Thursday, April 17, 2008

Robert Socolow--Climate Change and Deja Vu

For thoughtfulness, clarity and deep caring about climate change and its gathering impact on the planet, I recommend a careful listen to Robert Socolow, a leading researcher on what to do about all the mischievous carbon dioxide we're pouring into the atmosphere. One serendipitous aspect of my having been transported out of previous lives and plunked down in Princeton, NJ is that I get to hear people like this talk. Below are some notes:

Having come of professional age back in the 1960s and 70s, Dr. Socolow now feels a strong sense of deja vu. The issues we are grappling with now, especially energy consumption and its impact on the planet, were being discussed back in the 1970s. (For my part, I took a course at the U. of Michigan in the late 70s called "Low Energy Living") What happened next, with Reagan's ascendence in the 1980s, was a shooting of the messenger. In the process, three decades have been essentially lost, and the problems we face have only grown deeper. Interestingly, Dr. Socolow pointed out that those of us who had come to hear his talk appeared to be evenly divided between two generations--those coming of age now, and those who came of age in the 70s.

To begin, Dr. Socolow gave an accounting of where we stand. There are now 3000 billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere. Air trapped in ancient ice suggests that in the 400,000 or so years before the industrial revolution, the earth's atmospheric CO2 oscillated between 1500 and 2200 billion tons. Since atmospheric measurements began in earnest in 1958, atmospheric CO2 has risen from 2500 billion tons to the current 3000.

These 50 years of measurements were made by atmospheric scientists based on Mauna Loa in Hawaii, a location believed to be sufficiently removed from the industrialized world to allow for accurate data. At the ceremony marking the 50th year, Dr. Socolow said "Never has the work of so few led to so much being asked of so many." The so few were the scientists who revealed the dramatic and unprecedented rise of CO2 in the 20th century. The so many are the rest of us on earth being asked to change our ways.

And how much do we need to change our ways to avoid the worst consequences of climate change? Whereas the burning of fossil fuels spewed 6 billion tons into the atmosphere in 1950, that figure is now 30 billion every year. 15 of those go into the atmosphere; eight are absorbed by the oceans (apparently with disastrous consequences for marine life), and the remaining 7 are somehow absorbed by the land biosphere.

30 billion tons averages out to about 4 tons of CO2 per person per year. So, just to hold even on emissions, each of us passengers on planet earth would need to limit ourselves to 4 tons. Compare that to what we actually use. You consume four tons if you:

  • drive a car 10,000 miles at 30 mpg
  • or fly 10,000 miles (oops, I used up my allotment flying to Rome last month)
  • or heat a typical home in an average climate
  • or use 300 kilowatt hours of electricity per month from a coal burning power plant, or 600 kilowatt hours of electricity per month generated by a natural gas plant.
And then there's your workplace. If you're associated with the university, your share of the university's energy use is 13 tons per year.

So, you see we're way over our individual allotments. Environmental values must co-habitate with others deeply held--democratic values, consumer values, and values of self-realization--that, for instance, slow our response to crisis, create an appetite for stuff, and cause us to burn energy as we travel to see the world.

But Dr. Socolow still sees reasons for optimism. The world is terribly inefficient with its energy use. Carbon emissions have just begun to be priced--already in Europe, and in less than a year utilities in NJ. If one goal is for humanity to actually start reducing its overall use of energy 50 years hence, it helps that most of the 2058 physical plant has not yet been built.

One of his main points is that solutions are not innocuous. Conservation can lead to regimentation. Renewable energy can compete with other uses for land. Nuclear power generates fuel that can be used in nuclear warfare. "Clean coal" has impacts on miners and land.

As often happens when you're trying to change the world, you find that the english language lacks current words to carry new concepts. Dr. Socolow proposes a new word for a new intellectual domain. Over the past 50 years, we've delved deeply into the history of the universe, the earth and of life itself. Can we achieve a comparable quantitative understanding of what human civilization will look like at various times in the future? This new discipline would be called prospicience--a combining of the words propect and science.

In contrast to Amory Lovins' talk, which seemed to imply that we can stop global warming without financial or personal hardship, Dr. Socolow sees solutions as possible but hard. He looks to the past to find comparable situations in which "What once seemed too hard has become what simply must be done." For precedents, he points to the abolition of child labor, the addressing of the needs of the disabled, and the mitigation of air pollution.

I'd suggest that the abolition of slavery is the most relevant precedent, since both slaves and fossil fuels have played the role of providing energy on demand. Only slowly do the beneficiaries of that energy explore the ethical implications of the comfort and convenience it brings.

One of the questions raised after the talk was why Mr. Socolow did not mention population as a factor. He acknowledged that population is a central aspect of climate change, and said that the severing of population from the discussion of energy had happened in the 1980s, and coincided with the shooting of the messenger.

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