Exxon to Drill the Earth Despite Climate Change and Approaching Food-pocalypse
April 7, 2014
Bill McKibben / The Guardian & Richard Schiffman / The Guardian
Riots. Towns gone dry. Soaring prices. Crushing starvation. If this sounds like fear-mongering from scientists, talk to the farmers. As scientists laid bare the impacts of climate change, the oil and gas giant said climate policies are highly unlikely to stop it digging up fossil fuels. So what are we going to do about it?
Exxon Mobil's Response to Climate Change Is Consummate Arrogance
Bill McKibben / The Guardian
(April 3, 2014) -- Monday saw the release of the latest climate report from the planet's scientists. Predictions of famine, flood, and so on -- mostly what we already knew, in even more striking language.
But Monday also saw the release of another document somewhat less expected, and probably at least as important in the ongoing battle over the future of the atmosphere and hence all of us who live in its narrow envelope.
Here's the backstory. For 18 months now some of us have been campaigning for colleges, churches, cities and the like to sell their shares in fossil fuel companies, on the grounds that their business plans call for burning far more carbon than scientists believe the planet can safely handle.
It's become the fastest growing divestment movement in history -- but some have tried to reach out to the industry and reach a middle ground instead, hoping to reform them instead of simply trying to break their power.
Profound thanks are due, then, to those shareholder activists who urged "constructive engagement" with the oil, gas and coal barons.
Because those organisations, groups like As You Sow, CERES, and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, managed in very short order to get Exxon Mobil, the leader of the fossil fuel industry, to show its cards. In fact, in a truly historic moment, Exxon Mobil turned over the whole deck -- and to its credit it showed it has nothing up its sleeve, no tricky rhetoric or sleight of hand. Just endless amounts of oil and gas.
On Monday the company issued two reports, in formal response to a shareholder resolution that demanded they disclose their carbon risk and talk about how they planned to deal with the fact that they and other oil giants have many times more carbon in their collective reserves than scientists say we can safely burn.
The company said that government restrictions that would force it to keep its reserves in the ground were "highly unlikely," and that they would not only dig them all up and burn them, but would continue to search for more gas and oil -- a search that currently consumes about $100 million of its investors' money every single day. "Based on this analysis, we are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become ‘stranded,'" they said.
This is an honest reply. It is as honest as the report that emerged the same day from the world's climate scientists, which demonstrated that if Exxon Mobil and its ilk keep their promise to dig up their reserves and burn them, then the planet will no longer function effectively.
Some of us, cynically, thought all along that this would be Exxon's posture. The company, after all, poured millions into denying climate science when that was still possible. That's why we've been calling for divestment.
We've never thought that there was a small flaw in their business plan that could be altered by negotiation; we've always thought their business plan was to keep pouring carbon into the atmosphere.
And indeed Exxon's statements are easy to translate: "We plan on overheating the planet, we think we have the political muscle to keep doing it, and we dare you to stop it." And they're right -- unless we build a big and powerful movement, they'll continue to dominate our political life and keep change from ever taking place.
So now, with that information clearly on the table, it's time for college boards and foundation heads, church denominations and city mayors to act and act firmly. By divesting -- by announcing that they are breaking ties with these companies -- they will begin the process of politically bankrupting them. Of taking away the social license that allows them to act with such consummate arrogance, on the very day that the planet's scientists laid bare the impact of climate change on everything from crop yields to civil wars.
It's never fun to see one's cynicism confirmed. But Monday was a day for reality, on the scientific front but also the political, economic, and corporate.
The only open question left is what we're going to do about it.
Think the New Climate Report Is Scary?
The Food-pocalypse Is Already Upon Us
Richard Schiffman / The Guardian
(March 31, 2014) -- The mother of all climate reports is so scary that one of its authors resigned from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in protest.
"Farmers are not stupid," the Sussex University economist Richard Tol said this past week, as hundreds of researchers cloistered away in Yokohama, Japan, hammering out the final wording of a document that he called "alarmist" when it comes to the many threats of global warming. The people who grow our food will find ways to adapt, said the rogue climate scientist at the most important climate science meeting in seven years.
But change isn't easy -- especially not tectonic changes to the Earth. The final wording arrived today, and the IPCC report's most alarming projections make clear what many other studies have warned: the future of agriculture -- of global hunger, of your grocery bill -- is screwed. Or as UN secretary general Ban-Ki Moon put it rather more politely when he inaugurated the first rounds of the IPCC report last September: "The heat is on. We must act."
