This posting continues the serialization of my book on this website. As an incentive to readers to return to the site, each month I will post at least one Chapter of the book until the entire book is posted. Scroll back over the last few months to read earlier “Beyond Animal, Ego and Time” chapters. The book provides context for the blog, clearly explaining the underlying philosophy and identifying critical issues of our time. In the book Chapter 10 begins four chapters which identify the four threats to life that we have created. This installment contains Chapters 10 & 11.
Protect Life Imperative — Ozone hole
No species in history has been more successful than humans in imposing order on its environment. Human beings have organized and exploited the assets of our planet to serve our existence. We have built the physical infrastructure of cities, factories, and transportation and communication networks. We have harnessed sources of energy by mining the planet’s resources, damming the world’s rivers and splitting the atom. We have created industries to feed and nourish us through agriculture. In addition, we have established social, financial and governmental institutions to manage our interactions with each other. We have done these things and much more largely in the name of what we call progress.
For most of our existence our individual and collective impact on our planet was insignificant. We were few in number, the planet’s resources were plentiful and the ecology was resilient. Eras of plenty led to an inevitable expansion of our population to a point at which our impact went from inconsequential to consequential. The twentieth century was a tipping point when human capability became potentially catastrophic. Our actions and inventions became so powerful and global that we are able to threaten the existence of life itself. In some cases the growing threat posed by our actions was not obvious, in others it was.
We have had near misses that were the result of inadvertent action as opposed to conscious decisions. Tim Flannery in his book, The Weather Makers, while discussing the present issue of global climate change, describes the earlier threats faced in understanding the effects of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which destroy ozone in the atmosphere.69 A CFC is an organic compound containing chlorine, carbon, and fluorine. It is produced as a derivative of methane and ethane. A related subclass is the hydrochlorofluorocarbons, which also contain hydrogen and are typically marketed by DuPont as Freon. Also of concern is bromofluorocarbon compounds known as halons.
Flannery, an Australian professor and climate change activist at Macquarie University, relates how in the 1920s Gordon Dobson, an Oxford University lecturer in Meteorology, and his collaborator F. A. Lindeman, a professor of experimental philosophy also at Oxford, recognized the importance of ozone in the atmosphere and began measuring it as a matter of scientific curiosity.70 Ozone in the upper atmosphere prevents dangerous ultraviolet light from reaching the Earth’s surface. Ultraviolet light’s most familiar affect is sunburn. Prolonged exposure is linked to the development of skin cancers. In two successive measurements of ozone concentrations in the stratosphere above the Antarctic in 1975 and 1995 ozone levels fell from historic levels measured at 320 Dobson units in 1955. Ozone above the Antarctic fell to 280 units in 1975 and 90 units in 1995. A Dobson unit is an arbitrary measure of the density of atmospheric ozone in a column of air over a specific point on the planet under a standard temperature and pressure. This dramatic reduction in ozone over the Antarctic was in contrast to very stable levels of ozone measured on the rest of the planet during the same period.
Obviously something serious was taking place in the stratosphere over the Antarctic. We now know our collective use of chlorofluorocarbons had created a hole or an area of significant reduction in the concentration of ozone above the South Pole. In 1995, Paul Crutzen, F. Sherwood Rowland, and Mario Molina were awarded a Nobel Prize for their pioneering contributions to explaining how ozone is formed and decomposes through chemical processes in the atmosphere.71 According to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in awarding the prize to Paul Crutzen in 1970 he “showed that the nitrogen oxides NO and NO2 react catalytically (without themselves being consumed) with ozone, thus accelerating the rate of reduction of the ozone content.” Further, “The next leap in our knowledge of ozone chemistry was in 1974, when Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland published their widely noted Nature article on the threat to the ozone layer from chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gases – “Freons” – used in spray bottles, as the cooling medium in refrigerators and elsewhere and plastic foams.”
