The Crisis Comes Ashore

The continuing undersea gusher of oil 50 miles off the shores of Louisiana is not the only source of dangerous uncontrolled pollution spewing into the environment. Worldwide, the amount of man-made CO2 being spilled every three seconds into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding the planet equals the highest current estimate of the amount of oil spilling from the Macondo well every day. Indeed, the average American coal-fired power generating plant gushes more than three times as much global-warming pollution into the atmosphere each day—and there are over 1,400 of them.

Just as the oil companies told us that deep-water drilling was safe, they tell us that it’s perfectly all right to dump 90 million tons of CO2 into the air of the world every 24 hours. Even as the oil spill continues to grow—even as BP warns that the flow could increase multi-fold, to 60,000 barrels per day, and that it may continue for months—the head of the American Petroleum Institute, Jack Gerard, says, “Nothing has changed. When we get back to the politics of energy, oil and natural gas are essential to the economy and our way of life.” His reaction reminds me of the day Elvis Presley died. Upon hearing the tragic news, Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, said, “This changes nothing.”

However, both the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the CO2 spill into the global atmosphere are causing profound and harmful changes—directly and indirectly. The oil is having a direct impact on fish, shellfish, turtles, seabirds, coral reefs, marshes, and the entire web of life in the Gulf Coast. The indirect effects include the loss of jobs in the fishing and tourism industries; the destruction of the health, vitality, and rich culture of communities in the region; imminent bankruptcies; vast environmental damage expected to persist for decades; and the disruption of seafood markets nationwide.

And, of course, the consequences of our ravenous consumption of oil are even larger. Starting 40 years ago, when America’s domestic oil production peaked, our dependence on foreign oil has steadily grown. We are now draining our economy of several hundred billion dollars a year in order to purchase foreign oil in a global market dominated by the huge reserves owned by sovereign states in the Persian Gulf. This enormous and increasing transfer of wealth contributes heavily to our trade and current-account deficits, and enriches regimes in the most unstable region of the world, helping to finance both terrorism and Iran’s relentless effort to build a nuclear arsenal.

The profound risk to our national and economic security posed by the prospect of the world’s sudden loss of access to Persian Gulf oil contributed greatly to the strategic miscalculations and public deceptions that led to our costly invasion of Iraq, including the reckless diversion of military and intelligence assets from Afghanistan before our mission there was accomplished.

I am far from the only one who believes that it is not too much of a stretch to link the ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and northwestern Pakistan—and even last week’s attempted bombing in Times Square—to a long chain of events triggered in part by our decision to allow ourselves to become so dependent on foreign oil.

Here at home, the illusion that we can meaningfully reduce our dependence on foreign oil by taking extraordinary risks to develop deep reserves in the Outer Continental Shelf is illuminated by the illustration below. The addition to oil company profits may be significant, but the benefits to our national security are trivial. Meanwhile, our increasing appetite for coal is also creating environmental and human catastrophes. The obscene practice known as “mountaintop mining,” for instance, is not only defacing the landscape of Appalachia but also destroying streams throughout the region and poisoning the drinking water of many communities.

The direct consequences of burning these vast and ever-growing amounts of oil and coal are a buildup of heat in the atmosphere worldwide and the increased acidity of the oceans. (Although the world has yet to focus on ocean acidification, the problem is terrifying. Thirty million of the 90 million tons of CO2 being spilled each day end up in the oceans as carbonic acid, changing the pH level by more than at any time in the last many millions of years, thus inflicting every form of life in the ocean that makes a shell or a reef with a kind of osteoporosis—interfering with their ability to transform calcium carbonate into the hard structures upon which their life depends—that threatens the survival of many species of zooplankton at the base of the ocean food chain.)

