Until the development of water and wind power, humanity burned carbon-based fuels like wood and coal to power our civilization. These very same fuels are now polluting the air and water with heavy metals, ozone pollution, and acid rain. In addition, carbon-based fuels are almost entirely responsible for the global heating that has occurred since the 1970s.
Not only is the carbon economy directly causing global heating, it is also responsible for the oil dependency that has led to the decay of the United States’ national authority. The carbon economy has distorted national and international markets with unwise subsidies and has led to the collapse of fair markets. And the carbon economy has also driven public investment away from our public health system and vital national infrastructure and into the hands of a carbon economy aristocracy.
The only way forward out of our political, economic, and climatic morass is through a very difficult, expensive, and time consuming process of decarbonizing the carbon economy via a massive number of parallel changes to human industry, transportation, agriculture, commerce, and even our national culture. There is no other solution, no Plan B that we can fall back on. But this is a challenge that the United States is up to meeting, and that must be met. Our nation’s future, indeed all of humanity’s future, is at stake.
The Basics of Global Heating
Global heating, at its most basic, means that the planet is getting hotter. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group 1 Report: The Physical Basis of Climate Change, the planet is expected to heat up somewhere between 3 and 5 degrees Fahrenheit before 2100. To give you some idea of what this means, 100 degrees F and 40% relative humidity has a Heat Index (the heat equivalent to the wind chill) of about 109 degrees F, while 105 degrees F and 40% relative humidity has a heat index of nearly 122 degrees F (calculated here). But even this example doesn’t really express what an increase in global temperature of just 3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit really means for the United States and the world.
The United States will heat up, with some studies indicating that the eastern seaboard and the southwest region of the United States will heat up significantly more than the global average (source 1, source 2). As a result, our tourism-based cold-weather industries will suffer due to shorter and warmer winters. Hotter summers in the Great Plains states means that corn and wheat yields will initially improve and then fall again as the temperature rises enough that water for irrigation becomes scarce and heat waves wilt the crops. As the southern states get hotter, diseases that only rarely affect our citizens will move north out of the tropics and up into the continental United States.
The IPCC estimates that the global average sea level will increase between 6 inches and 2 feet (IPCC WG1 report Figure 10.33, page 821). This isn’t enough to be terribly alarming, except that many of the scientists studying the melting rate of Greenland and Antarctic ice are seeing evidence that ice is melting much faster and may raise the sea level significantly more than the IPCC baseline estimates. Scientists presently estimate that a global sea level rise of as little as three feet would affect 100 million people living along the coasts, while other researchers have found that 600 million people, or just over 10% of the present-day human population, live at less than 33 feet (10 meters) above sea level and could be flooded out of their coastal homes and cities after 2100 due to ongoing sea level rise. These oceanic refugees will either have to be absorbed by the rest of the world at great cost or will be consigned to death. In the United States alone, 11 of the largest 25 cities (New Yrok, Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Jose, Jacksonville, San Francisco, Baltimore, Boston, and Seattle), comprising 7% of the national population, are on the coast and could each see repeated floods as bad or worse than that experienced by New Orleans. And this is assuming that the estimates of sea level rise from the IPCC are accurate, while most climate scientists involved in tracking sea level rise believe that the IPCC estimates are ultra-conservative (Scientific reticence and sea level rise, section 3, New Study Predicts Greater Sea-Level Rise).
In addition, weather will become more intense (IPCC Working Group 1 Report, Chapter 10, Global Climate Projections, Section 10.3.6). Heat waves will become more common and last longer, killing more people and withering crops more often. Hurricanes are expected to become both larger and stronger, dealing even more damage to livelihoods and property than they already do. And storms will become more powerful and produce more intense precipitation and thus more and larger floods. The United States will suffer from hotter summers and much warmer winters over most of the country while precipitation will shift dramatically northward, making the breadbasket of the Great Plains significantly less productive (IPCC Working Group 1 Report, Chapter 11, Regional Climate Projections, Section 11.5).
