My Turn: Concentrating on carbon
April 30, 2013
Recent front-page news in this paper documented what skiers lamenting the lack of powder this calendar year already knew.
Local first quarter 2013 precipitation set an all time record low. 2012 Arctic summer sea ice extent was also the lowest on record. Australia's unprecedented summer temps in 2012-2013 brought new meaning to "off the charts," forcing their weather service to add two new colors to high temperature graphs.
Greenland's summer ice melt was 5 times the rate in the early 90s. Melting on the Antarctic Peninsula was the highest in 1,000 years. Ocean pH is decreasing, which makes it harder for shell building creatures. Increasing ocean temperatures are stressing coral reefs. Bark beetle infestations are expanding both northward and higher in altitude as winter survival rates increase due to warming temperatures. Anyone who has traveled by car in the western US and Canada can attest to their impact. Need I go on?
All of the important climate change markers noted above are widely accepted in the scientific community as traceable to humankind's use of the atmosphere and oceans as a dumping ground for greenhouse gases.
The first rule of ecology is that you cannot do just one thing. We ignore this rule at our own peril. Our disruption of the atmospheric CO2 is sourced in fossil fuel burning. Analyzed ice core samples show relatively stable pre-industrial age atmospheric levels of CO2 at or below 280ppm for tens of thousands of years. We evolved under these conditions.
In the mid-1800s, this began to change. In my lifetime, that balance has been radically altered. Precise atmospheric CO2 measurements began when I was two. That level was 314ppm. When I graduated college, the instruments registered 338ppm. The current reading is 398. Something has to give. Climate change is that something. Cities like Los Angeles, Mexico City and Beijing keep children inside on days when visible particulate air pollution is severe. This tangible pollution is local. Invisible CO2 air pollution is more insidious and its consequences are global in scale. We have yet to discover many of the consequences of our ecological hubris.
We have made limited progress slowing the rate of increase in CO2 emissions. Consider first the supply side power use. Locally, TDPUD's share of renewables in its portfolio has increased from 8 percent before the 2006 "coal debate" to 34 percent today. During the first quarter of 2013, Portugal had a 70 percent renewable power mix. On April 15, Germany's 1.3 million solar photovoltaic (PV) systems produced a record output 22.68 megawatts. On that same day, the cumulative production meter on our family's 11-year-old PV system passed the 40 megawatt hour mark. In 2012, wind was 2.1 percent of global electricity production compared to 0.2 percent in 2001.
On the demand side, we have developed much more efficient ways to use energy in recent years. Vehicle fuel economy increases annually. (My '65 Bug got 28 mpg; our 2006 Prius gets 40+ and, unlike the Bug, the windshield defroster actually works). Devices like motors, appliances, electronics and lights are doing the same work using a fraction of the power they did a decade ago.
All of these accomplishments are offset, however, by population growth. An exponentially larger effort is required. Though the rate of increase in CO2 pollution has debatably slowed, the net imbalance of atmospheric greenhouse gases increases unabated.
As we rub the ignorance out of our eyes, the urgency of correcting our ecological interference increases. I have not even discussed CO2 feedback loops like permafrost melting and forest die offs in which current carbon sinks become carbon sources. Some scientists fear that we have already reached or surpassed tipping points that preclude a livable climate for our great grandchildren. On the current path, our carbon footprint may force the extinction of our physical footprints.
The task before us is daunting. Immense efforts along the lines of our WWII focus are needed. We need to retool our economy to address the imminent dangers of climate change. New carbon emission free methods of power generation, food production and transportation must be invented and implemented. Use of our atmosphere and oceans as free carbon dumps must cease. The true costs of these so-called "externalities" must be identified and paid.
We should not expect to see a livable climate for our great grandchildren unless we get serious and restore ecological balance to our atmosphere and oceans. We were handed a predictable, benign climate. Lets get to work so we can pass one on to future generations.
Neal Mock is a Truckee resident.
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