Many people have asked about the US withdrawal from the Paris Accords on Climate Change. Well, it sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. The key to avoiding catastrophic climate change is that the billions of people who will join the ranks of energy users in coming decades have access to abundant and affordable carbon-free energy.
Climate Change is Simple. It’s just a manifestation of the First Law of Thermodynamics: when the Earth absorbs more heat than it loses, it warms up and vice versa. Yes, there are complicated aspects to our science but since the absorption of Earth’s outgoing heat by CO2 has was discovered 150 years ago, we have known for sure that burning carbon will cause the world to warm.
Climate Change is Serious. The heat-absorbing CO2 we release by burning carbon is the thermodynamic ashes of the carbon cycle. It’s chemically inert because there’s no further energy to extract from its molecules. Some of it will stay in the air for thousands of years after our descendants stop setting carbon on fire. The resulting problems of global warming and ocean acidification will get worse and worse until we stop making them worse, and then they won’t get better. The thermostat has a ratchet in it and only turns up but never back down. There are billions of people who desperately need much more energy than they use today, and it is imperative that abundant energy is provided without burning carbon.
Climate Change is Solvable. From a scientific, engineering, and even economic point of view this is a solved problem. We know exactly what to do, how to do it, and that we can afford it. It’s “just” a matter of political will. In 2015, nearly every nation on Earth formally committed to doing the necessary political work to implement the affordable and technically feasible energy efficiency and carbon-free generation strategies to hold global warming under 2 C above preindustrial conditions. It will be a lot of work, but no mores than indoor plumbing, rural electrification, interstate highways, the internet, or mobile phones of yesteryear. Far from bankrupting previous generations, these innovations powered rising standards of living and prosperity. The kids will be OK.
The US president announced last week that our government will begin a four-year process to formally withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords which established the goal of holding global warming to 2 C and also to reduce US carbon emissions by 26% below 2005 levels. This is very unfortunate. The US has emitted more CO2 than any other country by faros bears a unique responsibility to contribute to solutions. The US was a leader in bringing developing countries like China and India to the negotiations, without which the Paris Accord would have failed miserably. It’s easy to feel dispirited by the foolish and self-destructive change in our negotiating position.
Remember, the US is less than 5% of the global population. More than 95% of humanity is fully committed to solving the problem of climate change by providing abundant and carbon-free energy to billions of people around the world! Even in the US, 70% preferred to stay engaged in the Paris Accord. The people who are happy about last week’s decision are only 30% of 5% of humanity.
The coal industry employs fewer Americans than Arby’s. More than twice as many people work in solar power in the US as in the coal industry. The price of PV panels is down 80% since 2011, and the price of batteries is down more than that. The changes happening in the world of energy are beyond disruptive. We have a government that is trying to prop up horses and buggies at a time when Teslas are taking off. They are “standing astride history, shouting NO!” It’s a historic blunder and cedes the initiative of a dynamic and empowering economic transformation to other leading nations around the world. It’s silly and sad.
But the real key to avoiding climate catastrophe is that China is pushing out coal-fired power plants and building carbon-free infrastructure. Both China and India may already have hit peak coal, more than a decade earlier than their pledges under Paris. Some people pretend that as billions people in China, India,and Africa join the ranks of energy users that they will follow the path of Victorian England through coal and heavy industry. Sadly, that appears to be the dream of the US government for the people of Pittsburgh, but it’s much more likely that India and Africa will skip the land-line phase and move straight to the 21st Century.
We must acknowledge that human flourishing took a hit last week when the US turned its back on the future. But we must also acknowledge that the future belongs to those who embrace it. As serious as climate change really is, wrapping ourselves around the “middle S” is self-defeating. It sucks the life out of our souls.
Move on to the third S. We must work for the future our children deserve, and create it in partnership with them. Hope is a verb!