Power and Climate

Pope Francis told oil company executives what he thinks about clean energy, climate change and social justice. What he said reminded me of London’s pea soup fog, horses, smog and why we have environmental laws.

I’ve seen several published reactions to the Pope’s ‘climate and energy’ remarks. None of which quite match mine, which isn’t surprising.

“A London Particular” — Monet’s View

(From Claude Monet , via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Claude Monet’s “Trouée de soleil dans le brouillard,” 1904.)

Claude Monet was at St. Thomas’ Hospital in 1899. I don’t know why.

He started painting Westminster Palace, England’s Parliament building, while he was there.

A few years later he’d made well over a dozen ‘Parliament’ pictures.

Each showed Westminster as seen from St. Thomas’ Hospital, with different lighting and weather.

I’ve seen the “brouillard” in “Trouée de soleil dans le brouillard” called “smog.” I think Wikipedia’s “Sun Breaking Through the Fog” is more accurate. Or maybe “Sunlight in the fog.”

London air in 1904 wasn’t exactly fresh, but folks weren’t calling it “smog” yet. Dr. Henry Antoine Des Voeux’s used the word in his “Fog and Smoke” paper for London’s Public Health Congress in 1905.1

The city’s distinctive air had already earned colorful descriptions:

“…He was very obliging, and as he handed me into a fly after superintending the removal of my boxes, I asked him whether there was a great fire anywhere? For the streets were so full of dense brown smoke that scarcely anything was to be seen.
“‘Oh, dear no, miss,’ he said. ‘This is a London particular.’…”
(“Bleak House,” Chapter III, Charles Dickens (1853))

“…a fog as thick and as yellow as the pea-soup of the eating house….”
(“Annals of the fine arts,” John Sartain (1820) via Wikipedia)

“A Foggy Day in London Town”

(From The Illustrated London News; via Wellcome Library, The Guardian; used w/o permission.)
(“A London Fog. — Drawn by Duncan.” (1847))

London faced an energy crisis in the 13th century. Growing energy demands outstripped wood reserves. Londoners found an alternative resource: sea-coal. Smoke from the affordable but inefficient fuel became a serious problem.

Edward I became England’s king in 1272. He banned sea-coal burning in London. (February 17, 2017)

That probably cleared the air a little, at least for a while. But sea-coal remained an affordable fuel, and coal fires returned to London.

Folks in England weren’t the first to use coal. Theophrastus mentioned that workers heated metal with it. His treatise on mining probably discussed coal, too. But it got misplaced, hardly surprising after 23 centuries.

A 17th century amateur researcher noticed connections between London’s environment and health:

“I inclined to believe, that London now is more unhealthfull, then heretofore, partly for that it is more populous, but chiefly, because I have heard, that 60 years ago few Sea-Coals were burnt in London, which now are universally used. For I have heard, that Newcastle is more unhealthfull then other places, and that many People cannot at all endure the smoak of London, not onely for its unpleasantness, but for the suffocations which it causes…..”
(“Natural and political observations mentioned in a following index, and made upon the bills of mortality….,” John Graunt (1662) via Early English Books, University of Michigan Library)

We’ve learned quite a bit since 1662, including why breathing coal smoke is bad for us — and how to make coal fires somewhat less toxic.

I think that helps explain how we can get about 30% of our energy from coal without perishing in the smoke. An obvious solution to coal’s environmental and health downsides would be banning the stuff.2

A problem with outlawing coal is that we still don’t have an effective and affordable substitute power source. And we don’t just use energy. We need it.

Folks who don’t rely on coal for much of their energy are trying to become more dependent on power plants. Understandably, I think.

Most farms use metal implements, tools forged on an industrial scale. Processing, transporting and storing food takes more energy. So does nearly everything else we do.

Not Panicking

(From NASA; via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Most of India is dark at night because there is little economic activity going on”
(BBC News))

Humans don’t actually need electricity and farm tools. We got along by hunting and gathering until about eight millennia back. An estimated 5,000,000 of us still do. That leaves about 7,595,000,000 who rely on agriculture and newer technologies.

