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A reminder on terminology

This one comes up a lot, so I thought I’d copy and paste a recent answer here. Deniers will often bring up the shift, in news and political media, from talking about “global warming” to talking about “climate change”, as if this was something orchestrated by the political Left, just in the last few years.

Climate change has been a term used in the scientific community since at least the 1930′s, Daniel. It’s been the most common term, used by scientists, since at least the 1960′s.

Global warming was adopted in the popular press because it’s a simpler concept, and it catches attention. The shift to using “climate change” in the popular press and in politics came about because of a memo Frank Luntz sent to the GOP, telling them to use “climate change” because it sounds less scary.

The change in terminology ONLY happened in the popular/political press, and it was a change initially designed to serve the rhetorical purposes of the denial movement.

One hundred years of “I told you so”

Climate scientists have been under attack since before I was born, and those attacks have not lessened one bit as the evidence for man-made climate change has grown clearer and clearer, along with our understanding of just how much danger it presents. When Svante Arrhenius wrote about the influence of CO2 in our atmosphere in the 1890s, it was a hypothesis, grounded in a solid understanding of chemistry and physics, and backed up with calculations that hold true today. A century later, the IPCC second assessment was out, and climate scientists knew with a high degree of certainty that rising CO2 levels were causing the entire planet to warm at an alarming rate.

And the denial movement, funded by companies with a direct interest in continued use of fossil fuels, was in full swing, attacking scientists and their reputations, fostering political polarization around the issue, and pushing the Republican party farther along the path to full-fledged denial of reality. Today, publicly accepting the reality of climate change, as a GOP candidate, is tantamount to political suicide.

This post serves little purpose, except as an outlet for my frustration. According to everything we know, right now, we are facing conditions of the kind that have spelled doom for countless species in eons gone by. Beyond that, it has been clear for a long, long time that climate change will be one of the biggest drivers of war in the 21st century. More drought, more floods, higher seas, and more heat waves will all lead to food shortages, refugees, desperation, and chaos. It’s not hard to figure out why the Pentagon is worried.

And yet we still have people saying, with each disaster, and each new war, or new atrocity, “now is not the time.”

Here’s the thing – they’re right.

The time was before I was born. The time was 1996. The time was any time in the last fifty years. The time was before it was too late to stop the planet from warming. It’s long past time to be talking about climate change. Right now what we should be doing is taking action.

For the rest of this century, there will always be a disaster ongoing. Always. For the rest of this century, there will always be a crisis in urgent need of our attention. The predicted threats to national security, to economic stability, to human existence – they are beginning to become a reality, and will only get worse for the rest of my life.

This problem should have been handled. It could have been handled before I became aware of it. But instead, over 100 years after the first calculations of CO2′s relationship to planetary temperature, I’m finding myself in the position of saying “we told you so.” I’m too young for that. My generation should not have had enough time with this problem unsolved to say that. But for the rest of my life, and the lives of everybody else on this planet today, “we told you so” will be a refrain. And if anybody dares to say “now is not the time”, we can tell them, “you’re damned right, so why are we still talking about this? Why aren’t we DOING something?”

After We Win: Sewage Power

Very often discussions about renewable energy focus on solar and wind power, and other sources fall into the background. To be sure, these two will form a significant part of the new system, but they are not all there is. Aside from geothermal energy, tidal energy, and various forms of crop-based biofuels, we also have an abundant form of energy available that is directly proportional to the number of people living nearby.

Sewage.

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Playing with trains: grid level storage

One of the most important aspects of a society powered by renewable will be power storage. Fortunately, we don’t need to wait for new technology, and we don’t need to build huge chemical batteries. There are a number of grid-level storage options available that work off of potential energy alone.

Case in point: Advanced Rail Energy Storage – a company that stores energy by moving heavy trains uphill when there’s excess power, and letting them roll downhill again when more power is needed.

One of these things is not like the other: How global climate change is different from other social change issues.

“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
-Mohandas K Gandhi

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
-Nelson Mandela

Human-made global climate change different from every other social change issue in history, and behaving otherwise will lead to ruin.

The quotes at the beginning of this article are wonderful quotes, and the lessons they teach provide excellent advice for every human working to build a better world. So many of the problems we face stem from gargantuan power structures that work very hard to convey the message that change is impossible – that the way it is is the way it must always be.

The same is true for human-caused global climate change. Modern civilization has been built on fossil fuels, and the topic of energy production has become so entrenched in politics, that people feel their very identities are tied up in the issue.

The same has been true in the struggles for racial equality, and for gender equality, and for economic equality, and for a hundred other causes. It has also been true of the environmental movement that arose in the twentieth century. And while there is still much work to be done, all of these movements have made incredible progress. Slavery and segregation fell. Women have equal rights. Rivers are no longer catching on fire on a regular basis, and the edifices of unequal treatment and protections for homosexuals are crumbling fast.

Global climate change feels like the Next Big Struggle, and there’s a way in which it is. If only it were so simple. Global climate change is unique in that once we “win”, and the proverbial dust settles, we will be in the midst of an on-going warming event. Even if we get global fossil fuel emissions to zero in the next ten years, the warming that is already happening will have pushed every feedback loop scientists have been fearing into high gear. The arctic ice is already melting. The permafrost is already rotting. Vegetation is already suffering from heat and drought. Oceanic phytoplankton are already declining in number, and water is already evaporating more due to the rise in temperature.

Lately I’ve seen a number of posts, often by climate activists, with inspirational quotes about social change from people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, and others, and all of these quotes have something in common – they’re about social change.

