Per Capita Davis: What does ‘urgent’ look like?
Warnings about potential adverse effects of what was heretofore known as “climate change” began long ago, but even if we stick a pin in the year 1990 (see below), there was always the semi-comforting tagline to news reports to the effect of, “if we act now we can avoid those adverse effects.” Symbolically, we were all called on to change our light bulbs and consider others of the “25 Simple Things You Can Do To Save the Planet.”
On a national or international level, there were expressions of concern, but the most salient actions seemed to be conferences, seminars, research papers, and putting pledges and agreement on paper.
Over time, the little voice accompanying the predictions of severe consequences of inaction added the obvious: the longer the world waited to directly address climate change, the more draconian and disruptive the actions to avoid the predicted mess would be.
At some point, scientists, climate activists and policymakers began speaking more about adaptation and resilience than mitigation, figuring that the cat is out of the bag, or, more accurately, CO2 in the atmosphere has exceeded what mitigation alone can deal with.
Most recently, the experts have added, “carbon capture” to our policy vocabulary. It’s not that this term hadn’t existed before, but its common currency now in serious discussions about what is now referred to as the “climate crisis” signals an acceptance that we have passed the point where we can rely on reducing CO2 emissions to avoid the worst adverse effects of the climate crisis.
It’s important to note that “carbon capture” is going to take more than a butterfly net. Although there are several efforts underway there is nothing yet in existence that can scale to the level needed to capture enough carbon to make a difference.
Recall the bathtub analogy meant to graphically illustrate our climate predicament, with water coming in faster than it is able to drain. More pointedly, we are in a lifeboat with water coming in faster than we are currently able to bail.
Recall also that scientists have generally referred to 350 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere as the benchmark for a healthy planet. We passed that in 1990 and, depending on what time of year the concentration is measured, we are now at about 420 ppm with an annualized rate of over 410, higher than any time in the past nearly half a million years, a time span that includes both ice ages and warmer interglacial periods.
I haven’t noticed anyone pointing to what we once described as “tipping points” for irreversible temperature increase or melting in the arctic. I think the consensus is that there’s not a single point, a number, which if we pass we are in deep yogurt. Rather, we are on a slope that is getting progressively steeper.
Don’t get me wrong. We cannot let go of efforts to mitigate, to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Just the opposite. There will be no vaccine for the climate crisis; we need to support efforts to capture carbon, but we must also double down on reducing fossil-fuel use.
The question on my mind today is what degree of urgency is required for the latter? And how difficult will our task be? What changes will we be asked, or told, to make in our lives? What does urgency look like? We are certainly not talking about changing light bulbs.
Back on Oct. 30, the New York Times published a full two pages of graphs, one for each state, illustrating how each state makes electricity. Basically, in summing all the graphs, as a country our electricity in 2019 was primarily produced by burning natural gas (38 percent) and coal (23 percent). Nuclear, not a fossil fuel but with problems (and, to be fair, potential) of its own, comes in third with 19 percent. So fossil fuels are responsible for over 60 percent of electricity production.
Looking at the graphs of each state, some, such as Indiana, are nearly 100 percent for coal and natural gas. And this is not just for the U.S. A similar set of graphs for the rest of the world put an exclamation mark on the point: There is substantial infrastructure, investment and momentum for fossil fuels. Changing that, on a state-by-state or country-by-country basis is not just a policy question, it’s also political, and many states and countries have reasons of their own to go slow if at all.
Add to this that electric or other non-fossil fuel vehicles are about 1 percent of the global car stock and it makes switching to renewables a daunting task at best, with very severe actions necessary to achieve CO2 reduction goals by 2030.
Costs to governments and the people whose taxes fund those governments, along with the economic and human dislocations, and making this happen in a fair and equitable way, and doing this all with urgency will require global coordination of massive and wrenching changes to the world as we know it.
The big question now is what does a lack of urgency look like?
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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