I think humanity would survive losing almost a third of our energy supply. We’ve weathered far worse. But many of us might not. Dead bodies could be a public health concern for survivors.

Environmental protesters have a point. So, I think, do folks who see environment and climate activists as crackpots.

Getting energy from fossil fuels gives us some immediate problems, with many more coming in the next few generations if we don’t change our habits.

Folks who express their concern by wearing penguin suits may be quite sincere.

I think they would improve their image considerably, and help their cause, with more substance and fewer costumes. Remembering that Americans and Europeans aren’t the only ‘powered’ people might also help.

Americans aren’t at the world’s 50th percentile. We use more power per person than average. We also lowered per-person energy use 1990 between 2008. By only 2%, but it did go down.

Residential customers use 13% of our energy, commercial customers account for 7%. Around 26% went into transportation in 2012. That’s a bit lower than the 27.3% global average. But not by much.

Industry uses 54% of America’s energy. The global average for industrial use is 27.8%.

World energy consumption was far lower when our most advanced technology was flint knapping. But each of us needed a lot more room.

A 1966 Britannica “Hunting and Gathering” article gave seven square miles per human as a population density for folks who didn’t plant crops.

That’s not a maximum number. Folks living New Guinea have a ‘hunt and gather’ economy. They pack something like 40 people into each square kilometer. If I did the math right, that’s about 103 per square mile.

But the hunting part of their food budget comes from fishing. I don’t know if the high population density includes ‘land’ that’s in the ocean.3

Remembering why folks in India and elsewhere use energy and want more makes sense. So does making better use of Earth’s resources. And not panicking.


(From William Heath, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(William Heath’s imaginative view of London’s water quality, 1828.)

From one viewpoint, the 19th century was good for London.

The city’s population grew from about 1,000,000 to 6,700,000, making London the world’s largest city: a global political, financial and trading hub.

Major cholera epidemics started in 1831.

Only 6,536 folks died that time, a fraction of the city’s population. The one starting in 1848 killed about 14,137.

That’s still not a big fraction of the city.

But Londoners were concerned, with reason, about their health.

The 1858 “Great Stink” wasn’t a metaphor. The city’s air stank. London’s sewers dumped untreated industrial and human waste into the Thames. Hot summer days boosted the bouquet to almost unbearable levels.

Aside from being unpleasant, folks saw the stench as a health hazard. They were right about the results, but not the cause. Not entirely.

Miasma theory, the idea that foul-smelling air causes disease, still made sense to many doctors and scientists.

Informed and popular opinion agreed that London’s foul air caused cholera and other diseases. Folks who accepted miasma theory weren’t entirely wrong. Breathing air with the wrong stuff in it can hurt us, even if it’s germ-free.

Some researchers thought microscopic critters caused disease.

The idea goes back at least to the 1st century BC. Marcus Terentius Varro called them “animalcules.”

Thinking animalcules cause disease was one thing.

Showing that they exist and make folks sick took nearly two millennia.

John Snow’s analysis of the 1848 epidemic told him that cholera was probably spread through water, not air. Snow published his findings in 1849. The folks in charge promptly ignored his research.

Snow tracked the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak to one well. He took the well’s handle, making it unusable: documenting the drop in fatalities. This time the powers that be took notice.4 (July 21, 2017)

Equine Crisis, 1894-1898

(From Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Horse-drawn vehicles sound like the ideal green transportation technology. Running on renewable resources, they produces virtually no carbon monoxide. Waste products are biodegradable. Besides all these advantages, literal horsepower is eminently scalable.

A single semi-autonomous unit powers a wide variety of personal vehicles.

Multi-unit configurations serve mass transit and freight applications.

There’s just one problem.

The solid and liquid biodegradable waste biodegrades. Fast.

That was a serious issue for cities in the late 19th and early 20th century.

More than 50,000 horses served London’s transit needs in 1900.

They pulled hansom cabs, buses, drays, wagons and carts. Besides hauling people and freight, each horse produced about two pints of urine and between 15 and 35 pounds of manure per day.

