With Speed and Violence
Hell and High Water
The Citizen Powered Energy Handbook
Everyone knows about global warming. Nearly everyone now accepts it as a fact.
The great majority of those who face this fact agree that it is due to human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases and that action is needed soon to reduce them.
A small handful of “greenhouse skeptics” argues that warming is not that pressing a problem yet, or that it is part of a recurring long-term cycle so it might subside. Much attention has been paid to the skeptics (e.g., a recent Newsweek cover feature), but little or no attention has been given to the other side of the argument: that the fourth report of the IPCC—the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—may be greatly understating the problem.
The IPCC reports every six years in the form of detailed statements by three Working Groups concerned with the physical science basis, impacts and vulnerability, and mitigation (see www.ipcc.ch for summaries of the 2007 reports). This is a consensus of what is firmly known, based on solid evidence.
At the frontiers of climate science, however, there is considerable doubt. As summarized by Fred Pearce of the UK weekly New Scientist, “beyond the cautious certainties of the IPCC reports, there is a swath of conjectures and scary scenarios. … We may know much less than we think. ”
“It's increasingly clear that we cannot wait any longer for our government to solve these problems or wait for some ‘miracle' technological fix. It's time to get active at the local level. We need to build lifeboats—and get ready to use them. Thanks to the criminal negligence of our leaders, it is almost certainly going to devolve on individuals and communities to fend for themselves, especially if the interconnected global economy—which is hopelessly dependent on cheap oil—collapses. The intelligent response is to begin the process of localizing and decentralizing our economy now, while we still have the time and resources to do it.”
Pearce has interviewed many of the world's leading climate scientists. He skillfully draws these conversations together, explaining the unanticipated acceleration of ice melt in Greenland, the threatened west Antarctic ice sheet, the drowning island nations of the South Pacific, the drying trend in the Amazon region, how India's “brown haze” could turn off the monsoon, the burning of tropical peat swamps in Borneo (a disaster of global importance), how CO2 weakens the carbon sink strength of the oceans, the ice-like methane clathrates on the ocean floor (holding 1-10 trillion tons of methane, a potent greenhouse gas which could be released by global warming), the potential of thawing northern peat bogs to release huge amounts of methane, changes in the Earth's “albedo” (reflectivity of the planet's surface), the possibility of a major runaway ozone destruction (despite the perception that this problem has been solved), and much more. And ruinous climate change could happen “with speed and violence,” over a matter of a few decades, rather than over the entire 21st century. James Hansen, a leading US climatologist, warns: “We are on the precipice of climate system tipping points beyond which there is no redemption.”
What might climate catastrophe look like? Joseph Romm, a former assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton years, follows up nicely with his scenario of “hell and high water” in the latter decades of the 21st century—if we do not act in time. Sea-level rise could be 20-80 feet (the IPCC estimates only 1-2 feet), with some 400 million people exposed to higher water by 2100. A vast swath of the United States would see average summer temperatures rise by 9°F, but if thawing tundra released enough methane (a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than CO2), average temperatures over the inland U.S. could be 20°F hotter. Many areas would also experience drought and more wildfires (“hell and no water”). Hurricanes would become stronger, and scientists would add a “category 6” for storms above 175 mph, which may become common.
Over-the-top weather disaster porn? Or our probable future? It is best seen as a plausible worst-case scenario, serving as prelude for Romm's list of “eight remarkable changes” that are needed: a massive efficiency program for buildings, a similarly massive effort to expand use of cogeneration, capturing CO2 from 800 new large coal plants, 1 million large wind turbines (or solar power equivalent), 700 new large nuclear-power plants, every car averaging 60 mpg, every car a hybrid running partly on electricity, and stopping all tropical deforestation while doubling the rate of new tree planting.
Will any of this happen soon enough to forestall disaster? There are rumblings of change in this direction, and some sort of major effort will likely be attempted if the Democrats take over the White House in 2009. But Greg Pahl of the Vermont Biofuels Association operates from a different premise, stating that we can't wait any longer for our government to solve these problems, or for some tech fix: “It's time to get active at the local level.” Individuals and communities must fend for themselves, he says, launching into a dazzling and useful survey of well-and lesser-known local options: passive solar design, active solar for hot water and space heating, photovoltaic systems, off-grid systems, community systems, geothermal, wind power, micro-hydro, masonry heaters or tile stoves, pellet heat, wood-chip heat, cogeneration combining heat and power, cellulosic ethanol, backyard ethanol, and biodiesel (Pahl wrote a 2005 book on biodiesel). An appendix lists some 80 relevant organizations and online resources.
Regardless of whether global warming is fast or slow, modest in impact or severe, it is prudent to encourage the transition to low-cost, safe, and renewable energy sources and greater efforts at conservation. This huge transition is underway on many fronts, albeit slowly.
It is possible, though, that despite heroic and creative improvements at all levels, our response will be inadequate to the global forces we have unleashed. Which is all the more reason to pursue sustainability quickly and cost-effectively at global, national, and local levels. Don't expect easy “solutions to a global crisis,” but, with luck and many efforts, we just might muddle through.