I have to admit, when it comes to global warming, I am a pessimist. I have little faith in the ability of mankind to curb its appetite for energy, thereby burning less fossil fuels, the main culprit of global warming. I look at what the United States has managed to accomplish. By becoming the greatest economy on the planet, built on a mountain of coal and an ocean of oil, we have contributed more than any other single nation to the process of global warming. We are far from being the only culprits, but we are without a doubt the glutton at the buffet table.
Were we to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, by placing a greater burden of energy production upon cleaner sources of energy such as solar and nuclear, I still think effectively combating global warming is unlikely. Only a prediction, but there are solid reasons behind it.
One is, the slow pace of governments to change course is legendary, especially a government as bulky and widespread as that of the United States (I, for one, believe that government mandated benchmarks to combat global warming will be more effective than allowing market forces to do the job, but that rant is for another day). Any major shift in output from sources of energy that pollute to ones that don’t is likely to be measured not in years, but in decades. In the meantime a growing, and presumably still affluent, America will never lose its thirst for energy.
Our society is built upon the use of energy. We are wedded to power to such an extent that our lives would be unrecognizable without access to an unlimited supply of it. Until clean fuel sources can replace those that pollute, there will always be room for sources of energy that do harm to the environment. This isn’t a matter of a society addicted to mp3 players and the constant, comforting glow of the television set. This has to do with immutable facets of post-industrial life like refrigeration, indoor temperature control, and most importantly, personal transportation in a country where countless communities would cease to exist without ready access to functioning automobiles. The reduction of any one of these three, or their loss, would fundamentally change the way Americans live. That’s a pretty tall order for a society that is used to living in comfort and convenience.
Besides the fact that we come off like a pampered aristocracy in this assessment, as long as fossil fuels are available, they will be used, even with cleaner fuels becoming more widely available. The reason for this is that there is only one thing better than an abundant source of energy, and that’s cheap energy. The more energy that is available, the cheaper it is, across the board. And we will find a way to use it.
When thinking about global warming, it’s hard to put its effects into a proper perspective. The effects that we are seeing are the result of cumulative pollution stretching back to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. To this point, the bulk of the damage has been caused in the 20th century, but that means this is still a situation that is multi-generational in its causes and effects, and appears to be exponentially generational in its solution. Humans have a hard time contemplating anything of this length. We are hardwired to understand the world in which we live by at most the length of our own life spans, and at least, by the length of time between meals. Injecting anything longer tends to turn the issue into an abstraction, something that has no relevance in the here and now. So it isn’t just the wheels of government that have to slow and begin turning in the opposite direction. Mankind, over the entire planet, not just in the United States, is being asked to deal with the problem of global warming not just for a few years, or a few decades, but for perhaps centuries, maybe even a millennium. This type of focus, and this type of sacrifice, has never been asked of the human species before, and we may not be capable of meeting the challenge.
I mentioned the burden to all peoples, which brings us to another reason global warming may turn out to be an intractable problem. The great symbol of global warming will always be the United States and its largess. We’ve earned it. But look at why we have earned it: by operating a technologically diverse and adept society that makes everything look easy. We live in plenty. We pride ourselves on our luxury. But, in order to really make a dent in global warming, we have to be the last society to live so carefree. Sorry China. Sorry India. You won’t be allowed into the party with your three billion guests, because America got drunk and ruined it for everybody else. You will not be allowed to raise the vast amounts of your citizenry out of abject poverty. You will not be allowed to grow your economies and project your power. You will not be allowed to continue your ascendancy back into great power statuses, after so long in the wilderness...because it’s bad for the environment. Not bloody likely.
A third of the population of the planet now resides in the up and coming nations of China and India. They will want a seat at the table, and no one will be able to stop them. We may be able to influence the destructiveness of their environmental behavior if the United States sets an example. But already the prospect of ten times the population of the United States all wanting houses with A/C and two cars in the garage is enough to make even the most ardent environmentalist want to crawl into a closet and cry. India and China are just plain scary to people concerned about global warming. Getting the United States to pull over is just a warm up for the real deal from the east.
So where does that leave us? We’re fucked, right? Who knows? I don’t. And there isn’t a single scientist on the face of the planet that can tell you with any honesty just how calamitous global warming will be for the human species. It’s going to hurt, bad. There is consensus about that. Whole countries and societies could find themselves in such strange territory that their survival could be in doubt, but that’s just about as worst-case as it gets, short of total apocalypse.
What I foresee, summoning all my greatest powers as a soothsayer, is that global warming will be mitigated, and will begin a very slow process of reversal, only when we have finally run out of fossil fuels. Not a second before. When all the wells run dry, and all the mines are played out, then we will have no choice but to rely on whatever clean sources of energy we have developed that have the capacity to replace fossil fuels. I doubt we will run out of coal and oil before a suitable replacement has been discovered, so the transition should not be that jarring.
Global warming will get markedly worse before it gets better. It takes awhile for the carbon we burn to drift up into the atmosphere to the point where it contributes to global warming. All the record tons we’ve been shooting upward for the last decade still haven’t done their damage yet, to give you an idea of scale.
Global warming will begin to reverse itself despite our best intentions, not because we will be able to rally around the most challenging, and perhaps most important, cause in human history, but because we will exhaust the very agents of our own destruction. That being said, we will have a hell of time dealing with the changing earth around us. I, for one, hope that while we continue to research and deploy methods to combat global warming, we also devote enough resources to learning how to adapt to our new, hotter world.