Monday, November 25, 2013
There’s been some big and—at least for many—surprising news on the environmental front lately. A recent analysis published in Climatic Change challenges the existing state-centric and, at times, narrow focus of the climate change debate. According to this new analysis, a “total of 914 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2e) has been traced to 90 international entities” and “[t]he emissions traced to the carbon majors represent 63 % of global industrial CO2 and methane from fossil fuel combustion, flaring, venting, fugitive or vented methane, own fuel use, and cement between 1751 and 2010.” To translate: this means that 90 international entities, consisting of investor-owned businesses as well as state-owned and government run entities, are responsible for producing almost 2/3 of post-industrial era greenhouse gas emissions. Among the sobering dimensions of this revelation, is not only how few companies are actually responsible for generating the brunt of the emissions that now plague so many across the globe, but also how difficult it is today to disaggregate the decisions made by these companies from the society that has emerged and evolved in reliance on – and, now demanding – cheap energy. Compounding this is a dispiriting concern about how existing physical and political infrastructure makes it incredibly difficult for even the most optimistic among us to envision a non-fossil fuel based energy system – at least in the near term.
This new revelation brings to mind how esteemed environmental scholar Oliver Houck so vividly discusses Louisiana’s relationship to the oil industry. As Houck explains, the oil industry, an industry around which so many facets of Louisiana’s social, political, and economic culture now revolve, simultaneously feeds and starves the state. In commenting on the response in Louisiana to the 2010 blowout on the Deepwater Horizon rig Houck offers: “The reaction of Louisianans to the BP blowout has been to protect the industry and its longstanding commitment to what has turned out to be a very dirty …, plainly unsustainable … and deleterious relationship ….” Louisiana’s solicitous reaction is readily understandable: over time, the more the state benefited from the presence of the oil industry, the more the constituents of the state came to rely on those benefits and to structure the society around those benefits. Louisiana became more and more dependent on the industry and all of its collateral benefits. The oil marriage brought the benefits of jobs, money, and collateral infrastructure. These benefits, however, are uneven and adhere only to some and, with regard to the greatest benefits, only to a very few. And, as the relationship has progressed, the destructive forces have become more apparent and more corrosive. From the canals that rip apart and degrade Louisiana’s wetlands, to the oil that poisons the coastal waters and all of its inhabitants, to the economic devastation that comes both slowly and in sudden bursts to the long beholden citizenry of Louisiana, the marriage is gradually devastating Louisiana from the inside out. This is a marriage—but not of equals. It’s a marriage of deep convenience that’s turned into one of deep dependency. And, it is a marriage that, from the very beginning was doomed to self-destruct. Contemplating the future, Houck bemoans: “Then again, this is Louisiana, and we and oil remain faithfully married—at least until the industry leaves us, as it surely will after a few more heady years, with only the memories and a wasted skin.”
The picture Houck describes of Louisiana is vivid and stark. Unfortunately, this is not the only marriage of its sort around. The relationship structure is often replicated – too often replicated –in relation to natural resources worldwide. (Just think about the operations of mining companies in the US and around the world.) But, the most sobering thing about this recognition in light of the ongoing climate negotiations and this recently released greenhouse gas study is that not only is the relationship replicated, but it is replicated on different scales: not only the relatively small state-level scale Houck describes, but also on a much grander, global scale. The most vivid representation being, of course, our relatively recent but now fully committed marriage to the handful of companies that enable us to consume seemingly limitless amounts of cheap energy, more specifically seemingly limitless amounts of fossil fuel-based energy.
In the global community’s marriage to the companies that fuel and enable our fossil fuel consumption, the marriage brings widespread benefits in the form of economic development, with all that this entails. But, the benefits are far from pure; they cut cleanly and divide sharply. They fall unevenly across and within States and they institutionalize inter- and intra-state disparities in human health and well-being. Yet, the benefits are very real and are generally seen as desirable if not essential to basic human rights. As powerful – and empowering – as the benefits of this marriage are, though, the marriage is riddled with faults. And, the faults of the marriage mimic tectonic faults; they are powerful, unpredictable, and capable of wreaking great destruction. The greenhouse gases these 90 entities have and continue to release are not visible. They do not rip asunder the terrain of the earth like the canals and pipelines do in Louisiana. Instead, they blanket the Earth in warmness but the comfort of this warmness generates beads of sweat that drip down the face of the Earth changing it as they roll. The process begins slowly but eventually gains momentum and the marriage becomes more and more painful both to witness and to live within. And, the pain of the corroding marriage is borne disproportionately by the innocent half; the half that was not able to grow and develop as quickly or fully within the bounds of the marriage.
As in Louisiana, we – as a collective whole – remain faithfully married to our 90+ generating entities and to the energy they produce. We do not yet know when or how or even if the marriage will end but we do know that the marriage is toxic and that whether it ends or drags on endlessly, it will leave us with far worse than a wasted skin.
- Cinnamon Carlarne