Climate Summit or Not, We are Still Losing the War Against Greenhouse Gases

By Bruce E. Johansen

Another climate summit has come and gone.

Remember the huge “Peoples’ Climate March”?

Carbon dioxide has already blown past it.

However, one thing has not changed: reports from the front in the war on greenhouse gases are grim.

We have one very accurate measure of whether we are winning this war: greenhouse gases’ proportion in the atmosphere. For carbon dioxide, the quick reference is the “Keeling Curve”—now about 400 parts per million. According to a new report from the United Nations, the Curve is rising more quickly than ever (since direct measurements began in the 1950s and, by proxy, since the Pliocene Era, 2 to 3 million years ago). We are failing this test. The level of methane, also a greenhouse gas, is also rising at record rates.

According to BP’s “Statistical Review of World Energy (2014),” cited in USA Today (September 23, 2014), carbon-dioxide emissions worldwide have risen 38 percent since the year 2000. Most of the increase has come from the Asia-Pacific region, where emissions doubled during this period.

The World Meteorological Organization said the carbon dioxide level rose 2.3 parts per million in 2013, more than the 1 to 2 p.p.m. annual average of the past few decades. Carbon dioxide is now 42 percent higher than the usual cyclical peak before the advent of the industrial age. Methane, the second-most-prevalent greenhouse gas, is 150 percent higher. Greenhouse gases mattter: 2014 will very likely be the hottest year on Earth’s instrumental record.

We are now “at the level that climate scientists have identified as the beginning of the danger zone,” Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences at Princeton University says. “It means we’re probably getting to the point where we’re looking at the ‘safe zone’ in the rearview mirror, even as we’re stepping on the gas.”

As emissions of carbon dioxide rise, new sources of oil and natural gas are cropping up all over North America, including Alberta’s oil sands and ‘fracking’ from North Dakota to Pennsylvania. We are being told that the oil boom is good for us, and by some measures it is. The New York Times tells us that manufacturing for the great oil boom is bringing parts of the rust belt back to life.

Where “stepping on the gas” is often considered an unmitigated blessing, 15 years ago, North Dakota was 39th among the 50 states in per capita income. Now it’s sixth. Why? New oil and gas from the Bakken formation. The New York Times describes “a transformation spreading across the heartland of the nation, driven by a surge in domestic oil and gas production that is changing the economic calculus for old industries and downtrodden cities alike.”

In Ohio, according to the Times account, “In an arc stretching south from Youngstown past Canton and into the rural parts of the state where much of the natural gas is being drawn from shale deep underground, entire sectors like manufacturing, hotels, real estate and even law are being reshaped. A series of recent economic indicators, including factory hiring, shows momentum building nationally in the manufacturing sector.”

According to NASA, the Alberta oil sands fields, which were first mined in 1967, are the world’s largest oil-sands deposit, with a capacity to produce 174.5 billion barrels of oil—2.5 million barrels of oil per day for 186 years. By 2013, one-third of Alberta’s economy was tied in some way to the oil sands, including royalties worth more than $4 billion during its 2011-2012 fiscal year.

As Canada prepares to satisfy India’s and China’s thirst for oil and gas (and don’t forget coal exports from Wyoming’s strip mines), carbon dioxide levels rise, as more people with more money use more fossil fuels worldwide. In the oceans, which are already so acidic that some shellfish are going sterile, seawater absorbs carbon dioxide. The shells of plankton, the base of the marine food chain, are in peril.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has aggressively promoted oil-sands development with plans for 10,000 miles of pipelines across that country, as well as the better-known Keystone XL. Canadian oil producers expect their web of new pipeline capacity to convey a doubling of the country’s production by 2025, from 3.5 million to 6 million barrels a day, mostly for export. This estimate includes a doubling of oil-sands output.

New energy production is “a real game-changer in terms of the U.S. economy,” Katy George, who leads the global manufacturing practice at McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm. “It also creates an opportunity for regions of the country to renew themselves,” she told the New York Times.

And so it will be, until the boom eventually dissolves into a hot, miserable bust in a climate so hot that our area’s iconic corn goes sterile. We will arrive in this scalding future in an air-conditioned new car with a full gas tank.

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