|Oct 27, 2006 (Update Nov 3, 2006)
Watershed Moments in Our History
Two Giant Crises Meet Opportunity for Solutions in California Ballot Measures
In a mere five days, on Tuesday, November 7th, the few people in California who actually exercise their right to vote will decide two momentous questions with huge impacts on California's and the world's future.
The first involves our addiction to polluting and anti-democratic fossil fuels. Proposition 87 is being fiercely opposed by Chevron-Texaco and Exxon Mobil with a long string of outright lies and misleading criticisms which add up to nothing more than a giant pile of cow manure.
Since I was a child, it has been obvious to me that when humanity is building a civilization with abundant energy as its primary basis, and that energy is coming mainly from a one-time bounty of single-use fuels, the use of which is obviously going to ruin the planetary climate system at the same time as it corrupts our political processes, that we all need to divert a fraction of the profits from this one-time bounty toward building a renewable energy system, which can power our civilization forever, with non-polluting, sustainable energy sources. Duh!
Prop 87 does exactly this, by finally passing a production tax on oil extracted within California, after decades of trying to get such a tax past the corrupting oil lobby. California is the only oil-producing state in the union without such a tax. Further, it spends the money superbly by directing it specifically toward highly productive measures which will lead to biofuels appearing in California as a cheaper and vastly less polluting alternative to dirty oil, among other similarly beneficial results.
When faced with a lot of ads from the oil companies arguing against their profits being affected, versus concerned citizens who have designed a proposition after consulting all the top experts as to what an ideal solution would be, who would you believe?
The other day, I had the immense pleasure to hear, in person, a brilliant and rousing speech by Vice President Gore about our tragic addition to dirty oil, and the battle that has been raging for decades between our future and the oil dealers who carefully manage our free will so as to insure our continued addiction to their drug. I even got to shake his hand, and since I arrived early, I got to be so close that I could make these pictures from the audience:
What a day!
Proposition 87 is vital for our survival. What most American's don't know yet, is that climate change is a far more serious thing than it appears to be. The latest science from around the globe is absolutely chilling. We appear to be rapidly approaching the lip of a very high waterfall, in our little boat, which is nearly a mile from shore. If we don't start paddling very hard, today, we're going over the fall, and the bottom, science has revealed, is a place that any sane person would have to describe as hell.
Because the Earth has two different climate conditions between which it tends to flip back and forth, our pushing on the climate in a warming direction (we're also pushing hard in the cooling direction, with all our particulate pollution) is about to cause the system to flip to the warmer condition -- and that condition isn't a few degrees Fahrenheit warmer, on average, than today -- it's roughly 23 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than today! Imagine a climate so hot that nearly all of what we now call the United States is literally uninhabitable. This is just part of the horror that we face, which we're only just now getting a glimpse of through our best science. As if having our world baked to death in a slow over weren't bad enough, a new article in last month's issue of Scientific American, available for free reading here:
explains that Earth scientists now know that four of the last five mass extinctions which have happened over the last 500 million years were not caused by asteroid impacts as many had assumed after learning that the most recent one was, rather they were caused by increased greenhouse gasses caused by periods of intense volcanism. These periods increased global CO2 levels to roughly 1,000 parts per million, a level that we are rapidly approaching today. The level we want, i.e. the mid-20th century level of CO2, is around 270 ppm. We have now reached 380 and growing fast, despite the oceans having absorbed half of our CO2 output. And of course we're burning fossil fuels faster than ever. The crucial thing is that warming caused by methane is a huge part of the problem too, and that unimaginably vast stores of fragile methane hydrates are now known to be found on the bottom of the rapidly-warming, shallow Arctic Ocean, among many other places, and that when disturbed by warming, these vast methane deposits tend to be released in giant burps of powerfully warming methane, which can cause super-sudden planetary warmings of up to roughly 12 degrees Fahrenheit.
During the mass extinctions, and in our near future if we let it, the warming from all this extra carbon in the atmosphere leads to the oceans becoming mostly anaerobic. They fill up with hydrogen sulphide made by anaerobic bacteria, and the H2S eventually spills out into the sky, where it not only begins to poison life on land (having already made aerobic life in affected regions of the ocean impossible) but where it also destroys most of the ozone layer, which in turn means the end of nearly all life on land. The Earth becomes a toxic waste sump in the vast wasteland of space. And this will have happened because human beings were too damn stupid and/or unethical to see what their own misbehavior was inevitably doing to their fragile little planet in the vast emptiness of a universe where much of the matter is at roughly 100 million degrees Fahrenheit and most of the rest is at one or two degrees above absolute zero.
