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When one reads about the state of our world and the crises it faces, one tends to get a sense that “it’s getting better all the time”. Sure, we face crises, but that’s nothing new. Almost daily now we’re presented with news about “solutions” to the environmental crisis, whether that means international climate summits or DIY off-grid living tips on social media. “Green” and “ethical” products are everywhere, and it seems like every business, politician and government official is getting with the program. Anyone who suggests we aren’t doing enough is branded an “alarmist”, “extremist” or “luddite” and with the help of a few “good news” stories we’re all encouraged to assume that everything is going to be ok.

This is a comforting view, but it isn’t accurate. The real numbers tell a very different story.

Greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, are still increasing. As of the end of this year, it’s estimated that we’ll be emitting a full 65% more than we did in 1990, the year used as a benchmark by the Kyoto Protocol. Worse yet, the rate at which these emissions are increasing doubled in the first decade of the new millennium (compared to the previous three) and emissions this year are showing growing at the fastest rate seen in 30 years. World oil consumption, too, just set another record, thanks largely to the shale oil (“fracking”) boom in the United States. A recent report by the World Wildlife Fund, following animal populations globally over four decades, has found a roughly 40% decline across the board, including a 52% loss of vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish) as well as a 76% decline in freshwater species. Another study, earlier this year, calculated the current global rate of species extinction around 1000 times higher than the natural “background” rate. Last UN researchers found 168 countries suffering from desertification, up from 110 in the 1990s. Then there’s the 40% drop in coral reef growth rates since the 1970s, a troubling indicator of ocean acidification (as well as a potential tipping point). Other worrying trends, especially to those of us who rely on food to live, include vanishing pollinators, collapsing fish stocks and persistence of record-setting droughts in places like California and Brazil.

These numbers paint a very ugly picture. Simply put, there is every reason to believe that our planet is headed for a catastrophic collapse. We can hold on to hope and faith that technology or politics will reverse this trend, but we cannot pretend that those views are backed up by hard evidence. Humanity is heading for a wall, and we show no signs of slowing down.

Admittedly, we’ve made great strides – we’ve pulled a few species back from the brink of extinction, and greatly slowed the rate of deforestation in places like the Amazon (though it’s up 30% this year…). Entire continents, like Europe, have actually managed to lower their carbon emissions and solar power is entering a renaissance. Still, there’s an unavoidable feeling that we’re taking two steps backward for every step forward. Try as we might, it’s not easy to fight the tide of exponential growth. With growing populations enjoying growing per-person consumption, a growing impact on our planet’s ecology is going to be nearly impossible to avoid.

What can we do? First, and foremost, we can stop deluding ourselves. Not only can we write off the likes of Bjorn Lomberg who would downplay the crisis, but also the business-as-usual solutions which promise to save the world without any effort, sacrifice or critical thinking on our part. Bumper stickers and “buying green” aren’t going to cut it anymore. This milquetoast environmentalism is doing more harm than good – both by wasting the time and effort of dedicated people and presenting the illusion that something’s really being accomplished. Only once we’ve abandoned the easy answers can we really look for solutions.

If you’ve been following the news in Canada over the last year or so, there should be nothing too surprising about our Prime Minister’s “war on science”. World-class labs and experiments have been shut down, libraries destroyed, scientists “muzzled” and mandates have been re-written along unabashedly ideological lines. The disregard for any science which might contradict his political interests has provoked indignation throughout Canada’s intellectual and academic communities, leading to protests at Capitol Hill by many notable scientists. At issue isn’t just information which might damage his political chances or the petrochemical industry he represents but the notion of “science” itself.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that there are a lot of very good critiques of science, academia and “rationality” out there. Since taking the reigns of “established truth” from religion, science has often found itself in the same authoritarian roles, defining dark-skinned people as less-than-human, homosexuality as a “mental illness” and generally facilitating the spread of empire. That being said, I must ask, if not science, then what? Emotion? Rhetoric? Dogma? If and when a better system comes along I’ll gladly adopt it, as will, I suspect, every intellectually honest academic, but only after demonstrating a superior ability to predict and explain the unknown, something the alternatives have all (so far) been unable or unwilling to do. Science, as an institution, has shown the nearly unique ability to admit wrong-doing and learn from its misktakes. That evidence-based evolution, rather than any one claim, defines “science” and sets it apart from its peers.

In spite of all the economic and institutional incentives for science to parrot the views of government, it often doesn’t, and that’s the problem here. Over the past century honest self-criticism and better methodologies have demolished many of the cherished ‘truths’ it once upheld, making life a lot harder for those who based their reactionary politics on them. This has provoked some understandable resentment and suspicion, especially among those unable to understand or evaluate the science in question. In more ignorant and hardline groups, this often leads to a wholesale rejection and allegations that all of science and academia are aligned against them in a giant liberal/communist/Jewish* conspiracy, which is now sadly something of a mainstream political view.

Even in a perfect world, science will never be “neutral”. It may assume neutrality as a starting point, but sticking with it means never reaching any conclusions, or at the very best permanently agreeing to disagree (as we have with philosophy, religion and musical preference). The sad fact is that we can’t all be right. We may be entitled to our own opinions, but reality is not obliged to indulge our egos. Believe, if you wish, that global warming isn’t real, that the Tar Sands and fracking are sustainable, that austerity, tax cuts or the gold standard are likely to fix the economy or that putting more people in prison will lower crime rates, but that’s not what the evidence says. That may be a result of Illuminati agents distorting the data, but there’s a far simpler explanation: you might just be wrong.

