Confessions of a Failed Energy Martyr
Raymond WelchI wake before dawn, turn on the furnace, take a hot shower, brew some coffee, and deny to myself these manifestations of my secret.
I drive to the ferry, where I sit well away from the soporific thrum of the diesel engines and read a newspaper. Another letter to the editor disputes climate change. No one notices my expression change. On the early ferry, we mind our own business.
As the boat arrives in San Francisco, a Chinese container ship slides beneath the car-choked Bay Bridge. I walk to my office tower, summon the elevator, and ascend to the twelfth of 36 stories, where the doors open onto an empty, brightly lit, air-conditioned floor.
Somewhere along the ramifying pathways of the possible, I became an energy consultant. I’m not sure how that happened. Part of me thinks it’s because life proceeds haphazardly. Another part of me thinks it’s because I’m passive, irresolute, cowardly, and amoral. Now I analyze utility tariffs, natural gas prices, carbon emissions, and all the other glyphs and runes by which the hidden world of energy communicates with we who scuttle on its filmy surface. There is no refuge from my secret here. Quite the opposite.
A managing director in Toronto calls. He’s heard that I have experience with sizing natural gas pipelines. Could I be there on Monday?
After I arrange my flight, I return to the mute and obdurate data on my computer screen. Anyone who pays attention to this data must come to the same conclusion as I, but few are paying attention, or want to. That feeds my secret, this blitheness.
The data show that demand for coal and oil and gas continues its upward trend. Carbon dioxide emissions climb relentlessly. You’ve seen the graph of atmospheric accumulation. It wiggles with the seasons, but its slope remains implacably upward, despite our blogs and our essays and our blaming of plutocrats.
Some days later, I board a plane for Toronto. The engines burn the bonds of gravity, and the winged hundred-ton tube bulls skyward. The tapestry of lights as we approach Pearson Airport is alluring, exquisite, magical—the very triumph of civilization over darkness. A taxi whisks me to my hotel, where I eat at a bar surrounded by flat-screen televisions. On each is a hockey game. Robust men flash up and down the refrigerated arena, pursuing a puck.
Electricity contravenes nature to solidify the water on the arena floor. But nothing contravenes nature in the Arctic. And that unbidden thought brings my secret to mind. If I live the actuarial remainder of my life—24 years—I am convinced that, one summer, I will see the ice cap disappear.
That’s it? you say. That’s your secret? No, not entirely.In summer, the ice cap leans into the sun to reflect solar radiation, helping to keep the planet in its narrow temperate zone. More importantly, the ice cap underlies the temperature gradient that drives the jet stream. As the white ice is replaced by black, warming seas, that gradient will literally degrade and the jet stream will become unmoored from its historic annual behavior. Seasonal rains will fall where they shouldn’t, when they shouldn’t, in amounts they shouldn’t, instead of where, when, and in the amounts that the seven billion souls on this planet depend on to grow grains and fruits and vegetables. The recent flooding in Europe and Alberta and the early bloom that destroyed 90 percent of Michigan’s apple crop in March 2012 show that the shrinking ice cover is already distorting the jet stream.
And each year, it will get worse. Once the ice cap goes, the permafrost will release eons of sequestered methane and carbon dioxide, which will drive further warming and further releases. Seasonal weather will be further distorted. From the point of view of agriculture, the atmosphere will experience total systemic failure.
But it’s not my singular death that preoccupies me. It’s my acquiescence in the deaths of billions, including my wife and sons. It’s my complicity in the systems that will deliver us to catastrophe, because even I can’t quite accept that the world is about to unravel. It is my fecklessness in the face of my near-certainty that I will live to see—that I am seeing—the beginning of the end of Western civilization, if not the extinction of the human race, and that I am abetting it. That is my secret.
Of course I can’t say these things. They mark me as alarmist and irrational. This crackpot is not a scientist, you will say; these are half-baked speculations cooked up in the overheated imagination of someone in existential crisis. That is my fear, and also my out. I comfort myself that my extrapolations could be completely wrong. No experiment can show conclusively that, once the ice cap is gone, the atmosphere will fibrillate like an infarcted heart. But my rationalization is no more convincing to me than that of a firing squad gunner who, having been told that one rifle in ten contains a blank, imagines his trigger did not contribute to the death of the blindfolded man tied to the post.
