When I was a kid I enjoyed listening to the sound of train whistles. As they approached our small midwestern town, those smoke belching monsters would unleash a chorus of ear splitting blasts that would cascade into a mournful crescendo heard for miles, then fade away as they headed out into the distance. At night, those whistles became a haunting lullaby leaving a kid to drift off with wonder as to where that train was going, what it was carrying, and what it would feel like to be in charge of all that power.
Thirty or so years later, I returned to that little town of my youth, and found there was very little train traffic. There is still one train which appears periodically and toots its electric horn. It tries to mimic the steam whistles of old, but fails miserably. It runs a very short route from a strip mine a few miles south to a coal fed power plant just a few miles up the road. On a couple of occasions, I have been stuck at a railroad crossing and watched as a long string of cars neatly filled with sized lumps of coal head towards huge furnaces that will produce enough steam to power generators sending millions of volts of electricity to a large area of the country, not the least of which is my house.
On the most recent of such encounters, I found myself wondering how many tons of CO2 would be sent into the atmosphere by that coal. Later, I would find the plant had used 1,716,286 tons of coal in 2017. As I sat there with my car idling and the interior a comfortable 70 degrees while outside it was nearly 90, I thought about all this climate stuff and chastised myself for having recently bought the polluter I was driving. Then it occurred to me that if I drove an electric car, I would still need the electricity produced by that coal to charge the battery. Then came the reminiscences of the oppressive feelings associated with similar hot days of my youth and those nights of attempting to sleep while bathed in sweat. Would I be willing to return to those “good old days?” Truthfully, the thought of my air conditioner failing terrifies me.
In the TV series, “The Sopranos” Tony turns down the advances of a seductive female with whom he is negotiating a business deal by saying: “I never shit where I eat.” We humans are pretty smart and we do a lot of good things, but we don’t very often heed Tony’s advice for it seems that progress has become almost synonymous with environmental degradation. In order to make life easier, we produce all kinds of things. In the process, we devour natural resources, produce mountains of waste, and poison our habitat. It requires a great deal of energy to make all that stuff, and even more to utilize it. Not to worry, for the earth has been collecting and burying the carcasses of extinct critters, trees, and plants for millions of years. It burns easily, is accessible, and produces enough energy to satisfy nearly any need.
Coal is King
Coal was the most plentiful, easiest to harvest, and therefore cheapest of the fossil fuels. There is evidence that coal was used in manufacturing during the bronze age, but since the advent of the industrial age vast quantities have been used not just for manufacturing but also for heating and the generation of electricity. The major problem with coal was that it was dirty. The steam engines used to power locomotives and the earliest automobiles exuded large amounts of black smoke and sticky soot. That problem of powering rolling stock was solved with the invention of the internal combustion engine as the combustion of highly volatile petroleum products were largely invisible. With the insatiable demands for energy to make stuff and provide creature comforts, coal the cheapest and most available source became king, but there was still that problem with smoke and soot which not only soiled everything, but made it hard to breathe.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
Since everything in nature is interconnected, whenever we attempt to fix one thing, we usually screw up something else. The way we dealt with the emissions from coal is an excellent example of such a process. The yucky smoke and ash problem was solved by sending it high in the sky via tall chimneys. In some areas of the country, smokestacks reached over 1,000 feet. They accomplished their purpose, but unfortunately by the 1970s trees were dying and fish were disappearing from lakes and streams in the northeastern U.S. There was also the problem of corrosion and rusting of exposed metal structures, such as bridges. It was eventually determined the cause was “acid rain” caused by smokestack emissions from the industrial Midwest.
In 1982, at the height of the debates about acid rain, our community gained its 15 minutes of fame when two intrepid green-peace protesters decided to protest by climbing 800 feet to the top of one of our stacks and stayed there for three days.
The emissions from the burning of coal contain sulfur dioxide and nitric oxides which when released in the upper atmosphere react to the sun’s rays to form sulfuric and nitric acids which are carried in clouds, usually in an easterly direction.
This problem found a solution in “scrubbers” placed inside the stacks to capture those chemicals which was very cool, but does nothing about the massive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) liberated from billions of tons of coal. To date, no one has found a solution for that problem. As a matter of fact, the scrubbers installed have apparently not been very effective on our old power plant built in 1957, and the plant is scheduled to be closed in a year. Locally, there will be no dancing in the streets for the plant has been a major employer for an already depressed area. The economic impact will likely affect many more. Will there be any market for coal from that mine, and will the train tracks which only go from the mine to the plant be taken up? If we ever do decide to get off our butts and do something about climate change there will be many similar scenarios in which people will fear more for their immediate well-being than the effects of global warming.
This is actually a picture from the Cuyahoga River fire in 1952. Fun fact: there are no pictures from the 1969 fire.
