Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Roadblocks In Our Path. The Worst Are Still Ahead.

At last December's Paris climate summit, the media paid scant attention to that slightly curious looking German guy, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. There were the makings of a deal after all, wonderful news. Wet blankets like Schellnhuber detracted from the moment.

What was "John" (as he's called by his Anglo-colleagues) on about? Over the din of the political backslapping, John added that mankind's only hope of reaching the political target of 2 degrees Celsius of warming or even 1.5C depended on the "induced implosion" of the fossil fuel industry.  He was calling for nothing less than political intervention to close down the fossil energy giants. Padlock the gates, turn off the lights.

I've known, on a social basis, a couple of contemporaries who did astonishingly well in the corporate finance business since the early 80s. Both worked their way through the ranks before opening their own firms. These guys are not wealthy. They're rich.

While they're both now semi-retired, they both continue to hold large investments in fossil energy. These guys know how to spot a potential loser. They know to get while the going's good. They're standing pat on fossil fuels. Why, if alternative energy is about to sweep fossil fuel into the history books, haven't these guys dumped their energy portfolios?

The simple answer is they are confident that the political will doesn't exist, nor will it, to implement the "induced implosion" that is Schellnhuber's sine qua non. The fossil giants are secure enough to fend off any such threat. They know they can stare down feckless, timid governments as they keep extracting fossil energy.

But what if alternative energy becomes cheaper? Apparently it won't matter. They'll keep pushing fossil fuels. For starters, the executive management of those firms make huge money and they want to continue to enjoy those rewards. For another, there is the shareholder problem.

Imagine a CEO convening a shareholders meeting to announce that the board of directors has decided to close up shop. Imagine being told that your company's billions of dollars of fossil energy reserves, the assets on the strength of which you plonked down your retirement money, are suddenly worthless. You might have a few questions of that CEO. Why did the directors not see this coming? Why did they keep promoting fossil energy? Why didn't they move the company in a safer direction? Why did they allow catastrophe to overtake the shareholders?

If you're the CEO you don't want to kill the Golden Goose and you know you'll be happily on your way counting your ill-gotten gains in just a few years. All you have to do is keep this thing going until you're safely gone and far beyond the reach of angry shareholders. And so you screw up your face and stare down those wobbly politicians.

It's a safe bet and they know it. It's the only safe bet. CBC's Don Pittis looks at our all but useless political caste:

It's hard to imagine that as recently as 2009 we were all doing stories about peak oil, the moment when oil would go the way of wood, sending prices up toward a prohibitive $300 a barrel.

For environmentalists and oil producers, peak oil now seems like a bad joke. Another thing we also learned this week was that the glut of oil on world markets is growing. And there is plenty more in the pipeline. This week we heard that the Kashagan field in the Caspian Sea, one of the world's largest new discoveries, will go into production next month.

If oil and natural gas continue to be cheap, the only thing standing between us and a world damaged by climate change will be the resolve of politicians.

Energy has to be more expensive. Pipeline opponents must be given a voice, even if it hurts the established giants of the doomed fossil fuel economy. Carbon has to cost us more.

But in a democracy, politicians can't act alone. Without loud voices of political support, environmentally inclined governments quite rightly fear they will be pitched out and replaced by those willing to sacrifice the future to relieve short-term pain. 

These are huge roadblocks in the path to a post-fossil society. The public support for the essential measures doesn't exist but what government is lifting a finger to properly inform the electorate of the real risks of fossil energy and what that could mean to our grandchildren? What government, federal or provincial, is moving to build that essential consensus? Are you hearing anything eye-opening from the Trudeau government? I'm not.


Toby said...

We did hit "peak oil" as it was meant. The days of drilling a hole and sweet crude comes gushing out are over except possibly in Saudi Arabia. Getting the rest of the oil is much more difficult and it should be more expensive. What we didn't expect is that someone would figure out how to reduce the cost of taking the more difficult stuff.

The glut on world markets is heavily driven by the Saudis and Americans. This is most likely subsidized in order to maintain market share and drive out competition. One might wonder if this push is all about getting what they can as fast as they can before the fecal matter hits the machine of rotary motion.

I think there is a much bigger problem. When I talk to relatives and neighbours very few recognize the perils we face. Oh, there is the small talk about environmental this or that but no anxiety. Generally, someone will say that Canadian winters will be warmer or that Canadian farmers will benefit. They all write me off as a conspiracy theorist.

So, there's a storm coming and no one cares. This is Easter Island and we are going to cut the last tree. We are going to drive the bus over the cliff. We are going to party as the ship goes down.

The Mound of Sound said...

Which brings me back to the point, Toby, that the governments, federal and provincial, are clamming up on climate change. They are effectively keeping the public uninformed when it is their duty to notify the public so that we can have a properly informed electorate and so that the government can build up the consensus without which no meaningful action is possible. I cannot speak for the eastern provinces but Wall, Notley, Clark and Trudeau are doing their best to keep climate change out of the conversation. That's two conservatives, a dipper and a Liberal. Can you read anything into that?

Toby said...

The Mound of Sound asked, "Can you read anything into that?"

Yes, this is a chicken/egg scenario. The politicians won't deal with it because the public is not demanding that they do. The public is not paying attention because the politicians won't push the issue. Besides, there are so many distractions. There is so much inertia that the public will not demand that government fix the problem until we have already lost the battle. Of course, the first thing the public will do is accuse the politicians of not doing their jobs.

Mound, I do not think that humanity will be wiped off the planet. I do think humanity will take one hell of a hit. Lovelock is probably right. I won't quibble over numbers.

The Mound of Sound said...

Toby, that "hit" you mention is our current default option. Like societies through the ages we have the choice to change and can foresee the consequences of refusal but we don't sense now, as we must, the genuine need to change and won't until it's too late.

Anonymous said...

Until we have a major catastrophe is, say, Vancouver/Delta; the average Canadian will still be stuck with his or her finger up their arse denying global warming.
Over the years the oil/gas lobby with help from the media has dummed down Canadian attitudes toward our future.
The attitude of Canadians can be summarized by their addiction to debt that will seldom be paid off in a lifetime.
WE ARE the elephant we are effing stupid or purposely ignorant of life.


Anonymous said...

Anyong: Newfoundland and Labrador which contributes only 1% of pollution to the environment while the Maritimes contribute around 4% is due to the fact, they live with more sustainability. Those provinces are looked upon as less educated with more unemployment.

The Mound of Sound said...

Anyong, I think you confuse affluence with altruism. Do you really believe that, given the levels of affluence enjoyed in other provinces, N&L's "sustainability" would still hold true? However, no cause to fret. Eventually we'll all be living in a more simple fashion.

I also question whether the Maritimes' education and unemployment situation is a function of how they're "looked upon" but rather a statistical reality.

Anonymous said...

Anyong: Yes, it could be. Next time you are talking to someone in your area, ask them if they would like to live in the Maritimes or Newfoundland & Labrador. Ask then why or why not.