Courtesy Reuters

Out of the Energy Box


Only Richard Nixon could go to China. And maybe only oil industry CEOs can lead action on global climate change. Lord Browne, the head of BP, has stated in no uncertain terms that climate change is real, and he has made it BP's responsibility to cut down on the greenhouse-gas emissions that are upsetting the earth's climate.

The prognosis for the future of climate change is indeed alarming. Scientists say plausible scenarios include terrible droughts, crop failures, and dying forests around the Mediterranean and in the United States, South America, India, China, and Africa. Sea levels are expected to rise significantly, drowning islands and possibly displacing hundreds of millions of people from coastlines, where more than a third of the world's population lives. Ground water supplies are set to shrink, reservoirs to dry up. Wildfires and violent storms will strike more often and much harder. And much of this change is expected within the next 50 years.

Most scientists believe that recent global warming is largely the result of human energy consumption, which releases carbon dioxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Massive, almost inconceivable amounts of energy are used to do everything these days, from building airplanes to running sewer systems and hospital equipment. Energy is the essence of modern civilization, and as societies and economies grow, so does their energy consumption.

In the United States and most other developed countries, 85 percent of this energy comes from fossil fuels (mainly coal, oil, and natural gas). In developing countries, wood, charcoal, straw, and cow dung still meet a large portion of heating and cooking needs, but the shift to fossil fuels is happening fast. Global energy consumption is growing at roughly two percent per year and is projected to double by 2035 and triple by 2055.

The good news is that fossil fuels are still relatively abundant and cheap. Coal reserves are huge, especially in the United States. Oil and gas reserves are also significant, at least when one

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