The Climate Change Lecture

ILEA's President, Roel Hammerschlag, volunteers with Portland, Oregon's Green House Network to lecture about climate change to university audiences in the Seattle area. Below is the (approximate) text of the lecture, which lasts about 30 minutes when delivered at an unhurried sort of pace . The section titles that appear below are not used in the spoken lecture. The abbreviation "ppm" is always spoken out as "parts per million."

Footnote numbers and figures are all clickable to view citations. Links to additional resources available on the Internet can be found here.

To arrange for a climate change lecture to be delivered at your college, government agency, company or other institution, contact the Green House Network's Volunteer Speakers
Network.


Fossil fuels are a gift

Hi. My name is Roel Hammerschlag. I am an environmentalist; I run a small non-profit called the Institute for Lifecycle Energy Analysis, or ILEA for short, that spends its time evaluating the overall environmental impact of consumer products, and assigning numeric ratings to those impacts. But right now, I am actually representing a different non-profit organization based in Portland, called Green House Network. Green House Network works primarily on spreading the word about climate change. One of the ways they do this is through a program called the National Volunteer Speakers Network, through which they have trained a number of volunteer speakers like myself, to deliver lectures about climate change to university and college audiences in their own region.

Now I'm a little different than most environmentalists, because I think fossil fuels are really cool. I have a little mascot with me to help explain what I mean by that. Pulls a piece of unidentifiable, wrinkled green plastic from pocket. I have to blow it up first, this takes a second, it's also kind of embarrassing because I turn red when I do this. Blows into valve. Plastic inflates into Sinclair dinosaur. Does anyone recognize this? That's right, it's the Sinclair dinosaur. Any of you who are from the Midwest probably recognize it; Sinclair is a small oil company headquartered in Wyoming. If you travel in states like Colorado, Wyoming or Nebraska you're certain to see any number of Sinclair gas stations.

But does anyone know why Sinclair uses a dinosaur for their logo? That's right, because dinosaurs decay underground to produce fossil fuel, which we can then burn to generate energy. But the dinosaur, in order to grow, had to get its own energy from somewhere. How did the dinosaur get its energy? Yes, it ate plants. But how about the plants, how do they grow? Where do they get their energy from? Of course, from the sun. So you can think of fossil fuels as immensely concentrated solar energy: the sun gives energy to plants, the plants give energy to the dinosaurs, the dinosaurs die, decay and turn into oil, and we get the energy back out by burning the oil.

To give you an idea how concentrated this sunlight is, imagine you have a car with a 15-gallon gas tank, that gets 20 miles to the gallon. So on one tank of gas you can drive 300 miles, say from here [Seattle] to Spokane. Now imagine that you decide you're going to make the world a better place and turn your gasoline-powered car into a solar-powered electric car. You replace the engine with an electric motor, the gas tank with a huge battery, and install solar panels on the car roof. Then you park your car out on the street to let the battery charge up. How long do you think you're going to have to let the car sit out there before enough sunlight has fallen on the roof to charge up the battery so that you can drive those same 300 miles? You can be conservative, because I calculated this in particular for the car charging itself up here in Seattle. The answer is about a year.1 You would have to leave your solar car sitting in the street for an entire year before it has accumulated enough solar energy to drive the same distance as you can go on a single 15-gallon tank of gasoline. That's not that much: imagine a 15-gallon fish aquarium. Indicates typical size of 15-gallon aquarium with hands.

Fossil fuels are an amazing, magical substance. They are a gift from the past, created by nature over many millions of years. But right now, we are sucking these fossil fuels, this gift from the past, out of the earth at 10,000 times the rate they were created.2 What an act of greed! It's as if you got a present for your birthday, you unwrap it, it's chocolate! "Oh, chocolate, I love chocolate," you say, and you cram both of your hands in the box and stuff every single chocolate you can fit in your fists in your mouth and chew them up. Pantomimes doing this. But of course, if you eat chocolates like this, you will be punished. What's going to happen to you, if you stuff all those chocolates in your face at once? That's right, you'll get sick. And in the same way, climate change is the planet getting sick from our greedy consumption of fossil fuels.

How fossil fuels cause climate change

All fossil fuels, coal, oil, natural gas, are hydrocarbons. That is, they are made of chains of carbon with hydrogen attached. Burning these is combining them with oxygen in the air to form carbon dioxide and water. Combustion also causes other molecules to be formed in much smaller amounts, the ones we call "pollutants," like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and so forth. But these secondary molecules can all be reduced or eliminated by careful combustion or by taking them out of the exhaust stream. Carbon dioxide and water, on the other hand, are the two fundamental products of combustion. There is no getting around creating carbon dioxide and water when we burn fossil fuels.

