The fundamental (and somewhat existential) source of climate change – and how we might overcome it

With the news that this past July was the hottest month on earth since record keeping 140 years ago, satellite images of the Amazon and State of California burning, the most powerful hurricane ever measured in the Atlantic Ocean east of Florida, carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere rising again to near record levels after a brief leveling, and Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s stirring call to action while staring down both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, climate change has been a hot topic in 2019. While the scientific community remains nearly 100% aligned that global warming is driven by the burning of fossil fuels, a relatively small, yet powerful, group of naysayers fights the science. Who are these very powerful people, and why do they fight? One common characteristic – they are mostly baby boomers = the generation of Americans with an insatiable appetite for consumption and a strong resistance to change.

Fig, 1 – US Household Wealth Distribution

First a disclosure – I am a boomer. Baby boomers are defined as the generation of individuals born just after the end of World War II, from 1946 through 1964. That would put us between 55 and 73 years old this year. As of 2016, this generation has over 74 million members and makes up 22.9% of the population of the United States. (Note that President Trump at 73 years old falls into this generation.). Further, I am a conservative white male, and while I don’t feel excessively wealthy, I am certainly better off than most. I own a nice home, my wife and I go on far too many vacations, we own two new cars, and we spend an inordinate amount of money on cafe lattes at Starbucks. I am a registered Republican, and, until recently, believed strongly that the fiscal conservatism and pro-market focus of the Republican Party outweighed their anachronistic social beliefs. Worse yet, I owe my standard of living to fossil fuels, having spent over 40 years working in oil and gas and power generation. I would likely not be as well off as I am today without this country’s, and this world’s, need for fossil fuel.

I do not feel guilty for where I am or how I got here. Fossil fuels have been critical for economic growth and improving the life of the average American. However, I am ready to admit that the world is changing. The damage to the planet from the burning of fossil fuels is irrefutable. Fortunately, renewable sources of energy are now viable and cost effective alternatives with new onshore wind and solar developments less expensive than running existing coal plants. How quickly America adopts these alternatives will be critical to how the world looks in the future. But change inevitably generates resistance, and the larger the change, the larger the resistance. Let’s take a look at the baby boomer generation, the group that has, or believes it has, the most to lose from this change.

Baby Boomers possess about 54% of all US household wealth and 57% of affluent household wealth (see Fig. 1), account for 42% of consumer spending, buy more cars than any other age demographic, account for 80% of all spending on luxury travel, and earn 47% of all income in the United States (see MarketingCharts,com and WiseBread.com). Basically, baby boomers control about two times the wealth in this country as compared to their percentage of the population. On the flip side, 45% of baby boomers have no retirement savings, and of the 55% who have some retirement savings 28% have less than $100,000. The bottom line – baby boomers have made and continue to make a lot of money, but spend it. And what do they like? Big cars, big houses, expensive vacations, cruises, beef, single-use packaging, etc., all of which generate a large carbon footprint. In a very interesting analogy, physicist Geoffery West points out that the average lifestyle in America (counting food, transportation, computers, air conditioning, etc) requires more watts to support than what is required by a blue whale. If baby boomers require about twice the average, we’re talking about 150 million blue whale equivalents in the US.

Demographically, baby boomers are 72% white, compared with 50% of all births last year. Politically, they are quite conservative with the difference in percentage between those identifying themselves as conservative vs liberal at approximately 23% (see Fig. 2). And Republicans are much more likely to be the naysayers mentioned above than Democrats.

Fig. 2 – Trend in Conservatives Minus Liberals

Although not a one-to-one relationship, there is certainly a correlation between “old white Republicans” who spend lots of money and deny climate change and baby boomers.

Mea culpa. What have I done to impact climate change? Not as much as I could, but I’m moving in the right direction. In addition to trying to inform the public with my OWOE website and blogs, I am professionally involved in some cutting edge technology developments to reduce the cost of renewable energy, I have traded in one gas powered vehicle for a Tesla (please see my blog), and I am contemplating installing rooftop solar panels on my house.

