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The denial of climate research and science in general is, I am afraid, only a small part of the problem.

Right now, I sit in an electrified, gas heated building, typing on a fossil fuel powered computer, with my gasoline powered car in the driveway, enjoying an healthy protein-rich diet, which was grown, harvested, transported, delivered, and cold stored with carbon fueled machines.  I wonder how many of us would be willing or even able in a practical sense to give up the civilized comforts we are accustomed to?  

About a third of us seven billion humans enjoy this same rich material life; about a third are working hard to have it too; and the final third are wishing it was theirs as they scratch the last topsoil from their depleted subsistence. It is a human world DENSE with energy; energy we generally do not see.  The flame in our furnaces is inside a steel cabinet.  We do not see the thousands of explosions that happen every minute inside our automobile engines, or the billions of watts flowing down the power-lines that supply our largest cities and our smallest towns.  The largest portion of the energy used to supply our food is from carbon fuels, with sunlight and natural nutrients only a fraction of the energy equation that feeds us.

Now we are finding out that we have been foolish to believe that human culture and technology could forever transcend the basic physical laws that govern all natural processes.  There is no divine retribution in this.  There is no earth mother that will notice our earnest attempts to lead better lives by eating local, riding our bikes, and loving the planet.  I do these things and I am sure many of you reading this do as well.  The trouble is, the natural world and its energy flows do not care; they have no feelings or thoughts of rightness.  They follow an evolutionary path according to the laws of chemistry and thermodynamics.

This is a hard reality, apparently beyond human cultural understanding.  It's tough to realize that there is no warm and embracing, special place for us humans in the universe.  We've had our chance at building a human world that is in harmony with these realities, and after five short millennia (in evolutionary time: an eye-blink) it's looking like a sad end for us humans.  We are failing.  As a species, and certainly as an experiment in cultural evolution we may soon be extinct.  

There is perhaps a decade or two left to completely and radically change how we live, to drastically reduce our population, to immediately stop burning fossil fuels, to reverse the growing avalanche of environmental catastrophes by removing billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere.  But, do we really expect any of those things to happen?  I feel like a man crying wolf when there really IS a wolf, and knowing that my own human stink is on the wind.  I think perhaps that the best I will be able to do is tell the story and apologize to my grandchildren.

Fact: Atmospheric CO2 has increased by 50% since the beginning of the industrial revolution.  Historical levels have been measured by examining the trapped gas in ice cores from glacial ice laid down over thousands of years.  Scientists have even collected 125 year old copper toilet floats to examine the air sealed inside during their manufacture in the late 19th century. These measurements have been debated and verified by multiple teams from universities all over the world.  The base line for present levels has been measured carefully at Mauna Loa and other mountain observatories far away from cities and other influences.

Fact: There is a strong correlation between the amount of additional carbon in the air and the amount produced by combustion of carbon fuels, deforestation, agriculture, and other HUMAN activities over the relevant time period.  There is no known, or even hypothesized natural process to account for this additional carbon.  These calculations have stood the test of strong criticism and peer review for the last several decades.

Fact: CO2 and methane produced by oil and gas wells and human agricultural activities are "greenhouse gases"  that trap solar energy in the lower atmosphere.  This mechanism has been well understood since the 19th century.

Fact: Average global temperatures have increased by about 2 deg F over the last twenty years.  These extensively peer-reviewed measurements have been carefully analyzed to remove the influence of special  local conditions, such as readings from urban heat sinks.  Two degrees may not sound like much, but think of your body running a two degree fever.  The difference between the recent past and an ice-age or the age of the dinosaurs  is only plus or minus 10 deg F.  The present trend is serious.

Fact: The glaciers are melting, the polar ice is shrinking, the seas are acidifying, sea levels are rising, etc..  All of these events are predicted by the above described data and climate models. This is one of the strongest tests of any science:  Do the real events as they actually occur fit the model?

The Evidence:

280 ppm: Preindustrial atmospheric CO2 level

300 ppm: The level in1950's

350 ppm: The generally accepted by scientists,  reasonably stable climate level (1990)

390+ ppm (& rising fast): Today's reading

Current total annual carbon emissions are SIX TIMES what they were in 1950.  Add to the above numbers huge quantities of methane and chlorinated-hydrocarbons and there is a great deal of carefully collected, peer-reviewed EVIDENCE that dramatic and fast unfolding climate change is happening NOW.

Conclusion:  There are those who say that the above research doesn't explain the increase in greenhouse gasses and the subsequent measured rise in worldwide average temperatures. However unless they can provide an alternate explanation along with supporting data, the claim that climate scientists haven't proved their case is an empty one.

