The Least Convenient Truth, Part II


As I’ve always known, they’re the fairest-minded, most temperate, least cynical, most optimistic, least judgmental, and most conscientious people on Earth. And do you know what emphatically reminded me of this fact recently?

The flood of letters responding to Part 1 of this essay, which called me, among other things (many of them unprintable): arrogant; nationalistic; retarded; illogical; scary; dangerous; drug addled; hateful; paranoid; deceitful; deceptive; deluded; one who lives in a fantasy world; one who engages in intellectual, uh, self-gratification — and my personal favorite…

A purveyor of “political vomit.”

Yes, reflective of the 87% of Americans who believe in human-caused global warming, few of you seem to want to hear that what’s best for the global environment might be more American oil drilling and petroleum consumption. In this regard, W&G readers seem quite in line with the mainstream…

Also somewhat predictably, a lot of readers wrote in to take me to task for my heresy in reporting that the science behind human-caused global warming theory is inconclusive — and that despite what is trumpeted in the major media, there’s hardly a consensus among climatologists about what’s actually causing the modern upward trend in temperatures.

To these folks, I say: Sorry, but this is TRUE, no matter how it feels for you to hear it.

The only thing the global warming debate’s scientists seem to more or less agree on is that the Earth may currently be in the midst of a warming period. But whether this is being caused by the same factors that have spurred the warming and cooling of our globe countless times over the eons or the modern-day emissions of our cars and factories depends largely on which scientist you ask…

That having been said, let me add this: Just because I report that the scientific community is far from united in its theories about the causes of temperature change doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion about it myself. And for some reason, the fact that I dared to even allow for this division among authorities pegged me in many of your eyes as a nonbeliever in the concept of human-caused global warming.

This is a wrong conclusion. If I DIDN’T believe it were plausible that fossil-fuel emissions are causing our planet to warm, it would nullify my point in these essays:

That’s because the U.S. converts fossil fuels into energy and prosperity with far less greenhouse gas (GHG) output per unit burned than almost anyone else — especially major consumers China, India, Africa, and Russia — the more fossil fuels America consumes in lieu of other nations, the cleaner the global atmosphere.

Trading Global Hopes for Backyard Votes

More than a few readers wrote in to excoriate me for suggesting that America should do anything but curb its consumption of oil — and for stating that it’s all but inevitable that nearly all the oil and coal on Earth will be extracted and consumed for energy over the next half century or so.

Their angles were the standard “do our part” and “lead by example” piffle — along with the oft-repeated “reduce our dependence on foreign oil” argument. Apparently, many of you feel that it’s not the least bit inconceivable that if the U.S. acts, all the other nations of the world might unite behind us in policies to stop climate change, leaving buried much of what remains of the Earth’s fossil fuels…

But did this happen when major industrial nations Japan and Germany went green? Currently, they’re the only two nations on Earth that are in the same league as the U.S. in terms of GHG expelled and goods/wealth produced per unit of fossil fuels consumed. Why would the U.S. be able to play Pied Piper to a cooler, greener world if these powerful nations weren’t?

And let’s not forget this inconvenient little fact: America HAS curbed its thirst for oil, dramatically. According to Pew Center data, U.S. oil consumption has declined by 6% over the last 25 years — while our population has exploded more than 20%. The net effect of this decline in consumption has NOT been a trend toward a cleaner and greener globe, or a reduction in global oil consumption. It has only resulted in a weakening of America’s manufacturing sector and the rise of the Chinese production juggernaut — an industrial machine that spews forth more than 2.4 times as much GHG per unit of fossil fuels consumed as the U.S. does!

