Ticking Time Bomb

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You can’t argue with a rock. Thanks to geology, the scientific case for human-induced climate change has recently become significantly more plausible.

New observational science based on cores taken deep beneath the floor of the Atlantic Ocean offers crucial support for the computer-based speculations of those creating models of climate change.

The record of Earth's past climates recorded in rocks and ice can now be measured with far greater definition than before: divided into thousands rather than millions of years). This major breakthrough means that changes in climate that took place long ago can now reasonably be compared with those seen in the recent past.

One of these past changes in climate is a particularly important guide to present-day concerns: a dramatic warming event that took place 55 million years ago (55 Ma). Comparison of the volume of carbon released to the atmosphere at 55 Ma and the volume we are now releasing ourselves strongly suggests that we are indeed facing a major global challenge.

We are in danger of repeating that 55 million-year-old global warming event, which disrupted Earth for over 100,000 years. That event took place long before Homo sapiens was around to light so much as a camp fire. Now we have no excuses, we are here and we are aware of our capacity to precipitate major inimical changes to our habitat on this planet.

We can cope, but only by adopting a new intellectual framework for energy policy that is based on that awareness. This is an unusual challenge to the established order, comparable to the greatest periods of political and social change. Successful resolution will require an unusual degree of cooperation between all sorts of tribes: academic, social, financial, industrial, political and national.

This kind of cooperation was the real value of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and is the hope for the crucial successor meeting in Copenhagen in 2009. The Kyoto agreement was never going to be a sufficient answer in itself to coping with climate change, but it was a sign that the global community has the capacity to edge towards the scale of cooperation that is required. That cooperation clearly has to embrace China and India.

These two countries are moving along paths of development that emulate those followed previously in the developed world, with heavy reliance on fossil fuels – especially coal. If the source of energy for development in China and India remains as it is now, the per-capita emission of carbon in those countries will continue to increase rapidly. On a planet with a forecast increase in human population measured in billions during this century, per-capita measurements become ever more significant.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century the per-capita emissions in China and India were an order of magnitude lower than those in North America, Europe and Russia: now that gap is closing. Can the developing countries be helped to achieve their aspirations for rapid development while maintaining a low per-capita output of fossil carbon?

Can the developed countries maintain the confidence of their consumers and voters while reducing per-capita output of fossil carbon? Here the oil companies may have a chance of redemption from their classical role as the villains of climate change, by giving a positive response to being challenged by carbon. In principle they could capture and then store safely underground a good part of the fossil carbon released to the atmosphere through their agency - and that of the coal industry - although the price in energy and dollars of that capture and safe storage is still not clearly defined.

Emissions of greenhouse gases by the oil companies may be divided into those resulting from their own operations (a little over 10 per cent of the total), and the remaining quantity (approaching 90 per cent of the total) that is released by the use of their products by their customers.

The oil companies have made considerable efforts in recent years to control greenhouse gas emissions from their own operations, not necessarily to their commercial disadvantage. Responsibility for coping with the far greater quantity of emissions resulting from the use of oil company products by customers has yet to be assigned.

Can the major international non-state oil companies, who control only a few percent of the world's reserves of oil and gas, persuade their shareholders to keep investing when they seek to make money by disposing of fossil carbon (in the form of anthropogenic carbon dioxide), as well as profit by pumping it out of the ground (in the form of oil and natural gas)?

And can the major state oil companies, who control the greater part of the world's reserves of oil and gas, persuade their governments that part of their role should be the safe disposal of carbon dioxide? Yes, but only if political, economic and financial institutions adapt to a global imperative to regard the safe capture and disposal of carbon dioxide as an activity as important as taking fossil fuels out of the ground.

This adaptation clearly requires a widespread and deep conviction that there really is a problem to be solved. That depth of conviction can be achieved by reading what is written in the rocks. The key issues of climate change will eventually be resolved in one way or another on a global scale, not just in Europe and North America.

Fortunately a natural virtue of the oil industry is that it is obliged to be international. Oil and gas are not distributed evenly on this planet and most of the remaining reserves lie outside the North American and European homelands of the major non-state oil companies. Only part of Earth was covered by the ancient Tethys Oceans, the geological evolution of which led to the concentration of oil in what is now the Middle East.

Will the oil industry be able to seize the advantage of its global perspective to bring general environmental benefit to its customers, while protecting its own profits? We have long relied on the oil folk to use their ingenuity to supply us with their mighty handy products: now we need their inventiveness to help us manage our transition from that dependency.

There are those, notably that doyen of the environmentalists, Dr James Lovelock, who consider that we have abused the planet beyond hope of redemption. In this gloomy view of our prospects, all we can do is prepare to act defensively as climates change dramatically, sea level rises, and mass migrations and the collapse of societies test our species to the limit.

Possible defensive actions taken in these dire circumstances would differ in significant respects from the actions humankind might take to prevent the very occurrence of such disasters: seeking a balance between mitigation and adaptation would no longer be a priority. To repeat: you can’t argue with a rock. We can simply try to understand rocks by examining them carefully in the field and laboratory, using our wits and our imagination.

Rocks are tangible objects that humans find useful for many purposes, including the provision of energy and the disposal of waste. So there is reality in rocks that we should strive to grasp.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is picked out as a potentially significant contribution that the oil industry can make to controlling our release of carbon to the atmosphere, by putting back underground the carbon that the oil and coal industries have taken out for our eager use.

‘The proof in the puddingstone’, is a personal coda, connecting various events 55 million years ago to us. Puddingstone is an exceptionally hard rock, with a tough silica cement that probably formed as a result of the intense heat at Earth’s surface during the 55 Ma warming event.

The recent discovery of a hitherto elusive Roman puddingstone quarry north of London triggers a series of connections, including links to the 55 Ma oil reservoir at Forties field in the UK North Sea and to the carbon released to the atmosphere by our use of that oil.

For the Roman invaders of Britain settling in the Thames Valley a couple of thousand years ago, puddingstone was to become a key element in an essential technology: grinding corn. That particular imperial legacy now consists only of beehive querns and a few angular fragments of rock. Our governments should give the putative environmental villains of the oil industry the chance to become carbon heroes: challenged by carbon yet not found wanting.

 
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