Fossil fuels and the increasing carbon peril

Pollution from smokestacks. Photo: Peter Grima/Flickr

"Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth." - Albert Schweitzer

Increasing C02 production worldwide reveals that the prime aim of government should be Earth health rather than economic growth. Extinction of our species hovers threateningly just beyond the edge of human recklessness.

Unfortunately, the penchant for increasingly complex forms of development is displayed by our government's focus: on continued tar sands development, on continent-spanning pipelines to disperse its excessively crude product, and on military expenditures that fly in the face of the need for peace on Earth. The planet cannot afford worldwide hostility stimulated by armament production interests.

"The Acid Sea," which appeared in the April 2011 issue of National Geographic revealed that carbon dioxide is being transferred into oceans at the rate of "roughly a million tons per hour" and is drastically increasing their acidity. What is the origin of this C02?

The Industrial Revolution stimulated mankind's enthusiasm for production of machinery and fuels. Since then, enough fossil fuels have been burned, and forests razed, to produce more than 500 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

In the 1990s, an international group of scientists collected and analyzed more than 77,000 samples of seawater taken from varying locations and depths worldwide. Their work revealed that 30 per cent of carbon released by humans during the past 200 years has been absorbed by oceans. Producers of carbon, which would include all drivers and fliers, might chuckle in relief that oceans are absorbing great volumes of the gases they produce.

Yes, the oceans are continuing to absorb such waste at a current rate of a million tonnes every hour. As a result, oceans have become 30 per cent more acidic. This is not good news. In 2008, a large group of researchers declared that the rapid changes in ocean chemistry may, within decades, "severely affect marine organisms, food webs, biodiversity, and fisheries." The National Geographic article observes that the negative results are already huge, and probably irreversible.

To clarify the problem more acutely, note the following quotation from Oceans in Peril (Worldwatch Report 174, 2007): "...two-thirds of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions are related to the burning of fossil fuels, and the remaining one-third is from deforestation and other land-use changes." The publication notes that the amount of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere has increased since the Industrial Revolution began, from 280 parts per million to more than 390 parts per million as of 2010.

As to addressing the problem, the U.K. Royal Society has stated that, "The only viable and practical solution to minimize the long-term consequences of ocean acidification is to reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere." It stated that otherwise, many of the species and ecosystems that we know today will be gone.

Let's consider real solutions that could come about if governments reversed their extreme servitude to the fractional "one per cent" whose warped craving for wealth is reckoned as admirable in these demented times. Paradoxically, we recognize the continuous demand for alcohol, drugs, or other chemicals as severe addictions. These forms of addiction are nowhere near as widely crippling to society as the mega-mania for extreme wealth. Excess wealth should be taxed severely. No matter how much our politicians are enslaved to the Corporate God of Profit, politicians must get down to earth and realize that concentrated wealth is a social disease.

In an ominous sense, today's addictive consumption of goods is symptomatic of planetary lethality. Pollution of the atmosphere and oceans can be alleviated by reducing consumption.

Two-thirds of human carbon production is a result of burning fossil fuels. Our addiction to fossil-fuel-driven machinery of all sorts is untenable. Gasoline rationing is a wise action that might be implemented quickly. It took U.S. President Roosevelt only a few days to ration gasoline after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. His reason was protection of energy supplies for the industrial needs of World War Two.

Economist Lester Brown, more than a decade ago, spoke of the fact that modern overuse of fuels already constitutes a crisis far greater that the WW II crisis. Will Rogers quipped in the 1930s that Americans will be the first people to go to the poor house in an automobile. Today's destination could well be extermination.

Personally I have never been able to understand how Exxon, for example, can cite profits of $10 billion or more quarterly. Oil reserves are not the possession of any corporations. These reserves were produced by photons from the sun, acting upon chlorophyll in leaves to enable plants to grow. Over millions of years, the leaves falling from green plants were buried, and decomposed into fossil fuels. This all took place as a natural process, long before corporations took precedence over the welfare of the rest of us.

Curbing human expectations depends on a new sort of educational impact, one in which all forms of media preach something other than the idea that people must continually spend and want new things. The philosophy of unremitting growth is similar to the unending reproduction of cancer cells.

Reducing CO2 amounts entering the air virtually demands the planting of billions, even trillions of trees everywhere they will grow. Over-harvesting and unnecessary land clearing have been going on for years, and tree planting is often considered unnecessary. Since half of the weight of a standing tree is carbon, they are badly needed carbon sinks. Planting of trees should not be delayed inasmuch as it takes a number of years before they will be able to store large amounts of carbon.

Appointed U.S. Chief Forester in 1898, Gifford Pinchot's philosophy regarding forest practices was made vivid in his closing thoughts. Here he refuted the willy-nilly behaviour of politicians who bluntly had become stooges of corporate power:

"Conservation is the application of common sense to the common problems for the common good. Since its objective is the ownership, control, development, processing, distribution, and use of the natural resources for the benefit of the people, it is by its very nature the antithesis of monopoly....When I speak of Concentrated Wealth I refer to the many forms of concentration of economic power by which greedy men have sought domination. I mean the monopoly power of great corporations, of banks and insurance companies, of utilities and power companies, as well as individual fortunes."

Stopping the increase in ocean acidity will not take place unless we bite the bullet and focus on making immense reforestation efforts accompanied by very significant reductions in fossil fuel use. Technological euphoria and a lack of the wisdom on our part have brought us close to our demise.

Several days ago we heard a radio description about this year's wipe-out of the Louisiana shrimp harvest due to dispersants utilized by BP directly on their near shore habitat. This lends even more credence to a concluding chapter in the Oceans in Peril publication. Part of the conclusion envisaged that, "In light of the toxicity of oil spills and the emerging threats of climate change, there is urgent need to phase out the use of oil and to move toward clean, renewable energy." It stated that this phase-out coupled with more sustainable farming methods would help to reduce nutrients which are causing increasing numbers of ocean dead zones.

Such actions would be comparable to terminating a noxious drug addiction because its approaching fatal effects have become shockingly obvious. How much longer will earth allow us to live lives of blatant wastefulness?

Bob Harrington's latest book, Testimony for Earth, is an expanded version of The Manifesto for Earth quoted in this article, and the latest edition of The Soul Solution which focuses on the need for a theology of the Earth. They are now available at www.hancockhouse.com or telephone 250-369-2281 for autographed copies. A version of this article was first published in the CCPA Monitor.

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