Friday, November 14, 2014

Energy, Civilization and the Climate Pessimists

Few things a less rewarding than arguing with people you mostly agree with. Global warming is a good case in point. For those who think it is a major menace, and I'm certainly one of them, urgent action is required. Unfortunately I also believe that many of the Cassandras of AGW have highly unrealistic views of the difficulties and costs involved, views which cause them to advocate for fake solutions that have almost zero chance of working.

The rise of human civilization, the very fact that makes us a profound menace to the planet, is intimately tied to and dependent upon our ability to command more and more energy. The only obvious strategy for combating carbon emissions is to increase the cost of fossil fuel energy relative to alternatives. The easy part, decreasing the cost of some alternatives is only progressing in a few areas, like solar and wind. Others like nuclear are held back mainly by reasonably based but mostly hysterical fear. The hard part, increasing the cost of fossil fuel, is desperately unpopular, and for very good reason.

We have had several examples of rapid rises in fossil fuel prices prompted by wars and geopolitics. Each of these has produced widespread economic devastation: major recessions and inflation in the rich nations, economic collapse and mass catastrophe in poorer nations. This is a purely natural consequence of the direct dependence of economic activity on energy cost and availability.

These costs hit almost every level of society, especially in poor nations without social safety nets or other nations (like the US) with limited safety nets and large built in energy costs. Very significantly, they also affect an extremely influential segment of society, energy rent owners and workers. Those who own fossil resources, ranging from super wealthy individuals to whole nations (Norway, Saudi Arabia, Canada) will bitterly oppose anything that impoverishes them, even slightly. So will the guy who owns a pickup truck.

So I'm a climate pessimist. I think it very likely that very bad things will happen as a result of climate change, but that it's probably going to happen anyway. Though an occasional ray of light like the recent China-US deal makes me hope, for a minute anyway. And technological progress might help too.