First published in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of North Simcoe Community News.

I am still reeling from the images and stories of devastation wrought by the record-breaking power of Hurricane Sandy. In diameter, it was the largest hurricane in history, and the second costliest. We learned how the deep low pressure of its eye sucked up the ocean and carried it along as a willing accomplice to wield like a tsunami on New York and New Jersey. This was no ordinary hurricane.

Global warming was a contributor. Unusually warm ocean surface temperatures, and a wavy jet stream blocking pattern (caused by melting sea ice) both helped to make it particularly destructive. Hurricanes like Sandy are the new norm.

Possibly the only good thing that can be said about Hurricane Sandy is that it finally brought the issue of climate change into the American presidential campaign. You certainly wouldn’t expect Romney to raise the issue – not when he is financed by the Koch brothers. These men, involved in the ecologically controversial process of cracking for the refinement of heavy oil into gasoline, are second only to Bill Gates in the club of wealthy Americans. You can bet they expect a return on their investment. But Barack Obama? In his 2009 inaugural address he stated, “With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.” Why, until now, has he been so silent on climate change? Why aren’t we hearing about valid options to fossil fuel? There are, as it turns out, exciting alternatives.

Maybe we, the citizens of the world, are partly to blame. We aren’t informed or mad enough. Politicians cannot act without widespread public support. Well, Bill McKibben’s fascinating July article in Rolling Stone Magazine – Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math – should get you steamed. Ironically, in the article Bill, described by Time Magazine as the world’s best green journalist, prophetically ponders what would happen if a giant hurricane flooded Manhattan. We’ll soon find out. But first, here are the three simple numbers you need to know.

The Target: 2 degrees Celsius

At the 2010 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, 167 countries, responsible for over 87% of global carbon emissions signed on to the Copenhagen Accord endorsing a target of a global temperature increase of less than 2 degrees Celsius. So far we have had an increase of 0.8 degrees and experienced more damage than expected from severe weather events. Many scientists now think that 2 degrees is too much. Kerry Emanuel of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes, said, “Any number much over one degree involves a gamble”. NASA scientist James Hanson, the planet’s most prominent climatologist stated that, “two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.” Yet, this number has become Planet Earth’s official position on climate change.

The Carbon Budget: 565 Gigatons

To have a reasonable chance of staying below a global temperature increase of 2 degrees, scientists estimate that we can pour 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by 2050.  Previously released carbon will continue to overheat the atmosphere by about another 0.8 degrees, so we are already three quarters of the way there. But studies show that we are going to use up our carbon allowance in only 16 years. Dr. Fatih Birol, International Energy Agency’s Chief Economist stated, “The new data provides further evidence that the door to a two-degree trajectory is about to close.” He goes on to say that “the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees.”

Fossil Fuel Reserves: 2,795 Gigatons

A team of London financial analysts thought it a good idea to inform their investors about the possible risks of climate change to their portfolios. So they looked at how much carbon the fossil fuel industry already had on their books. We’re talking about their main assets, valued into their stock prices and used as collateral for huge loans, not to mention the major basis of government budget planning in oil rich nations such as our own. The team’s conservative estimate is, you guessed it, 2,795 gigatons, five times more than our “safe” budget! To avoid disaster, we’d be asking the fossil fuel industry to write off 80% of their reserves, or $20 trillion in assets. Any talk of running out of oil is now a moot point. We have way too much.

No wonder humanity is paralyzed. Our current way of life is completely dependent on fossil fuels. We simply could not support over 7 billion people without a vast, cost effective energy source. The good news is that alternatives exist.

So what is this superfuel that could replace oil, coal and gas? One option gaining attention is thorium. In comparison with uranium, I have yet to find a downside, unless you are in the business of making atomic bombs. It is four times more abundant, more widespread throughout the world, and easier to extract (therefore less environmentally damaging). It’s also simpler to use and it’s safe. It cannot chain react, so there is no threat of a melt down and it produces far less waste that is also less radioactive. And it generates far more energy per ton. You might think that this is a new discovery. Not so. At the beginning of the atomic age, both uranium and thorium were considered. The Manhattan Project of WW2 ensured that uranium won out because of its by-product: plutonium. You can make bombs from uranium.

Thorium has been studied for 50 years, but now it’s finally come of age. India’s first thorium reactor is expected to be completed this year. China is in a race with similar but smaller private programs in Japan, Russia, Australia and the US to develop an even more effective thorium reactor called a LFTR (liquid fluoride thorium reactor).

The only things holding back governments of the world from supporting this new industry is a lack of public awareness and opposition from the monstrously powerful but dangerous fossil fuel industry. But think of the outcome. Thorium can both lessen the global nuclear threat and roll back the specter of a warming planet. It’s a golden opportunity in the face of catastrophe.

So please, join me in writing to our representatives in government. Talk to your friends, relatives and neighbours. Write letters to the editor. Help to build the awareness that will mobilize governments to act. It’s time, and we don’t have much of it.

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