fossil fuels

You dirty rat: Global warming's fossil fuel friends

The temperature is a little warm.

The forecast for this early August day called for 111 degrees in Fresno/Clovis, Calif. where I live. That's relatively common in this region, where 40 or more days above 100 is common for summer. But it appears more of the United States is in for similar treatment.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center says July was the hottest month in recorded history.

In fact, its State of the Climate report says, January through July was the warmest first seven months of any year on record for the contiguous United States. The national temperature of 56.4 degrees was 4.3 degrees above the long-term average, with only the Pacific Northwest, which was near average, bucking the trend.

And of course Alaska's a bit cooler. My friend Steve likes to post data on his runs in Anchorage's scenic Kincaid Park. The latest was 55 degrees. Sweltering.

Superheating the atmosphere

This temperature stuff is more than just fodder for oblique discussions of the weather. The ramifications are huge, and most scientists predict dire consequences should the trend not be reversed.

Author and climate activist Bill McKibben spells out the scenario in stark terms. In a piece for Rolling Stone, which has some of the best investigative journalism in the country, he highlights three numbers to watch.

The first is 2 degrees Celsius, which refers to the window the world has before it succumbs to significant effects of climate change. The second is 563 gigatons of carbon dioxide, which refers to the amount of climate warming pollutants that can be released before we hit that two degree threshold.

Carbon dioxide, public enemy

The third, and perhaps most significant McKibben number, is 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide. That's the amount of carbon locked up in all the known reserves of oil and coal. Should those reserves be exploited and the fossil fuels burned, we'll be well on the path to universal environmental destruction.

The cost would be astronomical, the devastation unparalleled.

The path to dealing with this appears obvious. Or relatively. Fossil fuels stand as the most costly fuel on the planet. But society would prefer to kick the can to the next generation.

Who's the bad guy?

Pushing fossil fuels

McKibben says it's obvious.The bad guys are coal and oil executives.

"Climate change operates on a geological scale and time frame, but it's not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a moral issue; we have met the enemy and they is Shell," he says.

Unfortunately, the oil companies hold the enviable position of having more money than their critics. While BP reported a loss of $2.2 billion for the second quarter of 2012, it's still doing fine. That compares with net profit of $5.7 billion for the same period a year earlier.

The Associated Press reports BP's revenue for the quarter declined 9 percent and the company set aside another $847 million for the Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster and cleanup, "taking the total provision to just over $38 billion."

Money is the game

Not a problem. BP can afford it. In fact, it's created an ad campaign that portrays the company in such beneficent terms, its past fades to distant-memory status. Says Hamilton Nolan of "Remember how BP's relentless pursuit of profits at the expense of safety caused the Gulf of Mexico to be flooded with oil a little while ago? No. I don't remember that. Do you? Hmm. What I do remember is BP's absolutely awesome Olympic spirit!"

Earnings-wise, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil fared better with Shell posting second quarter profit of $5.7 billion, down 13 percent from the same period a year earlier, and Exxon showing $8.4 billion, down 22 percent, according to the New York Times. Reporter Clifford Krauss quotes Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson saying, “Despite global economic uncertainty, we continue to invest throughout the business cycle, taking a long-term view of resource development.”

Talk like that drives McKibben nuts. "There's not a more reckless man on the planet," he says of Tillerson. He adds that Tillerson told Wall Street analysts he plans to spend $37 billion on a year on exploration through 2016.

Averting disaster

The problem is that oil companies hold the future of the planet in their hands, and as long as they keep making scads of money, they won't be backing away from extracting, refining and burning as much of their fossil fuel reserves as possible. McKibben says the only way to deal with this is to tax carbon, making alternative energy more economical.

Of course, alternative energy is currently struggling its way to fossil-fuel parity already. But it could use a boost.

In the meantime, McKibben says the best recourse is moral outrage for those who would like to stop this pell-mell push to global warming. Enemy No. 1 is not Jimmy Cagney, nor is it Snidely Whiplash (both personal favorites). It's a bunch of rich executives ruining the globe for a few dollars more.

Can clean energy avert doomsday?

Apocalyptic novels dominate Amazon's popular sci-fi electronic listings -- and my recent reading history.

The books in question generally a doomsday theme, but each author often takes a wildly different approach. The new genre has three main elements that warrant analysis: How society collapses, how people react and the tenacity of the main characters.

