Saturday, February 4, 2017

Just How Bad Is It, Really? A Primer on Our Current Climate Crisis

Increasing numbers of people are coming to me to ask about climate change.  More and more, people are realizing that they must get informed and become civically engaged.  As they see the new administration and Congress looking to get rich on fossil fuels and see the Russian corruption issues linked to oil, they realize that climate change is now integral to the survival of our democracy.

Becoming informed on climate change, carbon emissions and energy policy is now imperative.  Thankfully, the questions are coming in.  At the base of every question is the implicit question, “just how bad is it, really?”

The news is not good.

Let's start with the basics.  1C, 1.5C and 2C warming.  What exactly does that all mean? That means, if you average together all the temperatures around the surface of the globe before 1880, and you compare them to the average global temperatures between 2006 and today, they are warmer today.  Depending on which years you choose (2000-2010, 2005-2015, 2006-2016), our current warming is about 1C or 1.8F.

In Paris, in December 2015, almost 200 nations agreed that we need to limit warming to under 2C and as close to 1.5C as possible.  Why?  Well, the scientists are pretty clear that beyond 1.5C warming means utter disruption and severe devastation.  Island nations disappear, coral reef ecosystems cease to be (and the food that they provide for millions of people), extreme weather intensifies, water supplies disappear for many people, food crop yields drop.  We begin to see impacts that will themselves certainly bring greater warming (called positive feedbacks).

That warming is the result of the greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere up until about 40 years ago.  Keep in mind that greenhouse gases do not make heat.  They trap it like a blanket.  When you are cold in the winter, and you put a blanket on, it takes a while for the heat you are producing to build up, trapped by the blanket, to make you feel warm.  The same is true with global warming, except the heat source is the sun.  We are on a delay and will continue to warm even if we stop burning fossil fuels today.  That’s right.  If we put not one more carbon atom into the atmosphere, we will still warm for another 40 years.  We have "locked in" at least 1.5C warming (2.7F).

That makes it sound like we need to stop burning fossil fuels today, yet people continue to use fossil fuels.  Even James Hansen, who arguably understands the urgency as well as anyone on the planet, is using fossil fuels.  Why do people who get the urgency keep saying, we have to cut emissions to zero by 2050?  Why not by tomorrow?

What gives?

Well, here is where the sociopolitical realities meet the physical realities.  The latter is immutable.  The former?  Only stubbornly slowly mutable. 

No one is going to turn off the energy.  This isn't some demonstration of humanity's evil side.  Our technologies are things we rightly think should be accessible to the poor, who do not yet have it.  We don't see energy as an evil luxury of wealthy nations that the poorest are noble to go without.  Just consider hospitals and refrigeration alone.  These are not evil things.  And no politician is willing to tell a populace that they must go without them.  I would say, understandably.  Just the simplest example:  we travel to our jobs, where we earn money to care for our children, those same children we are endangering with warming.

The very values that would make us cut emissions are often the very values that drive us to continue to use fossil fuels.  

Here is the beautiful thing:  we can continue to use energy without causing warming.  Everyone should, at this point, agree that is what we need to do.  Continue to refrigerate, heat, cool, drive, but without carbon emissions.

We have the technology to decarbonize our energy systems.  The tools we have available for electricity are solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, nuclear.  Transport, home heating and cooling, and much of our industry can convert to electricity.  Agriculture can be done in a way that minimizes fertilizers and reduces meat consumption.  Almost all industry can be carbon free.  (There are some exceptions, and R&D into things like cement, a source of high carbon emissions, are essential).

We have the technology and means to cut almost to zero emissions now without halting all modern civilization.

Turning off technology is not an answer anyone can or will choose.  But decarbonization is.

BUT here is the thorny part.  We can't just turn off gas, oil and coal tonight and wake tomorrow and turn on solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and nuclear.  We can't just park our internal combustion engine cars tonight and drive off in EVs tomorrow.

It takes time and money to build the required infrastructure.  That's right.  This is basically a question of time and money.

We might have built the infrastructure in the US necessary to avoid 2C or even 1.5C under a Clinton administration.  The Trump administration, and the current GOP Congress do not intend to build the infrastructure necessary to avoid 2C.  On the contrary, the current GOP seems hell bent on accelerating warming (They are so committed that their first priority upon gaining the White House was to remove mention of climate change from the website within minutes of Trump's swearing in). They are driving more drilling, mining and fracking by building more fossil fuel infrastructure:  pipelines, compressor stations and oil rigs.  Each investment into fossil fuel infrastructure is a commitment to decades of fossil fuels or abandonment of assets.  But even more, it is a failure to seize the market opportunities the rest of the world is seizing.

No.  We must stop building new infrastructure to which we then commit for decades and start building clean energy infrastructure we need to run our modern lives.

Fortunately, while the Trump/Bannon administration and the GOP leadership appear determined to profit from oil and coal, we have allies around the world.  Other nations, like China, India and EU members (most recently Sweden) have signaled an intention to make dramatic cuts in their emissions.  In addition, many states, including New York and California, in the US have signaled a similar intention, as well as cities.  Perhaps most encouraging of all, the markets are clearly transitioning to carbon free energy and will do so even without concerted government action (though not quickly enough to avoid 2C warming on its own).  Yes, climate action is actually profitable and an economic winner.

It must be our aim to join them and to stimulate carbon free energy in every way we can, individually, locally, at the state and regional levels and internationally while blocking the GOP from driving further burning, drilling and fracking.  

As we resist the assault on our democracy, we must recognize the assault may close the door on our chance to avoid 2C warming.  We are not only fighting for government by and for the people.  We are also fighting for energy policy by and for the people, as well as all living things.  We do so with the support of the larger community of nations.

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