Posts Tagged ‘global climate change’

Climate Scientist Stirs Up A Storm

 

Climate Scientist Stirs Up A Storm

Stranded Polar Bear – Arctic Ice                                    by Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

       James Hansen, the NASA scientist, was among the first persons to bring Global Climate Change to the attention of the general public.  Near the end of his 2009 book, “Storms of My Grandchildren,” he states “Our culture has notions that humans are godlike & can produce miracles.”

Along about this time, the reader may be hoping for a miracle because Hansen has presented such a compelling picture of how and why we have put ourselves in a global fix, that our ability to get out of it seems greatly in doubt.

It is not that we do not understand the nature of the problem. Hansen lays out the evidence in a very convincing fashion. It is not that there are no remedies. Hansen explains clearly what we need to do and has excellent suggestions of how to go about it.

No, the main problem is, does mankind have the courage to face the truth about climate change and the willingness to make adjustments to avoid the consequences he describes?

I think that a few words about why Hansen chose the title, “Storms of My Grandchildren, “ would be appropriate here. Indeed, to understand his impetus for writing the book, it is necessary to know that beyond being a scientist, Hansen cares about what kind of world his grandchildren will face if we do not mend our ways.

In fact, despite sounding like a present day Cassandra a lot of the time, Hansen is an optimist, both about finding ways to slow down global climate change and in his belief that humans are not inherently deniers of painful truths, but are willing to look at the situation with unflinching eyes, and do whatever it takes to save ourselves. Otherwise he would not have bothered to write this book.

If Hansen’s predictions fail at all, it is in assuming that it will be our children and grandchildren, and not ourselves, who will suffer the consequences of climate change. In fact, he lays out a good deal of evidence that many of the predicted climate changes are happening sooner and proceeding faster than most scientists, being basically cautious souls, had anticipated. One of his most important messages to us, although it is in my opinion, one he does not emphasize enough, is that climate change is not something in our future. It is happening now, and it is we, who have to do something about it.

How do we know that Global Climate Change is occurring and that humans are mainly responsible for it? If you really want to know, this is the book for you. It is a fact-based examination of the evidence for GCC, the dangers that it holds for humankind and other life, and a blueprint for what we can do about preventing this incipient catastrophe.

“Storms” is loaded with graphs, tables, and definitions of technical terms. It could be a challenge to the casual reader, although Hansen has gone to great lengths to explain these concepts in plain language.

In order to make his important message as accessible as possible, I have written a comprehensive summary of the book, emphasizing facts and evidence just as Hansen does.

Of course I could not resist adding my own two cents every once in a while. For the purpose of  distinguishing my comments and ideas from those of Hansen, I have italicized mine.

 

Summary and Comments about “STORMS OF MY GRANDCHILDREN”, James Hansen, 2009, Bloomsbury Publishing, London

By Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

 In examining Global Climate Change (GCC), there are certain key quantities to look for and potential tipping points (points at which the buildup of minor changes or incidents reach a level that triggers a more significant change) to watch: (1) continued and faster melting of the West Antarctic & Greenland ice sheets; (2) the % of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere; and (3) an increase in atmospheric methane

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Global CO2 Emissions

Hansen explains that his reasons for concentrating on these aspects are the following sobering facts: (1) Deterioration of ice sheets is leading to an increase in sea level and the number and intensity of storms; (2) an increase in atmospheric CO2 will increase Global Warming (GW) and trigger positive feedbacks (a response to an activity which increases the activity, spiraling out of control); e.g. increases in atmospheric methane also warm the biosphere, which in turn causes release of more methane from continental shelves and arctic tundra, which further warms the biosphere, etc. (Methane, although there is less of it in our atmosphere than there is of CO2, is a 20 – 30 X times stronger warming agent, molecule for molecule.)

In global warming, politics and science are inextricably intertwined. Hansen pulls no punches and plays no favorites, excoriating both Democrats and Republicans  for their unwillingness to deal with it., He first tells of his meetings with Republican VP Cheney and others in the Bush administration, describing his frustration in trying to deal with them.

Keystone XL Pipeline Route

He then goes on to accuse President Obama of failing to combat GCC in several ways: Obama has approved the concept of a tar sands pipeline, although tar sands are an even worse source of GW than are coal and oil.  He has approved new coal plants, despite their spewing large amounts of CO2 into the air. (Hansen makes the point that the consequences of GW are already so advanced, that any new sources of CO2 would be dangerous to the health of the planet).

Obama has also advocated Cap and Trade, a type of law that would put a ceiling on the amount of CO2 that can be emitted. The problem with this approach is that it rewards CO2 pollution, by allowing the polluter to sell the right to pollute to others. This only insures that its level will continue to increase.

Our government is also funneling billions of dollars to energy companies to produce “clean coal” The only problem with that, is there is no such thing. All coal burning releases more CO2 into the atmosphere.

Hansen also says that appointed high government scientists cannot contradict the President. Therefore honest criticism of governmental scientific policies can come only from career scientists or from outside the government. That is one of the reasons Hansen gives for writing this book.

Hansen states boldly that “Our planet … is in imminent danger of crashing.” and  that “It may be necessary to take to the streets to draw attention to [social] injustice.” He also states that “It is our last chance.”  There are warnings like this sprinkled liberally throughout the book, probably to make sure that the readers do not miss them. They will not.

