previous chapter
8 THE FUTURE OF PLANET EARTH
next chapter

8
THE FUTURE OF PLANET EARTH

All of the major topics we've concentrated on—ozone depletion, enhanced greenhouse effect, air pollution, and acid rain—can be traced directly to a common source in population, affluence, and technology. These environmnental effects are all happening at the same time, in our lifetime, on a global scale, and not by chance, but rather because they have a common cause—namely, the number of people on Earth, the way we live, the amount of energy we use, and the way we generate that energy.

We began with ozone. There are many memorable aspects of the ozone-depletion story. One is the fact that Ozone loss was first predicted theoretically by two scientists and then discovered, in the spectacular form of the ozone hole, by another. Since the discovery of the ozone hole, we have put together, within less than a decade, a fairly complete, credible, agreed-upon picture of how ozone loss comes about.

The observation of severe ozone loss over Antarctica wasn't predicted. The prediction was that chlorofluorocarbons could decrease ozone; and the theory, developed by Rowland and Molina, envisioned a gradual hiss over many years. First came the realization that chlorofluorocarbons, because of their long lifetimes, and because they're nearly inert, provide a vehicle for lifting chlorine from the surface, where we emit it, up to the stratosphere, where it might remain chemically inactive for decades. Once there, the chlorine is released through a very complicated process involving the meteorology of the polar stratosphere. We've also learned that the Antarctic circulation system provides a containment vessel—a closed vortex in which the ozone-rich air is


151

trapped—where this process can take place at increased levels because of the presence of frozen surfaces on clouds on which some unusual chemical reactions can occur.

After this long process, we now have a theory that appears to be credible. A lot of thorough scientific work has been done validating this chain of events and providing enough convincing evidence—enough of a "smoking gun"—that the governments of the world have agreed to ban chlorofluorocarbons.

The ban on CFCs, incidentally, will have considerable economic consequences. Some of them will be quite pleasant, for some fortunate people. CFC substitutes are going to make a lot of money for their producers. If you have to have a different kind of air conditioner in your car, if you have to buy a new kind of refrigerator, because CFCs arc no longer tolerable, then the people who make that car air conditioner and that refrigerator, and the people who sell them and transport them and maintain them, are going to make money. Just ask the people who invested in compact discs (does anybody remember phonograph records?). Those people made money, because a brand-new technology came along and music lovers switched over. Money can be made on energy conservation and energy efficiency, too, and money can certainly be made when environmental concerns mandate a major change in technology. Change is opportunity. Environmentalism can be profitable.

Turning now to the greenhouse effect, recall the work of Lewis Fry Richardson, the individualistic, pacifist, Quaker, ambulance-driving mathematician. Recall how he carried out a laborious hand calculation and then lost it, and how, when he found it, knowing full well how mistaken it was, had the courage to publish it anyway. Of all the scientists we've studied, he is probably the most idiosyncratic. He makes ordinary obsessive scientists, and even strongly motivated ones like Keeling, look normal by contrast. Richardson was truly a special case in the spectrum of humanity, and it was because of his vision, early in this century, that today we have the technology for making the weather forecasts that are so economically beneficial to agriculture and many other sectors of the economy. And it was because of Richardson's lonely research that today we have global-climate models, from which our best estimates of future temperature change have come.

Climate modeling remains largely an unsolved problem. I've said that we ought to take the model results, the climate scenarios of the future, seriously but not literally. We know that the models are complicated by


152

how intricately the processes interact with one another, and by how strongly these interwoven processes influence climate stability. We also know that we don't yet have a track record in this area, because we don't have a history, of predicting climate. We didn't predict the climate trends that have already occurred.

A distinguished environmental scientist, Dean Abrahamson, has remarked, "When my grandfather was born, environmental concerns were almost all based on housekeeping and trash in the backyard. By the time I was born," continued Abrahamson, who is now approaching middle age, "there were demonstrable regional impacts. The birth of my children coincided with entire river systems and air sheds being affected. Now... major global systems, upon which society depends for its welfare, are being destroyed."

That's a remarkable summary of the change we've seen within this century, within the space of just three or four human generations. First there were local concerns: we mentioned that there was smog in London centuries ago, and the backyard problem has always been there. But concerns that were regional and national arc now global in nature.

The other aspect of the problem we face today is that these changes require a behavioral response. We caused them, and what gets done about them depends on us. You can contrast this realization with an attitude that was prevalent in Western society as recently as the 1970s. That was a time of worry over running out of finite resources. Many predicted at that time that soon there would be little readily recoverable oil, for example. We do know, of course, that we will run out eventually, even though the schedule isn't what was foreseen then. But the problems we face today don't arise from the scarcity of resources. China, as I mentioned, sits atop an immense reserve of coal, enough for centuries. The fear today is not that the Chinese will run out of coal, but that they will use it.

