The past month has seen the release of two major reports on climate change, each sounding yet another alarm that if we don’t replace fossil fuels soon, there is unprecedented disaster ahead. One report came from the UN and was authored by many of the world’s leading climate scientists. The second report was the U.S.’s National Climate Assessment which was mandated by Congress in the 1990 Global Change and Research Act. This act was passed nearly 30 years ago when Congress was starting to take climate change seriously.
The threat to human civilization brought about by the combustion of massive amounts of fossil fuel has been well known by the scientific community since the 1980s; however, convincing people whose jobs and lifestyles depend on fossil fuels is another story. Although the UN has been sponsoring meetings and treaties to deal with the looming threat since 1992, there has been little real progress in curbing the emission of greenhouse gases in the last 25 years as the production of greenhouse gases continues to increase. Even with the development of cheaper ways of producing energy using wind and the sun, carbon emissions still are slated to keep rising for the foreseeable future unless there is a radical and unforeseen change in attitude among the world’s decision makers.
In response to the 2009 International Conference on Climate Change, in July 2010 the Obama administration sponsored legislation to establish market quotas for greenhouse gas emissions in the US. The bill was defeated in the U.S. Senate on the grounds that it would be too disruptive to the nation’s economy. This was the last serious U.S. effort to make a substantial reduction in emissions. As the world leader in such matters, the lack of a significant effort to reduce emissions sent a message to the world. There has been little change in American public attitude in the last eight years even considering the endless string of fires, floods, droughts and hurricanes. A recent Yale climate survey shows that while over 70 percent of Americans believe that climate change will harm future generations, less than 50 percent believe that it is harming them personally and would rather leave the problem to future generations.
Unless your house has been washed away by a hurricane, burned down in a brush fire, or flooded in a storm, the threat of global warming still does not trump the considerable changes in lifestyle that are implied by plans to deal with carbon emissions. For now, all evidence suggests that the world is following a business-as-usual path that will result in considerably higher carbon emissions 25 years from now.
To be fair, numerous European nations have been pushing ahead with efforts to control greenhouse gases, including the nearly unthinkable step of eliminating internal combustion engines within in the next 20 years. While this is a start, unless China, the U.S., India and Russia which are responsible for more than 50 percent of the world’s carbon emissions get on board, there is little the rest of the world can do to prevent civilization-threatening catastrophes from occurring.
So long as some 86 percent of the energy that makes our current civilization and lifestyles possible comes from fossil fuels, it is going to take an endless stream of climate-induced weather catastrophes before a political consensus coalesces in the U.S. to pass legislation mandating, and tax sufficiently to pay for, a major reduction in greenhouse gases.
One solution to this situation would be the emergence onto the commercial market of entirely new ways of producing non-polluting energy at a cost so low that it would spread with the speed of cell phones, leaving the world with little or no emissions by the end of the century. While there are several technologies under development, they are based on scientific concepts beyond currently accepted science. For this reason, there is considerable skepticism as to whether they will work at a commercial scale. It is likely that this skepticism about too-good-to-be-true technologies will only be overcome when working prototypes have been thoroughly validated. Whether a new technology will emerge onto the markets in months, years, decades or after some climatic tipping point is reached is currently unclear.
The other factor in climate change is fossil fuels, and how much longer affordable oil, natural gas, and oil will last. The answer for coal seems rather easy for even in a world where we are consuming some 7+ billion tons per year, geologists say the world’s coal reserves will last for another 150 years. In addition to CO2 emissions, coal burning emits massive amounts of tiny particles that are making the air unbreathable in many countries. The Chinese are already moving against this threat because they can afford to. However, India and other parts of Asia are growing their economies by using increasing quantities of coal.
As natural gas emits only about half the CO2 and very little particulate matter, natural gas has become the fuel of choice especially since liquification has allowed it to be shipped anywhere. Currently the Chinese are importing all the natural gas they can get by pipeline from Russia and Central Asia, and by ship from the lowest bidder. In the U.S. the discovery of shale gas has allowed production to increase rapidly in recent years. This has resulted in a large increase in U.S. capacity to liquify natural gas and export it, and a steady replacement of coal-fired electric plants with those fired by natural gas. Some believe that the U.S. gas industry, which now is largely based on rapidly depleting shale gas, is in for a sharp downturn in the next decade.
For the last decade global oil production has been growing almost entirely from the ever-increasing U.S. shale oil production. As conventional oil fields typically deplete at 5 percent or more a year, there are only a handful of countries such as Canada and Iraq that are still able to increase their conventional oil production by enough to replace declining conventional oil production elsewhere in the world.
The U.S. Department of Energy forecasts that the U.S. — the only significant producer of shale oil — can continue growing for a few years and can maintain a high level of production for the next two decades. Outside observers say these are political forecasts and are not based on the reality of shale oil where production declines at 30 percent each year and is mostly being produced at a loss. If the skeptics are right, and we should know in a few years, then the entire oil industry is likely to be in decline before the end of the coming decade — with serious consequences for global economic growth. The decline of oil production may be good for the climate but it will still be with us for many decades unless viable substitutes are found.