A few days ago, I attended a small meeting in Pleasant Ridge. A few people there are sufficiently concerned about global warming to gather and discuss what can and should be done about it. I had a few points to make at the meeting. Here, I’ve tried to present them more coherently than than I did on the first pass.

Our society has a 300-year history (at least) of burning fossil fuels. In 1712, the Newcomen engine was invented. It soon became the standard way to pump water out of coal mines. 250 years ago, in 1763, James Watt was asked if he could repair a Newcomen engine. He greatly improved on the design, making it several times more efficient; and the changing world changed even faster. Steam power, produced by burning coal, was the original basis for the industrial revolution.

Large-scale use of oil and natural gas was a later development. The new fuels did not displace coal. They added internal combustion engines to the external combustion of steam power. They added to our energy consumption.

The way we use fossil fuels is by burning them, to produce heat or mechanical motion. Burning them produces carbon dioxide, which goes into the atmosphere. Coal produces more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than oil or natural gas. Oil and natural gas emit similar amounts of carbon dioxide per unit of energy. Natural gas emits roughly 96% as much CO2 as petroleum.

Biofuels, incidentally, produce more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than oil or natural gas, though typically less than coal. Some new industrial waste products (such as the petroleum coke resulting from the “coking” operations which squeeze more liquid fuel out of bitumen from tar sands) produce more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than does coal.

Whatever the source, excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the main cause of global warming, which is also known as climate change, climate chaos or the enhanced greenhouse effect. Excess carbon dioxide is also the cause of acidification of the oceans, which may be more drastically and immediately harmful to our food chain than rising atmospheric temperatures.

The fact is, there is a great deal of inertia to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Once a molecule of carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere, it takes on average a century for it to be removed. That means, from the plume of carbon dioxide emitted during the first and last voyage of the Titanic in 1912, about half of those molecules are still in the atmosphere. A century from now, a quarter of the molecules emitted by the Titanic will STILL be in the atmosphere trapping radiation, along with half the carbon dioxide emitted to generate your electricity today, and so on.

There’s also a great deal of human inertia to using fossil fuels. Over the last several centuries, a whole interlocking set of industries that produce and use fossil fuels has been built up. Most of our food is grown on industrial farms that use tractors, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides powered by or derived from fossil fuels. The entire infrastructure of roads, rails, docks and runways has been created for the use of fossil-fuel powered transportation. Without fossil fuels, at home most of us would be shivering in the dark.

Clearly, the straightforward way to stop global warming, insofar as that is possible, would be to stop burning carbon-based fuels for energy. The principle is sometimes expressed as, “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”

Just as clearly, the end of carbon-based fuels is not going to happen suddenly, and it’s not even going to happen anytime soon. The best that might actually be done is is to set the entire global economy on a course to burn less and less carbon every year, while developing energy sources that do not emit carbon dioxide.

It will be necessary to rework or completely rebuild almost our entire infrastructure. That can’t be done quickly, easily or cheaply. And yet, that’s what it will take to actually stop global warming and ocean acidification. Even when carbon dioxide emissions reach a sustainable low level, it will take more centuries before the climate conditions that were considered normal during the 20th Century are restored.

It has taken our society centuries, and a thorough-going disruption of the cultures prevalent before the industrial revolution, to create man-made global warming, and to understand it. It should be no surprise that it will take centuries, and an equal disruption of the industrial economy, to end it.

Just to make things a little more complicated, we had better remember that excess carbon dioxide emissions, with all their consequences for climate and the oceans are not the only major problem we have created for ourselves. Nuclear energy, in the forms of nuclear war, nuclear power station meltdowns and and the near-impossibility of safe storage for spent fuel rods, makes up a different and more more abrupt threat of extinction.

It’s tempting for an individual consumed with anxiety about global warming to want to believe that nuclear power is the solution. It’s tempting, for an individual whose anxieties are focused on nuclear threats, to think that global warming is relatively unimportant. Both beliefs are wrong, because both carbon emissions and nuclear contamination are difficult problems. Neither one has easy solutions and possibly, neither one has any good solutions.

It’s pretty obvious that neither emissions nor radioactivity are anywhere close to top priorities for Democrats or for Republicans. Both these parties have “economic growth” as their top priority, though they do differ about how best to accomplish economic growth. With this priority, only marginal gestures toward climate change and radioactive safety are allowed.

While it’s clear that a big change in direction is required at the political level, the Transition Towns approach is applicable here and now. Here’s an excellent summary from a recent article (http://www.stuff.co.nz/nelson-mail/features/lifestyle/going-green/8685670/Making-choices-early-gives-room-to-move-in-the-future):

From the outset, Transition Towns has based its efforts on four assumptions:

That life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable and that it’s better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise.

That our communities presently lack the resilience to weather the severe energy shocks that will accompany peak oil.

That we have to act collectively and we have to act now.

And that by unleashing the genius of those around us to design our energy descent, we can build ways of living that are more connected, more enriching and that recognize the biological limits of our planet.

[end summary]

Stopping global warming, reversing it and repairing some of the damage, is the work of generations. It will take a durable movement to do it, if it can be done. There is no simple answer; there are many complicated ones instead, and we likely have not asked all the right questions yet. There’s no one organization and no one approach that will work.

There’s still no excuse not to get started, because not getting started is the only guarantee of failure. The good news is, a lot is already started: bike lanes, community gardens, backyard chickens, time bank, solar panels, home energy audits, public transportation, local brews, and so on. Transition Ferndale did not start these projects, but we support them all. We need more participation in all of these, and more ideas.

We’ll be having our regular monthly meeting on Wednesday, June 19, 7:00 pm at the Ferndale Library. The subject for a presentation is not yet set, but the discussion after is open. We are always happy to discuss climate change, peak oil and a failing global economy. On this website, too, if people use the “comment” feature.

Art Myatt

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