Sunday, August 06, 2006

Feeling heat of man-made problem

Tracy Press
August 6, 2006

Tracy residents can finally walk outside without fear of melting, now that a record-setting heat wave has passed. But Mother Nature is still hot under the collar; it’s the eastern states’ turn to bake.

But our fellow Americans’ suffering might not be all bad. Maybe with oppressive heat bearing down on the halls of Congress, some of the folks inside the beltway will finally wake up and smell the smog.

The weather that has slammed the United States could serve as a hint that we shouldn’t get too comfortable in that backyard recliner. If scientists are correct, Tracy — and the rest of the United States — is only going to get hotter.

The 22 hottest years in the past century have happened in the past 25 years, and 2005 was the hottest on record, says the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Judging by the weather Europe and North America have endured in recent months, 2006 should break that mark. And there are no immediate signs that the trend will reverse.

That could have a whole host of effects according to research and scientific modeling, from the infamous melting of glaciers and polar ice caps to — you guessed it — more frequent and intense heat waves. So, I hope everyone enjoyed the 100-plus degree temperatures, because they could become an annual summer phenomena.

This doesn’t mean that the great California heat wave of 2006 is the direct result of global warming. It’s impossible to definitively link one-time weather events to a wide-reaching trend like climate change.

Speaking generally, however, more hot summer weather is part of the global warming package.

There’s a lot of clamor — particularly in some political circles — that denies humans have much impact on this trend. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that pumping unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which humans have been doing for more than 150 years, would have some effect on our environment. We can’t forever use and abuse our resources without facing some sort of consequence.

At the heart of this human release of carbon dioxide polluting and warming our planet is our dependence on fossil fuels — coal, oil, natural gas — that release large amounts of carbon when burned. Our nation is trying to find more such fuel, the lifeblood of our economy and modern way of life. Drilling for oil and gas is a popular tact, and many politicians have taken advantage to push their agendas.

Unfortunately, even vast untapped supplies of fossil fuels won’t change two stark facts. The first is that burning these energy sources is detrimental to the health of the planet, effecting the environment in ways that could hurt, not help, our economic system in the long run. The second is that supplies of fossil fuels are finite. No matter how much exploration we conduct and no matter the reserves we find, our supply of oil and natural gas will eventually run out. We’d simply be speeding on borrowed time.

Factor in that worldwide demand for these products is growing at a pace that no amount of drilling and mining can match, and it seems our planet has a problem.

True, supplies of natural gas, coal and even oil aren’t in danger of running out tomorrow. But why wait for the reaper to collect his fee? We have an opportunity to take control of our energy future before we’re forced to take drastic measures. We have options. The problem is, none is without its own drawbacks.

Take ethanol. Attractive at first glance, it’s produced from corn, a renewable crop. But as a recent investigation in the July edition of Smithsonian magazine points out, there is a lot less energy in a bushel of corn than the half-gallon of oil required to produce said corn. It seems silly to waste energy growing and processing corn to put it into our gas tanks when we’d get better efficiency simply burning the petroleum.

Hydroelectric power is clean and endlessly renewable, but it can destroy ecosystems when valleys and canyons are flooded to store the vast amounts of water needed to generate electricity in dams.

Solar energy is also promising, but solar systems are relatively inefficient and require a lot of space. And California’s recent attempt to construct a massive solar array was scuttled by infighting in Sacramento.

No solution is perfect — every energy decision is a tradeoff. It’s imperative to remember that no energy source capable of supporting our current lifestyle is free. But the fossil fuel option comes with the highest lifetime price tag.

One way or another, we will be forced to change our pattern of energy consumption. Oil can’t always be king in our economy, and our quixotic quest to find everlasting fossil fuels will eventually be met by the windmill of reality. I’d prefer we seek alternatives while we have the luxury of time. While I have a fairly lenient timetable, Mother Nature won’t be nearly as kind.

• Jon Mendelson graduated in 2005 from Loyola Marymount University and is a copy editor at the Tracy Press. To contact him about his weekly column, call 830-4265 or e-mail

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