The prolific American author Upton Sinclair died 40 years ago, but his novel Oil, published in 1927, has recently had a second coming, being the book upon which the Oscar-winning film There Will Be Blood is based.
Another of Sinclair’s pearls was also recently made famous, this time by Al Gore, when he recalled one of the author’s quotations in his film, An Inconvenient Truth. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”.
Few sectors have been seen as more resolutely opposed to facing up to the threats and challenges of climate change as the oil and coal industries. Both have spent years trying to rubbish the basic science of global warming, and only very lately have some (such as BP, which famously renamed itself as ‘Beyond Petroleum’) started to come around to the fact that it’s real, it’s here and it’s the mother and father of all problems.
On Tuesday night, Dr Lenny Bernstein, an oil industry employee for 30 years was in Dublin as part of the EPA’s continuing series on aspects of climate change. These days, Dr Bernstein is on the other side of the fence, in a manner of speaking.
He was a Convening Lead Author for the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report chapter on the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions from energy intensive industries. Climatechange.ie met with him just ahead of his lecture.
When this correspondent suggested to Dr Bernstein that he was, in a real sense, a poacher-turned-gamekeeper, he took umbrage at the suggestion. His view, IPCC report notwithstanding, is that fossil fuels are here to stay, whether it’s coal, oil or gas, and that renewables are really so much wishy washy wishful thinking.
He places great store in technology as offering fixes for the CO2-driven global warming crisis. Carbon Sequestration and Storage, or CSS as it’s known, offers, in Dr Bernstein’s view, a real way of allowing us to keep doing what we do (ie. burning coal by the billions of tons) while extracting, liquefying and then burying the CO2 emissions that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere.
Quite where all these gigantic lakes of liquid CO2 would be stored, and how they could be permanently prevented from seeping back into the atmosphere is another matter entirely. And that’s before we even start on the basket of other toxins, including arsenic and lead, that are unleashed with every ton of coal that is burned.
We in Ireland burn coal by the trainload to generate electricity. Moneypoint in Clare alone produces five million tons of CO2 annually from its coal-fired burners. A single 100 watt light bulb, left switched on for one year requires a whopping 325 kilos of coal to be burned to generate that electricity.
When you consider one of Ireland’s heaviest rugby players, the man-mountain John Hayes weighs in at a svelte 120 kilos, you get some idea of just how coal-hungry electrical power really is. And coal is only half the problem.
Extracting 1kW hour of energy from coal produces almost 900 grams in CO2 emissions. To visualise it, 1kW hour is the amount of electricity it would take to run, say a single bar heater for one hour. If you have a large screen TV, it gobbles around a quarter of one kW hour of electricity.
While Dr Bernstein is an eminent specialist in his field, what this correspondent was struck by was his dogged business-as-usual stance. Previous expert interviewees, such as Prof Wolfgang Lucht of Potsdam University, spelled out bluntly the catastrophic consequences of our energy and land-intensive lifestyles, and the havoc unrestrained human activity is wreaking on all aspects of life on earth, from the ocean floor to the disappearing mountain glaciers, and everything in between.
None of this appeared to concern Dr Bernstein, whose view is that CO2 is the big problem, technology is the magic wand, and once we ‘fix’ that, then we can carry on burning fossil fuels and leading our high energy lifestyles regardless. He believes, for example, that it would be unfair and unjust to deny the right of ‘developing nations’ such as China and India to become just like us in the west.
He reasons that as countries become more prosperous, they ‘clean up their acts’ by having the money to tackle pollution. He was unimpressed when we pointed out that when the US and Europe may be cleaning up on its own doorstep, we tend to simply outsource our ‘dirty laundry’ to poorer countries in the form of heavy industries, extraction of raw materials and dumping of much of our own toxic wastes.
Deforestation Species loss. Desertification. Glacial collapse. Sea levels rising. Ocean warming and acidification. Global fisheries collapse looming. None of these appeared to ring any alarm bells in our interview, although to be fair to Dr Bernstein, we would have needed at least another hour to pick our way through this list in any detail.
In an ideal world, there would indeed be a ‘silver bullet’ or even a fistful of ‘silver buckshot’, to use Dr Bernstein’s own phrase, to sort out the profound crisis humanity now faces. But of course we don’t live in an ideal world.
The irony is that global warming is but one of a battalion of related but discrete threats to our lifestyles, livelihoods and yes, lives that are now rounding the horizon and drawing slowly, but certainly, into view.