Unsettling mortality. Many of you have seen the film of the elephants mulling over the bones of a long-dead elephant, almost in a strange, mournful fashion, showing that they recognize their own mortality, just as we do.
Most of us who have been schooled in geology and the earth sciences know that our existence as a species might also be temporary. We see the fossils of many creatures that once roamed the Earth by the millions, but are now long gone. What caused these many mass extinctions that wiped out upwards of 50% to 95% of all the species of life on Earth? Was it an asteroid collision? A super-earthquake? Climate change?
When it comes to interfering with Nature, folks generally divide into two camps: Do Something or Do Nothing. I’m slightly in the middle, but clearly leaning toward the Do Something camp. In other words, I’d proceed with a lot of caution, but proceed nonetheless to do something to avert my own demise, as well as the demise of our species.
For example, ever since the seventh grade, I’ve thought that we should be tracking and cataloging potential Earth-colliding asteroids. But I had to wait 42 years until Hollywood let Bruce Willis and Robert Duvall make it an acceptable thing to do. The US and a few other nations now have ongoing research programs, funded at the appropriate 1-in-10,000-chance level that they deserve, to catalog the risk and look into mitigation schemes. Understandably, the Do Nothing camp hates the very notion of it.
If Yellowstone National Park were to begin to swell to a Hawaii-sized pimple, and geophysicists, vulcanologists and the like said that “popping it” would be preferable to letting it blow on its own, and drilling a borehole and dropping a small A-bomb were the plan, then I’d say “go for it.” It’s about where you would put your faith: in scientific reason, or in Nature. Again, hence, the two camps. The religious overtones become obvious at this point. Add in politics and the usual corrupting influence of payola, and you have today’s situation.
I’m writing this from a place called Glacier National Park in Montana. Can’t find a person here that isn’t lamenting about global warming. Strange, since this has been a red (Republican) state, meaning, pro-Bush. There were 150 glaciers here in 1850. Today, there are 26. The most recent scientific assessment hastens the date when all the glaciers will be gone, from 30 years to just 20 years from now. After that, I suppose they’ll keep the park’s name and just show pictures of ice.
Since there’s little disagreement that the planet is warming, and that the ice is indeed melting, especially in the north, all that’s left to argue about are causes and solutions. It seems that warring factions on both sides want to make the issue of human- or natural-caused climate change paramount. On the Left, it satisfies any hatred of Big Oil; on the Right, it garners the kind of love that only money can buy. But if logic were applied, then both sides would hope that humans were the cause of all this ice melting around the world. Here’s why.
Suppose that the cause was actually proven to be something happening in the Earth’s core. Our choices for dealing with it would be bleak indeed. They would either revolve around barely studied geo-engineering schemes, such as storing massive greenhouse gasses in soil or elsewhere, or they would take the form of space-based solutions, such as orbiting a billion aluminum-foil diffraction rings, or a gigantic aluminum-foil umbrella, to reduce the amount of sunlight that hits the Earth. In other words, we’d have to try to turn down the Earth’s temperature regardless of the cause. There might not even be an imagined solution.
But simply reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions is relatively easy. I know that the Right has been espousing the idea that the choice is simple: it’s either hydrocarbon-based fuels or it’s economic destruction and the resulting death and mayhem. Less than eight years ago, this argument was based on the absurd assumption that there are no “cheap” substitutes to oil. For instance, alternatives would cause electricity rates to double, to the 16 cents per unit (kWh) that we have today, or oil would skyrocket 400% to the absurd level of $80 or more, and no economy could absorb that kind of energy price shock. The truth is, we don’t know the maximum energy price with which the world could survive and thrive.
As prices rise to some unknowable level, market forces will dampen demand, while the ability to do more with less-so-called energy intensity-improves without limit. But we also know that market forces are lousy at long-term planning, and that is precisely what is needed. When viewed as an energy source, conservation through wise use and energy efficiency is a vast well that has yet to be tapped, except in preliminary ways.
I have no doubt that we are fully capable of having a bright and prosperous energy future. While concentrated, centralized energy sources are doable, such as future adaptations of nuclear fission, a more diverse energy portfolio is preferable. And the more diverse, both geographically and in energy type, the better, because it will be more secure. And if there’s one thing that we all want, it’s security of supply.
I once wrote that we may need fifty, 2% solutions. Various processes, many of them immature, can contribute at least 2% to 10% globally, such as numerous ocean-based systems, geothermal, biomass, hydro, natural gas and so on. Even the intermittent sources such as solar and wind can easily achieve these levels, as technologies that enable energy storage proliferate. Meanwhile, future nuclear fission and clean (or at least much cleaner) coal can each contribute. And of course, there will surely be the known unknowns: bioengineered algae or methane-belching microbes; space elevators tethered to Earth, harvesting sunlight massively and continuously; genetically engineered super crops that thrive on 10 inches of rain a year, yet produce unheard-of energy yields, etc.
No, global warming isn’t going to eliminate our species, not for centuries at the very least, if ever. Neither are we on some sort of spaceship Earth-we are totally dependent on the air, soil, water and ecosystems on this planet, and probably will be for centuries to come. But the knowledge that we live on an unstable, dynamic, ever-changing planet, in a world that has wiped out many thousands of species, is in the back of our minds, and is unsettling at the least. However cautiously, let’s choose the less risky path of doing something. The energy security benefits alone are worth it.
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