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Record Heat Predicted for Fort McMurray Wednesday as Fire Danger Spikes

Just a little more than one year after freakish global warming-spurred wildfires forced a near complete evacuation of the tar sands production town of Fort McMurray, Alberta, record heat and extreme fire hazard are again settling in over this subarctic region.

(Subarctic sections of Alberta are expected to experience temperatures in the upper 80s and lower 90s [F] tomorrow. Such heat is expected to spike fire dangers throughout the region. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

The weather forecast for Wednesday, May 31, 2017 tells a story of predicted extreme heat for a typically cool region of Northwest Canada. High temperatures for the day are expected to range from 86 to 90 F (30 to 32 C). That’s a hot day anywhere. But it’s particularly impressive for a region that shares a common climate with places like historically cold Alaska and Hudson Bay.

Average high temperatures for Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada for this time of year typically top out at a rather cool 64 degrees Fahrenheit (18 C) — closer to the expected Wednesday morning low of 62 F (17 C). Wednesday’s forecast high, meanwhile, is quite considerably outside the normal range and exceeds 30 year averages by fully 22 to 26 degrees F. If such heat does emerge, it will tie or break the 2007 all-time record for May 31 of 86 F (30 C).  Such record heat is now predicted to occur after today’s expected, well above average, high of 80 F (26 C).

(A spike in fire hazard early this week coincides with predicted record temperatures across Alberta. Image source: Alberta Fire.)

Unseasonable warmth — which deepened over the weekend and is expected to peak by Wednesday — is presently resulting in spiking fire dangers for the region. According to the government of Alberta, fire risk for Fort McMurray is now listed as very high through Wednesday due to above average to near record high temperatures and low humidity. Fire hazard for a large swath of Northern Alberta is now also rated very-high-to-extreme.

It is worth noting that the overall fire situation for Canada to-date is presently much-improved from 2016. Last year, outlandish warmth combined with high winds and dry conditions to fuel an unusually large fire outbreak over Central and Northwestern Canada during early May. This year, wetter than normal conditions have suppressed fire activity over much of Canada over the same seasonal period. And we have some regions in British Columbia that are now experiencing evacuations due flooding rivers.

(Wildfires are flaring over British Columbia even as rapidly rising temperatures are causing large snow packs to melt far more swiftly than normal. Such heat and rapid melt is producing a dual threat of flood and fire at the same time. Image source: BC Wildfire Service.)

Rising fire risks coinciding with hot and dry conditions are coming at the same time that this year’s moisture-engorged snow packs are melting at far faster than normal rates. Large fires are thus breaking out in British Columbia and along the Alberta border as heat and dryness spread northward even as creek and lake levels in places like Okanagan, BC are facing the highest flood stages ever recorded.

Overall, despite 2017’s rainy spring weather, the tale is still one of unusual warmth. May temperatures have ranged from 2 to 6 degrees Celsius above average over Northern and Central Canada during 2017. Such departures are in keeping with the ongoing trend of rapid warming in the upper Latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. A trend that has considerably worsened overall fire hazard by lengthening the fire season, by adding new fuels for fires, and by increasing the number of lightning strikes which help to provide ignition sources for wildfires. A warming that is directly caused by ongoing human fossil fuel burning and by related activities such as the tar sands extraction that continues unabated in Alberta.

(UPDATED)

Links:

Earth Nullschool

Fort McMurray Weather

Weather Underground: Fort McMurray Climate

Alberta Fire

BC Wildfire Service

Thousands Forced to Evacuate Fort McMurray Due to Wildfires

Wildfires, Rising Water Levels Hamper Okanagan

Earth Observatory

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North Dakota Tramples Journalist Deia Schlosberg’s Constitutional Right to Cover Historic Climate Protests

“We already have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as any scientist thinks is safe to burn.” — Bill McKibben

*****

Deia Schlosberg seems to me to be an exceptionally responsible person. A producer of the Josh Fox film How to Let Go of the World and Love all the Things that Climate Can’t ChangeDeia has already helped thousands of people to more deeply understand the very serious risks associated with our continued burning of fossil fuels. To understand it on an intimate, personal level. And for this we owe her not only our gratitude, but the firm affirmation of our voices lifted to support her during her time of unjust persecution.

deia-schlosberg_climate-direction-action-activists

(Deia Schlosberg [left] and climate activists who briefly shut down TransCanada Tar Sands production on October 11 [right]. Image source: Desmogblog.)

For Deia appears to have earned herself the ire of some of the most powerful and destructive private economic interests on planet Earth. Interests that are apparently now involved in leveraging the loyalty of politically aligned persons within North Dakota law enforcement in an attempt to intimidate and silence this responsible and compassionate journalist.

Journalistic Documentation of an Unprecedented Protest Action

Back on October 11th, Deia provided journalistic coverage of a pipeline protest in Walhalla, North Dakota. The protest involved an act of civil disobedience in which 5 people used shut-off valves to stop tar sands crude transported by TransCanada pipelines from entering the U.S. These five locations were private holdings of TransCanada and represented the main access points for corporate-produced tar sands. When the protesters operated the shut-off valves, TransCanada’s significant flow of greenhouse gas producing syncrude was temporarily halted.

tar-sands-mordor

(TransCanada is a corporate producer of tar sands — one of the most environmentally and climatologically  destructive fuels on planet Earth. An energy source whose continued use risks extraordinarily damaging climate outcomes. Now that replacement fuels and renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, biofuels, and electric vehicles are much more readily available, we have an opportunity to turn away from such dangerous activities. For years now, climate activists have been fighting to make the public aware of risks and harms associated with tar sands extraction all while challenging an unhealthy level of economic dominance by fossil fuel interests that prevents and delays access to far less damaging energy sources. Image source: Desmogblog.)

Deia, according to her statements to Desmogblog, was recording the act of civil disobedience by one of the activists operating the shut-off valves — documenting what is likely to become an event of historic importance as a filmmaker and a climate journalist.

Deia noted to Desmogblog:

In general, I felt like this was an extremely important action to document because it was unprecedented — shutting down all of the oil sands coming into the U.S. from Canada. And as a climate reporter and someone who worries about the impacts of climate change and our future, I know that the Canadian oil sands are a pretty scary source of energy to be exploiting at this point.

False Charges That Violate a Journalist’s Constitutionally Protected Freedoms

To be very clear, Deia was both performing a public service by recording an event of historic significance and exercising journalistic freedoms that are held sacred by the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution plainly states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Prosecutors apparently aligned with fossil fuel special interests in North Dakota obviously did not agree. Instead, on October 13th, they brought unwarranted, trumped-up charges against Deia for simply excising her Constitutionally protected First Amendment freedoms. Prosecutors claimed that Deia was involved in a conspiracy to steal property, a conspiracy to steal services, and a conspiracy to tamper with or damage a public service.

Ironically, not only do these charges serve to infringe upon the protected freedoms of an American citizen, they also have no legal basis whatsoever. For, acting as an event-documenting journalist, Deia in no way served as an accessory to or conspirator for any crime. Furthermore, the charges leveled by North Dakota do not in any way fit events as they transpired or match the legal definitions of possible crimes as they are technically defined. No property or services were stolen as part of the protest action. Access to tar sands crude was simply briefly interrupted. And since TransCanada is a private corporation that profits from its sales of tar sands to agencies within the U.S., labeling its wealth-seeking activity as a ‘public service’ is the very definition of inaccurate legalistic contortion.

Moreover, Deia’s record of the pipeline shut-off by activists has been unjustly and probably unlawfully confiscated. An action that removes from the public eye a critical piece of reporting related to an event of historic human welfare significance.

The Risk From Continuing to Burn Fossil Fuels is Human Civilization Collapse, Mass Extinction

In the context of Deia’s climate journalism, we should very clearly identify the climate harms and risks that arise from continuing to burn fossil fuels and in expanding that rate of burning. And we should also state plainly that it is these harms, these risks which provide strong justification on moral, survival, and human safety and welfare grounds for the actions made by protesters covered by Deia.

