National Commentary

The Great Transition: The Rising Seas

This is the second in a series of columns exploring the status of climate change and the paths that may, or may not, lead to a solution to the rapidly deteriorating situation. 

Before digging into the details of where the carbon that is warming our atmosphere is coming from, you should know that one of the better sources of information is the BP (formerly British Petroleum) Statistical Review of World Energy. This annual publication has been coming out for the last 68 years. Unlike the U.S. Department of Energy and the International Energy Agency, however, BP does not attempt to forecast what the fossil fuel situation might be like 30 years from now. Instead, the Review concentrates on accumulating accurate numbers on energy production and use. The editors, however, do point out and comment on trends and significant changes. 

In the history of humanity, there have been two transitions that changed the fundamental nature of human civilization. These were the agricultural and industrial “revolutions.” Transformations of this significance have been rare, coming thousands of years apart. Still, it looks like we are about to have a third one as the world heats up and starts running short of affordable fossil fuels. The agricultural revolution freed at least some of our ancestors to do things besides hunting for food — such as forming governments, learning and inventing things, and living in more urban environments. The second revolution came when we discovered ways of exploiting the energy in fossil fuels, so we no longer had to rely on human muscle and animals to do the work. 

Since the development of reliable steam power around 1800, the world’s consumption of fossil fuels has skyrocketed and continues to grow. One significant impetus for the growing need for more energy is the world’s increasing population, which is now up eight-fold to over 7.6 billion since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Throw in the availability of better standards of living, which have spread to nearly every corner of the world, and we have an insatiable desire for more and more energy and economic growth.

Given that carbon-emitting fossil fuels now are providing about 86 percent of our energy, trying to reduce carbon emissions is like trying to run down the up escalator. According to BP, global energy consumption grew by 2.9 percent in 2018 — the fastest growth since 2010. This growth even occurred despite a relatively modest increase in the world’s GDP and higher energy prices. The 2018 growth was driven mainly by China, the U.S. and India, which together accounted for around two-thirds of the increase. 

Preliminary information suggests that that emissions were somewhat lower last year as the weather required less heating and cheap natural gas replaced coal. This year, the coronavirus outbreak is making a massive dent in China’s and probably other countries’ consumption of fossil fuels. While the virus epidemic seems likely to continue for some months, the long-term trend is for increased emissions. 

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Not all global warming, however, comes to burning fossil fuels. Deforestation, manufacturing cement and methane emissions from animal husbandry, flaring of natural gas and leaking pipelines are also significant contributors. However, the bulk of the carbon, which increased atmospheric concentration from an estimated 280 parts per million in 1750 to 415 today, comes from the combustion of fossil fuels. 

Renewables — solar, wind, and biofuels were by 14.5 percent. In 2018, hydroelectric power was up about 3.1 percent, and nuclear grew by 2.4 percent. The bottom line, however, is that despite the rapid growth of renewables and a nice increase in hydro and nuclear power production, the non-emitters growth was not enough to slow the output of carbon emissions, which was up by 2 percent in 2018. 

The year before last saw unusually hot and cold weather in the U.S., China and Russia, which meant more heating and cooling and more carbon emissions as spare capacity is usually older coal-fired plants. If it turns out that there is a link between the increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere and the types of weather patterns observed in 2018, there is the likelihood that a vicious cycle will develop. Increasing levels of atmospheric carbon will result in more extreme weather patterns. These, in turn, trigger stronger growth in energy use as energy consumers seek to offset their effects. 

A corollary to harsher weather will be the need to recover from and mitigate the consequences of the storms, tornados, floods, and droughts. More energy will be needed to repair the damage, build sea walls, levees, drainage systems, etc. Some of these projects will be incredibly expensive and will require enormous amounts of energy, which in turn will make the atmosphere even hotter. 

An example of what currently is being considered to deal with rising sea levels is a pair of North Sea dams that would be supposed to save some of the northern European towns and cities from the projected four-foot+ increase in the sea level that is expected before the end of the century. One dam would be built between Scotland and Norway and the other between France and England. New York City is pondering a similar project that would build a wall between the city and the sea. 

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Another growing problem is the availability of insurance in areas frequently subject to hurricanes, flooding and brush fires. As insurance companies absorb ever-increasing losses, they are either raising premiums to unaffordable levels or refusing to write flood or fire policies at all in some places. Without insurance, mortgages are unavailable, and property owners will so be stuck with billions of dollars’ worth of “stranded assets.” 

The costs of global warming are just starting to become apparent. When mass migrations and evacuations of cities come, the full impact of global warming will be appreciated.

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