Harbinger: Signs of Change

Harbinger. I first heard the word when I was eight or nine. I asked my mother what it meant. “A sign,” she said. “Like the first robin of spring.”

In my boyhood home of Colorado, where the winters could be long, the coming of warm weather, the melting of all that snow, was a sign to be welcomed. A harbinger.

For many winters thereafter, I watched for that sign. It wasn’t until I was an adult that it occurred to me things had changed. I hadn’t noticed when, but there was no first robin of spring anymore. They no longer went south for the winter.

When a ski area was first proposed for the Vail Valley in the 1960s, the Prospectus mentioned among the cautions to investors about what could go wrong: “It might not snow.” That was thought to be quite witty; at 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains, it always snowed, a lot, all winter and much of the spring.

But one winter in the 1970s, long after Vail was a roaring success, it didn’t snow. Not enough to ski on. Not anywhere in the Rockies. It was a dramatic and isolated event at the time, but since then there have been many marginal years. All the ski areas by now have invested in snow-making machines, which sometimes are all that enable a respectable snowpack for much of the season.

In geological time scale, those may be merely anecdotal incidents. Or they may be harbingers. Much that changed was too subtle to notice as it was happening, even in human time scale, but one thing was abundantly clear. The population in Colorado, and nearly everywhere else one went, was exploding.

The planet Earth isn’t getting any larger; in fact, metaphorically speaking, it’s become a lot smaller since telecommunications encompassed all its residents in one vast neural network of synaptic connections. Yet that resident population continues to grow: tripling from 2.5 billion to 7.5 billion in the past two-thirds of a century.

So, too, have the expectations of all those people, who are moving inexorably toward a middle-class existence and sucking up massive amounts of electricity to support its ways. Forty percent of the world’s entire population resides in China and India alone. Add to them Southeast Asia and more people live inside that corner of the globe than outside it. And, more of them than not today have cell phones and internet connectivity. Can we possibly suppose such growth has no impact?

Humankind has been terraforming the earth at least since the advent of agriculture. Plowing and planting, colonizing, settling, establishing communities, building cities, roads, bridges; the surface of the planet has been transformed over 20 millennia or more by our presence and our relentless industry.

From the beginning of the Industrial Age, we extended our reach to permeate the atmosphere itself with the by-products of our new technologies. Now, we finally are coming to realize, it’s nearly saturated.

The industrial might that has been exercised for more than 250 years has increased the impact of humanity on the environment by many orders of magnitude. As agrarian societies became urban, and even agriculture became mechanized, life for the average person was of greater prosperity, increased ease, better health, and extended longevity. Much was accomplished and our lot in life was raised.

More people were born and they lived longer. They were more mobile, had more money to spend, and they consumed more. Manufactured goods became more bounteous and the market for them continued to grow. It came at a cost.

Something has to fuel all that industry. When wood gave way to coal, and steam power replaced horses and mules, the detritus of humankind rose into the atmosphere to a degree greater than the accumulation of all that came before it.

All of animal life generates waste, but only humans manufacture the world in which they live. Human waste is of a different and far more complex order.

Despite the resolute deniers, whom no amount of evidence will sway, there is every reason to accept the notion that the presence of so many people consuming so much energy on this planet, a place that for most of time supported no more than a few hundred thousand hunter-gatherers and their modicum of wood smoke, has begun to change the Earth’s environment.

Greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere appear to be reaching a tipping point at which the earth’s ecosystem will undergo dramatic, even cataclysmic change. While skeptics challenge conclusions about trends of geologic scale, a vast majority of climate science points irrefutably toward a grim conclusion.

Certainly, the lines in the debate have been drawn. The battle between environmentalists and traditional industry has widened the gap in the discourse toward absolutes and away from any middle ground. A mutual distrust has developed that possibly may not be bridged. But common ground needs to be established if a sane solution to this crisis will be had.

Industry deservedly incites distrust when no less a presence than the behemoth Exxon-Mobil is found to have been actively financing an effort to corrupt climate science and subsidize false conclusions. The same oil & gas company that inflicted the Exxon Valdez disaster on the shores of Alaska more than 25 years ago knew even then a more ominous problem was looming and tried ever since to convince us otherwise.

Its partner, British Petroleum, did the industry no favors in causing the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico by hubris and egregious neglect. The vivid image of a ruptured well spewing millions of gallons of oil into one of the world’s most productive fisheries was nightly news on television for months. One could not imagine a more ghastly portrayal of petroleum poisoning life on earth.

Yet the oil and gas industry persists in championing a red-blooded American wildcatter spirit of unbridled resource exploitation and regulatory resistance. The romantic allure of that brash notion may finally be fading.

