Carbon Is a Loan Shark

Posted on September 7, 2012


Anybody who has followed the (fictional) career of Tony Soprano knows that it doesn’t pay to get involved with a loan shark.   The vig, the juice, the shy, the points—the interest the loan shark charges on the loan (characteristically 2% a week if those who speak wiseguy on the internet tell true)—is usually too ferocious to sustain long.  You better pay it all back quick, or else if you fall behind you get a bruising and maybe a breaking, and then the “family” moves in to take over all your business.

Expect bankruptcy or worse.

So why would anybody want to get involved with borrowing against carbon, which, with climate and the laws of physics as its soldiers, is tougher and more relentless than 10 thousand Tony Sopranos?

Every time we eat a hamburger at a fast food joint, every time we buy a new phone, every time we drive to the store, every time we fly to France, every time we light our living rooms with electricity from fossil fuels, we borrow trouble from carbon.  Trouble with compound interest.

Kind of like a compound fracture to the ecology.

Recently our unpaid interest to carbon brought down the Arctic sea ice cover to the lowest extent it has ever reached.  We don’t want that mess.  Ice reflects 80% of the light that strikes it back into space, and light is striking it for 24 hours a day during the Arctic summer.  However, when the light strikes the open sea instead of ice, the water largely absorbs this energy rather than reflecting it back into space.   24 hours a day.

The Arctic sea has become a net heat generator in comparison to the way it was before.  It used to be a source of help.  Now it’s a source of grief.  It adds its own global warming independent and on top of the warming already being caused by human activities, by carbon.

Scientists call what is happening with the Arctic sea ice a feedback effect.  But we can also call it interest, or the price you pay for borrowing from wise guys who have the climate in their pocket.  However you look at it, it’s something that we have to pay back, all of us, despite getting no benefit from it at any stage.

One scientist said the loss of the Arctic sea ice cover is equivalent to 20 years of world carbon emissions.  That is, if we cut out our use of fossil fuels tomorrow, we’ll get twenty extra years worth of warming anyway, from the loss our planetary heat visor.

The trouble always is, as anybody who has watched Tony Soprano in action knows, the deeper you get in with the wiseguys, the more involved in your business they become.

Carbon is making that clear to us.  The number of extreme climate events has ratcheted up to a new level.  Major heatwaves and other types of extreme climate events have become normal.  We check our iPhones for the time and to see whether a new flood, drought, storm, landslide or famine has struck somewhere new today, or whether the one that’s due today will double up with the one that’s due tomorrow.

And for wiseguys, and carbon, what we see today is mere pilferage, a preview of the real mayhem to come when we are no longer in control at all, and the forces we’ve been fooling with take over.  They’re already edging their way in.  You know it.  You’ve seen it.  They scorched your corn crop.  They flooded your basement.

It’s time to stop dealing in loan sharks, time to stop borrowing against the climate.  The interest on carbon, on “cheap” gas, on “cheap” coal, is higher than anyone can afford to pay.

And relying on the economy to pull us through?  That’s like borrowing money from Tony Soprano and putting it into the bank to collect interest.

All the loan sharks are laughing at that one.