Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island just gave his 151st speech concerning climate change to the USA Senate. This one focused on the effects of rising sea levels on our eastern seaboard. As usual, this presentation is first rate with respect to its inclusion of the best science available. He discusses many changes expected to occur well within the current 21st century. This is a “must see” video and is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9U9Cgcq-UI
There is perhaps no better way to reveal the hypocrisy among people who consider themselves to be “friends of the Earth” than to bring up the subject of air travel. For that reason, I suspect many readers of this post will quickly tune out – they don’t want to hear or think about it. Nevertheless, the significant contribution of air travel to climate change is absolutely clear and needs to be understood whether we like it or not. Therefore, my objective in this post is to provide an overview of the problem with a summary of the changes required if we hope to address it.
The contribution of air travel by air craft constitutes at least 5% of the total impacts of human activity on global warming and is rapidly rising (see davidsuzuki.org/issues/climate-change/science/climate-change-basics/air-travel-and-climate-change). Part this warming effect is due to the CO2 emissions of jet aircraft and part of it is due to their emissions of water vapor which in the cold air at high altitudes immediately condenses into heat-trapping clouds commonly known as jet contrails. While these contrails also have a slight cooling effect due to their weak reflection of incoming solar radiation, that effect is operative only during daylight hours.
A very large portion of those total miles travelled by aircraft are optional and/or unnecessary and the unnecessary component is increasing by 5 to 10% every year due to increasing incentives to fly and advertising campaigns that have become integral components of our lifestyles. Boasting rights prompted by the common greeting “what have you been up to lately” now go to those who can report on the most interesting or exotic excursion undertaken during their last spring break or long weekend. Thus, unnecessary air travel is now one of our most “out of control” as well as “most preventable” contributions to global warming.
The reasons behind the explosion in air travel
Over 130 airlines now have frequent flyer programs based on miles or points accumulated. Globally, several hundred million people participate in these programs. The benefit to airline companies is the habituation of people to air travel. Concerning business travel, the ease of both domestic and international air travel and the fact that the costs are typically met by our employers, means that globe trotting to conferences is now regarded as a perk of the job – by which the frequent flyer points also accrued provide additional personal trips. In this way, bottom-up pressure is created within a firm or government agency for what is now an obscene amount of unnecessary travel relative to a few decades ago. In addition, by using an airline-sponsored credit card to pay one’s household or business expenses, frequent flyer points can also be racked up quickly even by those of us who would otherwise not fly at all.
Another huge contribution to unnecessary long-distance air travel is now the widespread encouragement of myriad pleasure or educational excursions by various organizations and persons – including many that consider their programs to be environmentally progressive and enlightening. While examples of this abound everywhere, I will offer as examples two of my favorite “institutions” in Minnesota. One of these the college I went to and another is associated with my favorite radio program.
Take a look at the wide range of travel programs for students and alumni offered by my alma mater, St. Olaf College of Northfield, Minnesota, at http://wp.stolaf.edu/studytravel/. I completely understand the time-honored benefits of travel and why StO is so proud of their studies abroad programs. What troubles me, however, about such programs today is that the bill for the environmental damage done by these carbon-intensive trips is being deferred to future generations – rather than being paid for now by its users. This leads me to wonder: Does St. Olaf College not know about the exceedingly urgent need to reduce and eliminate all combustion of fossil fuels within the next several decades? Does it not know that the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere is already more than 40% greater than the natural level that existed prior to mankind’s extensive use of fossil fuels for energy production? Does it not know that because of the accumulation of CO2 emissions over the Industrial Age, we have painted ourselves into a very small corner with respect to allowed future emissions of CO2? Or does St. Olaf College think it has earned exemptions from cuts in these emissions because of all the “good things” it also does? For example, does StO think that their construction of solar panels and windmills on their campus gives them a pass on their other high carbon footprint activities? And finally, does StO not have science programs on its campus that would inform its administration of these now well-known environmental concerns?
I have tried, but failed to get a satisfactory answer to these questions from representatives of StO. In the absence of them, I can only guess that the answer is either good old sloth (the sin of avoiding responsibilities) or “but everyone else is doing it so why shouldn’t we”, or “but our contribution to the total problem is so small”. Whichever the answer is, the example set by St. Olaf College for environmentally sustainable methods of travel by its students, alumni, and the general public is a very poor one.
