Climate change is the greatest long term threat we face, more than terrorism, even more than nuclear war. The consequences of nuclear war would be far worse, but its likelihood is very low whereas some effects of climate change are inevitable and will certainly become catastrophic unless we act vigorously and immediately.
Climate change is caused by people burning oil, coal, natural gas, and forests. The carbon dioxide (CO2) put into the atmosphere causes the earth to retain heat that would otherwise be lost to space—the greenhouse effect. How fast the earth will heat depends on what we do, and the basic science is clear. The earth has already heated up, it will heat up more no matter what we do, it will be far worse unless we limit CO2 emissions, and the effects will be very dire for people, our ecosystems, our economy, and our national security.
The following graph shows the correlation between CO2 and global temperature going back 400,000 years.
The two curves are almost identical except for the past few decades (nearly vertical green line far right). The line now extends up literally off scale. If this trend continues, and there is no reason to think it won’t, we already have enough CO2 in the air to raise global temperatures by 10 degrees Celsius, or 18 degrees Fahrenheit. So why haven’t we heated up that much already? When you put on a coat you don’t warm up immediately; it takes a while for your body to generate enough heat to warm you up. We have put a heavy coat on the earth, and it is slowly but surely giving us a raging fever.
Climate change is not just warming temperatures. It changes rainfall patterns to different parts of the year and different parts of the country, more droughts, more floods, more tropical diseases, and rising sea levels due to ice melting and ocean water expanding. It is nearly certain that if we do nothing some of today’s toddlers will see Miami, Norfolk naval base (home of the US Atlantic Fleet) and many other places under water and abandoned.
I’ve given at least seven lectures in town advocating action on climate change and do several things myself to reduce its effects. What’s needed are two categories of changes in our behavior: 1) use less energy by doing some things less and others more efficiently, and 2) switch to sources of energy other than fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas). This will be expensive, but less expensive than evacuating all of south Florida, and coping with global unrest when hundreds of millions of people see their crops die in drought or their homes vanish beneath rising seas.
There is no one solution, just like the military doesn’t have just one kind of weapon. We need to do several big things and billions of small ones; some are like aircraft carriers, and some are like bullets. There are no deadlines. Every minute we wait makes it worse and every step we take makes it better.
Individual people can do many little things: Keep your thermostat down in winter and up in summer. Use windows and window shades to control temperature as well as furnace and AC. Recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to run a TV for half an hour. Use less water, since water purification uses lots of energy. Drive fuel efficient cars; ditch the SUV unless you need to carry lots of cargo. Walk more, drive less. Use low energy lighting like LEDs; old incandescent bulbs use most of their energy generating heat, not light. Install solar panels, a ground source heat pump, and maybe a wind turbine. Plant trees. Use cover crops to add CO2 to the soil. There are many many more.
The big things need to be done by government, some because many people won’t help without an incentive or a penalty. Energy efficiency and alternative energy costs more in the short term and the pay offs take years. But if we are to keep the planet livable we ALL need to contribute. We remade our economy in 1942. We have made huge sacrifices in the face of COVID-19. Fighting climate change will require less sacrifice than either of these, and failure will cause a slow motion catastrophe.
I’ll fight for government to do its part while I do my personal part. Make public spending decisions with energy efficiency and CO2 emissions uppermost. Mandate that all public construction be LEED certified as energy efficient. For example, put lighting on motion sensors so vacant rooms won’t be lit and waste energy, insulate well and use passive solar heating. Support wind and solar energy and invest in a smart grid and charging stations to carry it. Use electric vehicles for short trips and in urban areas where recharging is readily available. Regulate the private sector, but don’t micromanage it. Prohibit construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure like coal-fired power plants or large oil pipelines. Make CO2 emissions unprofitable with a federal carbon tax rebated to the public, and let the private sector figure out the most efficient way to reduce emissions. It will reward innovations that politicians never dreamed of. For example, navy researchers can make aviation fuel from sea water. It takes a lot of electricity, but a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier near China has power to burn and could make it cheaper than shipping it from San Diego.