(I’m taking a course in climate change law this year, so I’ve been doing a lot of pre-reading for it. This is a series of thoughts I wanted to pass on as I did my reading.)
By this point, everybody except the kooks and the desperate liberal-haters know that global warming is serious business. Most people don’t realize how serious it is, though. We are on a clock that nobody in our political arena is willing to mention.
Many people are aware that four degrees of warming is probably where the catastrophic end of mankind begins – at four degrees of warming, land-based ice shelves melt enough that most of the world’s major cities find themselves underwater. The four degree marker is fairly well known. The problem is that the four degree marker isn’t what we should be worrying about: what we need to worry about is the two degree marker. (One point nine, two point five, it’s somewhere around two and a little bit, most likely.) At two more degrees of warming, most global warming models predict that our climate system will start creating its own warming feedback at such a rate that we won’t be able to stop global warming without some major league scientific brilliance. We will most likely not manage the major league scientific brilliance, and in any case who the hell wants to rely on a Hail Mary pass for the future of the human race?
(Some will say at this point: “but Chris, there’s a reasonable chance that we can afford slightly more global warming than two degrees. There isn’t universal agreement on which model is the most accurate.” And this is true. However, given that the “slightly more warming” models are at best slight outliers, this is not an optimal strategy. Moreover, the other problem is that those models are counterbalanced by equally probable models that are, shall we say, much more disastrous. We should be hoping that the most likely prediction pans out and not get greedy.)
To stop global warming before we hit the inevitability junction of two degrees (and change), we need to cut global emissions drastically. I’m talking eighty-five to ninety-percent by 2030-2040 “drastically.”
Yes, it means we have to convince China to stop building coal plants, but contrary to what some might have you believe, when you show that an environmentally friendly lifestyle approach is both economically feasible (and, in a few years, probably economically preferable to a wasteful one) and healthier to boot, most people will generally jump at the chance to emulate you. Chinese people consume American (and increasingly European) culture in mass quantities: they want what we have, not necessarily because it is better but because our lifestyle has become a status symbol.
And yes, it means giving up a few things, but the trick here is not to think of these as sacrifices but rather trades. I don’t just mean “trading pleasures of life right now for the good of the planet later on,” either. I mean trading one set of pleasures for another.
My favorite example of this is the supermarket. Supermarkets are ridiculously wasteful of energy. You know this – you’ve been in one. Supermarkets have giant banks of open freezers without doors. They have hot lamps shining down on the fresh fish, which have to be laid out in ice to keep them from spoiling because of the intense heat the lamps generate. They have hot air blasters at the front door to keep the store warm in winter, which in turn mean the freezers have to be even more powerful when the hot air blasters are on.
But consider this: the abandonment of the supermarket entirely, and instead opting for delivery. Most supermarket chains already deliver anyway, and there are already delivery-only grocery companies. And deliveries will already be made just about any time of day. So let’s make it universal. I mean, just about everybody has a phone now, or net access, so ordering is pretty much a done deal. There’s no need to operate a massive, wasteful supermarket – you can just deliver from the warehouse. (The additional delivery jobs should make up for the loss of supermarket jobs, at least partially.) The need for bags, reusable or otherwise, disappears entirely. And best of all, consider this as a consumer. You don’t have to make a trip to the supermarket. You get to hang around the home – at a time convenient to you – and you get the time you would have spent on a half-hour or hour long shopping trip for your own purposes.
That’s what I mean when I talk about looking at “giving up” as a matter of trading. But enough about supermarkets. Let’s talk about air travel.
When it comes to emissions control, air travel is the giant in the room absolutely nobody wants to talk about. It’s obvious why: we like to fly. We really, really, like to fly. We like it so much we’ve spread our families all over the world, and we’ve come to regard it as a right to be able to visit them if we want and can afford to. On the whole, we’ve got a point, too: air travel has made the world smaller, and mostly for the better. Our societies grow more mixed, and understanding grows ever greater. (Not fast enough, of course, but certainly faster than in the days of mass xenophobia.)