In order to fully understand the magnitude of this problem, it is necessary to realize that StO’s story is multiplied a thousand-fold by similar travel programs offered by other colleges, universities, and private organizations. All of these compete in offering the best experiences abroad they can arrange for their students, alumni, and customers. The public has historically looked to its universities and colleges for setting examples of advanced insight in how to successfully address society’s problems. By ignoring the environmental downsides of their existing travel programs, these colleges are doing the opposite relative to what actually needs to be done – right now and within the present decade. It is much too late in this game for these colleges to boast that their travel programs are preparing its students for addressing the global warming problem later. What we do in the present decade is far more important than what we do in the next – when the game might already be over. Note that the level of CO2 in our atmosphere is still increasing every year by about 2 parts per million. Yes, the world has not yet even leveled its man-caused emissions – partly due to the increase in air travel being discussed here.
Travel programs such those offered by St. Olaf College are particularly well designed for the relatively well off and elite classes of the USA and for this reason are also very popular within the public sector. By picking on another Minnesota institution named Garrison Keillor, another good example is provided. You can sign up for one of his travel excursions at Prairie Home Companion Cruises. (see www. prairiehome.publicradio.org/features/cruise/ ). Garrison is a self-professed progressive liberal whose strong support of various causes is, in the main, in harmony with my own. Like that of most of his kindred spirits within the intellectual elite class, however, he appears to ignore his travel program’s contribution to atmospheric CO2. Again, trips such as those he offers might have been harmless in days of yore before we painted ourselves into a tiny corner with respect to mankind’s allowed future emissions of greenhouse gases. I suspect that Garrison knows this and I would love to see him adjust accordingly. We are in desperate need of examples of appropriate behavior by members of our elite classes who could afford several extensive trips per year. The desperate straits in which the world now finds itself was greatly facilitated by the bad habits set in motion by the elite classes of the Western democracies. So why shouldn’t they be a big part of the solution rather than a huge component of the problem?
I think I would be much more inclined to take a bet on the prospect for turning Garrison Keillor than one on doing the same at St. Olaf College. Our private colleges are so tightly tied to our existing business-as-usual financial powers – from which our colleges receive financial support – that they undoubtedly have little leeway in following up forcefully on some of the moral obligations they might feel. That is, they are now typically “businesses” themselves with a “go along to get along” business model rather that intellectual leaders capable of going against the financial grain if reason suggests they should. Only after an issue is relatively settled within the public sector (as occurred after the civil rights battles of the 1960’s) will the colleges typically jump with both feet into what they consider to be a “controversial” issue. Thus, the administrations of our colleges and universities are far more likely to become good “followers” than good “leaders” of needed societal changes. They can sometimes be led to hop on a progressive bandwagon when forced to do so by student protests that they cannot control. Unfortunately, we appear to be living in an era of excessively “well-behaved” student bodies, many of whom don’t even seem to realize that it is their future families that are primarily at risk.
On the future of air transport
The only way I can envision environmentally responsible air transport in the future is by use of another type of transportable fuel. Specifically, that fuel would be some type of biofuel, the combustion of which does not change the total carbon content of the biosphere. This might be a biodiesel or ethanol, for examples, made from plants. It must also be acknowledged, however, that it would be very difficult to make enough of these biofuels as to duplicate the amount of fossil fuels being used today for air transport. Also, the use of plants for biofuel production would compete with our existing methods of food production. Thus, these biofuels would be in much shorter supply and considerably more expensive than our abundance supplies of fossil fuels. With a stiff carbon fee also applied to any continued use of fossil fuels, air transport would then be considerably more expensive and, therefore, readily available only to the fraction of today’s users. The rest of us would have to use the lower cost, low carbon footprint, and slower means of surface transport driven by either biofuels, renewable electricity, and conceivably even small nuclear reactors on trains. While some of these changes would be considered inconvenient, they simply must be made if we value sustainability and the preservation of our life-supporting environment. Note, however, that the long-awaited development of fast surface transport throughout the USA might then finally occur, making life more convenient for all of us. Note also that greatly reduced travel by high elevation aircraft would also reduce the formation of high elevation jet contrails which, of course, would be formed by the combustions of biofuels as well as petrofuels. By allowing high altitude flying only during the daylight hours, the slight cooling effect of sunlight reflection off the contrails would help negate some of the warming effect of those contrails.
