Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire. Brain takes a serious as well as entertaining look at a world of possibilities for Earth and the human race. He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.”
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RALEIGH – Earlier this year, I was invited to speak at the TEDxNCState event, held in Tompson Hall on the North Carolina State University campus. And today’s post in my ongoing series on WRAL TechWire is the video and text
transcript of that talk as delivered to students and other campus officials and employees:
In this speech, I present a proposal that asks the institution to become a perfectly green campus.”
And here’s why: To show the world what needs to happen globally in order to solve the climate change catastrophe that is fast approaching unless humanity takes dramatic steps to avert it.
But before we delve into what I said, here’s an important note.
At the very beginning of this talk something unexpected happened to me. About two sentences into it I was struck by a wave of emotion. I had to pause, let the wave pass, and then begin again. It’s something I had never experienced before.
If I were to try to explain what happened, it might be this: In front of me in this audience was a crowd of college students. And that mattered.
So, why the rush of emotion?
These college students did not ask to be born onto a planet that is about to be destroyed by climate change and global heating.
Yet here they are coming of age on such a planet. All signs are pointing to a coming catastrophe, yet the world’s leaders – the people in charge of the world’s governments, industries, corporations, and even the leaders in charge of their campus – appear to be doing little to nothing of any real significance to solve the climate change problem. It’s overwhelming to comprehend how amazingly unfair this is to them; how unjustly they are being treated by a few generations that preceded them and burned all the fossil fuels that create the current crisis.
After that wave of comprehension and emotion washed over me, I paused, I started over, and here is what I said.
Turn on your imagination switches
Imagine that we could get in a time machine and travel back in time to the year 1900. We are standing on a busy New York City street corner. We are also standing right on the starting line for the twentieth century. There are not any airplanes yet, but the Wright brothers will invent the first airplane in 1903. There are not any practical automobiles yet, but Henry Ford will start selling the Model T in 1909 and eventually sell over 16 million of them. Therefore, all around us, pretty much everyone is using horses for transportation. It’s a very primitive time in America, and around the world, compared to today.
Now imagine that on this same street corner a huckster is there, and he gets up on a soapbox. He raises his voice and a crowd of people start gathering around. He is holding up a can of gasoline. He says to the crowd:
“I want to show you the new fuel of the twentieth century! It’s called gasoline and it will change the world! Gasoline is cheap and there will be an infinite supply of gasoline! We can pump it out of the ground just like the water in your well!”
And he’s right. At that moment in history, the entire world is going to switch over to using oil, pumped out of the ground, and converted into gasoline, or diesel, or jet fuel, turned into liquid fossil fuels that can power every part of our transportation infrastructure.
So humanity started using gasoline and liquid fossil fuels all around the world. Cars, trucks, trains, airplanes, ships – Everything could use liquid fossil fuels. It is an amazing transformation because the entire world economy is going to come to depend on fossil fuels. Gasoline is cheap, gasoline is easy to transport, and gasoline contains a lot of energy. It’s perfect. It really does look perfect. Except for one minor thing.
The problems created by gasoline
The problem is that no one (or not enough people) in 1900 asked, “Wait a minute, with these fossil fuels, are there any possible downsides? Any problems that gasoline will create? Anything that can possibly go wrong with this idea?” No one thought about the long-term harm that fossil fuels would cause. They only looked at the positive. So gasoline use exploded.
Now here we are, 123 years later, and we are looking at an unfolding disaster caused by these fossil fuels. We burn fossil fuels, it puts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and we are seeing a huge range of terrible side effects from this carbon dioxide. We call these side effects things like “Climate Change” and “Global Heating”, and they are now in the process of destroying the planet. There are devastating side effects we can see all around:
- The biggest problem is that global temperatures are rising.
- With global heating, it is causing immense droughts all around the world.
- Conversely, global heating can cause severe flooding in wet areas. As in Pakistan last year, where like a third of the country was under water from the flooding that occurred.