What we don’t know can hurt us. Not looking to see if there are cars coming doesn’t make crossing a street any safer. Nor will avoiding tests for diseases stop them from making you sick. In the face of danger, ignorance is among the worst choices one can make. Sadly, in this case, the choice is being made for us.

The rejection of science leads us down a dark path. If conclusions are decided ahead of time, there’s little point to doing experiments or writing papers at all. If evidence isn’t valued, then what sets serious debate apart from a karaoke competition? This policy threatens to stifle a world-class scientific community which took generations to build. Worse, it sets a precedent by which knowledge and truth are decided directly by the government of the day and evidence tailored to fit their views. If replacing science with ignorance is to be the new official position of our government, the only thing we’ll be able to know for sure is that our country is run by a bunch of idiots.

This week’s “movie” is actually the most recent episode of the CBC’s Fifth Estate, “Silence of the Labs”. I don’t usually use this space to promote current broadcast programming, but given the dire nature of this subject matter as well as the CBC’s willingness to post the whole thing online, I’m willing to make an exception. If you haven’t already seen it, I’d definitely recommend making time for this one, if only to see yet another glaring example of how twisted this nation is becoming.

Silence of the Labs (Official CBC Link)
YouTube Link (for those outside Canada)

*This is not hyperbole, there is a long history of association between fascism and anti-intellectualism. The Nazis adopted the ultra-nationalist “Deutsche Physik” movement which rejected “Jewish Science”, especially Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Similar views are common among religious fundamentalists, Holocaust deniers and John-Birchers for obvious reasons, as well as most of the nastier authoritarian leftist regimes.

Over the past few weeks, Canada has been hit hard. Serious and unprecedented flooding has struck Calgary and Toronto, along with others from Fort McMurray to Kitchener-Waterloo. Petrochemical spills of nearly every kind have dumped crude, tailings and “sour gas”, culminating in last weekend’s horrific train-crash in Lac Magantic which levelled the centre of town and killed an estimated 50. As images and video roll in, showing a sunken Union Station and a burning Lac Magentic, virtually everybody I’ve seen or spoken to for days has been in a state of shock and awe.

How could this happen to us?

We all know, of course, how and why this is happening. Weather being the default subject for Canadian small-talk, it’s something that comes up in conversation with just about everyone I see, and for years aside from a very tiny fraction of deniers, there’s been an overwhelming consensus among everyone I’ve spoken to from all walks of life. “Yeah, we fucked it all up”, I hear over and over again, almost always followed, of course, with, “but what are we gonna do?”.

That’s a question we should probably answer sooner, rather than later.

Scientists have been warning for decades that climate change would bring about this kind of extreme weather. Other experts have been trying to warn about the dangers presented by oil development and infrastructure for at least as long. Similar disasters have been afflicting the Third World for years now, and even beginning to hit the shores of America. As frightening as this was, it was still largely academic – pictures came in from places we’d never heard of and could scarcely find on a map. Now that the places we’re seeing underwater are ones we know well and identify personally with, the threat becomes real in entirely new ways.

How would we be responding, I wonder, if this devastation had been wrought by dark-skinned foreigners who spoke a different language and worshipped a different god? If “extremists” blew up a few dams to let loose floodwaters, or snuck a “suitcase nuke” into a small town? On a global scale, “environmental refugees” already outnumber those displaced by war, and with a growing number of super-storms, droughts, heat-waves, freezes, crop-failures, wildfires and floods, the damage being done is already well beyond anything Al Qaeda could manage.

For now, this anger is muted, but that won’t last forever. People are losing homes, farms and communities, and as the damage starts to pile up, resentment will begin to build. Just as it took a couple of years of widespread layoffs and foreclosures before mass political action started to take hold of public spaces, I suspect it will take more time and suffering before people start to get really angry. Once that happens, though, it won’t take much to spark a reaction. When people see the fortunes made by oil company executives in relation to their shattered lives, they’ll draw the obvious connections and begin to see this theft for what it really is.

This crisis isn’t hypothetical any more. It’s happening, and it’s only going to get worse. It can no longer be spoken about only as separate “climate”, “energy” or “financial” crises, but as a converging set of consequences. As conventional oil supplies dwindle we’ll continue to see rising fuel costs, economic slowdowns and risky new drilling technologies. The current rush toward tar sands and fracking development is a clear result of both desperation to revive ailing industrial economies and the growing shortage of conventional crude. These new sources of oil, in turn, emit far more carbon and present a significantly increased risk of accidents and disasters. All of this is connected and there aren’t going to be any simple solutions.

How will people react, I wonder, when the first major North American city has to be abandoned for good? Rolling Stone recently published a convincing argument that Miami can’t survive rising sea levels, no matter how many walls it builds. What about farming communities, fisheries and areas dependent on forests? How will we react when one of these floods strikes before people are able to evacuate? When scientists start to agree that we’ve passed “the tipping point”?

There is, of course, a point where life as we know it starts to become untenable and “civilization” will start to break down. Large-scale centralized decision-making depends on the ability to assume that things like climate are relatively constant. This is the literal foundation for everything we build – roads, bridges and buildings are all built on the assumption the ground under them won’t turn to mud. Our agricultural system, now planted often in thousand-acre fields of a single crop (or even a single clone) and managed globally, are becoming colossal gambles on the stability of local climates. Our nationally-networked power grids have limits and depend on thousands of miles of transmission lines. “Just in time” delivery, the new mantra of “warehouses on wheels” which drives the big-box economy, leaves only days worth of supplies in stores at any given time. In short, we are woefully unprepared for the future we’re probably creating, in ways which strike at the very heart of our way of life.

