I have often written that prudent policymakers recognize the future will include periods both warmer and cooler than the present, and cold is the greater threat to human life and prosperity. Thus, government priorities should be to invest in affordable reliable energy and robust infrastructure. A recent article gets the importance of energy abundance, and makes many lucid points about climate policy failures, even while accepting uncritically some mistaken suppositions about the issue and what can be done about it.
Matt Frost published an article at The New Atlantis After Climate Despair. Excerpts in italics with my bolds, some images and comments.
The dream of a global conversion to austerity has failed to stop climate change. Energy abundance is our best hope for living well with warming — and reversing it.
Each of us constitutes a link between the past and the future, and we share a human need to participate in the life of something that perdures beyond our own years. This is the conservationist — and arguably the conservative — argument for combating climate change: Our descendants, who will have a great deal in common with us, ought to be able to enjoy conditions similar to those that permitted us and our forebears to thrive.
But the dominant narrative of climate change, though it claims to be aimed at protecting future generations, in fact leaves little room for continuity. Preventing more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above the nineteenth-century baseline, the latest aim of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), will, as they put it, require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
Only a vanishingly unlikely set of coordinated global actions — an extraordinary political breakthrough — can save us from what the most pessimistic media portrayals describe as “catastrophe,” “apocalypse,” and the “end of civilization.”
Only by changing our entire energy system and social order can we preserve the continuity of our biosphere. And so climate politics has become the art of the impossible: a cycle of increasingly desperate exhortations to impracticable action, presumably in hopes of inspiring at least some half-measures. Understandably, many despair, while others deny that there is a problem, or at least that any solution is possible.
But we are not condemned to a choice between despair and denial. Instead, we must prepare for a future in which we have temporarily failed to arrest climate change — while ensuring that human civilization stubbornly persists, and thrives. Rather than prescribing global austerity, reducing our energy usage and thereby limiting our options for adaptation, we should pursue energy abundance. Only in a high-energy future can we hope eventually to reduce the atmosphere’s carbon, through sequestration and by gradually replacing fossil fuels with low-carbon alternatives.
It is time to acknowledge that catastrophism has failed to bring about the global political breakthrough the climate establishment dreams of, and will not succeed in time to avert serious warming. Instead of despairing over a forever-deferred dream of austerity, our resources would be better spent now on investing in potential technological breakthroughs to reduce atmospheric carbon, and our political imagination better put toward preparing for a future of ever more abundant energy.
[Frost could have added that human flourishing has always occured in warmer, rather than colder times. Our Modern Warm Period was preceded by Medieval Warming, before that by Roman Warming, and earlier Minoan Warming. Each period was cooler than the previous, so the overall trend in our interglacial is downward. Ensuring favorable conditions for future generations means protecting against the ravages of frosty times. (pun intended)]
The Futility of Dread
The bleak poll results may reflect a broad, if perhaps tacit, agreement that we have reached diminishing returns on dread. Even now that most Americans accept the dire predictions of scientists and journalists, their assent does not change the fact that we currently lack the institutional, technological, and moral resources to prevent further climate change in the near term. The lay public has been taught to regard stabilizing the climate as an all-or-nothing struggle against the encroachment of a dismal future.
The bar for success is set high enough that failure is now the rational expectation.
A common reaction to “there is no solution” is “then there is no problem.” No matter how persuasive the evidence of impending danger, most people find ways to dismiss or evade problems that appear insoluble. Attempting to build political support for impossible interventions by making ever more pessimistic predictions will not work; it will only leave us mired in gloom and impotence. This polarized fatalism will grow more extreme as opposing partisans, recognizing our dearth of practicable options, choose either glib denial or morbid brooding.
Missing the Target
We will not stop global warming, at least in our lifetimes. This realization forces us to ask instead what would count as limiting warming enough to sustain our lives and our civilization through the disruption. There can be no single global answer to this question: Our ability to predict climate effects will always be limited, and what will count as acceptable warming to a Norwegian farmer enjoying a longer growing season will always be irreconcilable with that of a Miami resident fighting the sea to save his home. But because our leadership has approached climate change as a problem of coordinated global action, they have constructed quantitative waypoints around which to organize the debate.
Some news sources portrayed 2030 as an official deadline for avoiding climate catastrophe. It is worth noting that the report’s lead author, Myles Allen, has warned against this interpretation: “Please stop saying something globally bad is going to happen in 2030. Bad stuff is already happening and every half a degree of warming matters, but the IPCC does not draw a ‘planetary boundary’ at 1.5 degrees Celsius beyond which lie climate dragons.”
