The Trillionth Ton of airborne carbon is too expensive

Originally published in the Asheville Citizen-Times December 19, 2014.

A local religious leader recently asked me, “What happened to the whole ‘green thing?’” It’s a good time to review since media messages about ‘green’ issues and the threat of climate change were more prevalent around 2006. The 2008 recession has cast a long shadow and government uncertainty abounds.

If we look at the top 2014 voter issues, there are connections to those issues and conventional energy costs, conventional energy sector strategies, and the consequences of unabated human-caused climate change. These factors wrap around most of those American voter issues. I have been observing the dialogue on sustainability and climate change here in Asheville and around the world for more than a decade now. When you look at climate change science reports and the difference between a world with 2-6… or more… degrees average temperature fluctuation above today’s world, the word “uninhabitable” comes up. In terms of a transformed climate beyond 2100, a National Academy of Sciences research paper titled “An adaptability limit to climate change due to heat stress (2010)” literally describes heat then as “uninhabitable”.

Whether the term is “uninhabitable” or other risk management flags are used, the Essential Climate Variables (ECVs) sent into crisis by conventional human activity forms a harsher world many children today will face as they age. ECVs are the temperature, sea level, and ice level changes that feed together to form either homeostasis (stable system)… or a planetary system increasingly adverse to the kind of life we saw in the past… factors driven at an exponential ‘hockey stick’ rate on a graph without greater intervention; with the outcome setting up in these next decades versus a distant eon. Children today, and especially their children’s offspring, will face a world where much of the heavily populated land now is underwater and air temperatures in more regions are too hot for most people to adapt.

Imagine millions of people rushing to Western North Carolina within a decade from now to take advantage of our comparatively mild climate and rich water resources. Our state population projections are based on traditional factors, not climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014 Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report states, “The global mean peak surface temperature change per trillion tonnes (tonne is the metric equivalent of a U.S. ton) of carbon emitted as CO2 is likely in the range of 0.8°C to 2.5°C.” 20 degrees Celsius equals 68 degrees Fahrenheit. One degree change in Celsius (what most scientists use) is closer to two degrees Fahrenheit (how U.S. citizens measure temperature).

The reason small temperature upticks are easy to hold in our minds is this: A few degrees forms the difference between ice and liquid water. A few degrees either way at a certain point is all that matters when it comes to a region’s ice mass becoming sea level change. These ECVs forming larger magnitude system alterations within the limits of our planet are the reason this challenge depends on earth scientists to a greater degree than we depended on entrepreneurs, politicians, and generals in the past.

Some may recall the National Debt Clock sign turning on in 1989. Now University of Oxford’s web calculator lets us know 585 billion tons of our historical global carbon budget of one trillion tons is spent. We need to have deployed a global ‘‘best system for emission reduction’’ quite soon to avoid burning the Trillionth Ton, without first having the replacement solution in place. By 2040 civilization needs to have been well into the phase of effectively cutting and reversing current carbon emission trends.

If the risk of unchecked human-caused climate change is real, then obviously real risk management is necessary, Mr. and Mrs. Member of Congress. Just like homeland security. Just like staying healthy to avoid catastrophic disease as individuals. Adding just a few more billions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions to our thin atmosphere as a global community is as real a risk as any other high level human-generated risk… but this one is different from risks like thermonuclear war. Thankfully at least there have been relatively few human generated nuclear events. Unfortunately every second there’s another human impact on climate change and the scope is out of the bottle.

We’ve got to contain the crisis; and the crisis of climate change is factually all-encompassing. Catastrophic climate change is not something we can evade without responsible strategic innovation.

Grant Millin is an innovation strategist and was the North Carolina project manager for the historic Hydrogen Road Tour. He lives in Asheville.

Posted in Asheville, Climate Change Innovation, Innovation and Opportunity Ecosystem, NC Clean Power Plan.