Flannery describes how close we came to making a fatal choice out of ignorance. Ozone, a particular form of oxygen, was discovered in laboratories in the early 1800’s. The oxygen we need for life consists of two oxygen atoms bonded together. Ozone consists of a three-oxygen atom molecule, which is created in the stratosphere through the interaction of the ultraviolet (UV) radiation of sunlight and oxygen. Because it can block more ultraviolet radiation than the two oxygen atom molecule, it keeps 95% of UV radiation (at wavelengths shorter than 0.4 microns) from the sun from reaching the surface of Earth. As a result of ozone’s instability, it is continuously losing its third atom degrading to normal oxygen while sunlight replenishes it by creating new three atom molecules. This process is normally in balance to maintain a reasonably consistent level of ozone in the stratosphere.
Chlorofluorocarbons, CFC’s, invented by industrial chemists in 1928, were used in the making of Styrofoam, as propellants in spray cans and for refrigeration and air conditioning. Their failure to react with other chemicals and resulting chemical stability at the surface of the planet always made them thought to be environmentally safe. Released into the atmosphere, however, they make their way to higher elevations in the atmosphere where they break down when subjected to ultraviolet radiation and release their chlorine atom. Chlorine atoms are very destructive to ozone, each atom of which can destroy 100,000 ozone molecules. Their destructive capacity goes up in colder temperatures which is why the ozone hole was found in the stratosphere over the South Pole which at minus 80˚ Fahrenheit is far colder than the minus 44˚ Fahrenheit found in the stratosphere at the North Pole.
The world clearly decided to do something about the problem caused by CFCs by signing the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer in 1985 and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1987. Fortunately they were not facing the hopeless situation we would have had if industrial chemists of the 1920’s had constructed their fluorocarbons with bromine rather than chlorine.
Tim Flannery states, “Although bromine lasts just one year in the stratosphere as compared with chlorine’s five, bromine is forty-five times more effective in destroying ozone than chlorine, and so swiftly would it have torn asunder those precious ten parts per million of ozone, that Earth’s sunscreen would have been destroyed even before F. Sherwood Rowland made his Nobel-winning discovery of the CFC threat to the ozone layer.”
Flannery continued, “Just how close the world came to such a fate can be seen in the uses to which industrial chemists had already put bromine. In the 1980’s, bromotrifluoromethane and bromochlorodifluoromethane – their trade names Halon-1301 and Halon-1211 respectively – came into widespread use in fire-suppression systems, particularly in art galleries and museums, where using water might cause damage. Because these chemicals are ten times as potent in destroying ozone as CFCs, they were banned under the Montreal Protocol … .”72
There are a number of conclusions to be drawn from this discussion of depletion of the ozone. The first conclusion, while not wanting to take anything away from the seriousness of the effects of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), is that life serendipitously benefited from early industrial chemists’ selection of chlorine as the more cost effective and less reactive chemical when compared to bromine. This choice of chlorine gave us an ozone deterioration we had an opportunity to perceive and attempt to address rather than a catastrophe we were too late to avoid.
Aristotle defined a tragedy as “The change to bad fortune which he (the character) undergoes not due to any moral defect or flaw, but a mistake of some kind.” Ozone depletion would have made for a classic tragedy if human beings had destroyed life in the pursuit of air conditioning and hair spray. We must also observe even the smallest effects from minor day-to-day activities multiplied by our number can now have global impacts far beyond our localized actions. We will bear an increasing responsibility to accurately assess the potential effects of our actions. We cannot afford to rely on serendipity to save us from unintended consequence or catastrophe.
It appears that collectively the world has acted swiftly enough to avoid the worst possible outcomes of ozone depletion. The Montreal Protocol of 1987, as amended in 1990, banned the most dangerous gases from 1996 forward. There was no instant fix however. Quoting again from The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, “Since it takes some time for the ozone-destroying gases to reach the ozone layer we must expect the depletion, not only over Antarctica but also over parts of the Northern Hemisphere, to worsen for some years to come. Given compliance with the prohibitions, the ozone layer should gradually begin to heal after the turn of the century. Yet it will take at least 100 years before it has fully recovered.”
At least a century for full recovery provides a graphic measure of the damage. And that assumes that we follow through on our healing endeavors. In naming our species, the word “sapiens” was selected. A derivative of the word sapience, it connotes wisdom and sagacity or keen and farsighted penetration and judgment. Our history indicates that as in the case of ozone depletion or other worldwide phenomena, we will seldom have perfect timing in coming to the realization of a problem and initiating the appropriate actions. We will always err. We will always realize and act too soon or too late. We must pose the question with grave issues like ozone depletion, if we are to err, do we want to err on the side of being too early or too late? Given the risks associated with being too late, the answer should be obvious that we need to be too early.