The extreme unlikelihood that we will meet the target of 1.5 degrees becomes even clearer when we notice that doing so requires that we not only cut emissions radically, but at the same time remove enormous volumes of carbon dioxide already emitted. The report estimates that a total of 100 billion tons must be removed by 2050. For comparison, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted globally from fossil fuels last year was around 37 billion tons.
Even were it possible to scale bioenergy and capture that quickly, doing so would have a major drawback: It would take up an immense amount of farmland. By one 2016 estimate, capturing enough carbon to meet even the 2-degree target by the end of the century could require devoting up to three million square miles of farmland to bioenergy crops — nearly the size of the contiguous United States.
[Frost seems not to realize the the 2C target, and more recently 1.5C are both rabbits pulled out of a magical activist hat. Economists have projected that future generations will be far wealthier than us, and only slightly less so should there be all the warming predicted from burning known carbon fuel reserves. Many dangers are based upon scenario RCP8.5 which is so unrealistic that some analysts say that models using it should be revised. Principled inaction is appropriate when threats are claimed without solid evidence.]
The Age of Overshoot
Expanding the climate options we allow ourselves to consider is easier said than done. The political and moral challenges are daunting. We will need to adapt to a warmer climate for perhaps decades to come, while at the same time preparing technological and policy solutions for a more distant future where we can finally claw our way back to lower levels of carbon and warming. At the same time, the stressors that a warmer climate will bring will be unequally felt across the globe, likely making our politics more divided and only dimming hopes for international coordination.
We must finally abandon the empty hope of imposing equitable austerity via globally coordinated government fiat.
Furthermore, as we adapt to a warmer climate, complacency will be tempting, since we will likely not experience a sudden decline in global quality of life or biodiversity, and may be able to avoid the most dire disruptions. Changes will be slow, with many unfolding on a generational time scale, and with dramatically different impacts among populations. The misery that climate change is likely to cause, or is already causing, will be difficult to distinguish from deprivation as we already know it — the people most harmed, that is, will be the poor, who are already most vulnerable to natural forces. Even if there is a distinct moment of irrecoverable failure, or a tipping point that triggers the worst feedback effects, most people might not notice until it has passed.
[His belief that CO2 is some kind of temperature control knob is touching, but naive and dangerous. H2O is actually earth’s thermostat, and we don’t have a dial for that either. Fortunately the climate system includes complex negative feedbacks which throughout history have kept both ice house and hot house eras from being permanent. Otherwise we would not be here to talk about it.]
The global failure to control emissions is not just a failure of political will or technological progress. Rather, it reflects the problem’s inherent resistance to unambiguous characterization. Different observers can all adopt different conceptions of the problem, many of which are not mutually exclusive but remain practically or politically irreconcilable.
For this reason, we will no more agree on some single new ethics than we will on the “correct” amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Addressing the problem, then, must not mean the coordinated pursuit of a single solution but a perpetual process of decentralized negotiation and risk reduction. Our varied conceptions of climate change will never fully converge, and so the “correctness” of any approach is best evaluated not by whether it meets the latest IPCC target but by how well it affords broad political buy-in. Identifying alternatives to our current, failed approach to climate change requires identifying a more constructive set of ideas — practical, political, and sentimental. We will then be able to focus our resources on those interventions most likely to succeed.
[Among the failed solutions is the idea that modern societies can be powered with solar and wind energy. Not only is bioenergy land intensive (as noted above), so are these other renewables. Here is the map of UK showing the acreage required to power London without thermal generators.]
Austerity vs. Abundance
What should motivate our response to climate change is what got us into this mess in the first place: our desire for the abundance that energy technology affords. Energy is the commodity that allows us to protect ourselves from the ravages of nature and to live distinctly human lives, and many of the benefits we enjoy today were made possible by the exploitation of fossil energy. Our children should enjoy greater energy abundance than us, not less.
But the mainstream climate establishment — the government officials, researchers, advocates, and journalists who sustain the consensus agenda represented by the IPCC — is bent on austerity. They demand that we ration fossil energy consumption until zero-emission sources like wind and solar replace the fossil share of the global energy budget.
Discussions about climate change are also riddled with population anxiety. Lugubrious climate dread appears both as the idea that we should not inflict any more humans on this dying world and that we should not inflict this dying world on any more humans. For the most part, we no longer suffer from feverish speculation about runaway global population growth, since the population may peak anyway by the end of the century. Yet we still hear the old Malthusian idea that our limited energy resources will only be enough for everyone if there are fewer people to whom they must be handed out. Because the climate establishment views energy consumption as the problem, energy consumers must be on the negative side of the ledger — even if their welfare, or their grandchildren’s welfare, is supposed to be the good being protected.