Many environmental organizations urge people to reduce their “Carbon Footprint.” (the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by a particular person, group, etc. due to the consumption of fossil fuels). Hansen says that the problem with individual attempts to reduce Carbon Footprints is that this would lead to a reduction in energy prices, which in turn acts as an economic incentive for others to use more fossil fuels, ultimately putting more CO2 into our atmosphere. For this reason Hansen believes that only government action and international accords can be effective in  reducing atmospheric CO2.

Here is a crucial point to remember. When Hansen wrote his book in 2007, there were 275 Parts Per Million (PPM) of CO2 in our atmosphere.  Now, five years later, in 2012, there are already 295 PPM. Using all of our fossil fuel reserves(2,795 Gigatons) would lead to an additional increase of 30 PPM in the atmosphere, pushing CO2 to well over 300 PPM, a level never before reached.

Global Carbon Emissions

Sea level rise will be one of the most devastating effects of climate change. Hansen and others have calculated that further ice sheet disintegration would lead to acceleration of changes that will take place, not in a hundred years, but within decades, and a rise in sea level of about 80 M (250 ft) is possible. One billion people would be effected.  A sea level rise of even 1 – 2 M would adversely effect hundreds of millions of people. Yet, loss of the West Antarctic ice sheet alone would result in a rise of 6 -7 M in sea level. He states unequivocally that “Ice sheet collapse and a sea level rise of several meters is a dead certainty.”

For comparison purposes, 14,000 yrs ago, at the start of the Holocene (the present geological epoch), the sea level changed 1 M (3.2 ft.) in 20 – 25 years, making a considerable change in the planet’s ecosystems

Hansen then tackles the effect of GCC on storms: He tells us that they will certainly be more powerful (and perhaps more frequent) in this century. Storms like tornadoes, thunderstorms, hurricanes, and typhoons will become more common and powerful. (a 10% increase in wind speed increases damage by 33%).  The region subject to tropical storms almost surely will expand (e.g. until Catarina hit S.E. Brazil in 2004, no cyclone had ever been recorded there). There will be more destructive mid-latitudes Frontal Cyclones.  The intensity of superstorms (like “The Perfect Storm” that hit New England in 1991) will increase.

Scientists studying Ice Sheet Disintegration have warned that due to their rapid melting and destruction, there will be a rapid sea rise within generations i.e. within the lifetimes of our grandchildren & perhaps our children.

Increases of only 1 M in sea level, together with more powerful storms, will have horrendous consequences. e.g. they would hit 1-2 magnitudes (each magnitude is a 10-fold change) higher population than Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005.

 It is not a question of whether, but of when. As I read this, the effects of the 2012 “derecho” superstorm (a widespread, long-lived, straight-line windstorm that is associated with a fast-moving band of severe thunderstorms), were still being assessed. It killed at least two dozen people and left millions in the Mid Atlantic states without electricity for up to a week during a record breaking heat wave (114° F in Washington, D.C.).

Some changes caused by GCC have already taken place faster than were anticipated: (1) It has caused the disappearance of Arctic sea ice in the summer, and with it, a rise in sea level and ocean temperatures; (2) It has brought about the expansion of subtropical climate to more northern latitudes, bringing a change in flora and fauna e.g. cases of Nile Fever, a viral disease in which mosquitoes, formerly found only in the tropics, are the vectors (or carriers) were reported in Southwest Idaho in July, 2012; (3) It is causing melting of mountain glaciers all over the world. This loss of glaciers will bring about a water crisis for  millions of people dependant on them for their drinking and irrigation water. Not far from my home in Northern Idaho, the glaciers of the eponymously named Glacier National Park are disappearing.

Hansen has an additional warning about methane. If methane hydrates (The form in which most methane is sequestered in ice, tundra, and along the Continental Shelves) are released in large quantities, these changes will accelerate. This  may already be occurring. _Igor Semiletov of the International Arctic research Center has reported finding large holes in Arctic ice in the Spring of 2012, through which escaping methane was detected .

We may have as much methane hydrate as that which drove the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), an event which occurred 54 million years ago and increased global temperatures 5 – 9 °C. (that amounts to about to 16° F, an increase I believe to be incompatible with life, at least as we know it). If ocean circulation changes so that warm Pacific currents sink, releasing those methane hydrates from the Continental Shelves, we have no known way to reverse the process.

Some climate skeptics insist that the predicted temperature changes in the Earth’s climate can cause little damage. In retort, Hansen points out that on the contrary, the Little Ice Age (1600 – 1850) was caused by a decrease of only ½ degree Celsius.

Hansen goes on to point out that this increase in methane is also one of three probable Ratcheting Effects (effects that trigger other similar and more powerful ones). These are as previously mentioned: (1) Intensification of storms; (2) Disintegration of ice sheets; and (3) Further melting of methane hydrates.

He anticipates that there will also be amplifying or positive feedbacks (cf.) e.g. If ice and snow melt, the Earth absorbs more sunlight, which, in turn, warms the Earth so that more ice and snow melt, etc. etc. What such feedbacks lead to is not only increase in amount, but also acceleration of the rate of increase. Increases in methane and nitrogen oxides produce such amplifications.