The Carbon Economy
Civilization is fundamentally dependent on carbon for its energy, and it has been since the discovery of fire. Early civilizations burned wood, peat, and animal wastes to heat their huts, cook their food, and to light their temples. Coal replaced wood as a cleaner, longer lasting alternative to wood, a change that ultimately fueled the global industrial revolution. Modern civilization now burns fossil fuels to produce 11,500 TWh of electricity, representing 66.1% of the entire worldâ€™s electricity use (International Energy Agency 2006 Key World Energy Statistics, p24), and we burn oil to power our vehicles (57.7% of the worldâ€™s oil is used in the transportation sector). But while the type of carbon energy we use has changed over the millennia, the fact we are still burning carbon-based fuels to provide us with energy has remained unchanged.
We also rely on carbon-based products in our everyday lives beyond energy and transportation. We use natural gas and oil to make plastics. Carbon fibers are used for construction material. Heavy industries use natural gas and electricity from fossil fuels to smelt steel and refine aluminum. We fertilize our agricultural fields with fertilizers created from natural gas. Literally speaking, modern civilization could not exist without carbon fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil.
The extraction, transportation, and consumption of carbon is the foundation upon which our civilization is built, and our economy is fundamentally designed to facilitate the use of carbon. Our homes are built out of wood and built using carbon-derived electricity. Steel, glass, ceramics, and plastics are all created using carbon-based fuels, either as an energy source, as a raw material, or as both. Every economic sector, from transportation to construction to banking, relies in some way on carbon. As such, our modern economy is fundamentally a carbon economy.
Carbon-based products will never go away – carbon underlies plastics, agriculture, and emerging technologies like carbon nanotubes for high-strength materials. But due to the undeniable link between carbon and global heating, we must permanently break the link between carbon fuels and our energy needs. Unfortunately, retooling our energy sources so they no longer rely on carbon requires that we fundamentally retool the entire carbon economy from mining to industry to transportation. This will be a massive undertaking of human civilization, but decarbonizing the carbon economy will ultimately benefit everyone.
Problem #1: National Authority vs. The Carbon Economy
Why do we care about Iraq and Iran? Why are we dealing with people like the Saudi royal family and Hugo Chavez? Because they have oil, and without oil, the United States economy would come to a grinding halt. So the United States has an interest in Iraq that has stressed our military to or past the breaking point and is degrading our diplomatic and cultural power, and the United States’ support for the repressive, non-democratic government in Saudi Arabia seriously degrades our international moral authority. These examples illustrate why our dependence on the carbon economy qualifies as a serious threat to the United States’ national authority.
The bulk of the worldâ€™s proven oil reserves are in nations that donâ€™t like the United States much. In fact, five of the top ten oil producers (in order of oil production, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, China, and Venezuela) are antagonists to the United States. But because of how the international oil market operates, U.S. demand for oil drives up global oil prices and helps funnel massive amounts of money into the treasuries of those very same nations even if the U.S. buys no oil directly from them. This means that filling up a gas-guzzling SUV indirectly funds the Holocaust-denying of Iranâ€™s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the genocide of black Africans in the Darfur region of Sudan, and the radical leftist authoritarian agenda of Venezuelaâ€™s President Hugo Chavez. Our oil addiction funds groups like al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the Mahdi Army militia (responsible for killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq) and Hamas and Hezbollah (responsible for killing Israeli citizens in Israel and U.S. soldiers in Lebanon). In addition, there is a well documented link between oil prices and authoritarianism (see Thomas Friedman’s The First Law of Petropolitics).
