“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”
—W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming
We are consumed by the threat to our democracy posed by a Republican party gone power-hungry and authoritarian, and by the threat of nuclear war posed by Russia’s version of Manifest Destiny that envisions a reconstituted USSR. We should be, but these problems pale in comparison to the threat posed by the continuing accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The reason we do not accord it the same level of concern is that it does not seem as pressing or immediate because our lives go on pretty much as they have always done despite the ever-increasing concentration of this invisible, odorless gas. This is because the accumulating damage is distributed worldwide, and much of it is in areas that we don’t personally see – the oceans, the Arctic, the Antarctic, and the tropics.
Closer to home we do see more frequent and damaging storms and wildfires, but, while worrisome, they have not been enough to galvanize a popular response. Considering the fact that such a large swath of our population still refuses to be vaccinated against COVID because, as some have pointed out “it isn’t deadly enough”, it is unsurprising that the devastating impact of global warming, which is now inevitable, doesn’t much move the concern needle. While the population is not entirely oblivious to the threat, it remains sufficiently abstract to have little impact on daily lives.
“But what can we do?” one might ask. There isn’t much more that the average person can do other than to take steps to reduce one’s own carbon footprint, to lobby political decision-makers, and to keep the subject front and center in conversations with others. The more people who take these steps, the sooner the day will come when significant, organized efforts by the government will have at least some impact on addressing the problem. It’s like voting – one vote doesn’t make much difference, but a lot of votes does.
It is shocking to realize that, as things stand today, very little we do as a global civilization in terms of energy use would be different if nobody had ever uttered the words “global warming” or “climate change”. Despite the leveling off of energy demand from developed countries, growth in developing countries, most notably China, has resulted in an unprecedented acceleration in the consumption of fossil fuels and the emission of carbon dioxide in the past twenty years. This is not to put the blame on developing countries. Developed countries are still responsible for the majority of cumulative emissions.
Neither legacy renewables (hydroelectric and biomass) nor nuclear energy production have grown in the last ten years, and the new renewables (wind and solar) on which the world is relying to replace fossil fuels contribute less than 4% of the world’s energy despite the fact that they have grown at an exponential rate over the past 20 years. Furthermore, these technologies can only produce electricity, which means that, for them to replace all fossil fuels, all the non-electric energy applications that sustain our global civilization (80% of all the energy we use) must be converted to electricity. This will require converting, not just the entire fleet of motor vehicles on the Earth to electricity, but all marine and aviation applications and all industrial applications as well.
Here is a chart from the International Energy Administration that shows past energy consumption by source and forecasts future energy consumption based on two scenarios – business-as-usual and a sustainable development model (SDS).
Points to note:
- The consumption of fossil fuels between 2000 and 2018 increased by one third.
- By 2040, on a business-as-usual basis, fossil fuel consumption will increase by 5%. (I should note that the US Energy Information Administration’s projection for 2040 is that fossil fuel consumption will increase by 12%.)
- By 2040, on what the EIA calls a sustainable development basis, fossil fuel consumption is projected to decrease by one third, but this still leaves the world using as much fossil fuel as it did in 2000. This is only ten years before the 2050 IPCC target of zero emissions.
In the line from The Second Coming which I selected, Yeats was referring to the slow coming of an apocalyptic revelation, which will forever change the world. There could be no more apt metaphor for the slow yet inexorable realization of the impact of climate change.