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Scraping the Bottom

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We are all trust fund babies living off the wealth of our ancestors. I’m not talking Mommy and Daddy. I’m talking Barney.

That cuddly T-Rex and all his dinosaur friends, along with those giant ferns and tiny trilobites, died millions of years ago only to become, very gradually, the energy that fuels our modern life. Until very recently, in geologic time at least, the earth held virtually all of that powerful carbon in a lockbox. “You can’t touch this buried treasure until you come of age,” the earth told humanity.

But before the human species collectively entered adulthood, a status determined by our ability to demonstrate stewardship and postpone gratification, we figured out how to break into the lockbox and loot it. Now the trust fund is heading toward zero, and we’re starting to freak out. We want to keep partying like it’s 1899, a time when our derricks runneth over. But the lights at this rollicking carbon party are starting to flicker, and our creditors are pounding on the door. We’re scrambling to find the money to pay them to keep the liquor flowing and the music playing. But we’re having difficulty scrounging up the loose change. We just don’t want to grow up and face the music of climate change.

You’ve no doubt heard about peak oil. But oil is only one of the precious trust-fund resources that is running out. As Michael Klare writes in his latest book The Race for What’s Left, just about every commodity we depend on is becoming scarce: oil, natural gas, key metals, rare earth elements, and even arable land. As a result, like greedy little kids with a cookie jar, we are scraping the bottom to get all that remains.

“In all likelihood, we are looking at the last oil fields, the last uranium deposits, the last copper mines, and the last reserves of many other vital resources,” Klare writes. “These materials will not all disappear at once, of course, and some as-yet-undeveloped reserves may prove more prolific than expected. Gradually, though, we will see the complete disappearance of many key resources upon which modern industrial civilization has long relied.”

Our desperation can be measured by just how far we will go to extract the last resources. We are digging for oil in the most inhospitable places on earth, buried under Arctic ice or over six miles beneath the ocean floor. We are injecting high-pressure liquid into shale -- fracking -- to release trapped natural gas. We are digging desperately for the minerals that keep our cell phones working and our iPads shiny bright.

Gosh, some of you might be thinking. They keep finding new oil fields every day. Off the coast of Brazil, for instance, the latest seismographic instruments located huge reserves under a mile of salt. This included a “supergiant field” with as much as eight billion barrels of oil. So don’t listen to all these killjoys: let’s turn up the music and dance! Except, oops, eight billion barrels turns out to be not so much oil after all. Writes Joel Cohen in The New York Review of Books, this amount “represented less than one hundred days of the world’s daily oil consumption in 2006.”

And there are consequences, unintended and otherwise, to our desperate efforts to suck up all the remaining carbon. Consider fracking. Originally, environmentalists rather liked the prospects of relying more on natural gas than coal, the burning of which contributes so much to global warming. “If we could convert our coal-fired power plants to natural gas (which in most cases is not that hard to do), carbon emissions would drop,” explains Bill McKibben. “But it’s actually not that simple. Natural gas—CH4—in its unburned state is a remarkably powerful greenhouse gas itself, molecule for molecule many times stronger than CO2. So if even a little bit leaks out to the atmosphere in the drilling process, gas, according to some estimates, can cause even more global warming than coal.”

The problem at this point, despite Klare’s eloquent descriptions of dwindling resources, is that we still have too much accessible carbon. According to a recent OECD report, fossil fuels will still represent 85 percent of the global energy mix in 2050. That means a huge jump in greenhouse gas emissions. We’ll kill off more than a million extra people through the additional air pollution, but that won’t make a dent given the overall population increase of a couple billion. The effect of all those car-drivers and burger-eaters will drive energy consumption and global temperatures skyward.

We must go green, you say. Well, yes, that’s true. But even our green technologies are dependent on these dwindling resources. Lightweight batteries for electric cars require rare earth elements. Photovoltaic solar cells need silicon and platinum, not to mention the rarer minerals gallium and indium. To exploit the renewable sources of energy -- the sun, the tides, the wind -- requires modern technology that depends on precious resources. Still, they’re all better than a lump of coal, as Charlie Brown might say.

Klare recommends a “race to adapt” by competing to be ultra-efficient and more reliant on renewables. This is, of course, reasonable. We just have to quicken the pace. A lot. For instance, I was surprised to learn, on a recent visit to the Bay Area, that San Francisco now requires all citizens to separate out compost. Actually the law went into effect back in 2009. No other major city that I know of has followed suit.

A more radical potion would be to stop looting the lockbox before it’s completely empty. In other words, we should consider keeping some of that carbon in the ground. At the end of last December, an unlikely coalition of film stars, governments, and soft drink companies raised over $100 million to defray the costs of not drilling for oil in the Amazonian rain forest in Ecuador. “Supporters of the scheme argued that it could be a model for change in the way the world pays to protect important places,” writes John Vidal in The Guardian. “The money raised is guaranteed to be used only for nature protection and renewable energy projects. Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon and other countries with oil reserves, have investigated the possibility of setting up similar schemes as an alternative to traditional aid." 

It’s one thing to pay Ecuador or Gabon to show restraint. But what will it take to stop BP and Chevron and Total and the China National Petroleum Corporation from going after every last drop of fossil fuel? Extraction is in their very DNA. They will only turn to other pursuits when it’s profitable to do so. The international community, in other words, has to rig the markets to make extraction a lot more expensive and renewables a lot more profitable.

Raising the price of gas would certainly discourage its use -- and that would be a good thing -- but the pain would fall largely on the consumer. Most carbon taxes operate this way. Beginning this July 1, the Australian government will assess a carbon tax of $23 for every ton of carbon dioxide pollution. The top 500 polluting companies will pay the tax, generating revenues of $24 billion over three years, which will go tax cuts, social welfare, energy efficiency, and green technology investments. But the companies will likely pass the costs on to the consumers.

Carbon taxes are useful, but we should consider taxes on extraction that are steep enough to discourage the oil, natural gas, and mineral companies from even breaking ground. It is extraordinarily risky to dig beneath the Arctic ice and drill miles beneath the ocean floor. But those risks -- and the environmental consequences -- are not reflected in the costs of the operation or the price of the extracted materials. Only by establishing a more sensible cost to extraction can we discourage companies from going to extremes.

The bigger change we have to make is not with markets but with mindsets. At some point, we trust fund babies have to grow up. We have to stop sponging off our elders and prepare to leave something for the next generations.

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