Let's face it: climate change is getting scarier by the week. In this all-American year, record wildfires, record temperatures in the continental U.S., an endless summer, a fierce drought that still won't go away, and Frankenstorm Sandy all descended on us. Globally, billion-dollar weather events are increasingly dime-a-dozen affairs, with a record 14 of them in 2012 so far. So is a linked phenomenon, the continuing rise in the volume of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, especially from burning fossil fuels, that get pumped into the atmosphere. The latest figures from 2011 indicate that those gases once again made an appearance in record amounts with no indication that abatement is anywhere on the horizon.
With new studies and more data, it seems, come ever more frightening projections of just how much the temperature of this planet is going to rise by 2100. After all, as Michael Klare, TomDispatch regular and author of the invaluable The Race for What's Left, points out, the International Energy Agency's latest study suggests a possible temperature rise by century's end of 3.6 degrees Celsius. That should startle the imagination, involving as it would the transformation of this planet into something unrecognizably different from the one we all grew up on. And keep in mind that it's by no means the top estimate for temperature disaster. A new World Bank report indicates that a rise of 4 degrees Celsius is possible by century's end, a prospect that bank president Jim Yong Kim termed a "doomsday scenario."
In the meantime, the most comprehensive study to date of how humans have affected the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere predicts that the planet's temperature could rise by an unimaginable 6 degrees Celsius by 2100. These days, it increasingly looks like we've entered the lottery from hell when it comes to Earth's ultimate temperature -- especially now that a recent report from the United Nations Environment Program suggests carbon in the atmosphere has increased by 20% since 2000 and that "there are few signs of global emissions falling."
With this in mind, consider the latest "good news" reported (and widely hailed) in the world of fossil fuels, courtesy of Michael Klare. Tom
World Energy Report 2012
The Good, the Bad, and the Really, Truly Ugly
By Michael T. Klare
Rarely does the release of a data-driven report on energy trends trigger front-page headlines around the world. That, however, is exactly what happened on November 12th when the prestigious Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) released this year's edition of its World Energy Outlook. In the process, just about everyone missed its real news, which should have set off alarm bells across the planet.
Claiming that advances in drilling technology were producing an upsurge in North American energy output, World Energy Outlook predicted that the United States would overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia to become the planet's leading oil producer by 2020. "North America is at the forefront of a sweeping transformation in oil and gas production that will affect all regions of the world," declared IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven in a widely quoted statement.
In the U.S., the prediction of imminent supremacy in the oil-output sweepstakes was generally greeted with unabashed jubilation. "This is a remarkable change," said John Larson of IHS, a corporate research firm. "It's truly transformative. It's fundamentally changing the energy outlook for this country." Not only will this result in a diminished reliance on imported oil, he indicated, but also generate vast numbers of new jobs. "This is about jobs. You know, it's about blue-collar jobs. These are good jobs."
The editors of the Wall Street Journal were no less ecstatic. In an editorial with the eye-catching headline "Saudi America," they lauded U.S. energy companies for bringing about a technological revolution, largely based on the utilization of hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") to extract oil and gas from shale rock. That, they claimed, was what made a new mega-energy boom possible. "This is a real energy revolution," the Journal noted, "even if it's far from the renewable energy dreamland of so many government subsidies and mandates."
Other commentaries were similarly focused on the U.S. outpacing Saudi Arabia and Russia, even if some questioned whether the benefits would be as great as advertised or obtainable at an acceptable cost to the environment.
While agreeing that the expected spurt in U.S. production is mostly "good news," Michael A. Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations warned that gas prices will not drop significantly because oil is a global commodity and those prices are largely set by international market forces. "[T]he U.S. may be slightly more protected, but it doesn't give you the energy independence some people claim," he told the New York Times.
Some observers focused on whether increased output and job creation could possibly outweigh the harm that the exploitation of extreme energy resources like fracked oil or Canadian tar sands was sure to do to the environment. Daniel J. Weiss of the Center for American Progress, for example, warned of a growing threat to America's water supply from poorly regulated fracking operations. "In addition, oil companies want to open up areas off the northern coast of Alaska in the Arctic Ocean, where they are not prepared to address a major oil blowout or spill like we had in the Gulf of Mexico."
Such a focus certainly offered a timely reminder of how important oil remains to the American economy (and political culture), but it stole attention away from other aspects of the World Energy Report that were, in some cases, downright scary. Its portrait of our global energy future should have dampened enthusiasm everywhere, focusing as it did on an uncertain future energy supply, excessive reliance on fossil fuels, inadequate investment in renewables, and an increasingly hot, erratic, and dangerous climate. Here are some of the most worrisome takeaways from the report.
Shrinking World Oil Supply
Given the hullabaloo about rising energy production in the U.S., you would think that the IEA report was loaded with good news about the world's future oil supply. No such luck. In fact, on a close reading anyone who has the slightest familiarity with world oil dynamics should shudder, as its overall emphasis is on decline and uncertainty.