As children, we accept the world as a preexisting whole. To regard the man-made environment as aberrant would be like a goldfish regarding its bowl as aberrant. Yet, historically, the technological world is aberrant in the extreme. What were once wonders quickly displaced nature to become everyday necessities: electricity, processed food, cars, the internet. These putative conveniences now transcend necessity. They are ambient. We buckle ourselves into upholstered aluminum cartridges that within hours deposit us gingerly upon the far side of the continent, and regard this phenomenon not as merely normal, but as sub-unremarkable. The glitches in the technological construct are the aberrations, the power failures and the oil well blowouts and the economic collapses, not the construct itself. Imagining the world without cars and factories and power plants is like imagining it without oxygen.
We will occupy that hypoxic world soon enough unless we do something drastic, without delay. Things tip suddenly. Water is solid at 32 degrees, but liquid at 32.01.
If anything, scientists have underestimated how rapidly the ice cap is disintegrating. The graph of ice loss from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado is eloquent. It shows a dark line based on data from 1979 to 2000 for the expected decline rate, and a gray band of uncertainty around it. A set of colored lines marks the actual decline over more recent years. One doesn’t have to be a scientist to see that the colored lines swoop far below the outlier probabilities, or to understand the implication.
The NSIDC says that the Arctic tundra will invert from carbon store to carbon emitter in about 20 years if we continue business as usual. What makes anyone think we will not continue business as usual? The evidence of carbon-driven climate change is as obvious as cancer was for tobacco, and still we refuse to alter the systems that cause this malignancy.
I’ve wondered why scientists haven’t grabbed us by the lapels, wild-eyed, and shaken us. I think it’s because they share my secret. They are terrified, but fear being labeled as cranks and losing their credibility. They’re already the object of smear campaigns.
Scientists are by disposition conservative. The scientific method is to question and experiment repeatedly to establish the truth. The notion that all climate scientists the world over, with their divergent personal, professional, and national interests, are colluding to hoodwink all of humankind is beyond ludicrous. But it’s believed by enough people who are then leveraged by powerful interests who are vested in the status quo.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is planning on business as usual. It says that we will use about the same amount of coal, oil, and natural gas every year through 2040.
That tells me the government is doing next to nothing, even as the boat we occupy slips into the current that will pull us over the falls. The water looks so placid. How can anything be wrong? But at some point, the current will become too strong for us to pull free with the largest motor ever built. Our technology, having delivered us comfortably to the precipice, will be powerless to pull us back.
I’ll be interested in how the EIA’s numbers change next year, now that President Obama has decided it’s safe to talk about cutting carbon pollution. I suspect not very much.In the United States, the centralized cooperation that is required to save the ice cap would be met with armed resistance. Even the idea that healthcare should be administered like roads or sewage service elicited hostility deep enough to engender a new political party. This party equates government-sponsored social cooperation with an incipient threat to individual liberty, most conspicuously to the right to bear arms, and implies by this equation a counter-threat of violence. Yet the Tea Party, leaping over the demonstrable crisis of climate collapse to an imagined totalitarian conspiracy, escapes the alarmist label. This is not to impugn the Tea Party (much), but to observe that humans are unable to recognize such paradoxes, hypocrisies, and contradictions. Indeed, they revel in them, and use them as logical weapons of mass destruction.
The national character of America, which lifted humankind to its most lofty achievements, will also pull us down to its most spectacular failure. We are entitled to do what we want, when we want, how we want, irrespective of the social risks. We despise pessimism, and nothing is more pessimistic than to reduce our standard of living to avert climate change. It insults our heritage. America conquered the wilderness. America invented electric light and the mass-produced car. America discovered how to convert oil into gasoline and natural gas into fertilizer. It is inconceivable that the actions that made us so successful—that made us good in the eyes of God—could be the engines of our demise. It is so much defeatist twaddle.
