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March 08, 2013 8:26 AM Drilling Right On Down Into Hell

By Ed Kilgore

This morning I thought for the first time in many years of a paperback novel I read back in the 1970s wherein some coal miners in Tennessee drilled so deeply they broke into Hell and unleashed the Rapture.

Here’s what triggered those dark thoughts, per the Wall Street Journal’s Gautam Naik:

New research suggests average global temperatures were higher in the past decade than over most of the previous 11,300 years, a finding that offers a long-term context for assessing modern-day climate change.
The study, published Thursday in the journal Science, aims to give a global overview of Earth’s temperatures over the past 11,300 years—a relatively balmy period known as the Holocene that began after the last major ice age ended and encompasses all of recorded human civilization.
The research shows that a one-degree temperature variation that took 11 millennia to occur since the end of the last major ice age has been replicated in the 150 years since the early days of the Industrial Revolution.
Within that framework, the decade 2000-2009 was one of the warmest since modern record-keeping began, but global mean temperatures didn’t breach the levels of the early Holocene. Now they are on track to do so, according to the Science paper. If the scientists’ forecasts are correct, the planet will be warmer in 2100 than it has been for 11,300 years….
The study points to human activity as the cause, because the suddenness of the shift in temperature appears to be out of whack with long-term trends.
“What’s different is the rate of change,” said Shaun Marcott, a paleoclimatologist at Oregon State and lead author of the paper. “What we’ve seen over the past 150 years is much greater than anything we saw in the past 11,000 years….”
Projections indicate that Earth’s air temperature could increase anywhere from two degrees to five degrees Celsius by 2100.

I’ll defer to the better-informed in assessing what that kind of climate change could do to the planet. But suffice it to say it’s a reminder that we’re seriously trifling with the cosmos these days in ways that have vast implications, even as we set policies affecting these developments based on such factors as next week’s gasoline prices or which politician wins the electoral votes of Ohio and Virginia.

It’s richly irony that the American political tradition that is so closely associated with puritanical lecturing about moral laxity, personal irresponsibility, and carpe diem short-sightedness is also the one that greets evidence of potentially catastrophic climate change with self-gratifying denial and hedonistic cries of “Drill, Baby, Drill.” They won’t live long enough to see all hell break loose, but it’s not so clear that is true of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren we are so often told by the same people we should care most about in establishing our public policies.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • jhm on March 08, 2013 8:42 AM:

    Just in time for this, in theaters today:

    Greedy, Lying Bastards

  • Domage on March 08, 2013 9:08 AM:

    They wonít live long enough to see all hell break loose, but itís not so clear that is true of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren we are so often told by the same people we should care most about in establishing our public policies.

    Well, when those grandchildren and great-grandchildren start shoveling campaign contributions that exceed what Exxon-Mobil, BP, and Shell hand out, THEN Congress will pay attention.

  • c u n d gulag on March 08, 2013 9:13 AM:

    Eh, what's the worst that can happen?

    Well, I doubt if the Earth could become another Venus, since humans won't survive long enough to keep raising the temperature enough to do THAT much damage. But, maybe the Earth can become Venus-lite if the CO2 released keeps warming the planet to the point where it's uncontrollable and self-prepetuating, even after we're gone. Venus is still closer to the Sun, so the Earth can't get as hot as that planet.

    In the not too distant future, when more and more of the CO2 trapped in the tundras, and the Arctic and Antarctic, starts getting released, en masse (which looks like it's getting sooner with every passing year), if humans aren't already completely extinct by the time most of it is in the atmosphere, then the survivors will have to keep moving to stay ahead of climate change, as habitable temperate zones grow smaller and smaller.
    And no one can say how much all of that trapped CO2 there is, so we can't know when all of it is finally released.

    Now, if there are any humans left after the point when the trapped CO2 is finally spent, they will probably have returned back to the 'hunter-gatherer' stage, where they can do little more mass environmental damage - the damage will be limited to local flora and fauna. Then, in the thousands of years that it takes for the planet to recool (if it does, or can), or longer, then maybe mankind can begin to relearn technology. Only, hopefully, more environmentally friendly technology.

    Sadly, after only a few decades, or a century or two, most records of our existance will have completely disappered, as cities drown, or return back to nature - in whatever temperate state nature exists in that area. So, the survivors won't have much to build on, or learn from.

    It's very possible that I'm being overly-pessimistic.

