We now have an answer to why global temperatures have risen less quickly in recent years than predicted in climate change models. (It's necessary to add immediately that the issue is only the rate of that rise, since the 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998.) Thanks to years of especially strong Pacific trade winds, according to a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change, much of the extra heat generated by global warming is being buried deep in ocean waters. Though no one knows for sure, the increase in the power of those winds may itself have been set off by the warming of the Indian Ocean. In other words, the full effects of the heating of the planet have been postponed, but are still building (and may also be affecting ocean ecology in unpredictable ways). As Matthew England, the lead scientist in the study, points out, "Even if the [Pacific trade] winds accelerate... sooner or later the impact of greenhouse gases will overwhelm the effect. And if the winds relax, the heat will come out quickly. As we go through the twenty-first century, we are less and less likely to have a cooler decade. Greenhouse gases will certainly win out in the end."
Despite the slower rate of temperature rise, the effects of the global heating process are quite noticeable. Yes, if you're living somewhere in much of the lower forty-eight, you now know the phrase "polar vortex" the same way you do "Mom" and "apple pie," and like me, you're shivering every morning the moment you step outside, or sometimes even in your own house. That southern shift in the vortex may itself be an artifact of changing global weather patterns caused at least in part by climate change.
In the meantime, in the far north, temperatures have been abnormally high in both Alaska and Greenland; Oslo had a Christmas to remember, and forest fires raged in the Norwegian Arctic this winter. Then, of course, there is the devastating, worsening drought in California (and elsewhere in the West) now in its third year, and by some accounts the worst in half a millennium, which is bound to drive up global food prices. There are the above-the-norm temperatures in Sochi that are creating problems keeping carefully stored snow on the ground for Olympic skiers and snowboarders. And for good measure, toss in storm-battered Great Britain's wettest December and January in more than a century. Meanwhile, in the southern hemisphere, there's heat to spare. There was the devastating January heat wave in Australia, while in parts of Brazil experiencing the worst drought in half-a-century there has never been a hotter month on record than that same month. If the rains don't come relatively soon, the city of São Paulo is in danger of running out of water.
It's clear enough that, with the effects of climate change only beginning to take hold, the planet is already in a state of weather disarray. Yet, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare points out today, the forces arrayed against dealing with climate change couldn't be more powerful. Given that we've built our global civilization on the continuing hit of energy that fossil fuels provide and given the interests arrayed around exploiting that hit, the gravitational pull of what Klare calls "Planet Carbon" is staggering.
Recently, I came across the following passage in Time of Illusion, Jonathan Schell's 1976 classic about Nixon administration malfeasance. Schell wrote it with the nuclear issue in mind, but today it has an eerie resonance when it comes to climate change: "In the United States, unprecedented wealth and ease came to coexist with unprecedented danger, and a sumptuous feast of consumable goods was spread out in the shadow of universal death. Americans began to live as though on a luxuriously appointed death row, where one was free to enjoy every comfort but was uncertain from moment to moment when or if the death sentence might be carried out. The abundance was very much in the forefront of people's attention, however, and the uncertainty very much in the background; and in the government as well as in the country at large the measureless questions posed by the new weapons were evaded." Tom
The Gravitational Pull of Planet Carbon
Three Signs of Retreat in the Global War on Climate Change
By Michael T. Klare
Listening to President Obama's State of the Union address, it would have been easy to conclude that we were slowly but surely gaining in the war on climate change. "Our energy policy is creating jobs and leading to a cleaner, safer planet," the president said. "Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth." Indeed, it's true that in recent years, largely thanks to the dampening effects of the Great Recession, U.S. carbon emissions were in decline (though they grew by 2% in 2013). Still, whatever the president may claim, we're not heading toward a "cleaner, safer planet." If anything, we're heading toward a dirtier, more dangerous world.
A series of recent developments highlight the way we are losing ground in the epic struggle to slow global warming. This has not been for lack of effort. Around the world, dedicated organizations, communities, and citizens have been working day by day to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote the use of renewable sources of energy. The struggle to prevent construction of the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline is a case in point. As noted in a recent New York Times article, the campaign against that pipeline has galvanized the environmental movement around the country and attracted thousands of activists to Washington, D.C., for protests and civil disobedience at the White House. But efforts like these, heroic as they may be, are being overtaken by a more powerful force: the gravitational pull of cheap, accessible carbon-based fuels, notably oil, coal, and natural gas.
In the past few years, the ever more widespread use of new extractive technologies -- notably hydraulic fracturing (to exploit shale deposits) and steam-assisted gravity drainage (for tar sands) -- has led to a significant increase in fossil fuel production, especially in North America. This has left in the dust the likelihood of an imminent "peak" in global oil and gas output and introduced an alternative narrative -- much promoted by the energy industry and its boosters -- of unlimited energy supplies that will last into the distant future. Barry Smitherman of the Texas Railroad Commission (which regulates that state's oil industry) was typical in hailing a "relatively boundless supply" of oil and gas worldwide at a recent meeting of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists.
As oil and gas have proven unexpectedly abundant and affordable, major energy consumers are planning to rely on them more -- and on renewable sources of energy less -- to meet their future requirements. As a result, the promises we once heard of a substantial decline in fossil fuel use (along with a corresponding boom in renewables) are fading. According to the most recent projections from the U.S. Department of Energy, global fossil fuel consumption is expected to grow by an astonishing 40% by 2035, jumping from 440 to 615 quadrillion British thermal units.
While the combined share of total world energy that comes from fossil fuels will decline slightly -- from 84% to 79% -- they will still dominate the global energy marketplace for decades to come. Renewables, according to these projections, will continue to represent only a small fraction of the total. If this proves to be accurate, there can be only one plausible outcome: vastly increased carbon emissions leading to rising temperatures and the sort of catastrophic climate change scenarios that now seem almost impossible to imagine.
Think of it this way: in our world, the gravitational pull of carbon exerts itself every minute of every day, shaping the energy decisions of individuals, companies, institutions, and governments. This pull is leading to defeat in the global struggle to slow the advance of severe climate change and is reflected in three recent developments in the energy news: a declaration of surrender by BP, a major setback in the European Union, and a strategic end-run by Canadian tar sands companies.
BP Announces the Defeat of Renewables
Every year, energy giant BP (once British Petroleum) releases its "Energy Outlook" for the years ahead, an analysis of future trends in global production and consumption. The 2014 report -- extending BP's energy forecast to the year 2035 -- was made public on January 15th. Typically, its release is accompanied by a press conference in which top BP executives offer commentary on the state of world energy, usually aimed at the business media. This year, the company's CEO, Bob Dudley, spoke with unbridled optimism about the future market for his company's energy products, assuring his audience that the global supply of fossil fuels would remain substantial for years to come. (Dudley took over the helm at BP after his predecessor, Tony Hayward, was dumped in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.)
"The picture in terms of resources in the ground is a good one," he noted. "It's very different to past concerns about supply peaking. The theory of peak oil seems to have -- well -- peaked."
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).