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High-stakes climate poker

Posted on 16 January 2014 by Guest Author

James Byrne is a climate scientist and Professor at the University of Lethbridge, Canada. He has published extensively on the impacts of climate change on water, ecosystems and society; served as an expert reviewer of many oil sands environmental impacts reports; was Program Committee Education Co-Representative, American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting 2010-12; and co-convened the AGU Chapman Conference on Climate Communication and Education in June 2013.

My friends and I get together once a month to play Texas HoldEm poker - great conversation, a few drinks, snacks and laughs. But I don't like high-stakes poker. Gambling with high-value is not a wise choice, particularly if the pain of the loss translates beyond oneself.

The fossil fuel industry is bluffing society in a multi-trillion dollar high-stakes poker game. Current reserves of fossil fuels are five times more than we can afford to burn if we want to keep global warming to less than 2°C; and we have to keep global warming below 2°C. The net worth of fossil fuel corporations, the value of their chip stack, is based on fully exploiting these reserves. Financial leaders are expressing great concerns about betting on fossil fuels. Forbes magazine says,

"Groups as diverse as Shell, Mercer, HSBC, prominent insurance companies and re-issuers, Standard & Poor's and the International Energy Agency (IEA) have been giving clear warning signs about continuing to invest in fossil fuels."

But fossil fuel-based corporations are still bluffing. They want expanded fossil fuel use; making massive investments in oil exploration, hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas, and the Canadian tar sands. The latter two are particularly bad bets given their large greenhouse gas footprints, water, soil and air pollution problems; and tar sands need 40 years to recover the costs of multi-billion dollar plants.

Why are fossil fuels a bad bet? (1) Continued use threatens our basic societal foundations through pollution, environmental disruption and growing health costs and infrastructure losses (fires, floods, droughts, heat waves, sea level rise, more violent weather, urban pollution and health); (2) the International Monetary Fund (IMF) says current fossil fuel subsidies are $1.9 trillion per year – these must be eliminated – that will make fossil fuels more expensive; (3) greater external costs of carbon taxes and emissions trading will be assigned to fossil fuels, make them more expensive; (4) renewable energy sources are competitive now and will be more so given fewer external costs than fossil fuels; and, (5) there is a growing fossil fuel divestment movement that major financial managers fear.

Who really has the big chip stacks? The 2006 Stern Report on the Economics of Climate Change put the annual costs of transitioning to a renewable energy economy at about 1% of global GDP; about $850 billion. Is that a big bet? Well, current annual global subsidies to fossil fuels are about $1.9 trillion. The Climate Vulnerable Forum Report in 2012 estimated that humanity is now incurring about $1.2 trillion in losses every year due to climate change, and rising. That is 1.6% of global GDP. Oil consuming nations would spend a record $2 trillion on oil in 2012, $500 billion on natural gas, and $500 billion on coal. So the annual costs to continue using fossil fuels is over $6 trillion, whereas we need to spend only $850 billion to switch to renewable energy and fix climate change.

The fossil fuel industry's bluff takes balls: they are betting humanity will continue to pay over $6 trillion annually to burn fossil fuels rather than $850 billion to convert to renewable energy. Worse, they are betting humanity will pay trillions for increasing climate change adaptation costs while we pay trillions for fossil fuels. The fossil fuel industry is demanding humanity go on buying and burning unneeded fossil fuel reserves as the climate radically warms … all so these carbon kings can stay flush. Fossil fuel magnates and plutocrats are betting many billions more in a frenzied, massive exploration push to add to unneeded fossil fuel reserves.

There are other big chip stacks in the pot.

Click here to read the rest

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Comments 1 to 5:

  1. At the beginning of 2012, we had a CO2 budget of about 1010 GtCO2. At that time, the remaining global fossil fuel reserves contained about 3400 GtCO2, about 3.5 times the budget. (Source:

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  2. I live in Anchorage, AK and work with the oil industry. The oil companies have an undue influence on politics in our state and have managed to buy themselves a tax break worth billions a year.

    This money could be used to for renewable energy, homes for the homeless, you name it. But instead the money will leave our state and go somewhere else, only to increase fossil fuel consumption. 

    Now Shell has plans to drill in the Chukchi and ConoccoPhllips produce oil in NPR-A. How is any of this in our best interest at this point? 

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  3. The Great Game.  Supression of public discussion is the key strategy from the fossil fuel industry.   The recent news reports on weather calamities will never mention the cause, global warming, or the root cause of global warming.  But half the world sort of knows, even if it is unspoken. 

    Now we see why - the NSA (as quintessential government) must listen to the pulse of the world population - not individuals, but the average messages from mass populations.  When foment rises, then much will change.  So listening is vital - it is the perfect opinion poll - because it is authentic, it is heard.  Proxy democracy by chatter.   When the voices speak loudly to an issue, it will be heard

    So the goal is to orchestrate that chatter so as to control the <i>vox populi</i>  Supressing of information or discussion becomes a battle in the information war. People will learn and talk about it, or not.  But many will die out.   And the first physical victims will be those without voices - Each tragic decimation acts to distill the surviving population to the actively engaged in strong communication.  New warriors step up in the information war. 

    All this - survival struggle and comminitcation drama,  playing out in a closed planetary system with physical systems in increasingly rapid decline.   Astoundingly exciting game.  But all the cards are visible if we look for them.

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  4. The only way we will ever defeat fossil fuel is to make it economically unfeasible.  Look, for instance, what happened within fossil fuel when cheap gas challenged coal.  Within a few short years coal declined in America from 50% of the energy generating mix to 35%.  Solar is economically feasible in many areas now but the hold up has to do with the regulations surrounding the relationship between the small generator, the power company and the government.  Get these right and solar will expand hugely and fossil fuels will be pushed into a corner.  The following links give a sample of the problems involved.  We must hit fossil fuel in their underbelly rather than going into a head on attack.  They have far too much money for us to win that type of conflict.

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  5. In 2008 Stern doubled his estimate of mitagation costs to 2% of global GDP. By comparison the world spends about 2.5% of GDP on military

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