All three studies acknowledge that climate change is occurring and will have profound and largely negative consequences for human societies. The Chatham House report, in particular, warns of the risks posed by a warming planet—especially with regard to global water and food supplies. “Temperature increases and reduced precipitation are likely to result in increasing water scarcity in many parts of the world,” it notes, thereby reducing crop yields and causing widespread hunger. But none of the reports make the obvious and crucial connection: that the expanded production of fossil fuels they foresee with so much enthusiasm could result in greatly increased emissions of greenhouse gas (GHG), undermining any international efforts to slow the pace of global warming. In fact, the very opposite could be true: with their unalloyed backing of the new extractive technologies, the reports could make it harder, not easier, for policy-makers to impose curbs on fossil fuel consumption in the years ahead.
The reports also fail to draw another important conclusion: that the new technologies require more energy than conventional drilling methods to extract hydrocarbons and convert them into usable products, and so will increase the output of GHG emissions for every additional ton of oil equivalent added to the world’s energy supply. This is evident, for example, in the supplementary environmental impact statement produced by the State Department on the proposed Keystone XL tar-sands oil pipeline. The SEIS, released March 1, indicates that tar-sands oil produces 5 to 19 percent more GHG emissions than other crude oils (depending on the crude in the comparison and who performed the calculations); while most environmentalists believe those figures are way too low, they nevertheless demonstrate that the ever-increasing international reliance on unconventional oil and gas (as predicted by all three studies) will result in a corresponding acceleration of GHG emissions.
Under these circumstances, it’s reasonable to assume that global temperatures will continue their upward climb. To its credit, the IEA reported in World Energy Outlook 2012 that on our present path, the world is likely to experience an average world temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Celsius, assuming urgent steps are taken to reduce GHG emissions in the near future; if no such steps are taken, temperatures are likely to rise above 5 degrees Celsius. To climate experts, these predictions must be alarming: most scientists now agree that an increase of even 2 degrees is potentially catastrophic, and that anything over that amount is risking hell on earth. Yet none of the headlines generated by the 2012 IEA report bothered to mention these predictions about climate change.
What will human life be like on a warmer planet? While it would seem an obvious question to address in studies that purport to explore the world of 2035 and beyond, none of these reports attempt to provide a serious answer. They assume that life will go on more or less as before, with existing societies remaining intact and functioning as they do today. But this is pure delusion, suggests Andrew Guzman, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Overheated. Even if average world temperatures rise by no more than 2 degrees Celsius, he explains, weak states will face unbearable and possibly lethal pressures, and even the richest countries, including the United States, will experience severe pain and hardship.
In contrast to other books on climate change, which largely concentrate on its environmental effects, Guzman’s sobering analysis focuses on its impact on humans, especially on food production, social harmony and government effectiveness. All, he shows, are at serious risk from rising sea levels and coastal inundations, the melting of glaciers, prolonged drought interspersed with massive flooding, and the worldwide spread of infectious diseases. As the glaciers melt, rainfall diminishes and droughts accumulate, it will become increasingly difficult for millions of people in Asia, Africa and Latin America to grow their crops and feed their families, forcing them to abandon their traditional lands and seek refuge elsewhere—in big cities, neighboring regions and distant lands. The numbers of the displaced will be staggering—in the hundreds of millions or more—and few societies will prove capable of addressing their needs in a peaceful and humane manner. Indeed, it is the risk to society, more than anything else, that we should fear from climate change.
Guzman’s insights about the vulnerabilities of states and societies to the competing needs of their populations expose the other major pressure point in the generally optimistic picture presented by the three agency reports: the mounting expectations of millions of new middle-class consumers in search of the goods and amenities promised by years of mass-market advertising and flamboyant political pronouncements. To satisfy them, political leaders will have to work ever harder to find the necessary resources and convert them into finished consumer goods; should they fail to do so, popular discontent could well materialize and many societies could face serious unrest and disorder. The three reports generally conclude that it will be possible to satisfy these ballooning expectations through the accelerated extraction of fossil fuels and other vital materials. Read the reports more carefully, however, and serious doubts about this arise.
