Another ominous tipping point?Adjacent stories in the newspaper, taken together, often add up to more than the sum of the parts.
By: John M. Crisp, The Dickinson Press
Adjacent stories in the newspaper, taken together, often add up to more than the sum of the parts.
For example, last week an Associated Press story by H. Josef Hebert reported on the decreasing likelihood of consensus in the House and Senate on a renewable energy standard for the next couple of decades; the legislators just can’t seem to agree.
The story reports that President Barack Obama’s original goal was for the nation to derive 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources — wind, solar and so on — by 2025. Even if you give only half-credence to the dire reports from the great majority of reputable scientists about environmental degradation and climate change, 25 percent seems like a desirable goal.
In fact, given that a lot of our greenhouse gases come from sources that don’t involve electricity production — automobiles, for example — and that we’ve got a 100-year history of heavy carbon injection into our atmosphere, a 25-percent standard 15 years down the road may be downright modest.
But it’s tough to collect sufficient support in congress for 25 percent. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is pondering legislation that would require that 15 percent of our electricity come from renewable sources by 2021. The House is thinking in terms of 20 percent by 2020.
Even these modest goals are deceptive. Proposed legislation in both the House and Senate exempt publicly owned utilities, and the bills are further compromised by provisions that allow some of the mandate to be satisfied by greater energy efficiency.
One could get the idea that we don’t take the threat of climate change and our energy dependence all that seriously.
Some efforts are being made. Last week I spent part of an afternoon in nearby cotton fields where 109 wind turbines are being installed. Some of these massive machines were strewn on the ground like collapsed erector sets; others were already upright, with turbine blades attached.
In typical south Texas fashion, the wind was blowing hard, and the gigantic turbines, not yet online, were straining at their brakes, creeping slowly through a radius of enormous potential energy, waiting to be harvested. A wind farm like this one can be erected in about six months, and already another 109 turbines are slated for installation nearby.
Wind, of course, isn’t a panacea, but it could play a significant role in solving our energy problems.
Or could it? I said there was an adjacent news story: Under the headline “Wind speeds seem to be slowing in U.S.,” AP writer Seth Borenstein describes a study co-authored by Eugene Takle, a professor of atmospheric science at Iowa State. The study is by no means conclusive, but Takle’s work indicates that average and peak wind speeds have been dropping since 1973, particularly in the Midwest and the East. In some areas average wind speed appears to have decreased by as much as 10 percent.
The cause? As yet, it’s uncertain, but one entirely feasible suspect is global warming.
So, we have another ominous prospect of a natural feedback loop that could tip the environment over into a descending spiral: Less sea ice at the North Pole permits the ocean to absorb more heat, making it harder for sea ice to form. Melting permafrost releases more carbon into the atmosphere, which contributes to more warming and more melted permafrost.
And increased global temperatures could undermine the natural principles that make wind happen and consequently undercut one source of energy that we can tap without creating further global warming.
Samuel Johnson pointed out that the prospect of being hanged “concentrates” a man’s mind wonderfully. Congress’s inability to focus seriously on climate change reflects our own failure to acknowledge that there’s probably an execution of some sort waiting down the road and that we’re mired in the dangerous delusion of imagining that we can keep doing things just as we always have.
— Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Texas.