We're worried not so much about a lack of those kinds of resources, but instead about what you might call a global waste-disposal problem: what to do with the by-products of the civilization we’ve built. They include carbon dioxide from fossil fuel and deforestation, but they also include many other things that we've touched on: CFCs, acid precipitation, air pollution, and so on. We're worried about the side effects of the way we've chosen to live, and the responses required to solve these problems arc both global and behavioral.


153

There are reasons to be optimistic, and one of them is the growing awareness of the problem on the part of many people. Thirty years ago you wouldn't have seen Time magazine naming Earth as planet of the year in place of a person of the year.

I think this change has come about in part because of space exploration, in particular manned space exploration. All astronauts have something in common, something that's been noticed by many people; you can uncover it yourself by going back through the comments made by astronauts from all countries. Astronauts, who are technical people—pilots and engineers who say things like "10-4" and "affirmative" when they mean "yes"—waxed absolutely poetic when they were in space. The word you heard from all of them was beautiful. Alan Shepard, the first of the American astronauts, said, "What a beautiful view!" The Soviet cosmonauts said the same thing: "Our planet is uncommonly beautiful and looks wonderful from cosmic heights." There probably aren't any astronauts who haven't said words to that effect.

Because of space exploration, we've all become vicarious astronauts, taking on the perspective of the Earth from space. That represents great progress in terms of human awareness of the changes in the planet and the causes of those changes.

I think another kind of awareness comes simply from the proliferation of knowledge. The Keeling curve, showing the concentration of atmospheric CO2 rising, has become an icon. Keeling's data on carbon dioxide from Mauna Loa provide unmistakable evidence that the chemical composition of the atmosphere is being altered by humanity. In a sense, every discussion of global change tacitly cites those data. They've become widely known. People in the street know that atmospheric CO2 levels are rising, strengthening the greenhouse effect. The subject has earned widespread concern.

Harlan Cleveland, a statesman of science, has advanced the notion of a "global commons," in a book with that title. The commons, historically, meant the part of the town that belonged to everybody. Boston Common is a commons. It was a place in the middle of the town where everybody could graze their cows, at least in an earlier day, if not now.

Cleveland sees a global commons with four components. First is the oceans, which belong to no nation and on which ships of all nations may sail. Second is the atmosphere, which respects no boundaries; the weather system that affects the United States today may have been over the Pacific last week and over China the week before that. Third is outer


154

space, which is international, which no nation can stake a claim to; although Americans planted a flag on the Moon, no one suggests that it therefore belongs to the United States. Fourth, finally, is Antarctica, which by international agreement is peaceful—there is nothing of a military nature on Antarctica—and relatively pristine, a park where scientists can be observed doing science, a place where, most of the time, only scientists and penguins and precious little else of large size arc on the ice.

Cleveland takes those examples—the ocean, the atmosphere, space, and Antarctica—as the global commons, the common heritage of all humankind. I think we might wish to extend that list to things like the tropical rainforests, which in a strict sense belong to the countries where they're located, but which benefit all of us.

Once you've accepted the idea that there is a commons that everyone benefits from and that everybody is responsible for, then you're not far from the idea that we ought to devise fair and equitable ways of protecting it.

We can cite examples of efforts toward realizing those goals. One is the Montreal Protocol, a remarkable document—or a remarkably successful series of treaties, if you count the amendments that were later enacted. The Montreal Protocol and its amendments have already led to a dramatic reduction in the rate at which chlorofluorocarbons are being put into the atmosphere.

These actions have far-reaching and long-term consequences. Chlorofluorocarbons have such long lifetimes that their concentrations will continue to increase for some time. But they will eventually begin to decrease, because of the actions we're taking today.

Recall the poignant pica of the 17-year-old Australian, Zanny Begg, an observer at the London conference that amended the Montreal Protocol. "You arc making history" she said to all the diplomats and scientists and delegates attending this historic conference. "Have the courage to save the ozone layer."

Her challenge is echoed in an extraordinary essay by a woman much more widely known. This essay appears as an appendix to the book One Earth, One Future, which is not a typical environmental manifesto, but rather a publication of the very staid U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The essay is by Gro Harlem Brundtland, prime minister of Norway, who headed an international commission that produced a report called Our Common Future. In her essay, she said, "The interplay


155

between scientific process and public policy is not new but has been a characteristic of most of the great turning points in human history. One need look no further than the dawning of the nuclear age to see that."