But finally, some “good news” (I would like to think) for my alma mater. If the above changes in air transport could be made, the costs of St. Olaf’s wonderful international travel programs would no longer be deferred to future generations of Oles. Instead, those programs would be paid for immediately by their present users. Sounds fair and in harmony with the Christian ethical principles on which many of our nation’s colleges such as StO were founded, does it not? Yes, all of this constitutes more of a moral dilemma today rather than a technical one, does it not? My hope is that St. Olaf College finds the strength needed to do the right thing – even if their donations from the fossil fuel users and providers might be diminished. As King Olaf II’s men shouted at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, “Fram! Fram! Kristmenn Krossmenn” (English translation: “let’s get on with it!”)
Climate scientists around the world have been shocked by the recent election of Donald Trump to the most powerful office in the world – largely due to his stated stance on the issue of climate change. He apparently thinks it is all merely a big hoax perpetrated by the Chinese in order the ruin our economy. Mr. Trump has to be the most ill-informed president the USA has ever elected to that office. Therefore, we must hope that some of the statements being made by a multitude of climate scientists get through to him. I wish to refer you here to one of these in which the problem is framed around “betting”, a topic of keen interest to casino owner Trump. This statement was written by Bill McKibben and appeared in the Washington Post yesterday. It can be seen at:
We are clearly at a moment in the history of mankind at which the terrible wager threatened by President-elect Trump would, if taken, ensure a long-term downward spiral of all civilizations mankind has built on this planet. It is essentially a bet against physics and the laws of nature that have been deduced by scientists over the last two centuries. Trump clearly knows a lot about our business-as-usual world. His knowledge of the rest of human endeavors and our planet itself, however, is sophomoric, at best. It is nothing short of mindboggling and frightening to realize that the fate of mankind has fallen into the hands of such a poorly informed individual. Hopefully, the likes of Bill McKibben and other scientists will be able to help him see the unprecedented importance of his pending actions.
Our last Republican President stirred up a hornet’s nest in the Middle East by invading Iraq while wasting a decade of potential action against climate change. Our next one will create even more chaos throughout the entire world if he chooses to invade the life-sustaining environmental system that Mother Nature has created over the last several millennia. Therefore, I will add the following message to the “victorious” Republicans. Have you no sense of shame? This is your own species and your own descendants that you are putting at grave risk. Perhaps you could at last become part of the solution on climate change – starting by reigning in your President-elect.
In trying to make any sense out of what President Elect Donald Trump has said, it is helpful to first remind yourself of this widely shared view of his basic character. Even within his own party, Mr. Trump is thought to represent much of what is crude, arrogant, garish, and classless in our country. While that might possibly be OK, it is also generally agreed that he has little respect for or even knowledge of American governance. The same goes for American science. And I am sorry to say that all of this is, perhaps why so many Americans voted for him and that is not OK. None the less, Mr. Trump won the election and he will be the next President of the United States of America.
Mr. Trump’s ascendance to the Presidency will be accompanied by several precedents – one of which will be immediately apparent in this blog. That is the use of unusually coarse and exaggerated language in describing events, people and places. Thus, for example, I could begin this post by congratulating our President Elect for “schlonging” “Crooked Hillary” – all made more impressive by Trump’s notion that he did this in a political system that is “horribly corrupt”. I suspect that some of his followers are now looking forward to watching President Trump “lock her up” as he promised to do. While his kindred spirit, Vladimir Putin of Russia, would thereby be impressed, its hard for me to imagine that Trump would actually do that.
Similarly, I doubt, as well as hope, that many of Trump’s outrageous claims and promises will amount to much. He obviously knows how to work an intellectually challenged crowd. One simply has to exaggerate and tell fibs. I would therefore not be surprised if Trump supporters will have to be contented with a few meaningless triumphs – such as their feigned relief in knowing – for the first time in eight years – that they will have a President who was born in this country and whose skin color is more to their liking. Nevertheless, I am very concerned at the moment about one inevitable long-term effect of what just happened.
