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Business as usual is planetary suicide. Time to slay Zombie Big Oil

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report on the impacts of global warming this century has been widely recognised as clarifying beyond all doubt that we do, indeed, face an unprecedented planetary emergency. Moreover, not one that will arrive far into the future, but that's happening right now.


Zombie interstate sign via manuscriptreplica/flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 license.

The perfect storm is here

The report states unequivocally that:
"… recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability."
Over the last few years, "several periods of rapid food and cereal price increases following climate extremes in key producing regions indicate a sensitivity of current markets to climate extremes among other factors."
 
Just look at the unrest in Egypt, Syria and Ukraine – not to mention Venezuela, Bosnia, Thailand, Argentina, Brazil, Bangladesh, China, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, among many more - all of which are related to the fact that food prices have hovered around "the boiling point" over the last 18 months.
 
And according to a new report by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), in 2012 alone 31.7 million people were forced from their homes due to extreme weather events such as flooding and storms.
 
As I've argued before, this is a taste of things to come, rooted as it is in a 'perfect storm' convergence of climate, energy and economic crises.
 
The EJF points out that every 1 degree Celsius (C) rise in global average temperatures is estimated to cause a 14% increase of intergroup conflict and a 4% increase of interpersonal violence. While climate change does not by itself necessitate conflict, refracted through the current structures of an increasingly unequal global political economy, it dramatically increases the risk.
 
In the IPCC's words, continued climate change will bring with it an escalating "breakdown of food systems linked to warming, drought, flooding, and precipitation variability and extremes." This collapse of interdependent human and natural systems, in turn, will likely "prolong existing, and create new, poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger," as well as increasing "risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence."
 
But violent conflict, in turn, "increases vulnerability to climate change" by harming "assets that facilitate adaptation, including infrastructure, institutions, natural resources, social capital, and livelihood opportunities" – creating a vicious cycle.
 

Forget dystopia – welcome to an unlivable planet

What's most disturbing about the new report, though, is its business as usual scenarios. The IPCC projects that our current carbon emissions trajectory is heading for carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations of 936 ppm by 2100, which would lead to a rise in global temperatures of between 4 and 5C. For anyone who doubts how alarming this trajectory really is, the following IPCC statement is notable:
"By 2100 for the high-emission scenario RCP8.5, the combination of high temperature and humidity in some areas for parts of the year is projected to compromise normal human activities, including growing food or working outdoors."
As Joe Romm astutely observed about this telling, but little-noted, paragraph:
"Bottom line: We are at risk of making large parts of the planet's currently arable and populated land virtually uninhabitable for much of the year - and irreversibly so for hundreds of years."

The big breach

The problem is that the IPCC's worst-case business as usual projections are very conservative. IPCC models largely don't account for complex amplifying feedbacks, and appear to underestimate the sensitivity of the earth system to CO2 – to such an extent that a 2011 paper in Science pointed to paleoclimate data 30-100 million years ago showing that the earth was 16C warmer at CO2 levels we're pitched to reach by end of century.
 
Yet the rate of current change is far faster than ever happened in earth's history. As IPCC lead author Dr Daniela Schmidt said:
"What our findings very clearly spell out is that since the time of the dinosaurs we have not had climate change at rates as rapid as it's currently happening. So, it's the rates and the magnitudes of those changes which are really important."
What's worse is that the IPCC's forthcoming report on climate mitigation, due out mid-April, will reportedly underscore that we are well on our way to breaching the atmospheric concentrations required to maintain a safe climate at 2C. Rich countries led by the United States need to halve their emissions from 2010 levels by 2030, while fast developing countries like China and India must limit emissions to 2010 levels in the same time-frame.
 
But in reality most governments are nowhere near planning such deep curbs – which themselves overlook the fact that a growing body of scientific literature suggests the 2C limit is too high, implying that even deeper emissions cuts are necessary to avoid hitting the tipping point into dangerous warming.
 
The elephant (or rather, zombie) in the room, of course, is Big Oil – not to mention Big Gas and Big Coal. Despite occasional rosy statements vaguely indicating recognition of the reality of climate change, major agents of what Jeremy Leggett calls "the incumbency" have inadvertently made very clear where they really stand in the battle to save planet earth.
 

