What should we do about climate change? Two opposing views, and they’re both wrong

In the last 250 years, humanity has become completely dependent on fossil fuel energy. This dependence on fossil fuels has materially changed our climate; these changes will continue and intensify in the future. While uncertainty remains about the future extent and consequences of climate change, there is no uncertainty about the causal link between burning fossil fuel, increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, and a warming world. This summarises my previous two long posts, about the history of our fossil fuel dependence, and the underlying physics of climate change. What should we do about it? From two ends of the political spectrum, there are two views, and I think they are both wrong.

For the environmental movement, the only thing that stops us moving to a sustainable energy economy right away is a lack of political will. Opposing the “environmentalists” are free-market loving “realists” who (sometimes) accept the reality of human-induced climate change, but balk at the costs of current renewable energy. For them, the correct course of action is to do nothing now (except, perhaps, for some shift from coal to gas), but wait for better technology to come along before making significant moves to address climate change.

The “environmentalists” are right about the urgency of the problem, but they underestimate the degree to which society currently depends on cheap energy, and they overestimate the capacity of current renewable energy technologies to provide cheap enough energy at scale. The “realists”, on the hand, are right about the degree of our dependence on cheap energy, and on the shortcomings of current renewable technologies. But they underplay the risks of climate change, and their neglect of the small but significant chance of much worse outcomes than the consensus forecasts takes wishful thinking to the point of recklessness.

But the biggest failure of the “realists” is that they don’t appreciate how slowly innovation in energy technology is currently proceeding. This arises from two errors. Firstly, there’s a tendency to believe that technology is a single thing that is accelerating at a uniform rate, so that from the very visible rapid rate of innovation in information and communication technologies we can conclude that new energy technologies will be developed similarly quickly. But this is a mistake: innovation in the realm of materials, of the kind that’s needed for new energy technologies, is much more difficult, slower and takes more resources than innovation in the realm of information. While we have accelerating innovation in some domains, in others we have innovation stagnation. Related to this is the second error, which is to imagine that progress in technology happens autonomously;given a need, a technology will automatically emerge to meet that need. But developing new large-scale material technologies needs resources and a collective will, and recently the will to deploy those resources at the necessary scale has been lacking. There’s been a worldwide collapse in energy R&D over the last thirty years; to develop the new technologies we need we will need not only to reverse this collapse but make up the lost ground.

So I agree with the “environmentalists” on the urgency of the problem, and with the “realists” about the need for new technology. But the “realists” need to get realistic about what it will take to develop that new technology.

15 thoughts on “What should we do about climate change? Two opposing views, and they’re both wrong”

  1. “but balk at the costs of current renewable energy.”

    The ‘realist’ argument goes a lot further than the costs of renewable energy. First there is the intermittency problem of wind and solar, requiring backup from conventional power sources. Then there’s the enormous footprint (acres/kilowatt). Also the destruction of the environment taking place for example in Scotland through the building of wind turbines plus the associated access roads and pylon chains.
    You are probably aware of all this – maybe when you said ‘costs’ you meant in the broader sense including these factors.
    Then there is the ‘expensive and pointless’ argument, that a small token gesture by the UK will have no effect in view of the new coal power stations being built elsewhere. These arguments have made eloquently by Andrew Lilico recently, in his article “We have failed to prevent global warming, so we must adapt to it”.

    Of course you are right that real energy innovation has been slow. There’s the old joke about practical nuclear fusion being 30 years away, as it’s been for the last 40 years. One view from the realist/optimist side is that many engineers are quite sceptical about climate change, that this may be a factor behind the slow innovation, and that if and when it does turn out to be a serious problem, human ingenuity will focus and come up with a practical solution quickly.

  2. The trouble with the “wait and see” approach is that by the time we find out (say) that the climate sensitivity is worse than people had hoped the lags in the climate system are such that we will have committed ourselves to the damage getting much worse, even if one was able to act instantly. But we wouldn’t be able to act instantly – energy transitions always take decades. At the moment we’re planning to build nuclear power stations to existing designs, and we’ll be lucky if they are producing energy by the middle of next decade. The problem with the Andrew Lilico view is that he tacitly assumes that if we are richer, we will be better able to develop new technology. It isn’t necessarily so, because we can lose technological capability as well as gain it. We could not now build new AGRs, because we’ve lost the drawings and the teams that built it have long since been broken up. Recent experience suggests that even the French are less able to build new PWRs than they were in the period of their great nuclear build-out. The view that “if and when it does turn out to be a serious problem, human ingenuity will focus and come up with a practical solution quickly” seems to me to be not so much rational optimism as reckless wishful thinking.

