Every day above 100 degrees, every news story about the severity of the Midwest drought likely brings a few more global warming skeptics to the grudging acknowledgement that yes our planet is getting hotter and yes we need to do something about it. But even if all of the skeptics finally accepted the reality of global warming the conversation over what to do about it won’t be much easier.
Many different factors contribute to the increase in global temperature, but by far the largest cause is our dependence on fossil fuels. The greenhouse gasses that are the byproducts of burning oil, coal and natural gas are creating an atmosphere that absorbs more of the Sun’s heat and traps that heat on Earth. But without fossil fuels the world we have would not be possible.
After 235 years of amazing advances still the most important invention for humankind was James Watt’s steam engine, the first instance of generated energy. Almost every activity in our economy is dependent upon energy. Without the ability to generate vast amounts of inexpensive energy on demand there would be no high yield agriculture, no manufacturing, no widespread exchange of goods and certainly no consumer economy. Without cheap energy most of what we enjoy about our modern world would be impossible – no iPhones, no video on demand, no ability to quickly travel hundreds or thousands of miles for a vacation. No x-rays, no kidney dialysis, no modern medicine. The list goes on and on.
For over a hundred years that cheap energy has been from fossil fuels, oil, coal and gas. At some point hopefully we can move beyond fossil fuels to less destructive energy sources. However our dependence on fossil fuels is unlikely to end anytime soon. No alternative energy approach comes close to being able to generate the amount of energy our world consumes and the most viable option, nuclear energy, comes with its own challenges and compromises. Like it or not, our world will be dependent on fossil fuels for many years to come.
Recognizing our dependence on fossil fuels doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to mitigate their environmental impact or that we shouldn’t try to conserve energy to make them last as long as possible. But almost every approach to mitigating the environmental impact of fossil fuels increases the cost of producing energy. Many approaches to conserving energy increase the cost of the product that consumes the energy. And because we live in a global economy efforts to mitigate damage and increase efficiency here can have the unintended consequence of causing manufacturers to move production out of the U.S. Like it or not, most efforts to address global warming will have an impact on our lifestyle and our economy.
This is the compromise of the world we live in. To achieve the life that we want, we have had to slowly despoil the world in which we live. At some point, this gradual despoiling becomes catastrophic – at some point, global warming could threaten humans’ ability to survive on earth. But if suddenly all of the fossil fuels were gone the impact would be just as catastrophic. Centuries ago the philosopher Malthus predicted that the world’s population would outrun its food supply and that we would face mass starvation. The variable that proved Malthus wrong was generated energy and the advances in agricultural productivity this allowed. Without being overly dramatic, if we ever do run out of fossil fuels before we find an alternative, hundreds of millions and maybe even billions of people will starve.
The skeptics make it much harder to have a real conversation about global warming, particularly in an election year. But even if the skeptics were all suddenly convinced, the conversation doesn’t get much easier. There are no easy answers to the compromises that we as a society will have to make.