Posted by: ericgrimsrud | May 8, 2021

Biden’s FDR-like leadership on climate change

In his recent address to the joint chambers of congress, it was most refreshing to hear President Biden declare that his administration will put a very high priority on combating the relentless advance of global warming. This constitutes a great improvement over the expressed goals of all previous presidents and especially those of Biden’s predecessor.

As we all know, however, the passage of progressive legislation concerning this issue will be strongly opposed by the powerful fossil fuel lobbies. We have already seen some efforts along these lines by various Republican legislators and I will describe one of these below that is indicative of the tactics Biden’s adversaries will use.

All components of our economic system will have to allow its greenhouse gas emissions to be assessed, of course, and this includes our agricultural sector in which the huge beef industry resides. And it is well known that the production of beef is extremely carbon intensive relative to the production of plant-based foods. In spite of this fact, President Biden has not yet revealed any specific suggestions for addressing agriculture’s contributions to global warming. The high carbon footprint of beef production is, indeed, difficult to deal with due to the popularity of beef among the public as well as its producers. For this reason, I suspect that the Biden team is already discussing this issue with all concerned parties including the representatives of both the ranching and farming industries. 

In spite of Biden’s careful approach, his adversaries are already providing Fox-news-like misinformation on this topic by claiming that Biden is actively trying to deny Americans their beloved hamburgers and steaks. The GOP’s reason for this misrepresentation is undoubtedly to encourage the beef lobby to add their support to the fossil fuel lobby as soon as possible so that they can prevent timely actions concerning greenhouse gas emissions – before discussions are given a chance to find clarity, resolution, and points of compromise. Food production is, after all, a huge industry in which a multitude of options are continuously being discovered.    

The tactic described above is frequently used by the climate change inactivists. Instead of addressing the central question of whether or not some specific changes are feasible in order to combat global warming, they skip that part and exaggerate the difficulties that some needed actions might possibly present. However, when a literal “war” is required in order to effectively address a problem, unpopular, but necessary, changes will sometimes have to be made. When WWII was forced on us by Japan and Germany in 1941, for example, we immediately took the actions that were required – even though those actions would result in the deaths of many young Americans whose lives were just beginning and who had done nothing to create the problem. We reluctantly did that, however, in order to fight that all-out war by the most effective means possible. And, if you think that the war against global warming is going to be any less challenging than that fought against our opponents in WWII, you are mistaken.

Prior to the forcing event of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had been in a very difficult spot politically. He couldn’t declare war on Germany at that time even though Germany was overrunning most of our traditional allies throughout Europe. FDR was boxed in largely because of the popular “America First” movement of the USA that insisted we not send our boys off to another European war. So instead, FDR got the Lend Lease program started and did his best to prepare the American public for what he knew lay ahead.

Our current President Biden is now walking a similar tightrope. While he knows that a full-fledged war against global warming will be required, he has to proceed with considerable caution so that he retains sufficient support from the public. That is a difficult task, indeed, that is not at all helped by the business-as-usual inactivists of today.

Needless to say, I am extremely proud of President Biden for courageously taking on this most difficult leadership role. In doing so, he will have a very tough row to hoe because of the technical and political problems he is sure to encounter. He could have easily avoided this greatest of all problems, as most of his predecessors did, but he didn’t because he realizes that we simply must finally face the reality of our greatest existential threat, just as FDR did in the 1940’s. We now have a President who is willing to lead this absolutely essential quest. Many thanks for that Mr. President!! All of us should now join him in his effort to pass a livable world on to future generations.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | May 1, 2021

But where’s the beef in Biden’s climate plan?

While I have been very pleased to see that President Biden intends to give high priority to addressing the world’s greatest problem, climate change, I have also noted that he has not yet mentioned in his concerns the contributions of agriculture and, more specifically, our need to change a large portion of our diets from meat-based to plant-based foods. His reason for this omission is most likely due to political rather than scientific considerations. The agricultural lobby of the USA is very strong and firmly entrenched.  Asking them for their support in reducing beef production is probably about as difficult a task as asking the fossil fuel industries to support reductions in our use of gas, oil, and coal. President Biden is already facing strong push-back from the fossil fuel industries and, I am sure, would prefer that the agricultural lobby not add its great strength to those forces for non-action on climate change.

Nevertheless, in pondering an argument that would explain why changes in agricultural are needed, I happened to see an op ed by Stephanie Feldstein which serves this purpose very well. Therefore, I have included a portion of it below.  Her entire article can be found at the source cited.   

Opinion by Stephanie Feldstein in Washington Post, April 29, 2021

Stephanie Feldstein is the population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity.  A portion of her op ed follows.

“Americans eat four times the global average of beef. This is particularly troubling since domestic livestock animals and their manure are responsible for more U.S. methane emissions than any other industry. Those emissions, which have much higher warming potential than carbon dioxide, have been increasing, even as the importance of reducing methane gained recognition. Since 1990, methane emissions from manure alone have risen to 68 percent. We can’t meet climate goals without reducing meat and dairy consumption.

Among this week’s angry tweets claiming Americans were losing their right to a rib-eye, there was little argument over whether meat reduction is an effective and necessary climate strategy. That’s because the science is clear on the climate footprint of meat-heavy diets. But Republicans have an appetite for destruction when it comes to the climate, and they’re more than willing to ignore the facts in favor of fueling the culture war over occasionally eating one fewer burger.

The American way of life isn’t threatened by replacing a beef burger with a veggie version. But it is threatened by the climate crisis, which puts Americans at risk as temperatures and sea levels rise and as drought and disease diminish our ability to grow nutritious food.”  

So, there you have it.  It’s another case of a well-established custom facing a clear dictate from science – somewhat like the tobacco wars of previous decades except that in the present case, it’s all of us and our descendents and not just the offending individuals that are at risk.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | April 4, 2021

My response to “The Big Question”

 

While studying and teaching the science associated with climate change for many years, I am sometimes asked “The Big Question”: that is, what is my best guess as to the fate of planet Earth due to our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In this post, I will try to answer that question as well as I can – with the understanding shared by the great baseball philosopher, Yogi Berra, who admitted that “predictions are hard to make – especially about the future.”  Nevertheless, here goes my attempt.     

