Human society is changing climate & ocean chemistry – what do we DO about it?

There was a scene in the ABC documentary titled I Can Convince You About … Climate” that featured Bjorn Lomborg, the self proclaimed “Skeptical Environmentalist”. Lomborg acknowledges that human activity is causing the climate to change due to changing atmospheric chemistry, but he thinks that the proposed solutions are either too expensive, not effective, or require giving up too many of the benefits of our fossil fuel-powered industrial society. He believes that we have some time to do better and thinks that a $100 billion per year world wide research and development program will lead to cheaper and better solutions in 20 – 40 years.

Here is a clip of that scene.

Call me a “convinced technologist.” No, I have not read all of the scientific papers on the subject of global climate change, done any atmospheric research, or built any predictive models. No, I am not someone who listens to arguments, tallies up the people on one side or the other and figures that the majority rules.

Yes, I love living in a technological society where I can change my personal environment with the flick of a switch or the push of a few buttons on the electronic controller for my central heating and cooling system. I love the freedom of being able to stop at a local filling station and purchase enough fuel to propel me and three other adults for 600 miles without stopping. (I’m a proud owner of a VW Jetta TDI that gets more than 44 miles per gallon of diesel fuel on the highway.)

Yes, I am fully aware of what life is like without access to large quantities of power; I’ve trekked more than 300 miles on the Appalachian Trail and cruised several thousand miles on the open ocean in a 44 foot sailboat shared with 9 other crew members. No, I have no desire to routinely live by counting kilowatt-hours any more than I want to live the rest of my life on a calorie counting diet.

Yes, I have been blessed by having been born into an American middle class family that lived in a comfortable suburban home and usually owned as many cars as required for all of the licensed drivers in the family. We took a lot of memorable car trips of thousands of miles per trip. I have driven more than a million miles during the past 35 years and burned up more than my share of refined hydrocarbons.

I have also been blessed with enough wide-ranging travel opportunities to make me deeply aware of the fact that there are places in the world that are relatively untouched by human beings where the skies are open and individuals can feel really, really insignificant. I’ve been to the US desert southwest and stood on the bridge of several different ships and submarines in the middle of a vast ocean.

However, I have also been to places where it seems like human influence has completely obliterated the natural world and seen how those areas can appear to last forever. I grew up in what my Mom called “the megalopolis” of Southeast Florida. Even when I was quite young, one could start driving north from Homestead and never leave a city or suburb all the way up to Palm Beach. That is a distance of nearly 100 miles that is filled with people and their “stuff”. It is a place where the only hills are either overpasses or trash dumps. I’ve also visited overflowing cities like London, Cairo, Atlanta, Houston and New York.

I’ve been blessed with fact-based educational opportunities paid for by the taxpayers of the United States. We made a deal – you would pay my tuition, room and board. I would study hard, complete all assigned work and then put that learning to beneficial use by serving you for an agreed upon number of years. I feel like we both kept up our ends of the bargain, but I cannot shake the feeling that I am still in your debt. I feel an almost overwhelming need to put that education and training to work to serve you and help solve some of the challenges that I see ahead.

Because you paid to educate me, you expected me to take charge of people and help ensure that they also served you well. Some of the people who you paid to train me taught me a haunting mantra “If not you, who? If not now, when?”

At the tender age of 23, I was assigned to lead a division of 10 well-trained electricians. Before my 28th birthday, you put me in charge of an engineering department that included about 40 trained technicians and officers that operated and maintained a nuclear fission heated propulsion plant powering a 9,000 ton submarine. It was an awesome responsibility and I took it seriously. Partially to give me some “chops” with older folks, you stuck gold oak leaves on my collar a few weeks after my 28th birthday, but the people who awarded that “spot” promotion told me if I did not perform, I would have to trade those collar devices for my old “railroad tracks”.

All of my travel, work experience and classroom training taught me that individual human beings can be a force for good or evil. It also taught me that millions to billions of human beings can build really amazing systems, structures and devices or they can make terrible messes that are difficult to clean up. Building and mess making can be closely related, but not always.

