350.org supporters talk about saving the planet in Shanghai, China. (Photo: Flickr/Schuyler Olsson)
Let me make an argument here, and feel free to take violent exception. I've just read several books--Bill McKibben's Eaarth, Hans Tammemagi's Air, James Hansen's Storms of my Grandchildren---that do a very good job of making the case that we're already on a global warming precipice, looking down at an abyss of huge planetary change.
Their conclusion (all three of them) is that we have to stop burning fossil fuels. That means no more coal for power plants, no more gas in the fuel tanks. And we need to do it now if we're going to avoid the very worst effects of climate change. We're well past the point where we can forestall it completely.
Hansen is our pre-eminent climate scientist, one of the first to sound the alarm about global warming, and he's abandoning scientific reticence. I'm afraid not that many people will read his book, but its conclusions are absolutely chilling. McKibben thinks we're creating "a tough new planet," which is why he spells it "Eaarth."
Now these authors and climate scientists are in one corner, sounding the alarm, attending conferences, founding organizations like 350.org. But for the rest of the world it's business as usual. We're genuflecting toward climate concern, but we're not doing anything at all to actually stop the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
As you know, the Copenhagen COP-15 climate talks ended in dismal failure, and nobody expects much to come out of the succeeding get-together in Mexico City. The utility smokestacks are still pumping, the lights are still on, and the shiny new cars are driving onto the lots.
Project a little further ahead. In 2020, world oil demand could go from 85 million barrels a day to an incredible 100 million. The Chinese, who once rode mostly bicycles, could have 500 million cars on the road by 2030, the Department of Energy predicts. Clearly, this center can't hold.
I'm a car writer, so I spend a lot of my time going to auto introductions. On one level its heartening, because there are so many green cars in the pipeline. On the other, it's depressing because the pace is so maddeningly slow -- far slower than we need to stop global warming in its tracks (if that were even possible).
As a business journalist, I'm often forced to get a little pessimistic about the size of the initial EV market. It takes a long time to introduce new technologies. In a free market, the consumer is free to buy a big gas guzzler, instead of the Nissan Leaf.
We need the world to finally understand that global warming is real, but recent trends (thank Climategate and a lot of misleading information) are in the other direction.
Those books I cited, all three of them, are somewhat weak when they come to the solutions. Frankly, there are no solutions on the horizon that keep people in current mobility, with the same lifestyle, and get us out of fossil fuels.
The Great Gatsby ends thus: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." That's exactly what we've been doing, but we need to get some wind in those sails, and fast.
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