Our Environmental Past Holds the Solution to Our Climate Future
Climate change is caused by climate pollution. When we discovered human sewage pollution was killing millions in the 19th century, we couldn’t stop making human sewage. What did we do? We treated the pollution.
Why aren’t we treating climate pollution? Is it because we can’t? When we discovered that human sewage pollution was killing millions, we thought it would be too expensive to put a toilet in every backyard. So, we made rules and laws that said costs didn’t matter, human life was more important. It wasn’t too expensive after all.
Then we discovered that too many outhouses were polluting the groundwater and millions were still dying. So we made new laws that said we must put a toilet in every home and dump the sewage in the river. We thought that would really be far too expensive. But it wasn’t.
When the dying continued, we realized we must treat the sewage. That was ridiculously expensive, so we thought. But the law said we must now treat human sewage pollution, and we did…. And it wasn’t expensive after all.
To make our environment safe, we did what we thought at first was too expensive. A billion toilets, two billion … and we continue to do this today, spending a half trillion dollars across the planet every year treating human sewage and drinking water to ensure a safe and healthy environment.
Now we have climate pollution. We are reducing climate pollution markedly because of alternative energy, efficiency and conservation. This trend will continue, as alternative energy costs are now lower than the cheapest fracked gas. The trend is so strong that global greenhouse gas emissions growth has been reduced significantly since 2012. This is something we couldn’t do with human sewage.
Like human sewage, accumulated climate pollution in our atmosphere is a problem. How many of us would be alive today if we never treated human sewage? How deep would it be?
Every year, the load of greenhouse gas pollution in our sky increases 2 percent. But warming for the last 10 years is increasing.
The Earth has warmed so much that natural emissions are increasing. Alaska is now emitting more greenhouse gases than it stores because of permafrost melt. US national forests are dying at a rate that is twice as fast as they are growing. The Amazon has flipped from a greenhouse gas sink to a greenhouse gas source three times since 2005, because of three ever-increasing intensity droughts greater than the 100-year drought in 2005, 2010 and 2016.
Peter Wadhams is one of the oldest practicing ice scientists and he has written a book about the Arctic, A Farewell to Ice. The Arctic is very likely the most climate change impacted area in the world. In the book, Wadhams says that because of warming, natural excess greenhouse gas emissions from Earth systems are now likely equal to all of mankind’s greenhouse gas emissions.
We have been warned for a generation that if we did not control climate pollution this would happen, and now it has. Controlling warming can no longer be done by simply reducing our civilization’s greenhouse gas emissions.
This is why we must take a play from our historic pollution treatment handbook. It’s time to start treating the accumulated climate pollution in our atmosphere.
Encouragingly, we are reducing greenhouse gas emissions even more rapidly than projected because the cost of alternative energy is falling faster than projected. Solar photovoltaic energy is less than half the price projected for today from 2009.
There’s lots of alarm because emissions have begun to grow again, but the reality is not as stark as the headlines. The last seven years, our total greenhouse gas emissions growth has only been 7 percent, whereas the seven years ending in 2008 was 25 percent – near 400 percent more. Still, we must reduce emissions faster.
But reducing emissions even to zero can no longer restore a healthy climate because Earth has taken over. This means that even if we quit fossil fuels completely, greenhouse gases will continue to grow. The only solution is to reduce the load of climate pollution in our sky that is causing the warming that has allowed Earth to take over.
So, we must treat the accumulated climate pollution in our sky just like we treated human sewage pollution. Some will undoubtedly say, “It will be too expensive.”
We won’t know for sure if it will be “too expensive” or not until we do it. To understand if it will be too expensive, we can also ask ourselves: What price is too expensive to restore a healthy climate? And we can also ask ourselves: Is it deep enough yet?