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Fossil Fuel Intransigence and Idle No More

By Bill Henderson

22 January, 2013

The United States, China, and almost every nation on the globe has signed on to multilateral agreements agreeing to control their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions so that warming will not exceed a 2C rise over the stable Holocene temperature before the industrial revolution began our use of fossil fuels. 141 countries representing 87% of global GHG emissions signed on to the Copenhagen Accord to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system , recognizing "the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius",

2C is the agreed precautionary ceiling so that warming won't lead to humanity threatening runaway warming or potential large scale species extinction.

As recently as the climate talks at Doha, the US, the countries in the European Union, Russia, China and the rest of the BRICS, virtually every country in the world, has agreed to emission controls to keep below 2C.

By analogy, given the mounting scientific evidence of the dangers of second hand smoke, especially for children, governments everywhere introduce laws banning smoking indoors and in public areas. But when it comes to climate change and agreements to control emissions the smokers just continue to smoke at home, in the car with the kids, around the dinner table; Dad, my Prime Minister Harper in Canada, blowing smoke rings of tarsands expansion into the rapt faces of the innocent kids.

Emission control to do the right thing and protect our kids future has failed because the fossil fuel industries are so politically powerful, because we so greatly benefit from both the production and use of fossil fuels, and because there is as yet no effective policing framework. GHG emissions continue to rise; the rate of emissions continues to actually increase and warming on the present global trajectory is now predicted to increase to 4C-6C by the end of the century.

This is death to all we know and love. Not just the equivalent of fatal cancer for those alive - think of your beloved toddler who will be in middle age after 2050 - but scorched earth where almost everything we love and value - the species with which we presently share creation, the arts and sciences and services, the evolutionary rule of law and culture of our phenomenal civilization - everything we love and value no longer exists.

Getting back to Mr. Harper blowing smoke rings, there are many in Canada who advocate expansion of the tarsands as Canada's economic engine to pull the economies of all parts of Canada through difficult times in an increasingly unstable and insecure global economy. Advocating for or in any way expediting tarsands expansion is equivalent to blowing cigarette smoke into your kids lungs, it is that stupid; it is that criminal in ignoring the prevailing climate science and agreed dangers. Mr. Harper is a prime example of those leaders who should be acting responsibly towards future generations by reducing emissions but who are instead advocating, legislating, twisting arms in classic petrostate politics, to ramp up fossil fuel production in spite of international agreements based upon agreed climate science.

There is a strong global carbon budget science argument that a sizeable percentage (60% to 90% ballpark) of remaining fossil fuel reserves: coal, oil and natural gas, cannot be burned with subsequent GHG emissions if we want to stay within a carbon budget so that warming does not exceed 2C.

Bill McKibben is the climate activist who has best popularized this argument, in a Rolling Stone essay and in his present Do The Math tour,  but the science behind it goes back to a seminal paper Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2C by Meinshausen et al. (you can access the paper and more here ). This paper is but one of many in a concerted global carbon budget effort by many scientists including Allen, Schellnhuber and Anderson.

The Meinshausen  paper is complicated reading if you aren't used to reading climate science; it is a probalistic analysis because climate systems are complex and dynamic.  Using climate modeling the authors generate a spectrum of probabilities of temperature change for a range of fossil fuels burned. Their most cited example - and the number McKibben uses following Carbon Tracker - is that in order to have an 80% chance of staying under 2C GHG, emissions must not exceed 886 GtCO2 by 2050 (565 GtCO2 remaining now because we've emitted 321 GtCO2 since 2000).

Carbon Tracker took the Meinshausen budgetary science and researched global fossil fuel reserves and then calculated that in order to stay under this 886 GtCO2 emission limit 4/5th of these reserves must stay in the ground until they can be used without emissions. The IEA using this same budget science (but perhaps more pragmatically) stated:

“One way of viewing this is to regard the world as having a total emissions budget. At what rate and how this budget is used up does not matter from a climate change viewpoint. What matters is that the budget is not exceeded. A budget of a cumulative 1 000 Gt of CO 2 emitted between 2000 and 2049 would, if respected, give a 75% chance of keeping the global average temperature increase to 2°C or less (Meinshausen et al., 2009)."

