Of course, we all should be concerned about global issues. We as working people can only do a bit at a time, realistically. We can reduce, reuse, recycle, drive less, take public transport, ride a bike. But the strongest message you can send to the leadership comes through a path you would not expect. More on that later.
There are a lot of issues to deal with here, and I've updated it.
Climate Change - Yes, the climate is changing. It always has, always will, and there's not a lot we can do about it. Well, of course we might slightly affect the climate but physics seems to be on the side of negative feedback paths in general. If the earth really has a strong positive feedback mechanism, it would have 'latched up' like a TL082 op-amp already, and we would be Venus. No, the negative feedback mechanisms tend to stabilize things. The excitement about the Antarctic ice thinning seems to be down because it is as thick as usual. Global temperatures appear to have stabilized and seem to be on the decline for a bit. Of course, a lot of CO2 gets released into the atmosphere by us, so we might have a bit of an effect. I tend to not necessarily believe that we are having a huge effect on world climate, but that is irrelevant in what we need to do. We do, of course, make floods worse, and hurricanes worse, by other means - water diversions, for example..
Where Do You Live - In Alberta, it is unwise to build a house at the base of Turtle Mountain. Perhaps it is unwise to settle on top of a huge fault line... and build one of the world's largest cities on it. Uh huh. Lots of hurricane fatalities? Well, building a home where hurricanes historically hit is quite possibly unwise, and staying there until the last minute probably isn't the brightest thing to do either. Of course, we have to live somewhere, right? Maybe redirecting a river makes it incapable of dealing with the occasional deluge. Rivers overrun their banks. It's going to happen. It always has happened, and will continue to happen.
Climate Change and Atmospheric CO2 - Even if we raise the concentration of carbon dioxide a lot, it ain't likely to make a huge difference in temperature. Heat energy absorbed by CO2 is relatively low, and follows a logarithmic curve - 'Beer's Law'. But we should do everything we can to conserve our oil resources..... But if everyone is taught we should conserve to stop global warming, and then we put in carbon sequestration technologies, we will have wasted money on things we should not have. The key is efficiency and using a limited amount of energy wisely. Ok, I'm a bit of a CO2 causing climate change skeptic.
I'm not a denier, but a skeptic. I'm not yet convinced because so far the information I have seen is from the past, followed by extrapolation into the future. What is missing here is first principles. For every first principle explanation that CO2 causes global warming, another first principle explanation comes up to the opposite (or at least no significant contribution) conclusion.
I will put it this way. If you're a racing fan, or a hot-rodder, or anyone that has anything to do with engines, this will make sense. If I connect a Chevette engine to a dynamometer, I can generate a power curve (as well as a whole lot more data) as I increase the engine speed. But say I stop testing the engine at 4800 RPM. At this point, the engine's power is 70 kW (or 93 horsepower, if you want to be difficult). I have all kinds of charts at the end of this test, relating to engine emissions, fuel efficiency, engine torque, engine power. But can I tell you from this data what is likely to happen at 6600 RPM? Or 9000 RPM? What about 50,000 RPM? This is extrapolation from past history.
If I assume that the curves continue, I should get 96 kW at 6600 RPM, 131 kW at 9000 RPM, and a whopping 729 kW at 50,000 RPM - that's 975 horsepower out of that little Chevette 1.6 litre monster. Yea, that's silly. What really happens is that at 6600, from first principles, the volumetric efficiency drops and the thermal efficiency drops, so you get only 78 kW at 6600 RPM - almost a 20% error. Actually testing the engine is probably faster than calculating all of the effects that speed, temperatures, flame speeds, and the phase of the moon have on the engine. But the key here is that a derivation from first principles will show what to expect, but either we determine a bunch of constants from exhaustive computational fluid dynamics, or we test the engine, with the understanding of how it will behave in general. We can then determine those constants from the engine data.
Above that, from extrapolation we should achieve 131 kW at 9000 RPM. When I try to test the engine, the little trooper just won't go past 7800 RPM - it can't even get out of its way. What happened? from first principles, we discover that the valves begin to float above around 7500 RPM, and no matter how hard we press the pedal, it's not going any faster - it puts out less than zero horsepower at 9000 RPM - it can't get out of its own way! A far cry from our extrapolation. Ok, so let's try to get this sucker up to 50,000 RPM. We do that by attaching a big electric motor to the engine and spinning it up. At an engine speed probably not much higher than 10,000 RPM, the connecting rod bolts cannot take the strain of the torque reversal found at the top of the intake stroke (surprisingly, the most stressful part of most engine's cycles), and they rather unceremoniously stretch. What follows that little stretch is a bit more exciting, and is a rather messy end to our little test. As they say in the engine testing business, the hot, oily pieces are yours. The poor old Chevette won't even get to within 20% of the engine speed required to get over 700 kW without flying apart. This we can calculate from first principles. Granted, extrapolation is a great tool, but it must be used with the utmost of caution, and with a good understanding of the principles behind it.