The science is pretty clear on the fact that of the five major mass extinction events that have occurred on planet Earth, at least four were set off or greatly contributed to by large environmental carbon releases and related rising global temperatures. This includes the worst mass extinction event — the Permian — in which hothouse temperatures may have produced a Canfield Ocean that, in turn, wiped out most of life on Earth.

Based on our best understanding, it takes an atmospheric equivalent CO2 level (CO2e) of around 550 to 1000 parts per million under current conditions to generate an appreciable risk of setting off a hothouse mass extinction event. This is particularly true if, as is the case today, such an initial carbon spike occurs following periods of glaciation when Earth’s available carbon stores for providing added warming feedbacks are at their highest levels. Meanwhile, the currently unprecedented rate at which human beings are adding carbon to the atmosphere through fossil fuel burning presents further risks outside the context of past hothouse events.

(Neil Degrasse Tyson —  ‘I don’t want Earth to look like Venus.’)

We’ve already pushed CO2 levels, through our burning of fossil fuels and through other industrial activities, to above 400 parts per million (and to around 490 parts per million on the CO2 equivalent scale during 2016). The amount of carbon in the atmosphere already is currently enough to risk raising global temperatures this Century to 1.6 to 2.1 degrees Celsius above 188os values, to risk amplifying feedbacks in which the Earth System produces its own carbon spike that adds to the human sources, and to present serious challenges to the resiliency of human civilization and life on Earth.

But, even worse, there’s presently enough carbon listed as proven reserves on the books of coal, oil, and gas companies across the world to push atmospheric CO2 equivalent levels well above 900 parts per million. If we burn all this carbon, or if we discover and extract even more, we will see between 4 and 9 degrees Celsius warming this century and possibly as much as 9-18 C warming in the centuries to follow. So much burning and resulting heating of the Earth would set off a catastrophe that no current human civilization would be likely to survive. One that could also cause the worst mass extinction event in all of the deep, deep time of Earth’s long history.

These basic facts may be difficult for some to hear and understand — especially when they’ve staked their aspirations for economic growth on the false hope represented by fossil fuels. But, as tough as these facts are to listen to, they remain. Continuing to burn fossil fuels will wreck civilizations, disrupt growing seasons, raise sea levels, generate storms the likes of which we have never seen, evaporate water supplies, and transform our now benevolent and life-supporting oceans into a toxin-producing mass extinction engine.

In the face of such terrible harms, we as American citizens and as human beings have the responsibility to stand up and do what we can to help people avoid them. To help people make the right choices and to shine a light in the dark places where harms are currently being committed. Deia was within her rights to do just that in documenting a climate action by protesters who voluntarily risked arrest so that the rest of us could, yet again, have the opportunity to make the right choices before it’s too late.

Links:

How to Let Go of the World and Love all the Things that Climate Can’t Change

Petition (Please Sign): Drop Charges Against Deia Schlosberg

350.org Please Support

Exclusive Q&A With Deia Schlosberg on Her Arrest While Filming Activist Shutdown of Tar Sands Pipeline

Fossil Fuel Reliance: Tar Sands

First Amendment of the Constitution

Canfield Ocean

Neil Degrasse Tyson Climate Change

NOAA ESRL

Carbon Tracker

Hat tip to Bill McKibben

Hat tip to Seal

Hat tip to DT Lange

Trudeau, Canadian Media Mum as Threat From Climate Change Induced Wildfires Grows

To say that this spring has produced an insane, unprecedented early start to wildfire season in Canada would be a monster understatement. In fact, the area of land burned over Canada is now 22 times greater than for the same period last year.

Nearly 2000 Square Miles Have Burned in Canada So Far — And It’s Not Even Summer Yet

By this time (May 16) last year (2015), during the start of what was then one of the worst fire seasons in Canadian history, a total of about 23,000 hectares of land had burned. This year (2016), a total of about 500,000 hectares (1930 square miles) had burned by the same day. That’s about 22 times more land burned than during the same period last year when fire season started abnormally early and ultimately burned much, much more than average.

wildfires burn across northwester Canada

(Wildfires burn across Central and Northwestern Canada on May 15 in this LANCE MODIS satellite shot. Hotspots , indicated by the red dots, in the image are visible in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. Massive smoke plumes swirl over the region, drifting either north toward the thawing Arctic or south toward the United States. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 700 miles. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

And this year, for the first time in Canadian History, a monster wildfire has forced the emptying of a city of 90,000 people — destroying 2,400 structures, damaging another 500 more, and threatening the infrastructure of the tar sands mines. An unconventional fossil fuel facility that Dr. James Hansen has called ‘one of the largest carbon bombs on the planet.’ A hothouse carbon extraction zone the size of Florida that has greatly contributed to the force of the fires that are now threatening the lives and livelihoods of people across Canada.

The massive extent and city-engulfing nature of these fires is evidence-in-plain-sight that a human-forced warming of the planet is taking a ridiculous toll on the forests and infrastructure of Canada. And the threatening of the tar sands facilities themselves by the new, uncanny fires has been called a black irony by those of us who’ve fought so hard to prevent global climate disasters that are now flaring up with increasing frequency and force. For evidence of ‘the arsonists of Fort McMurray’ sprawls as a ruination of a once-beautiful forested region just north of the burned city itself. There, the very fossil fuel industry that lit the fires of climate change now raging across the North, has constructed a vast carbon extraction and burning effort. Stripping the Earth bare in a great wasteland that is clearly visible in even the low resolution shots captured by satellites passing far overhead.

Stripped and barren lands of Canada's Tar Sands

(The stripped and barren lands of Canada’s tar sands as seen from the LANCE MODIS satellite on May 15th with the Fort McMurray Fire continuing to encroach from the south. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 55 miles.)

The fact that Canada, under Steven Harper and related governments for the past two decades, has cast its lot with this destructive industry is plainly visible — not only in the wasted landscapes and dying and burning forests — but in that country’s stunned and inadequate responses to a disaster that it has largely contributed to. In light of this fact, one would be hard-pressed to find the words ‘climate change’ printed in the mainstream Canadian media. And any statements exploring what is now an obvious link between the tar sands industry and what is an ongoing and increasing fire emergency are also notably absent.

In contrast, much has been said about rebuilding. About getting the climate-destroying tar sands production back on line. And Justin Trudeau — who was elected on a public mandate to do something about the increasing harms caused by human forced warming — has basically betrayed the trust of this broad constituency by first attempting to shame those concerned about climate change into silence and then refusing to answer questions on the issue of climate change over the past few weeks.

Trudeau, and much of the Canadian media at large, seem to be treating this disaster in isolation. To be pretending that this disaster is a fluke. And to be blithely ignoring a trend of worsening fires due to warming that is as clear as the blazing hot skies over the Canadian Northwest. A behavior that runs directly in line with climate change denial. And a behavior that is putting a growing number of Canadian citizens directly into harm’s way.

Fort McMurray Fires Resurgent

While morally-compromised Canadian politicians rest on their laurels and fail to commit to an energy transition that is imperative to the safety of global civilization, the Fort McMurray Fire itself has once again grown to new intensity. Over the weekend, temperatures in Alberta again spiked to record warm ranges as dryness set in. These conditions, combined with moderate winds to stoke the fires which once more erupted — filling the skies of the tar sands production region with the smokes of Nature enraged.

Fort McMurray Fire May 15

(The Beast again grows larger in this May 15 LANCE MODIS satellite shot. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 65 miles.)

Fires again drifted northward — expanding around the southern flank of the tar sands production facilities. And an ominous cloud of a tell-tale steely gray hangs over the fossil fuel production zone itself. Meanwhile, to the south, a broad fire-front continued to run out and away from the Lake Gregoire region. Further to the east, fires are expanding toward the Alberta border with Saskatchewan as the closest hot spot has flared within 11 kilometers of the demarcation line. And once more, large pyrocumulus clouds appear to be billowing up into the baked Alberta air.