I never worry about the waste products that exit the tailpipe of my well-maintained automobiles with their highly engineered emissions control systems. I never worry about the used nuclear fuel that is left over after decades worth of operation of submarines, aircraft carriers and power stations because I know that the material has never hurt anyone and has never left its engineered containers. I also comprehend the relatively tiny scale of the problem – I’ve seen the building in France that stores all of its used fuel and seen pictures of the place in Idaho where all of our used navy fuel is stored.

I worried a lot about making sure that my crew kept our drydock nearly spotless so that we would not make a mess of the Cooper River when we flooded down after a 60 day repair period. I worked hard to make sure we had adequate provisions for getting rid of paint cans and other used items because I knew that if they started piling up, sailors or shipyard workers would do something to get them out of the way.

I worry a lot about the billions of tons worth of waste products that get dumped into the atmosphere from thousands of large power stations, factories, and ocean going ships. The balance between concern and lack of worry is all a matter of understanding scale and multiplier effects. Whenever I hear someone tell me that they doubt that human activity can damage the earth because it is just so big and we are so small, I think about a sailing trip when I could see the yellow haze over the US east coast several days before we actually arrived.

When it comes to climate change and ocean acidification, I have a rather simple way to distinguish between those who are serious problem solvers and those who are using the issue to market preexisting agendas. If the person says they are convinced that climate change is a crisis but fights against the increased use of nuclear fission energy to mitigate the problem, I dismiss them out of hand. If someone claims that there might be a problem, but it is too early to tell, I dismiss them as being either unobservant or so addicted to fossil fuel that they can never be convinced to change their mind.

If someone like Lomborg claims that there is a problem and that we must invest and work towards a solution, I see an opportunity to share what I know about the power of the atom.

Maybe a better appellation for me would be a “committed technologist.” I know that we have problems with our current energy supply choices (both with the combustion waste and with supplying sufficient quantities of fuel to as many people as want access) that nuclear energy can virtually eliminate. I am committed to helping to develop the technology as an increasingly powerful and adaptable tool for improving human society.

About Rod Adams

18 Responses to “Human society is changing climate & ocean chemistry – what do we DO about it?”

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  1. Dan Kurt says:

    Recently Rod Adams made some comments on Arctic Sea ice. Here is a government chart of Artic sea ice over decades:

    http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/IMAGES/global.daily.ice.area.withtrend.jpg

    or

    Dan Kurt

  2. Andrew Jaremko says:

    Rod – this is a brilliant post/essay. As I was reading it I was hearing your voice speaking it – I think you should do a video to post so that we can hear your voice and your passion for real. You need to do this speech in front of audiences. Wow is all I can say.

    All – you may not be aware of this yet. Yesterday as I was replying to a post on Falls Church News-Press I discovered that Dr. Bernard L. Cohen, author of The Nuclear Energy Option, died on March 17, 2012. I don’t remember seeing this before. But he will be missed.

  3. Steve Burrows says:

    Bravo, this posting sums up my perspective very eloquently, I guess that is why I like it so much. I find myself in conversation with concerned environmentalist types, and that being extremely gentle with them is the only way to further conversation, making sure they know we have a common goal of protecting our environment and bringing progress to all humanity. Knowing that it will take some time for them to perceive reality slightly different from what they are used to is hard to swallow, but they will come around, all it takes is a small seed.

  4. Daniel says:

    This article is a continuation of the ‘month long thing between Anna Rose and Nick Minchin’ about climate change.

    Yet nuclear energy is never addressed by Anna. This is typical of climate change advocates that really don’t understand much about nuclear. And Nick is not too much and could easily realize that all the energy supplied by coal could be replaced by nuclear.

    A sad and and painful long story.

  5. Jason C says:

    I think Bjorn Lomborg has a very educated and tempered response to climate change, but I disagree with him that spending $100 billion a year is necessary to find the next big thing in energy. We know by virtue of E=mc^2 that the densest form of energy easy enough to access is fission (and fusion too but that’s another conversation). We also know the dirtiest form of energy is coal and one of the most widely used. My simple plan would be to spend $100 billion a year on a concerted campaign to eradicate coal power with new fission plants.

