Beginning To See the Light

Illustration by
Dana Collins

You think you’re hot? You’re not. Not as hot as you’re going to get . . . The reports aren’t in for 2001, but last year was the fifth hottest one since the invention of the thermometer. 1998 was the hottest year ever recorded on Earth — perhaps the hottest year of the millennium. Before ’98 took the blue ribbon for blistering heat, the champion was ’97. Before that it was ’95. Before that it was ’90. Get the idea? Things are heating up.

“So what?” you think as you cruise along PCH in your 2002 Cadillac Escalade, windows down, a/c pumping, bass bumping, 345 horses burning 16 sweet freeway miles per gallon, the Pacific shimmering in the summer sun.

Well, think about this: Venus. No, not Botticelli’s nude in the clamshell, our closest planetary neighbor. Venus is about Earth’s size, and only slightly closer to the sun. Initial estimates figured the surface would be a balmy 152 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, science fiction in the ’30s and ’40s was full of expeditions to Venus. That was before the Soviet Venera lander broke through the clouds and promptly melted into a puddle. You see, Venus has something called the greenhouse effect. The atmosphere has an extremely high carbon-dioxide content (CO2) that allows solar energy (sunlight) in, but doesn’t allow thermal energy (heat) out. Kind of like a . . . greenhouse. The result: The surface of Venus is about 872 degrees F! Lead, dear reader, melts on Venus. It wasn’t always so damn hot. NASA believes that there was probably water on Venus at some point, oceans even. But as the greenhouse effect increased, those oceans just boiled away.

Oh, as you probably know, we Earthlings have a greenhouse effect all our own, and it is growing stronger every year.

Pre–Industrial Age Earth had 280 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Now we are past 360 ppm and climbing, and the heat records keep getting broken. The Earth’s temperature rose 1 degree F over the last hundred years. Several new studies — including a joint study by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and NASA — predict that the Earth’s temperature will rise 6 to 10 degrees in the next 80 years. To put that in perspective, during the last Ice Age, Earth was about 5 degrees colder than it is now.

Where do the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases come from? There are a lot of sources: factories, cow farts, volcanoes, logged trees and you. During your two-gallon drive from Santa Monica to Malibu and back, you put another 10 pounds of carbon into the air — carbon that bonds with oxygen to generate almost 40 pounds (40!) of carbon dioxide.

Yeah, thanks a lot.

Earth’s greenhouse effect isn’t going to melt metal anytime soon. There are easier targets — ice, for example. Last August, The New York Times broke the astonishing news: The North Pole had melted. A mile-wide swath around the Arctic Pole was a sea. The last time such an event had occurred was 55 million years ago in the Eocene epoch. The South Pole has also been feeling the heat. Last February, a piece of ice got some attention when it broke away from Antarctica and floated off into the ocean. That “piece” was over 100 miles long and 30 miles wide.

While melting ice is bad news for Santa and penguins, it is a death knell for many Pacific Islanders. Three entire South Pacific countries are expected to be wiped off the map this century by ascending ocean water, which, according to some studies, will rise as much as 11.5 feet by 2100 (EPA’s highest estimate). The remaining islands will be battered by the worst hurricanes ever recorded, and their fresh water will be inundated with salt, destroying the island’s crops. The city of Miami would also be submerged should ocean levels rise that high, according to a recent Time magazine special on the effects of global warming. The Everglades would also be swamped with ocean water, the salt killing the unique ecosystem.

Global warming has its sweaty fingers in just about everything. Climate, after all, is everywhere. A report by the World Wildlife Fund claims that as much as one-third of the species and habitats of 13 states could be destroyed by global warming. Another report suggests that mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria will become much more widespread. A United Nations report estimates global warming–related damage will cost $300 billion over the next 50 years. One historian, David Keys, estimates that global warming has resulted in 100,000 deaths in the last three years from floods, hurricanes, famines and all the other increasingly common natural disasters.

