Rising To The Occasion

Flying over the Oregon countryside recently, my breath was taken away by the rolling terrain of Cascade mountain slopes blanketed with lush pine forest. It was almost a conversion experience, similar to the first view of our planet from space which inspired Earth Day in 1970 and jump-started the environmental movement. Continuing our flight, Mount St Helens hove into view outside the window, the upper bowl still barren thirty-two years after its gigantic eruption, when it spewed ash fifteen miles into the sky. Planetary forces carving a mountain.

The gray crater of St. Helens has a stark beauty and an unexpected message. Nature can recover, when left alone. Life goes on. After a few decades, the brush, trees, and animals are thriving on the foothills. As our flight got closer to Portland, we began to see more denuded countryside, on a scale that dwarfed the mountain. This land has been cratered by people, not geology: farmers carving out tracts, cultures building entire cities. In some places, nature fares better when tended carefully, like a garden. This corner of Oregon is one small mark of the scythe of civilization that has been sweeping inexorably across the continents during the last 10,000 years, changing the land, sea, and skies.

In my twenties, along with many of my generation, I escaped from the rectilinear walls and black asphalt of the city and took refuge on the open land. We believed in simple living, close to nature, with a farmhouse and five acres. Such idealism was fed by many historical and cultural streams, including Helen and Scott Nearing, Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau, even NASA, which had given us the bluegreen icon hanging in space, uniting citizens of one planet. We didn’t know then that Charles Keeling had been collecting CO2 samples at Mauna Loa for more than a decade, and that the warning call had already gone out about global climate; we mainly longed for a lifestyle without plastics, commercials, or authority.

The Keeling curve

Living apart from city services quickly teaches the need for decision-making and consensus; in other words, governance. Cooperation is more important when the fence breaks down between your property and your neighbor’s, or the creek overflows, drowning your lands. In recent decades the environmental movement has learned how to achieve local consensus, in the process cleaning up lakes and streams, forcing industry to manage pollution, even creating alliances with logging companies. What’s needed now, however, is much harder: governance on an international scale.

The environment has become a worldwide issue – retreating to a wooded plot on five acres is not a universal solution. There aren’t enough 5-acre plots. And anyway, most of those homesteads were built using the energy of fossil fuels, no different from the tallest skyscraper. It has been the phenomenal energy density and seemingly inexhaustible availability of fossil fuels that has created everything we have: shoes, paper, cell phones, the Internet, even the luxury of scientific research is thanks to a long credit line drawing on banked fossil fuels. The time has come to pay the bill for this wonderful civilization. Unfortunately, nobody is willing to pick up the check. Or rather, we’re in the absurd position of debating whether there is a check, or whether we ate dinner, even as we get up from the table.

A handful of interests have sown doubt in the face of an unprecedented consensus, a consensus much stronger than that for the link between smoking and cancer, or alcohol and automobile crashes. In a country that has strong ties to the land (the very land where crops are failing, and the entire east coast has just gone through the hottest year on record) this doubt may be our single most important failing. Borrowing a rhetorical trick from the tobacco industry, vested industries have used “Merchants of Doubt” to instill skepticism. We fiddle with arguments while vast quantities of coal and oil are burning. It’s just that the flames aren’t visible, and unless you live in China or the Four Corners of the Southwest, neither are the fumes.

San Juan coal plant, Four Corners, southwest USA

Interest in global warming rises and falls inversely to Keeling’s graph of CO2 from Mauna Loa: public awareness rises every summer, and dips every winter. Those are seasonal changes, driven by simple awareness of daily weather, but like CO2 the number of people who understand the danger is slowly and continually rising. We are entering a period of endless crises. Increasingly  there will be more drought, stronger storms, more loss of species, changing landscapes; entire countries will bicker or openly fight over climate refugees. Changes to river drainage, such as the drying up of “Asia’s water tower,” the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau that supply 1.5 billion people across ten countries, will shape politics of the coming century.

Khumbu glacier, Nepal

The fact that 8 of the last 10 years have been the hottest summers on record in the United States will become commonplace; the last decade is always going to be the hottest until we solve climate change. This may be the warmest decade in the last 1,000 years, depending on what kind of data you are looking at.

