Climate Change And First World Denialism

Given safe haven from the impact of climate change by their privilige and wealth, the decision-making elite of the US has no intention of making the sacrifices that could lessen the impact of that change on the rest of the world. That is just as dangerous a form of denialism as refusing to admit climate change is happening at all.

That the decision makers are in denial is clear from the stated opinions of many energy experts, as well as future trend predictions both by energy companies and by the US intelligence community.  They still see climate change as a largely political issue, rather than as a disaster-in-process, and are reacting as if to a political movement instead of realizing that action must be radical and prompt simply to reduce the scale of that disaster, for there is no stopping it now.

Recently my friends at published an interview with energy security expert Michael Levi, the David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations. He had some things to say on the current, accelerating, US energy production boom, on the Keystone pipeline and on climate change.

Levi sees the main problem about the glut of US natural gas production as being that producers haven’t done enough to stimulate demand for their gas – that the low price is more of a problem than the amount of gas, in other words. He is happy about the current shale oil boom and while warning about over-hyping the strategic consequences of that boom says that “in this case, reality is pretty radical itself”. He worries that opposition to the Keystone pipeline will lead to ” blocking pipelines all over the place, then that becomes a larger economic problem”, and describes the pipeline as something that is “non-essential to US energy security; it is also not disastrous to climate change”.

On climate change, this insider expert from the foremost thinktank of insider experts in the US thinks political horse trading is the answer.

Ultimately, I still believe that carbon pricing in one form or another is essential to achieving deep cuts in economically-sensible ways. That can come in the form of a tax, resurgent cap and trade, or clean energy standard; there are all sorts of ways to do carbon pricing. In the long haul, I think you come back to that, particularly if you care about doing this is an economically-efficient way.

One of the emerging barriers to action on climate change is that doing things to exploit oil and gas have been set up as 100% incompatible with serious efforts to deal with climate change. That stark choice makes it very difficult to build coalitions that will move anything forward. We have actually moved in the last couple of years into a considerably more difficult situation than we were even 4 years ago, when a candidate like John McCain could say, ‘I support oil and gas production, and I support a strong cap and trade system.’ The president talks about things like that today, but gets considerably weaker support for it, and that ultimately needs to change.

…The first step is for each side to recognize that accepting a lot of what his opponents want will not fatally undermine what it wants. Oil and gas will need to understand that serious action on climate change will not fundamentally undermine what they want to accomplish in the next decade or two. People who want to take action on climate change need to fundamentally understand that expanding access to US oil and gas production will not fatally undermine their own goals. Compromise is not an oxymoron.

The second thing that needs to happen is there needs to be some rebuilding of trust. That is difficult; you do not just do it by hanging out more at the bar. You need to do small deals that show that you can work together.

You can think of all sorts of ideas; you could tie royalties from increased oil and gas production to financial support for renewable energy. You could provide support for carbon capture and storage demonstrations that support enhanced oil recovery. You can work to improve environmental permitting so it is easier to build pipelines and power lines that take renewable energy to places where they can be used.

There are a host of things that are small (but not trivial) win-wins that might help rebuild confidence. Ultimately, both sides need to accept that a political deal is better than trying to go for an outright win.

That a political compromise is desirable is belied by the realities of climate change math, however. There are four numbers that count in the global warming debate. 2, 565, 2,795 and 27. Two degrees celsius is the maximum warming experts agree we can handle without calamity. 565 gigatons is the most we can still put into the atmosphere and have any chance of staying below 2 degrees warming. 2,795 gigatons is the amount of carbon locked up in the known and exploitable reserves of oil, gas and coal owned by energy companies and petro-states – five times higher an amount than it is even close to safe to release. $27 trillion is the current worth of those reserves, 80% of which value must stay below ground if we want to survive but of course none of which those companies want to pass up and write off. Right there is the crux of the dystopic future we’re staring in the face, and we may have already passed the tipping point at which at least some of the worst possible is inevitable. The clear and present danger the world faces is not one amenable to political compromises of the kind the oil companies and wealthy, first world “very serious people” wish to advance.

That those serious people wish to convince us otherwise is again stressed by the new Global Trends 2030 report from the National Intelligence Council. Reading the report, one could be forgiven for thinking that the authors of the section on energy predictions did not read the section on climate change, or vice versa.

The present emissions pathway is leading to a doubling of greenhouse gases by mid-century. Based on a better understanding of climate sensitivity and emissions, this concentration will lead to approximately 2°C warming by mid-century. Under the present emissions pathway, 6°C is more likely than 3°C by the end of the century, and will lead to even more significant impacts. By 2030 the emissions trajectory will be cast, determining this century’s climate outcome.

