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Tomgram: Michael Klare, The Energy Landscape of 2041

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This story originally appeared at  TomDispatch.com

Let's see: today, it's a story about rising sea levels.  Now, close your eyes, take a few seconds, and try to imagine what word or words could possibly go with such a story.

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Time's up, and if "faster," "far faster," "fastest," or "unprecedented" didn't come to mind, then the odds are that you're not actually living on planet Earth in the year 2011.  Yes, a new study came out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that measures sea-level rise over the last 2,000 years and -- don't be shocked -- it's never risen faster than now.

Earlier in the week, there was that report on the state of the oceans produced by a panel of leading marine scientists.  Now, close your eyes and try again.  Really, this should be easy.  Just look at the previous paragraph and choose "unprecedented," and this time pair it with "loss of species comparable to the great mass extinctions of prehistory," or pick "far faster" (as in "the seas are degenerating far faster than anyone has predicted"), or for a change of pace, how about "more quickly" as in "more quickly than had been predicted" as the "world's oceans move into "extinction' phase."

Or consider a third story: arctic melting.  This time you're 100% correct!  It's "faster" again (as in "than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts" of 2007).  But don't let me bore you.  I won't even mention the burning southwest, or Arizona's Wallow fire, "the largest in state history," or Texas's "unprecedented wildfire season" (now "getting worse"), or the residents of Minot, North Dakota, abandoning their city to "unprecedented" floods, part of a deluge in the northern U.S. that is "unprecedented in modern times."

It's just superlatives and records all the way, and all thanks to those globally rising "record" temperatures and all those burning fossil fuels emitting "record" levels of greenhouse gases ("worst ever" in 2010) that so many governments, ours at the very top of the list, are basically ducking.  Now, multiply those fabulous adjectives and superlative events -- whether melting, dying, rising, or burning -- and you're heading toward the world of 2041, the one that TomDispatch energy expert and author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet Michael Klare writes about today.  It's a world where if we haven't kicked our fossil-fuel habit, we won't have superlatives strong enough to describe it. Tom

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The New Thirty Years' War
Winners and Losers in the Great Global Energy Struggle to Come

By Michael T. Klare

A 30-year war for energy preeminence?  You wouldn't wish it even on a desperate planet.  But that's where we're headed and there's no turning back.

From 1618 to 1648, Europe was engulfed in a series of intensely brutal conflicts known collectively as the Thirty Years' War. It was, in part, a struggle between an imperial system of governance and the emerging nation-state.  Indeed, many historians believe that the modern international system of nation-states was crystallized in the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which finally ended the fighting.

Think of us today as embarking on a new Thirty Years' War.  It may not result in as much bloodshed as that of the 1600s, though bloodshed there will be, but it will prove no less momentous for the future of the planet.  Over the coming decades, we will be embroiled at a global level in a succeed-or-perish contest among the major forms of energy, the corporations which supply them, and the countries that run on them.  The question will be: Which will dominate the world's energy supply in the second half of the twenty-first century?  The winners will determine how -- and how badly -- we live, work, and play in those not-so-distant decades, and will profit enormously as a result.  The losers will be cast aside and dismembered.

Why 30 years?  Because that's how long it will take for experimental energy systems like hydrogen power, cellulosic ethanol, wave power, algae fuel, and advanced nuclear reactors to make it from the laboratory to full-scale industrial development.  Some of these systems (as well, undoubtedly, as others not yet on our radar screens) will survive the winnowing process.  Some will not.  And there is little way to predict how it will go at this stage in the game.  At the same time, the use of existing fuels like oil and coal, which spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, is likely to plummet, thanks both to diminished supplies and rising concerns over the growing dangers of carbon emissions.

This will be a war because the future profitability, or even survival, of many of the world's most powerful and wealthy corporations will be at risk, and because every nation has a potentially life-or-death stake in the contest.  For giant oil companies like BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell, an eventual shift away from petroleum will have massive economic consequences.  They will be forced to adopt new economic models and attempt to corner new markets, based on the production of alternative energy products, or risk collapse or absorption by more powerful competitors.  In these same decades, new companies will arise, some undoubtedly coming to rival the oil giants in wealth and importance.

The fate of nations, too, will be at stake as they place their bets on competing technologies, cling to their existing energy patterns, or compete for global energy sources, markets, and reserves.  Because the acquisition of adequate supplies of energy is as basic a matter of national security as can be imagined, struggles over vital resources -- oil and natural gas now, perhaps lithium or nickel (for electric-powered vehicles) in the future -- will trigger armed violence.

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When these three decades are over, as with the Treaty of Westphalia, the planet is likely to have in place the foundations of a new system for organizing itself -- this time around energy needs.  In the meantime, the struggle for energy resources is guaranteed to grow ever more intense for a simple reason: there is no way the existing energy system can satisfy the world's future requirements.  It must be replaced or supplemented in a major way by a renewable alternative system or, forget Westphalia, the planet will be subject to environmental disaster of a sort hard to imagine today.

The Existing Energy Lineup

To appreciate the nature of our predicament, begin with a quick look at the world's existing energy portfolio.   According to BP, the world consumed 13.2 billion tons of oil-equivalent from all sources in 2010: 33.6% from oil, 29.6% from coal, 23.8% from natural gas, 6.5% from hydroelectricity, 5.2% from nuclear energy, and a mere 1.3% percent from all renewable forms of energy.  Together, fossil fuels -- oil, coal, and gas -- supplied 10.4 billion tons, or 87% of the total.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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