The term “early adopter” doesn’t apply to me, not by a long shot. I am slow to pick up on new technology, and more than a little choosy when I do adopt a change, gadget or gizmo. My organizing principle has been that I don’t want to be a grandpa who can’t understand or help with what his grandchildren are talking about or doing.
Recently, I’ve had an encouraging thought about the ridicule (perhaps too strong a word; “chiding” or “kidding” might be closer to the mark) that comes with occupying this slow-to-adopt approach to technology. Although I probably peaked at being able to program a VCR, don’t participate on Twitter or Facebook, or even know the names of some of the more recent technology fads, I don’t feel overwhelmed by the pace of these changes.
Sure, I’m slipping behind, but slowly. But what impresses me is that the pace of change is increasing, and those younger than I will no doubt be, by age 30 or 40, more hopelessly behind than I am at age 65. This is a thought that makes me smile.
The smile disappears, however, when the subject changes from technology to climate change. Two recent scientific articles make me more than a little uneasy.
The first article calls into question the prediction that if we, as a planet, can just keep global temperature from increasing no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit and carbon dioxide levels below 450 parts per million in the atmosphere we should be able to avoid the really terrible consequences of global warming. The terms have been out of the public discussion of late but recent information indicates that we may be closer to “tipping points” than we had thought, and the “feedback mechanisms” that can result in uncontrolled carbon increases in the atmosphere may be underway right now.
The result, if true, is that the pace of change in planetary living conditions may be accelerating.
So, what’s happening faster than previously predicted? What feedback mechanisms are accelerating these changes? The article names several, some more subtle than others, but there are two really big ones.
One, there appears to be more permafrost than scientists previously thought, containing about twice the carbon as is currently in the atmosphere, and it is warming and releasing methane faster than any of the models predicted.
Two, ice around the globe, from the Arctic and Greenland to the Antarctic, is melting faster than anticipated. Addition of fresh water into the northern seas can disrupt the ocean currents that control climate for a large portion of the Earth, Also, land masses or ocean surfaces that were covered with white ice that reflected sunlight become heat-absorbing darker surfaces of land or water, causing melting to accelerate.
The second article documents the time involved in transitioning from one fuel source to another: wood to coal, coal to oil and oil to natural gas. It turns out that wood to coal and coal to oil took 50 to 60 years for the new fuel to go from a minor source of energy to a dominant position in overall fuel use. The article indicates that the current transition from oil to natural gas in taking longer, though recent events have accelerated the change.
The bad news, according to this article, is that renewables produced less than 10 percent of the energy used in the United States in 2011 and most of that was from “traditional” renewables such as hydroelectric plants. So-called “new renewables” such as solar and wind produced less than 4 percent. Moreover, the “old” renewables such as hydro are more or less maxed out, so growth will have to come from the “new” sources.
Further, on a global scale, investments in coal and oil as fuel sources has created an infrastructure that is unlikely to be abandoned, with the article citing an estimated $20 trillion in sunk costs in coal mines, oil wells, pipelines, refineries, filling stations, etc. China alone is estimated to have invested a half-trillion dollars in coal-fired power plants since 2000.
The article argues a couple of key points. First, that a realistic assessment of a pathway to an energy future based on renewables should recognize that it will take at least 50 years to make this transition and it will require advances in energy storing technologies in order to rely on intermittent wind and solar as baseline suppliers, along with a much more decentralized infrastructure of producers (rooftops, community scale, etc.) and transmission capability to protect against mass outages.
Second, that the most important short-term strategy is to increase the efficiency with which we currently use energy so that efforts to build renewable sources are not always chasing an increasing level of demand.
I would add to that. We need a change of pace to quicken development of energy policies and market mechanisms that fosters a pace of change in energy technology that more closely mirrors that which is happening with our digital lives. Now that’s something we can share with our grandchildren.
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. His neighbors refer to him as “Old Man Mott-Smith,” a moniker he is quite proud of. This column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to [email protected]