The force of public opinion has never been more important; critically so!
As you all know this world of blogging: authors; followers; readers, is a great number of wonderful communities right across the planet. It is nothing like the traditional media, now owned and controlled by just a handful of large corporations, because the vast majority of blogging participants are free to say what they want, when they want.
Here’s an example.
Martin Lack is an Englishman who is the author of the blog Lack of Environment. As his home page quietly states:
Although scientificly trained (with degrees in Geology and Hydrogeology – see my About page), this blog arises from my having also got an MA in Environmental Politics and, as such, as the tagline indicates, is a blog on “the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems”… I hope you will take this on board; and enjoy the discussion.
“There is something fundamentally wrong in treating the Earth as if it were a business in liquidation” – Herman E. Daly (former World Bank economist).
The science about the chemistry of climate change especially the new danger of methane is clear. The commitment of our political leaders is less clear. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep shouting out loud.
The Prime Minister
10 Downing Street
London, SW1A 2AA
Dear Prime Minister,
Whatever happened to the greenest government ever?
Given my experience of working in environmental consultancy or regulation, I understand the importance of making pragmatic, risk-based decisions (as opposed to dogmatic, opinion-based ones). I therefore believe that government policy should be formulated this way. Unfortunately, however, this does not always seem to be the case.
As a pragmatic scientist, I am not ideologically opposed to nuclear power. However, I do question the logic of pursuing ‘Hinkley Point C’ when equivalent investment in distributed renewable technologies – from domestic solar PV to submarine tidal stream – could probably generate more electricity faster. Indeed, as Greenpeace has recently pointed out, the UK could meet nearly all its electricity generation needs from renewable energy sources by 2030.
With regard to risk, the scientific consensus is that, in order to minimise anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), the World must now embark upon the fastest-possible transition to a zero carbon economy. Therefore, I also question the logic of simultaneously promoting investment in shale gas; discouraging investment in renewables; and cancelling investment in Carbon Capture and Storage research.
It is now over 50 years since scientists started warning of the climatic implications of continuing to burn fossil fuels; and 50 years since fossil fuel company executives started spending huge sums of money on being “Merchants of Doubt”. As such, along with their counterparts in the tobacco industry, they have clearly not acted in the long-term interest of humanity as a whole.
However, as with the individual health benefit of ceasing to smoke tobacco, the sooner we stop burning fossil fuels the greater the collective environmental benefit will be. Therefore, I am pragmatically opposed to shale gas exploration because burning it is not consistent with the need to transition away from fossil fuels as fast as possible.
I am certain that you would like to secure an enduring political legacy; and would therefore like to ask just one question:
What could be better than being remembered as the Prime Minister that committed the UK to meeting nearly all its electricity generation needs from renewable energy sources by 2030?
Let me finish today’s post by republishing an exchange between Patrice Ayme and Martin over on a recent PA essay, that I republished in full in this place: Runaway Antarctica.
I know I am wasting my time writing letters to David Cameron; and I know my opinions are irrelevant. However, the facts of history are not; nor will they be in the future.
I know you are doing the right thing. Writing to Cameron is entirely correct. But of course, he is a guy with just a salary and a few “savings”, a few tens of millions dollars of savings, maybe, or maybe not, and knew nothing about his recently deceased father having a fund of around 50 million dollars sheltered by shell companies, out there, somewhere related to Panama, or the British Virgin Islands, or the Bahamas, or Bermuda, whatever…
OK, David’s wife, officially, has a fund of more than twenty million pounds….
For the record: I am socially-conservative (i.e. as opposed to liberal) but under no illusion as to the folly of what has been called ‘money fetishism’ (Karl Marx); and ‘growthmania’ (Herman E. Daly).
Hi Martin, thanks for the comment. I spent a whole hour reading the hard cover version of the paper the electronic version of which I criticized above. It’s quite a bit different. They use RCPs (Reasonable Carbon Projections, or the like in meaning). Yet, they don’t explain what they consist of exactly. All I know is that we are around 500 ppmv, and they work with 400 ppmv, in the 130 K-115 K years BP, when orbital conditions were cooler than now.
