The world, with or without us: Increasing gas and oil production is a disastrously bad idea

Author of "The World Without Us" on his recent trip to Iraq — and why the Ukraine war is no excuse to pump more oil

Published May 22, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Working oil pumps against a sunset sky (Getty Images/imaginima)
Working oil pumps against a sunset sky (Getty Images/imaginima)

Flying into southern Iraq in March, the irony felt as thick as the murk enshrouding the city of Basra below. Sickened by Russia's savage invasion of my father's homeland, Ukraine, under the asinine pretext of saving it from Nazis, I would shortly land in a country that my own had seized under no less ludicrous claims: imaginary weapons of mass destruction, and a bogus connection to the 9/11 attacks.

Yet even that prolonged atrocity paled alongside what I'd come to ponder: the havoc we Homo sapiens, the so-called wise iteration of our genus, have wreaked on our planet — and, unless we act fast, on our prospects for a future. For instance, the United States' real interest here, evidenced outside my window by constellations of flames piercing the haze below. So much crude petroleum gushes from Iraq's vast oil fields that Saddam Hussein and subsequent weak Iraqi governments never bothered with infrastructure to exploit the natural gas escaping their wells. Instead, for over half a century they've continuously flared it

In Basra, a war-rubbled city of two million near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, every breath tastes of oil. Oil spills, broken sewers and salinity pushing upstream from the Persian Gulf, one of Earth's fastest warming seas, have left the water supply undrinkable, and cancer clusters abound. On more days each summer, temperatures approach 130ºF, the point where sweating ceases to cool the human body and air conditioning becomes critical. 

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Power failures are routine here, and as that continues thousands will either die or flee this cradle of Western and Middle Eastern civilization, which now feels more like a coffin.  

You'd think that would give us pause.

More irony: Even as the IPCC warns that worldwide carbon emissions must peak in just three years, then plummet by half only five years later to hold to a relatively safe increase over preindustrial temperatures, the U.S. is boosting gas and oil output to offset embargoed Russian supplies. Meanwhile, Russia, with other markets like insatiable India, continues to increase production — including from the Lukoil wells I saw flaring at al-Qurna, where the Tigris and Euphrates meet.

Something is gravely wrong here. Think of it this way: Unlikely as it seems that we might really brake emission increases by 2025, then halve them by 2030, we will never have this chance again

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We've blown so many previous chances. In 1956, oceanographer Roger Revelle explained to Congress that manmade CO2, drifting skyward, could create a greenhouse effect. In 1969, UC Berkeley physicist John Holdren reported that atmospheric carbon dioxide had increased by 10% since 1900, when it was below 300 parts per million. Around then, a Harvard freshman named Al Gore became enthralled by a Revelle lecture; two decades later, he convened his historic 1988 U.S. Senate hearing, headlined by NASA climatologist James Hansen's electrifying warning about runaway human-induced emissions.

Yet when Gore became vice president, Bill Clinton's fixation on economy, not ecology, muzzled his environmental ardor for eight years. After the Supreme Court snatched the 2000 presidential election from him: eight more wasted years.

Imagine how many solar panels the $2 trillion we squandered on invading and occupying Iraq could have bought.

As atmospheric CO2 approached 400 ppm — levels unseen for 3 million years, when the world's oceans were 80 to 100 feet higher — surely Barack Obama's science adviser, John Holdren, stressed the urgency to him. Obama's priority, laudably enough, was health care — yet what could threaten public health more than an unmoored climate?

Atmospheric CO2 has approached a level unseen for 3 million years, when the oceans were 80 feet higher. But it's still not too late to do something about it.

Toward the end of his presidency, Obama did help midwife the Paris Agreement, only to have Donald Trump yank the U.S. out. Yet despite Trump's depravity, during his term a pandemic finally slowed emissions. Then, with the electoral triumph of Obama's vice president, Joe Biden, came a chance to keep that momentum going.

It didn't. At a military checkpoint near Babylon, I was reminded why. 

In Iraq, checkpoints are nearly everywhere, although it's sometimes unclear exactly who has your passport. After the U.S. left, ISIS moved in. Five genocidal years later, they were finally driven out with the help of Iranian militias, which stayed. In much of the country, they're now the de facto government.

At this checkpoint, soldiers unexpectedly detained my traveling companion, civil engineer Azzam Alwash, winner of the 2013 Goldman Prize for re-flooding the Iraqi marshes that Saddam Hussein had drained to flush out Shiite rebels. Although Alwash is a national hero for saving the Middle East's biggest wetland, plans are regularly hatched to drill there for oil, or to divert marsh waters for agriculture — and these are expected again, as protests have already erupted over shortages of imported Ukrainian wheat and cooking oil. 

The sentries were ready to handcuff Alwash — over a database glitch, it turned out — when the president's office fortunately got his phone message. The incident brought back my own arrest the previous summer. I'd been interviewing protesters who had chained themselves to pumping equipment at a pipeline being built in northern Minnesota by a Canadian company. Enbridge's Line 3 would transport the dirtiest fossil fuel of all — heavy bitumen crude from Alberta's tar sands — across 210 rivers and streams, including the Mississippi, and through choice wild rice harvesting areas ceded by sovereign treaty to the Ojibwe people. Luckily, the overzealous county sheriff who snared me along with the protesters neglected to zip-tie my wrists, so I also managed to get out a phone message. After a few hours in a windowless cell, a barrage of calls from journalist colleagues helped spring me.  

In a world where each added CO2 molecule heightens our peril, Line 3 makes utterly no sense. President Biden could shut it down with a stroke of a pen, just as he stopped the Keystone pipeline. But he hasn't. The only explanation is that Biden, ever the compromiser, is trying to placate both sides of the climate argument.

But with an existential crisis — like Basra's, and like our own if we don't act boldly — there are no sides.

Before I left Iraq, the NGO Alwash founded, Nature Iraq, arranged for police to escort me to the archeological site at Uruk, the Sumerian city where writing was invented. Atop the mound containing Ishtar's temple, I looked down at the parched remains of a city that once housed 80,000 people and lasted 5,000 years.

I'm not the first writer to gaze upon the crumbling ruins of a once-great civilization and contemplate the fragility of empire and grandeur.  But unlike Shelley's eulogy of pharaonic Egypt in "Ozymandias," or Gibbon's sweeping chronicle of the fall of Rome, unless we can stop powering our own civilization by burning things, there may be no more humans left to similarly reflect, one distant day, on what happened to us.

Read more on fossil fuels, energy and the Ukraine crisis:

By Alan Weisman

Alan Weisman is the author of several books, including "The World Without Us," a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, winner of the Wenjin Book Prize of the National Library of China, and an international bestseller translated in 34 languages. The 15th-anniversary edition was just published by Picador. Weisman's reporting has appeared in Harper's, New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Discover, Vanity Fair and Mother Jones. He lives in Massachusetts.

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Books Climate Change Commentary Energy Fossil Fuels Iraq Oil Russia The World Without Us Ukraine War