Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Fork in Road

How many times can one individual, one city or one nation reach a fork in the road and have to make a choice about which way to go? I haven't the faintest idea. But those "forks" appear for almost all of us sometime in our existence. Times are starting to appear interesting in the U.S. at the moment, once again. I'm talking about climate change and global warming. What decisions will we end up making? They will likely have an impact on the rest of the world.

We've had a series of reports, commissions and recommendations over the past several months, from various countries and international agencies, outlining what could happen if we don't address global warming. Even some of the global warming skeptics have become less shrill.

Intimately connected with the complexity of global warming issues is the so-called "peak oil" debate. The consensus, as far as I can tell, is that we agree we're going to run out of oil in the not-to-distant future. The argument centers on just when this "future" might occur. The optimists talk about some 100 years from now and the pessimists speak about the next 10 to 20 years. But clearly oil has made modern civilization possible. With very little research it is possible to discover just how many everyday items are derived from petroleum.

An interesting aspect of this "black gold" is the E.R.O.I. or the energy-return-on-investment. It looks like it's going to get more and more expensive to extract it. We're going to have to spend more energy to get more energy, because we likely have gotten most of the accessible oil and gas fields, and now it will become much more difficult and more expensive to extract. More money spent on energy probably means less money for things like education and other areas we undoubtedly consider essential to our welfare.

Cutler Cleveland, an energy scientist at Boston University, estimates that over the past thirty years investment return on oil and natural gas fell from "25 to 1 to about 15 to 1." If we try to extract oil from tar sands, for example, the return could be only 4 to 1 because of the conversion expenses.

Last but certainly not least is coal. The United States has a lot of it and it's relatively cheap. But until we learn how to bury its high carbon dioxide emissions, coal is not going to be our salvation. We can observe China right now and see the extreme pollution caused by the country's frantic construction of coal-fired power plants.

So what's happening right now? The moderately good news is that the Democratic Party controls Congress. But it most definitely remains to be seen what the Democrats will do. At the very least, however, they should be able to stop or slow down the Bush thug's most egregious environmental behavior. And there is a presidential election in 2008.

California with the world's sixth-largest economy has established caps on global warming pollution, requiring a 25% cut in greenhouse gases by 2020. This will have an impact throughout the U.S. and likely with other countries that want to do business with California.

The Bush--yes George Bush--administration is going to establish, after many years of procrastination, energy efficiency standards for numerous commercial and residential appliances, which will likely save significant amounts of energy.

Some 300 cities in the United States have adopted a Climate Protection Planning Process, covering approximately 40 million people. These cities have agreed to develop a specific procedure for assessing energy and transportation needs and overall environmental direction.

More and more business leaders are examining how climate change will affect financial markets and economic development. For example, this Thursday the University of Chicago Business School is hosting a conference on Midwest development. The Midwest, in addition to agriculture, has high concentrations of automotive companies, insurance and power generation. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 resulted in some $45 billion of insured losses. Changing weather conditions and possibly shorter growing seasons in the central part of the U.S. could have a significant impact on agriculture production--which certainly could affect the availability of food worldwide.

We have arrived it seems to me at another fork in the road. We have another chance to make a choice. Stupidity and lazy indifference may again prevail or we may just figure it out this time. Getting organized and getting informed are good first steps. How many chances do we get?


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wawwrite said...

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Anonymous said...

"How many chances do we get?"

That really is the pertinent issue, isn’t it? Thanks for a forward looking piece that reminds us, yet again, that today is never to late to make amends. While the more advantageous choice may have passed us by, we still have the opportunity to draw a line in the sand and begin anew.

Thanks again for keeping these issues before us,


wawwrite said...

Thanks for your comments, Tim.