Earth Day means nothing if We Don’t Limit Carbon Emissions

The first observance of Earth Day was March 21, 1970. I was 17, and along with other students at Broad Run High School, went out with garbage bags to clean up the side of the road leading to the school. Even then, of course, the world faced much more serious pollution issues than roadside litter. But that problem was one we students could do something about.

Given the magnitude of the challenges the earth now faces, provoked by man-made global climate change as a result of our spewing massive amounts of carbon dioxide and soot into the atmosphere, the problems that were on our minds in 1970 seem in retrospect miniscule. Moreover, the idea that individuals could resolve this problem by taking individual action is a non-starter. It is a collective and infrastructural problem and we have to band together and do something about it through the instrumentality of the government. Unfortunately, our government has mostly been bought by Big Oil, so that the crisis of the environment is also the crisis of American democracy.

In 2011, fossil fuel emissions jumped about 6%, and over the past 20 years these emissions have risen half again as much. The likelihood that the world can keep the average temperature increase to only 2 degrees C is rapidly receding. We are likely headed for a 5 degrees C (over 9 degrees F) increase over the next century or two. The full impact of this radical heating of the earth won’t become apparent for centuries, since the oceans are cold and deep and will only gradually warm. If we produce the 5 degrees C. increase, the whole world will eventually be tropical, including Antarctica, and we probably will lose about a third of the world’s land mass to rising seas, displacing hundreds of millions of port city dwellers and destroying a significant percentage of global wealth. Worse, we as a species evolved and lived during relatively cold eras, and it is not clear whether we can survive in so extensively altered a world. Food issues may arise. The oceans will absorb some of the carbon dioxide, becoming acidic and inhospitable to many marine species. We could lose a lot of those species, with implications for human food sources.

Although the oceans will probably only rise a few feet this century, we could see some severe effects of the warming oceans much sooner. A US Senate hearing just pointed out that there could be storm surges and floods in coastal regions, affecting populations living 4 feet or less above sea level, and affecting energy plants along the shore. Some 4 million Americans live on the coasts at 4 feet or less above sea level, and 287 energy facilities are that low along the shores.

We are not well positioned to deal with this man-made looming catastrophe. Distant harm versus present pain at the pump makes for a very difficult calculation. Even now, government subsidies to promote clean energy are on the chopping block in the US and Germany. China has ambitious plans for renewable and nuclear energy, but is also the world’s leading carbon polluter as things now stand.

The price of solar power is falling, and will probably cross with hydrocarbons in this decade if it has not already done so. But in a world that took seriously the findings of climate science, there would be Manhattan Project-style crash programs to move the world to solar, wind, geothermal and hydro-electric power more quickly. There are many research projects, and some breakthroughs. But what we are doing now isn’t nearly enough.

So from conceiving ourselves as merely littering and poisoning the earth when I was a teenager, we have gone to a realization that we are threatening the earth with heat stroke and drowning. We have taken giant strides backwards. Our laws at state and federal levels, should reward innovation and risk-taking in the clean energy sector. Too often they do not. We need to get the right laws passed to deal with this crisis, and if representatives won’t pass them, we need new representatives.

17 Responses

  1. Words fail us. I used to find comfort in the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who said “mankind is not totally dumb.” The poor countries are already suffering from changes in the delicate balance of the climate.

    Juan’s experience at 17 in 1970 of picking up trash for Earth day was a long time ago.

    My experience at 17 was a Freshman term paper for an English class. The topic of my 1960 paper was global population and the population problem scared the crap out of me. This was an urgent problem requiring global attention. That was back when the world’s population first reached 3 billion. Now it is 7 billion.

    The systems philosopher C. West Churchman in the 1970’s summarized the world’s problems as M P cubed. M is militarism. P cubed is Population Pollution Poverty. He started the Peace studies program at University of California, Berkeley. He would tell everyone, say the French department, that the main problem they faced was M P cubed. His crusade failed. We are now so dumb that terrorism fills the headlines to distract people from facing the hard problems of the world. Glenn Greenwald at Salon chronicles many things including the intimidation of those who point out waste, fraud and abuse by our government. Tactics being used here in the good old USA that are right out of Orwell’s book 1984.