As is always the case, for at least a decade after Messieurs Crutzen, Rowland, and Molina published their findings, there was active political and public relations resistance from the chemical producer companies, of which DuPont was the largest stakeholder, to suggestions of banning the offending chemicals. The argument consisted of inconclusive scientific evidence of a connection between CFCs and ozone destruction and of serious economic loss that would come from seeking substitutes.
As usual, this industry resistance led to political inaction and almost a decade and a half passed before twenty countries decided to sign the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer in 1985, which was largely a symbolic act. While the Vienna Convention brought a measure of legitimacy to the issue, it fell well short of specifying meaningful action to be taken. The signatories essentially agreed to meet and confer, share information, conduct their own research and promised to try to make further progress on the issue.
Countries did not commit to tangible action until signing the 1987 Montreal Protocol that became effective in 1989. In 1990 participating countries committed to phase out the offending chemicals and in 1992 they accelerated the phase out schedule. This represents a twenty-year lag between initial identification of the ozone problem and tangible action to solve it.
Further complicating our progress on replenishment of the ozone however, is a provision of the Montreal Protocol that was necessary to secure agreement and support from developing countries. This provision allows developing countries like China and India to continue using the offending CFC refrigerant HCFC-22 (hydrochlorofluorocarbon-22) through the year 2040. A further agreement in 2007 however, accelerated these requirements by specifying elimination of 97.5% of HCFC-22 in developing nations by 2030. This chemical was eliminated from production in the European Union in 2004 and in the United States in 2010. Its use is mushrooming, however, in the developing countries with large populations such as China and India that are experiencing significant economic growth.
A news report stated, “The latest estimate from technical experts is that the chemical’s output in developing countries is rising 20 to 35 percent each year and could continue at that pace for years. Slightly over 2 percent of Indian households currently have air conditioners, according the LG Electronics of South Korea, a giant maker of air conditioners. In China, ownership soared to 87.2 air conditioners per 100 urban households in September (2007), from 24.4 seven years earlier. The countryside, home to two-thirds of the nation’s population, is poised for even greater growth. In 2005, there were 6.4 air conditioners per 100 rural households, a 35-fold increase from a decade earlier.”73
This report coincided with a re-expansion of the size of the Ozone Hole in 2006 to a level matching its record size achieved in 2001. This unanticipated record use of these dangerous chemicals in the developing world has surely lengthened our 100-year ozone problem. While the problem continues, we are once again put at risk by the failure of the world’s leaders to act. It may be we are losing ground on ozone depletion rather than making progress. Only time will tell if the ozone hole over the Antarctic begins to widen once more or depletion of ozone over the Arctic, where a new hole appears periodically, becomes problematic or whether ozone density is reduced as a result of the anticipated global climate change.
This highlights the difficulty faced in fixing the ozone layer and demonstrates the inertia encountered when issues of major impact are left to scientists, industries, politicians, and governments. The scientists inevitably have insufficient power to propel the issues forward. Politicians are successfully lobbied by industries with their bottomless resources and support that keeps politicians in office. Industries are motivated by protecting the status quo and the continued growth of earnings. Governments of the developed nations, which created the problem, are lobbied by developing nations to postpone corrective action until after their development. What is typically missing is the citizenry who ultimately has the political muscle to move governments to overrule industries. Absent the world citizenry, life could die waiting for action.
This then is another observation to be drawn from our experience with the ozone issue. People must be knowledgeable and must be involved if humanity is to react in a timely way to issues that threaten our existence. We must err on the side of early action to give ourselves the benefit of as much time as possible to enact a remedy. We must demand our governments act, recognizing we can make amends for economic dislocations which we cause and which we can reverse if the future contradicts our present view.
