By MURRAY WALSH
Part One: Environmental Movements
I am a student of all of the 20th Century environmental movements and a participant in many of them. This is the first in a series of four columns to first clarify the global climate change movement – why it is different from the others – and to propose an approach to satisfy both those who are ardent in reducing carbon emissions and those who just want to live their lives in peace and breathe clean air.
Climate change, previously called global warming, is different because there is such a gulf between those who want to prevent further warming by reducing carbon emissions and those who resist such an effort. The “Resisters” are either:
- Those who don’t believe climate change is a valid, world-wide, public issue deserving of attention by society; or
- Those who might be open to concern over the climate but who are skeptical about the solutions being proposed and actions taken so far.
This gulf is huge and it prevents communication among the parties and it has generated vilification on both sides, and no small amount of contempt to go around.
Previous environmental movements were not like this. The meat-packing contamination at the dawn of the 20th Century began with a journalistic exposure of industry practices that caused revulsion across America and led to pretty swift (for the times) government action to address the matter. There was no pro-contamination counter-movement (although this might have been the beginning of the vegan movement) and no general outcry at this new intervention in commerce by the government.
The national parks movement was also blossoming in the early part of the last century and there was no anti-park resistance worthy of note at the time, probably because there weren’t many people affected by the designations. The parks movement happened across the country and was stable until Alaska statehood when a new round of park designations was set in motion. This did engender resistance and does so to this day, but that is a subject to address in another column.
And so, we go to the latter half of the century in the 1960s and 1970s when air quality, water quality, endangered species, habitat protection, wetlands protection and management of coasts and riverbanks and flooding all took center stage.
There was little resistance to creating these programs and an amazing amount of cooperation for the granddaddy of them all: conversion to unleaded gasoline. That is a story worth looking into all by itself. There was lots of squabbling over how to achieve the goals of these programs but there was no serious objection to any of the goals themselves.
This is what makes climate change so different from the other issues. There is no broad social agreement that climate change is real and urgent, whether human caused or not.
In addition, those who are adamant about such change, and its urgency, are demanding that all of society adhere to their views and do what they want done, even if it requires sacrifice of personal rights, desires and comforts.
Some anti-climate change objectors add a bit of political seasoning to it, claiming that the movement is actually a socialist or Marxist energized endeavor. That is, to save the planet, we have to go to an authoritarian top-down model to get people to do what needs to be done. I am not asserting this but many are and it is a very important reason you will hear for resisting the climate change advocates: They want too much change in society in order to save the world.
However, the most divisive aspect of the climate change advocates is the call to eliminate the fossil fuel industry. This was the basis of President Biden’s killing of the XL Keystone Pipeline Project. He believed that allowing it was to foster an industry that must be replaced.
The public’s general support of fossil fuel is largely due to the fact that the public depends upon it, generally understands it, and does not see a reasonable way to replace it.
It is not like the fossil fuel industry hasn’t been trying to reduce carbon and other emissions. The US emits far less of these gases and particulates now than ever before and this is largely due to the creation or conversion of power plants that burn natural gas as opposed to fuel oil or coal.
This does not satisfy the climate advocates. While gas burns cleaner than other fuels, it still emits some carbon and thus cannot be tolerated. There is also concern over methane releases during the extraction and management of natural gas apart from the burning of it. I am not sure of the extent of this issue but it sure seems like it could be dealt with. The whole industry has gotta go, the climate folks say.
Well, I am not a believer in the specific belief that bad climate changes are occurring and getting worse because of human activity. However, I am a clean air advocate and so is just about every other American, or anyone on the planet for that matter. So, there can be common cause between society in general and climate advocates if we can agree that air that is free of contaminants is what we all want.
Is carbon dioxide, CO2, a “contaminant?” Well, plants breathe it and we need plants, correct? So, it must be a matter of how much CO2 is in the air that we need to sort out. That could be hard to do. The climate activists argue that the natural world, animals and people, exhale all the C02 that world needs and that artificial means of CO2 production is what is tipping the balance into a climate-destroying process. By “artificial” we mean from combustion rather than from breathing. Combustion is burning whether in a car engine or a brushfire.
We could quibble over this approach but let’s run with it for now and adopt a societal goal of reducing the amount of carbon production from burning as much as possible.
Automotive combustion does produce carbon dioxide and other carbon-containing emissions. The use of unleaded gas and catalytic converters has reduced auto exhaust a great deal, especially the harmful particles, but not entirely. Auto engines, whether gas or diesel, are also not especially efficient users of fossil fuel. About two thirds of the energy potential of either fuel goes out the exhaust or into the cooling system as waste heat. Electric cars are far more efficient energy users.
The question is how to generate, and store, the electricity we want to put into the electric cars. Hydro is one way. The storage part is holding the water in place until you need it. Until recently, it was widely believed that the only other way you could do that – with no emissions – was with nuclear fission.
Another way to say this is that there was no hope of using easily produced and stored fossil fuels to generate electricity without emissions. That is no longer true. There are at least two ways of using fossil fuel to generate emission-free energy and the whole point of this column, and it soon-to-come sisters, is to demonstrate that this is in fact possible and that the climate activists can get what they want by cooperating with the fossil fuel industry.
In the second part of this series, we will set the stage further by reviewing the use of fossil fuel around the world and the issues associated with it. In the third, we will explore the two technologies that are the basis for this fossil fuel is good assertion and in the fourth, we will look at implementation of this strategy (yep, I finally used the word strategy. Didn’t want to put you off by throwing it in too soon.)
Want to get ahead of me? Put NET power in a browser and prepare to feel some hope.
Murray Walsh is part of the extended MRAK writing staff in Juneau. Check back for Part 2.