    Just a reminder of population increase is a paragraph from wikipedia.

    It is estimated that the world population reached one billion for the first time in 1804. It would be another 123 years before it reached two billion in 1927, but it took only 33 years to rise by another billion people, reaching three billion in 1960. Thereafter, the global population reached four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987, six billion in 1999 and, according to the United States Census Bureau, seven billion in March 2012.[1] The United Nations, however, estimated that the world population reached seven billion in October 2011

  2. Without the Republican Party, the US would be forging ahead with CO2 reduction, leading the world. The Republicans are a tragedy for the planet.

  3. I think that new representatives will be just as powerless as the present Congress. Big Oil needs to be convinced that it can be just as powerful if it is also Big Solar, Big Turbine, etc.

  4. Juan, you are far too restrained, mild almost.

    Apart from America’s and much of the world’s pay-to-play politics (I call it oligarchy) whereby BIG-OIL “owns” USA’s energy policy — there is also the problem of the short attention horizons of elected politicians. They see re-election in 2 or 4 or 6 years as a real issue, but do not see the problems of food/water/weather in 50/100 years as part of their proper concern. In that sense, the possibility of re-election produces a sort of institutional CORRUPTION in favor of big campaign contributors, of course, but also in favor of immediate (short time-line) issues.

    “No Relection” was once, I believe, part of a Mexican political slogan. If it were a rule of law everywhere, elected politicians would be free to accept money and then double-cross the donors — free of punishment in a subsequent round. But if the public doesn’t demand government action on long-term problems, even single-term elected officials would not turn to the real business of humanity.

  5. News of global warming’s PRESENT and OBSERVABLE effects (these are canaries in the global coal-mine):

    link to

    Researchers measure significant changes in plant communities across European mountain ranges

    Global warming is diminishing species diversity across many mountain ranges in Europe at a dizzying pace. A continent-wide study showed measurable changes in plant communities just within a decade, according to a study led by the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the University of Vienna.

  6. Earth Day has become a PR stunt and photo op. The media love those aerial shots of darkened cities and tales of nice people doing nice things like picking up litter. All this minimizes the whole thing to a sort of minor housekeeping problem and also gives the impression that Canada gives a damn when Canada doesn’t. If anything, the powers that be in this country look forward to global warming as this will give them access to energy resources in the far north.

  7. If we insist that global warming is caused by human activity, then we must be willing to face the facts. There are nine basic energy resources: fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas); nuclear (uranium); and, the renewables (hydro, geothermal, biomass, solar and wind). Only nuclear, solar and wind can eliminate greenhouse emissions. Coal is the benchmark, with heavy emissions of carbon dioxide. A switch to gas cuts this in half, but only if one assumes zero leakage in the extraction and distribution system. In practice, leakage often approaches a level that actually makes things worse than coal, given the more potent warming potential of methane. This is a problem that can be solved, but not overnight. Oil falls about half way between coal and gas for carbon dioxide emissions. For hydro, in many cases, one must clear forested land behind the dam. Burning of the resulting debris, and the fact that carbon-absorbing trees are felled, puts these emissions about half way between oil and gas. If the land is not cleared, then rotting vegetation puts emissions at 20 times this amount, which would make hydro by far the worst emitter of greenhouse gas. Geothermal often liberates substantially more carbon dioxide than coal burning. Biomass emits about the same as oil.

    • A remarkably concise summary of how bad our options are. I would recommend that it run on billboards and scoreboards in every city, as a crawl on every “news” station, and as the screen saver on every computer. Except that we would go crazy from sheer terror and either go on rampages or seal ourselves inside our homes. I guess all those science fiction movies where the government is covering up its knowledge of aliens to prevent a mass panic are being proven in reality.

