Last night on Coast to Coast with George Knapp, we got into the global warming issue during the last 15 minutes. Listening to one caller ranting on with a distorted litany of misinformation and disinformation that he actually believes, I got hot under the collar. This is really rare for me anytime, and very rare on the radio. It takes a real moron to inspire that kind of reaction, but that was what I was dealing with. The fact that I was dripping with sweat in the middle of an unprecedented heat wave for our area, with hundreds of fires destroying homes and lives across the whole western US and the Midwest farming community in terrible trouble from drought did not help at all.
I want to say, in just one paragraph, exactly where I stand on the issue of global warming. It’s pretty much what I said on the show. First, there is now no question that it is real and substantially caused by carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere by mankind. The sun plays a role, but it’s a small one, and the evidence is that what role it has played has actually contributed over the past few years to cooling, not warming–and look where we are!
When a climate skeptic of the stature of Richard Muller of Berkeley changes his position–and this after being substantially financed by wealthy global warming deniers the Koch Brothers–it is time to sit up and take notice. He states unequivocally that CO2 is the primary culprit and not the solar cycle, and he is right. In fact, our emissions of CO2 have been so huge that they have overwhelmed the solar cycle and possibly the ice age cycle as well, at least for a time. Muller says, "the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of 1 degree over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases." And this after years as the world’s leading global warming skeptic.
What is happening now goes beyond that, and is very worrisome. It is something I have been predicting for a long time. It is that methane, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, is outgassing in the arctic in large quantities. This is something that always happens at the end of an interglacial, but it is much more aggressive this time. What it will do is outlined clearly in Superstorm. At some point, the outgassing will end, the methane will deteriorate and all that heat will be expelled into space. The result will be the same thing that has happened at the climax of other interglacials: a catastrophic snap back to a much colder climate. However, this time it is liable not to result in the beginning of another ice age, because CO2 levels will so have warmed the climate that what we will get instead is extended weather chaos that will bring with it even more disruption.
However, the whole picture is not bleak, not by any means. First, the US and Europe have done excellent work in reducing CO2 emissions. In fact, in 2011, the US emitted less CO2 than it has since 1992. There are two reasons for this: first, the American motor fleet is becoming more fuel efficient due to intelligent regulation and a more and more aggressive embrace of lower emissions by many auto manufacturers. It’s a case where government regulation and the free market have worked in tandem to the benefit of all. The second reason is that we are using more and more natural gas and less and less coal. This is happening because abundant supplies of natural gas have made it cheaper than coal, and it is far cheaper to transport and use than coal. The kind of emission reductions being achieved matter. They will make a difference.
There is, however, a great key to the whole problem, and that is China. This January, China will for the first time be emitting more CO2 than the United States. This is because their economy is growing, the use of automobiles is proliferating and electricity in China is generated primarily by coal-fired power plants. (This means, by the way, that electric cars in China are actually more polluting than gasoline powered vehicles.) In Northern China there are shale beds that contain vast quantities of natural gas, but China lacks the infrastructure to exploit them. The Chinese are not indifferent to the problem, however, and are beginning to explore building that infrastructure. The problem is that the costs of doing this may make the gas more expensive than coal, thus delaying conversion.
So, the truth is this: we may squeak by and we may not. Probably, we are going to experience ever more extreme weather events in the coming years, with drought in US crop regions a continuing problem. Although next year could be good for US crops because a developing El Nino will most likely bring more rain to the region, in general, the US is going to continue to dry out, as will the landmass that is the Russian growing area. There will be years when both Russia and the US suffer crop failures, which will bring vast human suffering.
Will the sun play a role? It may, and if it continues what has been a slow process of reduced infrared emission, that could help us. But the primary way to slow this process down is to cut emissions, and to do that, the world needs to help China and India with support and, above all, innovative solutions that will encourage them to reduce emissions the same way we are learning to do–without interrupting our economic growth.
Down the road, if we manage to hold together through the coming crisis, and I have every expectation that we will, there is a new fuel, Helium 3, on the horizon that promises a brilliant future for mankind. It is probably the most efficient and cleanest fuel known, and safe in terms of radioactive emissions. It is extremely rare on the Earth, but plentiful on the Moon. Somewhere not to far down the road from here, it will occur to the entrepreneurial community that mining it, bringing it back and creating power stations to use it will be a very profitable enterprise.
What do I see twenty years from now: a lot of misery and disruption. Fifty years out: if all goes well, a civilization well on its way again, with new respect for itself and its planet, and wondrous new energy sources of many kinds to keep the lights burning bright.