Johnston and Yurgine: How seriously should we take global warming threat?

August 26, 2018 GMT

Joe: W.H. Auden penned the poem “The Age of Anxiety” in 1947, and ever since, it has been used to characterize everything perilous from nuclear energy to terrorism. It now is being used to characterize climate change. We are on the cusp of major climate disruption, not only with devastating fires taking place in California but with droughts, floods, storms, widespread desertification and melting polar ice. We are more likely today to have a global warming catastrophe because of greenhouse gases than ever before. Recognizing this, former President Barack Obama raised fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks and cut CO2 emissions from power plants with his Clean Power Plan. He also set up a loans program under the Department of Energy, advancing wind farms, solar panels and other clean-energy projects. Meanwhile, our current curious and studious leader in the White House (I say that facetiously) is erasing all of this, cutting fuel and exhaust regulations for cars and trucks and the loan program. In addition, instead of tackling global warming by leaving most fossil fuels in the ground, he’s decided to mine and burn more oil, gas and coal. This will emit trillions of tons more carbon dioxide into the air, which experts predict plausibly could cause a collapse in global food production along with catastrophic droughts and floods. So, tell me: Is President Donald Trump right in ignoring this doomsday scenario? How do we convince him global warming must be stopped?

Ken: Let’s accept for the time being “global warming” is happening, is because of humans deriving energy from the combustion of carbonaceous fossil fuels and, if unchecked, will lead to catastrophe. Can the U.S. government in Washington realistically do anything? The population of Asia is about 4.5 billion, and about half of them earn less than $5.50 per day in U.S. dollars. Given there is a direct relationship between standard of living and energy consumption, can Asia’s lot be improved while global CO2 emissions are cut drastically? As for the U.S. energy use, shifting to a clean energy source will be costly, and shifting more than 50-60 percent any time soon does not even appear possible. The option of expanding nuclear power has fierce opposition, and trapping and sequestering CO2 emissions is not technically feasible, leaving wind, water and sun. In Illinois, the wind frequently is calm, and solar, besides not being productive at night, often is blocked by clouds, sometimes for months. Because there is no method yet for storing large amounts of electric energy, there still would need to be backup-generating plants. Finally, a good example of the cost of decreasing fossil fuel consumption is the U.S. auto industry. Dating from the oil embargo, Washington has set standards for the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, which now stands at about 27 mpg. Obama raised the standard for 2025 to 54.5 mpg, resulting in the American auto industry complaining that will result in seriously increased new car prices, decreased sales and possible layoffs for 1 million auto workers. Hence, Trump has requested a government review, vastly increasing the anxiety level for environmentalists.

Joe: In 2017, Greenland lost 270 billion tons of ice. Closer to home, weather has had an effect on all sectors of our economy, such as energy and farming. Last week, the Daily Journal had an article on Illinois low crop yields because of lack of rainfall. The majority of Americans agree global warming exists, and something must be done about it. Although we are the most prosperous and powerful nation in the world with resources to take charge, our elected officials in Washington, D.C., tell us we should accept climate change as an unavoidable fate and do nothing. Trump and the GOP-controlled Congress are listening not to us but rather to the special interests (industry lobbyists, grifters, etc.) doing foolish things adverse to our interests, such as withdrawing from the 2016 Paris climate agreement and propping up (with taxpayer subsidies) the dying and dirty coal industries that belch obscene quantities of CO2 into the air. Is it really smart having a former coal lobbyist heading the EPA trying to make coal great again leading to ecological destruction bringing jobs that kill and have no future? Isn’t this an indictment of our elected officials? Are we, the majority of Americans who oppose these policies, supposed to sit around and participate in future offenses against humanity while they evade their responsibilities? By creating and fostering national energy policies that cause climate change, it appears to come down to plaintiffs and lawyers having to sue the government for violating its duty to protect the natural resources to which all Americans are entitled. In fact, one lawsuit already has been filed.

Ken: We’ve heard that anxious rant before, every ominous Al Gorean doomsday prediction. But are there realistic pathways to zero fossil fuels? And what will it cost? To continue thinking about cars, average mpg today is pushing 30, which is about double the figure for 1980, and still maintaining a reasonable cost, comfort and performance. Smaller displacement, higher-revving, computer-controlled, turbo engines produce the same horsepower. Vehicle weight is reduced by decreasing dimensions and using more plastic and aluminum instead of steel. But to get here, the industry already has picked the low-hanging fruit. Progress will require smaller cars built with more exotic and costly materials, such as carbon fiber, titanium and magnesium. Electric cars are a partial solution in being able to recapture some of the energy of motion through regenerative braking, but at present they are limited in range and require prolonged charging times. Also, emissions are not eliminated but are moved from the tailpipe to the generating plant. A serious hidden cost is reduced weight correlates with increased traffic fatalities. Deaths in accidents have increased in each of the last three years, breaking a decades long yearly reduction. We now often see TV images of little cars pancaked by big trucks. Transportation is only a small piece — heating and cooling, appliances, data processing, entertainment gadgets all use energy. Curb carbon, grow government, cool off the economy getting more unemployment, more poverty and more government dependency. So, is the certainty about global warming and its consequences enough to justify bringing down the world economy?

Joe: You make a good point about whether there are realistic pathways to zero fossil fuels. Can the American economy and its industries shift to something other than fossil fuel energy technology? The sun delivers more energy to Earth in an hour than we use in a year from fossil, nuclear and all renewable sources combined (Sandia National Laboratories — U.S. Department of Energy report). Obviously, no one expects, and my comments above were not meant to imply, a major shift in fossil fuel use should occur overnight. The non-Al-Gorean points I tried to make above had to do with Trump’s piling on, not even recognizing the seriousness of climate change and doing things that make everything a lot worse. He has reversed Obama’s decisions attacking global warming. He’s surrounded himself and placed in the EPA and its Clean Air office former lobbyists, sycophants and cucarachas from the swamp who now are rolling back pollution regulations on industries they previously represented dismantling all that was great. All of this is quite sad and does not bode well for our kids and future generations.

Ken: What’s needed is a plan, not another unfocused diatribe.