What You Don’t Know About Climate Change

I’m freezing f*cking cold. Are you freezing f*cking cold? If you’re in North America right now, you probably are (I’m in New York), and the words “polar vortex” inspire a fear and loathing you never believed possible for meteorological events. As I stand in my window shaking my fist and shouting into the icy wind, I have to admit, I’m over it. OVER IT.

A new theory suggests that the cold snap is, ironically, caused by global warming. The idea is that warming up the Arctic causes jet streams to meander all over the place and bring with them frigid weather. Even Hurricane Sandy could be explained this way, but the science is still hotly debated.

One thing we’re done debating about, though: global warming is real. Wait, let me say that again: Global warming. Is real. It is happening. While we debated it, ice caps have been melting, waters rising, and shit in general has been hitting the fan. Polar bears are swimming into sunsets they will never see again. Tell me that isn’t depressing as hell.

We have been fiddling while Rome burns. Yes, some climate change is natural to the earth. However, global warming is occurring much faster than that natural trend, and most scientists now agree it’s humankind’s fault.

Not to sound like an alarmist, but it’s a big deal. It’s been a big deal for almost a century, and as industry develops, it becomes more and more difficult to clean up and minimize the effect we’ve had on this planet. And when I say “we,” I mean “America,” whose CO2 emissions are equal to Russia, India, and Japan (the next worst polluters in the world) combined, although significantly less than China’s. Burning fossil fuels (coal or oil, for instance) as energy sources releases an unprecedented concentration of gases (including CO2, methane, and CFCs) that bounce around in the atmosphere and create what we call the “greenhouse effect.” SCIENCE.

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But if a professor ever made you watch An Inconvenient Truth, or you remember when gas prices were over $4.00 per gallon, or you’ve ever been heckled by a guy at a state fair trying to sell you solar panels, you know all this.

Here’s what you don’t know. 

The U.S. is behind, oh so far behind, the rest of the world in cleaning up our act. Although there are laws to protect health, we have no legislation to reduce our emissions nationally. That’s right. In the U.S., there is no climate plan. “Obama is using executive authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate power plant emissions,” but that impact is limited while we have no laws to regulate our pollution or our impact on the climate.

Our lack of accountability is unnerving when you consider that the U.S. is considered a wealthy nation. It’s a nation that everybody loves to hate, but everybody secretly hopes will help with their problems because we have the force and the swagger. But at the end of the day, we’re pretty fat cats, and our uncontrolled energy glugging is having global consequences, affecting the environments of nations without our wealth or clout. Fucking them over. Way to go, ‘Merica.

There are solutions. We just haven’t adopted them. The problem here is energy. Burning oil, natural gas, and coal all release greenhouse gases. Coal is the worst culprit; in the U.S. on average, coal plants (depending on their size and the wattage produced) produce 2,249 lbs./MWh of carbon dioxide, 13 lbs./MWh of sulfur dioxide, and six lbs./MWh of nitrogen oxides. And 37 percent of U.S. energy in 2012 came from coal sources. That’s right, your energy is probably coal-powered, even if you’re not Bob Cratchit-ing your way around a coal bin.

Now about those solutions… Until the world bursts forth in green technologies and those new energy sources are widely used, we still have our coal and fossil fuel-burning plants. Those of you who play/ed Sim City will be familiar with this. Challenging plants to lower their emissions over time has always been the intended first step; this creates a demand for green technologies. Some have suggested a carbon tax. Others prefer cap and trade, or setting a cap on carbon emissions while creating a market for allowances (companies get a number of allowances which the companies able to get their emissions lower can trade to struggling companies and make a profit). That’s how it ideally works anyway.

But after the 2008 financial crisis, the idea of creating a “market” isn’t great; the best way to frame an environmental bill would be to bury the climate reform inside a jobs stimulus bill. Everybody loves jobs. And frankly, implementing green technologies would create a lot of jobs, “green collar” jobs to build and operate the infrastructure. However, it could also have negative affects on jobs in coal, oil, etc, forcing these workers to “transition” in a way most skilled working-class people would be loathe to do.

We already see some effort in retrofitting existing coal plants, but the use of clean coal remains extremely limited. Although there is no national law, many states have embraced going green and created their own climate laws. As a result, some coal is cleaning up with the help of new carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. It does just what it sounds like: captures carbon emissions from plants and stores it underground, usually in liquid form. I KNOW. CRAY.

It isn’t for lack of passion or effort on the part of many activists, lawmakers, and even some forward-thinking captains of industry that the U.S. remains mired in its greenhouse gas-spewing ways. Numerous laws have been put to Congress since the U.S.’ unique failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol back in 1997. Kyoto was a U.N.-sponsored international treaty that sets goals for reduced emissions; more inclusive treaties have since been ratified in the international community. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has met yearly since 2007, providing numerous opportunities for the U.S. to commit to climate change. But what can I say? We clearly have commitment issues. While the developing world takes major steps to regulate their newer industrial loads (particularly in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa), the U.S. lags behind.  

But every day brings us closer. Yesterday, Feb. 27, U.S. Senator Edward Markay (D-Mass.), who co-authored one of the many climate bills that have died in Congress over the years, called a meeting of 100 legislators from 50 countries to discuss recent U.N. reports about climate change.

The UNFCCC summit in Paris next year promises to finally bring the U.S. into international climate treaties, though Markay still advises caution: “We need an international movement to pass climate legislation, and nowhere is that movement needed more than here in the United States.”

This is a debate without a happy ending. Sorry to bum you out. It’s an evolving debate, and though there’s hope for the road ahead, we still remain stalled at the intersection of accountability and profitability. I’m not going to tell you to ride your bike to work everyday or write every senator you’ve ever heard of. The time for that has come and gone. Just stay informed, because whether you’re cursing the winter winds or baking under a too-hot too-soon sun, climate change affects us all.

Featured image by Jimmy Thomas

Further Reading:

This is an awesome interactive infographic about emissions in 2012-13 published by the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

Eric Pooley’s book The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth offers a fantastic background on the power players in the U.S. “climate war” and detailed coverage from 2007–2008 especially (Amazon/kindle).

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