America has many problems. Sadly, I’d say that number exceeds 99, and also sadly, our policy on combating climate change is certainly one. The last two decades have seen 16 of the hottest years on record, in 2017 three major hurricanes blasted the Gulf Coast, wildfires and mudslides wrecked many California communities, and the midwest and northeast suffered one of the harshest winters in living memory. Glaciers continue to melt at an unprecedented rate, habitats are being destroyed, species are going extinct on a level not seen since the last major extinction event, sea levels are rising, smog blankets our cities, and worst of all, none of our politicians seem to care. Even though this is the most important problem by far, more important than universal healthcare or a balanced budget or a decrease in the deficit or the latest scandal, everyone focuses on those instead. To drive home why this issue is so important, let me start by mentioning the fact that at present, humans exist only on one place: Earth. Although there are efforts to put life elsewhere, those efforts through NASA have stalled, and even efforts through Elon Musk’s SpaceX (I’m going to be mentioning him a lot, just a heads up, he’s central to many of today’s developments towards a better tomorrow) won’t begin putting people on Mars until the decade is up. Thus, if we screw up Earth, we screw up our own lives. How much will who the president slept with or colluded with matter when the president, along with the rest of us, is no longer among the living because our planet was destroyed by our greed and short-sightedness? Thus, addressing all sides of the global climate change issue will be the defining endeavor of our generation, fixing it will require changes to our electric grid and changes to our transport, neither of which will be easy.
First, let’s examine the problem at hand, and get a little context into how we’ve attempted to solve it. Climate change is caused by the large-scale burning of fossil fuels. Burning things, in and of itself, usually isn’t hazardous, as long as whatever you’re burning would’ve been returned to the carbon cycle in the relatively near future. So, burning a log isn’t an issue, because the log would’ve decomposed and released its carbon back into the atmosphere within decades anyway. No, the problem comes from burning fossil fuels, which have been trapped beneath the ground, and thus not a part of the carbon cycle, for millions of years. Doing so releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that warms the atmosphere, into the world. To see what an extreme case of greenhouse pollution would be like, look no farther than Venus, the atmosphere is so dense with greenhouse gases that the planet is 800 degrees Fahrenheit, day and night, and the pressure has destroyed all probes sent to the surface from Earth within an hour. Now be fortunate that that isn’t Earth, yet.
To solve this problem, politicians must figure out a way to reduce carbon emissions, and quickly, because even a shift of a few degrees in average temperature will prove disastrous. As if this problem weren’t already enough of a nuisance, politicians (and the informed public) must also deal with the climate skeptic. These are people who are either paid off by industries that must die to preserve the Earth, or people who for whatever reason dislike the idea or find that burying their heads in the sand is far easier than actually solving the problem, or they are misinformed. Whatever the case, only 45% of Americans actually realize that climate change is going to affect them in their lifetime, when the sad truth is, it’s already beginning to affect us. When the Democrats controlled Congress in 2009, they attempted to pass a bill called Waxman-Markey that would’ve given carbon credits to some companies to be traded, allowing an effective cap on emissions, but the bill was sacrificed to pass the Affordable Care Act in the Senate, and never became law. Another Obama-era solution for climate change was the Clean Power Plan, meant to cut pollution emitted from power plants, and move towards more renewable resources, yet Trump’s first move in office was to undo this, and pull out of an international agreement to cut carbon emissions, the Paris Climate Agreement, just because he feels the need to undo anything Obama has done, good or bad. The majority of car companies don’t have a serious investment in pure electric cars, preferring to keep dancing with oil, most of the world’s power still comes from fossil fuels, and not a single politician has a comprehensive plan at the moment to save us. So, we’re leaving climate change, the single biggest threat to humanity in our times, to individual citizens.
