TomDispatch – The Great American Carbon Bomb.

A powerful and insightful essay from Bill McKibben about our love affair with carbon-based energy.


I subscribe to a number of Blogs and one of them is TomDispatch.  Here’s how Tom describes what the writings are all about.

Tom Engelhardt launched Tomdispatch in November 2001 as an e-mail publication offering commentary and collected articles from the world press. In December 2002, it gained its name, became a project of The Nation Institute, and went online as “a regular antidote to the mainstream media.” The site now features Tom Engelhardt’s regular commentaries and the original work of authors ranging from Rebecca Solnit, Bill McKibben, and Mike Davis to Chalmers Johnson, Michael Klare, Adam Hochschild, Robert Lipsyte, and Elizabeth de la Vega. Nick Turse, who also writes for the site, is associate editor and research director.

Tomdispatch is intended to introduce readers to voices and perspectives from elsewhere (even when the elsewhere is here). Its mission is to connect some of the global dots regularly left unconnected by the mainstream media and to offer a clearer sense of how this imperial globe of ours actually works.

I read the TomDispatch essay from Bill McKibben on the 14th.  It caught my eye, not only because of the power of Bill’s conclusions, but also because I was deeply impressed with Bill’s book ‘eaarth’, which I reviewed on Learning from Dogs here and here.

Tom Engelhardt has given written permission for that TomDispatch to be re-published in full on Learning from Dogs.  It now follows.

First the introduction by Tom Engelhardt,

The Great American Carbon Bomb

These days, even ostriches suffer from heat waves.  More than 1,000 of them reportedly died from overheating on South African farms during a 2010 drought.  As for American ostriches, the human variety anyway, at the moment it should be increasingly hard for them to avoid extreme-weather news. After all, whether you’re in sweltering heat, staggering drought, a record fire season, or a massive flood zone, most of us are living through weird weather this year.  And if you’re one of the lucky few not in an extreme-weather district of the USA, you still won’t have a problem running across hair-raising weather stories, ranging from the possible loss of one out of every ten species on this planet by century’s end to the increasing inability of the oceans to soak up more atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Then, of course, there are those other headlines.  Here’s a typical one: “As Water Rises, Florida Officials Sit on Their Hands” (a former member of the just abolished Florida Energy and Climate Commission points out that, thanks to Republican governor Rick Scott and the legislature in the part of the country most vulnerable to rising sea levels, “there is no state entity addressing climate change and its impact”).  And here’s another: “Economy Keeps Global Warming on the Back Burner for 2012” (American climate-change “skeptics” are celebrating because “the tide of the debate — at least politically — has turned in their favor” and “political experts say that… concerns over global warming won’t carry much weight in the 2012 election”).   And then there are the polls indicating Americans are confused about the unanimity of the scientific consensus on climate change, surprisingly dismissive of global-warming dangers, worry less about it than they did a decade ago, and of major environmental issues, worry least about it.

It’s true, of course, that no weird-weather incident you experience can definitively be tied to climate change and other factors are involved.  Still, are we a nation of overheating ostriches?  It’s a reasonable enough conclusion, and in a sense, not so surprising.  After all, how does anyone react upon discovering that his or her way of life is the crucial problem, that fossil fuels, which keep our civilization powered up and to which our existence is tethered, are playing havoc with the planet?

TomDispatch regular Bill McKibben, author most recently of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, is a man deeply committed to transforming us from climate-change ostriches to climate-change eagles.  Perhaps it’s time, he suggests, for the environmental movement to get one heck of a lot blunter. Tom

Here’s the essay from Bill,

Will North America Be the New Middle East?
It’s Yes or No For a Climate-Killing Oil Pipeline — and Obama Gets to Make the Call 

By Bill McKibben

The climate problem has moved from the abstract to the very real in the last 18 months.  Instead of charts and graphs about what will happen someday, we’ve got real-time video: first Russia burning, then Texas and Arizona on fire.  First Pakistansuffered a deluge, then Queensland, Australia, went underwater, and this spring and summer, it’s the Midwest that’s flooding at historic levels.