  8. The obvious intellectual conclusion, which no one will touch, is that human beings are not actually that intelligent.

    And further, that Anglo-American white bread Big Oil Big Media civilization, which did win World War II and build the interstate highways and put a man on the moon and which did provide a modicum of stability in overall global political relations since 1945 (except in those unlucky places and times where it was convenient, profitable or advantageous to some local client to allow armed political conflicts to develop or continue), is not very civilized overall and is not worthy of the worshipful over-respect it receives from American Big Media and the American Republican Party and its followers.

    I’m one of us, but I gotta call it like I see it, folks.

    • I don’t think the Republican Party actually likes the post-1945 Anglo-American civilization. They now routinely denounce FDR as a communist, and hint that the wrong side won the civil rights struggle. What they seem to imply is that if the murderous Great Depression was allowed to cull the herd of dissenters, subsequent years would have seen an even greater pig-fest of gross overconsumption under John Galt-like ubermensch CEOs while the blacks were assimilated by the sheer infallibility of white ways.

      Now is this the real agenda, or do the people behind the Right actually know that a collapse is coming, and they’re intentionally preparing quite the opposite? A return to 19th century economics complete with prison slave labor (check), unregulated resource rape (check), and the elimination of the evil, cosmopolitan cities and the dispersal of the population among vicious little burgs ruled by “non-state” tyrants like churches, corporate owners, and creepy fatcat star chambers (mostly there).

      In other words, the plan is 1855 Mississippi with cell phones.

    • Social intelligence is partly a matter of scale and time-horizon. Global warming appears to be too big and too slow for us to deal with collectively.

  9. MP3 that is a good discription. Its to late baby its to late.
    The temps that we are at now are already causing the leak of massive amounts of methane from Siberia and from the Artic Ocean. Its too late baby its to late. How will we build enough solar and wind power to go around for 7 billion people without the use of huge amounts energy? This energy will come primarily from fossil fuels. I have read that nuclear power has a similar problem. That is not hard to imagine. Just imagine all of the engery need to make the containment structure. That is even before you get to the fact that uranium is not exactly abundent and has to be highly refined to use has a fuel. Its too late baby its to late. It might only be ten minutes in to the third quarter but we are down 38 to 3. Oh, but wait. We can try an Ale Merry Pass.
    Someone could start putting gases in to the atmosphere that will counteract the effects of CO2 and Methane. Failing that Dr. Spock could appear and build an orbiting sunshield for us.

  10. Too bad Hollywood could not produce a better cautionary tale, a myth that might resonate in all the studiously empty skulls out there in FOXland, and maybe result in some actual, real, meaningful, large-scale, Hope-driven Change, than “The Day The Earth Stood Still.” link to

    And too bad that “Soylent Green” is so, you know, 1973 polyester cheesy. link to

    And too bad that so many comfortable Old White Farts are so thoroughly Superglued to their BarcaLoungers and HDTV and SUVs, and that they so insistently and effectively have their Yard Keepers applying heavy doses of the social and economic equivalent of Roundup to any bit of actual spring green that peeks out of the cracks in the asphalt…

    We ain’t the only plague species, but we sure can feel good about being the biggest, baddest, very most worst one…

  11. I’m pretty much down to flying wind turbine-generators as the only thing we could build that’s power-dense enough to manufacture on the scale needed to shut all coal down. These could operate around the clock, at altitudes where the wind never stops. However, it might mean closing commercial airspace. The biggest problem is that we know so little about what is an optimal design, much less how do deal with the rate of breakdowns and losses. Thus the greedy short-sighted investors feel that if they bet on the wrong design they will get creamed. It could take a generation to do enough testing to nail this down, and that’s too long.

    But if a country were willing to treat it like World War II, then it would be a manageable technical problem, like having to suddenly build 50,000 warplanes in car factories. We didn’t spend 1942-45 dithering about optimal or efficient investments; we weren’t competing against the enemy in the stock market, but in the raw numbers of destruction.

    Only America no longer has the vast array of machine shops and factories that can be forced by government fiat into creating all the needed parts of a standardized design. The only country that now describes is China. Ironically, that’s the birthplace of the kite.

  12. Would help some if the world wasn’t wasting so much – War is the best example I can think of – Bomb anyone lately?

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