G7 leaders fiddle while Earth burns

The G7 governments saying they will phase out fossil fuels by 2100 isn’t closing the barn door after the horse has left. It is declaring an intention to consider closing the barn door after waiting for the horse to disappear over the horizon. It is okay to be feel underwhelmed by this.

The Group of 7 summit held earlier this month in Germany, representing seven of the world’s largest economies, ended with a declaration that these governments would commit themselves to a 40 to 70 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions and a complete phaseout in 2100, and an invitation for “all countries to join us in this endeavor.” A communiqué issued after the summit declared:

“We commit to doing our part to achieve a low-carbon global economy in the long-term including developing and deploying innovative technologies striving for a transformation of the energy sectors by 2050. … To this end we also commit to develop long-term national low-carbon strategies.” [page 17]

The G7 governments say they are acting under the impetus of last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and in anticipation of next December’s Climate Change Conference in Paris. In the conception of the IPCC report, greenhouse-gas emissions should be 40 to 70 percent lower globally in 2050 than in 2010 and “near zero” in 2100 to achieve a goal of holding greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million in 2100. Even that level is a substantial increase above the current level of 404 parts per million, at which the Earth’s climate is already undergoing dramatic changes.

Retreating glacier in Greenland (photo by Bastique)

Retreating glacier in Greenland (photo by Bastique)

The IPCC report, prepared by scientists from around the world but apparently watered down by the world’s governments, promises that mitigating global warming will be virtually cost-free and require no fundamental change to the world’s economic structure. Alas, there are no free lunches — the IPCC report’s insistence that techno-fixes will magically take care of carbon buildup, allowing humanity to continue the path it has been on since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, is dangerously unrealistic.

So what do the G7 governments have in mind? Their communiqué says they will increase the number of people in developing countries who have access to insurance, increase developing countries’ access to renewable energy and raise funds “from private investors, development finance institutions and multilateral development banks.” [pages 15-16] Try to contain your excitement when you read the G7 prescription for combating global warming:

“We will continue our efforts to provide and mobilize increased finance, from public and private sources. … We recognize the potential of multilateral development banks in delivering climate finance and helping countries transition to low carbon economies.” [page 15]

It may already be too late

Before we delve into the idea that the World Bank, funder of gigantic greenhouse-gas belching, polluting projects around the world, is the cure for global warming, and before we contemplate the idea that we can bind the policies of governments eight decades in the future, let us ask what actually needs to be done to prevent the climate from spiraling into a feedback loop that will accelerate species die-offs and dangerously disrupt agriculture and water supplies. The U.S. government’s climate agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, issued a study in 2009 that flatly concluded “there’s no going back.” The study, led by NOAA senior scientist Susan Solomon, found:

“[C]hanges in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than 1,000 years after carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are completely stopped. … ‘It has long been known that some of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years,” Solomon said. “But the new study advances the understanding of how this affects the climate system.’ ”

Carbon dioxide thrown into the air stays in the atmosphere for a long time, warming oceans will retain added heat and transfer that back to the atmosphere, and we have yet to experience the full effect of greenhouse gases that have already been emitted. Global sea-level rises and major disruption to rain patterns will effect billions of people. The NOAA study said:

“If CO2 is allowed to peak at 450-600 parts per million, the results would include persistent decreases in dry-season rainfall that are comparable to the 1930s North American Dust Bowl in zones including southern Europe, northern Africa, southwestern North America, southern Africa and western Australia.

The study notes that decreases in rainfall that last not just for a few decades but over centuries are expected to have a range of impacts that differ by region. Such regional impacts include decreasing human water supplies, increased fire frequency, ecosystem change and expanded deserts. Dry-season wheat and maize agriculture in regions of rain-fed farming, such as Africa, would also be affected.”

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology paper, lamenting the widespread conviction that global warming can be reversed quickly when and if it is decided to do so, notes such beliefs are in violation of basic physics. The paper’s abstract says:

“[W]ait-and-see policies erroneously presume climate change can be reversed quickly should harm become evident, underestimating substantial delays in the climate’s response to anthropogenic forcing. … [Greenhouse-gas] emissions are now about twice the rate of GHG removal from the atmosphere. GHG concentrations will therefore continue to rise even if emissions fall, stabilizing only when emissions equal removal. In contrast, results show most subjects [of an MIT study] believe atmospheric GHG concentrations can be stabilized while emissions into the atmosphere continuously exceed the removal of GHGs from it. These beliefs—analogous to arguing a bathtub filled faster than it drains will never overflow—support wait-and-see policies but violate conservation of matter.”