Carbon Capture - Waste of time and money, maybe. Or if you use the CO2 as a chemical feedstock for something else, then it's not. It's impressive when you can use CO2 in place of water in oil refining, etc.
Peak Oil - 'Peak Oil' is assumed to be about the halfway point of oil. We have used about half of it when that time comes, in theory.. Some people say it came and went in 2006. Some people say 2030, and some say 2015. In any case, that means we only have enough oil at reasonable prices to last only a few years after this occurs. Of course, peak oil is a strange concept. As the price goes higher, we can find more oil if we look harder. I tend to believe that peak oil should occur somewhere in the 2020-2035 region, followed by a slow decline. Geologically, the decline can't happen any other way. You can't deplete an oilfield faster than about 4% per year. The 'doomers' predict an oil crash. It isn't that likely because already alternative fuels and energy supplies are almost cost-competitive with oil. Even the most dire person I know of, Gwynn Dyer, even admits that we could be essentially off of so-called 'fossil fuels' within three or four years if we put all of our effort to it. I believe him on this, though I'm still a bit of a 'Climate War' skeptic. Is oil really renewable? Perhaps. But as far as we know now, however it is formed, it does so in a 'geologic timeframe'. That being said, the other pollution issues with oil cannot be denied.
Energy - this one is easy to deal with. We need to keep in mind that within the next 20 years, much of our economic situation (prosperity) will reverse drastically unless we wean ourselves from oil. This is difficult. Oil companies quite often call it 'production' but it is not. It is extraction only. Once it takes more energy to pull oil out of the ground and convert it into gasoline, it is no longer a fuel. Kind of like Hydrogen. Hydrogen is not a fuel if you make it from electricity (electrolysis). It is marginally a fuel if you make it from natural gas, in the same way that gasoline is a fuel because it is made from oil. Anyways, if you have to burn one and a half barrels of oil to pull one barrel of oil from the ground, it does not make sense as a fuel. You were better off not doing anything.
We can get out of the energy problem relatively easily... relatively. We need to be more efficient transporting ourselves, we need to be more efficient housing ourselves, and we need to be more efficient in the industries we choose. Electrically-based public transportation is one important positive step we can take. An electrically-based long-haul transportation system for goods and people will help a lot. Bringing back trains, but this time powered with nuclear, solar, geothermal, wind (solar), or hydroelectric (solar) power. For personal transportation, small, efficient, probably electrically powered 'NEV's - neighbourhood electric vehicles are an option. Bicycles are a great option, too. The local public transportation system would need facilities to deal with bicycle - train - bicycle transport. Possibly a bike lockup arrangement at both ends of your long commute, so the short commute between your home and the train station can be done easily. Local manufacturing can make a comeback because it may get to be too expensive to transport goods around the world. A lot of industry already uses energy in the form of electricity. No problem there. See here for a reasonable plan of attack and some hopeful words.
Why do I like electricity? Because it is a high-quality energy that is useful everywhere. If your industrial base and transportation system can use it, it doesn't matter where you get it. If we all drove electrically-powered vehicles which would be powered by coal-fired plants, well, if that fuel source disappeared, we could fire up a nuclear plant and a couple of dams. The end user does not see the difference (except in the price of the energy). The vehicle does not care. Currently, a fleet of gasoline vehicles could not be converted to run on solar power very easily. The best scenario is to convert them to run on electricity. After all, a solar panel the size of a house, or a radiation shield for a nuclear reactor make either impractical for in-vehicle use. It is impossible to convert a car to run on falling water. But you can convert a car to run on electricity, then run on falling water via that energy storage medium. Are electric vehicles perfect? Not really. They are relatively expensive, and batteries are energy-intensive to manufacture. But they offer a possible solution for small personal transportation. Move closer to where you work.
