Monday, December 23, 2019

How to Solve the Climate Change Problem

Ethical consumerism isn't going to do it. Wind and solar alone aren't going to do it. More Greta Thunberg guilt-inducing tirades against the irresponsibility of older generations aren't going to do it.
So what will? Kevin Drum makes the case that it's all about really cheap clean energy which, in turn, requires a massive--really massive--clean energy R&D effort.
His case is based on a blend of technical and political realism. He posits that:
"Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that by 2050, wind and solar can satisfy 80 percent of electricity demand in most advanced countries. But due to inadequate infrastructure in some cases and lack of wind and sun in others, not all countries can meet this goal, which means that even with favorable government policies and big commitments to clean energy, the growth of wind and solar will probably provide only about half of the world’s demand for electricity by midcentury. “Importantly,” the Bloomberg analysts caution, “major progress in de-carbonization will also be required in other segments of the world’s economy to address climate change.”
Therefore, absent technical breakthroughs, huge cutbacks in energy consumption and, inevitably, living standards will be necessary to meet emissions reduction goals. This is highly unlikely. Drum points out that, even in advanced countries:
"We’re not talking about voluntary personal cutbacks. If you decide to bicycle more or eat less meat, great—every little bit helps. But no one who’s serious about climate change believes that personal decisions like this have more than a slight effect on the gigatons of carbon we’ve emitted and the shortsighted policies we’ve enacted. Framing the problem this way—a solution of individual lifestyle choices—is mostly just a red herring that allows corporations and conservatives to avoid the real issue.
The real issue is this: Only large-scale government action can significantly reduce carbon emissions. But this doesn’t let any of us off the hook. Our personal cutbacks might not matter much, but what does matter is whether we’re willing to support large-scale actions—­things like carbon taxes or fracking bans—that will force all of us to reduce our energy consumption.
Solutions depend on how acceptable these policies are to the public...[But] [t]here’s abundant confirmation of the public’s unwillingness to accept sacrifices in living standards to combat climate change."
So far, so realistic. But here's the kicker:
"Even if we could get wealthy Western countries to accept serious belt-­tightening, they’re not where the growth of greenhouse gas emissions is taking place right now. It’s happening in developing countries like China and India. Most people in these countries have living standards that are a fraction of ours, and they justifiably ask why they should cut back on energy consumption and consign themselves to poverty while those of us in affluent countries—which caused most of the problem in the first place—are still driving SUVs and running air conditioners all summer.
This is the hinge point on which the future of climate change rests. Clearly the West is not going to collectively agree to live like Chinese farmers. Just as clearly, Chinese farmers aren’t willing to keep living in shacks while we sit around watching football on 60-inch TV screens in our climate-controlled houses as we lecture them about climate change.
This is why big government spending on wind and solar—everyone’s favorite solution to global warming—isn’t enough to do the job. Subsidies for green energy might reduce US emissions, but even if the United States eliminated its carbon output completely, it would only amount to a small reduction in global emissions.
Yes, we should be fully committed to the kind of framework that congressional Democrats propose in the Green New Deal, which provides goals for building infrastructure and ways of retraining workers affected by the transition to clean energy. But there’s no chance this will solve the problem on a global scale, and 2050 isn’t that far away. We don’t have much time left.
So what do we do? We need to figure out ways to produce far more clean energy, in far more ways, at a cost lower than we pay for fossil fuel energy. As the socialist writer Leigh Phillips warns his allies, “Households need clean energy options to be cheaper than fossil fuels currently are, not for fossil fuels to be more expensive than clean energy options currently are.”
This requires a reckoning. Time is running out, and we can no longer pretend that we can beat climate change by asking people to do things they don’t want to do. We need to focus our attention almost exclu­sively not on things people don’t like, but on something people do like: spending money. Lots of money.
As the Green New Deal suggests, part of the solution is building infrastructure for what we already know how to do. But our primary emphasis needs to be on R&D aimed like a laser at producing cheap, efficient, renewable energy sources—a program that attacks climate change while still allowing people to use lots of energy. This is the kind of spending that wins wars, after all. And make no mistake, this is a war against time and physics. So let’s propose a truly gargantuan commitment to spending money on clean energy research."
There's much more in the article. Drum fleshes out his research investment proposal and also provides nuanced discussions of options like energy storage, nukes, carbon capture and land use. All worth reading
I think Drum makes a strong case. I've always been surprised that the same people who are most worried--indeed, sometimes hysterical--about the problem of climate change are frequently the least realistic about the political and technical obstacles involved in solving it.
Only major spending on clean energy R&D can save us.

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