More heating even if we stopped today

A commentary published on RealClimate, a Web site published by working climate scientists, calculates that if greenhouse-gas concentrations were kept constant at today’s level, there would still be an increase in global temperatures of as much as 0.8 degrees Celsius — combined with the global warming already experienced, that is close to the 2-degree overall rise widely believed to be the outer limit to avoid catastrophic damage to Earth’s ecosystem. But to achieve even that equilibrium requires immediate, significant cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions. The commentary says:

“[C]onstant concentrations of CO2 imply a change in emissions — specifically an immediate cut of around 60 to 70% globally and continued further cuts over time.”

“Immediate” as in now, not decades in the future. The actual proposed cuts, in the near term, are far less than that range, and less than initially meets the eye. The baseline of measurement is being shifted, for example, so that the benchmark against which the reductions are measured are higher than previously set. Environmental Defence Canada calculates that the Harper government’s switch to using 2005 rather than 1990 as the baseline reduces the goal by more than half. In a report, the group writes:

“The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) and the Kyoto Protocol (1997) both used 1990 as the reference or base year. Most countries still use 1990 as the base year but some have started using more recent base years. Since the Copenhagen summit in 2009, Canada has been using 2005 as a base year. This makes comparison between targets more difficult. It also makes targets look stronger than they are since Canada’s carbon pollution increased significantly between 1990 and 2005. For example, the Canadian government’s pledge to reduce emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 by 2030 is actually less than half as strong … when expressed using 1990 as the base year.” [page 3]

Emissions from the Alberta tar sands have increased almost 80 percent since 2005 and the Harper government has every intention of boosting tar sands production as much as possible, including plans for multiple pipelines, while equating environmentalists with terrorists. Environmental Defence Canada notes that the Harper government has no intention of regulating tar sands oil and flatly declares Canada’s post-2020 target “the weakest in the G7 to date.”

The potential global warming just from the Alberta tar sands is so large that the U.S. environmental scientist James Hansen believes it will be impossible to stop runaway global warming should that oil be burned.

Assigning contributions isn’t straightforward

The point here isn’t to single out Canada. But its cumulative greenhouse-gas emissions since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution is the ninth highest in the world, a ranking likely to rise if plans of current oil and gas companies come to fruition. So the argument sometimes made that Canada isn’t a significant contributor to global warming because of its small population isn’t true. The United States, not surprisingly, is easily the biggest culprit, having emitted 29 percent of the world’s cumulative greenhouse gases, according to calculations by the World Resources Institute.

China ranks second, with nine percent of the world’s cumulative greenhouse-gas emissions, and the top 10 countries account for 72 percent. (Italy is the only G7 country not among the top 10.) But even here, it could be argued that China’s ranking deserves an asterisk. Western multi-national corporations have eagerly transferred production to China, particularly U.S. companies such as Wal-Mart and Apple. So much of those Chinese greenhouses gases are the responsibility of U.S. corporations. A paper led by Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo estimates that, in 2008 alone, the U.S. imported as much as 400 million tons of carbon dioxide in Chinese goods.

Regardless of source, global warming does not come without costs. The nonprofit organization DARA claims that global warming already causes 400,000 deaths per year, and that “the present carbon-intensive economy moreover is linked to 4.5 million deaths worldwide each year.”

Can the World Bank and International Monetary Fund realistically be part of the solution to global warming, as the G7 communiqué would have it? No! The World Bank has poured billions of dollars into dams, power plants and other projects that worsen global warming, and shows no sign of altering its indifference to environmental costs. The World Bank and IMF also promote neoliberalism and austerity programs around the world; immiserating people makes them more vulnerable, not less, to the stresses of global warming and pollution.

The amount of industrial carbon dioxide emissions thrown into the atmosphere from 1988 to 2014 is equal to all the emissions from 1751 to 1988, according to the Climate Accountability Institute. That continually rising rate of emissions is reflective of the ever more intensive pressures for growth capitalism imposes, and the continual movement of production to the places with the lowest wages and weakest environmental laws imposed by capitalist competition, stretching supply chains ever longer, is itself a contributor to global warming.