Now the good news. Baby boomers have a built-in sunset provision. The Paris Agreement of 2015 attempts to control greenhouse gas emissions to achieve a balance by 2050 and limit the average temperature increase to 1.5 deg Celsius. Of course, by 2050 the baby boomers will lie between 86 and 104 years old. That means that the vast majority of us will be either dead or in a rest home, both of which result in a very low carbon footprint (and one of which will eventually result in some carbon returned to the earth). In fact, if you do some simple math and assume that each baby boomer will be replaced by one average next-gen consumer when he/she dies, even with no other reductions in average carbon dioxide emissions due to technology improvements or behavior, and ignore population increase, US carbon dioxide emissions will drop approximately 20% and be at about the 1970s level by 2050 (see Fig. 3). Which means that one strategy that could be very effective is simply to wait us out. OK, boomer. Couple this with a continuation of the rapid improvement in renewable energy technology and the tendency of younger generations to adopt new technologies more quickly and, maybe, humanity has a chance.

Fig.3 – Trend in US CO2 Energy Related Emissions and extrapolation for passing of baby boomers
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5 thoughts on “The fundamental (and somewhat existential) source of climate change – and how we might overcome it”

  1. Thoughtful essay. I think the idea in the last paragraph is a bit too optimistic, though, because population does continue to grow, and as the world warms, there will be greater demand for power, for instance more AC, etc. And, of course, the present administration is working hard at increasing GHG emissions. One thing that constantly surprises me is the resistance to GW science within Oil & Gas – a highly technical industry filled with scientists and applied scientists (engineers). Despite the overwhelming evidence, and even statements from the majors acknowledging the role of CO2 in warming, the ranks are full of deniers. I guess self-interest has a way of warping reality, undermining technical integrity. What many forget though, is while it may be expensive to deal with global warming, there is a significant cost to doing nothing. The trick is to apply our technical creativity to economically balance the risk – hope we can get on to that conversation.

    1. Thanks for the response. Admittedly, my math is simplistic and my topic a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the argument over proactively dealing with global warming always comes down to how much it supposedly is going to cost. But at the macro level, new technology and even slight changes in behavior, amplified by 329 million people in the US (or 7 billion in the world), can have huge impacts. I’m already working on part 2 of this story and will apply my rudimentary science and 8th grade algebra to bring in population growth and several other macro-economic ides. By the way, I just read the story of how the manufacturers of lead anti-knocking additives to gasoline spent 50 years obfuscating the science and health impacts of atmospheric lead emissions. Not too surprisingly, they link back to Standard Oil. The industry has spent many decades learning how to, as you say, warp reality to protect its bottom line.

  2. Excellent post! Other than the political affiliation, I share most of your views to a T. Some points:

    a) Wealth distribution. It is natural and expected that the older generations will have accumulated more wealth, just by the fact that they were at it longer. It is true that not all boomers are affluent, and it has to do with life choices, education and social conditions at the time (from women becoming part of the work force to opportunities for higher education) conditions too numerous to analyze here.

    b) Current issues. Ok Boomer, it is a very simplistic approach of the younger generations to eschew their responsibilities for the current situation.

    b1) Student debt. We all know that on the average, most GenX and Millenials are having a crushing student debt load. Why? Mainly because for 40 years they have been absent or nearly absent from the political discourse, either as candidates or as voters. Where were they when their universities were defunded of research funds, when bigger and bigger university bureaucracies were imposed on them. ‘Politics is not my thing’ was the universal answer.

    Higher and higher tuition for an education that at least some of the time brings no meaningful employment.

    It would be funny that now the solution is for their parents to pay through taxes to relieve them from their debt, but since I will be paying, it is not funny…

    PS: We were fortunate enough through savings and good jobs in our later years to fund our son’s entire Civil Engineering education (minus scholarships and internships which he contributed) so that he is entirely debt free. We will now pay for the other people’s kids. (No we are nowhere near the top 1% or 5% or 10% of wealthy people, I just don’t think that in the end ‘the wealthy’ will pay for it).

    b2) Health care. Or lack thereof. Same as above. The insurance/pharmaceuticals industry complex was not instituted in a day. Where was their vote when it counted? ‘Politics is not my thing’.

    b3) Decent compensation. It comes hand-in hand with b1 Decent education, employment opportunities, decent salaries minus student debt. Where were they when part time employment with no benefits and little or a lot of pay came to be? The answer to this is political, tighten the contractor/part time/full time rules. It didn’t happen on the GenX/Millenial watch. But ‘Politics is not my thing’.

    By that stage, as it is natural, the Boomer generation moved to more and more conservative views (we could have done better) and higher and higher positions in the government, the economy, even in the local country club… and run things unopposed! Is there a surprise how we ended up the way we did?

