Two items in the media this week, together, have made it plain how utterly insane, and ultimately self-destructive, things have gotten regarding climate change and energy policy. The game, indeed, may well be over.
Forget the polar vortex for a moment, and the unusually rough winter. Here are a few big-picture data points:
- In the U.S., the 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998.
- In the far north, temperatures have been abnormally high in both Alaska and Greenland; forest fires raged in the Norwegian Arctic this winter.
- California: a devastating drought rages into year 4, possibly the worst in half a millennium, with water emergences and vicious political battles over dwindling water supplies.
- Great Britain is underwater, with the wettest December and January in more than a century.
- Australia is experiencing an extreme January heat wave and drought
- In parts of Brazil, the worst drought in half-a-century, with major cities nearly out of water
- The polar ice cap is now melting at about 9% per decade, and accelerating (NASA estimates).
- Extreme weather of all kinds – wildfires, hurricanes, heat waves, drought, and yes, freak winter storms – are increasingly the norm.
Scientists are virtually unanimous, that the extremeness of all this is the direct result of human activity, specifically burning carbon-based fuels – oil, coal, natural gas – and using the atmosphere as a trash can for the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced.
Meanwhile, “Meet the Press,” a generally respected journalistic forum, announced that Sunday, today, they’ll be hosting another “debate” involving Bill Nye, “The Science Guy” – on climate change. (An earlier debate involving Nye, some two weeks back, was on creationism.) This time, Nye will be squaring off with Tennessee Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn.
The number of things wrong with this event are actually difficult to count. First, understand that the players are a children’s educator/entertainer and a Republican member of Congress, addressing the planetary issue of the century. As Alex Pareene notes in Salon.com, apparently they were unable to get an actual scientist to argue Nye’s position, that climate change is real and bad, even though the position is held by virtually every scientist in the field. Of course, given the last 20 years of scientists failing dismally to carry the message on this issue, maybe a children’s educator and professional TV entertainer can do a little better. The odds are long that any good will come of this, though, and Pareene is cutting: “By the end [of the show], America will be just a little bit more stupid and doomed.”
The bigger, though related, problem with the “Meet the Press” event, in my view, nailed quite effectively by Pareene, is that it is being framed as a debate in the first place.
What’s insulting (and insane) is that there is to be a “debate” at all, on one of America’s supposed premier news talk shows. What’s scary is that the side of this debate that is wrong, and that is wrong in a way that will very probably lead to worldwide disaster in a few generations, is taken seriously because it is the side taken by one of America’s two dominant political parties.
Mass media, in the US at least, seems incapable of dealing with any complex issue, and inevitably reduces everything to a debate, to a “pro-con” structure, as if there can only be two sides to any issue and they’re both inherently reasonable and deserving of equal consideration and respect. The belief seems to be that without the simple-minded drama of toe-to-toe conflict, and winners and losers, we just won’t pay attention.
There’s a similar problem with creationism, but that one’s essentially backward-looking, a historical argument, and the consequences of getting it wrong are relatively insignificant. Climate change is different, as the stakes are vastly different. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue, and as evidence accumulates, major swaths of the scientific community are recognizing that change has actually been underpredicted so far. Things are turning out much worse than scientists predicted, and they’re getting worse faster and faster. It is, or should be, criminally irresponsible for media to be framing this situation as the usual “pro-con” kind of debate, as if it were a matter of opinion.
In fairness, there are other reasons people take the Congresswoman’s position seriously, not the least of which is a decades-long, sophisticated media campaign, funded mainly by the energy industry, to deny and minimize away the problem. The underlying logic seems to be that it can’t be real, because acting as if it was real would be more than just inconvenient, it would be bad for business; we can’t afford it to be real.
There are growing movements to try and do something, but they’re dwarfed by a bigger, and growing, inertia – momentum, even, towards doing nothing.
There was a time just a few years ago when “peak oil” was the big controversy, a catch phrase for the idea that there is only so much oil available in the earth, and that it’s going to run out at some point soon. The sky is falling, and we’re all going to die. There was real science behind it, but the idea’s fallen by the wayside, though, in the face of major technological advances in energy production over the last decade, including fracking for natural gas and mining tar sands and the like for oil, that have brought previously inaccessible supplies into reach. Supplies appear plentiful, prices are stable, and – there goes the economic incentive to change.
In reflecting on my own lifestyle choices over the last decade or two, and those I see my neighbors making, I see lots of talk, virtually no action. Not on a scale large enough to make a difference. At this point, carbon energy costs less than renewable. A lot less. Economics is a major driver, or non-driver, of change. Nothing is going to change, really, until it gets very expensive not to change.
Michael Klare, on the blog TomDispatch and on Salon.com, made exactly this case this week. In “Climate disaster: Big Oil is winning the war for the future,” Klare points to three recent developments in energy news that are, each and collectively, very bad signs for the climate.
- The chairman of BP acknowledged that while things are great in the oil industry for the forseeable future, renewables are toast. “In 2035, we project that gas and coal will account for 54% of global energy demand [and oil another 27%]. While renewables will grow rapidly, their share will reach just 7%.”
- The European Union, which so far has been leading the way in carbon emissions reduction, seems to be getting tired of being the only ones doing anything, and have scaled back projections for changing their own energy usage patterns. There are no advances planned beyond the achievement of their current 20-20-20 plan, and little commitment to enforcement.
- Canada and interested parties in the U.S. have contrived an end-run around opposition to the Keystone Pipeline, and it looks like one way or another that tar-sands oil will be making its way to market; some of it already is. “Game over for the climate,” as they say.
Who wants to be the first to change, anyway? Why should we be the ones to act responsibly, when those guys over there don’t? They might be able to make stuff cheaper in their coal-powered factories, and we’d lose business. “Think of it this way: in our world, the gravitational pull of carbon exerts itself every minute of every day, shaping the energy decisions of individuals, companies, institutions, and governments. This pull is leading to defeat in the global struggle to slow the advance of severe climate change.”
Klare argues that there is no mechanism in existing market forces or economic structures that will bring about any kind of real change – neither local, regional, or global. And this change needs to happen on a global scale. And he says the thing I’ve often thought, but didn’t think to say. If nothing is going to change, really, until it gets very expensive not to change, then the only way that’s going to happen is through a stiff, across-the board carbon tax…and to leverage it, a mechanism to insure that the tax goes directly into the development of, and subsidies for, renewable energy.
Yeah, right. As if a carbon tax will ever happen in this country. And this tax needs to be global.
One of the scariest things I saw this week, that brings the problem into sharp focus and makes me think we’re headed for global catastrophe, is the chart below, from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It depicts the projected carbon-based energy consumption of the big three: U.S., China, and India. The scary part is the red line indicating China.
It’s scary because of what happens in the mind when we, here in the U.S., see that line, climbing up and up above ours, no matter what we do. They already have half of our jobs. We think, why bother? Why should we be the only ones to change?
And so it goes.
And so I try and explain to my 14-yo daughter some of the ways that her adult world is going to be radically different from the one even from 5 years ago, that it’s going to be more like science fiction, because we adults, with this sick combination of government and corporations we’ve set up, can’t find a way to stop ruining things. I tell her, “I’m very sorry.”
But anyway. Back home here, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Hurray for those of us who are fighting against hydrofracking. But the arguments about whether it does, or doesn’t, pollute the water, or who gets the money, or whose land is it, are the wrong arguments. The simple fact is, We shouldn’t be burning it at all.