Redesigning Our Energy Sector
Irreversibility. Increasing Damage. Uncompensability. The verdict is inescapable. Fossil fuel energy is a dangerously bad choice, and we need a directional worldview that regularly reminds us how foolish our reliance on fossil fuels has become.
Now to address the other half of our directional problem. What’s the right course of action? What sort of reasoning process helps us move forward? We already know. Turn the problem logic into solution logic.
- If climate change is to be halted, global warming must be halted.
- If global warming is to be halted, the stock of CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) must stop growing.
- If the stock of CO2 is to stop growing, CO2 emissions from fossil fuels must fall to zero.
- If CO2 emissions from fossil fuels are to end, the consumption of fossil fuel must be brought to an end.
- If the consumption of fossil fuel is to end, a full conversion to climate safe energy technologies must be organized and achieved.
Similar reasoning helps us understand the solution logic for marine species:
- If marine extinctions from ocean acidification are to be prevented, ocean acidification must be halted.
- If ocean acidification is to be halted, the atmospheric stock of CO2 must stop growing.
- If the CO2 stock is to stop growing, CO2 emissions from fossil fuels must be halted.
- If CO2 emissions from fossil fuels are to fall to zero, the consumption of fossil fuels must fall to zero.
- If the consumption of fossil fuels is to fall to zero, a full conversion to climate safe energy technologies must be organized and achieved.
What about carbon sequestration, some might ask. It is an appropriate question. If all the carbon dioxide from a coal-fired generating plant were to be captured and sequestered, safely and economically, that particular plant might well have a role in a climate safe energy future. I have yet to see anyone rate this as a scalable solution though. For now it is little more than a hypothetical possibility. Perhaps the proponents will prove the skeptics wrong, but it hasn't happened yet.
What about other sources of greenhouse gas emissions? Not every source of greenhouse gas production can be fully shut down. When a forest dies, killed by drought or irresponsible deforestation, its rotting trees give off CO2. The manufacture of cement also gives off carbon dioxide. The chemicals used as refrigerants escape slowly into the atmosphere and behave as greenhouse gases. Methane released in cattle feed lots has greenhouse gas consequences. Is it possible to achieve a complete cessation of greenhouse gas emissions from all manmade sources? Probably not. Greenhouse gas emissions from human activity will be difficult to curb entirely, a risk element that adds urgency to the goal of building a post-fossil fuel energy infrastructure.
Once carbon dioxide emissions are halted, once the stock of atmospheric CO2 is capped, it will still take some time for the average global temperature to level off at its new equilibrium. Inject a new dose of CO2 into the atmosphere, and it will take twenty years or more for the warming impact to work its way fully into the surface layers of the world’s oceans. Not till the average temperature of the ocean has stabilized will it be possible for the average temperature of the planet to level off.
Where the Earth ends up will be a function of the total atmospheric stock of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.
If one could flip a switch in 2011 and phase out fossil fuels literally overnight, the global stock of CO2 would stabilize at 3,000 billion tonnes and some change. This is 800 billion tonnes more than the pre-industrial norm, and well above where we might have been had we addressed this issue responsibly thirty some years ago.
If America and China and everyone else compromise on these issues for several more decades, the stock of CO2 will surely reach 4,000 billion tonnes and most likely will rise all the way to 4,500 billion tonnes. Remember three words. Irreversible. Deadly. Uncompensable. Add a fourth word. Massive. And a fifth. Accelerating. Humanitarian catastrophes will pile up, one after another, at a dizzying pace. Vast scale, vast damage. Ignore integrity at scale and we Americans become co-conspirators in crimes against humanity. Fecklessness is not a defense.
Bring the dithering to an end today, work together in a serious and concerted way for the next three decades plus, and we may be able to cap the stock of atmospheric CO2 at 3,400 billion tonnes.
When we do this is up to us. What will happen to us if we fail to act is entirely up to Mother Nature. A hotter planet will have a meaner climate. Think starvation, think tens ofmillions of human beings starving because we couldn't be bothered to act in a timely manner.
We are in a sobering time. So much human effort and financial investment has been absorbed in the building of the world’s fossil fuel industries. Yes, for all the catastrophe that lies ahead, there is still a dignity to all this that deserves recognition. Coal mining is the toughest of occupations. Wildcatting for oil takes a special breed of craziness and hard work. These industries have been marvels of human enterprise.
