Being green is not for sissies

Paul Wagenhofer’s message may be difficult to take in. It’s a message the geophysicist admits he’s still working to refine. To say, “It’s complicated” is a profound understatement.

It may be that Kermit the Frog has the most concise summation of Wagenhofer’s ideas: “It’s not easy being green.”

After four decades searching around the world for oil and gas, Wagenhofer has ideas about the worsening energy situation. Primarily, he believes there is not enough being said about how difficult solving the climate crisis is. Although switching to electric cars is a critical step, it’s not the final solution because there are still so many problems with how those cars are powered and produced.

Wagenhofer of South Burlington spoke at the Charlotte Senior Center in September for a men’s breakfast and returned to speak on the evening of Oct. 18.

As someone who has done a lot of research into the situation, and who has the experience and expertise to understand it as well as any, his talk was filled with data and figures that became mind-boggling. Some mentioned finding it difficult to comprehend. At least one person attended the September breakfast and returned to hear the October talk, trying to wrap his mind around it.

Geophysicist Paul Wagenhofer speaks to a gathering at the Charlotte Senior Center about the energy crisis.
Geophysicist Paul Wagenhofer speaks to a gathering at the Charlotte Senior Center about the energy crisis.

Wagenhofer is trying to wrap his mind around the energy crisis, too. In a conversation after his talk, he said he feels as if everybody says, “We’re winning. We’re winning. But when you look at the size of the problem, maybe we’re not.”

He is trying to be more optimistic but the statistics make it hard for him to feel that way. The two times at the senior center are the first times he’s made his presentation.

As we talked by phone, he was rechecking data to confirm or dismiss his pessimism.

“I know I left people with a very negative attitude. Right now, as we’re speaking, I’m at my computer, doing more research to make sure that I’m consistent with what I said. Maybe I’ll come around,” Wagenhofer said.

He thinks the effort to move to electric vehicles is the right direction to take. It will do much to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, but he believes it’s important for people to realize this is not the final solution.

Focusing much of his talk about the climate crisis on vehicles, he applauded the effort to switch to electric vehicles as a good and necessary first step. Switching from an internal combustion engine to an electric means you’re not putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Tthat’s a big thing.

However: “You have to consider everything else that goes into that. How does your vehicle generate its power?” he said. The electric cars’ batteries, steel, paint, rubber, plastic knobs and dashboards, the vinyl seat covers, even the electric cables are covered in plastic that’s derived from fossil fuels and produced with energy from fossil fuels.

Not only that, producing either asphalt or concrete for the roads is extremely bad for the environment.

He did allow some glimmer of optimism: “I wouldn’t say we’re winning, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

Still, Wagenhofer insisted, we have to be brutally honest with ourselves.

Vermont can be proud that we may be the first state to go 100 percent net zero, but that does not mean it is time to rest on our laurels.

It’s a very tiny drop in the bucket for Vermont with around 630,000 people to achieve that goal. “There’s Boston suburbs bigger than that,” he said.

Although eliminating gasoline is not a foregone conclusion, he does see encouraging signs that we will do it. And that is a huge step in the right direction.

Wagenhofer said from his searches of the data he’s found there are around 291 million cars registered in the United States putting out about 13 billion tons of carbon per year. Including the rest of the world, there are probably 26 billion tons of carbon going into the atmosphere each year.

He believes that switching to electric cars is the way to go — for now. But this is a stop gap measure because the mining and production of lithium batteries is a horrible process.

The mining of lithium has a major impact on the environment. Probably the most serious problem with lithium mining is it requires an unsustainable amount of water consumption. Around 1.9 million liters of water are needed to produce a pint of lithium.

Another terrifying subject Wagenhofer brought up is population growth.

“The rate population grows is sort of the driver of everything. Those people are going to be using energy, and what are they going to be using to make energy?” he said. “I think we’re under estimating the demand. I think that’s what’s going to hurt us in the long term.”

According to Wagenhofer, it took thousands and thousands of years, from the beginning of human history until the onset of the Industrial Revolution, for the population of the world to reach 1 billion people. Then in the next 130 years, the world population reached another 1 billion people to double the population. The third billion people came in about 30 years. Another billion was added in 15 years, and another billion in 13 years.

“The population growth is just phenomenal. It’s overwhelming everything,” Wagenhofer said. “However, there’s a good side to the story.”

Populations growth is starting to flatten out. It’s not continuing to climb.

“The numbers show we’re going to add about 70 million people per year which is a growth rate of less than 1 percent, so the world population is going to continue to grow into the 21st century but at a slower rate,” he said. “These are some perspectives I don’t see anywhere else. This is a really important aspect and people I think are just not thinking about how big are the numbers? How much fuel are we willing to replace?”

These figure may make you want to throw up your hands in despair, he said. But that is an emotional luxury we can not afford.

“We need to try working as best as we can to mitigate as much as we can,” Wagenhofer said. “Anything we can do to conserve, we should continue doing.”

And encourage more people to do so as well.