The science of global-warming theory can be difficult to grasp. Different scientists offer different views on the subject, which understandably leads to confusion in the minds of the public. We scientists also get confused on the subject.
But even though I am a climate scientist, you might be surprised that there is one subject which I consider to be more misunderstood in the global-warming debate than the science itself. And that is the economics of what to do about global warming.
I am astounded by the naiveté of those folks who seem to think there is some magic, non-polluting energy source out there that “Big Oil” has been hiding from us until all of the petroleum runs out. As these reality deniers continue to drive cars and fly in airplanes, they deny the fact that mankind’s dependence on oil is not out of choice, but necessity.
It makes me cringe when I see bloggers and pundits say things like, “What’s the downside of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions? Even if we’re wrong about man-made global warming, we’ll end up with better energy technologies and cleaner air. And if we’re right, we’ll save the planet!”
The only problem is, no matter how serious you think global warming will be, our current renewable-energy technologies and conservation will make virtually no difference to future global temperatures.
These efforts might make us feel better about ourselves, but don’t expect them to come anywhere close to solving the problem.
The energy demand by humanity is simply too large — and it is growing rapidly in developing countries like India and China. Electricity in the United States is supplied by the equivalent of 1,000 one-gigawatt power plants. It would be a major feat, both politically and monetarily, to replace 50 of those 1,000 power plants with solar and wind generation facilities.
Then, once we have patted ourselves on the back over that accomplishment, we could start working on replacing the other 95 percent of our electricity needs.
And now the space-based solar power crowd has returned. These “experts” point to the increase in efficiency that could be achieved by putting solar collectors in Earth’s orbit and beaming the energy down to the ground.
And indeed you probably could get several times the amount of energy from a solar collector in space versus on the ground. Too bad it would be insanely expensive.
You might have heard of the problems NASA has had with relatively tiny solar collectors attached to the Space Station and Space Telescope. Now imagine putting a one-square mile collector in space. Even if we could get such a thing designed, built, launched, and working, it would replace only 1 of the 1,000 one-gigawatt plants I mentioned earlier that the U.S. alone needs.
The truth is, if you want to get away from petroleum and coal, we need radically new energy technologies. A massive and immediate program to start building nuclear reactors would help some, but this is unlikely to occur without a major change in public opinion.
Capturing and storing carbon dioxide during the burning of coal (carbon sequestration) remains very expensive and a technical challenge, but it shows some promise. And since the U.S. has vast coal deposits, making coal work should be a very high priority for our country.
And now we are learning that the competition from biofuel production will make food more expensive, while replacing only a tiny fraction of the liquid fuel that we need. This might not be much of a problem in the U.S., but it can be a very big problem in poor countries like Mexico.
The bottom line is that, when it comes to energy, you can’t get something for nothing. Solar and wind would seem to be “free,” except that the amount of real estate you must cover with windmills and solar collectors to make much of a difference is staggering. They certainly work well in some limited applications, but are nowhere near a large-scale replacement for fossil fuels.
I often wonder: How many of those reality deniers who campaign against fossil fuels would be willing to give up what those fuels have given them? Or, are they simply campaigning to force other people to give them up?
The reality deniers also like to use the insurance analogy. We buy homeowners insurance to guard against losses we can not afford to pay for, right? So, if we conserve energy, use more renewable energy, and buy hybrid cars, this will provide us insurance in case man-made global warming ends up being a serious problem. Or so the analogy goes.
Well, in terms of the insurance analogy, you can go ahead and purchase the insurance if you want, but the policy says that you will only get ten percent of the cost recovered if the house burns down.
“So,” a concerned citizen might ask me, “should we not even try?” Sure, we should try. The question is, What should we try? The farther we go down dead-end roads, using up limited wealth along the way, the more difficult, expensive, and delayed will be the discovery of the correct road.
Most Americans don’t even realize that they are already paying, through their taxes, for billions of dollars in energy-technology research. While this is the only road that will lead to success, there has been virtually no public discourse on it.
Unfortunately, it seems that public opinion is leaning more toward feel-good efforts than toward real solutions. This can be partly blamed on our education system. Math teachers that place more emphasis on how a student feels about a problem than the correct answer, or a biology teacher ranting about the mythical extinction of polar bears, are not conducive to maintaining an informed public.
The entertainment industry is equally to blame. While movie stars are sexy, equations are not so much. Movie producers and writers tug on our heart strings with stories centered on modern technological problems, but their solution to those problems always ends up with a touchy-feely vindication of the environmentally-concerned citizen over the evil corporate polluters. Those of us old enough to remember the 1979 movie “The China Syndrome” know that it had a profound effect on our views of the safety of nuclear power.
But touchy-feely people need energy, too, and I can guarantee you that the solution to any energy problem won’t be in the touchy-feely realm. It will involve real chemistry, real physics, real engineering, real math, and real science.
This whole discussion, of course, assumes that man-made global warming will be a serious problem that needs to be addressed. I’m one of those who believe that our current global warmth is more likely to be mostly due to natural climate variability. But I can not prove this.
But neither can the global-warming alarmists prove that our current warmth is not the result of natural climate variability. Not one published study has ruled out natural causes, such as a slight change in cloud cover from a tiny change in the general circulation of the atmosphere.
Since reasonable people can differ on the subject, I can not fault the alarmists too much. But if we are going to have any hope of finding large-scale alternatives to fossil fuels, it is time for us to stop denying reality. Anything else is a waste of our limited amounts of time and wealth.
– Roy W. Spencer is a principal research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.