it will be among the top ten warmest years since temperatures were first recorded, falling somewhere between fourth and seventh.  (By the way, the 10 hottest years have all occurred since 1998, nine in the last decade).  For the first time in history, the planet briefly and ominously topped 400 parts per million of atmospheric CO2; oceans grew more acidic; droughts and wildfires strengthened; storms raged, though only one reached epic proportions, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines; Arctic summer sea ice had a major melt (significantly above twentieth century levels, but less than in 2012); climate change media coverage rose modestly for the first time in years; and one of the climate-denial movement’s most beloved supports — the supposed “warming pause” the planet was undergoing — went down the drain.

Meanwhile, predictions are starting to come in suggesting that — if an El Niño phenomenon develops in the Pacific Ocean, as some scientists believe — 2014 could be one for the record books.

As the year begins, we know more about what’s in our future with somewhat greater certainty and, generally speaking, as record amounts of carbon dioxide continue to pour into the atmosphere, we’re doing remarkably little about it.  To adapt that classic example of free speech limits, imagine that a vast crew of scientists is now continually yelling “Fire!” in the global movie theater and, as a result, more pyromaniacs with blowtorches are arriving all the time.  After all, of those doing nothing about climate change, no one is doing more of it than the giant oil companies and the nations — from Saudi Arabia to Russia — that are in essence giant oil companies.

As Michael Klare indicates in his latest post, the urge of the oil giants and their supporters to claim that there are no limits on the future of oil and natural gas extraction is, to say the least, chilling on a heating planet.  They seem intent on giving the phrase “the sky’s the limit” grim new meaning.  Fortunately, as our resident energy expert points out, they may be in for a surprise or two themselves down the road. Tom

Peak Oil Is Dead
Long Live Peak Oil!
By Michael T. Klare

Among the big energy stories of 2013, “peak oil” — the once-popular notion that worldwide oil production would soon reach a maximum level and begin an irreversible decline — was thoroughly discredited.  The explosive development of shale oil and other unconventional fuels in the United States helped put it in its grave.

As the year went on, the eulogies came in fast and furious. “Today, it is probably safe to say we have slayed ‘peak oil’ once and for all, thanks to the combination of new shale oil and gas production techniques,” declared Rob Wile, an energy and economics reporter for Business Insider.  Similar comments from energy experts were commonplace, prompting an R.I.P. headline at Time.com announcing, “Peak Oil is Dead.”

Not so fast, though.  The present round of eulogies brings to mind the Mark Twain’s famous line: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”  Before obits for peak oil theory pile up too high, let’s take a careful look at these assertions.  Fortunately, the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Paris-based research arm of the major industrialized powers, recently did just that — and the results were unexpected.  While not exactly reinstalling peak oil on its throne, it did make clear that much of the talk of a perpetual gusher of American shale oil is greatly exaggerated.  The exploitation of those shale reserves may delay the onset of peak oil for a year or so, the agency’s experts noted, but the long-term picture “has not changed much with the arrival of [shale oil].”

The IEA’s take on this subject is especially noteworthy because its assertion only a year earlier that the U.S. would overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s number one oil producer sparked the “peak oil is dead” deluge in the first place.  Writing in the 2012 edition of its World Energy Outlook, the agency claimed not only that “the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer” by around 2020, but also that with U.S. shale production and Canadian tar sands coming online, “North America becomes a net oil exporter around 2030.”

That November 2012 report highlighted the use of advanced production technologies — notably horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) — to extract oil and natural gas from once inaccessible rock, especially shale.  It also covered the accelerating exploitation of Canada’s bitumen (tar sands or oil sands), another resource previously considered too forbidding to be economical to develop.  With the output of these and other “unconventional” fuels set to explode in the years ahead, the report then suggested, the long awaited peak of world oil production could be pushed far into the future.

The release of the 2012 edition of World Energy Outlook triggered a global frenzy of speculative reporting, much of it announcing a new era of American energy abundance. “Saudi America” was the headline over one such hosanna in the Wall Street Journal.  Citing the new IEA study, that paper heralded a coming “U.S. energy boom” driven by “technological innovation and risk-taking funded by private capital.”  From then on, American energy analysts spoke rapturously of the capabilities of a set of new extractive technologies, especially fracking, to unlock oil and natural gas from hitherto inaccessible shale formations.  “This is a real energy revolution,” the Journal crowed.

But that was then. The most recent edition of World Energy Outlook, published this past November, was a lot more circumspect.  Yes, shale oil, tar sands, and other unconventional fuels will add to global supplies in the years ahead, and, yes, technology will help prolong the life of petroleum.  Nonetheless, it’s easy to forget that we are also witnessing the wholesale depletion of the world’s existing oil fields and so all these increases in shale output must be balanced against declines in conventional production.  Under ideal circumstances — high levels of investment, continuing technological progress, adequate demand and prices — it might be possible to avert an imminent peak in worldwide production, but as the latest IEA report makes clear, there is no guarantee whatsoever that this will occur.

Inching Toward the Peak

Before plunging deeper into the IEA’s assessment, let’s take a quick look at peak oil theory itself.

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Dahr Jamail: The Climate Change Scorecard

7:43 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Since a nuclear weapon went off over Hiroshima, we have been living with visions of global catastrophe, apocalyptic end times, and extinction that were once the sole property of religion.  Since August 6, 1945, it has been possible for us to imagine how human beings, not God, could put an end to our lives on this planet.  Conceptually speaking, that may be the single most striking development of our age and, to this day, it remains both terrifying and hard to take in.  Nonetheless, the apocalyptic possibilities lurking in our scientific-military development stirred popular culture over the decades to a riot of world-ending possibilities.

In more recent decades, a second world-ending (or at least world-as-we-know-it ending) possibility has crept into human consciousness.  Until relatively recently, our burning of fossil fuels and spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere represented such a slow-motion approach to end times that we didn’t even notice what was happening.  Only in the 1970s did the idea of global warming or climate change begin to penetrate the scientific community, as in the 1990s it edged its way into the rest of our world, and slowly into popular culture, too.

Still, despite ever more powerful weather disruptions — what the news now likes to call “extreme weather” events, including monster typhoons, hurricanes, and winter storms, wildfires, heat waves, droughts, and global temperature records — disaster has still seemed far enough off.  Despite a drumbeat of news about startling environmental changes — massive ice melts in Arctic waters, glaciers shrinking worldwide, the Greenland ice shield beginning to melt, as well as the growing acidification of ocean waters — none of this, not even Superstorm Sandy smashing into that iconic global capital, New York, and drowning part of its subway system, has broken through as a climate change 9/11.  Not in the United States anyway.

We’ve gone, that is, from no motion to slow motion to a kind of denial of motion.  And yet in the scientific community, where people continue to study the effects of global warming, the tone is changing.  It is, you might say, growing more apocalyptic.  Just in recent weeks, a report from the National Academy of Scientists suggested that “hard-to-predict sudden changes” in the environment due to the effects of climate change might drive the planet to a “tipping point.”  Beyond that, “major and rapid changes [could] occur” — and these might be devastating, including that “wild card,” the sudden melting of parts of the vast Antarctic ice shelf, driving sea levels far higher.

