Saturday, January 13, 2007
January 8, 2007
Everyone was walking around upstate New York delirious in their shirtsleeves on Saturday as the thermometer soared into the sixties (an all-time record for January here). The resource cornucopians were beside themselves with glee as the price of crude oil nose dived down to the mid-$50 range, proving what ninnies we peak oil alarmists are. The mustard greens we planted last July are still growing in the garden. The cat caught a garter snake. And later that evening those fluffy things in the headlights were moths, not snowflakes.
It was hard not to enjoy the end of the world. But despite all the high spirits and the roller-bladers and the kids hoisting their Ben-and-Jerry's cones, one was provoked to wonder about all the deer ticks out there enjoying an extra breeding cycle, not to mention the deer themselves, fattening up on prematurely swelling buds, and the pine bark beetles we've been hearing about up the road in the Adirondacks.
And for the really farsighted, there is the contemplation of what summer might be like. After all, if it is 67 in January, might it be 107 in July? And maybe that won't be so groovy. The electric grid is much more stressed out when all the air-conditioners are humming across the land. I'm not looking forward to Lyme disease, West Nile virus, or maybe even Dengue fever, either.
While it seems morally upright to inveigh against global warming Al Gore style, personally I don't believe there is anything we will do about it, or can do about now. The feedback loops are in motion. Something ominous is underway far greater than our measly powers can correct. Even if we started it with about two hundred years of our fossil fuel fires, there is no evidence that can just stop burning coal, oil, and methane gas on the grand scale, or that the warming would stop if we did.
The response of our political leaders is laughable. The most "progressive" among them will demand rapid conversion of the US automobile fleet to hybrid engines. I am confident that this would do absolutely nothing to put the brakes on global warming.
As usual, I am much more interested in how events are likely to turn out than in how we wish them to turn out. My guess is that the weird weather we are getting will increasingly affect crop yields. With populations growing, and weather anomalies increasing, grain surpluses worldwide are now at their lowest point in decades. All the major grain-growing regions have suffered either significant drought (US, Australia, Ukraine, China, Argentina) or flooding (East Africa, India) in recent years. (See this report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.)
The poorer, "undeveloped" nations are feeling the pain first, as usual, and this pain is translating into political breakdown, violence, starvation, and genocide. At the same time, these poorer places are leaving the oil age behind. they have dropped out of the bidding as oil made its move above the $50-a-barrel mark. In these countries, there will no longer be fuel for electric generators or motor transport, and the primary manifestation of all that will be a breakdown of public health. Between the political death squads and the hospitals with no running water, tremendous forces for attrition are underway.
Oil priced beyond the means of Third Worlders means more for America, for the moment, and indeed the public here is glorying in still-affordable gasoline. Judging by the evidence in the supermarket aisles, there have been no noticeable Cheez Doodle shortages. There are certain Third World countries, however, that also happen to be major oil producers. Nigeria, for instance. It is already a very chaotic state. The oil there is extracted mainly by multinational corporations who pay substantial royalties and licensing fees to the Nigerian government. The people of Nigeria mostly do without.
Increasingly, they are tapping into pipelines illegally and siphoning off oil. Meanwhile, a quasi Civil War has provoked assaults and kidnappings against the oil infrastructure and foreign workers. Sooner or later, Nigeria will become too chaotic and its oil supply will go off-line, so to speak, perhaps permanently. When that happens, the happy motorists in Atlanta and the San Fernando Valley may start to notice that something is happening.
Global warming will not get our attention this winter. It's too pleasurable here in the northeast US, where so many decisions are made. The new Democratic congress may blather about it, but there will be no policies or protocols, just as there will be none about the other "elephant in the room" -- overpopulation. There's not a damn thing we're going to do about it. You can deplore it, but then what?
f course, I maintain that there is a broad range of actions we could take in the US that would constitute an intelligent response to this Long Emergency of climate change and oil depletion. The most important thing we could do at the moment is to stop debating about all the different "innovative" ways to run our cars, and come to grips with the fact that we have to leave the happy motoring era behind us, period. I don't see Nancy Pelosi taking the lead on this one. She'll just bring a new kindergarten veneer to the same old politics of denial. The mid-winter cherry blossoms will only make the denial seem more festive.