If a reasonable concern over the fate of the planet were stronger than our reliance on fossil fuels, we would expect to see, if not a reduction in carbon emissions, then a decline at least in the rate of increase of emissions over time. Instead, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that global emissions will continue to rise at a torrid pace over the next quarter century, reaching 45.5 billion metric tons in 2040 -- more than double the amount recorded in 1998 and enough, in the view of most scientists, to turn our planet into a living hell. Though seldom recognized as such, this is the definition of addiction-induced self-destruction, writ large.
For many of us, the addiction to petroleum is embedded in our everyday lives in ways over which we exercise limited control. Because of the systematic dismantling and defunding of public transportation (along with the colossal subsidization of highways), for instance, we have become highly reliant on oil-powered vehicles, and it is very hard for most of us living outside big cities to envision a practical alternative to driving. More and more people are admittedly trying to kick this habit at an individual level by acquiring hybrid or all-electric cars, by using public transit where available, or by bicycling, but that remains a drop in the bucket. It will take a colossal future effort to reconstruct our transportation system along climate-friendly lines.
For what might be thought of as the Big Energy equivalent of the 1%, the addiction to fossils fuels is derived from the thrill of riches and power -- something that is far more difficult to resist or deconstruct. Oil is the world's most lucrative commodity on the planet, and a source of great wealth and influence for ruling groups in the countries that produce it, notably Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. The leaders of these "petro-states" may not always benefit personally from the accumulation of oil revenues, but they certainly recognize that their capacity to govern, or even remain in power, rests on their responsiveness to entrenched energy interests and their skill in deploying the nation's energy resources for political and strategic advantage. This is just as true for Barack Obama, who has championed the energy industry's drive to increase domestic oil and gas output, as it is for Vladimir Putin, who has sought to boost Russia's international clout through increased fossil fuel exports.
Top officials in these countries know better than most of us that severe climate change is coming our way, and that only a sharp reduction in carbon emissions can prevent its most destructive effects. But government and corporate officials are so wedded to fossil fuel profits -- or to the political advantages that derive from controlling oil's flow -- that they are quite incapable of overcoming their craving for ever greater levels of production. As a result, while President Obama speaks often enough of his desire to increase the nation's reliance on renewable energy, he has embraced an "all of the above" energy plan that is underwriting a boom in oil and gas output. The same is true for virtually every other major government figure. Obeisance is routinely paid to the need for increased green technology, but a priority continues to be placed on increases in oil, gas, and coal production. Even in 2040, according to EIA predictions, these fuels may still be supplying four-fifths of the world's total energy supply.
This bias in favor of fossil fuels over other forms of energy -- despite all we know about climate change -- can only be viewed as a kind of carbon delirium. You can find evidence of this pathology worldwide and in myriad ways, but here are three unmistakable examples of our advanced stage of addiction.
1. The Obama administration's decision to allow BP to resume oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
After energy giant BP (formerly British Petroleum) pleaded guilty to criminal negligence in the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which resulted in the death of 11 people and a colossal oil spill, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suspended the company's right to acquire new drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico. The ban was widely viewed as a major setback for the company, which had long sought to dominate production in the Gulf's deep waters. To regain access to the Gulf, BP sued the EPA and brought other pressures to bear on the Obama administration. Finally, on March 13th, after months of lobbying and negotiations, the agency announced that BP would be allowed to resume bidding for new leases, as long as it adhered to a list of supposedly tight restrictions
BP officials viewed the announcement as an enormous victory, allowing the company to resume a frenetic search for new oil deposits in the Gulf's deep waters. "Today's agreement will allow America's largest investor to compete again for federal contracts and leases," said BP America Chairman and President John Mingé. Observers in the oil industry predict that the company will now acquire many additional leases in the Gulf, adding to its already substantial presence there. "With this agreement, it's realistic to expect that the Gulf of Mexico can be a key asset for BP's operations not only for this decade but potentially for decades to come," commented Stephen Simko, an oil specialist at Morningstar investment analysts. (Six days after the EPA announced its decision, BP bid $42 million to acquire 24 new leases in the Gulf.)
So BP's interest is clear enough, but what is the national interest in all this? Yes, President Obama can claim that increased drilling might add a few hundred thousand barrels per day to domestic oil output, plus a few thousand new jobs. But can he really assure our children or grandchildren that, in allowing increased drilling in the Gulf, he is doing all he can to reduce the threat of climate change as he promised to do in his most recent State of the Union address? If he truly sought a simple and straightforward way to renew that pledge, this would have been a good place to start: plenty of people remember the damage inflicted by the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the indifference BP's top officials displayed toward many of its victims, so choosing to maintain the ban on its access to new drilling leases on environmental and climate grounds would certainly have attracted public support. The fact that Obama chose not to do so suggests instead a further surrender to the power of oil and gas interests -- and to the effects of carbon delirium.
2. The Republican drive to promote construction of the Keystone XL pipeline as a response to the Ukrainian crisis
If Obama administration dreams about pressuring Putin by exporting LNG to Europe fail to pass the credibility test, a related drive by key Republicans to secure approval for the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline defies any notion of sanity. Keystone, as you may recall, is intended to carry carbon-dense, highly corrosive diluted bitumen from the Athabasca tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Its construction has been held up by concerns that it will pose a threat to water supplies along its route and help increase global carbon dioxide emissions.
Because Keystone crosses an international boundary, its construction must receive approval not just from the State Department, but from the president himself. The Republicans and their conservative backers have long favored the pipeline as a repudiation of what they view as excessive governmental deference to environmental concerns. Now, in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, they are suddenly depicting pipeline approval as a signal of U.S. determination to resist Putin's aggressive moves in the Crimea and Ukraine.
"Putin is playing for the long haul, cleverly exploiting every opening he sees. So must we," wrote former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a recent Washington Post op-ed. "Authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline and championing natural gas exports would signal that we intend to do precisely that."
Does anyone truly believe that Vladimir Putin will be influenced by a White House announcement that it will allow construction of the Keystone XL pipeline? Putin's government is already facing significant economic sanctions and other punitive moves, yet none of this has swayed him from pursuing what he appears to believe are Russia's core interests. Why, then, would the possibility that the U.S. might acquire more of its oil from Canada and less from Mexico, Nigeria, Venezuela, and other foreign suppliers even register on his consciousness?
In addition, to suggest that approving Keystone XL would somehow stiffen Obama's resolve, inspiring him to adopt tougher measures against Moscow, is to engage in what psychologists call "magical thinking." Were Keystone to transport any other substance than oil, the claim that its construction would somehow affect presidential decision-making or events on Russia's borders would be laughable. So great is our reverence for petroleum, however, that we allow ourselves to believe in such miracles. This, too, is carbon delirium.
3. The Case of the Missing $20 Billion