- Hurricanes and monsoons are stronger because the ocean is warmer.
- Summers are much hotter.
- These droughts and floods are causing crop failures, which will lead to global food shortages. We are already beginning to see the start of that now.
- The droughts are causing important rivers to dry up in the summer. It creates big problems for transportation, for drinking water and so on.
- The ice in Antarctica and Greenland is melting, raising sea levels.
- The permafrost in the Arctic is melting, releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere in addition to everything human beings are emitting.
- Ocean temperatures are rising and oceans are acidifying, causing all kinds of problems for marine species.
- We are on the verge of creating a sixth mass extinction event. The fifth mass extinction event was the asteroid that came 65 million years ago and killed off the dinosaurs. We, humanity, are going to create the sixth mass extinction event through global heating and other problems.
- A combination of global heating and human greed may soon cause the Amazon rainforest to collapse. A big chunk of the forest is now gone. The Amazon rainforest contains more than a million species.
- All because of fossil fuels and the carbon dioxide they have released.
These are horrible effects!
All of these problems will have horrible effects on everyone on the planet. Every species. Just think about rising sea levels. This one problem alone. Every coastal city will get flooded out. Miami, for example, has six million residents and they will all get flooded out. This is the NOAA prediction for Miami flooding with 10 feet of sea level rise.
On the left is the Miami area today. On the right is NOAA’s prediction with 10 feet of sea level rise. The entire area is flooded. Miami will be gone. There are six million people there. They will lose all that they have in terms of houses, apartments, businesses, roads. It will all be underwater. The six million people will be streaming out into the rest of America, which already has a housing shortage. Miami will be gone. Boston gone. Big parts of NYC, London, Shanghai, gone. Any coastal city will experience this, and up to one billion people will be displaced through this one process alone.
If humans were smart, what would we do immediately?
So, we started burning liquid fossil fuels around 1900 in a serious way. Now we see the terrible side effects. If humanity, all eight billion of us as a species, were smart and rational, what would we be doing right now? We would obviously be taking immediate, dramatic steps given what we know is coming; Given the amount of catastrophe that we know will be arriving. Just the thought of losing all the coastal cities should be enough to inspire us. However we, humanity, as a species, are not really doing anything dramatic, impactful, intense to solve climate change.
We need to start today and we need to be bold, aggressive, fanatical about stopping climate change if we are to avert the destruction and catastrophe that is coming.
What would we do if we were rational, if we could act as a species?
We would absolutely ban fossil fuels. We would put a big stake in the ground and we would say, “We, the entire human community on planet Earth, are going to stop using fossil fuels. We would stop burning coal, gasoline, diesel, natural gas. That’s been impossible so far. We can look at this graph and see what has been happening.
This shows gigatons of carbon dioxide emitted by us over time by burning fossil fuels. It starts in 1850. We were burning just a little bit of coal. It grew to 1900, and grew to 1950. And then it exploded between 1950 and today. So today humanity is emitting about 35 gigatons of carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels per year on planet Earth.
What is going to happen in the future, if we were to look at the possible futures that are available to us? This next graph one possibility – we keep burning more and more fossil fuels. We dig every bit out of the ground, we light it on fire, and we send the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere:
Scientists know that this would be an utter catastrophe. Probably the complete destruction of civilization and most natural species on planet Earth. Somehow we have to prevent that.
But even this scenario, where we level off at 35 gigatons per year and hold steady:
Even this would be catastrophic. This is what needs to happen:
But we, humanity, show no sign of being able to accomplish this. It’s like we are addicted to fossil fuels. We seem unable to take the giant world economy and shift it into anything like this right now. We don’t have the political will, the global will, there simply is not any evidence that it is happening.
So we would ban fossil fuels if we were smart and rational and could act as a species. We would also start extracting carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere. Meaning that the history of our burning fossil fuels means that we have dumped almost two trillion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We would start pulling it back out. We have machines that can do this in the prototype form.
