By Donald Stewart
Something incredible is happening on Earth.
Three tidbits of useful fact:
• One metric ton of CO2 is equal to the volume of a cube measuring 27 feet (9 yards) on all sides.
• In 2012, the world’s population delivered an estimated 34,500 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere to produce electricity. China, with a coal-based generating mentality, led the world, contributing 9,860 million metric tons; the USA was a distant second, contributing 5,190 million metric tons. (Note: this number does not include coal used for any purpose other than electrical production; neither does it include other human production of CO2, like gasoline or diesel combustion engines, oil and gas extraction, and industrial process heating, among others.)
• No one knows exactly what will happen when there is ‘too much’ CO2 in the atmosphere. We measure and confirm the buildup of CO2 overtime (core samples in Antarctica, for example) but we don’t know when the buildup will reach the ‘tipping point’, when Earth’s atmosphere will no longer be able to absorb CO2, or what exactly happens thereafter. Everyone agrees there is a limit, perhaps written in the sands of time, perhaps reflected by the planet Mars, but once the carbon builds to that unknown limit, bad things will follow.
One group of scientists contend the tipping point will overheat the Earth, like an out-of-control greenhouse, except the Earth will be covered with a membrane of CO2 that will allow the sun’s rays to enter, but not escape. Since Earth has no way to exhaust CO2 or heat, our planet will warm and eventually bake and boil. A second view, which I believe is more likely, says the CO2 will initially heat up the planet, but will become so thick, it will reflect the sun’s rays back into space and the Earth will freeze over…another ice age. Either way, predictions agree that Earth will lose its polar caps, the oceans and seas will flood the coastlines, major cities will be threatened, or disappear altogether, and millions of people will be dislocated.
There is another opinion. It’s a bit confusing to me, but I summarize it thus:
1. Mankind does not make a meaningful contribution to the build-up of CO2; man’s contribution is miniscule compared to the CO2 that is annually produced by Earth’s flora, fauna, and natural events, like erupting volcanoes or forest fires. The CO2 contribution of mankind is a tiny fraction of the total. The data which supports global warming is indicative of the natural cycles of Earth, which, as we know, bring about severe changes in global temperatures. Glaciers and desserts may be remnants of past fluctuations.
2. Earth cannot be saved by the United States reducing its CO2. It makes no sense to expend US efforts and resources to reduce CO2, while China belches out twice as much and does nothing.
3. An all-powerful God will decide the fate of Earth, not the feeble conclusions or efforts of mankind.
It is notable that all three positions presented here essentially agree that the Earth is warming; they do not agree about who/what is causing the warming, or what role mankind plays in it. (I give zero credibility to those who deny the Earth is warming; they look a beast in the eyes and claim it has no eyes.) In my view, the areas of disagreement are simply not on point.
I recall hearing the story about an aviatrix who was attempting to cross the Atlantic Ocean, but when she crossed the halfway point she didn’t think she had enough fuel to complete her mission, so she turned around and flew back. Some scientists say we have crossed the halfway point, and reversal is not even thinkable. Less dire predictions abound. We can calculate the loss of our glaciers, polar caps and mountain snow, we can estimate the effects higher temperatures will have on farm crops, poultry and livestock, lakes, rivers and coastlines, but we don’t know when Earth will reach the ‘tipping point’.
Except for cultures that have not matured to accept the truth of Earth’s history, like the lost tribes of Africa, the forest people of Borneo or the Christian-cults in America, we know Earth is millions of years old and has undergone several drastic environmental changes, but we do not know if Earth’s climatic changes were the result of ‘cycles’, a cataclysmic event, like an ancient meteor impact (the crater may lie beneath the ocean), or a pandemic scourge, a plague on all organic matter… or excessive chemicals in the air or water, not necessarily CO2. We know less about Earth’s so-called cycles than we know about the near-term effects of too much CO2.
For myself, I do not accept that God has predetermined anything. There is no reason to think mankind will suffocate Earth because God has fated us to do so. The only way to tie what happens back to God is if humans vacate, abdicate, our responsibilities as the stewards of the Earth. God-given or not, we are the only creatures on Earth who can make a difference. When something affects every living thing on Earth, the proper response requires individual ratification, national (political) acceptance and world participation. None of that is happening on a scale worth mentioning. Most individuals and politicians are ignorant or misinformed about the subject, especially in those countries where economic viability…forget ‘growth’… is the only priority. In China, CO2 is getting attention, but not from the perspective of preventing global disaster; their air pollution ranks among the worst in the modern world.
That China needs more electricity, that their only abundant natural resource is coal, that additional coal-generated electricity is currently being planned or constructed, that their closed culture frustrates the free exchange of thoughts and ideas, and that China has a huge number of functionally illiterate citizens, makes it unlikely they will make any reduction in their CO2 output in this century. Aside from that reality, the US must ask itself, ‘do we wait for China and others, or do we begin now?’ How we will answer the question is unclear, but either way, there are consequences.
The US has already begun to change the arc of the CO2 curve by incentivizing individuals and/or businesses to invest in renewable energy. Some are scornful of its miniscule contribution, mindful of its higher cost/kilowatt ratio, resentful of ‘government picking a winner’ in any industry and fearful of competition or displacement. Still, even though we are not a world leader, a fledgling solar industry is emerging.
If the US commits to lowering our CO2 output, it will cost everyone something. It’s expensive to convert a generating facility (or a residential furnace) from coal to natural gas; it takes more than confidence in engineering to permit new nuclear facilities; it is not cheap for the government to do anything. However, where, when and how we direct our efforts and taxes is important only if we have an energy plan. The US doesn’t have an energy plan; we have an arcade of moving targets.
As the US struggles with energy and CO2 issues, there is one unnerving truth: it makes no difference who/what is causing the warming, or the role mankind plays in the elevation of atmospheric CO2, or the efforts we make to slow the growth; it doesn’t matter what has gotten us to this point, or how close we are to the ‘tipping point’.
If we intend to mitigate and survive the next intense warming of our planet, we need to discuss what to do about events we know will occur in the near term. We should begin to have real conversations about:
• the threatened coastal cities
• inland migration
• intensified competition for land
• farming production and food sources
• habitat and housing
• the environment
• urban human civility
• severe fuel disruptions
• fresh, clean water
• ship-docking ports
• military bases
• infrastructure deficiencies/needs
Our national conversation fails to realistically assess what we need to do’. Instead, our leaders stand back-to-back and shout obscenities at one another. They neither discuss nor plan; they accomplish nothing. America stands face-to-face with a catastrophe, pretending it is hypothetical. It isn’t, let’s get on with it. No matter what the rest of the world does (or doesn’t do) we must get serious about the threat that…global whatever… means to America’s inland and coastal populations, resources and facilities. It is too real to ignore.