The Sky Is Filling!
Joel B. Stronberg, 11 August 2012
Once upon a time, not so long ago, one of the a cornerstones of the argument for developing and deploying clean energy alternatives was that supplies of petroleum and natural gas were being depleted at record rates and would not last another 50 years. Oh, how times of changed! Although it is true that oil and gas reserves are being consumed relatively rapidly as third world nations become more developed, recovery technologies have changed dramatically over the past decade and the oil and gas industries are now able to tap resources once believed unreachable. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling, for example, have made the supply question moot, at least for the next hundred or so years. Add to that the world’s coal reserves and the amount of fossil fuels that are lying around extends this time period to hundreds of years.
The increasing amount of available fossil fuels has come to define the political debate about national energy independence; I believe in an unfortunate way. I am certainly willing to accede to the argument–put forth by Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, a majority of the members of Congress, many in the Tea Party, and the oil, gas and coal industries–that the world is not about to run out of fossil fuels. I am not willing to accept their argument that climate change is neither real nor catastrophic and, therefore, believe that they are answering the wrong question. The real to be asked and answered is “should we be using them to meet the majority of our energy needs and to achieve energy independence?”
Those who belittle the need of clean energy alternatives have adopted the trademark phrase “drill baby, drill.” The phrase and the philosophy, however, are misplaced in light of scientific data and much too focused on the near-term price of a gallon of gas and the bottom-lines of traditional energy corporations, whose business models are based on exploration and extraction.
The simple answer to the question is: no! Quoting the title of article written for the New York Times by James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies: “Game Over for the Climate: Global warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening.” The science of climate change increasingly supports Hansen’s premise that global warming is a fact and a dangerous one at that.
According to Hansen the sky is filling with too much carbon dioxide. Hardly a modern day chicken- little, he frames the worst-case-scenario of continuing upon our merry way of fossil fuel consumption in the following manner: “the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when [the] sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now…. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty percent to 50% of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”
Remember, we are speaking here of a distinguished NASA scientist, not a man with a political or commercial agenda but one with knowledge and understanding of mounting scientific research; research incidentally being supported by anecdotal evidence that everyone is seeing around them every day in the form of floods, droughts, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and the increasing heat of both winter and summer in all parts of the world. If Dr. Hansen has an agenda it is one based on his concern that life on Earth, as we know it, is under immediate attack and we are losing the battle. His is a clarion call and not the hysteric hollering some would have us believe.
It is true that the climate change debate and the amount of carbonic acid (CO₂) that the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans can absorb has been raging for decades and that the scientific conclusions drawn from studies have not always been consistent nor even unbiased. Recently, however, the findings have been conclusive and the overwhelming majority of scientists are now convinced that climate change is a fact and that global warming is speeding up exponentially, placing Earth’s population in the proverbial pickle. This particular pickle, however, is poisonous to our way of life.
As our computer modeling becomes more sophisticated and our knowledge of weather patterns more comprehensive, because of the cumulative data being collected by satellites, understanding of the fact and consequences of global warming is rapidly increasing. In the meantime, however, we have enough evidence to go on and enough proven technology to immediately begin to address the issue. If we do not, it is likely that by the time the naysayers become believers, it will simply be too late to do anything about it.
A clean energy economy is needed not because we have too few reserves of fossil fuels but because we have too many. Just because they exist, however, is no reason to continue to use them. We do have a choice; it simply needs to be made. This is not to say that making it is simple.
I understand the difficulty in demanding of governments that they immediately enact policies, programs, and regulations that vastly speed the process of a transition to a sustainable energy economy. Whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, economic and social issues are demanding governments’ attention, while at the same time consumers and voters are demanding lower energy prices, particularly in light of economic conditions. However, as I have stated in other articles, time is of the essence and the longer we wait the more drastic and costly the actions that will need to be taken will be.
The present policy and political environment may be best described as being stuck in “high neutral.” Yes, investments are being made in making fossil fuels less polluting, e.g. carbon sequestration, and in shifting from dirtier fossil fuels to cleaner ones, e.g. using more natural gas and less coal. Similarly actions are being taken at the federal and state levels to enact policies and Executive Orders that support the use and adoption of clean energy alternatives, e.g. tax policies, environmental regulations, requiring agencies to decrease their fossil fuel consumption either through efficiency or the purchase of alternative fueled vehicles. The problems with these actions, however, are: commitments are relatively small by comparison to the overall consumption of fossil fuels; many of these investments are unproven, e.g. carbon sequestration; the decisions themselves are often transient, e.g. tax credits seem threatened with annual extinction, clean energy standards may have their goals lowered when they produce higher electricity prices and direct investments in companies or projects are made more onerous or withdrawn when one or more fail (think Solyndra); and, the presence of loopholes, e.g. incorporation of phrases like “where economically feasible.”
It is not that these actions are bad; they are simply inadequate to the task and do not reflect the magnitude of commitment necessary to make the clear and decisive decision to base our energy economy on clean energy alternatives. The U.S., for example, does not have and has not had an actual energy policy for decades, if ever. What it has is a series of related but disjointed actions; actions which often counter balance each other keeping us in limbo. Ours is a perpetual political debate that retreads old ground, does not price in the risk of unsustainable practices and, worst of all does not account for all of the pieces. It amazes me, for example, that nuclear power is still being discussed when for thirty or more years a decision has yet to be made about where to put the waste.
While we remain in “high neutral” the sky is filling and we come ever closer to Dr. Hansen’s vision of a world in regression to the Pliocene era. Do we really want to go back 2.5 million years or do we want to go forward to a future which is cleaner and where economic growth is based on technological innovation and the creation of thousands of new businesses? Even the most conservative amongst us understands that new businesses are more the heart and soul of economic growth than established ones.
It is sad that in a world where we have a good understanding of the problem, posses the technologies that can respond to it and the promise of ever more innovation, that we lack political leaders with the will to do much about it. It seems they would rather risk the Earth than their political careers. Paraphrasing Paul B. Farrell in a recent article he wrote for Market Watch (a Wall Street Journal website): what good is 200 years of fossil fuel supplies if we are all dead in 50?
Finally, remember you have the power to change the world. Contact your elected representatives and let them know you expect them to support sustainable development, join a local or national organization working in support of sustainability, work with others in your community on local sustainability projects. Above all do what your father or mother told you to do—turn off the lights before you leave the room and don’t leave the refrigerator door open—unless, of course, you live in a zero energy house!
Watch for future posts on examples of what sustainability actions private companies are doing to become more sustainable, new products, investment initiatives and what communities are