A Times report in 1894 said that if this kept up, every street in London would be under nine feet of manure by the end of 1903.

Disposing of dead horses was an issue, too. Horses usually live 30 or 40 years. Each of London’s lasted about three.

Horses often weigh around a half-ton. Draft horses are almost double that.

Knacker’s yards could recycle the carcasses, and often did. But hauling a half-ton carcass to the yard took time and labor.

I’ve read that street cleaners sometimes left dead horses near where they dropped. Purification made dismembering the bodies easier. It also added to London’s aroma, which should have been a concern for folks who accepted either miasma or germ theories.

London wasn’t the only city facing an equine crisis. An 1898 international urban planning conference did not find a solution.

Our cities, perhaps civilization itself, seemed doomed.

That would have been true if horse-drawn vehicles were the only practical transportation technology.

They weren’t. London’s Met, the world’s first underground railway, opened in 1863. It grew into the Underground. Other cities followed London’s lead.

Subterranean urban rapid transit’s name varies. It’s the Untergrundbahn in Germany, Tunnelbana in Sweden and metro in many English-speaking countries.5 I think of it as the subway.

Railways, above or below ground, have their own problems. But they’re part of many urban transit networks. And, I think, an improvement on horses and 1950s sedans.

New tech and rules won’t make cities perfect. But I think they can make our lives better. If we use our brains. (December 22, 2017)

Energy, Outrage and the Pope

(“The Pope has taken the business world to task on issues ranging from poverty to tax haven”
(BBC News))

Climate change: Pope urges action on clean energy
BBC News (June 9, 2018)

Pope Francis has said climate change is a challenge of ‘epochal proportions’ and that the world must convert to clean fuel.

“‘Civilisation requires energy, but energy use must not destroy civilisation,’ he said.

“He was speaking to a group of oil company executives at the end of a two-day conference in the Vatican.

“Firms present included ExxonMobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Norway’s Equinor and Pemex of Mexico….”

The Energy Transition and Care for Our Common Home two-day conference ended June 9, 2018. I’ve seen the usual opinions about the conference and what Pope Francis said.

Some apparently don’t approve. I’ve read that the Pope doesn’t understand the situation, won’t listen to experts and told executives to stop destroying civilization. Others indulged in colorful commentary. One headline started with “Mammon Goes to the Vatican….”

Online outrage at the Pope’s latest ‘environmental’ statement has been remarkably mild. What I’ve seen of it. By today’s standards. One reason may be that it’s been overshadowed by other topics.

The comparative calm is almost enough to make me glad that American news media’s denunciations of the president and his policies is matched only by the fury of those with other views.

Making Sense

Almost, but not quite.

The good news is that most folks I meet online aren’t having emotional meltdowns.

Flinging epithets isn’t an ideal persuasive strategy. My opinion, and another topic.

Another bit of good news, for me, is that at least some of the wrath — on all sides — could easily come from feelings of wounded justice. (September 17, 2017)

Back to what Pope Francis said.

I’ve read “Laudato Si’, so I wasn’t surprised at his ‘clean energy’ statement. I wasn’t sure that the BBC News ‘climate change’ focus mirrored the Pope’s emphasis, so I found and read a transcript.6

When I hear that a Pope said something I don’t like or don’t understand, learning more makes sense. Assuming that I’m right and the Pope is wrong doesn’t. Neither does thinking that Popes never make mistakes. (August 11, 2017; July 30, 2017)

Pope Francis did talk about a challenge of “epochal proportions.” He also discussed “climate changes.” That’s from the English-language transcript. I’m not sure which of the five listed languages he used on June 9.

In the Pope’s position, I probably wouldn’t have said exactly what he did. I almost certainly would have come at the issues from a different direction. Quibbling over details is an option. Sometimes it’s important.

In this case, I’d rather look at the Pope’s central idea.

I think he’s right. “Civilization requires energy, but energy use must not destroy civilization!” And keeping future generations in mind is a good idea. I agree that we need energy and should keep looking for alternatives to burning fossil fuels.