All of the proven reserves owned by private and public companies and governments are equivalent to 2,795 GtCO2 so a large fraction of present proven reserves must stay in the ground. Coal and unconventional oil requiring additional emissions to mine and process must stay in the ground. Natural gas and the lowest added emission conventional oil should be used as transition fuels with investment channeled into non-fossil fuel energy development instead. (CCS would be a tarsands solution but after several decades it remains more promise than effective technology; it remains only theoretically possible and is certainly not commercially possible for tarsands use and may never be commercially practical.)

We, today, benefit greatly from both the production and use of fossil fuels; because of carbon cycle time lags averaging 40 years the climate consequences will fall on our kids and their kids. We have to be responsible for the consequences of actions we benefit from. Rawls 'veil of ignorance' is useful here: put yourself in the place of your grandkids and then do the fossil fuel math. Furthermore, anybody who advocates for coal and unconventional oil expansion should have to fully answer the carbon budget science argument up front.

97% plus of all climate scientists agree about human caused, burning fossil fuel caused, global warming or climate change. The recent US national climate assessment draft is undeniable evidence of climate change happening. Warming to date is around .8C with .6C in the pipeline. On the present BAU trajectory warming will be a 4C rise by mid-century, 4C-6C by 2100. This is death to everything we know and love in this world. .8C of warming today is costing us hundreds of billions of dollars, in 20 years projected trillions, but nothing like the catastrophe of 4C. Coal and unconventional oil - at least - must stay in the ground.

But all over the world fossil fuel companies and the governments that support them are trying to ramp up production. In Canada, for example, the coal and oil companies, Harper's government, and the corporate business community (that has so thoroughly captured government and almost all institutions in Canada) are ignoring the carbon budget science / 2C argument against tarsands expansion because they are totally preoccupied with trying to protect the Canadian economy and need tarsands expansion as Canada's central economic engine.

Over 60% of Canadians (and a similar percentage of citizens in the developed world) know that climate change is happening and that it is possibly catastrophic if we don't reduce emissions. They want to do the right thing but are trapped in what sociologist Kari Norgaard labels implicatory denial : they know the climate dangers but are paralyzed because they can't meaningfully act.

Could a campaign united in keeping tarsands bitumen and all coal in Canada in the ground turn the corner from 'good German' complicity in a monstrous crime to freeing us from the neoliberal 'golden straitjacket' that keeps us from doing the right thing? While toppling Mr. Harper as a global symbol of petrostate dictatorship?

In Canada Idle No More has shown how powerfully disruptive a very few motivated people could be. Four women started this campaign; it grew because Idle No More was both needed and possible. What if key players in Canada's environmental and other ethically motivated communities used their expertise and communications network to organize such a campaign -  recognizing that keeping tarsands bitumen and coal in the ground was the bottom line in securing our children's future? 

Is an Idle No More style climate campaign possible with not just marginalized peoples but the 60%of Canadians that agree that climate change is happening? Is it possible to force business and government to do the right thing and put us upon a path where we regain control over not only our local economies but with the power to make the changes that are so obviously needed if we are to survive in the 21st century? Is a civil movement of this scale possible? Could uniting to close the tarsands and coal mines be that key first step in beginning actual emission reduction of a scale needed?

Could the present climate movement in the US grow into a force that closes all coal mining nationally, keeping coal in the ground until we can use it without emissions? Is that wildly, improbably optimistic? Or is this a doable target for the majority of Americans who want to actually do something about climate change while there is still time?

Is an Idle No More style campaign against the continuing GHG emissions crime a possibility where you live?

There is no hope of meaningful emission reduction to save our kids in our present neoliberal governments ; they are obsessed with economic survival in an uncertain global economy; they will continue to try and ramp up fossil fuel production and use no matter the science, no matter the international agreements, no matter that this is a monstrous crime against future generations.. The window of opportunity to stay under 2C - and 2C is now known to be deep into dangerous climate change - is closing fast.
A citizens movement to keep coal and unconventional oil in the ground is perhaps our last chance.

Bill Henderson can be reached at Bill (at) pacificfringe.net




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