My last two columns described the slow accumulation of carbon dioxide in the earth’s lower atmosphere and how significant that is in accelerating global warming.
Since the onset of industrialization roughly 250 years ago, it has been man’s burning of fossil fuels (wood, coal, natural gas, oil) that has released astounding amounts of CO2 into the air. To grasp the magnitude of carbon gases exhausted, just consider all of the automobiles, airplanes, trains, ships, factories, power plants, homes, buildings, towns and cities across the globe — running every day for two centuries — burning fuel and injecting waste gases into the air.
Now that CO2 has reached a level — and still rising — that most climate scientists believe is causing dangerous warming of polar ice formations, Greenland’s ice cap, and other glaciers around the world, there is a growing consensus within the scientific, political, and lay communities that mankind must adopt energy systems, economies, and societies that can dramatically reduce the burning of fossil fuels.
To transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will be incredibly difficult. It is a task so enormous and overwhelming as to be nearly impossible. With relatively rare exceptions, every machine, every engine, every highway, every corporation, every piece of infrastructure, every building, every appliance and every job across the world is designed to rely either directly or indirectly on one fossil fuel or another.
The renewable energy technologies — utilizing fuels that don’t emit CO2 — of wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal and tidal start out at a tremendous disadvantage — they are being introduced into an entire world that is already almost completely organized around, and dependent upon, fossil fuels.
And as if actual, tangible machines and organizations designed to rely on (and support) fossil fuels were not obstacles enough for the assimilation of green technologies, there is a large range of financial structuring, political interests, and attitudinal frameworks that work against the adoption of new types of energy.
In short, almost every conceivable artifact and dynamic and perspective that we think of as “normal” and “conventional” serves — often inadvertently — to resist a transition to sustainable fuels.
Perhaps the biggest advantages that fossil fuels and their waste products have enjoyed are the long-unquestioned guidelines underlying the operations of market economies. So far, for economies to be “healthy,” there has to be ever-increasing growth and ever-increasing consumption. That those fundamental precepts are in direct conflict with the resource and ecological limits of a finite planet with a finite atmosphere has never been accounted for in the design of our economies.
Until we design the market and the prices of goods in it to tell the ecological truth, we’ll do what’s economically “rational” and continue to damage critical ecological cycles and balances. If there is no monetary cost to altering the atmosphere, removing trees, emptying aquifers and melting the glaciers, we’ll continue to enjoy the free lunch.
Furthermore, our outdated market precepts foster a view of the earth as inexhaustible — rather than the spaceship it more closely approximates — and thus inhibit us from adopting a mindset that is truly conservative in the most literal sense of the word.
It is important to understand that global warming has nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans, presidents Bush or Obama, liberals or conservatives, or good or bad people and behavior. During the long march of “progress” and industrialization, humans simply chose the effective, convenient, and copious fuels of wood, coal, gas, and oil to power our machines and cities. We did this mostly in innocence and ignorance. Before 1960, it was the rare scientist or inventor who saw clearly the problems we would face with pollution, resource scarcity, climate change, and the planet’s limits.
Now, if we can see plainly our system’s almost unconscious embrace of fossil fuels, and the myriad advantages that have been designed for them, we may then identify the opportunities to transition away from them.
We could, for example, take all of the subsidies now given to all of the fossil fuels and give them instead to wind, solar and renewable power. We could use our tax policies to create incentives for sustainable energy development, and we could also reward greater use of recycling and the reduction of the use of virgin materials.
Some new taxation ultimately will be required to accomplish an energy transition, but it is important to recognize that much could be done simply with subsidy and tax shifting. However, an outright tax on carbon emissions is necessary because it is CO2 exhaust that is altering the atmosphere. The proposals for carbon credits and cap-and-trade programs may not reduce the absolute quantity of CO2 in the air sufficiently or quickly enough. The idea of carbon sequestration — storing excess carbon in forests or underground voids — is a solution that seems bound to fail at some future point in time.
There are plenty of economists who have been developing ways to work ecological truths into our capitalist market system. It won’t require socialism, freezing in the dark, or giving up our freedoms. It will require all of us — citizens and politicians and the media — to recognize the seriousness of where we are, and the consequences of not bringing our economies into line with the planet’s limits.
Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.