July 2018

The Coming of the Reaper

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Pedaling on Clay Creek Drive a week ago, along the field, I caught a flash of yellow in the corner of my eye and turned to see a bobolink perched on a stalk in full-throated glory. He’s jet black with white shoulders and back, and a brilliant yellow cap. He nests with his mate in the tall grass of the hay field. If they are quick about it, they will fledge their family before the farmer comes for the hay. And this bobolink is precious, strutting his stuff as only the beautiful can, blissfully unaware of politics in Washington, refugees in the Middle East, and the coming of the hay reaper. Then again, he’s a bird brain.

In the broader world, it’s a year now since the U.S. withdrew from the Paris climate accords. And as I write, President Trump is ordering the Energy Department to “stop the further premature retirements…” of coal-fueled power plants. Therein lies a problem, a threat every bit as real as methane to the canary in the mine. As my brother, an MIT environmental professor, pointed out to me, the French scientist Thomas Fourier postulated as early as 1827 that the earth’s atmosphere could have a warming, greenhouse effect on atmospheric temperatures. In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius quantified that effect, understanding specifically the warming caused by additional atmospheric carbon dioxide. In over 40 pages of painstaking hand calculations, Arrhenius showed that, for example, a 50% increase in carbon dioxide would raise average temperatures 3.1 to 3.8 degrees Centigrade. Since the industrial revolution, with the consumption of fossil fuels, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen from 280 to 400 parts per million and those concentrations continue to spike. The rise in global temperatures has followed Arrhenius’s prediction with remarkable accuracy.

There is an obvious take away from this, as we hear about ice caps melting, the release of methane from the permafrost, the rise of sea levels, the increased volatility of storms, the danger to large areas of the arable land that feed us. The world at large, in the Paris Accords, took an important first step to reducing reliance on carbon-based fuels. European countries, such as Denmark, now generate a large percentage of electricity from wind and other solar power sources. The technology to meet our power needs with a minimized “carbon footprint” already exists. What is missing is the political will, the public demand, to make the change. It may be too late if one waits until the canary is dead.

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