The GOP-favored solution to this problem, drilling for more domestic oil, would actually make the problem worse instead of better. Average domestic oil production in 2006 was 5.1 million barrels per day while oil consumption was approximately 20.8 million barrels per day. Total oil reserves in the United States are estimated by the Energy Information Energy of the U.S. government at 21.8 billion barrels, or approximately 12 years of production at current domestic oil production. If we drilled faster in order to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, these reserves would be depleted faster as well – at full consumption, our entire domestic reserve would be depleted in less than 3 years. These facts lead to some unpleasant conclusions. First, U.S. demand for oil is so strong that increasing domestic oil production is pointless – all it does is lead to faster depletion of our existing oil reserves. Second, depleting our few remaining oil reserves would actually worsen our national authority, not increase it. This happens because our present reserves represent a supply of petroleum that can be used by our military and industry as future supplies tighten due to demands from China, India, and the rest of the world. If we burned through our existing oil reserves now, the United States would find itself needing massive amounts of foreign oil as the supply of foreign oil starts getting really tight, leading to even more instability than we already have. And third, using domestic sources of energy doesn’t do anything to improve our carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, if we started converting coal (our most abundant source of domestic energy) into oil, the process produces massive amounts of carbon dioxide and pollution, making the global heating problem worse, not better.
And the oil supply and consumption problem isnâ€™t the only national issue caused by the carbon economy. Global heating itself will cause widespread coastal flooding, droughts, and desertification over the next hundred years, and these changes will drive tens or hundreds of millions of people to abandon their homes in search of more livable climates. The mass migrations of hundreds of millions of people as a direct result of global heating would cause massive political tensions between the nations involved in the migrations. These tensions could easily explode into warfare over resources such as energy, fresh water, and food. Our national authority will be sorely stressed by trying to help the international community adapt to and mitigate the changes and by trying to mitigate the effects of global heating on the United States itself.
Problem #2: Fair Markets vs. The Carbon Economy
According to The Pew Center on Global Climate Change, global heating will reduce the U.S. gross domestic product by between 0.6 and 1.9% by the end of the century as a result of direct losses across the agriculture, forestry, energy, health care, and tourism sectors, with indirect losses being higher but more difficult to estimate. But the direct economic effects aren’t the only market impacts of the carbon economy. In fact, the carbon economy is already corrupting fair markets in a number of ways, and the corruption will only get worse until we wean our civilization off the carbon economy.
Energy companies and energy supplying nations have used, and are using, their carbon economy-created wealth to manipulate global markets to their advantage. The global oil market is organized so that nations like Iran benefit from high oil prices driven by United States consumption even if the United States doesn’t purchase any Iranian oil. Oil companies have a sympathetic and friendly ear in the White House, with the result being that they had been granted billions of dollars in subsidies when they were earning record profits from high oil prices. Lobbying by power companies using carbon economy-derived money has prevented the EPA from enforcing its own regulations and has resulted in the relaxation of many regulations designed to protect pregnant mothers from mercury and lead exposure. The complete pollution profile of the carbon economy has not, until recently, even been considered pollution – carbon dioxide has only recently been considered for regulation and/or taxation as a pollutant. And even the farm lobby, dependent as it is on natural gas-derived artificial fertilizers from the carbon economy, has distorted the markets by lobbying for and receiving billions in unwise corn kernel ethanol subsides – subsides that have already increased food prices and created an unfair burden on the poor in the process.
The carbon economy is also creating significant challenges for the financial sector, especially insurance and re-insurance (the companies who insure the primary insurers like State Farm). Primary insurers are starting to deny coverage to areas at risk due to global heating and, where coverage isn’t outright denied, the premiums for some types of coverage are rising dramatically, increasing from $3,000 in 2004 to $16,000 in 2007 for windstorm coverage. According to the story linked above, Allstate “elected not to renew 30,000 policies covering coastal properties in New York City, Long Island, Westchester County and Connecticut, and is considering reducing coastal area coverage in Massachusetts and along the Gulf.” The United Nations Environmental Program Financial Initiative, a joint project of the UNEP and nearly 200 private and public financial bodies around the world, estimated in 2002 that the global insurance losses due to extreme weather, coastal flooding, and other global heating related effects would rise to $150 billion per year by 2012. To put this into perspective, this is roughly equivalent to one Hurricane Katrina disaster every year somewhere in the world. And given that the insurance losses are doubling roughly every 10 years, we can expect this to go up dramatically over the rest of the century, especially if the world doesn’t immediately address global heating.