At the same time, the renowned climate scientist James Hansen and 17 colleagues published a hair-raising report in the journal PLoS.  They suggest that the accepted target of keeping global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius is a fool’s errand.  If global temperatures come anywhere near that level — the rise so far has been less than one degree since the industrial revolution began — it will already be too late, they claim, to avoid disastrous consequences.

Consider this the background “temperature” for Dahr Jamail’s latest piece for TomDispatch, an exploration of what climate scientists just beyond the mainstream are thinking about how climate change will affect life on this planet.  What, in other words, is the worst that we could possibly face in the decades to come?  The answer: a nightmare scenario.  So buckle your seat belt.  There’s a tumultuous ride ahead. Tom

Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice?
Scientists Consider Extinction 
By Dahr Jamail

I grew up planning for my future, wondering which college I would attend, what to study, and later on, where to work, which articles to write, what my next book might be, how to pay a mortgage, and which mountaineering trip I might like to take next.

Now, I wonder about the future of our planet. During a recent visit with my eight-year-old niece and 10- and 12-year-old nephews, I stopped myself from asking them what they wanted to do when they grew up, or any of the future-oriented questions I used to ask myself. I did so because the reality of their generation may be that questions like where they will work could be replaced by: Where will they get their fresh water? What food will be available? And what parts of their country and the rest of the world will still be habitable?

The reason, of course, is climate change — and just how bad it might be came home to me in the summer of 2010.  I was climbing Mount Rainier in Washington State, taking the same route I had used in a 1994 ascent.  Instead of experiencing the metal tips of the crampons attached to my boots crunching into the ice of a glacier, I was aware that, at high altitudes, they were still scraping against exposed volcanic rock. In the pre-dawn night, sparks shot from my steps.
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Tomgram: Todd Gitlin, Climate Change as a Business Model

7:52 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

When a crossroads doesn’t lie in the woods or the fields but in our minds, we seldom know it’s there or that we’ve made the choice to take one path and not the other until it’s long past.  Sometimes, the best you can do is look for the tiniest clues as to where we’re really heading.  When it comes to climate change, you can pile up the nightmares — Super-Typhoon Haiyan, possibly the strongest such storm ever to hit land (with the usual prominent caveats about how we can never quite know whether an individual event of this sort was global-warming-induced or not); Australia, which only recently elected a climate-change denialist as prime minister and is experiencing its hottest year on record; the rest of the planet, which is living through the seventh warmest year on record; and so on.

And yet, every now and then, set against the overwhelming, you can sense change in the tiniest of things. Here, for instance, may be a little sign when it comes to global warming: on November 1st, the New York Times featured a piece prominently placed on its front page about how climate change might affect global food production (badly). The story was based on a leaked draft of an upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The piece wasn’t itself particularly striking, but given that paper’s treatment of climate change over the years, its placement was. Just over two weeks later, after the devastation of parts of the Philippines and with a U.N. climate meeting underway in Poland that normally might hardly have been noticed, it front-paged a far more striking report whose title caught the mood of the moment: “Growing Clamor About Inequities of Climate Change.”  Recorded was the growing anger and frustration particularly of island nations that had, in greenhouse gas terms, contributed little to climate change and were feeling the brunt of it anyway.  Like many other mainstream publications, theTimes hasn’t exactly been stellar in the placement and attention it’s given to what almost certainly is the single most important issue of our era. So consider this a (rising) sea change, an indication that, for the paper of record, global warming has just jumped somewhere nearer the front of the line.

And here’s another little surprise and possible sign of changing times.  In case no one noticed, Red State America (RSA), the land of climate deniers, has in recent years been hit hard by record droughtsheatwildfiresfloods, and storms, by what our news likes to call “extreme weather” (with little or no reference to climate change).  So how has that everyday reality been absorbed, if at all? The British Guardian recently reported new polling research by a Stanford social psychologist, who has long been taking the American pulse on the subject, indicating that the inhabitants of RSA — we’re talking about Texas and Oklahoma, among other states — now overwhelmingly believe climate change is a reality, and that a significant majority of them want the government to work on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Two stories placed strikingly in a major paper and one passing poll.  Not exactly a typhoon of evidence, but sometimes you take your straws in the wind where you find them.  In the meantime, young activists (and older ones, too) are trying to take the typhoon by the horns and, with a growing campaign to pressure universities and colleges to divest from the giant energy companies, to change the mood and calculations of our moment.  Let TomDispatch regular Todd Gitlin tell the rest of the story — and stay tuned because, whatever may be happening now, there will be crossroads ahead, choices to be made on a planet that’s guaranteed to be in increasing turmoil for the rest of our lives. Tom

How to Reverse a Slow-Motion Apocalypse 
Why the Divestment Movement Against Big Energy Matters 
By Todd Gitlin

Apocalyptic climate change is upon us.  For shorthand, let’s call it a slow-motion apocalypse to distinguish it from an intergalactic attack out of the blue or a suddenly surging Genesis-style flood.

Slow-motion, however, is not no-motion. In fits and starts, speeding up and slowing down, turning risks into clumps of extreme fact, one catastrophe after another — even if there can be no 100% certitude about the origin of each one — the planetary future careens toward the unlivable. That future is, it seems, arriving ahead of schedule, though erratically enough that most people — in the lucky, prosperous countries at any rate — can still imagine the planet conducting something close to business as usual.

To those who pay attention, of course, the recent bursts of extreme weather are not “remote “or “abstract,” nor matters to be deferred until later in the century while we worry about more immediate problems. The coming dystopian landscape is all too real and it is already right here for many millions. (Think: the Philippines, the Maldives Islands, drowned New Orleans, the New York City subways, Far Rockaway, the Jersey Shore, the parched Southwest, the parched and then flooded Midwest and other food belts, the Western forests that these days are regularly engulfed in “record” flames, and so on.)  A child born in the United States this year stands a reasonable chance of living into the next century when everything, from available arable land and food resources to life on our disappearing seacoasts, will have changed, changed utterly.

A movement to forestall such menaces must convince many more millions outside Bangladesh or the Pacific islands that what’s “out there” is not remote in time or geographically far away, but remarkably close at hand, already lapping at many shores — and then to mobilize those millions to leverage our strengths and exploit the weaknesses of the institutions arrayed against us that benefit from destruction and have a stake in our weakness.

There is a poetic fitness to human history at this juncture.  Eons ago, various forms of life became defunct.  A civilization then evolved to extract the remains of that defunct life from the earth and turn it into energy. As a result, it’s now we who are challenged to avoid making our own style of existence defunct.

Is it not uncanny that we have come face-to-face with the consequences of a way of life based on burning up the remnants of previous broken-down orders of life?  It’s a misnomer to call those remains — coal, oil, and gas — “fossil fuels.”  They are not actually made up of fossils at all.  Still, there’s an eerie justice in the inaccuracy, since here we are, converting the residue of earlier breakdowns into another possible breakdown.  The question is: will we become the next fossils?

Subsidizing Big Energy

The institutions of our ruling world have a powerful stake in the mad momentum of climate change — the energy system that’s producing it and the political stasis that sustains and guarantees it — so powerful as to seem unbreakable.  Don’t count on them to avert the coming crisis.  They can’t.  In some sense, they are the crisis.

Corporations and governments promote the burning of fossil fuels, which means the dumping of its waste product, carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere where, in record amounts, it heats the planet.  This is not an oversight; it is a business model.

