Climate and Energy
"I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy.
What a source of power!
I hope we don't have to wait 'til oil and coal run out before we tackle that."
- Thomas Edison
 

Our Atmosphere, Our Climate, Our Hope

by Guy Dauncey

I am sitting in my office, surrounded by the open borders and greenhouse of my wife’s organic plant nursery and the dark forest of Douglas fir trees that surround us. It is snowing lightly – the kind of snow that drifts down like feathers, filling the air with wonder. We live in Victoria, on Canada’s glorious west coast.

Of all the aspects of nature we have come to appreciate over the past 40 years, the air is maybe the least understood. Rivers, forests, oceans, wetlands – these are all tangible, where we can see and sense the damage we do. But the air – what is this empty, vaporous thing? How are we to come to terms with the knowledge that as a result of our energy-use, we are warming the very atmosphere, melting the glaciers and ice-sheets, even changing the seasons?

It seems so inconceivable. Gazing up at the stars at night, there appears to be no barrier between our earthly realm and the far distant galaxies. How could something as ephemeral as the air cause us such great problems?

The Earth’s lower atmosphere, where our pollutants and carbon emissions gather, is no more than twenty miles high. Think of a town or village twenty miles away, and imagine driving that distance upwards. If we did not have this atmosphere with its precise ingredients, including carbon dioxide, life outside the oceans might not have been possible. On Mars, where there is no atmosphere and no carbon dioxide, the night-time temperature is minus 189 F. On Venus, where the atmosphere is almost entirely carbon dioxide, the average temperature is 860 F. On Earth, our atmosphere’s carbon dioxide averages 200 parts per million during the ice ages, and 280 parts per million during the warmer interglacial periods, when sea levels rise by 100 metres as the ice melts. Since the beginning of the industrial age, our activities have caused the CO2 to rise by a further 93 parts, to 373 ppm. The last time the CO2 level was this high was twenty million years, when Florida was a series of islands.

If the universe contains other solar systems which can support life, where similar conscious beings have followed a similar evolutionary drive toward greater complexity and consciousness (my preference is for the Teilhardian, rather than the selfish gene theory of evolution), will they have experienced a similar crisis, discovering the benefits of burning carbo-hydrates only to realize that the released carbon heats up their atmosphere, stimulating a transition to more sustainable sources of energy?

I am not being frivolous. When we consider our human past, with our undiminished curiosity, it seems inevitable that we should have discovered fire, followed by coal, oil and gas, just as it seems inevitable that we must abandon fossil fuels and move on to renewable energy such as solar, wind, and clean hydrogen.

During the centuries when humans accepted slavery as part of life, few thought to question the habit of treating captured people so cruelly. From the time in the 1750s when the Quakers began to attack slavery, there was a spiritual inevitability that the practice must end. By opening our eyes to its awfulness, we knew in our souls that it had to stop, and an anchor was cast on the far shore of our dreams, labeled ‘abolition’.

The same spiritual inevitability applied to the struggle for the liberation of women, and the abolition of child labour. Likewise, Yunus Mohammed, founder of Bangladesh’s remarkable micro-lending Grameen Bank, believes the abolition of poverty is inevitable. I believe that it also applies to phasing out fossil fuels as a source of energy.

Before slavery’s abolition, slaves were seen by their traders and owners as a commodity. Once freed, they joined the community of humans, entitled to the rights of humans. Before the abolition of child labour, children were seen by factory owners as a commodity. Once freed, they too joined the community of humans. We have made similar progress in our treatment of the ocean’s whales (except in Iceland, Norway and Japan.)

My proposition is that we have treated the entire atmosphere as a commodity in the same manner, giving it neither understanding nor respect. It is our garbage heap in the air, where we dump our gaseous offal without thought for the consequence. From the time in the 1980s when there was a collective realization that our emissions were warming the atmosphere, there has been a spiritual inevitability that we would end our use of fossil fuels, embrace clean forms of energy, and treat the sky as part of the community of nature, not a commodity to be used and abused. Maybe it is a sign of planetary maturity that people learn to respect their atmosphere as a sacred part of nature, not as a commodity.

So what does this mean for us? The alarm bells are certainly ringing. If we continue with "energy as usual", as most SUV drivers and most people in the coal, oil, auto and aviation industries want us to, our atmosphere’s CO2 will reach double its pre-industrial level by 2100. The last time it was this high, there were crocodiles on Ellesmere Island in the Arctic, and London (England) was a tropical swamp.

There are six greenhouse gases - CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, and three industrial gases - and based on the need to minimize the risk of the greenhouse effect running out of control, we need to reduce them by 80% by 2025. The Kyoto Treaty that President Bush refuses to sign seeks a 5% reduction below the 1990 level by 2008 – 2012. Four fundamental methods are needed to do the job: technology - solar and wind energy, fuel cells, increased efficiency; policy - smart legislation; activism - educating the public, stirring up the politicians, and inspiring new activists; and conscious consumerism - changing the way we live, shop and travel. They all need to happen together: no three are sufficient, without the fourth.

