Tipping Points

Debate on climate change has been shifting from one on whether humans are responsible for global warming to one on whether there’s anything we can do about it. The Washington Post:

Now that most scientists agree human activity is causing Earth to warm, the central debate has shifted to whether climate change is progressing so rapidly that, within decades, humans may be helpless to slow or reverse the trend. … There are three specific events that these scientists describe as especially worrisome and potentially imminent: … widespread coral bleaching that could damage the world’s fisheries within three decades; dramatic sea level rise by the end of the century that would take tens of thousands of years to reverse; and, within 200 years, a shutdown of the ocean current that moderates temperatures in northern Europe. The debate has been intensifying because Earth is warming much faster than some researchers had predicted.

Meanwhile, one of the few things that could force us to significantly decrease our oil dependence — scarcity of the stuff — is being rapidly nullified by the increasing feasibility of mining Canadian oil sands. The politics of oil may change from U.S.-Middle East to U.S.-Canada. The “keep driving!” message sent by the push to move oil extraction from Iraq to Canada isn’t going to do the world’s oceans any good. And when the oceans fail, we all fall down.

The other meanwhile: Environmentalists are having a hard time convincing American consumers that maybe they don’t need to be wiping their noses (and booties) with virgin timber. This one has always baffled me — why would anyone even consider buying non-recycled personal tissue? But not only do people consider it, they insist on it (except for Germans, who are for some reason driven by common sense).

Music: The Roches :: Nurds

12 Replies to “Tipping Points”

  1. I used to buy toilet paper made from recycled paper (recycled toilet paper just sounds bad). I was informed at the time by my future spouse that it entirely too rough for use by delicate female hineys, end quote. The reason people don’t use recycled tissue and TP in this country is it’s really poorly made, and more expensive than the new-fiber stuff. Great idea, poor execution, dismal economics. In any case, wood is a renewable resource. Most wood available today comes from farmed pine (which is why it sucks for building.) What’s the problem?


  2. re: keep driving.

    Scot, I live in the great flyover – large expanses of country with a somewhat low population density. There is little public transportation system that works out here, because by their nature public transportation systems are limited to the trunk and leaf model.

    In the part of the Bay Area where you live, public transport works, but even if you go down to Silicon Valley you run into the same problem we have out here. We’re all going different places, in different directions at different times. Driving IS the most efficient way to get there. This is not to say that driving one’s Yukon Behemoth SUV is efficient, only that individual, self addressing, self routing packets (cars,bicycles, scooters, etc) are the most efficient many to many networking solution.

    The solution here is to make *cars* more efficient and environmental, not to rail against the fact that people drive them.


  3. I would be a Green party member full fledged. I would be. I hate that the democrats don’t represent a true alternative to business driven politics. I hate that NO ONE in EITHER party is truly addressing the biggest issue of the next 20 years: energy. One could argue it already is. Iraq war, terrorism, our huge debt are all tied to energy directly or indirectly. So why am I not supporting the Green party? The Green party is anti-nuclear. I hate to say it but nuclear is really the only large-scale solution to our energy needs. And it is actually fairly clean. Yes you have to be careful with the stuff but frankly nuclear problems are solvable. Solar and wind can help but they are not total solutions. Even if you could build wind and solar arrays big enough for our needs, guess what? They would change the environment. Paneling death valley would cause it to rain there and wind power on the large scale shifts wind patterns. Both are best at spot duty or at the 5 – 10% contribution range. Hydrogen is a battery not a solution. Environmentalists did a number on nuclear in both the US and Europe and it hasn’t been developed as it should have been as a result. Better start getting people working on nuclear and getting off of burning fuels ASAP. For what it is worth, I am a PhD physicist. Every other one I know agrees for the most part. Many of us also think the damage is irreparable. Doesn’t mean the end of the world, it just means we have changed the environment permanently. Incidentally, if you are curious as to how serious a problem this is, you would have to build one nuclear plant per week roughly for the next 25 years to totally replace fossil fuel consumption in the USA. And this is the source of energy that would most easily replace the current system with current technology. Pretty daunting.

  4. Jim –

    According to the NRDC,

    “These companies rely on virgin fiber from the Canadian boreal forest, as well as from the biologically sterile tree plantations that are quickly taking the place of species-rich U.S. forests, especially those in the Southeast.”