But rising global temperatures and increasing acidification in the ocean are only the beginning. These processes have triggered a cascading set of other impacts, which include:

  • The melting of virtually all of the mountain glaciers in the world—already well underway—threatening the supplies of fresh water for drinking and agriculture in many parts of the world.
  • The prospective disappearance of the North Polar Ice Cap, which for most of the last three million years has covered an area roughly the size of the continental United States. Approximately 25 percent–30 percent of this ice cap (measured by the area that it used to cover) has disappeared in the last 30 years during summer. The thickness of the remaining ice has also sharply diminished.
  • The melting of the two largest masses of ice on the planet—on top of Greenland and Antarctica (especially West Antarctica, where the bottom of the ice rests under the sea atop submerged islands) is already accelerating far beyond earlier estimates—threatening catastrophic increases in sea level worldwide.
  • As the seas rise more rapidly, many millions of climate refugees will be forced to flee from areas they have long called home. Indeed, thousands have already been forced to move from low-lying island nations. The government of the Maldives has included a new line item in this year’s budget for a fund to buy a new country. That option will not be available to Bangladesh.
  • Deeper and longer droughts in mid-continent regions, as soil moisture evaporates more rapidly with higher temperatures.
  • More and larger forest fires as drier vegetation becomes kindling for lightning—which, according to researchers at the University of Tel Aviv, is also predicted to increase at the rate of 10 percent with each additional degree of temperature.
  • The migration of tropical diseases to temperate latitudes, as new ecological niches invite the intrusion of viruses and bacteria and the mosquitoes, ticks, and other “vectors” that carry these diseases. This process is also already underway.
  • An accelerated extinction rate which, according to E. O. Wilson and other biologists, threatens to reach levels not seen since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago.
  • The increased destructive power of tropical storms coming off the ocean (hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons—all different names for the same phenomenon). Though the number of these storms is not predicted to increase, their destructive power is—due to increases in wind speeds and moisture content.
  • Increased large downpours of both rain and snow—with a steady shift from snow to rain—resulting in an increased frequency of large floods on every continent.

This last phenomenon—long understood by scientists to be one of the most confidently predictable consequences of global warming—hit home for many of my neighbors last week when Nashville, the city where I live, suffered what the Army Corps of Engineers described as “a 1,000 year rain event” that caused horrendous flooding, mostly in neighborhoods that had no flood insurance—because homeowners there had been assured that they lived well outside the historic flood plain. The tragic loss of many lives was accompanied by the ruination of thousands of homes and property damages that Mayor Karl Dean estimated at one and a half billion dollars.

Scientists are always careful in the way they describe the cause-and-effect relationship between global warming and such events: It is a mistake, they say, to attribute any single extreme weather event only to global warming, because there is large natural variability in weather—but the odds of extremely large downpours, scientists repeatedly insist, are steadily increasing with global warming, and such events are predicted to become far more common with each passing decade because when water evaporates from the warmer oceans, warmer air holds more of it. Average humidity worldwide has already increased by 4 percent since 1970, and each additional degree Fahrenheit increases it by another 3 percent-4 percent. The range of increases in global average temperature during this century is estimated at between 2˚ Fahrenheit to 11.5˚ Fahrenheit. The high end of this range would be utterly catastrophic, threatening the survival of civilization as we know it.

Even now, the hydrological cycle of the entire globe is being radically altered. The timing and predictability of rainfall is changing in ways that are already beginning to disrupt agriculture—particularly subsistence agriculture in developing countries. Crop failures and food insecurity are increasing ominously in many regions where farmers are no longer able to rely on the clockwork intervals of rainy seasons and dry seasons they learned from previous generations.

The record snowfalls last winter in the northeastern United States also fit into the same pattern. Indeed, the Northeast has long been included among the regions of the world predicted to experience the most dramatic increases in precipitation.

Bizarre changes in precipitation patterns are now being observed in many regions throughout the world. Last month, British scientists working near the North Pole were astonished by an unprecedented April rainfall. David Phillips, a senior climatologist in Canada, described the event as “bizarre,” adding, “This is up there among fish falling from the sky or Niagara Falls running dry.”

Temperatures inside the Arctic Circle are increasing far more rapidly than in the rest of the world because the progressive melting of ice and snow leads to a radical change in the amount of heat absorbed by the surface of the uncovered tundra and Arctic Ocean. Incoming solar radiation is no longer reflected by the ice and snow. Arctic researchers from the University of Washington have documented the beginning of significant releases of methane caused by the rapid thawing of permafrost in Alaska and Siberia.

One important difference between the oil spill and the CO2 spill is that petroleum is visible on the surface of the sea and carries a distinctive odor now filling the nostrils of people on shore. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, is invisible, odorless, tasteless, and has no price tag. It is all too easily put “out of sight and out of mind.” Because the impacts of global warming are distributed globally, they often masquerade as an abstraction. And because the length of time between causes and consequences is longer than we are used to dealing with, we are vulnerable to the illusion that we have the luxury of time before we begin to respond.

