THE BLOG
03/12/2009 02:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is Agreeing About "Energy Independence" Enough?

grist.org

I think Andy Revkin gets something importantly wrong in this post on DotEarth.

Andy's post is about how the cranks at the ongoing Heritage Foundation climate "skeptic" conference agree with climate realists that there's an "energy gap" and a need for substantial energy innovation. So we can all move forward together!

Now, I think on a broad level this is true. You don't have to take climate change seriously to see the need for big changes in our energy situation -- you could be concerned about national security (quite common), concerned about dwindling fossil fuel reserves (less common), or concerned about stagflation brought about by high energy prices (weirdly rare). John McCain, back in his Reasonable Conservative phase, used to make the same point: even if we're wrong about climate change, we should do this stuff anyway.

But how far does this agreement get you? Far enough for a shared political or economic agenda?

I don't think so. At the Wall Street Journal Eco:nomics conference last week I managed to sneak into one of the lunch roundtables where press allegedly weren't allowed. I sat at a table with three guys from Chevron. They were nice guys, basically on board with the green program, but as one of them said, "we built this energy infrastructure over 100 years, and it's going to take 100 years to switch it over." That was a fairly common sentiment. Folks at the conference clearly thought of shifting to a cleaner and more domestic energy portfolio as turning an enormous cruise ship -- you need to do it slowly and carefully, so you don't knock anyone's champagne glasses over. These guys want to make sure that nobody's business model is unduly disrupted; that there are sufficient profits at every step; that the primary work be done by new technology, not new practices or new ways of thinking.

Now, for one thing, that's just not how socioeconomic shifts happen. They're disruptive. That's why the status quo PTB almost always oppose them.

But put that aside. What's missing in such discussions -- and what was virtually never mentioned at the Eco:nomics conference -- is climate change. If you believe the IPCC, if we continue on our present path we are dooming ourselves to untold misery. And that doesn't even account for all the science that's come out since the IPCC, all of which points to impacts happening faster than anyone expected. And the IPCC doesn't even account for disruptive "tipping points," which of course are central to climate risk management.

If you take climate change seriously -- really take is seriously -- your hair is on fire. You don't think we have time left to do this in a way that avoids disruption. You think it's time to mobilize, with speed and at a scale commensurate with the preparation for WWII. Probably bigger. According to Saul Griffith and the folks at WattzOn (see here), to get to 450ppm in time we need to build:

  • 100 m² of solar cells every second for the next 25 years. 15% efficiency, good siting.
  • 50 m² of solar thermal mirrors every second for the next 25 years. 30% efficiency, well sited.
  • 12 3MW wind turbines in great locations every hour. Or one 100m diameter turbine every 5 minutes ...
  • 1x 3GW Nuclear plant every week for the next 25 years.
  • 3x 100MW steam turbines every day for next 25 years.
  • 1250 m² or 1 olympic swimming pool of algae every second for the next 25 years.

It's industrially possible, but it's going to require huge, urgent, coordinated action, immediately. Some of it can be "market-based," but friendliness to existing market actors is secondary, not primary.

If you don't believe in climate change, or if you think it's a distant, mild, incremental, 100-year problem, you don't agree. You have different priorities. You think we can go slower. You think we can wait on new technologies. You think existing socioeconomic power structures can pass through the transition essentially intact.

In other words: it's not enough to agree we have an energy problem. That barely gets you anywhere beyond "research." You either think climate change is a serious, urgent, immediate problem, or you don't. There's no dancing around it.