By Phil Carver
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We Are the Climate Catastrophe Deniers
Many climate activists, including myself, have been reluctant to unveil the depth of the climate crisis. There is an excellent article on this at: http://www.grist.org/article/2009-11-10-we-have-met-the-deniers-and-they-are-us/.
We are afraid if we tell people what is needed, they will dismiss us as alarmists and resume eating cheese-burgers in front of the TV.
The most significant learning experience on my 350-mile walk leading up to the October 350.org Portland rally was at the Nehalem-Manzanita Episcopal Church. My basic mission was to generate concern among coastal residents about future sea level rise. To do that, I walked the coastline, from Coos Bay north to Astoria and south to Portland. Along the way, we organized 14 community meetings in churches, businesses and homes. I talked about my fears for the future. I learned a lot about Oregon’s coastal communities and their concerns about global warming.
CO2 and Coastal Communities
The co-minister at the Episcopal Church, Rev. George Hemmingway, is a retired oceanographer from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Instead of me scaring him, he scared me. He is deeply worried about acidification of the oceans from carbonic acid from CO2 emissions. He is not alone.
In the last 200 years the average surface pH of the oceans dropped from 8.179 to 8.104. It is projected to drop to 7.824 by 2100 if emissions are not reduced. A pH of 7.0 is neutral between acidic and basic. This rate of acidification is unprecedented in the geologic record. The current reduction has already affected calcifying organisms.
Along with other ocean scientists, Hemmingway believes acidification may inhibit the ability of the oceans to absorb CO2. The oceans could disgorge huge amounts of CO2. He is concerned we may be near a tipping point that could lead to human extinction.
Currently, oceans absorb 30 to 40 percent of the CO2 emitted by humans. If the oceans become a source instead of a sink for CO2, further ocean acidification and catastrophic levels of CO2 will occur regardless of further human emissions.
This level of risk calls for something like a 50 percent reduction in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, not by 2030 or 2040. That would keep the level of CO2 below 410 parts per million. Further reductions in emissions would lower the level to 350, the level many scientists consider safe. If we wait and discover the oceans are dying, it will be too late. None of the proposed geo-engineering schemes affect ocean acidity.
We need governments to outlaw coal use worldwide, but that alone won’t solve the climate crisis. We also need huge changes in personal behavior.
Coal use is responsible for 42 percent of worldwide CO2 emissions from energy use. The vast majority of coal is used in power plants. Only for this source of CO2 emissions could government rules or laws directly force huge reductions. The U.S. EPA currently has authority to close coal-fired power plants by a date certain.
Massive conservation programs, major additions of renewable and natural gas-fired generation and shutting down most coal plants could achieve a 50 percent reduction in electricity sector emissions by 2020. Shutting down all coal-fired power plants that don’t capture and sequester CO2 could achieve a 90 percent reduction by 2030. Of course, this would have to include the entire world, not just the U.S. But this is unlikely to come out of the international negotiations in Copenhagen this December.
…and Use Less Gasoline
Even eliminating all use of coal would not be enough. Worldwide petroleum use is responsible for 38 percent of CO2 emissions from energy use. The remaining 21 percent is from natural gas use. (Source: U.S. EIA for 2007, percents add to 101 due to rounding). Reductions of these emissions can be encouraged by governments, but not strictly mandated. Gasoline use cannot simply be banned. Only massive price increases could reduce use quickly enough.
Between 2003 and 2008 the average retail price of U.S. gasoline went up 78 percent (in real terms adjusted for general inflation). Yet U.S. gasoline use over this period only declined by 2 percent. (Source: U.S. EIA)
The retail price of gasoline would need to about $10 per gallon to stabilize the climate. While world oil prices may rise this much, we cannot depend on that. We need a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use by 2020 to parallel a massive reduction in the use of coal. This is unlikely in the current political climate.
So what can do we do? People who believe the climate crisis is real have to act accordingly. That means figuring out ways to reduce your own carbon footprint by 50 percent in the next 10 years. That means reducing electricity use, gasoline use, air miles, meat consumption, natural gas use, and the purchases of new stuff by 50 percent by 2020. It means fully insulating your house and saving energy where you work.
It’s Financially Prudent
This should also be financially prudent for individuals and businesses. Consider selling the SUV, pick-up truck or mini-van before gasoline prices rise. With higher gas prices, the resale value of gas-guzzlers will likely fall. Similarly, large houses far from jobs are likely to see further price drops. With existing tax credits and programs, the saving on electricity and natural gas bills can payback many energy-efficiency investments in two years or less.
If we don’t “walk the talk” on huge reductions in emissions, our talk will fall on deaf ears. If 10 percent of Americans dump energy hog vehicles, homes and lifestyles, it will have a significant effect on resale prices of vehicles and homes. It will also help slow the growth of consumption and make it easier to live in a slowing economy. Solving the climate crisis depends on action now by the 10 percent who believe the climate is truly in crisis. This is about 30 million Americans.
Even if you have never written a letter to your U.S. representative or senator, now is a critical time to do so. Please tell them what you plan to do to reduce your own emissions and demand a strong international agreement in Copenhagen. Over the next year, you should plan to devote a significant amount of time and money to help remove U.S. representatives and senators who stand in the way of necessary change. This is necessary to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change.
The moral imperative of the precautionary principle demands both personal and political action now. If these do not bear fruit by mid-2011, the core 10 percent of Americans will have to evaluate nonviolent civil disobedience, particularly against coal-fired power plants and coal mining. If we do not sharply reduce emissions by 2013 or 2014, it may be too late. Φ
Phil Carver worked on energy and climate change issues for Oregon’s state government from 1980 until this year. He is a former OPW Board Co-Chair who writes this column exclusively for each issue of The PeaceWorker. He, Carol Reece, a current board member, and Courtney Collins organized a 350 mile walk to focus attention on sea level rise from climate change. See www.350.org.