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Letter to NY Times science editor: peak oil and global warming

Several questions about the New York Times coverage of global warming appeared in the recently published Question and Answers with NY Times Science Editor Laura Chang.

Among the questions, Bill Corporon of Dallas, asked,

Are you convinced that the consumption of fossil fuels is causing global warming? Are you aware of any legitimate scientific proof that this is so?

In Ms. Chang's response, she didn't answer the question. Nor, it seems does anyone else want to be direct on this point. There are generic references to the 'human impact' on climate, 'human-induced' warming, and the like, but for some reason there is avoidance of what needs to be said repeatedly for the benefit of average readers: our burning of fossil fuels is causing warming beyond normal climate fluctuations.

You may think this is obvious, as may scientists. But the linkage needs to be stated directly, and I would encourage the New York Times to adopt it as an editorial policy.

A critical related matter, which climate scientists need to address, is the change in the mix of fossil fuels being burned, accidentally and intentionally, and the impact the peaking of world oil production will have on this mix. (Google: "peak oil" and see also www.peakoil.ie/newsletters/aspo65, the latest ASPO report - scroll to peak oil graph and charts.)

When oil production begins to decline (either physically or relative to growing world potential demand), nations and their militaries, businesses, and individuals will try to maintain operating and living standards by switching to alternatives. Absent a WWII-style mobilization world-wide, the number one alternative for the next 20 years, based on extraction costs and fixed infrastructure in place or under construction (mainly railroads, ships & barges, and 'dirty' coal-fired power plants), will be increased burning of dirty coal.

Add in increased burning of wood for heating & cooking (which means a reduction in the carbon sunk in forests), and 'accidental' peat and coal fires (these are man-caused and should be included in the 'mix'). See excerpts from news stories posted at the end of this message.

There is already detectable air pollution on the US West Coast from coal plants in Asia, and scores of new ones without clean technology are approved or under construction.

In the last two years, the issue of peak oil has gone from obscurity to the mainstream and may soon become common knowledge with the general public. Reports are being generated by governments and organizations laying out the seriousness of the soon-to-be Long Emergency (Kunstler), a good one last year by the DOE contractor, SAIC: the Hirsch report (Wikepedia and PDF of the report.)

Comprehension of the seriousness for the industrial world of this prospect of declining energy availability has now reach the Pentagon and the military departments. See, e.g., the recent Corps of Engineers (COE) report (PDF of full report) / PDF of summary).

From a discussion of the COE report:

The [COE] authors warn that in order to sustain its mission, 'the Army must insulate itself from the economic and logistical energy-related problems coming in the near to mid future. This requires a transition to modern, secure and efficient energy systems, and to building technologies that are safe and environmental friendly.' The best energy options they conclude are 'energy efficiency and renewable sources.' However, 'currently, there is no viable substitute for petroleum.' ....

[the authors] Westervelt and Fournier assert that changes must be made with urgency. However they express concerns that 'we have a large and robust energy system with tremendous inertia, both from a policy perspective and a great resistance to change.' In light of this, 'the Army needs to present its perspective to higher authorities and be prepared to proceed regardless of the national measures that are taken.'

When the Army COE goes public with a report saying that the Army has to act, even if the national command structure fails to, that's a clue something's happening. I encourage the science editors at the New York Times to begin tying in the climate science with what scientists are learning about the potential of declining oil supplies and resulting shifts to dirtier alternatives, just when those dirtier choices could accelerate warming or contribute to an irreversible 'tipping point'.

We need science on this, not propaganda or wishful thinking that this will be solved automatically by the market, technology, or (semi) renewable alternatives (e.g., it takes a tremendous amount of fossil fuel to build a nuclear power plant).

Currently, the "Peak Oilers" are knowledgeable advocates about climate issues (see, e.g., Environmental News at www.energybulletin.net ), but the climate scientists seem more single-minded in their pursuits. Bring climate scientists, geologists, and geopolitical analysts (access to oil is both geological and geopolitical) together in stories that frame the issues in a way that gets everyone on the same factual page, so readers can see the direct consequences of excessive energy consumption on their children's future.

Thanks for reading this, if you made it this far.

Mike McCarthy, Reston VA


Articles about wild fires and climate change

Wild coal fires are a 'global catastrophe ' (12:50 14 February 2003, NewScientist.com news service, Shaoni Bhattacharya , Denver)

Wild coal fires are a global catastrophe, scientists are warning, burning hundreds of millions of tonnes of coal every year and contributing to climate change and damaging human health. These fires can rage both above and below ground and may contribute more than 3% of the world's annual CO2 emissions, which are thought to be causing global warming. Scientists note that if coal-producing countries could tackle the infernos, it might be a cost-effective way to meet their targets under the Kyoto protocol, drawn up to cut the emission of greenhouse gases.

"I don't think it's an exaggeration at all to say it's a global catastrophe," says Glenn Stracher, a US geologist at East Georgia College, Swainsboro. As well as releasing CO2, "the fires cause human suffering - respiratory, skin diseases, increases in heart problems and asthmatic conditions. They are responsible for a lot of illnesses".

"Estimates for the CO2 put into the atmosphere from underground fires in China are equivalent to the emissions from all motor vehicles in the US," Stracher told delegates at the Am. Ass'n for the Advancement of Science conference in Denver....

Indonesian wildfires spark global warming fears (19:00 06 November 2002, NewScientist.com news service, Fred Pearce)

Burning peat bogs in Indonesia are releasing massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, in a repeat of the environmental devastation that made headlines around the world five years ago. Tropical peat bogs, such as those beneath the forests of Indonesia, are among the planet's largest stores of carbon. They release much more CO2 when they burn than when the trees that grow on them catch fire.

Now a team of scientists from Britain, Germany and Indonesia has reported that as Indonesia's forests burned in 1997, the smouldering peat beneath released as much as 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon into the air. That is equivalent to 40% of the global emissions from burning fossil fuels that year, and was the prime cause of the biggest annual increase in atmospheric CO2 levels since records began more than 40 years ago.

The researchers calculate that, in 1998, the atmosphere contained almost 6 billion extra tonnes of CO2, compared with an annual average for the 1990s of 3.2 billion tonnes...

Editorial Notes: Mike McCarthy is a government analyst in an unrelated field who follows peak oil and climate issues. Some formatting and minor editorial changes were made to the letter for viewing on the Web. -BA

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