The heroes have got to be tough. When society collapses, death waits in many guises. Especially nasty is the rampant cannibalism of those who can't hack it and eat people.

This end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it fascination extends far beyond novels. Jim Guy, a reporter at the Fresno Bee, touches on the sentiment in a recent story about surging gun sales. "Blame it on the upcoming election, fear of crime or even the Mayan calendar, but Fresno gun dealers say business is booming," Guy writes.

It could be better

The economy staged a anemic recovery about two years ago, but few in the trenches give that much credence.

Give Guy's story an extra shove and the real culprit behind this paranoia and gun buying emerges. It's the economy. But it's more than just lost jobs. The situation is bleak for many people. A friend of mine in the service sector says he's working an extra shift today, but it doesn't mean much.

"Extra money," I say.

He nods. "But bills. They keep coming," he says.

Another indicator affecting this overall gloomy mood -- besides general crime -- is wire theft. Got a darkened street? Chances are wire thieves tore off the vault cover, hooked a truck to the cables and ripped them out. Copper's worth money.

Bill's my canary

And according to Bill, my not-quite-homeless friend in Old Town, it's getting bad out there. He says seven of his acquaintances have died in the past couple of years. One was a regular on my street. Multiple causes, certainly. But those on the bottom of the economic pile are the first to feel its negative effects. The pickings for plastic PET bottles and aluminum cans have become increasingly scarce, and for many that's their entire income.

Bill's already dealing with the apocalypse. For him the cause of the collapse was likely his drinking. He's a few months younger than my 51. But from scrawny body to his leathery, deep-tanned skin and missing teeth, he looks decidedly closer to the proverbial bucket.

Ecotopia on point

"Ecotopia" author Ernest Callenbach, who died earlier this year, left what he called "a few thoughts that might be useful to those coming after" on his computer. ran the piece recently in its entirety. In it Callenbach discusses the "Big Picture," and it's not too different than the prelude to many of the books on my Kindle.

"We live in the declining years of what is still the biggest economy in the world, where a looter elite has fastened itself upon the decaying carcass of the empire," he writes. Ecotopia was published in 1975 and chronicles a fictional era in which Washington, Oregon and Northern California secede from the Union "in the midst of a terrible economic crisis, creating an environmentally sound, stable-state, eco-sustainable country," TomDispatch says.

Callenbach organizes his thoughts by subject, including hope, mutual support, organize, learn to live with contradictions and practical skills, which he says so many don't have and I tend to agree.

What Came After

One of my favorites of the dystopian genre is Sam Winston's "What Came After." In this novel, the upper classes live in the remnants of big cities, protected by privatized armies. Corporations, the ones that survived, make the rules. Chief among these is an agribusiness that cultivates only genetically modified crops. All heritage crops are banned. The food must be reprocessed by the company so it's safe to eat. As a result, everybody in the lower classes either dies of starvation or works for corporates in their huge collective farms.

The hero of the story is the Mechanic. He figures out how to fix things when most have forgotten or never learned those skills. The mechanic finds an underground society literally living in bunkers and growing and developing the old food stocks so people can grow their own. The people in charge don't much care for him.


Another novel is J.F. Perkins' "Renewal," which was published in a series of 10 99-cent novels. This format reminds me of old Flash Gordon serials, which I watched in the late 1960s when they were packaged on multiple reels and sent to the tiny Alaska island village where I lived. Society in Perkins' version just broke down, burdened by excessive debt and ineffective politicians across the globe. The tale chronicles the account of one family who figured out early they better take care of themselves and prepare for the worst because nobody else would.

They're on a family trip when disaster strikes. They hole up in a Southern small town and eventually find a home with a widow who lives on her own on a small farm. She teaches them how to grow their food and make everything they once took for granted. Eventually, they draw others into their circle and fend off challenges. Because there's if there one thing these stories have in common, it's this -- if you have something of value, somebody else will kill you to get it.


Writer Hugh Howey goes in a completely different direction with his series, "Wool." It's about a series of underground towers constructed by the U.S. government when a government faction assumed the end was near. The towers were filled with people of a powerful senator's choosing, planning to re-emerge when life on the surface returned to normal.

Problem in "Wool" was that nuclear winter stuck around for generations. The people in the "silos" didn't know anything of the world that came before and society in the metal tubes begins to break down. The wool in the title refers to the steel wool people sentenced to death must use to clean the outdoor camera lens so people underground can see the poisoned surface of Earth.

