The problem is that we are still burning oil and coal, and thus we continue to add massive amounts of pollution to our atmosphere and oceans. The carbon dioxide released from the burning of oil and coal for nearly two centuries is now causing changes on a planetary scale. The increasingly thick blanket of CO2 in our atmosphere permits the sun’s light to shine through to the Earth, but when that light energy is transformed into heat energy, the blanket prevents much of that heat from escaping into space, thus disrupting the ancient balance between heating and cooling. And as the atmosphere becomes warmer, the oceans too become warmer.
Earth has a fever.
We all know about greenhouse gases. We all know about pollution. And yet we continue to burn oil and coal as if the fever is but a case of the sniffles.
We know that what we are doing is wrong. And yet we continue to do it.
Changes on a planetary scale. Changes unprecedented in all of human history.
The warming atmosphere will bring unprecedented rains and floods, and unprecedented droughts. The warming oceans will provide their heat to increasingly powerful storms; ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream will shift their courses; the warming waters will expand, contributing to the rise in sea level.
The enormous amounts of carbon dioxide already absorbed by the oceans turn the water increasingly acidic (CO2 + H2O > H2CO3, carbonic acid). This ocean acidification dissolves the calcium in the shells of a myriad of creatures, breaking down food chains on a massive level. The combination of warming and acidification are destroying coral reefs around the world.
The warming atmosphere is melting ice on mountains, on Antarctica, on Greenland, on the polar ice cap. Many of the great rivers of the world—the Amazon, the Euphrates, the Ganges, the Colorado—are fed by melting snow and ice high in the mountains. As the ice melts and eventually disappears, as the snow turns to rain, these rivers will dwindle into troughs of mud.
As the world warms, insects, blights and diseases will move north. Malaria will no longer be a disease of the tropics.
Perhaps the most hidden, and most powerful, threat of all is the thawing of the frozen tundra around the top of the world. This ring of permafrost—encompassing the northern parts of Canada, Scandinavia, Russia, and Alaska—contains vast amounts of methane trapped by the previous ice age. The ice above the ground melted twelve thousand years ago, but the ground below the surface—and its layer of organic matter and methane—remains frozen. As this frozen tundra now thaws, it will release methane on a planetary scale, for a century or more. Methane is roughly 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas; it will form a thicker blanket, and hold in far more heat. This heat will in turn melt more of the frozen tundra, and so the process accelerates. There will be nothing, nothing, that we will be able to do to stop this planetary catastrophe. And it has already begun.
We know that what we are doing is wrong. And yet we continue to do it.
We have the technology which would enable us to tackle the challenges, on a planetary scale. We know how to build increasingly efficient electric cars. We know how to build electric railroads. We know how to build wind turbines, on land and at sea. We know how to turn sunlight into electricity. We know how to tap the power in tidal currents and ocean waves.
And yet . . . we are still taking baby steps.
Consider the two countries which led the world in space exploration: the Soviet Union and America. They also led the world in the development of modern weapons, during the half-century of confrontation called the Cold War. Both countries have great universities, producing great engineers.
Today, however, these two adversaries have teamed up, not to tackle the challenges of climate change, not to develop the next generation of clean energy, but to explore for oil. By the end of 2012, Europe had installed over 1,500 offshore wind turbines, which catch the steady winds blowing over the sea and turn that wind power into growing amounts of electricity. How many offshore wind turbines does America have, along the Atlantic coast, in the Gulf of Mexico, along the Pacific coast, and in the Great Lakes? Zero. How many offshore wind farms does Russia have? Zero. Instead, ExxonMobil, the American oil giant, and Rosneft, the Russian oil giant, have teamed up to explore the newly opened waters of the north, where the polar ice cap is melting. The oil boys and the oil oligarchs are doing seismic testing, searching for deposits of oil.
This is madness.
But we let it happen.
In a series of short essays, I would like to examine the problem of climate change, and then the solution of clean energy, both on a planetary scale. As a teacher of many years in several countries, I do not present my students with The Truth. Instead, I offer them Something to Think About. Something to Discuss. Something to Study Further. Something to Act Upon.