    A few major volcanic eruptions around the world, within an appropriate amount of time, might reverse the warming trend, and it may postpone what seems like the inevitable conclusion to man-made global warming might be, which is the exctinction on the human race.
    Or, an asteroid hits the Earth - large enough to cool, but not big enough to destroy.

    Or, maybe some brilliant scientists will figure out a way to not only stop global warming, but to reverse it. But I'm not overly optimistic about that.

    We, as a species, may well be doomed anyway, because, even if we started TODAY to dramatically, no, DRASTICALLY, limit human CO2 emission, the warming will continue for decades - or longer.

    Any action that we take today, isn't guaranteed success - but isn't it worth it to at least try?
    Don't we owe it to those who are younger than us, and those yet to be born?

    I think a lot of very intelligent people realize what the consequences will be if we don't even try...

    Now, can they convince the politicians and the corporations who pay them NOT to do anything about it?

  • boatboy_srq on March 08, 2013 9:43 AM:

    They wonít live long enough to see all hell break loose, but itís not so clear that is true of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren we are so often told by the same people we should care most about in establishing our public policies.

    That's because 'caring most about our grandchildren and great-grandchildren when establishing public policy' to them means enabling the same grossly overconsuming, self-centred, racist, sexist, elitist, self-destructive behavior that the current generation has been indulging (and indulged) in, because either the world will still be there for them to exploit or the Rapture will have spirited them all off to That Better Place and left the rest of us to stew. The idea that "public policy" doesn't care whether you're Savedô or not, or even whether or not you're Xtian, isn't in their lexicon.

  • Steve P on March 08, 2013 10:37 AM:

    How can it matter, when any day now Little Baby Jesus will come back to Earth and kill us all--or so thinks a sizable chunk of Republican primary voters, the final arbiters of political will in this country.

  • Ron Byers on March 08, 2013 11:00 AM:

    What are the billions of people whose standards of living are utterly dependant on fossil fuel technology going to do about Global Warming?

    That is a serious question from a Prius owner whose house uses a heat pump to heat and cool and is thinking about buying a Volt.

    Yesterday I heard Carl Rove and James Carville debate. Rove listed all the reasons we need to lower healthcare costs and then failed to suggest a single solution. That is typical of our WWF style politics. All talk and no solutions.

    So everybody, what are we going to do to fix the problem? Sell more magazines?

  • Mimikatz on March 08, 2013 11:08 AM:

    There have been a number of extensive analyses of what the earth will look like if current trends continue, by Britain's Royal Society a couple of years ago and the US NOAA just a month or two ago. Parts of the US will be pretty unliveable by 2050, especially in the Southwest. That is within the lifetime of most people here. Sea level rise won't be more than a foot or so by then, but as we have seen recently, it isn't so much the mean sea level but the storm surges that do the damage, and they are already becoming a problem at current levels. More droughts will create periodic insufficient supplies of food and water, something that again has already begun in many parts of the world including the US.

    The real problems will come if feedbacks like melting permafrost and release of methane or albedo change from loss of Polar sea ice turn out to be faster than currently predicted. Then midcentury will be even worse.

    Within 10-20 years this will be apparent to even the most ideologically obtuse. People will look back to our preoccupation with debts and deficits instead of global warming and ask what were they thinking? But they is us.

  • c u n d gulag on March 08, 2013 11:52 AM:

    Mimikatz,
    In the words of the great "Pogo:"
    "We have met the enemy... and he is us."

  • Ron Byers on March 08, 2013 12:15 PM:

    To my question-crickets.

  • Anonymous on March 08, 2013 12:34 PM:

    Though this fact is not widely touted, they discovered a way to remove co2 emissions out of the air.How this would affect the rest of the environment is unknown, and the consequential side effects could be worse than the remedy, so is a last ditch effort most likely.

  • Joe Friday on March 08, 2013 1:16 PM:

    "Projections indicate that Earth's air temperature could increase anywhere from two degrees to five degrees Celsius by 2100.

    I'll defer to the better-informed in assessing what that kind of climate change could do to the planet."

    To put a five degree increase in global temperature in perspective, we are currently only about 10 global degrees warmer than during the last ice age, when the land masses were covered with glaciers.

  • Joe Friday on March 08, 2013 1:31 PM:

    Ron,

    "So everybody, what are we going to do to fix the problem?"