There have always been tree huggers, but the environmental movement got a big shot in the arm when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969 (see the original report at this link). The river ran through an area of heavy industry in Cleveland, and the incident gained international attention. Many feel it provided the impetus for the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a year later. That agency has registered some successes. The Cuyahoga River is no longer flammable and people now even fish its waters. The acid rain problem is much improved, and the banning of chlorofluorocarbons (link to article in Scientific American about CFCs) in spray cans has resulted in closure of the hole in the ozone layer, but carbon dioxide (CO2), along with its cousin methane, the chief culprits of greenhouse gases continue to accumulate. As a matter of fact, it has been documented there has been a 45% increase in the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide since the beginning of the industrial revolution.
The EPA does not garner a lot of support these days. Our President appointed an avowed climate denier, Scott Pruit, as head of the agency. After he left in disgrace, he was replaced by a former lobbyist for the coal industry (Andrew Wheeler), who had even led in filing suit against the EPA prior to joining its ranks – not surprising since one of Trump’s campaign promises was to revitalize the coal industry. Of course, it is no secret that the President is no fan of all this environmental stuff. He has characterized the climate change evidence as a hoax most likely perpetrated by the Chinese. One of his first acts after taking office was the announcement of his intent to pull out of the Paris accords regarding climate change. Only a few days ago the Vice President Pence in a television interview refused to agree that climate change was a serious problem.
Science is in need of a good PR Campaign
Science has been getting a bad rap recently. Respect for scientists and more importantly trust in their findings seems to have faded. Too many mothers now reject scientific evidence of the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, and in their zeal to protect their children put them at risk. There appears to be a resurgence of antipathy from “creationists” toward those who study evolution. Some see scientists as godless “intellectual elite” groupies with liberal political agendas consequently; climate change, which many including myself believe to be the most pressing issue of our time, has become politicized with a bit of help from the fossil fuel industry. Thus, in spite of mountains of data confirming we are all at risk from extreme man-made global warming, climate change deniers abound.
In its purest form science is a search for facts. Truth is generally a conclusion based on a collection of facts. At least that is my definition for whatever that is worth. It has also been said that facts answer the questions of where, when, and how; while truth seeks to understand why.
Unfortunately, in this day of social media dominance which makes it easy to promulgate “alternative facts,” conspiracy theories, innuendos, distortions, and altered descriptions of all kinds, truth is not always easily available. The climate deniers initially debunked facts by quoting one scientist of dubious reputation who wrote it all off as normal fluctuations of weather patterns. When he was discredited and data accumulated, many acknowledged there might be a problem in the distant future, but continued to insist it had nothing to do with human activity consequently; nothing could be done about it.
The scientific method attempts to screen emotional biases from research consequently; scientists may at first glance appear to be stoic and uncaring. There is not much touchy-feely stuff in most scientific papers, so imagine my surprise when I recently came across an article written by David Corn in the August issue of Mother Jones titled “Weight of the World” which concerned reports on the mental status of a group of climate scientists. The story was based on interviews with many academic scientists who study climate.
The common theme through all these interviews with climate scientists was of frustration, anxiety and depression in various degrees. One scholar who was studying the effects of ocean temperatures on climate became clinically depressed. Another reported that she had decided she would not have any children because of her concerns as to the type of world in which they would live.
One of the unwritten tenets of scientific endeavor is that one should follow the facts wherever they lead regardless of their political or religious beliefs. The goal should always be to present facts and the presumption is that the facts will speak for themselves. The frustration shared by these people who have dedicated their lives to the study of climate is the feeling that the facts regarding the seriousness, and even the existence of climate change, are not being heard.
Certainly, there are groups and individuals who have a financial or political stake in the denial of climate change, and some like myself, who worry about giving up their air conditioning and all that other energy gobbling stuff I have come to enjoy. Those who warn us of the climate change crisis are accused by many of being duped by unseen forces, influenced by outside influences, or often as simply a bunch of “chicken littles” (i.e. publicity seeking alarmists who overstate the problem).
The source of the anger, frustration, and hopelessness expressed by these highly respected researchers however was the feeling that worse than challenging their findings was the feeling that no one was even listening to their concerns. Such situations have been referred to as the Cassandra syndrome, so named for a goddess in Greek mythology who was given the gift of prophecy but received a curse which prevented anyone from believing her.
Is Ignorance Bliss?
Indeed, it does seem that many don’t even bother to refute their findings, but just simply ignore them. One cannot help but wonder if there is also a blame the messenger scenario involvement. It is becoming more difficult to deny the existence of the problem as we witness prophecies of more frequent and more severe climate related disasters come to pass. Average temperatures continue to rise and as they do there are more frequent and serious floods, droughts, fires, and storms throughout the world. Sea levels are rising. Glaciers are melting, massive ice sheets are falling into the sea. Arctic permafrost is melting and expected to release even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. For those who would listen it should be obvious that these events are simply previews of coming attractions, and that global warming is not a future event but is already here. We only need look and we will see that millions are already suffering.
