In my last C&L post on climate change, I ‘predicted’ (if that’s the right word) that at the current rate of global warming/global dimming by 2030, global temperatures could rise more than two degrees, twice as fast as previous models suggested they would, and trigger the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet – after which nothing could be done to stop the eventual death of the entire planet by the end of the century, which no would be around to see anyway. Pretty grim stuff, really.
First, the bad news. Happy New Year, it’s 2010.
Our politicians, just about all of them from every country, are like children playing on a beach while the tide goes out and fish flop on the sea bed, ignoring the signs of a coming tsunami, too busy squabbling over toys and kicking sand in each other’s eyes. Our current technology is shackled to oil interests, with alternative energy and its technology insufficiently advanced to make much of a difference. According to the figures whizzing by ever so quickly on an excellent website, Worldometer, we’ve consumed nearly 170,000,000 MWh of energy today alone, 156,700,000 of which is from non-renewable sources. We’ve got 15,676 days left until oil runs out completely.
That’s slightly less than 43 years. That’s all – 43 years, and we’ll have sucked those wells dry as a witch’s... bones. My grandmother was born in 1910, she saw the car replace horse-drawn wagons, and by the time she died, she’d witnessed the birth of the internet and a man walking on the moon. A child born this year, 2010, a mere hundred years later, could possibly see that happen in reverse... should we survive that long. By 2030, energy, water and food shortages will be heading toward a ‘perfect storm’, with major upheavals, destabilization and riots worldwide as food prices will rise to become unaffordable to the majority, starvation increases and millions of refugees flee climate ravaged regions.
We are consuming the world’s resources like a plague of locusts, ripping through the earth’s metals, fossil fuels, timber, and by 2030, we’ll have consumed the lot. A study of 1700 species over 35 years, from 1970 to 2005, have declined in numbers 28 percent overall, with a 51 percent decline in tropical species. We’re consuming fresh water at an unsustainable rate, just to produce stuff – the U.S. using 2,483 cubic meters, about the size of an Olympic swimming pool, every year. The amount of land necessary to support one human being is 2.1 hectares. Demand in 2005 amounted to 2.7 hectares per person. The United Arab Emirates, a tiny country of only 32,268 square miles with 6 million people – about one acre per person – needs 23 acres of agricultural land, pasture, forests, fisheries and space for infrastructure, as well as absorb all the waste products and greenhouse gases, for each and every one of those inhabitants. The U.S. is the second-most demanding country per inhabitant, with Kuwait taking bronze. We’re consuming everything we need for long term survival – trees and animals do more than provide us with wood and food, they protect coasts, conserve the soil, replenish the air we breathe, provide us with medicines. Mostly trees, we’ve still got plenty of animals – if you don’t mind domestic sheep and cows replacing more useless wild things. And maybe not so much the trees, either, palm oil production destroying tens of millions of hectares of rain forests along with killing 50 orangutans a year, pushing Sumatran tigers and rhinos and the Asian elephant into functional extinction within ten years.
Worse, we’ll have run out of ‘waste disposal’, the earth slowly being buried in our own crap, now doesn’t that conjure an interesting image? Having trouble with that? Here, how about the world’s biggest rubbish dump right now, a vast 100 million tonne expanse of ‘plastic soup’ twice the size of the continental US floating in the Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to Japan, choking off sea life. The man who had the dubious honour of discovering the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Charles Moore, an American oceanographer and former sailor, also happened to be a very rich man, inheriting a family fortune in the oil industry – y’know, the stuff they make plastic from. What he discovered shook him badly enough that he sold off his business assets and became an environmental activist, warning that if consumers don’t cut back on disposable plastic, this vast, reeking, toxic garbage slick is going to double in size by 2020. If a rich oil man giving up his personal fortune to fight for the environment doesn’t convince you, I can’t imagine else what would. But unless you’re a wealthy yachtman, or live on Hawaii where occasionally a few tonnes of floating plastic waste vomits up on the beach, its... far, far away. Out of sight. Out of mind.