First, I will break my response into two parts, each of which is determined by what mankind choses to do or not do in the next decade. I will call the simplest of these “Scenario A” in which we essentially make no changes and continue with business-as-usual methods of energy production. This scheme requires little changes in our economy but, unfortunately, is sure to lead to distinctly disastrous consequences. This outcome of Scenario A has been predicted many times based on mature and time-tested laws of science.

The amount of CO2 we have already emitted over the Industrial Age has increased the level of CO2 in the atmosphere to about 50% greater than it was prior to the Industrial Age and higher than it has ever been in the last 3 million years. In addition, it should be noted that the extra CO2 we have added to our atmosphere during the Industrial Age will not come out quickly, but will remain in the biosphere for several centuries. That means that our planet is already in dire straits due to its elevated and long-lasting concentrations of greenhouse gases.

Within Scenario A, CO2 levels and the temperature of the Earth will continue to increase well beyond current levels – eventually leading to a runaway condition in which higher temperatures will cause additional natural emissions of greenhouse gases from various carbon deposits (such as those in the permafrost of the Arctic and methane clathrates of the ocean bottoms). These massive natural emissions will add to the emissions of mankind. This is expected to change conditions of Earth so much that they will become incompatible with existing forms of civilization. This distinctly disastrous outcome is inevitable under Scenario A. Sorry, but that is simply what Mother Nature is expected do in response to our continued use of fossil fuels.  

Another detrimental aspect of Scenario A is that it would quickly lead to “gloom and doom” attitudes under which all efforts for climate recovery would be thought to be useless.  “Enjoy the fossil fuel party while it lasts” would become our motto – as it already is among the fossil fuel advocates.

It should also be noted that the advocates of Scenario A will do their best to offer various “painless” options in which continuous fossil fuel use would be allowed -while claiming to solve the AGW problem in other ways.  These proposals generally involve the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere or making weather modifications, such as would result from increasing the Earth’s reflection of the Sun’s radiation. These proposals appear to be motivated mainly by their potential for selling Scenario A to the public more than to actually solving the AGW problem.  Therefore, if we bet the entire farm on any of these supposedly less painful options, I suspect that we would still be headed for the same disastrous outcomes forecasted in Scenario A.     

Fortunately, there also is a Scenario B that is scientifically feasible and would be much less harmful to future conditions if undertaken before that irreversible runaway event described above occurs. This option would require a great deal of work made especially so because of the fact that we would be starting this corrective action so late in the game.

Scenario B requires that we “decarbonize” our entire means of energy production in a manner that does not cause the emissions of greenhouse gases. This option will require the “electrification” of nearly everything (cars are just one example) that was previously powered by fossil fuel combustion.  A massive increase in the generation of the electrical power and its storage will also be required. For this purpose, more nuclear reactors might be required throughout the world. While the development of an “Electronic Age” of this sort is thought to be technically possible (see my post of Dec 9, 2020 called the “The 100 % Solution”), it will surely run into great resistance from the multitude of people and industries that are addicted to fossil fuels. In frank terms, Scenario B would require nothing less than a complete change from our present well-entrenched Fossil Fuel Age to a new Electronic Age. The technical challenges associated with the creation of a new Electronic Age would be formidable and the focus required to achieve it would be similar to that needed for winning WWII.  And, like WWII, there would be no guarantees of success.   

So, what is the answer to the Big Question initially posed – “what is going to happen?”  A major portion of that question can be answered by any well-informed citizen just a well as a climate scientist because a critical portion of Scenario B depends on our communal and intergenerational sense of values.  Will the present set of human beings on this planet be able to say goodbye to the Fossil Fuel Age in which they have lived all of their lives AND will they have enough faith in the fields of science as to jump into the totally new era that climate science recommends?

So, you tell me what the answer is to The Big Question.  If your answer is no – the citizens of Earth will not be able to make that transition – then my answer is that we are headed for the disastrous outcome associated with Scenario A.  If your answer is yes – we can make that transition out of the fossil fuel age and into an Electronic Age – then my answer is that we might be able to achieve tolerable rather than disastrous consequences.

In conclusion, the future of our planet is currently in the hands of its inhabitants and their leaders. While the relevant scientific parts of the problem are relatively clear, we don’t know yet what people and their political leaders will choose to do. Thus, what mankind chooses to do – probably within the current decade – will very likely determine whether future conditions on Earth will be either disastrous or manageable. My own preference is that we do our best to achieve that new Electronic Age. We have kicked this can down the road for much too long and we might not get a second chance to retain manageable conditions on Earth. In the process, we will also be performing a great service to our grandchildren.   

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | March 30, 2021

The deniers are now “progressive inactivists”

The nature of the ongoing arguments concerning anthropogenic (man-caused) global warming (AGW) has recently changed, as is thoroughly explained in Michael Mann’s new book entitled, “New Climate Change War”.  Mann is an American climate scientist who has been on the front line of the AGW war throughout the last three decades. In this post, I will relate one of the major points made by Dr. Mann.  

A few years ago the climate change debate was largely between those who believed in the science behind AGW and those who denied that possibility.  Today, the argument has changed due to the overwhelming evidence for warming that has been observed in the most recent decades.  The former deniers of AGW now tend to agree that it is occurring and should be addressed in a timely manner.  At the same time, however, they now promote only those techniques and policies that would not reduce our use of fossil fuels (FF) and, therefore, remain strong spokespersons for the FF industries.  

Unfortunately, the policies they promote for addressing AGW have not been proven to be safe and effective. Thus, this group can now be more appropriately labeled our environmental “inactivists” who promote dubious technologies for fighting AGW in order to take attention away from the most sensible methods that focus on the heart of the matter – that is, the reduction of FF use. 

