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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?)

So you hand out the teaspoons, and you, President Obama, and your cohorts begin furiously dipping out the water, spoonful by spoonful.

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.

"But wait!" cries Senator Inhofe, who’s been sitting in the back and providing oversight of teaspooning activities. "I am famished! When we were climbing into the lifeboat, I saw some snails on the bottom of the hull."

"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.

By the way, I am aware of only one technology that could take large amounts of CO2 back out of the atmosphere. It involves planting trees. Lots and lots of them. There are currently about 400 billion trees on our planet, and we would have to plant many times more than that, in order to suck up a trillion tons of CO2.
Let’s not count on that as a solution. I’m not sure we have room for all those trees.

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.

Well... math.

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.

Even if we reduce the amount of CO2 that humanity generates every year (an assumption that I believe is part of Dr. Allen’s model), we still don’t have long before we reach the limit.

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.

Visualize it.

If someone thinks that medium-sized increases in energy efficiency standards will allow us to get away with developing the tar sands or the oil shale, that person is a climate change denier, an opponent of math. The only way to avoid going past the trillion-and-first ton of CO2 is for all nations to leave that kind of oil in the ground.

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.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Climate denier? Maybe a bit of hyperbole, eh? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TomP, second gen, gramofsam1
    June 19, 2013 - President Obama delivered a major speech in Berlin today, covering a range of issues, including climate change. The speech comes one day after the conclusion of the 2013 G8 summit, which included strong climate language in its Leaders’ Communique. These remarks coincide with comments from Heather Zichal, the White House energy advisor, at a press event today.
    Following is a statement by Jennifer Morgan, Director, Climate and Energy Program, World Resources Institute:
    “In his speech today, President Obama reasserted that climate change is the global challenge of our time. The President made it crystal clear that the United States needs to do more to cut domestic emissions and should work toward a global climate agreement.

    “The President reaffirmed that this is a top tier issue that needs to be addressed by world leaders.

    Just sayin'

    Someone once asked me why do you always insist on taking the hard road? and I replied why do you assume I see two roads?

    by funluvn1 on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 10:24:06 AM PDT

    •  He says nice things (4+ / 0-)

      ... about the Constitution too. But he's overseen the destruction of the 4th Amendment. He says nice things about holding Wall Street accountable, but has never prosecuted a bankster criminal. This list goes on and on.

      •  And I don't care. I was addressing Climate Denier (4+ / 0-)

        One thing is not like all the others you brought up.  Not defending anything, just saying that it's pure hyperbole.  No question.

        Someone once asked me why do you always insist on taking the hard road? and I replied why do you assume I see two roads?

        by funluvn1 on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 10:34:26 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Don't tell me what you believe (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          DawnN, blueoasis

          Tell me what you do and ill tell you what you believe.  If the President talks about climate change but then acts exactly in a manner that shows he doesn't believe it, then he effectively a denier.  No question

          However, what he is actually going to do here is still unknown.  He has a big speech tomorrow which may announce real measures and if he also Denis keystone at that time, then this attack goes away.  If he instead gives us toothless words while expanding fossil fuels then he the charge is squarely deserved. He may also delay, which amounts to the same thing  

          We will see in the next six months.  

          Touch all that arises with a spirit of compassion. An activist seeks to change opinion.

          by Mindful Nature on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 11:29:07 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  Inaction speaks louder than words (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          We've heard more than enough lovely abstract speeches for Obama to last for several lifetimes.

          The President reaffirmed that this is a top tier issue that needs to be addressed by world leaders.
          Um...he IS one of those world leaders.

          His job is do do things.  Not to call on people like him to do things someday, somewhere.

          So how is he "address"-ing climate change?

          Perhaps the diarist is a little harsh, but do-nothing politics is what got us into runaway climate change, and more do-nothing politics ain't gonna get us out of it.

      •  You couldn't make a more false statement. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Nothing you've just stated is anywhere near being factually correct.

        Right man, right job and right time

        by Ianb007 on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 12:41:03 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  I'd love to be wrong. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DawnN, sreeizzle2012

      My point is that allowing the tar sands development to go forward would eclipse any other climate-change steps the administration might take. Allowing it to go forward would be ignoring the evidence, which is equivalent to denial.

      Others, such as sreeizzle2012 in the comments below, have cited indications that the President might be willing to block construction of the pipeline. I sincerely hope that is correct.

  •  Well done. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    And yes, he is a denier. Anyone who is pretending, for "practical" reasons or not, that we should be talking about anything but solutions that will actually rapidly halt carbon emissions and then reduce them, is, in effect, a denier of their own moral culpability.

    Add the median effective tax rate, healthcare costs (20%?), education costs, and other things guaranteed in Denmark & Sweden, we pay MORE for LESS. Somebody's gotta pay the billionaires. They don't grow on trees. ☮ ♥ ☺

    by Words In Action on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 10:25:02 AM PDT

    •  obama will be reducing (0+ / 0-)

      co2 emissions in existing power plants.

      how can he be a denier?

      your statement makes no sense.

      he has talked about climate change many times

      he just agreed to a climate change agreement with china for god sakes

      i have little patience with people who purposefully shut out all the positive realities and actions and think "only negative reality and sometimes false reality) is the "truth"

  •  Climate change is the global challenge of our (0+ / 0-)

    time and someone should do something about it.....but don't expect that to be me.  B.H.O.

    Not that I would expect he would be able to do something about it even if he was so motivated.  Between the Koch brothers and the crazy republican house.

  •  Any time someone makes a statement with a question (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TomP, gramofsam1, DawnN, jan4insight

    ...mark at the end of it, I get a twitch...

    "Corruptio Optimi Pessima" (Corruption of the best is the worst)

    by zenox on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 10:37:38 AM PDT

  •  obama (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Pinto Pony, gramofsam1, jan4insight

    has listened to environmentalists in 2012. He is not stupid. Your title is BEYOND ridiculous.

    Kerry is leaning against keystone.

    Nancy Pelosi passed climate change legislation. Obama wants Nancy Pelosi back and has said that he will sign legislation and fight for it once pelosi is back.

    •  I'm sorry you don't like the title, and (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DawnN, blueoasis

      ... and I'm not saying that the president is stupid, or that he hasn't listened to environmentalists.

      I'm saying that allowing the tar sands development to go forward would eclipse any other climate-change steps the administration might take. Allowing it to go forward would be ignoring the evidence, which is equivalent to denial. That would characterize anyone who facilitates the oil mining project, not just our president.

      The regulations and initiatives mentioned in the articles you cite are great. The administration deserves high praise for them. We're not arguing about that.

    •  That's a little amusing (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DawnN, blueoasis

      He has listened just prior to kicking environmentalists in the head repeatedly.  From ozone rules to endangered species protections, Obama has proven he is no environmentalist.

      If he continues in his current path of working to expand fossil fuel extraction through sweetheart lease deals and ignoring safety concerns in oil exploration then all the pretty words about how he would sign non existent legislation don't amount to anything.  

      Touch all that arises with a spirit of compassion. An activist seeks to change opinion.

      by Mindful Nature on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 11:32:44 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Great diary, bullshit title. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    CupaJoe, DawnN

    Assumptions begin with ass and end with shit.

    by Troubadour on Mon Jun 24, 2013 at 11:22:39 AM PDT

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