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Don’t Give Up on The Climate Just Yet

My uncle sent me this New Yorker piece about how we should all just give up on fixing climate change. I saw that the author was Jonathon Franzen, and while I couldn’t quite put my finger on anything he’d written the name rung a bell and this recognition gave me the initial impression that he must be a smart guy. After reading the article I’m convinced he’s an idiot and just the sort of science skimming pessimist that I can live without. He starts out by saying that “we’ve made essentially no progress” on climate when a more accurate statement would be that we have made a ton of progress, but have not yet substantially reduced our total emissions.

What progess you may ask? Well new electric cars can cover distances that were just dreams in the 80’s, the top end Tesla S now goes 370 miles between charges. These EVs use less energy per mile than even the most efficient gas cars while having lower maintenance costs and often being faster off the line. As battery prices continue to drop the prices on these cars will too and in the next decade or so we’ll reach a moment where an EVs cost substantially less then gas cars. If you appropriately factor in maintenance and fuel we may already be at this point.

EVs already have pretty impressive performance characteristics, and battery tech is the only thing holding them back from completely outperforming gas cars. Once the price and performance advantages of EVs become unavoidable truths the transition to EVs will be extremely rapid. This is because gas stations will start closing as demand for the fuel they sell drops (over 80% of EV charging is done at home). This means as EVs become a higher percentage of cars operating a gas vehicle will just get harder and harder. There may even be EV conversion kits like this one but, actually done cheaply after battery prices continue to fall.

Aside from their efficiency gains these EVs will be powerable by renewable sources and we’ll be able to use their batteries to stabilize the grid when renewable generation dips. On top of this we’re also in the beginning of electrifying ships and planes as well and as battery tech improves with electric cars these other forms of transit will just become easier to convert. I would call these advances some serious progress!

In terms of the renewable energy transition Franzen is basically silent, outside of opining that building renewables on open land hurts ecosystems. He’s right on this, but he also forgets to note how those renewables will replace fossil fuel plants that are already killing far more animals, leading to a net positive in total ecosystem health. He also never notes just how small an area of land will have to be converted to power the entire world. The U.S. has 3.5M square miles of land and it would only take about 21k square miles of solar panels to power us. This seems like a lot, but it’s less than 1% of our total land. If you look at that link you’ll see many other things that we currently waste far more land on. For example, in 2018 the US used 33k square miles to grow corn for ethanol that replaced less then 10% of our total oil consumption. Turn 2/3s of that corn into solar panels and you power literally our entire country! Better yet use that area to grow actual food and cover some marginal land in panels. This all seems like massive progress that should give people who know about it hope, but Franzen either hasn’t yet read about it or is willfully omitting it from his essay.

Franzen does note that “carbon emissions from existing global infrastructure, if operated through its normal lifetime, will exceed our entire emissions “allowance””. This is also true, but pessimistic and economically unsound in its assumption that we’ll run all of these old plants on fossil fuels through their full normal lifetimes. Utility scale solar and wind are now pretty much always cheaper to build new than new coal/nuclear plants and often cheaper than new gas plants. The prices of renewable energy generation have dropped over an order of magnitude since the 1980s and will likely keep dropping in the future. Here’s a post from 2014 with good graphs on solar prices, the price dropping trend lines they show have continued through 2018. When it is cheaper to build new solar than to run existing fossil fuel plants they will be shuttered before their end of life. We’ve already seen this happen with tons of new gas plants replacing coal plants coal plants and it won’t surprise me when the same thing happens to those gas plants.

Renewable generation capacity worldwide has quadrupled in the last decade and in 2018 it accounted for 12.9% of total capacity, up from 11.6% in 2017. If this 1.3% increase continues every year then in 66 years we’ll be at 100% renewable generation. Of course it is unlikely that this rate will just stay at 1.3%, it’s actually been increasing over time. There will be some pressure to slow down on renewables when they make up a larger share of the grid because it makes grid management more difficult, but there will also be pressure to deploy more as their prices continue to fall. As energy storage to handle renewable generation’s intermittence also becomes cheaper we will see grid management issues reduce and renewable deployment grow even more, heck solar+battery systems are already beating out gas peaker plants on price. 

The fact that renewable technology has gotten so cheap is remarkable and honestly fairly lucky. If we lived in a world where renewable energy still cost 2-10x more than fossil fuel energy then I might share Franzen’s pessimism. But, due to the hard work of lots of people and some lucky truths of physics this is not the case. Yes, we need governments to help speed our transition to renewable technology, but it is not as bleak as Franzen suggests.

One big step would be to simply put a price on carbon. To avoid the revolts against government interference that Franzen predicts you could take the money that this tax pulls in and refund it equally amongst all tax payers. This is essentially what the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act does and there are other similar ideas both in the US and abroad. Are people really going to revolt when the government starts sending them checks every month? Or are they instead going to shift their consumption to cheaper, lower carbon alternatives and try and be one of the majority of people who will gain more from that check than the spend on the tax (it’s a majority because the top 1% of users emit so much carbon that well over 50% of all people use less than average).

On top of this Franzen is also flat out wrong about a lot of climate science. The 2°C limit is not about a tipping point at which we’re sure that runaway warming will occur, it’s a point at which we’re confident that life will become far worse for people and ecosystems on this planet.

