We have returned from the "Forward on Climate" rally in Washington, D.C., encouraged to find so many people who are adamant that this will be the turning point when Americans finally take the global warming situation seriously.
Still, questions abound as to what to do; so much of the information about potential solutions to the problems of carbon pollution is anecdotal and contradictory. Some of the drawbacks to the solutions are dated, and have been resolved with further development. What's needed is a comprehensive map of the problems and solutions, drawn up by people who are fully cognizant of the degree of emergency we're in, and who are prepared to speak about it.
Here is our model of what that could look like, with information gleaned from insiders in the energy sector, government advisors, small-scale innovators, as well as published articles from the last four years.
The major problems:
1) Greenhouse gases are continuing to accumulate exponentially in the atmosphere and in the oceans. Weather response to this climate forcing has become routinely severe. The total volume limit for human-generated greenhouse gas which can be tolerated by life as it currently exists on Earth will be reached in about 17 years (with current emissions rates holding). More than 90% of that additional volume beyond today's levels will be emitted by developing economies, primarily in China and India. The most rigorous analysis of the budgeting of the remaining volume of greenhouse gas allowed by convention indicates that major per-capita polluters like the U.S., Canada, and Australia, have no share left in that remainder to be filled.
2) Ocean acidification and raised ocean temperatures, plus the poisoning, trashing, and over-fishing of the oceans, has made collapse of some key ocean food-chains a pending catastrophe. This is critically important because ocean phytoplankton provide 70% of our breatheable oxygen, planet-wide. Their populations must be stabilized or we could experience a rapid oxygen-deprivation event on Earth.
3) Some known feedback loops are apparently already engaged, and will accelerate these first two problems beyond our ability to control them, likely within the next 10 years.
1) In the short-term, there is not enough time to implement (and retrofit) modifications to the supply side of energy production to successfully meet greenhouse gas emissions quotas. Therefore, a managed depression of the economy (i.e. a controlled slowing of the growth of industry) is required. Demand must be lessened.
2) In the medium-term (the next 20-30 years), wind-power must be employed widely. Improvements to turbine design have made them much less impacting upon bird and bat populations, and improvements in construction are enabling new, taller designs with longer blades that turn more consistently. Wind-power stands ready to become a provider of base-load energy.
3) Development of algae-based ethanol fuel must dramatically lower the emissions output from the transportation sector. This can be accomplished to by the further development of regional light-rail lines. Intra-continental flight must be abolished.
4) Orbital energy supply must be fully explored and developed, whether solar-powered or near-frictionless flywheel-powered. A design plan for a 3-mile wide solar collector that beams energy down to recipients on Earth by microwave has been optioned this year for consideration by NASA.
5) Along with the rehabilitation and redesign of the world's electricity grids, we must move away rapidly from an "on-demand" model of energy use in developed nations, to an "intelligent-planning" model. Small-scale trials, where individuals have awareness of peak hours for electrical demand, as well as peak-hours for electrical supply, and work to engage with that schedule responsibly, have produced significant reductions in energy consumption. In addition, energy demand "loads" should be paired with appropriate power sources to provide a diverse spectrum of energy solutions on the community scale, to improve efficiency of the system.
6) We must invest in atmospheric carbon-capture research as fully as necessary to bring an easily scalable model to production within the next ten years. One such device being developed currently is no bigger than a shipping container, captures 1 ton of carbon-dioxide each day, and can be "rinsed" of its stored carbon simply by washing the collection media with water in a vacuum chamber. 288,000 of these devices, placed anywhere in the world, could neutralize our current human-sourced emissions of CO2 planet-wide.
These measures, undertaken by the U.S. in cooperation with a government that is willing to use Congress' authority to regulate interstate commerce to more greatly control the fossil-fuel industries, can truly bring our country to a carbon-neutral stance by 2020. We can achieve the 8% per year reductions in emissions that the analysis of the carbon budget requires of us. To do so will mean suspending the usual functioning of our economy, and embracing an all-out cooperative and "can-do" attitude, paired with debt-forgiveness on a large scale, and perhaps a system of currency demurrage, to get resources flowing at the rate needed to address the problem.
Whether we can curb our greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to avoid the "point of no return" which is looming in the near future of the chaotic climate system is very uncertain. The window of opportunity to act is closing more rapidly than we dare imagine, most days. The inertia of the energy imbalance driving global warming is such that the Earth will continue to heat up at its surface for many years after we stop forcing the situation with our carbon emissions. This inertial heating may bring the planet to the threshold where more natural feedback loops begin to amplify the warming. However, that only underlines the importance of acting now with real concerted effort. This is the last moment in which we will be major players in the current global warming story. It is time for us humans to play our trump card, whatever that is.
To protect the oceans, we must:
1) stop supporting abusive commercial fishing practices, particularly long-line fishing.
2) Protect sharks as the top predators in most marine ecosystems. They set the population dynamics of the species below them in the food-chain.
3) Develop and protect estuaries and wetlands that border our oceans, for they are the breeding grounds for many of the species that regulate the chemistry of the seas.
4) Regulate the use of plastic so that it becomes prohibitive to manufacture or buy plastic in a disposable fashion, if that plastic is not carefully recycled. Ban the shipping of plastic pellets internationally on the open seas. Sponsor a contest with a major cash prize for innovative solutions to mitigate the "Great Garbage Patches" of the world's oceans.
5) Halt off-shore drilling. Particularly in areas where large volumes of methane clathrates are embedded (like the Arctic Ocean).
Of course, there is a vast, nebulous transformation that must be made at this time, which fits under the heading of Human Identity. We must decide what we are here for. Having learned that we cannot exploit the Earth as one dumb gift of resources, having realized that we are not the only important actors on the world stage, we must re-assess how we will belong on this new Earth that demands balance, restraint, wisdom, and the quieting of our desire to be mighty. How will we let everyone know that the consequences of his actions are indeed felt across the planet? How will we arrive together at the message about our reality here on Earth that this climate crisis is mumbling as it kills us? Can we accept a world, deeply accept a world in our hearts, where we are not the center of attention, yet where what happens is not random? Will enough of us, just now, see the big picture?