I write primarily for students and their teachers. The complex of catastrophes caused by global warming will soon be dumped into the laps of young people around the world. If the older generations were going to do something serious about these challenges . . . they would have done it by now. The greatest challenge in all of human history must be tackled by the first global generation in human history, our young people. As a teacher of many years in America, the Caribbean, Norway and Russia, I believe deeply in these bright, motivated people.
They can take us from impending catastrophe to a genuine Renaissance during the course of the 21st century.
Economic Breakdown leads to Social Breakdown
During the summer of 2012, America experienced record-setting heat and drought, leading to parched farmland and a multitude of forest fires. Russia has experienced similar droughts, leading not only to forest fires but tundra fires, which are almost impossible (because they are underground) to put out.
Drought diminishes the amount of food that farms produce, and thus the price of food rises, both domestically and on the international market. Historically, many revolutions have begun primarily because of a rise in the price of food.
Several years of drought can bankrupt farms and ranches, devastating rural communities. Drying rivers can no longer carry ships; barges on the Mississippi are already scraping bottom. The economy, weakened during this period of prolonged recession, slowly crumbles as the rains refuse to fall.
Meanwhile, hurricanes, which draw their energy from the heat in the sea, become more powerful as the oceans warm. The devastation to New York City caused by Hurricane Sandy was a taste of what coastlines around the world will suffer for at least another century. The cost of these storms—storms caused by our continuing reliance on oil and coal—will ravage national budgets.
A market economy is sustained by trade—buying and selling—and also by investment. People invest in a company, in a community, because they hope for a financial return during the prosperous future. But who will invest in the future when the Earth becomes a Different Planet?
World trade diminishes as nations struggle to survive. Taxes diminish, weakening the ability of governments to respond to crisis after crisis.
People begin to move, in growing numbers, as they search for water, for food, for a job. During the 1930s, farmers migrated from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma to the orchards of California, looking for work. What happens when drought scorches the land from California to Colorado, to Ohio, to Maine?
What happens when Wisconsin can no longer send firefighters to Colorado, because Wisconsin has fires of its own?
What happens when the steady climate conditions of the past twelve thousand years (the Holocene Epoch, following the last ice age) abruptly change in the course of a century? Stable climates enabled humans to develop irrigation beside the great rivers; to develop writing and mathematics and law; to build complex cities; to develop trade over great distances . . . and to walk on the moon. What happens when the Earth suddenly develops a serious fever? Of two degrees, of six degrees?
When people become desperate, they become violent. Some will fight, some will attempt to flee a growing number of scattered war zones.
People migrating in growing numbers—as they seek food, water, an escape from disease, an escape from fighting—will be a new sort of refugee: “climate change refugees”. Nations will try to close their borders, until the flood of desperate people pours through.
Will your grandchildren be among them?
Innovation, Jobs, and a Healthy Planet
The solution is clear: replace oil and coal with wind and sun, as quickly as possible. Stagnation will give way to innovation, unemployment will give way to jobs, and pollution will gradually give way to a clean atmosphere, cooling oceans, ice on the mountains, water flowing in rivers, and gentle rains on fields of golden grain. Yes, and people will have a fighting chance to avoid the worst of climate change.
Our schools and universities need to leap into the 21st century. We need to design innovative programs in clean energy, programs which will provide students with careers (not just jobs, but careers) in an exciting new world. We need to think in terms of the entire century: 50% of the world’s energy must be green by 2050, and 100% by 2100. Give the young people today a real purpose: to create a long-needed Renaissance (the first since 1500 in Italy) in which we leave behind the failures of the past, and work for the first time in human history in harmony with nature.
Educators and students need to meet with clean energy companies so that a new curriculum—based on real needs in the real world—can be developed from grade school through graduate school, around the world. We need to bring the wind and the sun into the classrooms. We need to learn not only the engineering of clean energy, but the international economics and the international law of clean energy. These are entirely new fields. Such an innovative education—an education with an urgent purpose—is a challenge worthy of our young people today.