Nor does the industry’s image benefit from massive lobbying efforts to sway public policy from any concessions to international climate accords. That all of these stratagems are tax deductible business expense is especially galling.

Environmentalists are mobilizing at a frenetic pace to capture the moral high ground in response. Anti-carbon, anti-oil & gas, anti-industry is becoming the only acceptable position for keeping one’s credibility as a concerned citizen. The average person has become instinctively supportive of the “clean” energy solution, whatever that may actually mean. Who but the jaded interests vested in the commerce of the past could oppose them?

Climate change itself has become an industry, as well as a global rallying cry. Activists everywhere and whole communities are falling all over themselves to enact “clean energy” initiatives. The solar, wind, geothermal and biomass businesses in America and elsewhere are lavished with various federal, state and local subsidies in striving to establish a post-carbon energy capability.

But is it truly viable or is it political theater? If we accept the need to address climate change and make serious efforts to arrest its consequences, are we on the right track? Is the current hue and cry of the environmental ideologues a pathway to a sane and rational future, or merely a reason to feel good because we’re doing something, Davids to the industry Goliath, a mirage of utopian aspiration and practical insufficiency?

Likewise, is there any reason to suppose that all will be well if we just stay the course, that a few degrees warmer climate and a few meters deeper ocean tides washing on our shores is merely an inconvenience to which we can readily adapt? As the ice caps melt, coral reefs bleach out and fisheries die, reservoirs dry up and fires rage across the landscape, is this the new normal?

The gulf between denial and idealism needs to be bridged. Reasonable people must come together and forge a strategy to address the problem in realistic terms. There is far too much at stake to allow for us-or-them postures. The pace at which climate change is occurring leaves little room for error and none for self-righteous insularity.

We are past time to conclude a change in our current path is necessary. We need to do things differently unless we are willing to bequeath to our children and grandchildren the squalor of a dystopian future, one that appears to be arriving more quickly than anyone anticipated.

But, let’s be realistic about what will be required to successfully make that change. If a post-carbon energy system is our goal, how are we going to get there? Few among us are willing to return to the caves. The alternative energies we can currently generate aren’t nearly sufficient to sustain our economies. So how can we do it? Whose ox gets gored? Or perhaps a better question is: how, by whom, and for what purpose will that fatted calf be rendered?

Everyone is going to have to give something. In some cases, whole industries will be remade or even unmade. Jobs will be lost by the thousands in antiquated industries; elsewhere they’ll be created in the new technologies.

If we are prepared to make tough choices and face the howling resistance that will ensue, let’s begin here: the time for coal is past. It has had its day and a spectacular one it was, but that day is over and done. We simply can’t afford it any longer. Like lead in pipes and paint, like asbestos in brake linings and insulation, public health no longer permits it. Coal is the new tobacco. Leave it in the ground and move on.

Petrochemicals, too, are problematic, some more so than others. Diesel fuel could be done away with; there are cleaner, easily replaceable alternatives. Gasoline, too, may be largely deposed in our lifetime. Autonomous electric vehicles not only may supplant the internal combustion engine, they may in fact displace private car ownership altogether, at least in urban areas.

At the same time, petrochemicals are the only practical bridge to a future of cleaner fuel. Unless we want to reinvigorate a worldwide nuclear industry, which both the staggering cost and the demonstrable danger convincingly argue against, there is only one choice.

Natural gas can replace coal fired power plants and provide the same amount of electricity at about one-third the toxicity. It is estimated that refitting the 7,000 coal-fired plants throughout the world with natural gas would reduce greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere by 40% overnight. That is a figure worth contemplating.

The pace at which that conversion could be effected, and the dramatic reduction in pollution world-wide it would achieve, would be the fastest, surest way to slow the advance of climate change. It would buy us time and, increasingly, time is our most precious resource in this battle.

Power companies in the United States for the most part have already begun shutting down their coal-fired plants and converting to natural gas as their base fuel. Increasing percentages of their quotas for renewable energy are being met by industrial-scale wind farms. It’s an imperfect but vastly preferable means of power generation than coal.

The post-carbon advocate will raise issues about the safety of natural gas exploration, of fracking and the earthquakes that injection wells appear to cause, of methane release, and all of these are meaningful objections. There are any number of issues to address and it is far from a perfect solution. We will need to do a much better job of regulating a famously cavalier industry to ensure the best possible outcome. That said, we’re in no position to let perfect be the enemy of better.

Even today, as another point of resistance, there still are voices proclaiming the latest version of “peak oil,” that there isn’t enough gas to rely on. The fact is that petrochemicals will be with us for as long as they are needed and we are willing to buy them. It is that need that we must address.

