Tuesday, June 16, 2009

An Alarm Bell -- Climate Change and the Waxman-Markey ACES Bill

A very large meteorite on the scale that brought extinction to the dinosaurs is heading toward earth. Human beings, with the Americans currently in scientific, economic and political leadership, have good solutions to avoid a crash, but little, beside hand-wringing talk, is getting done to avert the impending catastrophe. Does this make sense?

Translate the giant meteorite’s impact into a slow motion threat, rather than an instantaneous crash of enormous bodies, and it is a fair comparison with global warming. The raw, purely physical effects of climate change will be of that magnitude, or greater, but they will happen over, say, fifty years rather than in single cataclysm. Slow changes, however, will transform our world just as as inexorably and irreversibly as a meteorite’s hit, and we will be just as helpless, when warming passes a point of no return in the relatively near future. Global warming’s effects will be broad, and the disruption of human life, including large destitute human migrations, will be massive, but the slow development of the damage over a longer timespan means less abrupt drama. That is making it far more difficult for humans to mobilize and take action in response.

The analysis of what full climate change will mean is now abundantly clear to scientists. Can we call ourselves capable human beings if we let our drama-thirsty emotions control and retard our response when the facts of global warming are so clear? Does democracy, or capitalism, or any other social arrangement or doctrine, give us a right to be boneheads?

The analysis of the the core steps needed to avert climate change is equally clear, and basically not complex. We must go off fossil carbon energy. Decarbonizing means switching to electric vehicles which will be supplied, along with all our present power uses, by renewable and nuclear generating systems, rather than by coal-based generation. Electric energy, which will be an increased share of all energy, needs to be distributed by a high-capacity “intelligent” national grid.

The capital investment costs of such new system will for a time raise the price of power per kilowatt hour, on the order of forty percent or less, a rise which can be substantially softened, perhaps eliminated, by using fewer kilowatt hours through efficiency and conservation measures. A major help is that for transportation, electric propulsion will cost only a third of using petroleum. Energy will become a capital intensive industrial sector (relying on networked equipment, such as wind turbines), rather than a resource intensive one (based on coal, petroleum and natural gas). In the longer run, say starting in twenty or so years, energy will be cheaper than it is now because fuel costs for wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear power are nil or very low compared with coal, natural gas and gasoline.

Much employment will be generated by a large scale energy conversion and investment drive, and our corrosive dependency on foreign petroleum will end. Engineers and utility executives will be intensely busy, coal and petroleum investors and managers will need to move their capital and adjust their skills, but daily life for ordinary citizens will be virtually unchanged, except perhaps that cars may be somewhat smaller and the air cleaner. If done purposefully with a minimum of pork, the full decarbonization of our energy sector can cost on the order of two trillion dollars over ten years, a small fraction of the $150 trillion that our economy will generate over a decade, and far less than the cost of the Iraq war. Much of this need not be government spending, and most of it will be genuine investment which will pay itself back over time.

But proud America lags, looking aside from the challenge, twisting its ledgers and shuffling its feet, in an extraordinary display of short-sightedness, parochialism and the power of vested interests. The last Bush Administration wasted eight important years. Now “conservatives” of both parties in the public and the Congress are dragging the new Administration’s more vigorous proposed actions down to what could be called “a late twentieth century General Motors pace of change.” That means doing just enough to say one is doing something, but resolutely adapting slowly enough so that competitors eat one’s lunch. Or in this case, dragging our feet enough that fossil carbon emissions continue to rise. Especially, the United States is being sufficiently dilatory and distracted that other countries have no positive example from us, but themselves are given strengthened pretexts to dither and to ignore a very real problem. Atmospheric CO2 overload and climate change themselves continue growing toward their probable tipping points into irreversible acceleration.

If our descendants have to struggle with a damaged and destabilized climate, history will look upon this period of “American leadership” harshly and without our own comforting self-flattery. The wisdom of conservatives, especially those in both the House and the Senate right now, is particularly being tested. They need to switch off a partisan “auto-pilot,” adopt a longer time frame, and urgently rethink their positions. They should be helping to strengthen, not sap, the Waxman-Markey climate bill now moving through the latter days of amending and voting.