To save our climate, two main things stand out: the first is a massive emitter of carbon, contributing to 28% of all U.S. emissions, the car out in your driveway; the second, contributing to 28% in generating electricity and 22% in industry, is burning of coal for power. Let’s investigate the former first. As I said before, the car industry is doing very little in the way shifting from oil. So, consumers, in addition to having to pay for the car itself, have to pay for the gas that powers the car. For a moment, let’s forget about the fact that burning that fuel screws the environment in the long run and just focus on the consumer economics. According to AAA Gas Prices, a year ago the average price per gallon of gas was $2.351. According to the Washington Post, in 2012 cars had an average consumption of 26.4 miles per gallon. From the New York Times, we know that the average car lives for about 200,000 miles. Thus, we can calculate that over its lifetime, a car uses roughly 7,576 gallons of gas. (Miles/miles per gallon). Multiplying this cost by the average price of gas, and we get that to fuel our cars we must pay an additional $17,810 over the car’s lifespan. Considering that the industry average price of a car is already $36,113 according to Kelly Blue Book, and you are looking at paying AT LEAST $53,923.61 over the span of your car’s life. This also doesn’t take into account things a gas car needs such as oil changes, engine maintenance, et cetera, not to mention that owners often sell their cars at highly depreciated prices before the car even dies, instead favoring to buy another car that costs more resources to build, and so the cycle continues. At the moment, the best alternative is from a company called Tesla, headed by Elon Musk (told you you’d see him again), that sells at the moment upper-middle class to luxury class cars. The luxury Tesla Roadster is over a quarter of a million dollars, the Model S and Model X each cost between fifty and a hundred thousand dollars, the Model 3 is experiencing problems in production, but is the closest to the $36,113 industry average. However, this price is not reflective of two facts. The first of these facts is that the government gives a $7,500 tax rebate for buying electric. So, the Model S, which starts at $74,500 could be priced at a slightly more modest $67,000 after rebate. Further, this is the price you are paying for the entire life of the car. Electric vehicles don’t require nearly as much service as gas cars, because they only consist of the batteries and powertrain that actually turns the wheels. Further, you aren’t paying for gas, so no more adding nearly twenty thousand dollars to the overall price of the car. Add in top safety ratings and self-driving features, and that Model S now seems better than its gas-based competitors, right? The Model 3 is meant to be the competition for the average sedan, and once they get rolling, pricing will start at $35,000 for the normal battery, and be $44,000 for long range. Factor in the rebate, and the Model 3 can compete with the industrial average, even the long range is a mere $400 more than average. Then factor in the savings on gas, and it seems like a no-brainer! However, while Tesla is growing, their resources are limited, and unless the government and other automakers step in, the long-term effects may be too slow to stop climate change. Further, opponents of Tesla argue that all you do is change the location of the burning of fossil fuels. So, we also need to revamp our electric grid and its sources.
At present, 63% of our energy is produced by fossil fuels. As previously discussed, this is extremely bad, and we must do everything we can to change it and get that number down to 0%. Again, we’ll look at the problem from an economic standpoint, barring the fact that without shifting entirely to renewables, we’re all screwed. Exhibit one is this: fossil fuels in themselves are a limited resource, if they weren’t, they’d be cheaper than they are now because we’d have an abundance. Basic economic principles state the a primary reason for high cost is high scarcity, which also means that as we continue to consume oil, prices will continue to rise, so the $2.351 average from last year might become $2.451 this year, and in twenty years may be $23.51, so from a consumer’s standpoint, the sooner we can move away from a scarce resource, lessening demand and increasing price, the sooner we can keep money in our wallets. Exhibit two deals in the environmental damages we incur, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma alone incurred between $150-200 billion in damages. Anyhow, going back to a purely economic standpoint, a third thing to consider is the price of energy, or in this case, price of extraction of fossil fuels and upkeep of the plants that burn them. It is estimated that a 600 megawatt coal plant will cost $2 billion to build. A solar farm with the same output would cost about half that price to build. As for the fuel, all you have to do for the solar plant is keep the panels clean, this might create a decent market for menial labor, so kids of the future may not flip burgers, but instead wipe down solar panels to power their phones. For fossil fuels, the primary one burned in electricity production being coal, you have to pay people to labor in dangerous conditions to extract the coal, then pay more people to transport it (not to mention paying for the fuel that the transport uses and the costs associated with extracting/transporting that, the spiral goes on and on), then pay more people to load it into the furnace and light it. A solar farm, however, only has to sit there and remain clear in order to produce its power, it’s literally free power from the Sun. So, not only could the government pass legislation to subsidize solar farms, it could also work to open its own solar farms. Republicans always worry about our increasing debt, why not start producing something useful (energy) and selling it on both domestic and foreign markets? The U.S. has one of the driest places on Earth in Death Valley, as well as a place where the Sun rarely sets (Alaska), so why not invest in such an easy resource? Further, the government could provide similar tax rebates to those who opt to turn their home into an independent utility by purchasing solar panels. Again bringing up Elon Musk, his Solar City, a subsidiary of Tesla, provides installation of solar panels and what they call the Powerwall, a large battery to store excess solar power for when it isn’t daytime or clear, which would quickly pay for itself in electric bills, in fact, if you produce an excess, you may be paid by the utility companies for the electricity you feed into the grid. In addition, there are options that include installation of normal solar panels, or a unique solar roof that looks like ordinary material to complement the architecture of your house. The government could expedite the widespread adaptation of such systems by offering tax rebates and financial aid in installation. This would further be beneficial because you’d create jobs in the installation and upkeep of the solar grid. In this way, we might gain economic freedom from the costly plague of fossil fuels. That method of energy production is as ancient as the dinosaurs that died to make them!
To sum the issue up, we must make climate change the foremost issue in our thoughts. We must stop denying the science behind climate change, and start supporting the solutions. I’ll conclude with a great meme that sums up the current American political system on climate change.
Article written by Matthew Schilling
References and Footnotes:
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