Awareness of global warming is several decades old, and Seattle is proud to be a leader. We drive hybrid cars. We recycle our garbage. We vote Democratic. We’re good, no?
“No,” says Peter Ward.
Ward is a professor of biology and of earth and space science at the University of Washington. He is a specialist on the Cretaceous period, from 135 million to 65 million years ago, when the sea level was higher than today and Puget Sound country was a steaming jungle. He is an expert on extinctions. He is a writer of science books, including “The Call of Distant Mammoths: Why the Ice Age Mammals Disappeared” (1997), and “The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps” (2010).
The planet warmed in the 20th century, and the sea level rose about 7 inches. It will be lucky if the rise in this century can be held to 4 feet, he says. And after 2100, the rise speeds up.
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A multiple-foot sea-level rise, Ward says, will imperil the tunnel Seattle is undertaking to build, and lots of other expensive assets: Seattle’s marine terminals. San Francisco’s airport. The city of New Orleans. The state of Florida. Bangladesh.
Americans are accustomed to problems that can be solved. Global warming can be slowed down, but not stopped for a long time.
Ward would start by not shipping coal to China.
“I was in Wyoming this past June,” he says. “I counted the cars of the first coal train we passed: 125 cars. Then, 20 minutes later, another, also 125 cars. Then another and on and on. Day and night, all going east, all with the lowest grade there is, Cretaceous-age, high-sulfur brown coal.”
In China you can see the burned coal. In Beijing it hides the sun. China’s pollution is invisible by the time it gets here — it takes three days, Ward says — but the damage to the atmosphere is global.
Ward’s position is, “Anything but coal” — in China, in America or anywhere. America could replace coal entirely with a combination of natural gas, nuclear and wind, he says.
Nuclear? Yes, because it is free of carbon dioxide. And what of the Fukushima meltdown in Japan? Build better nuclear plants. Use what we’ve learned.
And burn more natural gas, produced by explosive fracking?
“There are trade-offs,” Ward says. “We can’t have it all.” If you go solar, you cover big patches of deserts and spoil it for wildlife.
Electric power generation is one part of the problem. There is also the matter of human population. The more people, the more carbon dioxide. Global birthrates have been falling for decades, but not enough.
I put it to Ward: What have you done?
“The question, to me, is highly uncomfortable,” he says.
Ward and his wife have one child. They live in a 75-year-old house with an oil furnace. Ward drives a hybrid, though he says buying one does little to save the Earth because of the environmental cost of making the car — most have nickel metal hydride batteries — and the ultimate cost of disposal.
“What happens to 20-year-old hybrids?” he asks. “We don’t know.”
If the sea keeps rising as scientists predict, hard decisions are ahead. Compared with them, coal trains are an easy one. The coal is denied to China, not to us. The problem, however, cannot be addressed merely by denying things to others.
Bruce Ramsey’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org