For markets to be truly fair, everyone participating in the market must be given the same opportunities irregardless of social status or wealth. Today, the carbon economy creates serious environmental justice problems between the wealthy and the poor – poorer neighborhoods and states are unable to effectively resist the construction of coal plants or liquefied natural gas offloading facilities while the wealthy states and cities can make building power plants and offshore facilities too expensive for the energy companies to even bother. This has the effect of making the poor even poorer as the facilities increase the real risks to health and property. Carbon economy-driven global heating will only exacerbate this effect in the future, especially as sea level rise forces cities, states, and nations to make difficult decisions about what communities are worth saving with sea walls and levees and what communities will be abandoned and their residents and businesses resettled. The issues between the wealthy parts of New Orleans and the comparatively impoverished Lower Ninth Ward are just the start of these concerns.
Problem #3: Public Investment vs. The Carbon Economy
When the United States invests in the effectiveness of its citizens, its institutions, and its grand projects (like the interstate highway system, the Mississippi and Sacramento River levees, and flood control dams), the public investment pays back in the form of improved quality of life, greater economic growth and stability, etc. But the carbon economy has stripped away the capital for such public investments, especially in areas that will be hit hard like public health and the nation’s bridges, roads, inland waterways, and other infrastructure. Not only that, but so long as the carbon economy runs unchecked, the capital needed to address global heating will be tied up and unavailable for mitigation and adaptation projects.
The carbon economy directly impacts the public health of every American today. Denver’s infamous “brown cloud,” Los Angeles smog so think that it obscures the mountains around the city, and lung corroding ground-level ozone are a direct result of the carbon economy, specifically petroleum combustion. Burning coal produces acid rain, soot, and clouds of heavy metals like lead and mercury that settle over communities downwind of the power plants or industrial sites. Mining for coal or drilling for natural gas and oil can pollute the groundwater for miles around, poisoning well water and streams used for drinking, irrigation, and sport fishing, and even the air around the wells and mines can be polluted and made toxic. As pollutants enter the air and water, they negatively affect public health and result in the need for greater public investment just to keep people healthy. After all, ground level ozone can trigger asthma attacks, smog causes other respiratory problems and irritates the eyes, acid rain poisons from coal burning kills off wildlife and makes water treatment more expensive, heavy metals cause developmental and cognitive problems in children, and even entire towns have been destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining. And when you factor in global heating too, you find that tropical diseases start ranging north out of the tropics and into the United States’ heartland, and those diseases that are already in the world’s temperate zones will have shorter incubation periods and will be more virulent, increasing the likelihood of pandemics.
The United States is already seeing the effects of the carbon economy on the nation’s infrastructure. Acid rain corrodes buildings. Droughts followed by downpours cause local flooding and stresses flood control systems. Roads and bridges crumble under the onslaught of the extreme temperature swings accompanying droughts and extreme precipitation. Add to this the fact that our flood control structures, roads, bridges, and even many of our public buildings are aging, and the country will need to invest massively in the public sphere over the next few years just to address existing problems.
As the United States and the world are dealing with aging infrastructure and a public health crisis, global heating will drive the need for public investment in adaptation and mitigation strategies to limit the effects of global heating that are already impossible to prevent. Heat waves and droughts are going to get hotter and longer, causing crops to fail more often, people to run out of food and potable water more quickly, and more children and elderly people will die from the heat. Coastal flooding will become more common as the sea level rises for the next few centuries as a result of how slowly the ocean reacts to increasing air temperatures. And as the coasts flood and droughts make entire swaths of the world unlivable, there will be massive migrations of people away from the coastal areas toward more temperate climates and higher ground. These massive human migrations will cause stress on the local services and food shortages if their movements and settlements are not carefully and strictly controlled by national governments. The United States’ current political denial of the seriousness of global heating makes the necessary public investments in the area of refugee mitigation impossible – too much money is tied up in giving tax breaks to the carbon economy-enabled aristocrats who have made back-room deals with politicians to retain their collective and personal power.