An example of this is the inactivist’s strong promotion of coal-fired power plants that are modified so that they capture and store a fraction of the CO2 emitted deep in the Earth where it is hoped that it will never be released back into the atmosphere. While this concept has been intensely investigated, it has not been shown to be viable at anywhere near the scale that is required. Nevertheless, the inactivists repeatedly suggest that this carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) scheme could eventually eliminate CO2 emissions from the multitude of coal-fired power plants presently operating throughout the world.  Again, what’s missing in this CCS scheme is any evidence concerning its applicability at the massive scale required. Nevertheless, CCS is presently used by the inactivists as a sales gimmick to mislead the public into believing that coal-fired power plants have a bright future in our attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, these same inactivists refuse to support a long-overdue carbon fee that would be charged to fossil fuel producers for their use of our atmosphere as a garbage dump. This carbon fee is entirely appropriate because it will cost a great deal to remove that extra CO2 that still is being added to the atmosphere by FF combustion. This fair and logical manner of reducing FF emissions is not supported by the inactivists merely because it would, indeed, reduce FF use throughout the world. It would also create a more level playing field for other non-polluting methods of energy production.     

Meanwhile, those who have been long-time believers in the science of AGW have not changed their tune and can still be appropriately labeled “activists” who not only believe in the science behind global warming, but also favor the direct actions that are required to successfully arrest its advance.   

With the relabeling described above, we can better understand the views most recently promoted by the inactivists.  They now claim to be very concerned about AGW and are allowed to weigh in on the question of what should be done about it. However, they do this in a manner that is likely to do more harm than good. 

Another example: the inactivists now promote the “gloom and doom” view suggesting that it is too late to do anything meaningful to address the AGW problem. This view implies that we should simply try to enjoy the fossil-fuel “party” while it lasts – thereby allowing the FF advocates to continue to sell their deadly wares until that addiction makes conditions on Earth much worse than they already are. The “gloom and doom” attitude is promoted by the inactivists simply because it would allow the FF industries to squeeze every penny out of FF sales for as long as possible.

Fortunately, this view of gloom and doom is not supported by science. That is, there is no scientific evidence that indicates that the Earth has already entered a run-away, irreversible state of change at this point in time. Our progression towards warming can still be arrested and reversed – but only if we stop burning fossil fuels – which, of course, is exactly what the inactivists are trying to prevent.   

Another example of the duplicity behind the recommendations of the inactivists is their promotions of various means of “geoengineering” of our climate. For example, it is well known that the intensity of solar radiation at the surface of Earth can be decreased by putting reflective sulfate aerosols into the upper atmosphere thereby cooling the Earth. Again, however, this idea and the numerous side effects that are sure accompany it have not been sufficiently tested and might do far more harm than good to our natural environment. Still the inactivists promote it simply because it would allow the continued use of fossil fuels for energy production – even though it would do nothing to reduce our emissions of CO2.

In summarizing the points made above, the AGW war is now being fought between the activists who favor action directed at the heart of the matter (fossil fuel combustion) and the inactivists who promote unproven possibilities simply because they would allow the continued use of fossil fuels at business-as-usual levels. In deciding which of these two choices we should take, it is clear that one is focused on returning the Earth to the natural conditions it had prior the Industrial Age and the other is driven mainly by the profit motivations of our exceedingly powerful fossil fuel industries. So, yes, the former deniers of AGW have now joined the ranks of people concerned about climate change. But most unfortunately, their motivations are mainly to create distractions and chaos within the climate change community so that no meaningful action is taken.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | March 16, 2021

We must get better at discussing our most important problem

The relentless greenhouse gas warming of our planet is clearly the most important problem facing us today.  No other issue comes close in its importance.  One of the main reasons why it has us in dire straits today is that the problem has been largely ignored in the past and still is today in many quarters. The science behind global warming is clear, however. And, if not attended to in a prompt manner, it will change our planet so much – even within the current 21st century – that we will never have the opportunity to address it or any other issue again.

Thus, it should be clear that we have no viable options available to us other than to do our very best to resist the further advance of this global malady. Giving up and resigning ourselves to acceptance of whatever happens is not an option – that is akin to suicide on a species level. Those of us that are alive today have a shot at reducing the worst impacts of warming to the point where survival might be possible for many and possibly even most.  And please don’t buy into the latest message from the fossil fuel industries that it is too late to do anything about it.  We still have a chance of turning things around.

So yes, indeed, we as a species are presently in very big trouble and my apologies go out to any of you who don’t know or want to accept that fact yet. Perhaps one of the main reasons why so many of us do not know about or accept our present tenuous state is because so many of us who are in positions of leadership or public influence find the subject very difficult to accept as a possibility and do not want to talk about it in an open and honest manner. This common preference to “see no evil” in this instance is one of the most unfortunate side effects of this daunting problem and I have repeatedly observed it in many of our companions whose children and grandchildren will be just as affected by future warming as mine. 

I have found that the automatic freeze-up of our minds that occurs when this subject is brought up in polite company causes otherwise intelligent and knowledgeable people to behave in illogical, irresponsible manners. An example of this is provided below in which the setting is a well respected college – a place where open and honest discussions of the world’s biggest problem should occur on a regular basis.  

Over the last few years, I have tried to engage the President and Board of Regents of my alma mater, St. Olaf College in Northfield Minnesota, in a conversation concerning the divestment of that college’s endowment funds from fossil fuel industries. In the process, I have also tried to learn more about the reasons for their point of view which typically go against the grain of our best science on this subject. The college responses have generally been of a narrow financial nature and included very little about the obvious ethical questions that should arise when assessing activities that are sure to cause great damage to mankind’s welfare in the future. The responses of the college’s leadership generally imply that they think it is not their responsibility to support or not support issues that that lie within the domain of governmental politics. Their responses also suggest that their own obligations to the global warming problem are being satisfactorily met by the fact that their college facilities now include sources of renewable energy (wind and solar) that provide the electrical needs of their campus. They do not discuss, however, other popular programs of the college that involve distinctly high carbon footprints – such as their studies abroad and travel programs which they are doing their best to increase via their promotional literature.  

