Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Global Warming: It's Time to Think About Plan B


You ride your bike to work. You recycle everything that you don't compost. You eat mostly local and organically grown food and eat very little meat, if any. You've weatherized your house and installed energy saving light bulbs and appliances. You just bought a Prius.

You are the archtypical Oregonian, as green as can be for a lot of good reasons, primary among them the threat of global warming.

And then along comes the Tata Nano.

The what?

Just the world's cheapest new car, costing a mere $2,500. It's dubbed “the people's car” by Tata Motors of India. It's going to be on the market soon and it shouldn't be another Yugo. Tata is no backward little Third World company. Earlier this year, Tata bought the luxury lines Jaguar and Land Rover from Ford for $2 billion.

The Nano, however, is the car for people who can't afford to own a car. There are billions of such people in the world. There's a billion each in both China and India. Just think about what's going to happen to the world's equilibrium with a billion more cars on the road. Your conscientiously small carbon footprint is going to seem awfully puny in the fight against global warming.

But don't blame China and India. Most countries in Europe can't meet the goals of the Kyoto Protocol. And here in the U.S., our Democratic Congress passed new fuel standards for automobiles that set the average fuel economy rating for an automobile company’s fleet of cars at 35 mpg. This law, which is weaker than almost all standards in Europe and Japan, doesn’t take effect until 2020.

Remember the report issued by the International Panel on Climate Change last November? The IPCC, which shared the Nobel Prize last year with Al Gore, issued some dire warnings. "If there's no action before 2012, that's too late, there is not time," said Rajendra Pachauri, a scientist and economist who heads the IPCC. "What we do in the next 2-3 years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."

Pachauri, an Indian, has said he was "having nightmares" because of the Nano and added that the car represents bankruptcy of India's environmental policy.

No one doubts global warming anymore. Even President Bush seems to acknowledge it and has a plan for us to deal with it--as of 2025. Nevertheless, the subject of climate change still suffers from extreme levels of ignorance when politicians and pundits start talking about it. The most widespread layer of manure is that we as individuals, or even as local or regional governments, can do anything meaningful to reverse global warming through the reduction of greenhouse gases.

On a national or international level, it may have been possible to slow down global warming if Gore had become president in 2000 and there were enough other world leaders like him. But after eight years of the Bush regime, the odds don't look good. It looks like we're toast, no matter how many Oregonians buy a Prius or ride a bike.

But before you get so despondent that you go on a gluttonous gas guzzling bender, careening across the land in a 50-foot motorhome from one Arby's to another, all the while tossing beer cans and water bottles out the window until you get so crazed that you obsessively plot to hunt down Dick Cheney and blow him up in his secret bunker with a suicide bomb—wait, there is hope after all.

There is a Plan B. And that brings us to Prof. Paul J. Crutzen, the 1995 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. Crutzen, who won the Nobel prize for his work on the hole in the ozone layer, told the New York Times, “So far, there is little reason to be optimistic.”

He believes a political or social remedy to climate change is implausible and proposes a technological fix instead. Crutzen has proposed a method of artificially cooling the global climate by releasing particles of sulphur in the upper atmosphere, which would reflect sunlight and heat back into space.

Crutzen estimates that it would cost $50 billion to cool the earth this way, or about 5% of the world's annual military spending. By contrast, a competing scheme to put trillions of tiny wafer like plastic lenses into space to deflect the sun's rays would cost several trillion dollars.

I bet this “geo-engineering” solution rubs every right-thinking environmentalist the wrong way. It goes against our Puritan nature. It embraces decadence. It's like eating supersized Big Mac meals every day and then erasing the extra pounds through liposuction and stomach stapling. It's like going off to an Ivy League school, partying like there's no tomorrow, flunking out, maxing out the family credit cards, hocking the family jewels, getting busted for drugs and still getting bailed out by your parents.

Just wrong.

On the other hand, what's our goal? Is it to reverse global warming, or just to make people change their profligate ways? We can pass cap-and-trade laws, sign treaties and protocols and provide tax credits for energy conservation, but we're just re-arranging the deck chairs and meanwhile, the Maldives, a small but sovereign nation, is sinking into the Indian Ocean.

Closer to home, huge stretches of ocean front property throughout the United States could easily end up submerged. Worldwide, 634 million people live on coastal land that is 30 feet or less above sea level, all of which could be gone in a couple of decades.

Then there's the drought, flooding, famines, fires, severe storms, rampant species extinction and other environmental maladies which already are striking the world and will get only more severe as the earth warms.

As all of these tragedies become more pervasive, someone is going to act on Crutzen's idea. It could be the U.N. or a special treaty organization or single nation—or even private enterprise. But at some point, global warming is going to be stopped cold by shooting crap into space to block out the sun.

Our environmental crises will not end there, but mucking up the upper atmosphere will clear the air politically. It ought to deprive the corn cartel of a rationale for the ludicrous economics of converting food to fuel. Same thing for the neo-nuclear power lobby. Perhaps it will allow us to take a more comprehensive and balanced look at the environmental problems facing the world.

What we will discover is that most green measures to reduce carbon emissions are necessary for other reasons. China now consumes just nine percent of the world's oil, but accounts for a third of the increase in consumption of oil. And that's before any of those Tata Nanos roll off the assembly line. The recent shock of $4-a-gallon gas has prompted more people to reduce driving, switch to smaller cars and start riding bikes and buses than several years worth of ads about saving the polar bears.

I'm going to keep riding my bike everywhere I can, not to save the earth, but because it saves me money, makes me feel better, connects me with my community and is just fun. Though it would be more fun if, in Portland, we actually had some global warming.

Politicians, of course, aren't talking to or about Paul Crutzen. The notion that it's too late for the world to confront climate change through conservation is too new and perhaps too defeatist in 2008. But by 2012, it will be the hot topic of the presidential campaign.

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