How We Are Losing The Battle To Keep Carbon In The Ground


The burning of fossil fuels, including, oil, gas, and coal, has been the world's primary energy source since the Industrial Revolution. But that same action has created the world's greatest existential crisis: Climate Change.

The scientific consensus tells us that if the world raises it's temperature by 2 degree Celsius than the human population will suffer catastrophic effects because of changes in the climate. In order to do that, however, it's generally agreed upon that we must keep at least 80% of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground to even have a chance at avoiding the catastrophic effects. 

Oil Companies Are Ignoring Climate Change

Yet the opposite is happening. Oil companies keep spending money to extract fossil fuels from the ground at alarming rates. There is the $54 billion Chevron Barrow Island project for example, which its website claims "proves that with the right management, industry and the environment can co-exist." It is expected to continue producing natural gas for at least 30 years. That's time we just don't have. 

Or take the Alberta Tar Sands, one of the oil reserves in the world, which turns bitumen into oil through a highly pollutive process.  The Tar Sands are supposed to produce oil for the next 40 years at least. 

This would all be a minor annoyance if climate change didn't exist. But the scientific consensus tells us that we need to be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels by the end of the decade and off it completely by 2050. That is not happening. 

The truth is that oil companies are acting completely rationally. Their responsibility is to their profits and shareholders. Finding new sources of fossil fuels ensures future profits. Unfortunately, the profits of oil companies are bringing the human race closer to disaster. 

I wish this was hyperbole. Or I was an alarmist with no evidence. But unfortunately, I'm not. Check out this passage from Naomi Klein's "This Changes Everything,"

"In 2011, a think tank in London called the Carbon Tracker Initiative conducted a breakthrough study that added together the reserves claimed by all the fossil fuel companies, private and state-owned. It found that the oil, gas, and coal to which these players had already laid claim—deposits they have on their books and which were already making money for shareholders—represented 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide (a gigaton is one billion metric tons.) That’s a very big problem because we know roughly how much carbon can be burned between now and 2050 and still leave us a solid chance (roughly 80 percent) of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius. According to one highly credible study, that amount of carbon dioxide is 565 gigatons between 2011 and 2049.

As Bill McKibben points out, “The thing to notice is 2,795 is five times 565. It’s not even close.” He adds: “what those numbers mean is quite simple. This industry has announced, in filings to the SEC and in promises to shareholders, that they’re determined to burn five times more fossil fuel than the planet’s atmosphere can begin to absorb.” 


Is There Hope?

I am not sure, to be honest. But if there is any hope at all, it is not by living a "green lifestyle" of driving Teslas and eating organic foods. Those things are helpful, but this is not an individual effort. It must be collective. A real movement must be built. As Martin Lukacs points out, "Eco-consumerism may expiate your guilt. But it’s only mass movements that have the power to alter the trajectory of the climate crisis. This requires of us first a resolute mental break from the spell cast by neoliberalism: to stop thinking like individuals."