Tagged: massive storms

President Obama, Keystone XL, & Grotesque Moral Failures

On January 21st, 2013 Barack Obama will deliver his second inaugural address. Many Americans, myself included, view his second induction in a very different light than Obama’s 2008 victory over John McCain. Gone is the empty canvas on which a sweeping progressive vision of American could be painted, restoring the rule of law and ushering in a new era of prosperity. Since 2008, blank-canvas-Washington-outsider-Obama seems to have been placed under the D.C. screen printer and given an awesome shade of business as usual. How naïve was I to expect a candidate to actually deliver on their campaign rhetoric?

BAU tshirt

I don’t suspect the next four years will reveal a renewed focus on bringing America back to full employment through a robust public investment program aimed at rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. Instead of taking meaningful action towards preventing another massive Wall Street meltdown by destroying the concept of “Too Big To Fail”, President Obama and the White House will continue to double down on a culture of perpetual bailouts and corporate hubris.

We will forge ahead, increasing spending on military buildups, wars, and other power-projecting interventions abroad while spending on domestic programs, social security repayments, public infrastructure, education, and job creation continue to languish at home. Fabricated political crises like the “fiscal cliff”, the debt ceiling (otherwise known as paying your bills on time), and a government shutdown will continue to be used by Congress and the White House as bargaining chips in an ongoing ideological spending battle which has exactly jackshit to do with actual economics.

Unfortunately for all of us, while these budgetary crises are largely contrived, their effect on consumer confidence and spending, which makes up 70% of our GDP, is very real. Why would a business decide to hire someone when the owner can’t rely on a stable domestic economic condition but instead expects ongoing political squabbling that has an unsettling influence on the market? And yes, all of this is President Obama’s fault just as much as it is the fault of our most do-nothing Congress of all time.

I can accept acquiesce to entrenched powers as part of President Obama’s job, an unfortunate side effect of the perennially unproductive dance in Washington D.C. Granted, it has recently become quite a bit more unproductive but that’s to be expected with our swelling electoral polarization. I surely don’t expect Obama to dramatically reverse course on this range of issues now that he doesn’t have an election to win. Hell, it might even embolden him more in his use of unmanned aerial drones and persistent refusal to enforce habeas corpus for those deemed enemies of the state. Of all people Obama, the Constitutional law professor, should be ashamed of his flagrant usurpation of our founding document. But he is not.

However there is one betrayal, one failure to act that is wholly unforgivable. All these other breakdowns of moral leadership from a supposedly progressive President are but tiny speed bumps on the road to the real cliff; the climate cliff. Four more years without significant climate change leadership from the United States makes everything else a moot point. We might as well pack it in and give up. Let me clarify. By “it” I mean the giant flaming bag of shit we’ll be handing off to future generations in the form of:

  1. An archaic energy and transportation infrastructure that still runs on expensive and polluting fossil fuels.
  2. An economy wrecked by the reality of unstable but persistently high fossil fuel energy prices.
  3. A climate so totally geared to deliver gigantic storms, droughts, floods, wildfires, heat waves, crop failures, ecosystem meltdowns, and mass extinctions that it makes attempting to rebuild after every blow almost laughable.

Now I’m not suggesting that all of these things will happen in the next four years, but without strong leadership it’s only a matter of time. When we get to that point, I think the Borg said it best:

Here’s another clip you might be familiar with. Think back to 2008, when we were all still very hopeful about the prospects of our newly minted poster child actually taking action on climate change. Obama delivers this soaring promise, which would be laughable in today’s political climate if it weren’t so disappointing.

Obama gave another soaring speech on election night when he proclaimed victory over Mitt Romney and secured a second term in office. His victory lap had many of the same overtones as his 2008 speech and it was at that point when he finally broke the climate change silence that had befallen his entire campaign and the whole political discourse during his first term.

We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.

Seriously? This guy did not utter the words climate change or global warming for the entire two-year election cycle, not even once. And then, on the grandest stage of all, he has the bravado to make the proclamation that now he’s going to do something after four years of inaction (or depending on how you look at it—obstructionism). Really guys…I mean it this time. You believe me, don’t you? Now that’s the audacity of hope if I’ve ever seen it.

Obama’s spectacular oratory has completely lost its effect on me and hopefully on everyone else who is demanding urgent action to confront climate change. It is the most harrowing and dangerous challenge that has ever threatened human civilization and it demands real action, not fluffy speeches. There won’t be a fiscal cliff to barrel off of or a debt ceiling to tear down if we push the Earth’s climate system into an intractable tailspin of feedback loops that will destroy the greatest natural resource of all, a livable climate. Our climate systems won’t wait for politicians to act; Mother Nature hasn’t yet embraced the usefulness of a filibuster.