Plus we are going to be at 550 ppmv within ten years, at the present rate. The earliest date they have for the failure of Larsen C in their worst RCP 8.5 is 2055 CE. I would be surprised if it did not fail within ten years.
However, the paper version is more insistent on the danger of AIR warming, not just subsurface.
Also the Hansen paper has a scenario, which is suitably apocalyptic, but not apocalyptic enough in my book. Temperatures over the Arctic were strikingly high this winter, of the order of 4 to 5 degrees Centigrade higher than normal, and sometimes more. Nobody expected this sort of jumps. Except for yours truly!
As is the way of things, my post yesterday, The growth of empathy, unwittingly set the scene for today’s post. Here’s why!
In yesterday’s post I mentioned Fukushima and the power of blogging in connecting so many all across the world. Maurice Barry, who writes his own blog, left a comment:
Regarding Fukashima I’m still left wondering whether the real problem is the lack of social conscience in the top level leaders or the apathy of ordinary people like you and I who let them carry out their plans.
To which I replied, “Maybe just the power of 20:20 hindsight?”
So to today’s post.
One of the items in yesterday’s Naked Capitalism Links was the headline: Is there a media blackout on the fracking flood disaster in Colorado?That caught my eye and in a moment I had gone across to the blogsite: Bluedaze Drilling Reform.
This is what I read:
Is there a media blackout on the fracking flood disaster in Colorado?
I will update this post as residents send me pictures and video.
We need the national news stations to go cover the environmental disaster that’s happening in Colorado right now.
This picture taken by a resident is from yesterday.
From an email.
I see you’ve noticed the underwater wells in Weld County, Colorado. Amazing; we’ve emailed the Denver TV stations, other media, and state and local politicians. We’ve sent pictures that our members have taken. It’s like the media and politicians have been TOLD not to say anything about it. There has been no mention of the gas wells on the Denver newscasts either last night or this evening although all stations have had extensive and extended flood coverage. You can see underwater wells in the background of some of the newscast videos, and yet the reporters say absolutely nothing.
Here’s a picture one of our members took yesterday in Weld County, Colorado. We’ve got tons more on our website. Check it out. The tanks are tipping and, in some cases, have fallen over. They have to be leaking toxins into the flood waters. There have to be hundreds if not thousands of underwater well pads in Weld County as a result of the flooding.
Please publicize this in Texas since our media people and politicians have gone silent!
The reason I called today’s post ‘Questions without answers’ was because there are so many complex issues today. So many issues that cannot be understood in simple ‘question and answer’ ways. But one hope of finding answers to the complex questions of these times is through the sharing, caring ways of communicating that so many can access. No more passionately demonstrated than by TXSharon in her About section of her blog.
Finally, I shall leave you with another great dog picture from Chris Snuggs. So beautifully appropriate to the complex world we live in.
Our Planet is a living entity, which means…. well, allow Professor Klare to spell it out.
A few months back, specifically on the 3rd May, I reflected on views that the Planet Earth was a living entity responding to how it was treated. One of those views was the now-famous Gaia hypothesis from Prof. James Lovelock; the other idea, of an avenging planet, was from Michael T. Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College.
Then in June, Tom Engelhardt, of TomDispatch fame, published a further article from Professor Michael Klare. Tom’s generosity allows me the permission to re-publish the article, which is riveting reading.
Here’s the good news about energy: thanks to rising oil prices and deteriorating economic conditions worldwide, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that global oil demand will not grow this year as much as once assumed, which may provide some temporary price relief at the gas pump. In its May Oil Market Report, the IEA reduced its 2011 estimate for global oil consumption by 190,000 barrels per day, pegging it at 89.2 million barrels daily. As a result, retail prices may not reach the stratospheric levels predicted earlier this year, though they will undoubtedly remain higher than at any time since the peak months of 2008, just before the global economic meltdown. Keep in mind that this is the good news.
