How to survive global warming — Nail the culprits before they nail us

Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) continues its rapid rise. Last month (May 2019) CO2 in the atmosphere set a new record with the average peaking at 414.7 parts per million at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory (see graph below). 

NOAA graph showing atmospheric CO2 2014 to present
The red line represents the monthly mean values. The black line represents the same as a moving average of 7 adjacent seasonal cycles, after correction for the average seasonal cycle. Image: NOAA

The highest level of CO2 in the atmosphere during the 800,000 years preceding the industrial revolution was 300 ppm. That occurred about 330,000 years ago, long before modern humans arrived on the scene (see graph at bottom of post).

What is being done about the present accumulation of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere? Here’s what the World Bank (April 2018) says: Some 40 countries and more than 20 cities, states and provinces already use carbon pricing mechanisms, with more planning to implement them in the future.  Together the carbon pricing schemes now in place cover about half their emissions, which translates to about 13 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions.”

As the above graph shows, these carbon pricing efforts, while well meaning, have had no noticeable effect on the rise in atmospheric CO2. Is it possible that if the carbon pricing efforts become more widespread, their effect will become noticeable? That is unlikely. Why? Because the carbon pricing schemes currently in use target the emissions from fossil fuels rather than the fossil fuels themselves.

In a shooting war, the bullets are not the enemy, the people loading the guns and pulling the triggers are the enemy. To win the war, you duck the bullets and focus your attack on the gunmen. In our climate war, we need to look past the CO2 emissions and set our sights on the gunmen, the people who extract fossil fuels from the ground, the oil and gas industry. 

The best way to fight the industry is to replace fossil fuel based technologies with clean technologies. That’s already happening simply because the cost of clean technologies has dropped sharply. Clean technologies are now cheaper and more efficient than fossil fuel based technologies and they are starting to be used in large areas of the economy (see May 27 post — NY Governor Cuomo goes for clean power technology in a big way). The fossil fuel industry will eventually collapse because of its inferior economics. But not fast enough.

Applying a carbon tax is a way to speed things up. However, to be effective the tax must be targeted, not against the CO2 emission from fossil fuels, but against the carbon content of the fossil fuels before they are burned. The most effective time and place to apply the carbon tax is when and wherever the fuels are extracted from the ground or imported into the country. The correlation between the amount of tax charged and the resulting reduction in oil and gas produced will be close, unambiguous, and directly measurable; a huge advantage for the administrators.

Is it right to single out a particular industry and tax it so as to throttle its production? Of course it is. Our survival depends on it. Being fair to the enemy is not a winning strategy. In any case, fossil fuel companies do not deserve equitable treatment. They knew for years that the use of their products would cause global warming. Did they inform the public? No. They kept the knowledge to themselves, continued pumping fossil fuels, and lied about the dangers.

Keep this in mind:
The oil and gas industry is in favour of taxing CO2 emissions. Why? Because it provides a smoke screen in which to hide. When CO2 emissions are taxed, everyone pays. It allows the oil and gas industry to masquerade as just another industry paying its fair share. It is not just another industry, it is the culprit. As I write this post, the culprit is busy promoting a scheme to 
tax CO2 emissions, a scheme much to its advantage (see May 12 post — Oil Industry promoters want to pay Americans not to complain about global warming).

Subsidize clean technologies. Sue oil and gas  corporations in court. Ban fossil fuel industry tax breaks. Dump investments in oil and gas. Dump politicians who support the oil and gas industry. Those are all great ways to hit the fossil fuel industry and its promoters. Here’s some pertinent advice:

“hit them fast, hit them hard, hit them a lot” — Jack Reacher (Lee Childs’ fictional character)

Graph showing Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in parts per million (ppm) for the past 800,000 years, based on European Project for Ice Coring in the Antarctic (EPICA) data. Image: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI).
Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in parts per million (ppm) for the past 800,000 years, based on European Project for Ice Coring in the Antarctic (EPICA) data. Image: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI).

New York v. ExxonMobil — the climate fraud case

Global warming — the rise in the atmosphere’s average temperature since pre-industrial times — forms the background to the State of New York v. the ExxonMobil Corporation lawsuit.

Chart of ice core data showing CO2 levels from year 1000 to1990’s
Ice core data showing CO2 levels from year 1000 to 1990’s. Image: CSIRO

Before 1800, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere fluctuated around 280 ppm (see chart above). The level of CO2 began its steep rise around 1800 due to the heavy use of coal during the industrial revolution. By the 1990’s, the continued burning of fossil fuels had  raised the CO2 level to 350 ppm. Today the level exceeds 411 ppm (NOAA-ESRL, March 2019).

CO2 in the atmosphere traps heat from the sun, a result of the greenhouse effect. As the level of CO2 increases, so does the atmospheric temperature. The Paris Climate Agreement set a goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels.” As of this date (March 2019), the average increase has already exceeded 1°C.

ExxonMobil does not deny that global warming is occurring. Nor does it deny that burning fossil fuels is the major cause of it. It is also fully aware of the various government actions being taken worldwide to limit the burning of fossil fuels. What the company is supposed to do is incorporate that knowledge into its financial statements so that investors can judge for themselves whether or not to risk their money. This requires that the company anticipate future government actions, such as, for example, the imposition of carbon taxes, and calculate their financial effects. What the lawsuit alleges is that the company lied to its investors about the potential impact of such actions. In other words, it deliberately underestimated the risks.

