Editorial: Probable Cause on Global Warming and Energy Crisis

 

In July 1971 I was almost arrested for trespassing on coal company strip mines near Davis, W. VA while taking pictures of wastelands and mountaintop box cuts. That’s the closest I ever came to legal consequences for any political demonstration. As it was, I sat in a smoke-filled coal trip cabin as we rode around the mine and I was shown their attempts at reclamation.

 

In 1972 I would make another trip to coal country, this time to the “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” near the Virginia-Kentucky border, not too far from historic Cumberland Gap. An ex roommate from graduate school would meet me. We would see miles of devastation that reminded one of war. Radio commentators would claim that the entire Allegheny region west of the eastern continental divide would some day be stripped flat for deeper seams of coal. “Our children will find that our mountains are gone,” said one columnist, as if echoing prophecies in Isaiah.

 

Then in 1973 we would have the oil shocks, in the wake of major confrontations in the Middle East.  At the beginning of 1974 we would be considering gasoline rationing. We wound up long gasoline lines and with an even-odd system for a while, but by spring of 1974 it seemed like the shortages disappeared mysteriously when prices increased. We would have a reprise of the shortages in 1979 after the upheavals in Iran.

 

All of this was important to me personally. I was having my “second coming out” then, and personal mobility was crucial to my life. It was, in a sense, a source of “false power.” Severe rationing could have been draconian, and targeted singles in proportion to families, for example.

 

In the mid 1980s, Saudi Arabia and other oil exporting countries increased production, reducing prices and actually causing a real estate recession in oil states like Texas. We would claim we had learned our lessons, that energy problems were essentially market driven. So wrote the conservatives.

 

We would get through the first Persian Gulf War without major shortages, and even escaped them after the 9/11 attacks. On the surface, it seems that we can indeed produce our way out of trouble. The areas of Appalachia that I had visited and explored as a young adult look much cleaned up now from how they had looked in the early 1970s. 

 

Nevertheless, we remain dangerously dependent upon oil from unstable areas of the world. The Saudi oil fields and ports make obvious big time targets for terrorists. There has been disruptive political instability in non-Arab oil producing countries like Nigeria and Venezuela. Demand from developing, pseudo-communist countries (China) is driving prices of crude oil up, especially in the face of fear of terrorist attacks or supply disruptions. Therefore, in the summer of 2005, there has been a record runup on pump gasoline prices, but few actual shortages or lines. There have also been reputable claims that the Persian Gulf may have pumped its easily obtained oil reserves much sooner than generally expected.

 

American demand for petroleum products fuels anti-American sentiments and terrorist ideology. America (and the West in general) is perceived as trying to exploit poor peoples in oil-rich parts of the world for below-market prices.  Oil interests probably do explaim American presence in Saudi Arabia (and Iraq), which helps drive the wrath of Osama bin Laden and radical Islam. The debate gets mixed up with American support of Israel, which predates the 1970s oil crises and is motivated by other historical and political factors, not oil itself. (I do think that Israel was wrong to grab lands in the Middle East at various points in history, but that gets beyond the scope of what I can cover here.)

 

The international tensions will extend to the global warming debate. Here we have to say that, given the temperature rise with increasing derivative in recent years, there is probable cause, but maybe not quite enough proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that human burning of hydrocarbons is slowly increasing global temperatures.  Of course, it is true that global temperatures have often risen and fallen before human activity was a factor.

 

It would seem that global warming would come on slowly and not produce a sudden, catastrophic effect on open society. Polar latitudes and those farthest from the equator would be affected the most, with melting of icecaps and a gradual rise in sea level that could inundate some coastal cities, including New Orleans, and could remove substantial coastal real estate. The flooding of coastal areas could actually happen rather suddenly, especially with violent storms (like Katrina). Warming could also occur suddenly if frozen methyl hydrates (deep in polar oceans) were suddenly melted and released as another greenhouse gas. The climate in temperate zones would be warmer and drier, but with more extreme storms. I lived in Minneapolis from 1997 to 2003 and found the winters much milder and easier to take than what I had expected, with above freezing temperatures and melting on many mid winter days. However, the possibility for great, sudden catastrophe exists. The Gulf Stream could be affected, suddenly making northern Europe much colder. And there are theoretical models where a sudden polar super storm could develop, as in the 2004 film “The Day After Tomorrow.”

