Climate Change: Are We Fifty Years Too Late?

Paris Climate Summit

It seems so much has been written about climate change that it’s almost become a matter for complacency due to over-exposure. The recent flooding in Louisiana should shake us free of any lethargy, but it’s unlikely it will. Media accounts of ‘historical’ natural disasters and record-shattering weather events have become so common that it’s human nature to start taking them for granted – particularly by those as yet unaffected by any cataclysmic weather occurrence.

One reason is the apparent lack of urgency displayed by our leaders. U.S. Presidential nominee, Donald Trump, for example, still refuses to accept man’s part in global warming, even though recent surveys show only 15% of Americans continue to deny its existence, and while in some areas effort is being made to reduce carbon emissions the agreements reached in Paris last year are woefully inadequate, even if one optimistically assumes they will be met.

As the New York Times reported at the time:

Scientists who are closely monitoring the climate negotiations said on Friday that the emerging agreement, and the national pledges incorporated into it, are still far too weak to ensure that humanity will avoid dangerous levels of climate change.

The pledges, even if put in place in full, would result in emissions reductions perhaps half as large as those needed to meet a global goal of limiting planetary warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)….

…Many countries and many scientists are pushing for an even tighter target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, one that would require that fossil-fuel emissions in rich countries virtually stop by around 2030.

That tighter target is mentioned in the current draft of the agreement, but it remains unclear whether the final language would be strong enough to require that countries try to meet it, or whether it would become simply an aspirational goal.[1]

An aspirational goal? This could prove the end of civilisation as we know it; possibly the extinction of mankind. It’s hardly hoping one’s son or daughter will attain sufficient grades to make university.

Or could it be the politicians have already worked out the futility of it all and just decided to go through the motions until they have to say, “Sorry, guys, we did our best but we’re afraid you’re screwed.”

Let’s look at the facts. There were so many scientists and inventors vying for glory as inventor of the internal combustion engine it’s hard to pin down who truly was the first, but they’d probably all want to disown the device if they were alive today. Its invention (in the 18th century) may well mark the beginning of the end for human life on Earth.

At the same time as those intrepid inventors were working to perfect their ideas of internal combustion using fossil fuels, the evolution of electric power was also vying for a place in the new vehicle market. Investment and entrepreneurship won out over the electric model and thus the fossil fuel engine became the power of choice. There are now 1.2 billion cars, light, medium and heavy duty trucks and buses on the world’s roads, all pumping out greenhouse gases and other noxious substances.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (U.S.):

In total, the US transportation sector—which includes cars, trucks, planes, trains, ships, and freight—produces nearly thirty percent of all US global warming emissions, more than almost any other sector.[2]

How different would the world now be had the electric vehicle triumphed over the internal combustion engine?

To convert all coal or gas-fired power stations to a form of non-greenhouse-gas-emitting fuel, even nuclear, would take decades and cost more than any government is prepared to invest. Even if it were achieved, converting 1.2 billion vehicles to non-CO2-emitting power units would be prohibitively expensive, assuming such technologically-advanced engines existed in any quantity, which they don’t.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s it was considered quite acceptable for factory chimneys to belch forth vast columns of smoke and soot, until scientists realised that not only were the soot particles responsible for smog, but also the sulphur dioxide emitted from burning raw coal. Clean air laws helped to remedy the smog problem, and smokeless fuels lessened the sulphur dioxide, but invisible (and apparently harmless) CO2 gases continued to be released into the atmosphere, and in many places still are today.

The coal, oil and gas industries have successfully hog-tied the U.S. Congress in the past and will continue to do so as long as they can spread lies about the causes of climate change and still cast doubt with sufficient people to prevent a major public outcry over their irresponsibilities.

Governments are not simply allowing more and more oil drilling, fracking, and mining, but are actively supporting them. The decline of Arctic sea ice is viewed as a further source of profit-making, rather than a symptom of the poisoning of the planet.

