We love our kids, of course. And every grandparent can’t help but fall in love with their grandkids. After that, what? Is it our great grandchildren that we’re willing to write off? Chances are good they’ll never meet us. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Is that the point in human history where we decide, in advance, that we’ll kiss-off humanity so that we can keep burning our precious fossil fuels?
When it comes to worldwide CO2 emissions, for us to believe that half-hearted, marginal attempts to reduce emissions will somehow stave off catastrophic climate change, is to embrace absolute self-delusion. Accelerated global warming is happening now. Heatwaves happen locally; they don’t happen globally, until now. Each year brings a raft of new broken records. Globally, nearly every year is warmer than the last. As of 2014, the last 16 years have seen the ten hottest years ever recorded on Earth. The year 2014 was the hottest year ever, and 2015 is on track to beat that. Just last month, July 2015 was officially the hottest month ever recorded on Earth. And in spite of Senator Inhofe’s claim that snow in Washington DC proves climate change is a hoax, the record-breaking isn’t going to stop there.
The unprecedented signs of this gathering catastrophe are everywhere:
- Continuous, record-breaking heatwaves, worldwide.
- Globally over the last 12 years, nearly 100,000 humans perished from excessive heat. In Europe, 70,000 died of heat in 2003 alone.
- Ongoing, extreme droughts in the western US. Over-pumping of California’s Central Valley aquifers, ancient underground water reservoirs, has caused the region to sink by ten feet or more. These aquifers will never be replenished.
- In 2006 in the US, the heat killed tens of thousands of cattle and over 700,000 fowl. Worldwide in 2010, millions of cattle were lost to heat.
- Large-scale crop failures in the US and around the world. In 2012, the US suffered 17 billion dollars in crop losses.
- Lengthening fire seasons have grown globally by as much as a month. Fire seasons are impacting larger areas of land. Growing and record fire seasons are charring the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, South America.
- As of August 27, 2015, over 100 wildfires are actively burning in Washington, Oregon, and California. This season in the western US, over 44,000 wildfires have already burned 8.2 million acres. Only six other years have seen fire seasons burn more than 8 million acres, and all of those have been since 2004. All-time record fire seasons are now underway in Alaska, Washington, and California, with a likely record in Oregon.
- Earth’s oceans are becoming deserts. Fisheries we humans rely on for food are collapsing. Massive die-offs of marine life including sea lions, birds, whales. Ever-growing ocean dead zones.
No one can honestly say this isn’t the result of global warming. And no one can honestly say this isn’t human caused.
Now with the Earth warming so quickly, the Arctic permafrost has begun to melt. Roads, houses, and forests are for the first time, sinking into the melting permafrost. The permafrost contains a planetary store of carbon equivalent to 6,800 gigatons of CO2, and this melting permafrost is now releasing large amounts of CO2 and methane into the Artic atmosphere. Critically, this is causing the Arctic to warm twice as fast as the rest of the planet, causing evermore-rapid permafrost melting, resulting in a positive feedback loop. A 15 percent release of permafrost CO2 would add about 125 ppm to the atmosphere, quickly skyrocketing global CO2 to over 530 ppm. Such levels have not been seen on Earth for at least 800,000 years, and likely tens of millions of years.
At such CO2 concentrations, Earth will become uninhabitable. Coastal cities will drown. Many millions if not billions of people will perish, as will countless species of plants and animals. Earth’s bounty, as we know it today, will be no more.
President Obama’s initiative to reduce US power plant CO2 emissions by 32 percent of the year 2005’s emission levels, applauded by many, can only be called “sandbagging”, given that US power plant CO2 emissions have already dropped by 15.5 percent from 2005 levels, as power companies have begun a slow transition to natural gas. So the president’s real goal is only a 16.5 percent cut in plant emissions. Granted, the plan would hold us to those cuts, but given the severity of the crisis humanity faces, this simply is not a serious effort. What must we do?
We can, and we must, leave carbon behind. Obviously China and India must get join in, but the US has disgorged more CO2 into the atmosphere than any other nation and we have an urgent responsibility to lead.
The incredibly elegant solutions to this growing disaster hit us in the face, every time we step outside. It’s in the wind and the sunlight. Wind and solar energy are clean, carbon-free, cheap, and effectively unlimited alternatives to coal and natural gas. US wind-energy capacity is forecasted to increase by 12.8 percent in 2015 and by 13 percent in 2016. As of 2014, the country’s total installed wind-energy capacity has increased nearly 23-fold since 2000. Solar power is also expanding dramatically. In just five years, the U.S. solar panel market grew by an astounding 418 percent.