Some critics of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the main scientific body studying GCC, fault it for relying too much on computer modeling. These critics will find an unexpected ally in Dr. Hansen. In his opinion, Global Climate Change Models are not as accurate as Paleoclimate data. e.g. they failed to predict the recent Arctic sea ice loss. Why? The Earth is too complex a system to anticipate & include all relevant factors. Nevertheless, the predictive abilities of climate  science are pretty good. For example, forecasts of the temporary cooling effect of Mt. Pinatubo’s (Philippines) eruption in 1991 on world climate turned out to be accurate.

Fortunately, Hansen points out, we do not have to guess about these complex factors. We have records of past climate changes in glacial ice cores, as well as mountaintop  and antarctic snow, that we can compare with present and anticipated climate alterations. These findings give scientists a pretty good idea of what conditions to expect in the future, under similar circumstances.

The IPCC comes in for additional criticism from Hansen despite their extensive research and detailed reports.  He believes that they do not give sufficient warning of the dire consequences of GCC.  He says that the IPCC reports minimize the dangers of the likely sea level rise, and that their estimate of the highest level of GW is not high enough. He also faults them for not presenting scenarios and strategies to avert the dangers that would be brought on by continuation of present climate policies.

Hansen points out that one of our biggest problems in convincing people of the reality of GCC is one of perception. The changes brought about by Global Warming so far, are usually much less than the daily fluctuations in weather with which people are familiar.

Global Temperature Index

 

 

 

It is instead the frequency, persistence, and location of these perturbations that will make them so dangerous. Mankind and the rest of life can survive occasional big storms, heat waves, droughts, etc. but, what will happen when they become the norm instead of anomalies?

Among the questions that scientists have not yet been able to solve are the effects of Aerosols (fine particles in the air, e.g. soot) on the climate.  Aerosols cause cooling, and this can at least partially offset effects of Global Warming. The main problem is that we cannot measure future amounts of aerosols in the atmosphere because many of these are man-made and others come from unanticipated natural causes (cf. the eruption of Mount Pinatubo). So, aerosols may be masking Global Warming, but scientists have difficulties in measuring the extent of their effects.

Some engineers have actually advocated deliberately injecting aerosols into the atmosphere to offset effects of climate change. There would be one big difficulty in doing this. Aerosols are health hazards, causing particulate pollution.

Next, Hansen tackles the question of what changes GCC is causing at the present time. He lists a number of those that can readily be measured: (1) Melting of mountain glaciers; (2) Shifting climate zones; (3 Increasing fires & flooding; (4) Loss of Arctic sea ice; (5) Loss of coral reefs (& biodiversity); (6) Shrinking of Greenland & Antarctic ice sheets;  (7) Rising sea level; and (8) Extinctions.

One of the most important things that a scientist can do, to show that his/her studies or theories are correct, is to use them to make accurate predictions. Being able to do so, solidifies the previous findings. Hansen does this, and it is eye opening. Storms was written in 2007, and in it Hansen states that as oceans move into a positive El Nino phase in 2009, expect global temperature increase in the next few years.

March 2012 State Temperatures

2009 turned out to be the 2nd hottest year on record,  2010 was the hottest year on record. (2012 is now on track to surpass both of these years).

Even scientists have feelings, and occasionally they are willing to talk about them. Hansen tells a story of driving to yet another meeting, where he was desperately trying to convince people of the reality and dangers of GCC, when he hit a deer unexpectedly dashing on to the highway. Of course, most people would be upset by such an accident, but Hansen started weeping uncontrollably. He realized only later that he was not only crying for the deer, but for the planet.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Global Temperature Change 1881 -2009

There is no question in the minds of scientists what the main factor is that is driving climate change. It is CO2 Emissions. There is a global natural carbon cycle, involving plants and animals. This cycle has now been altered by humans, mostly through burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. Among the worrisome things about this change is that human driven emissions increased from 2003 – 2008 by 3.5%, and an industrially booming China has passed the USA as the chief CO2 emitter.

In another example of a positive or amplifying feedback, Global Warming will increase drought & forest fires in the Amazon Forest and turn it into a large source of CO2 emissions. If we continue our business as usual scenario, this will result in increasing these amplifying feedbacks, and they may spin out of control.

A sobering story that Hansen tells is about a time that he talked on TV with the famed interviewer Larry King.  When he told King that some of the effects of GCC will appear in the next 50 years, King replied that “Nobody cares about 50 years from now.”

King was telling the bitter truth. Humans seem to be programmed by evolution to react to immediate dangers, and ignore future ones. Perhaps this enables us to concentrate our energies and focus on the task at hand. (see Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse) This tendency however, to ignore future dangers is particularly unfortunate with reference to GCC because by the time some of these predictions come true years from now, we will probably have reached the point of no return. We will have no good solution to them.

The IPCC typically presents low and high estimates of their predictions. What will happen to life on earth if temperatures hit the high end of the IPCC’s predictions, around 8° C ?   The last time our planet’s temperature was 2 – 3 ° C  higher than now was the Middle Pliocene, 3 million yrs ago. The sea level was 25 M (80 ft) higher and Florida and many other areas were under water. One billion people now live in those formerly under-water areas. Anyone want to buy some seaside property?

