History, History Column

Climate Change – It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas….


Written by ©2021 Sarah Becker

                                                            Climate Change – It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas….

“Climate change threatens all weather patterns,” John Kerry, special presidential envoy for climate said on February 19,2021.  “The planet is warming in large part because of greenhouse gas emissions that are pumped into the sky from power plants, cars, planes and industry.  America is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases [and] we have only a few years left to avoid a climate catastrophe.” 

Merriam Webster defines greenhouse gases as “any of the various gaseous components (such as carbon dioxide CO2 or methane CH2) that absorb radiation; trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to the greenhouse effect.”

“Scientists told us three years ago we had 12 years to avert the worst consequences of climate crisis,” Kerry detailed.  “We are now three years gone, so we have nine years left.”  Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (76%), methane (16%), nitrous oxide (6%) and fluorinated gases (2%).  The most abundant greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide is the product of burning fossil fuels.

“The time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation,” President Theodore Roosevelt [R-NY] told State Governors in 1908—113 years ago.

“Conservation of our natural resources, though the gravest problem of today, is yet but part of another and greater problem to which this Nation is not yet awake, but to which it will awake in time, and with which it must hereafter grapple if it is to live,” Roosevelt continued.  Carbon dioxide molecules, once emitted, remain in the atmosphere for almost a century.

“One distinguishing characteristic of really civilized men is foresight,” Roosevelt concluded.  “We have to, as a nation, exercise foresight for this nation in the future!”

“We must emphasize research on solar energy and other renewable energy sources,” President Jimmy Carter [D-GA] commanded in 1977.  Today his Georgia farm fields are packed with solar energy panels.

In 2017 President Donald Trump [R-NY/FL] announced he was pulling the U.S. out of the 2015, 190 nation Paris Climate Accord.  The Trump administration [2017-2021] rolled back more than 100 environmental regulations.  Incoming President Joe Biden [D-DE] rejoined the Paris Climate Accord on February 19, 2021.  His administration celebrates Earth Day April 22, 2021, with more ambitious emission targets. 

President Biden plans to spend $2 trillion over the next four years to increase the use of clean energies: in the transportation, electricity and building sectors.  “He has set a goal of eliminating fossil fuel emissions from electricity generation by 2030 and has vowed to put the entire United States economy on track to become carbon neutral by midcentury.”

“The big key levers for the 2030 pledge will be the auto and utility sectors,” Biden’s domestic climate adviser Gina McCarthy said on March 4.

“The 2015 pledges made by nearly every country on Earth to cut their planet-warming emissions will no longer cut it,” Kerry explained.  “Even if we did everything that every country set up to do in the Paris Agreement, and we’re not, the Earth’s temperature is predicted to increase something like 3.7o Celsius.  That’s obviously catastrophic, and that’s why ambition is so critical.” 

“It is time to stop waffling and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here,” NASA climate change expert Dr. James E. Hansen concluded in 1988—33 years ago.  “It is happening now.”

Lyndon Johnson (D-TX) was the first U.S. President to concern himself with Clean Air and Water Quality. “There is no excuse for a river flowing red with blood from slaughterhouses,” Johnson said in 1965.  “There is no excuse…for chemical companies and oil refineries using our major rivers as pipelines for toxic wastes.  There is no excuse for communities to use other people’s rivers as a dump for their raw sewage.” 

President Richard Nixon [R-CA] established the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] in 1970: “We have the chance today to do more than ever before in history to make life better in America—to insure better health…better transportation, a cleaner environment…Let us be bold in our determination to meet those needs in new ways.”  The EPA first proposed “bold actions” to curb warming in 1989.

“We cannot dwell upon remembered glory,” President Jimmy Carter said in his 1977 Inaugural address.  “We cannot afford to drift…to lack boldness as we meet the future.”  Carter was the first president to openly criticize America’s dependence on foreign oil; to install solar panels in the White House.  Succeeding President Ronald Reagan [R-CA] removed the panels in 1986.

“[T]ogether, in a spirit of individual sacrifice for the common good, we must simply do our best,” Carter concluded.  To wear face masks in this pandemic age: to forego gas-guzzling vehicles.

Researchers at Melbourne, Australia’s RMIT University—in an effort to curb COVID-19 pandemic waste—may “have developed a way to repurpose single-use [disposable face] masks into roads.  A new study, published in Science of the Total Environment, shows that using recycled masks to make a 1-kilometer two-lane road would use up about 3 million masks, preventing 93 metric tons of waste from ending up in landfills.”  The pavement mixture consists of both shredded face masks and processed building rubble “designed to meet civil engineering safety standards and add stiffness and strength to the pavement.”

