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President Obama’s initiative to cut US CO2 emissions is “ground-breaking”, “aggressive”, and given the gravity of the crisis we are facing, critically inadequate.
Each of us must grasp the fact that we humans are building a time bomb, unprecedented in lethality, that may kill more people than all of history’s wars and terrorism and disasters combined. We’ve been building this bomb since the start of the industrial revolution, exponentially dumping more and more CO2 into the atmosphere nearly every year for over 200 years, and in 2014, we added a record 39.8 billion metric tons of CO2.
The resulting climate changes are escalating and will stay with us for centuries. Imagine massive summer heat waves across the US, exceeding 115 degrees F for months at a time, with many thousands of deaths. Imagine crop failures from Florida to California, with 80% losses across the board. Imagine grocery stores empty of beef and poultry because farmers can’t keep their livestock alive. Imagine rivers and oceans nearly void of fish. Imagine global record heat waves, crop failures, food shortages, hundreds of millions of human deaths, and hundreds of millions of refugees. Imagine the inevitable wars as nations try to slow the crush of refugees and protect resources. Now imagine this beginning in the next few decades and continuing for centuries or longer.
You can’t imagine this? “Ridiculous,” you say?
Before the start of the industrial revolution, atmospheric CO2 levels remained around 275 parts per million (ppm), for roughly ten thousand years. Earth’s climate was safe for humans throughout that period. In fact, over the past 800,000 years, atmospheric CO2 levels have never exceeded 300 ppm. In only the last 200 years, CO2 has soared from 275 ppm to 404 ppm as of April of this year. The consequences have been severe and are escalating each year:
In 2003, the record European heat wave killed 70,000 people and devastated crops across Europe. Many countries saw their worst harvests since the end of World War II. Ukraine’s wheat harvest fell by 75%. Moldova’s harvest fell by 80%.
The record 2006 heat wave in the US and Canada killed at least 225 people. In California, the heat killed 25,000 cattle and 700,000 fowl, both records.
2010 again saw new heat records around the world. In Europe, the heat wave engulfed over 1.2 million square miles and burned several hundred thousand acres. In Russia, the heat killed over 14,000 people, burned a stunning 2.5 million acres, and caused crop failures of 25%.
In 2010, record monsoons created widespread flooding in in Pakistan, making 11 million homeless and wiping out several hundred thousand acres of farmland and crops. At least 1.2 million livestock were lost. Soon after, continued flooding in Pakistan in 2011 and 2012 made 10 million people homeless.
2012 was again the hottest year in history for the contiguous United States, killing 4,000 cattle in Iowa, 500 in Minnesota, and 1,500 in South Dakota. The USDA declared more than half the continental US to be a disaster area. US farmers sustained a record $17.3 billion in crop losses. Farmers in many nations including the US are reducing their animal herds because they can’t keep their livestock alive.
2014 was the hottest year on Earth ever recorded. The ten hottest years recorded have all occurred within the last 16 years, from 1998 to 2014.
This year, the first three months of 2015 have each already set new global high-temperature records. From January to June, the average land surface temperature was 2.52° above the 20th century average. The first six months of this year was the hottest six-month period ever recorded on Earth.
This year, record heat has again stretched across the US, Canada, Europe, Asia, and the Arctic. In June, temperatures in Karachi, Pakistan hit 112.6 degrees F and killed 1,150 people. The heat killed 2,500 in India, where temperatures reached a record 117 degrees F.
This year in the US, with drought and extreme temperatures, farmers cannot afford to keep their livestock alive. US cattle herd sizes are at a 63-year low. Overall beef supplies in the US are down by 20% over the preceding 12 years.
This year, California is breaking that state’s 2014 record drought, again. Total agricultural losses are expected to exceed a record of $2.7 billion. In July, Idaho declared a state of emergency as drought has killed a record 40% of the wheat crop. Washington and Oregon each expect record crop losses of $1.2 billion. Mountain snow packs in the three West Coast states are at less than 11% of their normal capacity, threatening severe water shortages. The entire US West Coast has declared a drought emergency.
The future? NASA warns that a decades-long mega-drought is coming to the western US and plain states, which grow nearly all of the nation’s produce and livestock, and also supply much of the world. The results would be catastrophic.