But air travel as we know it isn’t sustainable. There are no fuel alternatives for airplanes. There are no “electric planes” waiting in the wings. Airplane manufacturers claim that fuel-efficient planes are coming soon, but they haven’t got any proof of it and every incentive to lie to you, so as a general rule not trusting them worth a damn generally pays off.
And airplanes are terrible carbon emitters. They emit plenty all on their own, but worse, they do it at high altitudes where the damage from their emissions is more pronounced. Worse yet they emit other gases that are also warming gases you don’t want high up in the atmosphere. George Monbiot, in Heat, estimates that on a single one-way flight from New York to London, a single passenger on a full plane is responsible for 1.2 tons of CO2 emissions.
There’s no easy way around this: jet planes have to go, save for emergency flight and super-extreme-high-end luxury. If we need to cut eighty-five to ninety percent of our carbon emissions, it’s going to be hard enough everywhere else without having to cushion for the frigging jet plane emissions we refuse to cut because we’ve always wanted to visit Tahiti.
“But Chris,” you say, “you were talking about trades and how it doesn’t necessarily have to be a sacrifice! Was that bullshit?” And the answer is “well, a little bit,” but only in the way that you bullshit a kid to get them to eat their creamed spinach by pretending it is tasty rather than creamed spinach, which is the most disgusting edible thing on the planet. (Yes, it’s worse than maggots.) The point is that there’s something good coming as a result of the sacrifice.
And there is something good. See, when I said we didn’t have the technology to make non-environmentally-damaging aircraft, I was only half truthful. Because we don’t have the technology to make non-environmentally damaging airplanes.
But zeppelins? We can do zeppelins.
(I know it’s in vogue to call them “airships,” but fuck that. They are zeppelins. I know I am being technically incorrect, but “zeppelin” is a cool word.)
We had commercial zeppelin travel over eighty years ago. Now, understandably, the Hindenburg explosion soured people on it, and then the advent of supercheap oil made airplanes more economically feasible than zeppelins – planes were faster and used less fuel, and also they didn’t have trouble when trying to pilot into a headwind.
But apart from speed, none of that is true any more. (Well, zeppelins still have trouble piloting into a headwind, but air maps are a lot better than they used to be and we can minimize the impact of it.) Zeppelins don’t use hydrogen to fill their balloons any more; they use helium, which doesn’t explode and is in fact a fire retardant. And in terms of fuel, new zeppelin design emphasizes their large, flat tops to stack solar cells across them – using the solar energy to power rotors and store energy during the day, zeppelins could feasibly be permanently and cleanly self-powered.
In terms of speed… well. Turtle Airships, the most prominent neo-zep design company, claims their maiden ship will fly up to 200 mph, which would make for about a 17 hour trip between New York City and London – not jet speed, to be sure, but certainly not bad. Unfortunately, that figure is probably crap in the way that all optimistic engineering estimates produced for press releases are probably crap. But even if their ship’s top speed is only half that, you’ve still got a one-way trip of 35 hours, which while not short is good enough to keep international travel alive and well. (Business travel will probably diminish some as a result, but, as Garth Ennis once wrote, well, that’s just fuckin’ tough. They can teleconference, after all.)
Zeppelins also offer what planes can’t – comfort. Planes, after all, are uncomfortable for a reason – they have to pack a whole lot into a giant metal tube that is basically shot into the sky, and making that cost-effective is tricky. Compare to the original zeppelin flights, which were more comparable to luxury cruises – you serenely glide over the ocean (or mountains, or whatever), looking down on the world. Turbulence isn’t particularly an issue. Imagine going up into your personal cabin on the zeppelin – nothing fancy, but your own little room for a day or two as you fly to your destination.
When I titled this post “It’s Only A Matter Of Will,” I meant it; building an airship fleet to replace, say, ninety percent of all jet planes within ten years’ time won’t be cheap, but it’s nowhere near impossible or even that difficult. In exchange for discomfort, increasing expense and environmental damage – instead we can have a relaxing zeppelin ride. The only thing we have to sacrifice is our own desperate need to get there now now now. Is that so much to ask?
(And one more thing: airships, unlike planes, are not innately explosive guided missiles, lessening their security risk immensely.)
Next week: The biggest carbon emitter you probably never even knew about.