The year 2010 saw the lowest volume of Arctic ice since scientists started to measure, more rainfall on land than any year in recorded history, and the lowest barometric pressure ever registered in the continental United States.  Measured on a planetary scale, 2010 tied 2005 as the warmest year in history.  Jeff Masters, probably the world’s most widely read meteorologist, calculated that the year featured the most extreme weather since at least 1816, when a giant volcano blew its top.

Since we’re the volcano now, and likely to keep blowing, here’s his prognosis: “The ever-increasing amounts of heat-trapping gases humans are emitting into the air put tremendous pressure on the climate system to shift to a new, radically different, warmer state, and the extreme weather of 2010-2011 suggests that the transition is already well underway.”

There’s another shift, too, and that’s in the response from climate-change activists. For the first two decades of the global-warming era, the suggested solutions to the problem had been as abstract as the science that went with it: complicated schemes like the Kyoto Protocol, or the cap-and-trade agreement that died in Congress in 2010.  These were attempts to solve the problem of climate change via complicated backstage maneuvers and manipulations of prices or regulations.  They failed in large part because the fossil-fuel industry managed, at every turn, to dilute or defang them.

Clearly the current Congress is in no mood for real regulation, so — for the moment anyway — the complicated planning is being replaced by a simpler rallying cry. When it comes to coal, oil, and natural gas, the new mantra of activists is simple, straightforward, and hard to defang: Keep it in the ground!

Two weeks ago, for instance, a few veteran environmentalists, myself included, issued a call for protest against Canada’s plans to massively expand oil imports from the tar sands regions of Alberta.  We set up a new website,, and judging from the early response, it could result in the largest civil disobedience actions in the climate-change movement’s history on this continent, as hundreds, possibly thousands, of concerned activists converge on the White House in August. They’ll risk arrest to demand something simple and concrete from President Obama: that he refuse to grant a license for Keystone XL, a new pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico that would vastly increase the flow of tar sands oil through the U.S., ensuring that the exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands will only increase.

Forget the abstract and consider the down-and-dirty instead. You can undoubtedly guess some of the reasons for opposition to such a pipeline.  It’s wrecking native lands in Canada, and potential spills from that pipeline could pollute some of the most important ranchlands and aquifers in America. (Last week’s Yellowstone River spill was seen by many as a sign of what to expect.)

There’s an even bigger reason to oppose the pipeline, one that should be on the minds of even those of us who live thousands of miles away: Alberta’s tar sands are the continent’s biggest carbon bomb.  Indeed, they’re the second largest pool of carbon on planet Earth, following only Saudi Arabia’s slowly dwindling oilfields.

If you could burn all the oil in those tar sands, you’d run the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 390 parts per million (enough to cause the climate havoc we’re currently seeing) to nearly 600 parts per million, which would mean if not hell, then at least a world with a similar temperature. It won’t happen overnight, thank God, but according to the planet’s most important climatologist, James Hansen, burning even a substantial portion of that oil would mean it was “essentially game over” for the climate of this planet.

Halting that pipeline wouldn’t solve all tar sands problems.  The Canadians will keep trying to get it out to market, but it would definitely ensure that more of that oil will stay in the ground longer and that, at least, would be a start.  Even better, the politics of it are simple. For once, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives can’t get in the way.  The president alone decides if the pipeline is “in the national interest.” There are, however, already worrisome signs within the Obama administration.  Just this week, based on a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, Neela Banerjee of the Los Angeles Timesreported that, in 2009, the State Department’s “energy envoy” was already instructing Alberta’s fossil-fuel barons in how to improve their “oil sands messaging,” including “increasing visibility and accessibility of more positive news stories.” This is the government version of Murdochian-style enviro-hacking, and it leads many to think that the new pipeline is already a done deal.

Still, the president can say no.  If he does, then no pipeline — and in the words of Alberta’s oil minister, his province will be “landlocked in bitumen” (the basic substance from which tar-sands oil is extracted). Even energy-hungry China, eager as it is for new sources of fossil fuels, may not be able to save him, since native tribes are doing a remarkable job of blocking another proposed pipeline to the Canadian Pacific.  Oil, oil everywhere, and nary a drop to sell. (Unfortunately that’s not quite true, but at least there won’t be a big new straw in this milkshake.)

