September 29, 2008

What Is To Be Done?
Things are not looking good. First came reports that Americans would need to cut total carbon emissions by 90% by 2050 to avoid catastrophic, irreversible climate change. Of course, that's not going to help us with the wee problem of our rapidly acidifying oceans. But at least it's a goal, right?

Then came this report in the WaPo:

The rise in global carbon dioxide emissions last year outpaced international researchers' most dire projections, according to figures being released today, as human-generated greenhouse gases continued to build up in the atmosphere despite international agreements and national policies aimed at curbing climate change.

In 2007, carbon released from burning fossil fuels and producing cement increased 2.9 percent over that released in 2006, to a total of 8.47 gigatons, or billions of metric tons, according to the Australia-based Global Carbon Project, an international consortium of scientists that tracks emissions. This output is at the very high end of scenarios outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and could translate into a global temperature rise of more than 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, according to the panel's estimates.

"In a sense, it's a reality check," said Corinne Le Quéré, a professor at the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia and a researcher with the British Antarctic Survey. "This is an extremely large number. The emissions are increasing at a rate that's faster than what the IPCC has used."

If that's reality, I'll pass. 11 degrees in 90 years? Now we're in Waterworld territory. No wonder Al Gore recently called upon young people to engage in civil disobedience to shut down coal-burning power plants.

Anyway, it's all moot since we can't hardly talk about global warming without sending the GOP into a filibuster frenzy. Meanwhile neither presidential candidate is really grappling head on with the issue (John McCain is for and against carbon caps. Obama is all about alternative energy but doesn't really like to talk about emissions cuts or carbon caps). The best our legislators have managed to date was the Lieberman-Warner bill that included a mere 70% cut by 2050 - and that was DOA in the Senate. Even during an Obama administration, can you imagine getting 60 Senators (the number you'd need to get past a filibuster) to vote for a law that would cut emissions by the requisite 90%?

Then we have the fact that American society had been built over the past century on the foundation of cheap, plentiful fuel. There isn't a single aspect of the way we live that doesn't require the consumption of massive amounts of hydrocarbons. From heating and cooling our homes to transportation to agriculture to toys to, well, everything.

Obviously, Americans are pretty adaptable. We did respond to the run up in fuel prices by (gasp) driving less. GM, for its part, just decided that building a business based on gas-guzzlers in an era of $4 gasoline is maybe a bad idea and has introduced an awfully nifty, if pricey, electric car. Meanwhile, scooter sales are through the roof.

And then there's Juneau, Alaska - usually supplied by cheap, plentiful hydroelectric power but forced in the spring by an act of nature (i.e. an avalanche) to cut its electricity use or face massive bills for "backup" diesel-generated power. They did so to the tune of a 30% reduction in a matter of weeks. But that's the crux of the problem right there. Yes, I have no doubt that we could cut back in the face of an immediate shortage. But cutting 30% of electricity use is not the same as cutting 90% of all carbon use.

So where does that leave us? Well, getting ready for the heat for one. And that doesn't just mean loading up on sunscreen. It means getting ready for living in a low-carbon world - if we're not going to reverse global warming, $4 gas will be the least of our problems.

We can always hope that innovation will help. I suspect this will be the clarion call from conservatives - why regulate when you can innovate. Of course, innovation was supposed to revolutionize the financial industry and we know how that turned out. But maybe futurist Ray Kurzweil is right and our energy production will be 100% solar-powered in 20 years. And there's bad innovation, too. Clean coal, anyone? Clean coal, my friends, is the smokeless cigarette of the 21st century - a corporatist fantasy to get you to take your eyes off the ball. Don't believe me? Then try and find some.

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