Burning the midnight oil

It is well known (everywhere but in the Climate Denier’s Homeland) that burning fossil fuels causes atmospheric CO² to increase, causes man-made global climate change. It is also clear that the carbon industry has a interest in burning more fuel, each company seeks to maxmise it’s own return by increasing its revenue and reserves. They also fund lavishly the climate deniers and skeptics as well as corrupting the governments that might putatively seek to limit their earth destroying short term profits.

As Bill McKibben wrote in 2012 in Rolling stone the dilemma is how much oil, coal and gas can we burn and still keep global warming (or global weirding as I call it) to a human life sustaining 2° C maximum.

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. (“Reasonable,” in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.)

This idea of a global “carbon budget” emerged about a decade ago, as scientists began to calculate how much oil, coal and gas could still safely be burned. Since we’ve increased the Earth’s temperature by 0.8 degrees so far, we’re currently less than halfway to the target. But, in fact, computer models calculate that even 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. That means we’re already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target.

How good are these numbers? No one is insisting that they’re exact, but few dispute that they’re generally right. The 565-gigaton figure was derived from one of the most sophisticated computer-simulation models that have been built by climate scientists around the world over the past few decades. And the number is being further confirmed by the latest climate-simulation models currently being finalized in advance of the next report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

However the amount that we have on hand is much more than the “safe amount” that we can still burn. As McKibben continues:

 The Carbon Tracker Initiative – led by James Leaton, an environmentalist who served as an adviser at the accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers – combed through proprietary databases to figure out how much oil, gas and coal the world’s major energy companies hold in reserve. The numbers aren’t perfect – they don’t fully reflect the recent surge in unconventional energy sources like shale gas, and they don’t accurately reflect coal reserves, which are subject to less stringent reporting requirements than oil and gas. But for the biggest companies, the figures are quite exact: If you burned everything in the inventories of Russia’s Lukoil and America’s ExxonMobil, for instance, which lead the list of oil and gas companies, each would release more than 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Which is exactly why this new number, 2,795 gigatons, is such a big deal. Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit – equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit – the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That’s the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.

Various proposals for reduction of the carbon footprint of industrial capitalist civilization have been put forward, carbon taxes, carbon trading. But the fact remains  that all seek to reduce the amount of fossil fuels that are “in the pipeline. As Bill McKibben summed up in his 2013 Rolling Stone piece:

We’ve learned something else about global warming during the Obama years: Most of the coal and gas and oil that’s underground has to stay there if we’re going to slow climate change.

But we know that the politcal establishment lacks the will to do anything to make that happen. The Carbon industry’s point of view has triumphed over the policy debate. Profit beats mother earth. A recent piece by Joao Peixe of Oilprice.com comments on Exxon’s view of it’s ability and imperative to burn all the oil it has in its reserves:

It is far from clear that countries will actually find the resolve to enact strict limits on carbon pollution, but CTI argues that fossil fuel companies have a lot at stake in ensuring that they do not. ExxonMobil recently said that it was “highly unlikely” that the world would cut emissions significantly. “We are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become ‘stranded,’” the company wrote in a report this year on risks to its business.

It looks increasingly as if the carbon industries will continue to burn the midnight oil and generate profits up until the end. But what is my take on that end? I foresee population dislocations caused by climate change start to bite. And by bite, I mean there will be massive refugee problems in Asia, Europe, even North America, as populations flee flooding coasts and low lying plains. the crowding this causes will give rise to social disruption, including riots and civil wars. I foresee rising prices of rent and land in the areas left – at least until population declines. The inundation of agricultural land will cause food prices to rise quickly, causing famine. Water tables will become saline making potable water shortages an issue. All of this will probably lead to our first giga-death event – something that will wipe out in a short period of time over a billion souls. I don’t know what it will be but I fear that I, and my children, may live to see it coming.

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