If President Obama wants to signal his intention to act as a responsible steward of the United States, as a man who thinks several steps ahead, as a truly compassionate intellectual capable of leaving behind a proud legacy of a vibrant economy and a stable climate then the first thing he will do is reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. If you’ve never heard of Keystone XL, please allow me to explain. I’ll start by saying that it’s not that crappy keg beer you used to drink at college frat parties—although Obama should pass some legislation rejecting that stuff too.

The Keystone XL pipeline would carry synthetic crude and bitumen from the Athabasca tar sands of northeastern Alberta (that’s in Canada, eh) to several refinery sites in the Midwest and Gulf Coast of the United States. There are serious local and global environmental impacts from the production of tar sand, which would only be exacerbated by the completion of Keystone XL. Instead of focusing on those harrowing impacts, let’s first examine the economics of oil sand. The most important concept when evaluating the economics of energy production is EROEI, that’s energy returned on energy invested or just EROI for short(er). Back in the day when we had light crude oil literally seeping out of the ground in Pennsylvania, they could stick a pipe in the dirt and oil would gush out, hence the term gushers. There was such a small amount of human and mechanical energy required to harvest the oil that the J.D. Rockefellers of the world were enjoying 100:1 EROI in the twentieth century. Early oilmen became very, very, very, incredibly, inconceivably, filthy fucking rich.

But every oil field follows a similar depletion curve. At some point in its life cycle, the fluid dynamics of an oil reserve change in such a way that more human and mechanical energy is required to extract the same amount of resource. At some point the production level is no longer sustainable and the EROI drops to a point where it is uneconomical to continue production. So it’s not like the oil just keeps coming out at the same rate until the milkshake straw starts making that sucking noise. Fields are abandoned when the oil becomes too expensive—the EROI too low—to extract any more.

EROI 2

Now take that same concept and apply it to oil sand production in Alberta, where the petroleum is quite literally mixed in with subterranean sand. The whole mixture must be dug up and separated from the dirt before they can even begin refining the bitumen into usable petroleum products. It requires an ungodly amount of Earth (some 2.5 tons of sand) to produce one barrel of oil. To dig up all that sand requires an incredible amount of human and mechanical energy in the form of gigantic trucks (the biggest in the world, thousands of them), gigantic cranes with gigantic buckets (again, the biggest in the world), and gigantic egos of modern oil barons who don’t mind destroying some of our Earth’s most important geophysical features for the sake of turning a profit. Most importantly, they wouldn’t be doing any of this if cheap, abundant liquid petroleum were still available. Canadian tar sands offer an EROI of between roughly 4:1 and 6:1, a far cry from Rockefeller’s day. Widespread low-EROI production methods should sound alarm bells for us all since the entire global economy runs on fossil fuel energy. We’ve run out of the good stuff so we’re starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel. See: deep-water drilling, Arctic exploration, deep bore fracking. It’s not all that difficult to connect the dots. And before you remark how low the EROI for solar photovoltaic is, I must say two things. One: the price of solar is coming down and will only continue to fall as capacity increases. For fossil fuels, the price goes in the opposite direction (up) as the resource is depleted. Two: the energy required to install solar panels is a one-time endeavor while tar sands open pit mining is a 24/7/365 operation. Oh yeah, and solar is clean as a baby’s bottom while tar sands are about as dirty as it gets.

oil-sands

Words simply cannot do justice to the enormity of these tar sands operations. YOU MUST CLICK HERE TO SEE MORE PHOTOS OF TAR SANDS EXTRACTION OPERATIONS IN ACTION. It is absolutely amazing and absolutely terrifying.

There’s more! You see, in order to get at all this tar sand, the holding companies—with familiar names like Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil, Koch Resources LLC, and Chevron—must first clear the “overburden”, or what most of us would call the forest. High latitude boreal forest is the most important terrestrial carbon “sink” left on the planet. These vast forests of the northern hemisphere absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than the Amazonian rainforests. They’re kind of important. To dig them up for any reason is bad. To dig them up in order to pump even more carbon into the atmosphere is a little like the Tom and Jerry episode where the mouse feeds the cat his own tail.

MOUSE DINNER

This is all bad news and should be reason enough for President Obama and incoming Secretary of State John “Longface” Kerry to deny the permits that TransCanada, a Canadian firm, needs in order to build the Keystone XL pipeline across several state boarders in the US. The environmental consequences are unspeakable, and we didn’t even get to the potential contamination of the Ogallala Aquifer, which irrigates almost 30% of the crops in the United States and provides drinking water for untold millions of Americans. But the real crime of Keystone XL would come in the form of missed opportunities to invest in the future instead of doubling down on the past.

