Reversing Environmental Degradation

It seems to me….

We won’t have a society if we destroy the environment.” ~ Margaret Mead[1].

World leaders gathered at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 21 or CMP 11, being held in Le Bourget, Paris, on 30 November 2015 in an attempt to negotiate a climate change agreement for the next decade and beyond. A Pew Research Center survey[2] found there is a global consensus that climate change is a significant challenge. Majorities in all 40 nations polled say it is a serious problem and a global median of 54 percent consider it a very serious problem (85 percent say it is at least a somewhat serious problem).

Unfortunately, a quarter of Americans do not consider climate change to be a serious problem, one of the highest shares of all the nations surveyed, mistakenly believing that climate change is not occurring, is not human-caused, or actually will be beneficial: all contrary to findings of the global scientific community. Roughly two-thirds (69 percent) of Americans favor Washington agreeing to a multilateral commitment to limit burning of pollutants such as coal, natural gas, or petroleum.

In a December 2014 Pew Research survey[3], fully 75 percent of Democrats and those leaning Democratic said the U.S. should prioritize alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power over expansion of oil, coal, and gas production. By contrast, only 43 percent of Republicans and leaning Republicans expressed support for prioritizing alternative energy production over traditional energy development. 71 percent of Democrats and independents who lean toward the Democratic Party say the Earth is warming due to human activity, compared with 27 percent among their Republican counterparts (a difference of 44 percentage points).

70 percent of U.S. Hispanics say the Earth is warming due to human activity compared with only 44 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

Moreover, a median of 78 percent of Americans support the idea of the U.S. limiting greenhouse gas emissions as part of an international agreement in Paris. Roughly two-thirds (69 percent) of Americans favor Washington agreeing to a multilateral commitment to limit the burning of pollutants such as coal, natural gas, or petroleum.

The U.S., with the highest per-capita carbon emissions of the nations surveyed, is among the least concerned about climate change and its potential impact. In the U.S., Democrats are much more concerned than Republicans, women far more concerned than men, and young Americans generally more concerned than their elders.

There is good reason for concern. Climate related challenges are economic, environmental, and demographic and there are no easy solutions.

The world is now more than halfway toward exceeding the 2 degree Celsius threshold scientists have warned could make global warming catastrophic and irreversible[4]. The World Health Organization estimates that climate change is already responsible for 141,000 deaths annually (projected to rise to 250,000 by 2050). The World Bank expects global warming to push 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030.

As ocean temperatures rise and glaciers melt, weather-related disasters will grow in both frequency and severity. In the last two decades, floods have hit 2.3 billion people, mostly in Asia. Droughts have affected more than 1 billion people, primarily in Africa. Heat waves have killed nearly 148,000 people, the majority of them in Europe. Wildfires have affected 108,000 people and have cost more than $11 billion dollars in damages to the U.S. No part of the world is immune.

Anthropogenic pressures on the Earth System have reached a scale where abrupt global environmental change can no longer be excluded[5].  Several planetary boundaries for global sustainability have been proposed in which humanity can hopefully exist in relative safely. Transgressing one or more of those planetary boundaries could prove to be deleterious or even catastrophic due to the risk of crossing thresholds triggering non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental- to planetary-scale systems.

The nine boundaries identified were:

  • Climate change (<350 ppm and/or a maximum change of +1 W m-2 in radiative forcing – already passed);
  • Stratospheric ozone (<5% reduction in O3 concentration from pre-industrial level of 290 Dobson Units);
  • Land use change (<15 percent of the ice-free land surface under cropland);
  • Freshwater use (<4,000 cubic kilometers a year);
  • biological diversity (annual rate of <10 extinctions per million species – already passed);
  • Ocean acidification (<2.75 omega units);
  • Nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans (nitrogen cycle: limit industrial and agricultural fixation of N2 to 35 Tg N yr-1; phosphorus cycle: annual P inflow to oceans not to exceed 10 times the natural background weathering of P – already passed);
  • Aerosol loading (276 Dobson units);
  • Chemical pollution (limit not yet determined).

The study suggests that three of these boundaries (climate change, biological diversity and nitrogen input to the biosphere) may already have been transgressed. In addition, it emphasizes that the boundaries are strongly connected – crossing one boundary may seriously threaten the ability to stay within safe levels for the others.

No one should be mistaken – global warming is real. Well-entrenched self-serving economic interests are attempting to discredit the facts of human climatic impact. Anyone sufficiently foolish to believe global warming claims are part of some “money-making” Ponzi scheme does not understand science. They also should consider the large numbers of people around the world currently affected by rising ocean levels.