The report touts a rosy future of US fossil energy independence as fuelling a 50% rise in global energy consumption, without ever considering the implications of that for the global warming calculation. Then, despite the overwhelming global disasters that such a move would cause – wars, famines, mass migrations and global pandemics – it predicts an expanding “global middle class”.

With shale gas, the US will have sufficient natural gas to meet domestic needs and generate potential global exports for decades to come.  Increased oil production from difficult-to-access oil deposits would result in a substantial reduction in the US net trade balance and faster economic expansion. Global spare capacity may exceed over 8 million barrels, at which point OPEC would lose price control and crude oil prices would collapse, causing a major negative impact on oil-export economies.

That those oil-producing countries in the Middle east will be some of the hardest hit by climate change and thus the most destabilized, throwing entire populations into extreme hardship and killing untold numbers,  hardly matters – the US will be experiencing an economic boom from energy independence and so they can all hang together. The future’s so bright, gotta wear shades.

In this, at least, the serious people, the decision makers, are perfectly in accord with the fossil fuel industry. As Lorne Stockman at recently noted, Exxon’s latest futuristic trends report agrees with the NIC, International Energy Association and the US Dept. Of Energy.

It’s perhaps no surprise then that the Exxon Outlook fails to mention that if energy demand were to rise 35% to 2040, and if 60% of energy demand in 2040 were to be met by oil and gas as Exxon predicts (the IEA has it at 50%), then the planet would be on an unstoppable collision course with a 4 degree (C) warmer world. While the IEA’s report was very clear about where current energy demand trends will lead it was also clear that this could be avoided if serious action is taken soon.

The fact that we are on course for a 4 degree world was recently highlighted by the World Bank, a relatively recent convert to the urgency of climate change action that still needs to match its actions with its words. On the release of a recent report called Turn Down the Heat, the Bank’s President Jim Yong Kim said:

A 4 degree warmer world can, and must be, avoided – we need to hold warming below 2 degrees, (…) lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today. Climate change is one of the single biggest challenges facing development, and we need to assume the moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations, especially the poorest.”

But while Exxon produced some figures for greenhouse gas emissions and reported that they may peak in the 2030s (which would be catastrophic, emissions need to peak before 2020) it offered no indication of whether it was concerned or indifferent to the consequences of these emissions. Of course the purpose of the Exxon Outlook is not to advocate for change that would benefit society but to bolster support for Exxon’s business plan.

That’s the simple truth of the matter, unfortunately. The “very serious people” who make the decisions in the West are insulated from the consequences of their decisions on fossil fuel production and climate change by virtue of their positions in the upper percentiles of wealthy, first world nations. They will not soon lack for water, or food, experience resource wars close up and personally, or suffer from disease and lack of medical treatment on a long treck out of a climate-changed wasteland. Thus, in the main, even those who do not deny climate change is happening are self-interestedly more concerned with the business plan than the disaster management plan. It’s a pernicious kind of denial in its own right.

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

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  • Actually the problem is political. It is neither economic nor technical. There are a lot of technical solutions to the problem and there are economic solutions to the problems of climate change.

    Technical approaches involving wind, solar, etc as well as carbon sequestration solutions are there or emerging.

    Economic approaches exist also. Besides Keynesian and Modern Monetary economic approaches that might preserve current Capitalist relationships there are always Marxist-style approaches involving major changes in economic relationships.

    So if a massive shift off of fossil energy and onto renewable energy is both technically possible and economically possible then we only have politics standing in the way.

    So how could we change technologies without changing economic relationships? Well the current fossil owners exchange their fossil ownership one for one for renewable energy ownership. But of course, there is no political mechanism available to manage that exchange.

    Using existing political systems probably means that there will have to be some winners and losers among the owners of fossil energy. Note here that I am leaving out those of us that do not own the fossil energy as we will just have to fend for ourselves, as usual, as the owners duke it out. Part of that fending may involve taking sides, a la sports matches, or joining the cheer leading squads of one side or the other. But mostly it would involve avoiding getting stepped on.

    So carbon taxes would need to go straight to the big oil companies so that they can acquire and build on offshore wind privileges as well as caps and trades involving not pumping and drilling in exchange for various privileged positions in solar and wind again.

    I get that one would need to assume rational sets of owners. Absent rational sets of owners then we, and now I mean we, begin to need to find a different sets of politics and possibly economics as well.

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