Peak oil and global warming
...Global warming is the other side of the coin of Peak Oil. That is, in the process of rapidly depleting the Earth's supply of fossil fuels, mankind is also playing a life-threatening experiment with the Earth's atmosphere...
By Byron King
- The intellectual content of the Association For The Study Of Peak Oil And Gas (ASPO) conference was truly like taking a drink of water from a fire hydrant. I mean it. There was so much there that I was learning something new with almost every presentation.
- The first evening of the ASPO conference kicked off with three lectures on the subject of global warming (GW). Why global warming? Because it is what you get when you burn up lots of fossil, carbon-based fuels and load the atmosphere with excess levels of carbon dioxide (CO2).
- GW is the other side of the coin of Peak Oil. That is, in the process of rapidly depleting the Earth's supply of fossil fuels, mankind is also playing a life-threatening experiment with the Earth's atmosphere. Life-threatening? You had better believe it. If you are not worried, get worried.
- Dartmouth professor and climatologist Cameron Wake gave a presentation about the current buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere. Wake's research includes reviewing more than a century of very accurate, chemical measurements of atmospheric CO2, a period that covers the vast majority of the industrial era.
- As one might expect, CO2 levels have increased dramatically over the past century as coal, oil, and natural gas have been burned in immense quantity and scope. Recent figures for CO2 releases, including the breakneck industrialization of China and India, yield charts that accelerate upward on a skyrocketing trajectory.
- Wake also made reference to Antarctic ice core measurements, in ice strata dating back about 420,000 years, analyzed by Russian, European, and US scientists. The bottom line is that CO2 levels have increased dramatically in the past century, to levels experienced, by comparison, only during the warmest interglacial periods during the past half million years.
- This has contributed to a consistent pattern of surface warming, on land as well as at sea, in the form of ocean warming. There have been measurable alterations to climates across the world, to include a measurable increase in the rate of ice melting in Greenland and Antarctica. So no, dear readers, "climate change" is not just some Internet conspiracy. It is empirically demonstrable.
- Wake's research on the climate of New England and the Canadian Maritimes has demonstrated relationships between increased CO2 and increased temperatures, and an increased occurrence of "extreme weather" events, such as longer droughts and more intense periods of rainfall and snowfall when the droughts break. This has ominous implications for agriculture, forestry, flood management, emergency planning, and general public safety.
- Harvard geology professor and former MacArthur Fellowship recipient Dan Schrag picked up where Wake left off. Schrag, a geochemist by training, noted that CO2 levels are rapidly increasing due to man-made causes, to levels that the Earth has not experienced in almost 30 million years, meaning since Eocene times.
- Back then, there were no ice sheets at all in the polar regions of the Earth, and fern trees and critters like alligators actually thrived where now there is only ice. Sea level was more than 200 feet higher than it is today, what with immense amounts of water presently locked up in ice sheets, and the "thermal shrinking" of the world's oceans at the current, relatively cooler temperatures.
- The immense problem with all of this is that mankind is fundamentally altering the character of the Earth's atmosphere in the course of a mere century or so, and changing an atmospheric system that has otherwise taken hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years to evolve.
- This constitutes an irreversible experiment with the Earth's atmosphere, and on a planetary scale. "Yes," said Schrag, "science is uncertain about a lot of what is happening. But most of what we do not know about these rapid changes in conditions is dangerous."
- Just a few feet of rise in sea level, which could occur in as little as 20 years if the Greenland ice sheets melted, would convert vast tracts of the world's coastal areas into uninhabitable tidal zones. And Schrag believes that the ice of Greenland will eventually melt, probably sooner than later. Unless you are rather elderly, you will probably live to see it. Things could, of course, be worse, depending on how a great number of related and dynamic natural systems play out.
- Schrag noted that GW and climate change make up more than just an environmental issue. It is a critical economic and national security issue. It is of such importance as to be beyond a partisan issue, and Schrag believes that GW and climate change will (or at least certainly should) become major issues in the 2008 presidential election.
- Yet this is one issue that is now barely on the radar screen of the world's policymakers, but is simultaneously an overarching issue that transcends what are otherwise considered the issues of supreme national interest of nations across the world.
- Is there a solution to the GW problem? Certainly not in any short-term sense, and probably not in the medium term. There is far too much economic and political momentum for mankind to stop, let alone to reverse, the trends toward using more and more fossil fuels going forward (other than Peak Oil, of course). And much of the CO2 that has already entered the atmosphere has not even begun to reveal itself in observable changes to climate patterns.
- A quick rundown of Schrag's proposed policy solutions carbon-based fossil fuel with carbon-neutral, if not carbon-free, energy sources. Energy production will have to trend rapidly toward renewable energy, with nuclear power included in the mix.
- Another presentation in the GW theme of the first evening of the ASPO conference, by an energy economist named Charles Komanoff, focused on how to make markets work to address carbon emission issues.
- Komanoff went through a series of mathematical explanations that were remarkable in demonstrating how relatively low-cost some of the policy solutions might really be. With a "carbon tax" on all fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) at the equivalent of about $1 per gallon of gasoline, it is possible to envision a stunning amount of change in energy usage patterns, and in the increased use of carbon-mitigating technology such as wind power and photovoltaic systems.
- Yes, changing energy technology will cost a lot of money. But then, mankind burns a lot of carbon, so a carbon tax will also raise a lot of revenue and alter a lot of behaviour at the margin.
- Komanoff was careful to emphasize that carbon taxes are, in essence, "use taxes," that force people who add carbon to the atmosphere to pay for the deed. Thus, the people who are using the most carbon-based energy, and thereby contributing the most to GW and by implication drowning the world's coastlines with Greenland and Antarctic ice melt, will be the ones who pay for it.
- And any revenues raised by government entities through carbon taxes should be offset, according to Komanoff, with tax reductions elsewhere, such as in reduced payroll taxes.
- Well, I sure wish that it were that simple, but all of you who are reading this probably know that it is not. Global warming and climate change is empirically demonstrable, and a serious issue that will both literally and figuratively alter the world for the rest of all of our lives. No one will outlive it. And you cannot buy your way out of it.