    That may not seem like enough or fast enough, but if costs were inline with what they should be, that could be 20 new nuclear plants per year. 100 in 5 years. 600 in 30. No, it still wouldn’t be enough but might be enough to get coal substantially reduced in some corners of the globe.

  6. Robert Margolis says:

    I have communicated with Anna on a few occasions (including sending her the links to Rod’s articles). She is not pro-nuclear. I do not know if she has reconsidered as a result of her recent video effort.

  7. Daniel says:

    Being pro climate and anti nuclear is not unlike being pro life and for the death penalty. A sad twist of the mental process.

    • David says:

      Being prolife and for the death penalty have their unity in the protection of the innocent.

      • Daniel says:

        Of course, having the state coming murder is a sign of evolution. I won’t address women’s right to chose. That in your view would be the state’s affair again, won’t it ?

  8. Rick Maltese says:

    I agree completely Rod. There’s no need for us to sacrifice our living standards. Things are bad enough with inflation and environmental damage. If you left anything out I’d say it was to elaborate more on the topic of your title. I have noticed more pronuclear advocates are recognizing that discussing the serious damage of the fossil fuels to the air and the oceans is plenty of reason to justify support for nuclear. The concept of climate change or global warming is too easy for the anti nukes to criticize. What can they say about the acid in the ocean or the soot in the air. They are easy to prove and would be greatly reduced by replacing coal and other fossil fuels with nuclear energy.

  9. Bob Connor says:

    Well one way to help with climate change is with population control and family planning but around there that goes over about as well a plutonium balloon.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Bob Conner – you’re correct about it being an unpopular approach. There is good reason; most of us believe that decisions about family sizes are some of the most personal free choices that anyone can make. It is no one else’s business how many children my wife and I choose to have.

      For the record, we decided that 2 was the right number for us, but I have tremendous admiration for some of my friends who made the choice to build families as large as 11.

      I do believe that the data will support an assertion that the very best way to slow the overall growth in human population is to develop a comfortable technologically based society with excellent educational opportunities for all (especially women) and reasonably predictable social benefits like pensions, long term disability and medical care. When those features are a part of a country’s fabric, population tends to stabilize.

      Raising children to be productive members of society is not easy or cheap. It is an investment in the future by people whom, for good reasons, do not believe that we are approaching the end to life on earth.

      • Daniel says:

        The higher the standard of living, the less children one has. More energy, higher standard of living, less population….

        • Bob Connor says:

          Daniel, if that is the case then how do we have Rods friend with 11 kids and the Duggars? And think of all the Kindercrap they create.

        • George Carty says:

          Are you sure that falling birth rates are the result of greater prosperity, rather than increasing urbanization? Children are assets on a farm, but liabilities in a city…

  10. Bob Connor says:

    @Bob ______ – you’re correct about it being an unpopular approach. There is good reason; most of us believe that decisions about family sizes are some of the most personal free choices that anyone can make. It is no one else’s business how many children my wife and I choose to have.

    But Rod, it IS our business becuase making your family larger contributes to climate change. Take for example the pacific gyre of garbage in the ocean. Your wife probably used Pampers with lots of plastic and guess what, its part of the ocean. Also, kids ask for everything they see and being a nice daddy you bought what they wanted and the next thing you know your inside of the house is furnished by Fisher Price and the outside by Playskool. A lot of the garbage gyre is kindercrap.

    For the record, we decided that 2 was the right number for us, but I have tremendous admiration for some of my friends who made the choice to build families as large as 11. I’m sure Playskool made a lot of money off of them and Earth is worse off for it.

    I do believe that the data will support an assertion that the very best way to slow the overall growth in human population is to develop a comfortable technologically based society with excellent educational opportunities for all (especially women) and reasonably predictable social benefits like pensions, long term disability and medical care. When those features are a part of a country’s fabric, population tends to stabilize.

    Sounds like the US so why are you and your friends reproducing?

    Raising children to be productive members of society is not easy or cheap. It is an investment in the future by people whom, for good reasons, do not believe that we are approaching the end to life on earth.
    But by using all the oil to create kindercrap you take away energy for future generations. How does that make any sense?

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