Glaciers will continue to shrink in the Himalayas, according to the IPCC, severely impacting the availability of water for farming in vast areas of south Asia and China. Climate change will damage heat-sensitive crops like wheat and corn, and have a smaller impact on rice and soy production.
Prices for essential staples will rise on the global market. Hunger will increase in large parts of Asia and Africa. "Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change," predicted the IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri at a morning news conference.
The new report says that all of these very bad things will happen in future decades, as climate change picks up steam. But as I found out in east Africa last month, the future is already here for too many of the world's farmers.
In Tanzania, the twice yearly seasonal rains upon which so many growers depend no longer come on time -- and they're sporadic, drenching downpours at that, alternating with prolonged dry spells. Heat spikes have also been withering maize crop, and wells and streams are increasingly drying up.
The area where Dephath Omondi farms in southern Kenya looks lush, with emerald maize fields bordered by towering acacias. But he tells me that appearances are deceptive.
Twenty-five years ago the weather here was predictable -- the long rains started mid-March to mid-May, then the short rains started in late August, early September. In the last decade, these rains never come on time. We have had floods and week upon week, with no rain at all. Farmers are confused about when and what to plant. It is all very worrying.
Similar disruptions are already challenging farmers worldwide. In Vietnam's Mekong Delta, rural people are losing ground as higher sea levels turn rivers too salty to grow rice. In Nicaragua, rising temperatures are spreading "coffee rust fungus", a disease which is killing thousands of trees and may render 80% of its the nation's coffee-growing areas unusable by 2050. And in the central Philippines, coconut farmers are struggling to recover from November's Typhoon Haiyan, which badly damaged or tore out an estimated 33m trees.
Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are few climate-change skeptics amongst those who grow the world's food -- if any. Farmers don't have to read UN reports to know how radically their weather is changing. And consumers don't need academic studies or bullet points to know that food prices are steadily rising.
But you might need to know this: one such report published by the Institute of Development Studies in the UK predicts a whopping 20% to 60% rise in food prices by 2050, depending on the type of food, largely due to declining yields brought upon us by climate change. And if you think that's going to be painful, the entire world is in for some serious sticker shock: the IPCC predicts that a 2.5°C rise in global temperatures will cost the world economy up to 2% of its output, an estimated $1.4tn annually.
And you might want to know this: a report issued last week by the development group Oxfam warns that global warming may delay the fight against world hunger by decades and put an extra 50m people at risk.
The world "is woefully unprepared" for the impacts on food, says Oxfam. Over 75% of global seed varieties have vanished over the last century, and spending on critical agricultural research and development is at an all-time low.
Lester Brown, the controversial founder of the Earth Policy Institute, warns that we face a looming "food crisis" not just from climate change -- there are also escalating water shortages and the conversion of farmland to non-food uses. The vast amounts of land being used to produce biofuels and grain to feed livestock are also cutting down on the staple grains that people need to survive.
But make no mistake: the greatest single strain on our food supply will be our changing weather. "The agricultural system that we have today is designed to maximize production within a climate system that has existed over the past several thousand years," Brown told the Harvard Crimson. "Now suddenly, we don't know exactly what's going to happen in the future. We do know that we need to get the brakes on as quickly as possible."
Tol, the researcher who quit the IPCC in protest, says the farmers "will adapt". But that's like expecting squirrels to adapt to a forest fire. How will Amani Peter, a young farmer I met in Tanzania, adapt to his well going dry?
How will he adapt to his corn withering when the rains stop a month early, as they did last year? And what will the nine out of 10 growers in western China who lack crop insurance do when the wheat harvests begin to fail? Even the smartest farmers may be unable to cope.
That is the bad news, and there is a lot of it. The good news? There will be some global winners in this climate-change roulette. Yields for some warmth-loving crops are rising in the US and Canada, even as agriculture suffers from dry-out in the American Southwest and extreme drought in California.
And the IPCC has called on policymakers to prepare -- right now: "Climate-change adaptation is not an exotic agenda that has never been tried," says Chris Field, co-chair of one of the working groups. Remember the $1.4 trillion a year that climate change will cost?
If a small fraction of the $1.4 trillion in overall climate spending recommendations went to ramping up regionally-based agricultural research, it would go a long way. Farmers need new drought- and heat-tolerant seed varieties. They need outreach programs to train them in the latest farming techniques.
And of course, we need to stop spewing ever more CO2 into the air. While the alarm is sounding.
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