Carbon and more carbon


(Bret Hartman / FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

[A quick note before I dash off for marathon interviews.]

Flew in Friday night late to Los Angeles, and as always I found the view from the plane to be awesome and vaguely terrifying. It’s such a sprawling metropolis. A marine layer had enfogged much of the basin, and that layer of moisture glowed, lit from below, looking organic, like something cultured in a Petri dish. Then when you hit the ground, and explore a bit, and walk around amid the vegetation off the beaten path, you discover the whole place is pretty close to being a desert. How can millions of people survive here? One thinks of the plumbing, the heroic aqueducts, and the movie “Chinatown.” Water from distant mountains somehow finds its way to the lawns of Pasadena.

But the place on its face does not radiate sustainability.

Steve Mufson has an ominous piece today about a new report saying that the steady rise in CO2 emissions, much of it driven by China, is putting us on a trajectory for a 9 degree C. increase in global surface temperatures. That’s the outcome we don’t want! We can handle 2 degrees or so. You get up to numbers like 9 and all bets are off. The U.S. is seeing a drop in emissions, as is Europe, but China’s economic growth and its reliance on coal-powered electricity more than makes up for the modest improvements in the West. (Obviously per capita we still emit far more CO2.) This is a tough nut to crack because energy, and specifically hydrocarbon-based energy, is so basic to our lives. Fossilized sunshine packs a powerful punch. The big news out here is that the San Onofre nuclear plant is shutting down. It’s old, and needed expensive repairs. It was time for it to go. But that single plant produced close to 10 percent of California’s electricity, if I’m not mistaken (someone correct me if I’m wrong). When you drive past San Onofre, as I did this weekend, you see multiple high-voltage transmission lines crossing I-5 and disappearing in the hills. That’s a huge source of energy being removed from the grid here. California is making big strides, however, with renewable energy. There’s a massive solar array going up in the Mojave, and it’ll be utility-scale solar energy. In the meantime, this summer could see blackouts, potentially, and a lot of enforced energy conservation. Start charging your batteries now, is my advice.

I spend a lot of time wondering how it will play out — the whole grand human experiment, the efflorescence of the technological species, the mastery of fire and all that followed. The planet is now occupied by 7 billion human beings, and that number is going to 9 billion in the next few decades, ensuring convergent challenges of food, energy and water, on a warming world with residual medieval tensions, pockets of fanaticism, broad inequality, loss of biodiversity, and so on. There are times when it seems hopeless.

In general, though, I think civilization has a knack for figuring things out, and adapting. Maybe that’s naive. Maybe that’s too trusting. At heart I’m an old-fashioned believer in Progress, still, despite contradictory data-points and all the challenges of the modern world. When people tell me about some concern they have about their kids, I say, “Believe in them.” And I try to believe in civilization, too. I try.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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