The Latest on Climate Change – and How We Are Now Making It Worse
Climate change is getting worse by the minute. And thanks to a combination of corporate greed and current American policy decisions, global temperatures are going to climb even higher, fast.
According to the latest data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), March 2017’s combined global average temperature over the land and ocean surfaces was 1.05˚C (1.89˚F) above the average of the 20th century. That also makes it the second hottest March on record, after last year’s peak.
The trend data and the graphics that go with it are not pretty. Monthly global-mean and European-mean surface air temperature anomalies relative to 1981-2010 from January 1979 to April 2017. The darker-colored bars denote the April values. Source: Era-interim. (Credit: ECMWF, Copernicus Climate Change Service)
The long-term trend of global warming, therefore, continues its relentless march upward. It is getting to be way too common to report, but the resulting more powerful storms, deadly droughts, brutal heat that no human can withstand even now (especially in several Middle Eastern countries) and rising seas (see the April 2017 Trillions magazine article “When It Comes to Climate Change, We’re Already Sunk”) look like they will just keep growing as problems on a cataclysmic scale.
The Fossil Fuel Industry Has Known About This for a Long Time
There is now no question that greenhouse gas emissions, mostly in the form of carbon dioxide, are behind the major uptick in global warming over the past half-century. There is also no question that human usage is the reason why those CO2 emissions have climbed. Exhaust from cars and trucks, power plants and manufacturing, just to name a few of the major contributors, have pushed emissions to record levels. What often does surprise people is that the fossil fuel industry itself has been more than aware of its
contributions to CO2 emissions and the impact of such emissions on global warming for a long time. As for the emissions themselves, when the American Petroleum Institute (API) was founded in 1919 – almost a century ago – one of the earliest issues it focused on was the bad image its industry was already beginning to create because of excess smoke hanging in the air where petroleum products were being heavily used. What was at first a light haze had in some areas become a dirty, stinking and hard-to-breathe-in hanging layer of pollution that could become a public relations and likely health nightmare for its customers. The API was rightly concerned that if it as a suppliers group did not do something, government-based environmental regulation might be imposed that could represent a stranglehold on the industry.
Even without the now-well-understood global warming aspect of this as a primary factor, in the late 1940s the API and its surrogate, the Western Oil and Gas Association, decided they needed to take some action. They began their own research into fossil fuel emissions, what bad things might come from them and what to do about them. They formed a special committee to manage all that – the aptly-named “Smoke and Fumes Committee” – and began conducting their own research. That group had some of the smartest brains in the field of petrochemical research, with experience particularly in gasoline, oil and coal-based fossil fuel systems. Member companies then included Esso (now part of Exxonmobil), Shell and both Union Oil and Standard Oil of California (now both part of Chevron).
To its credit, the Smoke and Fumes Committee did produce some groundbreaking work. Many of its comments and conclusions were remarkably clear, well stated and even highly insightful as predictions of what was to come. Consider these examples:
“Anyone who has been in the Los Angeles area during an extended period of smog has smelled the odors arising at times among the Houston Ship Channel and has flown over that great pall of coal smoke and dust which at times practically hides the ground from view... does not need to be told that air pollution in those sections of the United States has become a problem of utmost importance.” (Jenkins, Vance N., “The Petroleum Industry Sponsors Air Pollution Research,” February 1954)
Humans are very quickly “returning to the atmosphere and oceans the concentrated carbon stored in sedimentary rocks over hundreds of millions of years.” Further, “in contemplating the probably large increase in CO2 production by fossil fuel combustion in the coming decades, we conclude that a total increase of 20 to 40% in atmospheric CO2 can be anticipated.” (Revelle, Roger, and Hans E. Suess, “Carbon Dioxide Exchange Between Atmosphere and Ocean and the Question of an Increase of Atmospheric CO2 During the Past Decades,” 1957)
“Man is now engaged in a vast geophysical experiment with his environment, the earth,” and could create conditions where “the earth’s temperature increases significantly,” so much so that dramatic events such as “the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, a rise in ocean levels, warming of the oceans and a decrease in photosynthesis” could happen. (Robinson, Elmer, and R. C. Robbins, “Sources, Abundance, and Fate of Gaseous Atmospheric Pollutants,” prepared for the American Petroleum Institute, SRI Project PR-6755, published 1968)
A more detailed analysis of the whole Smoke and Fumes Committee cover-up is available in the Trillions June 2016 article entitled “Big Oil’s Big Lies.”
Careful balancing of the needs of the entire global ecosystem on the one hand (with the human race and every other species at risk from the prospects of excessive global warming) versus the crash of the entire fossil fuel industry was unfortunately too much for those watching the financials at the API’S member companies to consider. A mission was then crafted to do everything possible to keep this kind of excellent research from leaking out and even to create counterarguments to show that the dire warnings about what could happen were unwarranted.