 

And global warming poses the same political problems as energy consumption. It is likely to be exacerbated by the growing fossil fuel use by developing countries, most of all China. The refusal of the United States to cooperate with Kyoto accords sends a message that Americans, who had a head start in line on fossil fuel use, won’t make any sacrifices. The politics will be complicated by the tendency for peoples with higher standards of living to have fewer children.

 

Can we produce our way out of this? As for oil, it remains to be seen whether a stable price for oil will really lead to novel production increases, from relatively untapped resources in Russia or former republics (with a pipeline through formerly Taliban Afghanistan), or synthetic sources such as from Canadian tar sands or oil shale, or even indirectly from coal. Many of these have serious mining environmental issues. May alternative fuel models for cars have been proposed, including hydrogen fuel cells. In tropical countries (Brazil) sugar cane has been found to be an efficient renewable energy source (for alcohol fuels), and this would certainly reduce petroleum dependency; it is not clear what the effect would be on carbon dioxide emissions over long periods. Could an infrastructure of alternate fuels be set up all over the world allowing automobile mobility comparable to what we have today? Enormous calculation and planning would be required. School science fairs ought to interest students in various aspects of these problems. What would be the affect on energy stocks? (I have to admit that the runup of Exxon-Mobil has been very fortunate for me in “retirement,” as I had bought it during the 70s energy crisis.) Nuclear fission power is probably much cleaner in terms of emissions but presents enormous waste problems and therefore opportunities for terrorist compromise. When I was the head of an “Understanding” unit in New York in 1978, one of the supporters wanted to get me behind an anti-nuclear power initiative (this was before Three Mile Island and Chernobyl). Hydroelectric power is subject to drought. Nuclear fusion is an unknown in terms of practicality and breakthroughs. The most fundamentally sound power source should be solar, as well as wind, which would increase in warmer climates. The recent Scientific American issue emphasizes energy efficiency in terms of weight of vehicles and waste of energy in transmission. Energy concerns are bound to tie up creative attention of many people in small practicalities for decades, taking time in adaptive problems and away from more creative enterprises.  They can have social consequences, regarding the ability of creative but unsettled individuals to roam in the independent fashion of the past forty or so years. The fact that energy and climate problems runs man up against the apparently finite nature of a relatively small planet will inevitably tend to push people back toward more collective views of big-scale problems and of the responsibilities for sharing of the individuals affected.

 

A very recent observation, well documented on PBS Nova in 2006, is “global dimming”, the reduction in sunlight due to particulate pollution, which compresses daily temperature ranges and offsets global warming. Reducing solid pollution (perhaps an outcome of using alcohol fuels instead of fossil fuels) could effectively increase global warming if carbon dioxide emissions were not somehow reduced. In the few days when planes were grounded after September 11, 2001, the absence of jetliner contrails actually increased daily temperature range in the United States by two degrees.  

 

We all do know what happened to Venus, one planet away. Maybe it once had life.

 

©Copyright 2005 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use

 

Suggested reading: The September 2005 Special Issue of Scientific American, “Crossroads for Planet Earth”

The August 2005 issue of National Geographic, “After Oil”

 

The announcement from France on Feb 1, 2007, regarding a 90% probability that global warming results from human activity, and could raise average global temperatures by 11o F by 2100, and that we may be past the inflection or tipping point, is covered at this blog  The Washington Post story by Juliet Eilperin is “Humans Faulted for Global Warming: International Panel of Scientists Sounds Dire Alarm”, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/02/AR2007020200192.html .

 

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