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Slaves to energy

We depend on energy sources that threaten dramatic climate changes around the world. Can we change course?
By Jon Luoma
May/June 2005 5.1.05

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Global Warming

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(Illustration by Paine Proffit)

Dr. Chad Tolman, now retired after a distinguished career as a physical chemist at DuPont, the National Science Foundation, and the National Research Council, has been thinking lately about contradictions in the moral life of Thomas Jefferson--and in our own. Jefferson’s moral contradiction, Tolman says, had to do with slavery. Ours relates to an issue that Jefferson could hardly have imagined--global warming--but Tolman insists the parallels are clear.

Tolman leads a climate change study and action group at his congregation, the First Unitarian Church of Wilmington, Delaware. He points to a quote from the writings of Jefferson on the door of his church. “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Elegant and heartfelt stuff from a towering figure of the Enlightenment. “But,” says Tolman, “he also loved building additions to his home, rare books, good music and food, and fine imported wines. And he was able to live in this grand style because he owned slaves who did the hard work.” Before Emancipation, a handful of affluent families--slaveholders and others, including northern mill owners who profited by use of slave-produced cotton--prospered by exploiting the work of those they held in bondage.

Today residents of affluent nations prosper in large part because of the work done for us by modern sources of energy. There’s nothing inherently immoral in using energy, but we in affluent nations use vastly more energy than residents of poor nations. Even in industrial nations that are far less profligate with energy than the U.S., energy remains a critical feedstock for affluence. Thrifty Denmark, where hoards of urbanites happily bicycle to their offices, uses less than half the U.S.’s energy per capita, but still 100 times more than, say, Rwanda.

This is more than a sign of mere piggishness--and here is where the parallel to Jefferson becomes clear. By burning fossil fuels to generate our energy, affluent nations produce far more carbon dioxide, the principle greenhouse gas implicated in global warm­ing, than poorer nations. Yet if temperatures rise across the globe in coming decades, as a broad consensus of leading climatologists predicts, the most profound consequences will not likely befall people in the U.S. or Denmark or the rest of the developed world. Although costs to our own economies may be high, the most seriously afflicted will be people in some of the world’s most impoverished nations--consequences ranging from prolonged drought and desertification of agriculturally productive areas to widespread coastal flooding, increases in such insect-vectored diseases as malaria, and increased frequency and intensity of devastating monster hurricanes. And that consequence--the affluent reveling in our comforts at the likely expense of the world’s poorest--ties us, in Tolman’s view, to Jefferson, Enlightenment hero, comfortable pursuer of happiness, putative Unitarian, and slaver.

In a guest sermon at my own congregation in New Jersey only a few weeks before the Kyoto Protocol went into effect in mid-February, Tolman shared some of his thoughts about morality and this environmental problem. The first international treaty designed to abate greenhouse gas emissions, the protocol had been signed by almost all the world’s developed nations, yet spurned by two: Australia and, most notably, the planet’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, our own. (With 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. emits 25 percent of the world’s human-generated carbon dioxide). With some countries like the United Kingdom and Germany already talking about going far beyond the Kyoto treaty to cut emissions 50 percent or more over time, what should we make of the morality of the outright rejection of the Kyoto treaty by the U.S. political leadership and the muted public outcry in the U.S.?

In fact, based on our “moral responsibility to future generations,” delegates to the UUA General Assembly voted in 2004 to make global warming the Study/Action Issue for congregations for the next two years. A resource guide available from the Washington Office for Advocacy and Witness (www.uua.org/uuawo/) suggests that global warming “is a greater potential danger than any other we face today or perhaps ever have.”

If such language strikes you as over the top, consider what the best science is telling us. Since the dawn of the Industrial Age we have been injecting increasing volumes of greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. Today, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is more than 30 percent higher than it was before the Industrial Revolution. If the world continues on this path, some estimates suggest that concentrations could be double the preindustrial level by about the middle of this century.

Scientists know for certain that a greenhouse effect exists, that even without industrial emissions a naturally occurring blanket of carbon dioxide and other gases helps trap solar radiation. Without that blanket, the planet would be a frozen wasteland. But as greenhouse gases continue to build in the atmosphere, the blanket thickens.

