GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS: HOW OPTIMISTIC ARE YOU WHEN IT COMES TO CLIMATE CHANGE?

By Paul M. Lewis

If you’re like me, you oscillate back and forth between depression and a guarded, though still hopeful, optimism when it comes to global climate change.

A lot seems to depend on what I’ve been reading of late. Just last week, for example, there was an article in the Los Angeles Times by Ralph Vartabedian and Evan Halper entitled “High-tech Climate Fixes Get a Boost,” which fed my more paranoid side. The underlying premise was that, while we need to continue doing whatever is possible to cut back on the pollutants that cause the warming of the planet, we also simultaneously have to research high-tech solutions, in the event that all else fails. It’s worth noting this recommendation comes from no less a distinguished an organization than the National Research Council, the government’s main scientific advisory body, made up of some of the brightest and most insightful minds in the country.

The report talks about things that have the tinge of science fiction to them: giant machines that vacuum greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, aerosol sprays spewed into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space, and fertilizers spread about and mixed into the oceans in order to produce plants that eat carbon. To me, not only do these sound like desperate measures, but I am enough of a skeptic regarding the limitations of human intelligence to fear a whole host of unintended consequences that may come with such solutions, things we are perhaps currently not even capable of imagining. If there’s one thing about global systems I feel I do get, it’s that their complexity can verge on the infinite. Even our most sophisticated computers cannot begin to calculate the innumerable, unknowable, potentially damaging outcomes of such massive human intervention.

That said, and as much as I am reluctant to admit it, I also have to concede this kind of planning may make some sense. What these perfectly sensible scientists are not saying is, let’s do this in place of efforts to curtail man-made emissions into the atmosphere. What they are sayings is, let’s have a backup plan at the ready in case. After all, our lack of progress so far in doing what we need to makes it increasingly likely that we may have to deploy such ultimate measures in a last-ditch effort to control the earth’s spiraling temperatures.

On the other, more positive, side of things, a few days after having read the above mentioned article, I received my copy of Solutions, a magazine published by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). I’ve been a member of EDF for many years, and believe it to be one of the premier organizations in the world related to issues of global warming. In other words, I’ve come to trust them. So, I was frankly a little surprised to see that the lead article in this issue was called “A Plan for Climate Stability.” Really? If EDF thinks maybe there’s hope yet, who am I to disagree? In the article, they discuss five recent trends that point to an ambitious plan to cut global emissions by as early as 2020: (1) the joint announcement this past November on the part of China and the United States to limit global warming pollutants; (2) the fact that emissions in the industrialized world have been trending downward in the last decade or so; (3) a clean energy future has actually begun, as seen in the enormous increase in production of solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles etc.; (4) there is action that can be taken against methane (84 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide), as noted in a recent report showing how oil and gas companies can cut methane emissions by 40% with technologies that already exist and which cost mere pennies; and (5) younger voters overwhelmingly support climate action.

These are the good things that are already happening. And as noted in its title, the article goes on to speak of a plan for the future. The first point mentioned in that plan is the need to reduce carbon emissions. Fine, no argument there. Second, limit short-lived pollutants. For the United States, this means cutting back on carbon emitting plants and making sure that billions of dollars will be invested in clean energy systems. China is required by 2020 to cap “half of its emissions at 2015 levels, improve energy efficiency by 25%, and shift its energy mix to one-third renewable energy.” The third point has to do with stopping deforestation. One way to do this is to “reward forest protection in a global carbon marketplace.” Brazil, for example, has reduced its Amazon deforestation rate by an astounding 70% in the past decade. And finally, number four has to do with breaking the political stalemate in the global warming debate, both nationally and internationally.

Unfortunately, this is where my skepticism kicks back in. Clearly, this fourth point is far more easily said than done, given the intransigence of the Republican-controlled congress, as well as the ever increasing desire of people in developing countries to enjoy the good life that those in developed countries have benefited from for so long. And if this weren’t enough, let me add another thing, a point that the report, to my astonishment, says nothing at all about. What I’m referring to is the absolute need to limit out-of-control population growth. How, I wondered, could EDF not have mentioned a thing that so obviously affects the emission of both short-lived and longer-lived pollutants into the air, to say noting of the continued deforestation of the planet? It’s obvious that the more people there are to feed, clothe, house, and to warm in winter and cool in summer, the more stresses there will be placed on all of the earth’s ecosystems.

So, here I am again, back to my old oscillation. Sometimes, when I’m feeling most pessimistic, I think that whatever schemes we come up with to halt the destruction of our global systems are mere palliatives, gossamer, will-o’-the-wisp fantasies that at best delay what we just don’t want to face, or at worst outright hide what is all too inevitable. And yet, the optimist in me won’t give up. As my partner continually tells me (and I can’t argue against him), big business is selfish and greedy enough NOT to want the world to implode. A dead world is, after all, really bad for business.

Is there a way each of us can help? That’s an interesting question. EDF has its recommendations on that, too, with a handy five point plan: (1) make your home as energy efficient as possible; (2) reduce, reuse, recycle; (3) buy a gas efficient vehicle, or walk, bike, or ride public transportation; (4) wash your dishes and your clothes in cold or warm water (not hot); and (5) sign up for EDF action alerts to stay engaged politically at every level, federal, state, and local (www.edf.org/climateupdates). And who can argue with this? All good, there is no doubt.

Of course, the big question remains: Are such efforts good enough? I admit I don’t have the answer to that question, and I suspect no one does at this point. Unfortunately we may not know until we either see the positive effects of our actions, or until it’s too late.

One thing we humans have always had in spades is hope. Or is it more a remarkable ability to turn a blind eye to the worst of the worst? For now, I’m sticking with the Environmental Defense Fund in its optimism. But just in case, I think those scientists had better keep working on that giant vacuum and those aerosol sprays in the sky. Who knows? Maybe, in the end, such measures will be our only hope for survival. And if so, as they say, we’d better be prepared.

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