Even long-standing civilizations eventually fall from positions of dominance for various of reasons. The Roman Empire collapsed due to war, overexpansion and rampant corruption. The British Empire dissolved due to cultural arrogance and imperialistic hubris. And sadly, the USA is presently devolving from a Democracy into an Idiocracy. Ruled by fools, what we wish for is increasingly unaffected by the realities of our existing conditions. The very best example of this concerns the issue of climate change. Thus, the USA may become the first world power to crumble under the weight of its own stupidity.
While there are countless reasons why many of us are concerned about the leadership (or lack of) our President Elect will provide, I will focus here on my own major concerns related to environmental and energy issues. On that front, Trump has promised that he will essentially ignore those concerns and undo all of the advances President Obama has made in these areas. That is, he has said he will cancel our commitment to the Paris Accord concerning reductions in greenhouse gases. Instead, President Trump has said that he will open up federal lands to additional oil, gas, and coal extractions. He has said that regulations and oversight by the EPA is unnecessary. He has said that he will scrap pending efforts to tighten methane controls on domestic drillers. He has also promised to pull back on the Clean Power Plan for reducing CO2 emissions at power plants. I also fear that he will give a green light to the Keystone XL pipeline project thereby opening a new long-term flow of Canadian tar sands oil to the world markets.
While the CEOs of the fossil fuel corporations are absolutely ecstatic about these unexpected turn of events, it should also be noted that these measures fly in the face of the recommendations of our nation’s climate scientists. Does President Elect Trump really have a better understanding than professional scientists of Mother Nature and of the forces She has set in motion in response to the changes mankind is making to Her atmosphere? As ridiculous as that notion is, our ruling Republican Party, its President Elect, and a huge portion of our voting public apparently think so.
In response to this and other anti-intellectual currents rising to the top in the USA, Ian Gurvitz has recently written a book appropriately entitled “Welcome to Dumbfuckistan, the Dumbed-Down, Disinformed, Dysfunctional, Disunited States of America”. While the vulgar name Gurvitz has applied to a large sector of our country might be offensive to many Americans, no apologies for crudeness to Mr. Trump and his supporters should be required. Instead we should just add this new label to the rich list of terms our President Elect has brought back into public usage. Because of the frank assessment this book provides concerning our degrading nation, I highly recommend it to all Americans.
In short, with Gurvitz’s Dumbfuckistan soon to be ruled by a scientifically illiterate fool, the damage done by this election, in the words of environmentalist Bill McKibben, “will be measured in geologic time”. I will add that the greatest losers in this election were our non-voting children and the yet to be born. All of this gives new meaning to the expression, “God Bless America”. And while you’re at it, God, please help us with our multitude of dumbfucks – especially those of the self-righteous variety who claim to be seated at your side.
In spite of the pessimistic view I have provided above, there is, nevertheless, always hope that things could change very quickly. For example, there is a real possibility that Candidate Trump will change many of his views abruptly, even before he becomes President Trump. This thought is consistent with Trump’s behavior in the past. He is a self-absorbed predator who doesn’t think he owes anything to anyone. During his long business career, he repeatedly “stiffed” his contractors and material suppliers through clever use of our bankruptcy laws. Thus, when he gets into the oval office next January, I doubt that he will feel any obligation to honor any of the commitments he has made to others. Donald Trump is clearly not a stupid person himself even though he has shown himself to be a master at getting the support of those who are. This remote possibility of Trump’s future involvement in the fight against climate change was the theme of one of my previous posts concerning a President Trump (see it in the March 2016 archives). As unlikely as this more progressive view of Trump might be, there’s no harm in crossing one’s fingers. Of all of the issues on the table, only the Climate Change Problem needs to be addressed immediately. All of the others can be addressed and solved in due or even overdue time – if our life sustaining physical environment doesn’t slip away. Who knows – maybe Trump will start learning a bit about the Father of his party and be inspired by how Lincoln saved the United States of America in the nick of time. The fact that he has so little regard for what’s left of today’s Republican Party is encouraging.
