Carbon War: Global Warming and the End of the Oil Era / Edition 1 available in Paperback
First published in 2001. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.
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Carbon WarGlobal Warming and the End of the Oil Era
By Jeremy Leggett
RoutledgeCopyright © 2001 Jeremy Leggett
All right reserved.
The Early Warning
October 1989-December 1990
OCTOBER 1989, BERLIN
My first sight of the Berlin Wall etched itself on my mind for life. The killing grounds looked surreal, neon-lit in a misty, 1 a.m. light as I rattled past on an empty train. Through bleary eyes I stared at the concrete ramparts either side of the sandy no man's land, the drapes of coiled razor wire, the machine-gun towers trained on that murderous hundred-metre gap between tyranny and hope. It was my first time in Berlin, and I felt an acute sense of unreality. My world, and the world in general, were both changing with bewildering speed. I was about to fly to glasnost-gripped Moscow to work with Russian colleagues in a newly formed Greenpeace office, the setting-up of which Mikhail Gorbachev had himself sanctioned. The Cold War, with its threat of nuclear annihilation, seemed to be miraculously evaporating. More and more people were realizing Gorbachev apparently among them that we were entering a new era of security threat. The Soviet leader had been talking about the dangers of global warming in his speeches for several years.
Looking at the sombre course of the Wall east of the Friedrichstrasse in October 1989, my abiding thought was how anachronistic it was. But not for a moment did I think that within a matter of weeks people would be taking sledgehammers to those machine-gun towers. Before the Berlin Wall came down, anyone predicting its fall would have been laughed at. Even when the Wall had fallen, no pundit that I am aware of came close to predicting what subsequently happened once that particular engine of change had been kick-started. Similarly, if you predict today that the world is on track for a collapse in the use of carbon fuels, that huge amounts are going to be staying in the ground unburned that mushrooming multibillion dollar markets in solar energy will emerge before the next century is very old at all then you can expect to be greeted with the mirth of experts.
But so it was with the pundits, in October 1989, about the toppling of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Soviet communism. Neither institution had been quickly undermined. They had shown few signs that their foundations were crumbling. But fall they did, and when they went they went quickly.
MAY 1990, BERKSHIRE, UK
The first crack in the foundations of the carbon era is traceable to events in a country hotel in Berkshire during the spring of 1990. In this rural retreat, a hundred scientists gathered for three days to put the finishing touches to a document destined to become one of the most important scientific reports ever compiled. They came from government and university labs all over the world. They picked their location hoping for a seclusion befitting their sober task. But long before they had completed their deliberations, TV news crews and radio and print journalists were thronging in the lobby of the hotel, waiting impatiently for the scientists to emerge from the conference hall where they were at work. From a seat at the back of the hall, I knew I was watching history in the making.
In 1988, faced with growing concerns about climate change, the United Nations General Assembly had set up a panel to advise governments on the issue. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the IPCC as it was to become universally known, represented a consultation process unprecedented both in size and scope. Its mission was to pool the opinions of as many scientists and policy experts as possible, in as many countries as possible, and to thrash out over the next 18 months consensus reports on the science of global warming, the probable impacts, and the potential policy responses.
I was not alone in observing the final drafting of the IPCC's historic first Scientific Assessment Report. In other seats at the back of the room sat eleven scientists from the oil, coal and chemical industries, including two from Exxon, one from Shell and one from BP. Although they were allowed to take part as observers, this role was loosely defined, since they were permitted to make suggestions for wording as the text evolved. So too were I and the one other suitably qualified environment-group scientist present that day, Dr Dan Lashof of the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council.
The scientists were now working on the most important few paragraphs they would produce the summary. Dr Brian Flannery, representing the International Petroleum Industries' Environmental Conservation Association, but on the payroll of Exxon, took the microphone. The draft, he reminded the room, said that 60 to 80 per cent cuts would be needed in carbon dioxide emissions in order to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of the gas. But this, he felt, required clarification in the light of all the uncertainties about the behaviour of carbon in the climate system.
Scientists from the UK, Germany and the USA some of the most eminent climatologists in the world now spoke. Nobody agreed with Flannery. Of course there were uncertainties, but, if your goal was to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, those uncertainties did not undermine the need for deep cuts in emissions.
Flannery took the microphone again. 'The range of model results isn't any better justified now than it was ten years ago,' he asserted, a didactic edge appearing in his voice. 'The range is quite scientifically uncertain. This should be stated as such in the executive summary.'
A leading climate modeller at the UK Met Office, frowning, waved his arm to attract the chairman's attention. 'I'd like to dispute that, Mr Chairman. The range is much better than it was three years ago, much less ten.' The Met Office man looked annoyed.
Others agreed. The discussion moved on.
The man with the most difficult and most crucial job that day was the chairman, Dr John Houghton, director-general of the Met Office. Houghton came to a critical sentence in the executive summary. 'Can we say we are certain that greenhouse-gas emissions at present rates will lead to warming?' he asked.