And then we would do absolutely everything possible to save the rainforests. The reason for that is because we are in the process of cutting down and burning down the rainforests. If they collapse, then that will release hundreds of gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as they convert from forests to either grasslands or desserts. We need to eliminate human activities in the rainforest, let them regrow and heal.
What can we actually do here at North Carolina State?
So this gets us to the paradox of climate change. We know, scientists know, thoughtful people know, that humanity must get on a different path. We have to do something. But the problem is that “we”, those of us sitting here in this room, “we” cannot “do” anything to affect the needed changes.
We cannot cause the world to ban fossil fuels. We can advocate for that. We can have people sign petitions perhaps. But nothing so far has really moved the needle.
We cannot do anything to cause the world to extract carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
We cannot do anything to stop what is happening in the rainforests in the Amazon or in Africa.
“We” sitting in this room cannot make any of these big, important changes. There is seemingly not any change that we as individuals or we in this group can affect at a global scale. This is the paradox: we have to do something, yet there is seemingly nothing we (as individuals) can do.
So what could we do here at NCSU? What is there that we can contemplate doing, that we could make happen reasonably in our sphere of influence to somehow to somehow help with this climate change crisis?
This is the proposal: What if we could turn NC State, our university, into a shining star of an example of what the world needs to do to counter climate change?
By that I mean, what if we were to make NC State perfectly green?
The people in this room, with the other people on campus, could affect this change. NC State could become perfectly green with enough effort, with enough foresight, with enough pressure. This university could become a perfectly green university. We can show the whole planet what is possible when it comes to climate change. And then shout about it everywhere we can – let the world know what is possible.
What would this mean?
First, we would convert NC State over so that it is 100% solar powered. We would put solar panels on top of every building and parking deck. We would build solar farms on vacant land available across campus. We can easily power NC State with the sun. And it would probably be cheaper given how far down the price of solar panels has come.
We can convert over from smelly diesel buses to electric buses. It would put a stake in the ground; It would say that here is an electric future that we have made possible at NC State. We could also make those buses run a lot more smoothly with bus priority systems so that people are incented to use them.
We can build a system to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. So when people commute onto campus, that carbon dioxide that they emitted could be extracted back out of the atmosphere. Similarly, we could create synthetic fuels on campus. We are one of the finest engineering schools in the United States and the world. We certainly have the ability to pull this off.
We could do a dozen more things like this at this university very easily to make us perfectly green, to make us a showcase.
To do this we need to get everyone involved. We need the student body and student government involved, the faculty and staff involved. There are 7,000 staff people at this university alone. It’s a huge group of people. We need to get the administration on board. And Alumni, all 280,000 alumni from NC State scattered all over the world.
All of us together could get this going, and then it would be a source of pride for us. I think everyone who is conscious of climate change today feels some amount of guilt, or distress, or anxiety, or despair about the idea that the planet is being destroyed. If we could all get on board, I think we would all feel better knowing that at least in this one place we have solved the climate change problem.
The important thing then is to shout about that we are doing here at NC State. Get the NCSU marketing department on it. It’s 100% a marketing problem to let the world know. We are doing all of this stuff and then we are broadcasting out all the things we are accomplishing and our desire to make a perfectly green campus. Therefore:
- We for example could change the logo, maybe for a period of time it is green, not red.
- We can put messages on football and basketball jerseys about that we are doing.
- We would use press releases, speeches, conferences and so on to get the word out.
- We would make as much noise as we possibly can about everything that is happening here and the steps we are taking to make this campus perfectly green.
This means that we would solve the paradox locally because we have the power to make that local change happen. Once that change starts here, then we can broaden it out to other universities and help them too. We could help Raleigh become a perfectly green city. We could help the Research Triangle region become perfectly green as well. We act as a seed and we spread things out from the core here at NC State.
We make NC State the shining star for the whole world to see. We make sure everyone knows about it. And in the process, not only do we have change happening on campus, but we also have the pride of making that change happen, and we can the effects spread from their starting point here at NC State.