The prescription ... what we need to do
Taking the medicine
Figuring out what we have to do about the climate problem isn't actually very hard. We've pretty much known for 30 years.
But we haven't done it.
Instead we talk a lot about doing things that won't fix it.
Why is this? Here are a couple of suggestions:
• The threat is insidious - it doesn't ring our alarm bells the way more immediate problems do.
• Fossil fuels have been very good to us. Apparently we're not yet persuaded there's a good enough reason to give them up.
• The fossil fuel economy is enormous and politically powerful. There is industrial resistance.
• The climate problem has become entangled in the politics of the environment, and (for the moment) intractable ideological & cultural conflicts.
This isn't really unique - it shares a lot with past episodes of difficult change like the abolition of slavery. Surely what we need more than anything is that ordinary folks understand well what we are up against. Nobody - not the toughest oil man or the meanest politician - wants bad stuff for their grandkids. Without a well informed public, the problem won't be solved ... at least not in time. But if enough people know what is at stake and what must be done ... anything can happen. That is our hope and our inspiration.
Here is a simple prescription. To be any good, a remedy has to be based on a correct diagnosis and a good understanding of the causes. This one is.
by any means. It won't restore the world to its pre-warming state - it's too late for that. But it can limit warming to less than 1.5℃, and restore Earth to approximate energy balance in about a century. It entails a transition to a zero-carbon energy system, starting without delay. It means the assets of fossil energy companies must be left unexploited. It probably means we will need more nuclear energy; and we will have to be serious about getting CO2 out of the air for the next hundred years or so until we reach a safe level - not more than 350 ppmv ... maybe less.
All these imperatives derive from the understanding that the climate problem is best defined as one of planetary energy imbalance. To think of it any other way is to miss the point ... like prescribing aspirin for pneumonia. You can cure the planet's fever by removing its cause - not otherwise.
The prescription is due to Dr James Hansen, retired director of the Goddard Institute in New York & one of the best scientists and advocates working on the problem. He is also a grandfather who has understood that if we are in a position to act, and yet fail to do so, we will leave a colossal and unsolvable problem for future people to manage as best they can. To him, the thought of such grave neglect is intolerable, so he has spent the last 30 years with his scientific colleagues in the effort to figure out as much as we can about the best way to solve this on behalf of our descendants.
Hansen's thinking centres on the question: what is the quickest way to restore energy balance? Delay means more time for ocean-stored heat to melt ice sheets. It means steeper emission reductions ... even a decade or two would require 9 or 10% annual reductions ... and we must commit to abandoning fossil fuels now. Promised reductions at mid-century are not what we need, and misleading.
In the charts above you can see the size of both positive & negative forcings; and the effect of delay in starting to lower emissions. These four lines are for comparison - they don't show the net effect of active CO2 draw-down. With reforestation and soil sequestration, the blue line would reach 350 ppm about 2100.
Jim Hansen has written a lot about this. The link above will get you a recent major paper. You can find more at his website here
Below are some of the features of the prescription in more detail.
James Hansen's therapeutic procedure
Coal is the key
Carbon fee & dividend
Large scale bio-sequestration of carbon
There's a short introduction to the integral fast reactor here:
and a longer explanation of why it will be necessary and sufficient here:
A short article on the bio-char concept, and a proposal can be found here:
There's a longer review of the topic here:
Both graphs are from Hansen's long paper, which can be read at the link above. If you want a short summary of its argument, use this link:
Here is Jim Hansen explaining the concept of carbon fee & dividend for the Huffington Post:
Here is Steve Kirsch in the same journal:
So where’s our energy going to come from if we don’t have fossil fuels?
This chart is self-explanatory & it shows what a very big adjustment we need to make to the system of energy supply ....
but - this isn’t a matter of whether it’s possible, just how much we want it. All the technologies we need are there now & only have to be hugely expanded. Our ingenuity will surely supply new sources as we go. If politicians didn’t mind upsetting vested interests, we could be well down the track already.
These numbers refer to the proportion of global energy supply due to each source. They are changing all the time, but can still you give a general idea.
DON'T BE MISLED!
This is not about each of us
"doing the right thing"
We certainly do need to learn how to live with less impact and waste, each and every one of us, but the idea that this will solve the problem is false.
Governments don't mind promoting this message to kid us they are doing everything. The fact of the matter is, laudable private actions are never going to be enough. The problem demands appropriate public policies first and foremost.
Democratic systems have evolved to govern by balancing competing interests. They do this in all sorts of ways, and according to contingent priorities. But, as the American founding fathers knew too well, there is a danger built into this way of doing things - nothing prevents interested minorities from prevailing over the community. Coal producers & other energy interests, being threatened, can concentrate on advocacy much more effectively than the rest of us can; furthermore they are very wealthy. That’s why our policies until now have reflected their interests instead of our grandkids’. But this must change soon.
The case for 100% renewable energy is made here by Beyond Zero Emissions, an Australian research group.
Program for a safe future climate
• Peak atmospheric CO2 must be no higher than 450 ppmv
• The atmospheric peak must occur not later than 2025
• There must be a draw-down of CO2 during the rest of the century to a final stable level not more than 350 ppmv
• Fossil fuel burning must be phased out so that net emissions are close to zero before the last decades of the century
• A big reforestation and soil management program needs to be started right away & grown throughout the century, to remove CO2.
This prescription isn't perfect