  3. I basically agree, except I am not sure who you mean by “realists”- it seems to me that you are one of them, you understand (like Smil for example) that energy transitions will take decades; so it is not so much that realists say “do nothing” but rather, nothing much can be done, at least not quickly, and not when a billion or so still dont have any power to speak of. It has always been a choice between remaining poor and undeveloped rather than coming out of poverty now, or taking our chances on hypothetical threats of climate change at some unknown point in the future. Hardly surprising which has won the day.
    I also agree that we should not be complacent and assume that solutions will magically appear- it is indeed possible that they won’t. However, new innovation in fracking did indeed take the world by surprise and happened very quickly, in the US at least, and has lead to CO2 emissions reductions there at least.
    I also just read that the first CCS coal plant will start to operate this year http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22129593.300-trailblazing-power-plant-is-first-to-bury-its-carbon.html#.UxjNGV5nEXx – a very small start ofcourse, but the point about fracking is that technology can also surprise us wit its speed of adoption.
    New nukes include SMRs and Thorium- the realists, whoever they may be , naturally acknowledge that none of these things will change the world over-night. On the other hand I admit I had not considered the possibility of losing technological capability had not occurred to me- but perhaps this wont matter so much if there is new innovation coming along.
    So I think the wider point is, tilting at windmills is really damaging as it creates false security and misdiagnoses the problem and could impoverish us, plus diverts resources away from something more useful; being technologically optimistic does not seem to pose nearly so much of a problem, unless it is detracting from a third way, but you dont seem to actually propose one.

  4. It looks more likely that the climate sensitivity is less than previously thought, as discussed elsewhere today. Energy transitions don’t have to take decades – fracking being the obvious example. And if we were richer, we would be able to afford more urgently needed r&d – why the reluctance to accept this?

  5. Paul, the reason I am reluctant to accept the proposition that if we were richer, we would be able to afford more energy R&D, is that history shows that it doesn’t seem to work out that way. We are richer now than we were 30 years ago, and we do much less energy R&D. Read this post for the figures. How much energy R&D we do is not a question of how rich we are, but a question of having the political will to direct resources to it and having institutional structures within which it can take place. Currently we have neither.

    As to climate sensitivity, neither you, I, nor the IPCC know what the climate sensitivity will be in 30 years time. I very much hope that it does turn out to be less than the current consensus. But hope isn’t a great basis for decision-making under conditions of profound uncertainty.

    Graham asks who I mean by realists. I had in mind people like Bjorn Lomborg and Mat Ridley, clearly Paul Matthews falls into this category too. On the speed of energy transitions, you correctly observe that I read my Vaclav Smil. The case of fracking is interesting as it allows us to ask what conditions need to be in place to get that kind of rapid incremental innovation. A large existing industry basis, with widely distributed skills and a network of innovative suppliers; key technical developments (horizontal drilling, pumping fluids into the reservoir as was done for EOR, a tradition of brewing up complex cocktails of polysaccharides, solvents and colloidal particles as drilling fluids) already in place, waiting to be combined; and a very large recoverable resource, with immediate financial returns, to go after to motivate the innovation. Now ask yourself how many of these preconditions are in place for fission, fusion, CCS, solar, wind wave and tides, or any other alternative energy technology there might be, before you assume that similarly rapid innovation will be possible in those areas. Small Modular Reactors are indeed a good example of the kind of nuclear innovation I would like to see; and to continue to be positive, like everyone else who has anything to do with alternative photovoltaics, I am very excited by Henry Snaith’s perovskites. But these are not incremental developments in a well established and well capitalised industry, as fracking was. The development and deployment of radically new technologies takes a lot of time and money that, as I say above, we simply don’t seem to have the institutional structures in place to deliver. Changing that situation would be my third way.

  6. I agree with some of your argument here and elsewhere.

    However, two differences of emphasis / additions:

    1. If there are two sides, I’m on the ‘realist’ side. But I’m not a ‘free-market loving’ realist. I very much doubt I’m the only one (of course I know I’m not).

    2. Related to this, it’s wrong I think to say that the realists believe that ‘the correct course of action is to do nothing now (except, perhaps, for some shift from coal to gas), but wait for better technology to come along before making significant moves to address climate change.’ In comments above you characterise Lomborg as a ‘realist’. He is for sure in the sense that he’s a critic of catastrophism and a critic of existing alternative technologies. However, at the same time, he’s campaigned for years for a large and dedicated programme researching better technologies, precisely because this needs a push.

  7. I may be being a bit dim here, but I don’t see a proposal from you as to what should actually be done, beyond a slightly pious “something else”.

    Most realists, as you call us, have correctly noticed that current renewable technologies are hopelessly inadequate to solving the problem, and that the only short term responses that make any sense at the moment are a dash for gas, an amble towards nuclear, and a bit of energy conservation. In the medium term we are certainly going to need something better. If that’s going to be renewables then we will need a breakthrough in both renewable generation (Henry’s perovskites are indeed pretty, but it’s early days yet) AND in storage (the elephant in the room). Compared with that I suspect that fusion may be a simpler problem. In either case it’s going to be a lot of work, but the worst possible response would be to waste yet more money on windmills.

