One of the more catastrophic artifacts of America’s sharply split political system is that instead of one side being right and one side being wrong, both parties seem to be forced by their activists in to adopting positions that are driven by fringe ideology instead of rational thought as to how to solve any given problem. The looming climate crisis (which is really a complex energy/financial system crisis) is a perfect example. Which is worse? Hard to say, but let’s take a look at the two biggest delusions: there is no climate change, and renewables will save us.
I’ve been involved in climate research for over 25 years, and as a scientist it still stuns me that anyone can possible say anthropogenic climate change is a hoax, or some kind if leftist plot, or whatever. I’ve blogged about this before. The data across interlocking disciplines like meteorology, oceanography, biology, geology/geophysics, all point in the same direction. You can argue over the details, and what to do about it, but you can’t argue over the big picture: humans have changed the earth’s climate system, and it is likely to enter a period of rapid change over the next century that will most likely prove highly disruptive both to humans and the natural world. However, as someone with a background in the geopolitical world, denying human impacts on climate doesn’t surprise me a bit – in fact, given how the crisis came to light, it was inevitable.
Some of the more outspoken scientists doing early research on climate really screwed up. I understand that they feared for the future and felt they needed to raise the alarm, but they overstepped the bounds of the role of scientists. Many of them in the public eye (such as James Hansen) crossed the line between science and partisan politics by advocating specific actions based on their political leanings. By the mid to late 1990s the impression had been firmly fixed in the minds of many politicians as well as members of the public that the science was politically biased. Combined with the religious component (as I discussed in the link above), this created a circumstance where the science wasn’t trusted. While it would have been a hard job to navigate the complex energy, financial, and societal response required by human impacts on climate, this false impression of political bias in the science has created an almost intractable situation.
The situation on the Progressive side of the spectrum isn’t any better. By any rational metric the proposals floating around for the Green New Deal are technological fantasies, and are based more on restructuring society than the realities of trying to address the climate crisis. Take one small technical detail about so-called renewable energy: solar panels and wind turbines (much less batteries) are advanced electronic devices. They take a lot of Rare Earth Elements(REE) to make, and that presents two huge problems:
1) Mining and processing REE’s is an environmentally destructive process, basically being strip mining with lots of toxic (even radioactive) waste (more so than mining Uranium), not to mention using a lot of water.
2) Depending on how you crunch the numbers, there aren’t enough known REE’s on the planet for even a third of our present energy needs.
If it wasn’t so delusional and going to end so badly it would be mildly amusing to hear people rant about how fossil fuels are limited and using them is environmentally damaging, then in the next breath preach about the cleanliness and potential for solar or wind – which are by the same measures just as resource limited and environmentally destructive.
So what do we do? Like most things, anyone who says they have “THE” answer is, well, delusional. This is a very complex problem that crosses so many aspects of society. It won’t be easy, and it will take time – time we are running out of if we haven’t already. As I noted above, I think for the most part scientists should keep out of the political process. However, if I were acclaimed Imperator Caesar, Princeps Senatus, Tribunicia Potestas, Pontifex Maximus (which is the only way I’d take on the job), I think I could put together an approach to start down the path to a solution. But nobody presently in power would like it. The first thing I’d do is completely rework the system of global governance. The climate crisis is ultimately a failure of governance – and it isn’t the worst threat we face in that respect (I am convinced that the worst threat to humanity – and the environment – is conflict/war and the collapse of the complex system of resource allocation/distribution needed to sustain nearly eight billion humans). As for energy and resources, there really isn’t much choice for wide scale reduction of emissions given our present technology: immediate widespread use of nuclear for electricity generation, combined with a crash program for fusion and the development of a sustainable, high energy density method of powering transportation systems. There are other complex changes that need to be made, all of which will take time and some serious rethinking of how society functions. In other words, to fix this, the technology will piss off Progressives, and the social changes will piss off the Neoconservatives. So I just don’t know how our present angry, bifurcated political system can come up with a good plan without an outside force like a benign Emperor to make the two sides behave.
Yes, climate problem is a crisis, and we’ve wasted at least 25 years we really didn’t have to start dealing with it. But we need to sort out the technology and have a clear rational, compassionate path forward before upending our economy and society. Going down the wrong path will kill as many if not more people, and be at least as destructive to the environment, as doing nothing.