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Is Governor Brown Playing 13 Tzameti With the Climate?

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The Washington Post's publication of an outrageously misleading, climate change-denying editorial by -- of all people -- the chair of the House Science Committee serves as another reminder of the lamentable state of our climate discourse. Few public officials are willing to confront stark climate realities, and little more than lip service is given as humanity blazes past ominous milestones like the highest atmospheric concentration of carbon in five million years. Even as New Jersey struggles to recover from the fossil-fueled devastation of Superstorm Sandy, Governor Chris Christie dismissed the notion that his state should prepare for future climate impacts, rejecting the premise that Sandy was influenced by climate change, and accusing his questioner of promoting a liberal public radio agenda.

At least one elected official can usually be counted on for real talk about our climate crisis: California Governor Jerry Brown, who just criticized the media for ignoring climate change. Governor Brown's office even features a comprehensive fact briefing on climate science, complete with rebuttals to typical climate denier talking points. Speaking before the National Governors Association earlier this year, Governor Brown made a forceful call for climate action, saying: "We know we're playing Russian Roulette with our climate, and I believe we have to take action."

It'd be nice to declare Brown's rhetoric a refreshing dose of climate reality from a prominent political leader. But there is a problem with Brown's analogy: It's too optimistic. Even if the United States and other nations committed to eliminating the use of fossil fuels by 2050, that would give us an 80 percent chance of global warming staying below the threshold scientists recognize as catastrophically dangerous for humanity. In other words, taking action on climate change like Jerry Brown is calling for would still give us worse odds than Russian roulette.

No, Russian roulette is not the game we're playing with the climate. The game we're playing more closely resembles 13 Tzameti, the fictionalized game depicted in the 2005 suspense thriller of the same name. In the movie, 13 men are locked into a room, arranged in a circle, and each given a gun to point at the man in front of him. In the first round, each gun has one bullet in the chamber. Each successive round of 13 Tzameti is more dangerous, with players increasing the odds of death in each round by loading another bullet into the gun's chamber. Scientists have long warned that a two-degree Celsius temperature increase is the safe limit for global warming. But with global warming signals like melting Arctic ice occurring even faster than expected, it's possible that two-degree Celsius -- which we're on a trajectory to easily surpass -- was too high of a target for what should be considered "safe." And lurking beneath that unsettling news is another truth -- higher and higher greenhouse gas emissions take us ever closer to the global warming tipping point, the point at which feedback effects take over and render humanity incapable of curtailing climate impacts. Climate impacts are spiraling, and we're loading the dice toward ever more extreme weather. Yet facing these dire odds, political leaders are nevertheless choosing to lock ourselves into an "all of the above" strategy that guarantees decades of continued fossil fuel combustion. With each pipeline that is approved, each greenlight given to coal and natural gas exports, we're putting more bullets in the chamber, and doubling down on our dangerous game of 13 Tzameti.

With this more accurate analogy in mind, it is disturbing to see Gov. Brown declare his openness to fracking his state's vast shale oil reserves:

"For the first time since the issue has risen to prominence in California, Gov. Jerry Brown yesterday was asked at a news conference to discuss his view on fracking. His answer was revealing, because in a two-minute span he twice mentioned that the possibility of using fracking to tap California oil reserves previously thought to be unrecoverable "could be a fabulous economic opportunity."

Buried deep under California's soil lies the next round of 13 Tzameti -- this bullet takes the form of an estimated 15.4 billion barrels of crude oil. California prides itself on a law called AB 32, the nation's first statewide cap on global warming emissions, and Gov. Brown has insisted that he is committed to meeting the goals of that law and working to "decarbonize the economy." But as RL Miller has pointed out, fracking California's enormous shale oil reserves would essentially wipe out the emissions reduction goals that Gov. Brown claims to support:

"Generally, AB32 set a goal of rolling back emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The state set a baseline of 507 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, and a goal of reducing that to 427 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. This PDF explains how the 507 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year was calculated along with estimated savings from various programs within AB32, e.g., the Pavley (high miles per gallon) standards will save 27.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. It's a smart, well balanced diet for the state's carbon footprint.

In other words, releasing 6.45 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is the equivalent of delaying a planned reduction of 80 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year -- for 80 years."

Thankfully, despite his public musings, Gov. Brown has yet to pull the trigger on fracking. California still has a chance to place a moratorium on fracking while its global warming impacts are fully assessed -- an assessment that's badly needed, especially in light of the recent revelation that methane leakage estimates from oil and gas extraction may be way too low. Maybe once a full assessment is made, Gov. Brown will help us avoid playing 13 Tzameti with our climate.

This was originally published on grist.org.

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