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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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Bill McKibben: Climate-Change Deniers Have Done Their Job Well

6:23 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

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

A wildfire rages.

Photo by Kaibab National Forest

Here’s the thing about climate-change deniers: these days before they sit down to write their blog posts, they have to turn on the AC. After all, it might as well be July in New York (where I’m writing this), August in Chicago (where a century-old heat record was broken in late May), and hell at the Indy 500. Infernos have been raging from New Mexico and Colorado, where the fire season started early, to the shores of Lake Superior, where dry conditions and high temperatures led to Michigan’s third largest wildfire in its history. After a March heat wave for the record books, we now have summer in late spring, the second-named tropical storm of the season earlier than ever recorded, and significant drought conditions, especially in the South and Southwest. In the meantime, carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) continue to head for the atmosphere in record quantities. And in case anyone living in a big city doesn’t know it, heat can kill.

It’s true that no single event can be pinned on climate change with absolute certainty. But anyone who doesn’t think we’re in a fierce new world of weather extremes — and as TomDispatch regular Bill McKibben has suggested, on an increasingly less hospitable planet that he calls Eaarth – is likely to learn the realities firsthand soon enough. Not so long ago, if you really wanted to notice the effects of climate change around you, you had to be an Inuit, an Aleut, or some other native of the far north where rising temperatures and melting ice were visibly changing the landscape and wrecking ways of life — or maybe an inhabitant of Kiribati. Now, it seems, we are all Inuit or Pacific islanders. And the latest polling numbers indicate that Americans are finally beginning to notice in their own lives, and in numbers that may matter.

With that in mind, we really do need a new term for the people who insist that climate change is a figment of some left-wing conspiracy or a cabal of miscreant scientists. “Denial” (or the more active “deniers”) seems an increasingly pallid designation in our new world. Consider, for instance, that in low-lying North Carolina, a leading candidate for disaster from globally rising sea levels, coastal governments and Republicans in the state legislature are taking action: they are passing resolutions against policies meant to mitigate the damage from rising waters and insisting that official state sea-level calculations be made only on the basis of “historic trends,” with no global warming input. That should really stop the waters!

In the meantime, this spring greenhouse-gas monitoring sites in the Arctic have recorded a startling first: 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s an ominous line to cross (and so quickly). As in the name of McKibben’s remarkable organization, 350.org, it’s well above the safety line for what this planet and many of the species on it, including us, can take in the long term, and heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere are still on the rise. All of this is going to get ever harder to “deny,” no matter what resolutions are passed or how measurements are restricted. In the meantime, the climate-change deniers, McKibben reports, are finally starting to have troubles of their own. Tom

The Planet Wreckers
Climate-Change Deniers Are On the Ropes — But So Is the Planet

By Bill McKibben

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