Burn, baby, burn

In a series of carefully-timed reports released on the same day as the IPCC's climate impact assessment, Exxon-Mobil said that it will continue to sell fossil fuels without restriction despite climate change, and that it was confident governments would do the same:
"… the scenario where governments restrict hydrocarbon production in a way to reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions 80 percent during the Outlook period is highly unlikely. The Outlook demonstrates that the world will require all the carbon-based energy that ExxonMobil plans to produce during the Outlook period… We see population, GDP and energy needs increasing for the world over the Outlook period, and that all economically viable energy sources will be required to meet these growing needs."
Exxon-Mobil goes to almost absurd lengths to dismiss the capacity of renewable energy sources to challenge the hegemony of the fossil fuel incumbency:
"…. renewables will continue to comprise about 5 percent of the total energy mix by 2040. Factors limiting further penetration of renewables include scalability, geographic dispersion, intermittency (in the case of solar and wind), and cost relative to other sources. The cost limitations of renewables are likely to persist even when higher costs of carbon are considered."
So instead, we are assured that:
"Traditional energy sources have had many decades to scale up to meet the enormous energy needs of the world. As discussed above, renewable sources, such as solar and wind, despite very rapid growth rates, cannot scale up quickly enough to meet global demand growth while at the same time displacing more traditional sources of energy."
Therefore, the report concludes, "it is difficult to envision governments choosing this path [a "low carbon scenario"] in light of the negative implications for economic growth and prosperity that such a course poses, especially when other avenues may be available."
 

Get rich or die trying

Exxon-Mobil's sentiments appear to be shared by others, such as Royal Dutch Shell, which in 2008 identified potential scenarios for the next 40 years based on "three hard truths": the surge in energy demand, the struggle of supplies to meet demand, and intensifying environmental stresses.
 
One scenario, called "Blueprints," forecasts a transition to more environmentally-friendly practices. Another, "Scramble", forecasts the opposite: a lack of decisive action on climate change, coal and biofuels driving growth in developing countries with unconventional oil and gas propelling US and western growth, and intensifying climate impacts such as rising food prices and extreme weather.
 
Publicly, Shell has declared that the "Blueprints" scenario represents its chosen path. Privately, reports journalist McKenzie Funk - author of Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming (2014) - the head of Shell's scenario team told him in 2012: "We've gone to Scramble. This is a Scramble kind of world. This is what we're doing."
Funk's book is eye-opening. Far from denying climate change, he documents a consistent pattern of mining and agricultural companies, energy conglomerates, hedge funds, and Wall Street traders, among others, who are eagerly profiting from climate impacts in the form of rocketing resource prices. They are investing in farmland, water, raw materials, minerals and energy, at the expense of everyone else.
 
The walking dead vs the rest of us
But Big Oil is dead wrong. The incumbency as a whole has consistently underestimated the rise of renewables, and failed to anticipate its meteoric growth.
 
The truth is that the incumbency knows its both dead, and wrong, but is desperate to ensure investors know neither.
 
A new Citigroup report out last week hails the dawn of the "age of renewables" in the US – the world's largest electricity market – where it finds that solar and wind power are becoming cost competitive with fossil fuels, including coal and gas, and even with nuclear. Rising and volatile gas prices, and the structurally disadvantageous nature of coal and nuclear due to ageing nuclear fleets and high production costs led Citigroup to conclude:
"We predict that solar, wind, and biomass continue to gain market share from coal and nuclear into the future… As solar, wind, biomass, and other power sources gain market share from coal, nukes, and gas, the LCOE [levelised cost of energy] metric increasingly becomes important to the new build power generation decision-making."
The numbers speak for themselves and clearly "set the bar for alternative energy":
"Given the large expected increase in demand for gas, offset by production gains, gas prices are expected to rise over the long term. As a result, the bar for renewables and other fuel sources to cross continues to rise, thus making it easier for alternatives to gain market share… Solar is still early in the growth cycle, and in many countries - Germany, Spain, Portugal, Australia, and the Southwest US - residential-scale solar has already competed with average residential electricity prices. In 2013, solar was the second-largest source of new generation capacity behind natural gas - its prospects look bright in 2014 and beyond as costs continue to decline and improve the LCOE picture."

"Radical and transformative change"

It's now increasingly recognised that the transition into the post-carbon era must involve not simply "adaptation" and "mitigation" – the stale buzzwords of bureaucracy - but entail radical transformation of our societies at multiple levels.
 
Even the IPCC's forthcoming mitigation plan concedes: "Stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations will require large-scale transformations in human societies."
 
But perhaps no clearer manifesto for this transformation came from an unexpected editorial in the British Medical Journal, stating that: "The IPCC report shows the need for 'radical and transformative change.'… This is an emergency. Immediate and transformative action is needed at every level: individual, local, and national; personal, political, and financial." The editorial endorses the World Bank president's call for "divestment from fossil fuels and investment in green energy," and highlights the health benefits of change:
"More active forms of transport and the consumption of less red meat will cut death and illness from cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and cancer. Less air pollution will cut the global burden of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancer, and heart disease… If we are to avoid catastrophic climate change and bequeath a sustainable planet worth living on, we must push, as individuals and as a profession, for a transformed, sustainable, and fair world."
The post-carbon era is upon us. Unfortunately, the Zombie Incumbency is in denial – but one wouldn't expect much more from the walking dead.
 
The only question, therefore, is what can each of us as individuals do – however small within our own context - to start becoming the change we want to see in the world? Because before every giant leap was a baby step.

 

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