Let’s Get Serious about Climate Change

This guest blog comes courtesy of Jake Olzen, an activist, journalist and farmer in Lake City, Minn.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and his re-election, President Barack Obama will no doubt have his work cut out for him in the next four years. Unfortunately to this point Mr. Obama has not proved capable—in office or on the campaign trail—in addressing one of the most pressing, all-encompassing global issues: climate change. In fact, with the exception of the scientific and activist communities, there has been minimal leadership from most religious, political and economic leaders with regard to the serious challenges climate change has already presented—challenges that will likely only intensify.


In the final week before the election, Hurricane Sandy was an ominous reminder of the omission of climate change from the campaign discourse. With this year’s historic droughts, record-high temperatures and increased occurrences of extreme weather events, one would have thought that the presidential candidates would have seriously addressed climate change.

During the election, both President Obama and Gov. Romney ignored appeals from the Union of Concerned Scientists to debate climate change as an issue of national concern. Global warming was not mentioned in any of the presidential debates—a first in 28 years. Even as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed Mr. Obama, in part, because of pending climate change, Mr. Obama never uttered the words Hurricane Sandy and climate change in the same breath.

Meanwhile Mr. Obama’s position appears defined by transnational fossil fuel companies. The controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline remains on the table. National Aeronautics and Space Administration climatologist James Hansen, one of the first scientists to sound the alarm on global warming, reports that building the Keystone XL would mean “game over for the climate.” The Obama administration has delayed making a final decision on the pipeline until after the election. TransCanada, however, assuredly continues construction of the pipeline under Mr. Obama’s “all-of-the-above” energy solutions strategy.  

Under a Romney administration the Keystone XL was sure to be fast-tracked.

“I can guarantee you, if I’m president, on day one,” said Mr. Romney at an Ohio campaign stop in June, “we’re going to get the approval for that pipeline from Canada. And if I have to build it myself to get it here, I’ll get that oil into America.”

At least with Mr. Romney, citizens knew where he stood on the pipeline. That is more than can be said for Mr. Obama, who adamantly affirms that climate change is not a hoax while at the same time opening up new off-shore drilling sites and blaming an ineffectual Congress. Mr. Obama skipped out on the Rio 20+ Earth Summit, a United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, in May, and his lackluster leadership at the much-anticipated Copenhagen climate talks in 2009 ended without any binding agreements to cut greenhouse gases or secure a formal international climate treaty.

The tireless Bill McKibben, a prominent author and environmentalist, recently published a harrowing reality check on the state of the climate. In “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Mr. McKibben spells out with clarifying detail the perilous future if things don’t change—and fast.

“We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn,” he wrote. “We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate.” The seriousness of those numbers can be easily overlooked by policymakers. Scientists say that to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming, we can burn 565 more gigatons of carbon. In global fossil fuel reserves, there are 2,795 gigatons available to burn. These are worth $27 trillion, according to financial analysts. The decision to not burn that fuel is a moral one. 

More than a decade ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement, “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common Good,” which asked that “economic theories and political platforms” be put aside in favor of “protecting both the human and natural environment.” Time and again, the bishops have urged that “of particular concern to the Church is how climate change and the response to it will affect poor and vulnerable people here at home and around the world.”

Study after study has shown that the poor and vulnerable, particularly in the Global South, will bear the brunt of the ill effects of climate change. Yet they are not the ones most responsible for the causes of global warming. Emissions from the Global North account for 70 percent of all greenhouse pollution. 

A recent Catholic Relief Services report, “Tortillas on the Roaster,” details the risks of climate change specifically faced by Central American farmers.

Paul Hicks, a C.R.S. regional coordinator, said the findings demonstrate “an expected average temperature increase of around 1 degree Celsius by 2020 will severely affect maize, exacerbating water shortages and causing the plants to suffer from heat stress.” As a consequence, Hicks noted, economics losses for the region could amount to as much as $100 million per year.

Rome, too, has spoken. In 2011 the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of the Sciences called on “all people and nations to recognize the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.” 