He was answered by a roomful of nodding heads.
* * *
The next day, the UK Prime Minister was due to hold a press conference at the Met Office, not far from the scientists' retreat. John Houghton had left the hotel the previous evening to brief her on the content of the scientists' report.
Margaret Thatcher was not a woman known for her concern about matters ecological. But today things were to change. Adopting one of her most dramatic expressions, the prime minister proceeded to rewrite a key paragraph of her place in history. 'Today,' she told the scribbling British press corps, 'with the publication of the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have an authoritative early-warning system: an agreed assessment from some three hundred of the world's leading scientists of what is happening to the world's climate. They confirm that greenhouse gases are increasing substantially as a result of man's activities, that this will warm the Earth's surface with serious consequences for us all.' It was, she said, a report of historic significance. What it predicted would affect our everyday lives.
She moved on to the impacts. 'There would surely be a great migration of population away from areas of the world liable to flooding, and from areas of declining rainfall and therefore of spreading desert. Those people will be crying out not for oil wells but for water.'
The next day, looking at the banner headlines in the morning papers, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Martians had invaded the planet. 'RACE TO SAVE OUR WORLD,' shrieked the Daily Express, the government's favourite tabloid. 'Britain takes lead in crusade against greenhouse effect,' the subhead announced proudly. All the other tabloids ran headlines in the same vein. Although the weightier papers did not adopt quite the same apocalyptic tone, they came close.
The authoritative early warning, bad though it was, could have been worse. The complexity of the climate system is such that there are many scientific uncertainties about the enhancement of the natural greenhouse effect. This makes the issue, at heart, one of threat assessment. The world may just get lucky, and find the resulting climate changes not quite as bad as most scientists estimate. Or the dice may roll unkindly: the changes could be a whole lot worse.
Dan Lashof and I went into that crucial 1990 IPCC meeting with great hopes that the worst-case analysis would be spelt out more starkly than it had been in the review copy of the report sent to attendees ahead of the meeting. We submitted papers to the IPCC, itemizing our concerns. What worried us most were the feedbacks in the climate system the processes that can be triggered in a warming world which either amplify the warming (positive feedbacks) or suppress it (negative feedbacks). Our concern was that the former might end up swamping the latter.
We were far from alone in that fear. Such concerns had been fairly well explored in the scientific journals by this time. For example, a warming world could trigger extra emissions of greenhouse gases from the vast repositories of carbon in nature: from warming oceans, drying soils, dying forests, melting permafrost. These feedbacks were difficult indeed often impossible to quantify, and were for the most part excluded from computer models of climate. But, we wondered, shouldn't their role in the climate threat assessment be more clearly flagged? Shouldn't the worst-case analysis a synergistic dominance of such feedbacks, uncompensated by negative feedbacks be clearly spelt out for policymakers?
The section on confidence in predictions in the 1990 report included a carefully worded conclusion about natural sources of greenhouse gases, such as rotting vegetation, and 'sinks' where carbon dioxide is absorbed from the atmosphere, such as growing forests and plankton in the ocean. Both sources and sinks were sensitive to change in climate, the report read, so they might substantially modify future concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 'It appears likely,' the summary read, 'that, as climate warms, these feedbacks will lead to an overall increase, rather than decrease, in natural greenhouse gas abundances. For this reason, climate change is likely to be greater than the estimates we have given.'
But that was all the draft report said. The policymakers were left to read between the lines. They would have a difficult job. The 3°C rise in global average temperature estimated in the mid-range of the climate-model forecasts for the next century was described throughout the report as the 'best-guess' estimate.
Just as Exxon's Brian Flannery and other industry scientists tried throughout that meeting to water down the IPCC science assessment, so I and Dan Lashof tried to beef it up with references to the potential for feedback amplifications of warming. Choosing my moment as best I could in the final session, I urged the scientists to mention specifically what in principle the very worst case might be for a world where emissions were not cut deeply a runaway, unstoppable greenhouse effect. Policymakers should have this spelt out for them clearly, I argued. If they understood the worst case, they would be more likely to buy insurance against it in the policies they came up with.
John Houghton asked the meeting, with clear reluctance, if there was any support for this view. An Austrian climatologist volunteered that in his opinion there was no way that a runaway greenhouse effect was possible. In any event, said a sea-level expert from the University of East Anglia, the media would seize on it and sensationalize it. That was all Houghton needed, and he dealt with me as circumspectly as he had earlier dealt with the oil and coal industry participants. Exxon's Brian Flannery fired the parting shot. This was simply scaremongering, he said.