We need a global network of schools producing a global network of energy professionals. We need a global team tackling global challenges.
Of course, the talents of girls and boys, women and men, are equally needed.
We are in an economic rut, which began overtly in September of 2008, but which began covertly many years before that. Tinkering with percentages and bickering over financial regulations are not going to fix our crumbling economy.
The greatest economist of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes, responded to the ongoing catastrophe of the Great Depression during the 1930s by recommending that governments put people to work. A program of “public works” gave people jobs doing something useful, put money into their pockets, raised their confidence, and created products that were needed, thus jump-starting the economy.
President Roosevelt adopted many of Keynes’ suggestions and thereby brought the collapsed American economy back to life. Wartime demand during World War Two completed the resuscitation . . . but we do not want another war to get us out of our current quagmire.
An international public works program, which combines education with financial support for clean energy industries, would jumpstart the global economy. A ten-year investment would be more than repaid by midcentury.
In 1960, President Kennedy stated that Americans would walk on the moon by the end of the decade. In July, 1969, Neil Armstrong made the first human footprints in the moon’s dust. It was a great victory . . . for a small number of people, while most of us just watched events on television.
How much more beneficial, how much more exciting, for an international team of millions to be personally engaged on a daily basis as they build a global network of clean energy.
Nice that we got to the moon. But how much better that we create millions of new careers, build enough wind turbines and solar collectors to power the world, and enable our oceans—the cradles of life—to become healthy again.
In thirty years, will our grandchildren thank us, for finally rising to the occasion? Or will they look upon us with outrage, because we sat on our lazy butts and exercised our thumbs while Nascar went around and around and around?
Our Human Potential
There is something else. Something which has eluded us for thousands of years, but which is within our reach.
On December 10, 2012, the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize for its sixty years of effort to bring cooperation and peace to the countries of Europe. These sixty years began with the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community, an organization first proposed by French foreign minister Robert Schuman in May, 1950, on the fifth anniversary of the end of World War Two. Because coal and steel were necessary to manufacture the weapons of war, Schuman hoped that by bringing Germany and France together in an organization that pooled these two resources, the ancient enemies could finally build a solid peace between them.
The six original members of the European Coal and Steel Community have become twenty-seven members of the European Union. Peace, cooperation and growing prosperity have blessed the peoples of Europe for over half a century. No more trench warfare; no more poison gas. People share the trains, the euro, medical care, education, electricity from wind turbines, and high environmental standards.
In the same way, but on a global scale, we have the opportunity today to pool the resources of wind and sunshine, enabling them to produce clean electricity for everyone, everyone, on this planet. Further, by working together to build an international network of wind turbines and solar collectors, all connected by a growing modern grid, we learn about more than engineering; we learn how to work with each other. International classrooms, international factories, and international gridlines will be a key feature of the 21st century.
Of course, the talents of girls and boys, women and men, will be equally needed.
Jobs produce income. Income produces a growing middle class of well educated workers. Such professionals will insist on a growing measure of democracy within their countries. Wind turbines produce far more than just clean energy; they serve as colleges of equality, as colleges of democracy.
We need a new profession: architects of peace. We need people who learn how to build a solid and long-lasting peace, just as people learn to build solid and long-lasting bridges and buildings and jet airplanes. They would study the causes of war, and they would design the building blocks of peace.
How many wars have been caused by oil? Go back a century to World War One, when the British war fleet replaced coal with oil as fuel for the ships; troops occupied what is now Basra, Iraq, making sure that the oil flowed. And who was in Basra, Iraq in 2005, making sure that the oil flowed?
How many wars have been caused by ancient hatreds? Then let us look to the future, to the great challenge of climate change in the 21st century, a challenge that beckons us, urgently, to learn to work together.
