Listening to President Obama’s State of the Union address, it would have been easy to conclude that we were slowly but surely gaining in the war on climate change. “Our energy policy is creating jobs and leading to a cleaner, safer planet,” the president said. “Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth.” Indeed, it’s true that in recent years, largely thanks to the dampening effects of the Great Recession, US carbon emissions were in decline (though they grew by 2 percent in 2013). Still, whatever the president may claim, we’re not heading toward a “cleaner, safer planet.” If anything, we’re heading toward a dirtier, more dangerous world.
A series of recent developments highlight the way we are losing ground in the epic struggle to slow global warming. This has not been for lack of effort. Around the world, dedicated organizations, communities and citizens have been working day by day to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote the use of renewable sources of energy. The struggle to prevent construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is a case in point. As noted in a recent New York Times article, the campaign against that pipeline has galvanized the environmental movement around the country and attracted thousands of activists to Washington, DC, for protests and civil disobedience at the White House. But efforts like these, heroic as they may be, are being overtaken by a more powerful force: the gravitational pull of cheap, accessible carbon-based fuels, notably oil, coal and natural gas.
In the past few years, the ever more widespread use of new extractive technologies—notably hydraulic fracturing (to exploit shale deposits) and steam-assisted gravity drainage (for tar sands)—has led to a significant increase in fossil fuel production, especially in North America. This has left in the dust the likelihood of an imminent “peak” in global oil and gas output and introduced an alternative narrative—much promoted by the energy industry and its boosters—of unlimited energy supplies that will last into the distant future. Barry Smitherman of the Texas Railroad Commission (which regulates that state’s oil industry) was typical in hailing a “relatively boundless supply” of oil and gas worldwide at a recent meeting of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists.