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October 02, 2019

What Should We Do About the Threat of Climate Change?

Short answer: Do things which will be positive regardless of how much human activity is contributing to the danger of rapid change. Here are some examples:

Develop plant species which thrive in and use increased levels of CO2 and add carbon to the soil. Since we have increased atmospheric CO2, we should use it to economic and environmental advantage. All green plants use CO2 as a fuel so more fuel means more growth. Greenhouses often triple the amount of CO2 in their facilities to double plant growth. More carboniferous soil means less need for fertilizer and irrigation. Throughout botanical history, plants have adapted to the then current CO2 level. We can hasten this adaption through selective breeding. Since many crops are now grown from annually  distributed seed, we can start removing and using the “excess” CO2 almost immediately.

Continue the successful replacement of coal with natural gas. The US, which never signed the Kyoto treaty, has nevertheless exceeded its Kyoto goals for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction and leads the world in that respect. This happened not out of virtue but from the simple fact that fracking and horizonal drilling have made natural gas cheaper than coal. The US wins twice since our energy cost of manufacture goes down and CO2 is reduced by half. Replacing propane and oil with natural gas reduces CO2 by 26% and also cuts cost. Yes, natural gas is a fossil fuel, but it is also the most effective way to reduce CO2 in the short-term that we have and its pays for itself. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. [note: I founded a company which trucks natural gas, so I do have an interest in its use.] We do want to continue to reduce the release of fugitive methane in natural gas extraction and transportation and, I think, rule out flaring natural gas as part of the oil-drilling process. Methane is a GHG although most of its anthropogenic source is agriculture and its presence in the atmosphere is not increasing.

Build power lines, at least in the Northeast, south from cheap, clean Canadian hydro sources. This is not a call for subsidy. Private money is available to build these. Permitting sanity is a prerequisite, however, or these will be blocked forever

Reform our permitting process. No matter whether we choose to build more wind turbines, more solar farms, more transmission lines to bring hydro or renewable power to where it’s needed, pipelines so natural gas can replace coal and oil, nuclear plants, or some combination of the above, we can’t get these projects done in real-time. In the US any major project takes more than twenty years just for permitting and appeals. A combination of NIMBY, opposing commercial interests, and anti-growth people can be formed to delay any project almost indefinitely with judicial appeals and illegal but tolerated obstruction. All affected parties should get their say during permitting; once a permit is granted, anyone who causes delay should pay for the cost of that delay. If someone stops construction with an appeal, he or she should post bond for the cost of the appeal. Of course. if the appeal is successful, then the appellant should not be liable for the cost.

 If we find ourselves on a “wartime” footing because of a climate emergency, we’ll run roughshod over objections as happens during war. Better to reform the process now, avoid a warlike emergency later.

Start putting existing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain and pre-permit one or two of the newer designs for safe nuclear power plants. Progress in nuclear energy hasn’t stopped just because we’ve virtually stopped building plants. New designs cannot melt down even if they lose power. The siting mistakes in Japan are well understood. We may or may not need nuclear in the US, but we should be prepared to build safely and quickly.

Continue basic research on solar, wind, energy storage and clean coal. But let the deployment of each of them and traditional energy sources stand on its own economically without subsidy or mandates

Realize that future worldwide emissions will be governed by what people moving from poverty to affluence do. We are not going to convince them they don’t have the same right to warm (or cool) houses that we do, shouldn’t eat meat as we do, or drive cars like ours. They want to cut their forests down for building lots and farm land just like we have. We are not willing to size down to energy poverty and regrow our primal forests although we can be less profligate; we must use the margin and capital our affluence gives us to help them enjoy affluence within available resources. We won’t be able to mandate their avoidance of carboniferous fuels; we may be able to invent ways in which that we can all be affluent on the same planet (see above for some suggestions). BTW, we are not trapped in a Malthusian nightmare of exponentially increasing population; escape from poverty is cutting birth rates. World population is projected to be stable by 2100. We don’t need an infinite growth in resource availability, just enough to bring the rest of the world up to our standard of living. The development of carbon-gobbling plants and increased use of natural gas both aid progress from poverty and help prevent the use of more coal for energy during that progress.

Don’t panic. Panic makes for bad decision making. Here’s a few examples:

  • The adoption of mandates for corny ethanol which turns out, all in, to have a worse carbon footprint than oil, costs more, and ruins small engines.
  • Germany shuttering of nuclear power after Fukushima which has caused Germany’s carbon footprint to grow despite its huge investment in renewables.
  • European incentives for diesels which get better gas mileage than gasoline-powered vehicles only to find that the nitrous oxide emitted was even worse for the atmosphere than the CO2 Now Europe is banning diesel cars.
  • Incentives for rich people to buy Teslas, BMWs and other high-end electric cars.

You don’t have to be very cynical to understand that people use panic to get you to do things which benefit them and which you might not do if you had time to think about it.

Debate the causes of climate change as well as possible strategies for avoidance and/or remediation. Even if there were scientific unanimity that human emissions of greenhouse gasses is causing rapid warming, there is no consensus on whether it will become irreversible, how long we have to avoid catastrophic effects, or even which strategies give the best return on resources spent. Nor do we know how much we are going to have to spend on mitigation like moving people from newly uninhabitable places to newly habitable ones. If we are concerned about a hundred-year time frame, burning wood makes sense assuming the trees are replanted. If we’re looking at ten years to climate Armageddon, burning wood is catastrophic because it emits more carbon dioxide than coal per BTU or kWh of energy produced. We need healthy debate or ill-thought-out measures are likely to cause more harm than good and cause the existential crisis they were meant to prevent.

As for the scientific consensus, it changes over time as facts emerge. For example, in 2001 the UN panel of experts predicted twice the amount of global warming between 1999 and 2020 than has actually happened. They have quietly lowered their predictions of the rate of warming by about half but also loudly lowered the threshold of warming they consider dangerous from 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit to 2.7 above the preindustrial baseline. Doesn’t mean they’re wrong now; does mean that no one fully understands the chaotic complex dynamics of sea, air, land, and biosphere.

Measure! Measure! Measure! No matter which strategies we adopt to reduce the possibility of runaway climate change, we must know if we’re being effective. We know accurately enough how much solar energy is reaching the earth, but we don’t know how much is being radiated back into space. That measurement is harder because it varies from place to place. Deploying a fleet of already developed RAVAN CubeSats (tiny satellites with carbon nanotubes to measure radiation accurately) is one way to do this essential measurement.

Debate is healthy and needn’t mean inaction. As you can see above, there is plenty we can be doing which will be beneficial no matter how much of a contributor to climate change we eventually discover anthropogenic sources to be.

More on climate at blog.tomevslin.com/global_warming/.

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