A new prediction of warming by the end of this century (it's an all-too-frequent error scientists have made to present warming predictions at 50 and 100 years out instead of predicting where the bottom of the waterfall is!) puts us as much as 18 degrees F warmer than today, with the curve increasing most steeply at the end. This new prediction from one of Britain's preeminant climate modellers, Peter Cox, is evidently the first to take into account the new evidence that shows that our greenhouse gas-induced warming has been hugely offset by greenhouse-reducing particulate pollution. See http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sun/ for links to the stunning installment of NOVA which revealed this last April that scientists' climate models have all far underestimated the strength of our greenhouse gas pollution because they had greatly underestimated the power of our anti-greenhouse particulate pollution. Global dimming has been preventing our greenhouse gas pollution from causing more than about 38% of the warming that it would otherwise have caused. In fact, absent this global cooling effect, and absent absorbtion by the oceans of so much of our CO2, our total greenhouse warming would apparently already equal more than 6 degrees Fahrenheit!
The last time the Earth was 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, the oceans were 25 meters deeper than today. That's 82 feet!!! Picture every single coastal city in the world entirely or mostly under water. Boston, New York, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Miami, London, Alexandria, Shanghai, Calcutta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Portland... and New Orleans will be the first to go, of course... Venice will be second. Half of the central San Francisco Bay Area. Houston. Almost all of Florida. Most of Louisianna. Sacramento, Stockton and all of the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. Every single river delta region in the world. Every port in the world. The Netherlands. The coral atolls.
And this is just one of the unfathomably horrific effects of runaway global warming, as we fall over the waterfall with the Earth moving toward its other favorite climate equilibrium state.
To purchase the Global Dimming DVD, go to the WGBH web store: here and enter dimming sun in the search box on the upper left.
And here is the synopsis from the back cover of this most powerful hour of television that I've ever seen:
"In a stunning investigation, NOVA reports on the discovery that the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth is dropping--a big surprise given the international concern over global warming. Less sunlight might hardly seem to matter when our planet is stewing in greenhouse gases, but the discovery of global dimming has led some scientists to claim that the Earth's climate is heating up much faster than most previous predictions.
Scientists have long known that increasing air pollution endangers our respiratory health. But they had not fully considered the impact of pollution on the amount of sunlight reaching Earth. Some scientists now believe that global dimming may disturb rainfall patterns and contribute to severe droughts and famines.
The good news is that, in some regions, pollution controls have slowed and possibly even halted global dimming during the last decade. The bad news--and the ironic twist in this story--is that without pollution, we will no longer have the cooling effects of global dimming. Instead, we may be confronted with the true power of global warming, which we may have seriously underestimated due to the dimming sun."
One may wonder why the planet has these two distinct states? The main reason is that although Antarctica is land surrounded by water, which means that ice can build up to huge thicknesses of miles near the South Pole, leading to stability, the Arctic is water surrounded by land. So ice around the North Pole is very thin and quickly thinning. It used to average ten feet thick, but today it's down to only six. Today, right now, the arctic sea ice is half the volume of what it was on this same date in and prior to 1979. Ten times the area of the state of California has already vanished from the Arctic sea ice in summer. This utterly vast ice cover has for millions of years been protecting us from a sudden, huge planetary warming by simply being a giant mirror which reflects about 95% of the sun's energy back to space, during the arctic's six sunny months of each year. The open sea reflects back as little as 5%. You do the math. And this is just one of several positive feedback loops that causes the Earth to warm up more, when we warm it up a little. The thinness of the white layer in the north, causes the climate to be unstable and flip back and forth from time to time, over vast time scales.
Either we stop dumping our fossil carbon effluent into the sky, as if it were our grand toilet, or we perish as a civilization. Not today. Not ten years from now, but during our children's and grandchildren's lifetimes, and getting worse for each generation for perhaps the next ten and more generations, until there is so little left of the planet that we would hardly recognize it.
The recent science is far more dire than that contained in Al Gore's superb film, An Inconvenient Truth. There is no time to wait. Change out your incandescent lamps this month with compact fluorescent lamps, which are now available in dimming types (for dimmers built since 1990), and in 3-way types, as well as in candelabra-based (tiny threaded base) models for chandeliers. Make sure you vote for Prop 87. And put pressure on every candidate or representative in government to do all they can to address our greatest crisis without further delay. Teach yourself and your friends about the science. Learn to do what you can, then do it as soon as it becomes practical for you, or a little sooner.
