It seems you can’t swing a stick without hitting a global warming activist these days. Now, when I first started reading about this phenomenon, I was pretty skeptical. After all, it was only in the 1970s that scientists were warning of another ice age. So I read a book called “The Skeptical Environmentalist” by Bjorn Lomborg.
Bjorn is a mathematician, and he digs into the available environmental data and starts to evaluate much of the published environmental literature. He finds that a significant amount of the public rhetoric voiced by the environmental movement isn’t so well documented. He then starts to look at the trends in air pollution, contaminants, mortality rates, etc. What he finds is that on most environmental metrics, were much better off now than in the past.
So, I figured, here is a real conservative thinker and I’ll bet he’s going to try to disprove global warming.
The fact is, there is almost no scientific disagreement that global warming is real. And there hasn’t been much disagreement in years. But it has only been in the past 2 years that global warming has really captured the attention and support of the broader public.
I mean, if there is a single issue that has more far-reaching and (potentially) catastrophic consequences, I’d like to hear it. There is considerable debate on exactly how this will play out, how long it will take, and exactly who will benefit and who will lose. But what is clear is that there will be massive, global economic and geographic dislocation. Millions of people and families will have to leave the homes their ancestors have lived in for thousands of years due to drought, flooding or overheating (depending on where you live). There will be millions of lives lost. And frankly, the consequences could be much worse. We just don’t exactly know yet.
Jared Diamond is brilliant. In “Collapse” he recounts how on Easter Island, the population depended on trees to build boats for fishing, prevent soil erosion, and reduce the surface wind, all of which was necessary to feed and sustain their society.
Now, the Easter Islanders proceeded to cut down every single tree on the island in order to transport giant stone heads to their respective villages. And then their society collapsed, and most of them died. One of his students asked him, “what do you think the Islanders thought when they cut down the last tree?”
I’d like to know what the hell the United States is thinking right now by refusing to sign the Kyoto accord or refusing to take decisive action to save its citizens (not to mention the citizens of the PLANET) from this impending catastrophe. Even China has a better fuel efficiency of their cars than we do. In fact, we’ve been tinkering in the middle east for decades to try to secure even more oil! It’s like mass suicide, but nobody cares. I just don’t get it at all.
I mean, what’s your senator thinking? “Well, I’ve read the reports, and our grandchildren are going to be really, really screwed. But GM has donated an awful lot to my campaign, so I’ll oppose any sort of reasonable measures to reduce carbon emissions and head off this disaster. Yep, that seems pretty reasonable.”
OK, enough ranting. Let’s talk about what we can do. There is no silver bullet. It’s going to be a lot of simultaneous measures.
Hybrid cars: Have you driven a hybrid? They’re awesome. You can get over 50 miles per gallon. And they are a pleasure to drive. The technology is there. And it will only get better. I mean, what’s the downside?
Let’s make a wholesale shift immediately. Not in 20 years, but in the next 5 or so years, we should have 95% of all cars produced be hybrid. It’s not going to be easy, but in 5 years (WWII) we went from being a peaceful nation to a highly industrialized war machine fighting on two major fronts halfway around the world. Longer term, fuel cells seem to be the consensus pick, but they are a little further off. And electric is a good alternative to consider.
So let’s pass a law tomorrow to the effect. The automakers will figure it out.
Wind / Solar / Hydro: these are supplementary sources of power.
Their economics are quickly and dramatically improving and are becoming competitive with traditional sources. The trouble is, if you have a couple of cloudy days, you’re out of luck. These technologies can significantly reduce our carbon reliance, but they will never be a full replacement. You need something more reliable. To think that we spend a few billion each year on R&D in this area while we spend over hundreds of billions annually support a war in the middle east to secure our oil supply is patently absurd.
Let’s spend $50 billion per year for a few years and see where that gets us. A heck of a lot further than we’ve gotten in Iraq, that’s for sure.
Nuclear power: I’m a nuclear engineer by training, so I speak with some authority on this subject. Nuclear power is the most environmentally friendly source of energy of the main “base load” alternatives. It’s incredibly safe. It has no carbon footprint. And the waste issue is completely solvable. On that topic, we need a combination of reprocessing (where a lot of the longer-lived radioisotopes are recycled) and a long-term storage facility.
This is an area that the private utilities are drying to fund. It’s just that the regulatory situation is such that if they spend $3-5 billion building one of these plants, there is still a risk that environmentalists will try to tie up the startup of the plant in the courts for years, driving them into bankruptcy.
So, basically, the government doesn’t need to fund these plants. But it does need to provide the utilities with a guarantee that if the plants are built according to the proper safety regulations and oversight, they will be allowed to operate.
Fusion power: Fusion is said to be “30 years from commercialization and it always will be.” Well, get it right one day. Just don’t hold your breath.
So how do we start?
I mean, it’s only the fate of the world and the survival of humanity that rests in the balance. OK, maybe I’m being a little overly dramatic. But, really, what did were they thinking when they cut down that tree?
First, we need to implement these measures on a mass scale in the United States. And quickly. For a country of our wealth, we could make massive improvements in the coming decade. At the same time, were going to develop a leading position in the technology behind these solutions that we can export internationally. That’s good for us and our businesses.
But we cant just do this unilaterally. China and India, with over 2 billion people between them, will eventually dwarf the carbon footprint of the US. It is said that China builds a coal power plant every week. So the US needs to stop spending its political and economic capital on unpopular wars and start showing REAL global leadership and influencing the rest of the world to take the same measures.
There is one issue here. US industry benefited dramatically over the last 100 years from lax environmental regulation. Its not exactly fair to deny developing economies such rapid growth by imposing hugely costly regulations on them. There needs to be some fair incentive system that allows them to grow quickly while profiting from implementing environmental controls. One model is the trading of pollution credits. There are others. All should be considered.
Look, Im a pragmatist. And you should be too. There should be no ivory towers in this debate. Were not all going to stop driving cars. Were not going back to caves. Lets get over that right now. But what we can do is dramatically reduce our energy consumption and emissions.
The technology is here. We CAN do it now. Its a choice, but one we have to take now. If we fail to act, over the next 20-30-40 years, well probably be OK. But 50-100 years down the road, our grandchildren are going to be saying, “what do you think they were thinking when they voted down the law requiring higher gas mileage for automobiles?
Maybe the Easter Islanders just didn’t know, but our grandparents did.”