The G7 communiqué is nothing more than wishful thinking that no real change is necessary. There are no free lunches: The world has to drastically reduce its consumption. As this is an impossibility under capitalism, another world is not only possible, it is necessary in the long run for our descendants to even have a livable world.

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Canada targets tar sands critics in new criminalization of dissent

Canada’s Harper régime has invented the new crime of being a member of an “anti-Canadian petroleum movement,” and equating such a stance with terrorism. Evidently believing it is in danger of losing the fight against pipeline projects intended to speed up Alberta tar sands production, its response is to place environmentalists under surveillance.

A secret report prepared by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the country’s national police agency, claims that public activism against the problems caused by oil and gas extraction is a growing and violent threat to Canada’s national security. The report goes so far as to challenge the very idea that human activity is causing global warming or that global warming is even a problem. At least 97 percent of environmental scientists agree that human activity is causing global warming. The basis on which a police force can declare otherwise is surely not clear.

The Alberta tar sands (photo by Howl Arts Collective, Montréal)

The Alberta tar sands (photo by Howl Arts Collective, Montréal)

Whether police officials truly believe they understand the global climate better than scientists who are expert in the field or are merely providing “intelligence” [sic] that the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to hear, I will leave to others more familiar than I with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Regardless, the RCMP report, leaked to Greenpeace, makes for amusing reading. For example:

“[T]here is an apparent growing international anti-Canadian petroleum movement. In their literature, representatives of the movement claim climate change is now the most serious global environmental threat, and that climate change is a direct consequence of elevated anthropogenic greenhouse gases which, reportedly, are directly linked to the continued use of fossil fuels.” [page 5]

And whom might the police rely on for that statement? No, not those pesky scientists who refuse to say what is demanded of them by oil and gas companies and the right-wing governments who love them. Instead, the RCMP quotes the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, cites a poll commissioned by a foundation connected to the oil industry, and a columnist at the Toronto Sun, a hard-right tabloid in the Murdoch mold. The Sun columnist, as quoted in the police report, said “environmental radicals” seek “to undermine the development of Canada’s oilsands — an insignificant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.”

Actual experts in the field would disagree. A Scientific America analysis that quotes several climate scientists reports that if all the bitumen in the Alberta tar sands were burned, 240 billion metric tons of carbon would be added to the atmosphere. The total amount of carbon that has been thrown into atmosphere by humanity in all of history is estimated at 588 billion tons.

Are going to believe the police or your lying eyes?

The Globe and Mail of Toronto quoted a Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokesman denying any intention of spying on peaceful protestors:

“There is no focus on environmental groups, but rather on the broader criminal threats to Canada’s critical infrastructure. The RCMP does not monitor any environmental protest group. Its mandate is to investigate individuals involved in criminality.”

But the newspaper’s report noted that the spokesman “would not comment on the tone” of the report, which even The Globe and Mail, a leading establishment publication, found difficult to accept as it earlier in the article noted the RCMP report’s “highly charged language.” Moreover, Canadian human rights organizations filed complaints earlier in February over spying on opponents of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, a project intended to move tar sands oil from Alberta to a port in northern British Columbia, passing through hundreds of miles of environmentally sensitive lands.

Environmentalists and Indigenous peoples have been subjected to spying by the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, according to a complaint filed by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. The association is also opposing a new measure, the Anti-terrorism Act 2015, or Bill C-51, intended to “dramatically expand the powers of Canada’s national security agencies.” The association reports:

“Bill C-51 makes massive changes to many aspects of Canada’s spying and security system. Any one of the changes – making it easier to lock people up without charge; criminalizing expression; vastly expanding the powers of Canada’s spies; gutting privacy protections – is significant, raises constitutional questions, and must be the subject of serious debate. Lumping them all together into one bill, and proposing to speed that bill through Parliament, virtually guarantees that democratic debate on these proposed measures will be insufficient.”

Such speed is consistent with the Harper government’s attitude toward activists. A previous environment minister, Peter Kent, called parliamentary opponents of tar sands “treacherous” and had a long history of dismantling every regulation he could. The current environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq, while less inclined to frontal attacks, nonetheless also doubts climate change.