As for the bad news: the world faces an array of intractable energy problems that, if anything, have only worsened in recent weeks. These problems are multiplying on either side of energy’s key geological divide: below ground, once-abundant reserves of easy-to-get “conventional” oil, natural gas, and coal are drying up;above ground, human miscalculation and geopolitics are limiting the production and availability of specific energy supplies. With troubles mounting in both arenas, our energy prospects are only growing dimmer.
Here’s one simple fact without which our deepening energy crisis makes no sense: the world economy is structured in such a way that standing still in energy production is not an option. In order to satisfy the staggering needs of older industrial powers like the United States along with the voracious thirst of rising powers like China, global energy must grow substantially every year. According to the projections of the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), world energy output, based on 2007 levels, must rise 29% to 640 quadrillion British thermal units by 2025 to meet anticipated demand. Even if usage grows somewhat more slowly than projected, any failure to satisfy the world’s requirements produces a perception of scarcity, which also means rising fuel prices. These are precisely the conditions we see today and should expect for the indefinite future.
It is against this backdrop that three crucial developments of 2011 are changing the way we are likely to live on this planet for the foreseeable future.
The first and still most momentous of the year’s energy shocks was the series of events precipitated by the Tunisian and Egyptian rebellions and the ensuing “Arab Spring” in the greater Middle East. Neither Tunisia nor Egypt was, in fact, a major oil producer, but the political shockwaves these insurrections unleashed has spread to other countries in the region that are, including Libya, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. At this point, the Saudi and Omani leaderships appear to be keeping a tight lid on protests, but Libyan production, normally averaging approximately 1.7 million barrels per day, has fallen to near zero.
When it comes to the future availability of oil, it is impossible to overstate the importance of this spring’s events in the Middle East, which continue to thoroughly rattle the energy markets. According to all projections of global petroleum output, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states are slated to supply an ever-increasing share of the world’s total oil supply as production in key regions elsewhere declines. Achieving this production increase is essential, but it will not happen unless the rulers of those countries invest colossal sums in the development of new petroleum reserves — especially the heavy, “tough oil” variety that requires far more costly infrastructure than existing “easy oil” deposits.
In a front-page story entitled “Facing Up to the End of ‘Easy Oil,’” the Wall Street Journal noted that any hope of meeting future world oil requirements rests on a Saudi willingness to sink hundreds of billions of dollars into their remaining heavy-oil deposits. But right now, faced with a ballooning population and the prospects of an Egyptian-style youth revolt, the Saudi leadership seems intent on using its staggering wealth on employment-generating public-works programs and vast arrays of weaponry, not new tough-oil facilities; the same is largely true of the other monarchical oil states of the Persian Gulf.
Whether such efforts will prove effective is unknown. If a youthful Saudi population faced with promises of jobs and money, as well as the fierce repression of dissidence, has seemed less confrontational than their Tunisian, Egyptian, and Syrian counterparts, that doesn’t mean that the status quo will remain forever. “Saudi Arabia is a time bomb,” commented Jaafar Al Taie, managing director of Manaar Energy Consulting (which advises foreign oil firms operating in the region). “I don’t think that what the King is doing now is sufficient to prevent an uprising,” he added, even though the Saudi royals had just announced a $36-billion plan to raise the minimum wage, increase unemployment benefits, and build affordable housing.
At present, the world can accommodate a prolonged loss of Libyan oil. Saudi Arabia and a few other producers possess sufficient excess capacity to make up the difference. Should Saudi Arabia ever explode, however, all bets are off. “If something happens in Saudi Arabia, [oil] will go to $200 to $300 [per barrel],”said Sheikh Zaki Yamani, the kingdom’s former oil minister, on April 5th. “I don’t expect this for the time being, but who would have expected Tunisia?”
Nuclear Power on the Downward Slope
In terms of the energy markets, the second major development of 2011 occurred on March 11th when an unexpectedly powerful earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. As a start, nature’s two-fisted attack damaged or destroyed a significant proportion of northern Japan’s energy infrastructure, including refineries, port facilities, pipelines, power plants, and transmission lines. In addition, of course, it devastated four nuclear plants at Fukushima, resulting, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, in the permanent loss of 6,800 megawatts of electric generating capacity.
