Thursday, August 7, 2008

Drilling Follow-Up & Climate Change Round-Up

Almost a month ago now, Al Gore gave a speech about climate change. For our discussion, here are the relevant parts:

Am I the only one who finds it strange that our government so often adopts a so-called solution that has absolutely nothing to do with the problem it is supposed to address? When people rightly complain about higher gasoline prices, we propose to give more money to the oil companies and pretend that they’re going to bring gasoline prices down. It will do nothing of the sort, and everyone knows it. If we keep going back to the same policies that have never ever worked in the past and have served only to produce the highest gasoline prices in history alongside the greatest oil company profits in history, nobody should be surprised if we get the same result over and over again...

If you want to know the truth about gasoline prices, here it is: the exploding demand for oil, especially in places like China, is overwhelming the rate of new discoveries by so much that oil prices are almost certain to continue upward over time no matter what the oil companies promise. And politicians cannot bring gasoline prices down in the short term.

However, there actually is one extremely effective way to bring the costs of driving a car way down within a few short years. The way to bring gas prices down is to end our dependence on oil and use the renewable sources that can give us the equivalent of $1 per gallon gasoline...

This is pretty much what I was getting at in my last post. It may – and I stress "may," because my guess is that it will hardly make a difference – make sense to go along with Republican demands for offshore drilling as a tool to get better legislation passed in the future. But at best it's nothing but a distraction, and it's part of the strategy that got us here in the first place, that will probably make things worse rather than better.

It just doesn't make any sense to invest money in oil. Not now, not ever again. As Rupert Murdoch puts it, "acting on this issue is simply good business." "Whatever it costs will be minimal compared to our overall revenues, and we'll get that back many times over, by running a more efficient company..." The argument for renewable energy makes sense on an economic level alone, without the need for prophesies of disastrous global climate shifts.

Gore continued:

So I ask you to join with me to call on every candidate, at every level, to accept this challenge — for America to be running on 100 percent zero-carbon electricity in 10 years. It’s time for us to move beyond empty rhetoric. We need to act now.

Politically, Gore's challenge is insane. In fact, when I first heard it I assumed that he was putting the mark high so that people would compromise towards a possible reasonable solution. How on earth can we hit 100% in the next 10 years? Granted, zero-carbon electricity includes nuclear power, and the price of oil has makes it more economically understandable – but 100%?

Then I took a closer look at the causes and rates of global warming itself, and Gore's challenge started looking extremely conservative.

Last week, was launched on the premise that we have "one hundred months" before climate change reaches a tipping point past which we will probably not be able to stabilize the earth's rising temperature at safe levels. Here are some specifics from their (PDF) technical report:

We calculate that 100 months from 1 August 2008, atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will begin to exceed a point whereby it is no longer likely we will be able to avert potentially irreversible climate change. 'Likely' in this context refers to the definition of risk used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to mean that, at that particular level of greenhouse gas concentration, there is only a 66 - 90 per cent chance of global average surface temperatures stabilising at 2º Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Once this concentration is exceeded, it becomes more and more likely that we will overshoot a 2º C level of warming. This is the maximum acceptable level of temperature rise agreed by the European Union and others as necessary to retain reasonable confidence of preventing uncontrollable and ultimately catastrophic warming. We also believe this calculation to be conservative.

Now, it may seem disingenuous to call a 10-34% chance "likely." But for one thing, you have to understand that this is science we're talking about here: even the ability to predict something on that scale is cause for enormous alarm, particularly when the predictions are based on conservative assumptions. Further, the real question here is when we'll reach a carbon concentration that will cause uncontrollable rising temperatures. They're not trying to predict the chance of global warming having any large-scale impact – at this point, that seems unavoidable, since climate changes are already causing massive extinction. They're trying to predict the chance of an unpreventable cascade effect with catastrophic consequences. An effect that already has a possibility of happening, regardless of what we do. An effect that becomes more and more likely the longer we wait.

In light of that, I actually take issue with their name – one hundred months sounds like a lot, doesn't it? In fact, 100 months is almost precisely the length of the next two presidential terms: 8.3 years from August, 2008 takes us to December, 2016. The burden for dealing with this crisis therefore falls primarily on the shoulders of our next elected president. And let's be clear: 8.3 years is also a lot less than Gore's 10 when you're talking about the total revision of national energy infrastructure, since even if we strongly committed to renewables we wouldn't hit really effective levels of change until we'd been working at it for years. Do we really have the extra two years to spare, here?

The problem is progressive, after all: the slower we are to take action, the harder it will be to have an effect – the further up the scale those percentages shift. Remember, global oil consumption is still on the rise, with the United States responsible for the largest single contribution but with developing Asian countries (particularly China) responsible for most of the upward trend. So we not only need to remove our massive contribution to carbon emissions, we need to set an example that could be followed, as quickly as possible, by nations that will have a more difficult time making the switch than we will. Gore's challenge, of course, only applies to the United States.

Gas crisis? Nonsense: it's downright lucky that we're running out of cheap oil right now.

I hardly need to tell readers of this blog that Obama's energy plan kicks the crap out of McCain's energy plan, which focuses on additional drilling, "clean coal" and nuclear power. More difficult to come to terms with is the fact that neither plan is good enough. Specifics aside, the environmental upshot of Obama's plan is to:

•Ensure 10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025
•Implement an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

So, the better candidate – better by far – wants to enact 1/4 of an already inadequate plan to prevent cascading, chaotic changes in the world's climate, in nearly twice the time of said inadequate plan.

These people are going to kill us all.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know much about the science of global warming, but it really is one of those things where the more I find out, the more terrified I get.

    In a the comments for a post a little while back you brought up the idea of it being a progressive problem, and I think that few things have scared me more about this election cycle.