In my previous post, I complained about the inability of the moderators of the recent Presidential debates to ask any questions about climate change. Apparently, it is very difficult for journalists to get ahead of the loudest, but less important concerns of the public and it is unfortunately true that Climate Change is not one of the very top priorities of the American public. And while there have been a plethora of scientifically irrefutable reports concerning the growing risks posed by mankind’s unabated greenhouse gas emissions, the public does not yet include this topic in its regular mix of personal concerns and discussions. The presidential debates offered one of the few times when a prominent journalist could have helped turn public discussions from the heated talking points of today to tougher challenges like climate change. That didn’t happen this year and both the media and public are much to blame for this.
In some respects our species has not advanced all that much from the three of our ancestors shown below. On the really tough issues like climate change, we prefer to “see no evil”, “hear no evil”, and especially “speak no evil” leaving our more trivial issues at the top.
Thus, we are now witnessing widespread evidence of the latter trait, “speak no evil”, on the subject of climate change. For example, a recent study by Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University sought to answer the questions “Is There a Climate ‘Spiral of Silence’ in America?” (see http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/climate-spiral-silence-america/) Some of the findings of this study include the following:
- Americans are interested in global warming
Two in three Americans are either “very” (22%) or “moderately” (45%) interested. Only about one in three is “not very” (16%) or “not at all” (16%) interested in it.
- Americans don’t hear about global warming frequently in the media
Fewer than half of Americans say they hear global warming discussed in the media (TV, movies, radio, newspapers/news websites, magazines, etc.) “at least once a week” (22%) or even “at least once a month” (22%). One in four Americans (26%) say they hear about the topic in the media “several times a year,” while 30% say “once a year or less,” “never,” or “not sure.”
- Americans don’t often hear global warming discussed
Nearly seven in ten Americans (68%) hear other people they know discussing global warming only “several times a year” or less often, and one in four (24%) “never” hear people they know discussing it. Fewer than one in five (18%) hear people they know discussing global warming at least once a month.
- Americans rarely discuss global warming with family and friends
About seven in ten Americans report that they “rarely” (36%) or “never” (32%) discuss global warming with family and friends, which has been trending slightly upward over the past eight years.
- More than half of those who are interested or think global warming is important “rarely” or “never” talk about it with family and friends (57% and 54% respectively).
The obvious next question is why are the public and media so hesitant to openly discuss the problem of climate change. While extensive studies in the social sciences might be required in order to fully address this question, I recently noted another cartoon which I think sums things up pretty well when coupled to the one I provided above. This carton, shown below, indicates our “default plan” for dealing with the climate change problem if we continue on our present course.
Upon reflecting for a moment on this carton concerning the Aztec civilization of Mexico several centuries ago, it becomes clear why a member of any culture that has a default plan such as this might not like to think too much or talk at all about the issue. We would much prefer to think that we are well above that sort of behavior. Nevertheless, history has clearly shown that we are not. The sacrifice of select portions of our societies has occurred regularly and certainly did not begin or end with the Aztecs who are picked on in this cartoon. Instead, such behavior steadily increased with time deep into the modern era.
To pick just one of countless examples, at the onset of the 1930’s, Germany had one of the most advanced cultures of the world both in the fields of science and the humanities. As the forced removal of select German families from their homes then proceeded throughout that decade and the next – right in front of other Germans throughout Germany – along with the transport eastward of those predominantly Jewish men, woman, and children in crude industrial trucks and railway cars, one might have thought that a large fraction of Germans would have noticed and done something about it. Instead, the most common German reaction appears to have been to mimic the first cartoon included in this post. And after WWII, most German citizens claimed to have had “no idea” of what was happening throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s. The only reasonable explanation I can think of for this inhumane behavior of ordinary German citizens would be that a “spiral of silence” had descended on Germany at that time. Being mere mortals, the average German citizen simply could not entertain the obvious possibility that their country was systematically exterminating the men, women and children of this large sector of their population. I will add here that the USA did little to help these victims of Nazi terror even when directly asked for help.