The Canadian tar sands are an incredible source of liquid petroleum energy. Their vast size and production potential are truly unmatched by other tar sand reserves. However if President Obama and Mr. Kerry decide to approve this project, they will be sending a strong signal that America is not yet seriously interested in investing in the energy sources of tomorrow. Production capacity for solar panels and wind turbines will continue to evaporate from the United States as we pursue business as usual, foolishly trying to suck up the last, melted little bit of the milkshake.

We can do better. Business as usual is the default position of unimaginative politicians, locked in by special interests and afraid of trying to explain new concepts to their constituents. Instead of taking a risk and acting in the best interests of their people, our elected officials assume we’re a bunch of cows would couldn’t possibly understand the intricacies of a global energy market. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline route crosses the heartland of America, a place where energy and commodity prices have a particularly important meaning. I’d be willing to bet that these “laymen” who our elected officials are so afraid to shake up understand a thing or two about global economic forces.

Many people fully appreciate the significance of Keystone XL, and they’ve been taking the fight to TransCanada. These people aren’t all “environmentalists” either. As an aside: if you live on this planet, breathe its air, and drink its water then you are an environmentalist as you implicitly rely on the health of your environment for your own physical wellbeing. Yes, even you. Moving on…the protesters are not all tree huggers. World-renowned scientists like NASA’s Chief Climatologist James Hansen has been arrested protesting Keystone XL and he’s not tapping the breaks one little bit. He’s gone so far as to say that Keystone XL would basically be “game over” in the fight to maintain a livable climate.

As of late, things are not looking good. President Obama pushed off a decision about Keystone XL in response to a massive protest orchestrated by 350.org in November of 2011. Many suggested he was simply kicking the can until after the election, at which point he would be in a position to approve the pipeline without jeopardizing his reelection. That prediction appears to be coming to fruition. Just last week the Environmental Protection Agency’s director Lisa Jackson, a strong and vocal opponent of Keystone XL, resigned quite suddenly. Speculation is rampant that her departure is in protest to an impending Obama approval of Keystone XL. Her potential successor, outgoing Washington State Governor Chris Gregoire, has a mixed record on the environment. She has a reputation for being a real climate advocate for Western Washington crowds, but changing her tune quite profoundly on the other side of the Cascade Mountains where agriculture and transportation are key electoral factors. On the one hand I’d be proud to have a former Washington State governor serving at the EPA, but if she’s simply being brought in to rubber stamp fore drawn conclusions of the Obama Administration, Gregoire should keep out of it.

If President Obama throws the White House’s weight behind getting Keystone XL approved, it will be his most grotesque moral failure to date. More so than using drones to kill American citizens or approving the most recent National Defense Authorization Act, which grants Presidents sweeping powers to detain and hold prisoners indefinitely and without charge, regardless of where they are captured. Keystone XL represents complete ambivalence about the future of our children and grandchildren. It’s not just the pipeline we need to worry about. Approving TransCanada’s plan is supporting, one final time, our absolute and total addiction to fossil fuels. An “all of the above” energy policy supports not just tar sands, but everything else. NASA’s James Hansen put it best:

If [Obama] chooses the dirty needle it is game over because it will confirm that Obama was just greenwashing, like the other well-oiled coal-fired politicians with no real intention of solving the addiction. Canada is going to sell its dope, if it can find a buyer. So if the United States is buying the dirtiest stuff, it also surely will be going after oil in the deepest ocean, the Arctic, and shale deposits; and harvesting coal via mountaintop removal and long-wall mining. Obama will have decided he is a hopeless addict.

Some day in the not too distant future, liquid fossil fuels will become uneconomical to pull out of the ground and if we haven’t begun to move in a different direction, we’ll have hell to pay. We can’t rely on our children and grandchildren to be able to make an overnight transition to non-carbon energy. It takes, on average, four decades to transition from one energy source to the next. Steam to coal: 40 years. Coal to oil: 40 years. Why would we expect our transition off of fossil fuels to take any less time, or be any less inevitable?

Our first step in a hopeful direction for future generations is rejecting this pipeline. In the aftermath of the unspeakable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, President Obama once again delivered a powerful speech; this one seemingly from the heart. The President spoke of his horror upon hearing about the massacre of 27 innocents, including 20 six and seven year-olds. He became choked up when he talked about his own young daughters and suggested, “We’re going to have to come together to take meaningful action to prevent further tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” He looked at this horrifying event not as a politician, but as a father. Climate related policy issues demand the same metric of decision-making. It is, after all, our children’s future we’re talking about.

