The Global Price of Resource Use

By Martha Molfetas - 07 March 2013

When will our resource use exceed our global capacity for warming? The last year alone has seen extreme weather events ranging from droughts and derechos, to severe floods and hurricanes—all hitting unlikely places. Indeed, 2012 was recorded as the hottest year on record, with more record high temperatures since records began. Just in case anyone was curious, the last time the world had a record cold year was 1983.  2012 may be remembered 100 years from now as a hike through the book of Revelations, sans four horsemen. Or it may just be the first in series entitled ‘Our New Climate Reality’.

Meanwhile we continue to exploit and explore harder to harness energy reserves like shale and Arctic reserves – thanks to a warming planet. We are currently operating in an energy paradox. We need energy to exist comfortably, but the extraction and use of harder to harness reserves poses an undeniable existential threat. Hydraulic fracking is forever changing the landscape of the United States and threatens key agriculturally rich areas and drinking water for millions. Meanwhile Arctic shale development has stripped boreal forests. Just to put shale into conventional use involves a toxic process that uses extensive amounts of fresh water and natural gas—all to process it into conventional oil. To add insult to injury, potential emissions from proven and currently unburned fossil fuels would account for an estimated four to five times the current global carbon budget between now and 2049. Due to the volatility associated with their extraction and use, the New Economics Foundation has deemed these reserves ‘unburnable’.

A warming planet also means melting permafrost. Twenty-five percent of the world’s landmass is permafrost, which happens to hold up to 1,700 billion tonnes of carbon and methane gas. That’s estimated to be half the amount of carbon currently floating around in the atmosphere. To date, man-made emissions account for 2,000 gigatonnes of CO2. Our remaining CO2 budget to avoid an internationally agreed 2°C rise in global temperatures is 1,600 gigatonnes. If this fact wasn’t alarming enough, scientists have discovered that a 1.5°C change could be the threshold for further melting of the permafrost, which would release thousands of billions of tonnes of CO2e and methane. Right now, we are teeter tottering near 1.5 degrees. Needless to say, increased warming will create an increasingly insecure climate reality for everyone.

Climate scientists aren’t the only ones ringing alarm bells over our changed climate and future realities we’ll be forced to cope with. The United States Department of Defence has persistently stated that climate change can and will become a ‘threat multiplier’, exacerbating already fragile regional dynamics and creating new conflicts over scarce resources like potable water, food, and energy. Some have considered the recent conflict in Mali as one fuelled by climate change. Resource insecurity can fuel instability for weak or transitioning countries that are unable to cope with changes in agricultural output, water access, and energy for their citizens. Climate instability can, and potentially already has, opened the door for hostile groups like Al Qaeda to gain new recruits and foster regional instability. Typically when we think of security, we consider the likelihood and severity of conflict. What we need to begin to consider is how access to essential resources and insecurity over our shared commons can intensify and potentially cause new conflicts. There is no time like the present to address climate change, unless we all want to live in a world like ‘Mad Max’.  

Some have begun to turn the tides. Europe has emerged as the leader in climate adaptation policies. The cornerstone of these policies has been a European-wide carbon emissions trading system, where tonnes of carbon are purchased and traded on the international market. This system was put in place as a way to encourage the private sector to seek renewable energy and sustainable practices. However, the financial crisis has made these permits cost one-third what they did just four years ago.

Practices like fracking are extremely limited in Europe. However, in the UK this year it has emerged as a means to increase gas output in Scotland. Unlike the United States and Canada, Europe is lacking in fossil fuel resources. This has created insecurity in the past when Gulf oil or Russian gas has been tied up due to regional instabilities. It is perhaps for this reason why Europe has led the way for the last two decades in green technology, solar power, geothermal, and wind power as a means of energy use. In fact, at the last EU-summit, leaders agreed to put 20% of the EU-common budget towards climate adaptation.

Europe is no longer alone, at the World Economic Forum in Davos; the directors of the IMF and World Bank both stated that a viable economic recovery would be impossible without drastic action on climate change. The international community is beginning to accept climate change as a major part of security and development, and most importantly as interconnected to the global employment and economic crisis. In the past, climate change was dubbed as solely a ‘sustainable development’ issue, when now it is beginning to be viewed as a security and economic issue.

While our entire global economy is dependent on oil and energy consumption, our entire planet is dependent on our shared environmental security, our global commons. As an international community we need to accept climate change as not just a ‘sustainable development’ issue, but as a security issue centred at the intersection of critical resources and fossil fuel use. Climate change is a ‘threat multiplier’. We cannot environmentally sustain further use of ‘unburnable’ fossil fuels as the main means of energy use. With diminishing potable water resources, losses in agricultural output, and unconventional fossil fuel exploitation; it is clear that we are in a post-peak reality. In our post-peak world we will not just face rising tides—we will face an unpredictable environment where security, resources, and conflict are entwined. We are already running on ‘E’, and there is no way to fill the tank back up unless we think of changing the tides on climate change – otherwise we’re all fracked.


This piece can also be viewed on Generation C Magazine.

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