DENVER -- The human race has never before had to deal with issues such as climate change, global warming, greenhouse gases and expanding population vs. reasonably priced energy, according to professor Jim White. The big question, he asked, is “How do we manage it?”
White is a professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He is also the director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (IAAR). He said, “Calm, realistic conversations are essential. One of the things that’s really perplexed me and bothered me is the way the discussion has evolved on environmental change and climate change.
“Most of the world’s population growth has occurred over the past 100 to 200 years. The resources you need per person to live in an industrialized society can be measured by energy or water or nutrients or calories. The U.S. uses more calories than people do in Africa or Third World societies. About 2 billion of the Earth’s 7 billion people live like we do, another 5 billion want to and about 2 or 3 billion will actually get there,” he said during a recent speech in Denver.
For developing countries, such as China or India, the needs are growing, White said. “China has about 1.3 billion people, of which 300 million live like we do. In order for [China] to develop, it has to increase its [energy] use by more than a few percentage points. They have to increase their consumption by factors of three or five.”
White noted that all basic global needs–energy, water, food– have environmental impacts. “You can’t have a creature that occupies the planet to the extent that humans do and not have a footprint. It’s not about not having an impact. It’s about how we deal with that impact.”
He added, “It seems to me that there are two kinds of laws–physical laws and value laws. Physical laws are things like gravity, thermodynamics etc., and value laws are things like morals and values, things we say are good or bad, right or wrong.”
For the value laws, there is frequently reasonable disagreement on the application of some of those laws. For physical laws, there is generally universal agreement. White said the problem with hydraulic fracturing is that people “confuse the law types–the physical laws and the value laws. We think we have a choice on some things but we really don’t.
“Energy, according to laws of thermodynamics, cannot be created or destroyed, but it can be converted from one form to another. We require energy–a physical law–to do something like power the lights.
“You hear people saying ‘I hate coal, or gas or fossil fuels’ and this is confusing. Can you really hate that which you require? You hear people saying ‘I hate coal, or gas or fossil fuels,’ but you don’t hear them say ‘I hate food or water.’ Are we so disconnected from our planet that we can say we hate things that provide basic needs? You cannot have the energy and hate it at the same time.”
White said he has developed an analogy for the people who don’t understand thermodynamic laws. “There’s an obesity problem developing in this country. Humans require energy, and that’s a physical law. Farmers supply that energy, so why don’t we say we hate or blame the farmers? We need energy from the physical law, and from the value law we make choices of what it is we decide to eat.
“When I hear people use the word ‘believe,’ like when they say they don’t ‘believe’ in climate change, I know that those people are making a value choice. I have a problem with this because … the physical laws occur without a choice on our part.”
White, who is a climatologist, said that "sea levels about 20,000 years ago were about 400 feet lower than they are today. About 120,000 years ago when the planet was warmer, sea level was about 50 feet higher than it is today, and if you’re living in Miami, that’s a lot of feet.”
A Miami newspaper recently interviewed the city’s mayor, who said that "Miami is too valuable to lose to rising sea levels with billions of dollars and tourism at stake," according to White.
“Physical law says we will lose Miami Beach due to sea level fluctuations that will occur as they have in the past. It may be too expensive to lose, but we can’t change the physical laws of thermodynamics. I find this interesting because it’s a case of confusing physical laws with value laws.
“We need to keep the conversation going. I think that’s the most important thing, especially in the international arena.”