From smoking is good for you to the weather is just fine

Global-warming denialism is well-funded, with oil and gas companies often the heaviest contributors to “think tanks” that specialize in doubting scientific evidence on behalf of their corporate benefactors. An excellent roundup of these deniers, written by physics professor John W. Farley for the May 2012 edition of Monthly Review, noted that Exxon Mobil Corporation, the Koch brothers and other special interests have spent tens of millions of dollars.

One of these corporate-funded “think tanks” is the Heartland Institute, which began life as a Big Tobacco outfit issuing reports denying links between smoking and cancer. Another global-warming denial outfit, The George C. Marshall Institute, originated as lobby group for Ronald Reagan’s crackpot Strategic Defense Initiative, more commonly known as the “Star Wars” program. Another was the now-defunct Global Climate Coalition, which included major oil companies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and automobile manufacturers; it actually operated from the offices of the National Association of Manufacturing.

A scientist who is often trotted out by global-warming deniers is Wei-Hock (“Willie”) Soon, who was recently revealed to have taken more than $1.2 million from the fossil-fuel industry. The New York Times reports that at least 11 papers Dr. Soon has published since 2008 omitted disclosures of this funding and at least eight violate the ethical guidelines of the journals that published him. The Times reports:

“[D]ocuments show that Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.”

The world is facing an environmental catastrophe as it is; increasing production from the Alberta tar sands will only hasten it. The capacity of railroads to ship oil is reaching its limit (and in itself is dangerous as a recent flurry of crashes demonstrate). Thus pipelines are critical for tar sands expansion. Not only the Keystone XL pipeline across the United States, but the Northern Gateway and other proposed pipelines that would cross Canada to eastern ports. U.S. President Barack Obama’s February 24 veto of a congressional bill designed to force Keystone construction by no means puts that issue to rest; the State Department’s inaccurate claim that the pipeline would not add to global warming and falsehoods that tens of thousands of jobs would result remain an official document.

Opposition to the Keystone XL pipelines has not slackened and strong resistance continues against the Northern Gateway, which would not only send oil through sensitive mountains and forests, but would require ocean tankers to travel more than 100 kilometers just to reach the Pacific Ocean from the pipeline terminus in northern British Columbia. From there, the oil would be shipped to Asia. First Nations peoples, who have the right to block projects from crossing their lands, are leading that fight, and vow physical resistance.

TransCanada Corporation, the same company that wants to build Keystone XL to the Gulf of Mexico, is also proposing an Energy East pipeline that would carry tar sands oil to terminals in Québec City and St. John, New Brunswick. This project, if it comes to fruition, would alone produce the same amount of carbon each year as seven million new cars on Canada’s roads, according to 350.org. Some of this project would use existing natural gas lines; these are not designed for oil, a heavier substance, elevating the risk of ruptures.

The RCMP reports asserts that “extremists pose a realistic criminal threat to Canada’s petroleum industry.” Advocating for clean air and water is a crime? The fight against one of these pipelines must be a fight against them all; increased oil profits surely won’t be compensation for drowned cities and farmlands turned to dust bowls.

Keystone XL: State Department tells the environment to drop dead

The U.S. State Department appears to be cooking the books in its studies of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Could this be a sign that the Obama administration is preparing to approve a project that potentially could be the tipping point for uncontrollable global warming?

Given President Barack Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy, and the State Department’s questionable assertion that the Alberta tar sands would be further developed without the pipeline, there is no time to lose. Tucked away on page 9 of State’s Keystone XL Pipeline final supplemental environmental impact statement executive summary, is this tidbit:

“The updated market analysis in this Supplemental EIS … concludes that the proposed Project is unlikely to significantly affect the rate of extraction in oil sands areas.”

Were that true, extraction of the Alberta tar sands would still constitute a monumental environmental disaster, but a series of studies indicates that canceling the Keystone XL Pipeline would put the brakes on further development.

