This is the first diary I’ve written in a very long time. To ease myself back into these waters, I’ll begin with an imperfect allegory and some childish pictures, below the fold.
An imperfect allegory and some childish pictures
Imagine you are stuck in a lifeboat with President Obama and a handful of other survivors after the shipwreck that was the Bush decade. You’re far from shore, and the lifeboat is riding low in the water. Also, it’s leaking, and not in the Edward Snowden sense. Your experienced nautical eye tells you the little craft has taken on about half the water it can hold before it sinks and leaves you, the president, and all the other passengers flailing in an inhospitable sea.
Fortunately, you have the following tools at hand that may assist in your survival:
• several teaspoons, which you had the foresight to snatch from the ship’s galley in the moments before you escaped. Good thinking.
• a power drill with a fully charged battery (how often does that happen?)
After some hours of this, it becomes clear that your efforts to remove water from the lifeboat simply cannot keep pace with all the leaks that are adding water to the lifeboat. President Obama also notices this fact, and with a thoughtful frown declares that he will soon deliver an important policy announcement regarding expelling water from the boat.
The president makes his way to the front of the boat, rummages in his pockets, and informs your little group that he has discovered and will soon deploy a number of tablespoons. Since a tablespoon is rather larger than a teaspoon, this should aid considerably in your race to stay afloat. Sounds of applause and exclamations of relief spread across the shark-infested waves.
"Now I've never been a fan of French food," he continues. "It’s against freedom and all, but I wouldn't say no to some es-car-gott right now."
Senator Inhofe snatches the power drill that you brought aboard, and begins to drill holes in the floor of the lifeboat. His intention, he says, is to obtain the snails without having to get out and swim in the dangerous waters. He rambles on for a bit... something about how sharks show no professional courtesy in these situations.
"We have the tablespoons now," he concludes. "Advanced technology. Mitigates the harm."
Some water and a few snails begin bubbling up through the decking around Inhofe’s toes. Are you the only passenger who sees where this is headed? You lock eyes with President Obama, wondering what he’s going to do next.
Should you, President Obama and the rest of the survivors:
(a) allow Inhofe to continue drilling for snails, or
(b) throw the senator over the side of the boat?
Our little lifeboat is already half full.
...of water, er, carbon dioxide. Greenhouse gases. You knew that’s what I was getting at with the silly allegory.
The physicist Myles Allen has estimated that, in order to avoid a global average temperature increase of more than 2° C, we can “afford” to put about 1 trillion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Not one trillion tons per year. Only 1 trillion tons ever, in total, for all of humanity. The trillion-and-first ton sends us over the edge (approximately).
In that estimate, when we reach 1 trillion tons of CO2 floating above our heads, we basically have to stop using fossil fuels completely, or count on going beyond a 2° C increase, which would be pretty hot. That’s more or less where the oceans start to acidify, remaining glaciers melt, and humanity faces drought, famine, mass migration and wars for resources.
The bad news is that we have already generated more than half of our trillion tons as a result of all the industrial activity over the past two centuries. It’s out there in the atmosphere right now, and it’s not going away – at least not for several hundred years.
Myles Allen’s model has us hitting the 1-trillion-ton mark around the year 2041. Then we would have to stop using fossil fuels cold turkey. I don’t imagine that transition would be easy.
But President Obama is actually doing something!
We’re all awaiting the unveiling of the Obama administration’s new policies to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas we put out. Many expect that the largest parts of the president’s initiative will include setting standards for greater efficiency in coal-burning power plants and similarly for things in our society that use electricity – appliances, industrial processes, home heating, etc.
Hooray! No kidding, that is wonderful!
Now we’re working with tablespoons!
Seriously, it is a good and important step. It’s just not enough to help us to avoid the trillion-and-first ton. It’s not enough to allow us to survive; not if we develop the Canadian tar sands and other “unconventional” oil sources.
Can’t we just compromise on Keystone? After all, President Obama is taking an “all of the above” approach.
Humanity can afford to produce a trillion tons of CO2, but half of that is already out there. Also, we put about 33 billion tons of CO2 into the air every year. About 6 billion tons come from the United States.
This picture shows things to scale.
Ambitious plans to make coal-fired power plants more efficient and to foster electricity savings on the demand side – plans such as those we might see in President Obama’s initiative – could reduce the U.S. contribution from about 6 billion tons to about 5.5 billion tons per year. Again, that’s great, but it’s not enough.
The big problem with the Keystone pipeline isn’t really the pipeline. The problem is that building the pipeline makes it possible to move a great deal of oil-containing material out of the tar sands in Alberta and send it to places where it will be refined and burned.
How much oil-containing material? Estimates vary. Assume that 1.6 trillion barrels of oil exist within the tar sands formation, and existing and new technology might allow producers to extract about a fifth of that amount. That would result in about 195 billion tons of CO2 produced, after you count all the energy spent during mining and refining, as well as the actual burning of the end product, and the impact of peat bogs in Alberta being lost to strip mining.
That’s almost 40% of humanity’s remaining carbon dioxide allowance. Building the pipeline facilitates the chain of events that will produce that enormous bubble of greenhouse gas. On the other hand, according to a recent Goldman Sachs report, NOT building the pipeline would essentially stop the tar sands development and prevent the petroleum from being taken out of the ground. NOT building the pipeline saves the day.
But the U.S. government under the Obama administration isn’t just focused on oil from Alberta’s tar sands. The Department of Energy has been funding projects to facilitate extraction of oil from our own Green River Basin shale formation, which is estimated to contain about a trillion barrels of oil. By now, you’re familiar with the calculation. That’s 120 billion tons of CO2, or a quarter of humanity’s remaining allowance.
The Keystone pipeline issue is not about ideological purity, and it’s not about appeasing the environmentalists. It’s literally about avoiding planet-wide catastrophe. You can’t negotiate with physics.
I admit it’s possible that very rapid development and construction of alternative energy systems could make expensive shale and tar sand operations economically unviable. However, it’s awfully risky to pin our hopes entirely on a race between technologies, without giving an edge to the one that will allow us to survive. If so much depends on making renewable energy the better economic choice, then we should give it every advantage we can. That includes doing whatever we can to make oil extraction the more expensive choice. That includes shutting down Keystone.
This week, I hope President Obama presents us with an audacious and aggressive plan to cut power plant emissions and develop alternative energy sources. But if he thinks that offsets the construction of the pipeline... well, that would make him a climate change denier.
What is President Obama going to do about Keystone? Moreover, if he approves it, what are YOU going to do about Keystone? We’re talking about the survival of your grandchildren.