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Sierra Daily

Nov 12, 2012

Do The Math

Math is hardThere's an interesting argument going on, post election, as to whether the Romney campaign's failure to appreciate President Obama's lead in late polls was the result of delusion or incompetence. Many are ascribing the problem to what my favorite English professor at U.C. Berkeley, the late Julian Boyd, called "the sin of voluntarism"--i.e., believing something because you want to believe it. 

True Believing political campaigners, however, aren't the only ones ignoring inconvenient numbers and clinging to their own versions of reality. Those standing in the way of a rapid transition to a clean-energy economy can only do so by remaining willfully ignorant of the precariousness of our hold on a stable climate, as demonstrated by the International Energy Agency's new World Energy Outlook 2012. The topline finding from the report that many are fixing on is that by 2020, the United States is expected to outstrip Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil producer. (So much for "Peak Oil.") The truly scary part, however, is this:

[T]he climate goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees C [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes. . . Almost four-fifths of the CO2 emissions allowable by 2035 are already locked-in by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc. If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by existing energy infrastructure at that time.

Bottom line: If the world hopes to limit warming to 2 degrees C., "No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050." As Damian Carrington's excellent EnvironmentBlog puts it, "This means nothing less than leaving most of the world's coal, oil and gas in the ground or facing a destabilised climate, with its supercharged heatwaves, floods and storms."

If we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground, then, it would follow that we shouldn't build an enormous pipeline across the United States to facilitate their use. Ignoring that simple math would be a sin.

Photo by YinYang/iStock

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

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