Climate change is a sticky issue because, of course, part of it IS about social change. It’s a problem caused by our collective action AND our collective inaction. It’s a result of a social, economic, and political status quo, and that makes it similar to the fights against Apartheid, slavery, segregation, women’s rights, gay rights, and other forms of bigotry, discrimination, and abuse. Ultimately, how we vote is what has allowed us to get to this point, and ultimately, public opinion will sway towards reality, and change will occur.

And as Nelson Mandela famously said, it will probably seem impossible right up until it’s “done”.

But that’s the problem with climate change – it will never be “done”. Not in our lifetimes, and not in the lifetimes of our children, or our grandchildren. Even if we get every person on the planet working together to end fossil carbon emissions, the problem will continue without us. But we’re years, if not decades away from that kind of collective effort, and we’ve already waited almost half a century beyond the point when we really had a pretty solid case that human activity is warming the planet.

Most people who have been paying attention to the issue have at least a faint idea that there are feedback loops that can come into play, but if you weren’t aware of this phenomenon, there are numerous phenomena that can be caused by a small rise in temperature that cause more warming in turn, which carries on in a chain reaction.

These feedback loops are already in progress, at this point. Our albedo is lower, there’s more water vapor in the air, the permafrost is melting and releasing methane, and we’ve already seen the Amazon Rainforest – one of the biggest terrestrial carbon sinks – have two droughts so severe that it became a carbon SOURCE.

That means that while the social change aspect of this is taking time, just like ALL social change, the planet is moving on without us.

Changing where we get energy and how we use it is not enough. It’s not nearly enough.

Beyond that, simply not possible if we don’t take into account that the planet has ALREADY CHANGED, and by the time we get our act together, it will have changed EVEN MORE.

We’re fighting amongst ourselves about whether there is a battle to be fought, or when it should be fought, or HOW it should be fought, or even whether there is an enemy to fight.

We’ve been fighting amongst ourselves for fifty years, but after all that fighting is done – after the social change is achieved – then the real fight will be just beginning. Then we have to figure out how to survive.

Edit: Here’s another way I put it in conversation with a friend – Think of it as being like cracks in the road. With racism, and with other such issues, we repair the cracks. We improve what the road is made of so that the cracks don’t happen as often, and aren’t as big. We do maintenance, and over time, we have better roads. If we ignore it, it gets worse, usually in different ways, but it’s all about the road.

With climate change, we’re working on the road, when the ground the road is built on is falling away.

This blog is mostly about how we can work on building a bridge under the road as the ground beneath it falls away, so that the whole road doesn’t collapse.

Off the Deep End: After we “win”

With every decade being hotter than the last, on a global scale, it seems appropriate that every climate rally is bigger than the last. The upcoming march on 9/21/14 is expected to be the biggest gathering of people in America to call for action on climate change.

And there’s a LOT of political action needed. Our government’s policy, on the whole, is still in limbo on what’s happening in our climate, with one of the two parties in power having denial as a crucial part of its science platform.

Conventional wisdom is that if we can threaten their ability to get re-elected, the Republicans will come around on the issue, and it seems likely that that’s the case. Gingrich, Romney, Bush, McCain, and many others have all acknowledged the reality of our warming climate at one point or another, so it’s clear that at least some members of the GOP are aware of what’s going on. What’s less clear is how long it will take for public pressure to override the flood of money unleashed by recent relaxations in campaign finance laws.

In time, however, we will get there. In time, and with continued pressure and protests, we will come to a national recognition that there is a problem, and that we have put it off too long for anything but drastic measures to be taken. In time, we will begin the work, as a nation, of dealing with global climate change.

And here is where climate change differs from every other important issue in history. With labor laws, there was a long, hard fight, lives were lost, livelihoods destroyed, and in the end, the battle was won, laws were passed, and employers were required to treat their workers with a minimum amount of respect and dignity. With Segregation, the battle was won, and laws were passed changing how humans were allowed to treat each other, and providing legal frameworks to give some power to those who had none, and some defense to the defenseless. With leaded gasoline, there was a nasty political fight with powerful, wealthy corporations misleading the public and politicians alike, but in time, laws were passed, tetraethyl lead was banned, and the amount of lead we were exposed to began to fall almost immediately.

On many of the problems we’ve solved there is still much work to be done, both in America and in the rest of the world, but in the end, as tangled and complex as human interaction is, these problems all improve as people stop taking certain actions. On the surface, global climate change may seem the same. If we stop burning fossil fuels, we will have “solved” the problem, right?

Wrong.

If we had addressed global warming in the 1980’s, a couple decades after the first warnings came, or even in the 1990’s, after it became unequivocal that the planet was warming and humans were to blame, then we might have been able to follow the old model. We could have passed laws, phased out fossil fuels, and been done.

Now, in 2014, it’s too late for that. The amount of CO2 we’ve added to the atmosphere would keep warming the planet for another 20 years or so even if we stopped adding to it today, but even that isn’t the whole story. The heat we’ve already added to the planet has been enough to trigger a number of feedback loops that are increasing the rate at which the planet warms. Lowered albedo, melting of the permafrost, increased evaporation through higher temperatures, and decreased photosynthesis through heatwaves and droughts – all of these may to be enough to drive continual warming for centuries to come.

So, if the protest movement is successful, and the problem is acknowledged, what comes next? If we can’t stop the warming, then is there any point in trying?

In a word, yes. There is a point. But the goal has changed. We are no longer fighting to stop the warming, we’re fighting for the long-term survival of our species, and of our civilization.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about what that means, the kinds of action we can take, and the sort of changes we need to make in how we think as a society. In this series, I’m going to cover topics like food production, energy generation, energy storage, water use, disaster preparedness, and the art of thinking generations ahead.