Protect Life Imperative — Climate Change
The prolonged threat of the ozone hole leads us to the present issue of global climate change. Climate change is not as simple as the ozone hole because it has no ozone hole. There is not just one phenomenon with obvious chemical causes where incidental human behavior is a major contributor. Everything about global climate change is complex, diffuse, and central to post industrial society. It is complex because it requires understanding of the planet’s atmospheric, oceanic, and weather systems. It is diffuse because every human being in the developed world contributes greenhouse gases to the environment. It is central to society because dependence on carbon based energy sources, coal, oil and natural gas, and agricultural processes are essential to our modern civilization. In developing countries carbon based energy sources, deforestation and agriculture are viewed as critical to catching up with the developed world.
Issues of global climate change began in the early 19th century with investigation of the causes of the ice ages.74 Joseph Fourier in 1829 hypothesized atmospheric gases would permit the sun’s radiation to penetrate to the surface of the planet but would keep heat from escaping upward. In 1859, John Tyndall, a natural philosopher, conducted experiments that identified multiple gases including water vapor and carbon dioxide that trap heat rays, blocking their escape in the atmosphere. This was followed by Svante Arrhenius of Stockholm who mathematically demonstrated reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere by 50% would lower European temperatures sufficiently to approximate an ice age, or a reduction of between 4-5°C and 7-9°F. While demonstrating the sensitivity of the atmosphere to a reduction of CO2, it did not prove that such a change had actually happened or was possible.
Debate about causes of ice age climate change continued into the 1900’s. Carbon dioxide got little attention because of a highly regarded experiment in the early 1900’s performed by Knut Ångström of Sweden.75 Ångström filled a tube with enough carbon dioxide to approximate the level that could be found in a column of air extending up to the top of the atmosphere. He then projected infrared radiation through the tube and measured how much successfully passed all the way through when he doubled and halved the CO2. He found the radiation getting through did not vary significantly with a change in the density of the CO2. He concluded significant climate change could not result from increases or decreases in carbon dioxide.
There were problems, however, with his results. Using a spectrograph of the time, he could not detect differences in absorption because there is hardly any absorption in the solar spectrum, causing him to conclude the CO2 spectrum was saturated. He did not know absorption of CO2 increases in parts of the spectrum he could not observe. He and other scientists were unaware that absorption at sea level air pressure and temperature produced a different result than was found in the much colder and lower pressure upper atmosphere. In addition, water vapor, which also blocks infrared radiation and is far more prevalent in the atmosphere than CO2, overlapped the smeared out bands of the CO2 in the spectrographs. As a result, more CO2 in the overlapping bands would have no effect since water vapor coupled with the CO2 in the tube, was already blocking all of the potential radiation. These results were widely published and caused several decades of neglect of CO2 and its effects by the world’s scientists.
While other research provided key insights into global climate change, two efforts deserve mention. Roger Revelle, an oceanographer who headed the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California refuted the long held scientific view that CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels would not stay in the atmosphere for long but instead would be absorbed by the huge mass of water represented by the world’s oceans. Revelle’s research in the late 1950s showed that increasing numbers of CO2 molecules added to the atmosphere would wend their way into the world’s oceans within a few years. However most of the increase in additional CO2 would be evaporated back into the atmosphere in a short period of time. This contradicted the long held belief that the oceans were an immediate and natural, long term repository for greenhouse gases. It could take thousands of years for a new equilibrium to be established between the air and sea water.
Other research commissioned by Revelle through the International Geophysical Year, was undertaken by Charles David Keeling beginning in 1959. Keeling established a baseline of atmospheric CO2 values around the world that could be used for future comparisons. Using equipment in Antarctica and at the top of Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, Keeling performed painstaking measurements of concentrations of CO2 for many years. His results showed an increase in carbon dioxide that could only be predicted if the oceans did not absorb the continually increasing industrial emissions. They showed a relentless year-over-year increase in CO2 in the atmosphere.
For many decades there were four main obstacles to demonstrating the contribution of human activity to climate change. The first was insufficient historical information on the temperature variation of the planet. This was overcome by studying the chemistry of ice core samples extracted from drilling in the Soviet Antarctic and Greenland ice caps. These samples contained tiny air bubbles from various geological periods and made it possible to measure past CO2 concentrations when the samples were cleaned, crushed in a vacuum and measured for what came out. These two ice core studies looked back some 150,000 years to produce dramatic conclusions. They showed CO2 in the atmosphere went up and down corresponding closely to the rise and fall of temperature throughout the relevant periods. This indicated a direct correlation between carbon dioxide and climate change.
