It’s not global warming, it’s global flooding
It is not “global warming.” What a limp name for the biggest event in human history! “Global flooding” is the accurate name, and the flooding has begun. A small Hawaiian island is completely submerged. The water came from glaciers shown in major retreat by then-and-now photos. Last year Antarctica calved a stupendous 10 mile by 250 mile iceberg, the largest in recorded history.
The scientific community knows that a disastrous long-term heating trend is under way. An uninformed-and partly misinformed-public thinks it’s a minor temperature wiggle. Here’s why that is a false hope.
First, shrinking glaciers and snowfields reflect less of the sun’s heat back into space, so the temperature rises to accelerate the retreat. Second, with the Industrial Revolution we began burning increased amounts of coal to drive machinery. When coal and other fossil fuels burn, carbon dioxide, CO2, is released into the atmosphere.
Why does that matter? Scientific evidence reaching far back into pre-history shows atmospheric temperature closely tracking the CO2 level. Human economic activity is the largest source of CO2. Today we have far more people coupled with higher per-capita energy consumption. As a result we now drive the CO2 content upward 200 times faster than Nature ever managed. Calculations predict that CO2 will by 2050 reach a level not seen in 36,000,000 years.
The future is foreboding. Disadvantaged populations, such as those of China and India, want a more equitable share of energy. The resulting demand can only be met by using everything we have. Fully exploiting renewable sources like wind and solar energy will fall far short. Nuclear power will be needed even though the terrorist threat adds to the unsolved problems of radioactive waste and nuclear weapons proliferation. A gap still remains because a century of aggressive construction can only double nuclear’s share of electrical energy.
All these together can supply less than half of the projected demand. Coal is left to bear the major energy burden. It is relatively plentiful but also the dirtiest fossil fuel, releasing twice the CO2 of natural gas. Although the scientists found ways to capture and dispose of the massive volumes of CO2, the temperature will still rise. Climate at any time is the temporary expression of a dynamic interplay between forces set in motion long before and having massive inertia.
That process will roll on as existing coal-fired power plants and new ones lacking the full complement of capture equipment release CO2. Glaciers will melt faster as Earth’s temperature rises. Seas will displace populations and destroy major human activities worldwide. We don’t understand glaciers well enough to predict how far and how fast sea level will rise. We do know that full melting of Antarctica would put half of the world’s people under water.
This environmental emphasis-though necessary-presents only one aspect of the problem. It was to drive economic growth that we began producing more energy in the industrial revolution. Unknowingly, we set climate change in motion. Although we have largely managed to discount that reality, it is now in our face. The intention here isn’t to make economic growth the villain but to illuminate the intertwining of two facets of our life experience.
By its sheer scale, the required response absolutely demands public as well as individual and private initiative. And that ushers in the third great component of the picture, the political. Because of the intertwining, the political process faces a dilemma harder to resolve than the technical issues.
The have-nots yearn for more equity, and we all want a vigorous economy. Since energy is economy’s feedstock, we buy growth in coinage of environmental detriment. What activity will we block because it hurts the environment too much? Conversely, what beneficial environmental policy will we forgo because it impacts the economy too heavily? Who will we pay to build cleaner power plants? Where should they be placed? And so on.
We must therefore summon up every possible bit of wisdom and compassion to weigh each decision in terms of both benefit and cost in both areas. It would be neither wise nor compassionate, however, to opt for the economy if the result floods out the people who are supposed to receive the benefit.
But one thing is quite clear: We must get very busy making coal cleaner. The scientists estimate that we can capture and safely dispose of CO2 for 1 percent of Gross Domestic Product … about the level of spending for Iraq. Our ability to limit the flooding declines while we delay.
Frederick Hall lives in Grass Valley.
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