And unless you’re a worker in India, China or Africa, you probably won’t see the vast mountains of e-trash piling up, either. Computers are a source of concentrated heavy metals and toxins that have a tendency to leak after awhile. But those of us who can afford to ‘upgrade’ every few years don’t need to worry too much about that , we just buy new gear and ship the old stuff off to... well, where? Safely recycling old computers is expensive, far cheaper to ship it to the third world, which is eager to have it all, extracting any working parts and stripping out the gold, platinum and copper in the circuitry. Supposedly, under the Basel Convention, it’s illegal to export hazardous waste, but – like much of anything the first world does these days – we say one thing and find loopholes to do another. Even when offending exporters are caught, so what? They get slapped with a small fine, and the stuff is auctioned off – usually to the same company that imported it in the first place, thus cleverly turning their own crime into legitimate goods. Convenient, that.
Then it all goes into huge piles of junk where low-caste workers in India or poor women and children in Asia make $1.50 a day smashing circuit boards, pouring acid on electronic parts to extract the precious metals, burning the plastic and breathing in carcinogenic smoke, drinking ground water with 190 times the pollution levels allowed by WHO guidelines. All because you and I just had to have the newest computer and Gameb oy and Playstation and iPod and mobile phone for Christmas and chuck the old ones away. But again, we don’t see that – it’s happening on the far side of town, in countries far, far away.
Speaking of Christmas, isn’t ironic that good boys and girls are ripping the wrapping paper off the standard Christmas gift #138, on page 57 of Santa’s Christmas gift catalog, volume 2, issue number 9, a lovely new telescope… which they can’t really see much out of anyway, due to the increase in Yuletide light pollution from all those ‘festive’ Christmas decorations, not to mention the spike in electrical consumption and the increase in fossil fuel necessary to create that energy. Oh, let’s not forget the amount of Christmas paper used each year, 8,000 tonnes of the stuff, the equivalent of 50,000 trees, all torn to bits in seconds and shoved into landfills to rot for years. I don’t even want to think about the number of obligatory Christmas cards – all the paper used, the ink, the petrol and aviation fuels consumed to send bits of paper around the world to people we otherwise never even think about the rest of the year. But it does make for more festive looking trash heaps, I suppose.
This isn’t a cute Disney scenario; we don’t get to fly away in big rocket ships where we turn into lazy, pampered globuloids while Wall-E stays behind and cleans up our mess for us. We die, all of us, slowly boiled alive and choking in our own toxic filth. But according to far too many with vested interests, global warming is a myth, and even if it’s real, it’s not as bad as us pessimists are making it out to be.
Loony leftwing alarmists like, oh, say, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey Office, predict that at current rates of deaths due to loss of habitat and food sources, two-thirds of the polar bear population will disappear by 2050, just around the time we run out of oil. In 1987, there were 1,197 polar bears in Canada’s Huston Bay. In fifteen years, that dropped 22%, to 935. I find it remarkable that someone like Sarah Palin has eyesight so acute she could see Russia from her kitchen window, but somehow can’t spot dying polar bears in her own backyard.
Okay, is everyone thoroughly depressed? You should be. Now for the good news... Happy New Year, it’s 2010. We’ve got twenty years left. Not a lot of time, but still... we’ve got twenty years to save the planet. So Option One, embrace the End of the World, consume to your heart’s delight because there’s bugger all we can do about it anyway, party like there’s no tomorrow... because there isn’t one. And besides, isn’t it all just a sign that Jesus is about due to come back and rescue his faithful patriotic consumers? Or, Option Two – sod the Copenhagen Accord and its non-binding, worthless ‘meaningful agreements’. Sod the oil-driven multinational corporations whose only goal is money and power. Sod our politicians, on both sides, self-deluded deniers and spineless wankers the lot. Sod the religious right and their apocalyptic death wish. Sod the naysayers who claim – albeit largely correctly – that solar energy, wind energy, tidal energy, etc., isn’t enough, too expensive and doesn’t produce enough energy. We’ve got a huge variety of methods at our disposal, right now. In 2010.