Another obstacle to progress was the need for computing power to perform the millions of calculations required by large scale modeling of the weather.76 For decades scientists built simple models based on limited assumptions and variables to predict large scale weather effects. All of these efforts failed. Only with the advent of big digital computers in the 1980’s could one construct sufficiently complex models to accommodate the required computations of a convincing weather model. And the availability of powerful and fast desktop computers provided speed and computational power required to make even simple models more productive. These two enhanced levels of computing were necessary to move global climate models to the descriptive success they have achieved today.
The third obstacle was the global nature of our planet’s weather and oceans and the lack of worldwide measurement data. Only continuous collection of accurate weather and temperature information from thousands of locations worldwide could supply large-scale models with enough data to support accurate modeling. Obtaining this data involved painstaking daily efforts from thousands of scientists. Sharing the information involved the close cooperation of research institutions and governments around the world.
Time was the final requirement for progress in demonstrating causes of climate change. Computing models became more complex because of higher numbers of variables. This meant more time was required for refinement of the models. With all large statistical models, increased accuracy is a result of countless reruns with selective additions and modifications of variables to insure continuous and steady improvement. There are now numerous sophisticated large-scale weather models at research and educational institutions that have gone through three decades of refinement to improve the statistical predictability of their results.
These models include atmospheric phenomena such as the behavior of updrafts carrying heat from the surface of the planet to the upper atmosphere, the role the layers of atmosphere play in the overall climate, wind currents and quantities of heat carried from the tropics to the poles, how snow and ice reflect sunlight into the atmosphere, and the formation and effects of clouds. Factors concerning the oceans include the interaction of evaporation, storms, and clouds. In addition they include the water currents that carry heat from one part of the globe to another and the oceans’ ability to act as a carbon sink, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it. In addition the models must account for airborne particulates in the atmosphere such as chemicals and dust from volcanoes and aerosol sprays. Other elements to be added to the models are greenhouse gases produced by human beings and other forms of life, such as CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels and methane, which is released into the atmosphere by livestock and microbes in wetlands and rice paddies. We also have to include variables from beyond our planet such as radiation from the sun, its angle of impact on the earth and shifts in the planet’s axis and magnetic fields. You can now begin to appreciate the sheer complexity of factors that needed to be considered.
The history of climate change has been fraught with controversy. As could be expected with burgeoning interest in the issue by scientists, governments, industries, and finally an aware citizenry, there has been much acrimonious debate. Confusion has arisen over conflicting findings, criticism of research methodologies and questions about individual motives. Mainly we become frustrated by our inability to make complex issues more simple and straightforward.
There have been numerous opinions, some of which are more informed than others, and numerous participants in the debate. One organization, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), received worldwide endorsement of its findings. The IPCC was chartered by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Since its charter, the IPCC has issued four major world assessments of climate change, in 1990, 1996, 2001 and 2007.77 The due date of the next assessment is sometime between the end of 2013 and 2014. Along with former Vice President Al Gore, the IPCC received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.78
The IPCC has three working groups that deal with different aspects of the global climate change issue; the scientific basis of climate change, its consequences, and remedies the world has for slowing the rate of change. The process for review and consensus of the IPCC’s reports is extensive and involves collaboration and review by thousands of scientists from the developed and developing worlds, research institutions, industry, government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The reports are issued only after several layers of authorship, review, and negotiation.
Conclusions that have emerged from the reports of the three working groups are as follows:79,80,81
- There is a greater than 90% probability that the increase in the world’s average temperatures since the mid-20th century is due to greenhouse gas concentrations as a result of human activity.
- Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.
- The “best estimate range” for an increase in global temperatures is from 3.1 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.8 to 4.0 degrees Celsius) by the end of this century. More pessimistic estimates identify average temperature increases as high as 11.5 degrees.
- There will be increasingly severe weather including fewer but more intense hurricanes and typhoons, greater rainfall in higher latitudes with decreases in precipitation in the more subtropical areas.