The Solution: Decarbonize the Carbon Economy
In order to address the many problems created by the carbon economy and the related global heating, the United States must decarbonize its carbon economy. In order to do that, we must refocus our public investment strategies to get the most carbon-free bang for our buck. We have to develop ways to regain and then utilize our national authority to demand that the rest of the world decarbonize their carbon economies as well. And we must place more emphasis on how fair markets will enable us to make science-based decisions that result in a pragmatic solution reached via an open process. And we must do it quickly and efficiently in order for the changes to be most effective.
Saying that we need to decarbonize our energy and transportation sectors is remarkably easy to say, but actually doing so will be hugely disruptive, expensive, and time consuming. However, since decarbonizing the carbon economy is the only solution, we must figure out how to do so in the most efficient, least costly, and fastest way possible. The suggestions below are a starting point for what needs to be done next.
- Create a panel of scientists, economists, and other experts to asses all the option and then develop short term and long term plans for how the country can effectively decarbonize its energy and transportation sectors, starting from the IPCC Working Group III, Mitigation of Climate Change recommendations. The plan must be based on a pragmatic and data-based assessment of the risks and benefits of each approach and not based on faith or politics. This panel must be empanelled immediately and should be required to produce its first actionable report no later than 6 months after being seated.
- Boost the energy efficiency of the entire transportation sector by increasing fuel efficiency standards for all vehicles.
- Require that all new buildings be built with energy efficiency as a requirement, and also provide significant incentives to make existing properties significantly more energy efficient.
- Implement a universal carbon tax combined with an intelligently designed cap/trade/fine or cap/emissions auction system for carbon credits.
- Require all new coal plants to implement coal gasification and carbon sequestration and provide incentives to older coal plants to either shut down or to retrofit gasification and/or sequestration technologies as soon as they are economically viable.
- Fund multiple research and development programs into alternative energy, improved energy efficiency, and even some exotic ideas that could have a significant effect on global heating and decarbonizing the economy. Some examples might be fusion, ocean current, and high-altitude wind energy, inexpensive full spectrum LED and daylight-spectrum fluorescent lighting for homes, or even direct carbon removal from the atmosphere and industry using bacteria or algae.
- Fund research into global heating effects mitigation and adaptation strategies. The world is going to heat up some, and so itâ€™s in our national interest to mitigate the effects of human migrations, heat waves, droughts, etc. as quickly as possible using technologies like seawater desalination, deep water oceanic aquaculture, hydroponics, dry-land farming techniques, and even research into seawall construction techniques.
- Distribute mitigation and adaptation technologies globally on a limited profit basis. The return for helping the developing world and our allies adapt to or mitigate the effects of global heating will not necessarily be directly economic, but rather in a dramatically improved national authority and reduced political instability.
- Begin immediate mass deployment of alternative energy sources including nuclear breeder reactors, solar, wind, and geothermal energy.
We have spent literally hundreds of years burning carbon-based coal, natural gas, and oil to fuel the development of our civilization, and all that carbon wonâ€™t go away with a snap of our proverbial fingers. For that reason, some amount of global heating is inevitable. What is not inevitable is our response to global heating. Not only is it in our own best interest to minimize the effects of global heating, it is also in our best interest to break the stranglehold of the carbon economy robber barons on national and international politics, social development, and economics. The only way to accomplish both of these goals effectively is to decarbonize our entire economy, our entire country, our entire world.
We cannot allow global heating to spiral out of control because of the interests of a powerful carbon economy aristocracy. Taking power away from these people will take time, effort, and even some sacrifice on everyoneâ€™s part, but itâ€™s right thing, the patriotic thing to do. And itâ€™s also the American thing to do.