Sunday, 11 August 2013

The Corporate Rush to Global Climate Change

From James Balog's Documentary "Chasing Ice"

We live on a lovely little rock, one that circles a rather ordinary star, located in a remote corner of a rather typical galaxy. Not a startling revelation, I know, since such turns of phrase have been employed many times before.  Still, when you think about it, our existence on this lovely little rock is nothing short of miraculous.

Even on a planet so perfectly oriented to its star as is ours, it is our incredible good fortune that life could endure, could indeed flourish, through so many fantastic iterations since its first stirrings some 3.5 billion years ago. Fast forward, and here we stand today, you and I, heir to the many thousands upon thousands of life altering and life sustaining events that have propelled we humans to this pinnacle of evolutionary development.

And yet, we seem hell-bent as a species to cast this miracle aside. Despite the well-established and growing mountain of evidence related to climate change, we stand transfixed and immobilized in the face of calamity.  We know the Earth's climate is changing, just as we know that our actions are the cause.  And increasingly, we have come to suspect (and increasingly, know) that the implications will be catastrophic.  The human brain - that most magnificent miracle of evolution - is at once both capable of knowing the truth and of then ignoring it utterly.

There are voices of reason and sanity, however, and they are begging us to pay attention.  Hundreds of books, articles, scientific studies and film documentaries point to the severity of our predicament. And if, dear reader, you were inclined to consider only two of these, you must acquaint yourself with Bill McKibben's recent article "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math" and with James Balog's exceptional documentary "Chasing Ice".

Exhibit 1.  McKibben's piece presents some startling facts.  Begin with these: this last May was the warmest month on record for the Northern Hemisphere; it was the 327th consecutive month in which the entire globe exceeded the 20th century average; and the month of June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the US. The likelihood of these events cannot be attributed to simple chance since, as McKibben notes,
"...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."
While the historical trends he identifies are certainly cause for alarm, what McKibben has to say about the future is truly frightening.  It is unfathomable to me that a thinking person would remain unmoved by the danger revealed in his "three simple numbers".

The First Number: 2 Degrees Celsius.  While the Coppenhagen climate conference of 2009 is universally derided as a spectacular failure of public policy and political will, its non-binding communique did identify one important number (though it failed to specify any means of achieving the goal).  The accord formally recognized
"...the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius."
According to scientific consensus, we have already raised the average global temperature by 0.8 degrees, so we are well on the way.  And even as we approach the halfway point to the consensus maximum, the damage already perpetrated is substantial,
"A third of the summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking 5 percent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods." 
Given the damage we're seeing at 0.8, the effects of a 2 degree rise in global temperature will be catastrophic.  And still, politics trumps science.  At Copenhagen, neither the US or China were prepared to offer any meaningful concessions on carbon emissions, even though they together account for 40 percent of the world's total.  Few of the signatories to Copenhagen acquitted themselves admirably, and that certainly includes the Canadian delegation, led by our own steward of the environment, Prime Minister Steven Harper.  Most recently, the Rio+20 Earth Summit continued our global leaders' miserable record of failure.  

And the news continues to worsen, just as the worst trends continue to manifest.  Another long-awaited climate milestone was reported in May - the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has now been recorded at 400 parts per million, a level not likely seen in 3 million years.  As noted in a recent National Geographic report,
"Many scientists argue that the CO2 concentration must be stabilized at 450 ppm to avoid the worst impacts of climate change...And even if we could stop that rise tomorrow, the planet's temperature would still climb for centuries."     
The trend to 400 ppm and beyond will seemingly continue unabated. In fact, the average annual rate of increase, decade over decade, is accelerating. A rise in global temperature greater than 2 degrees celsius is now a virtual certainty.  And McKibben's other "simple numbers" demonstrate just how certain it is that we'll exceed the scientific consensus.

The Second Number: 565 Gigatons.  Scientists estimate that our atmosphere can "tolerate" the release of an additional 565 gigatons of CO2 through to the middle of this century (though there seems to be little discussion of anything past that date), while still supporting the reasonable expectation that temperatures will remain below the 2 degree consensus.  You will recall, however, that we've already reached 0.8 degrees of the that acceptable increase, and that global temperatures are expected to rise a further 0.8 degrees in response to the recently added volumes of CO2.  You might be thinking that the margin for error in this reasonable estimate grows increasingly thin, and you'd be correct.

Pause for a moment to consider the enormity of this unit of measure. A gigaton is a billion metric tons - repeat, one billion metric tons. A metric ton (2,200 lbs.) is the weight of a cubic meter of water, and so one billion metric tons is the weight of one cubic kilometer (one billion cubic meters).  And scientists estimate it is reasonably safe to release another 565 gigatons (!) of CO2 into the atmosphere.  

