Climate Doom and Gloom, or Solutions?

Written by Robert Whitehair
 · June 3, 2022

Climate change deniers and climate advocates face a common challenge: Has too much information created overload, causing psychological shutdown of our mutual response? Is the ordinary person too confused to adopt proven solutions?

There is general agreement that impacts of the climate crisis are real, present, and frightening. Fires in the Western U.S., severe flooding in Europe, devastating droughts in East Africa, and worldwide sea level rise are not one-time statistical coincidences.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world faces unavoidable, multiple, worsening climate hazards over the next two decades with global warming of 1.5°C (2.7°F) within 7 years or sooner. Hitting this warming level will result in additional severe, irreversible impacts.  There is alarming information coming from corporations that their future existence is in jeopardy.  Small businesses are concerned about being able to remain open.

The good news is we still have time to enact effective solutions. Local Bay Area cities are in the best position to help because a successful pathway out of the crisis can be created by concentrated, focused local efforts. No one group or individual can do it on their own; big government has proven incapable or unwilling. The latest technology will never be enough.

We look to local governments for more than just building codes for new construction and remodels. According to the City of San Mateo Climate Action Plan, 42% of global warming emissions come from existing buildings.  Merely waiting another 50 years for new construction to be all electric, is too little too late. We need local government funding resources, staff, and other support to develop solutions for both new and existing buildings.

Every year, about 7% of water heaters fail.  Homeowners replacing an existing gas water heater with another gas appliance are stuck with that water heater for 15 years while it spews more carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides. Anything not electric will become obsolete very quickly – a “stranded asset.” Stoves and furnaces last for more than 20 years. A gas-to-gas replacement is an opportunity lost.

Unhealthy emissions come from that little fossil fuel plant called your home. What can an individual do about this? A homeowner or business can plan to replace gas fired appliances and equipment with electric before the time of breakdown. 

What should local government do (and not do) to help encourage the switch to all-electric?

  • Implement workable funding mechanisms to pay for all-electric, such as abundant rebates, on-bill financing, grants, and financing, especially for disadvantaged communities.

  • Develop a strong workforce – electrification will need many trained workers and savvy contractors. Plumbers, electricians, sheet metal workers, pipe fitters, and carpenters will benefit from high demand.

What should local government NOT do? It should not depend on technological fixes that will just take too long. Many are unproven or possibly a stall tactic, including:

  • Continued use of methane for heating, cooling, and cooking only delays the inevitable. As a greenhouse gas 40 times more deadly than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent, methane, a.k.a. “natural gas.” is not a transition fuel, it is a bridge to nowhere. Methane leaks occur at the well head, through compressors and transmission pipes, and even from switched-off gas stoves.

  • Depending on hydrogen is a false hope. Truly clean hydrogen, using electrolysis, does not exist at scale and likely never will. Solar and wind generated electricity that “could” be diverted to electrolysis is more efficiently used directly in homes and businesses. Also unfortunately, hydrogen fuel cell production generates carbon dioxide at the fuel cell site.

  • Building more nuclear power plants, even small ones proposed by Bill Gates, require decades of planning, funding, development, and safe construction. Today there is still no permanent, safe storage of spent nuclear fuel accumulated in the last 80 years.

  • Biomass (burning waste such as trash and rice hulls, and wood pellets) is still a problem because any burning creates carbon dioxide. As Bill McKibben said: “Why continue burning things when the planet is on fire?” 

By our societal-wide, suicidal use of fossil fuels, we mutually created this climate crisis. But because of our discomfort, should we continue to pretend that there is no problem, continue with magical thinking that a technological solution will save us?  Or should we act locally with a focused look at viable solutions?  

I am greatly encouraged by the number of San Mateo residents who are tired of business as usual and are stepping forward to join this movement to tackle the climate crisis at the local level. All of us caused the crisis, only by all of us working together can it be solved.

Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal on April 7, 2022. 

Robert Whitehair

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