Sunday, November 16, 2008

NYT Exxon-erates

The Times has a revealing feature article on Exxon today. Titled "Green is for Sissies," it will be read by very few folks in the sustainability field, although all of us have a major stake in what this oil industry leader thinks and does. But while many of my colleagues in the sustainability discipline and movement are capable of serious, disciplined and self-honest analysis, they remain a minority. Wishful thinking, wooly-mindedness, and New-Agey wishy-washyness is the norm. The current version of which seems to be, "Barrack will save us," or "wait until after January 20." This article would suggest to any serious person how much more difficult, controversial, and a consequence of serious analysis, our salvation will actually be.

Or, as the famous general allegedly said, when the going gets tough, they send for the sonsabitches.

Don't get me wrong. I could happily be an Obama ditto-head. I can't wait for a serious federal energy policy, and a cap and trade bill or carbon tax, preferably both.

But at the same time, I want to know what the overall objective trends are, trends that even the sainted Obama almost certainly cannot control. And I'm not talking about the Dow Industrials.

Examples of important trends I like to watch:
Atmospheric methane concentration
Atmospheric CO2
Proven oil reserves
Share of global oil and gas production owned by national governments hostile to US and UK
Mindset of US industry leaders too big to fear the upcoming Democratic majority very much
Advances in renewable technology likely to affect prices of renewable energy
Latest science on sea level rise and stability of major ice sheets

The Exxon feature informs number six on my list. I watch them like a hawk. This huge company almost single-handedly distorted US public opinion on climate change for an entire decade. The average US citizen still has very little information about climate change or climate policy. Despite the fact that the US is the leading nation in the climate science effort, including most of the now-Nobelite authors of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, the average Joe or Jane in this country remains more or less completely ignorant of even the simplest understanding of climate basics. Thanks in large part to Exxon-Mobil.

But Exxon conspicuously bailed out of the climate denial business last year. Not that all is forgiven, but the new fact is that the lingering US ignorance in climate affairs is now mostly a factor of a) the poor education system and general all-round lack of science understanding in this country, b) the scurrilous and superficial media system, and c) general disinterest, especially when 401Ks are plunging all around the nation.

Even though drought, wildfire, extreme weather, and growing seasons are already dramatically affected all around the country, most Americans, it seems, could care less.

So what does Exxon itself currently think about energy and climate? Although there were some welcome fig-leafs to reducing emissions, the real money sentences in the Times article were these:

"According to Exxon’s own outlook, global oil demand is set to reach 116 million barrels a day by 2030, up sharply from 86 million barrels a day today.

Meanwhile, renewable fuels, like solar, wind and biofuels, will grow at a brisk pace but they will account for just 2 percent of the world’s energy supplies by then, according to Exxon, while oil, gas and coal will represent 80 percent of global energy needs by 2030."

In other words, Exxon believes that global demand for oil and gas will a) continue to grow as developing nations develop, and b) be actually capable of being met by pumping and drilling more oil, while c) deployment of renewables will be dwarfed by the continued growth in demand for the convenience embodied in liquid and gaseous fossil fuel.

Oh boy.

While what I think is going to happen over the next two-three decades is that we will either,

a) realize the terribly dangerous path we are on, to a pace of climate change capable, more or less, of ending civilization. In which case we will surely be looking to reduce oil demand and thus consumption quite dramatically. If Obama can help Americans achieve this understanding, he will as far as I'm concerned, be eligible for the sainthood.


b), we won't realize anything of the sort, and toddle merrily off into the abyss.

What's the abyss? There are options:

1) Rapidly accelerating methane is one. We have, essentially, no idea what might happen to us if the northern methane reservoirs represented by Alaskan and Siberian soils and sediments, and undersea gas hydrates, decide to become unstable. Since they clearly are showing such signs, we are teetering on the edge right now, but few of us realize it.

2) Growth of CO2 concentration at or above the current rate of 2.2 ppm per year is another. This is just the more or less mundane climate change the IPCC expects and was set up to deal with. Since we're already on a path to a global AAT rise of around 6 degrees Celsius, this Business As Usual scenario is worrying enough. Perfectly capable of the total destruction of civilization, but more moderately so. A hundred years instead of ten. (This possibility, to me, is actually kind of soothing at this stage in my intellectual and emotional development regarding climate change.)

3) Collapse of the Greenland and/or West Antarctic Ice Sheets, exacerbated by either 1) or 2) above is another. Luckily, at an altitude of 500 feet in the Maine hinterlands, I live on a future island. Does Irving, TX, home of Exxon-Mobil?

Most likely? Number 2). But the possibility of either 1) or 3), or both, increases with each ppm/year of CO2.

What is eerie about the different perspective between my trend-watching and that represented by the NYT article is that presumably the author, and the Exxon analysts whose views he represents, are intelligent people fully capable of grasping what the climate science means. Perhaps they're even aware of it. Possibly they even read the IPCC FAR, or Jim Hansen's recent paper on the proper safe level for CO2 in the atmosphere.

But still they think that 116 million barrels a day is both possible and even desirable, and that it wouldn't matter very much if the best we could achieve for renewables by 2030 is 2%!

I can't for the life of me imagine why, and how, any intelligent person can possibly still think this way. How can my reality, as a more or less middle-class, relatively conformist academic, be so far removed from theirs at this juncture?

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