Hansen tells us that paleontologists have identified five time periods in the Earth’s history when mass extinctions took place. The 5th Extinction was called the End Permian Event, and it happened 251 million yrs ago. 90 % of all species became extinct and nearly all life was wiped out. The causes of the Permian Extinction were acidification and warming of the seas, the same processes that are now occurring. The 6th Extinction is now under way. It is man-made, and the current extinction rate is 100X the natural rate.

As Hansen previously stated, one of the best ways of understanding the climate changes awaiting us is to look for and examine the effects of similar events that have already occurred. The Paleo Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) occurred about 56 million yrs. ago, at the boundary of the Paleocene & Eocene epochs. The changes then were comparable to the anticipated ones now, but they took place over millennia, not in less than 100 years. Will we and the rest of life be able to accommodate to such large changes, taking place at least ten times faster? Recovery from PETM took about 100,000 yrs.

         The present manmade emissions of CO2 when compared with similar but natural phenomena – are 10,000X greater.(e.g. a man strolling thru a park at 2 MPH compared with the Space Shuttle leaving Earth at 17,500 MPH). Also, humans are simultaneously stressing the planet in other ways – overharvesting of fisheries, deforestation, taking over much of the planet for our livestock (Stephen Augustine, Spokesman for Sandpoint Vegetarians, informed me that we and our animals and plants now occupy 95 % of the arable land on earth!). Our population is continuing to increase.

Doctor Hansen, along with author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, head of 350.org, have said that we should have a ceiling of 350 parts/million (PPM) for CO2 emissions. Why should the target be 350 PPM when CO2 concentration in the earth’s atmosphere is already high?

The reasons Hansen gives are compelling. Climate change events are already exceeding safe levels and we may not be able to role back or even stabilize these levels. For one thing, Arctic sea ice is already declining at a rate beyond scientists’ expectations.  He also points out that most mountain glaciers will disappear within the next 50 yrs, and as previously stated, these glaciers are a source of water for millions of people. Furthermore, the Greenland & West Antarctic ice sheets are now losing 100 cubic Kms per year.

(Just to give you an idea of the magnitude of this loss, it is 5X the volume of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and we do not know how to reduce or stop it,  Two pieces of the Greenland Glacier, one the size of Manhattan Island and the other twice that size, have broken off within the last few months).

Ice Island Breaks Away

         The bad news continues. Subtropical regions are now expanding northward at a rate of 4 degrees of latitude/yr. (that is 280 miles), changing the ecosystems (cf. the spread of Nile virus into Idaho, an unprecedented northward sweep of a hitherto tropical disease). Dry regions are expanding in the southern US, Australia, and the Mediterranean region. Fire frequency and area in the southwestern US have expanded 300% in the past several decades.

Colorado Springs Wildfires

 

 

 

350 homes were destroyed in Colorado Springs a month ago and many parts of Texas are burning up as I am writing this in the summer of 2012. Lakes Powell & Meade are inexorably shrinking (they are now half full). Where will drinking and irrigation water for large parts of the Southwest and Southern California come from in the near future? Dr. Hansen has recently published a paperthat directly attributes the Texas heat wave last year, the Russian heat wave of 2010, and the European heat wave of 2003 to GCC. 

The scientific culture is a hypercritical one. Even fledgeling researchers quickly learn that fellow scientists will look for things in their publications that can be challenged. One of the more consistent criticisms of climate science publications has been that no single catastrophic event can be attributed to GCC because such events have also occurred at other times and places. For example hurricanes as powerful as Katrina, which devastated New Orleans, have occurred previously. Therefore climatologists look for trends and repetition of these events. For example, an increase in atmospheric CO2 in a single year or in one month’s temperature would not be considered significant. However Hansen, and other climate scientists have reported such alarming trends as consistent yearly increases in CO2 and month after month and year after year of record high temperatures. Such evidence is extremely impressive. To ignore its implications would fly in the face of critical thinking and common sense.

Coral reefs are being highly stressed. They contain a majority of marine organisms and are a major source of our planet’s biodiversity. This stress is caused by ocean warming and acidification, both due to increased CO2 concentrations in the water.

Hansen puts special stress on the melting of Arctic ice. The bottom fell out in 2007. As stated previously, the ice is melting much faster than climate models predicted. It is now at the point that models predicted for 2050, 38 years sooner than expected. There are two factors at work here: (a) the processes themselves, and; (b) the rates at which the processes occur. We know what is happening with great certainty but when they will occur depends on future events, which cannot always be known until they happen e.g. CO2 amounts that we put into the atmosphere.

Back on the human side of all this bad news, Hansen tells of his many frustrating encounters with US government agencies and highly placed individuals, like Vice President Cheney. He accuses these officials of trying to cover up their unwillingness to do much about climate change, and still claiming that they are in favor of limiting CO2 emissions. He calls this tactic “Greenwash” ( a form of “hogwash”?), and gives various examples of it:

  1. Allowing construction of new coal-fired power plants
  2. Allowing construction of coal to oil conversion plants.
  3. Allowing production and use of unconventional fuels, like tar sands.
  4. Leasing public lands and remote areas for oil and gas exploration
  5. Allowing Hydraulic Fracturing.
  6. Allowing Mountain Top Removal and Long Wall Coal Mining.
  7. To this list, I would add the possible approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Canada to Port Arthur and Houston, Texas, a decision that would come up in early 2013. ( By the way, if these tar sands were destined for domestic consumption as claimed, why not terminate the pipeline in Oklahoma (cf.), where there is plenty of oil refining capacity. In reality, this fuel is destined for overseas markets, thus fattening the pocketbooks of energy companies, but doing little or nothing  to make the US  energy self-sufficient). The key to this decision is the question as to whether the State Department will consider the effects of GCC in their evaluation. Duh!

