Posted by: ericgrimsrud | October 9, 2013

The Missing Link For Action on Climate Change

While CO2 emissions into the Earth’s atmosphere continue to increase each year,  I often wonder if there is one single factor or change that might finally lead to a decrease and then the termination of those emissions.   I think I know what that factor is, but don’t know when it will show up .  This critically important factor is not, as some claim, making the basic science involved clearer and more irrefutable.  That has already occurred -some 97% of the legitimate scientists who do research in this area every day agree that CO2-induced warming is occurring and that CO2  emissions need to be cut immediately.  In addition, the 5th major report recently released by the IPCC assigned almost 100% certainty to this view.   While only about half of our elected officials accept this view, I do not believe that our elected officials constitute the  bottleneck  to forceful action on climate change that I am looking for.

I believe instead that the essential factor still missing is the lack of leadership exhibited, to date, by the leaders of  the corporate world – that is, the leaders of the existing Business as Usual (BAU) forces of our country and the world.  Let’s face it, money does make the world go around and essentially all of our elected officials are more influenced by the short term flow of that stuff than by the recommendations of scientists.

Resistance to forceful action against climate change by our corporate leadership is not at all surprising – it has been repeatedly observed in the past.  The forces for BAU will generally not change directions on major issues unless it is clear that there will be more money to be made in doing so.  Their primary responsibility is to make money for their employees and stockholders and is not to be the caretakers of the Earth’s environment.  In addition, if it suits their purposes they will not hesitate to discredit the governmental agencies and scientific communities that do have that responsibility.

An excellent example of all of this was played out before us not too long ago, between the years of 1974 and 1985, during what became known as the  “stratospheric ozone / chlorofluorocarbon” controversy.   The CFC’s were a class of compounds invented and produced by the DuPont Corporation under the trade name, Freon.  These compounds had proved to be extremely useful in a wide variety of domestic and industrial applications and presented no immediate danger to the users.  Therefore, the industrial production of CFC’s was increasing exponentially (doubling every seven years) until 1975.  Then in 1974 atmospheric scientists,  Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina, suggested that the CFC’s might be damaging the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer.  A great deal of additional basic research then followed, almost all of which strongly supported this theory.  I happened to be personally involved in this early research – making the first measurements of the main CFC, Freon-12, in the background atmosphere in 1974. The ozone / CFC theory and subsequent research was met with very strong resistance, however, by the DuPont Corporation and other industrial forces that had become dependent on the use of the Freons.  The chairmen of DuPont’s board of directors, Irving Shapiro, said “the ozone depletion theory is a science fiction tale . . . a load of rubbish, utter nonsense” (Chemical Week, July 16, 1975).

Throughout the following ten years, the public and their elected officials were kept in a state of confusion and uncertainty concerning the reality of stratospheric ozone depletion by the battle played out in the media between atmospheric scientists and the representatives of industry.   In that battle, the forces for existing BAU had little difficulty finding their own set of so-called “experts” who were willing to state that stratospheric ozone depletion was not being caused by the CFC’s.  It is telling to note that one of these “in-house” scientists was none other than Dr. Fred Singer who has more recently been providing those same services to the BAU industrial forces during the current and ongoing media debates concerning man-caused global warming.

Then in 1985 everything changed.  Suddenly the DuPont corporation agreed that the CFC’s were destroying stratospheric ozone and that their production should be curtailed as soon as possible.  In TV ads, DuPont then changed from being the leading denier of CFC’s effects to that of being a “savior” of the environment.  So what caused that sudden reversal?  The facts suggest that there were two reasons.

One of these was undoubtedly that an “ozone hole” in the stratosphere above Antarctica was discovered in 1985 and was shown to be caused by chlorine atoms carried to that region by the CFC’s.   By “hole” what is meant is that the ozone concentration went to near zero in some regions of the Antarctic stratosphere during their Springtime. The irrefutable clarity of this remarkable observation made it much more difficult for DuPont to refute the hazard posed by the CFC’s.

Another and perhaps even more significant reason for DuPont’s change of attitude, however, was that by 1985, DuPont was well-poised for making an additional fortune by the production of chemical alternates to the chlorofluorocarbon.  The alternate compounds included first the hydrochlorofluorocarbons and then the entirely “ozone-friendly” hydrofluorocarbons that are widely used today.   Furthermore, the Dupont Corporation agreed to halt their productions of CFC’s on the condition that they be banned globally so that the new alternate compounds they would soon be making  would not have to compete with relatively inexpensive CFC’s produced abroad.   After those conditions were met by international agreements, DuPont then had an open field for the production of the replacement compounds and, indeed, have done very well in that area ever since.

So does this example apply  to the issue of climate change?  First, it is recognized that  addressing the climate change problem will be much more challenging than addressing the ozone / CFC problem was.  The CO2-induced warming problem is now over 160 years in the making – both individuals and almost all of industry has become thoroughly addicted to fossil fuels for the generation of energy.   Nevertheless and as difficult as it might be, when the CEO’s of industry do get on board, things will finally happen .  The corporate world has a tremendous and, I think, determining influence on public opinion.  Right now, Big Oil provides the public with misleading advertisements in which they assure us all that they are “taking care of” the public interests – by providing the energy needs of the people through “all of the above” approaches.  These approaches includes the development of new sources of gas and oil as well as the development of “clean” technologies, such as wind and solar.  In these ads, we are assured that “all will be OK, don’t worry, we are on top of the energy problems”.

Unfortunately, the real intent of ads such as these is simply to put the public to sleep.  Big Oil and Gas companies are not, in fact, forcefully addressing the climate change problem yet.  Only a very small fraction of their resources are being directed towards the clean technologies.  In very recent years a lion’s share of their investments have been for the development of “non-traditional” sources of fossil fuels – such as tar sands and shale gas and oil produced by recently developed fracking techniques.  As a result, we are not headed towards a new era of clean energy production.  We are, in fact, headed towards a new era of fossil fuel production and use – that of the non-traditional carbon sources – in which the CO2 emitted per energy unit gained will be even greater than before.

In addition, consider this: the Earth contains many times more carbon-based fossil fuels of all types than have been already used since the beginning of the Industrial Age and the value of all of these fossil fuels is increasing as these new non-traditional extraction techniques are being developed.  On the other hand, the value of those fossil fuel holdings will go towards zero if we decide to leave them in the ground, as we should if we get serious about decreasing CO2 emissions.  This puts enormous additional pressure on the CEO’s of Big Oil and Gas to ensure the continued use of their products.

Only when the forces for BAU decide to stop fooling the public and come clean with respect to the true long term costs to humanity of continued fossil fuel  use, will we finally be headed in the right direction.  Because of their overwhelming financial clout, only then will our elected officials gain the courage to do the right thing. I have no idea when this change might occur and have no intention of holding my breath until it does.   The main purpose of this post has been simply to identify what I believe is the major reason why we are not yet moving along a scientifically obvious and socially responsible path to ridding our atmosphere of its excess CO2 content.

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