There's no mystery to the climate change crisis, as three news articles published this week make clear. Higher oceans threaten disaster, but greenhouse gas emissions continue, because they are lucrative.
The situation in Bangladesh
Bangladesh is the eighth-most populous country in the world, lying just east of India on the Bay of Bengal. Twenty-seven percent of the country's population lives in the country's coastal zone, adjacent to a body of water that's expected to rise as much as a meter by 2100. But it's already seeing the effects of sea level rise, as The New York Times reports on its front page on Friday. The story includes a projection of what sea level rise will do to the country, broad stretches of green land turning blue as rivers and coasts expand.
"Though Bangladesh has contributed little to industrial air pollution," the Times reports, contributing less than half of 1 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, "by 2050, rising sea levels will inundate some 17 percent of the land and displace about 18 million people." Those sea levels are rising because increased atmospheric heat is melting Arctic ice, as well as because warmer ocean temperatures cause ocean water itself to expand. There are other problems complicating Bangladesh's situation: its heavily-polluted rivers mean that cities increasingly use ground water to drink, causing cities to settle and drop lower relative to the sea.
Emissions elsewhere continue to increase
While Bangladesh's situation grows more dire, the countries emitting the other 99.7 percent of greenhouse gases continue to do so without abatement. On Friday, Political Wire noted a graph created by designer Jeremy Boy showing carbon dioxide emissions by country since 1970.
Among the important things to note: China now produces more CO2 than the United States — though we still lead in emissions-per-person. According to 2012 estimates, China emitted about 7.1 tons per person. The United States emitted 16.4. Bangladesh and other emerging economies don't compare, as you can see in the graphic above, once you click "Show all countries." And after declining in the wake of the recession, emissions in the United States rose 2 percent in 2013.
Carbon emissions are still good business
Why? Because it's more economically feasible to emit greenhouse gas than it is to avoid emissions. And emitters are unabashed about that fact.
The No. 1 source of carbon dioxide emission in the United States (and in most countries) is burning coal for electricity. Given the recent attention paid to that link, coal companies have seen domestic use come under fire — although the United States continues to ship an enormous amount of coal overseas, including to China. So Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal producer in the world, is now working with high-profile public relations firm Burson-Marsteller on a new PR campaign aimed at turning perceptions of coal around, according to Huffington Post's Kate Sheppard. Among the components of the push, named "Advanced Energy for Life," is a website.
The site notes that there are 3.5 billion people in the world "without adequate energy" — 1.2 billion of them children. A video titled "Energy Poverty" features babies and small children, with text that implores, "We can solve this crisis." It adds: "Affordable energy leads to better health."
The solution to that problem: "Asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop setting pollution limits on coal-fired power plants." Those limits are meant to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. In other words, Peabody is investing heavily in a campaign that will let coal producers keep burning coal, arguing that the needs of children without electricity trump the needs of children that live near coastlines.
What Peabody is doing is standard business practice, launching a PR blitz to protect its bottom line. Same as oil companies have done for years, just as cigarette companies did in the 1980s. Really, these stories should be read in reverse: coal plants argue for more coal burning, the world burns more coal, Bangladesh is eaten by the Bay of Bengal, displacing millions and killing who knows how many.
That's the climate crisis.