Before 1800, that is before the industrial revolution was underway, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was approximately 280 ppm. Today, the level is 370 ppm. Even this is only a tiny fraction of what we could do to the atmosphere, because there are enough fossil fuels in the ground that if we burned them all we could increase the concentration up to ten times the pre-industrial level, nearly 3,000 ppm.

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Let's take a closer look at what's going on. This is the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide over the past 1,000 years, starting in AD 1000, the onset of the middle ages, and ending in AD 2000, roughly now. Look at this: for the 800 years following AD 1000, the level stays roughly constant at 280 ppm volume. But then around 1800, the beginning of the industrial revolution, the level suddenly starts increasing. Skyrocketing, actually. Right now the level is at 370 ppm, up here, above the top of the graph. I want to point out that there is no scientist anywhere who disputes the validity of the data that I am showing you. Not only that, there is no scientist anywhere who disputes that this exponential increase is due to human activity.

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Okay, now check this out. This is global average temperature, plotted over the same time scale. As you can see, same thing. Relatively stable, until 1900, 100 years after we've started elevating the carbon dioxide level, the temperature starts to climb up in the same, skyrocketing sort of way. Once again, there is no single scientist who challenges this data; the planet is warming, and that is a given. What some naysayers of climate change challenge, is the relationship between our carbon dioxide emissions and the increase in temperature. But does this look like a coincidence to you?

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In case that isn't convincing enough, take a look at this. Here we have both temperature and carbon dioxide concentration over the past half-million years or so. Just like in the last two graphs, the dark line is temperature, and the light line is carbon dioxide. There are two important things you can see in this graph. First of all, the correlation between temperature and carbon dioxide concentration is undeniable. You can see the Earth going through its natural warm and cold periods here, and whenever the temperature is high, the carbon dioxide is high; when the temperature is low the carbon dioxide is low. But there's an equally amazing thing to see in this graph. Look at the carbon dioxide level during each of the Earth's warm periods. Here it was about 300 ppm, here maybe 280, here 290. Now keep in mind that each tick mark on this graph spans 50,000 years, so the 200 years since the industrial revolution are just a blip on this graph. So right here, just before the industrial revolution, the carbon dioxide level was 280 ppm, its usual level during one of Earth's natural warm periods. Then in 200 years, we managed to elevate the level from 280 ppm to 370, all the way up here. This is far higher than any level we have seen in the past half million years! And on this geological time scale, you can see that what we are doing is for all practical purposes instantaneous. It is like hitting the atmosphere with a sledgehammer.

The precautionary principle

Okay. I want to change gears here for a moment and spend a little bit of time talking about something called the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle is nothing more than a basic piece of common sense that says, "If the possible consequences of a particular situation are sufficiently dire, then you rectify the situation even if the consequences are less than 100% likely." This is a principle applied every day in the courts, in the military and in medicine.

Let's take an example from medicine. Suppose you are a 50 year old man and you go to the doctor for a regular checkup. The doctor comes back to you and says, "We've found a polyp in your colon. The polyp may or may not be cancerous, in fact we think the chance of it being cancerous is about 10%. You have two choices. We can operate now and remove the polyp. If it was cancerous, then the operation will almost certainly have removed the cancer. On the other hand, we could wait a few years until we are absolutely certain that the polyp is cancerous. However, if we do that, there will really not be much use in operating anymore because by that time the cancer will have spread so far that you're going to die anyway. So which would you like to choose, operate now, or wait and see if you're going to die?"

This may sound absurd, but right now the world, and the United States in particular, is making a judgement call a thousand times more absurd than this.

The dire consequences of climate change

I'm sure most of you have heard the various predicted consequences of climate change: rising sea levels, desertification, migration of tropical diseases, species invasion. But there is a whole other set of consequences that are rarely talked about. These are the various "disaster scenarios." They are not talked about, because no one can prove that they are going to happen; we can only surmise that they might happen. Most of these disaster scenarios involve some sort of positive feedback loop, where a relatively small change in the global climate triggers a process leading to ever bigger changes in the climate, and consequently a runaway effect possibly capable, in the worst s cenarios, of exterminating the human race altogether. Let me give you a couple of examples.

One good example of a positive feedback loop is the polar ice caps. The ice caps are white, and reflect sunlight back into space. The sea or land under the icecaps is a much darker color, and absorbs the sunlight, which generates heat. Now as the climate warms, the ice caps are beginning to melt. But because the ice is melting, more and more sea and land are becoming exposed, and more and more sunlight is being absorbed instead of reflected. This causes the Earth's surface to become even warmer, which causes more ice to melt, thus exposing more land and sea, thus causing more sunlight to be absorbed, and so on and so on.