Later, we came to a section in the report where specific biological feedbacks were described. The Director of Marine Sciences at the UK Government's Natural Environment Research Council wanted to strengthen a reference to one potential feedback, known as the plankton-multiplier effect. North Atlantic ocean circulation might turn off as a result of global warming, he said. If that happened, the implications for reduced phytoplankton productivity, and consequent boosting of atmospheric carbon dioxide, would be serious. He wanted that made clear.
I took the plunge again. That was the kind of thing that made it so important to spell out the potential sum of the prospective positive feedbacks, I said. There were a number of feedbacks like the one the Research Council man had stressed. For example, some reference should be made to the potential size, and vulnerability, of the methane hydrate reservoir in the Arctic.
Methane hydrates are ice-like substances which form under the permafrost and in the Arctic Ocean, and lock up a vast amount of methane under pressure. Warm them up, and they would be adding significantly to all the methane being emitted by humankind from gas pipelines, rice paddies and other places.
I could see frowns aplenty round the room. It was now the turn of Bob Watson of NASA, the leading US scientist at the meeting, to guard the 'guess'. Watson had headed the team which a few years earlier had proved the link between CFCs and ozone depletion in the Antarctic ozone hole. 'I have a problem with this,' he said. 'We mustn't give policymakers the impression that there's no point. We don't win that way.'
Houghton seized on his point. 'Yes,' he said. 'The media will pick up this kind of thing and use it as a stick.'
Late in the day, the contingent of Dutch scientists at the meeting submitted a written statement suggesting fresh wording. They too were worried, it seemed, that the 'best guess' might be interpreted as something more concrete than it was meant to be, blinding politicians to the fact that it might prove to be an underestimate. 'Despite many uncertainties,' they wrote, 'we are concerned about our finding that future rates of climate change may exceed any rate of change ever experienced by humankind in the past. There are no reasons to expect that humankind itself, or the ecosystems on whose functioning humankind depends, will be able to adapt to such rates of change. A further point of great concern is that, although we have confidence in the results of our assessment, the complexity of the system may give rise to surprises. The prime example of such a surprise is the totally unexpected appearance of the ozone hole, notwithstanding many previous assessments of the state of knowledge of the ozone layer.'
The reference to the 'scope for surprises' made it into the report. But without elaboration.
I left the meeting with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was dissatisfied that the scientists, as a group, had pulled their punches on spelling out what they thought was the worst case. I knew from private conversations that many of them considered amplifying feedbacks to be a huge danger. Yet they couldn't bring themselves to spell this out graphically in the report, which was going to provide the basis for negotiations by well over a hundred governments. In any threat assessment involving military security, the worst-case analysis would always be considered. Indeed, most governments would probably end up basing their defence policies on it: buying perpetual multibillion dollar insurance against invasion in the form of military procurement. Why should this environmental security threat assessment be any different? After all, global warming had the potential to seize territory and lay waste to land no less efficiently than an invading army. Given time, sea-level rise, drought, flood and pestilence could do that job just as well as tanks and bombers.
Nevertheless, I knew that the world had been provided with a warning on global warming that would be difficult to ignore. Sooner or later, governments and industry progressives were now going to have to do something about greenhouse-gas emissions, that was clear. If Margaret Thatcher could react the way she had in accepting the threat, other world leaders might do the same.
The oil and coal industries, and their dependants such as the automobile and electric utility industries, now had a big problem. The IPCC scientists had spelt out clearly in their report what would be needed to stop the inexorable increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere: deep cuts in emissions. This applied in particular to carbon dioxide. The passage in the report that would clearly be the most quoted in the years ahead pointed out that if atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide were to be stabilized at present-day levels, themselves higher than they had ever been for at least 160,000 years, emissions would need to be cut by 60 per cent or more immediately. The longer the world delayed these cuts, the deeper they would need to be.
Entering the 1990s, the oil industry had enjoyed more than a century of hegemony. Yet in over a hundred years of oil burning, we were still not halfway through all the oil ever found. We had burned less than 700 billion barrels, with well over 1,000 billion barrels mapped out below ground ready to be pumped up and used. To that could be added all the oil yet to be found, perhaps another 700 billion barrels according to industry estimates at the time. At an annual burn rate of some 22 billion barrels, the oil industry clearly had enough reserves, and as-yet undiscovered deposits, to reasonably expect a repeat performance spanning most of the twenty-second century. How would the great companies created during the first oil century react to the prospect of being deprived of a second century?
For the coal industry, the arithmetic of carbon was still more daunting. By any definition of deep cuts in emissions in the decades to come, the vast majority of 8,000 billion tonnes of coal deposits then estimated to exist on the planet would have to remain below ground, unburned.
Like the tobacco industry before them when faced with evidence of the ruinous impact of their product, the choice for the carbon industries was stark: denial, obfuscation and worse on the one hand, and open embrace of a paradigm shift in their core business on the other.
Excerpted from Carbon War by Jeremy Leggett Copyright © 2001 by Jeremy Leggett. Excerpted by permission.
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