Fossil Fools

Early in May, 2013 North America was abuzz about whether the Dow would stay above 1500. Lost in the buzz was a crucial climate announcement: For the first time in a million years carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere passed 400 parts per million. A month later, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that global greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions had reached a record high in 2012.

There was more bad news in June when the World Meteorological Organization announced that the world was warmer in the first decade of the 21st century than any other period on record. Much of the increased heat is being absorbed by the oceans at present, sparing us temporarily from catastrophic heating of the earth’s surface and atmosphere.

Rising ghg levels since the beginning of the Industrial Age two hundred years ago closely track the increase in global temperatures. The connection between ghg concentrations and temperature increases was popularized in the “hockey stick” graph – developed by Professor Michael Mann – in Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. Initially ridiculed by the denial industry, Mann’s conclusions, based on the earlier work of Joseph Fourier and Svante Arrhenius, linking ghg levels and temperature are now widely accepted.

The planet is heating up – no dispute. Global warming is primarily due to the accumulation of ghgs in the atmosphere which are overwhelmingly anthropogenic in nature – no debate. At least seventy percent of these emissions are created by burning fossil fuels and the remainder is largely generated by agriculture, deforestation and waste dumps.

Professor James Powell, Director of the National Physical Science Consortium, scoured the web for articles on global warming and climate change published in peer-reviewed journals between 1991 and 2012. Among almost 14,000 articles, he found only 24 (0.17%) that rejected the theory of human-induced warming. Furthermore, the citation record of this scattering of articles was minimal, more proof that they are largely ignored by the scientific community. Powell concludes that global warming is now the ruling paradigm of climate science.

The whiplash weather that we are increasingly experiencing – floods and fires in Calgary and Colorado, torrents in Toronto and killer tornadoes in the US Midwest – is a direct result of a warming planet. These weather blitzes are not Acts of God in the jargon of the insurance industry; they are Acts of Man. God and Gaia do not act out of revenge, they react in self-defence against abuse.

Extreme weather feeds off climate change and in a vicious cycle, it in turn amplifies disruptive climate patterns. “Global climate disruption” in the words of White House science advisor, John Holdren, will not be a stable linear progression: we will be bombarded and strafed with random weather eruptions occurring around the globe. We, through our lifestyles, now control the planet’s thermostat which is shaping the weather and altering our climate.

Many believe that we can always reverse climate change by simply reducing the output of our ghg emissions. Sadly, it is not so simple because carbon dioxide can last hundreds of years in the atmosphere before dissipating. Therefore, present levels of the gas have locked in temperature increases and the collateral climate damage is probably irreversible for centuries.

Most countries agreed at Copenhagen in 2009 that global temperature increases must be limited to two degrees C above the pre-industrial level of the late 18th century to avert major climate turmoil. At present we are inching up to a one degree increase and because of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, we cannot escape another one degree rise.

We are on track then for a two degree increase in global temperatures in the next few decades – it is unstoppable. At two degrees the planet will experience severe climate destabilization but a four degree rise could be catastrophic. If, as the IEA – hardly a left-wing organization – suggests, we are headed for a six degree increase in average temperatures across the planet by 2100, it is probably game over for the human species.

Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, in an interview with Bill Moyers recently related increases in our body temperatures to global warming. If your temperature rises one degree, you feel a bit off colour; at two degrees you are feeling sick and will likely book off work. At three degrees you are seriously ill and when your body temperature rises by four to five degrees you are slipping into a coma. At six degrees above normal, you are probably brain-dead.

No wonder climate scientists are concerned about the health of the planet. But individuals around the world seem strangely unconcerned. Why do so many of us bask in denial, comfortably sitting in a pot like a frog as the water heats up, gradually boiling us to death, while we are blissfully unaware of the unfolding crisis. And who really cares about the tadpoles?

Fossil fuels are the climate curse. Despite the predictions, they are not running out. Oil and gas fracking, coal reserves, methane hydrates in the oceans and tar sands bitumen will ensure that we will cook the planet long before we exhaust these toxic resources. The uncontrollable feedbacks resulting from global warming, such as the release of methane from the thawing Arctic permafrost, will intensify the rapid heating of the earth and exacerbate climate change.

We have no choice but to leave most of the remaining fossil reserves in the ground – to continue to burn them irresponsibly will destroy the planet. We freed the carbon genie from deep below by extracting and squandering oil and coal to satisfy our craving for cheap and easily available energy. It is impossible now to stuff the genie back in the bottle by capturing carbon dioxide and pumping it underground.

The fifth report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was issued at the end of September. It is without a doubt the most comprehensive climate document ever published. The IPCC “Report” actually comprises a series of separate reports that will appear at intervals over the next year. They have been prepared by hundreds of top scientists who studied and synthesized almost ten thousand climate articles and research reports. The first of the IPCC’s individual reports, “Summary for Policymakers,” has confirmed that the carbon genie is loose and running out of control.

According to the IPCC document, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other ghgs are at their highest level in almost one million years. For the first time, the IPCC has specified the future levels of ghg emissions that will permit the planet to stay within the 2 degree C ceiling agreed at Copenhagen. This so-called “carbon budget” will require that most reserves of coal, oil and gas must stay underground to ensure that the planet remains habitable. Eighty percent of Canada’s fossil energy reserves will have to remain buried as part of our commitment to the global 2 degree C carbon budget.

The IPCC “Summary” Report declares with a 95 percent chance of probability – as certain as science gets – that greenhouse gases are almost entirely anthropogenic and largely generated by fossil fuels. Furthermore, the Report states that global warming is primarily caused by carbon dioxide and other ghgs and, with a remarkable degree of certainty and clarity, concludes that the warming trend is now “unequivocal.” Michael Mann’s “hockey stick” is firmly established in the climatology canon.

