Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day: Energy, climate change, and the indignant desert birds of willful self-destruction


The enemy of realism is hubris.
- Reinhold Niebuhr -

It takes a special humility to understand our place in the natural world. Yet our mythology places us on a pedestal and speaks of man as made in the image of his creator, of man having dominion over the fish of the sea, over the fowl of the air, over cattle and every creature that creeps upon the earth, even over earth itself.

In our American history texts, we read of Manifest Destiny, of a relentless expansion from sea to shining sea in search of territory, resources, and prosperity. Throughout American history, many historians have noted, abundance meant freedom and freedom meant abundance.

Notions of abundance and freedom turned the gears of the Industrial Revolution, which relied upon the labor of immigrants who arrived in waves to pursue their share of the American Dream. For these immigrants, dreams of abundance and freedom outweighed all deprivations including discrimination by class, race, religion, and ethnicity.

World War II turned America into an economic superpower. After the war, America possessed almost two-thirds of world gold reserves, more than half of the world’s manufacturing capacity, and exported two-thirds of the world’s goods. The relationship between abundance and freedom had become no longer the privilege of the few, but the birthright of the many.

For a nation that equates abundance with freedom and freedom with abundance, it is ironic to note how rapidly fortunes can change, and how the sudden scarcity of a once abundant resource can lead to economic decline. By 1970, as the supply-demand curves for domestic oil production crossed, America turned into a net importer. As America imported increasing quantities of oil supplies from the Mid-East and goods from Europe and Asia, the largest creditor nation in the world turned into the largest debtor nation … within a generation. Today, the United States consumes 19.5 million barrels of oil daily and imports 57% of its minimum daily requirement from foreign suppliers. With proven petroleum reserves of 21,317 million barrels, the Unites States has less than a three-year supply beyond which our nation will be totally dependant on foreign oil (source).

Of course, there are critics, pundits, and politicians who rally around the flag with chants of “drill, baby, drill!” Drill off the coasts of Florida, they say. Drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. More opinionated than informed, what these novices and neophytes do not know: ANWR contains less than a year's supply of oil at current consumption rates … and will require 8 to 10 years before production begins. There are nincompoops who want to strip away the Bekken oil sands of North Dakota and the oil shale slopes of our Rocky Mountain States. At least 30 or more years of oil, they claim, but what they do not know is that less than 3% is recoverable … resulting in colossal environmental damage for negligible gain.

Grow our way out of the energy crisis, still others say. Distill ethanol from corn and switch grass; but what these advocates do not consider is the enormous spike in food prices as agricultural land is diverted from food to energy production. Furthermore, a 70% increase in food production will be needed just to keep pace with projected worldwide population growth. Ethanol offers no solution beyond a good stiff drink.

Even our good friends at Google have joined the ranks of Internet punditry with this expression:

What it means is “renewable energy for less than the cost of coal.” It is a statement about energy economics but little else. It tells us that any hypothetical alternative energy source must compete with coal, the lowest priced energy commodity, to be economically viable. It says nothing about why non-combustible sources (such as nuclear, solar, wind, and geo-thermal) must be considered within the context of global climate change.

We cannot separate the energy crisis from the climate change crisis. In economic and environmental terms, both are two sides of the same coin. From the Industrial Revolution to the present, energy consumption has lead to a substantial rise in atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases. Levels of carbon dioxide, which account for 62% of all greenhouses gases, have nearly doubled since 1750. Methane, which accounts for 20% all greenhouse gases, has risen 155% during the same period. Eventually, natural forces reabsorb and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but these processes unfold over 50 to 200 years. Thus, greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for generations … even if emissions were stopped today. Most disturbing of all, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts a 52% rise in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 … a mere 20 years away (

We approach global climate change as just another problem to be solved with good old American ingenuity. We cite the Manhattan project, the national highway system, and the space race as shining examples of past glory. However, global climate change is more than merely a technical or structural problem. It has deep historical and cultural roots and a system of unspoken values instilled from the beginning of civilization and passed from generation to generation.

“America is addicted to oil,” former President George Bush declared in his State of the Union address on January 31, 2006. Was the President signaling a dramatic shift in American energy policy, or were these merely pious words meant for the history books? Scarcely a day after the President’s speech, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman issued this disclaimer: Don’t take the President literally. In other words, there will be no addiction therapy under this president.

The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 was a warning shot. Almost 40 years later, we are still dithering as if our energy policy paralysis is the sum total of our mythology, our culture, our national heritage, and a cowboy lifestyle that refuses to face reality. More than these, our current energy debate mirrors the current healthcare debate: There are entrenched interests hell-bent on protecting their lucrative and filthy franchises.

ExxonMobil gave $1.6 million to the American Enterprise Institute in an attempt to undercut the findings of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a report widely regarded as the most comprehensive review of climate change science. The Bush administration sought to further undermine public understanding of the issue by censoring the key findings of climate scientists. Thus, our government, under pressure from the oil lobby, suppressed meaningful data to influence the debate.

Manipulating public opinion is easy when you are the CEO of Big Oil with money and lobbyists and politicians in your pocket ... and you can always find a willing mob of malcontents and misfits ready to do your bidding. In the weeks and months ahead, Big Oil will be staging Astroturf events to protest new climate change legislation … groups such as Energy Citizens organized by the American Petroleum Institute whose members include Anadarko Petroleum, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips, among others (

Let me digress for a moment to offer another Genesis story. It begins 400 million years ago between the Devonian and Carboniferous Periods, when the earth was hot and humid long before glaciers and the polar ice regions were formed. As newly evolved forests drew carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and fell where they stood, buried under layers of sedimentary rock, the climate cooled and glaciers formed.

Hundreds of millions of years later, a peculiar Pleistocene creature walked the earth. In short order, man learned how to dig up this long sequestered carbon and burn it to cook his food, warm his homes, build cities, make microchips, trinkets, Barbie dolls, Hummers, and a myriad of things to delight and amuse himself far beyond his basic survival needs. In less than 25 generations, this peculiar Pleistocene creature returned to the atmosphere as much carbon as earth had sequestered over hundreds of millions of years. This is what is known as the anthropogenic cause of global climate change.

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, there has been a noticeable rise in seas levels worldwide. Currently, 46 million people live in areas at risk of flooding. If sea levels rise by 20 inches, the number of people at risk increases to 92 million; a sea level rise of 3 feet puts another 118 million people at risk. By the turn of the century, American cities such as Boston, Charleston, Miami, New York, San Francisco, Savannah, and Washington DC will risk inundation.

Meanwhile, the National Defense Institute explored the potential impact of global climate change as a threat to national security. Its conclusion: Vulnerable regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the island nations of the Pacific will face food and water shortages, catastrophic flooding, unprecedented refugee crises, religious conflict, and the spread of contagious diseases. These will demand massive humanitarian aid efforts and/or a military response (

There will always be voices in the crowd who keep hearing messages the dead have stopped sending. There will always be voices arguing, not for the common good, but from pure self-interest. Implementing public policy changes are difficult at best, and we can understand these quirks of human nature with all due respect, but time is running out. Our worst nightmares have yet to unfold.

(Cross-posted at
The Swash Zone.)

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