Why Our Hair Is Not On Fire About Cutting Emissions, And What To Do About It


Greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing. The yearly increases look like this:

• 1990s 2.7%,
• 2000 – 2007 3.5%,
• 2009 – 2010 5.6%,

No action to cut greenhouse gas emissions at the scale or pace needed has begun. Avoiding a 4 degrees Centrigrade (7.2 degrees F.) warming appears impossible due to global inaction, yet that kind of climate change would be a catastrophe. Here are the top ten reasons why:

1. Delayed consequences. Warming is a current phenomenon, but most of the damage is in the future, like a time-delayed bomb – we emit now and suffer the consequences later. Because it is a future event, neither citizens nor politicians feel sufficient urgency. If we thought we had to take drastic action to save New Orleans from disappearing a decade hence, we might be more likely to try. But if the time scale is 50 or 100 years, we have difficulty getting our heads around that. Reducing emissions must start now – we cannot wait for dramatic events, as by then it will be too late. Remember: on any human time scale, warming is irreversible. It will take 100,000 years for the extra carbon to be washed out of the atmosphere by the oceans and certain kinds of rock on the earth’s surface.

2. Belief in the necessity of growth! The sanctity of growth in the economy and in population is the real American religion. What all cities/communities want is more economic and population growth. In the 19th and 20th centuries, economic and population growth were enabled by oil, coal and (later) gas, which all became critically important to our economy. But growth is now impossible without cheap and abundant fossil fuels, and they are finite and becoming prohibitively expensive – causing recessions. But we still believe in unlimited growth and resource abundance – geology and physics be damned!

3. Energy cornucopia! Big Carbon boosters claim that we will have greatly increased production from fracked oil and gas wells. In the short term, fracked oil and gas is lowering prices, which hurts green energy entrepreneurs. The sad thing is that the fracking “miracle” is a mirage in the longer term. Depletion rates for hydraulically fractured (fracked) wells in shale are high (oil: 40%/year on year; gas: 75% year on year). Drilling is financed by Wall Street, and drillers are not disclosing depletion rates, as that would make financing difficult. There is not enough inexpensive petroleum in North America to actually make the US anything like energy-independent, regardless of what the boosters say. The cost of just producing fracked oil (much less making a profit) is about today’s price on futures markets – $85 -90/bbl. The “booms” in oil and gas are mostly just Wall Street bubbles like the real estate and internet bubbles of recent years. Conventional (cheap) fossil fuels are declining resources, and fracked, deep water, oil sands and arctic sources are prohibitively expensive. But no matter – the press is still full of empty chatter about the US out-producing Saudi Arabia and being energy independent.

4. Individualism. Devotees of individualism dislike cooperative processes, preferring go-it-alone methods. Cutting emissions requires a globally cooperative effort, and such cooperative projects might feel to individualists like unacceptable collectivism, and hence resisted. Many in the US demonize any multi-nation cooperation.

5. Anti-intellectualism. Many in America have not moved beyond medieval science. Most Americans accept using the fruits of modern science (cars, airplanes, modern medicine, imaging tools (MRI, etc.), exotic drugs, the internet, remote sensing, etc.), but that does not imply an understanding or acceptance of scientific discipline, processes or of scientists. Rationality does not often apply in scientific issues with political overtones, or with personal preferences, and hence global warming, the end of cheap oil, and other issues are falsely labeled as scientific frauds by opponents of science.

6. American exceptionalism. We imagine we are different from other nations, an exception to many of the rules that govern other people and other nations. Some of that exceptionalism is a repudiation of European social/political customs, from which some colonial settlers fled. Some of it is home-grown, as exemplified by the American Dream myth. Some of it stems from the hugeness of our economy and of our military. But in all cases what many Americans accept is that we are not subject to the same rules as other nations, and that is reflected in our reluctance to participate equally (or at all) in international treaties and other agreements – such as those related to land mines, cluster bombs, and (even more destructive) CO2 emissions.

7. Failure of international cooperation. It is nearly universally believed that the solution to the problem of warming lies in global treaties involving all nations and dealing with emissions reductions and related equity/financial issues. Warming cannot be mitigated nation-by-nation, as cheating would be rampant, with efforts to gain advantage at other nations’ expense. But international negotiations to agree to a treaty to reduce emissions have so far proved useless, as the process is long on rhetoric and intention, and bereft of action. For example, if we wish to avoid a climate warmed by 4 degrees Centigrade, many if not most scientists feel that emissions reductions must begin now. But the new agreement in Doha is to have a new treaty by 2015 to start reducing emissions in 2020 – 8 years from now. The process seems a farce, completely disconnected from the science that ought to inform it, and it fails to reflect the incredible urgency of the issue. It’s now 25 years since James Hansen warned Congress, and we have done nothing. Nothing.

8. Difficulties of monitoring and assuring compliance. Samuel Hays, the environmental historian, famously wrote that passing a law is just half of the process – implementing and enforcing the law is the other half. That will be true for any emissions treaty ever adopted. How do you closely monitor emissions of a gas which quickly diffuses globally in the atmosphere? How do you closely monitor all production and use of fossil fuels? How do you monitor and control land use change (deforestation) before the deed is done? Etc.

9. Greed. The production of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) is at historic high levels, and much of the resource now being sold was developed at a time when developing wells and mines was much cheaper than today. But the price of crude oil is 3 times higher today than it was just 13 years ago, and the price of coal is increasing. That leaves lots of “room” for incredible profits. Demand is outstripping supply: prices, over time, will continue to rise. Greed permeates political life as well: worldwide, governments’ subsidies to fossil fuel producers now total $100,000,000,000 a year, and subsidies to consumers are $675,000,000,000. The subsidies are like crack cocaine – the addiction is extremely difficult to treat.

10. Disinformation. The fossil fuel industry lavishly funds global warming deniers and skeptics – the “lavish” funding is chump change in view of current profits. At the same moment as they fund deniers and skeptics, oil companies now claim to support global warming science (see their websites), but minimize the risks of high levels of cumulative emissions. Hypocrisy reigns!

If we follow the path we are on, the path of no cutting back on emissions, and in fact the path of continued increases in the rate of increase of emissions, our civilization will very possibly collapse. We need campaigns to contact legislators, marches in the streets, and, in the likely event those fail, civil disobedience. We must get policy-makers’ attention and secure significant reductions in emissions of greenhouse gasses. A carbon fee rebated to taxpayers is the most effective means to do that. And although big cuts in emissions will largely come from changes in government and corporate policy, in our own households, we must strive to reduce reduce our energy use. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to create a new, smaller, low-energy, and humane society.

Tom Giesen has a BA, MFA and MS (Forestry), and has been teaching a course on Global Change at the University of Oregon as an adjunct. 

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