It is possible that we end up drastically reducing the number of people on the planet. Either we do it voluntarily (thank you, Durex), or Mother Nature will do it for us (any influenza strain has this capability, for example). You don't want to be around when Mother Nature does it, because she is not nice about it. Or if you rather, whatever deity you believe in. In any case, Judgement Day may not be pleasant for most of us as it will likely entail suffering due to disease, famine, fighting etc. Technology is around to help us but we need to be responsible to use it properly. Historically, technology has saved us in the past, and will likely save us in the future. Technology is what ended the Black Death. Technology - and the knowledge of how to blend technology with Mother Nature is what ended cholera and E.Coli outbreaks in Europe and elsewhere. Technology is why we didn't all starve even when we passed two billion people on the planet. Technology saved us from killing half the people in California with vehicle exhaust. Technology, along with integrating that technology with Mother Nature's own technology, can easily solve a population problem, a water problem, an energy problem, most disease problems, and a pollution problem. It's not the end-all or do-all. Any technology needs to work within the constrains of Mother Nature.
Mining in the future might be interesting. I expect that old garbage dumps will become new mines, and the (now little) new miners will be giving us supreme s**t for living such a wasteful lifestyle. Even when recycling wasn't the norm many decades ago - and even now - our lack of foresight will not really be a problem as the young kids now will be working in the garbage dump mines and doing our recycling for us. That's optimistic, yes. Probably more of an optimistic view than I usually have, but I really do believe this.
Aviation might be interesting. We love to fly. Flying in the traditional manner consumes vast quantities of fuel. The energy density of a hydrocarbon fuel is pretty close to necessary for efficient flight. Electric flight may be possible but it might be a luxury and/or military item just as flying was in the early days. Zeppelins might come back, or hot air balloons rigged for extremely high altitude, high speed, flight. Obviously not cheap to fly. A boat is a more sensible option, though much slower. Algae or switchgrass oil might be useful for those applications where electricity or other alternative energies do not currently make sense.
Maybe the sun is giving us global cooling? Well, maybe. Who knows? The sun is a very powerful force to be reckoned with. It controls our clouds (thanks to the magnetics of our planets and solar winds), it heats the earth, amazingly enough about 1 kW/m2 of heat falls on our planet... magnitudes greater than what we manage to do. Earth's core has a substantial exotherm associated with it, too. CO2 levels have been over an order of magnitude higher in our past. But ferns used to grow where we now have permafrost. I don't know if I'm especially convinced about climate change being totally our doing. But I am convinced of the oil thing.
Food - most people do not realize that most agricultural fertilizer comes from natural gas. Food production in the quantities required to feed the earth is very energy intensive. They don't realize that 'organic' farming will only feed a globe of maybe 2 billion people, and we're somewhere around 8 billion people now. That's one out of four people. We we could feed ourselves, but only if the global population is reduced by a factor of four? The better approach is to realize that fertilizers and agrichemicals and, for that matter, pretty much anything, can already be manufactured with energy. You need hydrogen for fertilizer, not natural gas. You can make hydrogen in numerous ways. Birth rates are falling globally, if we have a 'peak population' of anywhere under about 8 or 10 billion, we can feed them.
Water - we are pumping water out of the ground at a huge rate. This will be a problem as aquifers rely on slow water migration. It is almost the same as the oil situation, except that water is at least semi-renewable. It does, however, happen in a 'geologic' timeframe. There have been predictions of water wars. It's not likely. Reverse osmosis - the same kind of filters used to make those crazy bottles of water - can desalinate, and even generate drinkable water from sewage. There are countries out there that already get all of their water from the sea, using this technology. Not new, not even that exciting, but a great solution.
Ok, so what can we do about all of this? Well, if we are not very lucky - my generation and our children's generation may well be sort of the last of the civilization as we know it now. I doubt that our species will die off totally, though. Not cheery news.
If we are lucky and make the right choices, we may get a few hundred or maybe a couple thousand more years, or even hundreds of thousands or millions of years around here. Evolution, if Darwin's theory is correct - and bacteria appear to back his theories, might make us look like the infamous Roswell aliens in that many years.
But how do you get the world's leaders (and that includes business, not just politics) to go along? I say, with your hard-earned dollar. Politicians and businessmen tend to be greedy. Sometimes too greedy, for example, Bernie Madoff. Pretty much any banker that gets a multi-million dollar bonus for running the bank into the ground, too. The businessmen are pretty much supposed to be greedy, in a way. Politicians should not be, but we have had conflict-of-interest ruling from, well, a long time ago. Started way back when, and has continued up to and including the current administrations on Ottawa and Washington. And Moscow, and <insert your country here>. Don't buy products that use too much fuel to produce. Don't buy that huge plasma TV set. Don't buy that big SUV. Demand action. Demand 50 mpg cars! Europe has them! Don't buy a car, take a bus?
There is a problem with this. If everyone does this all at once, then a lot of people will be out of work, all at once. We are going to have to accept a lower salary-to-living cost ratio. We have to. Our economy has grown to the point where it is unsustainable, like everything else we do. That is hard medicine for a society where there are a lot of people living hand-to-mouth. We are all overextended. Even those of us with little debt, we're overextended.
