“I hate the term global warming. It’s too fuzzy.” Ron Sass has been studying climate change since before the term came into favor. The Iowa chemist came to Rice University in 1958 and has been concentrating on climate issues since 1988. “It’s even more than climate change. It’s creeping up on us. I don’t know if we can get our hands around it until it’s too late.” The current rate of temperature rise is 1.7 degrees Celsius (3 degrees F) per century.
Still, Ron has a rosier outlook than many scientists I’ve met. “When I teach, I draw a timeline from 4,000 years in the past to 4,000 years in the future. I chart fossil fuel use. We are 125 years into a 200-year blip. The problem isn’t energy: the sun delivers 10,000 times more energy than we need to fuel our earth. The problem is the carbon dioxide byproduct of burning fossil fuels.”
Ron thinks many oil executives understand the situation and are willing to move forward, but stockholders are remiss to embrace something that will take ten years to bring to fruition. “Gaseous wastes are difficult to deal with because they’re not noticeable. Wind and solar have transport issues. Batteries are coming far. You can make hydrogen from wind or solar and transport it directly or as a hydride. You can combine it with oxygen to burn and the waste is water. Or you can turn it into methanol and sequester the CO2.”
According to Ron, Henry Ford’s original idea was to run the automobile on methanol. It was John D Rockefeller who was bullish on using oil. No one worried about the byproduct. “The CO2 we’ve emitted will be there a long time. We are not at a terminal point, but the earth is getting warmer and we are in for real sea level rise. We have to do something in the next 30 to 40 years.”
Ron has been studying and advocating action on climate change for almost that long. He considers Houston a good place to do it because it is the center of the oil and gas industry. “They have to be part of the change and have to make money in the process.” Has there been any change? “COP21 in Paris reached agreement for the first time.” 195 countries signed on – every nation in the UN, including the United States thanks to careful language that this is not a treaty. “There was a switch from the Kyoto idea of ‘this is what you have to do’ to ‘tell us what you are going to do.’”
Will our Congress ever embrace climate change? “Part of the challenge is that Congress can’t deal with such an enormous problem. Part of it is economics; we’re tied to industries that must change. And part of it is posturing. Ted Cruz says ‘God made the world and God can change the world as he sees fit.’ There is nothing more frightening than an avid believer.”
Ron is fascinated by constructed reality and the human tendency to deny our mortality. “We all create our own realities; religion is part of that denial.” However, he acknowledges that accepting constructed realities is key to addressing climate change. “We have to put out the message of climate change in different terms so it can fit into a wider range of realities. Not, ‘we have to get rid of fossil fuels.’ Instead, ‘we have to harness the waste.’ If you want to get someone to do something, you have to put it in their best interest.”
How will we live tomorrow?