Learning more about how Earth’s climate works is important too.

This is our home. Taking care of our home makes sense. So does acting like we think others, including future generations, matter as much as we do.

Predictions and Prudence

Letting each new apocalyptic prediction inspire frenzied action isn’t a good idea.

Many doomsayers turn out to be wrong.

Lord Kelvin predicted that we’d consume all Earth’s fossil fuels in 500 years. He also said we only had 400 years of oxygen left.

His math was right. So were his facts. But he didn’t have all the facts.

We’ve learned more about the oxygen cycle, among other things. Oxygen is a renewable resource. It’s getting renewed. We won’t suffocate in a few centuries.

Ignoring an unpleasant analysis isn’t a good idea either.

Kelvin was right, basically, about coal. Our fossil fuel supply won’t last forever. I’ve seen reasonable estimates of our deadline ranging from decades to a century or so.

Coal is, theoretically, a “renewable resource.”

Today’s supply mostly formed in the Carboniferous, about a third of a billion years back. We haven’t had swamp forests that big since, but Earth’s climate keeps changing. An era like the Carboniferous could happen again. A few million years after that, we’d have renewed coal deposits.

I think long-range planning makes sense. But not in this case. We have at most a few centuries of coal left. Theorizing is fun, but won’t solve our energy issue. Even if we knew exactly what will happen over the next several geological ages, we can’t wait that long.

Some predictions have been accurate.

The passenger pigeon filled North American skies in 1800.

Many folks had noticed the pigeons were in trouble by 1880. Legislators took action, passing laws that weren’t effective.

By the time we realized that ‘pigeon protection’ laws weren’t working, it was too late. The last known passenger pigeon died on September 1, 1914.

I think the lesson here is that the earlier we notice a problem, the easier it is to deal with. Also that good intentions don’t guarantee good results. We have, happily, learned a great deal about wildlife management since 1800.7

Understanding climate management is, I think, very much a work in progress. We didn’t even realize that Earth’s climate changes until a few centuries back.

Reviewing Our Rules

(From Dragons flight, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

I’ve seen global warming replace the coming ice age as a secular analog to American Christianity’s End Times Bible prophecies. I suspect that climate doomsayers appeal to a different demographic. And that’s yet another topic.

The current buzzword — buzzphrase? — is climate change. The term is accurate. Earth’s climate is changing. And has been for several billion years. It’ll probably keep changing.

That said, I think reviewing and revising our environmental laws makes sense.

So does developing cleaner and more efficient technologies.

We were doing both before the 1948 air quality disaster in Donora, London’s Great Smog of 1952 and New York City’s 1966 smog. The new rules and tech hadn’t solved all our problems, obviously.

The Donora incident killed about 20 folks. London’s 1952 Great Smog death toll was around 4,000. The 1966 New York City event killed 80. Or maybe 168. It’s been debated.

I don’t think anyone gets nostalgic over mid-20th century smog. Or yearns for that part of the ‘good old days.’

Air pollution is still an issue. Emission control laws weren’t and aren’t ideal. But I think they’re better than nothing, and an overall improvement on what they replaced. So is today’s tech.8

I think we’ll be cleaning up the Industrial Revolution’s mess for centuries.

Global Climate Control: Eventually

Exhaust from centuries of coal- and oil-fueled industry almost certainly boosted carbon dioxide levels.

That probably affected Earth’s climate.

But I doubt we can thank the Industrial Revolution’s exhaust alone for ending the Little Ice Age.

Assuming that we can affect climate seems reasonable. We’ve probably been doing so for a very long time — unintentionally.

I think we have the knowledge and technology to make deliberate changes.

I’m not at all sure that applying today’s knowledge to a global climate control experiment would be a good idea.

Learning much more about how Earth’s climate works before conducting field tests seems wiser. And safer.

It’s not that I think we can’t or shouldn’t start controlling our home’s climate. The benefits seem obvious. I certainly think cleaning up vehicle and industry emissions makes sense.