Want to get involved? On February 17th, 2013, 350.org is organizing another massive demonstration outside the White House. Tens of thousands of protestors will be there to express their opposition to Keystone XL and show their support for a new vision of the future. You can sign up to participate here, or simply register your support for those who will defy freezing winter temperatures and the risk of arrest for something they believe in. If nothing else, talk to someone about Keystone XL, spread the word.

If President Obama and his State Department approve Keystone XL, you can expect many more disappointing decisions over the next four years. Such a conclusion would expose Obama’s malleability at a very fundamental level. This is Obama’s chance to demonstrate true leadership in the national interest. I demand more of our President than simply rolling over for entrenched interests and anticipate that he will begin enforcing a forwarding-facing vision of the United States instead of desperately trying to hold onto the past.

Wen Stephenson, You’re My Hero.

Wen Stephenson is my new hero.

Seriously, Wen Stephenson is the man. For those of you who don’t have a feed of the local NPR broadcast going directly into your prefrontal cortex, Wen Stephenson was most recently the senior producer of NPR’s On Point, as well as an editor at The Atlantic and The Boston Globe.

Mr. Stephenson is also a former member of what he calls the MSM (main stream media) turned full-time climate activist. He recently wrote a piece that all but assured his role as a “former” MSM contributor will be a permanent one. The piece entitled A Convenient Excuse, WHICH YOU ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY MUST READ, is the story of one man’s desperate pleas for sanity falling on deaf ears. His desperation and sadness at the dimming prospects of a bright future should feel deeply personal to all of us, but they don’t. Wen thinks the mainstream media is complicit in our misconstruction. Wen is right.

Stephenson correctly understands how well positioned the mainstream media is to affect the urgency of our response to climate change. However, urgency has been all but absent from the tone taken by all of our major news outlets, including the “liberal lame stream media elite” at The New York Times, NPR, and PBS. To be clear, they have certainly covered climate change and global warming. Much more so than the folks at The Wall Street Journal or the National Review, but the coverage is topical instead of systemic. The MSM handling of climate change typically hones in on individual pieces of evidence like melting ice sheets, regional devastation from drought, or massive storms. This micro-journalistic view is completely inadequate; what we need is macro-journalistic coverage. We need cogent explanations of the systemic challenges our human civilization is currently up against. And we needed it like…yesterday.

If there’s one thing our modern media knows how to do, it’s sensationalize a crisis. That’s the type of coverage Wen is insistent upon and he won’t rest until he has convinced his former colleagues to oblige. Why? Well…the dispatches from sources of scientific consensus are becoming increasingly apocalyptic. Take this November 2012 release from the World Bank entitled Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4° C Warmer World Must Be Avoided as the most recent example. The World Bank is not exactly a bastion of liberal environmentalism, but they clearly recognize the magnitude of the crisis at hand. They conclude that, “[We’re] on track for a 4°C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.” Now that’s a headline!

Chris Hedges provides an even grimmer synopsis of the recent World Bank report:

“A planetwide temperature rise of 4 degrees C—and the report notes that the tepidness of the emission pledges and commitments of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will make such an increase almost inevitable—will cause a precipitous drop in crop yields, along with the loss of many fish species, resulting in widespread hunger and starvation. Hundreds of millions of people will be forced to abandon their homes in coastal areas and on islands that will be submerged as the sea rises. There will be an explosion in diseases such as malaria, cholera and dengue fever. Devastating heat waves and droughts, as well as floods, especially in the tropics, will render parts of the Earth uninhabitable. The rain forest covering the Amazon basin will disappear. Coral reefs will vanish. Numerous animal and plant species, many of which are vital to sustaining human populations, will become extinct. Monstrous storms will eradicate biodiversity, along with whole cities and communities. And as these extreme events begin to occur simultaneously in different regions of the world, the report finds, there will be ‘unprecedented stresses on human systems.’ Global agricultural production will eventually not be able to compensate. Health and emergency systems, as well as institutions designed to maintain social cohesion and law and order, will crumble. The world’s poor, at first, will suffer the most. But we all will succumb in the end to the folly and hubris of the Industrial Age. And yet, we do nothing.”

Can you imagine the ensuing controversy if The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times printed something like that? We need crisis-level coverage, because we’re up against the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced. The World Bank (and virtually every other credible scientific institution) is telling us that we’re on track to completely wreck our atmosphere by doing nothing else but more of what we’re already doing. Business as usual is more than enough to ruin the greatest non-renewable resource of all: a livable climate.