With all this death and disaster looming on the horizon, it is easy to ask the question: Isn’t our government doing something about it? With George the Second in the Oval Office, the answer is a resounding no. On the contrary, like an impatient child at the thermostat, he seems eager to hurry up the warming process. Even if it was insufficient, the Kyoto Protocol was trying to do the right thing — get this greenhouse-effect thang under control. Now that the president has refused to honor the Kyoto treaty outright because he is “worried about the economy” (over 100 countries signed the treaty), you have to wonder who is going to do something about this mess.

How about YOU, for starters? (If it helps, imagine an Uncle Sam–style Earth jabbing a finger at you.) That’s right. Did you think you — still cruising this whole time — had been forgotten? Uh-uh. Because with oil men in the White House, you may be one of the best chances we’ve got.

In the summer of ’99, California’s energy situation was similar. Demand was sky-high, and the utilities were buying off the spot market. One major difference between then and now is that California was bailed out by hydroelectric power from Northern California, Oregon and Washington. Now the Pacific Northwest is in drought. Recently Seattle has received less rainfall than California. Dry winters aren’t unheard-of, but usually mountain icecaps act as a buffer as the runoff fills the rivers and reservoirs. This year, the snow pack on the Sierra Nevadas is 60 percent of normal. A spokesperson for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. calls it “a blow from Mother Nature.”

In reality, it is a blow against Mother Nature. The same greenhouse heat cooking up the Pacific Northwest’s mountains is melting 75 percent of the icecap of Kilimanjaro and could, in another 70 years, completely eliminate the “glacier” in Montana’s Glacier National Park. No ice equals no water. No water equals no power. As far as hydropower goes, global warming is one major factor in the ä California energy crisis.

Ironically, George and Dick seem eager to point to California as a reason to give up on cutting carbon emissions. “Without a clear, coherent energy strategy, all Americans could one day go through what Californians are experiencing now, or worse,” the V.P. said in April. That “strategy” means building dozens of carbon-belching coal plants and drilling for oil in protected areas of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Cheney rejected both the idea that conservation could be part of an energy policy and the notion that we should “do more with less” as being dated ideologies. On that point, he seems to be thinking like most Americans. Gas mileage hasn’t been so high in the United States since 1980. SUVs, as you know, are more popular than ever. Though we account for only 4 percent of the global population, the U.S. churns out 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases.

According to a report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, if the average U.S. automobile got 35 miles per gallon — instead of the current average of 24 mpg — we would consume 1.5 million less barrels of oil a day. That’s almost three times the 580,000 barrels expected from drilling in the Alaskan refuge.


Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to stop pumping so much carbon into the air.

(Mission Impossible isn’t a bad analogy to fighting the greenhouse problem; getting over our culture’s addiction to fossil fuels will be a bigger headache than kicking cigarettes. Perhaps that’s why so many people pretend that global warming, like addiction, doesn’t exist.)


First: Scrap the Caddy. The Escalade gets a U.S. EPA–estimated 16 miles per gallon. Maybe you can afford today’s gas prices. So what? The thing is still vulgar. The currently available Honda Insight, on the other hand, one of the several first-generation hybrid cars featuring both an electric and a gas engine, gets an EPA-estimated 68 highway miles per gallon. One gallon of gas weighs only 6 pounds, but when it is burned in a car engine, it combines with oxygen to create 20 pounds of CO2. In the long run, that means that for every 10 miles per gallon more efficient your car is, you keep 2,500 pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere annually. Think about it. By switching from Escalade (or most other SUVs) to Insight, you would keep over 12,500 pounds of CO2 from heating up the greenhouse each year.

Next: Turn off the a/c.

Then: Turn off the lights. (Your standard 60-watt bulb puts 3.3 pounds of CO2 into the air per day.) Go outside or open a window. If you must use lights, use fluorescents or other Green bulbs.

Wash your dishes by hand. Same goes for clothes.

Turn off unused appliances.

And so on.

(A Web site worth checking out: It has a nifty calculator that tells you how much carbon dioxide you emit each year.)

And so forth.

Maybe the estimated 34 days of summer blackouts will teach us how to fix an energy crisis — a crisis that more power plants won’t solve.