Long before that happens, though, we’ll see regional impacts scattered seemingly at random. Like everything else, they’ll hit poor regions harder than most and bring with them a whole host of ugly social side effects. In his new book, Tropic of Chaos, Christian Parenti illustrates some of the consequences we’re already starting to see. In Afghanistan, years of drought led poor farmers to switch from wheat to drought-tolerant opium in defiance of the occupation, a move supported by the remnants of the Taliban and one of many reasons they still enjoy so much support from those communities. In Africa and the Middle East the Arab Spring was preceded by increases in food prices linked to droughts and crop failures. Ultimately, our climate isn’t the only mind-bogglingly complex system involved here, nor is it the only one threatened with losing stability.

This “apocalypse” isn’t coming tomorrow, but if recent events are any indication, it’s not a threat we can afford to ignore any longer. This isn’t just happening in Bangladesh and the Maldives anymore, it’s happening right up the train tracks. We still have time to make changes, but no way of knowing how much. The IEA suggests that we have until 2017 to stop building fossil-fuel infrastructure before we’re “locked in” to a level of at least 450ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere by the middle of the century, and a warming of at least 2 degrees Celsius. Given how much chaotic weather we’re seeing now, it’s hard to imagine how bad it might get past that point.

I don’t know about you, but I plan on being alive in 2050, and don’t wish to spend my last years watching this planet tear itself apart. Every time something like this happens, I ask how bad it’ll have to get before we collectively change our ways, and almost inevitably the answer is “worse”. That’s not good enough anymore. We aren’t changing our ways – we’re doing the opposite. Does a 28 000% increase in oil-by-rail shipments sound like the act of a country that’s serious about tackling climate change and oil dependence?

Big oil blew up a small town. That’s a wake-up call we can’t ignore. Blame whoever you wish – the railroad, the engineer, anonymous vandals or a lack of regulation, but ultimately this disaster comes down to the choice to increase oil production on a continental scale. Whether this oil is transported by train, tanker or pipeline, the risks will still be spread across the land, and even if companies miraculously manage to avoid any more accidents, burning this oil will still produce more droughts, floods, crop-failures and wildfires. One way or the other, we will have to stop using these infernal fuels, the only question is what we’ll be left with when we do.

A very telling controversy just erupted over a quiet “emergency” meeting held at the White House to discuss the serious possibility of an ice-free Arctic within the next two summers, what’s now being called the “Arctic Death Spiral” (see graphic). It’s seen almost no mention in the American press, but has been covered by The Guardian and Australian, as well as many smaller news sources. Some are downplaying it, and others are obviously exaggerating. The disputes, though, relate mostly to who was there and how much of an “emergency” it was considered. What isn’t in dispute (and was already known late last year) is the situation in the Arctic. Last year saw a record melt and this year has already seen ice covering the Beaufort Sea shatter like a sheet of glass over a few weeks in February and March. Every summer much of the Arctic ice melts, but over the last few decades total summer coverage has been shrinking dramatically. At current rates, this trend could hit zero as soon as 2015.

Let that sink in. “Melting the polar ice caps” has long been touted as one of the worst possible outcomes of climate change, with the potential to sink coastlines or disrupt global weather patterns. As recently as a few years ago, the “worst case scenarios” warned that it could be coming as soon as 2100, or at worst, 2050. Now it’s starting to happen before our eyes.

This comes along with word that our atmosphere is due to reach a global average of 400ppm of carbon dioxide sometime this week. Admittedly, this doesn’t really mean any more “doom” than 399 or 401, but it’s a frightening milestone nonetheless – this is likely the highest concentrations have been since the Pliocene era, 3-5 million years ago. The best estimates so far suggest that 450ppm is the upper level if we want to prevent “catastrophic warming”, but as the above paragraphs illustrate, those estimates may have been somewhat conservative.

Meanwhile, in Canada
In Ottawa, our own leaders generally spend their time cutting climate-related research budgets and making ignorant statements. Leading the charge is Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who’s most recently taken on Al Gore and NASA’s James Hansen over their criticisms of the Tar Sands. Before that he was forced to clarify that he did, in fact, think climate change was “important” after telling reporters that “people aren’t as worried as they were before“. Perhaps the most worrying of these embarrassing statements are those where he talks about the need to get in on massive demand growth for oil in the developing world, for which he cites the IEA. Unfortunately for him, what the IEA actually said was a little more complicated. It forecast a couple of scenarios for global oil development over the next few decades then worked out how much carbon each would put into the atmosphere. The scenario that Oliver cites is the one in which we take no serious action and approve all projects, ending with a “94% chance” of catastrophic warming.

This IEA research, which has been public since late 2011, gives another near-future deadline: 2017. If we don’t turn away from building new high-carbon infrastructure (power plants, industry, buildings etc) by then, we’ll be “locked in” to a course toward at least 450ppm. By the end of their expected operational lifespan, they will have burned enough fuel to cross that line. This, as the IEA says, will “close the door” on warming of less than 2 degrees Celsius.

There is more than enough carbon in the Tar Sands alone to put us over that level, as I’ve shown before, and as scientists like James Hansen have been trying to point out. Even without them, though, the world could still easily cross the line.

“Fire Ice”
An even larger stock of carbon, equal to about five times everything we’ve burned since the beginning of the industrial revolution, lie frozen in the (quickly melting) Arctic. Hydrates of methane form when gas bubbles get frozen into a lattice of ice crystals, creating ice you can light with a match. As temperatures rise, ice melts and the methane bubbles to the surface and escapes into the atmosphere, where it traps heat (an estimated) 20-25 times as effectively as CO2. This represents one of the “tipping points” we so often hear about where even a slight warming can set off a chain reaction causing far more. Recent readings found the highest methane readings ever recorded in the Arctic, which closely correlated with regions of melting ice.

