Star Trek and Climate Change

by Mark Newcomb| November 23, 2021

Imagine for a moment that you are the captain of a war ship. A civilian vessel lies disabled, within easy reach of tyrannical enemy forces, in territory protected by treaty as a neutral zone. Passively watching from outside the neutral zone will almost certainly result in the capture and hostage taking of civilians. Launching a rescue mission will almost certainly result in the destruction of your ship. Such is the ‘no-win’ scenario made famous in the movie, Star Trek, labeled after the name of the doomed civilian vessel, the Kobayashi Maru.

Climate change places today’s policy makers in a Kobayashi Maru.

On the one hand, maintaining business as usual assures a future for humans that by all assessments will be dismal. On the other hand, addressing climate change through a rapid transition to renewable energy may be politically infeasible, may destroy the well-being of hundreds of thousands of workers in the U.S. alone, and may lead to extreme political backlash and accelerating populist uprising.

We rely heavily on fossil fuels. While energy produced by renewables has grown at a rapid clip, in total it represents only about 12% of our primary energy consumption. Meanwhile our reliance on natural gas for electricity generation has been growing, and employment in that sector is increasing. And as demand for electricity bounces back after pandemic closures, driving up the cost of natural gas, generation from coal has ramped up as well. As a result, this year the world will see the largest increase in CO2 emissions in its history.

In a brewing battle of the think tanks, some organizations present evidence that this will be a short-lived trend. A paper by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) makes the case that renewable energy is following the same exponential growth trajectory that other critical new technologies, such as information and telecoms, have followed. Thus wind and solar will continue being adopted at exponential rates versus the linear rates used by other energy forecasts, especially those used by the IPCC in their integrated assessment models. Riffing on this idea, the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) produced a working paper showing that, with continued policy support, the already low costs of utility scale wind and solar put them on a path that will entirely replace fossil fuel and nuclear energy production by 2050. Their research also shows that abandoning fossil fuel and nuclear production sooner could save trillions of dollars.

But there are valid reasons to doubt these conclusions.

Focusing on levelized costs of production alone doesn’t account for the vast amount of land required to accommodate the number and scale of wind and solar farms needed to fully substitute for fossil fuels. Or for the mounting resistance to wind farms built in cherished view sheds. Or for the fact that solar farms can impact wildlife in ways eerily similar to oil and gas fields. As a result, many projects will find themselves in the cross hairs of complex permitting and environmental review processes that are highly sensitive to local zoning restrictions. As well, deploying that much renewable generation will require a 60% expansion of the existing electricity grid by 2030, and possibly a 300% expansion by 2050. And new transmission lines face similar challenges to the siting of wind and solar projects. These challenges are likely to mire many a wind, solar and associated transmission project in lengthy and costly permitting and environmental approval processes. Many will not survive.

There are socio-economic and political reasons these forecasts might be unrealistic as well. The U.S. produces more fossil fuels than any other nation in the world, and as of 2019, fossil fuel industries employ over 1.6 million workers, 967,000 of whom work in the fuels sector alone. A rapid transition to 100% renewable energy over the next 30 years means that over a million jobs in the fossil fuel sector must transmogrify into jobs in the renewable sector, and while “job training” programs sound good on paper, the view from the ground looks very different.

Visit places like Gillette, Wyoming, where miners produce the bulk of Wyoming’s annual production of roughly 220 million short tons of coal. Or Pinedale, where the Pinedale and Jonah gas fields produce much of Wyoming’s 1.5 billion Mcf of natural gas. Or drive almost any stretch of highway in the eastern half of Wyoming and count pumpjacks pumping some of the 100 million barrels or so of oil that Wyoming produces every year. In all of these places, you’ll notice an almost palpable fear of the transition to renewables. For workers reliant on these industries, being forced to trade a definite, well-paying job for an uncertain future in a new field that likely doesn’t pay as well feels anything but fair.

Furthermore, many of the workers who produce fossil fuels live in politically important states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and models based on cost factors and predicted rates of adoption discount the sway held by the fossil fuel lobby over the politicians in these states. As a result, US climate policies can hinge on one congressional vote. As uncomfortable, even frustrated, as we may be about such impractical dynamics, they are realities.

Thus, other think-tanks are less sanguine about renewables, claiming that realistic paths forward require adopting the “widest possible suite” of emissions reduction technologies, including carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), advanced nuclear, and other technologies such as hot rock geothermal. Indeed, the more constrained renewables are, the more we will have to rely on fossil fuel with CCS and overall reductions in energy consumption (possibly achieved through efficiency gains).

And so it is that we find ourselves in a Kobayashi Maru.

Policy makers who choose to rely entirely on renewables to save the globe from climate change face two risks. One is that countless local permitting skirmishes may leave many needed projects with uncertain futures and drastically slow the rate of adoption. The second is that the number and location of fossil fuel jobs impacted, and the lobbying inertia of the fossil fuel industry, render the necessary support for such a transition politically infeasible. If we fail to transition as rapidly as predicted to renewables, we are left to rely on existing fossil fuel technologies — without carbon capture — longer than expected, thus overshooting emissions targets necessary to achieve 1.5° C warming.

On the other hand, doing nothing, largely the policy pursued under the Trump administration, risks a certain overshoot of emission targets.

A better approach might be to support carbon capture and sequestration, even if it means spending more. A multi-pronged approach that supports the deployment of renewables where most feasible, while supporting CCS (and some would include advanced nuclear) where those projects are most feasible, may open up a way to save the Kobayashi Maru. We know renewables are economically viable. Meanwhile the Clean Air Task Force has demonstrated that with the 45Q tax incentives currently in place, up to 49 million metric tons of CO2 could be captured within the relatively near term.

And further support for CCS can target those communities most impacted by the transition to renewables. As Moniz et al point out, “In many small towns and rural communities across the country, an industrial facility or power plant can underpin the entire local economy…Few emissions reduction pathways besides CCUS can so directly preserve and enhance the prosperity of communities while contributing to national climate ambitions.” If effective at saving jobs in those areas most susceptible to the downside impacts of an elimination of fossil fuel energy, an all-of-the-above emission reductions pathway might provide the political climate required to support stable climate policy.

It is clear that we face an existential threat of not doing enough, soon enough. Avoiding blowing past 1.5° C of warming requires continued support for renewables. But, we must be politically savvy in meeting this threat. Capturing carbon from key fossil fuel and biofuel facilities might very well provide the necessary political will to ensure durable climate policies that can guide us out of a fraught dilemma worthy of science fiction.

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We believe that progress to more just, fair and sustainable outcomes requires open and informed discussion. Jackson Hole Economics offers a global platform for a diverse group of authors to share views in clear, jargon-free terms across a range of important issues.

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