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(on aviation and fossil fuels, volcanoes and climate change)

For the Old Mole Variety Hour May 3, 2010

I've been thinking about volcanoes and air travel. Last month, I was scheduled to attend a conference in London, and stopped on the way to visit an old friend now living in Ireland. Of course I never made it to the conference, because, well, you might have heard there was this volcano that erupted in Iceland, and, because humanity's limited experience of the interaction between jet engines and volcanic ash suggests that the latter causes the former to fall out of the sky, European airspace was closed.

As some wags on twitter have put it, If you can't look after your volcano you shouldn't be allowed to have one. But let's not point the finger at Iceland, which has enough problems.

For many of us, the closure was no worse than an inconvenience. I wasn't among those traveling with small children, or sleeping in an airport, or running out of money or necessary medications. Nor was the interruption of air cargo deliveries catastrophic, since no one in Europe dies for lack of fresh cut flowers from Ecuador or Columbia or Kenya. Unfortunately, that may be limited comfort to the 5000 Kenyan flower workers thrown out of their jobs. In short, as usual, the airport closures were hardest on the least advantaged. Not all of us can afford to take a 5000 dollar taxi ride across Europe like John Cleese.

But it's the airlines that are getting an EU bailout, though many passengers will not be compensated for their costs. Once again—as with the bailouts of banks and developers, that provided corporate executives with generous bonuses and homeowners with foreclosure—costs are made public, while profits remain private.

Still, the airspace closure was in some sense a net win for the climate, since the European aviation industry normally puts out more than twice the CO2 that that volcano did during the height of its eruption. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that aviation is responsible for about three and a half percent of human-caused climate change. That's a substantial danger, but a relatively small fraction of the total human contribution to environmental destruction.

More comes from automobiles. Jason Henderson on AlterNet suggests the way to prevent oil spill disasters is simply to stop driving. Or, as he qualifies it in the article, to drive less, drive more fuel-efficient cars, and take alternate transportation.

I would have been happy to take alternate transportation to Europe— an airship, for instance. James Lovelock and George Monbiot have both sung the praises of dirigibles as clean transport, but I couldn't get a ticket on one to London. Rebecca Solnit comments that "People eager to suggest that flying is carbon-intensive should check themselves; the world is not going to be saved by individual acts of virtue, only by collective acts of change of a kind that would [entail] China and the U.S.A. radically revising their energy policies."

Even if we stay home ourselves, there are the greenhouse gases emitted by the ships and trucks that bring us our food, and the industrial processes that produce the food and the other things, whether necessary or wasteful, that we make and ship and sell and buy.

Grist magazine observed that the last week of April was the cruelest ever to the environment—all courtesy of the fossil fuel industry.

* In the worst oil spill in U.S. history, crude is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and bleeding into Louisiana wetlands. …Eleven workers died when the rig blew up. Economic disaster may follow ecological and human disaster, with the fishing, shrimping, and tourism industries likely to suffer

* Two coal miners were crushed to death in Kentucky while working for a company with a long history of endangering its workers, following 29 miner deaths earlier in the month.

* The Chinese coal freighter that crashed into the Great Barrier Reef a few weeks ago remains stuck and Australian authorities say the best option may be to sink it.

That's just in one week. [Earlier weeks in April included ] Massey's Big Branch mine disaster, another coal miner death in West Virginia, an oil refinery explosion in Washington state that killed seven workers, and an 18,000-gallon oil spill from a Chevron pipeline into the Louisiana Delta.

Despite this nightmare of exploded and crushed workers, poisoned animals and plants, contaminated soil and water, and generally fouled lives and livelihoods, fossil fuels are profitable. They remain central to the organization of production.

And of course, even aside from these disasters, even used as directed, burning fossil fuels changes the climate. Moreover, it turns out that climate change means not just more severe storms and extreme weather. It also means more earthquakes and volcanoes.

That's right, earth quakes are caused not by promiscuous women but by global warming, The UK's national academy of science, the Royal Society, has just published a special journal issue on the theme of 'Climate forcing of geological and geomorphological hazards':

Among the litany of problems that studies in the issue link to a warming world: [are ] mountain slopes collapsing as snow and ice melt, seismic activity increasing as thinning ice deposits relieve pressure on some parts of the world and apply it elsewhere, and magma production being boosted by pressure changes in subglacial volcanoes such as those in Iceland.

No, the most recent eruptions do not seem to be the result of climate change. But maybe the next one will be.

So, the finger is pointing at all of us, but not equally. As John Bellamy Foster notes,

The notion that we are all in the same boat and equally responsible would only make sense if we all had equal say over the use of resources and the mode of production. But this is obviously not the case. . . . People can find ways to be somewhat more "green" in how they consume and dispose of goods. But the relations of consumption in our society are largely dependent on the relations of production, rather than the other way around. . . . A transition to a carbon-free economy is simply not possible under present-day capitalism . . . Technology alone can't accomplish it . . . Social relations (the mode of production) [will] have to change. … We need to promote … an ecological revolution aimed at sustainable human development and protecting the planet, making it clear that if capitalism can't save the earth -- and in fact continues as the main driver destroying it -- then capitalism itself must go.