The kind of losses that Central American farmers—and farmers across the globe—will suffer due to climate change will have profound consequences for standards of living, regional stability and foreign policy. The Pentagon has identified climate change as a threat to U.S. security and is developing analysis and scenarios for dealing with climate-induced crises.

Action on climate change demands effective leadership from the U.S. president. The climate science is clear: It is happening, and we have to learn to live with it. The lack of high-level public discourse from the presidential candidates during the recent campaign was laughable to the international community. If only the stakes were not so high.

Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic, should help the Obama administration become familiar with the St. Francis Pledge of the Catholic Climate Covenant. This broad coalition of Catholic organizations, including the U.S.C.C.B., organizes and educates Catholics around climate change with the promise to “advocatefor Catholic principles and priorities in climate change discussions and decisions, especially as they impact those who are poor and vulnerable.” Now that the Obama administration has four more years, will they lead the way to make our adaptation to an unstable climate easier and less costly for the most vulnerable?

Jake Olzen

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Stanley Kopacz
6 years 4 months ago
There's no environmentally free lunch in anything we do but wrt nuclear, several things must be considered:

Worst case is fukishima/chernobyl/three-mile-island
Everything has a MTBF (mean-time-between-failure), no matter what
All complex systems have unknown failure mechanisms
Nuclear plants are point targets for terrorists
Nuclear plants require long transmission lines if you want to keep them away from populared areas
Nuclear plants are thermal engines, and the boundaries of the Carnot cycle dictate that lots of cooling water is needed (from where) to maintain a temperature difference for efficient operation
Global warming drought may mean less water for cooling
Global warming means warmer water for cooling which reduces the efficiency of the plant
The fuel has to be mined, refined, leading to radioactive pollution from the tales and health hazard to workers and people living in the area, like Cheyenne

By the way, the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental, energy and nuclear disarmament advocacy group, does not presently take a stand on nuclear power, but insists that any plants built, and processes for fuel extraction and refining be held to the strictest standards.
Though I am highly skeptical of nuclear power, I thought it would be cool if they could make a detector that
could convert neutron energy directly to electrical energy, the way solar cells convert photons to electrical energy.  I guess the main problem is the enormous energies of the neutrons that beat the heck out of any solid structure.
Another cool application of nuclear power is space probes.  The plutonium heats thermocouples which generate electricity.  These probes sent into the outer solar systems have them and they work for decades.
J Cosgrove
6 years 4 months ago
The problem with the AGW people is that no one can take them seriously.  They are their own worse enemies.  For example,

'National Aeronautics and Space Administration climatologist James Hansen, one of the first scientists to sound the alarm on global warming, reports that building the Keystone XL would mean “game over for the climate.”'

If we do not build the pipeline it will be built to the West Coast and the oil will be refined and used in China.  Anyone think this will produce less atomospheric unwantables?  The Chinese are already mining coal all over the world for their factories. Maybe we should sell them some of our coal to pay for the air conditioners we import from them.
Stanley Kopacz
6 years 4 months ago
Experimental?  An unsupportable statement.  Windmills and dynamos have been around forever.  Nothing new about photovoltaics.  The stuff works and is dependable.  The technology gap that needs to be closed is energy storage.  For large scale systems, and this has been done in Spain, and is being started in California, storage of molten salt melted by heating from giant mirror farms, which drives turbines at night.  Also, hopefully and eventually for individual homes, molten salt electrical storage batteries, for storing electrical power for night use.
Inefficient?  15% to 18% for photovoltaics,  at present.  Theoretical limit, 30%.  Once you deliver power from coal all the way to the home , coal is only 30% efficient.

