John Mitchell, San Juan Capistrano

There can be no doubt climate change is real. One only has to look at North American glaciers—most are receding and have been doing so for many years prior to the relatively recent increase in CO2. At the Athabasca Glacier in Alberta, there are markers on the walkway from the parking lot showing the location of the receding face for about the last 80 years.

Climate is clearly a cyclical phenomenon. Twelve thousand or so years ago, Chicago was under approximately 1,000 feet of ice from the glacier that carved the great lakes. Cleveland, Buffalo and New York City were, too. Boulders in Central Park were an early gift from Canada shoved there by the advancing glacier. If you know what you are looking for, the glacial moraine is visible in the drive to JFK Airport.

Vikings colonized North America in the tenth century in a place they called Greenland. They lived and survived on locally grown crops for about 500 years. Paintings in European museums clearly show colder conditions in the 16th and 17th centuries than exist today. Colder conditions forced the Vikings from Greenland.

The carbon capture and release cycle cited as a cause for climate change is a natural cycle. Carbon released by many sources is essential for plant and sea life and rock formation where it is absorbed to be recycled. In fact, increasing levels of CO2 accelerate plant growth. While humans are certainly altering the rates of both release and absorption, we are not creating or destroying carbon. The carbon inventory originated within an earlier star.

There are three essential questions pertaining to climate change: What is the percentage of human-caused climate change within a natural cycle? Is this a danger? And are there realistic and feasible objectives to reduce manmade contribution short of returning to rather brutal living conditions prior to the industrial revolution?

Answers and solutions are not aided by pejoratives such as denier and conspiracy. People who are willing to listen are forced into extreme camps—you are either a true believer or not. As in so many instances the real answer likely resides somewhere in the middle. Improving energy efficiency is good; attempting to dramatically alter the energy production mix by statute before the technology is proven and the effects clear is likely not so good.

The population of North America at the turn of the 16th century is estimated to be between 5 and 20 million, certainly living without any appreciable use of fossil fuels. Today, the population of the same approximate area is something over 400 million, largely relying on fossil fuels for energy and economic success. The energy to sustain civilization and allow poorer parts of the world to elevate living standards is likely to remain based on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

The dream of a civilization independent of fossil fuels with current or anticipated technology would require a significant reduction in some combination of population and/or living standards. Even assuming that 50 percent of current energy needs could be replaced by sustainable sources, dramatic changes would be required to attain the objective.

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  • John, you said “There can be no doubt climate change is real. One only has to look at North American glaciers—most are receding and have been doing so for many years prior to the relatively recent increase in CO2.,” but then you close with “The dream of a civilization independent of fossil fuels with current or anticipated technology would require a significant reduction in some combination of population and/or living standards.” This sounds more like a defeatist attitude that can only support our fears. What you seem to be saying is “The human population of Earth is in a No-Exit dilemma. There is no viable or satisfactory solution to our problem – neither technology nor cultural adaption can help us – so stop trying to force your doom and gloom scenario on the rest of us.”

    You mention receding glaciers, the cyclic nature of climate, and the carbon and release cycle as natural phenomenon. I agree with you. Over the past few million years Milankovitch cycles, named after Serbian geophysicist and astronomer Milutin Milankovitch, have served as the pacemaker for the glacial-interglacial cycles over the Quaternary (roughly the last two and a half million years of Earth’s history).

    For the past 800,000 years atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) has averaged 280 parts per million (ppm). Homo sapiens arrived here about 300,000 years ago, followed by civilization about 12,000 years ago. During this time atmospheric CO2 remained relatively stable, thanks to the natural CO2 sinks – the oceans, plants and other organisms that use photosynthesis to remove carbon from the atmosphere by incorporating it into biomass. These natural CO2 sinks removed about the same quantity of CO2 from the atmosphere, maintaining a safe balance, so that life prospered. But, then, the Industrial Age arrived in 1750 C.E., and we upset the apple cart.

    In 1750 C.E. we started digging up coal, carbon that had been sequestered in the ground for millions of years. As we began to burn it in order to warm and light our homes, we began to muck up our atmosphere. Next came the discovery of oil and natural gas, and the energy race was on.

    As the demand for coal, oil and gas intensified, we released more and more CO2 back into the environment, exceeding the ability of the natural carbon sinks to maintain equilibrium. The result has been an exponential increase in atmospheric CO2, from 280 ppm to 409.65 in May of this year, an increase of 129.65 ppm over above the natural level that existed for hundreds of thousands of years before humans arrived.

    Atmospheric CO2 levels have increased about 45 percent, since the beginning of the Industrial Age, which is causing a gradual warming of the planet. As the planet warms, we are witnesses to a gradual break up of ice shelves, collapse of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and an accelerated collapse of glaciers originally held back by the ice shelves, resulting in a rise in sea level.

    This extra CO2 needs to go somewhere. Land plants and the ocean take up about 55 percent of the extra CO2 people have put into the atmosphere while about 45 percent has stayed in the atmosphere. Eventually, the land and oceans will take up most of the extra CO2, but as much as 20 percent may remain in the atmosphere for many thousands of years.

    Side effects of climate change include an increase in storm severity, ocean acidification, flooding, extreme heat waves, drought and wild fires.

    Ocean acidification has a dramatic effect on some calcifying species, including oysters, clams, sea urchins, shallow water corals, deep sea corals, and calcareous plankton. When shelled organisms are at risk, the entire food web may also be at risk.

    The risk of wildfires increases exponentially during extended heat waves and droughts, and they also release CO2, one of the main drivers of climate change, and reduce the number of trees available to absorb CO2, a double whammy for the atmosphere.

    In the words of the crew of Apollo 13, “Houston, we have a problem.”

    You closed your essay with “The dream of a civilization independent of fossil fuels with current or anticipated technology would require a significant reduction in some combination of population and/or living standards.”

    On this point I have to respectfully disagree.

    The question John, is how far are you willing to go to save the planet for future generations.

    The people of Denmark walk, ride bicycles and rely on mass transit. If they own a car, it is usually an electric car. Would you be willing to adopt any of the above to meet your transportation needs?

    In order to reduce greenhouse gases the City of Sebastopol adopted a solar ordinance effecting commercial or residential buildings, and specific alterations, additions and remodels require the installation of a photovoltaic energy generation system.

    Instead of relying on fossil fuels, what if we powered our huge ocean going freighters with fuel cell powered electric engines. The same with our 18-wheel freight trucks, train locomotives and mass transit.

    We need to develop programs to motivate and help consumers to transition too electric or fuel celled powered vehicles.

    So, the real question John, is are you willing to get involved and help save the future? You have a choice, be part of the solution or be part of the problem.

    Which will it be?

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