Big carbon bubble
Who gains from denying the climate crisis? Big Oil.
If we could see the world with a particularly illuminating set of spectacles, one of its most prominent features at the moment would be a giant carbon bubble, whose bursting someday will make the housing bubble of 2007 look like a lark. As yet—as we shall see—it’s unfortunately largely invisible to us.
In compensation, though, we have some truly beautiful images made possible by new technology. Last month, for instance, NASA updated the most iconic photograph in our civilization’s gallery: “Blue Marble,” originally taken from Apollo 17 in 1972. The spectacular new high-def image shows a picture of the Americas on January 4, a good day for snapping photos because there weren’t many clouds.
It was also a good day because of the striking way it could demonstrate to us just how much the planet has changed in 40 years. As Jeff Masters, the Web’s most widely read meteorologist, explains, “The U.S. and Canada are virtually snow-free and cloud-free, which is extremely rare for a January day.”
In fact, Masters thinks it likely that the week that photo was taken will prove “the driest first week in recorded U.S. history.” Indeed, it followed on 2011, which showed the greatest weather extremes in our history. The nation suffered 14 weather disasters, each causing $1 billion or more in damage last year; the old record was nine. Masters again: “Watching the weather over the past two years has been like watching a famous baseball hitter on steroids.”
In the face of such data—statistics that you can duplicate for almost every region of the planet—you’d think we’d already be in an all-out effort to do something about climate change. Instead, we’re witnessing an all-out effort to deny there’s a problem.
Our GOP presidential candidates are working hard to make sure no one thinks they’d appease chemistry and physics. At the last Republican debate in Florida, Rick Santorum insisted that he should be the nominee because he’d caught on earlier than Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney to the global-warming “hoax.”
Most of the media pays remarkably little attention to what’s happening. Coverage of global warming has dipped 40 percent over the last two years. When, say, there’s a rare outbreak of January tornadoes, TV anchors politely discuss “extreme weather,” but climate change is the disaster that dare not speak its name.
It’s no secret where this denialism comes from: The fossil-fuel industry pays for it. The open question is why the industry persists in denial in the face of an endless body of fact showing climate change is the greatest danger we’ve ever faced. Why doesn’t it fold the way the tobacco industry eventually did? Why doesn’t it invest its riches in things like solar panels and profit handsomely from the next generation of energy? As it happens, the answer is more interesting than you might think.
Part of it is simple enough: The giant energy companies are making so much money right now that they can’t stop gorging themselves. ExxonMobil, year after year, pulls in more money than any company in history. Chevron’s not far behind. Everyone in the business is swimming in money.
Still, they could theoretically invest all that cash in new clean technology or research and development for the same. As it happens, though, they’ve got a deeper problem, one that’s become clear only in the last few years. Put briefly: Their value is largely based on fossil-fuel reserves that won’t be burned if we ever take global warming seriously.
When I talked about a carbon bubble at the beginning of this essay, this is what I meant. Here are some of the relevant numbers, courtesy of the Capital Institute: We’re already seeing widespread climate disruption, but if we want to avoid utter, civilization-shaking disaster, many scientists have pointed to a two-degree rise in global temperatures as the most we could possibly deal with.
If we spew 565 gigatons more carbon into the atmosphere, we’ll quite possibly go right past that reddest of red lines. But the oil companies, private and state-owned, have current reserves on the books equivalent to 2,795 gigatons—five times more than we can ever safely burn. It has to stay in the ground.
If you run an oil company, this sort of write-off is the disastrous future staring you in the face as soon as climate change is taken as seriously as it should be, and that’s far scarier than drought and flood. It’s why you’ll do anything—including fund an endless campaign of lies—to avoid coming to terms with its reality. So instead, we simply charge ahead.
The carbon bubble that looms over our world needs to be deflated soon. As with our fiscal crisis, failure to do so will cause enormous pain—pain, in fact, almost beyond imagining. After all, if you think banks are too big to fail, consider the climate as a whole and imagine the nature of the bailout that would face us when that bubble finally bursts.
That’s why those of us battling for the future need to raise our game. And it’s why that view from the satellites, however beautiful from a distance, is likely to become ever harder to recognize as our home planet.