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What Would Happen if We Burned All the World’s Fossil Fuels?

Global Fossil Fuel Consumption

Global fossil fuel consumption has skyrocketed since the early 1950s, when the post-World War II industrialized era began. While the Industrial Revolution during the early nineteenth century delivered the crucial momentum to increase global fossil fuel consumption, the widespread adoption of mass motorization, suburban sprawl, and increased consumerism during the 1950s contributed to a wave of economic activity around the world. The economic stimulus, coupled with increased energy consumption, has fueled the development of a society that has embedded fossil fuels within the basis of most social and economic systems. Today’s technological systems that rely on fossil fuels continue to drive population growth, and in turn, more fossil fuel consumption. A number of peer-reviewed scientific research publications suggest that fossil fuel consumption will continue to increase as long as the global population also increases. If the global population continues to rise, what would the world look like if the demand for energy causes humanity to burn all of Earth’s fossil fuel reserves?

The statement that population growth is a main cause of fossil fuel consumption is reflecting a populist ideology that views the total number of humans in the world, rather than the socioeconomic relationships in which humans form, as the chief factor that contributes to global energy consumption (Pirani, 2018). However, when examining the history of population growth and fossil fuel consumption, research shows that the relationship is indirect, with global fossil fuel consumption more heavily influenced by changes in consumerism and social habits. It’s clear that since the 1950s, the chief driver of fossil fuel consumption has been the expansion of global economic systems. Similarly, global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise along with the increasing consumption of fossil fuels. The continued burning of fossil fuels and the rise in greenhouse gas emissions have led some scientists to develop predictions about how the Earth would be impacted if the trend continues. The impacts appear to be dramatic, particularly in terms of global sea level rise.

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Rising Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The vast majority of scientists have concluded that increases in greenhouse gas emissions cause global warming. Increases in greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere, which include carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, and water vapor, absorb solar radiation and prevent it from leaving the Earth’s surface. Instead, as the solar radiation is unable to be reflected back into space, it is forced back downward toward the surface of the Earth. While a certain level of gases in the upper atmosphere is critical for ensuring that the planet is able to retain enough solar radiation to make it habitable, the addition of higher levels of carbon emissions within the atmosphere makes the greenhouse effect even stronger, which contributes to a much warmer planet. While the process for measuring exactly how carbon emissions contribute to global warming is a complex task, several decades of computer modeling, research on paleoclimatology, and other investigative methods have produced reliable forecasts that are not subject to nearly any disagreement among climate researchers (Pirani, 2018).

The relationship between global warming and sea level rise is another complex area of science that has been thoroughly studied by climatologists, environmentalists, and reputable organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United Nations, and countless academic institutions. According to research published by German, American, and British scientists within the journal of Science Advances, average global temperatures would skyrocket, and sea levels would rise by hundreds of feet if humanity managed to combust all of the world’s deposits of coal, gas, and oil (Kolbert, 2015). The report described how all of the world’s glaciers, Greenland’s ice sheet, and even those on the world’s highest mountains would disappear if all the fossil fuels were consumed. The study conveyed that after 10,000 years, the Earth as a whole would be around fourteen degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it currently is today.

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Rising Seas

Ken Caldeira, a senior scientist at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution for Science, says, “If we don’t stop dumping our waste CO2 into the sky, land that is now home to more than billion people will one day be underwater” (Nunez, 2015). Entire megacities cities from New York, to Tokyo, to Shanghai, would be entirely swallowed by the ocean. While burning all of the world’s attainable fossil fuels would result in the redrawing of global maps, the sea level has already risen significantly over the past century. According to scientists, the average height of sea level rise since 1900 has been a little less than a centimeter per year, which cumulatively adds up to roughly five to eight inches of sea level rise over the past century (Willis et al, 2018). Given that during the past 2,000 years, the sea level has remained relatively consistent, a rise of five to eight inches over the past century is a significant change. As humanity continues to burn fossil fuels, the rate of sea level rise is expected to increase even more rapidly by the end of this century.

Consuming all of the world’s fossil fuels would cause sea levels to rise by over 164 feet (Nunez, 2015). While it would take generations for humanity to be able to consume all of the fossil fuels and thereby release ten trillion tons of carbon, scientists have been able to successfully model this scenario. Since sea level rise has already made hurricanes and typhoons more deadly from intensifying storm surge, scientists say that future sea level rise would be even more catastrophic for the entire world. Increasing storm surge will push the impacts of hurricanes and large storms like Nor’easters, further inland. More storm surge, combined with progressively stronger hurricanes, will contribute to a deadly one-two punch over the coming decades. Storm surges of 10 to 28 feet during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 destroyed countless buildings and killed around 1,200 people in Louisiana and Mississippi. Similarly, a storm surge of nine feet during Hurricane Sandy of 2012 flooded a significant portion of New York’s subway system and destroyed hundreds of homes along coastal New Jersey.