    So it’s a combination of both forest fiber and plantation fiber, but the point being made in that paragraph is that even if it comes from a plantation, that plantation is a sterile environment that has taken the place of a rich natural environment.

    Also, read the sfgate piece linked to in the post — most people doing the side-by-side comparison could barely tell the difference between virgin and recycled tissue products. And I don’t know why Germans would be OK with it on their hinies while Americans would not be.

  5. Cars:

    Hey, I never railed against people who drive cars! We own a car, and we drive it. They’re absolutely the quickest way to get most places. Even though there’s plenty of public transportation here in the Bay Area, there are still plenty of trips that are quicker by car. There are days when I’m tired or in a rush and would *love* to be driving to work rather than doing the walk-BART-walk thing, or biking. I could cut my daily commute from 30-40 minutes each way down to 15-20 minutes (but then I wouldn’t get to enjoy my podcasts, and would lose my only remaining lifeline to excercise).

    But the point is, we *are* at a tipping point. On the brink of no return, if not already past it. We *have* to do something, and something big. Less-populated areas *have* to start taking public transportation seriously. And once it’s in place, people have to start changing their habits, or we’re all sunk.

    Cars aren’t going to go away (not even I would want them to), but we do need to greatly reduce their numbers, and to make them much more fuel- and enviro-efficient, as you say. Even if all vehicles became twice as fuel efficient overnight, we’d still have the problems created by their sheer numbers — traffic congestion, and the general paving-over of the world.

    The point is, the status quo can’t continue. Making cars more efficient is critical, but it’s not the whole solution. I’m not railing against people who drive cars, I’m making a point about the fact (yes, fact) that there isn’t going to be an environment left if we keep going the way we are. Something’s gotta give, and fast (not that I expect it to).

  6. re: toiletpaper. It may well be that recycled TP and kleenex have gotten better since the early 1990s. One would expect so, at least. I was not aware that virgin wild timber was being used for them, and I would certainly (without outside corroboration) take anything the NRDC says with a certain amount of salt, as I’ve read the rather rabid material they mail me as they beg for my cash. Geez, the ACLU pimps your name to just about everyone. Almost as bad as the NRA. Anyway, there is still the matter of economics. As for the Germans’ greater tolerance for ‘John Wayne’ toilet paper? Insert German stereotype joke here. :) Realistically they may not have a choice in the matter. deforestation was a problem in Europe before the United States even had White people. It may and probably does come down to what you’re used to. By the way, I don’t see how you can call farmland sterile. It’s anything but. As we progress in farming to sustain the human population, it is inevitable we will turn more and more land to farmland. This is a problem that will solve itself as nations and peoples continue to advance out of traditional third world status and advance into second and first world status, where birthrates are well below replacement. The old saw went, if you want peace, work for justice. Likewise, if you want biodiversity, then work to elevate the status of your fellow man (and especially woman) so the monoculture of humanity and the monocultures humanity uses to sustain itself need not spread.

    As for cars and public transportation, I fear I wasn’t clear. There are two gross inefficiencies in public transport in a many to many commute. The first is time. A three hour commute each way is not *time* efficient, and the economic cost of wasting six hours of your day, every work day, can only be guessed at. One would expect an even more convenience-disposable economic response which IMHO would be an environmental disaster.

    The second is fuel. Public transportation is a fuel-efficent way to transport people ONLY when it is, let’s say, more than half full. We’re probably being generous here, but let’s assume that a city bus’s fuel cost per passenger per mile beats the average hybrid car’s when the bus is half full or more. (I think this is fair, since the bus cannot be routed as directly as the car, and the passenger has to take more bus miles as a result.) In lower population densities, finding half a busload of people going the same place at the same time is harder than you’d think. If it were easy or practical there is already sufficient economic pressure that the bus service would exist.

    All you would accomplish by building a public transportation system where I live is giving lots of money to favored contractors, creating a continuing government expense with its increased taxes and bureaucracy, and spewing *more* carbon into the air from this installed base of vehicles that is now too expensive to replace when better technology comes along. Did I mention they’re doing all of the above in Denver, which is not far from where I live? Did I need to?