But neither assumption is correct. Most of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases is stored in the oceans and reemerges over time into the atmosphere. As a result, we are capable-–through inaction—of making truly disastrous consequences inevitable long before the worst impacts are manifested. Our perception of the dangers of the climate crisis therefore relies on our ability to understand and trust the conclusions reached by the most elaborate and impressive scientific assessment in the history of our civilization.

In other words, rather than relying on visceral responses, we have to draw upon our capacity for reasoning, communicating clearly with one another, forming a global consensus on the basis of science, and making a choice in favor of preventive action on a global scale.

During the last 22 years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has produced four massive studies warning the world of the looming catastrophe that is being caused by the massive dumping of global-warming pollution into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, this process has been vulnerable to disruption and paralysis by a cynical and lavishly funded disinformation campaign. A number of large carbon polluters, whose business plans rely on their continued ability to freely dump their gaseous waste products into the global atmospheric commons—as if it is an open sewer—have chosen to pursue a determined and highly organized campaign aimed at undermining public confidence in the accuracy and integrity of the global scientific community. They have attacked the scientific community by financing pseudo-studies aimed at creating public doubt about peer-reviewed science. They have also manipulated the political and regulatory process with outsized campaign contributions and legions of lobbyists (there are now four anti-climate lobbyists for every single member of the House and Senate).

This epic public contest between the broad public interest and a small but powerful special interest has taken place during a time when American democracy has grown sclerotic. The role of money in our politics has exploded to a dangerous level. Our democratic conversation is now dominated by expensive 30-second television commercials, which consume two-thirds of the campaign budgets of candidates in both political parties. The only reliable source of such large sums of campaign cash is business lobbies. Most members of the House and Senate facing competitive election contests are forced to spend several hours each day asking special interests for money to finance their campaigns. Instead of participating in committee hearings, floor debates, and Burkean reflection on the impact of the questions being considered, they spend their time as supplicants. Though many struggle to resist the influence their donors intend to have on their decision-making process, all too frequently human nature takes its course.

Their constituents now spend an average of five hours per day watching television—which is, of course, why campaigns in both political parties spend most of their money on TV advertising. Viewers also absorb political messages from the same special interests that are wining and dining and contributing to their elected officials. The largest carbon polluters have, for the last 17 years, sought to manipulate public opinion with a massive and continuing propaganda campaign, using TV advertisements and all other forms of mass persuasion. It is a game plan spelled out in one of their internal documents, which was leaked to an enterprising reporter, that stated: “reposition global warming as theory rather than fact.” In other words, they have mimicked the strategy pioneered by the tobacco industry, which undermined the scientific consensus linking the smoking of cigarettes with diseases of the lung and heart—successfully delaying appropriate health measures for almost 40 years after the landmark surgeon general’s report of 1964.

Meanwhile, many other countries—including China—have developed national strategies for leading the historic shift from oil and coal to renewable forms of energy, higher levels of efficiency, smart grids and fast trains, sustainable agriculture and forestry.

Here in the United States, the House of Representatives has passed a meaningful plan to move America in the same direction and reestablish our capacity to provide leadership in the world community on the most important issue facing the world today. The Senate, however, has struggled for the last 17 months to find enough votes to take up its own version of the same legislative plan. The unpleasant reality now spilling onto the shores of the Gulf Coast is creating public outrage and may also be generating a new opportunity to pass legislation, just as the oil spill 20 years ago from the Exxon Valdez created public momentum sufficient to overcome the anti-environment special interests. There is new hope that by the time the gusher from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico is capped, so will carbon emissions from the burning of oil and coal.

It is understandable that the administration will be focused on the immediate crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. But this is a consciousness-shifting event. It is one of those clarifying moments that brings a rare opportunity to take the longer view. Unless we change our present course soon, the future of human civilization will be in dire jeopardy. Just as we feel a sense of urgency in demanding that this ongoing oil spill be stopped, we should feel an even greater sense of urgency in demanding that the much larger and more dangerous ongoing emissions of global warming pollution must also be stopped to make the world safe from the climate crisis that is building all around us.