If U.S. fossil fuel consumption levels had merely kept pace with population growth, we’d have been able to:

· Preserve a powerful economic safeguard against terrorism. Now that China is taking our place as manufacturing top dog and may eclipse us as the No. 1 oil consumer within 10-20 years or less, Arab nations now have an alternative outlet for their oil (one they don’t hate as much as us). This weakens one of the few remaining disincentives against attacks on America by militant Islamists: petroleum export profits

· Remain an industrially autonomous superpower. Instead of producing our own retail goods, tools, clothing, toys, industrial machinery, etc., we pay a communist regime (China) hundreds of billions of dollars per year to make these things for us in GHG-belching sweatshops and transport them to us in air-polluting ships — all so that we can feel more environmentally conscious

· Expand employment in the manufacturing/production sectors. Had we stuck with the industrial model that made us great, the U.S. would have enough jobs in the manufacturing sector to sustain the needs of any influx of immigrants. Instead of gathering in off-the-books labor pools at the local 7-Eleven, a lot of these folks would be punching time clocks at factories — and paying into the tax pool

· Maintain sustainable strength and integrity in our economy. True to our age-old and successful economic model, America would be relying on manufacturing production (a sector representing real, concrete worth) as the perennial backbone of its economy — instead of debt spending against overheated real estate values and consumer credit sources. In 2005, the U.S. economy grew at better than 4%, yet our national savings rate was a net negative!

In other words: Instead of remaining the world’s leader in both productive industry AND responsible resource use, we’ve squandered our advantage in the world economic and energy chess game. We’ve thought only of our own backyards, making policy decisions based on how many votes and tax dollars could be corralled by playing the winds of the American political atmosphere — not based on what’s really best for Earth’s atmosphere in the long run.

Can Nature Trump Human Nature — or the Nature of Power?

Maybe it’s because we live in a free-market democracy and are used to being able to make our choices known with both our ballots and dollars, but it seems hard for us to conceptualize that for a huge number of rising fossil fuel consumers on Earth, there ARE no such choices. The “market” is what those in power (communist dictators, warlords, clerical zealots, or the rare elected heads of state) say it is — and so are energy policies.

But even if this weren’t the case — that there were some magic switch that could be thrown to all of a sudden grant every person on Earth access to the free market, without fear of their governments and unfettered by the political agendas of their home nations, do you think that most of these people would:

A) Skip the fossil-fueled consumerism they’ve only dared dream about and move directly to a place of earthen-hut harmony with the planet that does nothing but radically limit (or make prohibitively expensive) the lifestyle they’ve been lusting after for a century? Or…

B) Deal with a few extra degrees by cranking up their new air conditioning — while dodging their increased risk of melanoma by opting for the tinted glass option in their shiny new Hummers and catching matinee after matinee at the corner megaplex?

Come on, put yourself in the shoes of the average inhabitant of rural China, India, or Africa: You and your family have already been living forever in an earthen hut without much in the way of electric appliances, climate control, or petro-powered machines and vehicles. Now, when these things are within your grasp through booming economic development (fueled by rampant American consumerism we can no longer self-sustain), are you really going to pass up your chance at them because of some vague, unproven notion that they’re killing the Earth?

That’s just not a realistic view of human nature, or of the way governments work…

The reality is that in any system of government except a democracy (in which voters’ environmental or humanitarian concerns can have an impact), energy policy is dictated not by consideration for Mother Earth, but by simple economics — whatever will yield the fastest sustainable bottom-line growth the absolute cheapest. And like it or not, for the foreseeable future in developing nations of Africa, South/Central America, Eastern Europe, and Asian nations like China, India, Russia, and Indonesia, that means the large-scale and increasing consumption of fossil fuels…

Unlike with nuclear, hydrogen, solar, and some other types of power, any country with even the most rudimentary technical know-how has the ability to generate power by burning oil and coal. It’s low-tech energy to begin with, and it’s especially so when done without regard for the atmosphere. And despite today’s high crude prices, it’s still cheap — even more so if you’ve already got your own fossil fuels in the ground (like Africa, Russia, and South America — and the U.S., if we’d ever get our priorities straight and siphon it out).

Why is this so important to my main point?

Because as I said in Part 1 of this essay, the overwhelming likelihood is that humans will drill, suck, tank, trade, and consume nearly every drop of oil on this planet (except what’s under America) over the next half century or so, regardless of the resultant climatic change. The same goes for a lot of our world’s coal…

That means it’s all but inevitable that the Earth’s atmosphere will have to withstand an incredible barrage of GHGs over that time — even more so if the U.S. further curbs consumption (or doesn’t ramp it up a bit).