Next, Hansen tackles the question of how can fossil fuels be reduced and phased out.  He believes that there are two efficient tools for accomplishing this crucial task. One, would be the use of energy efficiencies, prodded by increasing taxes on fossil fuels. The second is through the use of renewable energies with the use of tax incentives and requiring utilities to use renewable energy.

Perhaps the greatest impediment to reducing CO2 emissions is the increasing industrialization of the two most populous countries in the world, China and India. Yet, Hansen sees a ray of hope in this part of the world because both these countries would suffer from Global Climate Change:

  1. There would be over 100 million Bangladeshi refugees because their homelands would be under water. And, where would these refugees go, if not to India?
  2. In addition, 100 million Indians themselves live near the sea, and would be subject to storms and floods.
  3. Finally, three million Chinese live within the 25 M zone (c f.), and would also be flooded out.

Next, Hansen tackles some of what he considers bogus ideas that governments and environmental organizations have suggested for slowing down or alleviating GCC One is carbon capture at coal power plants. He states that doing this would increase costs 25%. It would cost trillions of dollars to retrofit Indian and Chinese plants. He states bluntly that this will never happen, and I believe him.

Another panacea proffered is  so-called carbon offsets, such as planting trees.  Hansen compares offsets to Medieval Indulgences, in that they allow polluters to continue to pollute. This is of course reminiscent of the problems inherent in Cap and Trade, which were discussed earlier in the book. His conclusion is that there is no free lunch. If we are going to stop or even slow down GCC, we cannot allow more CO2 to enter our atmosphere.

Winding up his evaluation of suggested methods for combating CO2 emissions, Hansen again compares Cap and Trade with Fee and Dividend: In Cap and Trade, a ceiling would be placed on the annual emission of CO2 in various industries, which would decrease in future years. Any company that was able to operate below its assigned emissions, could sell the rights to the unused emissions to another company. In Fee and Dividend, all CO2 emitting entities would be charged a fee for doing so, and the fee would be reimbursed to the citizens on an equal basis, perhaps as a tax reduction, to be used as the citizen wishes.

Hansen says that Cap and Trade would be a disaster for the planet because it is extremely complex, can be manipulated to keep pollution high, allows Congress to do whatever it wants with the money, and enables Wall Street to speculate with it, making a great deal of money for them with little effect on CO2 emissions.

On the other hand, Fee and Dividend is straight forward, does not allow the government to play with the money, and puts it right back in the citizen’s hands to do with as they please. They can use it to reduce their energy costs or to take a vacation in Tahiti. It is their money and their choice. He believes that it will definitely reduce CO2 emissions.

In 2008, British Columbia adopted a Fee and Dividend plan, using a carbon tax and pairing it with an equal reduction in payroll taxes. Five months later, it was in place and working. The effect has been a 4.5 % reduction of CO2 emissions in B.C. 

Hansen ends with the following conclusions:  (1) Government agencies accept as a god-given fact that we will burn all fossil fuels; (2) The biggest problem for democracy and the safety of our planet is the role of lobbies and flood of corporate money and influence on government; (3) Our culture has notions that humans are godlike & can produce miracles I call this belief technophilia. It is the contemporary version of a belief in miracles, which I referred to in the first paragraph of this Summary.

Hansen concludes his assessment by saying that if we destroy our planet, we destroy ourselves. What should we do? Keep atmospheric CO2 below 350 PPM. For a brighter future, we must move beyond fossil fuels and energy, and reduce human population.

Hansen’s final recommendations are (i.e. showing the radicalization of a scientist):

1. We must draw a line in the sand – no new coal plants.

2. “I am now studying Gandhi’s concepts of civil resistance.”

 

Some questions for the reader to consider:

• Do scientists have an obligation to become politically involved?

• Does Obama support control of Climate Change?

• What actions should we take? Change light bulbs or adopt civil disobedience?

• What do you think we should do about Climate Change contrarians & deniers? Hint: Iran just sentenced to death three bank officers involved in a two billion dollar fraud scheme. Perhaps Iran is not all bad. Think of what a salutary effect a similar policy on the part of this country would have on Wall Street attitudes .

 

 What would you ask Obama to do?

         •Disapprove the XL Pipeline?

         •Freeze coal extraction?

         •No new coal plants?

         •Reinstall Carter’s solar panels?

 

       I personally like the idea of Obama asking the National Academy of Sciences for a report on what our present climate change policies are doing, and what government policies on climate change should be in the future. This might create a ground swell for changing those present government policies.

Should environmentalists support Permitting of 4th Generation (or Fast-Reactor) Nuclear Plants? Just what is a 4th generation nuclear plant? I recently listened to a full hour discussion on NPR by nuclear experts about how to make nuclear power plants safer, and this topic was never mentioned. Is it merely a pipe dream?

