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Let’s Face It: We’re Not Going to Stop Climate Change

Two major reports in recent days tell us that unless we take immediate action to slow climate change, the consequences will be dire. But the world has waited so long to take that action, that there is a growing dread that it's too late. The parameters have to be so severe at this late hour that there is no political will to force drastic changes nor would humans be willing to endure them.

Just as the reports came out — from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the National Climate Assessment that is mandated
by Congress every four years — and just as representatives from the 197 nations that signed onto the Paris climate accord were about to meet in Poland for the U.N.'s 24th climate conference, out came bad news. Instead of the reduction in emissions that all these nations had pledged, the year 2018 is registering an increase of between 1.8% and 3.7% in greenhouse gases emissions. Following an encouraging three-year 2014-2016 trend of flat emissions, the new record high of 37.1 billion metric tons is the second straight year of increase. Mostly, the causes were India with a 6% rise and China with 5%, both heavy users of coal. Even United States emissions were up 2.5%, after declines in seven of the last ten years.

The members had asked the IPCC what needed to be done in order to hold temperature rise to 1.5° centigrade (2.7° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, a notch below an increase of 2.0° centigrade (3.6° Fahrenheit) generally agreed to be a threshold beyond which planetary changes would be catastrophic. The report's answer was that emissions must be cut 50% by 2030 and driven to net zero by 2050.

Yet here were the nations of the world already heading in the wrong direction. "We are in deep trouble. It is hard to overstate the urgency of our situation", was U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' plaint.

The good news is that industry has made spectacular advances in renewable energy technology. At the scale of the big projects developed by power utilities, solar now costs only 22% of what it did in 2010. The cost of generating power from wind has declined about 25% over the same period, with greater efficiency to come from ever taller turbine towers, reaching higher to where the wind is stronger. The biggest, which run to over 600 feet high (722 feet is currently the highest) have blades the length of a football field. Soon to come: turbines reaching 850 feet in the air. That's the equivalent of an 85-storey building.

But after the extensive deployment of wind and solar during this new century, these renewables still account for less than 2% of the world's energy. Those who do not believe that humans have caused warming, or think that the rate of future warming is over-estimated, are tagged "deniers", but those of the other camp are themselves in denial about the fantasy of cutting emissions by 50% in just a dozen years. The pace of replacing fossil fuel energy with energy from renewables is nowhere sufficient even if energy consumption were to stand still. Which it won't. As greater prosperity expands in the world, with the peoples of developing countries wanting the better things of life, the striving for emission reduction will be competing with voracious increases in demand for energy. (Think no further than increasingly prosperous India's demand for air conditioning.)

China is now the world's largest market for autos. At least they will convert to electric far faster than the U.S., where there are now about a million electric cars. But there are nearly 270 million cars and trucks already on the roads in this country. Conversion of those fleets to electric and Obama's increasing fuel efficiency standards on new vehicles — to the extent they survive Trump's rollbacks — will contribute far too slowly toward reaching the 50% goal of 2030, given how long people keep those cars and trucks before replacing. Their average age is 11.6 years.

Putting a price on carbon is the most widely agreed on way to cut emissions. Even the big oil companies recommend a carbon tax, although that is public relations posturing. William Nordhaus, the Yale University professor who just won the Nobel Prize for his work on the economics of climate change, advocates a whopping carbon tax. If industry and auto drivers must pay to pollute, they will do so less. To not cross the threshold of a 2°-centigrade (3.6° Fahrenheit) rise Nordhaus calculates that would require a global carbon dioxide price of about $250 a ton in 2020, and rising rapidly after that.

Getting a carbon tax of any price past Republicans in Congress is an impossibility, and that's just this country. Congress won't even raise the gasoline tax, stranded at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993 (apace with inflation, that should be 32.5 cents today). That utilities would pass on a carbon tax to consumers in their electricity bills freezes Congress members with the fear of losing votes. To assuage that, there's a bill that would charge only $40 a ton for CO2 release, with the money collected from the power companies passed on to consumers by the government offset their increased electricity costs. It has gone nowhere.

Remember, we are talking about a refusal to take even this one step to somewhat tamp down a climate change threat that scientists fear could become disastrous and irreversible. How much clearer can it be that action against climate change will fall far short of the mark?

It's not just a government failure. People may have become increasingly alarmed about climate change, but they don't want to pay anything. In France, the riots began over an increase in the tax on gasoline and diesel as part of French president Macron’s plans to make emissions more costly. Washington state voters just rejected a $15-per-ton carbon “fee”. Oil companies spent more than $31 million into the state to defeat the proposition. BP, which had "postured" with a recommendation of a $40-per-ton tax nationwide, subversively spent the most to scuttle the bill.

