Issues of energy consumption and climate change remain a central flashpoint in politics and economics, and it is only going to get worse. That’s why it is important to keep up with the work of Bill McKibben, author and activist from Ripton, who has written an article in the latest New York Review of Books reminding us of what we’re up against.
Among McKibben’s findings are these:
n Arctic sea ice is about one-fifth of what it was in 1980.
n Carbon dioxide monitors in Hawaii have detected the second greatest annual increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ever.
n A study of temperature records going back 11,000 years has shown the earth is heating up 50 times faster than ever before.
n Data from the Arctic show that vegetation zones have migrated north by seven degrees of latitude.
These are ominous early indicators of a trend well under way toward a 2 degree increase in the atmosphere’s temperatures. Scientists are warning that if nothing is done the temperature could rise by 4 degrees, with catastrophic consequences.
What would bring about the worsening of this dangerous trend? One of the principal potential causes of future disaster is the good news that has surrounded us about new oil and gas discoveries and the technologies now available to take advantage of them. For example, exploitation of the tar sands of Alberta is promoted by its supporters as a bold stroke of energy independence that will liberate us from Saudi Arabia and other troublesome oil-producing places.
But that is not all. Oil in North Dakota is now said to equal in quantity the reserves in Saudi Arabia. On top of that, a new find in California may be four times as large as the find in North Dakota. A new find in Australia is in the same range of immensity.
All of that oil represents many trillions of dollars in potential wealth, and it is hard for environmentalists holding picket signs outside the White House to hold back that tide of dollars. It is also hard to counter the reasonable-sounding case that the world economy has energy needs that will be fed from somewhere — be it from Alberta or Saudi Arabia. In other words oil from Alberta that is burned in the automobiles of China replaces oil that might have been shipped there from the Middle East. The increased pace of production in Canada or the United States means a slowing pace of production elsewhere.
But with world catastrophe in the balance, those concerned about climate change are trying to make the point that fatalism on whether those reserves will be burned is what will do us in. In other words, if that oil is not left in the ground, we are doomed.
Without a reasonable policy in place to wean us from fossil fuels, activists have begun to oppose any advance that might facilitate the exploitation of oil from Alberta or elsewhere. That’s why Vermonters are concerned about the use of a pipeline across northern Vermont for tar sands oil and why McKibben and others are urging President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Alberta oil to Texas. Concern about fossil fuels extends to Addison County where residents are mobilizing to oppose extension of a natural gas pipeline from Chittenden County down through Middlebury and over to Ticonderoga, N.Y., and down to Rutland.
Meanwhile, a report for the World Bank notes that if temperatures rise by 4 degrees, we can expect a long list of disasters, including the flooding of coastal cities (think Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina), the disruption of agriculture, more droughts in dry regions, more floods in wet regions, unprecedented heat waves, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity. The report foresees “a completely new class of heat waves, with magnitudes never experienced before in the 20th century.”
McKibben cites a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing that the rise in heat and humidity already experienced has cut by 10 percent the amount of outdoor work people are capable of. That figure could rise to one-third.
McKibben muses that the latest reports may be seen by future historians as evidence that at least the warning had been sounded. The mystery for them may be why nothing was done. And yet as McKibben says, “One must hope ... that we’re still capable as a species of recognizing oncoming catastrophe and heading it off before it reaches its full blown form.”
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