Abraham Lincoln said in 1862, as he agonized over the radical legislation of emancipating the slaves, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves…” He saw events framed in the wide view of history: “The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”

Thinking anew starts with education, opening one’s mind to new knowledge. As I was flying over the spectacular Cascade mountains, one of my nephews was headed off to a conservation school deep in the north woods, to learn about population dynamics, natural resources, and distinguish neo-Malthusians from neo-Luddites. With such knowledge, the next generation may be able to solve the thorny problem of how to sustain the ecosystem with the soon-to-be 9 billion people.

On a visit to my nephew’s farm last year I first heard about the surprisingly simple technique of rotational grazing, a method that can rejuvenate soil, sequester large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, and allow a pasture to thrive in drought conditions. And all it takes is fences. Conservation doesn’t necessarily imply wilderness; the choice is not between civilization or the wild. It can also mean careful and intelligent husbandry.

Rotational grazing

As with most methods to mitigate global warming, rotational grazing pays for itself. Intelligent forestry and grazing benefits ranchers; improving insulation lowers utility bills; reducing the number of coal-fired plants saves medical costs. It is estimated that if if we address the carbon problem now it would cost about 1% of gross domestic product (GDP). Admittedly, that’s a huge amount. But if we ignore climate change, go about business as usual, dealing with the crises will be the equivalent of the cost of a world war or economic Depression: 20% of the world’s output. (The Climate Crisis, Archer and Rahmsdorf, pp. 218-219).

There are, in fact, several known technologies for taking C02 out of the air, what is called carbon dioxide removal (CDR). One simple means for CDR involves, paradoxically, burning plant matter or biomass, in a process called pyrolysis. You’ve engaged in one form of pyrolysis if you have ever sat around a campfire or grilled food on an open range. It’s surprisingly low-tech, and can be done using an airtight metal vessel, or even by covering a pile of wood with mud before burning it. Getting a low-oxygen environment is the trick, which prevents the resulting char(coal) from burning at the same time. Burying the resulting “biochar” can sequester carbon in the soil for thousands of years, increase soil fertility, and reduce the release of nitrous oxide. Creating biochar also releases volatile gases that can be used later. All around, it’s a neat trick.

There are other reasons to care about energy and carbon than climate change. The US military, not known for sensitivity to the environment, has woken up to the need for energy independence, as Peter Byck, the director of the movie Carbon Nation, notes in an interview on Science Friday. Developing a smart grid, local storage, and alternative sources all increase the security of military bases, and the technology will then benefit the rest of us. That’s why the Department of Energy’s ARPA-e program is giving grants for battery storage, smart grids, hybrid vehicles, wind, solar, and carbon capture from coal plants.

Thinking about energy, global warming, or the earth’s ecosystem is difficult, not just because of the politicized debate, but because climate is damnably, mathematically, mind-numbingly complex. How can the average non-scientist master the concepts of albedo, sequestration, or radiative forcing? There are increasingly accurate models for climate, but also huge gaps in knowledge, particularly about the ocean. For that very reason we need to stretch our minds, step outside of linear thought, consider tipping points in the context of chaotic systems. We are setting the scene for a very long future, and our actions or inactions in the next few decades will affect generations and even millennia to come.

It’s easy to be complacent. Like a smoker who doesn’t see the effect of one cigarette or even a year of smoking, we don’t feel the effect of one more coal plant. (If you lived next to a typical 1-gigawatt plant, though, you’d see the 7 million tons of coal rolling into it every year. Though even then, you wouldn’t see the 14 million tons of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere.). Awareness comes slowly, but it will hit everyone sooner or later. China, which had been building a new coal plant every week, has slowed down for various reasons, including concern about the air quality. China is now focusing much more on clean coal plants, as part of a more widespread energy policy during its 12th Five-Year Plan.

Hearing that the world is heading towards a one, two, three, or four degree rise in temperature doesn’t seem too scary (but remember, those are Centigrade degrees, equal to roughly 2, 4, 6, 8 degrees Fahrenheit). Maybe an analogy would help. Think of every degree as equivalent to gaining fifty pounds in weight. With the first fifty you notice a slowdown, but your health is more or less the same. With 100 extra pounds, you’ve got high blood pressure, incipient arthritis, digestive problems. By the time you’ve put on 150 pounds, you’ve got sleep apnea, heavy snoring, diabetes, you’re taking multiple medications, and heart attack and stroke lurk around every corner. Any minute you could hit a tipping point, and it’s damn hard to get back to where you started.

