Global Warming: The Need for a Paradigm Shift

In the early years of our country, Friends enslaved other human beings. Thanks to a few Friends such as John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, the yearly meetings eventually forbade enslavement by their members. Later, many Friends worked hard for the abolition of slavery. This involved a major paradigm shift from "enslaved people should be treated humanely" to "slavery is wrong!" The Peaceable Kingdom demanded that the institution of slavery end.

It is easy to see an analogy in the way most Friends see global warming. They acknowledge that it exists, and many are taking active steps of "personal virtue" to minimize their carbon footprint. Buying hybrid cars, eating local produce, recycling, adjusting the thermostat, and so on are all worthwhile. But if we are to survive as a species, this paradigm will have to shift to the much simpler one: We have to stop using fossil fuels. Nobody, worldwide, should be allowed to use fossil fuels. Clearly, this paradigm is a radical departure from where we are now.

Why is this necessary? How can it be achieved? And what can Friends do?

Why Is It Necessary to Stop Using Fossil Fuels?

Repeat after me: Climate models tell us nothing! Think about this for a moment. The models (systems of equations) are built to explore conditions that we have never observed. Therefore, there is no way to validate our models. Scientists are dealing with the unknown, so short of waiting until the future arrives, there is no way they can test their models.

Worse, where they do not understand a phenomenon, scientists leave it out of the model. For example, they understand the effect of temperature in causing water to expand, and hence for sea levels to rise, but since they do not understand the dynamics of glaciers melting or tundra decay, these have been left out. But these are likely to be among the most important "positive feedback loops" accelerating global warming.

Still worse, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) understandably does not wish to be alarmist, so its conclusions tend to err on the side of understatement. For example, the earliest IPPC reports projected that Arctic summer sea ice would disappear between 2080 and 2100. Their latest report projects its disappearance at 2030. But other scientists estimate it to occur in 2013, only four years away.

Mechanisms of Global Warming: A positive feedback loop is a phenomenon triggered by higher temperatures that leads to further temperature rises. For example, snow and ice, being white, tend to reflect a high proportion of incoming sunlight, thus reducing the heat absorbed from the sunshine. As sea ice melts, however, it is replaced by dark water that tends to absorb the incoming sunlight and to be warmed as a result.

There are a number of other loops that are in danger of being triggered as temperatures rise. These include the decay of tundra, which releases methane, a gas 32 times as powerful as carbon dioxide in causing global warming. Another is forest fires, due either to drying out of tropical forests or to forests being destroyed by bark beetles, which used to be killed off over the winter. Forest fires release the carbon dioxide sequestered in the trees.

Currently, oceans absorb about half the fossil carbon dioxide released by human activity, but as they get warmer, they will absorb less and may eventually begin to give carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. Finally, there are huge reserves of solid methane (methane hydrate) stored at cold temperatures in the Arctic Ocean. As the temperature rises, these methane hydrates will volatilize, releasing methane into the atmosphere and greatly accelerating global warming.

Concerned that higher temperatures would very likely trigger these feedback loops, the IPCC named two degrees Celsius as the maximum temperature rise that should be risked. This corresponds to 450 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The doyen of American climatologists, Professor James Hansen of Columbia University and NASA, believes that these feedback mechanisms are already underway, and were initiated at about 350 ppm. (Currently, atmospheric carbon dioxide is about 387 ppm, and with "business as usual," it will reach 450 ppm in about 2036). The implication is that we have probably already initiated processes that will ensure that the earth continues to get hotter, even if we completely stop using fossil fuels.

What Happens as the Earth Gets Warmer?As indicated earlier, we cannot be sure what will happen as the Earth gets warmer, since it has not been warmer in recorded history. However, we can point to some very worrying predictions:

  • As terrestrial ice melts in Greenland, Antarctica, and the South American and Himalayan ice packs, sea levels will rise. On the basis of expansion alone, the IPCC projected an 18-inch rise by 2100. This projection has recently been doubled to three feet, and we know that if the Greenland glaciers all melted, sea levels would rise about 20 feet. If we also managed to melt the Antarctic ice sheets, the sea level rise would be 200 feet. Goodbye New Orleans, goodbye much of Florida, goodbye Netherlands, goodbye much of the Nile valley, goodbye most of Bangladesh, goodbye Pacific Island nations, and so on.
  • As the Himalayan icepack melts, the major rivers of South Asia—the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yellow River, etc.—will become seasonal, even running dry in the dry season, and will be useless for irrigation. Up to two billion people rely on these rivers. There is no prospect of being able to replace the food that would be lost. In Australia, the Murray- Murrumbidgee river system already no longer reaches the sea.
  • Weather extremes are expected to increase and rainfall patterns to change markedly, turning current major grain-growing areas into semidesert and providing much wetter conditions in currently arid areas. Already, the tribal conflict in Darfur seems to be due in part to the drying out of traditional grazing lands.
  • According to Oxfam, in six years’ time, the number of people affected each year by the climate crises is projected to rise by 54 percent to 375 million.

With the possible exception of this Oxfam prediction, nobody knows how quickly these adverse effects and tipping points will become evident. What does seem clear is that once they have occurred, they will be, for all practical purposes, irreversible. We will not be able simply to go back to the way we were.

