Part Three: Climate Change

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John House, MD – Climate change is, by far, the most worrisome of the major challenges we face as a species. We can live without debt and a modern economy, and maybe a few of us can survive on the energy levels utilized by our ancestors, but not a single one of us can survive without a livable climate.

Over the last 20 years there has been lots of debate about global warming with respect to its causes, how fast it will happen, how severe it will be, etc. The one salient fact that in recent years has become indisputable, however, is that the climate is changing now and happening much more rapidly than almost anyone has predicted.

On a steady basis, new studies are published that demonstrate this rapid change. Sea levels are rising faster, storms are becoming increasingly intense and more common, droughts are more severe and widespread, forest fires are raging more fiercely and over greater areas, and the oceans are dying. All because CO2 and other greenhouse gases are rising faster than ever before.

It’s important to understand that there is a time lag of about 30 years in the effects of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. So the warming temperatures and climate chaos we see today are from the CO2 emitted in the 1980s.

The amount of carbon we are pumping into the atmosphere today is far greater than that of 30 years ago. This means that even if we were to stop absolutely all CO2 emissions right now, temperatures will keep climbing for another 30 years! Since it takes at least 1,000 years for CO2 to work itself out of the atmosphere, that likely unlivable temperature would be the new normal for a very long time.

Is it even possible to stop all CO2 emissions? Think about what that means: no cars, no electricity, no stores, no air conditioning, no burning fires for heat or cooking, no food except what you grow yourself by hand, no refrigeration, no medicines, no hospitals or clinics, no Internet, no phone, no TV… in other words, literally everything in our world would have to stop.

There are now more than 7.4 billion people on the planet. Almost every one of us depends entirely on food grown using fossil fuels. If we stop all CO2 emissions, almost every one of us starves to death in just a few months.

What are the odds of stopping all CO2 emissions anytime soon? It should be obvious that the chance of that happening willingly is zero.

A few years ago, politicians decided arbitrarily that Earth can adjust to a 2°C rise in average temperature without too much problem. That seems to be highly suspect, however, as we haven’t yet crossed the 1°C mark (on an annualized basis) and are already having huge problems related to climate change. What’s more, almost every model developed that keeps temperatures to 2°C warmer requires a dramatic reduction in CO2 emissions. Immediately. The longer we delay, the higher the temperature goes in those same projections.

With “business as usual” emissions, the global average temperature is projected to climb to 10° or 20°C above the historical level. Human beings cannot survive those kinds of temperatures. Even if we could, livestock, grains, fruits, and vegetables on which we all rely, can’t survive. We’d have no food.

Already there are places on the planet that are experiencing enormous amounts of suffering related to climate change. Every day one billion people go hungry due to crop failures related to drought and flood. What will it be like at 2°C?

Since it seems clear that we can’t stop CO2 emissions entirely, is it possible that we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Think back to the previous part of this series. Debt requires growth in order to be repaid. All economic growth comes – ultimately – from utilizing energy. The only way to reduce CO2 in any meaningful way requires a significant reduction in economic activity. That leads to debt default and likely economic depression. What politician is going to vote to do anything that’s going to cause a severe economic downturn? What’s more, this is a global problem. One country deciding to reduce carbon emissions isn’t enough – it has to be all of us. As the recent climate accord in Paris demonstrates, no one is willing to take any meaningful action.

Sadly, switching to solar energy isn’t the solution many hope for. Solar panels, while very nice to have when the power goes out, can’t begin to replace the energy density of fossil fuels and are simply unable to provide adequate power to run our economy at anywhere near its current level.

With respect to climate change, it turns out that solar panels, due to the enormous amounts of energy used in the mining and manufacturing processes, actually produce more CO2 per kilowatt of electricity generated than a coal-burning power plant.

Our climate is changing now. There seems to be no viable solution to stop it that doesn’t result in the loss of billions of human lives. And yet, the more Earth warms, the more likely humans will be unable to survive.

When rapidly changing climate is combined with net energy decline and an economic system dependent on unsustainable debt, it’s clear that humanity is facing the biggest challenge of its existence. In the fourth and final installment of this series, I’ll outline what we can expect over the next ten years and what each of us can do to prepare for these changes.