PENDELTON, Ore. – On a 70-degree, June Friday with the air dry and a gentle breeze blowing – near perfect conditions for human-powered transportation – only the poor and a few children could be spotted making their way around this small town in ever-green Oregon on foot or by bicycle.
They are a testament to the delusion that the U.S. can somehow moderate its carbon-dioxide (CO2) producing ways by the government pledging to make it so. One of the most honest things truth-troubled President Donald Trump might have done in his time in office was announce he was pulling the country out of the 2016 Paris climate accord.
The agreement was and is a charade. Global leaders need to find a new path forward. Asking nations to agree to goals that require they request or order citizens to make sacrifices isn’t working and isn’t going to work.
Consider Canada, a proud signatory in Paris that promised aggressive reductions only to increase its emissions.
It’s not really Canada’s fault. It can’t help being part of a hydrocarbon-dependent world. From food to fertilizer, from balloons to the boats outside the local Walmart, from clothes to calking, we depend on products derived from hydrocarbons, and that’s just the beginning.
Our world has been taken over by labor-reducing, hydrocarbon-consuming machines.
Workers here in a community famous for wool shirts clean sidewalks and parking lots of cut grass and loose gravel with backpack blowers powered by gas-guzzling engines. Along roadways, in front of homes and at businesses everywhere on a drive southeast from Seattle, what is said of this old community built on human labor could be said of almost every community.
America is a motorized culture. Everywhere you look once human-powered activities have been taken over by the machines, and directly or indirectly, the power for those machines comes from hydrocarbons.
No matter how those hydrocarbons are consumed – be it in the form of gasoline, diesel fuel, electricity or coal – they produce carbon dioxide. Thus it should come as no surprise that two years after Paris, greenhouse gas emissions keep going up and are expected to increase even more in 2020.
“At a time when there’s all this talk about how we should be decreasing CO2emissions, the amount of CO2 we’re putting into the atmosphere is clearly accelerating,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric senior scientist Pieter Tans said in a prepared statement on the 2018 numbers. “It’s no coincidence that the last four years also had the highest CO2 emissions on record.”
As everyone in Alaska knows, there is much talk about the Arctic and the near-Arctic being at the “forefront of climate change,” as the World Wildlife Federation puts it. But the battleground is really in the lower latitudes where most of the planet’s rapidly growing human population lives.
Most there are responsible in some part for the steady increase in CO2 and Americans are most responsible in that they pioneered the easy lifestyle so many on the planet now covet.
American motor vehicles led the way to unprecedented individual mobility. Americans popularized idealized housing in temperature-controlled buildings cooled to the perfect level for humans in summer and heated to the same in winter.
America led the way in creating powered gadgets to assist with almost anything a human wants to do by replacing human energy with machine energy.
Technology is a wonderful thing. It is also near impossible to rollback.
Nobody is going to stop much of the rest of the world from wanting the conveniences Americans enjoy, and any U.S. politician who runs on a platform of making Americans give up these things to keep the sky from falling is doomed.
Other tactics, meanwhile, don’t seem to be working.
Seattle is claiming credit in shifting some drivers to mass transit after voters committed to spending $54 billion to build infrastructure over the course of the next 25 years, but the latest report on traffic volume shows average daily traffic at more than 1 million vehicles per day, about the same rate as a decade ago.
An engineer working on the project admitted over the weekend the idea really isn’t to reduce traffic, but to keep it from getting even worse, which just about defines the CO2 problem perfectly.
No matter how much anybody wants to reduce CO2 and no matter what gains are being made thanks to new renewable energy sources, LED lights, electric cars, and other good-hearted, good-faith attempts to reduce atmospheric CO2, population growth is likely to outstrip any conservation efforts.
All those people are going to produce more CO2. It would appear obvious that short anything other than a major cultural change in the Western world, any reduction in carbon production is going to be offset by the population increase.
Changing cultures – short of employing catastrophic war – is not easy. It takes a long time if it can be done at all.
