The Staggering Challenge of Repairing Climate Change

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Nothing gets the American public to pay attention to climate change quite like the flooding of America's most famous city.

In the past week, almost 50,000 news articles have been published linking Hurricane Sandy to a changing climate. That's more than a third the number of climate change articles published in the 12 months prior to Sandy's upgrade to hurricane status. Thousands of those pre-Sandy pieces are little more than petulant environmentalists stumping for featured status at the presidential debates.

The candidates chose not to discuss the subject and, a week after the final debate, a hurricane slammed into New Jersey. In some circles, that's called a sign. In a month, it'll be a piece of trivia for most of the population that wasn't directly affected. Don't believe me? What happened to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet after Hurricane Irene thrashed the East Coast last year? What happened after Ike? What happened after Katrina?

Better by inches
One thing that has changed: There's more solar power. In 2005, the United States used enough solar energy to replace the energy contained in 10 million barrels of oil. Six years later, solar's contribution to U.S. energy consumption amounted to about 26-million barrels of oil -- which is the amount of oil that the U.S. currently uses in the span of 33 hours.

There's also a move toward tighter fuel economy standards for American vehicles, which will have to average 55 miles per gallon by 2025. That's much more stringent than the current regulations mandating 29 miles per gallon. Of course, by the time U.S. automakers adopt these new, tighter standards, China will be adding more than twice as many cars to its roads each year as the U.S., and India will be right on our tails, too.

This doesn't sound reassuring at all, does it? Every time we take a step forward, there's something chasing us two steps back. But let's say these changes really take off. Let's say we plaster the deserts with solar panels and use the energy to power new fleets of efficient, emissions-free, electric vehicles. Let's say that we convert enough of the planet to green energy by the end of this century to close off the gushing global fire hose of carbon dioxide permanently.

Well, it won't make a difference. It's already too late.

A distant danger
The current climate-science consensus places a safe maximum for atmospheric CO2 levels around 350 parts per million. We crossed that threshold in 1988, and have only risen farther from it ever since. At this point, the only way to push those levels down is to rally the whole world to immediately adopt clean energy at a time when a fifth of the world doesn't even have access to regular old carbon-burning energy. There's more chance of an alien invasion in the next 10 years than global clean-energy coordination -- although the former might help with the latter, if we manage to fend off the aliens first.

Under a moderate scenario outlined by Curt Stager in his long, long, long-term perspective on climate change in Deep Future, a mid-century CO2 production peak tapers off to a completely emissions-free world some decades after 2100, but atmospheric CO2 will rise to about 600 parts per million before we give up fossil fuels for good. A global peak temperature between three and seven degrees Fahrenheit (two to four degrees Centigrade) higher arrives a century afterward, bringing with it an eventual sea-level rise of as much as 23 feet several centuries later. Wall Street won't just be flooded then; it will be underwater -- as will much of New York City. This is just the moderate scenario. An extreme CO2 scenario more than doubles the warming trend. Still, this devastation seems so incredibly far away: Sager's predictions don't max out for nearly 300 years. By that point, we'll all be long gone.

Unless you live in the Maldives or Micronesia, climate change tends to be something that happens in the abstract. That hurricane might have been caused by climate change, and the droughts might seem worse than normal, but can you really prove it? Sure, the sea level might be higher, and the oceans might be a bit warmer, but doesn't the planet go through natural temperature oscillations?

We don't have to look at nebulous projections of the far future to see the effects of a runaway climate on human society. Natural disasters, including Hurricane Sandy, have caused an estimated $900 billion in damages to the United States since 1996. These damage tallies may significantly understate the true cost to the country. For example, this year's withering Midwestern drought is likely to cause at least $12 billion in direct losses. Its drag on the rest of the country, however, was blamed for the loss of 0.2% in GDP growth in the second quarter, which amounts to about $31 billion in missed economic potential.

No matter what the underlying cause, the result is the same for one simple reason: More people are cramming more human activity into the same fragile ecosystems. The agriculture needed to sustain more than 7 billion people consumes 70% of all fresh water used each year. This year, that'll be about 2.5 trillion gallons of water every single day. Coastal areas, more prone to sea-level rises and hurricane damage, are home to a quarter of the world's people.

It doesn't look good, does it?

Here's the part where I'm supposed to say, "Don't worry -- it'll get better."