Governments collude with global warming, in part by bankrolling the giant fossil fuel companies (FFCs). As a recent report written by Shelagh Whitley for the Overseas Development Institute puts it,

“Producers of oil, gas, and coal received more than $500 billion in government subsidies around the world in 2011… If their aim is to avoid dangerous climate change, governments are shooting themselves in both feet.  They are subsidizing the very activities that are pushing the world towards dangerous climate change, and creating barriers to investment in low-carbon development and subsidy incentives that encourage investment in carbon-intensive energy.”

Of course a half-trillion dollars in subsidies doesn’t just happen.  It cannot be said too often: the FFCs thrive by conniving with governments.  They finance politicians to do their bidding.  Seven of the ten largest companies in the world are FFCs, as are four of the ten most profitable (just outnumbering three Chinese banks, which presumably have their own major FFC connections).  These behemoths have phenomenal clout when they lobby for fossil-fuel-friendly development and against remedial policies like a carbon tax.  And if this were not enough, they flood the world with fraudulent claims that climate change is not happening, or is not dangerous, or that its dimensions and human causes are controversial among scientists whose profession it is to study the climate.

The Cascade

Fossilized corporations do their thing while frozen governments produce (or opt out of) hapless and toothless international agreements. By default, initiative must arise elsewhere — in places where reason and passion have some purchase as well as a tradition, places where new power may be created and deployed.  This counterpower is, in fact, developing.

Given the might and recalcitrance of the usual culpable and complicit institutions, it falls to people’s initiatives and to other kinds of institutions to take up the slack.  This means universities, churches, and other investment pools, now increasingly under pressure from mushrooming campaigns to divest funds from FFCs; and popular movements against coal, oil, fracking, and other dangerous projects — in particular, at the moment, movements in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere to stop tar sands pipelines.

Those in the growing divestment movement suffer no illusions that universities themselves wield the magnitude of power you find in investment banks or, of course, the FFCs themselves.  They are simply seeking leverage where they can.  The sums of capital held by universities, in particular, are small on the scale of things.  Harvard, the educational institution with the largest endowment (some $32.7 billion at last count), reports that only 3% of its direct holdings are in the top 200 energy outfits.  (The amount of its money held indirectly and opaquely, through private capital pools, and so also possibly invested in FFCs, is unclear.)  Though millions of dollars are at stake, that’s a drop in the bucket for Harvard, whose holdings amount, in turn, to nowhere near a drop in the total market capitalization of those energy giants.

Set against a landscape in which people have lost faith in the principle sectors of power, however, universities still have a certain legitimacy that grants them the potential for leverage. Divestment will make news precisely because such movements are unusual: universities biting the hands of the dogs that feed them, so to speak.

We won’t know how much influence that legitimacy can bring about until the attempts are made.  What we do know, from historical precedent, is that such efforts, even when they start on a small scale, tend to inspire more of the same.  As Robert Kinloch Massie argues in his fine book on South African sanctions, Loosing the Bonds, divestment campaigns such as those over apartheid and Big Tobacco (phased out by Harvard in 1990) worked by creating a cascade effect.

With climate change, the stigmatization of the FFCs is already spreading from universities and churches to city and state pension funds.  Eventually, if it works, the cascade changes the atmosphere around private and public investment decisions.  Then those decisions themselves begin to change and such changes become part of a new market calculation for investors and politicians alike.

That’s why it matters so much that some 400 divestment campaigns are currently underway at American colleges and universities. Cascades of influence can move institutions, often in surprising ways.  Every time a divestment demand is put forward, the conversation changes in elite board rooms where investment decisions are made.  Children of FFC executives go home for Christmas and their nagging questions make their parents’ business-as-usual lives less comfortable.  (This dynamic, though seldom credited, undoubtedly played some role in ending the Vietnam War.)

At Harvard, my alma mater, a fierce campaign by courageous and strategic-minded students has spun off a parallel campaign by alumni.  They are being asked to withhold contributions to the university and to donate to an escrow fund until Harvard divests from its direct holdings in FFCs and undertakes to divest from its indirect holdings as well.

Is this sort of demand just a gesture of moral purity?  Not necessarily.  Indeed, there may well be an economic payoff for morally motivated divestment and reinvestment.  My fellow alumnus Bevis Longstreth, a former commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission, makes a strong case that the policies of the FFCs are shortsighted and risky.  (During the year 2012 alone, the top 200 sank $674 billion into acquiring and developing new energy reserves and working out ways to exploit them.)  Significant parts of the capital they are now investing will likely be “wasted,” since in a climate-change world, large portions of those reserves will have to stay in the ground.

Looked at in the long term, the FFCs may not turn out to be such smart investments after all. Indeed, in the boilerplate language of financial prospectuses, past results are no guarantee of future results; and there are already investment models showing that non-FFC funds deliver better proceeds.

These efforts and arguments have yet to convince Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust that climate change is one of those “extraordinarily rare circumstances” when divestment is justified.  Instead, she proposes “engagement” with the boards of the energy companies, as if sweet reason by itself stood a chance of outtalking sweet crude oil.  She touts Harvard’s teaching and research on climate issues, while neglecting the way those corporations fund disinformation meant to blunt the effect of that teaching and research.  Having declared that the issue is not “political,” she defends Harvard’s investments in the chief funders of propaganda against climate science.  Some rejection of politics!  Meanwhile, for saying no to divestment, President Faust wins the applause of an Alabama coal company front group.

Still, Divest Harvard is undeterred. By conducting referenda, organizing panels and rallies, gathering signatures, and activating alumni, it and like-minded groups are in the process of changing elite conversations about wealth and moral responsibility in the midst of a slow-motion apocalypse.  They are helping ensure that previously unthinkable conversations become thinkable.

Something similar is taking place on many other campuses.  At the same time, writers in influential conservative publications have already begun taking this movement seriously, and the first signs of a changing state of mind are evident.  A report out of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, for example, recently warned against the risks of “stranded assets” (all those fossil fuels already bought and paid for by the FFCs that will never make it out of the ground). The Economist has begun to doubt that oil is such a great investment. The Financial Times heralds the spread of divestment efforts to city governments.

Hinges Open Doors

Transforming the world is something like winning a war.  If the objective is to eliminate a condition like hunger, mass violence, or racial domination, then the institutions and systems of power that produce, defend, and sustain this condition have to be dislodged and defeated.  For that, most people have to stop experiencing the condition — and the enemy that makes it possible — as abstractions “out there.”

A movement isn’t called that for nothing.  It has to move people.  It needs lovers, and friends, and allies.  It has to generate a cascade of feeling — moral feeling.  The movement’s passion has to become a general passion.  And that passion must be focused: the concern that people feel about some large condition “out there” has to find traction closer to home.

Vis-à-vis the slow-motion apocalypse of climate change, there’s plenty of bad news daily and it’s hitting ever closer home, even if you live in the parching Southwest or the burning West, not the Philippines or the Maldive Islands.  Until recently, however, it sometimes felt as if the climate movement was spinning its wheels, gaining no traction.  But the extraordinary work of Bill McKibben and his collaborators at 350.org, and the movements against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and its Canadian equivalent, the Northern Gateway pipeline, have changed the climate-change climate.