We are told that an increase in average global temperatures of more that 2 degrees will take us beyond the point of no return, yet to date our efforts to do something about it is like emptying a bathtub with a teaspoon. As we monitor these events it appears that previous predictions of the pace of such warming have been underestimated. We continue to pollute, and to destroy nature’s remedies as for example the logging and burning which is especially prevalent in the Amazon rain forest. Trees not only absorb CO2 but use it to produce oxygen, that precious gas without which we cannot live for more than a few minutes. The world population continues to increase and improved standards of living in developing countries results in more flesh eaters consequently; more animals raised for food which are a major source of methane a major greenhouse gas.
Mother Earth will survive. Will we?
Most climatologists’ predictions extend only for a few decades, but what about farther down the road. I have grandchildren and have hope that I will still be around long enough to meet my great grandchildren, but I wonder what their world will be like and what travails they will face, and if that will be the last generation of homo sapiens on the planet. Lest you think we are immune from extinction, let me remind you that we are one of many species descended from common ancestors who no longer exist. And that there are thousands of species of animals and plants that are now extinct as a result of changes in their environments. The Neanderthals, our closest relatives, lived in Europe for 40, 000 years, then mysteriously disappeared, some theorize due to climate change.
The irreverent George Carlin in one of his stand-up routines cynically reassured us that the earth would do just fine without us, He seems to have been one of the first to have the audacity to suggest extinction a possibility.
So far, we have managed to adapt to changes with the help of our king-sized brains, but as mammals we are quite fragile. We are susceptible to a variety of toxic substances. Our ability to tolerate drastic changes in our environment is quite limited. We cannot live with body temperature fluctuations of more than a few degrees, and require continuous immersion in an oxygen atmosphere. We cannot live long without water and are susceptible to more fatal illnesses than most other creatures. In spite of all our vulnerabilities, when faced with the prospect of an uninhabitable planet, little mention is made of the possibility of the extinction of the human race.
Those scientists who warn us of what is to come should by honored as heroes. We do honor others such as “first responders” who respond to disasters however give little credence to those who attempt to prevent them. I suffered through the most recent so-called democratic presidential debate and saw little evidence of their concern about the state of our planet. Only one in that gang of candidates, Jay Inslee the governor of Washington, who has made climate change his number one priority, and other than for him little was said on the subject. As for the moderators, their contribution was to ask at the very end of the debate for a show of hands as to how many believed climate change was a serious problem. They all raised their hands, but there was no discussion of the subject and neither the moderators or the candidates other than Inslee brought up the issue during that painful 2 hour marathon.
According to the latest figures available nearly 75% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. As such we are taught to give thanks for all that God has provided yet it appears to me that our obligation of stewardship over all that which we have been given gets little attention in our worship services. Likewise, the news media makes casual mention in their reporting of news regarding climate change which in my opinion deserve front page coverage. After all, if there are no longer people on the planet all those issues will be irrelevant.
A few years ago Al Gore produced a movie titled “An Inconvenient Truth” which could hardly be considered a blockbuster, yet that title fits perfectly with what we see today. In order to avoid catastrophic effects to the planet there must be an awakening of the world’s population. We must avoid soft-pedaling information about the problem and talk about its consequence in stark terms. We need to not only hear but listen to those knowledgeable about our environment. As a matter of fact, their messages should be amplified so that they can be heard throughout the world. Our PR and advertising experts have demonstrated their ability to convince the populace of anything. I am reminded of the effectiveness of efforts to diminish the use of tobacco which motivated many including myself to quit. Certainly, a condition which threatens the well being and indeed the very existence of the entire human race should deserve equal attention.
We need to look beyond this century for as an old guy who has put in the time I can attest to the fact that 80 years is not a long time. We need to use the term extinction (extinction of the human race) in our conversation even though it may produce some feelings of panic (maybe not such a bad thing).
Nothing Unites Humans Like a Common Enemy
There are many forces which conspire to keep us at odds with each other, and it has long been known that the easiest way to unite people is to find a common enemy or cause. Perhaps if we could all feel equally threatened we could put away all that trivial stuff and concentrate on saving our planet…actually, saving the human race.
It seems to me that legacy does not occupy the thoughts of many these days. Perhaps we are so caught up in the pace of change that we are unable to visualize the future, and consequently predict what tools will be needed, or simply that we are so preoccupied with the here and now that thoughts of the future beyond our immediate family don’t occur. We who who have left our carbon footprints have one last opportunity to make amends for what we have done.
Ignorance is no longer a valid excuse.
Editor’s Note: If you’re feeling helpless, check out these two organizations I discovered during my research. Stay informed. Voice your concern. Sign the petition.
P.S. There’s even a rebel group called Extinction Rebellion for the rabid activists.