For those who do not believe these predictions, or those for whom the loss of two or three billion lives does not matter as long as it is at least 50 years in the future, it is pointless to plead for behavioral change or political activism. For the rest of us, we think it is self-evident that more is required than shrinking our individual carbon footprints, just as the end of slavery demanded more than individuals treating those they enslaved better or even freeing those they themselves enslaved.

For those who believe the dangers of global warming, the key fact to remember is that every time we use fossil fuel, it adds carbon dioxide (or methane that degrades to carbon dioxide) to the atmosphere where it can remain for centuries. Thus we have to stop using fossil fuels.

How Can We Stop Using Fossil Fuels?

ACES: A Giant Leap Backwards: Immediately before the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) was to be voted on in the House of Representatives, Friends Committee on National Legislation sent a letter to all representatives saying in part:

The current bill has been so weakened by offsets, allowances to polluters, and other concessions that it may not even begin to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels for well over a decade. . . . We believe the House would be making a mistake by passing flawed legislation now that:

  • does not guarantee real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,
  • strips EPA of authority,
  • locks in payoffs to polluters, and
  • creates vested interests that would make substantive reforms in the future extremely difficult.

Having lobbied actively to improve the original, much-too-long 320-page draft bill, FCNL found that industry and agricultural lobbyists had stuffed it so full of pork, exceptions, and special provisions that it had grown to 1,428 pages and promised to be totally ineffective. Rightly, FCNL concluded that without major modification the bill would do more harm than good, and accordingly, they switched to opposition to the bill.

The FCNL letter says,

ACES (targets) would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1 to 4 percent of 1990 levels by 2020—well short of the levels recommended by scientists. . . . The legislation provides a pathway for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels to increase through 2029.

Probably the worst feature of ACES is that it would give the general public the illusion that we are doing something and that Congress has the problem under control. It would increase the difficulty of mobilizing for meaningful policy action.

It is greatly to be regretted that the vast majority of environmental organizations seem to feel that getting any bill is better than no bill. Once again, we can be proud of Quakers for taking the right action before it is the popular action.

The principles for effective and largely painless policies to wean us rapidly off fossil fuels are well known. These include:

  • A rapid rise in the price of fossil-based energy (preferably a doubling to start with) can be achieved by restrictive caps on the mining, pumping, and importing of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas, oil shale, and tar sands). These caps would be sold at auction by the government to the highest bidder.
  • Return of the entire auction revenue (less minimal administrative costs) to consumers on an equal per-capita or per-household basis would leave consumers as a whole no worse off. The higher price for fossil energy would give consumers an incentive to reduce consumption. Those who consume less would actually pay less for energy than before the caps.
  • The higher fossil-energy prices would increase the price that fossil-free energy suppliers would be able to charge. This greater profit would go directly to suppliers’ "bottom line," would remove the need for subsidies, and would take the government out of the business of picking winners. It also would fuel further research and development.
  • Monitoring fossil fuel production at the mine, wellhead, or port of entry would ensure that production did not exceed caps. Such monitoring would be simpler than attempting to check on carbon dioxide at the many points of emission. Monitoring of reported production could be cross-checked with transport records, thus confirming or challenging production statistics.
  • A high tariff on products from countries that have a less aggressive fossil fuel control program would prevent dirty industries moving off shore.

What Friends Can Do

Cap and Dividend:There is already a draft bill (20 pages, no pork) in Congress that provides for all of the above points. It has been authored by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), is under review in the Ways and Means Committee, and is called "Cap and Dividend." The Van Hollen bill includes several key provisions:

  • Production of fossil fuels will be monitored at the mine, wellhead, or port of entry.
  • Production allowances, up to the cap, will be auctioned with all revenue going to the government for return to consumers. There will be no carbon credits that allow excess fossil fuel production on the basis of promised behavioral change elsewhere. No production allowances will be given away free to energy producers.
  • A tariff will be imposed to level the playing field, so that U.S. industry cannot be undercut by producers with access to cheaper fossil fuels.

Discussions in some recent issues of Friends Journal imply that we have the luxury of being able to do without nuclear power plants. The simple fact is that nuclear is the only fossil-free technology that can be produced on a sufficient scale to allow dispensing with coal-powered generation within, say, a decade. Nuclear and other fossil-free technologies are not alternatives to one another; we need all of them to grow at their maximum feasible rate in order to phase out coal and natural gas. Once this is achieved, we can begin to phase out nuclear, as other technologies step forward to take up the load. We have implemented many safety features since Chernobyl. Even the remaining risk is better than the certainty that the great rivers of Asia would become seasonal.

Action has now moved to the Senate where the 803-page Kerry-Boxer bill (not yet fully expanded by lobbyists) mirrors the ACES bill in the House that FCNL opposed. Recently Senators Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins introduced a 38-page bill that mirrors Van Hollens’ "Cap and Dividend" bill.

Given the lack of public understanding and the urgency of the matter, Friends would do well to join with FCNL in opposing ACES and working for provisions like those in the Van Hollen bill
Patience Schenck suggested this article and gave editorial support.