Monday, November 9, 2009

Carbon Dioxide, Global Warming, and Pollution: What to do, what to do.

I was discussing global climate change with one of my professors, who also happens to be my mentor, at school the other day. He is a Civil Engineer, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering, specializing in ground water. So I asked him what he thought about climate change and the like not knowing what he would say because he is also a Christian and I wasn't sure what his opinions were. Let me qualify that by saying as you know that many Christians, especially here in the Bible belt are conservatives and conservatives tend not to be on the global warming bandwagon, so I just like to feel around usually before I make an ass of myself.

Somewhat surprisingly, what he told me was extremely similar to my own beliefs on the subject. He said that he tended to be somewhat cynical but was not trying to discredit the science. I was excited.

So we talked about the true pressing problems in the world. We talked about one of the climate reports that said if we don't do something in the next few decades, by 2050 some people were going to be displaced or something. We also compared that to how a billion people in the world have no access to clean water and how two billion have no access to sanitation. We talked about how many million people die each year from diseases related to lack of clean water.

And I have thought about this before, I've even blogged about it in passing, so I decided to blog about it again, but in more detail this time. I want to enumerate the real exigent issues and how they relate not only to our world, politics, people, but also to how I live out my faith through those things.

Let me start by saying that I'm not a "climate change denier" nor do I want to be bellicose toward this issue. I am most certainly not against science, but I think there are a few things not adequately explained by the popular climate change theory, scientifically speaking. I do definitely line up on the side of the issue that says pollution has got to go, it's bad, it's not loving our neighbor as ourselves when we pump the sky full of toxic substances. However, carbon dioxide is not a toxic substance, you inhale a little and exhale a bunch with every breath. Nor do I find it to be the major component of greenhouse gases on this planet. I also feel that the sun causes much of our climate change though I believe man probably has something to do with it. But finally, I don't believe it to be the most pressing issue of our day, and though it may cause rising ocean levels, possibly displacing millions of people, millions of people are already dying because of things that are far easier and cheaper to fix.

Water woes are set to become far more visceral an issue than climate change. The primary thing a culture needs to become great is water. Without water, many people cannot live in tightly packed cities, and without sanitation, disease will run rampant. A civilization cannot thrive unless it has water. So in this age where in America, we flush 1.6 gallons of purified drinking water down the crapper just to wash away a 3 ounce turd and less than 3% of the water purified for supply to our houses actually enters a human body, why are we not focused on providing water to a billion people who don't have it? Why are we so focused on an invisible menace while ignoring a manifest obstacle?

Well, I don't know. Maybe it's sexier. Maybe it's a way to be better than other people. "I have a smaller carbon footprint than you." Maybe people don't really care about other people.

I'd like to think of myself on a lot of issues as a progressive. I think of it this way, I'm not a conservative because I don't think we should go back to something that was better than it is today. I'm a progressive because I think it's never so good that it can't get better tomorrow. I like progressive taxation, conservationism, social justice, and many other progressive ideals. I want things to change, I want them to get better.

For instance, the United States is still about 50% reliant on coal for electrical power. Aside from the issue that coal is about the most carbon intensive form of energy generation, there are a crap ton of other reasons why it's the most horrible of all ways to make power. Look at it from the cradle to the grave. Massive amounts of devastation are wrought to collect the coal at the beginning of the process. Mountaintop removal destroys wild land, mines drool water pollution, and dams that hold tailings from the mines collapse and kill people and ruin watersheds. Most coal is transported to power plants by diesel trains which though quite efficient provide the US with an incredible 10% of its nitrogen oxide pollution. At the plant, the coal is burned, releasing hundreds of tons of toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead which lead to all sorts of diseases from lowered IQ's to full on birth defects and destroying fisheries. Leftovers from the burning include fly ash which gets piled up in heaps which can collapse and make a huge mess as we have recently seen. From Genesis to Revelation, coal power is bad. It's bad for health, for safety, for beauty, for nature and just really really bad.

Despite being a little cynical of the imporance of carbon dioxide in the world, I am most definitely for climate change legislation for the simple reason that it will probably prevent scores of new coal power plants from being built and will hopefully choke off existing ones. With the populist swell against coal that already exists, coal plants are being abandoned left and right. Hopefully, more of the same will happen if Carbon Cap and Trade comes to be.

Also understand that I am an avid reader of Treehugger and Mother Earth News. Both are excellent avenues for finding ways to consume less and for highlighting the real problems with consumption and pollution in the world. They still focus an inordinate amount of time on climate change, but that's their prerogative.

I guess another reason why climate change gets more press is that it's too easy to be against climate change. It's hard to go to a foreign country to provide water purification, but it's easy to be pro-climate. You don't really have to do anything. Its unfortunate, but people will always be lazy, self centered and apathetic. We all know it's so much easier to do nothing rather than something.

If ocean levels rise (they haven't risen much so far, but we'll see, I'm young) yes, millions of people will be displaced. However, as I've mentioned before there are already bigger problems. But people can move. People have the ability to move. 20,000 years ago, ocean levels were 130 meters below where they are today. The earth is constantly in flux. Tides can fluctuate tens of feet every day in some places. Saying that ocean levels can rise is describing the occurrence from an extremely human centered point of view. I'm sure the rise will be quite welcome to brackish water swamp creatures. We can adapt, we will adapt. One day we will run out of coal. Truth be told, all that coal was once free atmospheric carbon dioxide anyway.

What really needs to happen is for us to leverage our resources in such a way to make a sustainable way of living for future generations. People need clean water. People need food. These problems are a trifle in cost compared to the costs of mitigating climate change, but they will be ignored in favor of sexier problems, ones people see on TV and in disaster movies.

I don't care about carbon dioxide. Yet I pursue sustainable living, renewable energy, waterless toilet technology, and the like. Why? Because the pollution, the real pollution that I make travels around the world and causes my brothers and sisters and neighbors to suffer.

That's not loving others like I love myself. That's just loving myself.

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