The scientist James Lovelock gave us the view of the Earth as an organism, an entity that lives and breathes. Criticized for a couple of decades, the idea of Gaia is now widely accepted as a physical process in scientific circles, all the more so as more data comes in and models improve. Even so, there is still much to learn. With climate, the science isn’t settled, even though there is an extraordinarily broad consensus. For example, why are the clouds lowering? What is the mysterious carbon sink that is unaccounted for in current models? Could it be the tropical forests, or that migration to cities is allowing the forests in the third world to grow back? How will the dominant form of life, microorganisms, respond to the changing environment? And critically, where are the first tipping points, and how can we know when one is approaching?

The missing carbon sink

Complex chaotic systems have a way of surprising us. A mountainside is stable, until the avalanche begins. Then balance is disrupted, and rocks that have stood for millennia change in minutes. At some point there is a last straw and the system collapses, changes abruptly and dramatically. We know some of the tipping points for climate change (the West Antarctic ice sheet, permafrost, Tibetan albedo), but there may be others that are unknown.

Every period has its pessimists who paint a picture of impending doom. Tragedy catches our eye and makes us take notice, but it’s often wrong, especially when predicting the future based on past trends. In the seventies Paul and Anne Ehrlich in The Population Bomb presented a neo-Malthusian view of static resources, growing consumption, and starvation in the hundreds of millions. Their frightening vision was famously and spectacularly wrong. Their biggest mistake was one kind of linear thinking: assuming that the future will be just like the past, with no new knowledge, techniques, or processes. Over the past few decades human death and suffering came as a result of politics, not lack of resources. (And population looks to be stabilizing, not growing exponentially). A sense of urgency needs to be tempered with open-mindedness and observation, not simply trends and dogmatic assertions.

Rather than predict the future, we should create it. I bet the future will be a heady brew of everything, a messy stone soup with every ingredient thrown in for good measure: fossil fuels, alternative energy, nuclear, conservation, carbon capture, solar radiation management. And it will involve technologies just now emerging from the laboratories. If we’re lucky, a miraculous method for carbon capture using nanotech will emerge, we’ll figure out fusion power, the crisis will be over, and we can confidently march into a bright future. But what if those miracles don’t happen for fifty or a hundred years, at which time there are another trillion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere? Is it worth the risk? Progress may be steady, but it doesn’t come on a fixed schedule. And the carbon we pump in the atmosphere now will continue to raise the temperature for at least two hundred years. (see The Rough Guide to Climate Change, p. 263)

Known climate tipping points

Philosophers categorize risk into three categories: tolerable, intolerable, and existential. You take a tolerable risk when you get into a car. An intolerable risk is getting into the car when your blood alcohol level is 0.18, and an existential risk would be the impact of an asteroid, or an all-out nuclear war, either of which could kill billions and even threaten the existence of civilization. Climate change doesn’t pose an existential risk, neither to humanity nor the planet. If our current trend of pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere continues, the planet may well stabilize again. It will just be very different, with deserts replacing prairies, and tropical areas at much higher latitudes. And very big bills to pay to re-engineer entire cities, countries, and industries.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, and to lapse into moral paralysis. What can one person, or even one nation, possibly do? You would be surprised. Society is a non-linear (chaotic) system – small changes can have huge consequences. If you have a conversation with a neighbor, she may talk to the mayor, who talks to the governor, who convinces the president. The world is more interconnected now than ever before. Action can happen at every level. Cities can set and meet goals, like the net-zero milestone for Davis, California. A large and energy-hungry country like Germany can shift its energy use, and still remain competitive: it is on track to generate half of its energy from PV solar. All of it matters, and every action affects every other.

When it comes to climate, politics is simultaneously local and global, and every level in between. Action needs solid information; one good starting point, where you can get a hard-nosed but witty look at the numbers involved in every aspect of energy and possible solutions, is the book Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air, by David MacKay, the chief scientific adviser on energy policy to the U.K. He has generously made the whole text available via Creative Commons.

Sustainable Energy (MacKay)

A serious study of numbers and emerging information can shake long-held beliefs. Stewart Brand argues in his book Whole Earth Discipline that the traditional Green movement has to free itself from the dogmas of the past. The specter of nuclear war hung over the second half of the 20th century, imprinting itself deeply on the psyche of several generations – so that for many the very word nuclear, like cancer, is terribly frightening. But things are changing. “For younger Greens, cold-war nuclear fears are ancient history, and Chernobyl is not part of their personal experience. The threat of climate change is what dominates their world, along with accelerating technology, with which they are comfortable.” (p. 89).

