Sun, Jul

Emergency:  Planet or Lose It


GELFAND’S WORLD - In recent months, there have been numerous episodes of interference of public events by environmental activists. I won't refer to them as "radical" environmentalists because they are not so much radical as they are loud. At this point in the global catastrophe, there is nothing radical about pointing out the need to combat global warming.

I do wonder, however, about the remedies that such groups are prescribing. I also wonder about the tactics they are using in the attempt to convince people of the urgency of their concerns. Let me start by giving my own real life example of one such event.

I was listening to a discussion by a Democratic member of the U.S. Senate. Midway through the event, a small number of people jumped up, held up some sort of banner that I couldn't read, started loudly shouting words that were incomprehensible, and were eventually escorted out. It was only later that we learned that the protest had been something about climate change. To borrow the old Calvin Coolidge punch line, they were against it.

I would hazard a guess that nothing tangible was achieved by that exercise. None of us were able to understand their message, much less agree or disagree. But it did leave a bad taste in my mouth, as in -- will people begin to think that global warming is just a political fad that the youth like to act out about?

It's not, but that was the message that was displayed.

What are the protestors doing wrong, and what ought the message to be?

Let's start by considering the message, which is to end the use of fossil fuels. I'm not sure that all of the loudest groups are exactly on the same page here, but the general statement is that we need to end the use of fossil fuels immediately. I suspect there is room for maneuver on the time frame, but when some group is interrupting a meeting by waving a banner and screaming at the top of their lungs, such niceties are not immediately apparent. Global warming is here, so let's put a stop to it, and the way to put a stop to it is to do what I say!

So how about we have a slightly cooler, and perhaps more productive talk about our methodology.

We should begin the conversation by agreeing that global warming is real, it is caused by humans adding carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere, and its results will be dire. We should add that the level of damage will depend on how much CO2 we actually add, because the rise in global surface temperature will depend on that number.

And the higher the CO2 and global surface temperature go, the more species will be extinct, the more people will die, and the more tropical diseases will encroach upon our shores. We can also predict that storms in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico will become super hurricanes more often.

So yes, it is an emergency, and yes, we have to do something about it, and yes, immediately abolishing the use of fossil fuels would put the brakes on CO2 production and therefore, increases in global warming.

But is this the thing we want to do? I think not. As in so many other things, it is a matter of how fast we do something and whether we do it completely. In the case of fossil fuel usage, we have to think carefully about what we do, how fast we do it, and vitally important, how we do it.

It's not too difficult to understand that an immediate cessation of the use of fossil fuels would put a halt to the entire world economy -- something akin to creating a new world-wide Great Depression, but on a scale ten or a hundred times worse. Food production would be driven back to the level of the middle ages, factory production would be close to nil, and millions of people would starve. Of course no such effort could be sustained for very long, and it would lead to a world-wide revulsion towards taking any such measures. The war against global warming would be lost in the first battle.

So perhaps we decide to take it a little more slowly. Perhaps we might decide to reduce fossil fuel usage over the course of a ten year period. We might take note that in order to reduce CO2 emissions to zero-net, we also have to stop pouring concrete, because this is also a serious emitter of carbon dioxide.

Can we get away with a ten year period of reduction of fossil fuels to net zero? I really don't know, but I can point out with complete confidence that we are forming the question in the wrong way when we put it like this. There may be a better way that is available to us. Let's consider.

The first agreement that we should all be making is that global warming is real, it is man made, and that it is an emergency. Those who continue to claim that it is a hoax have to be sanctioned in some way. My choice for such sanctions is to focus on the senators who continue to push this lie, which means that the sanctions will fall on their states. Such sanctions don't have to be any sort of active punishment, but when the next monster hurricane inevitably falls on Alabama or Mississippi or Florida, we won't be in such a hurry to pass legislation to prop them up and rebuild them. They could have done something in advance (support efforts to control global warming) and they have been opposing such efforts for 30 years.

And it's 30 years we cannot get back.

Eventually -- maybe it will take another 5 or 10 monster hurricanes, the people of the southeast will get the point. It shouldn't take long, actually, considering how much more often these monsters are now appearing.

Once a reasonably large majority of the American people agree that we are causing global warming and that it is an emergency, we can start to negotiate on what we will do. We will probably agree ultimately on a combination of 4 approaches.

The first is to reduce carbon emissions by reducing the use of fossil fuels. The more quickly we can do so, the better the result, but it has to be negotiated. An 80 percent reduction at the end of 15 years will be a lot better than nothing. We can work towards the final 20 percent at a more leisurely pace. (We might remember the old line used by engineers and computer programmers: The first 90 percent of the work takes the first 90 percent of the time. The last 10 percent takes the other 90 percent of the time.)

We will also want to figure out how to deal with CO2 that is introduced by concrete pouring, and we will also hope to figure out how to eliminate (or vastly reduce) methane from cows.

There is a whole list of things to do, and the world will have to do them.

Note that it doesn't help to point the finger at other countries as an excuse to do nothing. The United States is a player in CO2 emissions and has to do its part. But the nations of the world have to create the overwhelming political influence that will bring other nations into the fold. International sanctions will play a role in this effort.

What do we do in the meanwhile?

The answer is that we do whatever we can from the above list. We won't shut things down so quickly that the world goes hungry, and we will maintain some level of travel using fossil fuel cars, trains, ships, and airplanes. But we will remain vigilant.

There are a couple of things that we can do right now that aren't that painful or expensive. The first suggestion comes from Kevin Drum, who has pointed out repeatedly that the situation is bad and that we don't have much in the way of a practical approach. Kevin suggests that the nations of the world ought to increase their research budgets enormously, in the hope that something useful will come of it. The global warming deniers and the conspiracy minded will approach this suggestion with the usual cynicism, but I would merely offer a few examples from the underfunded 20th century as examples of research panning out: The polio shot, painless surgery, the jet airplane, the new class of modern drugs, the cell phone, satellite communications . . .

And so on.

We've pushed the use of the internal combustion engine about as far as we can, and it's time to find a cheap and efficient replacement which does not spew carbon dioxide and methane into the air. We can't just stop using cars and trucks and airplanes all at once. Trains and ships are another part of the problem, but they are efficient compared to cars and trucks.

We may find, as Kevin Drum has suggested, that we will ultimately make use of some artificial atmospheric spray to cut down on warming by reflecting light back to space. We may also find some way to sequester CO2 underground at an acceptable cost (the fruit of all that research we should be doing). Whatever we end up doing, it has to come out of an international process of considering and picking the best path, and this means that this country, which likes to think it can do whatever it wants, has to be a willing part of the process.

So the next time a rowdy group takes over the political event you are attending, don't feel guilty or even angry. Just nod and understand that you have a better way, and that freedom to speak, and to hear others speak, should be protected, even as we work towards a healthier world.

Telling other people that they have to sacrifice individually doesn't usually work very well. Things need to be done universally to be truly effective. We may be able to work our way out of the global warming catastrophe, but it will take a serious effort from people who are bargaining in good faith.

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)