While their efforts to provide the electrical needs of their campus by renewables is a good start that many home owners, including me, have also taken, I don’t believe that it excuses either the colleges or home owners from doing much more than that.  The world needs to bring all of its greenhouse gas emissions to near zero in the next few decades. What is currently missing from our colleges and universities is strong leadership and the promotion of more open and honest discussions of the total global warming problem – that include the ethical as well as financial aspects of the problem. Our educational institutions are well poised for undertaking that task.   

The ethical questions I have put to my alma mater would seem to be obvious and fair enough and the subject is exceedingly important. And, I have had a hard time believing that these college representatives don’t also recognize the ethical aspects of the issue which they refuse to discuss.  As leaders of academic institutions, these individuals should be promoting open discussions of all aspects of this issue including those of an ethical nature.      

It is my understanding that many colleges and universities of the USA took strong ethical stances against South African companies associated with the apartheid policies in the latter part of the 20th century.  If those stances were based on perceived injustices to the non-white populations of that country, why would we then encourage similar injustices being perpetrated on all future generations by our continued investments in fossil fuels? Is this because the administrations of today’s colleges and universities don’t see these injustices being done today to future residences of Earth or is it because they think that injustices based on racial differences require correction while those based on intergenerational differences do not?

My own conclusion regarding the question of divestments from fossil fuel industries by our educational institutions is that the ethical aspects of the decision should be determining factors when the underlying science is clear. Therefore, discussions of those ethical questions should be promoted by the colleges and universities, rather than discouraged as they now often seem to be – even though open discussions of our ethical responsibilities might lead to recommendations concerning institutional investments that are the opposite of those taken by the President and the Board of Regents. Sadly, free and open discussions of the type I am advocating presently appear to be discouraged on the campus of my alma mater and that of other colleges (read about similar events at Harvard University, for example, on my post of June 29, 2016) because the financial preferences of the college’s financial managers are overriding the ethical aspects of the issue that might be of greater concern to the wider campus community.  

Despite huge support from students, faculty, and alumni, Harvard University has refused to join some of its peers, such as Oxford and Cambridge of Great Britain and Berkeley of the USA, in divesting from fossil-fuel companies. Its Board of Directors has now even changed the rules of election to the Board, so that climate-defending alumni cannot become a majority.

As to Harvard’s reasons for not divesting, I have provided below the views of the previous President of Harvard, Drew Faust, and the current President, Lawrence Bacow .

In an open letter, Ex-President Faust wrote:

“Divestment is likely to have a negligible financial impact on the affected companies. And such a strategy would diminish the influence or voice we might have with this industry. Divestment pits concerned citizens and institutions against companies that have enormous capacity and responsibility to promote progress toward a more sustainable future.”

Later, the current President of Harvard, Lawrence Bacow wrote:

“We believe that divestment paints with too broad a brush. We cannot risk alienating and demonizing possible partners, some of which have committed to transitioning to carbon neutrality and to funding research on alternative fuels and on strategies to decarbonize the economy”.

In my opinion, a more honest answer to the question “why don’t universities divest” would be the following. As usual, it comes down to money. Many colleges and universities in the USA are now wrapped up in their own divestment debates. Despite calls from students and faculty groups, their administrations have generally not yielded, due to the profitability of investing in such companies. Not only have investments in fossil fuel companies been profitable, but the donations of fossil-fuel-related businesses provide educational institutions with significant boosts to their endowment funds.

The tone of this discourse reminds me of the appeasement efforts made by Britain’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, just prior to the outbreak of WII. After Germany had usurped Austria and Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain went to Berlin in order to have a “heart-to-heart” discussion with Adolf Hitler, the Chancellor of Germany.

Upon returning to Britain, Chamberlain proclaimed that all would be well because of his renewed understanding of Hitler’s motives and their joint interest in maintaining “peace in our times”.  So, Britain did nothing and a short time later, Germany invaded Poland and WWII began.

If your reaction to my above paragraph is “but the fossil fuel companies are not at all like Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime”, I would suggest that you study a bit more about the activities of the fossil fuel companies since the 1970’s and think again. Back in the 70’s, the fossil fuel companies had the best research programs in the world concerning the effects of fossil fuel combustion and CO2 emissions into our atmosphere. But when their scientists brought their discoveries to the fossil fuel Board of Directors, those boards saw that carbon combustion could very likely lead to global warming. But instead of sharing this information with the public, they decided to stop funding their research in that area and, instead, spend those funds on efforts to undermine the credibility of research on this topic being done by others.

Those same fossil fuel companies are still doing their best today to mislead the public so that they can keep their fossil fuel profits flowing for as long as possible – even as our planet continues its relentless advance towards a distinctly unfriendly hot-house state. Thus, the fossil fuel industries have been behaving in a sociopathic manner in which their profit motives have greatly exceeded their concern for the wellbeing of all people on our planet – and they have been doing this for more than the last four decades! If that isn’t the very definition of sociopathic behavior, I don’t know what is.

Thus, I think my comparison of Neville Chamberlain’s naivete concerning the duplicity of Hitler to the naivete of the Harvard Presidents concerning the duplicity of our fossil fuel companies is appropriate. In both cases, Chamberlain and the Harvard Presidents were and are being fooled into siding with the sociopathic monsters of their era whose plans would result in the degradation of our planet and its inhabitants. Just as Great Britain eventually had to face the reality of Hitler’s real intentions in 1939, the Harvard Board and its presidents should do the same today concerning the fossil-fuel industries and their plans for the future.

In short, our universities should not be supporting activities that have been declared by our own scientific experts to pose an existential threat to humanity and future generations. And no amount of anemic “legalese” used by the Harvard presidents in defense of fossil fuel industries will lesson the problem of global warming. The science behind this issue is clear. After way too much delay, we must now take very forceful action and if that offends the fossil fuel industries, so be it. Since the science is now clear, the most important remaining issue concerns our sense of fairness to present and future inhabitants of our planet. Are we going to do our best to ensure their wellbeing or not?  

