350 PPM

13 01 2008

The word is out. Like Wiley Coyote suddenly discovering that he’s several paces past the edge of the cliff, the latest scientific calculations tell us that the amount of carbon dioxide the atmosphere can handle and remain stable is 350 parts per million. Only trouble is, we’re already at 383, and all the wheeling and dealing at Bali and Kyoto has been about keeping the CO2 level below 450 parts per million, with some argument that we could probably go to 550 parts per million and things would still be relatively OK. Wrong. As things are set now, it’s going to take all we can do to keep the level below 450, so stay loose and hang on, because it’s going to be a wild ride.

Sorry, all you coal and oil lovers, the word has come down from James Hansen himself. Three hundred and fifty. We have already run out of wiggle room, and the question isn’t what to do about it so much as how to get it done in the face of overwhelming inertia. Hansen’s prescription is a ban on new coal plants that don’t capture their carbon releases–which, considering where the science on carbon capture is at these days, is a ban on new coal plants–the phaseout of all current coal burning, and leaving so-called “oil shale” and “tar sands” in the ground.

We also need to stop cutting down forests and start planting more–Canada’s tar sands boom is coming at the expense of its northern forests. We would need to redesign American society so that we are not so dependent on privately owned internal combustion vehicles. The US, with 6% of the world’s population, consumes 45% of the world’s gasoline, and India and China are hot on our heels. We also need to devote plenty of research time and money to figuring out simple, local ways to generate the electricity we love. Although the solar electric cell has been hailed as one of the big answers to the energy crunch, there is only about a ten year supply of Indium left in the world, and Indium is critical for making solar cells as we now know them. Some possible alternatives involve other rare metals; at a simpler level, solar heat can create steam that will turn a generator. Whatever the smartest answer is, we need to find it fast.

But that’s not what the world’s polluters are doing. After nearly getting booed out of the conference in Bali before capitulating a little and agreeing to the minimum they could get away with, the Bush junta came home and blocked efforts by California and a number of other states to increase automobile efficiency beyond the token improvement mandated in federal legislation.

The federal legislation itself was a monument to short-sighted greed. A tax that would have taken a share of the oil companies’ windfall profits and funded renewable energy research was dropped. Democrats tried to mandate that utilities increase their power generation from alternative sources, and that, too, was dropped from the final bill. The Democrats were one vote shy of keeping both these provisions in the bill, and there was one Democrat who voted to effectively drop them–Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who is still willing to lick Bush’s boots after the way her state got treated post-Katrina. Hey, she answers to the oil and chemical companies, not the people. Like Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher, she’s another example of why female politicians are not necessarily cool.

Massive subsidies for ethanol and nuclear power, two complete losers, were included, and tax breaks for home solar energy installations were dropped. This was especially galling because this program has been working for the last couple of years, but the centralized-power grid boys had their way with our Congress this time.

Protection of the world’s forests is also, alas, an increasing farce. Back in the nineties, the Chinese were lauded for waking up to the importance of preserving their native woodlands. But oops, instead of clearcutting their own forests, they’ve gutted everyone else’s. All the old growth forest in the Philippines is gone, and most of Borneo and New Guinea’s rainforest will have been turned into plywood and cardboard boxes in another ten years, with Russia’s Siberian forests lasting perhaps another ten years past that, at current rates of consumption. The irony in Russia is that the Siberian forests are are protected by legislation that says the only logging permitted is salvage logging after a forest fire. So what happens? The loggers set fire to the woods so they can harvest them. The smoke from these fires is a major international pollutant; it mingles with the exhaust from China’s coal plants and floats all the way across the Pacific, where it accounts for a major portion of West Coast air pollution.

And, as I reported last month, the increased CO2 level is affecting the planet’s oceans, as well. It now appears that corals will join the list of organisms going extinct so we can have microwave ovens and instant pizzas. Eh, what did we need Micronesia, Melanesia, and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia for anyway? And after the plankton are gone, there’ll be money to be made selling oxygen tanks to people who want to breathe!

Carbon dioxide isn’t the only concern. All that air pollution is putting more ozone into the atmosphere, and that is combining with warmer temperatures to limit plant growth, which will cut into food and biofuel production.

With all the economic fundamentalists still shouting “Damn the environment! Full speed ahead!,” economic collapse might just be our unlikely savior. The whole game has been driven by a fantasyland whirl of credit, from the US mortgage bubble to our skewed balance of payments, our massive oil imports, and ultimately to the US dollar itself. All those Chinese factories and the coal plants that power them have been built to suck the wealth out of a bloated America, and now it’s gone, gone, gone. Will a crash in the US bring China to its knees and save the world? What a thing to have to hope for!

music: Midnight Oil, “Earth and Sun and Moon”

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