An optimistic look past the pollution of confusion surrounding Global Warming
In recent conversations and online discussions several things have become increasingly clear to me about the Global Warming debate. The most tragic of these I feel, are the number of misconceptions and half-truths--created and spread by politicians and lobbyists--that are believed as fact by--and guide the thinking of--many Americans.
This writing isn't going to be a prophecy of doom, nor a sounding of the "All Clear" whistle. Instead, it will be a practical review of some facts about Global Warming as well as an honest look at some of the existing and emerging methods for addressing it that also encourage growth in industry.
The first myth I wish to dispel is that there's still doubt about Global Warming at all. In the scientific community, and specifically among climatologists who study the planet's weather, there is no debate. Global Warming is a certainty. It has a history we can see and measure.
There's also no debate that man-kind has had an empowering effect on the current Global Warming. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution man has poured millions of tons of unnatural greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. The Earth has a history of natural warming and cooling climate shifts. These natural shifts have always occurred over very long spans of time and with a slow build-up. Man's impact has been to quickly and violently speed-up this natural process with our unnatural pollution.
In past, natural climate shifts, the planet has always been able to correct itself and return to a temperate heading. This is the only place where there's no absolute consensus among the scientific community. Global Warming is a certainty and it is fueling a major climate shift, the symptoms of which are actually visible today and I will detail further on in this writing. The only question is will man's impact have any effect on the planet's ability to correct itself once that full climate shift has occurred? There is no historic data to be studied about this, because there's never before been such a drastic, rapid rise in greenhouse gas levels as over the past few decades. Scientists can only speculate about the Earth's ability to recover from an unnatural shift.
Another myth which has been created and spread by politicians and lobbyists that needs busting is that to reduce carbon-dioxide(CO2) emissions and live cleaner, environmentally friendly lives would be harmful to the economy and put many Americans out of work. This idea stems from a distorted half-truth, but serves the selfish interests of those who propagate it.
Becoming environmentally friendly does not automatically equate into a negative for business and the economy. There's also no hidden agenda among environmental activists against industry or corporate America. That's a position pushed by the self-serving for one reason only, to divide people's opinions with scare tactics.
Yes, some industries will be negatively affected by greener living. The current Energy Industry is a perfect example of this. However, for each business and job lost one or more will be created in other, often more advanced fields--I shall offer evidence of this later on. This reflects something that I call social evolution. Industry has always had to adjust over time, and this is no different. Years ago every town had several blacksmiths to shoe the horses everybody was riding. Then the automobile came along and the blacksmithing industry gave way to the automobile industry. A natural, social evolution. Businesses and industries which have no plans beyond the continued use of a limited supply resource that's harmful to those who use it are poorly run and not victims of anything but their own bad management.
I promised earlier to offer examples and proof of how we can visibly see the symptoms of Global Warming and that becoming more environmentally friendly will not cause massive unemployment and economic downfalls, but in-fact will spawn a growth of jobs and economic prosperity. I'll start by listing the visible effects of Global Warming--which can be discouraging--so that I can end on the positives of economic growth through cleaner living.
1) In the U.S., yearly Heat Waves (lasting 4 days or longer) have tripled over the past 50 years.
2) The past 2 decades have seen a drastic reduction in the yearly snow pack levels of western states. These states rely on the snow pack for up to 75% of their water supply. Not only is this a problem of water supply, but fast melting snow pack fuels wide range flooding.
3) Increases in the appearance and severity of tropical diseases in the U.S., such as the West Nile virus which was first detected in New York in 1999 and is now in all 48 of the lower states. The bugs which carry and spread these diseases thrive as the climate warms.
4) The number of category 4 and category 5 hurricanes to hit the U.S. each year has doubled since 1970. Hurricanes are fueled by the ocean's surface waters. Warmer surface waters create more powerful storms.
5) The average daily temperature in Alaska has risen by 5 degrees in the past 50 years. As Global Warming raises the temperature, snow and ice sheets melt. These normally reflect the Sun's heat from the ground and keep the average temperature down, but as they melt less heat is reflected so more is absorbed by the ground, warming it up further and creating a reinforcing cycle.
6) Glacier National Park in Montana has 26 glaciers, it had 150 just a century ago. The glaciers are melting at nearly 100 feet per day. Glacier National Park will have no glaciers by 2030--we'll probably want to start thinking about new names for it then...
Visual Evidence: (2 images which show the effects of Global Warming on glaciers in Alaska)
Muir and Riggs Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, as photographed in 1941. William Field, U.S. Geological Survey photo.
