The San Antonio Energy/Water Nexus Forum has a stellar group of presenters: Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Mayor Julián Castro, Representative Lyle Larson, CPS Energy CEO Doyle Beneby, and SAWS CEO Robert Puente. This impressive group, however, has one characteristic that limits the depth and breadth of their discussion – they are all living in 2013.
Imagine that there was one more chair on the stage – beside the moderator, Robert Rivard – with the human assigned to that chair given the task of representing a child born in 2040.
The job of the surrogate for the future child would be to point out the issues of importance to future generations and particularly to call attention to actions taken by those alive today that are not in the interest of future generations.
Take the overall topic of the energy/water nexus.
The most visible connection between energy and water is the burning of fossil fuels to heat water into steam that turns the turbine that generates electricity. Fracking now uses vast quantities of water to produce the natural gas that will go, in part, to meet the needs of such generators for fuel.
Fossil energy generation in general is water intensive. Certain renewables, such as wind and solar photovoltaics, use minimal water.
Those most visible connections, however, are not what is most critical to our child of 2040. The most pressing crisis within that nexus is climate chaos.
As our energy needs are met by burning fossil fuels emitting gases that trap heat, the atmosphere warms. The warming atmosphere sucks the water out of the Earth, producing record-breaking droughts. The increasingly moist air acts to trap more heat and accelerate the warming process. Floods, fires, hurricanes, blizzards, and other extreme weather events erupt around the planet. More and more of the planet becomes less and less habitable. The real water issue may turn out to be a absence of water threatening hundreds of millions of people.
The child of 2040 can see that we understand what we are doing and that we are hardly addressing the impact of our actions with the sense of urgency that child should expect from us.
To our child of the future, the energy/water nexus of greatest concern may be the ocean/energy nexus.
The warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels is producing an ocean that is warmer, more acidic, and less oxygenated. A recent scientific paper concluded that we are “exposing organisms to intolerable evolutionary pressure … The next mass (species) extinction event may have already begun.”
Another ocean/energy nexus is that the oceans are absorbing vast amounts of the heat being trapped in the atmosphere. The warming of the ocean is beginning to melt the methane hydrates on the ocean floor. Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas. Any significant release of the methane from the frozen hydrates could cause a rapid acceleration of planetary warming and push temperatures to extinction levels.
If our child of the future expects to be born in Bangladesh, there is the added nexus of ocean rise/energy. By 2040, much of Bangladesh may be under water, displacing tens of millions of people. The level of inundation will depend on the level of sea rise. Estimates of potential sea level rise resulting from global warming range from a foot or two up to 69 feet.
“This animation shows daily Arctic sea ice extent and seasonal land cover change from May 16 through Sept. 12, 2013, the day before the sea ice reached its minimum area of coverage for the year. The data was provided by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) from their AMSR2 instrument aboard the GCOM-W1 satellite.” — Video from NASA
Obviously, anything like that latter scale would inundate all of Bangladesh and vast planetary areas.
On the energy side, the child of the future might like to hear a conversation that included the contribution of natural gas to climate chaos.
A key element in understanding climate change is that the heat trapping gases last for decades once in the atmosphere. So each day that we emit more such gases, the total inventory in the atmosphere is increasing and the capacity of the atmosphere for trapping even more heat is increasing.
A second key element is that the impacts we are seeing already are the product of gases released decades ago. Even if we stopped all emissions of greenhouse gases today, the climate impact process will continue for generations.
While burning natural gas to generate energy may release half as much carbon dioxide as the burning of coal, that simply means the rate of increase in heat trapping gases is slower. To increase the use of natural gas, rather than changing our energy production to sources that do not emit greenhouse gases, is not a path toward limiting the damage our actions today will do to the world of tomorrow.
In fact, there is the risk that cheap natural gas will produce a continuing dependency on fossil fuels and interrupt the transition to renewable fuels and energy efficiency.
So our child of the future may have a different agenda to discuss in the energy/water nexus than does the panel of current residents.
That agenda goes beyond the short term concerns about shortages and reaches the territory of extinctions.
Lanny Sinkin is executive director of the non-profit Solar San Antonio. He also is a San Antonio native, former Fulbright Scholar, Harvard graduate and lawyer who co-founded the Aquifer Protection Association with his mother, the late Fay Sinkin, and coordinated a city-wide initiative that put the first aquifer protection measure on the San Antonio ballot in 1976. Follow Lanny and Solar San Antonio on Twitter, @solarsanantonio, or check them out on Facebook.
Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group LLC, which publishes the Rivard Report, conducted an independent four-month review of CPS Energy communications for the utility starting in June 2012. Monika Maeckle, a former member of the The Arsenal Group and wife of Robert Rivard, now works at CPS as its Director of Integrated Communications.