The New York Attorney General in her filing of October 24, 2018, against the company puts it more strongly. Exxon, the filing says, perpetrated a “longstanding fraudulent scheme … to deceive investors and the investment community … concerning the company’s management of the risks posed to its business by climate change.” Considering that the AG’s office spent three years investigating Exxon before charging it with fraud, you can bet that whatever the company is accused of doing, it won’t be easy to explain or prove in court.

Which of the parties involved in this lawsuit deserves support or sympathy? None of them. Not the investors. Not the Attorney General’s office. Certainly not ExxonMobil. Whether or not Exxon is found guilty of fraud, we know that it is guilty of pushing its product onto the market by any means it can get away with including: heavy lobbying of government; ladling out election financing to friendly politicians; feeding money to pro-industry organizations (propaganda outlets).

The internet provides investors with the same global warming information available to the Exxon Corporation. The risks of investing in the fossil fuel industry are plain to see. Signs of the industry’s slow but inevitable decline are already evident. Just how slow is anybody’s guess. Spreadsheets from corporate accountants will not aid in the guessing. The risk-free option is not to invest in the industry.

According to Bloomberg News (Oct. 24/18), the State of New York holds about $1.5 billion worth of Exxon stock. The investment includes “the state’s common retirement fund, with more than 1 million employees and retirees, and the New York State Teachers Retirement System, with nearly half a million members.” Considering that New York is a member of the U.S. Climate Alliance, and therefore supposedly committed to upholding the objectives of the 2015 Paris Agreement on limiting global warming, it strikes me as odd, hypocritical even, that the state retains its investment in a fossil fuel company, particularly one that’s being sued by its own Attorney General.

Some people say that the Trump administration’s opposition to the Paris Climate Accord, and its total support of the fossil fuel industry, should make it unnecessary for business, or the courts, or investors, to take global warming seriously. Those people are wrong. Dealing with the Trump Administration is like dealing with a monkey in a dining room leaping about spilling drinks, snatching food off plates, shitting on the table cloth. The prudent diner will wait until the monkey is removed before ordering a meal.

Gatehouse entrance to ExxonMobil headquarters, Irving TX
Gatehouse entrance to ExxonMobil headquarters, Irving TX. Image: Google

Climate science bugs Trump — He reaches for the bug-off

Aerial photo of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Maine
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine, one of several large military bases at risk from Sea Level Rise. Image credit: U.S. Navy

President Trump is vexed. Despite his well publicized positions on global warming — it’s a hoax; it doesn’t exist; etc., — elements within his own administration continue to insist that the phenomenon poses a threat to national security. For example, Daniel Coats, Director of National Intelligence, recently submitted the agency’s Worldwide Threat Assessment to the Senate Intelligence Committee for its review. The report states that “Global environmental and ecological degradation, as well as climate change, are likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”

The problem for Mr. Trump is what to do about these public servants who contradict his position on climate change. His natural impulse is to fire them — learned behaviour from his entertainment days. But taking that approach with the military would likely backfire. He would have to sack  a slew of senior officers. The country’s largest military bases are built on the coast and under increasing threat from sea level rise, storm surge, and hurricanes. The top brass know that and have said so publicly.

The following YouTube video from Democracy Now, shows damage caused by Hurricane Michael to Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, on October 10, 2018. It also gets New York Times journalist Dave Philipps’s take on the reaction of the Trump Administration. Hurricane Michael was the first ever on-record category-4 cyclone to hit the Florida panhandle .

If there is one thing Mr. Trump has learned during his time in office, it is that it’s not easy in a democracy to silence dissenters. Silencing them can’t be accomplished simply by decree. To succeed, even partially, directives need to be justified in some way. That’s what Mr. Trump has lacked — justification for gagging, or at least quieting, the climate change chatterers in his administration. Now he’s aiming to rectify that situation.

Photo of professor William Happer, Ph.D.
William Happer, Ph.D. Image: Heartland Inst. website

According to the Feb. 20 Washington Post, the White House is assembling a panel to assess whether climate change poses a threat to  national security. The man slated to head the panel is William Happer. Happer is an emeritus professor of physics at Princeton University. He’s also a climate change sceptic with a bee in his bonnet about carbon dioxide (CO2). While Happer agrees that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, he claims that most of the atmospheric warming that has occurred over the past century is due to natural causes, not to humans actions. He further claims that the release of CO2 from burning fossil fuels, far from being bad for the planet, is actually good for it and for the plants and humans who live on it. Happer believes that CO2 has been unfairly maligned by the scientific community. He now fancies himself as the gas’s defender in chief.

While Professor Happer’s opinions are popular among fossil fuel producers, they are music to the President’s ears. Why? Because such opinions appeal to his support base. According to David Smith reporting for the Guardian, Mr. Trump, during his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington on March 2, 2019, had this to say:

 “I think the  [Democrat’s] new green deal, or whatever the hell they call it. The Green New Deal, right? I encourage it. I think it’s really something that they should promote.” — laughter from the crowd — “No planes. No energy. When the wind stops blowing, that’s the end of your electric. ‘Let’s hurry up. Darling, darling, is the wind blowing today? I’d like to watch television, darling.”   —  cheers and applause from the crowd.

When the President’s climate change panel concludes its work — if it ever does — will its findings add to humanity’s sum of useful knowledge? What do you think?