Sometimes I wonder why I bother. Even though I try to reduce the amount of energy I use in my daily life, I know I could do better. But will my efforts really make a difference?
On a recent trip to Michigan, I stopped to explore an antique mall in Illinois. When I stepped out of the car, I noticed the car I parked next to was unoccupied but had its motor running. I returned to my car after nearly half-an-hour and found that vehicle’s motor still running. As I drove away, the owners of that car finally returned to their car. Just three days earlier I had a similar experience at a hardware store. A high-class SUV was idling in the parking lot when I pulled up. It was still idling fifteen minutes later when I left — with no owners in sight. On both days the temperatures were in the 90s, so I assume the drivers wanted to keep their cars comfortably cool.
Therein lies a major problem when attempting to address global climate change, especially in the United States. As a nation, we like our comfort and convenience. On the same trip, I stopped a few times at fast food restaurants for refreshments and a quick meal. Each stop found a long line of idling vehicles, with the passengers waiting in the drive-through lane to place their orders and receive their food.
There was a time when we worried about the amount of gasoline being wasted by all those idling vehicles. Many of you will remember the energy crisis of the 1970s with 55 mile per hour speed limits, long lines of cars waiting to top off before filling stations ran out of gas and many closed filling stations on Sundays to discourage nonessential driving.
When Ronald Reagan became president, gas shortages had eased and he lifted the speed limit and other gas use restrictions. By then many states no longer seriously enforced those speed limits anyway. Driving on a trip down South, I found myself constantly being passed, even when I had increased my speed to ten miles over the limit. When a state trooper came bearing down behind me, I held my breath waiting for him to turn on his lights to pull me over. He paid me no attention as he sped by.
Turns out the important issue today is not the availability of gas, at least not for the foreseeable future. Between the discovery of new oil reserves and improved technology to access existing oil fields, supplies are currently adequate. The important issue is the carbon dioxide and other pollutants resulting from the burning of all that gasoline (and other hydrocarbons) and their effect on global climate change.
Like trash we throw into landfills or burn in incinerators, excess carbon dioxide is a waste product of our modern technology-based society. A certain amount of carbon dioxide production is necessary to sustain plant growth, including crops for food. Unfortunately, meeting the demands of a growing population with greatly increased energy use to produce our material needs and desires creates more carbon dioxide and other pollutants than the earth is able to absorb. The excess carbon dioxide accumulates in a layer that blankets the earth. That invisible blanket acts like the glass of a greenhouse, capturing heat from the sun and raising the earth’s temperatures.
Average temperatures do not need to raise much to cause world-altering consequences. The increased temperatures to date will likely result in the melting of the remaining glaciers in sub-arctic North America by the middle of this century. Scientist are even warning that reducing carbon dioxide emissions to keep temperatures rising no more than 3.6 degrees above preindustrial levels as ratified by signers of the Paris Agreement will still result in costly, calamitous impacts, such as coastal flooding and prolonged droughts. Furthermore, even achieving the Paris Agreement goal may not be enough to avert long-range destruction of earth’s habitability for humans. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency, under the direction of the current administration, is bent on negating all progress already made toward insuring our ability to live on this planet. Recent EPA actions have eased mandated fuel economy standards for new motor vehicles. A proposal in the works would relax the rules for methane leaks at oil and gas sites. Methane (the gas most of us use to heat our homes) is actually more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Considering the lack of national leadership, indeed, even denial that climate change is real, it is not surprising that so many Americans do not see global warming as a serious threat. Should it be real, we believe science and technology will allow us to deal with whatever problems we face. Ironic, considering we also criticize that same science warning us of the causes and consequences of global climate change.
I have often heard it said that our human activities destroy the earth. That is nonsense, stemming from our arrogance. In our domination of the earth, we may drive to extinction many other species of plants and animals and even eventually render the earth uninhabitable for us. Regardless, the earth will go on. We will be just another dominant species that reigned for a time, then through our own folly, overshot our ecosystem’s carrying capacity. Perhaps given a few million years another species will develop with enough intelligence and wisdom to better care for its home.
Pete Korsching is an Iowa State University Emeritus Professor, a Nevada resident and a freelance columnist for the Nevada Journal.