Reading or listening to the mainstream news media one might conclude that the entire notion of impending global warming remains an enormous scientific uncertainty. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international group of about 2,000 of the world’s top climate scientists, has concluded that average temperatures on Earth are likely to increase 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. This conclusion was confirmed in a recent, detailed report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

The word “likely” is the sticking point. Scientists will not say that this much global warming, and the dire consequences it could bring, are unequivocably certain to happen. Even with the best predictive models run on the most powerful available supercomputers, climate is so complex that the best science can do is assign probabilities. Is there scientific debate about global warming? Of course. Science progresses that way, with scientists challenging each other’s hypotheses. But unfortunately, in attempting to “balance” news coverage by including a doubting voice in every story, much mainstream coverage of global warming has missed the heart of the matter: The best minds in the climate field believe the probability is very high that global warming is already under way and that its rate is increasing.

The only way to achieve absolute scientific certainty is to run a massive, potentially catastrophic experiment on the planet itself. That’s the path we’re on now. Unfortunately, by the time this global experiment is far enough along to prove if the scientists’ “likely” scenario is correct, it will be too late to avoid some of the worst consequences.

Strong warnings from the scientific community about the risks from global warming began at least a decade and a half ago. And yet the response from the Ameri­can public at large and from most of our political leaders has been remarkably subdued. Anyone looking into the issue, including new UU congregational Study/Action groups, might start by asking why.

Think of this hypothetical situation: You wake up one morning to the frightening news that astronomers have located a belt of asteroids heading towards Earth. They’ve plotted a trajectory that hints that the cluster could begin colliding with the planet in two years. The nations of the world rapidly convene their best scientists, who conclude that although calculating trajectories is complex, serious harm will likely come to Earth. We might get lucky and avoid calamity, but the probability of mass human casualties and ecological devastation appears high. The scientists do have some better news. We still have time to act, but only if we begin immediately. Solving the problem, however, will be difficult and costly. The rich nations of the world are going to have to shoulder the bulk of the burden.

It’s difficult to picture an America apathetic about the threat, or political leaders aggressively rejecting pleas to act.

Perhaps we’re suffering from a sort of environmental exhaustion. Beginning in the early 1960s, with dire warnings about DDT and other pesticides, and through crises involving polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxin, acid rain, and holes in the ozone layer, we’ve been warned repeatedly of environmental disaster. Maybe our fear circuits are overloaded. Or maybe past successes in dealing with environmental problems have lulled us into a sense that with a few regulatory or technological tweaks any problem will pretty much go away.

On the contrary, it could be that we sense the global warming threat really is awful, and facing the gargantuan task ahead is simply too much to bear. Or perhaps it’s the sheer abstraction. Bald eagle eggs cracking due to pesticides, kids threatened by poisoned water, raw sewage washing up on the nation’s beaches—now there are problems we can get our minds around. Asteroids rushing towards Earth sounds like a tangible threat. The temperature creeping upward over a generation and more seems so much more remote.

University of Wisconsin ecologist John Magnuson once wrote in the journal Bioscience about what he called “the secrecy of the invisible present.” We can all sense short-term changes in our environment—the intensity of waves on a lake increasing as a storm approaches, for example. But over decades, our instincts tell us the world is a more or less static place. Perhaps the most daunting obstacle we confront is relying on this sort of instinct rather than on reason and science. But as Magnuson found, sometimes only reason and science can penetrate the invisibility of the present. (The Enlightenment Jefferson would have liked this line of thought.)

If UU congregations can succeed in making no more of a contribution than helping move public consciousness past the invisibility of the present, that alone would be substantial.

As a study group in one Maryland congregation discovered, accepting that the threat is real leads to a daunting new hurdle: comprehending how difficult it will be to control the global thermostat.

In 2001, a science and religion study group at the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland, decided to take on the issue of global warming. The destination their path of discovery led them to will probably surprise, even shock, many UU environmentalists.

The two dozen members of the group included scientists, lawyers, economists, teachers, and artists, says member Harvey Lerner. The group members looked at what it would take to meet the guidelines of the Kyoto Protocol. The treaty envisioned the U.S. first reducing its carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels, then a further 7 percent. Analyzing data in carbon dioxide emission trends in the U.S., the Cedar Lane group made an astonishing discovery. Environmentalists have often touted improved fuel efficiency standards for automobiles as part of the solution to global warming. The group found out just how small a part that would be: They calculated that to reduce emissions to 1990 levels through changes in auto emissions alone, we would have to eliminate every single gasoline-powered passenger car on American streets and highways. To reduce emissions another 7 percent to meet the Kyoto goals, we would have to eliminate not only cars, but SUVs, pick-ups, and vans, plus boats and ships.