Franzen says “If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.” But even the IPCC’s worst projection (RCP 8.5 where emissions just keep on rising) doesn’t put us above 2°C for another 40 years and it will take years of being at 2°C before the environment really gets ugly. Does Franzen not know the average life expectancy in the U.S.?

It’s also very likely that we’ll do better than the doomsday RCP 8.5 scenario. As I outlined above I think tech advances make this economically unlikely. The next 10-20 years will really tell, but if the renewable and battery price trends continue I think we’ll see dropping emissions and be well below RCP 8.5. Whether we drop fast enough is a good question. It’s also a good question whether some of feedback loops that we’re afraid of actually materialize. But lets give it 10-20 more years before we just give up. Even if we do lose the fight it’s unlikely that anyone reading this will actually be alive long enough to see the worst of it, but some descendants of our might and we owe it to them to work as hard as we can right now to avoid the worst.

6 Comments

  1. And now a word from The Uncle.

    In 1976, I supported and campaigned for Mo Udall in the D primaries – for whom this was his number one issue. (Carter won the nom, because who wanted to think about the environment?) Udall’s private position was that a market-based capitalist democracy would be incapable of dealing with sufficient intent to confront and ‘deal with’ this situation. In the years since, I’ve seen exactly what he means.

    The reason is that the problem is not one of technology, but of political effectiveness. And if you wonder why the Russians hacked our elections, consider that it’s a collapsing political enterprise based on an extraction economy – they are (barely) propped up by oil prices. But I digress.

    As our technology improves – and as the author above correctly points out – the technology has massively improved. Have you noticed that as energy efficiency improves, that our houses are bigger (and air conditioned), our cars are bigger, our refrigerators are bigger, our stoves now have two ovens and six burners? The rise of Uber and apps has put 10% more cars on the road in major cities (at the expense of mass transit).

    I could go on, but it’s at this point I recommend you Google “Jevons Paradox.”

    As to our improving tech, there is a huge carbon down payment in all of it, so far. Elon Musk won’t and can’t save us. What will, short of a network of worldwide autocracies, is when climate change starts costing the capitalists money. Now this could be done with taxes, but as Brown University professor Mark Blyth observes, it won’t happen until Naples FL is under water and half of Miami Beach is washed away (along with all the money invested there).

    ProfitGreenly, keep up the drumbeat. We desperately need better tech (especially to wring the embedded carbon out of it). I have no doubt visionaries like yourself can and will get that done.

    But the problem is not technology – it’s the vice grip of human nature and governance that is squeezing us all.

    • Profit Greenly

      September 9, 2019 at 2:05 pm

      I think Udall’s stance made more sense in the 70s when solar cost 100x more than it does now. Adding a price to carbon will help speed along the transition to renewables, but the low price of renewables alone will eventually win in a market based system. Udall, just couldn’t forsee how lucky we would be to actually end up with renewables being the cheapest form of energy.

      I do hear you on the Jevon’s paradox, and it is certainly something we should think about. Not everyone is living bigger though, it’s mostly just old/rich people with young people living much more modestly. That being said, after we get to the point where we’re using 100% renewable energy increasing energy use will not increase global warming in the same way that it does now. Yes more energy use will add heat to the planet, but that is much more benign than adding insulation to our planet in the form of greenhouse gases. It may also bring us to a point where we start to run low on various raw materials, but again I’d much rather have a raw material shortage then worldwide climate change.

      • Young people are living modestly because they are forced to – a future that awaits us all. Climate change is a force that can’t be wished or politicked away, but I am indeed a pessimist. (your aunt and I both have been heavily engaged on this issue since our college days, and it’s gotten much, much worse. Note that Carter was an environmentalist, and had he won a second term, and gotten the solar panels on the White House roof, we’d all be passive energy assisted today., Instead, he lost his re-election bid to an oil driller. And you may want to notice how our GDP and employment markets track 1:1 the growth in fracking. So it’s unlikely (if not delusional) to think we will act until the climate has begun the frontal assault on the capitalist economies, all of which are in (still-) temperate zones. At that point it will be a two-front war – because billions, not hundreds of thousands – of people will be living in uninhabitable parts of the world, and looking for habitable land, most of which is to the north.

        To my mind, we are in the Lend-Lease phase, analogous to the secret build-up to WWII which every politician could see coming but wouldn’t prepare for because of an isolationist population. (Sound familiar? FDR started secret development a decade prior – and that’s what we need, our second great president.)

        • Profit Greenly

          September 10, 2019 at 1:15 am

          I mean the whole point of this blog is that people (young, old, middle aged, whatever) can live “modestly” and be happy, healthy and wealthy. It’s true that many people still do believe that consumption will bring them happiness, but don’t discount the significant subset of people who have rejected this. Heck go check out http://www.mrmoneymustache.com for a whole community of people who are reducing their consumption even though they have lots of money in the bank.

  2. Even though it is easy to be pessimistic about anything connected to a healthy environment under the callous tRump administration, we should not need to endure this for much longer. Sane people in our Congress and a responsible administration will reverse the onerous dictates and get us and the rest of the world back on a healthy course. Reversing climate change is a difficult task, but we can do it.

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