One of the main reasons why it appears to be so difficult to do the right thing in this instance is because too many of us have become a part of the “fossil-fuel largess”. That is, the fossil fuel industries share some of their profits with some of us and especially those who are in positions of influence in society – such as the administrators of our colleges and universities. Those donations have become increasingly important to our educational institutions in recent years because of the reductions of revenue received from their traditional sources of funding in recent decades.

Thus, our institutions of higher education have changed their roles somewhat from being dedicated entirely to the quality of their offerings to becoming extensions of the commercial enterprises of the regions they serve. Harvard, for example, is probably not going to be too critical of the fossil fuel industries when a significant fraction of their endowment and as well as specific research/educational programs have been financed by those industries. Much better to be a “friend” of the fossil fuel industries who, after all, claim that they share our concern about future warming – while at the same time want to ensure that their enormous investments and capabilities for fossil fuel production are not threatened.

An apt comparison to this mutual understanding would have been provided in 1939 if Chamberlain had allowed Hitler to expand Germany’s borders to include Poland as well as Austria and Czechoslovakia so that Europe could enjoy even more “peace in our times”.  Having been fooled too many times before, however, Chamberlain finally terminated his advocacy for Germany and its Fuhrer. All advocates for continued fossil fuel use must do the same today if we ever expect to get onto a pollution-free path to energy production.   

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | February 20, 2021

Profound long-term effects of our energy choices

Both the racial problems of the USA today and the climate change problem of the entire planet were set in motion by what was originally thought to be appropriate sources of energy that would power our commercial growth.  In both cases, these choices were initially met with great enthusiasm and enabled the American colonies, first, and then the United States of America to achieve enormous commercial wealth. As we now know, however, both of these choices were set in motion before realizing the detrimental long-term effects that would accompany each of them. 

In order to acquire a needed energy source back in the 16th century, the American colonies of Britain began to use slave labor and greatly expanded that practice in the following three centuries. As a result, the black population of the USA rose to about 4 million by the middle of the 19th century, constituting more than 10% of the total population. The USA then fought a civil war over the tension caused by the differing views of how to deal with the issue of slavery. While the 13th amendment eliminated slavery in 1865, the problem of racial inequality in the USA went unaddressed for at least another century until the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s. Since then, significant progress has been made but problems remain. Changing our nation from one in which only white people were deemed worthy of full citizenship into one that included equal rights for all of its citizen, including the numerous immigrants who have arrived since the 16th century, has proved to be a difficult task. The white population of the USA today has been decreased to about 59% of the total and in a few more decades whites are expected to become a minority race in the USA. The difficulty that some whites have in adjusting to this fact is thought to be one of the causes of racial tensions today.

The above summary of an important component of US history clearly suggests that our problems in the racial area were set in motion largely by our initial quest for a powerful source of energy back in the 16th and 17th centuries which would prove to be morally unsustainable in the longer run as the Western World increasingly took a distinctly dim view of the entire institution of slavery.   

Yes, indeed, the “chickens” we embraced back in the 16th and 17th centuries sure did “come home to roost” in this case and we still have a lot of work to do concerning its lingering effects on our social system.  

Next, in switching to the problem of global warming, we can see at the onset that this problem was also caused by a long-term conflict between our commercial and social interests. The details of this story are similar to those of the slavery issue summarized above. In the middle of the 19th century, many countries of the world entered what has become known as the “Industrial Age” in which the combustion of fossil fuels is used as a powerful source of energy for doing work. In this case, however, the major detrimental side effect of that change has been invisible to the human eye and, therefore, was not fully realized until the latter portions of the 20th century. We now know that the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by the combustion of fossil fuels has been accumulating in our atmosphere for about 200 years. Due to the fact that the excess CO2 thereby produced is not removed in a timely manner from our atmosphere by natural processes, the CO2 content of our atmosphere has risen significantly. Today, our atmosphere contains almost 50% more CO2 than it did prior to the Industrial Age. Because CO2 is the most important greenhouse gas, that increase in CO2 has caused a great deal of heat retention leading to continuous increases in our global temperatures. If continued, the future of all forms of life on our planet will be severely impacted, as has been related in countless scientific papers of the recent decades.       

Thus, we are in state of concern today regarding the side effects of fossil fuel use just as the institution of slavery was in at the onset of the Civil War. Just as the southern slave states of the US were reluctant to give up their use of slaves, the producers of fossil fuels today and many of their users are unwilling to give up their hard-won energy sources, natural gas, oil and coal. Therefore, the USA still resides in a fossil-fuel mode even though the dire consequences of doing so have been clearly forecast for at least 30 years. Like the issue of slavery, that of fossil fuel use has now also become a moral one – will we allow ourselves to continue to live in a fossil-fuel-driven manner when we know that doing so will very likely make life exceedingly difficult for our grandchildren and probably impossible for their descendents? The answer to that question – if one has a progressive, freedom- loving conscience – is clearly “no!”, we cannot do that to our descendents just as we could not condemn our black citizens to a life of enslavement back in 1865. Let’s hope that it doesn’t take another civil war in America to decide this issue concerning the welfare of our descendents.

Next, let’s consider the future, where we will very likely be confronted with another relatively new source of energy which again might be accompanied by unintended consequences which we should try to understand and minimize at the onset. What I am now referring to is the use of nuclear reactions for power generation.

After pondering the question of where our needed energy will come from in a post-fossil fuel era, many scientists including me tend to believe that a major portion of that energy will have to come from nuclear power plants – assuming we want a major portion of the world’s existing population to survive. The words of the outlaw, John Dillinger, come to mind:  when he was asked by a reporter why he robbed banks, his response was “because that’s where the money is”.  And so it is with energy – most of it resides at the nuclear level of the atoms.  All other sources of energy provide a pittance of that which can be obtained from nuclear reactions and because mankind is going to need vast amounts of carbon-free energy after the fossil fuel era, nuclear reactors will surely play a big part of meeting those needs.

The bottom line:  It should be clear today that neither slavery nor fossil fuels are going to work anymore as energy sources that will ensure mankind’s existence on Earth in the current and up-coming centuries. Our efforts to harness various renewable sources, such as solar and wind, have been very impressive, but will not provide nearly enough energy to meet even the world’s minimal needs. Nuclear is now the only source that can come close to meeting those needs without bringing with it unacceptable side effects.