Not content to wait for such a disaster, states and corporations are now testing these methane hydrates as a potential source of energy. One such venture, sent from Japan, just succeeded in extracting natural gas from one of their own deposits under a kilometre of ocean. Other countries, like America, aren’t far behind and though Canada has now dropped out of the race, we developed a lot of the initial technologies on our own Tundra.

Acid Rain? Meet Acid Oceans…
Another big report is being circulated this week, pointing to another emerging threat in the Arctic – acidification. As the carbon dioxide content of our atmosphere increases, so does the amount absorbed by the sea, especially in cold polar waters. Since the ocean absorbs CO2 as carbonic acid, it shifts the overall PH level, making the water more acidic. The study found “widespread and rapid acidification” which threatens disastrous implications for marine life, especially anything with a shell. Worldwide, the report states, the surface acidity of the oceans has increased about 30% since the industrial revolution began. Particularly vulnerable are tiny life forms like phytoplankton, which make up the base of the marine food chain. Phytoplankton, by the way, is crucial because it can photosynthesize like a leaf, making it an important part of regulating the world’s CO2 levels and the source of at least half the world’s oxygen.

Our Petrochemical Addiction
In spite of all this evidence and more, new-generation petrochemical projects like the Tar Sands are still considered urgent government priorities. As the timeline for taking meaningful action shortens from decades to years, our leaders aren’t just dragging their heels, they’ve broken into a run in the opposite direction. Not only are carbon emissions still rising, but they’re picking up speed Another international summit, this time in Bonn, Switzerland, just concluded with slight progress, but yet again hit the familiar stumbling block of mutual US-Chinese reluctance to act first. As the date for a “conclusive” treaty gets pushed back to 2020, it’s hard to expect much. Our government has already virtually committed itself to missing our targets, so why should anybody else bother?

This cognitive dissonance can’t last forever. Each year that we put off taking serious action and instead pursue more growth in emissions is going to make the eventual transition that much more painful. We’re not just continuing our fossil fuel addiction – we’re deepening it. By developing new kinds of “unconventional” petrochemical extraction, we’re literally re-inventing it. The massive investments now flowing into (very capital-intensive) fracking, tar sands and soon methane hydrate exploitation represent time, land and creativity that isn’t being put toward the “renewables” they celebrate so often.

This is creating another kind of “death spiral”, one in which we’re spending ever-larger amounts of money on continually-diminishing energy returns. As this drains the life from a world economy which got used to $15-30 barrels of oil, desperation sets in and the drive to exploit our remaining reserves takes over. These pressures are only going to get worse as we become even more dependent on dwindling fuel sources, and as the cost of ecological side-effects like hurricanes, floods and crop failures continues to mount. This path leads only to ruin, and the sooner we get off it the safer we’ll be.

I live near Barton St and work downtown. I see this logic play out every day. What starts as a totally voluntary indulgence in a magical substance which makes everything go faster soon becomes habit-forming. Not long after that, one can barely move at all without it. For a while, it seems glorious – a world of wealth, luxury and vanity – but soon enough the posh nightclub walls fade away and you find yourself on a mouldy matress in the slums. Before you know it, you’re heating  rocks with a gas flame then sucking hard on a pipe. Sound familiar?

Sometimes, ya just have to quit. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.

This is why people are turning to direct actions like Monday’s blockade of Highway 6. The world is quickly running out of time and potential “tipping points” are coming into view. Along with this new zeal for “unconventional” oil and gas (tar sands, fracking, etc) comes a whole host of new risks, and the global export network now threatens to spread them across continents. The profits, so far, have proved large enough to sway governments to their side. This kind of reckless disregard for the future of life on earth should give some indication of the “fitness to govern” of everybody involved in these decisions. The appropriate time to begin “reforms” was yesterday. What we do today may need to be a little more dramatic.

The Harper government just announced plans to pull out of the United Nations Convention on Desertification. This move, which caught the Convention’s offices in Bonn by surprise, would make Canada the only nation on earth outside the agreement. Minister Fantino cited high costs and a “lack of results” as the move’s reasoning.

To put those costs in perspective – as much as $350 000/year – it’s a little more than what Hamilton libraries are budgeting to fight bedbugs this year ($200K) or what it’s cost Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital to drop “Memorial” from it’s name as a part of their new re-branding effort ($290K). Hardly cost-prohibitive in the world of international relations, where people often make many times that much in a year.

But what is desertification, anyway, and why does Harper like it so much?

Desertification is what happens when an ecosystem dies. Through removal of plants and degradation of soils, regions can lose their ability to attract and retain water, resulting in a breakdown of the water cycle. This can be caused by agriculture, grazing, logging and climate change and it threatens to displace fifty million people over the next decade. It’s one of the most dramatic effects of humanity’s effects on the environment, and given the drastic changes it brings about, one of the most undeniable.

Climate, it turns out, isn’t just a product of sunlight and air chemistry. Plants, soils and trees play a large role in regulating temperature and rainfall. Think of plants as tiny, branching wells which dig deep into the earth. Some produce shallow webs of roots, like grasses, which hold the soil in place even on steep hillsides. Others have deep tap-roots which bring up water from many metres deep which would otherwise drain away. They then breathe out water, helping to seed clouds and produce rainfall through a process called transpiration. Other benefits include holding and storing water in both droughts and floods, and breaking down to produce a rich soil when they die. Without all of this, soils become sand and wash or blow away easily and rainfall levels fall to those of a desert.