Gold... not. Many people are convinced that the fall of the entire financial system is upon us, and that we should be using the gold standard system instead. I believe Ron Paul buys into this, and although I like some of his ideas, this isn't one of them. I believe that if we were using a gold standard system right now, a depression would be inevitable. The gold system does have advantages, but in the current system, a fiat system does make a lot of sense. Most economists seem to agree. An internet search yields a lot of sites advocating a return to gold. But almost every reputable economics site (with a real economist running it) seems to point out that the opposite is true.
A gold-backed currency does not make any sense to me. Although it makes intuitive sense to anyone, it really is silly. Havng a vault of gold sitting around to back your currency means that you have to pay for everything twice. You have a backing of gold, and you have the product - a fraction of the country's GDP - also backing the currency. Plus, gold is much more useful in industrial processes than sitting in a vault. The basic theory behind a gold-backed currency is sound - it is essentially barter, gold for product, or product for gold. Storing gold in a vault somewhere 'represented' by a piece of paper is just convenient. The problem is that the value of gold is not fixed, much as you think it should be; a gold discovery could cause rampant inflation and rather than being controlled as a fiat-based currency can be, all of the sudden your one gold coin buys not a cow but one cut of steak - overnight. A good industrial use of gold (for example, to coat the next generation of solar cells) would be difficult to accomplish if everybody were to hoard gold. In addition, the Depression (1929-1939) could have been softened with a fiat-based currency - just like the current recession could well have become a depression (and it still might, but the probability has gone down quite a bit). But by temporarily 'printing money', banks did not collapse, the financial system did not collapse. It remains to be seen how 'destroying money' is going to be done in order to avoid runaway inflation. But the current ratios of dollar value, GDP, cost-of-living, and housing prices are not nearly at their worst-case values now as they have been in the past. Fiat currencies can and do collapse, or are revalued, and it just happens. Gold may not collapse quite so much but its worth is not nearly as fixed as you think it ought to be. The use of gold in electrical equipment during the last (and this) century could have been much slower had we used a gold standard currency. Discouraging the use of gold in industrial processes would likely have stifled innovation during the past hundred or so years.... that is currently being used in everything from video games to solar panels to the computer that runs your car engine and makes the air behind it reasonably clean. But the fiat system is not really great, either, but to me it seems at least better than the gold standard or gold coinage systems. I think that the fiat-based currency and financial system is one gigantic Ponzi scheme. Odd, I suppose, to call it that, but it is, I think. We loan money to the treasuries of our countries so they can print more money that we can loan back to them (via treasury notes). I have a great little alternative that I prefer...
My solution is an engineering one. A new universal currency should be denominated in joules. You can buy and sell 'tokens' just like you do now. A hamburger costs as much as it takes to raise the beef, butcher it, grow the wheat, pay the farmer, baker, butcher, etc. You can buy food with these tokens. When you consume energy (energy waste), the money is destroyed. If your process efficiency is 50%, then you have to destroy 50% of the money you make when you sell the widget. When you generate energy (capture it), the money is created. Between those two points, things work more-or-less how they do now, but with a very specific backing, one that is defined by a wavelength of Krypton-86 which is not likely to change in the near future. It gives flexibility to monetary policy (energy quotas), encourages efficiency, and is probably more logical than our current system. That's not hard. Right now, we rob Peter to pay Paul, except that Peter had to borrow some land from Frank to trade for bacon from Betty, who got an investment from Paul to start a butchering business, but she had to buy hogs from Kent, but she couldn't pay so she borrowed money from Jason with a promise to pay him back plus a little bit extra for the inconvenience. But then we have everybody pay just a little bit into taxes, except for Betty, where because she is a small business, has to pay twice, and Jason can't be asked to put anything in because his money is all out on loan. Oh, my head is spinning.
One more thing. I am sick and tired of people complaining about 'shipping jobs overseas'... that the government should have stopped them, or the companies should not have done that. Well, a company is not altruistic. It is there to make money. Use outside labour and you make more money. Governments are supposed to deal with trade rules, but the globalization that started in the late 1800's and has continued until now (and anybody who says globalism is very recent isn't right). The blame goes squarely to the consumer. The country of origin is labelled on most products. If you don't like a job shipped overseas, then don't buy the product. It's hard to do that now, but when massive exporting of jobs started in the 1970's, the consumer had an opportunity to blast that idea out of the water. The people complaining about 'no jobs' are the same people that decided to move the jobs there - with their wallets. The complaining is just people not taking responsibility for their own screw-ups.