To be sure, the story of nuclear power generation in the 20th century includes some well publicized disappointments. But most of those can be attributed to the fact that the goal of previous nuclear research and development during and after WWII was centered on the creation of explosive weapons and not merely on the continuous generation of power. During the 20th and 21st centuries, we have learned enough to make nuclear fission processes safer and more sustainable for long-term use in power generation. At this moment in time, it appears that there is no other promising option on the table for extending the period of human friendly conditions on Earth. We would do well to get used to that likely possibility and support the reinvigoration of nuclear reactions for power generation. 

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | February 9, 2021

Climate Change issue will attract the Loonies of the GOP

In the last few years, we have witnessed a surge in the number of what I will call here “Loonies” – that is, people who regularly “make stuff up” no matter how outrageous their “news” is without providing the evidence that is generally expected for claims of the unusual. 

Hopefully, our citizenry is now astute enough to know that over-the-top claims require strong supporting evidence. Thus I, for example, do not believe that Barack Obama was born in Africa, that Hillary Clinton was involved with a satanic child sex trafficking ring, or that the presidential election of 2020 was stolen by the Democrats.  My disbelief in claims such as these is due to a basic level of “common sense” reinforced by the fact that 0ur justice system has found little support for allegations of this sort.

Now consider the plight of the GOP Loonies whose main goal is once again to see that the new Democratic administration fails.  What wild claims might they launch next in their attempts to discredit our new President? While the recent past has shown that they have lots of choices, most of their “loonyisms” are fortunately too silly to survive close examination by the public and the media. One of them, however, has shown that it never runs out of gas even if it has been repeatedly shown to be wrong.  I am referring now to the issue of man-caused global warming. 

The present warming of our planet is known to be caused primarily by mankind’s massive emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into our atmosphere over the last two centuries. This phenomenon has been intensively studied for more than two centuries with scientific priority given to it over the last several decades. As a result, the massive literature of climate science is now exceedingly clear on one central point – the Earth is, indeed, warming at a pace that is “very rapid” on a geological time scale and threatens to make conditions within the current century and beyond distinctly untenable for human beings.  

When faced with these scientific realities, you can bet that the Loonies of the GOP will love to “make stuff up” concerning this issue, in particular, for at least two reasons. One is that the lay citizens and even their representatives at the federal and state levels often chose to not understand the science behind global warming – even though it is crystal clear to professional climate scientists. Therefore, the Loonies can float their preposterous notions without fear of its immediate rejection by the public.

 Another reason why this topic will attract the Loonies is that nobody, including me, wants the science of global warming to be correct. The fact that it is happening is definitely very bad news that everyone would understandably wish was not true. Therefore, the comforting, but erroneous messages of the Loonies on this issue are all too often taken in hook, line and sinker, by naïve portions of the public and their elected representatives who typically prefer to share only “good news” with their constituents. In addition, following the dictates of science in this case, means that we have a tremendous amount of work to do. Yes, the problem of global warming is an exceedingly difficult one to address, but if we continue with our business-as-usual reliance on fossil fuels, our species is sure to be “hammered to bits”, if not made extinct, by our continued emissions of greenhouse gases.

Therefore, President Biden will have before him the dire warnings of the entire climate science community opposed by a set of scientifically illiterate GOP Loonies who are committed to the obstruction of all legislation favored by the Bidon administration. Thus, we will continue to hear the loony claims the of the GOP that the threat to mankind posed by climate change is just a big hoax, that increased CO2 levels will actually be good for our plants, that completion of the Keystone XL pipeline is essential for the health of our economy, and that future demands for energy can only be met by our continued and even increased use of fossil fuels. Never mind the fact that every one of these statements is incorrect – that does not bother the Loonies who will have their “alternate” set of made-up facts that they know will sell pretty well within the public domain.

Perhaps the only reason why we might expect the Loonies to lose this specific battle is that the public might finally come to understand the overwhelming supportive evidence behind the man-caused warming of our planet. Therefore, the Loonies will also try to undermine the public’s confidence in science itself just by “making stuff up”.  In any case, it is clear where we are headed in our present fossil fuel era and I hope that the public does not go with the business-as-usual flow so they can continue to ignore the problem and simply “enjoy the party” while it lasts. So, if you aren’t so sure what Mother Nature has in store for us, please do make your next stop at the top menu bar of this website and hit the “science basics” tab – where you will find the scientific basis of global warming related in a manner that can be understood by most with a basic junior high school level of understanding of our physical surroundings. We should not spend our remaining time on this planet “fiddling” while our cities as well as our entire culture “burns”.

Human beings have been present on this planet for only about 200,000 years while the dinosaurs are thought to have existed for about 2,000,000 years.  We might be able to do as well as those prehistoric animals if we would use the scientific information that has been generated by our reportedly far superior brains. In other words, we should use the greatest gift mankind has in his arsenal in order to ensure the survival of our species which includes, of course, the grandchildren we have already come to know and love. If our generation fails to do this, the overriding recollection of it will be written in Charles Darwin’s Halls of Infamy.  In the words of Forest Gump, that recollection will be “stupid is as stupid does”.  We should try to do better than that in the time we have left – for the sake of our reputation as well as our descendents.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | February 1, 2021

Comparing profound issues facing the USA

Just in the last decade, profound threats to the American way of life have occurred which have caused many of us to become justifiably concerned. In this post I will briefly discuss and compare three of these problems; they are our vulnerability to novel viruses, internal attacks on our democratic system of government, and, of course, global warming. In coming up with these three I will admit that I included global warming first and then somewhat arbitrarily picked two others for the sake of comparison.  While I could also have included some of these other issues, for starters a smaller group of three will be sufficient for making the overriding point to be made here. In comparing the relative importance of these three problems, I will consider the “worst case” scenarios of each if they are not adequately addressed.

