I don't know about you, but this wretched summer has burned the climate change denier right out of me, and just in the nick of time, too. Apparently, skeptics who question whether anthropogenic global warming causes more intense hurricanes and heat waves are killing us and should be locked up. They are also -- according to Stevie Wonder, the Pope and numerous other celebrities and authorities -- stupid.
In the past, I might have rushed to defend climate change deniers from such attacks, if only because I strive to consider all sides of any debate. But not after this scorching summer.
I'm not just talking about the wildfires that are still burning across western North America, or the millions of people recovering from hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the southern United States, or the millions of other people recovering from typhoons and monsoons in China, Nepal, Bangladesh and India.
Mainly, I'm talking about the annual raging inferno known as summertime in Shasta County.
What the hell was that we just lived through? (It is over, isn't it?) I've resided in the warm part of northern California all of my adult life, including the past three years in Shasta County, and I can't recall a hotter summer than the one that's just passed. Am I just getting old? Or is it really getting hotter? Sure, I know, we live in a Cadillac desert, it's supposed to be hot like this, but this summer seemed super extra crispy to me, even though we apparently didn't break the record for consecutive days of triple-digit heat.
Even where I live, 2500 feet up in the eastern foothills, where it's usually considerably cooler than Redding, the heat was infernally relentless from June to early September. Half the garden fried without bearing any fruit or vegetable. Even the weeds, including the star thistles, burned to a crisp. The hummingbirds stopped flying in midday. A two-point buck camped out underneath the shade of our deck, occasionally emerging from the shadows to slake his thirst from our small fish pond. Eventually a spike and a fawn joined him. They've become quite territorial and have gotten more use out of the deck this summer than me.
I followed the hummingbirds' lead, doing my outside work in the mornings and early evenings, confining myself to the air-conditioned home office during the ferocious sunlit hours, when it was too hot to work, play or do anything meaningful outside. That's how I spent much of the summer, holed up like those astronauts on the International Space Station, who last week had to move to a special compartment in order to shield themselves from a particularly violent solar flare. The few times I dared venture outside without a shirt on, I came back inside with sunspots on my skin.
Hats off to the firefighters, farmers, fruit pickers, ranchers and other outdoor workers who have to endure this heat on a daily basis, for I have given up. This summer has broken me. I can recall the precise day it happened.
It was mid-July, the valley was filled with smoke from wildfires in Oregon and the temperature was 110 degrees in the shade. I was making a rare run into Redding for supplies when the alternator on the Toyota started crapping out. I had to bump-start it several times in the dizzying heat, the sheet metal was so hot it sizzled to the touch. Finally, the truck died completely on Whitmore Road just outside of Millville.
I was exhausted from pushing the truck and dehydrated from not drinking enough fluids. Foolishly, I hadn't brought any water. I don't have a cell phone, so I was going to have to walk to the nearest house, a good distance away. I looked out across the hazy California Serengeti toward Redding, which was vaguely discernible in the ashen distance. The landscape seemed to shimmer in and out of existence. “You're going to die out here,” I heard a voice say. I chuckled, realizing the voice was my own.
It was a rueful laugh, because there's just really nothing funny at all about this heat, is there? How many people do you figure would live in Shasta County if air conditioning didn't exist? How about Sacramento? Fresno? Bakersfield? Las Vegas? Phoenix? Without electricity, much of the inland western U.S. is a mirage. Climate change exists alright, we're changing the climate all the time, on purpose and inadvertently, expending enormous sums of energy to cool ourselves down and warm ourselves up, sums of energy that at the same time have been unequivocally proven to exacerbate … climate change.
There's no point in denying it. The apocalypse is already upon us, we just haven't noticed because it's been air-conditioned, up to this point. Even worse, according to author and Post Carbon Institute co-founder Richard Heinberg, a nationally recognized expert on renewable energy, climate change is just one symptom of the apocalypse, which is a systemic crisis brought on by what he calls an overshooting of the earth's long-term capacity to carry the human species.
“Our core ecological problem is not climate change,” Heinberg writes in a recent essay. “It is overshoot, of which global warming is a symptom. Overshoot is a systemic issue. Over the past century-and-a-half, enormous amounts of cheap energy from fossil fuels enabled the rapid growth of resource extraction, manufacturing, and consumption; and these in turn led to population increase, pollution, and loss of natural habitat and hence biodiversity. The human system expanded dramatically, overshooting Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for humans while upsetting the ecological systems we depend on for our survival.”