Now, the divestment movement, too, becomes a junction point where action in the here-and-now, on local ground, gains momentum toward a grander transformation. These movements are the hinges on which the door to a livable future swings.

Todd Gitlin, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, the chair of the PhD program in communications, and the author of The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left; The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; and Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.

[Note: Thanks go to the sociologist Gay Seidman, elected as an anti-apartheid candidate to Harvard’s Board of Overseers in 1986, and to Eric Chivian, M.D., who got me thinking about the concept of a slow-motion apocalypse.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story.

Copyright 2013 Todd Gitlin

Michael Klare: A Climate Change-Fueled Revolution?

7:15 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Family standing in Typhoon Haiyan rubble

Can revolution save us from climate change apocalypse?

There’s a crossroads moment in our recent history that comes back to me whenever I think of our warming planet.  (2013 is shaping up to be the seventh warmest year since records began to be kept in 1850.  The 10 warmest years have all occured since 1998.)  In the six months from July 1979 to January 1980, as Jimmy Carter’s one-term presidency was winding down, he urged two approaches to global energy on Americans.  One was dismissed out of hand, the other taken up with alacrity — and our world is incommensurately the worse for it.  Here’s a description I wrote back in May that is worth quoting again:

On July 15, 1979, at a time when gas lines, sometimes blocks long, were a disturbing fixture of American life, President Jimmy Carter spoke directly to the American people on television for 32 minutes, calling for a concerted effort to end the country’s oil dependence on the Middle East.  ‘To give us energy security,’ he announced, ‘I am asking for the most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in our nation’s history to develop America’s own alternative sources of fuel — from coal, from oil shale, from plant products for gasohol, from unconventional gas, from the sun…’

It’s true that, with the science of climate change then in its infancy, Carter wouldn’t have known about the possibility of an overheating world, and his vision of ‘alternative energy’ wasn’t exactly a fossil-fuel-free one.  Even then — shades of today or possibly tomorrow — he was talking about having ‘more oil in our shale alone than several Saudi Arabias.’  Still, it was a remarkably forward-looking speech.

Had we invested massively in alternative energy R&D back then, who knows where we might be today?  Instead, the media dubbed it the ‘malaise speech,’ though the president never actually used that word, speaking instead of an American ‘crisis of confidence.’  While the initial public reaction seemed positive, it didn’t last long.  In the end, the president’s energy proposals were essentially laughed out of the room and ignored for decades.

Carter would, however, make his mark on U.S. energy policy, just not quite in the way he had imagined.  Six months later, on January 23, 1980, in his last State of the Union Address, he would proclaim what came to be known as the Carter Doctrine: ‘Let our position be absolutely clear,’ he said. ‘An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.’

No one would laugh him out of the room for that.  Instead, the Pentagon would fatefully begin organizing itself to protect U.S. (and oil) interests in the Persian Gulf on a new scale and America’s oil wars would follow soon enough.  Not long after that address, it would start building up a Rapid Deployment Force in the Gulf that would in the end become U.S. Central Command.  More than three decades later, ironies abound: thanks in part to those oil wars, whole swaths of the energy-rich Middle East are in crisis, if not chaos, while the big energy companies have put time and money into a staggeringly fossil-fuel version of Carter’s ‘alternative’ North America.  They’ve focused on shale oil, and on shale gas as well, and with new production methods, they are reputedly on the brink of turning the United States into a ‘new Saudi Arabia.’

Could there have been a sadder choice in recent history? If, in 1979, the U.S. had invested in a big way in solar, wind, tidal power, and who knows what else, imagine where we might be today. Imagine a world not facing a future in which storms like Super-Typhoon Haiyan, which recently leveled part of the Philippines, its winds devastating, its storm surge killing staggering numbers, threaten to become the norm for our children and grandchildren.

So oil wars, yes! — which meant transforming the Greater Middle East into a region of chaos, instability, and death.  An oil-ravaged planet, yes indeed! — which meant potentially transforming a future version of Earth into a planet of chaos, instability, and death!  A green energy revolution, not on your life! — not while the giant energy corporations have so much invested in underground reserves of fossil fuels and such gigantic profits to make, not while so many governments are deeply intertwined with those energy giants or are themselves essentially giant energy companies.  No wonder TomDispatch regular Michael Klare suggests that it falls into our hands to ensure that a green energy revolution arrives ahead of a human-created, fossil-fueled apocalypse. Tom

Surviving Climate Change
Is a Green Energy Revolution on the Global Agenda?
By Michael T. Klare

A week after the most powerful “super typhoon” ever recorded pummeled the Philippines, killing thousands in a single province, and three weeks after the northern Chinese city of Harbin suffered a devastating “airpocalypse,” suffocating the city with coal-plant pollution, government leaders beware! Although individual events like these cannot be attributed with absolute certainty to increased fossil fuel use and climate change, they are the type of disasters that, scientists tell us, will become a pervasive part of life on a planet being transformed by the massive consumption of carbon-based fuels.  If, as is now the case, governments across the planet back an extension of the carbon age and ever increasing reliance on “unconventional” fossil fuels like tar sands and shale gas, we should all expect trouble.  In fact, we should expect mass upheavals leading to a green energy revolution.

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Bill McKibben: Can Obama Ever Stand Up to the Oil Industry?

5:04 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Oil and Honey cover

Bill McKibben’s latest book

Recently, “good” news about energy has been gushing out of North America, where a cheering crowd of pundits, energy experts, and government officials has been plugging the U.S. as the “Saudi Arabia” of the twenty-first century. You know, all that fracking and those luscious deposits of oil shale and gas shale just waiting to be pounded into shape to fill global gas tanks for an energy-rich future. And then, of course, just to the north there are those fabulous Canadian tar sands deposits whose extraction is reportedly turning parts of Alberta into an environmental desert. And that isn’t all.

From the melting Arctic, where the Russians and others are staking out energy claims, to the southernmost tip of South America, the dream of new energy wealth is being pursued with a fervor and avidity that is hard to take in. In distant Patagonia, an Argentinean government not previously known for its friendliness to foreign investment has just buddied up with Chevron to drill “around the clock in pursuit of a vast shale oil reservoir that might be the world’s next great oil field.” Huzzah and olé!

And can you even blame the Argentinean president for her choice? After all, who wants to be the country left out of the global rush for new energy wealth? Who wants to consider the common good of the planet, when your country’s finances may be at stake? (As with the Keystone XL pipeline protest movement here, so in Argentina, there actually are environmentalists and others who are thinking of the common good, but they’re up against the state, the police, and Chevron — no small thing.) All of this would, of course, be a wondrous story — a planet filled with energy reserves beyond anyone’s wildest dreams — were it not for the fact that such fossil fuel wealth, such good news, is also the nightmarish bad news of our lives, of perhaps the lifetime of humanity.

There is an obvious disconnect between what is widely known about climate change and the recent rush to extract “tough energy” from difficult environments; between the fires — and potential “mega-fire” — burning wildly across parts of overheated Australia and its newly elected government run by a conservative prime minister, essentially a climate denier, intent on getting rid of that country’s carbon tax. There is a disconnect between hailing the U.S. as the new Saudi Arabia and the recent report of the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground — or else. There is a disconnect between what our president says about climate change and the basic energy policies of his administration. There is a disconnect between what the burning of fossil fuels will do to our environment and the urge of just about every country on this planet to exploit whatever energy reserves are potentially available to it, no matter how “dirty,” no matter how environmentally destructive to extract.

