Friday, November 29, 2013

Checking the Math

5 pounds of coal--
two hours of electricity per person
I wanted to make a table display, an un-powerpoint visual to take when I’m speaking, a reminder that what flows invisibly from the wall as electricity begins as burning rocks. I recalled that the basement of an old house where I once lived in Georgia still had a large pile of coal. A friend lives there now, so on a recent visit he let me excavate and carry a few pounds home.

I had looked up the figures here. In coal-dependent Indiana,1133.312 tons of coal are burned for electricity per year for every 100 people. So I did the math and put it in chapter 3, page 40: 62 pounds per person per day of coal, an astounding figure.

I rechecked it. How could 62 pounds of coal mined, transported, ground into powder, burned to boil water into steam to power turbines, and then disposed of as coal ash every day—and this is a bare simplification of the process’s many steps—how can all that cost so little?

Much of the cost is externalized—to black lung disease, to lost mountains and streams, to asthma and other lung diseases near the power plants, to taxpayers’ wallets through industry subsidies. But still. I rechecked: 62 pounds. And that doesn’t count natural gas and petroleum. Just coal.

Reading the proofs last August I questioned the number again and retraced the math. This time it came to 6.2 pounds per day per person. That was more reasonable, I thought. So I changed it.

Preparing for a lecture the day after the book was sent to the printer, I consulted the numbers a third time. It wasn’t 6.2 after all. It was 62. Rechecked. 62. The book wasn’t even out and already page 40 was wrong. Glad it wasn’t a math textbook. I alerted the publisher and was told it would be corrected in the next print round. I console myself that it's certainly not the only mistake; I hope it is the biggest. 

Domenchino Adam and Eve 17th century
To go philosophical, the problem in mistakes is not the mistake itself. If our Creator wanted to rule out mistakes, the Garden of Eden would have been fool-proofed. We were created for mistakes. The problem is when we can’t learn from them.

A century ago, few knew that greenhouse gases would warm the planet, killing species and creating monster storms. Fossil fuels were just beginning to work their magic, thrusting progress ahead with unprecedented speed. As we came to know the dangers in overusing fossil fuels, a rational society might have changed course before we abandoned almost every other means of transportation, warmth, cooling, light, farming, and industry.

But we didn’t. We multiplied the mistake. We built jobs, wealth, and infrastructure around this mistake for decades. Now we must rethink things. But instead of agreeing to leave the rest of the fossil fuels in the ground and to seek another path, we accuse scientists of making up facts; we argue about jobs in Appalachia; we use the economy for an excuse; we delay and do further damage.

Bill McKibben is scaring everyone. In a 2012 Rolling Stone article, he urged, “Do a little math.” If we don’t do everything we can, both as individuals and as communities, to change the path we are on, and quickly, the rest won’t matter much.

Stanford polling shows the message is getting out, sort of. More than 75% of Americans now believe climate change is real. The number rises to 84% in states recently hit by drought or fearing sea level rise. Large majorities even in coal-dominated states support curbs in greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. But only 15% in Kentucky find the issue very important to them, and likely to affect their voting. In Indiana, 76% say global warming will be a serious problem for the world, but only 8% find this important.  

What? I wish the next question had been, Why? Why the discrepancy between convictions and probable actions?

Even if change seems unlikely in this political climate, it is nevertheless possible. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, citing three different studies of the cost of making changes necessary to mitigate climate change, says:

Emission trajectories aiming to stabilize around 535 to 590 ppm of CO2-equivalent had total costs that ranged from 0.2 to 2.5 percent of world economic output in 2030, and from small benefits to 4 percent loss in 2050. Stricter stabilization targets, from 445 to 535 ppm CO2-equivalent, had costs of up to 3 percent in 2030 and up to 5 percent in 2050. (Andrew Dessler and Edward A. Parson, The Science
and Politics of Global Climate Change: A Guide to the Debate [Cambridge University Press, 2010], 149).

Percentages like .2% to 5% of world economic output are not that much. Per capita U.S. GDP in 2011 was $48,442. So depending on whether we want to save the earth a little or a lot, the estimated price tag appears to be between $100 and $2400 per person per year, pennies or a few dollars per day.

Hurricane Sandy
Since we are already seeing hundred-billion-dollar price tags for single events such as Hurricane Sandy, it is time to stop arguing that saving ourselves is too expensive, too divisive, or to inconvenient. It’s time instead to check our math. Given the political will—a big given—this could be done.

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