I met and interviewed Heinberg several times during the Aughts, when “peak oil” - the theory that global petroleum reserves are finite and will ultimately peak then decline at a much faster rate than they were accumulated - was heavily in vogue. Although the peak oil theory has fallen out of fashion, thanks to hydraulic fracking in the United States and elsewhere extending the production peak past the earliest predicted date, Heinberg maintains most of the “easy oil” is gone and the “tight oil,” fracked from existing fields that quickly dry up, has only delayed the inevitable decline by years, not decades.
In Heinberg's view the focus on climate change has distracted us from a more pressing issue: Modern civilization is addicted to petroleum at nearly every level and the supply, within a matter of decades, is about to be severely curtailed. Transitioning to a worldwide renewable energy economy is an enormous undertaking that requires wise use of our existing fossil fuel supplies. We must limit the impact on the environment, but we must also move quickly, or there will not be enough petroleum to fuel the transition.
Complicating matters further, no one knows exactly what the renewable energy future looks like. One current hot topic of academic debate is whether intermittent sources such as wind and solar can reliably power the electrical grid we depend upon for, among other things, our air conditioning. Some scientists say intermittent sources can do the job—if we make an enormous investment in energy storage technology. Others say it can't be done without nuclear power. Scientists at MIT have proposed the construction of 300 reactors to power a worldwide electrical grid as the only real solution to significantly reducing the level of carbon we're pumping into the atmosphere.
I recently rediscovered Heinberg after learning the city of Redding was entertaining a bid from a company that wants to build a small scale hydrogen production plant at Stillwater Business Park. I wrote about a similar facility in Sacramento more than a decade ago, when peak oil and the hydrogen economy were all the rage. Quoting Heinberg's work, I noted that manufacturing hydrogen is an inherently inefficient process that uses more energy than it produces, thus making hydrogen an unlikely replacement for fossil fuels.
That's still somewhat true today, but hydrogen fuel cell technology has increased dramatically in the past decade. There's also interest in using hydrogen as an energy storage device, by using excess intermittent electricity generated by wind and solar to manufacture hydrogen from water via electrolysis. The hydrogen can then be used to power fuel cells; it also has other industrial uses. Hydrogen energy storage projects would have to be massive in scale to make a difference, but they are one possible piece of the puzzle. In that light, the small hydrogen production facility proposed for Stillwater, should it be approved, can be seen as a bridge to a renewable energy future that includes hydrogen as a vital component.
It will make a nice addition to our wind farm and Shasta Dam, both of which are renewable energy sources, not to mention the ever-increasing solar panels that keep popping up in Shasta County. Living in California, which has long led the nation in renewable energy and more importantly energy conservation, it's easy to get the impression we're well on our way to the renewable energy future. However, as a state, we still depend heavily on fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, to generate much of our electricity, and the internal combustion engine remains a dominant feature of our culture. The hard part of the transition hasn't even begun, and according to Heinberg, we can't depend on technology alone to save us. We're going to have to learn how to do more with less—or maybe just do with less, period.
The fear of this reality—that individually and collectively we're going to have to sacrifice our accustomed standard of living—is at the root of climate change denial in our public discourse. It's a legitimate fear, particularly for the bottom 80 percent of the U.S. population, who according to various metrics have already seen their standards of living decline significantly during the past four decades. That's one reason why many voters didn't think twice about putting an admitted climate change denier in charge of the country.
President Donald Trump and some of his crew may be deniers, but from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on down, Trump has also surrounded himself with oil men and Goldman Sachs bankers, and they are certainly aware of the gravity of the situation, particularly concerning the global petroleum supply. Virtually every conflict we're currently involved in, from the Ukraine to the Middle East to Africa, concerns the control of oil and/or natural gas fields and pipelines.
With the U.S., Russia and China now squaring off to determine who controls the world's remaining fossil fuel stores, the apocalypse could get a lot worse. War is just a shot away.
The good news is, summertime appears to be over in Shasta County. The temperature broke two days ago and the 10-day forecast is signaling fall's arrival. I realize I'm probably jinxing all of us with this pronouncement, but I needed a happier ending to this otherwise bleak report.