The Covid-19 pandemic. The most surprising event to occur in the year 2020 was the discovery of the Covid-19 virus and its subsequent explosion across the globe and especially throughout the USA. While the development of vaccines for this virus was accomplished in a timely manner, the delivery of them has been relatively slow and an additional concern is now that mutations of this virus might also cause future problems. Covid-19 variants have already been detected in the USA and Europe.

Within the USA we were overrun by the first wave of the Covid-19 virus more than most other countries probably because we did not follow the dictates of science as well as many other countries did. A priority of our then President Trump was to not disrupt our businesses-as-usual economy and this was undoubtedly why Mother Nature wreaked more havoc on our country’s population – with over 440,000 deaths, to date, and many more to come this winter. The good news on this front is that we now have a new President who has already assembled a team of well-qualified professionals who are far more responsive to this problem and will be allowed to honestly share with the public the latest scientific views of the issue.

Internal attacks on our democracy.  For those of us that happen to value the free democratic principles that our country was founded on and has miraculously managed to retain over its 250 years of existence, the threat of internal takeovers by those who prefer more authoritarian forms of government have been most unsettling.  Hopefully, the example provided by our recently departed President Trump has shown us how real and detrimental these ever-present internal forces can be. Prior to Trump’s election in 2016, I didn’t think an autocratic candidate whose interests did not go much beyond the financial wellbeing of his family and wealthy friends could get to first base in the American political system. In addition, his lack of basic knowledge in critically important areas, from the many fields of science to basic American history, led me to think that his election by Americans was not likely to occur.  As we all witnessed, however, I absolutely wrong. Far more US citizens than I imagined allowed this person to win a presidential election and, once inside, he began to undermine some of the core principles of our democratic system of government.

The election of 2016 thereby revealed the profound ignorance of many of our citizens concerning the form of government that our country had adopted back in 1776 – precisely for preventing authoritarian takeovers of our government.  In pondering the issue of governance, it is helpful to recall an observation made by Winston Churchill.  He is reported to have said “the worst form of government is a democracy – except for all the others”.  Yes, indeed, Churchill was well aware of how difficult it was to get a politically complex democracy to move in some of the directions he preferred.  He even stated once that “the best argument against a democracy can be provided by a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.  Nevertheless, he had also witnessed first-hand the rise of some of the world’s strongest autocracies, including those in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR, and Mao’s China. In all three of those countries the views of the individual citizens were reduced to nothing when confronted with the whims of their authoritarian leaders and millions of their citizens where “neutralized” just because the authoritarians in charge preferred that their pollical adversaries be eliminated. In addition to the three authoritarians mentioned above, another such person is Donald Trump who did his best to weaken and destroy the founding principles of our democracy if those principles got in the way his goals. Going forward, we must do a more thorough job of reminding our citizens of the basic principles on which our representative government depends, so that we are not again tempted to take the “short-cuts” to those preferences offered by authoritarians.

Global warming.  And then there is the relentless advance of global warming, which is the most profound event ever to occur on planet Earth during the last 200,000-year period during which homo-sapiens have been thought to walk on its surface. A man-caused warming of our planet is rapidly occurring now at the end of the human-friendly Holocene period and threatens to produce another mass extinction in our upcoming decades in which the population of human beings could very well be dramatically reduced. Due to the explosion of scientific knowledge that has occurred over the last two centuries, mankind has learned how our planet works and specifically how it has managed to keep its temperature at levels that were favorable to human beings. But now the temperature of Earth is increasing uncontrollably beyond it’s safe limits. While we know how to fix this problem, scientists have not yet convinced their governments to take those corrective actions. Therefore, the concentrations of heat-retaining greenhouse gases continue to rise every year. 

Relative importance of each of these issues. 

Now that we have three important threats to our future on the table, it is useful to compare and evaluate the relative importance of each. For starters, one way of doing this is to envision what would happen if we did nothing in response to each of them.  That is, what would be the “worst case” scenarios of each of these three threats if we did nothing.

First, consider what would be likely to happen if we fail to eradicate the Covid-19 virus and its secondary strains.  An answer to this question has been suggested by various historical events of this sort.  For example, the flu epidemic of 1918 was not met with an effective vaccine in a timely manner and it spread rapidly throughout our planet killing 20 to 50 million people worldwide (including my grandmother in the third wave of 1920). It did eventually lose it’s death grip on the remaining population, however, and was no longer such a major factor to public health after the 1920’s.

Another historic example of an uncontrolled pandemic was provided by the bubonic plague of the 14th Century which is estimated to have killed more than 25% of the European population and 50 million worldwide. Thus, from these previous experiences we can expect to have widespread pandemics killing millions of people if its spread is not successfully addressed.  That outcome would be terrible, of course, but would probably not rise to the level of causing an extinction of human beings.

Next, what would happen if the USA finally loses one of its battles with ever-present authoritarian forces that seek to destroy our democratic means of governance (as one came close to doing during the recent “reign” of Donald Trump).  Again, in answering this question, we can learn a lot from the numerous times this has happened in other countries. The example of Germany in the decade of the 1930s provides a good example.  After the reins of government were handed over to the extreme authoritarian, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party in 1933, Germany went from being the most powerful to the most demolished nation in the world in less than 6 years between 1939 to 1945. History has shown that this disastrous outcome was made possible by the fact that Germany bet all of its resources on the strong central leadership of their dictator who claimed to know more than the combined knowledge of his countrymen and its military leaders. History has shown that this often happens when a country goes for an authoritarian leader who at the moment seemed to provide better solutions than those provided by democratic representations of their citizens. If that should happen in the USA, the penalty we would pay could be as harsh as that experienced by Germany during WWII but note how in the post WWII era, Germany once again rose to be a prosperous country.  So again, this worst outcome would not necessarily cause a mass extinction of human beings.   

Next, what would be the “worst case” scenario of not addressing the problem of global warming? Because scientists have thoroughly studied this for many years, we know the answer to that question.  Any planet that allows its greenhouse gases to increase substantially is going to get significantly warmer. In addition, one of our most prevalent greenhouse gases is carbon dioxide – which does occur naturally but over the Industrial Age has been greatly increased by an astonishing amount, about 50%, above the prior natural level – primarily due to combustion of fossil fuels.  And unfortunately, that extra carbon content of the biosphere cannot be easily removed – it takes multiple centuries for such removal to occur by natural processes and methods of man-facilitated removal have not yet been demonstrated at the scale required.