I am reminding us here of these distasteful but well-documented events in human history in order to better understand our present lack of recognition and discussion of our current crime against another specific group – that is our children and those yet to be born. All of these stories tell us that when implicated in an ongoing, unjustified and preventable crime against a select portion of humanity, our brains simply cannot assimilate the facts associated with that offence. The favored option then is to play the three monkeys shown above while hoping that no one notices that we did in fact “know”.
Yes, I think these two simple cartoons tell us a lot about ourselves. And if we hope to improve, it helps to know who and where we presently are and why.
This week, we listened to the last of three presidential debates. In them, I had expected to hear some questions concerning the most important issue of our times. That, of course, is the global warming being caused by mankind’s emissions of greenhouse gases and especially the emissions of carbon dioxide by the combustion of fossil fuels. The citizens of our country had every right to expect such questions. In upcoming years we are going to be hit like a ton of bricks by the relentless advance of warming. Since we are generally considered to be a leader of the free world, all citizens of the world would have a keen interest in our future President’s views on this topic. Four examples of questions we might have expected to hear in those debates are the following:
“An overwhelming majority of climate scientists say that climate change is real, caused by humans and constitutes a growing threat to our way of life. All of the top 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1998 – the year when the deniers say that warming stopped. If elected President, what would you do to address this problem?”
“The Pentagon has said that climate change is a national security risk due to the destruction caused by rising seas and displacement of people. Millions of people will become “climate refugees” as crops fail and drinking water supplies are contaminated by seawater. What would you do to prepare the USA for this?”
“Rising sea levels are already causing whole cities to be put at great risk within the next few decades. What plan will you put in place to ensure that areas such as New York and Florida aren’t inundated?”
“Addressing global climate change requires international participation and cooperation. What efforts would you make as President of the USA to ensure that an effective level of international cooperation does occur?”
But now consider the fact that not a single question of this sort was asked in any of the three Presidential debates. Nor was one asked in the Vice Presidential debate. Thus, the American public was denied the latest thoughts of our candidates on this most important issue. Given this, another question must be asked: “why were such questions not included?” Since no explanations have been provided by the debate moderators, we are left to our own guesses. Four of mine are provided below.
Corporate domination: The fossil fuel corporations provide both of our political parties with vast amounts of financial support. Those same corporations would undoubtedly prefer that open discussions of the role of fossil fuels in causing climate change not be held in front of the enormous audience viewing the Presidential debates. Staying below the radar is a good strategy when one knows one is involved in questionable activities. So perhaps the enormous financial leverage the corporate world has over both our political parties and our media was sufficient to silence all questions concerning climate change.
Cowardice of the candidates: It is also possible that both candidates, Clinton as well as Trump, preferred not to remind voters of their stances in this issue. In the case of Trump, who has said on numerous occasions that he believes man-caused global warming in largely a hoax, he would have to say the same if asked in a debate. In doing so, he would lose a lot of votes among political independents who are scientifically literate. If Hillary were asked such questions, she would have to honor her previous commitments made in her run against Bernie Sanders to forcefully address the problem. And if pressed further, she would then have to get into the details of what must be done – that is, how we would significantly cut back on our use of all fossil fuels. While a large fraction of the US public believes climate change is occurring, a distinctly smaller fraction is willing to suffer some of the sacrifices that will be required in order to do something about it. Rather than lose those votes, I suspect that Clinton would prefer not the be asked about specific plans for cutting greenhouse gases. In other words, on the subject of climate change, it is difficult to pander to the audience by offering painless, easy solutions and both candidates seek issues in which they can effectively pander to large and receptive portions of the electorate.
Scientific ignorance of the media: When the Commission on Presidential Debates Executive Director Janet Brown was asked why the subject of climate change was not included in the debates, she said. “The commission leaves the editorial discretion to moderators for both the selection of topics and questions,” and added “there are dozens of issues that unfortunately don’t fit into the time allotted for the four debates.” Really, are there actually “dozens of issues” as important as climate change? And really, does the media not know how to fit this topic into the “time allotted”? Clearly our schools of journalism and public media need to include more environmental science in their curricula. Either that or the media should hire more people who are scientifically literate.
My hope for days ahead: If any significant action on climate change is to occur during the next Presidential term, it is now apparent that Clinton must defeat Trump in the upcoming election and after that her attitude concerning climate change must quickly swing to that of Bernie Sanders. Bernie was the only candidate in the primaries who really “got it” and hopefully he has subsequently taught Hillary what must be done for the sake of future generations including her own grandchildren.
