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Soft Landing or Crash and Burn? The Choice Is Ours

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Not until 1804 did the Earth's human population first exceed one billion. Between 1804 and 2014, a 210-year period spanning just three consecutive human lifetimes, population skyrocketed: to 2 billion in 1927, 4 billion in 1974, and 7 billion at the end of 2011. What spurred such explosive growth?

It's not accidental that the Homo sapiens explosion coincided with the advent of the Industrial Age. Mechanization made it possible for a single human to do work that previously had required scores of humans and/or many beasts of burden. Mechanized farming, for example, permits a single family to raise sufficient surplus to feed hundreds of families. And mechanized transport permits avocados from Mexico, tomatoes from California, and wine from Australia to wind up on your dinner table tonight.

The Industrial Revolution could not have occurred without fossil fuels, first coal, then cleaner and more easily transported oil and natural gas. The industrialized world, as we know it, owes its existence to fossil fuels. But it's a Faustian bargain. We're addicted, and there's hell to pay.

What happens as we begin to run out of fossil fuels, an eventual certainty? Some argue that peak oil has already occurred and that production is declining. Imagine then a video of the last two centuries of population growth playing in reverse. As fossil fuels become harder to extract, competition for oil and gas becomes fiercer, and mechanization and transportation begin to fail because of oil starvation, billions of humans could face extinction through food and water shortages or wars over waning resources. It all depends on how we play the hand we've dealt ourselves.

Here's the box we're in, according to Snake Oil (2013) by Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute:

  • Hydrocarbons are so abundant that, if we burn a substantial portion of them, we risk a climate catastrophe beyond imagining.
  • There aren't enough economically accessible, high-quality hydrocarbons to maintain world economic growth for much longer.

Let's parse Heinberg's seemingly paradoxical assessment through the lens of "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math." The world's known fossil-fuel reserves total 2,795 gigatons. That's huge. A gigaton is one billion tons. However, the scientific consensus is that we can afford to burn only 565 gigatons without frying the planet. That is, to limit global warming to 2C (3.8F) -- the threshold beyond which climate predictions turn catastrophic -- we can burn no more than one-fifth of the Earth's known hydrocarbon reserves. And yet, in the words of environmental activist Bill McKibben:

[S]tudy after study predicts that carbon emissions will keep growing by roughly three percent a year -- and at that rate, we'll blow through our 565-gigaton allowance in 16 years, around the time today's preschoolers will be graduating from high school.

That was two years ago. We've got 14 to go.

There's another compelling reason to act now: Heinberg's second point above. Hydrocarbons are getting harder to extract. We've already tapped the low-hanging fruit. In the early days of the oil industry, the EROEI index (energy return on energy invested) was 100 to 1. That is, the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil yielded 100 in return. Today the global combined average for oil and gas extraction is about 15:1, but as low as 5:1 for "tight oil" or 3:1 for bitumen tar sands oil.

The world economy is lubricated by cheap oil. Oil is no longer cheap, and it is getting more expensive. Heinberg concludes: "[The] economy as we have known it for more than two centuries will cease to become viable within the next 10 years or so ..."

Thus, there are two reasons to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, and high EROEI biofuels). There's the economic reason, and there's the ecological reason. Each is convincing. Together, they're compelling. And we have only a narrow window in which to make the transition successfully.

The previous post discussed tactics of the climate-change deniers and disinformers. To date, disinformation has prevailed over climate science, delaying decisive climate action by more than a decade. Thus, we've already closed the window of opportunity halfway. But as Abe Lincoln quipped, "You can't fool all the people all the time." Even those who wouldn't believe the scientists are starting to believe their own eyes in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, monster tornadoes in the Midwest, the droughts and wildfires in California, and the chilling new National Climate Assessment (May, 2014).

Fortunately, in the midst of all this doom and gloom, rides an idea whose time has come:

Revenue-Neutral Carbon Fee-and-Dividend


Here's the basic idea. A fee is placed on carbon-based fuels at the supplier's source or point of entry. The fee is progressive; that is, it is phased in over time, modest at first and increasing annually. The revenues collected are returned fully (100 percent) and equitably to the public to offset price increases ("pain at the pump") that are passed along to the consumer by the supplier. The predictability of the fee structure sends clear market signals to stimulate innovation and investment in alternative energy sources that are both clean and renewable.

Almost all your questions about fee-and-dividend can be found at the Frequently Asked Questions site of the Citizen's Climate Lobby. Most important: this comprehensive approach to addressing and reversing the causes of climate change could have a chance of success in the U.S. Congress. The proposal was floated originally by Republican Congressman Bob Inglis as a market-based approach that doesn't appreciably increase the size of government or result in net new taxes. (Unlike taxes that build revenues, the proposed fee is revenue-neutral in that all fees collected are returned fully to the public.)

Fee-and-dividend is supported by America's leading climate scientist, James Hansen, and by organizations and individuals on both sides of the political aisle. Moreover, it's already successfully in effect in British Columbia (2008) and several European countries, and it's currently being evaluated for adoption in California.

When the science becomes undeniable, the last line of defense of disinformers is to appeal to economics: Yes, there is a climate problem, but we can't afford to deal with it because it's too expensive and a job-killer. In truth, we can't afford not to deal with it, as the insurance industry, hemorrhaging from payouts for more frequent and more devastating weather-related disasters, has understood for some time.

Fee-and-dividend jumped the economic hurdle on June 9, when Citizen's Climate Lobby released the results of a landmark study by Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI). REMI is a trusted, non-partisan organization that specializes in predicting the regional effects of economic policies before they are enacted. REMI's study was massive, and its econometric models predict the following national benefits of the specific fee-and-dividend proposal studied:

  • [Carbon dioxide] emissions decline 33 percent after only 10 years, and 52 percent after 20 relative to baseline.
  • National employment increases by 2.1 million jobs after 10 years, and 2.8 million after 20 years.
  • 13,000 lives are saved annually after 10 years [primarily because of reductions in air pollution], with a cumulative 227,000 American lives saved over 20 years.

Fossil-fueled "business as usual" will end in economic and ecological crash-and-burn within a decade or two. Or, we can prepare the way for a soft landing by decisive climate action now.

The best proposal on the table is revenue-neutral carbon fee-and-dividend. The time is now. The choice is ours. But we can't dither.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that a gigaton is one trillion tons. A gigaton is one billion tons.

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