A lot of work has been done in recent years regarding climate change on a local level across history. Global climate change might require all the technologies of industrial civilization, but regional climate change doesn’t require much more than axes or fire. Deniers like to remind us that climate change has always been happening, but it’s important to remember that for thousands of years now, it’s been happening by our own hands. The tragic spiral of rising populations and dwindling rainfall seems to have played a fairly significant role in the fall of many ancient civilizations (Anasazi, Maya and Harrapan Valley, for instance), going right back to the collapse of Babylon through irrigation which salted their own fields. When this process began, the Middle East was one of the most rich, lush and “fertile” places on the planet. Today, it exists largely as desert.

As for desertification in the modern world, it’s likely to become a much larger problem in the near future. Our over-reliance on water buried in “fossil” aquifers which see little natural “recharge” means many regions which are now the world’s breadbaskets may soon become dust bowls. One such area, spanning the eight states dependent on the Ogalala aquifer, produces around a fifth of America’s wheat, corn, cotton and cattle. Added pressures from climate change will only add to this, as will the growing industrial and urban demand for fresh water. These threats are real and have the potential to starve and/or displace millions of people.

Withdrawing from an important global efforts like the fight against desertification is, of course, just another day on the job for Stephen Harper. This kind of blatant disregard for the natural world fits his record like a glove, and I’d be surprised if there aren’t some profits to be made by disregarding these restrictions. This careless and wanton disregard for international agreements evokes dark memories of George W., and given their common origin in national centres of oil production, it’s hard not to see a pattern developing. It doesn’t take many G8 nations dropping out of conventions such as this to cast doubt on all of them, as most nations will be hesitant to limit their economies (or arms stockpiles) unless they’re sure their competitors are going to play along. Policies of rabid economic expansionism tend to drag neighbours down with them, forcing a ‘race to the bottom’ as others are forced to lower their own standards to remain “competitive”. While I’m often critical of such agreements (too little, too late…), abandoning the little progress they have made is no way forward.

Desertification isn’t just a crisis, it’s the culmination of many crises: climate change, deforestation and careless agricultural and pastoral practices. It’s a frightening reminder of how easily an entire ecosystem can shatter under our weight. Failing to deal with our environmental problems at this stage, especially for these paltry sums, shows a complete incapacity (and unwillingness) to address ecological issues at all. Harper is playing a very dangerous game here, and with a billion and a half people already affected by land degradation worldwide, it’s hard to imagine how much more callous his policies could get.

How much longer are we, as the people of (or at least, residing in) this nation going to let this maniac represent us on the world stage?

These days, many big numbers are being thrown around these days regarding the Tar Sands. It’s said, for instance, that there may be a total of 1.8 trillion barrels of oil or something like it in the sands of Northern Alberta. That’s a lot of oil, but what does it mean in terms of our climate?

Well, according to Wikipedia, there’s around 3 000 gigatons, or three trillion metric tons of carbon in our atmosphere, making up around 390 parts per million (by volume) of our atmosphere. As far as global warming is concerned, 350ppm is considered (probably) safe, if we’re to keep warming under two degrees centigrade over the next century. If, instead, we chose to see what happens if take a more apocalyptic route, what would that require?

Say you wanted, for some reason, to add a trillion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. This would add roughly another third to global CO2 levels, pushing them to around 520ppm (390×4/3), and twice what is needed to push us into the 450ppm “danger zone”. This would be a larger increase than we’ve seen since the dawn of the industrial revolution (~280ppm), and would likely threaten to end civilization as we know it. So, ethics aside, what would that take?

Well, by EPA estimates, burning a barrel of oil yields 0.43 metric tons of C02. At that rate, it would take about 2.3 trillion barrels of oil to achieve this devious goal. Not exactly cheap, at today’s prices.

1,000,000,000,000 metric tons / 0.43 tons/barrel = 2,325,581,395,348.837209302 barrels

In order to cut costs (super-villainy gets expensive), you could turn to a cheaper source of crude. Thanks to the dreaded “bitumen bubble”, Canada’s Tar Sands exports are selling for a great discount these days! In addition, they require much more carbon per barrel to process due to their viscous nature. A barrel of “synthetic crude” can require from about 60-180kg of emissions, compared to 24-35kg for processing conventional crude. If we make a conservative estimate of 100kg of CO2 (0.1 metric tons), that pushes the emissions per barrel to around .53 metric tons. At that rate, you could save yourself almost half a trillion barrels, bringing the total down, almost, to a somewhat familiar number…

1,000,000,000,000 / 0.53 = 1,886,792,452,830.188679245

Or just under 1.9 trillion barrels. See the problem?

We can only hope there’s no mad scientists lurking with CO2-powered death rays bent on destroying the world. The unfortunate thing is that if one wanted to, they’d hardly have to lift a finger. We are already hard at work extracting and burning these fossil fuels as fast as we can manage for reasons which aren’t a lot more noble. The “development” of these “resources” has become a national priority, eclipsing every other economic, social or political goal. Environmental laws, First Nations treaty rights, free speech, manufacturing industries, scientific research – all of these have become second-tier concerns in the rush to support and expand Tar Sands production. In return, we’re told, there could be billions or even trillions in royalties and revenues awaiting us, an awfully tempting offer in times of austerity. Keep these numbers in mind when politicians and industry officials are promising you the world, as we can’t sell billions of barrels of oil without the reasonable expectation that they’re going to be used.

Of course, this is about as simplistic and cartoonish as anything resembling a climate model can get, but I wanted to break it down to middle-school math for a reason. There’s a lot of very complex ideas and numbers being thrown around, and the resulting confusion has only served to stoke the (unfortunate) controversies. We need to bring these numbers down to a level people can grasp, instead of asking them to choose between complex, projected scenarios. I encourage you to run these numbers yourself, and experiment with others. Computers, after all, are nothing if not glorified calculators, and the internet a giant database of numbers. We can’t be afraid to check the numbers ourselves, once in a while, if only to put dire, contrasting claims in context.