         We have had: Three-Mile Island, Chernoble, and now, after the publication of Hansen’s book, Fukushima. Would Hansen still champion Phase IV Nuclear Fission plants? Did he convince you?

How would you respond to a person who says that he just had the coldest winter in many years in his town and therefore Global Warming is bunk?

As I am writing this post and trying to finish it, new reports on recent dire effects of GCC seem to be coming in daily. The latest one pinpoints July 2012 as the hottest month in the US since they started keeping such records 117 years ago. Is anybody out there listening?

THE END OF OIL, AND THE RISE OF DENIAL

 

                  THE END OF OIL, AND THE RISE OF DENIAL       

Climbing Hubbert’s Peak        

         Good evening everyone.  We are here tonight to give you some facts, and some surprises.  We hope that you will like what we call our entertainment.

          I am going to start with a bit of history, about a man with a peculiar name.  Back in 1956, an oil geologist, by the name of L. King Hubbert, published an article in which he predicted that oil production in the United States would reach its peak between 1970 and 1972, and from then on would decrease every year.

         Despite the fact that Hubbert was a respected scientist and that he presented solid evidence for his conclusions, he was derided, laughed at, or ignored by almost everyone in the oil industry.

         Then came 1972.  In that year, oil production in the U.S. peaked, and since then it has declined every year. That, and not oil industry greed, China’s new energy appetite, or rebellions in Nigeria, is the main reason why you paid over $3.00/gallon for gasoline last summer, and our country is dependent on foreign oil.

          By the way, whose bill for heating and cooking with Propane went up this winter? ___________  Mine increased 50%.

         Other scientists have improved Hubbert’s calculations, and have extended the methodology he successfully used to predict Peak Oil in the U.S., to Peak World oil production. They have concluded that world oil production will peak within a few years from now, or has already peaked.

         It is in the nature of the oil industry that the figures given out by oil companies and OPEC countries cannot be trusted.  We only learn about such events sometime after they have happened.

         Kenneth Deffeyes of Princeton University, Colin Campbell, who is a geophysicist, energy investment banker Matthew Simmons, and a Republican Congressman from Maryland, Roscoe Bartlett, have been sounding the alarm. They have been derided, laughed at, or just plain ignored. It is only now, after the price of energy sky-rocketed last summer, that they are getting any public attention at all.    

The End of Cheap Oil

         The impending loss of cheap oil is going to profoundly affect the way we and our children lead our lives.

(enter stage L — a fairy, dressed in pink tutu, with a diamond tiara, and a wand with a star at its end – “she” is flippant and bubbly, and speaks in falsetto, kind of like Glenda the Good, from Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz)

[TF]         “Hi, I’m the Tooth Fairy (TF) and I’ve come to tell you that there’s nothing to worry about. There’s plenty of oil left. All you have to do is look for it under your pillow!”

[KF]         Hey, wait a minute! You’re interrupting a serious discussion. And you look ridiculous in that tutu. These people are here to learn important things that will affect their lives. Please do not interrupt us.  (TF glares at K, petulantly, hands on hips)

         Now, where was I?  Oh yes, even the phrase “oil production,” is misleading. Human beings have never produced even one drop of oil. It was all produced by Nature some 600 million years ago. More properly, we ought to call it “oil extraction.” The amount of oil available is, for all intents and purposes, finite (unless you want to wait around another 600 million years.) When it’s gone, it’s gone, and all the wishful thinking in the world won’t bring back a drop of it.

         Our contemporary, technological civilization is organized around and totally dependant on cheap oil. This situation is being compounded because every year America’s appetite for oil is increasing. China and India’s economies are growing at 10%/year and they are running around the world, trying to lock up all the existing and potential oil and natural gas sources they can get their hands on. When demand increases and supply goes down, the law of economics tells us that the price will increase.         

[TF]         Oh, yoo–hoo! I have an easy solution. You know, when children lose a tooth, all they have to do is put it under the pillow, and the tooth fairy (that’s me!) will come in the middle of the night and replace it with a dollar bill. Now, all you have to do is place your empty gas tank under your pillow and the Tooth Fairy will fill it up with oil made from Canadian tar sands, or Pennsylvania coal, or Ethanol from corn

[KF] Now look here, you demented elf! You are interrupting a serious discourse and making a farce out of this. Leave this room right now, or I’ll Canadian tar-sand and feather you! (TF exits in a huff, stage Rt.)

Say Goodbye To Cheap Oil

         Thank goodness were rid of that ridiculous person.  Magical thinking will not help us. Only a few years ago, the price of oil was 35$ per barrel. Last summer it shot up over $70. 

         Do not allow yourself to be fooled by the short-term ups and downs of the market.  When oil pipelines get blown up in Nigeria, or Putin threatens to cut off Russia’s oil supply to Belarus, the price spikes.  When the Northeastern United States experiences a tropical winter, oil prices dip down. Notice what happened recently to prices at your local gas station when old man winter finally hit New England.

          I am going to go out on a limb and predict that the price of oil next summer will jump over $70 per barrel again (sotto voce – may be even $80) and that the price will go up every year from now on. 

         The high price of energy will profoundly change our lifestyles.  The Global Economy, which is based on the ability to cheaply transport goods from one part of the world to another, will inevitably collapse.  Economies will, of necessity, become localized, and we will have to depend on local food supplies.