In total, this immense fire is now about 250,000 hectares in size (965 square miles). Having grown 90,000 hectares (350 square miles) since last weekend, the blaze, which many now call The Beast, has over the past seven days expanded by 60 percent. The fire now shows every sign of exploding once again despite an intense effort by more than 1,000 firefighters.

Over the coming week, high temperatures in Alberta are expected range from the upper 60s to middle 80s. Meanwhile, extreme heat is predicted to expand over most of Northwestern Canada with 70 degree readings reaching the Arctic Ocean’s shores.

North America weather forecast

(Heat builds as fire danger for Canada again spikes during the week of May 16 to May 22. Readings in the 70s and 80s are expected to cover a broad swath of Central, Western, and Northern Canada with 70 degree readings stretching all the way to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

There has been practically zero coverage in the broader Canadian Media — over the past two days — about what in the satellite analysis and in the coming forecast appears to be a fire situation that is again worsening and growing more dangerous. The Canadian Fire Agency and the weather forecasters have duly reported the risks. But the media response has been ominously and irresponsibly silent. In contrast, most sources continue to report as if the crisis is over and winding down. As if there aren’t still four months of fire season ahead. And as if human-forced climate change isn’t turning the boreal forests and permafrost zones of our world into a very dangerous fire-trap. Meanwhile, 2016 fire dangers are on the rise, not only for Alberta and Fort McMurray, but for almost all of Central and Northwestern Canada.

UPDATE 10:30 PM, May 16: As of Monday evening, news reports from Bloomberg indicated that the Fort McMurray Fire had again grown — this time swelling to 1,100 square miles (285,000 hectares) or about the size of Rhode Island. Winds from the south up to 25 miles per hour and abnormally hot temperatures caused fires to swell as they moved northward. By afternoon, one blaze had approached to within a kilometer of an Enbridge transportation hub, forcing the evacuation of another 4,000 workers from that tar sands facility. Firefighters worked to widen fire breaks protecting the terminal as emergency personnel considered spraying down equipment to keep the wildfire from spreading into it.

Fort McMurray Fires Monday

(Fort McMurray Fire expanding as it spread northward toward tar sands facilities on Monday, May 16. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Updated reports also indicate that nearly 2,000 personnel are now involved in combating Alberta wildfires. Heavy smoke emitting from the flames contributed to terrible air quality conditions (nearly four times worse than levels considered harmful) leading to recommendations from officials that people avoid the Fort McMurray and the surrounding area.

Links:

LANCE MODIS

Canada Interagency Fire Center

Climate Reanalyzer

NASA’s Hansen Explains Decision to Join Keystone XL Protests

The Arsonists of Fort McMurray Have a Name

Fort McMurray and the Fires of Climate Change

Can Justin Trudeau See the Forest Fire for the Trees?

Besieged by the Fires of Denial

Fort McMurray Fire Nears Enbridge Terminal Near Tar Sands Facilities

Hat tip to Cate

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat tip to DT Lange

Monster Fort McMurray Fire Slowed Sunday by Light Rain — Despite Progress, Officials Expect Blaze to Burn for Months

“I’ve never seen anything like this. No-one has ever seen anything like this fire, the way it started, the way it spread, the way it traveled. We will be rewriting the book on fighting these fires, this fire will force us to rewrite the book” — Fort McMurray Fire Chief Darby Allen in a News Conference this afternoon.

*******

On Saturday, the Fort McMurray fire rapidly expanded — threatening the greenhouse gas emitting tar sands facilities north of town and making a race toward the Saskatchewan border. But by Sunday, cooler temperatures and very light rain in some areas (with accumulations of less than 1 mm), helped to stymie what, until that time, was an entirely uncontrollable blaze.

Fire’s Northward Expansion Halted Before Tar Sands Facilities Were Significantly Damaged

Fires ran directly to the boundaries of the Nexen tar sands facility. But heroic efforts by firefighters stopped the blaze there and prevented all but minor damage to structures and to large vessels containing volatile compounds. In total, the massive firefighting effort — now undertaken by more than 500 personnel — was able to check the northward advance of the flames on Saturday. By Sunday and Monday, a shift in the winds toward the west and northwest again drove the fires eastward.

Fort McMurray Fire Map

(The Fort McMurray fire has grown to more than 16 times its original size. Northwest winds continue to push its expansion toward the Saskatchewan border. Cooler weather and very light rains helped slow the fire Sunday. But with no rain in the forecast until May 23rd and with more warm weather on the way, fire conditions may again worsen this week and on into the next. Image source: CBC News Live Updates.)

Current active large fires near Fort McMurray are about 16 miles to the south and west of town between the Athabasca River and Route 63, near the shores of lake Gregorie, and across the Clearwater River just to the north of the Fort McMurray airport. Though still somewhat threatening, overall fire activity in the area is the lowest since Tuesday of last week. Further to the east, large fires continue to burn toward Saskatchewan and, with winds expected to blow off and on out of the northwest over the coming 5 days, it’s likely that this massive blaze will expand outside the borders of Alberta. To this point, the fire edge is now less than 18 miles away from Saskatchewan and winds are still blowing at moderate strength out of the northwest.

The Damage Assessment Begins — No Word on When 90,000 Climate Change Refugees Can Go Home

Overall, officials are reporting that 161,000 hectares have burned so far (or about 620 square miles). Since Tuesday, the area consumed by the flames had grown explosively to roughly 16 times the fire’s original size. Cooler conditions this week should help to keep explosive growth in check. However, by Thursday and Friday, temperatures are again expected to warm — generating an increasing fire hazard for later this week. In addition, weather forecasts call for little to no chance of rain until May 23. So the region is expected to continue to experience extraordinarily dry conditions — conditions that helped contribute to the extreme fire hazard in the first place.

Smoke plume from Fort McMurray Fire Reaches US East Coast

(The vast Fort McMurray Fire has produced an immense smoke plume that has traversed Canada, crossed the Northern and Central US and is now entering the airs over the Atlantic Ocean off the US East Coast. Image source: NOAA.)

Sunday and Monday’s lull in the blaze has allowed officials to begin to take stock of the extreme and extensive damage around Fort McMurray. In addition to the 1,600 structures destroyed by the blaze, many, many buildings were reported damaged. Fort McMurray’s electrical system is completely knocked out — with emergency facilities running on generator power. The city’s water supply — though continuing to flow from the city’s still intact water treatment plant — remains unsafe to drink. Officials will begin releasing photos of the destruction over the next two days and have warned of ‘dramatic images.’ As for the nearly 90,000 people made into climate change refugees by this blaze, there is still no word on when they will be able to return home. And considering such extensive damage and a still active and dangerous fire ranging the region — that answer could be weeks to months (find out how to help the fire victims here).

Impacts to Fort McMurray’s and Canada’s tar sands industry has been notably substantial. In total, more than 1 million barrels per day of oil production is now off line and is expected to remain so for about a month — even if the blaze does not re-emerge to threaten tar sands facilities. In addition, firefighting officials expect it to take months to get this massive fire completely under control. Even with the cooler conditions and very light rains Sunday and Monday, intense hotspots and very strong fire fronts are still expanding outward from the burn scar zone.

Widespread Large Fires in the Upper Latitude Regions of the Northern Hemisphere are Conditions Consistent with Human-Caused Climate Change

Conditions consistent with human-forced climate change remain in effect for Fort McMurray and for most of Northwestern Canada. In total, nearly 150 fires now rage throughout this Arctic country and in Alberta alone an army of more than 1,500 firefighters are now battling 32 wildfires including the Fort McMurry blaze. In British Columbia, 79 strongly active wildfires have completely absorbed that region’s firefighting resources. And on the Ontario-Manitoba border near Winnipeg, a fire exploding to 40,000 hectares has forced more than 125 people to flee and sparked a massive firefighting effort as that blaze grew four times in size since Friday.