An Obama thumbs-down on the pipeline could change the economics of the tar sands in striking ways. “Unless we get increased [market] access, like with Keystone XL, we’re going to be stuck,” said Ralph Glass, an economist and vice-president at AJM Petroleum Consultants in Calgary.

Faced with that prospect, Canada’s oilmen are growing desperate. Earlier this month, in a classic sleight of hand, they announced plans for a giant “carbon capture and sequestration” scheme at the tar sands. That’s because when it comes to global warming, tar sands oil is even worse than, say, Saudi oil because it’s a tarry muck, not a liquid, and so you have to burn a lot of natural gas to make it flow in the first place.

Now, the oil industry is proposing to capture some of the extra carbon from that cooking process and store it underground.  This is an untested method, and the accounting scheme Alberta has adopted for it may actually increase the province’s emmissions.  Even if it turns out to work perfectly and captures the carbon from that natural gas that would have escaped into the atmosphere, the oil they’re proposing to ship south for use in our gas tanks would still be exactly as bad for the atmosphere as Saudi crude. In other words, in the long run it would still be “essentially game over” for the climate.

The Saudis, of course, built their oil empire long before we knew that there was anything wrong with burning oil. The Canadians — with American help, if Obama obliges the oil lobby — are building theirs in the teeth of the greatest threat the world has ever faced. We can’t unbuild those Saudi Arabian fields, though happily their supplies are starting to slowly dwindle. What we can still do, though, is prevent North America from becoming the next Middle East.

So there will be a battle, and there will be nothing complicated or abstract about it.  It will be based on one question: Does that carbon stay in the earth, or does it pour into the atmosphere?  Given the trillions of dollars at stake it will be a hard fight, and there’s no guarantee of victory. But at least there’s no fog here, no maze of technicalities.

The last climate bill, the one the Senate punted on, was thousands of pages long. This time there’s a single sheet of paper, which Obama signs… or not.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of, and a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book, just out in paperback, is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Copyright 2011 Bill McKibben

Final note from yours truly.

Guess what I read about on the BBC News website on the 15th, the day that I put this article together?  I read about a fabulous new ship about to start construction at the Samsung Heavy Industries shipyard in South Korea.  When launched and loaded, at 600,000 tonnes, it will be the world’s largest ship.  Wow that’s impressive!

Now read here as to what is the purpose of this ‘ship’.  Here’s a flavour of that BBC news item,

Shell has unveiled plans to build the world’s first floating liquefied natural gas (FLNG) platform. The 600,000-tonne behemoth – the world’s biggest “ship” – will be sited off the coast of Australia. But how will it work?

FLNG project in figures

Deep beneath the world’s oceans are huge reservoirs of natural gas. Some are hundreds or thousands of miles from land, or from the nearest pipeline.

Tapping into these “stranded gas” resources has been impossible – until now.

At Samsung Heavy Industries’ shipyard on Geoje Island in South Korea, work is about to start on a “ship” that, when finished and fully loaded, will weigh 600,000 tonnes.

That is six times as much as the biggest US aircraft carrier.

By 2017 the vessel should be anchored off the north coast of Australia, where it will be used to harvest natural gas from Shell’s Prelude field.

Yes, it’s more technology to enable us to use more carbon!  As the article (just) touches on,

But there has been opposition from environmentalists. Martin Pritchard from Environs Kimberley says he is concerned about the potential for “oil leaks and spills”.

WWF Western Australia, [my inserted link, Ed.] meanwhile, argues that the underwater wellheads and pipelines will harm the tropical marine environment, and estimates the project will emit more than two million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year.

Sort of reminds me of that old Devonshire saying (and you need to imagine hearing it in that wonderful dialect that just still exists in this far part of SW England)

“All the world’s a little queer except thee and me …. and I have me doubts about thee!”

We are all very ‘queer’ indeed!

8 thoughts on “TomDispatch – The Great American Carbon Bomb.

  1. A related problem has been the unwillingness to develop new energy sources. when one talks new, people think of wind and sun, already used for millennia. So was water.

    It’s true that solar has a great future. And fundamental, needed research is done there.

    There are about 100 new nuclear technologies possible, some apparently with no waste, and no risk. Problem: lots of research needs to be done, and is not done, because of various superstitions relative to word “nuclear”.