Somewhere in that disconnect, the remarkable Bill McKibben, whose new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, is at the top of my personal reading list, has burrowed in and helped to create a global climate change movement. In this country, it’s significantly focused on the Keystone XL pipeline slated, if built, to bring tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.  For the last several years at TomDispatch, McKibben has kept us abreast of the most recent developments in that movement. Here is his latest report from the tar sands front. Tom

X-Ray of a Flagging Presidency
Will Obama Block the Keystone Pipeline or Just Keep Bending?
By Bill McKibben

As the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline has worn on — and it’s now well over two years old — it’s illuminated the Obama presidency like no other issue. It offers the president not just a choice of policies, but a choice of friends, worldviews, styles. It’s become an X-ray for a flagging presidency. The stakes are sky-high, and not just for Obama. I’m writing these words from Pittsburgh, amid 7,000 enthusiastic and committed young people gathering to fight global warming, and my guess is that his choice will do much to determine how they see politics in this country.

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Tomgram: Michael Klare, The Latest News in Fossil Fuel Addiction

6:49 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The news couldn’t be better — and it couldn’t be worse.  Or ask yourself this: What do these two headlines have in common: “U.S. expected to be largest producer of petroleum and natural gas hydrocarbons in 2013,” “Shift to a new climate likely by middle of the century, study finds”?

A great deal, it turns out. Evidently, as the U.S. Energy Information Agency reports, the U.S. will surpass Russia as the leading combined producer of oil and natural gas this year.  For the time being, Saudi Arabia remains the globe’s number one oil producer.  And yes, according to a new study in the journal Nature, sometime around the year 2047 (give or take the odd decade), the world will hit a “climate takeoff point.”  Think of it as the moment when, according to the researchers, “the old maximum average temperatures become the new minimum temperatures, extending beyond any climate we have experienced since 1860,” that is, when systematic records first began being kept.

So for the U.S., we may be talking record fossil fuel production, while for the globe we are going to be talking record heat, record storms — of which a preview could be seen in the monstrous cyclone “half the size of India” that just came out of the warming waters of the Bay of Bengal — and record weather disruptions as the new norm on planet Earth.  The connection, of course, is record emissions of carbon dioxide from the record burning of all those fossil fuels.  It couldn’t be a nastier combo, something potentially straight out of Dante’s inferno.  And, as always, TomDispatch has Michael Klare, author most recently of The Race for What’s Left, on the case. Tom

Fossil Fuel Euphoria
Hallelujah, Oil and Gas Forever!
By Michael T. Klare

For years, energy analysts had been anticipating an imminent decline in global oil supplies.  Suddenly, they’re singing a new song: Fossil fuels growing scarce?  Don’t even think about it!  The news couldn’t be better: fossil fuels will become ever more abundant.  And all that talk about climate change?  Don’t worry about it, they chant.  Go out and enjoy the benefits of cheap and plentiful energy forever.

This movement from gloom about our energy future to what can only be called fossil-fuel euphoria may prove to be the hallmark of our peculiar moment.  In a speech this September, for instance, Barry Smitherman, chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission (that state’s energy regulatory agency), claimed that the Earth possesses a “relatively boundless supply” of oil and natural gas.  Not only that — and you can practically hear the chorus of cheering in Houston and other oil centers — but many of the most exploitable new deposits are located in the U.S. and Canada.  As a result — add a roll of drums and a blaring of trumpets — the expected boost in energy is predicted to provide the United States with a cornucopia of economic and political rewards, including industrial expansion at home and enhanced geopolitical clout abroad.  The country, exulted Karen Moreau of the New York State Petroleum Council, another industry cheerleader, is now in a position “to become a global superpower on energy.”

There are good reasons to be deeply skeptical of such claims, but that hardly matters when they are gaining traction in Washington and on Wall Street.  What we’re seeing is a sea change in elite thinking on the future availability and attractiveness of fossil fuels.  Senior government officials, including President Obama, have already become infected with this euphoria, as have top Wall Street investors — which means it will have a powerful and longlasting, though largely pernicious, effect on the country’s energy policy, industrial development, and foreign relations.

The speed and magnitude of this shift in thinking has been little short of astonishing.  Just a few years ago, we were girding for the imminent prospect of “peak oil,” the point at which daily worldwide output would reach its maximum and begin an irreversible decline.  This, experts assumed, would result in a global energy crisis, sky-high oil prices, and severe disruptions to the world economy.

Today, peak oil seems a distant will-o’-the-wisp.  Experts at the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) confidently project that global oil output will reach 115 million barrels per day by 2040 — a stunning 34% increase above the current level of 86 million barrels.  Natural gas production is expected to soar as well, leaping from 113 trillion cubic feet in 2010 to a projected 185 trillion in 2040.

These rosy assessments rest to a surprising extent on a single key assumption: that the United States, until recently a declining energy producer, will experience a sharp increase in output through the exploitation of shale oil and natural gas reserves through hydro-fracking and other technological innovations.  “In a matter of a few years, the trends have reversed,” Moreau declared last February.  “There is a new energy reality of vast domestic resources of oil and natural gas brought about by advancing technology… For the first time in generations, we are able to see that our energy supply is no longer limited, foreign, and finite; it is American and abundant.”

The boost in domestic oil and gas output, it is further claimed, will fuel an industrial renaissance in the United States — with new plants and factories being built to take advantage of abundant local low-cost energy supplies.  “The economic consequences of this supply-and-demand revolution are potentially extraordinary,” asserted Ed Morse, the head of global commodities research at Citigroup in New York.  America’s gross domestic product, he claimed, will grow by 2% to 3% over the next seven years as a result of the energy revolution alone, adding as much as $624 billion to the national economy.  Even greater gains can be made, Morse and others claim, if the U.S. becomes a significant exporter of fossil fuels, particularly in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Not only will these developments result in added jobs — as many as three million, claims energy analyst Daniel Yergin — but they will also enhance America’s economic status vis-à-vis its competitors.  “U.S. natural gas is abundant and prices are low — a third of their level in Europe and a quarter of that in Japan,” Yergin wrote recently.  “This is boosting energy-intensive manufacturing in the U.S., much to the dismay of competitors in both Europe and Asia.”

This fossil fuel euphoria has even surfaced in statements by President Obama.  For all his talk of climate change perils and the need to invest in renewables, he has also gloated over the jump in domestic energy production and promised to facilitate further increases.  “Last year, American oil production reached its highest level since 2003,” he affirmed in March 2011.  “And for the first time in more than a decade, oil we imported accounted for less than half of the liquid fuel we consumed.  So that was a good trend.  To keep reducing that reliance on imports, my administration is encouraging offshore oil exploration and production.”

Money Pouring into Fossil Fuels

This burst of euphoria about fossil fuels and America’s energy future is guaranteed to have a disastrous impact on the planet.  In the long term, it will make Earth a hotter, far more extreme place to live by vastly increasing carbon emissions and diverting investment funds from renewables and green energy to new fossil fuel projects.  For all the excitement these endeavors may be generating, it hardly takes a genius to see that they mean ever more carbon dioxide heading into the atmosphere and an ever less hospitable planet.

