Oil is winning its war on us

Oil is winning its war on us
Image via Shutterstock.
Economy

Michael Klare, Oil Rules the World

Heat, heat, heat. It’s a world of firsts, of records that no one could ever have wished for. From my own childhood, I remember the A.A. Milne poem that began:

They’re changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace —
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
Alice is marrying one of the guard.
A soldier’s life is terribly hard,
Says Alice.

That was written in 1924. Today, with Great Britain breaking historic heat records and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace “curtailed” thanks to blazing temperatures, it would have to be rewritten as: “A soldier’s life is terribly hot, says Alice.”

Yes, Britain just hit an all-time heat record — and we’re talking about a country that’s kept such records for at least a century and a half — when the thermometer reached 40.2 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit, at London’s Heathrow Airport. Records have been falling in a similarly sweltering fashion across a (quite literally) blazing Europe. But Central Asia is once again baking, too, and don’t forget this country, where summer heat records across a drought-stricken West and Midwest are being surpassed daily, even as unprecedented fires have been burning from New Mexico to Alaska. Meanwhile, in the world’s oceans, plankton are dying at a startling rate, thanks to the burning of fossil fuels.

The Washington Post recently published a set of heat maps of parts of this planet. They’re stunning to look at in a moment when Joe Biden, who ran for president on a climate-change-abating platform, traveled to Saudi Arabia to get that Kingdom to pump yet more oil into our world. As TomDispatch regular Michael Klare suggests today, the Earth isn’t just sweltering. We’re burning it up, thanks to the major fossil-fuel companies that, having known about global warming and its dangers since at least the 1980s, spent decades funding climate denialism and are now quite literally blazing their own paths through our world, making untold fortunes as the war in Ukraine continues to drive global gas prices up.

When we use the word “tyrant,” we normally mean a singularly autocratic ruler. But Klare is right. The true tyrants of planet Earth in this century aren’t either Vladimir Putin or any of his kith and kin. They’re the CEOs of the major oil companies who remain all too ready to burn our futures (record profits!) to ashes for their own passing well-being. So, as the summer heat rises on a planet setting heat records daily, take a moment to consider with Klare who the real tyrants of planet Earth are (and don’t say I never told you so myself). Tom

The Enduring Tyranny of Oil: War, Inflation, Geopolitical Rivalry, and Soaring World Temperatures

It may seem hard to believe, but only 15 years ago many of us were talking confidently about “peak oil” — the moment of maximum global oil output after which, with world reserves dwindling, its use would begin an irreversible decline. Then along came hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the very notion of peak oil largely vanished. Instead, some analysts began speaking of “peak oil demand” — a moment, not so far away, when electric vehicle (EV) ownership would be so widespread that the need for petroleum would largely disappear, even if there was still plenty of it to frack or drill. However, in 2020, EVs made up less than 1% of the global light-vehicle fleet and are only expected to reach 20% of the total by 2040. So peak-oil demand remains a distant mirage, leaving us deeply beholden to the tyranny of petroleum, with all its perilous consequences.

For some perspective on this, recall that, in those pre-fracking days at the start of the century, many experts were convinced that world petroleum output would hit a daily peak of perhaps 90 million barrels in 2010, dropping to 70 or 80 million barrels by the end of that decade. In other words, we would have little choice but to begin converting our transportation systems to electricity, pronto. That would have caused a lot of disruption at first, but by now we would be well on our way to a green-energy future, with far less carbon emissions and a slowing pace of global warming.

Now, compare those hopeful scenarios to the latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). At the moment, world oil production is hovering at around 100 million barrels daily and is projected to reach 109 million barrels by 2030, 117 million by 2040, and a jaw-dropping 126 million by 2050. So much, in other words, for “peak oil” and a swift transition to green energy.

Why global oil consumption is expected to hit such heights remains a complex tale. Foremost among the key factors, however, has certainly been the introduction of fracking technology, permitting the exploitation of mammoth shale reserves once considered inaccessible. On the demand side, there was (and remains) a worldwide preference — spearheaded by American consumers — for large, gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks. In the developing world, it’s accompanied by an ever-expanding market for diesel-powered trucks and buses. Then there’s the global growth in air travel, sharply increasing the demand for jet fuel. Add to that the relentless efforts by the oil industry itself to deny climate-change science and obstruct global efforts to curb fossil-fuel consumption.

The question now facing us is this: What are the consequences of such a worrisome equation for our future, beginning with the environment?

More Oil Use = More Carbon Emissions = Rising World Temperatures

We all know — at least, those of us who believe in science — that carbon-dioxide emissions are the leading source of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) responsible for global warming and the combustion of fossil fuels is responsible for the lion’s share of those CO2 emissions. Scientists have also warned us that, without a sharp and immediate decline in such combustion — aimed at keeping global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era — genuinely catastrophic consequences will ensue. Those will include the complete desertification of the American West (already experiencing the worst drought in 1,200 years) and the flooding of major coastal cities, including New York, Boston, Miami, and Los Angeles.

Now consider this: in 2020, oil accounted for more global energy consumption than any other source — approximately 30% — and the EIA projects that, on our present course, it will remain the world’s number-one source of energy, possibly until as late as 2050. Because it’s such a carbon-intensive fuel (though less so than coal), oil was responsible for 34% of global carbon emissions in 2020 and that share is projected to rise to 37% by 2040. At that point, oil combustion will be responsible for the release of 14.7 million metric tons of heat-trapping GHGs into the atmosphere, ensuring even higher average world temperatures.

With CO2 emissions from oil use continuing to rise, there’s zero chance of staying within that 1.5 degrees Celsius limit or of preventing the catastrophic warming of this planet, with all it portends. Think of it this way: the stunning heatwaves experienced so far this year from China to India, Europe to the Horn of Africa, and this country to Brazil are only a mild foretaste of our future.

Oil and the War in Ukraine

Nor are heat waves the only perilous consequence of our still growing reliance on petroleum. Because of its vital role in transportation, industry, and agriculture, oil has always possessed immense geopolitical significance. There have, in fact, been scores of wars and internal conflicts over its ownership — and the colossal revenues it generates. The roots of every recent conflict in the Middle East, for example, can be traced back to such disputes. Despite much speculation about how peak-oil-demand scenarios could theoretically end all that, petroleum continues to shape world political and military affairs in a critical fashion.

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