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Burning America's future

An energy policy outlined by the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which we use all of the nation's coal, gas and oil is beyond dumb.

January 18, 2012|By Bill McKibben
(Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg )

At the turn of the last century, Time magazine published a list of what it considered to be the 100 worst ideas of the 20th century. It included Prohibition, leisure suits, the Titanic, cold fusion. You get the idea.

I know it's early, but assuming such a list is composed again at the end of this century, I have a nomination. It was an idea proposed in a speech last week.

Thomas Donohue was speaking. Not just speaking; the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was giving his annual "state of American business" address, in the 100th year of the chamber's operation, from the chamber's Hall of Flags in its office just across Lafayette Park from the White House. He began with the usual boilerplate, attacking "regulations, mandates and higher taxes." But then he turned to energy and what he called a "game-changer" for the nation and "the next big thing." Not solar power, not wind power. He was talking about coal, and gas, and oil.

In fact, he was very specific. "We have 1.4 trillion barrels of oil, enough to last at least 200 years. We have 2.7 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to last 120 years. We have 486 billion tons of coal, enough to last more than 450 years — and we need to use more of this strategic resource cleanly and wisely here at home while selling it around the world."

OK, he's detailed down to the last drop his plan for the future, which is basically: Burn 'em if you got 'em. So let's figure out what that would mean.

The first person to run some numbers was climate blogger Brad Johnson: His back-of-the-envelope calculations showed that combusting all that coal, gas and oil — which, remember, represent only American fossil fuel, not anything from the rest of the world — would generate 1.837 trillion tons of carbon dioxide. Here's the trouble: Scientists have long since concluded that to keep the planet's temperature rise below a disastrous 2 degrees Celsius, the entire globe can burn, at most, an additional 650 billion tons of CO2. Or about one-third of Donohue's prescription.

I checked out the numbers with James Hansen and Pushker Kharecha of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies that afternoon. Using tables from the government's Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, they calculated that burning those quantities of coal, gas and oil would raise the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 392 parts per million to almost 650 ppm.

We've already got way too much CO2 in the atmosphere; the same day as Donohue's speech, analysts reported that 2011 had seen the most extreme weather in the history of U.S. record-keeping. For Donohue to recommend blithely increasing it by more than 50% is — well, it's insane. Every nation on Earth has been conducting negotiations in an attempt to keep CO2 concentrations below 450 ppm; much research indicates we actually need to get back below 350 ppm to stabilize global climate. Climbing to 650 ppm is the stuff of science fiction. It would create a planet wildly different from the one on which human civilization grew up.

And of course Donohue was talking only about American hydrocarbons. Though of course he also threw in a plug for the Keystone pipeline to Canada's tar sands; if you add in all the oil in Alberta, that would mean an additional 150 ppm to the atmosphere. And then there's, oh, Saudi Arabia and Russia and Kuwait and Venezuela and Norway and China and South Africa and Indonesia and Brazil and …

In other words, his prescription is fundamentally outrageous, at odds with everything we know about physics and chemistry. Only the most profound global-warming denier could ever embrace it. (And what do you know? The Chamber of Commerce filed a brief with the Environmental Protection Agency three years ago arguing that climate change was no big deal; if somehow it happened, humans could "adapt their physiology" to deal with the heat.)

But here's the thing. This fundamentally unserious man was given deeply serious treatment. His organization was the biggest political funder in the last election cycle, outspending the Republican and Democratic national committees combined. He's doing everything in his power to guarantee exactly the overheated future his speech describes. This is how big energy would like to see the future unfold — our future, unless we stop it.

It may not be aerosol cheese or cryogenics, but can't we all agree that burning every molecule of fossil fuel we can find is a spectacularly bad idea?

Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org and a scholar in residence at Middlebury College.

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