    1. Thank you for your thoughts. They got me thinking about when and why the baby boomers disconnected from their early anti-establishment activism. After all, the boomers just ahead of me created the flower-power, hippie, anti-war, bohemian movements. Wikipedia quotes “Post-war affluence allowed many of the counterculture generation to move beyond a focus on the provision of the material necessities of life that had preoccupied their Depression-era parents.” It appears that we stopped trying to change the world and instead decided to become our parents. Also, I must admit that my Republican beliefs have been shaken to the core these past 3 years.

  3. Folks -Interesting and thoughtful posts. I commend your energy and interest.
    First a few reflections on my journey alongside the environmental movement. In 1962when I was 24, newly married, a blockbuster book titled Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published which claimed that DDT was ultimately causing the demise of many bird populations, hence silent spring (No birds at the watering hole!).
    Since I had grown up on a farm using DDT both in the barn, chicken coops, sheds and house (to great effect I might add), I was caught up in the ensuing discussions. A series of panels was set up by the US Government , under the Dept. of Agriculture I believe, and after several of those the report out was that the scientific evidence in Rachel’s book was flawed, maybe even intentionally slanted, and that some modest control efforts should be undertaken , but banning was over reaction. But there was an important side effect. On the radio and TV and in person Ms. Carson was intelligent, witty, photogenic, sincere and convincing. The scientist who disagreed with her came mostly from industry backgrounds, or entities that were related to industry and were quiet, confident, capable and boring. So the director at the time, William Ruckelshaus, made what he quite candidly admitted was a political decision and banned DDT. Over the years that ban eventually reached all over the world and has been cited both as the savior of the bird populations on the one hand and the cause of needless human deaths in underdeveloped countries from malaria and other disease on the other. Without getting into that almost 60 year old debate, my “take away” was that being intelligent, witty, photogenic , sincere and convincing counted as much or , indeed more , in the public decision making arena as having real data and scientific/engineering support for a position .
    So, my naiveté vanished.
    Of course Ms. Carson is a saint to many still. Even if her statements were over the top, either by sincere belief or political savvy, the book and her passion is credited with being the catalyst for the origination of the EPA in the USA and like organizations in other jurisdictions around the world. So the outcome was a positive, in that view, even if the science was flawed.
    Sounds familiar.

    My second education with science in the public arena was watching Professor Paul Ehrlich on the Johnny Carson show. He first of all warned us that the world was overpopulating, that we would run out of food by the late 1980s I think it was, and that there would be all kinds of social disruptions which, of course society was not prepared to handle. While still pushing that line he and others then warned of an even more dire coming—Global Cooling. At that time I think industry was blamed for just a minor part of the coming cooling, but suggested solutions included dusting the ice caps with coal dust to enhance thawing, and a few other outlandish options relating to having the glaciers calve more often so the ice would melt in the ocean, and so on. . Again, Professor Ehrlich (Stanford I believe) was intelligent, witty, photogenic, sincere and convincing. He was on the Johnny Carson talk show 20 or more times–scaring the hell out of the audience, but leaving them laughing and applauding. A truly amazing performance. Another academic named Julian Simons countered much of Ehrlich’s views, and famously won a bet about those dire outcomes. He was not as outgoing etc., and he died early in the discussion so his influence was muted.
    By this time I had become appropriately skeptical of hyped up claims with seemingly little scientific backing. So in the midst of raising a family and career opportunities I was immersed in my own events for several years, to wake up one day, probably in the 1980’s to discover the Global Cooling had now become Global Warming, and , guess what , being presented by the same entities –Ehrlich among them- which had so ardently believed in Global Cooling. Now the predictions were that children born in Europe in the 1990s would never see snow in their lifetime. But then another strange thing happened. Global Warming became Climate Change—so now an all-encompassing title which can “explain” both the cold weather variations AND the thawing of the ice caps and anything in between apparently.
    So—as a person born in 1938, I believe I am stereotyped as a Traditionalist—which is probably equivalent to a Troglodyte ( or idiot) to today’s Gen X and Millennials (Boomers at least exist -Traditionalists are an afterthought) I am indeed skeptical of over inflated rhetoric (AL Gore 20 feet flooding, Price Charles, etc. etc.) being used as means to an end, even if the science is unclear and conflicting. Of course as a result, I am now considered, not a thoughtful Conservative (which I consider myself to be) but a RIGHT WINGER, which is apparently something abhorrent to even consider. (Interestingly if there is a RIGHT WING shouldn’t there also be a LEFT WING!! Apparently not in today’s public discourse.)
    So have I let all this “warp” my views on the issues of climate change? Has my background in general, my conservative political views, and my Oil industry background caused me to be a “naysayer, Right Wing Troglodyte!” In candor there is undoubtedly some influence there. But the proponents are just as human as I am, and the same argument can be made relative to the Academic/Government /Research Grant entities. Clearly it is in their self-interest to sell the need to address Climate Change. They firmly believe, mostly, I am sure, in what they are doing, and even if the science is a little squishy here and there, the ends justify the means. And, they are wittier, photogenic, etc. etc. than the RIGHTWING naysayers and deniers. And, of course that all important Righteous Indignation is on their side.

