COLUMBIA — Anybody who wasn’t paying close attention is likely to have missed the most important news of the summer so far.
I’m referring, of course, to the report on May 10 that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached a level that bodes ill for the continuance of life as we know it.
The third paragraph of the New York Times account explained the significance of an instrument reading that showed an average daily level of 400 parts per million of the gas that contributes the most to trapping heat, and thus to global warming:
“The best available evidence suggests the amount of the gas in the air has not been this high for at least three million years, before humans evolved, and scientists believe the rise portends large changes in the climate and the level of the sea.”
The Times then quoted a couple of those scientists who devote their careers to monitoring the state of the atmosphere.
One, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, noted that the reading demonstrates the failure so far of efforts to reduce emissions.
Another, at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was even gloomier: “It means we are quickly losing the possibility of keeping the climate below what people thought were possibly tolerable thresholds.”
The unprecedented executive actions announced a month later by President Obama, if they actually make it through the bureaucratic maze, will help, but they won’t be sufficient to reverse the effects we’re already seeing.
The American West is on fire. The sea level is rising, and the oceans are becoming more acidic. The ice caps at both poles are melting. Extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts and floods are becoming more common and more damaging.
We’re in trouble and headed for more.
Which brings me to last week’s City Council meeting.
The city staff proposes to replace several diesel-fueled trucks and buses with equipment that burns compressed natural gas instead. Natural gas burns cleaner and produces less heat-trapping emissions than either gasoline or diesel. It’s also cheaper and in good supply from American sources. Looks like a step in the right direction, doesn’t it?
Not to the dozen or so protesters who argued, both inside and outside the council chamber, that natural gas isn’t really a renewable resource, and its production by the latest technology – hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking – does great environmental damage itself. Those damages include groundwater pollution and the emission of methane, a gas that traps even more heat than carbon dioxide.
Several of the protesters advocated electric-powered vehicles instead. Even better, you’d think. No carbon dioxide or methane comes from those tailpipes. Just plug it in and charge it up.
But where do we get our electricity? Mainly from burning coal, which is even dirtier than diesel and much worse than natural gas. The most important item on President Obama’s list of actions is figuring out how to cut emissions from power plants.
There are cleaner sources of power, such as solar or wind, but good luck finding a solar-powered dump truck or a wind-driven bus.
So if we want to do our bit down here at the local level to slow, at least, the onset of global warming, what should we want our city government to do?
Given the current state of technology, it seems to me that vehicles powered by natural gas make sense as a kind of transitional step toward something cleaner that we have to hope isn’t too far over the horizon. Take the good until the perfect comes along.
Turns out that Kermit the Frog had it right. It’s not that easy being green.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.