The Staggering Challenge of Repairing Climate Change

Nothing gets the American public to pay attention to climate change quite like the flooding of America's most famous city.

In the past week, almost 50,000 news articles have been published linking Hurricane Sandy to a changing climate. That's more than a third the number of climate change articles published in the 12 months prior to Sandy's upgrade to hurricane status. Thousands of those pre-Sandy pieces are little more than petulant environmentalists stumping for featured status at the presidential debates.

The candidates chose not to discuss the subject and, a week after the final debate, a hurricane slammed into New Jersey. In some circles, that's called a sign. In a month, it'll be a piece of trivia for most of the population that wasn't directly affected. Don't believe me? What happened to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet after Hurricane Irene thrashed the East Coast last year? What happened after Ike? What happened after Katrina?

Better by inches
One thing that has changed: There's more solar power. In 2005, the United States used enough solar energy to replace the energy contained in 10 million barrels of oil. Six years later, solar's contribution to U.S. energy consumption amounted to about 26-million barrels of oil -- which is the amount of oil that the U.S. currently uses in the span of 33 hours.

There's also a move toward tighter fuel economy standards for American vehicles, which will have to average 55 miles per gallon by 2025. That's much more stringent than the current regulations mandating 29 miles per gallon. Of course, by the time U.S. automakers adopt these new, tighter standards, China will be adding more than twice as many cars to its roads each year as the U.S., and India will be right on our tails, too.

This doesn't sound reassuring at all, does it? Every time we take a step forward, there's something chasing us two steps back. But let's say these changes really take off. Let's say we plaster the deserts with solar panels and use the energy to power new fleets of efficient, emissions-free, electric vehicles. Let's say that we convert enough of the planet to green energy by the end of this century to close off the gushing global fire hose of carbon dioxide permanently.

Well, it won't make a difference. It's already too late.

A distant danger
The current climate-science consensus places a safe maximum for atmospheric CO2 levels around 350 parts per million. We crossed that threshold in 1988, and have only risen farther from it ever since. At this point, the only way to push those levels down is to rally the whole world to immediately adopt clean energy at a time when a fifth of the world doesn't even have access to regular old carbon-burning energy. There's more chance of an alien invasion in the next 10 years than global clean-energy coordination -- although the former might help with the latter, if we manage to fend off the aliens first.

Under a moderate scenario outlined by Curt Stager in his long, long, long-term perspective on climate change in Deep Future, a mid-century CO2 production peak tapers off to a completely emissions-free world some decades after 2100, but atmospheric CO2 will rise to about 600 parts per million before we give up fossil fuels for good. A global peak temperature between three and seven degrees Fahrenheit (two to four degrees Centigrade) higher arrives a century afterward, bringing with it an eventual sea-level rise of as much as 23 feet several centuries later. Wall Street won't just be flooded then; it will be underwater -- as will much of New York City. This is just the moderate scenario. An extreme CO2 scenario more than doubles the warming trend. Still, this devastation seems so incredibly far away: Sager's predictions don't max out for nearly 300 years. By that point, we'll all be long gone.

Unless you live in the Maldives or Micronesia, climate change tends to be something that happens in the abstract. That hurricane might have been caused by climate change, and the droughts might seem worse than normal, but can you really prove it? Sure, the sea level might be higher, and the oceans might be a bit warmer, but doesn't the planet go through natural temperature oscillations?

We don't have to look at nebulous projections of the far future to see the effects of a runaway climate on human society. Natural disasters, including Hurricane Sandy, have caused an estimated $900 billion in damages to the United States since 1996. These damage tallies may significantly understate the true cost to the country. For example, this year's withering Midwestern drought is likely to cause at least $12 billion in direct losses. Its drag on the rest of the country, however, was blamed for the loss of 0.2% in GDP growth in the second quarter, which amounts to about $31 billion in missed economic potential.

No matter what the underlying cause, the result is the same for one simple reason: More people are cramming more human activity into the same fragile ecosystems. The agriculture needed to sustain more than 7 billion people consumes 70% of all fresh water used each year. This year, that'll be about 2.5 trillion gallons of water every single day. Coastal areas, more prone to sea-level rises and hurricane damage, are home to a quarter of the world's people.

It doesn't look good, does it?

Here's the part where I'm supposed to say, "Don't worry -- it'll get better."

Don't worry -- it'll get better.

In the dark ages, a plague killed so many people that it must have seemed to be the end of the world. The world survived. In the closing days of the 18th century, Thomas Malthus foresaw saw a population explosion dragging mankind back to the dark ages. When the Industrial Revolution took hold and proved Malthus wrong, Samuel Butler and the Luddites worried that machines would make a human workforce obsolete. The seemingly unstoppable dominance of colonial powers gave way to the apocalyptic fear of nuclear winter. The horse gave way to the locomotive and the automobile. The vacuum tube gave way to the transistor. And on and on.

I'm not going to say that we have the answers, but I remain hopeful that we will find them in time.

The greatest feature of human society, millennium after millennium, is its remarkable inventiveness and adaptability. If we don't have the answers to climate change yet, it's not because there are no answers, or that it's too late to reverse course. We just need to find those answers. Maybe we need to commit ourselves, as a nation, to do more than just talk about it. Maybe somewhere out there -- perhaps in a lab, right now, approaching eureka -- is the person who will soon have the answers we've been looking for.

If it's you, why are you wasting your time reading this? The world needs you! Get back to work!

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