The madness and futility of continued fossil fuel burning is all too readily apparent…
If one were to search for an example of the utterly and inherently life, climate, and economy destroying impacts of fossil fuel burning, they wouldn’t have to look too far. They could look to the rapidly destabilizing glaciers now putting our coastal cities, our island nations in dire peril. They could look to the droughts now ranging the world, forcing officials in Sao Paulo to make water out of mud, lighting understory fires in the Amazon rainforest, and setting off water scarcity crises from the US West Coast, to the Caribbean, to South America and on through broad sections of Asia and Africa. They could look to the nation-destabilizing crises that have already rippled through our world.
The collapse of Syria due to drought, the fractures running through both India and Bangladesh due to sea level rise, the immigration camps Australia has already set up to deal with a rising tide of island migrants — driven from their homes more and more by increasingly extreme weather and the swelling seas (see also Australia’s Immigration Detention Facilities). 158 million persons were displaced by extreme weather over the past 7 years. A flood that has swelled the ranks of refugees inundating the developed countries of the world from Europe to North America to Southeast Asia.
A So-Called Resource that is Instead a Curse
And all this just a brief and incomplete overview that doesn’t include the massive wildfires, the great species displacement and winnowing, the coral reef bleaching, the ocean dead zone expanding, or the amplifying feedback inducing nature of the 1 C warming we’ve experienced since the 1880s. More than 1/4 of the warming experienced over 10,000 years at the end of the last ice age. But this warming all crammed into a mere 135 years. A warming set off by a massive burning of fossil fuels that has continued to ramp higher to this day. A warming that will continue to worsen, setting off an age of Storms leading to a hothouse world that is not at all friendly to life or human habitation — if we do not stop lighting fossil fueled fires.
(A land of pits, fumes, and poisoned pools as far as the eye can see. Canada, in its mad quest for oil, has turned a pristine boreal forest into a place that is a stunning likeness to Tolkien’s Mordor. Image source: Garth Lenz’s TED Talk.)
If one were to encapsulate all the destruction that we are now beginning to witness due to our mad continued combustion, we might set the scene in Alberta. There a massive tar sands operation continues to unearth some of the most expensive, the most high-carbon fuels in the world. There they break rocks to leech out an oily bitumen. There they burn natural gas to enrich the bitumen with hydrogen before shipping it south to the US for further refinement. It’s an ugly process that has gouged great furrows in the earth, destroyed the great carbon sequestering boreal forests — leaving hundreds of square miles of wasteland and a vast pollution of waters and airs in the wake of its operation. It’s a process that’s aiding in the burning of Arctic permafrost. A process that warms the permafrost to thaw and then turns it into a kind of peat-like fuel for the wildfires that have now become a feature of an annual season of burning in the Arctic. A vast ripping and combustion of the once frozen biomass, adding to the fury of our fossil fuel warmed future.
This year, a massive wildfire encroached upon the tar sands operation itself. The fire raged close enough to one of the major production centers to force it to shut down some of its operations. As a result 220,000 barrels per day of tar sands production was shut in by some of the massive wildfires the operation itself has helped to drive. Just one more ironic twist in the violent history of a resource that has been called The Prize, but that may as well be considered The Curse.
(A massive wildfire outbreak in Canada that temporarily shut down tar sands operations in Alberta. Fossil fuel burning is now so destructive that it sets off climate impacts that threaten its own production. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)
Massive Investor Flight Away From Fossil Fuels
And this year it appears that a number of investors are starting to get it. Get the fact that there’s no future left in burning coal, oil or gas. No future worth living in at least. For investors by the droves are now engaged in removing their assets from fossil fuel based companies.
Some are being pushed out by divestment campaigns run by responsible college students. Students who look to the future and don’t like what they see and so, encourage their schools to scrub carbon emissions from their investment funds. It’s a campaign that has also touched churches — including the great Catholic Church itself — setting off a broadening wave of religious-based divestment. And it’s a campaign that has reached into the sovereign wealth funds of entire nations.
Still more are being shoved along by a death spiral of coal, oil and gas prices. A wholesale disintegration of the paper billions of dollars once claimed on fossil fuel company balance sheets. A disintegration led by plummeting demand for fossil fuel products due to a combined increased efficiency and an ever more rapid adoption of non carbon based energy sources.
Though some are rendered deaf by greed or cynicism, the message is loud and clear. If preserving a just and functional human civilization is the underlying basis for morality, then there’s nothing more amoral than continuing to burn fossil fuels. But not only that, there’s no future in it. For if the use of this kind of energy destroys the very reason for having energy in the first place — living, playing and working in a world in which natural wealth exists at all — then there is no economic justification for continuing its use. As a result of its running counter to both sound morality and rational economics, the future for fossil fuels looks increasingly bleak. For individuals, societies and investors are faced with a choice between stranded fossil fuel assets and a world undergoing a new mass extinction likely worse than the Permian. One of these choices is survivable by human civilizations, and the other one is not.
(One factor at play in the massive fossil fuel bloodletting has been a precipitous fall in the cost of its wind and solar energy replacements. For US electricity in 2015 fully 78 percent of new capacity additions have been wind and solar. Image source: Climate Crocks and Bloomberg.)
It is perhaps for these combined reasons and due to the encroachment of ever-more inexpensive and accessible renewable energy sources that has led to a massive flight of capital away from fossil fuel based energy. Arch Coal, for example, has lost 95 percent of its market capitalization in the past year. Other corporations who’ve cast their lot with continued fossil fuel burning have suffered similar, though slightly less dramatic fates. Suncor, one of the chief tar sands extractors, has lost 20 percent of its value, Exxon Mobil 12 percent, Chevron 18 percent, Chesapeake Energy 55 percent, Conoco Phillips 24 percent, Suncoke 36 percent, and Peabody 85 percent. These are industry-wide losses that are in the process of setting off a string of malinvestment-based bankruptcies that would put the ‘tempest in a teapot’ hype surrounding Solyndra to shame. In essence, it’s the epic and compounding failure of drill, baby, drill politics.
Investors told late last year that oil, gas and coal fortunes would rebound have been sorely disappointed. Coal continues its 5 year long string of monthly bankruptcies. Oil and gas companies trail the S&P 500 by 40 percent. And more than 118 billion dollars in new oil projects has now been shelved. Growing ever more sour on what appears to be an escaped-from-reality chorus of fossil fuel cheerleaders, investors have finally had enough and gone in search of greener pastures. In this case, green pastures include a wind farm now being built off Cape Cod. One that will provide renewable energy based electricity to 30,000 homes that previously got their electricity through dirty, expensive and hothouse-amplifying diesel fuel burning.
It’s the kind of choice investors and the rest of us need to be making if we’re going to avoid the worst of this climate change nightmare we’ve already set in play. And we’d better get a move on. For as commenter Mblanc from the UK recently noted in response to a previous post:
I’ve got a really bad feeling about this. That feeling has been building up over the last few months. Every time I see an anomaly map these days, I can’t help feeling that we in the UK are right in the firing line of Greenland ice melt, and the firing might have already started.
It’s starting. Climate change changes everything — makes our world, our nations and our homes less secure, more vulnerable in the path of oncoming and ever more violent weather. But, if Hansen and other scientists have it right, we can still avoid the worst impacts if we don’t listen to the fossil fuel cheerleaders and keep making all the wrong choices. Thankfully, it appears investors may have wised up a bit. Let’s hope that trend continues.
Hat Tip to Mblanc
Hat Tip to ClimateHawk1