Sometimes the truth is counter-intuitive. Backpackers learn early that “cotton kills,” meaning that when it gets wet, cotton clothing is likely to lead to hypothermia. Those who care about the environment, now and in the future, might consider the parallel phrase from environmentalist Fred Pearce: “Coal is the killer. Of all the fossil fuels, coal is the one that could make this planet uninhabitable.” Or as NASA’s James Hansen puts it more viscerally, “Coal plants are factories of death.

The technology and science of nuclear power has come as far from the reactors of the fifties as cars have from crank engines and running boards. Generation three reactors as well as fusion and SMR (small modular reactors) are redefining the industry. Modular reactors are being built which can be buried and will run safely for four years without maintenance. I read a bumper sticker today that said “Don’t believe everything you think.” Better: question (and update) what you believe.

Modular reactor

Modular reactor

We must disenthrall ourselves, look around at the real world in which population has tripled in my lifetime, and ask where the rising billions will get their energy. They will demand it, and in ten years, not a hundred. As Brand writes, “Five out of six people live in the developing world – about 5.7 billion in 2010. One way or another, the world’s poor will get grid electricity. Where that electricity comes from will determine what happens with the climate.” (p. 116)

Our knowledge of climate, though incomplete, is expanding rapidly. In the last decade models have been able to incorporate elements such as sea spray, ice sheets, the upper atmosphere, and the interaction of vegetation. Models will continue to improve even as the climate warms. Our understanding and ability is in a race with the climate. We need better sensors, algorithms, data, visualizations – and action at the national and international levels. The individual counts, but the scope of the problem is planetary, and requires resources to match.

This week my wife and I wandered through a farmer’s market in the center of our downtown district, where hundreds of people from a couple of dozen countries bought produce straight off the truck. It was as vibrant and noisy as a rock concert, but with newborn babies and elders passing each other underneath the massively humming concrete pillars of the freeway. Organic, natural urban culture: space provided by the city, locally-grown produce, and people congregating for an hour to talk and barter. A living, breathing entity.

We need living breathing cities; creating them takes work. We learn the value of nature when it is  at risk – just as London had to drag itself back from its coal smog, China has the same need today. In the novel Homer and Langley, E.L. Doctorow writes “The more our country lay under blankets of factory smoke, the more the coal came rattling up from the mines, the more our massive locomotives thundered through the night… the more the American people worshipped Nature.” We can worship nature, even as we help guide civilization to leave a smaller footprint – and greener pastures, mountains, and oceans for the next generations.

Progress will come not just from the laboratories, but from slums, alleyways, and shacks, where the 50% of the world’s population who are under 25 years old are reaching out, imagining, and creating our future. Art is joining hands with science and technology. A recent example is the FLOAT project in Beijing, where DIY kites fitted with carbon monoxide sensors light up the night sky, displaying the state of the air, and simultaneously feed information back through citizen science to affect policy. And they do it in China, a country that has been notoriously touchy about its air quality.

In my late teens, on a late summer weekend, my father took me canoeing on the Manistee river in Michigan, where we floated for a few days, meandering and ducking under the low-hanging canopy. We camped on the bank, ate canned food, inhaled the river, and fought the bugs. My father was more a city man, not very adept in the woods, but he taught me in his own way to revere Nature, and at the same time gave me a sense of civic responsibility – the moral responsibility we have as members of a community. Those bucolic streams will only be there for the next generation if we watch out for them, take the vital signs of the planet, and act accordingly.

Little Manistee River, Michigan

The United States was a bucolic nation of small towns when my father was born in 1917. During his lifetime the US industrialized; with the energy from burning coal and oil we crisscrossed the country with roads, created hospitals, companies, universities, systems. Many countries will try to do the same across the globe in the coming decades, especially China and India. By the laws of physics, creating each new road or skyscraper will take an equivalent amount of energy. But the next wave of industry can’t be done simply by burning fossil fuels and throwing carbon dioxide into the air, or the climate will be painful for billions of people. We who have the benefit of a culture built on two hundred years of burning coal and oil owe it to our descendants to help build a global society that will be livable two hundred years hence.

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