Winnipeg Fire with Hotspots

(Another very large fire — now 40,000 hectares in size — threatens the region near Winnipeg. As of Monday, more than 125 people were forced to evacuate due to the rapidly expanding blaze. Above we see this fire along with hotspots as seen by the NASA-MODIS satellite sensor. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Around the world, wildfires are now erupting in northern regions and permafrost zones along the Mongolia-Russia border and in the area of Lake Baikal — which has suffered from a decadal drought and very severe warming. As May progresses into June, we can expect this fire zone to creep northward — eventually involving much of the permafrost zone itself. And, to this point, a powerful Arctic heatwave will bring with it increasing risks of fire to Alaska and the Northwest Territory as temperatures are expected to rise up to 30 degrees F above average (into the upper 60s and lower 70s F) there later this week.

Overall, human-forced climate change caused by fossil fuel burning greatly increases the frequency and intensity of wildfires by spreading heat and drought into regions where vegetation is unused to such conditions. In Arctic countries like Canada, new fuels come from thawing permafrost which forms a combustible peat-like layer and creates conditions where the ground itself can burn. Such heat and thaw has contributed to much larger wildfires which have become ten times more prevalent in the Arctic since 1950 and as the world has warmed by more than 1 C above 1880s averages. Continuing to burn fossil fuels will further intensify these already extreme conditions. One need not point out that this is the first time an entire Canadian city has been forced to evacuate due to wildfires. But with climate change starting to come into full force, such instances are far more likely to happen again and again — not just in Canada, but around the world.

Links:

CBC Live Fire Updates

Fort McMurray’s Fires and the Dramatic Images to Come

Oil Prices Tumble as Traders Reassess Fort McMurray Fire Impact

Fort McMurray Weather Forecast

Earth Nullschool

NOAA

Warm North Pacific Winds to Usher in Brutal Arctic Heatwave this Week

Canadian Interagency Fire Center

Water Bombers Bring Relief to Expanding Fire Along Ontario-Manitoba Border

The Age of Alaskan Wildfires

LANCE-MODIS

How to Help Fort McMurray Fire Victims

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat Tip to DT Lange

Hat Tip to Cate

“Please Get Us Out” — Hothouse Wildfire Threatens to Engulf Tar Sands City of Fort McMurray, 88,000 Evacuated, 1,600 Structures Burned

Emergency situation now ongoing in Fort McMurray, Alberta where a massive wildfire in this northern climate zone is engulfing the city. This is a very dangerous developing situation that includes hundreds of structure fires and what is now the largest evacuation in the history of Alberta — the first time an entire Canadian city has ever had to evacuate due to a wildfire. Frequent updates to follow (refresh page for new updates).

(BBC report on the latest news from Fort McMurray.)

Conditions Consistent With Climate Change Fan Massive Fire Invading City Made by Tar Sands Production

Monday, a massive wildfire began to encroach upon the City of Fort McMurray, Alberta — a region of Canada known for its production of the hothouse gas emitting tar sands. An emission that has almost certainly contributed to increasing fire danger to the city during recent years and decades as tar sands crude is one of the highest carbon fuels now in production (See: IPCC — How Climate Change is Worsening Wildfires).

The McMurray Fire slowly expanded over the weekend under unseasonably hot and dry conditions. It surprised fire officials by jumping the Athabasca River on Monday night and, with a switch in the wind toward the southwest, began to approach and invade northward into the city on Tuesday. By early evening Wednesday, the fire still raged out of control — swelling to more than 10,000 hectares as more than 1,600 buildings fell victim to the flames.

Reporter Reid Fiest in a tweet at 12:05 PM Wednesday briefly described what is now a city under existential threat:

The catastrophic wildfire is 10,000 ha and resisted all the suppression efforts. Today’s weather could cause explosive conditions.

And by 2:37 PM, fire activity within the city had become so intense that the roof of the Fort McMurray emergency operations center began to smolder and those working within were ordered to evacuate.

Extreme Temperatures in Northwest Canada

(It was hotter in Northwest Canada Tuesday than it was in the Central US. Extreme heat related to human-forced warming that contributed to a dangerous developing fire situation in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

The southerly winds and hot airs fanning such explosive conditions ran up behind a high amplitude wave in the Jet Stream pushing temperatures into the upper 80s and lower 90s (F) — readings that are about 30-35 degrees (F) above average for this time of year — over a broad swath of Northwestern Canada on Tuesday. The heat-baked air wrung out moisture and drew humidity readings into the very dry 20 percent range. Similar extreme fire conditions continued into Wednesday — with temperatures in Fort McMurray hitting a very unseasonal 87 degrees — as the fire now burns through the city proper.

Clouds of My Grandchildren over Fort McMurray

Pyrocumulus cloud over Fort McMurray on Tuesday. Clouds of this kind can form in the strong updraft zone of powerful wildfires. During recent years, pyrocumulus formation over the Arctic and other northern regions during spring and summer has been very intense and widespread. A climate change enhanced phenomena that could rightly be called ‘The Clouds of My Grandchildren.’ Image source: Randy Vanberg.

To the north, a very early recession of sea ice in the Beaufort and an opening up of waters there likely assisted this Jet Stream anomaly, a related strong high pressure system, extreme high temperatures, and hot southerly winds that pushed fire conditions in Alberta to unprecedented levels. The south winds, far, far hotter than normal temperatures and very low humidity contributed to a very dangerous situation fanning flames as they encroached upon and invaded the city — burning structures, igniting oil fires and forcing motorists to abandon their vehicles. All while a massive pyrocumulus cloud expanded — casting a dark shadow and dumping soot over this bitumen-laden region of Alberta.

For this region of Canada, these are highly abnormal conditions consistent with weather pattern alterations forced by human-caused climate change. “This (fire) is consistent with what we expect from human-caused climate change affecting our fire regime,” noted Mike Flannigan a wildfire researcher at the University of Alberta who was cited in a report on the climate context of the McMurray Fire on Wednesday.

All Fort McMurray City Residents Ordered to Flee

As of latest reports, all of Fort McMurray’s city proper has been placed under mandatory evacuation orders. That makes for a total of more than 88,000 people evacuated so far. Including outlying suburbs and migrant residents, the city likely is home to a total of more than 100,000 souls — a good number of whom will also be forced to leave. A fire-driven evacuation of this size — basically resulting in the mandatory emptying of an entire city — has never occurred before in the history of Alberta. And the odd nature of this event is magnified by the fact that a very large early May fire — a period when fire activity is typically far more quiescent — is the cause.

Please Get Us Out

(Abasand resident pleas for assistance as fires encroach.)

Many residents, like Jenine in the tweet above, had to scramble to vehicles as fires approached their neighborhoods on Tuesday, spurring some to turn to social media in order to plea for assistance. The proximity of the flames was so close that many residents were unable to bring any personal belongings. With the entire city being ordered to evacuate, both lanes of Highway 63 were used for outbound traffic. Even so, motorists remained stuck in gridlock or stop and go traffic and were forced to drive through billowing smoke and along beside the raging fires. Some vehicles stalled in the hot winds or simply ran out of gas — leaving highway 63 strewn with empty cars, trucks, and buses.

The flow of evacuees has been driven northward ahead of the fire. Emergency shelters have popped up all along route 63 with many tar sands workers hunkering down in camps within the hothouse fuels extraction zone itself. A region that may also fall under threat by the fire.

The closest tar sands facilities are located within 16 miles of the city center. However, fuels for the fires in the form of trees run right up to the edge of the industrial zone and southerly winds expected to continue through late morning on Thursday may drive the flames closer. After that time, a front sweeping in from the north should shift the wind direction to northwest — pushing the fires away from these facilities. Currently, the possibility of the fires affecting these facilities is low. However, both Shell and Suncor have now suspended operations — presenting a brief silver lining to an, overall, terrible situation.

Huge Mobilization Underway, But Much of the City May Succumb to the Fire

Firefighters, who early on Tuesday acknowledged the severity of the situation, are now scrambling to deal with numerous very large blazes raging throughout the town. Social media imagery now shows images of gas stations, stores, and homes being burned or left in ruins by the fires. As of current reports, more than 1,600 structures been destroyed by the flames. By 2:28 PM Wednesday, these included 70 percent of the homes in Beacon Hill, 50 percent of the homes in Abasand, 90 percent of the homes in Waterway, and about 60 other homes and additional structures lost throughout other sections of the city. Unfortunately, given the severity of the situation, the number of burned structures is likely to grow as Wednesday progresses into Thursday.

