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2/19/2007

PETROLEUM WARS IN AN AGE OF CLIMATE CHANGE

"No Caspian Sea explorations, no drilling in the South China Sea, no SUV replacements, no renewable energy projects can be brought on at a sufficient rate to avoid a bidding war for the remaining oil. At least, let's hope that the war is waged with cash instead of with nuclear warheads." -Richard Heinberg, The Party's Over, 2003.

The United Nation's Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest and most emphatic report in the first week of February, 2007. This report essentially announced, as Timothy Wirth of the United Nations Foundation put it, that, "The so-called and long-overstated 'debate' about global warming is now over." Climate change is happening and burning fossil fuels is the primary cause. Though the IPCC report hit the front page of nearly every major newspaper in the world with a decidedly ominous and news breaking alarm, we have known for many years and with a very high degree of confidence that global warming is real. If you are fifty years old, chances are you learned about green house gases and their effect on the earth's atmosphere when you were in high school. What's really news breaking, and alarming, is that it's taken so long for us to give credence to something that will have such a large and wide ranging impact on our biosphere home.

There is no way to read this recent IPCC report or accounts of it without some dread of what you are being told–atmospheric temperatures rising 3.2 to 7.8 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100–unless you've been reading reports similar to this one for the last twenty years. And still, despite the IPCC report's clear clarion call, a week after its release, no one was talking about cutting back on burning fossil fuels, new fuel efficiency standards for American automobiles, or the United States signing the Kyoto agreement. Instead, bold politicians in the U.S. Congress were arguing if there should be 130,000 or 150,000 soldiers in Iraq, securing that country–and its oil fields. Though it is no secret that America's military presence across the Middle East is intimately connected to the petroleum reserves in that region, we rarely hear about the on-going, oil related, American military skirmishes in places like Colombia, Angola, Somalia, and Nigeria. It is time to admit that the United States is now many years into an era of aggressive petroleum wars as a way to sustain our desperately oil dependent economy.

After a hundred and fifty years of increasing petroleum use, we are now halfway through the earth's oil reserves. At the rate we're using petroleum today, the rest will be gone by 2050, if not sooner. We have bathed ourselves in petroleum products–fuel, fertilizers, herbicides, plastics. It's our economy. All of our transportation, half of what we eat. The run up to the final barrel has already begun. Despite repeated denial from our leaders, securing oil fields is our number one priority in Iraq and equally part of the equation set for Iran. In short, petroleum is valuable enough now to go to war for. We will risk the lives of American soldiers, destroy the entire country of Iraq, undermine our country's reputation in the world, and prompt terrorist attack, all in order to hurry up and fry the surface of our planet home. That's what you get with two oil execs in the White House.

One only needs to check the bottom lines of the world's most successful transnational corporations to verify this disturbing premise and why it's happening. The two largest oil companies, Exxon-Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell, both posted record profits in 2006, surpassing their previous records set in 2005, which surpassed their previous records in 2004, which surpassed their previous records in 2003. The dearer the product, the greater the profit, and the greater the incentive to deny just that! Whether by coincidence or collusion, the Iraq War has been very, very good to these two giant oil companies based in the two countries that entered the war hand in hand under the most hollow of pretenses.

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The contradiction of accepting the reality of global warming while also burning more fossil fuel each day–and having to go to war to do so–is both a dark insight into the nature of human motive and a grim look into our future. The largest remaining oil fields reside in the Middle East up into Central Asia and Russia. The United States has increased its military presence along this strategic band of the earth's largest landmass in direct relation to the price of crude oil. If a philosophy change doesn't occur soon, we are likely looking at thirty years of intermittent war in the oil regions of the world. It may appear as civil unrest, a crack down on drugs, or incidental terrorism, but it will be war for oil none the less.

While we seem to have grown accustomed to watching the on-going conflict in the Middle East on our television sets, the potentials of Climate Change are a little slower going, somewhat abstract, and so large in consequence they strike us as something akin to B-grade science fiction. Take a look at the Artic Climate Change Assessment of 2004. How do you swallow the idea that by the end of this century, the Artic ice cap will vanish entirely during the summer months? If this goes down easily, you're not paying attention. The polar caps, in combination with the oceans, are the planet's most important cooling mechanisms; the more they melt the faster the planet will warm. Even should we stop burning fossil fuels tomorrow, says the Bush adminstration 2002 Climate Action Report, there is already enough CO2 in the atmosphere to assure steady climate change for the next 100 years. The point is this isn't B-grade science fiction. As President Clinton told the National Geographic Society in October of 1997, "Make no mistake, the problem is real. And if we do not change our course now, the consequences, sooner or later, will be destructive for America and the world." That "sooner or later", as hurricane Katrina announced in considerably stronger terms than the IPCC's recent report, is now.

No one can really tell us exactly what climate change will bring. All that we know, says the IPCC report, is that it is happening and that a clear set of cascading biosphere changes point to difficult times ahead. Dead zones in the sea, decreasing soil moisture content, increased torrential weather events, critical snowpack loss, insecurity for global food resources, these are just a few of the issues we will have to confront. At the very least, the U.S. government must initiate a movement for worldwide petroleum conservation. At the very least. Instead, the United States will go to war to maintain the fossil fuel industry.

The prevailing establishment philosophy for managing oil depletion and combating climate change relies on free market forces. With diminishing petroleum reserves, the price of gasoline will climb. As this happens, more money will become available for alternative energy research. Necessity will mother invention. Gradually we will stop driving internal combustion engine vehicles and the atmosphere will recover. This is the genius of capitalism. Unfortunately, the market price of a gallon of gasoline does not accurately reflect the manifold costs of a warming atmosphere or the loss of lives and tax revenues to on-going wars in the Middle East, South America, and Africa. In fact, the price of a barrel of crude has doubled in the last few years with no effect on the amount of petroleum we consume. Meanwhile, we see continued glacial shrinkage, more lost ice cap mass, more coral reef decay.

We can not wait for the market to make our tough decisions for us. The invisible hand can not anticipate what one degree of temperature does to the breeding habits of mosquitoes, the migration patterns of arboreal diseases, or weather patterns two years hence. We must open our eyes and show a common sense greater than the blind genius of a market that considers war a reasonable option.

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