Promises Promises - America, Energy, and Global Climate Change

By Martha Molfetas - 20 December 2013
Martha Molfetas gives readers a snapshot of the ongoing gap between the commitments and reality of tackling climate change.
This past November, COP 19 proved to be yet another missed opportunity to turn back the clock on climate change. The only concrete outcome is that governments must bring their policies to the table for the Paris 2015 Climate Conference, where global policies on emissions reduction are hoped to come into place. COP 19 was plagued with issues surrounding oil and coal sponsorship, and conflict over appropriate measures to take. Overall, COP 19 showed that strong leadership is needed if global sustainability and emissions policies are to stay within the 2-degree climate increase. Already with a 1-degree increase, we’ve seen severe weather and significant damage to agriculture and fisheries.
The world’s largest emitter has the opportunity to lead on future climate talks and emissions policies. The Obama administration has taken an ‘all of the above’ policy approach, incorporating renewable with an expansion in hydraulic fracking and offshore oil and gas development. Overall, US emissions are down by 8% from 2007 – present. This drop could be due to the economic downturn and a reduction in transport, among other things. Achievements made through paltry actions on sustainability are eclipsed by an unprecedented increase in hydrolic fracking and offshore oil and gas exploration throughout America, and even an expansion into national parks. Much remains to be seen for America to reach previous global commitments.
The Kyoto Protocol set out differing limits for developing and developed countries, essentially allowing the former to emit without limits. By 2020, it is estimated that developing countries’ emissions will surpass emissions by developed countries. China and the US are the world’s largest emitters. A big difference being that the US is an established industrial nation with a population of 300 million, while China is an emerging nation with 1.6 billion people. In a joint US-China summit this June, the US and China agreed to put cutting greenhouse gases into their national policies.
To date, the Obama Administration has maintained that climate policy is core to the administration, to America’s future, and to our shared human existence. At Copenhagen 15, Obama made it clear that the US was going to join the sustainability wave, cutting emissions by 17% by 2020. In another address, President Obama outlined a climate and sustainability initiative focused on repositioning America as a forerunner on climate and sustainability, rather than dead last on the list of OECD countries. Obama outlined potential initiatives ranging from mandating that all federal government departments use 20% renewable energy, to cutting government emissions by three billion metric tons annually.
Unfortunately, these policies do not match actions. An inability to reduce fossil fuel expansion and cope with a sick planet is causing irreversible global damage. Scientists have stated that for global climate change to stagnate and decline, roughly two-thirds of existing oil, gas, coal, and other hydrocarbon reserves must stay underground to prevent a ‘climate chaos’.
"The question is not whether we need to act. The question is whether we will have the courage to act before it's too late," President Barack Obama, Keynote Address
The most contentious development in America has been Keystone XL, a pipeline that will connect Alberta tar-sands to US Gulf Coast Refineries. Tar sands come from shale rock and are processed, diluted in water, and burn off natural gas to create something we can then further refine into the petrol we’re familiar with purchasing. The substance that will be transiting across the American Heartland could cause irreversible damage. Oil firms are still unsure what methods work best to clean tar sands if and when they have spilt. To put matters into perspective, cleanup efforts are still being made for the conventional oil spill caused by Exxon Valdez in 1987.
In the last year, the US has seen shale oil spills in Arkansas. In North Dakota alone, over 300 crude oil spills occurred in the last year and went unreported. Fracking has impacted millions in the US, causing aquifer contamination and threatening agriculture, public health, and local economies. The US Environmental Protection Agency is noticeably absent to act on these issues. During the Bush Administration, the EPA saw a significant decrease in powers in tandem with an increase in drilling. American public lands have opened up to drilling, and expanded under the Obama Administration.
Instead of fulfilling strong climate policies and commitments to ensure global prosperity, and a secure future for the generations to come, the world has seen a scramble for what’s left. China has made territorial claims in the South China Sea for potential oil and gas deposits. Shell and Gazprom are exploring Arctic reserves, even though they both lack the technology to deal with potential spills. Global oil firms have shown a renewed interest in unstable areas like Somalia. Shale gas and shale oil are being developed at an exponential rate in both the US and Canada. Harder to harness fossil fuels and increasing investment in unstable oil-rich arenas are representative of our post-peak reality. Eventually hydrocarbons will be exhausted and we will need to re-think our energy paradigms.
The impacts of climate change can be strongly felt through algae blooms, warming waters, storm intensity, increased droughts, and other climate irregularities. These impacts have caused significant economic costs from lost agricultural and livestock production and the high cost of disaster relief. The current energy paradigm is unsustainable. It’s time for countries to put their money where their mouths are. There is no time like the present to act on global climate policies. The world has a very small window of time to impact climate change in the right ways. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?

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