And so we will not change. Some of us have altered our behavior in superficial ways, but unless everyone changes their behavior, today, in deep, systemic ways, none of our Priuses, compact fluorescent lights, double-paned windows, solar panels, or backyard compost gardens will do much to stave off the inevitable. We need a sudden, collective realization that we must keep the ice cap whole, the faith that a shared sacrifice will do it, and the will to impose it on the recalcitrant.
But what if we were to succeed, and the ice cap survives, and we continue to add tens of millions of souls to this planet every year? Those who did not share that realization, who were the imposed-upon, whose faith is not in science but in God-given dominion, will scorn our success. They will say, see, the ice cap is still there. You were wrong, just as Malthus was wrong when he predicted that overpopulation would outstrip food production. You were wrong, just as every ragged hermit who ever held a sign aloft touting The End is Near was wrong. The persistence of the present world will prove not that the sacrifice succeeded, but that they were deprived of their autonomy and wealth for no good reason, and they will be livid with rage.
Perhaps those who deny climate change have it right. What good can come of inducing half-panicked austerity if the outcome will perversely render success failure? It may be that waiting for nature to administer the correction is the morally defensible response. What if our preemptive correction is ineffective, or causes immediate wide-scale suffering? That does seem the very embodiment of injustice. Perhaps it makes all the sense in the world to await whatever suffering will be imposed by the indifferent hand of fate.
On the other hand, those who deny the risk of a climate catastrophe, who block even the most reasonable effort to combat it, are forcing their will on humanity in exactly the same way. But asking people to see that is asking the goldfish to recognize the fishbowl.I returned home from Toronto—a single, three-hour meeting. I was but a particle carried through the global infrastructure of commercial aviation. I can argue that avoiding that one trip would not have made a whit of difference to the ice cap. It wouldn’t have kept a single jetliner from flying, or a single computer from running, or a single taxi from completing its circuit from the airport to downtown. It would not have kept a single molecule of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, there to stay for the next 200 years.
But my arguments nauseate me.
I fall back to that most basic tool of the human spirit, which has been used by every man, woman, and child who has prayed as the crops failed or the invading army entered town: hope. My normal disposition is to hate to be wrong. In this case, I would love to be proven spectacularly wrong, grandiose, and obsessive, to have wasted the balance of my life in thrall to a false and grindingly self-destructive idea. It is a humiliation I would welcome.
Meanwhile, I will make Darjeeling tea, and watch television, and drive, and fly, and obscure my depravity behind a scrim of normality. I will not burden my wife and children with my disturbing secret. I could not bear the alienation, especially as circumstances devolve. They will need me.
- National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, Earth System Research Laboratory, Global Monitoring Division, http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/co2_data_mlo.html#mlo_full
- Weather Underground, Dr. Jeff Masters Wunderblog, “Extreme Jet Stream Pattern Triggers Historic European Floods,” June 8, 2013, http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/comment.html?entrynum=2432
- Calgary Herald, “Jet stream seen as one culprit in Alberta floods and upside-down weather,” June 25. 2013, http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/stream%20seen%20culprit%20Alberta%20floods%20path%20Superstorm%20Sandy/8576454/story.html
- Michigan Apples, “Michigan Apple Crop Suffers Significant Losses,” June 28, 2012, http://www.michiganapples.com/michigan-apple-crop-suffers-significant-losses.html
- National Snow and Ice Data Center, http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/files/2012/10/Figure2.png
- NSIDC press release, 16 February 2011, http://nsidc.org/news/press/20110216_permafrost.html
- U.S. Energy Information Agency, 2013 Annual Energy Outlook, May 2, 2013, http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/images/figure_54-lg.jpg
- Climate Progress, “‘Invest, Divest’: Obama Goes Full Climate Hawk In Speech Unveiling Plan To Cut Carbon Pollution,” June 25, 2013, http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/06/25/2213341/invest-divest-obama-goes-full-climate-hawk-in-speech-unveiling-plan-to-cut-carbon-pollution/
Header and home page power plant at night photo by Anna Tyurina, courtesy Shutterstock.