I no longer worry that climate change will kill us or more importantly, me. I see the challenges for sure: the extreme weather events, the rising temperatures, and the increases in environmental carbon and I haven’t taken leave of my senses. But I have studied the science and understood the sociology.
To be sure, everything won’t suddenly be fine if we do nothing and we won’t just learn to live with climate change because it will continue getting worse. Unaddressed, climate change is like untreated cancer, it will kill you. We don’t need to put our economy on a war footing to fix it though. We’ll fix climate change because there’s a strong economic incentive to do so.
You see, we’re running out of fossil fuels. The US Department of Energy estimates there are 1.6 trillion barrels of oil left worldwide, enough for 50 years at current consumption rates. Drill baby drill and frack baby frack won’t change any of that. So we need to convert the economy to renewable electricity which will take approximately 25 years and it will create the next economic boom in the process.
We’ll make that conversion because there will be huge business incentives. Electric cars are showing up at dealerships and they’re pretty good, too. Most get 250 miles on a charge and the solution to range anxiety, if you have it, is to install charging stations wherever cars can be parked. Topping off your current car doesn’t make sense because you have to drive to a gas station but topping off a battery while parked makes all the sense in the world. It’s a new paradigm and a new industry starting, and it will require venture capital, not government funding. The new businesses will be worth fortunes on Wall Street. Other industries will follow suit.
We also need to remove about one trillion tons of carbon from the environment to return the planet to a point where carbon concentration is about 350 parts per million. Returning to 350 ppm would give us levels last seen in the 1990’s. That’s not perfect but we can easily live with it.
Here’s the sticking point. The fossil fuel industry has literally invested trillions of dollars in tankers, refineries, coal mines, railroad cars, deep sea drilling platforms, pipelines, retail distribution, and more. All of that will become stranded assets when demand shifts from fossil fuels to renewable electricity and we need to be sensitive to the needs of that process else we’ll crater our economy. But shift we must because we’re running out. So the somewhat delicate sticking point becomes how we enable the fossil fuel industry to wind down without crashing.
It’s not a trivial question because although renewable power is making itself felt, the fossil fuel industry is already fighting back with promises of synthetic fuels and other things that preserve the paradigm of burning things. A quick look at the energy accounting shows that these promises use more energy making the products than they make available so they’ll never be commercially viable. They will cause a lot of confusion in the marketplace though and they’ll convince enough of us to stand pat and continue burning things.
So the core question about climate change doesn’t have much to do with sufficiency of energy sources or limiting emissions. We can do all that. It has nothing to do with generating well-paying jobs either because the new industries generated by the shift to a sustainable energy paradigm will do that.
The biggest issue we have to deal with in climate change is managing the transition away from fossil fuels but we’re not doing anything about transitioning right now. Educating people about that need and how to rollout out solutions is where we need to concentrate. I am not worried about it because there’s too much money to be made by transitioning and I know capital will follow that trail. I just wish it would hurry up.