We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be. –John Holdren, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences.
According to a recent report by Price Waterhouse Cooper, burning 1/3 of the remaining fossil fuel reserves is enough to push world CO2 concentrations to 450 ppm. This concentration would almost certainly bring world temperatures more than 2 degrees above the 20th century average — a level that scientists agree would result in powerful climate feedbacks and terrible impacts to human civilization, likely wrecking many of the world’s most powerful and diverse societies. This is the terrible outcome we see from burning just 1/3 of the world’s current fossil fuel reserves. Burning them all puts the world on the path to a devastating and unlivable 1000 ppm or more.
Yet world fossil fuel reserves is a moving number. Each year, new sources that were considered inaccessible are tapped. So, next year, new discoveries will add to the total. And the year following. And so on. Even worse, worldwide efforts by advanced societies to tap a massive fossil reserve of methane called hydrates is now underway. Methane hydrate is a frozen reserve of methane and water that lies locked hundreds or thousands of feet below permafrost or on or beneath ocean sea beds. Altogether, they represent a carbon store as much as two or three times the size of the world’s current accessible fossil fuel reserves.
Japan, Russia, and now the United States are experimenting with new technologies aimed at extracting these massive methane reserves. Recently, in Alaska, Conoco Philips, funded by Department of Energy grant money, partnered with Japanese hydrate extraction experts in an attempt to tap frozen methane beneath Alaska’s North Slope. In a process that involves injecting CO2 into underground formations to displace frozen methane, this partnership is attempting to prove viable a new extraction technology that may result in the additional burning of more than a trillion tons of fossil fuel.
The cost of this extraction is still prohibitively high. But, if tar sands, fracking and other unconventional extraction techniques are any guide, the oil industry will spare no expense to extract and burn as much of this fuel as possible. And, if current marketing and lobbying campaigns by the oil and gas companies are successful, then alternative energies will be squelched, necessitating the burning of this expensive and environmentally explosive fuel.
Though some CO2 may be sequestered in the extraction process, an additional volume of methane will be released as well. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right. But the real issue is the fact that burning this methane in addition to all the other conventional fossil fuels would create enough global warming to wreck human civilization many times over. This is an unconscionable result. Which begs the question: why are we trying to tap this methane? Why are we continuing to make our situation worse and worse when we should be deploying alternative energy technologies as fast as is humanly possible? We need to avoid 450 ppm CO2 like the plague and we need to rush back to 350 ppm CO2 as fast as possible.
We had a climate-change driven storm earlier this month. It was powerful and freakish. It flooded New York City’s subway system for the first time ever and left more than 40,000 Americans homeless. But Sandy will seem but a weak trifle compared to the impacts coming our way. So, why, oh why would we continue to make them worse?