Brundtland makes some recommendations. She says, "We need a global consensus for economic growth in the 1990s." The reason for that, she continues, is simply that "it is politically, economically, and morally unacceptable that there is a net transfer of resources from poor countries to rich ones. Nearly a billion people live in poverty and squalor, and the per-capita income of some 50 developing countries has continued to decline over the past few years." These trends must be reversed. Brundtland goes on to say:

We need concerted international action. There are certain imperatives that must be vigorously pursued:

• We must agree on regional strategies for stabilizing and reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Reforestation efforts must be included as a vital part of the carbon equation.

• We must strongly intensify our efforts to develop renewable forms of energy. Renewable energy should become the foundation of the global energy structure during the twenty-first century.

• We should speed up our efforts on international agreements to protect the atmosphere. There are different views on how to proceed on this issue. I urge that negotiations to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases begin immediately.

The history of carbon emissions from fossil-fuel burning illustrates her point. Consider the carbon added to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide in three recent years: 1950, 1965, and 1985. Remember, we're putting out nearly 6 billion tons a year today, about 1 ton for every person on Earth. Only a few pounds for each resident of India, quite a lot of pounds for each North American. The approximate amounts were 1.5 billion metric tons a year in 1950, 2.9 billion in 1965, and 5.1 billion in 1985. So the amount of CO2 being added to the atmosphere by people more than tripled over this 35-year period. During this same period, world population approximately doubled. Thus, CO2 emissions increased sharply in both absolute and per-capita terms.

But what's extraordinary here is how the relative roles of different parts of the word changed during that period. Consider the portion emitted by North America. In 1950, that portion was nearly half of the global total. Fifteen years later, North America emitted more CO, than


156

it did in 1950. But instead of being about half the global total, the contribution from North America was about a third. In 1985, when the global total was larger still, North America contributed only about a fourth of it.

The carbon emitted by China and other developing countries was barely discernible in 1950, but by 1985 it had exceeded that of North America. China's portion of global emissions may grow to surpass the emissions of the United States (which comprise most of the North American total) within only a few decades or less, because there are more than a billion people in China, and they have unlimited coal for near-term purposes. By the early 1990s, Chinese carbon emissions had already begun to exceed 50% of U.S. emissions. Incidentally, global carbon emissions have been on a plateau of around 5.9 billion tons since about 1987, owing in part to the economic contraction in the former Soviet Union and to stagnant economic conditions worldwide. Rapid industrialization in Asia has been largely responsible for the fact that global emissions did not actually decrease during this period.

If China continues to industrialize by using coal as a fuel, its contribution of CO2 emissions will inevitably grow. Although the United States still contributes more CO2 than any other single country, China is now second, ahead of Russia. In coming years, the U.S. share of the global total will almost certainly continue to decrease. But the United States can and should lead the way in reducing emissions of CO2 . Its per-capita contribution is shamefully high. A single American can do far more to reduce CO2 emissions than can a single Indian. Acting alone, however, the United States cannot solve the CO2 problem. All countries need to do their part as well. Global problems require global solutions.

Some countries arc beginning to act. For example, a 1991 meeting of European ministers in Brussels approved in principle an energy tax designed to cut down on carbon-dioxide emissions. Their plan was to implement a tax increase that would raise the price of gasoline in Europe by about 6% and the price of electricity by about 14%.

These European countries also planned to tax other fossil fuels by equivalent amounts, and even to tax other energy sources that don't produce CO2 , so that in France, for example, even though electricity comes mainly from nuclear power, there would still be incentive for conservation.

The European Community generates only a small fraction of the world's carbon dioxide, far less than the United States does. But it is clearly serious about taking action.


157

As you might suspect, some European ministers have occasionally had critical things to say about the United States. At the Brussels meeting in 1991, the Dutch environmental minister noted that the European Community cannot reduce global warming by itself. He expressed the hope that the United States, which produces about twice as much CO2 per capita as Western Europe, would join the campaign. Although he admitted that recent talks between the United States and European officials had produced no movement, at least Western Europe decided not to wait.

Remember, we're talking about industrial democracies here, with governments that are not composed of professional environmentalists but that are nonetheless responding to the pressures of their electorates. So, if you want to be optimistic about the chances of real progress toward a sustainable future, there's considerable evidence that a massive change in attitudes and policies, which was once unthinkable, may be coming to the fore today.


158

previous chapter
8 THE FUTURE OF PLANET EARTH
next chapter