The negative effects of global warming will be social, political, and economic. It is one thing to say that scientific facts are incorrect without providing any substantiating justification but what if they are correct and those that stand to benefit by denying those facts are wrong? To not reverse current trends will be disastrous.

The quest for energy almost always causes some form of environmental harm – even with technologies considered green and clean. Wind power projects routinely kill birds and irritate residents able to see them with concerns about visual blight. Geothermal energy projects have occasionally elevated earthquake risks. Hydroelectric dams have driven salmon runs to extinction in many areas. Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and oil has been shown to contaminate groundwater supplies, lead to elevated levels of the potent greenhouse gas methane, and consume millions of gallons of water.

If calamitous climate change is to be prevented, nations – especially the U.S. – will have to overcome political aversion to a major governmental role in environmental regulation: the private-sector will not reform unless required to do so. ARPA-E, a federal agency modeled after DARPA, funds energy-related research but its current funding is minimal; only $325 million was requested for fiscal year 2016; world subsidies for fossil fuel are an estimated $5.3 trillion[6].

Republicans, in the past, have been the primary advocates for environment legislation. The Clean Air Act of 1970, the legal basis for the Obama administration’s environmental actions, passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote of 73 to 0, and was signed into law by Richard Nixon. Some veterans of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claim the Nixon years were a golden age. A major amendment of the law, which among other things made possible the cap-and-trade system that limits acid rain, was signed in 1990 by former President George H.W. Bush.

The Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta have imposed a carbon tax, which is more effective and easier to enforce than carbon credits, on fossil-fuel users of $30 (Canadian) per metric ton which provides income tax reductions and savings. Coal, gas, and oil are presently sufficiently inexpensive that even with an added tax, fuel costs would be less that what consumers paid in past years[7]. While opponents of any proposal to tax fossil fuels have rejected any such proposal as being a hidden tax on companies that would increase unemployment, the tax would simply be an exchange of one tax for another to offset payroll taxes, boost earned income tax credits, or to fund innovational research, infrastructure improvement, or for some similar benefit. With global subsidies for fossil fuels estimated at $500 billion annually, it is difficult for renewable energy sources to compete; e.g., the cost of pollution from fossil-fuel generated electricity does not include costs associated with related health, environmental, or other factors. If a carbon tax was used in this way, in addition to eliminating energy company subsidies which falsely make fossil fuel energies appear less expensive than they actually are, the U.S. could achieve realizable tax reductions.

In the case of the new ozone reduction plan, the EPA’s analysis suggests that, for the average American, the benefits would be more than twice the cost. It is time for the U.S. as the world’s highest per capita greenhouse gas emitter to take the lead in reversing potentially catastrophic environmental degradation. Let’s hope that rational voices prevail and that whatever agreements result from the COP21 conference are quickly approved by Congress. Planetary survival depends on it.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Margaret Mead was an American cultural anthropologist who featured frequently as an author and speaker in the mass media during the 1960s and 1970s.

[2] Stokes, Bruce, Richard Wike, and Jill Carle. Global Concern about Climate Change, Broad Support for Limiting Emissions, Pew Research Center,, 5 November 2015.

[3] Funk, Cary and Lee Rainie. Americans, Politics and Science Issues, Pew Research Center,, 1 July 2015.

[4] Bremmer, Ian. These Are the 5 Facts You Need to Know About the Paris Climate Summit, Time,, 4 December 2015.

[5] Rockström, Johan, and colleagues. A Safe Operating Space For Humanity, Nature,, 24 September 2009.

[6] Oreskes, Naomi. How To Break The Climate Deadlock, Scientific American, December 2015, pp74-79.

[7] Editors. The Price of Pollution, Scientific American, December 2015, p10.

About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
This entry was posted in anthropogenic, Cap-and-Trade, Carbon, Carbon Dioxide, Carbon Tax, Carbon-Based, Climate, Climate Change, Climate Change Conference, CO2, Coal, COP21, Drought, Drought, Emissions, Energy, Energy, Environment, Extinctions, Floods, Fossil Fuel, Geothermal, Global Warming, Greenhouse, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Heat, Hydro, Impact, Methane, Natural Gas, Oil, Ozone, Petroleum, Power, Renewable, Sea Level, Solar, Solar, Subsidies, United Nations, United Nations, Wildfires, Wind, Wind and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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