This is a collection of the slides I used in a presentation at St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN, in the Viking Theater of Buntrock Center on Sept 27, 2016, from 7 to 9 pm, entitled “An assessment of Climate Change, past, present and future”
The best way to view this slide show is to click on the first figure and then scroll through the rest.
Those of you who have followed this web site know that I have used my own alma mater, St. Olaf College, as an example of American Colleges and Universities that continue to invest in companies and corporations whose operations depend on the continued extraction and use of fossil fuels for energy production (see previous posts on April and May of 2016 and June of 2015). Up to now, the argument I put to them was essentially one of a moral nature. That is, the science associated with global warming is now as clear as any complex scientific issue can be. Our continued extraction and combustion of fossil fuels is increasing the thermal insulating properties of our atmosphere to a point well beyond environmentally safe levels. We are nearing an onset of temperature instability thereby risking future catastrophic changes that would be in compatible with existing forms of human civilization. Thus, we must divest from fossil-fuel related corporations for the sake of our planet, all of its inhabitants, and all future generations.
To my knowledge, however, this argument has failed to change the attitude of St. Olaf College concerning its fossil fuel investments. When asked if St. Olaf has any intentions of divesting, its President simply told me “no” about one year ago and I have heard of no changes since then. Therefore, in this post I would like to provide the leadership of St. Olaf College with another reason for divesting, as explained below.
The campaign to hold Exxon accountable for their climate cover-up just took a big step forward. The federal Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) just announced that they’re opening an investigation into whether Exxon has failed to account for the risk that climate change and climate regulations could pose to the future financial success of their company. This investigation, which has now moved up from state to federal level, could fundamentally reshape how Exxon and the entire fossil fuel industry does business. If the SEC finds that Exxon has lied to its shareholders, the company could face major penalties. Moreover, a ruling that forces Exxon to account for its climate risks in the future could help shut down new fossil fuel development and industry expansion.
So while it appears to me that St. Olaf College has not so far been sufficiently bothered by the moral implications of their investments in fossil fuels, my hope is that the additional reason for divestment related here will provide them with the bit of additional courage needed to do the right thing.
Oh goody, goodly – we finally know how our planet is going to be saved from future degradation by global warming. It increasingly appears (see my June 2016 post entitled Post Paris Accord assessment) that our global leaders, such as those who attended the Paris conference in December 2015, think this will happen via a technology known as BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Sequestration). So, what is BECCS? With the aid of the following figure, it can be easily explained:
The basic idea is that we feed our power plants with biomass (wood, grass, plants, etc) instead of fossil fuels (coal, oil or natural gas) and install carbon sequestration apparatus to the smoke stacks of those power plants by which a large portion of the combustion product, CO2, is captured. That near-liquid form of CO2 is then transported via pipelines to voids deep in the Earth where the CO2 can be deposited and stored for many thousands or even millions of years. In theory, this technology offers both power generation and a means of removing carbon from the biosphere.
The next question, of course, is will it work? Yes, it is true that each of the individual steps shown in the figure above have been demonstrated and shown to work on vastly smaller scales. They are presently being studied and used throughout the world. The remaining question, however, is whether or not BECCS can be scaled up enormously to a magnitude that could actually result in significant decreases in atmospheric CO2 levels over the limited period of time we have left for preventing the worst outcomes of greenhouse gas warming.
With such a massive BECCS system, a point of concern is that huge sections of arable fertile land and associated water supplies would have to be dedicated to making the amount of biomass required. It is estimated that the equivalent of one to three “India’s” would be required and these chosen biomass farms would preferably be located near both the associated power plants and the burial sites of the captured CO2 in order to minimize transportation costs and additional greenhouse gas emissions.
Upon learning just this bit about BECCS, you are perhaps already somewhat skeptical of both the technical and financial feasibility of this technology and I would expect you to be. Yet, if you have followed the debates and conferences concerning climate change being held throughout the world – such as the recent one in Paris – one definitely gets the feeling that we will be betting our futures on BECCS implementation by the middle of this century – when atmospheric CO2 levels will have soared well above the present already dangerous level of 401 ppm.