Another example is melting tundra. There is an enormous amount of dead organic matter, dead plants, animals and microbes, frozen in the world's tundras. As greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere and the planet warms, the tundras begin to melt. The dead organic matter will decay, emitting yet more carbon dioxide and, much worse, a huge amount of methane, a greenhouse gas that is pound for pound twenty one times as potent as carbon dioxide. So these additional greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere, causing more warming, causing more of the tundra to melt, releasing yet more greenhouse gases and so on and so forth.3

There are about a half dozen of these scenarios that have been documented in scientific literature. 4 Like I said, no one talks about them much because they can't be proven, and in our precautionary principle-ignorant culture anything that can't be proven is ignored as if it doesn't matter. But consider this. In 1992, Greenpeace surveyed 400 climate scientists, choosing only those that were serving on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or who had published work in the journals Nature or Science in the past year. In their informal poll, Greenpeace asked these climate scientists, if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at our present rate, did they think such a runaway disaster scenario could possible occur, would probably occur, or would probably not occur. Of the 113 who responded, 47% said "probably not." But 32% said that such an event could possibly occur, and 13% said it probably would occur.5 So of these professionals, nearly half believe that a runaway event is a reasonable possibility. And 13% believe that it is likely. 13%! That's bigger than the 10% probability of cancer I described in my medical example! Keep in mind, these are all active scientists, working in the field of climate change. A disaster scenario is a very real possibility. Climate change is serious, serious business.

The Kyoto Protocol

Fortunately, some people are taking this issue seriously. In 1997, an international meeting was held in Kyoto, Japan, at which an agreement was made to begin reducing emissions of greenhouse gases on a global scale. That agreement is known as the "Kyoto Protocol." The way the Kyoto Protocol works, is that each participating country is assigned a target reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, relative to the level they were emitting in 1990. The signing countries agree to meet those target reductions sometime between the years 2008 and 2012. The target reductions are assigned differently to the various countries involved, based on their economic strength. For instance, the United States' target is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 7% below their 1990 levels.

At the moment, the United States and 83 other countries have signed the Kyoto Protocol.6 But for the Kyoto Protocol to take effect, countries that signed the treaty have to ratify it as well. In the United States, ratification requires a 2/3 vote by the Senate. But the Senate has not ratified the treaty. And why hasn't the Senate acted on such an incredibly important issue? I will explain that in a moment, but first in order to understand why, we have to go back to the causes of climate change.

The Consumer Culture

So in the beginning of the lecture we talked about how climate change is mostly caused by the carbon dioxide that is emitted by burning fossil fuels. But why are we burning fossil fuels? Can some of you name some of things we do in the United States that burn gas, oil and coal? Discuss a few of these things. The fossil fuels we use are roughly equally divided between four uses. About one quarter of our fossil fuels are used for transportation, about a quarter for generating electricity, a quarter for heating homes and businesses, and the last quarter powers industrial processes.7 In other words, the United States' use of fossil fuels is a direct consequence of our consumer culture. We use fossil fuels for driving our cars, trucks, motorcycles and jet skis around, for heating our 3,000 square foot homes, for powering our millions and millions of computers, for running televisions, cell phones, hair dryers, clothes dryers, and for manufacturing countless battery operated, plastic toys for children and adults alike.

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Citizens of the United States are fossil fuel pigs. Take a look at this. These are the world's ten worst emitters of carbon dioxide. Look who is number one. It is the United States. And we are not even the largest country! Look, China and India, which are both far bigger than we are, emit way less carbon dioxide. In fact, let's take a look at a different graph, showing how much carbon dioxide each country emits per person.

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So this is a different set of countries, for this graph I chose the world's ten largest countries. I divided the total amount of carbon dioxide emissions from each country by the number of people in that country, to come up with a number for the quantity of carbon dioxide emissions that each person in the country is responsible for. Now you can see how incredibly damaging our lifestyle really is. None of these countries come anywhere near the U.S. in their per-capita emissions.

But the worst part of all this is that all of these [points to the third-world countries in the figure] countries perceive our lifestyle as wealthy. They want to copy it. They want to have our Coca Cola, our cars, our large houses, our TV, our McDonald's. Our destructive lifestyle is quickly getting exported to these countries.

