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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Leaving 80% in the Ground
distributed 1/16/15 - ©2015

A long time ago, in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh had some troubling dreams. A young man named Joseph interpreted the dreams as foretelling seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Then the kid gave detailed policy advice: put one person in charge of all agriculture, and save one-fifth of all produce during the abundant years so that there will be reserves when things get scarce. (Genesis 41)

Joseph's advice proved very wise. When dangerous times lie ahead, plan carefully and act soon to be well prepared.

Our modern world does not give a lot of credibility to dream interpretation for prediction and policy planning. In theory, at least, our society looks to science and rational analysis to describe what is happening, and to help describe options for action.

A scientific-economic report published last week has me thinking and worrying about years of plenty followed by years of scarcity. I wonder if we will have the wisdom and courage to plan and act with wisdom.

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The report, published in the journal Nature, has the descriptive title, "The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2° C". It is a pretty technical paper. A short and more readable summary in Slate -- "A Death Warrant for Dirty Energy" -- leads off by saying, "If there's oil in them thar hills, it should stay there."

We've heard some of this before. Bill McKibben popularized the central details in 2012 with his article, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math". The upshot of the math: to keep global warming below catastrophic levels, 80% of known fossil fuel deposits need to be kept in the ground. Because those buried fuels are worth about $20 trillion dollars, the divestment movement is taking on the financial and moral foundation of the fossil fuel industries. Business as usual will cook the planet.

In the biblical image, we've had a hundred years of plenty, during which we've burned up about half of the planet's fossil fuels. Those carbon emissions already have distorted the global climate. What we need now -- if we have the wisdom of Joseph -- is a long period of self-imposed scarcity "so that the land may not perish."

Last week's article accepts the math about a carbon budget, and the need to walk away from most fossil fuels to limit global warming impacts. The remarkable new information from the British scientists is their description of what fuels can be used, and what must be left unused. The generalized number about "80% of all reserves" is made specific with allocations for coal, gas and oil in eleven regions of the world.

The study identifies the fuels that can be used most responsibly in the next 35 years to stay within the allowable carbon budget. They look for the reserves that have the lowest carbon pollution, and that can be extracted most economically -- and in so doing they define which reserves cannot be used.

By their calculations, the United States must leave 95% of its remaining coal in the ground, but the US can use most of its oil and gas (all but 9% and 6%). China and India can burn more of their coal (leaving 77% untouched) but have to leave more oil (25%) and gas (53%). The "Former Soviet Union" has to walk away from 97% of its coal, 19% of its oil, and 59% of its gas. They predict that 85% of Canadian tar sands will be left in place (and don't mention the implications of that for pipeline decisions). They make the absolute statement that "all Arctic resources should be classified as unburnable."

The closing paragraph of the Nature article is understated. "To conclude, these results demonstrate that a stark transformation in our understanding of fossil fuel availability is necessary." I'd say that these results also show the need for a stark transformation in our understanding of economics, property rights, and what constitutes "the common good."

For a century, fossil fuels have provided unprecedented prosperity and freedom. We are moving into a time that will be far less pleasant, with two choices before us. (1) We can keep burning those fuels with catastrophic consequences for the biosphere and human societies. (2) We can dramatically cut our use of those fuels -- shifting to other energy sources, increasing efficiency, practicing conservation, and simply having less -- and have a fifty per cent chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius. Neither option is pleasant, but those are the two choices.

Will we have the wisdom of Joseph? When dangerous times lie ahead, will we plan carefully and act soon to be well prepared?

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The geographic details in the Nature article point out what a difficult path lies ahead of us, if we are to make the right choices.

How can the former Soviet Union, which tries to balance its books with gas exports, be talked into leaving 59% of that gas in the ground? Closer to home, how can the United States be convinced that 95% of our coal should be left buried? Just two days ago, the Governor of Wyoming, in his State of the State address, pledged to keep fighting "with bulldog determination" for the future of Wyoming coal extraction and export. In Colorado (where I live), cities that have voted to limit gas drilling within their boundaries are being sued by both oil companies and the state for "taking" the oil company assets.

Leaving 80% of the fossil fuels in the ground will be incredibly difficult. There are huge political, economic, technical and social challenges in transitioning from fossil fuels in just 35 years. "Business as usual" -- where we just keep on with fossil fuels -- is much easier, but it is deadly.

Faith communities are one of the few institutions that can speak the necessary truth about where we stand. Churches and other faiths bring a moral perspective with less of an economic fixation. We can speak of hope coming through profound change, and we can describe how "the good life" doesn't depend on our energy use. We can, and must, be a voice for future generations and for the rest of creation, naming the needs and the rights of those who have no political and economic voice.

Joseph told Pharaoh to store up 20% of the grain harvest, depriving people for seven years for the sake of future survival. Our choice is even harder. We have to lock up 80% of what we have considered "ours" for the sake of future survival.

May we have the courage and the faithful hope to take on these hard choices -- to study, strategize and act in love and compassion for all of God's creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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