Furthermore, with respect to the present amount of potentially volatile carbon deposits on Earth, our planet is a literal “powder keg” ready to explode – if those carbon deposits are ignited by the continuous warming of our planet. For example, the permafrost of our Arctic regions contains vast amounts of biological matter that will be converted to volatile forms of carbon, such as CO2 and methane, as those regions get warmer. In addition, the ocean beds of the world contain vast amounts of frozen methane clathrates which will release methane as the Earth gets warmer. These releases of what can now be called “natural” CO2 and methane would cause run–away, irreversible changes to the planet that are likely to cause changes on Earth that would, indeed, be large enough to cause the extinctions of numerous species, including homo-sapiens.  

So, based on the information provided above, which of these threats to mankind should receive our high priorities? I believe that our scientific understanding of these issues leaves us with only one answer to that question. The best answer is that we can give high priority to any set of these three and other issues as long as the very highest priority is given to the problem of global warming. If that problem is not solved, we will not be able to address any of the other issues before us. If it is solved, it would then be possible to address all of the others at some future time.

Enter President Biden.  Whether or not we will be able to give the problem of global warming our highest priority is the big unanswered question. Our past behaviors have shown that we will very possibly not be able to do that. That is, we will very likely continue to be dominated by the “tyranny of the contemporary” (see previous post by this name in the archives of January, 2016) and our addictions to fossil fuels. A test of this prediction will be provided by our response to President Biden’s recent statement that the Keystone Pipeline should not be completed. This move would be much more than mere “talk”.  It would constitute real “action” by not allowing an enormous amount of additional CO2 to be emitted into our atmosphere.  As expected, there is now a tremendous amount of push back against Biden’s proposal with the ever-present argument of “jobs, jobs, jobs” in the immediate future – even though our top climate scientists agree with Biden – that the pipe line would constitute a “game over” tipping point for the onset of the worst outcomes of global warming.

So, keep an eye on that upcoming political debate concerning the Keystone Pipeline.  It will provide a strong indication of whether the US will continue with just “talking the talk” or will finally switch to real and effective preventative actions.

Posted by: ericgrimsrud | January 10, 2021

Why we haven’t stopped global warming

First, let’s make the point clear that human beings are very probably “smart enough” to solve the global warming problem. Over the last couple of centuries, we have developed a very high level of understanding of how things work – including the details of the complex natural systems that populate our planet and how they have evolved over time in response to changing conditions. 

That store of knowledge is now sufficient as to enable us to maintain human friendly conditions on our planet for a very long time – if we decide to do that. In other words, it is not a lack of intellectual knowledge that will limit the duration of livable conditions for humans on our planet. It is another force that threatens to do that and it’s that other force that will be discussed here.

In an all-encompassing nutshell, the strongest force that prevents us from doing what needs to be done is what has been appropriately called ”the tyranny of the contemporary” (see my previous post by this name in the archives of January 2016). During the fossil fuel era in which we have lived since the onset of the Industrial Age, we have learned how to raise our standards of living immensely by use of the energy released when a fossil fuel, such as coal, oil, or natural gas, is combusted by oxygen thereby producing the seemingly harmless substances, carbon dioxide and water vapor. Over that period of use (or should I say overuse), so much fossil fuel has been burned that the carbon content of the biosphere (into which the released CO2 goes) has dramatically increased well above the natural level it previously had throughout the preceding 10,000-year period of the human-friendly era known as the Holocene.  One of the most important details of this is that the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has been increased by 45% and that number is continuously rising. This, in turn, is causing the retention of extra heat on Earth because atmospheric CO2 acts as a heat insulator making Earth’s temperature significantly greater than it would otherwise be. If we continue to live in this fossil-fuel-driven manner, we might be able to continue to enjoy the “good life” of the recent past – but only for a short period of time as our planet becomes progressively warmer and less inhabitable.

Our present dilemma is primarily a moral one – which generation’s welfare, that of the present or that of the future – will dictate the actions take today? That is, will we continue our use of fossil fuels for energy production – as many in the present generation prefer – or will we honor the obvious preferences of future generations whose very survival requires that we move on to completely different ways of producing the energy we need. An important and probably determining factor in making this decision is that many of those who will be living in future decades and centuries do not presently vote, of course, in our contemporary political system. In addition, a huge portion of our younger citizens today are not even mature enough yet to understand the global warming issue.

Thus, we can now understand the apt expression, “the tyranny of the contemporary” in dealing with climate change. This is, indeed, a tyranny in that the dominant preference of the existing inhabitants of the Earth has generally been to continue our business-as-usual ways provided by our still abundant fossil fuels. While we might acknowledge the problem of global warming and continue to “talk the talk” concerning it, when it comes to actually doing meaningful things about it, we have invariably chosen to kick that can down the road – for future generations to deal with at a later date when the problem will be even more difficult to solve. We have thereby shown that we have not been ethically “good enough”, so far, to take our intergenerational responsibilities sufficiently seriously as to embrace a more comprehensive plan of action that will effectively solve the problem for future as well as present generations. Instead, we have simply wished our future generations “good luck” in solving this problem at some later date which by then will be even much more difficult to do.

So yes, we are, indeed, still immobilized today by a “tyranny of the contemporary”, a fact that might very well turn out to be the greatest tragedy of the human experience on this planet. This is needlessly so because the fields of science and engineering have provided us with both an understanding of climate changes and the technologies required to combat them. What is needed for more appropriate actions to be taken is an adjustment of our ethical standards so that our intergenerational responsibilities are taken much more seriously than they have been so far.

So, the central question remains: will human beings suddenly and uncharacteristically become ethically “good enough” as to do the right thing for the preservation of their own species on this planet? Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that the time allowed for effective corrective action is almost gone and the tyranny of the contemporary continues.

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