As a theoretical exercise, the scientific community may certainly be correct.  (Disclosure, I am not a scientist.)  But here's the problem, dear reader - policy makers and the corporate interests that control them (read: oil companies, among others) will take a mile if you give 'em an inch.  Oil companies will treat the 2 degree temperature maximum and the 565 gigaton limit for CO2 as mere estimates, that they and their policy puppets will then relentlessly expand at their will, even as they question the basic science upon which the estimates are based.

And, of course, this is precisely what is happening.  The McKibben article notes that last year there was a 31.6 gigaton increase in CO2 released to the atmosphere over the previous year's total.  As the International Energy Agency reports, this is a 3.2 percent increase. The IEA's chief economist, Fatih Birol, states
"The new data provide further evidence that the door to a two-degree trajectory is about to close.  When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees."    
We cannot fully comprehend a world six degrees warmer.  And, how could we, since we've yet to even acknowledge 2 degrees?  At the projected 3 percent annual rate of increase in CO2 emissions we will blow through the 565 gigaton threshold by 2016.

The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons.  McKibben says that this is the scariest number of all (though you should be plenty scared by now). Through the efforts of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, we know the proven reserves of the fossil-fuel companies equates to something like 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide - that number, the amount of CO2 that the world economy is planning to release, is five times (!) higher than the amount scientists have estimated as safe (and we've already determined that 565 will almost certainly lead to calamity). But, McKibben says, the fossil-fuel companies remain undeterred;
"Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil.  But it's already economically aboveground - it's figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony.  It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide - those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value."  
The economic value of 2,795 gigatons of carbon emissions has been estimated at $27 trillion.  Little surprise, then, that our dominant economic and political institutions will continue to value the health of our planet and the viability of life on Earth as secondary issues when measured against the enormity of this revenue stream.  No surprise, too, that policy makers have upheld industry's vehement opposition to the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions - governments have every incentive to protect the cash cow that is fossil fuels.  And as McKibben says,
"Alone among businesses, the fossil-fuel industry is allowed to dump its main waste, carbon dioxide, for free. Nobody else gets this break...But the fossil-fuel industry is different, and for sound historical reasons: Until a quarter-century ago, almost no one knew that CO2 was dangerous.  But now that we understand that carbon is heating up the planet and acidifying the oceans, its price becomes the central issue."
So it is clear that the pricing model for fossil-fuels must be radically altered if the reserves are to remain in the ground.  The price must reflect their true costs.  To prevent the release of 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, as a minimum first step, some form of carbon tax is now mandatory.  Achieving even this modest outcome will require tremendous struggle, since it means overcoming the the entrenched interests of the world's dominant economic and political hierarchy.

Environmental groups have failed to achieve substantive progress regarding the regulation and taxation of CO2, and green initiatives have become little more than vehicles for corporate marketing campaigns, all because there's so much damn money to be made in hydrocarbons.  By the very nature of the artificial construct we call "the corporation" [more on this in future posts], it is clear that we are all captive in this headlong corporate rush to climate change.

The duality of government and the fossil-fuel industry only reinforces this headlong rush.  McKibben sites two recent examples.
"In early June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled on a Norwegian research trawler to see firsthand the growing damage from climate change. 'Many of the predictions about global warming in the Arctic are being surpassed by the actual data' she said, describing the sight as 'sobering'.  But the discussions she traveled to Scandinavia to have with other foreign ministers were mostly about how to make sure Western nations get their share of the estimated $9 trillion in oil (that's more than the 90 billion barrels, or 37 gigatons of carbon) that will become accessable as the Arctic ice melts."  
"Almost every government with deposits of hydrocarbons straddles the same divide.  Canada, for instance, is a liberal democracy [not really, any more] renowned for its internationalism - no wonder, then, that it signed on to the Kyoto treaty, promising to cut its carbon emissions substantially by 2012.  But the rising price of oil suddenly made the tar sands of Alberta attractive - and since, as NASA climatologist James Hansen pointed out in May, they contain as much as 240 gigatons of carbon (or almost half of the available space if we take the 565 limit seriously), that meant Canada's commitment to Kyoto was nonsense.  In December, the Canadian government withdrew from the treaty before it faced fines for failing to meet its commitments."
The stakes are enormous.  Climate change will alter our planet in ways we cannot possibly comprehend.  And still we stand, transfixed and immobilized in the face of impending calamity.  Nothing short of a complete overhaul of the systems of human organization - political, economic and social - can alter our current trajectory.  Such dramatic and unprecedented change in human society can only be driven from within; it will require a grassroots mobilization in opposition to the status quo - improbable, I'll grant you, but some tentative step to action is needed now, because time is fast slipping away.