         Everyone knows. . .

[OF]   Hi there. I’m the Oil Fairy and I’ve come to tell you that there’s plenty of oil around the Caspian Sea. And, we know there’s lots of oil under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge without having even drilled test wells there, or ……

[KF]   Great! Another idiot! Look here!  If they started exploring ANWAR tomorrow and found oil, which is not certain, it would take at least 10 years to locate, drill, and build a pipeline to carry the oil down to us. But, it sure would make a lot of money for Exxon, BP, etc. And maybe they can even get Halliburton to build the pipeline.

[OF]           Oh, but what about that oil they just found in the Gulf of Mexico?

[KF]   First, they have to go down 3,000 feet from the surface to the sea floor, and then drill another 5,000 feet to reach oil that may or may not be there.  You see, that oil is going to be very expensive to get, and that is just my point. 

[OF] But all I have to do is wave my magic wand and. . .

[KF] There is no such thing as magic!  You can’t make something from nothing. Why don’t you go away and stop bothering us with your wishful thinking?  (TF stands petulantly, hands on hips, & glares at KF)

         They have looked everywhere, and there are no hidden sources of oil. There is no adequate substitute for oil. You can’t stick a nuclear energy plant in your car and make it run. Too heavy. You can convert coal to gas, but the more coal you dig, the more expensive it will be to get to.  And up and up will go the costs.

         As for corn-derived Ethanol, it is the latest fad of the technofixers. Corn is a very energy- demanding crop.  At least two scientific studies have shown that more energy has to be put into the process than can be gotten out of it.  That’s a heck of a way to free yourself from foreign oil.

         Not only that, but every acre put into production of corn for Ethanol, is an acre taken out of the production of food in a country where the number of food-producing farms is shrinking every year. If our government is so worried about our dependency on foreign oil, how vulnerable will we feel when we become dependant on foreign-grown food?

         This is not theoretical.  The price of tortillas in Mexico has risen 50% in the last few months because a large portion of the US corn crop that used to be sent there has been diverted into ethanol.  And that’s no joke to the average Mexican family, who use tortillas for almost all their meals. 

         If you think that this situation is a concern only for poor Mexicans, think again.  The Associated Press reported only a few weeks ago that “strong demand for corn from ethanol plants is driving up the cost of livestock, and will raise the prices for beef, pork and chicken.” 

         What we now have is what amounts to a competition for shrinking agricultural land between automobile owners and families, who need to put food on the table for their children.  If you will excuse the expression, there is no free lunch, and that is for sure.

What Is Oil Good For?

         The first thing people think about when you mention oil is fuel – energy – energy to drive your car to work, to fly by plane to the West Coast, energy to push that diesel truck up the Interstate bringing cheap stuff to Home Depot and Wall Mart.

         But energy needs are just the tip of the iceberg. Where do you think your anti-allergy pills come from? Your antibiotics?   Most medications are synthesized from oil.  What do you think will happen to your medical bills when oil hits $100/barrel? $200/barrel?

         Does anyone here know what the Asphalt that our highways are built with is made from?  ________________ 

         Did you notice that last summer, Bonner County cut back on paving local roads  by 50%?  And, a few weeks ago, the Idaho Transportation Department announced that they were delaying 2 out of 4 widening projects for highway 95.  Both situations occurred because the price of asphalt has doubled in less than a year. That is just a little taste of what is to come.   Will Idaho be able to build more highways?  We will be lucky if they have enough money to fill in this winter’s pot holes.

                  What do you think plastic is made from? Take a wild guess. ( _________ )

[KF]  Hey, Oil Fairy, do you know how much plastic there is in your refrigerator? your iPod?  your automobile?  I’ll bet even your magic wand is plastic

         Another question for you fairy! Do you like bananas in your cereal for breakfast? Now, don’t tell me you just wave your wand and make them  appear!  Do you know where that banana came from?

[OF] (Timorously) – Ecuador? 

{KF} How many bananas are you going to eat when the cost of transporting them from Ecuador doubles, triples?  Food distribution patterns are going to have to change or we will not be able to feed over 300 million Americans. 

Bioregionalism anyone?

[OF}  I think I’ll leave. The batteries in my magic wand seem to have run down.  I wonder what batteries are made of?  Goodbye.

[KF] Good riddance! Whew! We are finally rid of her! Now, where was I?  

         Oh yes. Let’s talk more about food.  After all, it is your ultimate energy supply.  What is the fertilizer that makes that food grow, made from?  Anyone?  _________

         How about the pesticides and herbicides that they use on farms? What are they made from?  _______________ How much oil did they expend to manufacture the combines, tractors, and the other mechanized equipment found on most farms today?  And, how much energy is used to run them?  How much fuel was expended to transport food from Imperial Valley, California to your dining room table last night?

The Technofixers

         And that’s just the beginning. What about – - – - – - – - – - – (Big rumpus –Technology Fairy enters – stage L)

[TF]  Hi – I’m the Technology Fairy, and I’ve come to save you! Not to worry! I’ve got a technological fix for everything! Just look under your pillow!

