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Global Warming -- What We Can Do

saving planet earthJust a year ago, some so-called experts were claiming that environmentalism was dead.

My reaction was, if anything’s dead, it’s the brains of politicians and pundits who deny that global warming exists, ignore the connections between environmental destruction and “natural” disasters, make war for oil instead of demanding energy conservation and clean energy.

If anybody's a failure, it's the gang that lets poisonous chemicals seep into our food and water, and invites developers and roadbuilders to desecrate our gorgeous landscapes, and thinks extinction of species is nothing to worry about.

Sure, with the Bush administration and its accomplices hammering away at environmental regulations, environmentalists have endured plenty of downs—but environmental values are so deeply embedded in American culture they can’t be killed. So after environmentalists worked like hell to help dump some of the nastiest anti-environmental politicians in the 2006 elections, it wasn’t a surprise that even some of the right-wingers from red towns turned greener and startedsingin' the blues about global warming. 

Obviously, any change takes decades. Our normal condition is denial. The first book about global warming aimed a non-scientists was Bill McKibben's The End of Nature, published in 1989—18 years ago. And McKibben's no crank or an alarmist. The guy was writing for the New Yorker, and New York Times, and teaching Sunday school for Methodists. Well, I suppose some of those right-wingers would classify even these activities as a crank, since he wasn't preaching their brand of apocalypse--a dramatic blast from on high--but about the one we were quietly manufacturing down here.

Over that entire period, a whole generation—environmentalists— kept sounding the alarm about global warming, telling us about changes that are now familiar: glaciers melting, rising sea levels, drastic climate change, more severe storms, tropical diseases migrating to cooler areas.

We in environmental media talked about this constantly, until we ended up scratching our heads to find new ways to make the point. Graphs, charts, pictures of glaciers then and now, ice almost gone, more data, more pictures of ice shelves cracking off and melting, stories about people evacuating their islands as the sea flooded them, and on and on.

The probable cause of the warming, as most of you have heard by now, is gases generated by human activity that traps heat, creating the greenhouse effect. The main heat trapping gas is carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels: oil, coal, and natural gas.

In the business sector, some insurance companies were the first to get it. After all, the insurance industry, at least when it is managed properly, is a humane form of gambling—I guess a sort of combination of capitalism and socialism, where profits are made, but individuals who suffer a loss get help from the larger society.

Insurers calculate the risk of a calamity and base their rate charges on that computation, which gives them enough money to cover the repair bills for the damage from the calamity.

As the weather got meaner and less predictable, and more and more severe storms occurred—exactly as some scientists predicted—the insurance companies found it harder and harder to play the odds.

Now,  evidence for global warming has become more and more convincing. Even the oil companies have pulled the plug on think tanks they actually funded to deny that global warming exists and to debunk findings by scientists as—junk science. 

Al Gore's documentary about global warming was, as they say, the tipping point. The evidence was piled high, higher than the glaciers that were melting. But it took that final push from Gore to tilt the load and bury us in it. After all these years of us harping on the issue, finally, we're pulling our heads out of the sand—or the oil barrel—and starting to admit there might be problem.

But even if we didn't know one single thing about global warming, there have long been a number of very compelling reasons to drastically reduce our energy consumption and our use of fossil fuels. Environmentalists were making this point more than 30 years ago. First, they recognized that there was finite, and diminishing amount of fossil fuel stored in the earth, and that we were becoming more and more dependent on foreign source—making this a national security issue. The scarcer it became the more this fuel would eventually cost.

Second, the extraction, transportation, and combustion of fossil fuels damaged the environment in a number of ways. Whether it’s destruction of Alaska's shores from an Exxon Valdez spill or the removal of entire mountaintops by coal mining in West Virginia, fossil fuel energy comes at a great price for extracting and combustion.

Thirdly, fossil fuel damages human health.

This recognition of the health and economic and security problems created by fossil fuels led to a number of laws to reduce their consumption. Fuel economy laws doubled the efficiency of automobiles. Pollution from burning gasoline was greatly reduced by this measure alone, and further reduced by laws requiring emissions controls.

Regulations demanded more efficient, cleaner coal-fired power plants, and new rules increased the efficiency of all kinds of industrial machinery and domestic appliances.

But we still have a long way to go. For example, coal-fired power plants spew about 50 tons of mercury a year. Mercury is a neurotoxin that can also damage fetuses. Pollution from coal mining and oil and gas wells and refineries and tankers continues.

Although the public is waking up, there's a long way to go. A report from MSNBC about oil sums it up:

"Traders fretted about nuclear tensions between Iran and the international community. Supply constraints in Iraq, Nigeria and the Gulf of Mexico are also pushing oil prices higher, and analysts are predicting more pain at the pump this summer for motorists, who so far appear to be only lightly tapping the brakes on demand."

There’s plenty of irony here. We all know why there are constraints on the supply in Iraq. Nigeria's fossil fuel flow is constrained in part because local people are fighting the environmental devastation caused by oil extraction.

