It seems almost like a joke, but not a funny one. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report, issued by the Department of Defense, has a serious warning: “... The US Global Change Research Program, composed of 13 federal agencies, reported in 2009 that climate-related changes are already being observed in every region of the world, including the United States and its coastal waters. Among these physical changes are increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, and alterations in river flows. Assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.”
It’s a terrifying scenario, and at another time it would be grounds for a massive program, not just to slow, but to reverse climate change. While there are still some people who reject the idea of climate change completely, or who say that even if something is occurring it’s unrelated to human activity, the extreme weather patterns have followed the predictions made by the majority of climate scientists. According to the World Resources Institute, “Over the past several months, extreme weather and climate events in the form of heat waves, droughts, fires, and flooding have seemed to become the norm rather than the exception. In the past half-year alone, millions of people have been affected across the globe – from Europe suffering from the worst cold snap in a quarter century; to extreme flooding in Australia, Brazil, China, and the Philippines; to drought in the Sahel. “ That note was published on Sept. 6, 2012. Hurricane Sandy, which deserves a place on the list, reached New Jersey on Oct. 29. It’s possible that these observations are simply coincidental, or are the result of forces which we can’t control, but there’s a serious question of risks and benefits. Converting our energy sources to minimize greenhouse gases is terribly expensive, but Plan B is to colonize Mars.
Ambitious as conversion would be, we were making progress. Solar panels and wind farms have become increasingly cost effective, and tidal power generators survived a test in New York City’s East River, which is as rough a test as anybody could imagine. The Tesla Model S all-electric car can go 300 miles on a single charge and was Motor Trend’s Car of the Year.
The kicker is that just as we began making progress in reducing greenhouse gases, fossil fuels became plentiful and cheap, and, according to the International Energy Agency, (cited in Financial Times) the US will overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia to become the world’s largest global oil producer by 2017. Advances in extraction of shale oil and gas have given the US dramatic cost advantages leading to expansion of domestic induastry and even relocation of overseas plants. Methanex, a Vancouver based producer of methanol, is dismantling a plant in Chile and moving it to Geismar, La. A report from TD Bank says “Technological advances have unlocked enormous supplies of natural gas from rock formations across the United States, keeping the price suppressed at around $3.50 per 1,000 cubic feet. The same fuel, by contrast, fetches around $12 in Europe and $16 in Asia.” This price advantage means investment, industry and jobs.
Expansion of shale oil and gas production seems inevitable. Even if the US could resist the temptation of corporate investment, jobs and a favorable balance of trade (the US has passed Russia as an exporter of natural gas and is no longer the largest importer of middle eastern oil) China is close behind in shale oil technology and other nations are exploring their own resources. It doesn’t matter where the hydrocarbons are burned, once the CO2 enters the atmosphere, it has the same effect. Turn on the television and you can see commercials promising thousands of jobs and energy independence through natural gas, but walk through Long Beach, New York or Baldwin Harbor, or visit the Jersey Shores and see the wreckage left by Hurricane Sandy. There are still sections of New Orleans that show the scars of Hurricane Katrina. San Francisco is considering a sea wall to protect against storm surges, and every costal city will have to consider similar defenses. The total price to guard against rising sea levels will be immense, but it’s the only alternative to repeated disasters on the scale of these two hurricanes. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 52% of the US population lives in coastal watershed counties, and that’s excluding Alaska.
Energy independence has been a national goal since 1973, and technology has offered a quick and easy solution – but as the Pentagon noted, the quick and easy has costs, and they’re no longer hidden. We should ignore the television commercials about jobs and have a serious discussion about energy policy before we bite the apple, because there is a very big worm inside.
Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email sdu01@ mail.com.
From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2012
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