My Mom is visiting, taking a well-deserved rest from care of my father, who is no longer able to care for himself. After a few days of catching up, I found myself unable to restrain myself from reciting my manifesto. Sorry, Mom.
Condensing the details into a big picture that makes enough sense for a smart, but not-so-technical, and not-as-young person as I is a good opportunity. Throughout my life, I have observed that I only really understand something when I am able to present it in straightforward, no-jargon and instructive manner. For example, I have taught several software development languages to novice computer users — I often learn as much as the students I have taught.
We discussed clean coal and carbon sequestration, amongst other things. The simple explanation is: burning stuff releases carbon (dioxide, a gas) — sequestering it requires that you divert it somewhere before it goes into the sky. You could, for example, pump it back into the same holes we have drilled to get natural gas and oil. Or you could make new holes. Or you could dissolve it in the sea, just like the seltzer bottle does. But if you pump it back, what if it leaks out again? If you dissolve it in water, doesn’t the same tangy thing happen to sea water (it’s carbonic acid that makes seltzer burn on your tongue … person or fish or plant)? How about algae? Looks promising, but doesn’t it just create more oil that you burn again?
The big question: it sure takes a lot of work to make coal clean, doesn’t it? Why isn’t simpler technology like wind and solar our first choice? (Answer: momentum).
Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs (CFLs) are another one. My Mom has had a lot of bad luck. We found ourselves in the drug store this afternoon, and she was looking at a wide display of bulbs. She has found the ones she tried dim. So first, she saw the Walgreen store brand, which were cheap. I directed her to a 100W (equivalent) GE Energy Smart bulb, until several minutes later I realized this was a “natural light” version … the kind that everyone hates because they are cold and blue: it was the warm-white ones (in the yellow/green package), with a 100W label on them that were right for her.
But at $5/bulb this purchase could wait. When we got home, I turned on my reading light, which is a 3-way 50-100-150 Watt (equivalent) CFL bulb, and realized that it takes a bit more than a minute to warm up. But my mother had formed her impression in the first 10 seconds. Bottom line: CFLs are just too problematic for most people to use widely. Sigh.
We discussed climate change. I think she was willing to accept my assertion that a solid scientific consensus has indeed been reached. But I also recounted my frustration at an article I read earlier this week in a newspaper read by many subway riders in Boston called “The Metro” — the author claimed that there was no consensus because some Princeton University professor was amongst those contesting whether global warming by greenhouse gasses (GHGs) is anthropogenic (human-caused).
So this free, widely consumed, not-the-wall-st-journal-or-new-york-times subway paper gets a guy who finds a single, authoritative sounding source (ahhhh, Princeton University!) and concludes “No consensus!”. While I might forgive the columnist a scientific misunderstanding, I don’t forgive him the definition of consensus: a general agreement.
For the record, the IPCC 2007 report (pdf) states that “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid 20th century is very likely is due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations”. The basic conclusions of this report were approved by hundreds of scientists. Sounds like consensus to me.
Cap and Trade
My Mom and I discussed cap and trade. I made a reasonable explanation, I think. I studied economics (at Princeton University, thereby affirming my undeniable authority on the matter), and can say only that this topic is a hard one to truly understand. I am convinced, along with others, that cap and trade or its variants are best (compared to alternatives like regulation, or a carbon tax), but I would be the first to concede that the mechanisms, like most in economics, are at best confusing, and in many cases counter-intuitive.
If carbon is so bad, why should those producing it get a break? Good question, Mom, but the answer is simply that we don’t have a lot of other practical, pragmatic alternatives. Yet cap-and-trade, the most moderate, centrist, beginning of a solution to climate change, is simply too confusing.
And then if you read The Metro, you might wonder whether any change like this is necessary if even the scientists don’t agree. (Note: they do agree and it is necessary, quite urgently so).
My nephew Andrew, a Peace Corps member is teaching Togolese farmers sustainable practices. He has helped his town build a well to provide water for communal crops, to provide additional food during the dry season. Sustainable practices like this are necessary throughout the world, yet in the US, we still feed ourselves and the world on anything-but-sustainable agriculture.
Were the US to switch to sustainable practices, those that would not contribute to climate change, or create dead zones in our water, or stop using fragile species that only survive with specific pesticides, or stop draining rivers and aquifers of water, our food production would plummet. Americans and the world would do more than lose weight: there would be a massive worldwide food crisis.
Can We Solve Hard Problems Before It’s Too Late?
All of these things and others seem downright unsolvable. On the one hand, I cannot accept the notion that humanity cannot find solutions to these problems — ones we have created by ourselves. On the other hand, I look at the petty, trivial absurdity that prevents so much sensible legislation from coming to pass in any un-watered-down way, and think we may be in dire straights indeed.
Getting simple and clear about the state of our planet is a difficult and sobering experience. I hope my Mom will want to stay for another few days.