The preference for fossil fuel investments is easy to spot in the industry’s trade journals, as well as in recent statistical data and anecdotal reports of all sorts.  According to the reliable International Energy Agency (IEA), private and public investment in fossil fuel projects over the next quarter century will outpace investment in renewable energy by a ratio of three to one.  In other words, for every dollar spent on new wind farms, solar arrays, and tidal power research, three dollars will go into the development of new oil fields, shale gas operations, and coal mines.

From industry sources it’s clear that big-money investors are rushing to take advantage of the current boom in unconventional energy output in the U.S. — the climate be damned.  “The dollars needed [to develop such projects] have never been larger,” commented Maynard Holt, co-president of Houston-based investment bank Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Company.  “But the money is truly out there.  The global energy capital river is flowing our way.”

In the either/or equation that seems to be our energy future, the capital river is rushing into the exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels, while it’s slowing to a trickle in the world of the true unconventionals — the energy sources that don’t add carbon to the atmosphere. This, indeed, was the conclusion reached by the IEA, which in 2012 warned that the seemingly inexorable growth in greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide is likely to eliminate all prospect of averting the worst effects of climate change.

Petro Machismo

The new energy euphoria is also fueling a growing sense that the American superpower, whose influence has recently seemed to be on the wane, may soon acquire fresh geopolitical clout through its mastery of the latest energy technologies.  “America’s new energy posture allows us to engage from a position of greater strength,” crowed National Security Adviser Tom Donilon in an April address at Columbia University.  Increased domestic energy output, he explained, will help reduce U.S. vulnerability to global supply disruptions and price hikes.  “It also affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals.”

A new elite consensus is forming around the strategic advantages of expanded oil and gas production.  In particular, this outlook holds that the U.S. is benefiting from substantially reduced oil imports from the Middle East by eliminating a dependency that has led to several disastrous interventions in that region and exposed the country to periodic disruptions in oil deliveries, starting with the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74.  “The shift in oil sources means the global supply system will become more resilient, our energy supplies will become more secure, and the nation will have more flexibility in dealing with crises,” Yergin wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

This turnaround, he and other experts claim, is what allowed Washington to adopt a tougher stance with Tehran in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.  With the U.S. less dependent on Middle Eastern oil, so goes the argument, American leaders need not fear Iranian threats to disrupt the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf to international markets.  “The substantial increase in oil production in the United States,” Donilon declared in April, is what allowed Washington to impose tough sanctions on Iranian oil “while minimizing the burdens on the rest of the world.”

A stance of what could be called petro machismo is growing in Washington, underlying such initiatives as the president’s widely ballyhooed policy announcement of a “pivot” from the Middle East to Asia (still largely words backed by only the most modest of actions) and efforts to constrain Russia’s international influence.

Ever since Vladimir Putin assumed the presidency of that country, Moscow has sought to sway the behavior of its former Warsaw Pact allies and the former republics of the Soviet Union by exploiting its dominant energy role in the region.  It offered cheap natural gas to governments willing to follow its policy dictates, while threatening to cut off supplies to those that weren’t.  Now, some American strategists hope to reduce Russia’s clout by helping friendly nations like Poland and the Baltic states develop their own shale gas reserves and build LNG terminals.  These would allow them to import gas from “friendly” states, including the U.S. (once its LNG export capacities are expanded).  “If we can export some natural gas to Europe and to Japan and other Asian nations,” Karen Moreau suggested in February, “we strengthen our relationships and influence in those places — and perhaps reduce the influence of other producers such as Russia.”

The crucial issue is this: if American elites continue to believe that increased oil and gas production will provide the U.S. with a strategic advantage, Washington will be tempted to exercise a “stronger hand” when pursuing its “international security goals.”  The result will undoubtedly be heightened international friction and discord.

Is the Euphoria Justified?

There is no doubt that the present fossil fuel euphoria will lead in troubling directions, even if the rosy predictions of rising energy output are, in the long run, likely to prove both unreliable and unrealistic.  The petro machismo types make several interconnected claims:

* The world’s fossil fuel reserves are vast, especially when “unconventional” sources of fuel — Canadian tar sands, shale gas, and the like — are included.

* The utilization of advanced technologies, especially fracking, will permit the effective exploitation of a significant share of these untapped reserves (assuming that governments don’t restrict fracking and other controversial drilling activities).

* Fossil fuels will continue to supply an enormous share of global energy requirements for the foreseeable future, even given rising world temperatures, growing public opposition, and other challenges.

Each of these assertions is packed with unacknowledged questions and improbabilities that are impossible to explore thoroughly in an article of this length.  But here are some major areas of doubt.

To begin with, those virtually “boundless” untapped oil reserves have yet to be systematically explored, meaning that it’s impossible to know if they do, in fact, contain commercially significant reserves of oil and gas.  To offer an apt example, the U.S. Geological Survey, in one of the most widely cited estimates of untapped energy reserves, has reported that approximately 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30% percent of its natural gas lie above the Arctic Circle.  But this assessment is based on geological analyses of rock samples, not exploratory drilling.  Whether the area actually holds such large reserves will not be known until widespread drilling has occurred.  So far, initial Arctic drilling operations, like those off Greenland, have generally proved disappointing.

Similarly, the Energy Information Administration has reported that China possesses vast shale formations that could harbor substantial reserves of oil and gas.  According to a 2013 EIA survey, that country’s technically recoverable shale gas reserves are estimated at 1,275 trillion cubic feet, more than twice the figure for the United States.  Once again, however, the real extent of those reserves won’t be known without extensive drilling, which is only in its beginning stages.

To say, then, that global reserves are “boundless” is to disguise all the hypotheticals lurking within that description.  Reality may fall far short of industry claims.

The effectiveness of new technologies in exploiting such problematic reserves is also open to question.  True, fracking and other unconventional technologies have already substantially increased the production of hard-to-exploit fuels, including tar sands, shale gas, and deep-sea reserves.  Many experts predict that such gains are likely to be repeated in the future.  The EIA, for example, suggests that U.S. output of shale oil via fracking will jump by 221% over the next 15 years, and natural gas by 164%.  The big question, however, is whether these projected increases will actually come to fruition.  While early gains are likely, the odds are that future growth will come at a far slower pace.

As a start, the most lucrative U.S. shale formations in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, and Texas have already experienced substantial exploration and many of the most attractive drilling sites (or “plays”) are now fully developed.  More fracking, no doubt, will release additional oil and gas, but the record shows that fossil-fuel output tends to decline once the earliest, most promising reservoirs are exploited.  In fact, notes energy analyst Art Berman, “several of the more mature shale gas plays are either in decline or appear to be approaching peak production.”

Doubts are also multiplying over the potential for exploiting shale reserves in other parts of the world.  Preliminary drilling suggests that many of the shale formations in Europe and China possess fewer hydrocarbons and will be harder to develop than those now being exploited in this country. In Poland, for example, efforts to extract domestic shale reserves have been stymied by disappointing drilling efforts and the subsequent departure of major foreign firms, including Exxon Mobil and Marathon Oil.