We could assert for example that the law of gravity isn't proved, because there are still questions about how gravity fits in with our general field theory of matter and energy in the universe.  This is in fact one of the big questions that physicists wrestle with, but I'm also 100% confident that if I were to drop a rock on your foot you would feel the pain.

The other day I heard an oil man say confidently that only 50% of potential oil reserves had been used to date, as if that meant we could go on happily, without a care for another 100 years of gassing up.  Trouble is our rate of consumption is DOUBLING every 15 years and is already putting pressure on the supply.  It doesn't take a genius to figure out that this doesn't look good.  We are going to shortly face a PERMANENT energy crisis, along with as much CO2 added to the atmosphere in the next couple of decades as was added since the beginnings of  the industrial revolution.

Total World Energy Consumption:

A watt is the moment by moment measure of the energy flow.

A watt-hour is the measurement of TOTAL energy over time.

"Tw" (Terra-watt)  is 1 Trillion watts.  

15 Tw:  This is the amount the human race is using at the average moment.  This is for all energy (electricity, transportation, heating, cooling,  etc. converted to watts (which we usually use for electricity) for convenience of discussion.  No matter what the unit of measurement, whether it be watts, Joules, BTU's, calories, etc., energy is always equivalent and convertible from one measurement unit to another.

Total annual world energy consumption:

132,000,000,000,000,000 Watt Hours

132,000 Twh (Terra-watt hours).  

We average 15 Tw total consumption, 24 hours/day, 365 days/year.

15 x 24 x 365 = 131,400

I put it up with all the zeros for dramatic effect.   Converted to oil or coal, the measurements are in billions of tons.  In short these are HUGE numbers.

Unfortunately, the average person finds it hard to conceive what this means relative to the capacity of natural systems to deliver these amounts of energy to an ever-growing population, more hungry every day for the goods and services of our "advanced" civilization.  Visualize 200 billion light-bulbs, 25 bulbs for every human on the planet, burning 24 hours/day. Solar, wind, nuclear, energy from space fantasies, and other magical thinking will make NO difference in the magnitude of the problem we face.  Assuming the best possible outcomes for those technologies, we still WILL burn the oil and coal and natural gas until we either run dry, OR climate catastrophe completes the mass-extinction event that by all indications has already begun.

The Problem:

The we are totally f****d if we don't do something fast problem.

Even if we convert all our energy consumption to the most efficient, least polluting system possible, the earth's ecology will be able to support only about 1/4 of today's population on a sustainable basis.  Today's 8+ billion is only possible because of the huge input of energy from fossil fuels, which is as we are finding out destroying the planet.  Today we are living in a short-term fools' paradise.

A new balance will be found.  The only question is: Will we do it peacefully and sensibly?  Or will "mother nature" do it brutally to us? Sad to say, the truth is brutal. It's rapidly becoming too late for well meaning, politically sliced and diced efforts to reverse the coming global climate catastrophe.  To save ourselves would require a massive, world-wide commitment to a radically different way of living, and a dramatic reduction in human population.  I see no chance we will do this sensibly, but rather expect continued magical thinking, and then a nightmare of famine and war as we face a ravaged environment no longer able to feed us.

These are hard realities to face for humanity.  The answers one hears when the facts are presented follow a predictable pattern:

"Yes we must do something at some distant point in the future, but right now it just too scary to think about and we mustn't forget profits, and jobs, and the price of gas, and maybe all we have to do is eat organic grains, and insulate our houses a bit better, and everything will work out, because after all it's part of God's plan, etc., ad-nauseum........ "  

The terrifying truth is, solar cells and windmills aside, each and every one of us is responsible for tens of tons of carbon pumped into the atmosphere every year. Assuming that all of the hopeful solutions discussed here were to come to pass BILLIONS of tons will still have been burned in the meanwhile.  The polar ice-caps ARE melting.  Ocean circulation patterns ARE changing.  The oceans ARE acidifying.  Countless species ARE going extinct.  Droughts ARE spreading.  Crops ARE failing.  Millions ARE starving.  Tornadoes and hurricanes ARE increasing.  ETC., ETC........

I have come to believe that human culture, now and numerous times in our history,  has proved incapable of adapting to ecological change.  The question is not: What can we do to fix it?; but rather: How bad is it going to get?   I would love to have anyone reading this challenge my rather grim report.  Bill McKibben and many others continue to raise the alarm.  Population numbers could stabilize; there could be political and engineering miracles; we could choose to NOT burn all that cheap and convenient fossil fuel.


Originally posted to boatwright on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 05:30 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.


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