As I write, another teeming downpour pounds northwest Vermont. Over seven inches of rain fell in May, more that twice the average and a new record. A record summer for mosquitoes is predicted, even if the rain abates. A mild winter and heavy spring rain will bring the Green Mountains all sorts of bug and blights from the south. It’s global warming, I suppose we should get used to it, at least until the Atlantic thermohaline cycle shuts down. The global warming shoe has dropped, it will bounce across the global floor for decades before it come to rest.
The other shoe is peak oil. Through foolishness or bad luck, we are beginning to pay attention to the effects of global warming at the same historical moment that our increasing demand for fossil fuels is beginning to outstrip our finite supply.
Global warming is a slow-moving disaster. All the carbon we’ve burned for the past 200 years has raised the planet’s temperature by slightly more than half a degree centigrade. Half a degree? Not so bad, eh? Bad enough to trigger the record floods, storms and heat waves we’ve seen in the past decade. Global warming is like a boulder rolling downhill – slow to start, almost impossible to stop. Author Tim Flannery (The Weather Makers), citing research by the UK’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, writes that if we stopped using fossil fuels now, we’d see another two degrees of global temperature increase in this century. If we keep burning carbon at the rate we are now, we (our children, really) will likely see an increase of five or six degrees. We need to cease unnecessary uses of carbon-based fuels, stop cutting forests, implement stringent conservation and efficiency policies and switch – as fast as possible – to alternative sources of energy.
What if we don’t do that? What if we instead burn fossil fuels at an even faster rate than we are now? That’s the worry that comes with peak oil. If more people want oil than there is oil available, rather than give up our climate-controlled standard of living, we’ll just find other things to burn.
Wednesday’s Washington Post reported that huge, open-pit tar sand mines are erupting all over the Canadian province of Alberta. First, boreal forests are ripped away, reducing the area’s ability to sequester carbon. Then, earth-moving equipment scrapes up tons of tar sand. Natural gas is burned to heat water to make steam, which is used to blast the tar sand, separating oil from soil. The process uses five barrels of fresh water for each barrel of oil produced. The oil gained from the process will make gasoline, diesel, kerosene, jet fuel and fuel oil, all of which will contribute to global warming.
It will get worse. How can it not get worse? Because no sane society would sacrifice its children’s future so it can sit in an air-conditioned den, watching NASCAR on a big-screen tee vee? No, no sane society would, but we don’t have a sane society. Our society, with our “leaders,” has spent $100,000,000,000 in each of the last three years on the oil war in Iraq. All that money and the rest of our nine trillion-dollar debt will be passed to our children. I suppose they should be grateful that our economic system is expected to collapse.
It will get worse. Europe is full of brown coal, which is dirtier, in terms of air pollution, than black coal, but we’ll burn it. In the not-distant past, winter was the season of high energy use, now it’s summer. The heat wave of 2003 spread temperatures of 104 degrees Fahrenheit across Europe and left 26,000 people dead. In those conditions, the choice becomes stark – save electricity to preserve the planet’s future or turn on the air conditioning and survive until autumn?
The coal not burned for air conditioning will be turned into gas, via the Fischer-Tropsch process. It’s what the oil-poor Germans used to fuel their armies during the Second World War. Now, it will be used for the third world war, too.
Will we come to our senses? Consider these co-incident events: 1) An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s global warming movie, opens June 2 in (air-conditioned) movie theaters across the country. 2) If you buy a General Motors gas guzzler by July 5, the company will subsidize your gas (you pay the first two dollars per gallon, GM will buy the rest) for a year. No mileage limit.
Sorry. I wish the news was better.
© Mark Floegel, 2006