So the question then arrises, why are we headed in that direction – rather than trying ever harder to simply cut in our continuing emissions of CO2? After all, we know how to do the former and know that it would work, but do not yet know very much about the feasibility of the latter. Answers to this question seem to include the following:
- The Business as Usual (BaU) forces of the world and the USA especially like the BECCS plan because it allows continued use of fossil fuels in the up-coming decades. According to this plan, the additional CO2 that will be thereby deposited into the biosphere during the next few decades will simply be removed by bigger and better BECCS systems later, right? So easy to say while so difficult to do.
- And let’s face it, almost all of us want to do something for those “future generations” that we are always reminded of in climate change debates. Even though the BECCS plan does little of substance now, it does provide “a plan” and some hope for those future generations. That is, we will at least be offering our grandchildren something – even though they, and not us, will have to pay for it. And who knows, maybe “something will come up” by midcentury, right? Such as great improvements in carbon capture technologies or biomass production. Of course, yet another description of what I am saying here is that we will be continuing to “kick that can down the road” – an activity our generation has become very good at.
- Also you should note that the closely related technique of CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration) is sure to be promoted as an intermediate stepping stone to BECCS in that it seeks the removal of the CO2 emitted by fossil-fuel-fired power plants (often referred to as “clean coal”). While this technique does not result in a net reduction of carbon in the biosphere, it seeks, at least, to be carbon neutral. Thus, CCS is the big hope for the continued use of fossil-fuel-fired power plants including those that still rely of our abundant supplies of coal. Never mind the facts that other pollutants, such as mercury and cadmium, are also emitted by coal-fired plants and that large quantities of the powerful greenhouse gas, methane, leak into the atmosphere in the mining and transport of natural gas to power plants. It should also be noted that CCS has not yet been shown to be technically or financially viable on the large scale its proponents like to envision.
So here we are in the new post-Paris Accord era – proceeding with BaU modes of operation and lifestyles – thinking that future generations will be able to develop techniques such as BECCS in order to remove the excess CO2 that first began to show up in about 1850 and is still being added today at an unprecedented annual rate of about 2 ppm. By 2050, the biosphere can be expected to contain at least 50% more carbon than it ever has had naturally over the last 3 million years. It now contains 40% extra carbon. The last time our atmosphere had 450 ppm CO2 in it, the Earth was almost a “water world” with very little ice anywhere on it. Therefore by BECCS, the plan is to remove over 500 billion tons of carbon (that is, 2,000 billion tons of CO2) from our biosphere and permanently park that carbon dioxide deep in the geosphere. That’s an awful lot of carbon to be removed – approximately equal to all of the carbon that has been burned, to date, in the entire Industrial Age. And if this endeavor is to be effective, it would have to be done relatively promptly, that is, during the remainder of this century. Whether this “gift” of the BECCS plan to our grandchildren turns out to be anything of value to them or is presently being favored simply to soothe the consciences of those of us who will be allowed to continue our extraordinarily pleasant fossil-fuel- driven lifestyles remains to be seen.
It’s about time for a needed bit of humor – which is so very hard to find when discussing the science of climate change. A St. Olaf College classmate of mine named Jeff Strate is the producer of “Democratic Visions”, a community cable access program featuring interviews, stories, satire and commentaries about and by Minnesota progressive lefties and moderates. Democratic Visions is handcrafted by volunteers from Eden Prairie, Hopkins, Minnetonka, Edina, Bloomington and other suburbs of Minneapolis.. In one of their recent programs, Jeff interviewed an alleged “Professor of Negativity”, played by humorist Jon Spayde, who does his best to help us understand the value and beauty of embracing the abundance of bad news that is right at our fingertips every day. While I am sometimes accused of seeing only the down sides of climate change (assuming for the moment that there are, indeed, some up sides), I am not, at heart, a pessimist. I would, in fact, like to see the problem of climate change be successfully addressed. Since that is not happening, however, I am also ripe for conversion to the dark side, a transition that the Professor would like to help the likes of me with. See Jeff Strate and Jon Spayde’s satirical attempt to serve this function in the U-tube video below.