Goodbye Blue Skies?

Around eight decades ago, the cele­brated nuclear scientist Enrico Fermi while dining with friends mused aloud “where is everybody?”

He was of course referring to the curious ab­sence of alien life from humanity’s radar. Scien­tifically speaking, odds are low that our planet could be singular in spawning intelligent life given how young the solar system is.

This innocent query, today known as Fermi’s Paradox, has frustrated astrophysicists since.

Among the more plausible answers is also the most sobering: that before technologically advanced life forms could spread out to the stars, they found a way to wipe themselves out.

Are we next?

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC)in early October fueled this fear by painting a grim picture of our planet if global warming levelsbreached1.5 degrees Cel­sius above pre-industrial levels.

The report broke from the 2 degrees Celsius target set in 2015 at the historic Paris Agreement on climate change, claiming the extra half a de­gree above 1.5 would be catastrophic.

Moreover, the IPCC believes humanity has only 12 years to drastically cut carbon emissions or face the wrath of super droughts, famines, floods, hurricanes and heat waves that will inevi­tably stress global food and water resources.

Many regions around the world are already in the grip of extreme weather, from scorching summers in India to “hell” Hurricane Michael pounding America’s southeastern seaboards.

According to the environmental non-profit CDP, a mere 100 companies are responsible for 70 percent of global carbon emissions.

And all these companies happen to be fossil fuel giants like Exxon-Mobil and British Petroleum. Burning fossil fuels and industrial processes in fact account for 65 percent of all carbon emissions.

Moreover, the top three state polluters are China, India and the US. This last statistic is most troublesome.

Oil, gas and coal companies are at once some the richest on the planet and have great sway with politicians, especially in America.

To boot, American President Donald Trump is a climate change denier who last year pulled out of the Paris Agreement and is bent on reviving his country’s gas-guzzling industrial heartland.

India and China’s problems are similarly eco­nomic in nature. Both have risen on the back of cheap coal and oil to power their manufacturing bases.

And with huge populations, neither can af­ford to frivolously embrace green energy without sharply lowering costs, as doing otherwise risks public revolt.

For me, the most alarming take away from the report is we are still locked to the 2 degrees Celsius plus trajectory since the Paris Agreement nearly three years ago.

The simplest explanation for this may be the way humans perceive threats. We are hardwired to jump into action if the threat is clear and near, such as bomb or tsunami alerts.

Slow moving doom like global warming un­fortunately does not motivate most of us to be proactive for many reasons: confirmation biases that justify our inaction, material costs, and igno­rance about the scale of the consequences.

Some communities are learning this lesson the hard way. Cape Town in South Africa ran out of water this summer from drought, while the citizens of Vanuatu, a tiny island nation in the Pacific Ocean, anxiously watch the tide rise every year from melting polar ice caps.

There is indeed a roadmap to salvation should we choose to follow it. Besides the usual “plant a million trees” or “turn the lights off” national ap­peals, a number of distinguished international think tanks have devised both proactive and re­active solutions for policymakers to prevent the Earth from becoming unlivable.

Many regions around the world are already in the grip of extreme weather, from scorching summers in India to “hell” Hurricane Michael pounding America’s southeastern seaboards

These approaches can generally be broken down into demand and supply side thrusts.

To lower demand for fossil fuels, governments can levy a carbon tax and redirect the collections to subsidize green technology initiatives, while simultaneously removing existing subsidies for oil and coal producers.

Over time, such a policy should level the cost of renewable energy versus fossil fuels and there­by help wean the world off its carbon dependency.

Moreover, the carbon “cap-and-trade” market already underway in over a dozen industrialized countries including European Union members and South Korea places a firm ceiling on carbon emissions for businesses, but allows those pro­ducing under their allowance to sell the balance to others.

Like any free market however, regulatory oversight is vital before cartels emerge that raise barriers to entry or price smaller companies out of the market.

Failure to do so will stifle innovation and its complementary reductions in costs, which in turn will prevent green technologies from perme­ating to the densely populous developing world.

In this sense, ironically, dictatorships and one-party states like China and Russia should have an easier time meeting emissions targets as their leaderships are not preoccupied with keep­ing voters happy.

Supply-side options, meanwhile, could in­clude banning imports of all fossil fuels and their associated products, limiting their distribution channels, and placing strict conditions on when, where and how they can be burned for power.

Governments could also create an artificial scar­city of fossil fuels while pushing green alternatives so the deep-rooted social attitudes that prevent consum­ers from embracing renewables slowly break down. The “ends” in this case will justify the “means,” even if civil rights watchdogs throw tantrums.

There are curative measures we can take should global warming cross the Rubicon. Among them, Direct Air Capture (DAC) technologies are most likely to make the permanent leap from fan­tasy to reality.

DAC will allow us to suck Carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and store it as solids under­ground without harming the planet.

It may also be possible to convert this solid carbon into gases that consumers use as fuel, or pump the captured CO2 into greenhouse farms to accelerate plant growth.

Nevertheless, prevention will be far cheaper than cure with excess atmospheric CO2.

And much will hinge on the world’s mega-corporations locking up their greed to prioritize social responsibility and their fellow earthlings.

But can we truly rally together to save the plan­et despite our differences? Looking at the factious world we live in today, it appears a herculean task.

 

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