Whatever is behind climate change, concern over it may do a lot of good. The furor over climate change has been interesting to follow. The two sides, proponents and deniers, have battled hard and dug deep for science to support their cases. In terms of popular support, it seems the proponents have been coming out ahead, and the deniers have been dragged down by unsupported assertions, bad science, emotional rhetoric, and the revelation that some of the most prominent have been paid by the oil industry. That’s not to say that the proponents haven’t had their own problems with questionable science and extremist speech and action, too. Whether we really have a serious problem with global warming or not, however, may be less important than the actions the issue is motivating in policy change, cultural understanding, and individual choices.
Some of the simplest science has been some of the most frightening. I was most affected, not by anything anyone has said, nor by any charts or data, but by the simple photos of the icecaps and glaciers (link). People can argue all they want about how much water vapor contributes to global heat retention versus CO2, or what the trends and cycles in solar activity have been, but seeing a series of satellite photos showing the huge reduction in ice at the poles and the recession of major glaciers on every continent scared me (link).
Many of our biggest problems involve or revolve around energy. It is already clear, to me at least, that it will be quite impossible for everyone in the world to live like we do in the U.S. We are using 16 times the world average energy per capita per year (link), and generating nearly a third of the world’s pollution (or so I read somewhere). The production and provision of food, as well as our work and the comfort of our homes, are largely based on the burning of fossil fuels. Those fuels have varying projected times to exhaustion, but even the most plentiful, coal, is predicted to last perhaps 100 years at the current burn rate, and that rate is increasing rapidly. World energy use is expected to increase 50% by 2030. Given what I know now, I expect fossil fuels will be so expensive within a few decades that their use will become increasingly economically infeasible for any but a few critical applications. Sooner or later, whatever alternative energy sources we have been able to develop will predominate, and our standard of living will have changed radically whether we like it or not.
The fossil fuel burn rate, along with population changes and movements, will define how rapid and difficult our adjustments will need to be. As we have seen with the recent incredibly fast rise in oil prices, and the impact this has had on prices of nearly everything else and on our lives, fossil fuel prices have pervasive effects. As supplies become inevitably more scarce prices will rise, and rise, and rise again, and logic says fossil fuels will eventually be uneconomical for many of what are now common uses. New technology will increase the rate of fossil fuel production, but that will only mask the problem and make the inevitable change more severe. Media reports many could call “scare tactics” will actually mitigate this problem depending on how much they change our behavior.
Some of the adjustments I expect to have to make represent a decrease in quality of life. I expect considerably less leisure time, for instance. I have daydreamed about pedaling a bicycle generator in the winter to power the exhaust blower on my high efficiency water heater, and the forced air blower on the furnace, to try to keep my house warm in the cold Great Lakes winters. I will probably be more fit – bicycling is a great source of low impact exercise – but a _lot_ of pedaling will be required. I can also envision closing off significant areas of my house and living in a small part of it in the hottest and coldest months in order to afford the energy involved. On top of that, I expect to be wearing heavy clothes and keeping the temperature inside at levels I would now find uncomfortable. Hopefully I will have a photovoltaic roof and siding on my house, and possibly a small windmill, to generate electricity. The longer time I have to adjust with better insulation in my house and more efficient energy systems, the better off and happier I expect I will be.
While the global warming controversy roars on annoyingly, it is at least having the affect of making people think more about the future, plan farther ahead, and take action to reduce their energy use. If all the flap about global warming results in people changing their behavior to better conserve energy, legislators taking action to fund new energy-providing technologies, and an increasing consciousness around global population and energy-related issues, then I have to feel it has accomplished something major and positive. Whether man can be identified as the cause of global climate change or not is almost immaterial at this point. If we can stabilize the climate by any of our actions, or improve our prospects for prolonging energy supplies and maintaining the quality of life we have now, anywhere in the world, then we should do it, in my humble opinion. While the global warming issue continues to be debated, I believe the net effect of the debate is positive.
As always, I welcome your comments.
“This Bill is Going Down in Flames“, June 4, 2008, Anthony Watts, WattsUpWithThat blog
“Technology and Petroleum Exhaustion: Evidence from Two Mega-Oilfields“, 2006, www.sciencedirect.com/, Elsevier Ltd.
“Energy Use in the United States“, 2008, www.wikipedia.org
“World Energy Resources and Consumption“, 2008, www.wikipedia.org
“International Total Primary Energy Consumption and Energy Intensity“, U.S. Government Energy Information administration
“Scientists Compare U.S., China Pollution“, Sept. 6, 2007, USA Today