President Obama has taken the first “significant” step for the US in mandating that the country reduce its CO2 emissions from power plants by 32% of the year 2005’s CO2 emissions, over the next 15 years. However, this “target” is frankly a disingenuous falsehood, since as of 2014, CO2 emissions from power plants have already dropped by 15.5% from 2005 levels. That’s 374 million tons of emissions we have already cut, and the plan only calls for an additional 400 million tons of reductions. How can you claim you’re going to do something that you’ve already done? Obama’s plan simply codifies a trend toward natural gas and renewable energy that is already under way, driven by the high price of coal versus gas, wind, and solar. And of the total 5,400 million tons of CO2 the US disgorged in 2014, this cut equals a paltry 7% reduction, over the next 15 years! Given the gravity of the climate crisis we face, this is pathetic, and would be laughable if the situation were not so dire.
We need to understand this: Tragically, even if we could globally halt all global CO2 emissions today, this disaster would continue, worsening year-by-year for decades. This reason is, between 65% and 80% of CO2 released into the air dissolves into the ocean over a period of 20–200 years. The rest is removed by slower processes that take up to several hundreds of thousands of years. (Let’s remember that it took us 200 years to get here.)
If our global, complete failure to act so far is any clue, we will be lucky to reduce total CO2 emissions by 5-10% in the next 50 years. And because of the built-in delay described above, the net effect on climate will be inconsequential. Unless we drastically cut CO2 emissions soon, the climate will continue to heat up for the next several hundred years, and therein lies an unprecedented and extremely dangerous risk for humanity:
Earth’s Permafrost is Rapidly Melting
Twenty-four percent of the land masses in Earth’s northern hemisphere are covered with permafrost that is up to 700-meters thick. This frozen organic matter contains 1,700 gigatons of carbon. The permafrost is a planetary store of frozen carbon that has been locked away for millennia. Global warming is now melting the permafrost and releasing large quantities of CO2 and methane gas into the atmosphere. Methane is over 20 times more potent as a global warming gas than CO2. In regions of Russia, Canada, and Alaska, roads, houses, and forests are sinking into the Earth because the “permafrost” is no longer permanent. Dozens of large, mysterious craters have appeared in northern Siberia and the cause has been determined to be the sudden release of large quantities of methane gas and CO2. The great risk is that continued melting is now creating a positive feedback loop, where global warming causes more melting, causing more global warming, etc. Runway permafrost melting would release gargantuan amounts of CO2 and methane and cause runaway overheating of the planet. The incredible fact is this: Most of the Earth would become uninhabitable and a major die-off of human life would result.
In fact, permafrost melting and positive feedback heating is already occurring in the Arctic, and this is demonstrated by the fact that Arctic air temperatures are increasing twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The Earth is rapidly approaching, and may have already passed, a tipping point where so much heating has occurred that future, frantic human efforts to slash CO2 and methane emissions will not be sufficient reverse this process. If that is the case, the results will be disastrous for the Earth.
We humans have known of the risks of global warming for more than forty years and we have done nothing about it. Many reputable scientists fear that we have already passed that tipping point, and that the end of the Earth as we know it today, is inevitable. We can only hope that they are wrong.
The race is on today for humans to dramatically slash CO2 emissions. This is why President Obama’s plan to cut CO2 emissions, while a first for the US, falls terribly short. The President’s 32% reduction in power plant CO2 emissions is really only a 7% reduction in today’s total US emissions that we won’t achieve for another 15 years. Seriously?
Given the undeniable risk to humankind, both now and for centuries to come, the US must take urgent and meaningful action. We must ban new coal-fired power plants immediately. Existing coal-fired plants must be re-built to burn biomass or be closed by 2030. All new power plant construction must be wind or solar based. The transition currently underway to natural gas must stop. The burning of natural gas for power generation releases half the CO2 of coal, however the fracking, mining, refining, storage, and distribution of natural gas releases so much methane and CO2 as to significantly defeat the benefit of gas.
From 1850 to 2011, the US dumped more CO2 into the atmosphere than any other nation, and historically far more CO2 per capita than any other nation. The complete conversion of America’s power generation to renewable energy by 2035 is absolutely mandatory for the US to do its share and, with the rest of humanity, have any hope of slowing global warming. We cannot possibly expect other nations to get serious about cutting their emissions, if we in the US refuse to get serious about cutting ours.