In the U.K. plans are in the pipeline for five more open-cast coal mines which, if passed, will produce 11 million tons of coal. As the Guardian reported in June of this year:

There are a number of proposals in the planning pipeline for opencast coal mines in England and Wales, totalling 11Mt:

Nant Llesg, South Wales: 6Mt

Highthorn, Northumberland: 3Mt

Tower Colliery, South Wales: 1.2Mt

Dewley Hill, Newcastle: 800,000t

Hilltop, Derbyshire: 200,000t[3]

NOTE: Since the Guardian published this article the three million ton mine at Highthorn, Northumberland, has been given the go-ahead.

It would seem that Western governments are paying lip service to their commitments at Paris, while continuing to support the very industries responsible for the problem.

India, the fastest developing nation, is making efforts to control CO2 emissions, and China has already gone some way down the road towards limiting greenhouse gases. If the science proves correct it’ll not be sufficient to prevent escalating global warming, given the rapidity of ice melt at the Poles, the consequential rise in sea level, and the additional increase in warming created by loss of heat reflectivity due to polar ice melt.

Global warming is accelerating faster than any of the science predicted. In Paris it was agreed to cut emissions sufficiently by 2050 to keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Already scientists are predicting it’ll be too little too late. The latest research supports that. An Australian study reveals that climate change began around 1830, that’s a good fifty years before previous estimates. At that time there were barely one billion humans on the planet:

Climate Council professor Will Steffen said the research was a dire warning to today’s ever-increasing population. “In the first half of the 1800s, the human population was much smaller, homes did not have electricity and coal-fired power generation was in its infancy,” Steffen said. “And yet this study finds that Earth’s climate was still responding to the small increase in carbon emissions at the start of the Industrial Age…This study demonstrates that human influence on the climate system can be traced back to centuries ago, but that those 19th century changes were small and slow compared to the massive, planet-wide changes in climate we are experiencing today.”[4]

Maybe those self-congratulatory celebrations by politicians in Paris came just fifty years too late?

To lay all the blame on politicians is really to pass the buck. Few of us can give up our cars to save the planet. Americans would likely burn the White House down at any law taking away their gas-guzzlers. The writer still has his vehicle, and so most likely does the reader. We want global warming dealt with, but we’ve become too reliant on fossil fuels to be able to make the change sufficiently quickly.

The simple truth is we have proceeded along the wrong path for too long. Technology and our profit-driven societies have blinded us to the damage we have done, and are still doing, to our fragile planet.

Man’s total failure to consider the long term effects of his pollution on the Earth have created the problems we face today. We’ve treated the planet as an unruly teenager treats his bedroom: trash everywhere, and the expectation that someone else will clean it up.

Climate changes, the devastation and suffering they are already causing, and the vastly greater suffering still to come, are, to coin a truth made infamous by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright after 9/11, man’s chickens coming home to roost.

[1] “The Road to a Paris Climate Deal” NYT, December 11th 2015 *NOTE: This link has now been deleted but the article is still available. Scroll down the page to, “Scientists see catastrophe in Latest Draft of Climate Deal”, together with an image of people holding a banner reading “Adieu”.

[2] “Car Emissions and Global Warming” UCSUS, (Undated)

[3] “Opencast coal mine planned for Northumberland coast” Guardian, June 22nd 2016

[4] “Global Warming Actually Began In The 1830s, And That’s Very Troubling” Huffington Post, August 25th 2016

4 Replies to “Climate Change: Are We Fifty Years Too Late?”

  1. Sabina – comments with (I think) more than two links are held for moderation by the anti-spam police so they take a little longer to publish.

    Three good choices of non-denialists. I’m sure our politicians haven’t heard of any of them. I particularly liked the Ruth Mundy song. Very moving, and prophetic.

  2. Yes about Ruth Mundy’s song, it almost brought me to tears. It was bad enough growing up under the shadow of ‘The Bomb’ but today’s youth face a future which appears to be slipping entirely from the grasp of any mere handful of politicians to alter for the better.

    (Thanks for info about links. Will keep it in mind. Sometimes it’s just more apposite to let others illustrate my understanding of the issues. Your patience is appreciated.)

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