by Judith Curry
Are our current solutions only a short term fix?
On Monday November 15, I will be participating in an iaiLIVE debate on The Next Environmental Crisis.
A draft of my responses is appended below:
Will the new, green energy economy ushered in by governments save us from environmental disaster?
For the past century, fossil fuels have been the backbone of our energy and transportation systems, providing the engine for our ever-increasing prosperity.
Even without the mandate associated with global warming and other environmental issues, we would expect a natural transition away from fossil fuels over the course of the 21st century, as they become more expensive to extract and continue to contribute to geopolitical instability.
The problem is with the urgency of transitioning away from fossil fuels, driven by fears about global warming. By rapidly transitioning to this so-called clean energy economy, we’re taking a big step backwards in human development and prosperity. Nations are coming to grips with their growing over dependence on wind and solar energy. Concerns about not meeting electricity needs this winter are resulting in a near term reliance on coal in Europe and Asia. And we ignore the environmental impacts of mining and toxic waste from solar panels and batteries, and the destruction of raptors by wind turbines.
To thrive in the 21st century, the world will need much more energy. Of course we prefer our energy to be clean, as well as cheap. To get there, we need new technologies. The most promising right now is small modular nuclear reactors. But there are also exciting advances in geothermal, hydrogen and others. And the technology landscape will look different even 10 years from now.
For the past two decades, people have equated environmental disaster with manmade global warming. We’ve been hearing about the climate crisis, climate catastrophe, existential threat and most recently a code red for humanity. Note that the IPCC itself does not use the words ‘crisis’, ‘catastrophe’, or even ‘dangerous’; rather it uses the term ‘reasons for concern.’ Apart from the scientific uncertainties, the weakest part of the UN’s argument about manmade global warming is that it is dangerous. The link to danger relies on linking warming to extreme weather events, which is a tenous link at best.
I have an old-fashioned view of environmental problems, focused on pollution of air, water, soils and the oceans, and also on land use that destroys habitats and diminishes species diversity.
In 50 years time, we may be looking back on the UN climate policies, and this so-called green economy, as using chemotherapy to try to cure a head cold, all the while ignoring more serious diseases. In other words, the climate crisis narrative gets in the way of real solutions to our societal and environmental problems.
Theme 1: Is the environmental crisis the greatest threat that humanity faces, and if so, how do we decide this?
In 2018, World Health Organization stated that “Climate change is the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century.” From the perspective of 2021, after almost two years of fighting Covid with over 5 million deaths, this statement seems unfortunate at best. We should be asking the question as to whether the WHO’s focus on climate change contributed to the world being ill prepared for Covid-19.
Climate change is just one of many potential threats facing our world today, a point made clear by the Covid-19 pandemic. Why should climate change be prioritized over other threats? There’s a wide range of threats that we could face in the 21st century: Carrington events are solar electromagnetic storms that would take out all space-based electronics including GPS and electricity transmission lines; future pandemics; global financial collapse; a mega volcanic eruption; a cascade of mistakes that triggers a thermonuclear, biochemical or cyber war; the rise of terrorism. It’s almost certain that we will be surprised by threats that we haven’t even imagined yet. Vast sums spent on attempting to prevent climate change come from the same funds that effectively hold our insurance against all threats; this focus on climate change could overall increase our vulnerability to other threats.
So, how do we prioritize among the threats facing humanity? For the most part, we can’t. The best insurance against any and all of these threats is to try to understand them, while increasing the overall resilience of our societies. Prosperity is the best the indicator of resilience. Resilient societies that learn from previous threats are best prepared to be anti-fragile and respond to whatever threats the future holds.
|Theme 2: Is relentless consumption and growth to blame for our current predicament?
I’m not sure what our current predicament actually is, other than the one manufactured by the global politics surrounding climate change. More prosperous societies overall have a smaller impact on their environment than countries that engage in whole-scale exploitation of their environment just to survive.
Environmental problems have been defined as problems of population growth. Population increase has been enabled by technological and medical advancements. In the early 21st century, population is growing most rapidly in less developed countries, while Japan and many countries in western Europe having fertility rates that are well below replacement. Apart from changes in population, as countries develop, their consumption increases.
Developing countries don’t just want to survive, they want to thrive. We need much more electricity, not less. Going on an energy diet like we did in the 1970’s is off the table. We need more electricity to support innovation and thrivability in the 21st century. Consumption and growth will continue to increase throughout the 21st century. We need to accept this premise, and then figure out how we can manage this growth while protecting our environment.
|Theme 3: Can we rely on humanity’s ability to solve future crises of this kind?|
Humans are the most adaptable species that has ever existed on Planet Earth, a species so sophisticated that it can survive in outer space. The planet has been warming for more than a century. So far, the world has done a decent job at adapting to this change. The yields for many crops have doubled or even quadruped since 1960. Over the past century, the number of deaths per million people from weather and climate catastrophes have dropped by 97%. Losses from global weather disasters as a percent of GDP have declined over the past 30 years.
It’s an enormous challenge to minimize the environmental impact on the planet of 8 billion people. I have no question that human ingenuity is up to the task of better providing for the needs and wants of Earth’s human inhabitants, while supporting habitats and species diversity. But this issue is the major challenge for the next millennium. It’s a complex challenge that extends well beyond understanding the Earth system and developing new technologies – it also includes governance and social values.
To make progress on this, we need to disabuse ourselves of the hubris that we can control the Earth’s climate and prevent extreme weather events. The urgency of transitioning from fossil fuels to wind and solar energy under the auspices of the UN agreements has sucked the oxygen from the room. There’s no space left for imagining what our 21st century infrastructure could look like, with new technologies and greater resilience to extreme weather events, or even to deal with traditional environmental problems.
Under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, we’ve oversimplified a very complex problem. The causes of climate variability and change are complex, and any predictions of 21st century climate change are associated with deep uncertainty. We stand to make the overall situation worse with the simplistic solution of urgently replacing fossil fuels with wind and solar, which will have a barely noticeable impact on the climate of the 21st century.
Humans do have the ability to solve future crises of this kind. However, they also have the capacity to make things much worse by oversimplifying complex environmental issues and politicizing the science, which can lead to maladaptation and poor policy choices.
JC note: You need to register (and pay) to hear this live. I understand that a youtube will be prepared of the highlights, and the full recording will eventually be made available on the iaiLive website.