And here’s worse news: Most experts agree that the Kyoto guidelines are only a start. Some top climatologists believe the world as a whole may eventually need to eliminate 50 percent, or even 80 percent, of projected future carbon dioxide emissions. (Keep in mind how rapidly economies are growing in heavily populated Asian nations, including China and India, and how growing personal wealth will lead to demand for comforts from cars to refrigerators to air conditioned homes.)

These are sobering figures. Although it will not wholly solve the problem, improving energy efficiency in transportation is at least a meaningful part of the solution. Energy efficiency is the cheapest way to clean up pollution in general and can even put money in consumers’ and businesses’ pockets. But the Cedar Lane group’s epiphany made it clear that a far larger part of the solution must come from the ways we produce and use electricity, our largest source of greenhouse gases. (The charts on page 27 show how much of our carbon dioxide emissions come from generating electricity compared to transportation and other sources.)

Today, more than 70 percent of our electrical energy comes from burning fossil fuels, especially coal, to produce steam that in turn drives electric generators. Burning fossil fuels un­avoidably produces carbon dioxide. Some scientists have floated ideas about capturing carbon dioxide from power plants and storing it deep underground. Others have speculated that we might be able to get the oceans to absorb more of it by seeding some areas with iron, which in turn could boost growth of algae that would, in turn, take up volumes of carbon dioxide. But even if such ideas turned out to be economically, technologically, and environmentally feasible, they would take years to study, much less implement. (What, for instance, might be the ecological ripple effects of producing vastly more algae in the world’s oceans?)

Environmentalists routinely point to solar and wind power as keys to a solution. The Cedar Lane group concluded that these technologies were not advanced or economical enough to make a significant difference in the short time frame available to control the problem. The only practical remaining answer, the group concluded, would be to turn to a source of electrical generation that many, maybe most, members of our denomination regard with fear and loathing: nuclear power.

It’s certainly true that nuclear power plants produce no carbon dioxide. But there’s plenty of paradox in a UU study group coming to that conclusion: A 1976 General Assembly resolution opposed construction of new nuclear power plants because of their risks to life, from melt-downs to proliferation of weapons development to transporting and storing wastes than can remain lethal not just for centuries, but for millennia.

Harvey Lerner says his group acknowledged the potential risks, but concluded that nuclear power ultimately emerged as the least among multiple evils. And Lerner, who is now retired but spent thirty years working in international development, including in some of the world’s poorest nations, says that morality played a central role in how his group grappled with the issue.

“If you’re going to lift people out of poverty in the developing world, you can’t have that happen without more energy,” he says. “Do we tell them, well, we can have gasoline for our cars and electricity for lights at night, but you can’t? And then are we going to tell millions of people in a low-lying coastal country like Bangladesh, well, we’re going to keep burning coal while your country floods?

“Everything we looked at had a downside,” he adds. “The question we were left with was this one: what’s going to do the least harm?”

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S. advocacy group that adamantly opposes nuclear power generation, insists there’s another way. That group is calling for an intense national effort to follow what they call a “blueprint for clean energy,” including boosting nonpolluting energy sources like solar and wind as well as intensifying energy conservation and efficiency efforts. (See “Resources.”)

With this approach, we would still face tough and often perplexing tradeoffs. Consider the promise and the paradox of one still-emerging form of alternative energy: machines that capture the free and clean energy of the winds.

Electric-generating windmill technology has improved dramatically in recent years, with several major high-tech wind farms now operating in Europe and others beginning to spring up in the U.S. Costs have declined to the point where they’re approaching the cost of fossil fuel-based generation. And it’s a “fuel” we have plenty of.

Most environmental groups suggest that making good site decisions can help resolve concerns about windmills becoming environmental problems themselves, particularly as threats to migrating birds. Still, as an indication of just how tough any path we choose will be, consider a recent uproar over proposals to build an extensive offshore wind farm within view of the pricey residential and vacation real estate on Massachusetts’ Nantucket Sound. A key objection: The windmills will destroy a celebrated view.

Similar proposals are in play to build a string of major offshore wind farms right in the backyard of my own congregation, the UU Congregation of the South Jersey Shore. New Jersey’s acting governor has placed a moratorium on such projects while state officials and citizens ponder environmental, economic, and, yes, aesthetic matters.

So my own congregation has a couple of tough, perplexing questions with which to begin our own study of global warming, as do we all. As the Cedar Lane group discovered, any solution is going to involve serious compromise and one sort of unpleasant cost or another. But if we’re faced with a profound moral choice, and given all the intertwined moral links between energy, global warming, affluence, and poverty in the world, maybe we need to start by deciding, as Chad Tolman put it to me, what the word “ugly” really means.

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