Even as I write this, global warming protestors are being arrested in front the White House. You can get the story at tarsandsaction.org. They are opposed to the construction of the 1700 mile Keystone Pipeline, which will transport tar sands oil to the refineries of south Texas (video below). The State Department, and President Hopey-Changey himself, must vote up or down on constructing the pipeline by the end of this year.
Producing unconventional tar sands oil is very dirty in terms of CO2 emissions and direct environmental damage. Those in favor of the pipeline want that (relatively) cheap, politically safe Canadian oil, especially because Mexico's oil production has a bleak future. Today we'll consider the problem from the DOTE point of view.
Andrew Leonard of salon.com took on the issue in Obama's big dirty oil test. He starts by presenting the environmentalist case.
"The Keystone Pipeline," wrote global warming activist Bill McKibben, in a letter urging concerned citizens to join a two-week protest in front of the White House, would be "a fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent, a way to make it easier and faster to trigger the final overheating of our planet ..." In an essay titled "Silence Is Deadly," NASA climatologist James Hansen declared that if the tar sands are fully exploited for their oil deposits, "it is essentially game over" for the planet.
Hansen is sometimes criticized even by other environmentalists for the audacity of his rhetoric, but that doesn't mean he or McKibben is necessarily wrong. Extracting oil from tar sands is an expensive, massively environmentally destructive process that produces more greenhouse gases than the exploitation of conventional sources of oil. If the world continues down its current pell-mell path, avidly devouring dirtier and dirtier sources of fossil fuel, the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere will surely go far past the point of no return. The droughts currently plaguing exactly those regions where the southern end of the pipeline will stretch may one day be remembered fondly as an era of balmy weather.
Leonard doesn't know what "the point of no return" is and neither do I, but the phrase certainly sounds good. In fact, it's already "game over" for the planet according to McKibben and Hansen because they have determined, based on some not-widely-accepted research led by Hansen, that anything above 350 parts-per-million by volume (ppmv) constitutes dangerous interference with the Earth's climate. I recently noted in The Idiot Assumptions Of Mankind that we now stand at 392 ppmv. The generally accepted level for dangerous interference is 450 ppmv. And we should bear in mind that CO2 emissions from the tar sands are a drop in the bucket compared with global emissions. But let's continue.
So it has been inspiring to see how environmentalists have heeded McKibben's call to action. Each day this week, 50 or so protesters have linked arms in front of the White House and proudly waited their turn to get handcuffed and arrested, only to be replaced by a different 50 activists the next day. Their stories are invigorating. Environmental advocacy groups with a long history of squabbling with each other have joined together in an impressive display of unity. If Obama approves the Keystone Pipeline the backlash from the environmental community will be intense.
Inspiring, invigorating, impressive, intense. And I thought I had a way with words!
And now a strange thing happens. Caught up in environmental rapture, Leonard suddenly switches gears and starts dealing with Reality. This being Andrew Leonard and salon.com, he first explains that it would be political suicide for Obama to oppose the pipeline. Although Leonard doesn't get into it, Republicans don't even believe in anthropogenic climate change, having decided that this theory, like Darwin's theory of evolution, may not reflect the true situation. On these matters, Republicans feel they are entitled to an opinion, which kind of does away with the whole point of Science.
Leonard makes the simple point that any politician opposing "cheap" oil from the Great White North would have to explain to Americans why they're paying so much for gasoline. And Big Labor favors the job-creating pipeline construction. As Leonard continues, obstacles to change get more and more impenetrable.
Even worse, there's zero chance that Obama actually will be able to avoid a "potential environmental disaster," even if he directs Hillary Clinton to put the kibosh on the pipeline. Without a global commitment to a carbon tax or cap-and-trade regime that properly penalizes the production of greenhouse gases, the tar sands will be fully exploited. If the dirty oil doesn't end up in Texas refineries, it will go straight to China. (It may end up going to China anyway, but but that's a separate story.)
This is where the rubber hits the road. Yes, the tar sands will be fully exploited, whether the United States gets the oil or not. There is absolutely no doubt the Chinese would find a way to consume that oil. It's not as if the world is drowning in the stuff
Unfortunately, there is no conceivable chance that any significant carbon-limiting legislation will come out of this U.S. Congress —
Or any U.S. Congress, I should add.
and even if Obama had thrown the full weight of his bully pulpit into the climate change battle before the 2010 midterms it is far from obvious that he could have gotten anything through the Senate even when Democrats had a 60-seat majority. Too many members of his own party had cold feet — whether because of powerful energy-related special interests in their own states, or because of the dreadful condition of the U.S. economy.
Guess what? The economy is still dreadful, and that puts Obama, again, in a tough position...
When push comes to shove, economic concerns will always trump environmental concerns. That's a Rule of Life. Get some small magnets, write it down on a piece of paper, and put it on your refrigerator door. For humankind, environmental concerns are a luxury they can afford when the economy is doing well. And in so far as the economy can not be expected to do well in the foreseeable future, environmental concerns are off the table for many years to come, if not forever. Leonard concludes—
But at the same time, many voters have come to see Obama as a president unwilling to take strong stands. The Keystone Pipeline offers yet another test of this evolving consensus wisdom. Obama appointed a head of the EPA who has been willing to make tough decisions; maybe it is time he followed her lead. Because even though whatever he does, he won't be able to save the world — there's still something to be said for saving your reputation.
We have traveled a long way in a short space, moving from inspiring, invigorating, impressive, and intense to Obama at least being able to salvage his reputation, presumably for future generations. Protesting the construction of the Keystone Pipeline is yet another symbolic, futile gesture. Humankind will never act in concert to mitigate global warming. In fact, humankind is completely incapable of acting in concert about anything if there's a large shared cost to be borne.
And it is impossible to halt a certain amount of warming anyway. There's at least 1.6°C of warming in the pipeline, so to speak, and to halt any increases in atmospheric CO2, or limit them to 430 ppmv (to pick a target), humanity would have to tear down industrial civilization. Needless to say, that's not China's current plan (or ours). That's the part of the equation environmentalists never mention. We are currently adding 2 ppmv to the atmosphere annually. At that rate we will reach 431 ppmv in 2030, a scant 19 years from now. Some resource scarcity people believe peak oil and peak coal will do the trick, but if fossil fuel production falls off a cliff, we would lose industrial civilization in that case, too. Some salvation!
I'm not a fan of Alcoholics Anonymous—I would have to quit drinking!—but the opening stanza of the Serenity Prayer seems apropos here.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference
Remember what I've told you as you watch the usual pointless debate.