    You can’t force people to live in certain areas to work certain jobs. Not in this country, at any rate. You can’t even force employers to keep the same hours so everyone can work at the same time and concentrate your commuters to optimize for public transport. If you had that kind of control, you’d force employers to let people work from home and fix the whole commute problem for millions of people.

    So okay, how do you fix the problem? Let’s identify it first. IMHO, the problem comes from two factors. First, we in America (in particular) are not bearing the full cost of fossil fuel. We are subsidizing it with our taxes where we pay for our military to strongarm others out of it. We are subsidizing it with our taxes and peoples’ livelihoods where we allow tankers through fisheries to carry it. We are subsidizing it with our health where we breathe the smog in big cities. And of course, we are subsidizing it with the health of our biosphere *AS IT SUSTAINS OUR SPECIES* by continuing to warm the planet with no real understanding of what will happen when we do. So. The first solution? Tax on fuel. BIG tax on fuel. Get rid of SUV’s? Nah, if you can afford to drive one with $5.00/gallon (in 2006 dollars, no cheating and inflating the currency) gasoline, knock yourself out. But rising economic pressure on fuel will force capital into R&D for alternatives. Do the same thing for coal, by the by, and you’ll be amazed how fast nukes become palatable again.

    Once you have economic pressure for small, efficient cars, mind their evolution. Fund R&D on the really clean options, like electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars. Don’t fund the options that are stupid, wasteful, or ecologically unsound. Keep the funding coming to make sure the new generation of cars is recyclable.

    And by the by. Never *ever* buy into the idea that saving the ecosphere of this planet as we know it is anything but self-interest for humans. The planet has changed temperatures and atmospheric contents many times over the eons, and life has continued right along. Whether the resulting new ecosphere will sustain *our* lives is an entirely different question, and much more concerning.

    Anyway. I’ve made this comment far too long already. Thanks for reading if you’ve gotten this far. :) -Jim

  7. The politics of oil may change from U.S.-Middle East to U.S.-Canada.

    Uhhhh ….

    Canada has been the primary source of US imported oil for a few years. See this link.

    In 2002, Canada led the world in our sources of imports, at 17%, with Saudi Arabia (13.7%), Mexico (13.5%), and Venezuela (12%) in a virtual three-way tie for second. The year before the percentages were Canada – 15.4%, Saudi Arabia – 14%, Venezuela – 13%, and Mexico – 12.1%. Canada has been the leader since at least 2001. In 2002, US imports from the Persian Gulf region amounted to 19.8 percent of our total imports.

    The idea that the US is primarily dependent on Middle East oil imports is a myth. What we are dependent on is Middle East production to keep the market stable. As is every other oil-importing nation on the planet.

  8. By the way, I don’t see how you can call farmland sterile. It’s anything but. As we progress in farming to sustain the human population, it is inevitable we will turn more and more land to farmland.

    Jim, we’re talking here not about farms, but about the sterile forests that timber companies put in place of original growth forests. But as for farms, the opposite is true — as technology progresses and populations increase, the amount of farmland decreases drastically. The percentage of farmed land in the U.S. has dropped precipitously over the last century. And the farms that remain are factory farms, radically different from farms of yore, and very, very sterile by old standards. Do some reading on “factory farming” for the bigger picture there. Or read some of Michael Pollan’s books.

    No doubt the efficiency/sensibility of public transport is based both on population density and on the willingness of the public to use it. And that willingness is based on whether it will get people to their destinations faster or more comfortably than car travel. Ironically, public transport is usually only faster where there is huge traffic congestion.

    Let’s not assume that buses are the only way to skin the cat – electric light-rail trains are going to yield higher eco-efficiency where feasible.

    Denver is a major metropolis, not a far-out yokel town. And there’s also the “build it and they will come” intention, which doesn’t always play out, but you have to start somewhere.

    I agree with the rest of your comment :)

  9. Mnep: Very interesting that Canada has been a major supplier for a while – I had no idea. Makes it doubly interesting that all the recent press on Canada’s oil sands spins the angle that Canada “could become” the dominant force in oil supply. Myths die hard.

  10. Mark me down as another “pro-nuke” progressive type :) And before anyone goes off on how dangerous the waste from a nuclear plant is (yes, we know it is) – consider pebble bed reactors.

    Yes, I know they’re not the most efficient type, but I’d seriously consider trading a bit of inefficiency in exchange for the considerable safety of the design…

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