    Nuclear power is TEN MILLION times more powerful than chemicals. To refuse it is to refuse to go to space (it’s very difficult to go just to geostationary orbit with chemicals… let alone the Moon, or Mars).

    I did an essay on this,

    A bit more was learned in the meantime, especially about the absurd accident in Japan, which was not all the fault of nuclear engineers, as geologists had guaranteed, absurdly, that the faults offshore the plant were too short to make a big quake. Several of the same sort of plant, slightly modified sailed through the tsunami (although they are very old, and very bad).


    1. Thanks Paul. No, did not read it. Most of my activity consists into forging relentlessly ahead in the great unknown. I am working hard on:”What Is Thought?”

      I looked at the site, though, just a bit. I do not see why people have always to express their optimism, resiliency of the human species, etc.

      All the evidence is that we have an unprecedented situation for the biosphere. Not even an asteroid impact or a mantle plume eruption can approach what is going on. And, worse of all, it’s not the hand of fate which is supposed to re-establish the biosphere, but a bunch of corrupted, know nothing clowns, mesmerized by themselves and illusory riches. It would be laughable, were it not so tragic


      1. I not sure I see it as you outline, although I am sympathetic with you, nay anyone, who feels this way. It’s more complex, very much so. But on the back of Gilding’s book, I will explore this aspect in the next couple of weeks.


      2. Dear Paul: There is a gentleman leading the Tour de France, right now. He was not given a chance, especially in the mountains. However, he has been going day by day, and has now worn the Yellow Jersey for more than a week, supported by his inferior, but dedicated team. His philosophy: humility, and do the job day by day, trying his best, although he strongly doubts that he is up to the task.

        We, as humankind, or, rather, our hubristic leaders are doing the exact opposite. We are not doing our best, and it’s precisely because those leaders are not humble and not honest, and so very sure we are going to pull out OK, because that’s what we do best, and have always done, and thus will always do.

        Verily all indicators are that of an unfolding catastrophe. All signals are loud and clear that way. So it’s really not the moment to say:”Oh, BTW, we are very resilient and totally great, so it’s just a matter of time before we put it all together OK. So now let’s all pull together, and it’s fine.”

        In truth we are on the verge of an irreversible situation, as the CO2 poisoning will turn, within a decade or so, into a political, and then military issue.


  2. Patrice, I agree with 99% of what you write. The only aspect that doesn’t sit comfortably with me is the issue of blame. In the sense that, yes, we, as in humankind, are the architects of the irreversible change unfolding. But not in the sense that we can point the finger at any one group. Gilding expresses this in a much better way than I’m struggling to so do. But the book is not in front of me just now.

    I’m going to pick up on your point, match it with Gilding’s view and make it a separate post soon.



  3. Dear Paul: You start to remember me of my Mom, who does not like it, when it’s midnight her time, and I attribute blame to Murderoch.

    I do believe that there are people (say Hitler), who are to blame. They think they are in a higher sphere, well above us critters. This is the Achilles heel of representative Dear Paul: You start to remember me of my Mom, who does not like it, when it’s midnight her time, and I attribute blame to Murderoch.

    I do believe that there are people (say Hitler), who are to blame. They think they are in a higher sphere, well above us critters. This is the Achilles heel of representative democracy; too much power can be attributed, through a self selection process of the most pathological individuals.

    Some will say I am versing in utopia. But I notice that Switzerland works fine, with a system which attributes much less power to any one single individual. The Swiss Federal Council, with 7 members, leads, and has a majority of women.

    In the present system in most of the West, ignorant, arrogant, greedy types end up deciding everything, for everybody, and they are bought easily by plutocrats. See Scotland Yard.

    Plutocrats? Those are the ones with the helicopters, for their private use, when more and more of us go without the basic necessities. 50 million Americans on food stamps is directly related to the richest Americans being relatively richer than ever. And it’s related to the lethal, shameful, idiotic circus in, say, Afghanistan. Obama was a boy with his toy, in Afghanistan. That’s the entire sense, no more. Same with the deficit: it could have been easily controlled, but the children did not want to. So they did not, when they could.


    1. Patrice, your passion is wonderful and your time donated in replying much appreciated. Let me put this conversation on hold until I have written a post which debates this aspect. Paul


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