Clam rolls

clam 2
The clam is the latest ‘canary’ to show signs of expiring in our climate mine, writes Chris Wood. Photo by Deborah Jones © 2014

August 29, 2014

Clam Roll. Photo © Bryan Bruchman, Creative Commons
Clam Roll. Photo © Bryan Bruchman, Creative Commons

Ever had a clam roll? I know, sounds like a straight line. But in the Canadian Maritimes a clam roll is a load of breaded, deep-fried clams in a hot-dog bun, usually with shredded lettuce and mayonnaise. Enjoy one, if you get the chance, because the lowly clam is the latest canary to show signs of expiring in our climate mine.

The excess carbon dioxide humanity is releasing into the atmosphere doesn’t all stay there. A great deal gets absorbed into the oceans, where it is making them observably more acidic. That is bad for all shellfish: acidy water corrodes their calcium carbonate shells (also a reason to enjoy oysters while you still can.) But biologists have now discovered that clams, which typically burrow into the mud at the bottom of the Bay of Fundy for protection from predators, are avoiding doing so — evidently sensing that the seafloor’s more acid condition will dissolve their shells. This dilemma — be eaten or dissolved by acid — helps explain a decline in clam populations.

At the other end of the scale, consider a document leaked from the United Nations’ Environment Program — the organization that produces those once-every-five-years global compendia of climate science — in the last few days. It confirms that the clams’ dilemma is being replicated around our planet, that we humans stand to lose much more than our regional cuisine, and that the singular reason for all of this is one we are well aware of: carbon.

The draft of a volume to be released later this fall, leaked to The New York Times and Associated Press, apparently itemizes some of the many ways that cranking up the climate, beyond what our habitat and economy evolved to tolerate, is hurting us already and will hurt more greatly as the Earth heats up. These include costs already familiar to readers of this space — from unprecedented heat and storms, to collapsing grain harvests.

Coal mines near Samaca, Colombia. Photo by Scott Wallace/World Bank, © 2007

But the report also confirms a focal fact that the world’s leaders could seize upon as a potential inflection point for our society’s chances of survival. Noting that all the emerging climate-related threats to humanity “are likely to be intensified by continued emissions of heat-trapping gases, primarily carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas,” the report’s authors, according to the Times, also observed that, “companies and governments had identified reserves of these fuels at least four times larger than could safely be burned if global warming is to be kept to a tolerable level.”

In my previous dispatch from the frontiers of natural security, I recalled that well-worn bit of folk wisdom that goes, “When you find yourself in a hole, first stop digging.” Surely there can be no more literal, and urgent, illustration of this than the continuing search for new and additional deposits of coal, gas and oil that it will be ecological suicide to dig up and burn.

This of course is not a new idea of mine. Its basis is a series of calculations that begin with how much carbon is in the atmosphere now, process through some belief about how much more carbon it can accommodate before the extra heat leads to a Mars-style runaway boil-off, then works backward to come up with a number representing how much more of it we can ‘safely’ release. The numbers that come out run a range from 565 billion more tons of all greenhouse gasses, expressed in CO2 equivalents, to about 886 such gigatons (Gt) of CO2-e. The UN drafters have now confirmed other analysts’ conclusions that this is only about a quarter of the carbon contained in all the oil, coal and gas reserves that we already know about.

Which makes the roughly US$700 billion that the world’s oil and gas companies are spending each year to find even more of the stuff, and whatever additional amount is being spent to find more coal, far beyond stupid from the standpoint of human survival, let alone human prosperity.

Here, if anywhere, we should just stop digging. The trouble of course is that from innumerable other standpoints, continuing to dig up more carbon makes all the sense in the world.

For all of the employees and shareholders of the companies doing the digging — the exploration-oriented mid-caps, the rig-rental outfits, the engineers and oilfield grunts and seismic gurus — exploring for more fossil fuels is the entire reason for their existence; take it away and their income goes away. For the mega-giants of the petroleum business — the Shells, BPs and ExxonMobils — going cold-turkey on exploration wouldn’t be the end, but it would force those corporations to reimagine their future as they work down an inventory that has suddenly become finite. (As an aside, even without adding to existing global reserves, it’s clear that we shouldn’t burn all the coal, oil and gas that those companies already have on their books; going cold turkey on adding to that inventory would however oblige them — and us — to confront that issue sooner as well.) National political leaders in a few places like Canada, Australia and Russia, who have mortgaged their economies or personal power to the fossil fuel trade, will also have reason to resist.

The rest of us have every reason on Earth to insist. And there are clear levers available to be pulled.

One has to do with the way that oil companies are required to present their asset books to regulators and investors. Reserve-to-production ratios are a key metric of share value. The metric must be re-defined or abandoned, if the reserve component is to be allowed progressively to decline.

Another has to do with the way that tax authorities treat corporate expenditures for resource exploration: as an expense deductible from income for tax purposes. That deduction should be ended. Oblige companies that insist on adding reserves to do it out of their pure profit stream.

Lastly, governments should stop subsidizing the addition of yet more unburnable carbon to books already overloaded with the stuff by a factor of three. According to a report also released in the last few days, the G7 nations alone pump up this wasteful investment with more than US$18 billion in tax and other public subsidies. Those subsidies should end immediately — not merely ‘one day’, as the G7’s leaders have repeatedly promised.

Nothing is quite that simple, of course. Quite apart from the loud bawling of gored oxen, there would be at least some potentially legitimate arguments to consider. Should new exploration for relatively less warming-intensive natural gas be permitted after the end of oil prospecting? How should we treat the inequity that would result between places with large reserves already on the books (Canada, Mexico) and others with as-yet unidentified potential (Vietnam, Cuba)? How should countries that abide by a cold-turkey rule treat fossil fuels from countries that did not?

Those are not trivial problems. But they are at least in theory solvable ones. They are better than the Hobson’s choice facing the clams, and better than the choices we will all face if we persist in finding, digging up and burning more fossil carbon.

Copyright Chris Wood 2014


Notes and further reading:

Stop Digging, by Chris Wood on F&O, August, 2014 
Are humans too selfish to fix climate change? By Deborah Jones on F&O, October, 2013 
Oceans sickened by domestic disease, climate change. By Deborah Jones on F&O, February 2012 
New York Times coverage of the draft UN report: 
Read more about taxpayer subsidies for fossil fuel exploration here:


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