Monday, March 26, 2012

Debate on Oil Prices Overlooks the Elephant in the Room

By Joel A. Huberman

I was inspired to write this essay when I read the Viewpoints section in the Sunday edition of The Buffalo News on February 12, 2012. The News had recruited two “experts” to answer the question, “Should [the] U.S. remove restrictions on oil drilling?” One expert, Andrew P. Morriss, replied “Yes”, while the other expert, Michael E. Kraft, responded “No”. Although both men discussed important concerns (the factors affecting oil prices, the need for conservation, the importance of producing energy locally rather than in politically and militarily unstable foreign regions, etc.), both of them completely missed what seems to me to be the major issue—the elephant in the room.

            That elephant is the carbon dioxide (CO2) that we release when we burn fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal) and the global warming, ocean acidification, and other disastrous consequences of that CO2.

            I think most readers of this essay are already familiar with many of the predicted effects of continued fossil fuel burning. I’ll mention just a few—melting of glaciers, melting of polar ice caps, frequent heat waves and frequent and prolonged droughts, frequent storms and floods, submersion of coastal cities and farms as sea levels rise, and combined warming and acidification of our lakes and oceans.

            All readers of this essay living in the eastern two-thirds of the United States are currently experiencing or have recently experienced abnormally high temperatures. I’m writing this essay on March 21, 2012, in the middle of a period of unusually high temperatures (70s to low 80s, in mid-March, in Buffalo, NY), which has been going on for nearly two weeks straight. This has never happened before in my lifetime, and I’m 71 years old. According to Jeff Masters, the founder of Weather Underground, in his blog for March 17, 2012, Minneapolis, MN, was 39°F above its average, and Bismarck, ND was 41° above its average for the preceding day, March 16. What will happen if summer temperatures in the American midwest approach 40°F above average? Answer: many Americans will die.

            Speaking of the American midwest, if global warming continues at its present pace, our midwest and most of our west are likely to become deserts within the next 50 years. According to a recent study by Aiguo Dai of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (available here), the map below shows the measured pattern of dryness and wetness across the USA in the decade 2000-2009 (which does not include last year’s severe Texas drought). To interpret this map, one needs the color scale below it and the corresponding quantitative indicators of drought potential (“Palmer Drought Severity Index” measurements). Values less than -4 are considered indicators of severe drought potential.

Thus, even in the first decade of the 21st century (2000-2009), the American midwest and west were rather dry. But what might the future bring if we keep burning fossil fuels and warming the planet?
The drought potential of the 2000-2009 decade is nothing compared to what Dai’s study predicts for the fourth decade (2030-2039, just 20 years into the future) if we continue burning fossil fuels at current rates:

            By the seventh decade (2060-2069), just 50 years ahead of us, drought potential in our west and midwest will be catastrophic:
Where will our food come from?

            Clearly the consequences of continuing to burn fossil fuels dramatically outweigh the consequences of changes in the price of oil that might be brought about by opening up, or not opening up, more public lands to oil drilling. Why is it that the experts debating the issue of oil prices and oil drilling in The Buffalo News couldn’t see—or saw but failed to comment on—the HUGE elephant in the room?

            I think it’s likely that the apparent ignorance of the experts, and the failure of The Buffalo News to recognize their serious omission, was an understandable (though not pardonable) consequence of the largely successful campaign by fossil-fuel-industry-funded “climate deniers” to confuse both the mass media and the public by casting doubt on the validity of climate scientists’ warnings about global warming. A recent book by climate scientist Michael Mann, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, describes ways in which climate deniers have succeeded in making their lies part of our mainstream culture. Mann was and is a major target of the climate deniers. He knows what he’s talking about.

            I hope that everyone reading this article who is not yet convinced that fossil fuel burning is warming the planet will study Mann’s book. In that book, such readers will discover the extent to which they have been misled by unscientific and unethical “climate deniers”.

            The message of the climate scientists is clear: if we are to have any hope of restraining the warming already underway to a tolerable level, we need to stop burning fossil fuels as soon as possible. Of course, it’s not possible to stop pumping or digging fossil fuels out of the ground immediately—we need time to reduce our overall energy needs by conservation and to put in place an alternative energy structure based on renewable sources—but what we can do immediately is prohibit the opening of new wells and new mines anywhere on the Earth’s surface. By refusing to drill and refusing to dig, we won’t bring about the immediate cessation of fossil fuel use that would be most desirable, but we will accomplish a steady, non-disruptive decline in their use that will give us time to introduce renewable energy sources at an achievable rate. The goal of any discussion regarding any form of fossil fuels should not be how to exploit that fuel for maximum short-term profit but how to wean ourselves away from use of that fossil fuel as rapidly as possible.

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