Riggs Glacier (and the lack of Muir Glacier) in Glacier Bay National Park, as photographed in 2004. Photo by Bruce Molnia.
There is hope
American's can be inspired, and America can lead the world--as we should. It took America just about 60 years to land a man on the moon after the Wright brothers made the first human flight. We went from a band of outlaw rebels to the world's only Super-power in just about 200 years; a single grain of sand on the beach of human existence. When given a challenge, American's can and will respond.
All it takes is a little real leadership to inspire us on the personal front, and leading legislation to inspire us on the industrial front. So far, at the federal level, they've only gone half way. They've provided rewards and incentives to industry for researching and developing more efficient and environmentally friendly technologies. Where they've failed is in taking the next step, to incite and reward industry for utilizing these technologies, and penalize those which don't.
Many politicians and opponents to change will say that it's because taking that next step would be detrimental to business in America and our economy. That's not an accurate claim.
Some current industries will clearly have to adapt and change, some may even fold. Still, some current industries will grow and expand due to the changes and some new industries will be born of them.
A prime example of change in application: about 15 years ago the local leaders in the city of Portland, Oregon made a decision to adopt an environmentally friendly approach to policy. They embraced a 'Green Building' standard which requires developers who want public funding to incorporate certain "green standards" into their projects that would make their developments more energy efficient. They made public transportation not only more accessible, but also more user friendly to encourage commuters to leave their cars at home. They have rentable cars (mostly Hybrid vehicles) available in the downtown region for people who need access to a car for part of their work day to encourage they leave their SUV's at home.
There were real risks involved with this type of approach. It could have been disastrous to the local economy, but it wasn't. The exact opposite has proved true, and while they have reduced their output of greenhouse gas emissions by over 12% they have increased their workforce needs by over 15%. Cleaner living and industry, plus jobs growth.
How did that happen? Simple economics when you look at it. A company wants to build a new office, the city encourages them to make it a "green building" so the initial construction costs to the business are increased by a small percentage. Some of these additional costs are covered with public funding, as incentive, and over the coming years the company will save tens of thousands of dollars each year in electric, gas, water and waste utilities because the building is more efficient. Over a fairly short period of time, the company saves more than the initial construction increases cost them, and what do companies do when they have more capital available? They grow and expand, they create jobs.
There are other cities which have 'gone green' at a local level and have similar positive results to show for it. This shows me several things. First, that we can clean up our act responsibly and with a balance that embraces a cleaner future and thriving industry.
It also shows me that Americans not only can be inspired, but desire to be. That communities, tired of waiting for competent leadership in Washington are so desperate to do better that they're taking it upon themselves.
Still, this is too grand-scale of an issue for individual communities to continue leading the way. The federal government must become proactive and deliver leadership. Legislation to reward the use of more efficient technologies--that ultimately equate into fiscally sound choices anyway--must be passed. Additionally, legislation to penalize the refusal to utilize these technologies must also be passed.
America has just about 5% of the world's population, yet we pour about 25% of the greenhouse gas into the air each year. As other, large nations emerge we need to ensure that they don't embrace the old ways of coal and oil burning which will snowball the problem further. America can lead the world into a cleaner future by setting the example.
That isn't just a fluffy, feel-good sentiment. I understand that these nations won't follow us just for the sake of following us. As they grow they'll look to the cheapest energy sources to meet their needs. By committing to alternative technologies now, we can make them more efficient and less costly. This will be what decides if these highly populated and emerging nations compound the problem of Global Warming or not in the coming years.
A quick example is in solar energy. With some modest federal incentives for development over the past few decades, the private sector has highly increased the efficiency of harnessing solar energy and greatly reduced the costs. In just the past year a spray-on solar-power cells breakthrough emerged. This makes the creation of solar-power cells, one of the more costly restrictions of solar energy due to the materials and process involved, as easy as spreading paint on almost any surface. As demand grows even this breakthrough may be surpassed, but at the very least it will become less expensive. Just imagine where we'd be already if our leaders of the past 2 decades had guided more demand in America for using solar energy?
It requires real leadership. Leaders who will distance themselves from self-serving lobbyists. Who will look Americans in the eye and say "I challenge you to be better". We haven't had that kind of leadership since Kennedy. Reagan came close and had the will to do it, but ultimately it was the Russians he challenged to be better instead of us--and what happened?--that wall was torn down.
Alaska Glacier images from the Alaska Science Forum
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