Even while the truth was being hidden, however, the researchers were themselves at least clear enough about their own science.
Take this graph from a November 12, 1982, memo entitled “CO2 Greenhouse Effect” from M. B. Glaser, Manager of the Environmental Affairs Programs at Exxon Research and Engineering Company. Based on a considerable amount of numerical modeling and the use of past data, the author concludes that global temperature rises in amounts like what have already been observed would likely be part of our 21st century future. These predictions were made almost 35 years ago and yet – still – almost no one has heard of them. And even fewer have done anything about them.
The 2017 White House Opens Up the Emissions Spigots
Under the Obama administration, many rulings, both of law and by executive order, had been in place within the United States to restrict auto emissions and manufacturing plant emissions. Permits to drill were being restricted. And alternative energy solutions were being pushed everywhere, so much so that Oklahoma has a glut of renewable energy it is able to sell elsewhere and California this year (for the first time) had a whole month where over 50% of its power needs were supplied from renewable sources.
Those were the old days, and with 2017 here, the United States can expect even more CO2 emissions than ever reaching the atmosphere.
The unelected Trump administration and its antiregulatory-rules Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt took charge. Now in place, this team has begun
resetting auto emissions allowances higher and fuel efficiency levels lower, a big win-win for the petroleum industry
the lifting of a moratorium on coal mining on federal lands
easing the restrictions from the Clean Power Plan, which imposes emissions limits on the states
removing regulations on hydraulic fracturing and methane emissions from oil and natural gas wells, especially on federal lands
opening up new drilling opportunities in previously protected areas, like the Arctic and certain offshore areas
As of the end of March 2017, unelected President Trump had also authorized various pipeline projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline. These alreadyenvironmentally-damaging projects have been allowed to proceed on the specious argument that they will create many thousands of jobs (they won’t) when the truth is the only ones who will benefit from their construction are those in the oil and gas industry. Everyone else is going to suffer, from increased CO2 emissions and, in cases like the auto industry, where fuel efficiency is being allowed to ratchet down by incurring higher costs from the purchase of additional gasoline.
And this is despite this currently being a time when there is already a global petroleum glut worldwide.
So, in short order – and despite there being any need for it from a purely economic standpoint – the oil industry is getting almost every present it could ever have asked for from the federal government.
Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions are just spewing out more.
The Paris Climate Change Accord
One of then-candidate Trump’s statements in running for office was that he was considering pulling out of the Paris Climate Change agreement made by countries all over the world in 2015.
That accord had some very simple objectives with farreaching consequences. As article 2 of the agreement, entitled “Enhancing the Implementation,” said, the aims of the agreement were in three parts:
“(a) Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change
“(b) Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development in a manner that does not threaten food production
“(c) Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climateresilient development”
As of this writing, Trump’s lawyers were studying other parts of the accord where it covers the issue of adjustments to previously-agreed-upon targets for emissions and global warming. They were apparently trying to determine if the White House might be able to get away with saying they were still signed up to the Paris accord but that they had adjusted their targets downward. For some reason – probably a matter of face-saving on the global stage, a rare consideration for Trump – the White House did not want to risk pulling out of the Paris agreement completely.
The reality is that these are only targets and considered in good faith. So, arguing fine details about adjusting goals upward or downward as a way to “save face” is both unnecessary and a bit wasteful in the use of legal resources.
The real issue will be whether the United States – the second-most-polluting economy in the world after China – wants to stay on a leadership track with respect to the support of renewable energy and clamp down on greenhouse gas emissions. And under President Trump, that answer is already clear: The United States has no interest in staying in the leadership role in curbing emissions. It is far more interested in serving the greed of the multi-billion-dollar fossil fuel industry and its many partners.
Global warming is going to continue and get worse faster in the near term, aided both by the fossil fuel industry and those it controls in the government. The risk to life as we know it is getting way past critical throughout the globe, and nothing seems to be doing anything more than slowing the pace of change slightly. And the United States’ current actions to damage things further seem unstoppable, at least until the next Presidential election.
About the only hope one can offer in looking at the current situation is that as fast as President Trump and Pruitt may be able to issue new executive orders and environmental rulings, those can also be reversed equally fast if a new administration comes into power. There is also some hope at the state level that local regulations on things like auto emissions in states like California could be a place to create new regulations to push back against the pressures from the federal levels.
Surface air temperature anomaly for April 2017 relative to the April average for the period 1981-2010. Source: Era-interim. (Credit: ECMWF, Copernicus Climate Change Service)