6 Nov 2011

Even without the Keystone XL Pipeline, 350 ppm of carbon dioxide is no longer achievable

Written by Jim Pierobon

Here’s one slice of irony from today’s protest against TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline surrounding the White House: actually reducing the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere from about 389 parts per million (ppm) currently to the widely-held threshold of 350 ppm is no longer possible.

The combined impacts, to name a few, of China’s industrialization, the global economic recession and the inability of the U.S. Congress to approve a carbon tax make it fait accompli.

No overtime opportunity for this 'game.' CREDIT: 350.org

The protest was engineered by Bill McKibben and the 350.org advocacy group he founded a few years back. But even he acknowledged, in a recent interview with The Energy Fix, the time has come to figure out how to live and operate businesses in an environment weakened more every day by how humans — collectively — no longer can reduce carbon dioxide.

“It’s too late to prevent some changes,” McKibben said. “We’ve got to be prepared to deal with that. We need smaller, more localized economies. Even those won’t suffice in this world if the temperature goes up another few degrees. We need to adapt to which we can and keep trying to change what we can.”

The accompanying image asserts from recent protests that should President Obama approve the Canada-U.S. pipeline, it’s ‘game over’ for the climate. If you believe the overwhelming majority of climate scientists about the effects of escalating carbon in the atmosphere, this ‘game’ ended long before Obama was elected three years ago today.

Now, what constitutes the end of the ‘game’ is up to individual interpretation. If you’re wavering about your interpretation, consider these assertions and their implications from the 2011 version of McKibben’s book, eaarth, a guide to living on a fundamentally altered planet:

  • “The U.S. military  . . . has begun planning for a future where ‘climate change will require mass mobilizations of the military to cope with humanitarian disasters (quoting an unnamed researcher).’ ” He quotes retired U.S. Army general Paul Kern on how the Pentagon is worrying less about fighting two wars at once and more about how the armed forces will be needed to deal with ‘a string of bad events, of landslides, tornadoes, and hurricanes.’
  • Warming temperatures are shrinking the snowpack in the Sierra mountains that supplies California with more than 60 percent of its water; 90 percent of the snowpack could be gone by century’s end. The sun now has more time to dry out the state’s forests, guaranteeing drier trees and a longer fire season. “In fact, the average California fire season runs seventy-eight days longer today than it did in the 1970s and 1980s.”

James Hansen, widely considered to be the father of global warming, summarized two future scenarios in this 2008 paper, “Timeline for Irreversible Climate Change, about how the rise of CO2 could be halted in time and at what level:

“If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, CO2 must be reduced  . . . to, at most, 350 ppm.”

Scenario #1: “We find that peak CO2 can be kept to about 425 ppm, with large estimates for oil and gas reserves, if coal use is phased out by 2030 (except where CO2 is captured and sequestered) and unconventional fossil fuels are not tapped substantially.”

Scenario #2: “Peak CO2 can be kept close to 400 ppm, if actual reserves are closer to those estimated by ‘peakists,’ who believe that the globe is already at peak global oil production, having extracted about half of readily extractable oil resources.”

Today’s Washington Post, FYI, debunks here some of the claims the oil industry has been pushing about the jobs to be created if the pipeline is approved. It cites a study by Ray Perryman, a Texas-based consultant to TransCanada, saying the pipeline would create “250,000 permanent jobs  including a vast number of jobs far removed from the industry”, such as “dancers, choreographers and speech therapists.”

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