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Sci Tech

Sobering New Numbers on Global Warming

By       Message Rodger Knight     Permalink
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Climate scientists have long predicted that increases in global temperatures would bring about extreme weather events of the kind listed here.  They have also predicted that the increased temperatures would effect enduring changes in global weather patterns.  As the Earth warms both the northern and southern temperate zones are moving.  The northern temperate zone, of particular interest to a very large portion of the Earth's population, is moving farther and farther north.  If significant measures to control warming aren't taken "America's breadbasket," the rich farmlands in the latitudes spanning Kansas and Nebraska will be in Canada in our grandchildren's lifetime.  As this happens, a great many species of animal and plant life will disappear because they won't be able to adapt quickly enough to the changing climate. 

An even more sobering thought on CO2 emissions is that the remaining reserves of burnable fossil fuel far exceeds the carbon budget necessary to keep the world's mean temperature from rising above 2 degrees C.  By 2011 the  world had used over a third of its budget leaving only 565Gt of excessive CO2 to be stored.   Unhappily, all of the proven reserves owned by private and public companies and governments are equivalent to 2,795 GtCO2. Only twenty percent of the total reserves can be burned unabated, leaving up to eighty percent of fossil fuel assets technically unburnable in the absence of effective ways to sequester the CO2 somewhere other than in our atmosphere.  A number of scientists and corporations are working on carbon sequestration technology but so far nearly all approaches have proven to be economically unfeasible.   

In the paragraph above I said "technically" because this 2,795 Gtons of carbon emissions, or at least a sizable amount of it will find its way into our atmosphere simply because it represents about 27 trillion dollars to the fossil fuel industry.  To a very large degree the fossil fuel industry is already committed to exploiting these reserves.  They have used their claim on these reserves as collateral for loans, have used them to calculate stock prices and to entice investors with promises about future profits.  Some oil rich countries have based present and future national budgets on anticipated revenue from these fuel sources. We also need to keep in mind that the figures of 565 Gtons and 2,795Gtons don't include emissions from shale oil and natural gas refined from tar sand.   Large scale exploitation of these fossil fuel deposits is too new to have been included in the calculation of the amount of CO2 emissions permissible to maintain a two degree C increase in world temperature.  

Obtaining oil from tar sand presents its own set of problems. Extracting useable oil and converting it to gasoline is an extremely inefficient and wasteful process. Somewhere between two and four tons of tar sand and two to four barrels of water are required to produce a single barrel of oil. Rather than drilling, enormous shovels carve out open pits in the tar sands, scooping out the greasy interior.  Next, the sand is hauled to a processing plant where the tar sand is combined with even more water to form a slurry from which bitumen is extracted.  To become gasoline, partially refined bitumen is transported to an oil refinery where it is processed further and finally converted into gasoline. Since bitumen is a highly viscous "heavy" oil that doesn't flow as easily as lighter crude, it requires more processing to facilitate its flow through the oil pipelines.  Overall, mining tar sands, extracting bitumen and converting it to gasoline releases three times more times carbon dioxide than typical oil production.  With water quickly becoming a limited resource a decision will soon have to be made as to whether oil from tar sand is worth the cost to our environment and out quality of life.

