How to change minds about climate

Let’s stop scaring people and examine the bright future that awaits us.

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Scaring people is a good way to get them to dig in their heels. It’s human nature. Fear primes us for a fight or flight response and neither of these requires a good deal of higher-level thinking. Changing minds requires open minds and minds open when people are not fearful but relaxed. So the approach so far to dealing with climate change, for instance, would be comical if there wasn’t so much riding on it.

Around the world there’s a singular focus on emissions that borders on magical thinking. One side disbelieves the science because, hey, what are we going to drive with once we make that admission? And like a bad movie, the other side keeps pursuing the same stale argument.

Let’s start with a premise that’s as neutral as I know how to make it. Emissions are the primary and proximate reason for climate change, let’s discuss how we might fix the problem. The discussion might start like this,

We humans did a smart thing about 250 years ago. We learned how to access the energy stored in fossil fuels to power machines, factories and transportation. It gave us the world we have today, admittedly it’s not a perfect world, but human living standards have improved by leaps and bounds nevertheless. But now, those fossil fuels are running out and they’re poisoning the planet. Let’s find ways to limit further damage and stabilize our energy paradigm which will set the stage for the next leap forward in human history.

Emitting carbon dioxide as a means of generating prosperity is baked into the global economy. US DoE says that global civilization generates between 35 and 45 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually which adds to the approximately 7 trillion tons already there. What should we do to take that civilizational leap? There are two plans we can make.

Plan 1

First, we need a plan to convert the energy paradigm from fossil fuels to renewables. This won’t happen all at once because it affects the world economy and a conversion of this magnitude would take time. But there’s a glide path to that future that provides structure to the discussion: We are running out of petroleum, the primary source of transportation fuels.

Many engineers and scientists working in the petroleum field have for years spoken about Peak Oil, the reality that the world’s oil fields have been in use for generations and are drying up. The 2014 BP Annual Report said there was then a 53-year supply of oil left in the earth. Petroleum scientists tell us they haven’t found a drop of new oil since 2003 and since 1986 we’ve been using more that we could find. So when you think about firm deadlines think about 50 years because it will take most of that time to convert the global economy.

Naturally the sooner we start the better off we’ll be not just from an energy perspective but also because fossil fuels are the starting materials for numerous materials like plastics, rubber, steel, quite a lot really. We need to preserve our fossil carbon resources for materials.

Plan 2

The second plan must call for removing CO2 from the air in quantity while leaving enough for green plants to continue feeding us. But simply slowing emissions won’t help anything because there’s already enough CO2 in the air to alter climate and to acidify and warm the oceans.

About ten years ago Richard Branson offered a $25 million prize in The Virgin Earth Challenge, to anyone who could produce a viable way for removing a billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. Obviously, the winning idea would have to scale up significantly.

Branson got thousands of proposals and named finalists, but the prize remains unawarded. None of the proposals met the criteria or were completely compliant with physical and chemical laws. For instance some violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics which makes them unworkable.

Solutions are out there but they require serious out of the box thinking and the rules of the Virgin competition shy away from that. Implementing out of the box solutions on a planetary basis will likely involve geoengineering and require agreement from the United Nations which was outside the scope planed for the competition.

Scary stuff

Underlying all of this is the existing energy paradigm comprising some of the largest companies in history. Moving away from fossil fuels scares them for two reasons. First, it’s their business, how they make money, and like any company they are loath to discuss that kind of change regardless of the impacts of doing nothing.

Second, and closely related to the first, is the issue of stranded assets. These companies have invested literally trillions of dollars in coal mines, oil and gas fields, drilling rigs and platforms, pipelines, tankers, refineries, and distribution systems. How do they begin to write that off? Before we start discussing the merits or any proposals for fixing climate change, we really need to have a heart to heart discussion of stranded assets and hopefully 50 yearas is time enough to come to a solution that works for all.

The infrastructure

Consider refineries.The Oil and Gas Journal publishes a worldwide annual list of refineries by country. As of January 1, 2016 there were 141 operable petroleum refineries in the US alone and more than 600 worldwide. They can easily be worth one or two billion dollars — each.

Or think of oil tankers. As of January 2016, there were 7,056 oil tankers in the world’s merchant fleet and their values fluctuate depending on their capacities and demand. Conservatively there are a trillion dollars’ worth of oil tankers.

Then there are deep sea drilling platforms. It can cost $100 million just to find out there’s no oil in a tract of ocean you had your heart set on. Those costs have to be absorbed.

No one is talking yet about how to wind down these investments without causing a global recession but that conversation needs to happen.

Petrochemicals

We’ll never be completely independent of fossil fuels though because we’ll need to continue operating the petrochemical industry which is responsible for making things like fertilizers and synthetics like rubber as well as hundreds of other materials. Did you know there are 500 pharmaceuticals based on coal?

Finally, there’s also the issue of jet fuel. There’s no electric powered commercial aircraft waiting for a day when jet fuel costs twenty bucks per gallon. There’s no substitute for jet fuel when fighting a war either.

In short we need to preserve hydrocarbons for applications where there is no obvious substitute but we can still do a lot.

Going forward

If we want to change the direction of the climate debate we have to be sensitive to these issues as well as some others, like how people can remain employed during disruptive times.

As we consider what to do about climate, it would be good to take a break from fretting about emissions and scaring people. Instead we should begin multiple discussions on topics like how renewables can replace fossil fuels, the time frame, and what this means for how we live. Solving climate change isn’t a hard set of problems and potential solutions abound. But the key is that climate change is a set of problems, not some monolith. It’s like solving a Rubik’s Cube: You have to solve all sides at once. Implementing solutions starts with out of the box thinking and first replacing fear with hope.

Researcher, author of multiple books including “The Age of Sustainability” about solutions for climate change. Technology, business, economics.

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