For one thing, it is far more costly to extract energy from tight shale formations, tar sands, the Arctic and so on than from conventional reserves, so the cost of production is rising and major producers are becoming more selective about when and where to deploy their operating funds. Royal Dutch Shell recently announced that it was suspending its plan to drill in the Arctic waters off Alaska, at least temporarily, because of the damage suffered by its drilling rigs while attempting to operate in those stormy waters. This leads to doubts as to whether sufficient investment will be made in all of the super-costly unconventional oil and gas projects that must be developed to achieve the higher production levels touted in the optimistic production scenarios cited above. Indeed, both Chatham House and the IEA suggest that this could prove a significant problem. “The shifting pattern in oil supply means rising oil production costs,” Chatham House observes. “Many resources such as oil shales, bituminous [tar] sands and the Arctic offshore oil are complex and expensive to develop in comparison with conventional fields,” discouraging investment in them when oil prices fall below $100 or more per barrel.
The same is true for many other vital resources, including critical minerals and food. As existing reserves of iron, copper, cobalt and other important minerals are depleted, mining companies have to extract and refine lower-grade ores or develop new mines in remote and dangerous locations, such as the Arctic, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This, in turn, is elevating the cost of production and scaring away some investors, raising doubts about the future availability of some key materials. “Meeting future demand for metals will depend on the successful expansion of existing mines and completion of new mining projects in a timely fashion,” Chatham House explains, “yet there are complex challenges in both areas.” The production of food faces similar challenges: even with increased utilization of high-yield seeds and other agricultural improvements, Chatham House adds, “the increases in output will not be sufficient to meet projected demand in the longer term.”
The NIC report is particularly infused with anxiety over the prospects for stress and conflict arising from unfulfilled expectations: “If new middle-class entrants find it difficult to cling to their new status and are pulled back toward impoverishment, they will pressure governments for change. Rising expectations that are frustrated have historically been a powerful driver of political turmoil.” Faced with such pressure, governments will, of course, respond with repressive force, but they will also do whatever they can to provide their publics with additional commodities—and with more and more governments trapped in the same situation, there is bound to be increased competition for whatever stocks of vital materials are still available, leading to international friction and war. As the NIC points out, “Competition over resources might lead governments to become increasingly involved in managing them, ramping up tensions with other countries vying for the same resources.”
In general, the NIC sees a low risk of serious conflict between states in the decades ahead. Even so, it assesses that risk to be rising, and it identifies resource scarcity and competition as a major potential cause for future strife: “Access to key resources—minerals in addition to energy—will be vital to many developing states’ continued rapid economic growth, and these states will be increasingly dependent on outside sources.” This could make it more likely that such states will fight over control of contested oil and mineral deposits, such as those found in disputed maritime territories in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Both the NIC and Chatham House also warn of conflict over shared water supplies, such as the Euphrates, Indus, Jordan, Nile and Tigris rivers. As water demand rises in these areas (due to growing populations) and supplies contract (due to climate change), “water may become a more significant source of contention than energy or minerals,” the NIC observes.
The good news, then, is really the bad news: there may be an increase in fossil fuel production over the next few decades, and it could contribute to a revival of certain American industries. The greater availability of fossil fuels will also allow some of the world’s newly minted middle-class consumers to power their cars and air conditioners and otherwise enjoy a consumerist lifestyle. But the cost of energy and other vital materials (including foodstuffs) will rise, and many who have entered the bottom rungs of the middle class may find themselves pushed back into poverty or unable to afford the comforts they were led to expect. Meanwhile, global warming will accelerate, and its effects will prove increasingly severe, especially for the poor and those living in highly vulnerable areas like coastal communities and arid inland regions. Life in the future will entail a schizophrenic existence: you will still be able to fill the tank of your car—if you’re so inclined and can afford the cost—but you will live in constant fear of war, food shortages and the next major climate catastrophe.
Wen Stephenson asks what it would mean if we were to walk in Henry David Thoreau’s footsteps in the fight against the fossil-fuel industry.