We’ve got... paint. If we simply painted all our roofs white and made road pavements a lighter colour, that simple, low-tech action, which doesn’t depend on any large scale government funded geo-engineering projects, would offset global warming effects of all the cars in the world for eleven years, reducing carbon emissions as if we simply stopped driving altogether. We don’t need to wait for any corporate or government investment or high-tech equipment; all any of us needs is a can of paint, a brush and a ladder. Not only will it help the planet, it will help your pocket – lighter roofs decrease the amount of energy costs needed to keep your house cool.
We’ve got Facebook. A bunch of antipodal chocoholics with a conscience and an internet connection has persuaded Cadbury to stop using palm oil in its confectionary. Cadbury New Zealand managing director Matthew Oldham not only admitted the change was in direct response to consumer pressure, including hundreds of letters and emails, but actually apologised, admitting Cadbury’s use of palm oil was ‘wrong’ and hoping Kiwis would forgive the company.
We’ve got... air. The Air-Car, developed by an ex-Formula One engineer, is ready to roll off production lines in one of those countries currently out-polluting the United States, India, running off compressed air, the CityCat clocking out at 68 mph with a range of 125 miles. Its designer, Guy Negre, has already signed deals with Germany, Israel and South Africa, and a hybrid version is in development, petrol-powered compressors refilling air tanks rather than current hybrids with expensive, heavy and largely toxic electric batteries. The technology already exists that would see an air car able to cross the entire United States on a single tank of petrol.
We’ve got fad diets. We love our fad diets! Millions of people slavishly scour the pages of celebrity magazines obsessed with how the beautiful and the famous and even the downright weird are eating. A few highly visible movie stars and celebrity chefs to tout the benefits of the ‘low-carb’ diet –carbon rather than carbohydrates – and it could impact on the environment as well as decreasing cardiovascular disease and strokes from obesity. Consumer pressure makes a difference – once the largest global restaurant chain, the corporate giant MacDonald’s has dropped to third place behind Subway Sandwiches, which heavily promotes its health-conscious marketing.
Morgan Spurlock’s film, Supersize Me, forced MacDonald’s into eliminating super size options, and the fast-food chain began offering salads and low-fat wraps and fruit on its menu. MacDonald’s has switched to organic milk, makes coffee from beans certified by the Rainforest Alliance, and uses non-trans fat for fries. And that very rapid change came about through the simplest of means – one mouth at a time.
Livestock accounts for one-fifth of the world’s total global greenhouse emissions, and with China, India and other developing nations aspiring to adopt western styles, it’s only increasing. The entire world doesn’t have to become vegan overnight, something that will never happen, nor would necessarily be a good thing even if it did. But simply cutting meat consumption by half would reduce greenhouse emissions by 12%. The Bon Appetit Company celebrated its second annual Low Carbon Diet Day in April with some very trendy recipes and events, while the city of Ghent has declared every Thursday as a ‘meat-free’ day, with restaurants and schools and even hospitals promoting vegetarian cuisine with festive relish (pun intended). If every person in Flanders alone, about as many as in the United Arab Emirates, gave up meat for just one day a week, the CO2 saved would equal half a million cars off the road. If China and India want to emulate trendy western lifestyles, we need to alter our lifestyle trends.
We’ve got bacteria. We could run our cars on refined left-over vegetable oil from every MacDonald’s in the country, but even better, Americans still possess the brains and ability to turn garbage into ‘Oil 2.0’, a carbon-negative product made from leftover corn stalks and wheat straw and woodchips and germ poo that is interchangeable with fossil fuel derived petrol. We have the existing technology – right now, not in twenty years. And homemade at that – we can pry the grip of Middle Eastern oil on our throats off one finger at a time.
