You mean the motor kept running even when the car wasn’t moving?

Ten things you’ll have to explain to your grandkids

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Maybe modern story time will include lessons about climate change and adaptation.

1. You mean the motor kept running even when the car wasn’t moving?

It will seem weird but an inquiring mind will want to make sense of it. We’ve grown accustomed to having a car motor continue running at a stop but it doesn’t really make sense. They run today because starting a car was once so difficult, especially when you had to hand-crank the engine. But even with electric starters, a starter could easily wear out if you used it every few minutes. You’d save some gas but it might not equal the cost of a new starter or the convenience of just going when the light turns green. So we leave our engines running. But electric car motors will only run when you want to move the car to help save the battery’s energy.

2. So, wait. Let me get this straight. They burned coal to boil water to make steam to power a dynamo that made electricity. Then only about 20 percent of the original energy made it to the consumer?

Yep, that’s the state of the art today with any power plant that burns fuel to make electricity. According to US DoE, we get 35 percent of our power from natural gas, 27 percent from coal (the two have flipped in importance in the last few years), 19 percent from nuclear, and 17 percent from all renewables including hydro, wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal. The dominant approach by far is burning fuel to boil water. Someday this might be seen as a discrete era sort of like the Old Stone Age.

3. And they burned all that stuff even though they knew they were poisoning themselves?

This requires some empathy. Power generation began with Thomas Edison in the later 1800’s and back then coal was king, there was no pollution problem except what came from horses pulling street cars. Coal worked, it became the thing that engineers knew best and so it was replicated. It’s only in retrospect that we can see the harm that burning things has had. By the time we realized the pollution problem, we were well dug into the paradigm and the overhead from the investments was significant. We aren’t getting away from fossil fuels today because we want to or because we’ve suddenly become altruistic. We’re doing it because fossil fuels are running out.

4. They knew the carrying capacity of the planet was 10 billion people and they didn’t do anything to alert everyone?

Hard to believe but yes. If there’s a ray of hope, we’ll be able to invent new technologies that extend the carrying capacity of the planet while we’re also working to shrink population. Having fewer babies is useful but ignoring immunizations is also one of many ways that the herd might be culled.

5. They wanted an end to capitalism, and they didn’t have an alternative?

This looks a lot like the coal discussion. Capitalism works pretty well though it has its quirks. Some of the shortcomings are not immediately visible especially when government can do its job through regulation to blunt the worst effects of capitalism. Like child labor, inadequate minimum wages, no support for new parents, it’s a long list. But in this system whoever has more money speaks the loudest and that means influencing politicians and even courts to favor capitalist ideas. At the end of the day we’ll likely discover that regulated capitalism is what we need. As Churchill once said, “You can always depend on the Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried all the alternatives.” So it is with regulation. That’s why we vote.

6. They thought that saving the environment was too expensive?

Hard to believe but some of the arguments against combating climate change involve the expense. Certainly, we don’t want to waste money but… Too few people understand that all climate problems are made worse because there are so many people on the planet. The good thing about democracy is that you only need 51 percent to make change. We’ve got that.

7. He lied every day and nobody did anything?

Yes, you know, POTUS. The Washington Post cataloged thousands of lies like the one about climate change being a hoax. People believed it or at least used it to fuel their ability to do nothing. The best antidote is to tell the truth but more importantly, to talk about real solutions rather than getting into a tit for tat over whether climate change is real. We need to focus on solutions.

8. He wanted to subsidize coal when it was being outcompeted by renewables?

True. But even that didn’t help. Wind is on the verge of being more economical than natural gas and gas is way more economical than coal. The reality is that coal isn’t coming back but lots of people don’t know that and that is why talking positively about solutions is so important.

9. What’s a butterfly?

Sadly some may be going extinct in one of the greatest species die-offs in the planet’s history thanks to climate change. This is a good reason to figure out how to act locally by growing plants favored by bees and butterflies and to support habitat preservation and restoration as much as possible. Even not building a road through a forest can have profound effects on keeping a habitat whole.

10. Was this a farm once?

Yes. Climate change leads to desertification of once promising farmland, as it did in Syria and throughout the middle east. It makes water more scarce and potentially unavailable for irrigation leading some dry areas to revert to unproductive natural states. The opposite is also true with severe rains inundating farms during planting seasons and washing away top soil. It’s dangerous to ignore the farming sector’s needs.

Maybe you’ve had discussions like this already. The way to prevent more in the future is to be aware and to be climate solutions oriented. We know there’s a problem and we need to get away from simply diagnosing it again and again. It’s time to act in a positive, solutions-oriented way.

Researcher, author of multiple books including “The Age of Sustainability” about solutions for climate change. Technology, business, economics.

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