Solution: A carbon-free Economy
Most climate scientists ‘hope’ that if we completely eliminate any more greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere within the next decade, the worst impacts can be eliminated - i.e. no runaway climate change. At this point, and with another decade of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere, ocean rise might stabilize out within the next couple centuries at something less than fifty feet higher than today. Yes, the Lowcountry will be gone. But if we put systems in place today, our great great grandkids might have a resilient enough society to survive and thrive.
When I started driving big-rigs around the country, I realized there is absolutely no way our current civilization can change from liquid petroleum fuels to anything else. I would burn more than a hundred gallons of diesel fuel a day driving more than six hundred miles. Multiply that by another million trucks all over America and the math simply doesn’t work out to try to make even just the big-rigs on America’s highways into electric vehicles. Electric vehicles simply push the burden of energy production further up the supply chain. Without either a massive increase in nuclear energy production (which I won’t support) or space-based orbiting solar farms providing energy twenty four hours a day, we simply can’t provide enough energy to power America’s truck fleet alone, not to mention the millions of cars on the roads.
However, there is another more efficient and simpler way to utilize solar power - photosynthesis. For the past few decades dozens of researchers have been experimenting with the conversion of solar energy into oil via photosynthesis. It turns out that some strains of algae - pond scum - are particularly efficient at producing oil. In fact, today, algae-derived oils are used in a number of cosmetic products. Efforts are underway to scale up the process to produce thousands or millions of gallons of oil everyday.
The advantage of biological sources of oil, compared to underground sources of oil (fossil fuels) is that the plants that produce the oil pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to create the oil. That’s what plants do. They breath in carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen and create carbohydrates or oils while doing so. When the oil is burned as fuel, the carbon dioxide produced by the combustion process simply go back where they were a few weeks or months before - back into the atmosphere. Therefore the burning of bio-fuels are “carbon-neutral” - no net-new carbon based gases, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide or methane are ADDED to the atmosphere. The same amount of those gases simply recirculates through the process from being in the atmosphere, to being used by the algae to produce oil, to being burned and put back into the atmosphere. While using bio-fuels will not reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it will keep the amount there today from increasing.
So how do we get off fossil-fuels and onto bio-fuels?
There are only three ways the government can incent the behavior of it’s citizens or corporations. Laws or regulations making an action required or illegal, tax policies that make an action cost prohibitive or more profitable, or grants that fund actions. I suggest a combination of all three to incent the current petroleum production companies - Exxon/Mobil, BP, Sunoco, etc., to very quickly switch from pumping oil out of the ground to producing oil from non-food biological sources, like algae. See Responsible Corporations for tax policy methods that might alone provide enough incentive to petroleum company investors. Perhaps a moratorium on oil exploration would also be effective. And federal research and development grants could quickly accelerate the scaling up of bio-fuel production methods to the levels necessary and at the efficiency levels required to meet America’s needs, and soon enough those of the rest of the world.
Problem: Anthropogenic global climate change
While the consensus from the United Nations study on the problem says oceans may rise more than three feet by 2100, some reputable climate scientists are saying that height and date represent the conservative end of the spectrum of possibilities. Some consortiums of reputable climate scientists are saying the reality may be closer to ten feet of ocean rise by 2050.
The 1st congressional district of South Carolina, where we live, has an average elevation above the high-tide line of well less than ten feet. Roughly half of James, John, and Wadmalaw Islands, and the Charleston Peninsula will be underwater twice a day with a ten foot ocean rise. Most of Edisto, Kiawah, Hilton Head, Sullivan’s, Isle of Palms and McClellanville will be underwater twice a day with ten feet of ocean rise and much of the islands will be underwater even at low tide. See for yourself with this interactive map.
Those of us alive today will be last generations to experience beaches. Sand beaches take thousands of years to develop. With an ocean rise of potentially a few feet every decade for the next two centuries, generations of future humans will never experience beaches. Instead the shoreline could be a scary place filled with the floating debris of a civilization that waited too long to take action.
While rising oceans will be the most visible and intrusive part of global warming for the Lowcountry, other impacts will probably be much worse, especially if we don’t take action now. Climate change means historically fruitful growing areas could change, as we’re seeing now in the central valley of California. California’s drought, now widely accepted as a result of climate change, is making what had been America’s vegetable growing area into a desert. Climate change made eastern Syria into a desert, forcing mass migrations into Syrian cities which caused civil unrest, a protracted war, the deaths of dozens of thousands of people, and the migration of hundreds of thousands of others into Europe. Imagine what will happen when other agrarian societies can no longer grow food. Imagine what will happen if the climate changes to dry out the Lowcountry.
Worse still is the prospect of climate change run wild - a worst case scenario that many climate scientists think might be inevitable in just a few years if we continue to dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In this scenario, the warming atmosphere melts all the permafrost in the northern latitudes causing the long frozen bacteria within the soils to come alive, do their thing and output greenhouse gases. Additionally, the warming of the oceans could reach the point at which the vast reserves of frozen methane currently just sitting on the bottoms around the world, would start to melt, releasing yet more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, accelerating the process. Eventually, perhaps within a few decades, earth will rise to uncomfortably hot temperatures everywhere, too hot for most living creatures to adapt to, too hot for us to adapt our economy to, causing the collapse of civilization as we know it.
None of those scenarios are what I want to force my grandkids and their grandkids to live within.