Wednesday, July 4, 2012
Today's Climate Blather
One of the perks of my job is getting a daily bird's-eye view (or, if you prefer, a god's-eye view) of the world. Today's flight was between two of the country's largest metropolitan areas, with an overflight of a third thrown in for good measure. The flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to the East Los Angeles suburb of Ontario takes just under three hours, and we pass over Phoenix (among other places) along the way. We blast off from one of the country's biggest airports, located in the center of one of the country's biggest metropolitan concentrations, and head West to another. The thought for the day is to contemplate just how much petroleum we use to make our world go round. It was the brain-melting heat in Dallas in July that put me in this frame of mind. I have long been aware of how much energy we expend up North to keep ourselves comfortable during the winter months, but today was the first time I wondered whether it didn't require even more energy to keep everybody in Dallas cool for much of the year. However it stacks up, an amount of energy grasped by almost none of us, I bet, is consumed running millions of air conditioning units just in Dallas alone, to say nothing of the tens of millions of people living between the air conditioned folks in DFW and those in L.A. To see greater L.A. from 20,000 feet up is to grasp an extent and density of people that is otherwise quite beyond a human's grasp. It stretches for tens of miles in every direction, all tightly packed (the DFW metro area hardly seems less extensive). And the ring of mountains surrounding the metro area pounds home the energy aspect of our lifestyle. The L.A. basin collects the exhausts of human habitation and lets us fester in it, something that is discernible on the ground (with reduced straight-line visibility) and glaringly obvious from the air. We might typically be established on final for landing, only a couple thousand feet up, and have no visual contact with the ground below us. As we descend for landing, the tight weave of roads and streets and railroads and businesses and housing emerges from the smog, slowly coming into focus. If the sun is in our eyes, we may see very little until a few seconds before touchdown (apart from the peaks of the San Gabriel mountains poking up through the murk). And when we can see? Everything imaginable--cars and trucks and trains and houses and apartment buildings and so on, numbering in the millions--in unfathomable proliferation. And none of it works without a tank of gasoline--sometimes, like my airplane, a very large tank. Our final descent for 26L in Ontario overflies several miles of warehouses--Ontario seems a very industrial place. Hundreds of warehouses, each surrounded by a few or a few dozen semi trailers, testify to our almost bottomless need for energy. The roadways--in L.A. and DFW both--are eight and ten and 12 lanes wide and packed bumper-to-bumper. And, of course, both airports have a steady stream of large aircraft coming and going. (Ontario is a mid-sized airport, but DFW is something to behold, a vast expanse of concrete and terminals with thousands of operations every day.) This is what I see with my god's-eye view. So much of what marks our presence in the universe, so much of we have accomplished as a species, involves the strategic expenditure of energy. Our history shows this rapid advance: the taming of fire, the discovery and use of coal, of petroleum, of nuclear energy. Steam power, geothermal power, wind and solar; these are all means of getting more and more work done. Lately we're experiencing a period of extraordinary heat, and at least a couple news sources have given up trying to be coy about discussing this heat in terms of global warming. Climate change has been carefully crafted into a sensitive topic in the past 20 years--and in the past five especially. It's more accurate to say an audience hostile to the concept has been carefully crafted. The oil and gas industries--through people like the vile Koch Brothers--have spent millions to misinform and intentionally mislead people and to make our energy future a political football. It's a separate discussion about how they've gone about this campaign of misinformation, and about what alignment of planets must occur to prepare so many people to absorb and spread such a counter-productive message (and how they've done that too, that alignment of planets). There are plenty of folks with their eyes open doing just such an analysis, people who can offer more than my incredulity to the discussion. But just looking out my window during this rare daylight leg today drives home how stupid and manipulative and untenable it is to claim there is no downside to our consumption of fossil fuels--a consumption that far exceeds our intuitions about the matter. Obama, parroting the expressed desires of the people who put him in office (whatever his personal views), has again and again stated the need for our country to commit to developing alternative means of powering our stuff. This seems no more than common sense to me, though it goes against the corporate agendas who control our news and information, entities who have huge financial skin in the game. Because of this, alternative energy is "controversial." Looking out my window--at two or three cities in one country with a fraction of a percent of the world's population--it doesn't seem in the least controversial. On the contrary, it seems we're perhaps catastrophically slow to respond to the obvious.