To go into a little more detail, with present-day technologies, only a little over a tenth of Alberta’s Tar Sands is considered “recoverable”. That’s likely to grow, but it still only represents a dozen parts per million if. What’s important to remember is that we only need around 60ppm more until we hit the 450ppm level, and so this could easily get us a 20% or more of the way there. While that’s (probably) not apocalyptic on its own, there’s always the problematic issue of every other emission on the planet.

Alberta isn’t the only place where massive new “unconventional” oil resources are bursting onto the scene. As conventional crude oil reserves start to enter a serious decline, a desperate search for replacements is taking place. Alberta is pioneering Tar Sand extraction techniques, but it’s far from the only place such bitumen is found (Russia, Venezuela and Saskatchewan come to mind). There’s also Shale Oil – deep rock formations seeping with oil or gas which can be “fracked” out. Then there’s Oil Shale – rocks made partly out of very heavy petrochemicals which can be melted out or burned directly (the dirtiest of the bunch). Adding to these, new technologies are making deep, offshore oil accessible, perhaps soon in the Arctic as well. For Coal, mining now often demolishes entire mountains for their fuel-rich interiors. This is the real legacy of Peak Oil – increasing costs, diminishing returns and a widespread lowering of standards.

It’s crunch time. Last year we witnessed a record setting drought cut crop yields, a near-total melt of the Greenland ice sheet and a superstorm which sunk parts of NYC. Let’s cut the bullshit – either we’re serious about climate change, or we’re not. The two-faced duplicity inherent in talking about it while embracing petro-development on an unprecedented scale is both offensive and dangerous. As long as these resources exist, there will be promises of fantastic profits. As other supplies dwindle and economies fumble, they’ll only look more enticing. We’d be wise, though, not to forget the greatest value and service provided by the Tar Sands. With close to a trillion metric tons of carbon locked up underground, they may be single-handedly holding off an apocalypse.

Until we choose otherwise, that is.

Negotiators in Doha, Qatar just finished their second week of negotiations of the UN Climate Summit, have just barely managed to extend the current Kyoto agreements in an extra day of overtime, which would otherwise expire at the end of this month. This sets the stage for negotiations on a new treaty in 2015 which would take effect in 2020. Doha was intended to deal with simple “housekeeping” matters in the lead-up to these new talks, but when negoitations began to break down earlier this week, these questions turned out to be anything but simple.

As the Philippines grapples with the damages caused by Thyphoon Bopha, the issue of “financial compensation” for those regions which suffer most has forced its way onto the agenda, in spite of the efforts of many wealthier nations. The “Green Climate Fund”, which emerged from the Copenhagen summit, hopes to reach $100/billion a year by 2020, would aid nations afflicted by severe weather along with helping them transition to low-carbon economies. Unfortunately, the fund is already running empty. Very little has been pledged by wealthier nations, and none of that is new funding or currently available. Other conflicts have arisen over issues like the refusal of the EU and US to face concerns about International Property laws preventing poorer nations from accessing green technologies.

Negotiations were overshadowed by a growing body of evidence that climate change is setting in faster than even the “worst-case scenarios” put forward a few years ago imagined it could. Estimates are being revised – on our current path, we’re headed for a 3-5 degree increase in average global temperatures, a level considered mildly apocalyptic. This year alone witnessed an incredible Arctic ice melt, especially in Greenland, a record-setting drought in North America and then “Superstorm Sandy” which hit New York City with $50-100 billion in damages. To top it all off, figures just released showed that global emissions had risen again last year.

At this point, even if a new, Kyoto-style agreement is reached in 2015, it won’t be implemented until 2020. To put that in perspective, many scientists fear we’ll see a full melt of Arctic summer ice as early as 2014 or 2015.

Why such slow progress when the fate of the world literally hangs in the balance?

At their core, these agreements ask states to voluntarily curb their industrial economies. That flies in the face of every other goal and priority these bureaucrats have, especially for wealthier nations like the US, UK and increasingly, India and China. These economies are the (financial) lifeblood of governments and their relative scale says everything about where a nation stands among others, including which states hold power over the rest. These negotiations will play an important role in deciding where the manufacturing powerhouses of the 21st century are located, and that’s just too tempting a prize.

These people aren’t stupid, they understand that change is coming. The challenge, for these delegates, is to manage it in a way which leaves them in control, or ideally, grants them even more. From ’emissions trading’ to the refusal to speak about Intellectual Property, the priorities are clear – they must be able to profit from any “solutions” presented. Ruling the world is the goal here, and saving it a distant second.

The vast majority of this planet’s people, in rich nations or poor, are not included in decisions about industry or development, whether they involve the climate or not. Despite the throngs of activists, we still don’t have a real seat at these tables, locally or globally. Only the governments of some of the world’s poorest nations showed any leadership over the past two weeks, or any real regard for the billions of people who stand to be affected. Those of us in the wealthy and “democratic” West, were “represented” once again by a those who preferred to bicker, dither and whine.

The people of earth need a “Plan B”. If another agreement isn’t reached soon, or if it is and fails to slow the rising tides, we’re going to need an option which doesn’t require a consensus decisions from all the world’s most obstinate bureaucrats. That may mean working together to voluntarily reduce our own emissions or, like those in Wet’suwet’en and Texas, putting our bodies on the line to halt new petrochemical infrastructure. Either way, we’re going to need to get organized in ways which have so far eluded our “leaders”, on a scale which has never been seen before. I won’t pretend that’s an easy or simple task, but unlike those in power, we have nothing to gain by failing.

