Sunny spin to an oily Earth

Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, warned this year that climate change is “the greatest economic challenge of the 21st century … Unless we take action on climate change future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.”

Her warning seems to have been dismissed as hyperbole, judging by the lack of reaction by other political leaders. But she may be more correct than she knew.

In May, Planet Earth reached a grim milestone — carbon dioxide emissions reached more than 400 parts per million average for a day, which is 50 ppm more than what scientists regard as the safe level for keeping the Earth’s temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels. Now some scientists think we will have to fight hard to keep the temperature rise to less than 4 degrees, and some are already warning of a rise of 7 to 9 degrees.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the leading U.S. think-tank, in April issued a grim report card on climate change, giving the world a resounding D, with the U.S. earning a C-minus. The council assessed understanding of the threats of climate change as “Good.”

Performance is another matter: Curbing emissions and promoting low carbon development has been “poor,” the council reported. Monitoring and enforcing emissions cuts is “average.” Financing emissions cuts and adapting to climate change are both “poor”; and utilizing carbon sinks is “incomplete.”

All of the leading emitters apart from the Europeans are being irresponsible. Although CFR claims understanding is “good,” powerful voices in the U.S. still can’t see a problem.

Last month The Wall Street Journal published an editorial page article titled: “In defense of carbon dioxide: the demonized chemical compound is a boon to plant life and has little correlation with global temperature” — which is like saying that water is essential for life, so massive flooding is better.

Although U.S. President Barack Obama claims climate change is high on his agenda, he has been slow to do anything. Fearing being stymied by Republicans in Congress who will see that climate change never gets onto the legislative schedule, he is pushing the nebulous idea of “international peer pressure” to encourage countries to challenge each other to be greener. This is unlikely to work.

The BRICS collective (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) ganged up to prevent a climate deal. According to the 2012 Columbia and Yale University Environmental Performance Index, all BRICS except Brazil have been damaging their — and the Earth’s — ecology at the most rapid rate of any group of countries. China, South Africa and India have declining scores on greenhouse gas emissions.

China and India demand that already developed countries must first pay the price for their historic role in polluting the planet. China has taken over as the world’s biggest polluter and its emissions in 2010 represented 130 percent of its levels in 2000. Major Chinese cities are becoming so polluted that it is unhealthy to human life. Indeed, a study from the Pioneer 11 space probe this year showed that the atmosphere of Venus — thought to be completely uninhabitable — has lower levels of PM2.5 than Beijing. The trouble is that it would take 50 years to cover the 40-million-km journey to Venus.

As for Russia, the CFR described it as “the class truant for its minimal engagement” in climate change talks.

Some climate change doubters claim that even if the Earth warms up, there will be benefits, such as being able to farm in Greenland and more easily mine resources under melting icecaps. Such benefits would be minimal compared with the massive destruction to the established environment, which would force massive movements of peoples seeking more comfortable habitats after theirs had been swamped by rising sea waters or turned into dust.

Nicholas Stern, the British economist and climate change expert, warned after the news that the 400 ppm level had been reached that it was likely to lead to a 5-degree rise in global temperatures, regular disruptions to the Earth’s weather patterns and spreading deserts.

“Hundreds of millions of people will be forced to leave their homelands because their crops and animals will have died,” warned Stern. “The trouble will come when they try to migrate into new lands, however. That will bring them into armed conflict with people already there. Nor will it be an occasional occurrence. It could become a permanent feature of life on Earth.”

Scientists from the University of Oxford and Victoria University of Wellington have just produced a film, “Thin Ice,” that says previous estimates of global warming have underestimated the actual temperature rise we are going to experience. It predicts that without an immediate reduction in fossil fuel use, by 2100 temperatures will be way higher and seas will rise by 10 meters, swamping low-lying countries, such as Bangladesh and Pacific islands and triggering the events that Stern fears.

So where is the good news?

The good news is that long-heralded renewable clean energy sources are finally arriving in economically efficient form. As The Economist noted recently, wind farms provide 2 percent of the world’s electricity and their contribution is doubling every three years, meaning that wind will overtake nuclear power in the next decade.

The greatest renewable hope is solar power, today contributing less than 1 percent to global electricity, but growing rapidly as the cost of panels drops sharply.

Amory Lovins, chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, pointed out that new utility-scale solar power underbid efficient new gas-fired plants in California’s 2011 spring auction. Early this year Spain briefly achieved 61 percent renewable power and Germany 70 percent.

Wind and solar are on the way to becoming so cheap that, Lovins says, “It doesn’t matter if we never run out of oil: We won’t want to burn it anymore.”

It’s a comforting thought, but renewable power still has to fight the battle against determined big oil paymasters of powerful politicians. The International Energy Agency heralded the prospect that massive American shale oil production would lead to the U.S. becoming the world’s biggest producer outside the Organization of Petroleum Exporting countries.

Indeed, some Americans predict that their country will become the world’s biggest oil producer between 2017 and 2020, surpassing Saudi Arabia. That’s big bucks promoting carbon dioxide emissions.

James Hansen, one of the pioneering fathers warning of the dangers of climate change, in May claimed that major international oil companies are buying off governments. He accused the Canadian government of being the salesman for industrial tar sands, which lobbyists claim are highly polluting.

Tar sands exploitation would mean game over for the climate, Hansen warned in an interview with The Guardian.

Meanwhile, Japan, in spite of its own savage experience with nuclear disaster and meltdown, is still trying to promote nuclear power and signed a $22 billion deal to build Turkey’s second nuclear plant, dangerously close to an earthquake fault line. Its supporters claim that nuclear is a clean energy source, forgetting Japan’s problems today struggling to cope with spent fuel rods and water contaminated by the nuclear meltdown.

Politicians and their paymasters seem to be the last people in the world understanding clean and green energy or what kind of planet they will bequeath to their grandchildren.

Kevin Rafferty is a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives at Osaka University.

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