Finally, there is a crucial but difficult to assess factor in the future energy equation: the degree to which energy companies and energy states will run into resistance when exploiting ever more remote (and environmentally sensitive) resource zones.  No one yet knows how much energy industry efforts may be constrained by the growing opposition of local residents, scientists, environmentalists, and others who worry about the environmental degradation caused by unconventional energy extraction and the climate consequences of rising fossil fuel combustion.  Despite industry claims that fracking, tar sands production, and Arctic drilling can be performed without endangering local residents, harming the environment, or wrecking the planet, ever more people are coming to the opposite conclusion — and beginning to take steps to protect their perceived interests.

In New York State, for example, a fervent anti-fracking oppositional movement has prevented government officials from allowing such activities to begin in the rich Marcellus shale formation, one of the largest in the world.  Although Albany may, in time, allow limited fracking operations there, it is unlikely to permit large-scale drilling throughout the state.  Similarly, an impressive opposition in British Columbia to the proposed Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline, especially by the native peoples of the region, has put that project on indefinite hold.  And growing popular opposition to fracking in Europe is making itself felt across the region.  The European Parliament, for example, recently imposed tough environmental constraints on the practice.

As heat waves and extreme storm activity increase, so will concern over climate change and opposition to wholesale fossil fuel extraction.  The IEA warned of this possibility in the 2012 edition of its World Energy Outlook.  Shale gas and other unconventional forms of natural gas are predicted to provide nearly half the net gain in world gas output over the next 25 years, the report noted.  “There are,” it added, “also concerns about the environmental impact of producing unconventional gas that, if not properly addressed, could halt the unconventional gas revolution in its tracks.”

Reaction to that IEA report last November was revealing.  Its release prompted a mini-wave of ecstatic commentary in the American media about its prediction that, thanks to the explosion in unconventional energy output, this country would soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil producer.  In fact, the fossil fuel craze can be said to have started with this claim.  None of the hundreds of articles and editorials written on the subject, however, bothered to discuss the caveats the report offered or its warnings of planetary catastrophe.

As is so often the case with mass delusions, those caught up in fossil fuel mania have not bothered to think through the grim realities involved.  While industry bigwigs may continue to remain on an energy high, the rest of us will not be so lucky.  The accelerated production and combustion of fossil fuels can have only one outcome: a severely imperiled planet.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and conflict studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left (Picador).  A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Michael T. Klare

Rebecca Solnit: The Age of Inhuman Scale

6:28 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Arctic melt pools

Rebecca Solnit on the unprecedented environmental devastation of the modern era.

It was the stuff of fantasy, of repeated failed expeditions and dreams that wouldn’t die. I’m talking about the Northwest Passage, that fabled route through Arctic waters around North America. Now, it’s reality. The first “bulk carrier,” a Danish commercial freighter with a load of coal, just traveled from Vancouver, Canada, to Finland, cutting a week off its voyage, skipping the Panama Canal, and even, according to the Finnish steel maker Ruukki Metals, for whom the coal was intended, “reducing its greenhouse gas emissions because of fuel savings.”

When dreams come true, it’s time to celebrate, no? Only in this case, under the upbeat news of the immediate moment lies a far larger nightmare. Those expeditions from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries failed to find the Northwest Passage because Arctic sea ice made the voyage impossible. There simply was no passage. No longer. Thanks to global warming, the melting of ice — glaciers are losing an estimated 303 billion tons of the stuff annually worldwide — staggers the imagination. The Greenland ice shield is turning into runoff ever more rapidly, threatening significant sea level rise, and all of the melting in the cold north has, in turn, opened a previously nonexistent Northwest Passage, as well as a similar passage through Russia’s Arctic waters.

None of this would have happened, as the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointed out in its latest report, if not for the way the burning of fossil fuels (like that coal the Nordic Orion took to Finland) has poured carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In other words, we created that Arctic passage and made it commercially viable, thus ensuring that our world, the one we’ve known since the dawn of (human) time, will be ever less viable for our children and grandchildren. After all, the Arctic with its enormous reservoirs of fossil fuels can now begin to be opened up for exploitation like so much of the rest of the planet. And there can be no doubt about it: those previously unreachable reserves will be extracted and burned, putting yet more CO2 into the atmosphere, and anyone who tries to stop that process, as Greenpeace protestors symbolically tried to do recently at an oil rig in Arctic Russia, will be dealt with firmly as “pirates” or worse. That dream of history, of explorers from once upon a time, is now not just a reality, but part of a seemingly inexorable feedback loop of modern fossil-fuel production and planetary heating, another aspect of what Michael Klare has grimly termed the Third Carbon Age (rather than a new Age of Renewables).

If we don’t need a little perspective on ourselves and our world now, then when? Fortunately, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit is here to offer us both that perspective and some hope for what we can do in the face of well-funded climate denialism and fossil-fuel company boosterism. Tom

Bigger Than That 
(The Difficulty of) Looking at Climate Change 
By Rebecca Solnit

Late last week, in the lobby of a particularly unglamorous downtown San Francisco building, a group of passionate but polite activists met with a bureaucrat who stepped forward to hear what they had to say about the fate of the Earth. The activists wanted to save the world. The particular part of it that might be under their control involved getting the San Francisco Retirement board to divest its half a billion dollars in fossil fuel holdings, one piece of the international divestment movement that arose a year ago.

Sometimes the fate of the Earth boils down to getting one person with modest powers to budge.

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Michael Klare: A Thermonuclear Energy Bomb in Christmas Wrappings

7:56 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

IEA's World Energy Outlook 2012 paints a dire picture of our future

Let’s face it: climate change is getting scarier by the week.  In this all-American year, record wildfires, record temperatures in the continental U.S., an endless summer, a fierce drought that still won’t go away, and Frankenstorm Sandy all descended on us. Globally, billion-dollar weather events are increasingly dime-a-dozen affairs, with a record 14 of them in 2012 so far So is a linked phenomenon, the continuing rise in the volume of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, especially from burning fossil fuels, that get pumped into the atmosphere.  The latest figures from 2011 indicate that those gases once again made an appearance in record amounts with no indication that abatement is anywhere on the horizon.

With new studies and more data, it seems, come ever more frightening projections of just how much the temperature of this planet is going to rise by 2100. After all, as Michael Klare, TomDispatch regular and author of the invaluable The Race for What’s Left, points out, the International Energy Agency’s latest study suggests a possible temperature rise by century’s end of 3.6 degrees Celsius.  That should startle the imagination, involving as it would the transformation of this planet into something unrecognizably different from the one we all grew up on.  And keep in mind that it’s by no means the top estimate for temperature disaster.  A new World Bank report indicates that a rise of 4 degrees Celsius is possible by century’s end, a prospect that bank president Jim Yong Kim termed a “doomsday scenario.”

In the meantime, the most comprehensive study to date of how humans have affected the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere predicts that the planet’s temperature could rise by an unimaginable 6 degrees Celsius by 2100.  These days, it increasingly looks like we’ve entered the lottery from hell when it comes to Earth’s ultimate temperature — especially now that a recent report from the United Nations Environment Program suggests carbon in the atmosphere has increased by 20% since 2000 and that “there are few signs of global emissions falling.”