Shirking responsibility

So, as not only the world's worst emitter of carbon dioxide, but also as a world cultural leader, don't you think that it would be the United States' responsibility to set an example for how to solve this problem? But no, the United States Senate has not only failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, they have actually passed a resolution, on a 95-0 vote, stating that they will not ratify the Kyoto Protocol or anything like it, unless the treaty handles developing countries equally to the United States.8 In other words, the Senate is demanding that these guys [points again to third-world countries in the figure] are punished equally to this guy [points to U.S. in the figure]. Now does that seem reasonable? The situation reminds me of when I was a kid, I shared my bedroom with my little brother Arnold. Every now and then my Mom would say, "Roel, go clean up your room!" and I would answer [arms akimbo and in a whiny voice] "I'm not going to clean up my half of the room until Arnold cleans up his half first!" This is literally how childish the United States' behavior on this subject is! And on the gravest issue imaginable! Unbelievable!

Now to understand why the Senate has been influenced this way, one only has to think about the connection to fossil fuels, which I have been harping on during this whole lecture. The fossil fuels industry spends millions and millions of dollars on lobbying activities in Washington DC, and on sponsoring politicians' reelection campaigns. You don't have to look very far to see their power. This resolution was sponsored by Senator Robert Byrd, of West Virginia. Does anyone know how they make their money in West Virginia? That's right, they mine coal.

What can be done about it

Okay, now this has been a pretty dark lecture so far but I wouldn't be here telling you about this if I didn't think that there was still hope to do something about it. Though we will never be able to get the carbon dioxide level back down to where it was before the Industrial Revolution started, we can still work to limit how high we drive it. We can choose some limiting value for how high we are willing to allow the carbon dioxide level to rise, and then work together to meet that level. The lower the level, the smaller the probability that we will trigger some sort of runaway, positive-feedback event.

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a number of carbon dioxide stabilization curves. These are basically prescriptions for leveling off our carbon dioxide concentration over the next 100 years or so. Here is the one for leveling off at 550 parts per million, or about twice the pre-industrial level. On the vertical axis we have the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted by humans into the atmosphere each year. Keep in mind, this is not atmospheric concentration, this is just the actual amount of CO2 that we create each year by burning fossil fuels. On the horizontal axis we have the years 2000 through 2100. This upper, fatter line is the so-called "Business-As-Usual" scenario. This is what the IPCC expects to happen if we just keep doing things the way we do, with no change in policy. The world's annual emissions of carbon dioxide just go up and up and up.

But if we want to limit the atmospheric concentration to 550 parts per million, we have to do what this lower curve prescribes. The world needs to stop increasing its annual CO2 output by around the year 2030, and then continue decreasing it from there for the rest of the century. Now a lot of the detractors of climate change like to say that doing anything about it will cause terrible damage to the U.S. economy. But I used to work as an engineer, and this graph to me looks like an amazing, fascinating engineering opportunity: put the entire planet on carbon-free energy generation before this century is out. What a wonderful focus for our industry and our economy this would be! The goal reminds me a lot of the Apollo program in the sixties. In 1961, John F. Kennedy said, we will put a man on the moon before this decade is out. And you know what, we did. And the Apollo program, costing billions upon billions of dollars, did not destroy our economy at all. Now it is time for a new, worldwide, Apollo program, but on a vastly larger scale, and for a vastly more important purpose than beating the Russkies to the moon.

Taking responsibility

Now despite our federal government being incapable of action, many state and local governments, and private corporations, are moving ahead without the federal government. These are local governments and companies that understand how serious this issue is, and who understand that we don't have time to wait around for George Bush and the U.S. Senate to change their minds about this. For example, the state of Massachusetts just unveiled new regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.9 The state of Oregon passed a law that essentially levies a carbon tax on new, natural gas-fired electric plants.10 The City of Seattle passed a resolution pledging to increase the municipal utility's electricity supply with no net increase in greenhouse gases.11 And British Petroleum, an oil company [gestures to dinosaur], has committed to reducing the greenhouse gases generated by its own everyday operations to 10% below 1990 levels by 2010,12 in a unilateral effort to meet targets similar to those imposed by the Kyoto protocol.

Governments and companies like these are forming a new and crucial movement, a movement that represents taking responsibility for our actions. A few moments ago I mentioned JFK and the Apollo program, an example of a concerted effort to reach a common goal in the 1960's. But in the 1960's there was another great movement going on as well: the civil rights movement. I would like to end my talk by quoting a leader from that movement, a man named Eldridge Cleaver. Eldridge Cleaver is credited with inventing the famous battle cry, "If you are not a part of the solution, then you are a part of the problem." And when it comes to climate change, as an American, [points again to huge U.S. per-capita CO2 output in the second-to-last figure], you are a part of the problem, until you become a part of the solution.

Thank you.

Last Modified on September 12, 2003.

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