This, in turn, has forced Japan to increase its imports of oil, coal, and natural gas, adding to the pressure on global supplies. With Fukushima and other nuclear plants off line, industry analysts calculate that Japanese oil imports could rise by as much as 238,000 barrels per day, and imports of natural gas by 1.2 billion cubic feet per day (mostly in the form of liquefied natural gas, or LNG).
This is one major short-term effect of the tsunami. What about the longer-term effects? The Japanese government now claims it is scrapping plans to build as many as 14 new nuclear reactors over the next two decades. On May 10th, Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced that the government would have to “start from scratch” in devising a new energy policy for the country. Though he speaks of replacing the cancelled reactors with renewable energy systems like wind and solar, the sad reality is that a significant part of any future energy expansion will inevitably come from more imported oil, coal, and LNG.
The disaster at Fukushima — and ensuing revelations of design flaws and maintenance failures at the plant — has had a domino effect, causing energy officials in other countries to cancel plans to build new nuclear plants or extend the life of existing ones. The first to do so was Germany: on March 14th, Chancellor Angela Merkelclosed two older plants and suspended plans to extend the life of 15 others. On May 30th, her government made the suspension permanent. In the wake of mass antinuclear rallies and an election setback, she promised to shut all existing nuclear plants by 2022, which, experts believe, will result in an increase in fossil-fuel use.
China also acted swiftly, announcing on March 16th that it would stop awarding permits for the construction of new reactors pending a review of safety procedures, though it did not rule out such investments altogether. Other countries, including India and the United States, similarly undertook reviews of reactor safety procedures, putting ambitious nuclear plans at risk. Then, on May 25th, the Swiss government announced that it would abandon plans to build three new nuclear power plants, phase out nuclear power, and close the last of its plants by 2034, joining the list of countries that appear to have abandoned nuclear power for good.
How Drought Strangles Energy
The third major energy development of 2011, less obviously energy-connected than the other two, has been a series of persistent, often record, droughts gripping many areas of the planet. Typically, the most immediate and dramatic effect of prolonged drought is a reduction in grain production, leading to ever-higher food prices and ever more social turmoil.
Intense drought over the past year in Australia, China, Russia, and parts of theMiddle East, South America, the United States, and most recently northern Europehas contributed to the current record-breaking price of food — and this, in turn, has been a key factor in the political unrest now sweeping North Africa, East Africa, and the Middle East. But drought has an energy effect as well. It can reduce the flow of major river systems, leading to a decline in the output of hydroelectric power plants, as is now happening in several drought-stricken regions.
By far the greatest threat to electricity generation exists in China, which is suffering from one of its worst droughts ever. Rainfall levels from January to April in the drainage basin of the Yangtze, China’s longest and most economically important river, have been 40% lower than the average of the past 50 years, according toChina Daily. This has resulted in a significant decline in hydropower and severe electricity shortages throughout much of central China.
The Chinese are burning more coal to generate electricity, but domestic mines no longer satisfy the country’s needs and so China has become a major coal importer. Rising demand combined with inadequate supply has led to a spike in coal prices, and with no comparable spurt in electricity rates (set by the government), many Chinese utilities are rationing power rather than buy more expensive coal and operate at a loss. In response, industries are upping their reliance on diesel-powered backup generators, which in turn increases China’s demand for imported oil, putting yet more pressure on global fuel prices.
Wrecking the Planet
So now we enter June with continuing unrest in the Middle East, a grim outlook for nuclear power, and a severe electricity shortage in China (and possibly elsewhere). What else do we see on the global energy horizon?
Despite the IEA’s forecast of diminished future oil consumption, global energy demand continues to outpace increases in supply. From all indications, this imbalance will persist.
