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.