Yes, it is possible for us to avert the worst of global warming. Our children and grandchildren have a right to a livable planet, and we can deliver it to them. It can be done.
A prior diary started a discussion about what it would take to set up the conditions for a "Cronkite Moment" on climate, being the moment when the mainstream population of couch potatoes begins to get it; that there is something we can do, and must do, about carbon pollution and global warming.
That diary was about liberating facts that are already widely understood in the business and scientific communities, and especially about removing barriers for individuals to enter the conversation.
That diary lists high-level ideas that have to make it into mainstream consciousness in order to spur real action on global warming, paraphrased here, but only the first item was discussed:
1: Yes, it is happening, and it is going to get worse
2: Yes, it is feasible to solve it
Gloom without solutions will motivate absolutely no action. "Alarm", after all, is a call to action, not a call to get depressed and drink alone in the dark.
So, here we go on high level idea #2 required to create a Cronkite Moment with respect to acting on global warming: Yes, it is possible to stop the worst of global warming and carbon pollution.
The extended section describes reasoning behind a plan to move new capital investment rapidly in the direction of renewable energy, without excessive costs or dislocation. The heart of it is that all new energy-related capital investment should pay for all of its resulting health impacts. It's a plan that a majority of Americans can get behind, if the full set of facts were made available.
In the absence of leadership from our government on that education task (and just forget the media), it is up to every one of us to communicate not only on the urgency of addressing global warming, but also on solutions. One person, one post, one email, one LTE, one dinner at a time. Whatever it takes to get the message out.
"Possible" immediately divides itself into two parts:
Physically possible and Socially possible
Physically possible is about the very basic questions of whether solutions exist, or can be developed quickly enough to avert the worst of the crisis.
Socially possible is about whether there is any chance that people will decide to do what's physically possible. It's the rub.
It's actually pretty easy to show that it is physically possible to greatly reduce future global warming. For this first step, we have to completely set aside the question of social possibility (which includes the very central question of "cost"). This has been studied a lot, and the answers are there.
A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the World with Renewables describes how it is possible to put in place enough renewable electricity to power not only current, but continued growth in demand.
Supplies of wind and solar energy on accessible land dwarf the energy consumed by people around the globe.
The authors’ plan calls for 3.8 million large wind turbines, 90,000 solar plants, and numerous geothermal, tidal and rooftop photovoltaic installations worldwide.
The cost of generating and transmitting power would be less than the projected cost per kilowatt-hour for fossil-fuel and nuclear power.
The real question, of course, is what is socially possible. Can we rouse to action to get fit instead of just eating more Cheetos?.
Here's what's categorically unacceptable "reasoning" to me:
1. People are not smart enough to do what will save themselves
2. So even if there are solutions, they won't be adopted
3. So don't even bother unless you can find some way to lose weight by eating more Cheetos, which doesn't exist.
The only workable path is:
A. Determine what can be done
B. Prove that it's worth the cost and effort
C. Don't take no for an answer
The question of what's socially possible all boils down to, or is proxied by, the question of affordability. Can we afford to do it?
It's absurd on the face of it. Can we afford to, you know, avoid catastrophic collapse? Pure crazy. But, it's reality because on a day to day basis people (governments, companies, ...) will only do something that they can either afford or borrow funds for. So here is Lemma 1:
The solution must involve a strong financial component where people, companies, and governments make everyday decisions that are reasonable and affordable.
Strange that saving the planet could come down to accounting. But after all, if we could go to war over accounting errors, perhaps we can use also accounting for a higher purpose.
The need for solutions that work within the immediate term, as well as a theoretical long term, is illustrated by a story my brother told me from when he was studying soil conservation in Niger:
It was clear that the range was being overgrazed, and this was killing productivity. If they could just let the grass grow a few centimeters, they would get literally double the feed value.
The problem was that, at any given moment, they didn't have a few days or weeks to get that growth. The stock needed to eat right now, every day. Even worse, there was the prospect of someone else's stock eating that same grass.
The next issue of affordability is the ultimate hostage crisis: The cost of energy for poor people. Yep, this one boils down to:
Let us pollute or the poor people get it.
It's the standard naysay to many proposed financial structures - anything that increases the price of energy will disproportionately hammer the least fortunate. It leads to Lemma 2:
Costs must not be imposed regressively on the less wealthy
And let's go right to Lemma 3:
It's about capital investment choices, not immediate consumption
For everyone who makes the little changes every day to save energy and reduce pollution, this may seem a heresy. Does none of that effort matter?
Of course it matters. But what will really move the needle is the set of big decisons, capital investments, both in energy production and energy consumption. A new power plant will be expected to operate for at least 50 years. So a decision to build a new coal-fired power plant, as opposed to renewable sources of the same scale, will have consequences that last for decades.
What's even more amazing is that a difference of a few pennies can swing that huge decision, having decades of impact. The decision on which power source to build is ultimately based on an expected cost of energy, measured in cents per kilowatt-hour. In the current market, coal and gas power plants can create power for fewer cents per kilowatt-hour than competing renewal sources.
Except they can't. Combustion sources only appear cheap because the costs do not consider health effects, incluiding but not limited to global warming. Adding these costs will make any new combustion power source inherently infeasible compared to new renewables.
So here's a really key component of changing the course of our energy ship:
All new capital investments that produce or consume substantial amounts of energy must pay for the full health effects of the energy production or consumption, including but not limited to global warming.
That's it. If we can get the United States to commit to that action, then it will set a course in the right direction, from which we can then make further adjustments (and BTW discover that the economic sky did not fall when we took real action).
It's not the entirety of the solution, but it's a cornerstone. Consider the benefits, both in achieving GHG reductions and in stepping past the hostages:
- It swings the biggest decisions for the least cost.
- It positions people to routinely make good decisions for the climate.
- It creates visibility for the non-climate health effects of combustion power.
- It affects large shiny new things, for lowest direct impact on the least wealthy.
I've been unable to fund a good number for the replacement rate of electricity generation, but my sense is that it is something like 2% to 2.5% a year of the current electricity portfolio. That is, 2% or so of existing sources go off line and are replaced each year. An additional 2% per year goes on line for increased demand. So each year, about 4% of electricity usage is in play as to its type. Amazingly, a majority of new capacity is still combustion. If this is shifted in the new few years to 100% renewable, it replaces an annual increase in GHG emissions with a decrease.
Fast enough? That's a hard numbers question that I can't answer. But, there's no question that replacing an increase in GHG emissions with a decrease is the urgent first step, and it can only be achieved by redirecting capital investment.
[Note, the round numbers above focus only on energy generation, and even more narrowly on electricity. That's for brevity. The same concept applies to all major energy generating and consuming capital investments. Since we import most of our crude oil, the assessment should be done there mostly on new fuel-using equipment, including vehicles.]
- Never, ever be afraid to talk about global warming, in any setting.
- Bring solutions to the discussion. If you don't like this one, bring your own.
The Cronkite Moment will come, and we can help make it sooner.