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Even If They're Right, the Superfreakonomics Guys Only Have Half an Answer

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The argument by the Superfreakonomics authors that we should try "geoengineering " our way out of global warming seems to be a Rorschach test for the blogosphere: if you're the "drill, baby, drill" type, you love it ; if you're an environmentalist, you hate it. Or, maybe it depends on a flash reaction, whether ideas like pumping sulfur into the atmosphere to compensate for the carbon dioxide that's causing global warming strikes you as something you'd hear about from Albert Einstein or from MacGruber on Saturday Night Live.

We'll come right out and say it: we don't know if it would work or not. (There are a lot of thoughtful examinations of that question summed up here). But even if geoengineering works magnificently to cool down the Earth (and right now, that's definitely an "if"), it's only half of a solution to our energy problems.

Right now, human beings depend on fossil fuels for energy -- they account for 80 percent of all energy use in the United States alone. And that presents two problems. One is global warming driven by the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases pumped out when we use fossil fuels. Number two is that there just isn't enough energy to meet world demand, which is projected to jump 50 percent in the next 20 years. And no, it's not just the energy-guzzling American lifestyle. Most of the increase will come from people around the world rising out of poverty and phenomenal economic growth in countries like India and China.

So even if geoengineering solved the first half of that problem, it wouldn't solve the second.

Some of the people who have embraced geoengineering seem to see it as a way of addressing global warming without having to change how we use energy. No need to get off fossil fuels. No need for cap-and-trade, or an energy tax. No need for conservation or efficiency.

But there are two grim facts about fossil fuels. One is that we'll be using them for a long time -- even the most optimistic projections see the United States and the world still primarily using fossil fuels for the next two decades. They are the world's energy default setting.

The other is that fossil fuels, particularly oil, are a finite resource. Demand for oil, in particular, is likely to outstrip production over the next 20 years, according to respected sources like the International Energy Agency . That's because people in China, India and other parts of the developing world are reaching the point where they can afford to drive, and they want those cars. We have more options when it comes to generating electricity, but demand for that is going up as well. There are 1.6 billion people on this planet who don't have electricity today, and over the next two decades, a lot of them are going to get it. You don't have to be an economist to guess what that means. As more people need the energy fossil fuels supply, demand is going to force prices up -- unless we find alternatives.

Then there's the question of U.S. energy security. As long as we continue to rely on oil for almost all our transportation needs, we're going to be relying on foreign supply. The United States imports 60 percent of our oil, and we have about 2.5 percent of the world's proved reserves. Our oil fields are getting old, too. In 1972, the average U.S. oil well produced 18.6 barrels a day; by 2007 it was only producing 10.1 barrels.

By contrast, the Mideast has about 60 percent of remaining oil reserves. You do the math. We could drill more, but there's no way we're going to find enough domestic oil to make up for 60 percent of our needs. The trends simply aren't moving in our favor.

The harsh reality is that even if global warming could be engineered away, we still need to change how we use energy. We'd need to develop all kinds of alternatives just to keep the lights on and our cars on the road at a price our economy could afford. "Current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable -- environmentally, economically, socially," said the IEA.

The Superfreakonomics authors say they've defined the problem as "If we need to cool the Earth in a hurry, what is the best way to do it?" And they argue geoengineering is the fastest, cheapest method -- Steven Levitt called it a "band-aid" on the Daily Show. They argue their environmental critics are posing a different question, a moral question, and that's why their book is so controversial.

Fair enough. We're posing a still different question: how do we both avert global warming and still find the energy humanity needs? That deserves an answer, too.

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