I've been by the Occupy encampment in Oakland, Calif. a number of times the last few months. I was curious to see what was going on down there. Far from a rowdy mob, what I met was something I hadn't witnessed in many years: Groups of mostly strangers were simply talking on a broad range of topics with each other, especially about economic justice.
There was the usual rabble of course — a variety of street people and other social malcontents — but there was also a core contingent of mostly young, idealistic, and impressively well-organized people in many groups who seemed to keep the conversations from running off the rails. No leaders, other than people who had more to say and were willing to speak up about it. It was a moving example of spontaneous social communication, and a clear indication that the democratic spirit in America is still alive.
One night I was there until past midnight, discussing the problems of America and how to fix them with a teacher from Danville, Calif., a couple of guys from the real estate business, and a former Black Panther who had spent time in Uganda studying linguistics. A more disparate group would be hard to find, and yet we were able to listen to each other and comment on the merits of what was said without retreating to the ramparts of partisan ideology. It was an inspiration.
To read the headlines about the Occupy movement, you might get the idea that most of what Occupiers talk about relates to day-to-day economic issues. But that's not entirely true. The long-term fate of the planet was another topic while I stopped by.
It's easy to understand their concern. According to the World Meteorological Organization, a part of the UN, between 1990 and 2010 radiative forcing from greenhouse gasses rose by 29%. 64% of the increase in radiative forcing since 1750 is caused by CO2, they say, with another 18% caused by methane. Other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere include refrigerants and oxides of nitrogen. CO2 is a stable gas in the atmosphere, dependent on biological or chemical transformation and sequestration for its removal. It will take a long time to undo a buildup of CO2.
That CO2, of course, is related to how we produce and use energy. And in a relatively short time we've demonstrated amazing improvements in the ability of renewable sources such as wind and solar to supply significant amounts of electricity. Wind in particular is, by some measures, near economic parity with fossil-fuel sources. In 2009, over 9 GW of wind capacity was installed in the U.S. Iowa already produces about 20% of its electric power from wind. But getting renewable electric power from where it can be economically produced into population centers requires a massive upgrade of our transmission and distribution infrastructure. Unfortunately the visibility of this problem is low among ordinary people who don't make an effort to keep up with energy issues. There just aren't many citizens demanding this transmission infrastructure be built.
Energy efficiency, the Cinderella of energy, has the most of all to contribute to a transition to renewable fuels. We've demonstrated that our new buildings can be constructed so as to provide excellent and comfortable indoor environments using little energy. Plug loads and electronics have become major power consumers, but there, too, the potential lies towards greatly improved efficiency, driven by a desire for consumer mobility. But so far, the demands for higher efficiency standards have come from government agencies such as the DoE and EPA rather than out of outcries from the populace.
The media have simply stopped talking about climate change, as have our politicians for the most part. It is indeed an inconvenient truth, one which is convenient to ignore. How inconvenient for our descendents that we ignore this truth. It's easy to imagine that unchecked, climate disruption could cause our entire society, civilization, and technological culture to unravel.
Which brings me back to the Occupy movement. Here are people talking about something our politicians and media were just as happy to ignore. But Occupy is not going away. On this topic we shouldn't go away either.
This is the season for family and work gatherings. If you are of a mind to, consider using these occasions to bring up the advances in renewables and energy efficiency which can enable us to escape the peril of climate disruption, if we have the will to implement these measures. Speak about the subjects of energy security, pollution, and economic benefits. It's a great opportunity to re-engage the energy discussion.
Occupy the holidays!
World Meteorological Organization's Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, http://www.wmo.int/pages/mediacentre/press_releases/pr_934_en.html