The overriding question facing us is whether we have the self-discipline to curb our addiction to fossil energy or whether we expect the government to regulate our appetites. “Government action” on climate change is a cruel oxymoron. Governments are aware that although we profess in public opinion polls to be concerned about global warming, Canadians do not support proactive policies to protect nature if there is a financial cost attached. But government inaction is largely our fault. As George Monbiot wrote in a Guardian column last year, “Governments care only as much as their citizens force them to care. Nothing changes unless we change.”

In an article entitled “Mortal Hazard” in The Walrus (April, 2013), Bryne Purchase of Queen’s University argues that both public and private institutions in our culture are not designed for taking precautionary and preemptive action on potentially dangerous problems. Decisions are usually made with short-term gains in mind – winning elections for governments and profits for corporations – while the longer term costs and risks are passed on to future generations.

Governments are reluctant to slow economic growth – no matter how environmentally destructive it is – for fear of alienating voters at election time. Instead, the electorate is baited with promises and benefits, such as lower taxes while “the tough choices are punted into the future” in Professor Purchase’s words. Only in the face of a major disaster can we expect decisive government action . . . and then it will be too late to avert climate chaos.

While it is clear that our government does not have the courage to act decisively on environmental issues, it is unacceptable that they would ally themselves with the fossil fuel industry – “a reckless, rogue industry” in the words of Bill McKibben. Sending servile politicians and diplomats south to the US to peddle pipelines carrying toxic tar is both immoral and suicidal. Tanker trains exploding in the night, fuel pipelines rupturing, underground bitumen blowouts and undersea oil eruptions – when do we muster the courage to stand up and yell: Stop the madness!

On the international scene, many democratic governments refuse to take a stand and honour their Copenhagen pledges to reduce ghg emissions because of negative domestic voter reaction. And authoritarian governments, often petro-states, will not act for reasons of self-interest. Canada – both a democracy and a petro-state – won’t even come close to meeting its commitment by 2020 because of voter reaction, narrow national self-interest and lack of government leadership. The prospects for change from below are equally bleak because, as the ever perceptive Monbiot puts it: No society in the history of civilization has ever rioted for austerity.

One of the most pernicious features of the fossil energy situation is the issue of government subsidies. The G20 countries, fully aware of the destructive effect of subsidies, have agreed in principle to eliminate energy support mechanisms but, like so many other promises emanating from international organizations, this commitment has evaporated.

Subsidies come in a variety of forms, such as loans, direct financial assistance, fuel exemptions, tax concessions and write-offs. The IEA calculated that in 2011 world-wide government subsidies to fossil fuel producers exceeded $500 billion. Even the World Bank Group assisted the fossil industry by loaning almost $3 billion for oil and gas exploration which included fracking.

Subsidies are subverting efforts to control ghg emissions and, thereby, restrict global temperatures increases to two degrees C. By keeping energy prices artificially low, subsidies reinforce our wasteful addiction to cheap fuel and they also reinforce the erroneous belief that renewables are an expensive alternative source of energy. According to the IEA, for every dollar of government support for renewable energy producers, fossil fuel companies receive six dollars.

Derek Wong has calculated that the Canadian government spent $26 billion subsidizing our energy in 2011, a subsidy that works out at $787 per citizen. Subsidies are either financed directly out of government tax revenues or alternatively by foregoing potential tax revenue. The tragic irony is that either way, we as taxpayers are subsidizing our own destruction – and that of our offspring.

Canada’s official response to the IPCC Report was announced by Environment Minister, Leona Aglukkaq. She ignored the Report’s conclusions, which had been approved by our Government in Stockholm, and instead she launched an attack on the Liberals for inaction on global warming when they were in power. She also criticized the NDP for proposing a carbon tax which most economists agree is the most effective way to reduce fossil fuel generated ghgs. The Minister incorrectly claimed credit for a reduction in coal use but the drop is actually due to Ontario’s efforts to phase out coal fired electricity generation.

Within two weeks of the release of the IPCC Report, the Government introduced a new session of Parliament with a Speech from the Throne. It was a classic example of Bryne Purchase’s argument that governments are focused primarily on winning elections. The text of the speech is devoted almost entirely to vote-getting strategies, such as low taxes, jobs, defending consumers, down-sizing government, punishing criminals and economic growth. The expansion of growth – environmentally destructive in itself – will be fuelled and bankrolled by increasing oil and natural gas production, both major sources of the ghgs that are suffocating the planet.

The only environmental initiative in the Speech is a lame reference to the polluter pay principle which is not new but which the Government has never enforced. How is it possible “to secure the future for our children’s generation” without Parliament addressing the biggest threat to their future – climate change – and the dominant cause: fossil fuels? The Throne Speech is a blatant betrayal of our children’s future and the future of all succeeding generations.

The Speech concludes with an appeal to “Divine Providence” to guide the deliberations of our parliamentarians. Surely if we are appealing for divine inspiration and guidance, we should move beyond encouraging destructive materialism and sectional self-interest. If we invoke the divine, then we need uplifting rhetoric that will buoy our spirits and raise our hopes. We need communication that focuses on the reverence and veneration of nature and language that promotes the protection and the preservation of the planet. We need emphasis on the moral imperatives – the sacred, the spiritual and the secular – that will unite and inspire us.

Perhaps we should turn instead to Pete Seeger’s memorable anti-war lament, Where have all the flowers gone? for inspiration to fortify ourselves for the struggle against the fossil forces – and the fossilized values – that are waging war on Mother Earth. The haunting climax of Seeger’s song must be our wake-up call:

When will we ever learn, When will we ever learn?

Hugh Robertson October, 2013.


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