Why Nothing Will Be Done to Stop Global Warming

One of the reasons I’ve always liked Stewart Brand is he has a way of cutting through a lot of nonsense and revealing salient points about issues without oversimplifying them. Over at the Long Now Blog, he has a summary — citing engineer Saul Griffith — on what would have to happen in order to make much of a dent in global climate change (emphasis added),

What would it take to level off the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at 450 parts per million (ppm)? That level supposedly would keep global warming just barely manageable at an increase of 2 degrees Celsius. There still would be massive loss of species, 100 million climate refugees, and other major stresses. The carbon dioxide level right now is 385 ppm, rising fast. Before industrialization it was 296 ppm. America’s leading climatologist, James Hanson, says we must lower the carbon dioxide level to 350 ppm if we want to keep the world we evolved in.

The world currently runs on about 16 terawatts (trillion watts) of energy, most of it burning fossil fuels. To level off at 450 ppm of carbon dioxide, we will have to reduce the fossil fuel burning to 3 terawatts and produce all the rest with renewable energy, and we have to do it in 25 years or it’s too late. Currently about half a terrawatt comes from clean hydropower and one terrawatt from clean nuclear. That leaves 11.5 terawatts to generate from new clean sources.

. . .

Meanwhile for individuals, to stay at the world’s energy budget at 16 terawatts, while many of the poorest in the world might raise their standard of living to 2,200 watts, everyone now above that level would have to drop down to it. Griffith determined that most of his energy use was coming from air travel, car travel, and the embodied energy of his stuff, along with his diet. Now he drives the speed limit (no one has passed him in six months), seldom flies, eats meat only once a week, bikes a lot, and buys almost nothing. He’s healthier, eats better, has more time with his family, and the stuff he has he cherishes.

So in summary, in order to reach the optimistic scenario where there is still massive species extinctions and hundreds of millions of climate refugees, we have to lop off 11.5 terawatts of fossil fuel generation and Westerners have to become semi-ascetics . . . and all in 25 years to have any chance of making a serious difference.

That will never happen. Just look at the United States — this is a country where people were freaking how just a few months ago because gasoline prices briefly hovered above $4/gallon. There were a few voices that said “hey, lets retool our entire society to reduce fossil fuel consumption,” but most people I suspect agreed with our soon-to-be President Barack Obama who blasted oil companies for not build more gasoline capacity,

They have been in fat city for a long time. They are not necessarily putting that money into refinery capacity, which could potentially relieve some of the bottlenecks in our gasoline supply. And so that is something we have to go after. I think we can go after the windfall profits of some of these companies.

. . .

We should also be investing in new technologies so we can replace the internal combustible engine, which has served us well, but it’s time for us to move on, because we want to get rid of fossil fuels.

That the low gas prices are an enormous disincentive for creation of alternative energy is, of course, far too politicaly sensitive to even brook. And, of course, I don’t think you’ll be hearing a President Obama urging a new American austerity to save the planet (in fact, his stimulus proposal is predicated on getting American consumption back on its pre-recession pace).

If Brand/Griffth’s vision is correct, we would be better off focusing our efforts on ameliorating the effects of global climate change rather than some half-assed attempt to forestall it. There is simply no political will, at least in the United States, for the sorts of changes that would actually be required to achieve the sort of dramatic changes that are really required.

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