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Short-Term Profits Trump Survival

Washington and the Oil Industry Know the Truth About Climate Change

by DAVE LINDORFF

Climate skeptics in Congress, and oil and coal industry lobbyists like the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the American Coal Council (ACC) may be preventing any significant action in the US on reducing this country’s emissions of carbon into the atmosphere, but at the Pentagon, and in the executive suites of the oil industry giants, there is no doubt about the reality of climate change.

As Admiral Robert J. Papp of the US Coast Guard wrote in 2012 in the magazine of the US Naval Institute:

“The world may seem to be growing smaller, but its seas are growing bigger—particularly in the great North, where a widening water-highway beckons both with resources and challenges.”

Admiral Papp didn’t futz around. Without any caveats or bows to corrupted scientists on the payroll of the Koch Brothers, he wrote:

“The Arctic Ocean, in the northern region of the Arctic Circle, is changing from a solid expanse of inaccessible ice fields into a growing navigable sea, attracting increased human activity and unlocking access to vast economic potential and energy resources. In the 35 years since I first saw Kotzebue, Alaska, on the Chukchi Sea as a junior officer, the sea ice has receded from the coast so much that when I returned last year the coastal area was ice-free. The shipping, oil-and-gas, and tourism industries continue to expand with the promise of opportunity and fortune in previously inaccessible areas. Experts estimate that in another 25 years the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free during the summer months.”

Meanwhile, as the Navy plans for an expanded role in the far north [1], oil companies, from ExxonMobil to ARCO, Chevron, Shell, BP, Norway’s Statoil and Russia’s Gazprom, are gearing up to begin drilling for oil and gas in parts of the Arctic Ocean that are already becoming free of ice in summer months, knowing that even in winter, the returned ice sheet will be manageably thin in coming years. (They are also covetously looking to drill in the soon to be ice-free parts of Greenland, and and are even contemplating the prospect of being able to drill for oil in a warmer Antarctica–as though an ice-less or much less ice-bound Antarctica would be a good thing!))

How can executives of these companies, whose scientists are assuring them that there’s big money to be made tapping the vast oil and gas reserves known to lie beneath the shallow Arctic waters now being relieved of their ice cover for the first time in millions of years, be simultaneously lobbying Congress and paying for propaganda campaigns designed to sow doubts among the public about the true climate-change situation? How can Congress and the Obama administration, who know that the Navy is gearing up to patrol and defend a whole new coast line and vast new stretches of heretofore inaccessible territorial waters north of Alaska — even contemplating confrontations and boundary disputes with a newly assertive Canada — be failing to adopt even minimal efforts to slow rampaging climate change by working to significantly limit the burning of fossil fuels in the US?

Yet that is what is happening. A group of 18 environmental organizations which includes organizations like the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the League of Conservation Voters wrote in a Jan. 16 letter to President Obama that his administration’s “all of the above” approach to boosting exploration for more oil, more gas and even increased coal for export, was unacceptable in view of the growing climate change crisis, and said:

“An ‘all of the above’ strategy is a compromise that future generations can’t afford. It fails to prioritize clean energy and solutions that have already begun to replace fossil fuels, revitalize American industry, and save Americans money. It increases environmental injustice while it locks in the extraction of fossil fuels that will inevitably lead to a catastrophic climate future. It threatens our health, our homes, our most sensitive public lands, our oceans and our most precious wild places. Such a policy accelerates development of fuel sources that can negate the important progress you’ve already made on lowering U.S. carbon pollution, and it undermines U.S. credibility in the international community.”

Meanwhile, the API announced that same day that it was launching an ad and lobbying campaign to promote increased gas and oil exploration in the US. This campaign makes the spurious claim that increased use of natural gas instead of oil will help reduce carbon emissions, and argues that for increased economic growth, the US needs to have more energy available.

I called API to ask how the oil industry executives could be, on the one hand, hearing from their own scientists that the Arctic ice cap is vanishing because of raging climate change, while on the other hand they are lobbying against any efforts to limit carbon emissions, and asked, “Are they simply ignoring the evidence, or is it a case of a thirst for near-term profits overriding any concern about the survivability of life on the planet for their own offspring?”

The media relations executive, Brian Straessle, while saying he would try to get me someone to talk to from API (so far nothing on that front), offered as a justification for this seemingly oxymoronic behavior, the claim that US carbon emissions in 2012 had fallen to an 20-year (sic — it’s 18) low “because of a shift to burning natural gas.”

I replied, “Well, I think it was mostly because of reduced economic activity from the long recession, right?” and was met with silence.

The truth is, while cheap natural gas did lead to some shifting by utilities away from coal, which is indeed a much worse producer of carbon dioxide, the bulk of the estimated 3.8 percent decline in carbon emissions in the US in 2012 was the result of continued lower economic activity (which reduced driving miles, air miles, and electricity use per capita) and, significantly, because of efforts, often encouraged by tax rebates or legislative mandates by states and localities, to reduce energy use. Moreover, there are warnings that once natural gas prices rise again, as they inevitably will as the global economy rebounds, utilities will shift back to more coal burning, making the downturn in US carbon emissions a short-lived phenomenon. (Also, there’s the unmentioned impact of leaked methane in the mining and use of gas and oil, which releases into the atmosphere a chemical that is 23 times as potent a global warming agent as CO2.)

The reality, as Pentagon and the oil industry know, is that climate change is progressing with frightening rapidity. Already, sea levels along the Atlantic seaboard have risen 8-10” since the 1930s, forcing places like Miami Beach to engage in costly major projects to stave off their inevitable future as new Atlantises. According to one expert at the University of Florida, Prof. Harold Wanless, increasingly rapid ice melting on Greenland’s 2-mile-thick ice sheet, and evidence that the much larger West Antarctic ice sheet is beginning to melt, could mean a devastating 15-foot global sea rise by as early as 2100, instead of the 3-6 foot predictions that are more commonly cited (bad as those would be).

That might be great news for the Navy, but for the rest of us it’s Armageddon.

How long will it take before Washington pols finally stop accepting bribes from the energy industry, and recognizes that this is not a matter of shifting military assets around and racing to exploit for oil reserves in newly ice-free oceans and once ice-covered landmasses, but rather that it is a time for crash measures to try and slow the pace of rising global temperatures?

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).