An alternate framework based on abundance would engage each of us as participants in the flow of human history, as the forebears of unknown successors. It would complement even the doomsayers’ calls for taking expensive measures today, since the benefits of mitigating climate change would apply to more people as the population increases. The number of future occupants of our planet is, or should be, the salient variable in any calculation of the long-term costs and benefits of climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. We can’t know the economic return on any dollar we invest today in stabilizing the future climate, but we can model it as a function of, among other things, the number of our grandchildren’s grandchildren. Our climate approach should presuppose that we are the benefactors of a burgeoning future population, not the progenitors of an ascetic cult formed to dole out a dwindling stock of resources. New sources of carbon-free energy would offer more value to more people than whatever new levers of social control we might invent to enforce a worldwide carbon-rationing regime.
A stronger focus on human utility does not discount the non-human biosphere: When we evaluate the natural world for its beauty or its diversity, we are still expressing human values, and those values are part of the civilization we hope to carry forward in time. For instance, the desire to protect coral reefs, one of the first casualties of global warming, can increase as more people gain freedom from poverty, allowing them to see the reefs’ aesthetic and ecological benefits as worth spending resources to preserve.
An abundance framework is also aligned with our persistent human desire for comfort, and would lead us to reformulate our collective problem as one of scarcity, rather than prodigality. Instead of constraining our energy budget, we would look to a future in which a large, decarbonized energy capacity allows more people to enjoy the access to wealth and comfort that many of us take for granted. It would make little sense to leave cheap fossil energy underground in the name of future generations’ well-being, only to also leave those descendants an energy-constrained world full of incentives to drill. To remove those incentives, they will need abundant energy.
Obviously, meeting the energy demand of a high-growth world would require new sources of carbon-free power in amounts beyond the IPCC’s most optimistic scenarios. But we are already stuck hoping for a global political breakthrough. Technological breakthroughs are less far-fetched a solution. And a mass embrace of abundant energy is more realistic than sudden globally coordinated altruistic self-abnegation. Once we embrace abundance as a normative principle, it directs our attention and ambition toward the bets that, however long the odds, might actually pay off.
Embracing abundance means more than just a rhetorical or sentimental overhaul; it should change how we rank our policy and technology options. And gaining new energy sources would actually expand our options beyond the limited ones available to us now. Choosing abundance does not require that we first have all the answers for how to produce carbon-free energy, or how to reduce current levels of carbon dioxide. Rather, shifting our mindset from austerity to abundance will open up the political space necessary for imagining these answers and pursuing them.
In the near term, we must accept that expanding our political capacity to regulate carbon dioxide depends on driving down the cost of carbon-free energy. Penalizing fossil-energy use can encourage research and development of alternatives, but panic alone will not engender a new democratic mandate for costly restrictions on emissions. Cheap, low-carbon energy can be an alternative to bureaucratic rationing or socially enforced austerity. If we are stuck hoping for a breakthrough, let us hope for one that further emancipates us from want rather than one that more efficiently imposes it.
We are stuck waiting for a breakthrough. The sort of breakthrough we await says much about who we are and where we hope to go. The consensus austerity view would have us hope for a moral breakthrough of penitential retrenchment. The abundance view would have us hope for a technological breakthrough to enable a flourishing future. One says that we have used too much energy, and our descendants should use less. The other implies that we have not devoted enough energy to capturing and storing carbon dioxide, and that we must leave our children and grandchildren as much energy capacity as possible to clean up our carbon waste.
Our mission must be to provide future generations with better technological alternatives than the ones currently on offer, which range from prohibitively expensive (like BECCS) to wildly reckless (like pumping sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to block sunlight). We owe our descendants progress toward the long-deferred dream of energy “too cheap to meter,” as Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, famously said in 1954. We owe them the tools with which to dispose of the waste carbon they will inherit. We owe them a better sentimental investment than morbid despair about the future they will occupy.
Other policy approaches are less applicable to a strategic framework of energy abundance. “Weaning ourselves off nuclear energy,” as Senator Elizabeth Warren proposes, is a fatuous idea even within the austerity framework, if the risks of climate change are as dire as predicted. Replacing already online, zero-carbon generation with wind and solar plants that require carbon-emitting construction and infrastructure overhauls will only dig us deeper into debt. In an abundance framework, the proposal becomes even more misguided.
The policy measures we pursue in the near term should express the ethos of abundance and continuity. They should avoid emission cuts today that might limit wealth and technology options tomorrow. And they should set us up to take the best advantage of whatever breakthroughs, technological or political, we might be fortunate enough to see in the coming years.
Global conversion to austerity is a lost cause.
Energy abundance is our best hope for the future.
We have always lived well when it warms.
When nature reverses and cools, we had better be ready.
Footnote: Since 1985 the band Opus has celebrated Life and access to energy (I’m sure they were referring to electrical power as well as personal mobility).