McKibben notes correctly that the enormous power of the fossil-fuel industry has successfully thwarted every attempt at the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions.  The challenges to creating and sustaining a movement that can successfully confront the fossil-fuel industry (and the governments it controls) seem insurmountable. However daunting the task, failure to take action is not an option.  Given the clearly established effects of climate change we have already seen, it is madness to contemplate the release of another 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. 
Exhibit 2.  As a companion piece to the McKibben article, James Balog's extraordinary documentary Chasing Ice is perhaps more accessible and, perhaps then, more immediately understood.  While the math and verbiage of the McKibben piece can overwhelm, the immediacy of the images in Balog's film provide compelling visual proof of the substantial toll already exacted upon our world by climate change.

The stunning visuals in Balag's film are your reward for working through the numbers and statistics of the McKibben article.  Balog himself was trained as an earth scientist but wasn't interested in being a scientist; as he says, "statistics and computer modeling just wasn't me".  Rather, he thought that the most powerful issue of our time was the interaction of humans and nature, and set out to record this through his camera.

In the early stage of his career as a nature photographer he was not focussed on climate change.  As he says himself,
"About 20 years ago I was a sceptic about climate change.  I thought it was based on computer models, I thought maybe there was a lot hyperbole that was turning this thing into an activist cause.  But most importantly, I didn't think that humans were capable of changing the physics and chemistry of this entire huge planet.  It didn't seem probable.  It didn't seem possible."
Balog did come to change his views.  His photo essay for National Geographic, The Big Thaw, in 2007 set him on a course of discovery. In providing the pictures for this highly successful article, he came to realize that there was a bigger story, and so he created the Extreme Ice Survey.  EIS set out to capture the effects of global warming on the glaciers of the northern hemisphere by taking time lapse pictures of the ice sheets in Greenland, Iceland and Alaska.  He realized that ice was the key,
"Glaciers are the canary in the global coal mine."
He learned about the history of our ancient climate as preserved in the ice cores of the Greenland ice sheet.  The data from these ice cores show that CO2 and temperature vary together over time; over the last 800,000 years carbon dioxide has never been higher than 280 parts per million.  The man-made rate of change in CO2 levels in the last centuries is hundreds of times greater than was found to be naturally occurring.  And as we now know, we are at 400 ppm and climbing rapidly.

The decline in glacial area and mass that Balog captured over the three year EIS project is nothing short of astonishing.  I'll not even attempt to describe the magnificent imagery in this wonderful film - you must watch it for yourself to gain a true appreciation of his work. But I will highlight some of the key commentary in the film.  As Balog says,
"We are living through one of those moments of epochal geologic change, and we humans are causing it."
In a perfectly ludicrous counterpoint to his commentary, it is stunning to hear the foolish drivel of empty-headed opinion leaders who know nothing of the science of climate change;
"The so-called climate scientists are hoodwinking the entire world community." - Sean Hannity, Fox TV windbag and conservative talking head.
"There is no consensus.  This (climate change) is a myth." - Brian Sussman, conservative talk radio host and serial denier of climate change.
"The notion that man-made gasses...CO2 cause global warming is probably the greatest hoax perpetrated on the American people." - US Senator James Inhofe, author of The Greatest Hoax, and a politician burrowed deep into the pockets of Koch Industries, Murray Energy, Devon Energy and OGE Energy, among many others.
To be kind, we have, as Balog says, a perception problem,
"We have a problem of perception, because not enough people really get it yet.  We are nearly on the edge of a crisis.  But we still have an opportunity to face the greatest challenge of our generation - in fact, of our century."
In the film, the video of a particular calving event at the Ilulissat Glacier in Western Greenland provides an astonishing exclamation point on the subject of climate change, and on all the science described in both the film and the McKibben article.  The calving face of Ilulissat, equal in size to the area of lower Manhattan, dramatically sheared off into the sea over a period of 75 minutes; it was the largest such event ever witnessed, and it captures perfectly the core issues of climate change.
Postscript.  As I said at the beginning of this piece, we live on a lovely little rock, and it is nothing short of miraculous.  But you will now hopefully understand that our Earth is in real peril, as are we. So its worthwhile to remind you what's at stake - reflect for just a moment on the wonder that is our beautiful "Blue Marble".

Climate change is the existential threat of our time, the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.  Climate change is a crime against humanity, against nature, against the Earth. It is a crime that is knowingly perpetrated, and with seeming indifference, by the policy makers we elect and the multi-national corporations to which we grant charter.

We are way past the trivial concerns of investors for share price and dividends and quarterly statements, and we've got no time for the petty partisan politics that effectively masks the real issues facing humanity.  So consider this dear reader: corporations and governments are simply creations of the human mind - since we created them, we can certainly recreate them, and in a way that better serves the common good. 

The science is beyond any question, the visual proof beyond dispute.  Only those who are blithely ignorant or blatantly corrupt will choose to ignore the existential crisis we now face.

Into which category do you fall?

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day:  The Galaxy Song, from Monty Python's Meaning of Life.  Enjoy, and pay attention to the lyrics!

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