Just over two weeks ago, our brand-new photovoltaic system became operational. Our home now sports fifteen 195-watt Sanyo solar modules, in three strings of five, two arrays of 10 and 5 modules, which have been generating all but two kWh per day of our home consumption since our local utility blessed the system and installed our new time-of-use, net-metering electric meter.
The system was designed to replace about 52% of our typical, recent past power consumption (around 20 kWh/day) and to reduce our power bill by nearly 85%, but it's producing more power than expected, and we're continuing to improve our efficiency, so I now expect it to produce just over 70% of our total power, our total likely to be about 17 kWh per day, and to run for roughly 30 years. Our power bill will be approximately zero. It should pay for itself, without interest, in perhaps 13 years, given California's fairly generous rebate and the current $2,000 maximum Federal tax credit. After breaking even, it should earn us a decent return on our original investment. The photovoltaic industry is on the verge of a major swing to more affordable PV modules which do not require ultra-high purity silicon. 2007 should see several sources of such modules coming on line (Honda Motor Company, Nanosolar in Palo Alto, Miasolé also in Silicon Valley, and a German company using technology from the University of Johannesburg). It's possible that within a few years, it will be less expensive to put a PV system on almost any building on Earth than not to.
Here are two photographs of our new system, the first showing most of the controlling electronics, and the second (linked) showing the two arrays on our new roof. For more details, see my essay on the system and tips on how you can find the PV system that's in your future (not posted yet).
Click here to see our new solar electric arrays.
Also, recent breakthroughs in technologies for making ethanol from cellulose (instead of from starch as we now do) promise to make it feasible for us to power a big fraction of our vehicle fleet with E-85 fuel made from 15% gasoline and 85% ethanol, with a total fossil carbon content of just 24%. Just switching to this fuel, with any flex-fuel vehicle, will thus cut greenhouse emissions by 76%. Combined with the advanced hybrid technology in the Prius and cars which aren't overly large and overly powerful, the cellulosic ethanol industry which we now desparately need to facilitate can lower our fossil carbon emissions from our cars to roughly the 10% level which we need to achieve if we are to save ourselves from a new climate hell. And yes, that's 10% across the board: electricity, transportation, manufacturing, heating, etc. It's going to be a very big job.
Vote yes on 87, if you wish to see your descendants survive.
http://www.yeson87.com/ (now gone)
And here you can watch the last six minutes of the Vice President's brilliant speech (I can see myself at the left edge in this video, taking pictures, in the purple shirt... The campaign used my picture, shown above, by invitation, on their home page, I was very happy to see):
http://www.yeson87.org/page/invite/TakeTheLead (now gone)
That is problem number one of two, which has a solution among the California ballot initiatives.
The other is our old problem of our future being for sale in Sacramento (California's state capitol) and in Washington, D.C. Proposition 89 establishes a system of clean, public money to end the stranglehold that big money (mostly corporate but also from wealthy individuals, unions, and trade associations) has on the daily processes by which our future is built by government and the rules it makes.
As hard as we may labor ourselves, without government which is honest in at least some degree, none of us would have anything. No roads. No useful contracts. No public health. No universal education. No police. No firefighters. Minimal research. No defense. No ozone layer. And of course, sooner or later, there would be almost nothing left of the environment as a whole.
In case you haven't yet figured out what the environment means to you, just picture yourself deprived of the services of the Earth for say, five minutes. Your lifeless body floating in space would be the obvious result. Don't take breathable air, water, food, the right amount of gravity, protection from cosmic rays, protection from deadly ultraviolet and gamma radiation and x-rays, etc., for granted, just because we've had them thus far, or you're apt to miss parts of the big picture. This is not to mention the glory of creation and the bounty of miracles that Life on Earth has consisted of, built over unimaginably vast eons of time and countless generations of life, each being a link in an unbroken chain stretching back billions of years. Each and every living thing on the Earth is both a direct relative of every other living thing on the Earth, and the current manifestation of a single living chain, a branch of a tree dating back, without interruption, to the dawn of Life on Earth. Each of us, against all odds, and against all the obstacles that have been thrown before us, is in effect a four-billion year long resident of the Earth.
Not to digress, but Proposition 89 will make it possible for us to be the ones buying our future, instead of allowing powerful monied interests to be the top bidders. We need this change more than any other political change, ever. With the processes of government up for sale to the highest bidders, democracy does not and cannot exist. And you (unless you're one of those highest bidders) get the shaft, each and every day. The trouble is that it's all too easy to not notice all the missing wealth that you would have had, if those powerful special interests had not been stealing it from you for lo these many years. And guess what! It also limits corporate contributions to propositions to $10,000, so if we loose on 87 this year but 89 passes, we should be able to pass it next year!