Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Cold Hard Facts About Global Warming

A group of us saw the Al Gore climate documentary last night. The movie, An Inconvenient Truth, is a polished review of the available scientific evidence that the globe is warming and that human fossil fuel use is playing a large role. He paints a dire scenario of flooding, weather change and economic upheaval if the present trend is not reversed, and makes one wonder if we have not passed the tipping point.

Detractors may find Gore’s treatise merely polemical and the most cynical may call it a politically expedient preamble to another run for president with the candidate stoking fears of death and destruction, especially since such tactics worked so well for the current White House inhabitant in 2004. Such cynicism is misplaced when it comes to Gore. His concerns about climate have existed since his college days, and his previous work, Earth in the Balance, was written as long ago as 1992 and has been a subject of this blog in the past.

Gore is not alone in his concern for the planet. The flagship journal, Science, has reviewed the topic in detail and is in lock-step agreement with Gore’s conclusions: The Earth’s climate is changing rapidly and a certain contribution is the carbon emissions from industrialized society over the last 150 years. Indeed, even George W. Bush has given credence to the human contribution to greenhouse gases and the climate impact, although his 2002 Executive Summary is chock full of appeasements, industry subsidies and half-measures instead of realistic alternatives and economically sustainable remedies.

At this point, only a pollyannish lunatic would discount the existence of global warming, its human contribution or the detrimental impact on the planet. The only questions that remain are concerned with how to solve the issue for the next generations, and those questions are compelling enough that they should be addressed in the most expedient time frame.

Reducing carbon emissions and sequestering carbon after it is emitted are the two ways to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Since our entire economy is based on the burning of carbon-based fossil fuels, some other forms of non-carbon energy need to be advanced. Wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal and hydro power are the leading candidates, and only nuclear power would create enough useable energy to make it a cost-effective substitute for coal or natural gas. Indeed, France generates over 90% of its electricity from uranium nuclear power plants. The problems, of course, concern handling the waste and ensuring safe operation on a national scale. Illinois, the birthplace of nuclear science, has the largest number of operating nuclear plants in the US, and could serve as a laboratory for further nuclear promotion. The other alternative energy sources could play a boutique role for individuals and small communities that are motivated; certainly investing in such technologies has promise.

Sequestering carbon emissions entails the collection of exhaust fumes from fossil fuel power plants and then either rendering them harmless through a catalytic process or reverse mining them into the ocean or deep cavern in the earth’s crust. While theoretically compelling, such technologies are still in their practical infancy.

Another, more personal, potential remedy is for every individual to attempt to reduce their carbon fuel use. Driving energy efficient automobiles, buying food from the community and setting thermostat timers would all be effective only if undertaken on a large scale. The cynical fact is that such voluntary measures are useless in the short run, and may even have a deleterious effect in the long run. Let me explain.

Let’s say 20% of the population voluntarily chooses to drive less, use less gasoline, keep their homes cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer: this would result in the supply/ demand curve leaning toward less demand and thus more supply. The 80% who choose not to conserve will have cheaper energy prices and therefore be less careful and use more until the curve rebalances. The end result will be no decrease in global carbon emissions.

The above example represents a closed system, which the world markets are not. Add into the mix the rapidly increasing demand for carbon-based energy as the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies come on line to western standards and the emissions of carbon dioxide by-product will surely rise exponentially.

So, wearing fuzzy sweaters in January, buying your spouse a Corolla instead of an Impala, and eating asparagus grown in your backyard are all feel-good measures that may even save you a few pennies in petroleum consumption, but the beneficial impact on the planet is zero. A further negative effect of relying on personal conservation is that the 20% who conserve will feel that positive steps are being taken, and thus will not push for global mandates that would be necessary to make a positive global impact on carbon use.

The hard truth is that the solutions are not easy, and they are not personal. The solutions to global warming, assuming we are not too late, can only be found in national and international mandates. Carbon taxes and new technologies mandated and supported by large government regulatory agencies are the only way forward. Just as massive New Deal federal spending on rural electrification changed the USA in the 1930’s, the federal government must take the lead in global warming as well. Half-measures will not do. How much could the $300 billion spent in Iraq have done to reduce US' carbon emissions?

The Kyoto Protocols are not perfect, but the USA was wrong to walk away from the negotiating table. The rest of the world is showing its commitment to addressing the problem, and it’s embarrassing and dangerous for the world’s greatest carbon user to be absent from the discussion. Our political leaders are letting us down. Al Gore, where are you?