Climate or market combustion: which one will fossil fuels ignite first?


Photo credit: Señor Codo

Let’s celebrate the 75th anniversary of fossil fuels by facing the truth that either the world’s climate is going to combust or the economic market is. Currently the coal, oil and gas reserves in the world’s stock exchanges would amount to 762 gigatons of CO₂ being released. If this colossal volume of greenhouse gas penetrates our atmosphere, the rise in global temperature will surpass 2ᵒC.

The global temperature has already risen by about 0.8ᵒC since 1880, according to the 2012 analysis released by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Even with this seemingly small increase, the current emission levels have already caused significant disasters that should have launched our world leaders into action. Loss of Arctic sea ice is one example of habitat loss caused by global warming, and as habitats are beginning to change rapidly under the new climate, it is doubtful that many of our current species will be able to adapt fast enough to survive. However, it is not just the natural world that is suffering, and those more concerned with our species should be aware that it is the least developed countries that suffer the worst hits, with the least publicity, caused by the unrelenting cloud of pollutants our rich countries are belching into the atmosphere. The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (Cred) has been reporting an increase in the number of natural disasters for a while, but as many of these floods, droughts and storms are ignored by the media that prefers to be ignorant, the wounds inflicted from our current carbon consumption go unnoticed.

Worse than that, many rich countries are engaging in an emission-laundering scheme where they migrate polluting industries with fat, dirty exhausts to developing countries. This means that their carbon emissions are accounted under the name of the developing country whose impoverished population has to live with the blame, the pollution and the consequences of a rich bully of a country’s lifestyle. This underhanded trick is called outsourcing, and was brought to national attention in 1992 when The Economist got a hold of an internal memo sent by Larry Summers, then Chief Economist for the World Bank, where he said, “Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs (Less Developed Countries)? … I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. … I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low [sic] compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City. … The concern over an agent that causes a one-in-a-million change in the odds of prostate cancer is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostate cancer than in a country where under-5 mortality is 200 per thousand.”

The consumption of fossil fuels needs to be reduced dramatically- not ten years from now, not twenty years from now, but twenty years ago. The effects discussed so far have not even reached the effect on agriculture that global warming and unstable climate change will cause, and soon food prices will rocket as we struggle to harvest enough food for Earth’s ever-growing population. Research by the University of Washington on temperatures during growing seasons has led to a prediction that there is a 90 per cent chance that average temperatures in the subtropics will exceed the most extreme heat recorded in the last century, affecting over 3 billion people who would have to starve or emigrate without locally produced crops for food and income.

If we burn the fossil fuels currently listed in the world’s stock exchange, the market is going to have serious losses in the agriculture sector, as well as unpredictable consequences from natural disasters and water insecurity. Scientists and environmentalists have been suggesting plans to avoid the dystopia that awaits if our energy industries continue to fart vast quantities of pollutants to fuel developed countries’ needs, and it is already past the deadline for people to start putting them to action.

Originally published in the Student, April 2013.

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