NASA Shot of Fort McMurray Fire

Large active fires running north of a huge, 15 kilometer, burn scar. Satellite shot of Fort McMurray Fire and burn scars posted in the NASA twitter feed on Wednesday afternoon.

Considering the massive pall of smoke covering Fort McMurray and the fact that firefighters have been overwhelmed by the intensity of the fires — leaving many structures to burn — the situation has run completely out of control. National officials are scrambling to allocate more resources to attempt to abate what is a very difficult and dangerous inferno. A national emergency has been declared and an outpouring of assistance and resources is now aimed in the direction of Fort McMurray. Reports as of Wednesday afternoon indicated that there were 250 firefighters on the ground in the fire zone with more on the way. And by evening a number of defensive fire breaks appear to have been cut in an attempt to control the blaze’s expansion.

However, with numerous other fires now raging throughout Canada and with fire conditions at extreme levels over such a large area, at least one province — British Columbia — is already at the limits of its fire suppression manpower and was unable to provide aid to Fort McMurray. As a result, Alberta officials are now coordinating with national and military firefighting forces as fires continue to expand through the city and along the Athabasca River.

Conditions in Context — More Tar Sands Burning Generates More Wildfire Risk

It’s true that the people of Fort McMurray have suffered enough from this disaster and that the people of Canada and the world should do their best to help them in their hour of need. However, one cannot look at the situation truthfully without taking into account the impact of the Canada’s tar sands upon what is now a broadening climate crisis.

For years and decades now, IPCC has been warning that increasing greenhouse gas emissions and related rising global temperatures will result in increasing, expanding, and extreme wildfire hazards. The region of Northwest Canada is particularly vulnerable due to the influence of sea ice melt on the local Jet Stream pattern and due to the fact that many plant species in the region are ill-adapted to warming temperatures making them far more vulnerable to wildfires. In addition, permafrost thaw in the Arctic zone provides peat-like fuels that add to the fire risk. An issue where the ground itself burns.

Failure to view the current crisis in Fort McMurray in the context of global temperatures that have now exceeded 1 C above preindustrial averages and in the context of a failure to halt tar sands extraction is a failure to view the situation realistically. Much talk has been made of getting Fort McMurray’s tar sands industry back on track. But it’s the tar sands that have greatly contributed to the intensity of the dangerous fire that is now threatening that city’s very existence. And it’s the tar sands that will produce far-flung harmful impacts affecting so, so many other cities around the world. Will Fort McMurray respond to their hour of need by finding a better way of doing business? Or is it all just still denial and doubling down in a way that hurts just about everyone involved?

(Best hopes and prayers to everyone involved in this terrible situation. Please stay safe and stay tuned to official broadcasts for updated information on fires and evacuations.)

Links:

Fort McMurray Homes Destroyed as Wildfire Forces Mandatory Evacuation Orders

Fort McMurray Residents take to Social Media as Situation Intensifies

Jenine’s Twitter Feed

Earth Nullschool

LANCE MODIS

Canadian Fire Danger Map

Fort McMurray Area Updates

It’s Apocalyptic. No Way out But North.

Here’s the Climate Context for the Fort McMurray Wildfire

Alberta Burning

Randy Vanberg

NASA Twitter Feed

Hat tip to Cate

Hat tip to Mike Crews

Hat tip to Andy in San Diego

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to Redsky

Hat tip to TodaysGuestIs

Climate Change Changes Everything — Massive Capital Flight From Fossil Fuels Now Under Way

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.

Mordor-like Tar Sands

(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.

Massive Canadian Wildfire Outbreak June 29

(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.

The falling price of solar

(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.

Links:

Warning From Scientists — Halt Fossil Fuel Burning or Age of Storms, Rapid Sea Level Rise is on the Way

They Make Water out of Mud in Sao Paulo These Days

Syria Conflict Linked to Drought Made Worse by Climate Change

Australia Facing Climate Migrants

Extreme Weather Displaced 158 Million People During the Last 7 Years

Garth Lenz’s TED Talk

LANCE MODIS

Divest From Fossil Fuels

Catholic Church Leads Divestment Effort

Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund to Divest From Fossil Fuels

CNN Markets

Cape Wind Moves Forward

Markets are About to Deal With Climate — Get Ready for Ugly

Mike Carney Gets Set for Carbon Stranded Assets Intervention

Hat Tip to Mblanc

Hat Tip to ClimateHawk1

2014 Hottest Year on Record Amidst Ocean Heat Spikes and Arctic Wildfires

According to Japan’s Meteorological Agency, 2014 set new inauspicious marks as the hottest year in the global climate record since measures began in 1891.

Temperatures rocketed to 0.27 C above the 1981-2010 average, 0.63 C above the 20th Century average and showed a severe pace of warming of 0.70 C per Century. By comparison, the end of the last ice age featured century scale warming at the rate of 0.04 to 0.05 C every 100 years. So the current rate of warming, according to the JMA measure, is 14-17 times faster. A rapid warm-up driving increasingly severe weather and geophysical changes.

2014 Hottest Year on Record

(JMA measure shows 2014 was hottest year on record. Image source JMA.)

NOAA is also expected to show 2014 as hottest year on record. NASA is likely to show 2014 as 1rst, 2nd or 3rd hottest.

2014, according to JMA, was the first record breaker since the super El Nino year of 1998 with 2014 beating out 1998 by 0.05 degrees C. However, the JMA measure also showed that all ten hottest years on record occurred since 1998. Perhaps more telling is the fact that the JMA measure reveals no hiatus in the pace of global atmospheric temperature increase with all years since 1998 at or above the trend line.

Ocean Heat but No El Nino

World ocean surface temperature spikes were the primary driver of the new global surface temperature record with NOAA’s measure showing a majority of months as hottest ever recorded for the world ocean. North Pacific and North Atlantic Ocean temperatures were particularly hot — with a West Coast heat pool driving ocean dead zone events and starfish die-offs alike. In this region and off the US East Coast, Ocean temperature anomalies regularly topped 4 degrees Celisus above average. An extraordinary degree of heat that, in some cases, saw tropical fish species heading into Arctic waters for solace from the record warmth.

Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly global August 29, 2014

(Extraordinary Sea Surface Temperature spikes occurred in late August and mid October, with most of 2014 showing extreme ocean heating. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

El Nino threatened throughout much of the year. But despite a warming near the Equatorial Pacific temperature thresholds failed to fully tip into El Nino. An ominous sign considering that El Nino is the hot phase of atmospheric and surface temperature variability — which may mean that the next El Nino will drive a global high temperature departure even more extreme than 2014’s record setting value.

Severe Weather, Climate Extremes During Hottest Year

2014 also featured some of the worst weather on record with the US experiencing extraordinary dipole anomalies coincident with polar vortex collapse events and severe Arctic warming. Across the Atlantic, the UK experienced both its stormiest winter on record and its hottest year on record. A year hotter than any since 1649 for that nation.

Throughout the world severe droughts ravaged wide regions with the US Southwest still in the grips of the worst multi-year drought in 1,200 years. This year’s California drought was the most recent iteration of this severe event featuring a ridiculously resilient high pressure ridge that has continued to rob California of much of its typical seasonal moisture.

Amazon drying and wildfires also made news this year amidst a severe drought gripping the Sao Paulo megalopolis in Southeastern Brazil. The ongoing drought has shut off monsoonal moisture, forced residents to ration water, and threatens to put city water officials in the position of turning to use of mud for municipal water supplies.

Glaciologists identified massive sections of Antarctic land ice that had reached the point of irreversible collapse. Many of these researchers pointed toward an expanding pool of warm bottom water undermining sea facing glaciers as the culprit for this increasingly rapid glacial melt. A set of circumstances that creates a higher risk of more rapidly rising seas.

To this point, the City of Miami began a combined program of installing pumps to rid streets of flooding at times of high tide and has assessed a property tax to begin its efforts to fight the surge of waters set off by human caused climate change. New studies also found high risk areas such as Hampton Roads in Virginia now featured tens of thousands of properties under such serious threat of flooding that only FEMA will provide them with insurance — a number that will continue to increase along with the sea levels (globally at 3.3 millimeters of increase per year but as high as 7-8 mm per year in some regions).

Ominous Signs the Permafrost is Starting to Disgorge its Carbon Store

Sections of Siberia and Canada experienced extraordinary warmth during winter and spring of 2014 — setting off severe early season wildfires that raged well into late summer. These megafires continue the trend of recent years in which massive blazes rip through the Siberian tundra region disgorging methane and CO2 laden smoke plumes that then encircle the Northern Hemisphere.

For the Northwest Territories of Canada, this past summer represented its worst fire year ever recorded with massive blazes forming towering pyrocumulus clouds over vast burning regions of Arctic permafrost. A fitting backdrop for the Mordor-like activities of Alberta tar sands extraction.

very-intense-fires-burning-in-yakutia

(Very intense wildfires, some the size of smalls states as seen above in the LANCE MODIS shot from July of 2014, raged through Siberian tundra this summer. For reference the bottom edge of frame is 120 miles. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

In all, about 1,300 gigatons of carbon are stored in the now thawing permafrost, a region Joe Romm is calling the permamelt (perhaps permaburn is a better term). And a human enhanced warming of the Arctic appears to be speeding that carbon’s rate of release into the atmosphere. An impact that could further accelerate human-caused warming. An ignominious circumstance leading to more record warm years and related global climate extremes to come. One that adds urgency to the need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuel burning and human activities that dump massive volumes of carbon into the atmosphere.

Links:

JMA Global Average Surface Temperatures Reach New Record in 2014

2014 Was The Hottest Year By Far

Met Office Confirms 2014 was Hottest Year on Record for UK

LANCE MODIS

2014’s Unprecedented Arctic Wildfires

The Climate Reanalyzer

Growth Shock and How the Gods of Our Greed Continue to Fail Us

Number_of_Planet_Scenarios_2008

(Number of Planet Scenarios as Calculated by the World Foot Print Network. Note that according to current data, our pace of consumption currently overshoots Earth’s sustainable resource base by about 50% requiring about 1.5 Earths to meet our needs. By 2050, consumption will nearly demand the yearly productivity of three Earths. Overshoot causes irreparable harm to resources and ecosystems resulting in a collapse of the resource base. See image below.)

We are living in the age of limits, the age of consequences, the age when our quest for an endless expansion of the production of goods and services and the resulting endless concentration of wealth under pure capitalism has resulted in ever more intense degrees of Growth Shock even as it risks a devastating collapse of current day industrial civilizations.

It is a world where Western governments run by ultra-conservative political servants of the oil and gas industry engage in scientific book burning, as recently happened in Canada. A world where 85 people own more wealth than 3.5 billion of their fellow human beings. A world where it is possible for one individual to consume the same amount of resources as hundreds of thousands of his fellows.

In this world, hydrogen sulfide gas is building up in the deep ocean, a bleeding Earth is contributing its own increasing volumes of methane and CO2 to a human-caused global warming nightmare, a world where CO2 levels have passed 400 parts per million, a level not seen in 4.5 million years.

We live in a place where rock stars like Neil Young join with indigenous peoples and environmentalists in a rebellion against the fossil fuel giants who rule so much of our planet and who seek to enforce continued and increasing consumption of dirty, dangerous and depleting fossil fuels. A place where climate scientists are forced to become political activists, to risk prison sentences, to have any hope of keeping a shred of the bounty of Earth safe for their grandchildren. A world where bloggers and activists are increasingly threatened and imprisoned for expressing their previously inalienable right of free political speech.

We live in a world that is an ongoing and intensifying wreckage. A calamity caused by our worship of the failed gods of our greed, a disaster born of our turning away from our fellow man, of our loss of faith in our ability to work together through rational and representative governments, and of our dramatic failure to impose limits — both upon ourselves and upon the most criminally greedy among us.

We are living in the age of Growth Shock and on this unsustainable path the days of human civilization upon this Earth are numbered. There are no second or third Earths to which we can extend our madness that is an economic system designed to endlessly increase consumption of finite resources. There are no green fields of Mars or Venus for us to plunder. The worlds within our reach are barren and as far as even our great telescopic eyes can see across the vast expanse of space there is nothing, nothing even within an insurmountable gulf of light years, of which we could even have cause to dream of to slake our boundless want.

No. We are here. And of all the worlds within our reach fair Earth is Alone. And so we must set our task to live within our means here. To find ways to be happy that do not involve an attempt at endless, mad, and harmful expansion. That do not involve an attempt at burning all the fossil fuels and rapidly ruining our atmosphere and climate for ages and ages to come. Ours is the terrible and hopeful task of the Easter Islanders, of the residents of Tikopia — one group who succeeded in living happily and sustainably upon an island world of limited resources, and the other who desperately and miserably failed.

Our choices are as essential as they are dire and we are making them now, mostly for ill.

Environmentalists get it. Ecologists get it. Anthropologists get it. Druids get it. Scientists get it. Everyday people slaving away under minimum wage or worse get it. Those who live in the shanty towns get it. Those who live down wind of a coal plant get it. Those in West Virginia who had their water ruined get it. Those who live in fracking towns where their water is at risk or must be pumped in get it. Those in British Columbia protesting tar sands pipeline expansion get it. Some in the drying, burning west get it. Some in the storm-wracked east get it. The middle class of America who has been scape-goated and sacrificed on the alter of billionaire greed for the past 30 years should have gotten it by now. Muslims in the middle east who would have rather found water than oil get it. Christian monks who construct solar panel farms get it. South Pacific Islanders witnessing their nations being devoured by the waves get it. So many more who have been forgotten, abused, or who remain unnamed get it.

And now, an economic historian, who clearly gets it, has broken ranks from the mainstream to pen the extraordinarily brave and insightful work: Green Capitalism, the God that Failed. Consider:

We can’t shop our way to sustainability because the problems we face cannot be solved by individual choices in the marketplace. In the final analysis, the only way to align production with society’s interests and the needs of the environment is to do so directly. The huge global problems we face require the visible hand of direct economic planning to reorganize the world economy to meet the needs of humans and the environment, to enforce limits on consumption and pollution, to fairly ration and distribute the goods and services we produce for the benefit of each and every person on the planet and to conserve resources so that future generations of humans and other life forms also can live their lives to the full. All this is inconceivable without the abolition of capitalist private property in the means of production and the institution of collective bottom-up democratic control over the economy and society. And it will be impossible to build functioning democracies unless we also abolish global economic inequality. This is the greatest moral imperative of our time, and it is essential to winning worldwide popular support for the profound changes we must make to prevent the collapse of civilization. A tall order to be sure. But we will need even taller waterproof boots if we don’t make this happen. If Paul Hawken, Lester Brown, Francis Cairncross and Paul Krugman have a better plan, where is it?

In the niddling little details, Richard Smith may be wrong. You can make steel without coal, for example (biomass can provide the coking carbon and electric furnaces can smelt the metal) and total renewable energy production worldwide is now 20% of overall demand (not .6 percent as stated in Smith’s report), plug in electric vehicles, especially when run by renewable power sources, do result in an overall lowering of fossil fuel emissions, and, yes, you can eventually weed out all the carbon-producing fossil fuel inputs from a manufacturing chain (just not all waste and pollution).

But all that over-pessimism aside, Smith is correct in the broad brush. Steel production is limited by its coal or biomass coking base and overall mineral and energy inputs. If you use coal, it is also limited by long-term damage to the climate and to water supplies. Manufacturing, no matter how efficient, will always produce some waste and consume some resources that are not recyclable.