I love reading this stuff, mostly because it reminds me of the resiliency of the human spirit. My father grew up in post-World War II Hungary. He said everybody was starving and to survive they did whatever they could. As a result, he saved everything and did everything himself. His words to me were: "If man can make it, man can fix it." The result was often very substandard, but we got by.

Then my parents split and mom decided to embrace the return-to-the-woods lifestyle in Alaska. Make your own everything. I smelled like wood smoke and goats for my formative years. But I learned how to make just about anything. I'm not so hot at growing food, but I can tear down a house board by board and rebuild it.

Lessons of my father

I'm reminded of a bag of clothes my father gave me more than a decade ago. I believe this may have been the beginning of his early onset dementia, but it was in character. In the bag were all his old bathing suits. Every single one since he arrived in this country in 1956, saved and folded neatly. "For the boys," he said.

My boys wanted nothing to do with them. But the out-dated suits reminded me of when I was maybe 4 and my dad could do the butterfly faster than anybody at Lake Sammamish, just outside Seattle. He taught himself the stroke.

In his younger days, he would've been great to have around in one of those novels. He fought street to street against the Russian army in Budapest. (He assured me he never killed anybody, but my godfather said, "Hell, he nearly cut that one [Russian] in half.") He could grow anything no matter what kind of soil. He could cook like nobody's business. And he could somehow coax that old 1963 Ford pickup to keep going long after the normal guy would have had it compacted.

Lest anybody think I've gone off the deep end, I assure you I'm still hoping for the best. I'd prefer to think we'll figure it out and get out from the single-fuel mentality that appears to dominate and drive our economy.

There is a better way.

Clean energy can be harvested for free. The up-front cost is a little steep, but we can get there with some scrimping and saving. Once we figure out how to effectively store that power at a cost competitive with fossil fuels, this cataclysmic doom may just fade away with the bad air.

Global warming -- or cooling aerosols?

The subject of global warming remains a political hazard largely due to its perceived uncertainty and the drastic solutions proposed to keep it at bay.

Energy companies believe fossil fuels are king and reject measures that would hamstring their dominance, while renewable energy gurus say, "Too bad, it's gotta be done."

Meanwhile, J.Q. Voter, wavers. He likes clean air but wants a stable economy, jobs and the San Francisco Giants back in the World Series.

"Where the proof?" he asks.

The California Air Resources Board and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believe they can track down a piece of the answer through a relatively massive project measuring the pollutants and greenhouse gases fouling California's once azure skies. The $20 million CalNex project dispatched airplanes, ships and researchers to, as officials said, "examine the nexus between air pollution and climate change."

The project took three years to plan. Monitoring started in early May and continued through June, involving four airplanes, NOAA's ocean-going research ship the Atlantis, two land-based air monitoring super sites -- one in Kern County -- and more than 150 highly trained scientists.

Eileen McCauley, manager of the research division at the Air Board, said she expects some preliminary results from the CalNex 2010 study will be presented at the American Geophysical Union Conference in San Francisco in December. She said the California Air Resources Board plans to continue research to produce a report for policy makers on CalNex findings.

The follow-up report is meant to address "emissions (both greenhouse gases and ozone and aerosol precursors), important atmospheric transformation and climate processes, and transport and meteorology," according to documents.

Determining the effects of a warming environment is complex in the extreme. The white paper describing the CalNex project touches on the difficulty researchers have determining how to separate out the cloud of cooling aerosols over population centers from the warming swirling nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and microscopic particulates.

But just about anybody who spent any time around the subject realizes it won't be easy to solve or explain. Our habits as consumers, travelers and entrepreneurs have led us down a comfortable path. Now that road looks a little like the a highway in Canada's Yukon Territories at night in a snowstorm at 35 below -- uncertain at best. explains that scientists believe that 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the safe limit for humanity, but the site places the current level at 388 ppm.

“The goal is to provide decision makers with the information they need to develop win/win strategies that address both climate and air quality,” said A.R. Ravishankara, director of NOAA’s Chemical Sciences Division, in a statement.

Officials said the CalNex data will help scientists better understand atmospheric-chemical transformations and climate processes and help the Air Board measure greenhouse gases, traditional air pollutants and their causes.

But don't expect miracles even after results are posted and regulations announced. Coming to terms with the state of the environment is something many of us would rather avoid. The answer might mean we'd have to adapt.

Not that it can't be done. It's just not easy.