Consuming Our Way Toward the Lesser Evil

Only a few things could prevent the rapid future consumption of a huge percentage of the world’s fossil fuels by aggressively polluting nations with virtually no incentive to seek cleaner alternatives:

1) The forcible future seizure of the world’s oil and coal fields by a nation or consortium of nations willing to sacrifice trillions of dollars and perhaps millions of lives to ensure these resources aren’t consumed — and able to subsist without fossil fuels themselves. Mind you, I don’t think that the hostile seizure of oil fields is unlikely in the future (we’ll see what happens when poor, yet militarily powerful countries get desperate to sustain growth), only their seizure at the hands of environmentally responsible nations for the purposes of preservation. I include this only because it could theoretically be possible, however inconceivable, at some point down a very twisted road. Likelihood: 0.00001%.

2) An enforceable international agreement between all the nations on Earth to eliminate or radically curb greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the protestations of the green left, this does not exist with the Kyoto Protocol. Most of the biggest polluter nations and up-and-coming GHG giants (again, measured from a per-unit-consumed standpoint) who’ve signed on to this agreement are exempt from virtually any accountability to it for the better part of another decade or so. And even if some new, equitable global agreement on climate control were possible, how would monitoring and enforcement be managed? Economic sanctions? Military action, as in item No. 1 above? It’s a fantasy. Likelihood: +/- 0.1%.

3) The rapid development and deployment of new energy technologies that are not only low-tech enough to be adapted quickly and easily on a nationwide scale by even the poorest, most corrupt Third World nations (the ones who spew GHG at disproportionate levels, remember), but inexpensive and reliable enough to prove economically advantageous over fossil fuel extraction and consumption. These technologies would also have to be versatile enough to replace petroleum derivatives in cars, trucks, ships, and other vehicles — plus they would have to NOT require a complete revamping of existing energy infrastructures. Sure, this is possible, but it’s a wild card and would take some pretty hellacious leaps in technology to make it worthwhile for the whole world to retool for and adapt before all the cheap fossil fuels are burned. Likelihood: +/- 5%.

4) The exhaustion of fossil fuels, or at least the depletion of them to the point where their extraction, refinement, and consumption becomes prohibitively expensive compared with other energy sources — technologies that have yet to be developed, mind you. Experts argue over whether we’ve hit the peak of oil production/extraction or not, but they don’t argue over the likelihood that as world population explodes and economies in formerly destitute nations develop (many on the consumption and/or sales of their oil reserves), the demand for fossil fuels will go nowhere but up. Eventually, all fossil fuels will be burned, sold for consumption, or trapped in small pockets too costly to extract, finally forcing item No. 3 above. Likelihood: +/- 95%.

I compiled this list to once again get to this bottom line: From a strictly environmental standpoint — meaning the least possible impact on the Earth’s atmosphere from GHG emissions — the green crowd should be clamoring for the nations with the cleanest-burning petro-technology (democracies like the U.S., Germany, France, Canada, and Japan) to buy and stockpile for their own use as much foreign oil and coal as they can get their hands on, while leaving their own reserves untouched in the ground…

This may not be too realistic to expect, but it would be optimum for planet Earth.

A Burning Game of Hungry Hungry Hippos

There’s a flip side to the energy and fossil fuel consumption equation, as well: sales of oil to polluter nations…

Think about it: Even if developed democracies find ways to sidestep fossil fuels for their own energy needs, who besides the U.S. would resist the urge to sell its oil to China (and India and other polluter nations)?

A few cases in point:

BRAZIL — Brazil’s largest oil company has launched exploration ventures of offshore oil resources with state-owned China Petrochemical Corp. The nations signed an agreement in May 2004 to cooperate on all aspects of petroleum production. The Brazilian oil firm is also negotiating for Chinese aid in the construction of a pipeline linking northern and southern Brazil, to better serve Chinese oil exportation demands. In November 2004, China initiated an infusion of mining infrastructure investment that’ll pump billions of dollars into Brazil’s economy. What else could this cash be buying besides future access to Brazilian oil?