So why isn’t this on the front-page every single day? Why is Hedges’ analysis the exception to the climate coverage rule? Is it too grim? If we believe the best minds the scientific community has to offer, Hurricane Sandy is but a harbinger of the world we’re creating for our children. Super storms like Sandy will be a common occurrence that will wash up on our shores more precipitously every year. Yet, for the most part reporting on global climate change stays focused on symptoms and not causes, on individual events and not systemic planetary shifts. Non-scientific reporters have a bad habit of pretending to be wonks. What the hell is 4° C anyways? It really doesn’t sound that bad. How could 4° C create the type of apocalypse I’m talking about? After all, here in the Pacific Northwest an extra 4° C would make for a pretty nice summer, right?

Let’s think about it another way in order to illustrate how truly horrifying 4° C is. The current global consensus, agreed to in the Copenhagen Accord and signed by countries responsible for 80% of global emissions, is that human civilization must not allow the global temperature to rise more than 2° C. Beyond two degrees, the climate scientists say, global physical/social/economic systems start to break down. Bill McKibben has more on 2° C in this landmark Rolling Stone article, where he explains the frightening math behind the challenge to keep warming to that level. So if 2° is the upper limit we’ve all agreed to, and we’re actually on track to double that by the end of this century, what exactly does it mean?

A healthy human body has a resting temperature of about 98.6° F or 37° C. The Copenhagen Accord allows a two degree Celsius increase; in other words we’ve all agreed that we’re comfortable with the climactic equivalent of a 102.2° F fever. It’s bad, but not life-threatening. You wouldn’t want to walk around with a 102° fever for more than a couple days but you’ll probably recover. Four degrees is a whole different story. At 4° C, it’s the same as trying to survive a protracted 105.8° F fever. A fever of 106° F requires immediate medical attention and left untreated can cause brain damage or death. Four degrees kills people, and it kills civilizations too. Your body and the Earth that gave it life are similarly complex, and similarly sensitive to small changes in average temperature. The amount of disruption caused by 4° C of warming would render our planet unrecognizable to generations of very recent history. The world my grandmother grew up in will be nonexistent if we continue with business as usual.

Here’s a question. How do you stay informed on local and global happenings? If you have figured out some sort of metaphysical trick to be everywhere on the planet in order to witness everything that happens, please don’t answer that question. If you’re like the rest of us, you get your information from the information givers. The news! Granted, there’s a lot more of them out there today; with online papers, magazines, independent broadcasts like Democracy Now! and blogs, our options are more stratified than ever. It’s wonderful because new media has given dissidents like Chris Hedges and Wen Stephenson a platform from which to broadcast. However the vast majority of Americans still get their news from television broadcasts or widely distributed newspapers. And television newscasts and newspapers aren’t willing to print the kind of real shit that Hedges and Stephenson are onto. They can’t or won’t tell you the truth about the climate disaster which as already begun to unfold.

Do you follow? It won’t be possible to catalyze a global movement to confront our greatest of challenges without a mainstream media that takes its journalistic responsibility to the public seriously.

Climate change is not a niche “environmentalist” issue to be covered in some below-the-fold ad hoc fashion. Just the contrary: it’s a headline, in your face, we’re all fucked unless we do something right now kind of story that is barely making Section A. What’s worse, the MSM journalists who are willing to “go there” are setting the pace and tone of climate change coverage going forward, and guess what, it’s a pretty tepid response.

If climate change were getting the type of coverage the non-scandal in Benghazi has had heaped on it, people might begin waking up and asking some very important questions. Perhaps they could see through the myth that disruptive climate change is some far off event. It’s here now; 2011 was the hottest year on record and 2012 is shaping up to be even hotter. Perhaps they wouldn’t be satisfied with the Associated Press’ brilliant conclusion that over half the United States remains in serious drought conditions, simply because it didn’t rain. No, it’s got nothing to do with climate change. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. This is just the new normal, and why wouldn’t it be? It turns out, if you’re 27 years of age or younger, you’ve never lived on a planet which has recorded a colder than average month. These are not new trends.

I beg of you, please read Wen Stephenson’s article A Convenient Excuse in The Phoenix. It’s too bad that the MSM doesn’t have the journalistic integrity to report in any meaningful way on climate change, or to take their responsibility one step further and advocate for a higher choice on behalf of all of humanity. If you’re a MSM journalist and you understand the high stakes of the Climate Craps game we’re all currently embroiled in, why aren’t you piping up? Why aren’t you advocating? Why aren’t you confronting your editors like Mr. Stephenson did? How can you look at your children or grandchildren and not feel as though you’re failing them on a very deep level?

Hear us loud and clear MSM: at this decisive moment in human history we don’t need your objectivity, we need your integrity. Give us the news, not the weather.