In 2011, I traveled to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) climate center in Boulder, Colorado to see what the top researchers think, as research for my ninth Harper Collins book.
After getting my security badge, I was taken to a pre-arranged meeting with a series of scientists, culminating in the lab where all the world’s atmospheric gases are measured. Every two weeks they get samples from dozens of places. There’s even a little old lady in Mongolia who unfurls the 12-foot NOAA sampling boom and takes the container 300 miles to the capital, UlanBatar. She brings it to the US embassy which puts it in a diplomatic pouch and it ends up here in this Boulder lab. Earth’s atmosphere’s carbon dioxide level was sobering — then at 384 parts per million — up from the 280 ppm level during the past half-million years.
It was 326 parts per million when I moved to Woodstock in 1972. By 1989, when my daughter was born, it had reached 352 ppm. Now this week in March 2021, it stands at 416 ppm. What’s worse, it used to rise by one ppm per year. It currently increases by three ppm annually.
The director, six-foot-six, looked down at me to make eye contact during that meeting in 2011. “We’re screwed,” he said quietly.
But not everyone will be equally screwed. I was then shown nine computer simulations that all agreed where global warming’s effects are strongest. The western US is among the worst places on the planet, and will be desert-dry and ten degrees hotter 60 years from now. As the computer whirred, what really caught my eye was the Eastern US. This is where all models insist that global warming will be most minimal. Even by this century’s end, our region will still have ample rainfall and only a four-degree temperature boost. If you own property here, don’t sell it.
There are hopeful signs. The new president is super-focused on climate change, unlike the ignorant man he replaced. And, thanks to the low natural gas prices wrought by hydrofracking and sand tar technologies, coal — the highest carbon emitter — has been increasingly phased out as our main fuel for electricity generation. Yes, amazingly, fracking proved to be a good thing, and is the single biggest reason coal went from generating 50% of our power a decade ago to just one-third of it now.
But while natural gas cuts carbon emissions in half, it’s still just an interim, stopgap measure. We all want solar and wind power to dominate, and this, too, has proceeded at a rate far faster than anyone previously imagined. Huge off-shore wind farms are particularly attractive, and they are being built.
The biggest obstacle is how to store electricity when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Batteries can’t do enough. Bill Gates has been all over the news promoting and investing in a new generation of carbon-free nuclear plants to meet that need. Indeed, environmental groups increasingly back nuclear to save the planet.
The biggest obstacle — high cost — can be overcome with these smaller new liquid salt plants. The second obstacle is public fear and ignorance. Despite the US not suffering a single death in the 60 years since we began generating 20% of our national power from 110 nuclear plants, making it safer than any other major power production method including hydro, people are scared. Few, for example, are aware that our biggest accident, Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, in which a fuel core melted down, released so little radiation that not a single future cancer death is expected.
But people fear nuclear anyway, even if its future use is advocated by numerous groups and environmentalists like the author of the Whole Earth Catalog, the founder of Friends of the Earth, the executive director of Greenpeace, the director of the Climate Coalition and even James Lovelock, who originated the Gaia Hypothesis. Count me in too, if we’re really to get serious about carbon.
Meantime, want to know how much is in your bedroom? Amazon sells a cool device called GZAIR model 2, an accurate CO2 measuring instrument with a large numerical readout. Then you’ll know if your room’s too stuffy and you should crack open a window. Foggy headedness or groggy wake-ups will be avoided if your indoor air stays below 800 ppm.