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Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada - Aerial views of the mines of Syncrude Canada Ltd and Suncor Energy Inc, including one of Suncor's tailing ponds, with oil remains floating on it, as well as mine and refinery. 
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Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is another controversial method of obtaining oil and natural gas from shale. In a typical fracking operation, "fracturing fluids" or "pumping fluids" consisting primarily of water, sand and a propitiatory (and therefore secret) mixture of chemicals are injected under high pressure into the producing formation, creating fissures that allow the oil or natural gas to move freely from rock pores where it is trapped. As a rule, steel pipe known as surface casing is cemented into place at the top of a well to protect groundwater. As the well is drilled deeper, additional casings are installed to isolate the formation(s) from which oil or natural gas is to be produced.  Fracking is a relatively new technology and, while its pros and cons are still being hotly debated, there is mounting evidence that fracking has been responsible for groundwater contamination by natural gas and that fracking has caused small earthquakes.  On the other hand, you could say that some folks in New York and Pennsylvania are being treated to a completely new technology, self heating water.  Just fill your pot or tub, light it  et voila ! hot water for cooking or bathing without the expense of a gas or electric water heater.
There is one other side of this dilemma we need to consider and that is the attitude of the industry itself.  "Lots of companies do rotten things in the course of their business -- pay terrible wages, make people work in sweatshops -- and we pressure them to change those practices," says veteran anti-corporate leader Naomi Klein, "But these numbers make clear that with the fossil-fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It's what they do."  Most companies, most industries, pay to dispose of their waste.  Your corner garage or mechanic pays to have waste oil and used parts transported to a proper disposal site.  Your favorite restaurant pays to have it's trash and garbage haul to a dump, usually a landfill which will later be reclaimed as usable ground.  The carbon fuel industry disposes of it's waste by exhausting it into our atmosphere and pays  nothing for that privilege.  Rather than being made to pay to clean up the mess they've made in our atmosphere, American oil companies are subsidized by our government even though they represent the most profitable enterprises in the history of the world.  If our congressional leaders are willing to pay subsidies to companies, the five biggest of which earned a combined profit of $375 million per day, or a record $137 billion profit for the year 2011 despite reducing their oil production, we shouldn't be surprised when those same leaders vote to continue paying a subsidy to companies that move manufacturing jobs to foreign countries.  These same five oil companies received $6.6 million in federal tax breaks every day in 201 and the three largest oil companies spent $100 million of their profits each day, or over 50 percent, buying back their own stock to enrich their board, senior managers, and largest share holders.  On average, each CEO  of those companies received $60,110 in compensation per day last year.  Ninety-seven percent of American wage earners make less than that in a year.  In 2010 the average cost of a home in the US was  $272,900.  One of these CEOs could have purchased that average with four and one half days salary.

So, there it is.  To address climate change our leaders have adopted a goal of holding atmospheric warming to two degree C by 2050.  Starting with a baseline year of 1929, we have already used .8 of our allotted 2 degrees and the rate at which we are depleting our heat "surplus" is increasing at an alarming rate.

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Worse, those same leaders have done essentially nothing to address this emergency. In fact, republicans  in congress en mass are calling for even more reductions in environmental protections.  Foremost among their demands are that the president allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).  Drilling advocates argue that the environmental controls now in place would offer adequate protection while at the same time lobbying to end those controls.  They also insist that we need more offshore drilling in depths greater than those in which the infamous Deepwater Horizon operated.  That disaster spilled 206 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico (an amount almost twenty times greater than the Exxon Valdez), killed 6,104 birds, 609 sea turtles, 100 dolphins and other sea mammals and an untold amount of plankton, algae, coral and other essential sea life, 
We are headed toward an irreversible environmental disaster.  It's one we have no idea how to slow much less stop and we lack the will to to stop it even if the technology existed.  If we are not convinced by the scientific studies we should be by just looking out our windows.  Extreme weather is becoming the norm but so many of us are happy to listen to the naysayers because believing them relieves us of any responsibility for the condition of the planet we leave our children.  In America we have already allowed republican economic policies to devastate the middle class that came into being after World War II.  We've sacrificed the economic future of our children so that the plutocrats and the oligarchs can have more houses, more cars, more yachts more of everything.  We've stood by and let one percent of Americans take control of ninety-nine percent of the nation's wealth.  Now, we are about to sacrifice our children's environment for much the same reason.  The generation that fought World War II is rightfully known as the greatest generation; we are rightfully headed toward being known as the worst.     

In addition to the books and articles used as resources for Section One, the following provided reference material for Section Two

The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics and Religion 
By Matt Taibbi

Global Warming's Terrible New Math by Bill McKibben
in Rolling Stone

What Islands Will Disappear
in WikiNut

The Great Dying: first it warmed, then it burned by John Timmer

Q&A: Copenhagen climate change conference 2009

Environment and Development Challenges:  The Imperative to Act

Not only is climate change real, it's turning out worse than we thought.

How do human CO2 emissions compare to natural CO2 emissions?

Unburnable Carbon -- Are the world's financial markets carrying a carbon bubble?

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Rodger Knight is a retired probation officer and amateur historian with a particular interest in the Depression and war years. He has a BA in English and History from Cal State University, San Bernardino and, for two years, was a graduate student (more...)

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