Microsoft founder, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Bill Gates describes today’s ongoing climate effort “as bigger than anything humanity has done to date.”  NOAA calculates that “From 1990—through 2019—the warming influence of all major human produced greenhouse gases has increased by 45%.”

In his new book, How to Avoid Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need Gates claims “just a 2 degrees Celsius rise in ocean temperatures could kill coral reefs and destroy the food source for 1 billion people.”  UNESCO claims the coral reefs in all 29 reef-containing World Heritage sites “will cease to exist as functioning coral reef ecosystems by the end of the century if we continue to emit greenhouse gases under a business as usual scenario.”

The United Nations estimates 17% of the food produced globally is wasted, approximately 1.03 billion tons annually.  Researchers at the Pacific Northwest Laboratory are developing a way to convert U.S. food scraps into an energy-dense biofuel that powers trains, planes and heavy duty trucks. 

“If we do not eliminate greenhouse gases within the next three decades the planet will be lost,” Gates said.  “Corporate America needs to make buying green—green aviation fuel, for example –a priority.  And every day Americans must change the cars they drive.”

“An international effort is required of all new autos produced around the world to achieve an average of at least 40 miles per gallon of gasoline,” President George H.W. Bush’s 1989 Environmental Protection Agency decided.  Also: “To require all automobiles in industrial countries to install catalytic converters, like those required in the United States, to reduce gases from tailpipe emissions.”

According to the Rhodium Group carbon dioxide emissions rose 2.7% in 2018, the second largest annual spike since 2000.  “Much of the emissions spike was driven by the continued rise of transportation emissions, now the nation’s top source of emissions.”

What is the social cost of carbon?  “It’s approximately the damage done by driving from San Francisco to Chicago, assuming that about a ton of carbon spits out of the tailpipe over those 2,000 miles,” MIT’s Technology Review said.  The Obama and Trump administrations numbers are “contentious”—depending “on how you value future damages.” 

“In the U.S. nearly one in two passenger cars sold today is an SUV,” the International Energy Agency [IEA] reported in October 2019.  “If SUV drivers were a nation, they would rank seventh in the world for carbon emissions.”

“As the global fleet of SUVs has grown emissions from the vehicles have increased more than fourfold, from 2010 to 2018,” the IEA report continued.  “In that period, SUVs doubled their global market share from 17% to 39% and their annual emissions rose to more than 700 megatonnes of CO2.  No energy sector except power drove a larger increase in carbon emissions, putting SUVs ahead of heavy industry (including iron, steel, cement and shipping), aviation and shipping.”

The climate effort, Gates concluded, “involves reducing the 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases produced yearly; reducing [if not eliminating] the production of things such as cement, steel and plastic.  And the public—especially car owners—must pressure their public officials to actively do something about the crisis.”  Lately it seems Alexandria’s auto-related gains are few.

Volvo recently announced it is phasing out the production of all cars with internal combustion engines, including hybrids by 2030.  As interesting, Consumers Reports annual April auto issue tells of its New Green Choice program, CR’s first ever rankings of all-electric vehicles (EVs) and gas-electric hybrids. 

“Just as a synthetic rubber corporation helped us win World War II, so will we mobilize American determination and ability to win the energy war,” President Carter said in his 1979 Crisis of Confidence speech.  “Every act of energy conservation is more than just common sense—I tell you it is an act of patriotism.  We often think of conservation in terms of sacrifice.   In fact…every gallon of oil each one of us saves is a new form of production.” 

All of us look forward to the District’s National Cherry Blossom Festival [March 20-April 11, 2021]—a masked properly distanced stroll through the Tidal Basin’s beautiful blooms.  The National Park Service predicts Peak bloom to be April 2-5. 

Did you know that the warmer temperatures associated with climate change are affecting the cherry blossoms?  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, peak bloom dates for the cherry trees have shifted.  Since 1921 peak bloom—defined as when 70% of Yoshino cherry blossoms are open—is approximately five days earlier.

Envoy John Kerry equates cleaner energy with opportunity: “For the greatest economic transformation since the Industrial Revolution.”  The Industrial Revolution [1760-1840] marks England and America’s change from an agrarian and handicraft economy to one dominated by industry and machine manufacturing.

The success of any New Energy economy depends on clean tech—like batteries, solar and wind power.  “Yet no fundamentally new energy technology has been discovered in nearly a century,” The Manhattan Institute for Policy noted.  The Biden administration is moving closer to approving the country’s first full-scale off-shore wind farm, the [Martha’s] Vineyard wind project.

Question: Given the recent Texas power debacle; the country’s increasing dependence on clean tech, how will America’s 2030 power, backup power grid be explained?  So far the Biden administration has said only “the U.S. will use the government’s buying power and natural carbon sinks—as well as tougher regulations” to meet its climate goals.     

Answers to these and other environmental questions are expected on April 22.    

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com 

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