Hi, Jake! I’ve spent some very frustrating time in recent days speaking to some global warming deniers (all of whom insisted that while global warming is real, it’s either a very minor problem, or almost completely outside the realm of human control). So I was glad to see your comment, because I think this is one point of contention that is easily addressed.
The problem here is that the traditional environmental movement, which has some of the loudest voices advocating climate change action, promotes the idea that we should all change our behavior to reduce energy use.
Of course, that is a fine individual choice to make, but it’s not very realistic to expect everybody to change their habits, or to stop liking SUVs, or to expect the billions of people gaining prosperity in the developing world not to want the amenities that Americans enjoy — amenities that require energy.
Luckily, is quite possible to reduce CO2 emissions all the way to zero (and beyond!) without most of us having to change our habits at all--a fact that traditional environmentalists either don’t believe or consistently fail to mention.
I’ll give you three reasons for this:
- Energy efficiency. The obvious example is light bulbs: you used to buy incandescents, now you buy LED lights. The may cost a little more, but they very rarely burn out, so actually they’ve improved your life while using five times less energy. Another example is electric cars — yes, they are very expensive now, but someday they won’t cost much more than gas cars. They are cheaper to maintain (no oil changes), and they often have incredible horsepower, so even if you don’t care at all that they are 10 times more efficient and have zero emissions, you’ll still want one. Meanwhile, you can own your own car as long as you want, but self-driving taxis may largely reduce car ownership, which will reduce car ownership rates, which means less energy will be spent to manufacture cars.
- Solar power. Most people, liberal and conservative alike, don’t realize just how successful solar R&D has been. Solar plants have become so cheap at this point that they will invade all sunny regions of the world in the next decade, even without any subsides. If the downward price trend continues, they will become popular at higher latitudes, too.
- Nuclear energy. Solar has disadvantages, such as the need for backups when the sun doesn’t shine (batteries or natural gas peakers), and large tracts of land. Meanwhile, today’s nuclear regulations are highly paranoid, achieving extremely high safety but at an extremely high price — with traditional light-water technology, that’s the cost of perfect safety in all foreseeable circumstances. Luckily, a fundamentally different kind of reactor using molten salt fuel can solve this problem, provide unlimited amounts of energy and beat the price of coal and oil. This technology has some other advantages that solar doesn’t (see link below). U.S. regulations have not been favorable to this new technology, and no subsidies are available to build it, but entrepreneurs are pressing on anyway, just more slowly than they would have with public support.
Speed is really what this whole issue is all about. The oil industry can’t actually stop new technology from competing with it, but they can slow it down. A carbon tax, or caps on fracking, or better nuclear regulations, etc., could have given confidence to investors in clean technology that they could have an ROI earlier, which would have sped up R&D.
Since that didn’t happen in many places, less capital was (and is being) poured into clean energy, but in the end it will still win. We’ll just have a bit higher sea level, more ocean acidification, and a warmer climate than we could have had (which may sound good unless, like me, you already live somewhere hot).