CANADA — In Beijing on Jan. 20, 2005, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao signed the 13 agreements of the Statement on Energy Cooperation in the 21st Century. These agreements cap a decade-long trend in energy cooperation (both oil and gas) between the two nations. Under authority of the new agreement, China will get first crack at oil from the virtually untapped Athabasca oil sands region. These 13 accords also laid the groundwork for a new 720-mile Canadian oil pipeline from the oil sands region of Alberta west to the British Columbia coast. The purpose of this pipeline: to service future Chinese oil demand.

VENEZUELA — Venezuela, the world’s fifth largest oil exporter, currently sells about half its exported oil to America. But in recent years, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has cooled on the U.S. (strained relations with the Bush administration are largely to blame) and made it abundantly clear he wants to divert that flow of oil to China. His plans include Chinese investments in both oil and gas projects in the Latin American nation — and a pipeline through neighboring Panama to more easily facilitate the exportation of oil westward to the People’s Republic.

See, even darling-of-the-greenies Canada is gearing up to sell millions, if not billions, of barrels of oil to a communist nation that consumes it with nearly 2½ times the GHG emissions per unit than its democratic southern neighbor — in which they perpetually dwell in the protection of! How’s that for a green-world, fair-minded energy policy?

Conversely, here in the U.S., we’re the bad environmentalists for NOT drilling or selling much of our own oil and for consuming less of it per capita with every passing year — and for burning it cleaner and getting more wealth out of it than almost any other nation on Earth…

There’s simply no explanation, other than ignorance, for this kind of thinking.

And keep this in mind, to Right now, oil is very nearly a zero-sum game. Global supply and demand are so tightly matched that one major consumer nation burning less oil doesn’t necessarily translate into less overall oil consumed. Other nations are waiting in the wings to buy and burn whatever oil the U.S. doesn’t consume or purchase. In fact, according to data from the International Energy Agency and other sources, maximum oil production currently exceeds global demand by only around 1%.

Now I ask you, from a purely environmental stance, what should the U.S. do to help the global atmosphere as much as possible? Cut our own consumption even more, to allow other nations to turn the oil we would have used into many times more GHGs than we’d have expelled?

Is that what China, India or Russia would do?

Once again, my point is this: There’s more than enough demand to ensure that for the foreseeable future, all the oil that can possibly be extracted from the Earth is going to get drilled, pumped, and burned — or sold for the purpose of consumption. All the U.S. can do about it is influence WHO burns it, not HOW it gets burned. We can do this by either curbing our importation and consumption of oil (increasing the number of barrels the real polluters get) or expanding it.

Until such time as world oil production outpaces demand by a significant amount (if that’s even possible), the U.S. wields more control than any other nation over global GHG output — by virtue of its cleaner consumption of oil or its stockpiling and nonconsumption of it.

So basically, it’s an oil race between major consumer nations, more so now than ever before in history. It’s like a global game of Hungry Hungry Hippos, with barrels of oil, instead of marbles, determining the winner…

And as offensive as it must seem to those who’ve been brainwashed by the myopic green movement — or to those who believe that unaccountable nondemocratic consumer nations will “do the right thing” about GHG emissions — the Earth can only win this game if America does.

The Real Aim of That Treacherous Treaty

Many of you right now are no doubt scoffing at what you believe to be my outmoded viewpoint of the global oil market as a “race” or “competition.” You might be shaking your head and thinking I’m an idiot for not realizing that we’re in a GLOBAL economy now — and that all the old rules about how nations relate are obsolete…

And yes, the greater marketplace is becoming more globalized when it comes to the production and sale of goods and the outsourcing of services. But I’m telling you: It’s Machiavellian business as usual when it comes to things in finite supply — like resources.

How else can you explain the ridiculous Kyoto Protocol?

That “treaty” is nothing more than a massive United Nations campaign aimed at leveraging American public opinion and domestic politics to force us to decrease our petroleum usage by 43% over the next six years (about 11% of global oil consumption) — while “developing” nations like China, India, Brazil, and a bunch of others in U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s homeland of Africa are given a carte blanche to consume and pollute as much as they want!

Now, knowing what you now do about how tightly matched global oil demand and production are to each other, do you think the Kyoto Protocol is really about reducing GHGs (it would, in fact, increase them)? Or is it about playing Robin Hood with 11% of the world’s oil supply for low-tech, oil-hungry Asian, African, and South American nations — and simultaneously hobbling the U.S. economy so other nations can better compete with us?

