Is there hope?

Pub date June 17, 2009
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion

GREEN CITY They agree global warming is happening, that it’s caused by the overuse of carbon-based fuels, that its impact on the planet and its myriad life forms will be devastating, and that Congress is failing to properly address the crisis. But the environmentalist and the oil executive disagreed about the most important issue: whether there’s any hope of saving the planet from the worst impacts of climate change.

Chevron CEO David O’Reilly and Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope squared off June 10 at the Hotel Nikko ballroom in San Francisco for a truly historic Commonwealth Club event titled "Drilling for Common Ground." And they did find some, including agreeing publicly to jointly lobby Congress for an energy policy that more quickly phases out coal, the worst of the fossil fuels.

But the more telling exchanges between these two giants highlighted a fundamental disagreement: can we do something about this, or are we simply fucked? And by fucked, I mean doomed to simply accept official predictions of rising seas creating a billion refugees by 2050, the extinction of a million plant and animal species, severe water shortages in California and many other regions, and an unpredictably unstable new world ravaged by severe weather and exotic diseases.

To avoid much of that (but not all — it’s already too late for that), Pope said the scientific community consensus is that we need to stop all coal burning by 2030 (unless emissions can be sequestered, which isn’t technologically possible yet) and reduce our consumption of oil and other carbon-based fuels by 90 percent by the year 2050. "You can’t meet the targets any other way," Pope said.

And he thinks that meeting those targets is not only possible, but it would help the U.S. economy. "The rapid changes in the telecommunications field were good for the economy, and a similar change in the energy field would be good for the economy," Pope said. "We have lots of options if we start moving like it’s a crisis."

But O’Reilly doesn’t think that’s possible. "Even with the best of intentions, we’re only going to get part of the way there," O’Reilly said, quickly adding, "I think we’ll be lucky if we can get 20 to 25 percent by 2050."

At a press conference after the forum, I asked the two men about the implications of only reducing our fossil fuel consumption by 20 percent. Pope cited impacts ranging from "Florida will be a lot smaller" to severe water rationing in San Francisco. "It’s not an acceptable risk to take," he said. O’Reilly didn’t disagree, but he avoided specifics, saying, "I do fear that we have to plan for some adaptations."

It was a remarkable admission, one that most media coverage buried far beneath angles focusing on the common ground they found. But if the oil industry isn’t willing to diligently address the crisis — or worse, if it hinders political efforts to do so, as it has done for decades — does it really matter that it acknowledge the problem?

That core conflict created the sharpest exchange of the forum. "This is the 21st century. We can move much faster than we ever have before," Pope said.

"Well, if you can get the government to move faster, good luck," O’Reilly replied.

"It would help if you would get out of the way," Pope retorted.

Indeed, it is aggressive lobbying by Chevron and its industry trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, that created the energy situation that O’Reilly now finds so intractable. But Pope said he’s happy to work with O’Reilly on policies that support their areas of agreement, which even includes instituting a carbon tax.

Their clash didn’t just focus on global warming; it also focused on the oil industry’s wanton exploitation of people and ecosystems around the world, from propping up despotic regimes and sponsoring human rights abuses in oil-rich countries to leaving toxic messes in Ecuador and elsewhere.

Pope called for the oil industry to set aside 10 percent of its profits to create a global trust fund for dealing with its impacts and for international operating and cleanup standards that would prevent oil companies from exploiting weak or corrupt governments. "Chevron has to come to the table with the global community." Pope said.

O’Reilly never responded directly to the suggestion.