- Fresh water resources will diminish affecting one sixth of the world’s population living near rivers with water from glaciers and snow cover. An early increase in available water as the glaciers melt will be followed by a steep decline as glaciers disappear.
- There will be a potential shrinkage of fresh water resources by an estimated 30% by the middle of this century.
- Disappearing glaciers, melting Arctic and Antarctic ice and melting snows will cause a most likely 7 to 23 inch rise in sea level by the end of this century.
- Some researchers believe the forecasted increases in temperature will initiate an irreversible melting of Greenland’s ice sheet. This would cause a rise in sea level as great as 23 feet.
- Global climate change threatens up to 30% of plant and animal species with extinction if the global average temperature rises more than three to five degrees Fahrenheit.
Unfortunately there is no silver bullet, no single step that can be taken that will slow or reverse the climate change that has begun. A wide array of recommendations have been made which would have major impact on numerous industries including the seven sectors of Energy Supply, Transport, Buildings, Industry, Agriculture, Forestry/forests and Waste. Unfortunately recommended changes would require development and adoption of many new technologies and would initiate wholesale replacement of infrastructure in multiple industries. These changes would necessitate large societal investments and would take many years to accomplish.
Prominent among steps identified for Energy Supply, Transport, Buildings and Industry sectors are:
- fuel switching from coal to gas
- nuclear power and use of other renewable sources such as hydropower, solar, wind, geothermal and bioenergy;
- production and use of more efficient vehicles including hybrids and cleaner diesel vehicles
- more efficient building lighting, heating and cooling systems
- use of passive and active solar design for building environmental systems
- more efficient use of electrical equipment in industry
- increased material recycling and substitution and
- greater control of non-CO2 gas emissions.
In the longer term in these sectors, the IPCC is suggesting:
- technologically advanced nuclear power and alternate renewable energy sources including tidal and waves energy and solar power
- more advanced and efficient vehicles and batteries and
- Carbon Capture and Storage for cement, ammonia, and iron manufacture.
In the agriculture, Forestry/forests, and Waste sectors they called for:
- increased crop and grazing land management
- livestock and manure management to reduce CH4 emissions
- dedicated energy crops to replace fossil fuel use,
- reduced deforestation and reforestation
- landfill methane recovery
- greater composting of organic waste and
- recycling and waste minimization.
Global climate change is an urgent, long-term problem facing the planet and all of its inhabitants. In an article entitled The Physical Science behind Climate Change, which appeared in the August 2007 issue of Scientific American, five noted scientists, William Collins, Robert Colman, James Haywood, Martin R. Manning and Philip Mote, conclude “One result of global warming is certain, however. Plants, animals and humans will be living with the consequences of climate change for at least the next thousand years.”82
As we observed part of the difficulty of dealing with climate change is that it is complex, diffuse, and central to post industrial society. Numerous industries will have to make significant changes and their responsibility is unfocused. Suggested remedies will take considerable time, effort, and money to accomplish. The two most significant challenges to begin the task of addressing global climate change are a sense of urgency and finding strong leadership.
The issue now moves from the scientists to the politicians, industries, and the individual citizen. Unfortunately the country that ostensibly leads the world, the United States, is the largest contributor to global climate change by any measure and has been the most intransigent on the issue. And the science is conclusive. The Editor-in-chief of Science magazine, Donald Kennedy, observed in an editorial “The scientific consensus is clear … political judgments are in, and the game is over.”83 It is now time for the United States to mobilize the needed action including ambitious and aggressive legislation to begin addressing the problem.
Following a “Politics as usual” approach to the problem, the motivations and actions of various participants will be as follows. Politicians in response to public pressure know they must sponsor and/or vote for one or more global climate change bills that at minimum give the appearance of taking action. Representatives of affected industries will proclaim leadership of and commitment to the “Green Revolution” in their advertising while attempting to negotiate the least required change that will spread over the longest period of time. They will also claim costs are too high, needed technology is non-existent, and as a result their business will be less competitive. Finally, they will argue that conversion costs should be borne by the government, in other words, the taxpayer.