Alberta oil sands (photo by Eryn Rickard)

Alberta oil sands (photo by Eryn Rickard)

The most recent of these reports, issued on March 3 by Carbon Tracker International, finds that the cumulative amount of greenhouse-gas emissions attributable to the Keystone XL pipeline would be approximately equal to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of 1,400 coal-fired power plants. The study states:

“Through 2050, cumulative lifecycle [greenhouse-gas] emissions attributed to ‘KXL-enabled production’ range from 4943 to 5315 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent. … Cumulative ‘KXL-enabled’ incremental emissions through 2050 are … nearly equal to total U.S. CO₂ emissions in 2013.” [page 2]

The Carbon Tracker International study concludes that the models used in the State Department’s environmental impact statement “appear incompatible” with the goal of holding the eventual rise in global average temperature to no more than two degrees Celsius. Environmentalists and climate scientists widely predict runaway climate change if temperatures rise beyond that point.

The above figure of about five billion metric tons is a conservative estimate. A discussion in Scientific American says another 240 billion metric tons of carbon would be added to the atmosphere if all the bitumen in the Alberta tar sands were burned, and that all the oil that could be recovered today under current technology represents 22 billion tons of carbon. To put those figures in some perspective, the total amount of carbon thrown into the atmosphere by human activity in all history is 578 billion tons — and one trillion tons would bring the world to the tipping point, according to Oxford University scientists who maintain the Trillionthtonne.org web site.

Speeding up global warming

Oil Change International bluntly says it is “shocking” that the State Department ignored the target of limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius “despite the fact that even [State’s] flawed models revealed that the carbon impact of the pipeline could equal as much as 5.7 million cars each year.” The group concludes:

“By avoiding any consideration of climate safety, the State Department report is blindingly clear on one point, if only by implication: the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not compatible with a climate safe world.”

As it is, human activity is warming the world. The last month in which the global temperature was below the 20th century average was February 1985 and the last year in which the global temperature was below the 20th century average was 1976.

Tar-sands oil requires more energy and water than other sources, leaves behind more pollution, and is more corrosive to pipelines. Extracting it therefore generates more greenhouse gases than ordinary production.

A Scientific American article, “How Much Will Tar Sands Oil Add to Global Warming?,” reports that the “Albertan tar sands are already bumping up against constraints in the ability to move their product” and “the Keystone pipeline represents the ability to carry away an additional 830,000 barrels per day.”

The State Department is attempting to duck responsibility by claiming the tar sands would be developed without the pipeline, an assertion not necessarily shared by business proponents. A RBC Dominion Securities report says production would be “deferred” without Keystone XL. TD Bank, one of Canada’s largest, issued a report stating that no further oil expansion is possible without more pipelines. The report said:

“Canada’s oil industry is facing a serious challenge to its long-term growth. Current oil production in Western Canada coupled with the significant gains in US domestic production have led the industry to bump against capacity constraints in existing pipelines and refineries. Production growth can not occur unless some of the planned pipeline projects out of the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin go ahead.” [page 1]

Economic benefits are misrepresented, too

So the pipeline would enable a major boost to tar-sands production — and global warming. It is not only the environmental impact that is misrepresented, however. Pipeline opponents believe that potential economic gains are greatly overstated by the U.S. government and TransCanada Corporation, the company behind the Keystone XL project.

The State Department’s final supplemental environmental impact statement makes big claims for the pipeline:

“During construction, proposed Project spending would support approximately 42,100 jobs (direct, indirect, and induced), and approximately $2 billion in earnings throughout the United States. … Construction of the proposed Project would contribute approximately $3.4 billion to the U.S. GDP. This figure includes not only earnings by workers, but all other income earned by businesses and individuals engaged in the production of goods and services demanded by the proposed Project, such as profits, rent, interest, and dividends.” [pages 19-20]

TransCanada and the American Petroleum Institute go further and claim that the project would create 119,000 (direct, indirect and induced) jobs. A study by the Cornell Global Labor Institute, however, throws cold water on these grandiose assertions. At least 50 percent of the steel manufactured for the pipeline would be made outside the U.S., the Cornell report said, and that, when all effects are calculated, there may be a net loss of jobs. The report said:

“[T]he job estimates put forward by TransCanada are unsubstantiated and the project will not only create fewer jobs than industry states, but that the project could actually kill more jobs than it creates. … Job losses would be caused by additional fuel costs in the Midwest, pipeline spills, pollution and the rising costs of climate change. Even one year of fuel price increases as a result of Keystone XL could cancel out some or all of the jobs created by the project.”

Those burdens will not be borne by TransCanada nor the oil companies, but they will get to keep the profits. Just the way the “market” likes it.