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Increased Flooding

A 2014 study published by Reuters conveyed that water reached flood levels in the U.S. no more than five days per year in a handful of coastal cities like Norfolk, Virginia, and Annapolis, Maryland. However, since 2001, the same cities that were found to only flood five days per year before 1971, experienced an average of 20 days of flooding annually, which shows how the relatively small amount of sea level rise during that period has contributed to more flood events  (Willis et al, 2018). This sea level rise has already been reshaping coastlines across the nation. Coastal landscapes like beaches, dunes, and cliffs are becoming increasingly eroded, allowing the sea to inundate inland areas. Moreover, saltwater intrusion is already adversely impacting coastal ecosystems and supplies of fresh water in cities like Miami. Groundwater reserves are becoming undrinkable, while coastal farms are dying because of changing soil chemistry, which has made the ground too salty for certain vegetation to grow. Managing coastal aquifers is expected to become an increasingly vital challenge to address as the sea continues to rise in the future.

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The History of Sea Level Rise

Throughout the history of Earth, the global sea level has fluctuated significantly. In recent years, there has been considerable progress with regards to the development of proximal sedimentary records, computer models, and other scientific data that detail the amplitude and variability of global sea level changes between Earth’s geologic epochs (Kopp et al., 2013). With a medium to high confidence interval, scientists can now convey how global sea levels varied between the Pliocene (from 5.332 million to 1.806 million years ago), Marine Isotope Stage 11 (between 424,000 and 374,000 years ago), the Last Interglacial Period (about 11,700 years ago), and the late Holocene (beginning around 7,000 years ago). During the past two to three centuries, scientists have been able to use tide gauge measurements to accurately analyze sea levels. Furthermore, beginning in the 1990s, satellite-based radar altimeter measurements have been used to track sea level rise.

Through the evaluation of global sea levels from the past, scientists are better able to contextualize current sea level changes and predict where the world is headed in the future. During the past three million years, scientists are able to convey with very high confidence that the global mean sea level has been around five meters higher than current levels (Church and Clark, 2013). However, during the same period of time, there is high confidence that global sea levels did not rise more than 10 meters above current levels (Church and Clark., 2013). Since the average global surface temperatures were between 2°C to 3.5°C warmer than today’s mean surface temperatures, it is expected that deglaciation of the West Antarctic ice sheet and the East Antarctic ice sheet, as well as the complete deglaciation of the Greenland ice sheet occurred (Pollard and DeConto, 2009). The melting of these glaciers and the rise in global sea levels during this period was initiated by differing orbital forcing such as the Milankovitch cycle (Church and Clark, 2013).

While natural sea level rise has been linked to a change in orbital forcing (typically occurring over tens of thousands of years), sea level rise in the post-industrial era has been rising because of human-related activities. The burning of fossil fuels beginning in late 19th century through the present day has initiated higher rates of global sea level rise than scientists have witnessed in the past (Church and Clark, 2013). Scientific data highlights how the rate of observed sea level rise using tide gauge measurements increased drastically beginning in the late 19th century. Increased carbon emissions have contributed to a warming planet, which in turn has contributed to deglaciation and the thermal expansion of the ocean.

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The Looming Crisis

Scientists from the University of California-Irvine project that major sections of the Antarctic ice sheet have already gone into irreversible decline, which means that even if humanity were to level off fossil fuel consumption, the global temperature has risen high enough for the entire sheet to melt in the coming century. Portions of the Greenland ice sheet may also be in a stage of irreversible decline. Scientists say that Greenland’s ice sheet alone contains enough water to raise global sea levels by nearly twenty feet if it were to melt (Kolbert, 2015). Andrea Dutton, a renowned geochemist from the University of Florida, says, “It is sobering to realize how sensitive the polar ice sheets are to temperatures that we are on path to reach within decades” (Kolbert, 2015). While the prospect of hundreds of feet of sea level rise from burning all of the world’s fossil fuels would be detrimental for humanity, scientists say that the world is already on the path to experience detrimental sea level rise even if the majority of the fossil fuels remain in the ground.

Vast fossil fuel reserves have powered human development for generations. However, the impact of burning these sources of energy are starting to become increasingly noticeable, as the world continues to heat up and sea levels continue to rise. Scientists say that the approaching impacts to humanity will be catastrophic, with little that can be done at this point in time to reverse the process. In the coming decades, humanity will be forced to face an unprecedented amount of sea level rise that will impact trillions of dollars property and the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Sources

Church, J., & Clark, P. (2013). Climate Change: The Physical Science Basis. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Kolbert, E. (2015). “If We Burned All the Fossil Fuel in the World.” The New Yorker.

Kopp, R., et al. (2013). “A probabilistic assessment of sea level variations within the last interglacial stage.” Geophysical Journal International. 193, 711–716.

Nunez, C. (2015). “Just How Much Could the Sea Rise from Burning Fossil Fuels? A Lot.” National Geographic.

Pollard, D., & DeConto, R. (2009) “Modelling West Antarctic ice sheet growth and collapse through the past five million years”. Nature. 458, 329–332.

Pirani, S. (2018). “Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption.” Pluto Press: London.

Willis, J., et al. (2018). “Sea Level Rise.” Smithsonian.

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