The collective tendency will be to postpone the hard work for future generations of business leaders and politicians who will be forced to act. Citizens will look to politicians to demand that offending industries change and yet themselves will take largely symbolic acts to show support for resolving global climate change. The bottom line is everyone will wait for someone else until it is clear we are out of time. The risk to humanity is huge. Future generations will lose because they were left with no chance to win.
A number of bills were introduced in the U.S. Congress in the last few years that proposed various plans for greenhouse gas reductions in the United States. These bills identified when the emissions limitations would go into effect, set percentage targets for annual reductions of greenhouse gases, and fix a maximum target for a specific year in the future. They were variously entitled the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act, Safe Climate Act, Global Warming Reduction Act, Climate Stewardship Act, Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act, Electric Utility Cap and Trade Act, American Clean Energy and Security Act, and so on. None of these bills have passed both houses of Congress. None were expected to.
The starting years for proposed laws ranged from 2010, which has been missed, and later. The arguments and lobbying continue. The original measurement milestones called for emissions reduction from 8% at the lowest end to 17% at the high end by the year 2020. They further specified a final milestone ranging from a total emissions reduction of 42% at the low benchmark to 83% emissions reduction at the highest level by the year 2050. Now that we have experienced a significant economic downturn, it is unclear when the United States will muster the will, energy, or resources to attack the problem.
The question is, are any of these proposed laws aggressive enough? Some perspective would be useful. If we use other human undertakings as a benchmark we have a frame of reference with which to evaluate proposed legislation. Let us use three human accomplishments for comparison; the construction of the great pyramid at Giza, the making of the first nuclear weapon, and putting a man on the moon. The Great Pyramid of Khufu in Giza, Egypt sits on an area of thirteen acres.84,85 It is composed of approximately 2,300,000 stone blocks, each of which required 112 men to lift and move into place. It is estimated to have taken 20 years to build.
The phenomenon of a chain reaction initiated by the splitting of atoms was articulated in 1933 by a Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard. He patented the idea. In October of 1939 Szilard wrote a letter, which Albert Einstein signed, to President Roosevelt advocating the building of a bomb. The first atomic explosion was conducted on July 16, 1945. Two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945. From conception in 1933 to use in 1945 took twelve years.
On May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech declaring the United States was going to put a man on the moon. Eight years later Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon.
These three human accomplishments took 20 years, 12 years, and 8 years respectively, and yet the most aggressive proposed legislation to deal with global climate change allows a time frame of over forty years. The author of this legislation was the Speaker of the House who was born in 1940 and will be 110 years old in 2050. The Chairman and CEO of Duke Energy, the largest power generating company in the United States, was born in 1947 and will be 103 years old in 2050. Both will certainly be retired by the time the first measurement milestone in that proposed legislation would have been due in 2020.
Humanity must accept the urgency of our situation and summon the resolve to aggressively slow and ultimately reverse global climate change. Unfortunately, humanity does not have a good track record in following through on goals which span decades. Our continuing failures to close the ozone hole and eliminate nuclear weapons serve as examples of our inability to follow through. Present proposed global climate change legislation in the United States Congress is inadequate and will not accomplish our objectives.
We do not know if we have run out of time to reverse global climate change. It may be that climate change is analogous to the AIDs epidemic. People do not die of AIDs. AIDs weakens the human immune system so its victims are susceptible to any number of other infections. Other infections, which we should survive, prove fatal because of the crippled immune system. Assuming we take appropriate action, global climate change may not be fatal, but it attacks the equilibrium of the surface environment of the planet.
James Lovelock, a noted scientist, environmentalist and writer, developed the concept of Gaia or that all elements in the environment on Earth work synergistically to regulate the overall system and rebalance the ecology as a protection mechanism.86 Once the planet’s ecological system has been overburdened with human pollutants, its self regulating and synergistic mechanisms may have been compromised to the point that they cannot absorb further shocks and can no longer respond. Once the relative stability of the world’s temperature has been compromised, we may find we have initiated a sequence of events that reinforce each other into a spiral of escalating effects and deterioration.
As an example, consider the greenhouse gas methane. Methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas that is emitted from a variety of natural and human initiated sources. Human sources include landfills, natural gas and petroleum systems, agricultural activities, coal mining, stationary and mobile combustion, wastewater treatment, and certain industrial processes.