We must also stop shipping coal. Clearly it makes little sense to stop burning coal in the US, but then ship American coal to China or India, to be burned there. The US must reduce, and by 2025, ban coal exports entirely. We must team with other coal exporting nations to slash global coal supplies, thereby making the price prohibitive.
It’s Cheaper to Go Renewable
Complete conversion to renewables by 2035 is entirely achievable. Today in the US, wholesale wind energy is priced as low as 1.4 cents per kilowatt hour, and solar energy as low as 3.87 cents. Even without federal subsidies, the cost of wind energy is priced as low as 3.7 cents per kilowatt-hour, while natural gas is priced at 6.1 cents, and coal, the dirtiest of all sources, is priced at 6.6 cents.
“Impossible,” you say? Not enough wind?
A study from the National Academy of Sciences revealed that in the contiguous US, the total potential for power generation from the wind is a stunning 84 petawatt-hours, that is 84 million gigawatt-hours. That’s 21 times the current power consumption of the entire US.
Can we really do this?
Without even trying, simply driven by the plummeting cost of renewables and limited tax and clean air incentives, power companies have been abandoning coal and moving to wind and solar. In 2015 alone, US power companies will add more than 20 gigawatts of power generation capacity, and nearly half of that will be wind energy (9.8 GW). Wind energy capacity is forecasted to increase by 12.8% in 2015 and by 13.0% in 2016. As of 2014, the country’s total installed wind energy capacity has increased nearly 23-fold since 2000.
Still, America is playing catchup in wind energy. As of 2014, the US has fallen behind China and Japan and we’re even falling behind South Korea and Vietnam in wind energy production. This fact is pathetic.
Solar power is also expanding dramatically. In just five years, the U.S. solar panel market—which does not include concentrated solar plants— grew by an astounding 418%. The U.S. installed 1,306 megawatts of solar photovoltaics (PV) in the first quarter of 2015, to reach 21,300 megawatts of total installed capacity, enough to power 4.3 million American homes. Solar accounted for a 32 percent of the nation’s new generating capacity in 2014.
But what can solar power do when the sun isn’t shining?
Concentrated solar power (CSP), uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy to drive steam turbines. Importantly, CSP can store energy and produce electricity later when the sun isn’t shining. The number of CSP plants have grown tremendously and by 2013, over 3.5 gigawatts were being generated globally. CSP generation capacity is expected to grow by nearly 20% annually over the next five years, and now, is cost-competitive in the US with coal and gas.
The Bottom Line
Currently, 67% of America’s total electrical power generation is from fossil fuels. Wind and solar now provide 5% of the nation’s total, however some states are far ahead. Iowa produces 28.5 percent of its electricity from the wind, followed by South Dakota at 25.3 percent and Kansas at 21.7.
For the US to drive its CO2 power plant emissions to zero over the next 20 years, wind and solar power generation must grow by 20-fold over that period. This may seem like a tall order, but only because we have been so incredibly irresponsible and lethargic for over 40 years. Given the truly unprecedented and imminent threat mankind faces, and the fact that clean, cheap, and limitless energy from the wind and the sun can meet America’s needs today, many times over, our path forward is clear. And we must act now, not 10 or 20 or 30 years from now. Based on the mountain of legitimate scientific evidence, that could be too late.
Those who say that the conversion to renewable energy will create hardships on coal producers, or hurt global economic growth, are guilty of extreme indifference to the unfolding climate crisis that over 7 billion people are now facing. And note that from 2008 to 2012, while the coal industry lost roughly 49,530 jobs, the wind and solar energy industries created more than 79,000 new direct and supporting jobs. Do we want to kill coal now and go to renewables and the many thousands of jobs renewables will create? Or do we want to kill the planet for an industry that is absolutely going to die, regardless?
Except for the risk of thermonuclear war, we have never truly faced the possibility of a major human die-off. So far, we have avoided nuclear war, but we are bringing on this climate crisis with our eyes wide open. Global warming is not a risk, it is not a distant possibility, it is a certainty, here and now, and the evidence proving this is pervasive and undeniable. The health and well-being of our children and future generations demand that we act. Now.
Copyright 2015 Dan Cobb
Dan Cobb is a professional technical writer who is concerned about social and environmental justice.