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
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 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
This article was originally printed in ‘Earthlight’, Spring
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
- Travel more sustainably – by bus, train, carsharing, bike
or foot. To calculate your emissions for any flight, see www.chooseclimate.org/flying
- If you must drive, switch to the most fuel efficient vehicle.
- Make your home more efficient, and choose energy efficient
- Install a solar hot water heater or a solar PV panel. See www.MySolar.com
- In states where you are able to, buy green power.
- Eat more sustainably - switch to a more vegetarian, locally
grown, organic diet. See www.vegsource.com
- Switch your investments out of the oil companies, into socially
responsible funds. See www.greenmoney.com and www.newalternativesfund.com
- Live more simply. Everything we consume requires energy to
be mined, manufactured, packaged and delivered. See www.newroadmap.org and www.simpleliving.net
- 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
- Work with others to turn the tide. Join the Center for a
New American Dream, www.newdream.org