They’re calling it the (new) storm of the century, and if it lives up to the hype it might be the biggest in a hundred years or more. Approximately fifty million people lie in its path along the Eastern US and Canada. Thunderstorms, floods and blizzards are all expected, and some areas are already underwater (NYC, Atlantic City). New York City has begun evacuating coastal areas and shutting down schools and transit. Even Grand Central Station and the NYSE are closed. There’s even fears part of Brooklyn may be flooded by an overflow of toxic poop.

Of course, there’s no way to say for sure that this storm is a result of climate change

Over the past few months we’ve seen the near-complete melt of Greenland’s ice cover, and a record summer loss of Arctic ice. Projections for an ice-free arctic summer are being revised – once thought “possible” by the end of the century, many now fear it’ll come within the next few years. Such records are no longer uncommon – the six largest yearly melts ever measured have all occurred within the last six years.

But surely, it would be irresponsible to draw any conclusions about climate change….

Before that, there were the droughts and heatwaves. Many died, hundreds of thousands lost power, roads buckled and vehicles started to sink into melting asphalt. The US saw its worst drought in fifty years, devastating entire states’ corn and soy harvests.

Seriously, what possible connection could exist between droughts and severe thunderstorms?

I don’t want to imply that the dire predictions of climate scientists are coming true, because they aren’t. What we’re now witnessing is well beyond the “worst case scenarios” they presented. From the flooding of New York to the melting of the arctic and collapse of major farming regions, we were warned that these things might happen by the end of the century. All things considered, it could have been much worse – but as infamous as it may be, 2012 is just one year. What will things look like in a decade?

A close friend of mine, a doctor, often tells a story about a patient years ago who’d just been diagnosed with lung cancer. He was irate – why didn’t anybody warn him that decades of cigarettes would lead to that!?! A bit confused, she asked, “surely, somebody must have warned you…?”, but he simply replied “…yeah…they told it might cause cancer. If they’d told me it was going to, then I would’ve quit”. Our planet, it seems has a very similar philosophy. Like cancer, we won’t know whether our bad behavior has destabilized the climate until it already has, and at that point it may well be too late to reverse the process. For all we know, we may already have passed this “tipping point”.

How many major American cities need to sink before climate change is taken seriously?

In an incredible and nearly unprecedented heat wave, the last three weeks have seen a non-stop flood of extreme weather around the globe, knocking out power grids, killing scores of people and devastating entire regions with storms, floods and heat-waves.

The US Department of Agriculture has now declared one of it’s largest emergencies ever due to the current drought. Their warnings cover almost a third of the continental US and a 12% drop in corn harvest is now forecast for the year, as well as heavy losses in soybeans and others. Japan on the other hand, just faced major flooding which killed 28 and displaced a quarter million. At least 46 people died the previous weekend across the US. Hundreds of temperature records were broken (11 around Ontario, including Hamilton), which comes after a month in which over 2100 were shattered. Beyond the human, cropland baked and roads, runways and rail lines buckled in the heat. Across the ocean in Russia, also over the same Friday and Saturday, a series of heavy storms and floods killed 171.

That deadly weekend came after a series of storms which hit the previous weekend, knocking out power to around three million Americans and leading to another twenty deaths, mostly heat-induced deaths. India’s monsoon season just hasn’t arrived over large regions of the country, and Colorado saw some of the worst wildfires in the state’s history.

At the risk of sounding controversial, this sounds a lot like “global warming” to me, perhaps even (gasp) “climate change”. This isn’t just coming in the form of rising coastlines and vanishing glaciers in places we’ll never visit, the heat is now on virtually everywhere. Worse yet, this extreme weather has started to snowball, with an unusually warm winter leading to a very dry spring, which caused us to heat up far sooner than usual. It’s hard to know how long this will continue, but for now it’s far too hot to rain over huge parts of the continent, trapping massive storm-clouds that sink regions when they do burst. Our climate isn’t just heating up, it’s becoming unstable.

On a global scale, long-term plans aimed at curbing climate change have been a disaster in themselves. Governments have been staunchly unwilling to make real commitments to cut emissions, nor to live up to the few agreements they have made, and our own Prime Minister, Harper, is a glaring example of this. The question which now fast approaches is: will we be any better at finding short-term solutions?

This is not an academic question. Some of my best friends are farmers. Weather doesn’t have to make growing all crops impossible (wheat, for example, is faring far better) – just the ones you’ve planted. If we don’t know what will be a cool, wet year, or a hot, dry one, farmers risk planting the wrong crops and losing entire fields, especially if they can’t irrigate on a large scale. All that’s required to ruin a small farm (some of the most precarious businesses in the country), is a few bad years in a row, and often far less are required to convince older owners to sell their land to developers. This weather is raising some utterly terrifying questions of food security, especially with storms and air conditioning demand both now frequently knocking out power grids sorely needed for refrigeration.

How are we supposed to grow corn-based biofuels under these conditions? How are people expected to limit their use of fans or air conditioners when people can literally die from these temperatures? How can we reduce our demand on already overtaxed aquifers (especially in the southern US) and still grow food in this heat? How long can we attempt to grapple with this problem with “solutions” which only make things worse overall?

“Civilization” as we know it relies on things operating “like usual”. Our building styles, agricultural systems and even our city’s storm drains have been carefully designed to function on very large scales based on average weather over the past century – something which probably won’t remain “average” over the next. The threat isn’t just local and regional disasters, it’s a cascading collapse of areas now utterly dependent on each other through trade. Our ability to export steel requires an ability to import food, and most regions around us would fail quickly without either. As exporters get more stressed, prices are going to skyrocket, jeopardizing an already deeply stressed world economy and putting millions at risk of starvation.