  8. Yes I was going to say the exact same- Lomborg clearly advocates the same as Richard, ie let’s move to more H-dense (and therefore lower C) fuels like nat gas and nuclear in the short-medium term, while strategically increasing R & D into clean tech, on the premise that ” we wont replace oil and gas until we find an alternative that is cheaper AND cleaner”. This seems to me to be the pre-emminent “realist” or “pragmatist” position, Im pretty sure Paul Matthews would agree 😉

  9. John and Graham, maybe you’re right about Lomborg; I only met him once, at a conference at which I got a different impression about what he was saying, but as that was to an audience of conservative Australian politicians and mining magnates perhaps he had tailored his message somewhat.

    Jonathan, I don’t think that not having a solution necessarily disqualifies one from diagnosing a problem. Certainly I don’t think it takes a very close reading of my post to see that I’m not proposing more windmills, that’s the point of my criticising environmentalists for thinking that current renewables are adequate.

    But your own post, perhaps, suggests some elements of that solution. You say we’re ambling to nuclear energy. That’s probably overstating the urgency, given that 2030 is starting to look more likely than 2025 for new build coming on line. Don’t you think that we might want to go a little faster than ambling? We do indeed need breakthroughs in solar and energy storage, don’t you think it’s worth making sure we have the conditions in place for those breakthroughs to take place and be developed at scale? Culham has a roadmap for fusion with the first commercial plant coming on line in 2050 – presumably if that went well a subsequent build-out might take place over the next few decades. Do you think that timeline is achievable with the current efforts? Wouldn’t it be worth trying to accelerate it?

    My central point really is a very simple one. We shouldn’t be surprised that this stuff isn’t happening very quickly, because the energy RD&D figures show we’re really not making a very big effort to make it happen, both globally and (even more markedly) here in the UK. Understanding why that has been so and what would need to happen to correct it is perhaps, more difficult.

  10. Well, if you try to declare there are only two views on climate change and that they’re both located at either side of the political axis, then be so consistent as to not call the radical right “realist”, as they reject any form of modern science and reason itself.

    They’re a bunch of ignoramuses who believe a magical fairy wished the world into existence in six days and criminal corporate marionettes who go into full doublethink mode in terms of ecological sciences once they see the transactions of the petro-industry on their bank statements.

    As such you shouldn’t call their kneejerk dismissal and undervaluation of renewable energy sources “realistic”. This sort of propaganda is the very reason why we are in this disastrous position. For the entire post-war period this prevented investion into green energy, herding our societies down the petro bubble and wrecking the planetary environment in the process.

  11. I didn’t mean to imply that there were *only* two views on climate change, obviously there are many possible positions. One such position doesn’t accept that climate change is happening at all, and as you suggest too many people, including powerful and influential ones, take this view. My last post should tell you what I think of this position. I don’t, though, include these people in those who call themselves “climate realists”, who do accept the reality of climate change (though sometimes they don’t assert that very loudly).

    I want to distinguish between whether it is possible in principle for renewable energy sources to fully power the world, which it is, and whether it is possible for them to do this, in practise, right now, with the renewable energy sources currently available to us. I don’t think the latter is possible (for reasons gone into in earlier posts). But you are right to point out that the lack of investment in energy R&D for the last thirty years, to which I’m trying to draw attention, is part of the reason for this.

  12. The greens may not have liked nukes, but the run-down of nuclear R&D in the UK happened under Conservative governments. Nor should one think that the nuclear programme we had was marvellous in all respects. But maybe we should move beyond deciding which side is to blame, and try and plot a path forward.

  13. You seem to be confusing realists with people of power and influence. Frankly most of us are quite pleased to simply be ignored, which makes a pleasant change from the derision and vitriol which is our normal lot (see, for example, the latest “just shut up” remarks from Ed Davey).

    The commanding heights of politics and the media are firmly in the hands of people who think like Esebian, and big business will, in the end, mostly do what it’s told (because fighting with government is rarely a good way to get rich).

    One of the major reasons why there is so little investment in serious energy research is because government has been mesmerised by the green nostrum that we already have the technologies available and that all we need is the political will. That would seem a more useful direction for your efforts, rather than criticising a bunch of powerless individuals who for the most part already largely agree with you.

  14. Jonathan, I think you seriously underestimate the influence of people who think like you. Mat Ridley, for example, is not just a well known science writer who frequently publishes articles in the national broadsheets; he’s also the brother-in-law of the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is very close to Nigel Lawson; while there’s no reason to believe Osborne shares Lawson’s outright climate scepticism, given his position on shale gas and other comments it’s a safe bet he’s a “climate realist”. You mentioned Lilico’s piece; I believe his view is widespread amongst economists. It’s certainly close to the view of Dieter Helm, who must be the UK’s leading academic energy economist. Given the obvious incoherence and unsustainability of current UK energy policy I think it very likely “climate realism” will be the universal conventional wisdom very soon.

    It would be good if all such people did agree with me, but I don’t think they do in important respects. Aside from recognising the inadequacy of our current system for delivering RD&D, particularly at the development end (and this has much more to do with privatisation and liberalised energy markets than green activists, in my opinion) we should be worrying less about central forecasts of climate change and much more about tail risks. But that’s a subject for another post.

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