All lit up
Flying into the SeaTac airport on a clear night, the scene below tells the story. The I-5 freeway north into the city is painted with a solid stream of motor vehicle headlights.
Who knows where those folks are going, but just try telling them they shouldn’t be using a car to drive there or, for that matter, adding CO2 to the atmosphere to cool their home from 85 degrees to 70 degrees, or pushing a rotary lawn mower instead of a powered one, or doing by human power any of the myriad tasks now driven by machine power.
We have met the enemy, and he is us.
Reducing the carbon footprint of the average citizen of the Western world is a lot easier to say than to do. We probably should be proud of what little we have been able to do thanks to better-insulated homes, more efficient engines of all sorts, and energy-saving electrical appliances.
But let’s not kid ourselves. If world leaders really want to do something about global warming, they are either going to need to impose draconian measures that change the way people live (good luck with that in a democracy) or start mining carbon from the air or the oceans.
If, of course, they really do want to stop global warming.
“The Kremlin’s Key to World Dominance: Climate Change,” The National Interest, an international affairs magazine, headlined earlier this year.
“First of all, most Russians will be shielded from the primary effects of climate change because of the country’s geography,” wrote Chas Goldman.
‘The thawing of the Arctic Sea could also create tremendous benefits for the Kremlin. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that 30 percent of the world’s untapped natural gas and 13 percent of untapped oil reserves are trapped in the Arctic, right in Putin’s backyard. As the ice thaws and research and development improves, the cost needed to extract those materials will shrink significantly and offer a potential economic boom for Russia.
“…A shipping route from Russia’s Northern coast to East Asia will develop. The implications of this new global trade route are hard to understate; Chinese exports to Europe would likely travel through Russia, giving Moscow currently unimaginable economic leverage over NATO adversaries in Eastern and Western Europe.
“(And) as Giuseppe Agliastro at the Italian daily La Stampa has noted, climate change has the potential to transform Russia into an ‘agricultural superpower’ as huge swaths of Russian territory morph from uninhabitable frozen tundra to fertile land. The warming climate could also make Russia a more attractive tourism destination, further aiding the Kremlin in its quest to diversify the domestic economy.”
Russia has publicly backed the Paris accords, but then why wouldn’t it? They are a package of promises impossible to keep.
The Russians might have a better grasp of the reality than the West, and that reality seems increasingly clear:
The only real hope of reducing atmospheric CO2 anytime in the near future is to remove it from the atmosphere. There are natural ways to do so now, according to the National Academies of Science, and new ways are under study.
“Direct air capture or carbon mineralization could be revolutionary because the potential capacity for CO2 removal of each of these options is larger than the need,” the government agency reported in October. “The primary impediment to direct air capture is high cost.
“Climeworks, which operates the only commercial direct air capture machine reports a cost of $600 per ton of CO2. There is no commercial driving force for developing direct air capture technologies, in contrast to other negative emissions technologies (NETs) such as afforestation/reforestation, bioenergy with carbon capture and
sequestration (BECCS)-to-fuels, and coastal blue carbon, which bring economic and other benefits unrelated to their climate impacts.
“Therefore, developing a low-cost direct air capture option will require
sustained government investment. Cooperating and competing researchers and start-ups could explore options and advance many dimensions of the technology at once.”
The easiest funding source is, of course, the obvious one: a carbon tax.
The idea has been supported by Kevin Hassett, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, and Trump’s chief advisor on economic affairs who in 2007 co-authored a report pushing the idea while at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
A carbon tax would likely be a tough sell in the U.S., but could present an arguably easier path forward than any policies now on the table. Americans have a long history of embracing technology.
They are conditioned to attack problems not retreat from them.
An assault on CO2 might well have more appeal to the masses than a withdrawal into sacrifice. The country in the 1960s embraced a hugely costly program to put a man on the moon in order to beat the Russians there.
It might well now be in the natural interest to freeze shut Russia’s northern sea route before it can be fully developed and prevent the country from becoming a major agricultural competitor on the global stage.