Take oil. A growing number of energy analysts now agree that the era of “easy oil” has ended and that the world must increasingly rely on hard-to-get “tough oil.” It is widely assumed, moreover, that the planet harbors a lot of this stuff — deep underground, far offshore, in problematic geological formations like Canada’s tar sands, and in the melting Arctic. However, extracting and processing tough oil will prove ever more costly and involve great human, and even greater environmental, risk. Think: BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster of April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico.
Such is the world’s thirst for oil that a growing amount of this stuff will nonetheless be extracted, even if not, in all likelihood, at a pace and on a scale necessary to replace the disappearance of yesterday’s and today’s easy oil. Along with continued instability in the Middle East, this tough-oil landscape seems to underlie expectations that the price of oil will only rise in the coming years. In a poll of global energy company executives conducted this April by the KPMG Global Energy Institute, 64% of those surveyed predicted that crude oil prices will cross the $120 per barrel barrier before the end of 2011. Approximately one-third of them predicted that the price would go even higher, with 17% believing it would reach $131-$140 per barrel; 9%, $141-$150 per barrel; and 6%, above the $150 mark.
The price of coal, too, has soared in recent months, thanks to mounting worldwide demand as supplies of energy from nuclear power and hydroelectricity have contracted. Many countries have launched significant efforts to spur the development of renewable energy, but these are not advancing fast enough or on a large enough scale to replace older technologies quickly. The only bright spot, experts say, is the growing extraction of natural gas from shale rock in the United States through the use of hydraulic fracturing (“hydro-fracking”).
Proponents of shale gas claim it can provide a large share of America’s energy needs in the years ahead, while actually reducing harm to the environment when compared to coal and oil (as gas emits less carbon dioxide per unit of energy released); however, an expanding chorus of opponents are warning of the threat to municipal water supplies posed by the use of toxic chemicals in the fracking process. These warnings have proven convincing enough to lead lawmakers in a growing number of statesto begin placing restrictions on the practice, throwing into doubt the future contribution of shale gas to the nation’s energy supply. Also, on May 12th, the French National Assembly (the powerful lower house of parliament)voted 287 to 146 to ban hydro-fracking in France, becoming the first nation to do so.
The environmental problems of shale gas are hardly unique. The fact is that all of the strategies now being considered to extend the life-spans of oil, coal, and natural gas involve severe economic and environmental risks and costs — as, of course, does the very use of fossil fuels of any sort at a moment when the first IEA numbers for 2010 indicate that it was an unexpectedly record-breaking year for humanity when it came to dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
With the easily accessible mammoth oil fields of Texas, Venezuela, and the Middle East either used up or soon to be significantly depleted, the future of oil rests on third-rate stuff like tar sands, shale oil, and extra-heavy crude that require a lot of energy to extract, processes that emit added greenhouse gases, and as with those tar sands, tend to play havoc with the environment.
Shale gas is typical. Though plentiful, it can only be pried loose from underground shale formations through the use of explosives and highly pressurized water mixed with toxic chemicals. In addition, to obtain the necessary quantities of shale oil, many tens of thousands of wells will have to be sunk across the American landscape, any of one of which could prove to be an environmental disaster.
Likewise, the future of coal will rest on increasingly invasive and hazardous techniques, such as the explosive removal of mountaintops and the dispersal of excess rock and toxic wastes in the valleys below. Any increase in the use of coal will also enhance climate change, since coal emits more carbon dioxide than do oil and natural gas.
Here’s the bottom line: Any expectations that ever-increasing supplies of energy will meet demand in the coming years are destined to be disappointed. Instead, recurring shortages, rising prices, and mounting discontent are likely to be the thematic drumbeat of the globe’s energy future.
If we don’t abandon a belief that unrestricted growth is our inalienable birthright and embrace the genuine promise of renewable energy (with the necessary effort and investment that would make such a commitment meaningful), the future is likely to prove grim indeed. Then, the history of energy, as taught in some late twenty-first-century university, will be labeled: How to Wreck the Planet 101.
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, ofRising Powers, Shrinking Planet. A documentary movie version of his previous book, Blood and Oil, is available from the Media Education Foundation. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Klare discusses the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and resource conflicts, click here, or download it to your iPod here.