Solar and wind energy have made tremendous inroads over the past several years, partly due to the public’s sense that something must be done and largely due to huge subsidies that have spurred the building of industrial sized “farms” to feed the nation’s electrical grid. We can read industry blurbs about 30% annual increases in electricity generated by these large, unsightly and environmentally disruptive systems, but the actual amount of power generated by them is some 4% of the nation’s total consumption. That is nothing to laugh at, but neither is it a solution.

Solar and geothermal energy, the green energy best suited to distributed generation, can be a source of climate change mitigation well worth a targeted investment. A case could be made for fitting every suitable residence and small business with solar and/or geothermal power systems, which could replace more than 10% of current energy consumption with clean power.

The public utilities are indisposed to that model. They prefer big wind farms to meet their quotas for renewable energy. Like the massive solar arrays being deployed, as well, those industrial scale operations have problems of their own to resolve, including other forms of environmental degradation.

The “farms,” too, are susceptible to the same failure that blights the rest of the grid: tremendous amounts of what is generated is lost in transmission. The further you ship it, the more you lose, and then it is electro-magnetic pollution. Furthermore, the grid is an accident waiting to happen.

Everybody wants scale because that’s where the money is, but it’s not where alternative energy is most efficient. Power, and particularly those thermally thinner sources, is far more effective the closer the generation is to the user. Renewables then, and here we include geothermal, deployed at the source of consumption have value to the consumer and the future that the “farms” never can have.

Distributed energy generation, rather than the industrial models, can make a significant contribution to mitigating climate change. At the same time, it provides consumers a certain measure of security from man-made and natural disasters that can collapse the grid in an instant. Surviving a catastrophe and re-establishing a degree of normalcy is vastly enhanced by access to power. If you’re generating your own, rather than waiting weeks or perhaps even months for the local utility to come back on line, you’re in a much stronger position to get on with your life.

Reordering the focus of “green energy” subsidies to residential and small business users, and increasing the effort to improve energy storage capability, will lessen demands on the distribution systems that feed big industry. It will make the transition to a post-carbon future more quickly accessible by better deploying our resources. Being compatible with the electrical grid, but capable of independence from it, is a far better use of green energy funding.

Renewable energy systems are critically important to addressing climate change and will always have value. But they are insufficient to fuel the needs of the world’s population and its economies more than marginally, at least in the near term. They simply lack the thermal equivalent of what we’re aiming to replace. Furthermore, the pace at which they are being deployed is being outstripped by the pace of climate change.

We need to make dramatic, targeted changes in the way we power our world. In the near term, we should immediately convert to natural gas and away from coal as a base fuel. We need to deploy distributed renewable energy systems, being solar and geothermal, as widely as practicable, as quickly as possible. We also must increase our investments in battery technology and other energy storage systems.

Those should be our first three tactical steps, the places we spend our time and money, in subsidizing the strategic move to a post-carbon economy.

For the future we need a bigger vision. The inescapable truth is that we need a new base fuel, one that currently is unknown. All the benefits the industrial age has brought us have been powered by sources of energy that no longer are viable in a world nearing 8 billion people.

What is that new fuel, that source of power that meets the energy needs of the world in a manner that is sustainable? We simply don’t know. There are any number of ideas floated, none of which has captured a sufficient following to drive the necessary capital to its development. Hydrocarbons are too cheap to compete against until the cost of climate change is fully factored into the equation.

A car dealer told me a few years ago that the Toyota Prius, as the name suggests, is that company’s first step in transitioning its technology; its all- electric vehicle is the second step; and, the end game is a vehicle that will extract its fuel, hydrogen presumably, from the air as it passes through it. That is the scale of thinking about solutions we need to champion, and one could do worse than betting on Japanese technology.

But whether it is hydrogen or some other source of energy that should be our focus, finding a replacement for hydrocarbons faces an array of obstacles, not the least of which is the energy industry itself. What incentive does the power cartel have for adapting to its own demise? Perhaps, faced with the inevitability of change, the possibility of capturing and exploiting that new discovery might be inducement.

Twice in the last century, America faced problems that were believed to threaten its very existence. Germany threatened to develop an atomic bomb. The USSR threatened to capture the high ground of space. In response, the United States marshaled an unprecedented technological effort funded by nearly unlimited resources to discover a solution, something that never before existed. The results of those efforts changed the world.

If we are ready to admit that climate change is altering the planet on which we live to a degree that may threaten life itself, or at least to alter it in ways that are unacceptable, we may be ready, finally, for another Manhattan Project, another Man on the Moon, another massive industry-building effort to find a clean, reliable, and sustainable fuel that powers our future. It is well within our means as a nation and clearly in our best interest to do so.

For the successful innovator, an entire world market of need awaits.

See also Harbinger: Star Power here


Harbinger: Signs of Change

James Michael Pagliasotti

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