Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Warming Wednesdays: can we survive on a hotter planet?

Ricky Rood is a professor at the University of Michigan who leads a course on climate change problem solving. He also blogs at what used to be the Weather Underground where he presents our situation in relation to runaway human-caused climate change starkly.

It is crystal clear that we cannot address our energy challenges and expect to automatically address our climate issues. Short-term energy and economic issues will always trump climate change. We [are experiencing] a technological development that by all indications makes global warming worse. We have great challenges in finding safe, secure sources of energy. Our easiest approaches to the energy security problem make the climate change problem worse.

We cannot solve the climate change problem with fossil fuels – remember it is the accumulation of carbon dioxide, not the instantaneous emission of carbon dioxide that matters. All that is emitted stays with us for a very long time. Therefore, new technology that makes it possible to exploit unconventional oil and gas, which might make the U.S. energy independent, puts multiple stresses into the effort to address climate change.

We have ingrained behavior and practice that continue to reward exploitation of fossil fuels more aggressively than renewable energy. Though the World Bank analysis comes to the conclusion that “a 4 degree Celsius warmer world must be avoided,” we have no energy policy, we have no climate policy, and hence, there is little indication that we will take steps to avoid that world.

In early December 2013 I was on a flight sitting next to a man who drives trucks in the Bakken Shale Oil Fields of North Dakota. In North Dakota they target, primarily, oil extraction. The man told me that they were mostly burning off the methane. He was thriving, growing a business. He was caring for his family and looking to the future. A curious statement he made was that the only problem was that all of money up there was coming from other countries.

This just brings home our immediate energy future. We have made the exploitation of fossil fuels as cheap as apparently it was in the year 1300, when Marco Polo wrote of coal in China. We have beaten peak oil. The World wants these fossil fuels to run its economies. We want the jobs to run our economy. We cannot deny our drive to live comfortable lives, our drive for security. The ease of fossil fuels will keep their use growing. The reality is that our “built-in” climate change needs to accommodate the increment that will come from the emissions that cannot be denied.

Let me restate that with less precision but more affect: our sort of civilization (technological and capitalist) requires and rewards use of carbon-polluting energy. We've found ways to "Drill, baby, drill!" We've figured out how to release far more of carbon-based energy than looked likely 20 years ago. Human demand will cause the release into the atmosphere of most of that carbon, regardless of any bumps that climate activists manage to create along the way. It doesn't just "go away" -- especially when we burn off methane, one of the most potential sources of CO2.

Our problem becomes, can we find a way to survive the horror show we will create?

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- reminders of an inconvenient truth.


Hattie said...

We probably consume less than we once did while having a higher standard of living. But so many of us are in situations that call for the use of fossil fuels, as in our case, where we need to fly for work and family reasons. If we never left the islands we would be carbon neutral. We have solar hot water and electricity, plant trees, drive very little, eat local, etc. for the most part. Better than nothing but not good enough.
We need rational social planning and megaprojects that address climate change and mitigate its effects while reducing emissions. Circumstances may force us in the right direction.

janinsanfran said...

Warming isn't something that will get solved by individual actions -- though we can certainly try to help by reducing our personal contribution to carbon pollution.

I agree with Hattie: we need society scale planning as well as policies that create incentives for more sustainable technologies.

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