Nuclear, a third technology with no CO2 emissions, is barely mentioned and is in retreat. We are always left with just solar and wind. Germany has closed its nuclear plants in the wake of Fukushima. In the U.S., cost overruns ended construction of the country's only new plants in 2017, the two that were being built in South Carolina. Nuclear generates 20% of the nation's electricity, but a third of America's nuclear plants could be taken offline in coming years, an economic victim of cheaper natural gas. It takes more than 800 average-size wind turbines or 15.8 solar panels to replace the electricity generated by a single nuclear reactor.

But the public fears nuclear. Will there someday be fearful climate ravages enough to make the public wish they'd embraced nuclear as as a controllable hazard?

Solar and wind have their own problems. Nature inconsistently supplies both, of course. Robert Bryce, of the conservative Manhattan Institute, has for years tried to make environmentalists discover the math of their impractical technologies. Debunking one plan that purported to completely eliminate the use of fossil fuels in the U.S., he says the wind turbines needed would cover nearly 500,000 square kilometers, roughly 6% of the continental United States. "The idea of covering a land area larger than California with nothing but wind turbines is ludicrous", says Bryce. Solar, too, uses huge tracts of space, although solar arrays on the rooftops of the world would mitigate that need.

How can the fight again climate change be won when there is a growing not-in-my-backyard backlash against what is an indispensible technology. Rural and coastal communities do not want wind farms and are combating their development with law suits from the Dakotas to Scotland.

It is a recognition of coming failure that we see more mention of "decarbonization", the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. It we can't control emissions, we'll have to vacuum the gas from the air and bury it underground. In October, a United Nations scientific panel called the technology critical to keeping global temperatures below the 2-degree centigrade mark. In an interview at the Poland conference, Al Gore called decarbonization "nonsense". More moderately he went on to say, “I just think it’s an extremely improbable solution right now". In any case, expensive "CCS" — carbon capture and sequestration — cannot happen without a carbon tax, because only avoidance of a steep tax would spur industries to invest in CCS.

As the country with 5% of the world's population generating 25% of its greenhouse gas emissions, the United States could at least use its strong economy to take the lead against the climate threat in a number of ways. But the country is trapped in the freakish happenstance of a denier occupying the White House backed by locked-step Republican disbelievers in the Senate. Together, they block any sort of action. They want to do away with the subsidies that encourage transition away from fossil fuels. They leave research and development to companies without a boost from government funding. China backs its industries to make them worldwide industrial champions. The United States has no national energy plan.

With the world alarmed by the disruptions climate change will bring, ranging from violent weather to reduced food production to mass migration, the U.S. has a president who has called climate change "a hoax" and has instituted policies that deliberately work against the efforts of all those countries trying to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Donald Trump and his energy and interior departments have opened offshore, wildlife preserves, and even national park lands to oil and gas drilling. He has tried to revive the dirtiest of the fossil fuel industries, coal, even going against the marketplace which is converting to natural gas.

And he refuses to learn. Presented with the 1,656-page National Climate Assessment produced by some 300 scientists in his own government that outlines the serious negative economic effects the shifting climate will have on the different areas of the country, his reaction was, "I've read a few pages and it's fine" but "I don'tis an impossibility, and that's just this country. Congress won't even raise the gasoline tax, stranded at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993 (apace with inflation, that should be 32.5 cents today). That utilities would pass on a carbon tax to consumers in their electricity bills freezes Congress members with the fear of losing votes. To assuage that, there's a bill that would charge only $40 a ton for CO2 release, with the money collected from the power companies passed on to consumers by the government offset their increased electricity costs. It has gone nowhere.

Remember, we are talking about a refusal to take even this one step to somewhat tamp down a climate change threat that scientists fear could become disastrous and irreversible. How much clearer can it be that action against climate change will fall far short of the mark?

It's not just a government failure. People may have become increasingly alarmed about climate change, but they don't want to pay anything. In France, the riots began over an increase in the tax on gasoline and diesel as part of French president Macron’s plans to make emissions more costly. Washington state voters just rejected a $15-per-ton

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1 Comment for “Let’s Face It: We’re Not Going to Stop Climate Change”

  1. Although California has passed legislation mandating solar on all new residential construction beginning in 2020, much more needs to be done in terms of storage, higher density in terms of location, development of public transit, eco-friendly design and construction materials, switch to electric or hydrogen power vehicles, etc. Also, the amount of energy created by solar will be concentrated in daytime and utilities will have to distribute to other markets, whereas centralized solar facilities would be more efficient.

    I am sure you are aware of the limits of California’s solar requirement but at least it’s a start. There has been a revival of interest in tapping waves or tides in the Northwest. The experience of the last two years of wildfires should be a wakeup call.

    The news from Washington and Poland is depressing and alarming.

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