    Now as to the Science– I have in fact read the IPCC Summary for Decision Makers. It is not easy reading and aside from the specifics, e.g. 1.5 degrees by 2030 to 2050, and so on it is turgid reading, apparently massaged word by word by multiple reviewers and editors.
    I have not read the 600 pages of technical background. I suspect that very few other than the reviewers and editors have read it. A brief summary indicates that the forecast is the result of multiple different models which the IPCC Committee somehow managed and brought down to one forecast. Their “predictions” are couched in High, Medium and low Confidence no numerical confidence intervals etc.
    So the outcome is that the summary for decision makers is not presented with any discussion on the internal variabilities, ranges, and concerns, whatever. The Summary relates entirely to the 1.5 to 2.0 degrees of “warming” by 2030 to 2050 and thus is presented to the decision makers and the rest of us as equivalent to a certainty to be addressed.
    Much has been made of the fact that –pick a number –97% of the papers on Global Warming, Climate Change, is dealing with it as a certainty. So the discussion is over, and hopefully the RIGHT WING naysayers will die soon and we can get on with re-doing society. In the last year or so there have been 15000 plus Climate Change papers published. Almost all in the “it is real” category. While many deal with Coastal Engineering issues etc., there are papers dealing with Social, Medical and Physiological matters. Note that the preponderance of papers now deal with the “effects” not the likeliehood. And that is reasonable of course, but it is also a self-interest industry in its own right. Some highly speculative but probably reasonable estimates are that those papers represent somewhere in the 5 to 15 billion dollars of annual research grants to various entities, mostly University and like-minded institutions.
    Talk about a really big cottage industry! Maybe a little “warping”—or is that just the purview of Boomers and Traditionalists?

    Well so what. With all of the above dealing with the messy world of human relations, let’s get back to the core question – is the issue of Climate Change real. Well there has been Climate Change as long as there has been Climate. So of course it is real. But the current in your face approach to targeting cautious skeptics with REDLETTER definitions like deniers and Naysayers is not conducive to getting the intelligent efforts by affected entities engaged in the effort.
    In one of the citations in Bill’s Blog there was a statement based on various research that showed it would be wise for the pro Climate Change entities to show how it was in the best interest of skeptics to engage. No kidding. And that took research!
    I leave this discussion (Rant?) with a fable from my childhood. If the researchers had read this they could have saved their efforts.

    The wind and the sun bet on which can force a man to remove a coat. The sun wins.
    Kindness effects more than severity.
    Aesop For Children

    Milo Winter (1919)
    The North Wind and the Sun had a quarrel about which of them was the stronger. While they were disputing with much heat and bluster, a Traveler passed along the road wrapped in a cloak.
    “Let us agree,” said the Sun, “that he is the stronger who can strip that Traveler of his cloak.”
    “Very well,” growled the North Wind, and at once sent a cold, howling blast against the Traveler.

    Milo Winter (1919)
    With the first gust of wind the ends of the cloak whipped about the Traveler’s body. But he immediately wrapped it closely around him, and the harder the Wind blew, the tighter he held it to him. The North Wind tore angrily at the cloak, but all his efforts were in vain.
    Then the Sun began to shine. At first his beams were gentle, and in the pleasant warmth after the bitter cold of the North Wind, the Traveler unfastened his cloak and let it hang loosely from his shoulders. The Sun’s rays grew warmer and warmer. The man took off his cap and mopped his brow. At last he became so heated that he pulled off his cloak, and, to escape the blazing sunshine, threw himself down in the welcome shade of a tree by the roadside.
    Moral
    Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail.

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