60% of the problem comes from our use of fossil fuels. 12% comes from deforestation, 12% from the use of industrial chemicals, and 8% from farming. The farming we can deal with by a shift to organic methods, which protect the soil’s carbon, by a reduction in the amount of beef we eat (cows produce methane from both ends), and by a ban on liquid slurry pits, which turn manure into methane. The industrial gases (CFCs, HFCs, PFCs and SF6) we could phase out by national legislation and a global treaty, if the politicians had the will – as they are planning to do in Denmark. The deforestation needs improved monitoring and legislation in developing nations, and a shift to eco-certified timber production all over the world, driven by consumer demand, and legislation.

That brings us to the fossil fuels, which we use for electricity, transportation, and industrial energy. Take solar energy. It works, but it is too expensive for widespread adoption. Without subsidies, it costs 17–26 cents a kilowatt-hour, assuming 2000 hours a year of sunshine, compared to an average electricity price of 6 cents. As soon as we hit mass production, however, the price will fall 4-fold, as it did for cars, computers, fax machines and cellular telephones. The trick is to build up the demand, which is why the citizens San Francisco have voted to approve a $100 million bond to install 12 MW of solar energy on city property.

Now think big. Imagine a new building code that required every house built after 2005 to have a 2kW solar system on the roof, with the surplus energy in the summer being fed into the grid, earning an income. Imagine states and countries requiring their utilities to provide a percentage of their power from renewable energy, including solar, as many European nations and 15 states in the US are doing. Now imagine the whole world doing the same. Is there enough solar energy to supply the world with its needs? The sun provides us with 2,000 more times energy than we need every day; an area of land 100 miles by 100 miles, covered with photovoltaic cells could provide enough electricity for the entire US grid. There are parking lots and rooftops all over America, all over the world, awaiting their solar apotheosis.

There is also more than enough wind energy. North Dakota, Texas and Kansas have enough wind to supply the whole US grid, offering a handsome income to the farmers without interrupting their farming. If we doubled our efficiency, which is possible using today’s technologies, these three states could service the US grid twice over, enabling us to manufacture hydrogen to run fuel-cell electric cars. There is not a shortage of clean, renewable energy. Biomass, micro-hydro, geothermal, wave, tidal, ethanol from agricultural and forest wastes – they can all produce clean energy.

Smart citizens need to promote smart policies, to drive smart technologies. In cities in North America such as Seattle, New York, Chicago, LA and Toronto, and elsewhere around the world, governments are using imaginative policies to accelerate the clean energy revolution. If there is a failure, it is in our understanding of how public policy can place clean energy on the main stage, relegating fossil fuels to the pages of history.

We can imagine clean energy replacing fossil fuels, but the carbon barons retain control of the stage. Since the early 1990s, working through organizations such as the Global Climate Coalition and the American Petroleum Institute, the oil, coal and auto industries have spent millions on PR campaigns, lobbying offensives and political campaign donations to cast doubt on the science, exaggerate the costs of change, underplay the impacts, misinform the public, undermine the Kyoto treaty process, and secure the election of politicians friendly to their cause.

This is not paranoia, or a conspiracy theory. It is the way people in the corporate world behave when they see their power and comfort threatened. This is how the slavers responded to the threat of slavery’s abolition. This is how the patriarchal rulers responded when they imagined women voting, and walking the halls of power.

Susan B. Anthony, who led the women’s movement in the US through the late 1800s, cast her anchor on the far shore called women’s suffrage. She knew in her soul, as a Quaker, that failure was impossible.

Today, we must do the same for our atmosphere. We must cast our anchor on the far shore called ‘clean energy’. We must hold in our hearts the vision in which the atmosphere becomes part of the community of all life, and no longer a commodity. The future of our planet’s ecosystems, and much of life, depends on it.

Guy Dauncey

Guy Dauncey is a writer and sustainable communities consultant who lives in Victoria, Canada. He is co-author of "Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change". His website is www.earthfuture.com

This article was originally printed in ‘Earthlight’, Spring 2002 www.earthlight.org

Ten Things You Can Do

Before you start, use a carbon calculator to calculate your family’s carbon emissions. See www.pbs.org/wgbh/warming/carbon

  1. Travel more sustainably – by bus, train, carsharing, bike or foot. To calculate your emissions for any flight, see www.chooseclimate.org/flying
  2. If you must drive, switch to the most fuel efficient vehicle.
  3. Make your home more efficient, and choose energy efficient appliances.
  4. Install a solar hot water heater or a solar PV panel. See www.MySolar.com
  5. In states where you are able to, buy green power.
  6. Eat more sustainably - switch to a more vegetarian, locally grown, organic diet. See www.vegsource.com
  7. Switch your investments out of the oil companies, into socially responsible funds. See www.greenmoney.com and www.newalternativesfund.com
  8. Live more simply. Everything we consume requires energy to be mined, manufactured, packaged and delivered. See www.newroadmap.org and www.simpleliving.net
  9. Write to your senator, representative or city councillor. Ask how you can help them promote clean energy, and phase out fossil fuels. See the League of Conservation Voters, www.lcv.org
  10. Work with others to turn the tide. Join the Center for a New American Dream, www.newdream.org