Overshoot_2

(Classic ecological overshoot and degraded carrying capacity. Image source: The Elephant in the Room)

And, most importantly, any economic model requiring endless exponential growth in the consumption of labor and resources is eventually doomed to fail especially when it is primarily based, as it is today, on a set of finite materials (fossil fuels) that through their ever increasing use cause untold damage to the world in which we live. When such a model is also based on an endless funneling of wealth to the top of the economic spectrum it is socially horrific as well. A Godzilla Zombie of a thing.

To survive the age of Growth Shock will require not just a transition away from dirty, dangerous and depleting fuels. It will also require economic systems that do not demand more materials and resources than our single Earth can provide. And, in this, Mr Smith is absolutely correct. We need to reverse the trend that has so undermined both our faith in and the direct effectiveness of our systems of government. Corporatism, commercialism, and laissez faire neoliberal globalized capitalism all must vastly recede. The zero sum game must be put back into its box. Governments must be enabled to impose effective rules and constraints even as it is also enabled to redistribute wealth to its people. It must be enabled to gap fill for the industries it will most certainly have to shut down by providing alternate jobs programs and livelihoods for those who will inevitably be put out of work. It can no longer be the ineffective baby-sitter for anarchic corporations who do what they want, when they want, however they want. Either through active responsibility or passive turning away and collapse, those days are coming to an end. Lastly, the world’s civilizations must learn to work together effectively, acquiescing to rules and constraints that benefit all people.

These are tall orders. But if we wish to retain some shade of our current wealth and Earth’s current richness and beauty, if we wish to establish a powerful, capable, and effective world civilization, if we wish to pursue justice for all peoples and not just the wealthy, then we must pursue these goals with passion and ardor. For the path we are currently on has no viable future.

The Morality of Keystone XL Protests in Context: Why Dangerous, Expensive Oil is Best Left In the Ground

NOKXL

(Image source: 350.org)

NASA scientist and climate activist James Hansen has called the tar sands ‘climate game over.’ And it is easy to understand why. Alberta’s tar sands and other deposits like it around the world are the worst polluting form of oil on the planet. The bitumen burns very dirty and is the most carbon intensive fuel on Earth to extract. Currently, Canada uses about 8% of its entire natural gas supply just to push out 1.6 million barrels per day of the toxic stuff. And if greater and greater volumes of tar sands are produced, more and more of this gas supply will be used — before the oil refined from tar sands is even burned in a vehicle.

Some estimates even show that tar sands is as dirty as some forms of coal. So with an estimated 1.7 trillion barrels of ultimately recoverable tar sands sitting under Alberta’s pristine arboreal forests, it is no wonder why James Hansen has called the exploitation of this dirty and expensive resource ‘climate game over.’

 

Oil Companies Push For Exploitation

AlbertaTarSands3_1

(source: Vancouver Observer)

All that said, there remains an economic argument, no matter how morally flimsy, to be made for the exploitation of tar sands and its ongoing ecocide. And what it boils down to is simply this: oil company profits.

The supply of tar sands is very large. And, oil companies reason, if they can get tar sands oil to the international market, where prices have ranged between 100 and 120 dollars per barrel of crude oil, they can make a pretty decent return on their massive investments in exploiting Canada’s tar sands.

The centerpiece of such a push for exploitation is the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Without such a pipeline in place, oil companies would be forced to ship tar sands via rail or truck in order to reach international markets. And such shipping would increase costs as much as 20 dollars per barrel, wiping out much of the profit potential for tar sands.

The reason is that the oil is very expensive to extract. All the mining, baking and crushing necessary to remove and process bitumen results in marginal costs for tar sands oil that are now higher, in some cases, than 95 dollars per barrel. In the North American market, where bidding for tar sands oil is about 60 dollars per barrel, a decent portion of the tar sands resource is too expensive to extract. So oil companies are desperate for a low cost means of transport — the Keystone XL pipeline– to bring their tar-oil the Gulf Coast where it can easily access international markets.

Now, should the pipeline go through, oil companies have a rational means to continue expanding dirty, dangerous, and expensive tar sands production indefinitely. If prices remain high — 100 to 120 dollars per barrel or more — tar sands production from Alberta could  rapidly increase over the coming decades. But, without the pipeline, many projects become uneconomical and would be put on hold or shut down indefinitely. And this would mean that a substantial portion of tar sands ends up remaining in the ground — where it can’t make any money for oil companies, and where it also can’t do further harm to the world’s climate.

Now oil companies are very attached to their profits, no matter how much harm such profits may ultimately cause. And the prospect of much of their potential future profits languishing in the ground beneath Alberta is not an appealing prospect for those already invested in tar sands. The result has been a major lobbying effort by oil companies for the US government to allow Keystone to go through. And, now, it appears that much of US government has been swayed to the oil industry’s way of thinking. In fact, without a broad and popular public protest against the pipeline, the project would, likely, have already been completed and the world shackled to yet another climatologically damaging energy resource.

In the final industry and government push to complete the pipeline, the Department of State has produced an inaccurate study in support of approving the pipeline, making the false claim that failure to approve the pipeline would have no impact on tar sands production. Even to the superficial observer, such claims should seem ludicrous, as the industry, itself, has stated in various reports that Keystone is necessary for increasing flows of tar sands oil. In fact, such a pipeline, as the oil companies intend, would pave the way for the production of ever-increasing volumes of the dirty and expensive Alberta oil. Instead, the misleading report seems to attempt to remove a rationale for public opposition to a pipeline that will, indeed, dramatically increase the delivery to market of dirty and climatologically harmful tar.

A Conflict for Our Age

We have entered an age of expensive, difficult to extract, highly polluting, and less useful oil. We have also entered an age of increasingly dangerous impacts from human caused climate change. Oil companies, whose goal it is to convince us to use every drop of crude they can extract will do everything in their power to increase the economic reach of expensive and dirty fuels, extending as far into the future as possible the lifespan of those fuels.

But for us to have much hope for a stable climate and a prosperous future, we must do all we can to ensure such dirty, expensive and climatologically harmful fuels remain in the ground. And so the effort to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline is a moral one. One in which we make the choice for responsibly working for greater access to sustainable energy sources and against fuels that will ultimately wreck our civilization’s future.

For even as the oil, gas and coal companies are struggling to access ever more expensive and harmful energy sources, they also seek to suppress the alternatives. Wind, solar, biofuels, rapidly increasing efficiency, and vehicle to grid technology all represent alternative choices to dirty, dangerous and depleting fossil fuels. And it is a replacement of fossil fuels with these new energy systems which must happen if we are to have a hope of economic prosperity without a combination of ever-worsening climate impacts and ever-increasing and more volatile energy prices.

So the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline is a fight over which future we chose. On the one hand we have a new energy era reliant on the expansion of a fuel source that will do serious, ongoing harm to the climate. On the other a new beginning. One that turns away from the dirty fuel sources and seeks the energies of a new generation. Energy sources that will begin to enable the healing of our climate and the building of a truly sustainable and prosperous society. Not one shackled to the uncertainties of limited and climatologically harmful fuel supplies. But a future based on a solid foundation of predictable outcomes.

That’s what’s at stake here. Rational hope for dealing with the double challenges of climate change and resource depletion. Or a continuation down the path toward ruin. And anyone saying anything different is simply spreading misinformation.

Articles worth reading:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/11/opinion/when-to-say-no-to-the-keystone-xl.html?_r=0

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/03/11/1697831/march-11-news-nyt-editorial-makes-the-climate-case-against-keystone/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anthony-swift/rail-is-not-an-alternativ_b_2838058.html

Who is to Blame for High Gas Prices?

As the presidential election’s silly season continues, as the most outrageously pandering promises are made to all people across the political spectrum, a single issue seems to have outdistanced the rest — who is to blame for high gas prices?

Republicans, for their part, seem to enjoy blaming Obama who, supposedly, is keeping millions of magical drilling rigs hostage. If only freed from their bondage, republicans claim these rigs all alone, all by themselves, could, in a puff of faerie dust, reduce the price of gasoline to $2.50 per gallon.