But let’s say that national leaders around the world decide that climate control is a top priority, and that implementation should start right now. What could possibly go wrong?

We might get it right on the first try.

Perhaps sunny skies with regularly-scheduled gentle rains would abolish famines, end poverty, usher in a Golden Age — and we’d live happily ever after.

Or, more likely, we’d have several opportunities to learn from our mistakes.

It’s happened before.

Weather control seemed like a good idea in my youth.

Meteorology was turning weather forecasting from guesswork to a somewhat-reliable science.

Scientists were learning what triggers rain and how storms work. Several experiments showed that they were on the right track.

We became much more cautious about testing weather control tech, for which I’m grateful.

Recent analysis suggests that a 1947 experiment didn’t make the Cape Sable Hurricane do a U-turn. Probably.

That storm only killed one person.

The Black Hills Flood of 1972 killed 238.

Survivors learned that scientists had used the storm for an experiment.

America’s courts decided that scientists couldn’t be held responsible for the storm. There wasn’t enough proof that their experiment enhanced the death and destruction.

Hopes that practical weather control was around the corner pretty much ended after that.

I still think learning to control Earth’s weather and climate is a good idea.

I’m quite convinced that we can control Earth’s climate, safely and effectively. Eventually. I think we should. It’s part of our job. And we should learn much more before starting large-scale field tests.9

Dominion and Leviticus 25:5

Some 19th century industrialists earned their reputation for environmental mismanagement and disregard for the lives and interests of their workers.

Careless waste management, appalling labor practices and the era’s Christian veneer left a bad impression.

But not an entirely accurate one.

Humanity’s “dominion” over this world does not give wealthy individuals and nations permission to plunder resources and exploit the poor.

God did, however, give all of us authority. Limited authority.

Our position is like a steward’s or foreman’s. We’re expected to look after our home: for our reasoned use and for future generations. (Genesis 1:2628; 2:58; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 16, 339, 356358, 2402, 24152418, 2456)

This isn’t a new idea:

“…we come together to take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us….”
(“Laudato si’,” Pope Francis (May 24, 2015))

“…Today the subject of development is also closely related to the duties arising from our relationship to the natural environment. The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole….”
(“Caritas in veritate,” 48, Pope Benedict XVI (June 29, 2009))

“For six years you may sow your field, and for six years prune your vineyard, gathering in their produce.
“But during the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath for the LORD, when you may neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard.
“The aftergrowth of your harvest you shall not reap, nor shall you pick the grapes of your untrimmed vines. It shall be a year of rest for the land.”
(Leviticus 25:35)

“The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.”
(Genesis 2:5)

We have Work to Do

Lord Kelvin’s 1898 ‘fuel and oxygen’ prediction was right about one thing. There’s only so much coal. We can’t keep burning it indefinitely.

That’s why I think Pope Francis was right when he said “there is no time to lose….”

We need a reasonable alternative to fossil fuels. This is not the time to stop looking.

I’m quite sure the search will continue.

Scientists have been exploring several new technologies. Interest has, if anything, increased over the last few decades.

We’ve also had some disappointments.

Nuclear power looked very promising. So did biofuels and solar power. I think they’re useful, but each has its own problems. The same goes for wind power and other tech.

Fusion power research may be part of the solution, but it’s at best decades away from practical applications.

Dealing with climate change is urgent too, but not in the ‘New York minute’ sense.

We know more about how Earth’s weather and climate works than we did in 1947 and 1972. I’m convinced that we’ll keep learning more.

And, eventually, we will add controlling Earth’s climate — safely — to our tasks.

Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of work to be done:

1 Art and air quality:

2 Coal, health and history:

3 Power and people:

4 Miasma and microorganisms:

5 Horses and trains:

6 Climate and Popes:

7 Predictions and all that:

8 Attitudes, assumptions, and a few facts:

9 How I see weather, climate and being human:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Power and Climate

  1. I was going to ask about why there are people who don’t believe in climate change or the popular narrative in which the phrase is invoked in, but then I read this. Thanks very much for this, then, Sir!

Thanks for taking time to comment!