Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere


Some thoughts, hopefully coherent, on Hurricane Sandy and its ramifications…

The best summary I’ve seen so far as I struggle to catch up with news feeds, Google Alerts, etc. after being sans Internet for a couple of days, comes from Mark Hertsgaard in The Nation

The Nation. Hertsgaard observes:

Sandy is short for Cassandra, the Greek mythological figure who epitomizes tragedy. The gods gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy; depending on which version of the story one prefers, she could either see or smell the future. But with this gift also came a curse: Cassandra’s warnings about future disasters were fated to be ignored. That is the essence of this tragedy: to know that a given course of action will lead to disaster but to pursue it nevertheless.

He also goes on to say:

But ours need not be a Greek tragedy. Especially in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there is no reason to continue disregarding scientists’ warnings about where our current path leads. Nor is there reason to doubt that a better path is possible. The solutions we need—a dramatic increase in energy efficiency; a rapid shift to solar, wind and other clean energy sources; a reversal of our current government subsidy patterns to champion climate-friendly rather than climate-destructive policies; and much else—are already available. Moreover, they promise to advance economic prosperity and summon the best of the American people and spirit.

The challenge of climate change is no longer a technical one, if it ever was. The challenge has always been primarily political, political and ultimately economic, as exemplified by the de facto veto power the richest industry in human history, Big Oil, has long exercised over US federal policy. We as a civilization have known for more than 20 years how to stop global warming: we have to stop burning so much fossil fuel. But Big Oil won’t hear of it. They’d rather relocate the Farm Belt, as Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson recently suggested, than leave the last drop of petroleum unburned.

The question Hurricane Sandy really raises, then, is how long Big Oil will be allowed to hold the government of the United States hostage. How long will Exxon-Mobil’s business plans take precedence over the wellbeing and indeed survival of our children? Neither of the two presidential candidates provides great inspiration on this point, though Obama is at least willing to talk about the problem, as when he advocates eliminating some taxpayer subsidies to oil companies. (Romney, for his part, thinks Big Oil has not been favored enough by Washington.)

I strongly agree with everything above, but I would stress the political and economic aspects, because they are the valve through which all action must pass. Figuring out the basic feeds and speeds of our climate mess is relatively trivial in 2012: We’re emitting way too much CO2, and need to get on a war footing to change that fact as soon as possible. But making that happen in the context of various nation political systems and economic challenges — consider just China, India, the US, and the EU, for example — is nothing short of withering.

This is where humanity has to prove that it has grown up and made the transition from belligerent, ignorant adolescent to responsible, forward looking, educated adult.

Will Sandy be the shock that finally makes us (or even just the US) re-assess our ways and fundamentally change? Or will it merely deepen the political polarization

Perhaps I’m just too beat down by the bad news[1] to be optimistic any longer, but I honestly don’t see Sandy spurring anything but a lot of talk and virtually zero action in terms of public policy that makes a meaningful difference in our CO2 emissions.

I’ve said repeatedly online in recent months that any single huge event, like a massive storm crushing Houston or Miami or Washington DC or NY City, would do nothing to change our ways, simply because it’s too easy to treat it as a one-time event, deny any connection to climate change, and keep pumping tens of billions of tons of CO2 into the air every year. I remain convinced that the only thing that will get us over the conceptual hump is a series of Sandies (or Katrinas or …) in a 10- to 20-year time frame. Frankly, I don’t expect to see that happen; there’s still too much of a random element to such events, even with the constant and growing shove by the accumulated CO2 content of the atmosphere, for us to get so “lucky”. It’s much more likely that the next big storm to hit the US East Coast hard will be at least a few years from now[2], and people not directly impacted by Sandy will have forgotten about it to the extent that dot connecting will be out of the question.[3]

I shouldn’t have to say this, but the current hyper-polarized world, let me make it unmistakeably clear: Of course, I hope I’m wrong and Sandy belies the meaning of her name and provides the shove that makes us wake up and act in our own best interest.

Some might wonder, then, if we won’t take action until reality punches us in the mouth so hard and so many times that we’re spitting out teeth, if we’ve put Isaac Newton and Adam Smith in the driver’s seat (to borrow and extend a line from Apollo 13), then what’s the point of climate activism? Are we doing nothing more than making ourselves feel good while the fossil fuel industries continue to buy influence and commit global, long-term child abuse? Are we laying the political groundwork so that when change becomes possible we can push as hard as possible and in the right direction as quickly as the political system and economy allow?

Perhaps. And perhaps that last point is nothing more than my Pollyanna side peering through the pessimism, however briefly.

[1] I have relatives in the affected area, including my nephew who, along with his wife and two sons, lost his house to Sandy.

[2] Yes, I know that Irene and its devastation was just last year. Until we see otherwise, I would assume that such back-to-back events are a fluke. And if it turns out that they’re not, and we have entered a “new normal” where strings of years with such devastation are to be expected, then we’re in so much trouble I can’t begin to describe it.

[3] Ask people you know, mah fellow ‘Mericans, what year Katrina hit, or if they remember the heatwave and fires in Russia in 2010 or the heatwave that strangled Europe in 2003.

7 comments to Sandy

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    Lou – I don’t follow the gist of this article’s assumption -
    if the fossil lobby were sufficiently powerful to overrule all other US corporations and the entire US political and military establishments,
    how come many other countries of relatively minor clout have been able to agree swingeing cuts – in the UK even the legislation of annual 3% cuts till 2050 ?

    It just doesn’t add up.

    The difference is that the US has its global economic dominance at risk, unlike European nations. All US corporations will be hit by the loss of that dominance, including the fossil lobby. Cheyney’s policy intendedly serves the maintenance of dominance, not specifically the maintenance of fossil lobby profits. And the latter seem entirely un-phased by taking the heat to veil the policy from public view . . .

    In this context McKibben is leading the US climate parrots to assault a chimera, exactly as intended.



  • Pam S.

    Lou–We both just read this post. Maybe I’m being optimistic, but spending these past days traveling from here to St. Louis and back and picking up bits and pieces here and there en route, seems like the conversation has changed even just in casual discussions. More people realize that we are in deep trouble climatewise.

  • I live in Manhattan, and last year when Irene hit, I told my friends that I thought something worse would hit NYC within 5 years. Unfortunately, it turns out that I was right. As bad as extreme weather has been globally the past 3 years or so – worse than ever before – I’m afraid that we’re going to enter a new and much more destructive phase of climate disruption in the next few years, as the last of the summer Arctic sea ice melts away. We’re already in more trouble than just about anyone can imagine.


  • JV

    Doesn’t matter, soon India and China combined will put out as much CO2 as 4 North America’s.

  • JV

    Battery technology is still a problem for heavy equipment that uses a lot of oil – planes, ships and heavy trucks and mining equipment. Even railroading uses a lot of oil for diesel shunt locomotives. JFYI, in Finland, late 4Q 2012, car sales have collapsed 65% and businesses are closing down left and right. We’re already getting hit by peak oil.

  • we are on a death march like those in Bataan. yet most “mericans”are too stoopid to realize and don’t want to wake up. thanks for such a blog…keep up the good fight and let’s get some more “change”…because hope is not a plan.

  • Good post, Lou. I’m finally reemerging from writing my book (a novel). I don’t plan to do another of those — blogging is more relevant and satisfying — i.e. we can engage people around global warming better this way. I smiled to see that is at the top of your blogroll, same as my blogroll. Bill McKibben was just in Portland last week, and the Do The Math campaign is the topic of my latest post. I’ll visit again soon. All my best to you.