Don't worry -- it'll get better.

In the dark ages, a plague killed so many people that it must have seemed to be the end of the world. The world survived. In the closing days of the 18th century, Thomas Malthus foresaw saw a population explosion dragging mankind back to the dark ages. When the Industrial Revolution took hold and proved Malthus wrong, Samuel Butler and the Luddites worried that machines would make a human workforce obsolete. The seemingly unstoppable dominance of colonial powers gave way to the apocalyptic fear of nuclear winter. The horse gave way to the locomotive and the automobile. The vacuum tube gave way to the transistor. And on and on.

I'm not going to say that we have the answers, but I remain hopeful that we will find them in time.

The greatest feature of human society, millennium after millennium, is its remarkable inventiveness and adaptability. If we don't have the answers to climate change yet, it's not because there are no answers, or that it's too late to reverse course. We just need to find those answers. Maybe we need to commit ourselves, as a nation, to do more than just talk about it. Maybe somewhere out there -- perhaps in a lab, right now, approaching eureka -- is the person who will soon have the answers we've been looking for.

If it's you, why are you wasting your time reading this? The world needs you! Get back to work!

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Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (0)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 02, 2012, at 9:03 PM, NickD wrote:

    This is a lie cancer has been cured the elections are rigged its all just money we live in a rigged world I'm sorry.

  • Report this Comment On November 02, 2012, at 11:16 PM, jfrankh57 wrote:

    Ehhh, excuse me...where did this drivel come from. Yes, climate is changing...we have records, fossil records, that show climate to be cyclic in nature. 10000 years ago North America was under a deep sheet of ice. Several Million years ago, the world was much warmer than even today. Are we adding to the change? Are we accelerating it? Maybe, but we all know that change is inevitable! Quit trying to toe Al Gore's lines. Just give us facts and stick to investment stories!

  • Report this Comment On November 06, 2012, at 9:49 AM, mememine69 wrote:

    Since lazy copy and paste news editors have the same access to the facts as the reader do, let's have a look at reality:

    Climate Change Science was a War Crime:

    The big green fear machine’s “pessimism and panic” approach to planetary stewardship had condemned billions to the greenhouse gas ovens for 26 years of needless CO2 death threats to our children. And not once had the IPCC ever said it “will” happen despite their claims of being at the brink…………maybe. Not one IPCC warning isn’t peppered with maybe and could be and might be…………….. Science needs to be clear in it being a crisis or not. You can’t have a little climate crisis and real planet lovers welcome the good news of scientific exaggeration. Get up to date because this is costing Dems the White House now. Threatening the voter’s kids isn’t working anymore.

    Help my house could be on fire maybe for sure? Meanwhile, the entire world of SCIENCE, lazy copy and paste news editors and obedient journalists, had condemned our kids to the greenhouse gas ovens of an exaggerated "crisis" and had allowed bank-funded and corporate-run “CARBON TRADING STOCK MARKETS” to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over 26 years of insane attempts at climate CONTROL.

    *In all of the debates Obama hadn’t planned to mention climate change once.

    *Obama has not mentioned the crisis in the last two State of the Unions addresses.

    *Occupywallstreet does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded carbon trading stock markets run by corporations.

    *Julian Assange is of course a climate change denier.

    *Canada killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit).

    So how does melting prove that after millions of years my SUV's life giving CO2 is now causing it instead of the mighty powers of the cosmos?

  • Report this Comment On November 06, 2012, at 5:42 PM, dennisearlbaker wrote:

    In my opinion

    We need to replace the fossil fuel power plants, the primary source of GHG. Now!

    At a scale required to accomplish this task :

    Ethanol starves people : not a viable option.

    Fracking releases methane : not a viable option.

    Cellulose Bio Fuel Uses Food Land : not a viable option

    Solar uses food land : Not a viable option

    Wind is Intermittent : Not a viable option

    All Human and Agricultural Organic Waste can be converted to hydrogen, through exposure intense radiation!

    The Radioactive Materials exist now, and the Organic waste is renewable daily.

    Ending the practice of dumping sewage into our water sources.

    Air, Water, Food and Energy issues, receive significant positive impacts .

    Reducing illness / health care costs as well !

    Dennis Baker

    Penticton BC V2A1P9

    cell phone 250-462-3796

    Phone / Fax 778-476-2633

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