How many wars and revolutions have been caused by poverty? Then let us provide jobs to people who will build the machines of clean energy. We are going to need these machines, on a planetary scale, for many decades to come . . . and hopefully, for many centuries to come.
And what are the building blocks of peace? Where would you be today without the school which you attended in your town while you were growing up? Where would you be today without the community college, or the university, which enabled you to become a productive adult?
Wind turbines and solar panels can bring electricity to the most remote villages in India, in Africa, in Tibet. Electricity can power schools, can power medical clinics, can power small industries. Wind turbines enable healthy children to learn a trade.
So we start with schools, where children learn about climate change and clean energy as major components of the world which they will inherit. They will learn as well to reach out, classroom to classroom, to young people in other countries, pooling their energies as they learn together about climate change and clean energy in different corners of the world. The wind and the sun enter the international classroom. Mother Earth becomes a member of the Board of Education.
Further building blocks? Let us examine the success stories in other countries. What are they doing right?
Little Denmark produced the first commercial wind turbines in 1979, in response to the oil embargoes of the 1970s; the economic benefits of manufacturing wind turbines have proven so reliable that pension funds now invest in clean energy.
Little Scotland has created a new model of education, by turning old rust-bucket ports, where ship builders lost their jobs years ago, into modern industrial parks with three vital components: a technical university with teachers and students from around the world, a research-and-development institute where the next generation of offshore wind turbines are born, and a factory where state-of-the-art offshore wind turbines are built. Students can move from the classroom to the research lab, to the factory floor, to the boats in the harbor that install the turbines in wind farms at sea. Now that is education.
Little Ireland, impoverished and embattled for centuries, now catches the strong winds of the North Atlantic with both onshore and offshore wind turbines, producing so much power that underwater cables will carry the surplus to England, and eventually to the Continent.
The ports of Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Dublin, southern Ireland, have teamed up as partners in the wind turbine industry. No more bombs and soldiers in the night; they have been replaced with laptops and welders.
Morocco is leading the other countries of northern Africa in the quest to turn the sun blazing down on the deserts into electricity. Cables will eventually be laid across the bottom of the Mediterranean, so that surplus power from Africa can feed into the grid of southern Europe.
Germany and Israel are working together to build solar collectors in Negev desert. You can read about the Negev in your Bible; you can also read about it in the online engineering journals today.
These are building blocks of peace.
And then . . . And then . . .
What could we do together, in a healthy, prosperous, and peaceful world?
Read your Bible, about war after war after war, slaying each other with swords and stones and the jawbone of an ass. Right up to the 20th century, the bloodiest century in human history. And now, civil war in Syria.
How much longer must we continue to wear shackles of our own making?
We have never had the chance to prosper, to blossom, in a world at peace.
We have never given ourselves that opportunity.
What hidden talents do we possess, stifled by poverty, by oppression, by wars that call up nineteen-year-olds to march into the next utterly unnecessary butchery?
What would come from living in harmony with nature?
What would come from living in harmony with our Creator . . . whoever that was, long before the first church was built?
What music could we write?
What medicines could we discover?
We are at a point in our human journey comparable to the music of Bach; we hear the organ, we hear the choir, but the great symphonies have not yet been written.
What could we become?
The Creator speaking about people: “As I set no limits on my own creation, so I set no limits on theirs.”
How much longer must we continue to wear shackles of our own making?
How much longer do we cheat our children out of their inheritance?
America was once the most innovative country in the world. In 1776, we forged not only a new union, but a new dream.
The time has come, in our deeply troubled world today, for such revolutionary vision, for such enterprising boldness.
Mother Earth has a fever. If your own mother were to become sick, would you not take her to see a doctor? Or would you wait . . . Maybe a little aspirin would help.
We have a choice: catastrophe, or renaissance.
The young people of today can become the greatest generation in human history, the generation that took us beyond pollution and war . . . to health and prosperity and peace.
Do we believe in ourselves? Do we believe in our human potential?
The ice is melting. The oceans are warming. The blanket of pollution that wraps around our planet is becoming thicker and thicker.
Even as you read these words.