As for the Gulf of Mexico, well, if global warming intensified the hurricanes that destroyed the drill rigs down there, then the supply of fossil fuel is constrained—by burning fossil fuel.

Oil hit $72 a barrel this week. Since we import a more than 12.1 billion barrels a year, the cost of foreign oil alone is over $310 billion—that not even mentioning those pesky supply constraints in Iraq.

We're spent around $400 billion on war there, and by some estimates, even if we left today, would cost more than $1 trillion by the time we pay the medical bills of 60,000 men and women who have been wounded or disabled, and deduct for their lost productivity. That amount of money would be enough to pay for enough solar panels to generate all the residential electricity needed if at the same time we conserved and cut our residential use by 65%—which I think is doable.

Fossil fuel is not just those hunks of coal ripped off a mountaintop or that black gold that goes up in flames. Because we use natural gas to heat our homes and water, generate some of our electrical power, and fuel many industrial processes, we burn more than 635.1 billion cubic meters of it each year. It's just about impossible to wrap your mind around such a number, especially when the stuff is invisible. So, to help you grasp it, I calculated the amount of energy in all that natural gas. It's actually 25% MORE than all the energy in all the 140 billion gallons of gasoline we burn each year. And we're already importing about one-sixth of this natural gas.

Even without global warming the sheer waste of money ought to be enough to motivate us to reduce energy consumption.

So what should we do, both as businesses and consumers, to cut our losses and  stave off the big meltdown? Consumers should start with the and most affordable no-brainer energy conservation measures: low-flow showerheads, weatherstripping, installing fluorescent bulbs (they'll cut your lighting expenses by 75%), turning off power strips, turning off lights, turning the heat down at night, insulating attics, using that marvelous solar dryer known as a clothesline, and yes, wearing a sweater.

Back in the mid-'70s crisis, they made fun of Jimmy Carter for this recommendation. Once you've covered the low-cost stuff, then you can go for double-glazed windows, tankless water heaters, new, efficient Energy Star appliances, solar panels, solar water heating, and even remodeling for passive solar. If you have doubts about what steps to take, have an audit done. I estimate that a lot of homes could cut their utility bills by 75% if they took such measures—and not necessarily even all of them. I've got my own electricity use cut down to where one solar power dealer told me it wouldn't be worthwhile to install his panels.

Then there's education: Working as an environmental advice columnist, I am amazed at how little people know about energy. For example, I keep getting a question about those fluorescent bulbs. There's a myth that it takes a huge burst of energy to start one—more energy than using it for 10 hours. Now if this were true, you'd be blowing fuses everytime you turned one on, and every night the whole power grid would fry just as surely as Key Lay is frying in hell. The fact is, it takes a jolt for a fraction of a second that is only about five times as much as the bulb uses by burning for a few seconds.

Businesses that sell or install the devices mentioned above would benefit immensely if they educated themselves better about the stuff they've already got on the shelves and actively promoted it. Not only should managers and employees be knowledgeable—there's a crying need for point-of-sale information, for prominent signs on the shelves that inform consumers about what's available. It’s astounding that they haven't been more aggressive in marketing energy saving products, especially now that more and more people want to do something. It seems to me that this alone is reason enough to have a clean, green Chamber of Commerce. (visit: http://www.greenchamberofcommerce.net )

Finally, of course, there's the political side. As I noted, during the first oil crisis in the mid-Seventies, we took some very aggressive action. Then we slipped into denial, one that was summed up by one gesture: Ronald Reagan's boys tore the solar panels off the White House installed by Jimmy Carter.

It's time for a political push to make energy conservation not just possible, but mandatory.

That's another why we need a Green Chamber of Commerce, because all too often businesses have resisted environmental progress to their own great detriment. The most glaring example is the collapse of the U.S. auto industry. They lived by the SUV and now they're dying by it because they failed to develop more efficient cars. In fact, they repeated the same mistake that got them into deep trouble 30 years ago. They spent millions of dollars opposing laws for better fuel economy when they should have been eagerly promoting and developing it.

Remember how Chrysler needed a government bailout? Well, instead of a bailout of their inefficient cars, a handout to create efficient ones might've been a better investment, pork and all. The lesson is obvious: alert and creative businesses can benefit from environmental progress, and enhance it.

Probably the most ambitious project in this regard is the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of labor unions, businesses, and environmentalists that is pushing for energy independence. They say our country will need something of the magnitude of Apollo space program to achieve energy independences.

They call for  $300 billion ten-year public-private program to create 3 million new, clean energy jobs to free America from foreign oil dependence. $300 billion sounds like a lot, but if you've been listening, you already about what we spend just on imported oil every year. Seems like a bargain…

______________

From a speech made at an event called: "Greening Albany -- A Community Works to Battle Global Warming," organized by the Bay Area Green Chamber of Commerce, Sunday, June 3, 2007, Albany, California.

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