What makes methane a source of concern is it is the most likely greenhouse gas to cause catastrophic change. Methane is over 20 times more powerful and destructive than CO2 but it remains in the atmosphere for only about a decade. Methane occurs naturally all over the planet and in significant quantities. It is frozen into hydrates, or crystalline structures, under sediments on the ocean floors and in frozen tundra.87 If the tundra and permafrost melt or the temperature of the ocean increases over the next couple of decades a significant release of methane could occur which would accelerate climate change. Seafloor methane hydrates, especially those deposited on continental shelves, are also susceptible to earthquakes and underwater landslides which can trigger immediate significant releases of the methane gas.88
Climatologists and geologists have created many variations of a hypothetical series of events that would indicate “a methane runaway is possible, sustained by three mutually reinforcing sources, one Arctic, one tropical, and one global.”89 Most of these hypothetical series begin with an initial methane release, that is the crucial triggering event that causes other events negatively reinforcing each other establishing a series of effects that spiral out of control. For example, Nisbet (1989, 1990) points to a release of gas from an Arctic gas pool while Paull et al. (1991) suggest a submarine landslide could release large amounts of methane triggering a rise in the planet’s temperature which causes melting of frozen tundra which releases more methane that increases the temperature even more, and so on. “An important factor is the possibility of mutual feedback between submarine landslips, Arctic hydrate releases, and tropical wetland emissions (Nisbet 1992).”
Some years ago, in the midst of the U.S. and Soviet cold war, there was recognition in the scientific community and the government that an enemy could avoid detection in a nuclear attack by exploding a weapon off the coastline. This would trigger a tidal wave that would devastate coastal cities. Such an attack or for that matter, an explosion by a sizable meteor hitting the ocean near a methane rich continental shelf could trigger a release of methane with catastrophic consequences. Such an event could cause a weakened planet to enter a methane runaway that would overwhelm human responses.
A generation is usually measured as the time from birth of a parent to the birth of their first child. This varies from generation to generation and most recently has become longer as people have their first child later in life. At present the length of a generation in developed countries is approximately 30 years. A global climate change problem that lasts 1,000 years will affect over 30 generations. We are dealing with a problem that even under the best of circumstances will threaten our great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grand children and all children in between.
We all know that since the beginning of the industrial age, human industry has looted the resources of the planet. Businesses and governments have considered those resources in economic terms a relatively free good available for plunder. Everyone in the civilized world has benefited from their extraction and use even as we have polluted the environment. As time passed, many people began to suspect that at some point we would have to pay a price for our exploitation. It is now clear the time has come to fix what we have done. Climate change and the ozone hole join nuclear weapons as the three creations of human kind that threaten life’s existence on Planet Earth.
While climate change is uncertain in its future severity, we humans cannot afford miscalculation. We cannot rely on serendipity. The risks of being wrong and failing to respond in an aggressive and conclusive way are unacceptable. We must insist our political leaders discard a “politics as usual” philosophy. We must demand that instead of requiring progress from our industries on the back-end of the time allowed, urgent progress must be front-end loaded. We will fail with plans that offer 83% reduction after 40 years. We must demand the 80% in the first 15 years. Only in this way can we give ourselves any substantive chance to avoid catastrophe.
Yes, our effort will cost money and require we move forward with technologies as they are, while we develop others. Yes, our actions may be wasteful as yesterday’s solutions are immediately replaced by the next generation of technology in short order. This is how humanity will succeed and how progress will be made. This is how we will win against global climate change. Unfortunately, it appears we will not react in time to permit an orderly and systematic, well planned response. Every month of delay increases the severity of the steps that must be taken and the human cost of future suffering.
There is nothing sacred about how we live presently. Cities can be changed. Transportation can be changed. Economic policy can be changed. Everything can change. We must not hold on to failing processes, technology or institutions. We cannot let our grasp on the familiar keep us from reaching for the future. We must do as only we can do. We have identified this problem, absorbed large amounts of information about it and are clear on its consequences to our existence. We must identify available options, decide on a course of action, and implement those actions.
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