By William S. Becker
This column is for all good citizens who hear the static about global climate change, but who don’t understand what the fuss is. It’s for those people who have not yet grasped that the world has a serious drug problem and the drug is fossil fuels.
It was President George W. Bush, a former oil man, who warned us in 2006 that America is addicted to oil. He might as well have included natural gas and coal, too. These three are the family of carbon-based fuels responsible for global climate change. America has been addicted to them for more than 100 years.
The addiction metaphor is a useful way for lay-people to understand the basic dynamics and risks of the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. The first thing to know is that decades of research and physical observation prove that the Earth’s surface is getting warmer and the principal reason is pollution from burning fossil fuels. The pollution gathers in the lower atmosphere and acts like a blanket that keeps some of the sun’s heat from reflecting back into space. This is the so-called greenhouse effect.
Global warming is changing in the Earth’s climate, which in turn is making our weather more violent. In addition, polar ice is melting and dumping more water into oceans. The oceans expand as they get warmer. The result is rising sea levels that are now threatening entire island nations as well as coastal populations around the world. These impacts are accelerating more rapidly than climate scientists predicted. They will continue getting worse even if we were to go cold-turkey today. That’s because the principal pollutant from power plants and vehicles is carbon dioxide, a gas that lingers in the atmosphere for hundreds of years or more. About two months ago, international scientists warned that unless the world makes dramatic reductions in these emissions over the next 12 years, global warming will result in catastrophic weather and sea-level rise.
It will surprise some Americans to know despite President Trump’s denial that climate change is real, the United States remains one of 197 nations that signed a treaty called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The treaty was created in 1992, endorsed by the U.S. Senate and ratified by President George H.W. Bush. It commits all nations include the U.S. to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human caused) interference with the climate system”.
It was not until three years ago that the same 197 nations finally reached agreement on what to do. Meeting in Paris, they all agreed to submit plans to the United Nations on how they will reduce their greenhouse pollution. They set a collective goal to keep global warming to no more than 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels. Last Saturday in Poland, the countries met again to decide on some of the rules that will govern the Paris climate accord.
This long process has taught us that when it comes to breaking their addiction to fossil fuels, most nations are having an awful time trying to get clean. The promises they have made so far don’t get close to the ambition necessary to meet the goals of the Paris agreement. Fossil fuels are firmly rooted in developed countries. Many less developed nations are becoming addicted by building coal-fired power plants to equip their people with modern electricity.
That is disappointing. However, for all the diplomats, scientists, business leaders and environmentalists who have worked so hard for so long to get this far, the most deeply disappointing development took place two years ago. In a single day, the American people elected a president who has turned the United States, the world’s second-biggest source of CO2 pollution, from a recovering addict into a relapsed user. Worse, he is turning the United States into the world’s biggest carbon dealer.
Last year, nearly 78% of U.S. energy still came from coal, petroleum and natural gas. The nation’s crude oil production is rising at the fastest rate in a century. The United States has passed Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world largest oil producer. New extraction technologies and production efficiencies have allowed this, but so have federal policies. The Trump Administration is permitting more oil and gas production on federal lands and it is relaxing limits on carbon pollution. Congress is complicit. The U.S. tax code provides $25 billion or more in annual taxpayer subsidies to fossil energy companies. Congress could change that, but it does not.
While the United States is the biggest carbon pusher, it is not the only one. The largest industrial countries spend at least $100 billion every year to encourage oil, gas and coal production. During the Poland conference, the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, fellow oil kingpins, tried to undermine the credibility of the latest warning from scientists.
As news reporter Aline Robert described it from Poland, there was “lobbying for coal and fossil fuels of a scale that has rarely been seen” during one of these annual conferences. TIME magazine reported that the Trump Administration dispatched dozens of lower-level officials “to engage in behind the scenes negotiations”. A U.S. event during the conference was described as a “coal sideshow” in which a Trump Administration official and a panel of fossil energy executives promoted the continued use of natural gas and coal. The host country pushed carbon, too. Poland held an event on natural gas and “clean coal”. One Polish official claimed that the main subject of the conference was “coal and fossil fuels in the future.”
Like true addicts, the international community is in a contest between recovery and ruin. Recovery is a clean energy economy powered by benign, renewable and zero-carbon energy. It promises cleaner air, better health and a more stable future. Ruin is increasingly deadly weather disasters that become the rule rather than the exception, where national borders cannot hold back the millions of people displaced by climate change, where island nations and coastal lands are lost permanently to sea level rise, and where historic numbers of plant and animal species are annihilated. This ruined future has already begun.
How do we get back into treatment and recovery? How do we do it before the damages from our addiction become irreversible? And how do we meet the world’s rapidly rising need for energy without the carbon drugs? Those are among the most important questions of this century.
For voters in America, those are the most important questions of the next two years and in the next presidential and congressional elections. It took only one day for voters to put a carbon pusher in the White House. If voters want recovery rather than ruin, it will only take one day in November 2020 to remove him.