Pssst, buddy, you want a report?
Hey, I've got three for you, all in the news last week! There was a rare intervention by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which issued a report warning that "the rate of climate change now may be as fast as any extended warming period over the past 65 million years, and it is projected to accelerate in the coming decades." There was a risk, it added, "of abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes in the earth's climate system with massively disruptive impacts," including the possible "large scale collapse of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, collapse of part of the Gulf Stream, loss of the Amazon rain forest, die-off of coral reefs, and mass extinctions." Then there was the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest grim assessment, whose key message is: "It's not just about melting ice, threatened animals, and plants. It's about the human problems of hunger, disease, drought, flooding, refugees, and war becoming worse," or as one of the scientists writing the report put it, "The polar bear is us." And, of course, the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization released its annual report last week, pointing out that, though we are only 14 years into a new century, 13 of them fall into the category of warmest ever recorded.
Not enough bad news for you? Rest assured that there will be prodigious new reports on climate change in the coming years, all from teams of sober, respectable scientists assuring us (yet again) that the next set of findings indicate the planet is going to get hotter (much hotter!), that extreme weather conditions are going to worsen, that drought is going to be endemic, that food production is going to suffer disastrously, that sea levels are going to rise, that chaos is going to ensue, etc., etc.
By now, this is painfully predictable stuff rather than breakthrough science. It's middle of the road, ho-hum, world's-going-down-the-drain material, and not even the worst version of what might happen either. By now, this has essentially passed out of the realm of pioneering science and, for those across the planet who are experiencing heat records in Australia, drought in the Western U.S., or horrific superstorms from New York City to the Philippines, onrushing daily life on planet Earth.
The message couldn't be clearer. Individual scientists and groups of them continue to weigh in repeatedly. Climate scientist Michael Mann, for instance, recently suggested that "if the world keeps burning fossil fuels at the current rate, it will cross a threshold into environmental ruin by 2036." Sadly, if we had 100 new reports this month, offering versions of the usual findings, it largely wouldn't matter because we seem intent on doing the one thing that all the scientists say will make this so much worse. We're burning fossil fuels as if -- excuse the phrase -- there were no tomorrow, while the Big Energy companies are finding new ways to release ever more of the ever-tougher variety of fossil fuels from their underground reserves. They're building pipelines in profusion to ensure, for instance, that particularly carbon-dirty Canadian tar sands will sooner or later flood the market. They're drilling with increased intensity in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Arctic, in ever-deeper ocean waters. Sarah Palin may be in retirement, but it's her world and welcome to it. We're now on a drill, baby, drill and frack, baby, frack planet, where the prevailing state of mind is what TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author most recently of The Race for What's Left, calls "carbon delirium." It's a far better term for the mentality that simply refuses to absorb all those reports than the more rational-sounding "climate denialism." Tom
The Last Stage of Fossil-Fuel Addiction and Its Hazardous Impact on American Foreign Policy
By Michael Klare
Of all the preposterous, irresponsible headlines that have appeared on the front page of the New York Times in recent years, few have exceeded the inanity of this one from early March: "U.S. Hopes Boom in Natural Gas Can Curb Putin." The article by normally reliable reporters Coral Davenport and Steven Erlanger suggested that, by sending our surplus natural gas to Europe and Ukraine in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG), the United States could help reduce the region's heavy reliance on Russian gas and thereby stiffen its resistance to Vladimir Putin's aggressive behavior.
Forget that the United States currently lacks a capacity to export LNG to Europe, and will not be able to do so on a significant scale until the 2020s. Forget that Ukraine lacks any LNG receiving facilities and is unlikely to acquire any, as its only coastline is on the Black Sea, in areas dominated by Russian speakers with loyalties to Moscow. Forget as well that any future U.S. exports will be funneled into the international marketplace, and so will favor sales to Asia where gas prices are 50% higher than in Europe. Just focus on the article's central reportorial flaw: it fails to identify a single reason why future American LNG exports (which could wind up anywhere) would have any influence whatsoever on the Russian president's behavior.
The only way to understand the strangeness of this is to assume that the editors of the Times, like senior politicians in both parties, have become so intoxicated by the idea of an American surge in oil and gas production that they have lost their senses.
As domestic output of oil and gas has increased in recent years -- largely through the use of fracking to exploit hitherto impenetrable shale deposits -- many policymakers have concluded that the United States is better positioned to throw its weight around in the world. "Increasing U.S. energy supplies," said then-presidential security adviser Tom Donilon in April 2013, "affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals." Leaders in Congress on both sides of the aisle have voiced similar views.
The impression one gets from all this balderdash is that increased oil and gas output -- like an extra dose of testosterone -- will somehow bolster the will and confidence of American officials when confronting their foreign counterparts. One former White House official cited by Davenport and Erlanger caught the mood of the moment perfectly: "We're engaging from a different position [with respect to Russia] because we're a much larger energy producer."
It should be obvious to anyone who has followed recent events in the Crimea and Ukraine that increased U.S. oil and gas output have provided White House officials with no particular advantage in their efforts to counter Putin's aggressive moves -- and that the prospect of future U.S. gas exports to Europe is unlikely to alter his strategic calculations. It seems, however, that senior U.S. officials beguiled by the mesmerizing image of a future "Saudi America" have simply lost touch with reality.
For anyone familiar with addictive behavior, this sort of delusional thinking would be a sign of an advanced stage of fossil fuel addiction. As the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality evaporates, the addict persists in the belief that relief for all problems lies just ahead -- when, in fact, the very opposite is true.
The analogy is hardly new, of course, especially when it comes to America's reliance on imported petroleum. "America is addicted to oil," President George W. Bush typically declared in his 2006 State of the Union address (and he was hardly the first president to do so). Such statements have often been accompanied in the media by cartoons of Uncle Sam as a junkie, desperately injecting his next petroleum "fix." But few analysts have carried the analogy further, exploring the ways our growing dependence on oil has generated increasingly erratic and self-destructive behavior. Yet it is becoming evident that the world's addiction to fossil fuels has reached a point at which we should expect the judgment of senior leaders to become impaired, as seems to be happening.
The most persuasive evidence that fossil fuel addiction has reached a critical stage may be found in official U.S. data on carbon dioxide emissions. The world is now emitting one and a half times as much CO2 as it did in 1988, when James Hansen, then director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, warned Congress that the planet was getting warmer as a result of the "greenhouse effect," and that human activity -- largely in the form of carbon emissions from the consumption of fossil fuels -- was almost certainly the cause.