But these advances are happening nowhere near fast enough to reduce the rate of global warming any time soon, because humans are still adding 2.4 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere each year. This crisis demands serious action. Within 20 years, US power generation should and must be entirely based on renewables. A study from the National Academy of Sciences revealed that in the contiguous US and excluding off-shore wind farms, the total potential for power generation from the wind is capacity is 16 times our total electricity consumption. That value is already discounted to consider for the variability of wind. We have far more wind energy than needed to meet all of the nation’s energy demands, including transportation. The energy is here, if we would simply harvest it.
Would it be expensive? Wind energy is far cheaper than coal or natural gas over the long run. A wind farm does require a larger initial investment to purchase and install the turbines and to update or expand the transmission grid, but this is quickly offset by the savings in the coal or natural gas not purchased. A rapid, nationwide conversion to wind and solar would place major demands on manufacturing and deployment capabilities, but so far, the growth of renewable energy has contributed greatly to plummeting costs. Today in the US, wholesale wind energy is priced as low as 1.4 cents per kilowatt hour, and solar energy as low as 3.87 cents. Even without federal subsidies, the wholesale cost of wind energy is priced as low as 3.7 cents per kilowatt-hour. Compare that to natural gas at 6.1 cents, and coal at 6.6 cents.
A Stanford University study indicates that an 80 percent conversion of all of America’s energy needs by 2030, with 100 percent conversion by 2050 is affordable and achievable. The current average cost to build a large scale wind farm is currently around $1.6 million per megawatt of installed capacity, and has fallen dramatically over the past decade. Of the nation’s total electrical generation capacity, 13 percent is renewable, leaving 87 percent, or 1,020,165 megawatts to be converted to renewables. Other sources including solar would be part of the mix, but for the sake of a general estimation, we’ll use wind. This results in a rough price tag of $1.63 trillion to convert all power generation in this country to wind. Added capacity would need to be built to meet demand when the wind is not blowing, but experience has shown that wind is much more reliable than previously thought. Additional costs for grid expansion would need to be included, but the US power distribution grid is outdated, regardless, and needs updating. So in fact, the $1.63 trillion figure for complete conversion is an entirely valid baseline. That is less than the $2 trillion cost of George W. Bush’s war on Iraq war, and what did we get for that?
This $1.6 trillion would be spent over 30 years, roughly $54 billion per year. It’s nearly guaranteed that those costs would continue to fall over time due to efficiencies of scale. And importantly, the cost would be dramatically offset by the avoided costs associated with roughly 60,000 premature annual American deaths and other healthcare costs caused by power plant air pollution, and by the many of billions of dollars that we will otherwise spend each year to battle the compounding consequences of global warming. A complete conversion will not halt global warming, but it will obviously slow it down.
Compare that $54 billion investment to the nearly $600 billion Americans spend annually on defense. Even the US Pentagon sees global warming as a national security threat. How much justification do we need?
Frankly though, I couldn’t care less how much the conversion to renewables might cost. The true cost of carbon-based capitalism on Earth has been horrific. In the addition to the staggering costs that unaddressed global warming will bring, over the many decades we’ve suffered countless coal mining calamities, like the Tennessee Coal Ash Disaster, the Massey Energy Mining Disaster, the Sago Mine Disaster, the endless onslaught of oil spills including the Exxon Valdez disaster, the BP Gulf Oil disaster, the Amoco Cadiz spill, the Gulf War Spill, mercury poisoning, continuous acidification of soils, lakes, streams and oceans, mountaintop removal mining, black lung disease, oil train derailments and fires. The list of environmental and human disasters is endless. Did you know that outdoor air pollution kills 200,000 Americans every year? What pathological disorder compels us to embrace so much destruction?
This Earth and the life it supports (including humans) have paid a very, very dear price for carbon capitalism. In truth, the cost of carbon capitalism has been immeasurable. So what is it worth to you? As if saving humanity from catastrophic die-off might be a little too expensive. We often gush over ourselves for being the most intelligent, most magnificent creatures ever to walk this Earth. Today, right now, we are reaching out across time and committing an act of planet-wide genocide. It’s not in the usual sense of how humans like to kill ethnic groups, but in a generational sense. We are killing our future.
The earliest signs are pervasive. Yes, this record US west coast fire season will end. Yes, this record drought will eventually end (although NASA isn’t so sure of that). And yes, the brilliant Senator Inhofe from Oklahoma will still be able to make snowballs next winter. But a child born this year will witness first-hand the gathering of our human undoing: the agonizing and sometimes convulsive die-off of much of humanity, unless we decide very, very soon that the human species should live on. Otherwise, Darwinian laws will playout as they have for countless eons and vanished species. The survival of the fittest. But fitness for survival isn’t only about brains or brawn. It’s also about common sense. There’s not much time left to decide, and this is in fact the most important decision we will ever make. So I ask you, are you ready to pick the generation that witnesses first-hand the beginning of our end? The generation that finally pays the true price for carbon capitalism, and our insanity? Because by failing to act, now, we already have. We may never meet them. But they will surely remember us.