Thursday, July 26, 2012

We Have Met the Enemy and It Is Fuel Companies

Bill McKibben writes an important article in the Rolling Stone: 

Nations have agreed to a nonbinding resolution that "the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius."  Scientists conclude that "two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster" (NASA scientist James Hansen).  Island nations and arid ones could be destroyed with two degrees of warming.  "We've increased the Earth's temperature by 0.8 degrees so far. . . . If we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere."

"Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees."

"The amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies is 2,695 gigatons:" five times the amount that might be burned and keep warming within two degrees Celsius. (The Carbon Tracker Initiative – led by James Leaton).  These companies and countries plan to use it all.  They're working to do so as fast as possible.

"The planet does indeed have an enemy – one far more committed to action than governments or individuals. . . . We need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization. 'Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business – pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops – and we pressure them to change those practices,' says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, who is at work on a book about the climate crisis. 'But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It's what they do.' "

It's not the fossil nature of the fuel that is the problem.  All widely available fuel produces greenhouse gases.  Carbon dioxide (bad as it is) is the least-harmful combustion product possible.  Incomplete combustion of smouldering damp vegetation or used fryer oil gives off soot, carbon monoxide, and other smoke more harmful to the atmosphere and to health.  Burning plants for fuel also stops those plants from absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  If we have to burn something, about the least-harmful fuel is natural gas.  (Of course, fracturing the bedrock your town is built on, to release the gas, can destroy the town.)  (Hydrogen burns with only water as a combustion product--but hydrogen for fuel is scarce.  We have to use more energy to break down water to get hydrogen, than we get back by burning the hydrogen.)  (Growing corn, and turning it into ethanol, require vast amounts of energy and fertilizer.  It's done only because the government subsidizes it.)