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The Carbon Catch-22

Terry Etam: Crazy if you support hydrocarbons, crazy if you don’t – welcome to the new Catch-22

Imagine you landed in England in the middle of rainy season. (So, a month whose name includes a Y, A or E.)

Imagine you find an active and antagonistic battle between people using umbrellas and people providing umbrellas. The weird part is that umbrella providers have to explain that they’re really handy; maybe they’re not perfect and occasionally poke people in the eye, but that that doesn’t invalidate their value. At the same time umbrella users are working to pass legislation to ban umbrellas. Wouldn't that be perplexing?

Or imagine you’re in northern Ontario in January, and sell winter coats. Local groups, who wear your coats, are trying to shut down your business, and ban coats from town, all while they’re wearing them every day.

The world is now governed by Catch-22s.

In slightly different form, those situations are life in Canada. Here is our true national divide – those that provide hydrocarbons are living the life of the umbrella makers or coat providers, and a vocal segment of the population actively campaigns against them – again, while using them every day.

This madness isn’t unprecedented. Joseph Heller captured it all spectacularly in the novel Catch-22:

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. To agree to fly dangerous combat missions when one could be declared unfit for duty meant one must be crazy.

Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to. 

Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

The world is now governed by Catch-22s.

By providing hydrocarbons, we are deemed guilty of killing the planet by the press, by governments, by Swedish teenagers, by climate activists, and by many citizens who don’t understand where energy comes from. But if we were to cease providing hydrocarbons, millions would die, and we would be guilty of killing the planet.

The opponents of hydrocarbons live in their own private Catch-22. They demand an end to hydrocarbon development. At the same time, they demand social justice around the world, which means raising the standard of living through better access to medicine, education, air conditioning, heat, proper nutrition, and more. These noble goals all require hydrocarbons. Catch-22.

Some roll their eyes and say they don't demand an immediate transition, they know it will take time. But then those same people joyfully retweet how fast the "divest fossil fuel investments" movement is becoming, or celebrate life-threatening lawsuits against petroleum companies, cheer on teenagers taking to the streets to demand immediate action, and watch silently without protest as the world is urged to panic.

And there’s another level yet. Opponents of hydrocarbons choose to ram through a too-fast energy transition that does not work because it’s not planned out, in an effort to save the world’s population from a potential shift in weather patterns that we have decades to plan for and that might materialize in very unexpected ways.

They love flying, though they hate the fuel. They love heat, but hate what provides it. They love sushi, but will fight to dismantle the system that brings it to them.

In other words, we need to change the entire world's infrastructure in an unbelievably huge way within a decade, based on the assumption that we won't be able to change the world enough over the next 50 years to deal with creeping-higher oceans or different weather patterns.

But wait, it gets weirder. Opponents of hydrocarbons block the safest way to transport them – pipelines – because they may lead to more global warming which will harm humans, or because they might leak at some point. Because of the moratorium on new pipeline construction, it means more trains full of oil, like the one that killed 50 poor Quebeckers.

But they can’t ban the transportation of hydrocarbons outright. They love flying, though they hate the fuel. They love heat, but hate what provides it. They love sushi, but will fight to dismantle the system that brings it to them.

Because they live in a free society, opponents block hydrocarbon development where they are able to do so, and successfully halt new projects from going ahead. This does not and will not happen in regions lacking free societies or environmental standards. This means they’re strangling supplies of hydrocarbons they can observe, measure, and hold accountable – and tacitly encouraging development in places that choose not to do much about emissions at all.

Some will say this is the point; it’s all about democracy. Didn’t Canadians vote for “real action on climate change?” Well, no, they didn’t – two parties went all in on climate change, and two supported pipeline development. Canadians voted more than 80 percent for the latter pair. But you’re forgiven for being confused, as one of the latter two declared a climate emergency, yet supported (bought, actually) an oil pipeline project. Catch-22.

We, as providers of energy, grow more and more speechless each passing day watching the insanity unfold. Where do we go from here?

Just as Yossarian in Catch-22 watched the war unfold, it looks like we must too, and the insanity will eventually reveal itself.

(originally published at The BOE Report)

Terry Etam is 25-year veteran of Canada’s energy business and author of The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity. He has worked at a number of occupations spanning the finance, accounting, communications, and trading aspects of energy, and has written for several years on his own website Public Energy Number One and the BOE Report. He lives in Calgary, Alberta with his family and, for some reason, a little dog. Terry can be reached at  [email protected].