    The efficiency of solar is growing exponentially, doubling every two years, while the cost plummets. It is only eight doublings (sixteen years) away from being able to meet 100% of the planet's entire energy needs, which would require merely one part in 10,000 of the sunlight that falls on the planet.

    Therefore, the issue in not what can be done, but how one overcomes the big-money political power of the entrenched interests of the dig & burn industry.

  • c u n d gulag on March 08, 2013 1:37 PM:

    Ron,
    I'm not smart enough to give answer that question.

    But it's a problem we have all over the world, including here - where, it's not so much fossil fuels (thought that's certainly a large part of our economy), but increased mechanization, more robots, and improved nanotechnology, that are taking more and more workers off of the job rolls here.
    And that's WITHOUT factoring in outsourcing!

    If we, as a planet, make the turn towards more "green" technology, we'll need to tax those people who will continue to make money off of fossil fuels at a phenomenal level (including back-taxes), and create a lower (though still fairly high rate for the ones involved with "greening"), to pay for, not only the transition of workers from one to the other, but for all of the former workers who have been displaced over the past few decades.

    Outside of a completely new world tax structure, with NO tax havens for scoff-tax-laws, I have absolutely NO ideas.

    Anyone?

  • SecularAnimist on March 08, 2013 1:39 PM:

    Ed Kilgore wrote: "They wonít live long enough to see all hell break loose"

    With all due respect, Ed, you are not paying attention -- hell has already "broken loose", and is running wild in the form of unprecedented, record-smashing heat waves, droughts and forest fires all over the world.

    If the current mega-droughts afflicting the world's most productive agricultural regions in North America, Australia, Russia, China, etc. continue for another year or two, we are looking at global famine -- with no end in sight.

    And of course, that's just the hell. There's also the high water.

  • SecularAnimist on March 08, 2013 1:51 PM:

    Ron Byers wrote: "So everybody, what are we going to do to fix the problem?"

    What we CAN do, and what we WILL do, are two entirely different questions.

    According to most mainstream climate scientists, what we NEED to do if we are to have any hope of averting the most catastrophic consequences of global warming is to stop the growth in greenhouse gas emissions within 5 years at most, to be followed by VERY rapid reductions, leading to near-zero emissions with 10-20 years at most, with most of those reductions occurring in the first 5-10 years after emissions peak.

    And given that the current anthropogenic excess of atmospheric CO2 (which will continue to increase even when and if we drastically reduce emissions) is already self-evidently dangerous, we also need to draw down that excess to "safe" levels, as close to the preindustrial level of 280 ppm as possible.

    The good news is that we have at hand the means to do this, much more rapidly and at much lower cost than most people believe -- with maximally efficient use of wind and solar and other renewable energy sources, combined with organic agriculture and reforestation to sequester carbon in the biosphere.

    There are no real technological or economic obstacles to doing this -- the only real obstacle is the entrenched power and wealth of the fossil fuel corporations.

    The bad news is that the only real obstacle is the entrenched power and wealth of the fossil fuel corporations. And that's why what we WILL do is likely to fall short of what we CAN do, and what we NEED to do.

  • c u n d gulag on March 08, 2013 2:04 PM:

    Uhm...
    Unless I'm mistaken, folks, Ron Byers question was what to do about the workers who depend of fossil fuels for their livelihoods?

    And that IS the important flip-side to think about if we do decide try to drastically reduce fossil fuels in the very near future.

  • Peter C on March 08, 2013 4:36 PM:

    Well, I think the answer to both @Ron's question (So everybody, what are we going to do to fix the problem?) and @cund's corollary (what to do about the workers who depend of fossil fuels for their livelihoods?) is:

    We're going to have to change ... a lot.

    We're going to have to drive hybrids or electrics. We're going to have to retrofit our houses. We're going to need to break the power of the oil companies. We're going to need to build solar and wind and tidal energy generating capability. We're going to need to use agriculture to transform CO2 into solid carbon compounds that we then bury. We'll have to stop deforestation and start planned reforestation.

    If we're lucky, @CUND, the people in the oil business can start doing all this work in some way.

    But, the big thing is: WE'RE GOING TO NEED TO CHANGE. And, that means Republicans who refuse to change will need to be disempowered, because it is clear: they will fight change tooth and nail with all the (very real) political power they have.

    So, I'll keep driving my Prius and I'll stay politically active, and I'll try to get employment in alternative energy (although that will be a challenge, because I'll need both credentials and opportunity).

    Hell, disempowering Republicans will be a challenge too.