Too little, too late, too optimistic?

Due to the changes in the world and changes happening in my life I have become more conscious on how all my decisions and my activities affect the world. For example, now I ask myself the question where is the electronic waste that I am throwing going to end? I was shocked to read in an article that my e-waste perhaps is going to end in Africa or somewhere in Asia and harming thousands of children that possibly will die intoxicated by the materials of the electronic equipment.

However, even if I try my best to recycle, not use a car, not waste water, not accept plastic bags and buy recycle cloths, I still agree with Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technology officer at Microsoft in the book Superfreakonomics,when he wrote regarding global warming that we have done too little, that is too late and that we are too optimistic.

Too little means that typical conservation efforts simply won’t make much of a difference. “If you believe there’s a problem worth solving”, Myhrvold says, “then these solutions won’t be enough to solve it. Wind power and most other alternative energy things are cute, but they do not scale a sufficient degree. At this point, wind firms are a government subsidy scheme, fundamentally”. What about the beloved low emission vehicles? “ They are great, he says, “except that transportation is just not that big of a sector”.

Also, coal is so cheap that trying to generate electricity without it would be economic suicide, especially for developing countries. Myhrvold argues that cap and trade agreements, whereby coal emissions are limited by quota and cost, can’t help much, in part because it is already..

Too late. The half life of atmospheric carbon dioxide is roughly one hundred years, and some of it remains in the atmosphere for thousands of years. So even if humankind immediately stopped burning all fossil fuel, the existing carbon dioxide would remain in the atmosphere for several generations.

Pretend that the United States (and perhaps Europe) miraculously converted overnight and became zero-carbon societies. Then pretend they persuaded China (and perhaps India) to demolish every coal burning power plant and diesel truck. As far as atmospheric carbon dioxide is concerned, it might not matter all that much. And by the way, that zero carbon society you were dreamily thinking about is way…

Too optimistic. “A lot of things that people say would be good thing probably aren’t”, Myhrvold says. As an example he points to solar power. “The problem with solar cells is that they are black, because they are designed to absorb light from the sun. But only about 12 percent gets turned into electricity, and the rest is reradiated as heat-which contributes to global warming”.

Although a widespread conversion to solar power might seem appealing, the reality is tricky. The energy consumed by building the thousands of new solar plants necessary to replace coal-burning and other power plants would create a huge long term “warming debt”, as Myhrvold calls it. “Eventually, we’d have a great carbon-free energy infrastructure but only after making emissions and global warming worse every year until we’re done building out the solar plants, which could take thirty to fifty years”.

Also it is generally believed that cars and trucks and airplanes contribute an ungodly share of greenhouse gases. This has recently led many right minded people to buy a hybrid car. But every time an hybrid car owner drives to the grocery store, she may be canceling out its emission-reducing benefit, at least if she shops in the meat section.

How so? According to the book Superfreakonomics cows-as well as sheep and other cud-chewing animals called ruminants-are wicked polluters. Their exhalation and flatulence and belching and manure emit methane, which by one common measure is about twenty five times potent as a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide released by cars (and, by the way, humans). The world’s ruminants are responsible for about 50% more greenhouse gas than the entire transportation sector.

The best way to help, Weber and Matthews suggest, is to subtly change your diet. “Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and diary products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves greenhouse-gas reduction” they write.

For a variety of reasons, global warming is a uniquely thorny problem.

First, climate scientists cant run experiments. In this regard, they are more like economists than physicists or biologists. The imprecision inherent in climate science means we don’t know with any certainty whether our current path will lead temperatures to rise two or ten degrees. Do the future benefits from cutting emissions outweigh the costs of doing so? Or we are better off waiting to cut emissions later- or even, perhaps, polluting at will and just learning to live in a hotter world?

What will humanity do against global warming? That is definitely uncertain. But what I am definitely sure is that for the ones that are conscious and are willing to contribute to make a better future for the next generations there will be always a reward.