But do the republicans have a rational leg to stand on in their endless drill, baby, drill diatribe? To find out, we’ll have to examine some facts.

Obama brings massive increase in drilling

Since Obama entered office, there has been a massive increase in US drilling. And the sad truth, despite republican rhetoric, is that the US would be engaged in increased drilling regardless of who held the office of president. The US is so addicted to oil that it can’t afford, at this time, not to exploit every economic source. As a result, drilling has increased by over 350% under Obama.

Huge drilling efforts result in only moderate supply increases

Considering tripling US extraction efforts, one would think that US oil production would rise dramatically. In truth, production has risen, but by only a small amount. The net result of a massive 350% increase in drilling has only been a moderate bump in oil production of 14%. US crude oil production increased from a 2008 level of about 5 million barrels per day to today’s level of 5.7 million barrels per day.

Moderate increase in supply does not result in oil price drops

So all out drilling under Obama has resulted in some increase in supply. And you would think, all things being equal, that the price of oil would also fall. But all things are not equal. Oil is traded on the world market and there are an expanding number of factors keeping the price of oil high.

First, Saudi Arabia has claimed that $100 per barrel is a ‘fair’ price for oil. Saudi Arabia produces more than 10 million barrels each day and is the world’s second largest oil exporter. They are the only country in the world left with substantial spare capacity. This means that Saudi Arabia is the only oil producer with much influence on supply or price. But Saudi is saying it will defend $100 oil. And the means Saudi has to defend this price is through cutting supply. So should oil prices decrease, Saudi will cut production. In fact, it did this during 2009-2010. And since Saudi cut production at that time, prices have risen from $40 per barrel to over $105 per barrel now. As the world economy recovered in 2010-2011, Saudi Arabia brought production back. But demand was so high that the new oil didn’t result in substantially reduced prices.

Second, the reason Saudi Arabia is the only producer with spare capacity is the fact that all other oil producers are pumping oil flat out. And despite this all-out production, the world’s supply of crude oil has remained flat at around 74-75 million barrels per day (blue line on graph) since 2004. This means that despite the highest average price for oil ever, for eight years running, world crude oil production has structurally leveled off. The reason for this plateau is that new production of crude oil is only enough to keep pace with the rate of production decline from existing wells. In short, when it comes to crude oil production, the world is running to stand still.

Third, high cost unconventional oil fills in the gap. Today, the world produces 18 million barrels per day of unconventional oil along with other substances such as wet gas and condensate (condensate is usually included in the crude oil figure, but it’s a different substance altogether). This includes supplies of tar sands from Canada, deep water oil, natural gas liquids, and biofuels. Much of this oil costs $50 dollars per barrel or more to produce. And the fact that the world is reliant on this ‘oil’ means prices will never fall below the high cost of a marginal barrel.

Most unconventional oil isn’t really oil at all. For example, Canada uses 8% of its entire natural gas supply to hydrogenate tar and ship it to us as ‘oil.’ The fact that we are calling hydrogenated tar ‘oil’ is a certain sign of how desperate we’ve become. And biofuels certainly aren’t oil. They’re fuels interchangeable with oil derived from crops. And it is through the production of these very expensive and difficult to produce fuels that the world has been able to increase production at all.

Fourth, the nominal demand for oil is about 98 million barrels per day, this is ten million barrels per day higher than the combined total production of crude oil plus unconventional oil. What this means is if prices go down, demand will keep going up until we hit a level of consumption of around 98 million barrels per day. The reason for this very high nominal demand is the fact that so many machines using so much oil are operating around the world. Oil-consuming automobiles alone are being produced at a rate of 80 million each year with more than one billion of these machines in existence around the world. With so many hungry machines, any new oil produced will be rapidly snatched up.

These combined issues mean that the US would have to produce more than ten million barrels per day of additional low-cost oil in order to create a situation where long-term gas prices of $2.50 cents per gallon or less were possible. But, in truth, achieving this feat is a bald impossibility.

All new oil is expensive oil

The reason why drilling cannot dramatically bring down the price of gasoline is that the cost of producing all the new oil is dramatically high. ‘Conventional’ oil from fracked wells costs $50 per barrel just to produce. Prices for biofuels, deep water drilling, polar drilling and Canada’s hydrogenated tar are about the same. But even the most wildly optimistic projections from all these sources show only slow increases in production requiring massive expense and effort.

Options for drastically increasing production do exist, however, if you’re willing to pay much more for gas. Oil shale contains 1.5 trillion barrels of potentially recoverable goop called kerogen. The US kerogen, however, is even less energy-dense than Canada’s tar. So the cost of producing this ‘oil’ is around $100 per barrel. And this cost hides the fact that a huge amount of natural gas would be needed to hydrogenate the kerogen. Furthermore, the oil shale is in a water poor region. Massive volumes of water would be needed to produce this goop. But the water doesn’t exist in the high volumes needed, so it would have to be piped in.

The result is that a immense and terrifying industrial effort would be needed to rip an enormous hole in America’s heartland to produce this ‘oil.’ And the irony is that, if we are forced to produce the oil shale, it will only result in even higher prices than today.

New drilling can’t dramatically lower prices, even though that’s what oil companies want you to believe

So, in short, the republicans are either misinformed, or they’re not telling the truth. This is hardly surprising considering that oil companies paid 18.5 million dollars into republican campaigns this year alone. Money to democrats from oil companies was substantially lower — only 2 million dollars. And what this oil company money is going to is keeping us all dependent on increasingly expensive oil.

Oil companies don’t want us to realize that even more drilling can’t radically reduce prices. But they do want to continue their dominance in the energy markets. They do want to continue their position as the dominant provider of transportation fuels. And in order to do this, they must convince us that the best solution to high gas prices is more drilling, even if it is not.

Real solutions — increased efficiency, alternatives

The only real solution to the oil depletion problem is switching away from fossil fuels and dramatically increasing efficiency. And even though republicans aren’t very good at proposing sustainable solutions, they are very good at demonizing policies and technologies that actually help.

This was recently demonstrated by republican efforts to demonize the Chevy Volt. Number 1 in customer satisfaction in 2011, the Volt dramatically reduces dependence on oil by making commutes all-electric. Since 80% of all gasoline consumption occurs in commutes, a transition to electric vehicles like the Volt would drop US oil consumption by 7 million barrels per day. If these vehicles became common-place around the world, oil consumption could fall by as much as 35 million barrels per day. And that would dramatically lower oil prices as well as eliminate the need for new oil production. This powerful new technology represents a potential future oil companies and republicans most definitely do not want. A future, however, that would be dramatically more prosperous for the rest of us.

But republican attacks aren’t limited to demonizing revolutionary American technologies like the Volt. Republicans have also worked to de-fund all government incentives to produce solar energy, wind energy, and to increase vehicle efficiency. Solar and wind energy reduce dependence on fossil fuels and since gas and coal are increasingly interchangeable with oil, they indirectly reduce oil prices. Finally, republicans attacks on energy efficiency directly increase the price of oil by increasing demand.

Republican policies push high prices higher

Only a dummy or someone bought and paid for would make the argument that civilization should remain dependent on an increasingly expensive and scarce resource like oil. And that’s just what republicans are doing. Though republicans aren’t to blame for the fact that oil itself is more expensive because it is depleting, they are to blame for pushing policies that enforce dependence on oil, for fighting at every turn to reduce efficiencies, and for doing their best to demonize and destroy any alternatives to oil.

Foremost, the republican push for drilling as the only solution is doomed to failure. At best, new drilling is a temporary stop-gap. Long term, without alternatives, it dooms the world economy to spiraling increases in energy prices. This policy is one born out of the myopic special interests of oil companies and their continued drive for dominance and outrageous profits. A true allegory to this failed policy was the conservative/republican push for deregulating the banks and the housing market in the 1990s. The result was a world financial collapse in 2008. We don’t want to see the same thing happen in energy. But blinded by profits and donations, republicans are,once more, trying to force us down a dangerous path.

 

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