We need immediate, drastic action on this matter, and we need it yesterday. There’s no reason to believe that this heat or extreme weather can’t get a whole hell of a lot worse. Two decades after the Rio summit, the issue is still mired in (totally manufactured) scientific controversies, no matter how bad things get around us. It’s time to admit that universally acceptable “proof” isn’t going to show up until it’s far too late, and that such a “tipping point” may already have passed. How much worse does this have to get before we act?

Drilling Rigs in North Dakota

I used to be a a fan of George Monbiot. His writings in The Guardian about energy and climate change may be an alarmist, but he’s one of the few voices globally bringing any attention to these issues. That being said, his most recent article (especially given mine) just struck me as utterly ridiculous. In it, he renounces the idea of Peak Oil, about which he made so much noise, asserting that there’s “enough to fry us all” left in the ground, in places like Bakken ND. Both claims are more than a little optimistic…

Monbiot’s argument, of course, is not uncommon. It is, however, often discredited, as with another good recent post from The Automatic Earth, which follows up their look at gas in Bakken with some of the numbers involved in oil extraction.

The claim that Shale oil and other “unconventional” sources are plentiful enough to replace crude oil shows a deep lack of understanding of what “Peak Oil” means. Contrary to what alarmists like to claim, it doesn’t mean we suddenly “run out”. The peak is the half-way point, after which the decline begins. When this happens it becomes very hard to expand production the way it had been in the past, prices rise and production shifts toward resources which would never have been practical before, like tar sands, oil shales and deep-sea drilling.

In the past decade we’ve seen prices rise to about five times what they had been, a virtual “gold rush” toward towns like Bakken and Ft. McMurray and a global economic collapse. That’s exactly what was predicted by writers like Richard Heinberg and James Howard Kunstler – not an immediate Mad-Max apocalypse, but the beginning of a long, painful march in that direction.

It’s easy enough to repeat the claims of Peak Oil – many people did, Monbiot included. The substance of the “peak oil” argument, though, lies in math. The most important concept here is EROI (Energy Return on Investment). It always takes some energy to make use of resources like oil – pumping, refining, etc. “Light Sweet Crude” from large reserves (ie: Texas, Saudi Arabia) can return fifty or more barrels of oil worth of energy for each one it requires. Tar Sands projects have trouble returning five, with many projects returning far less than that. Once it takes more than one barrel’s energy to pump out one barrel, there’s not much point in drilling for it. Much of this energy comes from “higher quality” sources like natural gas, required for “upgrading” the bitumen (tar) into “synthetic crude”. There have been proposals for nuclear reactors, and even underground nuclear weapons* as a means of developing these fields. Oil Shale, where the oil is embedded deep in non-porous rock, takes a tremendous amount of energy and money to release it. Also worth noting is the fact that nothing else comes close to the EROI of crude oil – nuclear, solar and wind all fall far closer to the Tar Sands.

Monbiot’s main error is to mistake financial cost for EROI, something most capitalists have been doing for the last decade. Yes, skyrocketing oil prices and new technologies make “unconventional”, previously unprofitable resources suddenly look very attractive. This is exactly what “Peak Oil” predicts. If this wasn’t happening, oil prices would be sitting comfortably in the $20-30/barrel range and wouldn’t need “upgrading”. A more nuanced look at how this all works can’t forget about the realities of global markets, which is why most of the more clever doomsayers were predicting the financial collapse of 2007-8 in incredible detail years before it happened. Nobody doubted that prices would fall once they’d helped to trigger a financial meltdown, but the important point is that they never fell back to their old levels, and have started to skyrocket again whenever a “recovery” started to show its face. What we’re seeing now could easily be described as a “Long Emergency”, what else could describe warnings from the IMF and others of imminent “lost decades”?

The other main point in Monbiot’s article is that there’s enough oil left to “fry us all”. Nothing about peak oil denies this, though things would certainly be far worse if supplies oil supplies were actually unlimited. The main fear here is that because of the extremely low EROI of unconventional oil sources, they’re far worse for the climate than traditional petrochemicals. The Tar Sands are one of the world’s largest sources of carbon emissions, and that doesn’t count the effects of actually burning the oil they produce. This gets compounded with other risks, like massive spills (Gulf of Mexico), forcible dislocations and even oil wars. Also contributing is the way these economic shocks impact renewable energy projects, often some of the first to get cut when times get tough. One way or the other, we still don’t totally understand how any of this “climate change” stuff works, and it’s entirely possible that a cataclysmic “tipping point” in emissions could already have passed.

Last month saw over two thousand heat records shattered. We’ve just witnessed another series of severe storms in the US as well as some of the worst Colorado wildfires ever recorded. Locally, we’ve seen a drought, a strangely warm winter and are now experiencing a painful heat wave. How much more must we endure before we start seriously questioning this path?

We are running out of oil. We have been running out of oil since the first wells in Petrolia, Ontario, a century ago. Since then we’ve extracted more and more each year, until things began to struggle over the past decade. The amounts we use now are stunning, as The Automatic Earth points out, a billion barrels of oil in a new field may sound like a lot, but we now use that amount globally in about 11 days (America alone in 52). Bakken, ND, may have several billion “ultimately recoverable” barrels – hardly a new Saudi Arabia. That George Monbiot is repeating these tired arguments is sad, but perhaps not surprising. After his decision to support nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster (thoroughly discredited), I haven’t been paying him much attention. If anything, this is another sorry example of how shallow analysis can be in the mainstream press, even from “good papers” like The Guardian and liberal heroes like Monbiot.

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