There’s an important article about climate change in the latest IEEE Spectrum. It’s only two pages long, but there is much to think about. It is high time to recognize the reality of what we’re fighting.
The article points out that a reasonable estimate for the cost of the energy transition is $275 T. That’s an enormous, almost unthinkable number. It may well be right.
While the article itself is not big on drawing conclusions, it does have an important one: “because the world’s low-income countries could not carry such burdens, affluent nations would have to devote on the order of 15 to 20 percent of their annual economic product to the task. Such shares are comparable only to the spending that was required to win World War II.” We’ve talked about the “rest of the world” problem before, but without such dramatic support. No one anywhere is talking about that level of effort.
In fact, as a nation, we still have the idea that climate change is a matter of every country (or state) putting its own house in order. Once we’ve done our part, it’s up to everyone else to do theirs. However we in the US have:
- The highest per capita energy usage in the world. Only Russia is close.
- Close to the highest per capita GDP
- Historically, still the biggest contribution to global CO2 and the climate mess we’re in
And somehow all we have to do is take care of ourselves? And this can be handled as a small activity on the side? There’s only one atmosphere, and with that mindset we’ll get nowhere.
Biden has finally started something, but there are still major barriers here. Here are a few:
- Oil company control of the Republican Party and many media outlets. (Let’s call a spade a spade: the Kochs—an oil services company—are in complete control of the judiciary!)
- Oil company propaganda about “individual responsibility” versus government action
- Arrogance in the environment movement that has made climate a culture war item.
- Splits in the environmental movement on needed electric infrastructure (supported by a kind of religious faith in purely local solutions)
- “America first” attitudes about aid to the rest of the world
Furthermore internationally the picture has continued to deteriorate:
- Trump’s catastrophic renouncing of the Paris Agreement has been impossible to walk back. He killed the idea of world unanimity, so cheating by Russia, Saudi Arabia and others is now the order of the day.
- There are continuing and intensifying international fights over contributions of rich nations to the climate efforts of poorer ones.
- Trump’s bullying view of international relations has been taken up with a vengeance by both Russia and China. So most international discussion and cooperation is effectively dead.
Given the size of the problem and the limited time available, where do we go from here?
One recent answer came in a set of climate scenarios coming from Princeton University. They claim that they have evaluated a comprehensive set of climate control approaches, but all of their options end up with a huge role for carbon capture. Maybe they were influenced by oil company money, but in any case they have given up on the energy transition itself! And carbon capture on that (unproven) scale would end up in the same $275 T ballpark.
So the conclusion, I’m afraid, is that we can’t rule out geoengineering. However distasteful and risky that may be, we’d better find out as much about it as we can. It is a fact (however often denied) that we don’t have all the technologies we need, and we’ve done well short of what’s needed with the ones we do have. We may have to buy time until we’re better able to get the job done. But as we’ve said before, we’d better recognize that geoengineering has a drug-like dependency: we can never get off of it until all that extra CO2 has been taken back out!