(someone in audience shouts – “Hey “Techy,” you’re cute”)

[TF]   I’m not only cute, I’m clever. Hey, do you know what we can do to squeeze more out of an oil field? I can drill on a slant to get oil from under nearby mountains or drill down a mile with offshore drilling rigs.

[KF] (exasperatedly) It’s already been done.

[TF] Oh – well, I can pump water or steam into the wells to push up more oil.

[KF]   Been there – done that. It adds to the cost, and eventually it messes up the entire oil field.

[TF]    Oh – well, I can explore other parts of the world, using high-tech equipment, 3-D computer imaging, and find loads of oil.

[KF]   (addressing audience)  They have almost certainly already found all the great oil fields on Earth.  There is no other place to look for large amounts of oil except the Arctic Ocean and the South China Sea.  That’s why China, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam have recently been threatening each other over that area. I don’t think that superpowers fighting an oil war is going to help lower the cost of oil.

[TF, getting surly]  Yeah, well how about all those hydrogen-driven cars? -  clean, no pollution, free energy. yippee!

[KF]    You know, it’s a funny thing.  Nobody talks about where they’re going to get all those H2 atoms. You see, they’re going to pull them off of – guess what?  _____________ oil and natural gas. That’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul. You see, H2 cars are not energy sources. They are really just big batteries, and where is all that infrastructure to transport the H2 atoms to where they can be pumped into cars? It’s non-existent.  And, are they going to store the H2 in tanks.  I do not think I would want to live near one of them.

(ImageHindenburg exploding)

[TF]   Well, what about all the energy you can get from that Liquefied Natural Gas from Africa?

[KF] Listen, speaking of energy, you’re wasting ours. What’s next? Are you going to invent a perpetual-motion machine?  First, they must transport the LNG at -260° F in tankers.  Then, what do you do with it?  They will need to build special ports to receive LNG, and special facilities to store and transport it throughout the United States.

          Do me a favor Technology Fairy. Get lost!  Put an egg in your shoe and beat it!                                         

[TF]    Well, if that’s the way you feel about it, go drown in your misery. What a grouch! I have a million ideas of how to get more oil. Maybe there’s some on Mars. There’ll always be a technological fix right around the corner. Off I go to find one. Don’t worry – be happy. La De Dah De Dah – - – - – - – -  [exit stage R]

[KF]   Well, I sure hope we’ve seen the last Fairy.

(voice from audience –“Don’t you bet on it”!)

         One of things that most concerns me about Peak Oil is that in our efforts to find substitutes, the world will turn to even more highly polluting fuels, like coal, that emit high amounts of CO2.  This will only exacerbate and speed up Climate Change.

          The end of cheap oil will obviously have profound effects on our lives, both upon our economy and our social structure.  Lanie will talk more about that when she speaks to you about the role of cultural beliefs in the way we treat the Earth.

The Role of Psychological Denial

         If you accept the seriousness of what I have just been telling you, you must be thinking ‘How on Earth have we gotten ourselves into such a predicament?’  After all, there are very smart people in governments, business, and academia all over the world.  How could they have overlooked this situation?  Why did they not start planning for these contingencies long ago?

         I would like to take a few moments to explore these questions because I think that they are important in understanding what we are up against when we try to change people’s attitudes.

         Three weeks ago (3/7/07), there was a public meeting in New Orleans, called by city officials to discuss plans for the reconstruction of the city after the devastation of Katrina.

         After discussing such critical matters as where a new baseball stadium would be constructed and the repair of an historical fort, a woman stood up and demanded to know why strengthening New Orleans’ levies was not included in the plans.  A city official replied that, “It was an oversight, and would be corrected in the revised plan.”

         How would you account for such an “oversight” as forgetting the levies?  There is an explanation for this.  It is called Denial.

         Psychological Denial is a defense mechanism, often put into use when a person is faced with a fact that is too painful to accept, and rejects it instead, despite what may be overwhelming evidence.

 I believe that not only individuals but, entire cultures can go into a state of denial when faced with a situation, which, if taken seriously, would force them to reevaluate their entire lifestyle and change it.

         I believe that is the situation our culture is facing right now with respect to the end of Oil and Climate Change.

          Polls show that it is only recently that a majority of the American people has accepted the reality of Global Climate Change.  This has happened only after: a lot of strange weather, many showings of “An Inconvenient Truth,” and the recent well-publicized report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that states unequivocally that climate change is a reality and that Man has had a central role in bringing it about.

         In order to convince the Doubting Thomases, we need to just keep chipping away, and not get discouraged.  Eventually, their defenses will break down, and they will admit reality.  Of course that long delay may put our entire society in a position from which it cannot extricate itself.

( Joshua Walters comes in, plays “Swimming in D’ Nile” on his guitar, & leads the audience in the refrain)

         The good news is that, we in Sandpoint do not have to wait for our government and most of the country to catch up with our understanding of this situation.  We can start planning right now.  With the help of local groups like ClimateCAN, we can work to assess what needs to be done to make our region more self sufficient in the basics, like food, fuel, and transportation, and to persuade our public officials to start planning for the inevitable.

         Yes, we can come together and start to form a true community like the ones that prevailed in small town America little more than a century ago.  A lot of the changes we have to make will be inconvenient and even painful. But Sandpoint at least will have a head start, and we may find some of the changes even to be good, with a renewed emphasis on family, friends, and community.