Last week, powerful men from all over the world finished negotiating a new climate deal — the “Paris Agreement.” France’s foreign minister, the host of the “COP21” climate conference, called the plan an “historic turning point” in the battle against global warming. Our representative, John Kerry, called it “a victory for the planet.”
The deal sets various goals for 2023, and for 2050 through 2100. It is absurd to think that the world’s foreign ministers can intelligently discuss what the world’s climate, industry, transportation, or energy markets will look like in 2023 — much less 2050 or 2100.
Of course not. Michael Crichton — the brilliant novelist and thinker — posed this question in a speech at Caltech in 2003, re climate predictions for 2100. What environmental problems would men in 1900 have predicted for 2000? Where to get enough horses, and what to do with all the manure. “Horse pollution was bad in 1900,” said Crichton. How much worse would someone in 1900 expect it to “be a century later, with so many more people riding horses?
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Now: you tell me you can predict the world of 2100. Tell me it’s even worth thinking about. Our [emissions] models just carry the present into the future. They’re bound to be wrong. Everybody who gives it a moment’s thought knows it.
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“I remind you that in the lifetime of most scientists now living, we have already had an example of dire predictions set aside by new technology. . . . In 1960, Paul Ehrlich said, ‘The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.’ Ten years later, he predicted 4 billion people would die during the 1980s, including 65 million Americans. The mass starvation that was predicted never occurred, and it now seems it isn’t ever going to happen. Nor is the population explosion going to reach the numbers predicted even ten years ago. In 1990, climate modelers anticipated a world population of 11 billion by 2100. Today, some people think the correct number will be 7 billion and falling. But nobody knows for sure.”
In 1900, the John Kerrys of the world might have been talking about global horse-manure accords.
In 1900, the John Kerrys of the world might have been talking about global horse-manure accords, but a few bright-eyed non-bureaucrats had an idea of the direction transport was moving: Thirty years earlier, an Austrian Jew named Siegfried Marcus had built a wooden cart that propelled itself with an internal-combustion engine: the very first car. (A directive from the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda in 1940 instructed German encyclopedias to amend their entries on the motorcar so that “not Siegfried Marcus, but the two German engineers Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz will in future be regarded as the creators of the automobile.” The lie stuck. But I digress.)
The car didn’t catch on until sometime after Marcus’s death in 1898. But the Marcuses of the world are still at work, and this week we got a good look at the direction the energy market is moving: toward fusion.
But uranium, and plutonium, are used to produce power through nuclear fission. There is an alternative: nuclear fusion. Fission power comes from the energy released by splitting the atoms of (certain) heavy elements. Fusion power comes from the energy released by the fusing of two atoms of (certain) light elements — conventionally, two isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium and tritium.
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A normal hydrogen atom has no neutrons; a deuterium atom has one, and a tritium atom, two. When you smash deuterium and tritium atoms together, you get helium-4 atoms, each with two protons and two neutrons. The third neutron is freed, along with a lot of energy that’s no longer needed to attach it to a nucleus. The helium-4 atom plus the free neutron weigh slightly less than the two original atoms; that difference in mass, multiplied by the speed of light squared, is equal to the energy the reaction releases: E = MC2. (How about that?)
Even though deuterium is rare and tritium even rarer (tritium has to be manufactured, by using deuterium, or one of a few other elements), we won’t run out of them. One estimate says that, at current global energy use, we have enough naturally occurring fusionable deuterium in our seawater to last us 150 billion years (or: for 145 billion years after our sun dies).
Fusion reactors will create enormous amounts of energy and produce no radioactive waste and no pollution. There’s only one problem: So far, they don’t work.Fusion reactors have produced energy, but, till recently, they all produced less energy than the immense quantity required to run them. But for the first time, in 2013, the Lawrence Livermore Lab in California created a fusion reaction that produced more energy than it cost. Just this week, a gigantic new fusion reactor was completed in Germany; it will go online next year, and hopes for net energy production are high. Meanwhile, a gigantic new reactor is being built in southern France (with our money, and money from the EU, the PRC, India, Japan, Russia, and South Korea). It’s called ITER, and it’s designed to be the basis for the first commercial fusion power plants. It’s planned to produce 500 megawatts while taking just 50 megawatts to run. It’s expected to come online in the 2020s.
Of course, ITER might not work. The German reactor might not work either. But the advance of science is inevitable — fusion reactors will work, one day, and I’d bet sooner rather than later. (I’d like to see an American president stand up and say: This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the next decade is out, of sustaining a fusion reaction and getting energy out of it.) When fusion power comes online, energy will become dirt cheap. No more energy will be generated using coal, or petroleum, or wind power. Every car will be powered by unbelievably cheap electricity. There will be no more fossil-fuel pollution, except by collectors’ classic cars.
Exhaust fumes will be the horse droppings of the future. John Kerry will continue to look silly.
— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard. He is a founder of the tech startup Dittach.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.