That being said, the evidence is in. In an orderly and compassionate way, these industries must be given their walking papers. It is time for America to say to the people of these industries, “Thank you. As a nation we are proud of your contributions and grateful for your past accomplishments. But we cannot ignore what we know. Carbon dioxide emissions on today’s vast global scale are far too risky. We have an obligation to protect America’s future. It is time to move on. It will take us thirty years of hard work to make the full transition. We will responsibly build the new; we will responsibly phase out the old.”
What Does This Teach Us About Ourselves?
Visit the websites of those environmentalists who claim to understand this problem. Even our most prominent environmentalists have fallen down on the job. They cannot walk their website visitors through these issues with any real clarity or rigor. They do not properly explain the mechanism by which carbon dioxide interferes with the Earth’s natural cooling system. They cannot bring themselves to explain the cause-and-effect logic chain that connects today’s technology decisions with tomorrow's climate disasters and oceanic disasters.
And because they haven’t the discipline to explain the problem logic, they also haven’t the discipline to explain the solution logic.
This should teach us something. It may seem that we are awash in experts, but as a practical matter, our experts are as prone to tunnel vision as everyone else. As a people, we imagine that hastily chosen soundbites can be our guide to a healthy future. We seldom pause to wonder if our favorite soundbites make any bloody sense or not.
Think back to the early nineties, when the press first began to mention environmental concerns about global warming. No one noticed it at the time, but a critical framing decision had been made. Those at the helm of the environmental movement agreed that this issue was to be framed as "an emission problem;" the required response was to be framed as "emission reduction."
Even at the outset, this was a terrible choice of terms. Reduce the rate at which humanity burns fossil fuels and we delay the total climate disaster by a few decades at most. Instead of topping out at 4,500 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2100 say, we top out at 4,500 billion tonnes in 2050.
Same ultimate stock of carbon dioxide.
Same ultimate temperature increase for planet Earth.
Same ultimate cascade of climate disasters and ocean toxicity.
That's the Emission Reduction End Game. It is a catastrophic end game, a losing end game, an end game no rational person would embrace. Same global disaster, modestly stretched out timetable.
How could all these "experts" have concurred on such a rotten way of framing the problem and its solution?
Part of the explanation is that scientific and environmental thought leaders reflexively adopted the directional worldview that had been used with success in establishing the Clean Air Act. Air pollution had indeed been an emissions problem. Clean up the emissions of dirty air and we solve a very real problem. Pass a law, adopt regulations, and compel industry to reduce dirty emissions. If it worked once, why not do it again? Nothing like having a successful worldview right at hand.
It was a deadly mistake. For two long decades, environmentalists have beaten the wrong drum and hammered the wrong image of the problem into the minds of the public.
Rigorous thinking matters. It ALWAYS matters. We're talking irreversible and catastrophic shifts in the behavior of the global climate, and even in the face of a challenge this grave, no one in authority takes the time to insist on a rigorous reexamination of how this issue is to be understood. No wonder America is adrift. Our culture points us toward fast, hastily chosen answers. On Everything! The future of the planet is at stake and no one takes the time to piece together the logic chain that families and citizens everywhere must understand.
Thoughtful members of the American people recognize that fossil fuel energy has to go. This puts talented entrepreneurs ahead of the nation's environmentalists and their sympathizers in public office. When Al Gore's film asked us to change light bulbs, sensible Americans flinched. They were impressed by the scope of the problem; they were puzzled by the wholly inadequate nature of the recommended solution. Our instincts told us the experts had somehow botched the issue. Maybe they were well-meaning, but they hadn't come to grips with what a safe and competent energy future had to look like.
But instinctive realism isn’t enough. We have to get smarter about how dumb we have been. We have been dumb about global warming, we have been dumb about Wall Street regulation, we have been dumb about a great number of issues. None of us is half as clever as we like to imagine ourselves to be. (Readers of this book will no doubt help me discover shortcomings in my own reasoning.)
Let's use this massive blunder constructively. First we have to name it for what it was. It was a truly terrible error.
And second, those who participated in committing this error owe the entire world a heartfelt mea culpa.
It isn't enough to earn an "A" for Caring if one also earns an "F" on Diagnosing and Prescribing. It isn't enough to be Americans who "care." We live in a time of massively powerful replication engines. The templates in play operate at vast scale. Sloppy thinking may have been acceptable in an earlier era, but it isn't acceptable any longer. This is the twenty-first century and rigorous thinking is essential. Until we bring rigor to the table, we haven't brought integrity to the table.
9.1 Revision 2011-06-27