Sentiment about the climate situation has likely reached a topping out point. Public opinion rarely, if ever, reaches one hundred percent and with 70 percent of the public now acknowledgingthe climate reality, trying to convince even more people is proving to be a problem. Those unconvinced are likely to be dug in so the logical question becomes how to convince them without alienating them. A recent story in the New York Times about energy solutions at the state levelis inspiring. The answer might be to leave them alone for the moment so that they can come to their own conclusions.
Changing tactics slightly, the great issue today doesn’t concern achieving majority opinion about climate, it’s about moving political leaders to action and, unfortunately, that will take an election to change. So, what do we do in the meantime?
The climate movement might profitably use the time to educate the public about the other facets of climate change. Too often we think one-dimensionally about the issue stopping short when we get to emissions and determining they need to halt. That’s fine as far as it goes but stopping a practice that causes harm is often not enough. Some measure of repair or remediation is also needed. In this case especially, halting emissions won’t change the concentration of C02 in the atmosphere and the reality that some of it needs removal. It also won’t do anything to address the fact that there is a fixed and limited amount of fossil fuels in the earth.
We’ve been using coal since the early 1700’s and petroleum since 1859 in the US and they’re running out. That’s not often discussed but it’s also incontrovertible. Authorities like the US Department of Energy and the International Energy Agencypresent the fact to anyone interested in searching on the subject. There’s about a 50-year supply of petroleum left or 1.687 trillion barrels. It sounds like a lot and it is, but 50 years doesn’t seem very long from now and, in the interim, we need to spin up a new energy paradigm to replace fossil fuels or risk catastrophe. There’s no way our current population of 7.7 billion people, and heading towards 10 billion by mid-century, can inhabit the planet without a cheap and ready supply of energy to run things like tractors and trucks or to make fertilizer and pump irrigation water. Notice this doesn’t even include transportation which can seem small compared to eating.
So energy makes a good target for activism. Moreover, there’s plenty that individuals can do from the grass roots to boost demand for clean energy and not much even Donald Trump can do to stop it. Trump’s having a field dayturning back pollution regulations, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords, promoting clean coal (whatever that is), and extending the lifecycle of pollution causing coal burning power plants.
But the free market is in charge of renewables already and we can buy clean power from our suppliers and they can and are developing additional generating capacity. Better yet, clean technologies are cost competitive with fossil fuels and trending even lower which means that consumers will continue to gravitate to lower cost supplies that also happen to be good for the environment.
Boosting demand for clean power
One thing that we can all do is to increase demand for clean power by driving electric though admittedly that’s a little tricky. There are more electric cars coming onto the market in the next few years but for now the few out there are pricy and don’t go that far on a charge. The Nissan Leaf gets 124 city/99highway per charge, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV gets 121/102. A Tesla X gets 237 to 250 miles per charge but it costs about double. At some point car batteries will get bigger but there’s also a charging issue that won’t go away. Some people call it range anxiety, but there are three things we can do right now to improve the situation.
Drive a hybrid
A conventional hybrid uses an electric motor to supplement a small gasoline engine during acceleration. The concept works well and can increase mileage by nearly 100 percent. So rather than getting 26 mpg with my 2006 Honda Accord my wife gets 49 mpg in her 2017 hybrid Accord. Purists will say we’re not getting the full benefit of electric driving with hybrids and that’s true, but we are getting close to double the mileage per gallon while cutting pollution and that’s not nothing.
Drive a plug-in hybrid
Some hybrids plug in and charge but still have a gasoline engine to run a generator when the battery runs down. They measure mileage as a combination of the distance you can drive starting with a full battery and a full tank. Many have a large enough battery to enable local driving and recharge at home or at a charging station. The Honda Clarity is one such plug-in hybrid and it has a range of 340 miles before you need to refill the gas tank. The Clarity will run 47 miles just on its battery, enough for errands around town in many cases.
Advocate for charging stations
The current fueling model needs to be re-thought. With liquid fuels like gasoline and diesel, it’s simple to drive a long distance and refill the tank at the ubiquitous network of gas stations. No worries. But it takes hours to fully charge a battery for driving so the charging model must adapt from the gasoline model.
The most obvious way to do that is to enable partial battery charging whenever a car is parked. This means outfitting public parking lots with charging stations. For example, if you go into a store or a restaurant on main street or at a mall, you might automatically plug in your car and, for the hour or so that you are inside, your car would top off its battery. Ditto at work or in the city. There’s no reason we have to think only in terms of charging at home or fueling at a gas station.
By making charging a common practice we could double the range of any electric car without changing a thing about its construction. How? We can stop thinking about round trips from and back to the charging station at home and begin thinking only about how to get to our destinations because charging will be ubiquitous.
Installing charging stations at parking lots will be capital intensive. Someone has to pay for it which will include actually installing charging units but also maintaining them. There will also be the matter of an Internet based business to sell and bill for use, a business that could be quite large.
The good news about charging is that the basics have already been figured out. There’s a standard plug for instance and a set of standards for batteries and charging them. What’s left is an amount of investment and scaling out the deployment. That’s all free market stuff. Venture capitalists would see this as a no-brainer business practically guaranteed to make money, like a casino. Unless you’re Donald Trump.
It’s important to avoid linear thinking in all things climate related. Linear thinking gets us trapped in thinking we can only charge cars at home; it includes a belief that we have to charge a car as fast as we can fill a gas tank; and it reaches its most pernicious level if we start thinking we can only run society on a liquid fuel model.
Liquid fuels have been a boon to humanity but they’re expensive and billions of people don’t have access to them. They’re also toxic to the environment. There was once a time when there were so few people using liquid fuels that the pollution they caused was not yet significant. Those fuels were also abundant once though they are becoming scarce.
For all these reasons, it’s time to shift the energy paradigm and the current political environment presents an ideal opportunity to at least begin the discussion. The 50 years that are left in our petroleum allowance will pass in an instant and by the same token it will take all of that time to convert society to green alternatives. Let’s not waste this moment, let’s keep an eye on the pollution problem but let’s also change the discussion to include energy.
Having an alternative to fossil fuels instead of simply talking about the pollution they cause might open a few minds in the process.