Fossil fuels: in danger of losing our way

On 8th February 2018, the same day the Guyana International Petroleum Business Summit and Exhibition (GIPEX) began and the vice president of ExxonMobil, Lisa Waters, was playing up the need for world economic growth to help the poor, an article by Ted Nordhaus was published in the influential Foreign Affairs magazine entitled The Two-Degree Delusion: The Dangers of an Unrealistic Climate Change Target (FA: 08/02/18), in which he said something similar but suggested that social development  will be better achieved if we liberate fossil fuels and oil and gas in particular from the strictures placed upon them by the 2015 United Nations climate change conference in Paris.

In an article in The Guardian International (06/10/2017), Dr Michael Taylor of the University of West Indies said that the devastation wrought by hurricanes Maria and Irma left three words resonating in his mind: unfamiliar, unprecedented and urgent. The climate in the Caribbean is changing in ways that suggest the emergence of a new climate regime. ‘At no point in the historical records dating back to the late 1800s have two category five storms made landfall in the small Caribbean island chain of the eastern Antilles in a single year.’ Furthermore, the region is experiencing repeated and prolonged droughts, more very hot days, intense rainfalls, repeated flooding and rising sea levels that are destroying the beautiful beaches on which its tourist industry relies.

This situation is ‘unprecedented’ and suggests that in the absence of quick global action to mitigate climate change the Caribbean region will warm to between 3-4C above preindustrial levels by the end of this century. ‘Cumulatively, the science of projections suggests that the region’s climate will be altered beyond recognition.’ This suggests that there is an immediate need for enhanced global mitigation and adaptation strategies for, ‘in the end, the future viability of the region is premised on collective global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is for this reason that the Caribbean and other small island and developing states have argued for a limit to global warming of 1.5C. It is this message that must reach the global community when they see the images of Irma and Maria. For those in the Caribbean, the lessons are all too clear.’

Lisa Waters was correct in that affordable and reliable energy do lead to positive changes in peoples’ lives, and millions of people are living without electricity and other facilities that depend upon a modern energy sector. Undoubtedly also, properly managed oil and gas developments here could bring long awaited growth and development to Guyana and its neighbours, but all of this must be understood in a proper context that does not associate the use of fossil fuel with a future modern energy sector. Mankind has lived and progressed for centuries and apparently will have to be prepared to do so again, for the use of fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas, is now viewed as a major driver of dangerous climate change.

Ted Nordhaus wants us to abandon the Paris goal, to hold global warming well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and limiting it to 1.5C, by arguing that the world has not made sufficient progress to prevent significant future climate change to realise this goal. Therefore, ‘it is worth considering the consequences of continuing to pursue a goal that is no longer obtainable.’  Sustaining the fiction that the 2C target remains viable risks leaving persons ill prepared to manage the consequences and limiting global temperatures below 2C or exceeding it does not guarantee that the world will either avoid or be assured of catastrophe.  ‘No one knows with much precision what the relationship will be between global temperature and the impact of climate change at local and regional levels. Nor do we have a particularly good handle on the capability of human societies to adapt to those impacts.’

Firstly, I agree that with global commitments and actions as they are, it does not look like warming can be limited to 2˚C much less the 1.5˚C the Caribbean require and, therefore, deluding oneself could be dangerous. However, the scientific consensus is that the risk of crossing the critical ‘tipping points’ in the climate system (Arctic meltdown and the incineration of the Amazon rainforest) is unacceptably high beyond 2˚C. Was it not so many governments and corporations would have been demanding a higher target but they are not. Indeed, the opposite appears to be the case with climate leaders such as Norway retrenching their substantial investments in the fossil fuel industry in which they have a significant stake in an effort to reach the UN goal. ‘The Norwegian view is that oil has had a good run and will have a good run for a couple of decades but it’s not the only future that is out there’ /2017/ 11/16/business/energy-environment/norway-fund-oil.html?_r=0).

Secondly, ‘scientific certainty’ is not required before we scientifically recognise a threat and take the recommended action to mitigate or adapt to it. The widely recognised precautionary principle states that, ‘When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.’ The 1992 Rio Declaration  states: ‘In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.’

Thirdly, is it self-delusion if, having recognised the magnitude of the threat, we try to both minimise its cause at the same time as we prepare for the consequences in the event that we fall short? We are only prevented from doing so if a major cause of the problem is being presented as an important element of its solution, and the latter is precisely what Ted Nordhaus does! Having accepted adaptation as the main forward, according to him, fossil fuels and particularly oil and gas, are vital to our success! Nordhaus does not deny that the climate is changing in adverse ways or that we need to continue to explore the use of renewables but his most forceful case is for the continued and expanded use of oil and gas.

‘There is no moral justification for denying those populations the benefits of fossil-fuel-driven development,’ he said. ‘Lower-emissions levels associated with curtailed development will not provide any meaningful amelioration of climate extremes for many decades to come, whereas the benefits that come with development will make those populations substantially more resilient to climate extremes right now. … the faster those nations develop, the more resilient they will be to climate change and development in most parts of the world, however, this still entails burning a lot  more fossil fuels’. The adaptation that is necessary ‘will need to be powered by fossil fuels’, for example there are ‘few economically viable ways to produce steel or concrete without fossil fuels. The two-degree threshold, and the various carbon budgets and emissions reduction targets that accompany it, has provided the justification for prohibitions at the World Bank and other international development institutions on finance for fossil fuel development.’

As I see it, the present ‘scientific consensus’ is that going beyond the UN targets is unacceptable. Thus, we should now be redoubling efforts to mitigate and adopt and should not abandon the targets and enhance the utilization of the very products that contribute significantly to the difficulty of reaching the targets in the first place! My intention is not to reject an unconventional viewpoint but only to focus attention upon other less altruistic possibilities in a fossil fuel environment where climate denial of various sorts has been substantially financed by the leading multinationals (  Furthermore, given the euphoria that is now enveloping Guyana, we must have an holistic understanding of our global climate commitments and our need to develop if we are to avoid further missteps and the even more disturbing pitfall of altogether losing our way!

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