By Sylvester Johnson, Ph.D.
Consumers drive change. Growing numbers of consumers are saving money by increasing energy efficiency, and paying a reasonable premium to support the transition to sustainable energy sources. As the market for renewable energy grows, more businesses will invest in production. Larger scale production will increase efficiency and reduce costs for even greater numbers of consumers.
During the winter months, one may sometimes wonder, “What’s so bad about a warming climate?” However, several repercussions of climate change (listed below) have been worsening for three decades. During the last decade, these trends have been accelerating beyond any possible, known, natural cause. Therefore, people’s activities are almost certainly contributing to climate change the consequences of which we all (particularly our children) will likely be facing within a few decades.
Urgency for action can be found in increased losses from weather-related disasters ($200 billion in US in 2005 alone), accelerated glacial melting, rising sea levels that will likely force mass migrations from coastal areas, a 25% decrease in volume of Arctic sea ice since 1979, the collapse of Antarctic ice shelves, increased oceanic acidity, accelerated rises in temperatures and the subsequent spread of insect-borne diseases, increased evaporation and water stress, crop failures, continued loss of rain forests (important reservoirs for atmospheric carbon), and increased atmospheric methane released from melting permafrost tundra and hydrates (methane has 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over 100 years).
Legacy to the Children
Civilization has survived storms, droughts and floods before. But the world now faces a warming trend unseen since long before civilization began 10,000 years ago, or indeed for many millions of years. Our global population is booming and fossil fuel use is rising steeply. This will very likely trigger worldwide changes that will transform the Earth, leaving a legacy of an impoverished, damaged world. These changes could challenge civilization and the biosphere to the utmost, and inflict staggering losses to both. However, if we do transition to renewable energy sources, we can reduce and delay the damages.
Tremendous Need for Change Brings Tremendous Opportunities
Political will and opportunity for transitioning from an oil economy is growing. Because of its likely impacts on the USA and allies, global warming is a threat to our national security and therefore merits bipartisan support. Installing renewables creates jobs and stimulates the economy. According to apolloalliance.org, the industry offers the potential to add 2 million US jobs. The US could export renewable energy devices, instead of importing them as it now does.
To eventually stabilize climate change, Europe has already made a significant transition to renewables that it’s now exporting. The USA needs to transition to exert leverage on China, India, and other major consumers of fossil fuels to follow suit. In 1987, a worldwide climate aproduction of chlorofluorocarbons. The damage to the ozone layer was slowed and the economy benefited from installing retrofits to accommodate chlorofluorocarbon substitutes. Now the USA could lead and make transitioning a worldwide effort.
Consumers are already leading market change. Growing markets mean growing businesses such as local startups installing renewable energy sources, and Energy Service Companies (ESCOs) supplying electricity from renewables.
Companies can do well by doing good, prosper by providing tools and services to help the transition to a renewable energy future. Improving facilities’ performance efficiency (boiler, insulation, air leaks) repays homeowner investment over time. Governmental rebates and tax incentives are often available for installing renewable energy technologies. Institutional investors are demanding climate risk disclosures, providing additional motivation for businesses to transition. Businesses could consider the “Triple Bottom Line: economic viability, social responsibility, and environmental soundness.”
Not So Fast Fixes
One hears it said that futuristic technology will save us. Proposals for pumping CO2 into the oceans, blasting sulfates into the atmosphere, and a space solar shield have been well publicized. But the problem is one of scale: trillions have been spent on carbon burning infrastructure. While capturing and storing concentrated CO2 from smokestacks is financially feasible (and necessary), the cost of proposed infrastructure to extract atmospheric CO2 would be prohibitive. A space solar shield maintained at a fixed distance between the Earth and Sun would need to cover an area well over 10,000 square kilometers at staggering expense. There will always be many competing demands for funding, for not only current but emergent challenges. These include increased struggles over resources, need for expanded irrigation systems, dykes and other flood control technologies, and even emigration assistance for people dislocated due to rising sea levels.
It’s far more feasible to reduce emissions now.
Beyond Fossil Fuels
Nuclear energy is unfortunately beset with environmental and safety risks: malfunction, human error, sabotage and disposal of waste. Even if the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain is completed, the facility would already be more than filled with existing waste. Worldwide, there is the additional risk that nuclear waste could be made into dirty bombs.
However, the potential of renewable energy sources such as solar electricity (photovoltaics), wind turbines, tide, and wave power is enormous and could meet all our current demands for electricity. Geothermal and solar thermal heating can also reduce use of fossil fuels for home and institutional applications. Any of these renewables can pay for the initial investment over time, and pay dividends in economic savings and a greener future as well.
Personal Energy Expenses
Replacing older appliances, especially air conditioners, furnaces, clothes dryers, and refrigerators with Energy Star certified models can save over 20% of current energy usage (getenergysmart.org). Substituting fluorescents for incandescent bulbs saves over three-quarters of lighting energy. Vacuuming dust from the coils of the refrigerator and air conditioner increases the efficiency of heat transfer. Plugging all entertainment equipment into a power strip makes it convenient to switch off, and prevents the slow trickle of energy leached by built-in transformers. Since cooling and heating costs make up the majority of home energy usage, substantial savings can be made by plugging air leaks and improving insulation.
Houses can become net power producers via photovoltaics and wind turbines. In particular, installing household solar heating and electric power can pay large dividends.
Transportation is the second largest source of US emissions. (Electric power generation is largest.) Inflating tires to optimum increases miles per gallon. Hybrid vehicles store energy during braking to use less fuel. Of course, walking and bicycling not only burn no fossil fuels, but improve health and reduce noise pollution as well.
Consumers can call their electricity delivery companies (e.g. NYSEG) and find out about ESCOs that supply greener electricity. Carbon offsets also balance out auto and flight emissions by funding renewables (terrapass.com).
Climate change education has a multiplier effect as more people and more voters learn about the urgent reasons for transitioning. Donations directed to educational and other non-profit projects are tax-deductible and can go a long way toward offsetting the unintended consequences of a lifetime of fossil fuel usage. Conventional production of plant-based foods consumes far fewer resources than the conventional production of animal-based foods and could also provide health benefits for consumers. Climatehealth.net lists books by MDs that describe the scientific basis for the health benefits of plant-based foods.
Supporting the Transition
Everyone has used fossil fuels, unintentionally contributing to global warming. It’s worth considering that everyone could support the transition to renewables with personal effort and resources. Otherwise, carbon dioxide increases will likely continue, with damage rates continuing to accelerate, possibly more rapidly and with more severity than predicted, since, for example, computer modeling is extremely difficult for ice sheet crumbling, and for methane release from decomposition of melting permafrost tundra and from methane hydrates.
For the Children
We are faced now with a rapidly emerging crisis. Only a few generations of human-kind have driven carbon emissions to our current and accelerating dangerous levels. We cannot leave this legacy to our children. By making changes in our own lives and by applying political and economic pressure, each of us can make a significant difference. For the vibrancy, hope and joy of children, and for a stronger, more energy independent USA, it’s up to us.
For free access to more information on making a difference and the personal, political and business opportunities driven by the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, contact the author through his non-profit website: climatehealth.net. Dr. Johnson will give a class at GreenStar’s West-End Store on Wednesday, April 18 from 7 – 8:15 pm (see calendar of classes in this issue) and is available for further free presentations regarding the important work of transitioning to a renewable energy future.