The technologies ARE the future and we have to get on with it.  The energy returned over energy invested (EROEI) is terrible for tar sands oil.  You have to steam this stuff out of the tar sands using natural gas, which will be getting scarcer.  Surface tar sands are already being depleted, making it even more inefficient a process.  Old crude oil gave 100 units of energy back for one unit invested.  Tar sands is almost as bad as biofuel.  Old crude is like beer flowing from the bar tap.  Tar sands is like sucking spilled beer out of the bar carpet after the tap goes dry.  Even nuclear fuel extraction will become harder and harder, using methods that are more inefficient and EXPERIMENTAL.  Same for coal.  All environmental downsides aside, the easy coal is mostly depleted.  The coal is getting browner.  The deposits are more like thin veins.  Coal is dying, not so much from government regulation, as from diminishing returns.  These technologies that depend on extraction are doomed.  It is time to switch infrastructure to the new technologies.

Solar and wind provide distributed power.  I have friends in New Jersey who have been without power for almost two weeks. We can really see the weakness of total dependence on grid power.  If they had solar cells, they would now have SOMETHING.  Nuclear and other centralized power sources with their delivery systems are vulnerable, delicate.

Ther is also efficiency.  There's a monolithic dome house up in Alberta that is heated by passive solar.  It is off the grid.  The suburbs have to go.  Most of our needs should be within walking distance.  This will make us healthier and drive down health costs.  I drive a Prius but this level of technology will eventually become unsupportable.  

Marie Rehbein
6 years 4 months ago
The problem with nuclear energy is nuclear waste.  Reprocessing nuclear waste reduces the waste to a very, very small, but highly radioactive product.  Reprocessed nuclear waste is easy to transport but can do an enormous amount of damage if falls into the wrong hands and is used as a weapon.  For this reason, reprocessing is prohibited in the United States.  Melting nuclear waste into glass makes it safer.

There will always be a market for oil as an ingredient in manufactured products, but burning it to heat our buildings is wasteful.  Using the sun and wind at the level of the individual building makes a lot of sense, but is expensive to install even with tax credits.  However, some financing approaches are being developed that would make the cost more manageable.

Power companies should be encouraged to make better use of solar, wind, geothermal, and other "free" resources in lieu of fossil fuels such as oil and coal.  Coal, in particular, is highly polluting even as "clean coal", especially considering the environmental damage done in it's extraction.  It, too, should be considered only as an ingredient in certain manufactured products.

Up to now, people would claim rights to oil and coal and exclude others from accessing it in order to make themselves wealthy.  This is how it is with most natural resources.  Since this cannot be done with sunlight, wind, and oceans, there has not been the kind of promotion of these sources of power as there was with fossil fuels.  Governments need to step in to encourage transitioning to these fuel sources in every instance possible.
David Smith
6 years 4 months ago
Marie (#9), shoot nuclear waste into the sun or into outer space.

Breathing is ''highly polluting''. 
Vincent Gaitley
6 years 4 months ago
I'll believe liberals are serious about climate change when they embrace nuclear power.  I produces no greenhouse gases whatsoever, and combined with a fleet of shiny electric cars, can change our oil consumption overnight.  But, oh no, green idiology trumps the technology especially added to a dose of fear, a left-wing specialty.  No law can reverse our ecology, no tax can make the air clean, no regulation can make people consume less.  Go all in for safer, clean, renewable, carbon free nuclear power or just stop blowing hot air.
Vincent Gaitley
6 years 4 months ago
David Smith
6 years 4 months ago
Stanley, thanks for #7 - a mini-education.

I have to disagree on the suburbs remark, though.  Unless you move from representative democracies to dictatorships, you're not going to get rid of suburbs - whether they ''have to go'' or not.

Why not mirrors on satellites focusing the sun's rays onto something like photovoltaic farms? 
David Smith
6 years 4 months ago
Stanley, green energy is all experimental, problematical, and low yield.  Nuclear we know works on a big scale.  You say your Union of Concerned Scientists isn't against it, so if they're your touchstone, you ought to be for it.  Nuclear, plus continual refinement of carbon energy.  No-brainer.  

If it weren't for the ideological opposition, the problem would be solved.  In fact, there need be no energy crisis at all.  How come it continues?  I'm tempted to agree with your hated ''conservatives'' that the left is more in love with crises than with solutions.


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