We have seaweed. Lots and lots of seaweed. Kelp grows phenomenally fast, up to a meter a day, and can be used for everything from medicine to cosmetics to food to natural fertilizer to booze and even biofuel, a litre of fuel for every five kilograms of seaweed. Even more interesting, seaweed can be cultivated using the carbon dioxide emissions from industrial power plants – instead of releasing CO2 gasses into the atmosphere, the gas if filtered into a pool where it feeds microscopic seaweed, which is then cultivated to turn into biofuel.
We’ve got... thermosiphons. (Stay with me here...) These are incredibly simple low-tech devices that have been used for fifty years in Alaska to draw heat out of the ground to combat the thawing of permafrost. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline has about 120,000 of them. Basically, thermosiphons are little more than tubes rammed halfway into the ground and filled with a gas such as CO2. The top part exposed to cold winter air condenses the gas inside the tube into a liquid, which falls into the bottom of the tube, where the relative warmth of the ground heats it back into gas and sends it back to the top of the tube. This simple heat exchange mechanism cools the ground around the tube so thoroughly it stays frozen even in summer. Even better, thermotubes can be used as fencing, and are more stable than traditional fence posts, which suffer from ‘frost-jacking’, driven out of the ground by shifting soil. Annual sales of thermosiphons have increased 50% in the last five years, used to shore up mines, stabilize railroads, buildings, utility poles, transmission towers, roads and airport runways.
We can make biochar. That’s not new technology, we’ve been making the stuff for 2,000 years, taking agricultural waste and cooking it into a charcoal, and turning it into a soil enhancer that traps 70 times more carbon than non-treated soil, boosts food production, and reduces deforestation. The technology for turning agricultural waste into biochar through superheated high-tech kilns while producing carbon-negative energy at the same time already exists.
It doesn’t even need to be on an industrial scale. A small American (American!!) company manufactures a compact, mobile machine called the Green Energy Machine, capable of processing three tonnes of trash a day, enough to heat a 200,000 square foot building housing more than 500 people by converting trash into small pellets that are then converted into carbon-negative electricity and gas heat, diminishing the production of greenhouse gas by 540 tonnes a year.
We can grow plants. Grow some lettuce or strawberries in with some flowers in a window box, if you don’t have a garden. If you do have enough ground to make a garden, think about what plants to grow – plant shade trees on the south side of your house (or north side if you live on the southern half of the planet), plant Mediterranean perennials which thrive without a lot of water, and taste good, too – rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme, lavender, and any local native plants, as they’re likely to be under pressure from English roses and cottage garden variety delphiniums. Hook up a rainbarrel to your gutter. Plant carbon-eaters like clover rather than high maintenance grass lawns. Grow agastache flowers to help sustain bees and hummingbirds. Choose hardy plants that can survive a range of weather conditions, magnolias and pines can take a lot of battering.
We can read labels. Wealthy shoppers are increasingly worried about finite food resources, and by 2030, supermarkets will become the supreme arbitrators of what goes on our shelves, from how much fresh water and energy was used to produce it, to the packaging it’s in, and listing a breakdown of ingredients on our labels, and where they came from, than just information about carbon footprint.
We’re doing it all now. Even if our current politicians only saw their personal political gains in the slogan Yes We Can, we, the people, understood it for what it really means. The trend in ‘people-powered’ conservation is already playing a major role in saving the kiwi in New Zealand, as well as many other rare and native species under pressure of extinction. It’s the single most important fundamental factor, possibly the only one we need, to save our world and ourselves. So sod the politicians. Sod the corporations. Sod the naysayers. We, as individual human beings have plenty of tools and technology we need – not tomorrow, not in ten years or fifty years, but right now – to make a significant impact on climate change, with not all that much effort or money or imagination or even too drastic changes in our lifestyle.
Happy New Year, everyone. We’ve got twenty more New Years left. Let’s make them all as happy as we can.