By Tom Walsh
The recent climate change summit in Paris is being hailed in some circles as one of the greatest events in world history, as it involved 195 nations coming together to agree that fouling your own nest is clearly not a good idea.
What the conference achieved was arguably very little, beyond lofty goal-setting. A few bones, but very little meat in terms of commitment to the tough, enforceable and punitive regulations that will be required to address the ecological bleeding that has been too long ignored. Or, worse yet, denied.
Participants at the week-long Paris event should have been presented before they returned home with souvenir shovels, just to keep them focused on the validity of the well-worn adage that, when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. In the case of the United States and China — the planet’s two largest greenhouse gas polluters by far — their representatives should have headed home instead with souvenir end loaders, not shovels.
One of the reasons the global warming hole is so deep is that the United States and China depend heavily on coal as a source of energy. Why? Because it’s cheap. Why is it cheap? Because there’s a lot of it. In fact, China has access to and is heavily mining one of the largest known sources of coal in the world, the Tangshan coal deposit, located 90 miles east of Beijing. Despite the fact China is commissioning new coal-fired energy plants virtually every day, the tonnage of Tangshan’s anthracite coal is enormous, estimated to be sufficient to meet China’s needs for another 100 years.
In the meantime, the air quality in Beijing is so compromised that twice within recent weeks the city’s 1.4 billion residents were told to stay home from work and from school and to keep their cars off the roads as the air pollution toxicity reached “code red.” On Dec. 22, concentrations of the tiny smog particles that pose the greatest health concerns rose to 435 micrograms per cubic meter at Tiananmen Square. The World Health Organization recommends that daily average exposure to those particles not exceed 25 micrograms. Surgical masks are now as ubiquitous as bicycles in Beijing, where residents would likely agree with this insight from James Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist: “Coal is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.”
Curiously, China’s chronic air quality impacts extend beyond pollution coming from its ever-expanding legions of coal-fired power plants. Runaway 21st century economic growth has fueled runaway construction of buildings, roads and structures such as the Three Gorges Dam, which required 12 million tons of cement. According to the National Geographic Society, China has manufactured more cement since 2012 than the United States has manufactured since 1900. In 2014, China produced enough cement — 330 billion cubic feet — to cover the entire island of Manhattan with a block of concrete 520 feet thick.
So what? NGS contributor Daniel Stone cites a U.S. study reporting that “cement production, especially in antiquated plants, emits large amounts of CO2 — about 5 percent of all (man-made) emissions. China’s cement contributes as much toward that tally as all other countries combined.”
Closer to home, south Florida remains “ground zero” for rising sea levels related to global warming. Of all the world’s cities, Miami ranks second in terms of vulnerability to rising seas. What city is first on that global list? Enter, stage left, Guangzhou, a port city of 44 million on China’s Pearl River, located 75 miles northwest of Hong Kong. Four Florida cities are predicted to be at the highest risk from sea level rise among the eight Florida coastline communities considered to be in harm’s way. Atop that list is Tampa, which fronts the Gulf of Mexico. Then there’s Miami, where high-water marks have been increasing almost an inch a year, which is nearly 10 times the rate of global sea level rise. All this in a state where the governor and Florida’s U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio are, in the parlance of the global warming community, climate change “deniers” (translates: the earth is flat). Not so with Barack Obama: “Nowhere is (sea level rise) going to have a bigger impact than south Florida,” he said in this year’s Earth Day speech.
Even closer to home, Maine has more than 3,000 miles of rugged coastline, each mile projected to be impacted to some degree by the inevitability of sea level rise. The predictive maps are not pretty. Bottom line: If you are in the market for your own private Gulf of Maine island retreat, you better get it while you can.
Tom Walsh of Gouldsboro is an award-winning science writer.