With this in mind, consider the latest “good news” reported (and widely hailed) in the world of fossil fuels, courtesy of Michael Klare.  Tom

World Energy Report 2012
The Good, the Bad, and the Really, Truly Ugly
By Michael T. Klare

Rarely does the release of a data-driven report on energy trends trigger front-page headlines around the world.  That, however, is exactly what happened on November 12th when the prestigious Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) released this year’s edition of its World Energy Outlook.  In the process, just about everyone missed its real news, which should have set off alarm bells across the planet.

Claiming that advances in drilling technology were producing an upsurge in North American energy output, World Energy Outlook predicted that the United States would overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia to become the planet’s leading oil producer by 2020.  “North America is at the forefront of a sweeping transformation in oil and gas production that will affect all regions of the world,” declared IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven in a widely quoted statement.

In the U.S., the prediction of imminent supremacy in the oil-output sweepstakes was generally greeted with unabashed jubilation.  “This is a remarkable change,” said John Larson of IHS, a corporate research firm.  “It’s truly transformative.  It’s fundamentally changing the energy outlook for this country.”  Not only will this result in a diminished reliance on imported oil, he indicated, but also generate vast numbers of new jobs.  “This is about jobs.  You know, it’s about blue-collar jobs.  These are good jobs.”

The editors of the Wall Street Journal were no less ecstatic.  In an editorial with the eye-catching headline “Saudi America,” they lauded U.S. energy companies for bringing about a technological revolution, largely based on the utilization of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to extract oil and gas from shale rock.  That, they claimed, was what made a new mega-energy boom possible.  “This is a real energy revolution,” the Journal noted, “even if it’s far from the renewable energy dreamland of so many government subsidies and mandates.”

Other commentaries were similarly focused on the U.S. outpacing Saudi Arabia and Russia, even if some questioned whether the benefits would be as great as advertised or obtainable at an acceptable cost to the environment.

While agreeing that the expected spurt in U.S. production is mostly “good news,” Michael A. Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations warned that gas prices will not drop significantly because oil is a global commodity and those prices are largely set by international market forces.  “[T]he U.S. may be slightly more protected, but it doesn’t give you the energy independence some people claim,” he told the New York Times.

Some observers focused on whether increased output and job creation could possibly outweigh the harm that the exploitation of extreme energy resources like fracked oil or Canadian tar sands was sure to do to the environment. Daniel J. Weiss of the Center for American Progress, for example, warned of a growing threat to America’s water supply from poorly regulated fracking operations.  “In addition, oil companies want to open up areas off the northern coast of Alaska in the Arctic Ocean, where they are not prepared to address a major oil blowout or spill like we had in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Such a focus certainly offered a timely reminder of how important oil remains to the American economy (and political culture), but it stole attention away from other aspects of the World Energy Report that were, in some cases, downright scary.  Its portrait of our global energy future should have dampened enthusiasm everywhere, focusing as it did on an uncertain future energy supply, excessive reliance on fossil fuels, inadequate investment in renewables, and an increasingly hot, erratic, and dangerous climate.  Here are some of the most worrisome takeaways from the report.

Shrinking World Oil Supply

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William deBuys: The West in Flames

6:49 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Firefighters

Firefighters in Colorado during recent wildfires (Photo: DVIDSHUB / Flickr)

The water supply was available only an hour a day and falling.  People — those who hadn’t moved north to cooler climes — were dying from the heat.  Food was growing ever scarcer and the temperature soaring so that, as one reporter put it, you could “cook eggs on your sidewalk and cook soup in the oceans.”  The year was 1961 and I was “there,” watching “The Midnight Sun,” a Twilight Zone episode in which the Earth was coming ever closer to the sun.  (As it was The Twilight Zone, you knew there would be a twist at the end: in this case, you were inside the fevered dreams of a sick woman on a planet heading away from the sun and growing ever colder.)

In 1961, an ever-hotter planet was a sci-fi fantasy and the stuff of entertainment.  No longer.  Now, it’s the plot line for our planet and it isn’t entertaining at all.  Just over a half-century later, we are experiencing, writes Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone, “the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.”

Speaking personally, this summer, living through a staggering heat wave on the East coast (as in much of the rest of the country), I’ve felt a little like I’m in that fevered dream from The Twilight Zone, and a map of a deep-seated drought across 56% of the country and still spreading gives you a feeling for just why.   Never in my life have I thought of the sun as implacable, but that’s changing, too.  After all, the first six months of 2012 in the U.S. were 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit above the long-term norm and Colorado, swept by wildfires, was a staggering 6.4 degrees higher than the usual.  TomDispatch regular William deBuys, author of A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, catches the feel of living in a West that’s aflame and drying out fast.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which deBuys discusses where heat, fire, and climate change are taking us, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

The Oxygen Planet Struts Its Stuff:
Not a “Perfect Storm” But the New Norm in the American West
By William deBuys

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Tom Engelhardt: A Subprime Education in a Subprime World

6:41 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A graduate tightly holds onto his cap.

Photo: James Almond / Flickr.

Class of 2012, greetings! It’s a deceptively glorious day, even under this tent in the broiling heat of an August-style afternoon in mid-June on this northeastern campus.  Another local temperature record is being set: 98 degrees.  And yes, let’s admit it, the heat, the sun, the clearness of the azure blue sky stretching without a cloud to the horizon, the sense of summer descending with a passion, it’s not quite as reassuring as it might once have been, is it?  I suspect that few of you, readying yourselves to leave this campus, many mortgaged to your eyeballs (some for life no matter what you do), and heading into a country on edge, imagine personal clear skies to the horizon.

And while we’re admitting things, let’s admit something else about the heat today, as you bake under your graduation gowns: whether or not you have the figures at your fingertips, whether or not you know the details, who doesn’t sense that this planet is on edge, too?  I mean, here you are, the class of 2012, and like the classes of 2011, 2010, and so on, you are surely going to spend your first months out of college enduring one of history’s top ten heat years.

As so many Americans have noticed, this was a spring for the record books just about everywhere in the continental United States.  And keep in mind that at the moment we also seem to be making a beeline for a potentially record-setting summer, the months of your job hunt for a future, and maybe the hottest year in American history as well.

And records or no, this year is no anomaly.  Look at a temperature map of the United States, 1970-2011, and every state — every single state — is, on average, hotter now than it was four decades ago.  Imagine that.

And now, imagine this.  If climate change is the main culprit and the burning of fossil fuels is threatening to turn Hell, which you were once supposed to visit after death for your sins, into a pit stop on planet Earth, and if you want to do something about it, brace yourself.  What you’re up against is the power of the richest, most profitable corporations in history at a time when the sky’s the limit, not just for carbon dioxide, but for the infusion of private and corporate money into what we once called democratic (with a small “d”) politics.

In other words, the giant energy corporations that rake in tens of billions of dollars every quarter and whose lifeblood is the burning of fossil fuels are essentially capable of buying more or less anything they want in Washington.  That includes continuing massive subsidies — via “your” Congress (via your tax dollars) — of their unbelievably profitable operations.

And what exactly can you buy?  How many lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians can fit in your less than spacious pockets?  Okay, you don’t want your world, and that of your children, hotter than hades?  That’s understandable, but tell it to ExxonMobil.  It has money to burn and specializes in mobilizing some of those billions in profits to employ ranks of lawyers, hordes of well-organized lobbyists, klatches of politicians, and even its own armed mercenary warriors.  If the planet burns as well, so be it.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

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