Thursday, December 4, 2014

Cheaper Driving on an Uninhabitable Planet

By the end of November 2014, the price of oil had declined about 40 percent since its peak back in the previous June.[1] Expanding American fracking, a steady supply of oil from OPEC, and a weak global economy are the major factors behind the trend. Saving $630 million on gas as compared with what they had been paying in June, American drivers found themselves with more disposable income.[2]  Besides uses such as Christmas presents, groceries, and clothing, more consumers were buying SUVs and Hummers in spite of their low gas mileages. William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, pointed to the benefits, saying “falling energy prices are beneficial for our economy and should be a strong spur to consumer spending.”[3] With OPEC countries and Russia hit disproportionately, the U.S. Government had a geo-strategic interest in a further drop in the price of oil. It is no wonder that a major disconnect existed between these benefits and a startling, albeit largely hidden downside.

As American drivers were finding they had more money available to buy Christmas presents, United Nations negotiators gathering in South America were expressing a new optimism that they may finally achieve a deal to stop the increasing rate of greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, scientists were warning that even with an international deal that includes China and the U.S., the Earth would still become increasingly unpleasant; without a deal, and here’s the stunner, “the world could eventually become uninhabitable for humans.”[4] Even with a deal taking effect only in 2020 and relying on governments to hold themselves to their own targets and timeframes, a large body of scientific research in 2014 pointed to “into a near-term future of drought, food and water shortages, melting ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels and widespread flooding — events that could harm the world’s population and economy.”[5] Such a drag on the global economy would likely exceed expansion of between 0.5 percent and 1 percent from the decline in oil prices.[6]

Dwarfing calculations of the net impact on the global economy is the word itself, uninhabitable. The prospect of our species taking itself out of existence even as we cheer cheaper (and thus more) gas and buy larger cars again—as if no learning curve could have been applied—presents our species with the unhappy enigma that is so much a part of human nature. That we could have been so easily distracted by instant gratification is not news; the realistic possibility that our descendants might die off before the turn of the next century is—at least to those people willing and able to notice. In other words, 2014 brought the dark news that the planet being uninhabitable for humans may come sooner than anyone distracted by the oil would believe.

To be sure, the astounding technological advances that took place in the twentieth century, such as putting human beings on the Moon, could mean that further advances in the twenty-first century could remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to pull us back from the brink. Moreover, the future is not simply a projection of a given trend into a trajectory; unforeseen factors are almost certain to kick in between 2014 and the end of that century.

Even so, the risk taken on by humanity in the 2010s is considerable—even astonishing—given what we knew even in 2014. Drivers pleased to death with lower gas prices dismissed the risk—missing the connection between the rising carbon emissions from their increased driving (and flying) from the lower cost of fuel, and the increasing likelihood that their children or grandchildren might realistically find the Earth to be uninhabitable in their lifetimes. Young children riding in the SUVs could live to see the Titanic sink unexpectedly quickly. The loop could be that tight, and yet it got scarcely any air-time as gas prices lowered during the last half of 2014. Crucially, drivers and the media alike were glued like addicts to a constricted perspective centered on the daily downward ticks in the price of gas as if pennies dwarf uninhabitability. Is it to be said shortly before the final curtain that our species died off for pennies?

[1] Steven Mufson, “As Oil Prices Plunge, Wide-Ranging Effects for Consumers and the Global Economy,” The Washington Post,  December 1. 2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Coral Davenport, “Optimism Faces Grave Realities at Climate Talks,” The New York Times, November 30, 2014.
[5] Ibid.
[6] The statistics are from Steven Mufson, “As Oil Prices Plunge, Wide-Ranging Effects for Consumers and the Global Economy,” The Washington Post,  December 1. 2014.