Does that seem in line with a global economic and environmental outlook to you?

Fighting Myopia, Delusions of Utopia

Before I wrap up, I want to thank Whiskey & Gunpowder readers for all their feedback from all points on the spectrum — with special thanks to the self-described “wacko lefty tree-hugger” who agreed with my point about U.S. oil consumption being better for the environment…

But if the volume and tenor of feedback I received is indeed representative of the public as a whole, I’m afraid that as fair, tolerant, and Earth-conscious as we Americans continually show ourselves to be, we’re also among the most naïve, myopic, uninformed, and easily misled people in the world. That’s a shame, because as a democracy, these faults enable us to shoot ourselves in the foot, policy-wise.

Over the course of both these essays, I’ve tried to present the five main pillars of my argument logically. To recap these, in simplest terms…

1) Barring some miraculously cheap, safe, abundant, and simple development in energy technology, fossil fuel consumption will continue unchecked for the foreseeable future, until such time as it is depleted or too expensive to extract.

2) Being that the global petroleum production chain is already at peak capacity and no longer meeting demand, nations must now (for the first time in history) directly compete with each other for their share of a finite flow of oil.

3) Being it is unfeasible to prevent the total consumption of this flow of oil for the foreseeable future, it’s the lesser of all evils from a green standpoint if the least possible GHG is produced during the consumption process.

4) Being that developed democracies are the only governmental systems beholden to the sensitivities of environmentally conscious citizens AND economically robust enough to bear the cost of GHG emissions regulation, such nations are the ones best able to produce the most while polluting the least with whatever share of the world’s annual oil flow they can command…

5) And as the largest, most consumptive, and, by far, among the least polluting of these democracies (only Japan and Germany are in the same GHG/GDP class), it behooves the planet to have the U.S. burning as much of this flow of oil as possible — given current supply conditions.

Of course, that picture could change if new technologies are discovered and implemented (possible, but a ways off), other major oil-consumer nations somehow start burning their fossil fuels 2 or 3 times cleaner (unlikely), or the world oil supply chain radically expands its production to once again exceed all possible demand…

At that point, it would indeed benefit the planet (if only a little bit) if the U.S. curbed its oil consumption. Whether other nations would do the same or not is anyone’s guess. But as long as the world oil supply is a zero-sum game, the bigger the portion of that yearly flow of oil we can consume or stockpile, the less toasty, hurricane-blown, and drowned we’ll all be.

I realize that’s not exactly a Utopian outcome — a planet that’s not quite as screwed up as it could be — but it’s better than the myopia of thinking the best course of action is to sacrifice our economy, mobility, security, and comfort for a Mother Earth that’ll be worse off for our efforts.

One more thing before I let you g A lot of readers wrote in to call me, in so many words, a nature-hater or the enemy of all things green. To me, these are fighting words.

I can’t definitively say why global warming is happening, nor can the scientists. However, as a lifelong outdoorsman from a long line of naturalists and outdoorsmen, I have a lot more to lose from a “quality of life” standpoint should our environment and its fragile ecosystems go all out of whack than a lot of you who are reading this right now. And I’m sorry if this seems like a smackdown to any of you, but I have invested more of my time, money, sweat, and love into the preservation of the natural world than the vast majority of this column’s readers ever will…

I love nature enough to do my part for it: consuming my share of fossil fuels far cleaner and getting far more out of it than the guy on the other side of the world living under the oppressive system he’s unlucky enough to be born under.

Bottom line: Even if the evidence on global warming isn’t conclusive, we should err on the side of the least possible greenhouse gasses being released into Earth’s atmosphere. And counterintuitive though it may seem to the indoctrinated, this means the U.S. should ramp up its oil consumption until we are once again the world’s manufacturing leader — instead of outsourcing an ever-increasing amount of industry to nations that produce far less goods and far more greenhouse gas per unit of petroleum used than we can.

That would be the ultimate in responsible environmental policy.

Thinking globally, acting vocally,

Jim Amrhein
Contributing editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
July 18, 2006