Climate Change and Energy Development

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies, Climate Affairs, Environment and Society

Published on April 30, 2012 with No Comments

– We Live in Two Different Worlds

If the climate scientists’ projections about the dangerous impacts of the increasing emissions of greenhouse gases are valid and if the energy community’s optimistic projections about future fossil fuel production are correct, the climate change and energy development worlds are on a collision course. As a proverb goes, “if you stay on the path you are on, you will get to where you are going.” To avoid this otherwise inevitable collision, we need to get on a new path.

For the past several years I have been straddling two different worlds, that of the climate community and the world of oil and natural gas. The former world is the one I have worked in as a researcher for about 40 years. Focusing on climate, water and weather variability and extremes and on climate change. With regard to the world of the oil and gas, I have been just an observer listening to energy projections out to 2050, for exploration, production and consumption of oil and gas.

For climate issues I focused on concerns about how societies might cope with yearly variability and extreme event as well as with foreseeable consequences of a 1 or 2 degrees C warming in the 21st century. I witnessed debates between climate change believers and climate change skeptics (I now believe human activities are the culprit for steadily increasing heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere).

In the other world — that of the oil and natural gas community— it is not at all apparent that there is a high level of concern about fossil fuel-related greenhouse gas emissions. In a corporate way, this is understandable. Oil and gas corporations are expected to find, extract, refine and bring to the global marketplace oil and gas supplies. They do it well. In fact, time is on their side; constantly emerging new locations and technologies and improved efficiency and conservation techniques for oil and natural gas extraction seem to have put peak oil worries on the proverbial backburner.

The climate community warns about the dangerous influence of increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere. The UN Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) states this fear in the following way:

The ultimate objective of the Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) is to achieve “… stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.

Most likely there are temperature thresholds in the climate system that, if crossed, will wreak havoc on the climate system and on societies as we have come to know them. However, scientists do not yet know precisely where those thresholds of adverse changes are, despite scientific and media speculation. In theory and in practice precaution should rule the day, but in this case it does not. The following link to a NASA website highlights observations of the climate warming trajectory that our planet has been on between 1880 and 2011.

Please go to this link: http://www.globalissues.org/video/798/global-temperature-anomaly

The climate community has proposed that policymakers consider planetary “geo-engineering schemes.” Such schemes attempt to tamper with the planet’s climate regime by, for example, mimicking volcanic eruptions, dumping iron particles in the ocean, putting millions of mirrors in space, planting more trees, and design mechanical trees to capture carbon and sequestering carbon beneath the Earth’s surface.

Meanwhile, members of civil societies worldwide have become involved in projects to reduce the carbon content of the atmosphere: better light bulbs, recycle, hybrid cars and buses. They are increasingly demanding green, if not low carbon, societies and a greater dependence on wind, solar and water energy.

As for oil and gas, the amount of recoverable oil and gas worldwide even with today’s technology is mind-boggling. And new discoveries and techniques (such as horizontal drilling for fracking operations) seem to be occurring each new year. So, if there is a fossil fuel resource still in the ground I believe it will be extracted when the price and the demand deems it opportune to do so. Perhaps a good representation of the rapid exploitation of fossil fuel resources is a brief video of the expansion of exploration and extraction of fossil fuels from the Bakken formation in north central US (the states of North Dakota and Montana) and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Some have suggested that the gas reserves there are double those to be found in Saudia Arabia.

exponential exploitation of fossil fuels extraction as a result of new technologies (e.g., horizontal fracking)

These are the two worlds: one filled with dire predictions about the consequences if increasing dependence on fossil fuel burning to achieve growth and development goals; the other filled with joy at every new oil or natural gas find somewhere, anywhere, on the globe. Neither of these worlds has direct influence on the other.

I now believe that these two worlds will collide in this century, and more sooner than later. I believe all of the proposals to provide “sunshade to the planet” in attempts to modify the human enhancement of the naturally occurring greenhouse effect or to sequester carbon or to green the economies (these are not the same as low carbon economies) are like band-aids to deal with a gaping wound. At best these are short-term technological fixes for processes that, if left unaddressed, will likely challenge the existence of humanity itself.

Written 42 years ago, climate scientists concluded in a 1971 MIT Conference “Report of the Study of Man’s Impact on Climate (SMIC),

We recognize a real problem that a global temperature increase produced by man’s injection of heat and CO2… may lead to dramatic reduction even elimination of Arctic sea ice.” This exercise [convening of a conference in inadvertent climate modification] would be fruitless if we did not believe that society would be rational when faced with a set of decisions that could govern the future habitability of our planet.

Neither climate scientists nor today’s (or even tomorrow’s) policymakers will resolve the global warming dilemma. Governments are in the fossil fuel business. They rely on cheap energy at least for foreseeable future in the absence of other bountiful sources of cheap energy. Yet governments also fund the climate research that produces the scary scenarios and warnings about continued global dependence on fossil fuel consumption.

It is time to unleash engineering ingenuity, whether in a formal lab or in a home-based workshop. In fact, engineers gave us all the technologies we depend on today. Maybe the unbridled engineering thinking will devise ways to “suck” carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases directly out of the atmosphere in great amounts and dispose of it. Within the engineering community lies a key to reducing fossil fuel emissions. The engineering community needs to move quickly to center stage on the climate change issue.

It is time to create an International Engineering Panel for Climate Change (IEPCC). Maybe it is a blind faith in technology that causes me to believe that engineers will save us from two worlds colliding. As key governments waste precious time talking past each other on what to do to avert dangerous changes to the climate system, all they are doing is giving false hope that catastrophes will either not occur at all or at the least they will not occur during their term in office. Engineering minds got us into this fix. Let’s call on them to get us out of it. I think they can do it, given the challenge and incentives to do so.


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