Climate change: canary to ghost

The oil-and-gas industry is impervious to extreme weather events, from the Philippines to Sardinia. But both precedent and experience could turn its world upside down - and soon. 

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
21 November 2013

The climate-change conference in Warsaw from 11-22 November 2013 predictably ran into early trouble. The launch was already shadowed by cynicism on the grounds that a major world coal-industry conference was simultaneously taking place in Warsaw. Tensions then emerged between countries in the global south and the industrialised north, with the former - where the impacts of climate change tend to be on a far greater scale - arguing that the latter had no serious interest in the issue. Their point is reinforced by the appalling destruction of Typhoon Haiyan (or Yolanda) which hit the Philippines on 8 November, and general urgency by the much smaller but unprecedented Cyclone Cleopatra that hit Sardinia on 19 November.

Another meeting related to climate change, on a very different scale to Warsaw, was held in London this week. This was the annual “executive retreat” run by the Centre for Global Energy Studies (CGES), a London-based oil-orientated think-tank founded by the former Saudi oil minister, Sheikh Yamani, a key figure in OPEC in the early 1970s - the period when soaring oil prices had a huge effect on the global economy and politics. I was invited to participate in a panel to discuss middle-east geopolitics but was able to stay for the whole event; this included two fascinating sessions, respectively on gas and oil fracking and on the risk to the industry of decarbonisation.

The fracking discussion was in one respect revealing: there was a near consensus that the United States really is a special case. It is most unlikely, therefore, that the US's extraordinarily rapid embrace of fracking will be repeated at anything like the same pace elsewhere in the world, and especially in western Europe. Much of the explanation lies in the supply of particularly accessible deposits in districts with liberal land laws, little federal land, and highly dispersed populations. But the US experience, even if not repeated elsewhere, will entail plentiful supplies for a number of years. A possible downside down the line is much greater reliance on gas, which could lead to supply vulnerabilities.

The decarbonisation discussion was even more interesting. It included a forceful presentation by a leading critic of the climate-change “community” which was hugely popular with the participants. True, other external speakers gave closely argued presentations on why climate change matters, and were listened to with respect. But overall, the oil-industry perspective was clear: climate change is not the result of human activity, and the whole idea of decarbonisation is losing momentum. Thus, it simply poses no threat to the fossil-carbon industry as a whole.

A dispassionate look suggests the industry is probably right, at least for now. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) began in 1994 but made little progress in its first six years and was almost entirely stymied for the next decade by the climate-change denialism of George W Bush and his team, with other states content to ride on their coat-tails. COP15 at Copenhagen in December 2009 achieved little, and advances since then have been minimal. Meanwhile, carbon-dioxide concentrations reached 400 parts per million (ppm) in May 2013, and evidence of the impact of climate change is starkly obvious, not least in the near-Arctic.

In itself, that particular evidence is little help since two key countries - Canada and Russia - are major oil-and-gas producers and will actually benefit in the short term as climate change opens their northern territories to resource exploitation and new shipping-routes. From their viewpoint, the attitude is “bring it on”.

A change of thinking

In all these considerations, one element  - the "canary in the coal mine" - could alter everything. This is the phenomenon of extreme weather events as early markers of climate disruption. Even such events might not enlighten the oil-and-gas industry (and even less the coal industry). But at the CGES conference, there was a slight sense of unease at what might happen in the next decade or two (see "The climate cliff: nuclear echoes", 11 November 2013).

One (non-industry) speaker mentioned the lack of progress in decarbonisation in most parts of the world, while citing examples from other fields where major incidents had transformed thinking almost overnight. A case in point is the discovery of the “ozone hole” over the Antarctic in the early 1980s, created by inert CFC pollutants that proved to be anything but inert when they reached the upper atmosphere. This evidence demonstrated both the high probability and catastrophic potential of the loss of the ozone layer across the world. The result was the Montreal convention of 1987, which started the process of phasing out CFCs.

Now suppose that extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina, Typhoon Haiyan or Cyclone Cleopatra become even more severe. In particular, what if a storm of the intensity of Haiyan - which was far more energetic and violent than Katrina or Cleopatra - hits Baltimore, Philadelphia, Naples or Marseilles?  And what if it happens ever more frequently, so that by (say) 2017-18 worldwide attitudes change and governments have no option but to go for radical decarbonisation of an intensity far exceeding anything currently considered?

With such an outcome, the worldwide fossil-carbon industry - for all its power and influence, and the willingness of some elements within it to fund the climate-change deniers - would be feeling very discomforted. The industry would then be facing (to vary the metaphor) the "ghost at the party", because - as the CGES meeting revealed - it has not even begun to think about the implications of severe climate disruption.

Perhaps it is too much to ask an industry that is so absolutely rooted in fossil carbon and its use to think afresh. But perhaps not. If the world - all of us - is really to accept and address the reality of what is coming, then the arguments must be taken right to the heart of the industry. The more that is done, the greater the chance that progressive decarbonisation will have a chance of success before too many disasters wreak a terrible human cost.

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