Given lack of political will, the best hope for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and minimizing climate disruption lies in scientific solutions.
That's the view of West Virginia native and retired utility industry executive Charles E. Bayless. Bayless appeared Oct. 29 on "The State Journal's Decision Makers," a public affairs program that airs on West Virginia Media's television stations — WOWK in Huntington-Charleston, WBOY in Clarksburg, WTRF in Wheeling and WVNS in Beckley-Bluefield.
Bayless speaks as an eminently credentialed West Virginian. Born in Dunbar, he earned engineering and law degrees from West Virginia University and an MBA from the University of Michigan.
He started his utility-industry career in line construction and power plant work and rose eventually to the position of chairman, president and CEO of Illinova Corp., then served from 2005 to 2008 as campus president and provost at West Virginia University Institute of Technology. Now retired, he continues to be involved in the energy sector, serving as chairman of the board of North America Energy Alliance and serving on other energy industry boards.
Bayless stated the planet is warming due to human activity.
"The scientific community is absolutely clear," he said, listing some of the scientific bodies that affirm it, including NASA, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
"The debate is in some of the popular press but it is not in the scientific community," he said.
Bayless reviewed the facts: The Earth's atmosphere acts as a blanket that retains the warmth that makes the planet habitable. The concentration of gases that trap heat in the atmosphere is increasing, causing a measured increase in global average temperature of about 1 degree Fahrenheit since 1880.
Bayless made reference to the Oct. 20 release of a study from the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature program, in which a detailed review of historical global temperature data by the former climate change skeptic Richard Muller confirmed the temperature increase observed by other scientists.
The common argument that natural cycles, not human activity, are causing warming doesn't hold up, Bayless said.
If the current warming were caused by the 11-year solar cycle, Bayless said, the upper atmosphere would be warming faster than the lower atmosphere, but the opposite is true; days also would warm faster than nights but, again, the opposite is true.
Other natural cycles affect climate at various time scales — variations in the Earth's orbit and in its tilt, for example — and the contribution of each to temperature has been measured.
"They're not doing this," he said. "You cannot explain current climate change by those cycles."
Bayless sees a "tipping point" — atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations that would cause a sudden temperature jump — as a real danger.
Contributing to a possible tipping point is the Arctic permafrost, he said, which is releasing vast amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane as it thaws. That release is accelerating as white, light-reflecting snow and ice give way to dark, absorptive earth.
If temperature were to jump, he said, places that are farming breadbaskets now could become dust bowls.
"The British Royal Society said that, in a 4-degree-warmer world, the limits of adaptation of most plant and animal species would be far exceeded and the limits for adaptation for humans would be exceeded in many locations," he said.
But between the scientific consensus Bayless describes and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions stands political intransigence.
"One of the most frustrating things in the scientific community I believe is the inaction of governments around the world," he said.
The reasons have become familiar: the costs of cutting back occur now while the benefits are non-specific and in the future; developed economies don't want to reduce their standards of living, and developing economies want to increase theirs; the U.S. political system encourages candidates to espouse extreme positions; the economy remains persistently sluggish.
If he were in charge, he said, he would take lessons from Ontario.
Since a 2005 vote to end coal-fired power by 2014, the Canadian province has cut its use of the fuel by 70 percent — reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to the lowest point in 45 years, according to a recent report.
By 2009, 80 percent of Ontario's electricity came from wind, water, solar, bio gas and nuclear. The increase in the price of electricity from 2005 to 2010 was 4.5 percent.
Bayless doesn't want to end the use of coal, though. He looks to carbon capture and storage to make coal viable in the future, and sees value in a nuclear renaissance as well.
He holds out hope for more intelligent, energy-efficient design of manufacturing processes and said he would like to see WVU and WVU Tech at the front of these developments.