Earlier this year, author/activist Bill McKibben joked that people will not take climate change seriously until a hurricane swamps Manhattan. I'm reminded of the Neocons praying for a "new Pearl Harbor" to get their wars on - McKibben's jest turned prophetic when Hurricane Sandy slammed New York, prompting Mayor Bloomberg to endorse Obama because he recognizes climate change as a problem.
Others, such as National Review Editor Rich Lowry, discount the possibility that climate change could be responsible for Hurricane Sandy, as there have been other equally devastating storms in New York, going back to the mid-19th century. This is true: Sandy is not unprecedented. But it's the frequency of these superstorms and severe droughts in our time that cause concern.
Neither is our current warm period unprecedented: The Medieval Warm Period, when Vikings grew vineyards on Greenland, was about as warm as we are now. (The IPCC made an overzealous mistake trying to airbrush the MWP out of history.) Before this, the Roman Warm Period was even hotter than the Medieval. Go back millions of years, and ice core data graphs spike up like mountain ranges, going back to the age of dinosaurs. The salient difference, of course, is that in all these past eras the earth was not teeming with seven billion humans, many of them crowded on vulnerable coastlines, and dependent on a certain level of climactic stability to produce the mega-tonnage of food we all consume annually.
We have been on a long-term warming trend since the Industrial Revolution ended the Little Ice Age, with a clear temperature spike in recent decades, coincident with rising carbon emissions, both trending upward. About half of our emissions are absorbed by the oceans, greatly acidifying them; the rest remains in the atmosphere.
The prevailing consensus of climate scientists is that we can burn another 565 gigatons of fossil fuel by the year 2050 and still keep the average global temperature from rising above 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, which supposedly would be a red line. Go above that, and positive feedback loops, such as the melting of tundra permafrost and release of vast methane stores, could make major cities in the U.S. more hellish than Phoenix in summer, and forget the amber waves of grain in the Midwest - just fodder for a greater inferno than we witnessed this summer, when 346 homes were toasted in Colorado Springs.
Or is this just ever-present apocalyptic paranoia programmed into computer models? Those who do not trust scientists should heed the insurance companies and the Carbon Tracking Initiative (CIT), a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists who recently published a paper advising investors about risks that climate change pose to their portfolios. They estimated the total sum of known oil and gas reserves in the world at present at 2,795 gigatons. Given that carbon emissions have been increasing by 3% annually, this means that the 565-gigaton red line will be reached in only 16 years.
That 2,795 gigatons of fossil fuel still in the ground is worth approximately $27 trillion. The world is addicted to oil, and many fortunes are addicted to the astronomical profits of supplying it, and reluctant to acknowledge any reality that could undermine the value of those assets - such as the widespread adoption of alternative, renewable energy supplies. But the CIT analysts advised their clients, many heavily invested in oil stocks, to diversify their portfolios with alternative energy stocks.
In the U.S., the increased use of shale oil and shale gas over dirtier coal in the last few years has actually resulted in a decline in emissions. And the International Energy Agency predicts that the U.S. could become almost totally self-sufficient in future decades with the development of oil shale and gas. The IEA did not, however, address the increased demand on already rationed water resources, nor the "externalities" of climate mayhem.
Despite the abundance and promise of oil shale and gas, we should follow Saudi Arabia's example: Even with the world's greatest oil reserves, it is investing $109 billion in solar energy plants.
But the main reason for withdrawing from exclusive fossil fuel addiction is that even 2,795 gigatons will not last forever, whatever climate changes its incineration may or may not cause. Oil is so useful for other purposes, from crop fertilizer to petrochemicals to the surfacing of our roads, that to send most of it up in smoke seems almost criminal. If we do not realize this now, we can bet that our children and grandchildren will. Hopefully, we will be responsible enough to leave them with enough resources to power more than motorized stand-up scooters on dirt roads.
Travis Kelly is a web/graphic designer, writer and cartoonist in Grand Junction. See his work or contact him at www.traviskelly.com.