Who said that dealing with climate change was going to be easy?

Collards and solar panels – author photo

Effective climate action is not going to be easy. The difficulty is more than just a political problem of convincing people to take action. Actually taking action will “hurt the economy.”

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take action anyway! The alternative seems to be destruction of much of the biosphere, and that’s going to “hurt” a lot more. The climate movement needs to acknowledge this. We need to say: “truly effective climate action is going to hurt. We need to do it anyway.”

We need to talk about this

I put the phrase “hurt the economy” in quotes because it’s actually more complicated than that. We might find ourselves with fewer toys; but in the long run, climate action would improve our lives, raise the living standards of the poorest, and increase the lifespan of almost everyone. But we’ve waited much too long to get started on this project. Climate action will probably be a jarring experience for many of us, conventional measures of “the economy” will shrink, some businesses will fail, and total industrial output will fall. And that’s if we do this correctly. If we continue to dodge the issue, or pursue dead-end solutions like “economic growth,” much worse outcomes are possible. Rather than preface my discussion with this lengthy preamble, though, I can cut to the chase by saying: “It’s going to hurt. We need to do it anyway.”

Too few people want to hear this or say this. I understand the rationale: it’s hard to sell people on climate action by talking about how difficult it is going to be. But avoiding the subject is worse. This breeds despair, a problem that typically affects those who are the best informed.

Now some people will not agree that this will hurt the economy, and I respect that. There are three reasons for my belief: (1) political considerations, (2) economic considerations, and (3) technical considerations. None of these arguments is a conclusive irrefutable proof, but taken together, they are enough to convince me. Of these three, the political argument is the weakest, whereas the technical arguments are strongest. But because our social paralysis on this issue is a key part of the problem, I want to talk about the political difficulties first.

1. The lack of political viability for climate action or even discussion.

The basic piece of evidence for the inherent difficulty of climate action is simple: nothing has happened for 35 years. In 1988, James Hansen went to Congress, said that the evidence was overwhelming, and urged Congress to “stop waffling around.” Since then, we’ve developed “waffling around” first into an art form, and then into a political juggernaut overwhelming all obstacles. Result: our society is paralyzed from taking any effective action on climate.

Several thousand people showed up to see Greta Thunberg in Denver in 2019. Source: author photo.

And the source of this waffling? There are many possible explanations. But the simplest and most straightforward explanation is that anything that would actually work—such as phasing out fossil fuels by 2040 or 2050 or whenever—would be political poison, because it would hurt the economy. Growth in renewable energy is almost certainly not enough to do the job, no matter how fast and how massive. We also need to somehow restrict greenhouse gas emissions.

Conceptually this shouldn’t be hard. We could have a cap and trade system for all greenhouse gas emissions, agricultural as well as industrial, auctioning off permits to emit. We could continue reducing the allowed emissions, year after year, to some predetermined amount by some predetermined date (e. g., 80% reductions by 2040, or 100% by 2050, or whatever). Or, we could impose a stiff carbon tax sufficient to achieve the same result. We could then let our Glorious Free Enterprise System™ figure out what (if anything) will replace that missing energy.

Why is this not happening? Some political leaders, to their credit, are trying. The proposals made in 2009 and 2019 on climate were quite weak, but even these relatively vacuous proposals promptly went nowhere. Being more specific than this, and making bold climate proposals (like outright restrictions on fossil fuel burning) is politically dangerous and a hard sell. Our economy runs on fossil fuels. There’s no quick, easy answer to the charge that a bold proposal would hurt the economy. And saying “this is going to hurt the economy, but we should do it anyway” is not the way to get elected, stay elected, or pass legislation.

Perhaps the people who fear the economic impact of climate action are just misinformed. But the most obvious explanation is that no one has yet figured out how to accomplish this without hurting the economy. The Republicans (the putative party of business) know that Americans are concerned about climate, though, and so are not eager to make climate an issue, except to complain about what the Democrats are advocating.

The Democrats don’t really seem to be trying to make an issue out of climate either, for a different reason: they also recognize that there are important details which they are unable to spell out, convincingly, without exposing themselves to the charge of hurting the economy. It’s therefore politically expedient for the Democrats to avoid detailed plans. Instead they blame the Republicans (element of truth here!) without committing themselves. Result: finger-pointing and inaction.

If we postulate that effective climate action would in fact damage the economy, then voilà: we explain all of these facts. This isn’t the only explanation, but it is the most plausible based on 35 years of political paralysis in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. Climate isn’t an issue in the 2024 elections, and it wasn’t an issue in 2020, 2016, 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000, 1996, 1992, or even 1988. We have both motive and opportunity for both Democrats and Republicans to avoid the subject, which is what is happening right now: massive “waffling.”

2. Estimates of cost are all over the place.

But hey! Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe some kind of “Green New Deal” wouldn’t be that big of a deal. Maybe we just need to educate ourselves and the public about this. Let’s ask some energy experts and economists! They ought to know.

Renewables are intermittent, so you need some kind of backup system (batteries, usually) for when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. If you figure in those costs, renewables are NOT the cheapest form of electricity. And electricity is only part of our energy system; cars and trucks, except for a small number of more-expensive electric vehicles, don’t run on electricity. Converting our transportation system to run on electricity would be yet another expense. And we haven’t even begun to discuss numerous other issues with renewables (see below).

Yale economist Robert Mendelsohn said in 2014 that limiting warming to 2º C increase (from pre-industrial) would cost about 1000 times the benefit! Limiting it to 3º C, by contrast, would cost a mere 100 times the benefit. Even limiting it to 4º C would cost 10 times the benefit. So the break-even for taking action is on the order of limiting the increase to over 4̊ C: “You’re going to avoid catastrophic events if we can hold things at 4° C.” Mendelsohn isn’t an outlier here. William Nordhaus, winner of the Nobel Prize in 2018, puts forward slightly different figures, but his conclusions are similar: all we need to do is limit warming to 3.5°C.

Sea Surface Temps 01 Nov 2023. Attribution: Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data 2023. Source here.

To me, looking at all those charts of temperature anomalies last summer, this is nuts. Warming of 3.5º C, let alone 4º C, doesn’t sound like “greater costs” to me: it sounds like the end of industrial civilization. But are we going to say that the winner of the Nobel Prize for economics is wrong? Visualize a Congressional debate on a bill whose objective is to limit global warming to 3.5º C, let alone the 1.5º C or 2º C that seems absolutely essential to most climate scientists. “The costs exceed the benefits,” they will say. How would you respond?

(Insert rant about the blindness of neo-classical economics here.)

There’s actually one paper, from Michael Jacobson and his colleagues, which gives a specific estimate of the cost: a mere $73 trillion to implement a 100% renewable energy economy based on wind, water, and solar energy. Now $73 trillion is quite a bit, but this is for the entire world, so if you divide it out among 8 billion humans, it’s about $9125 for each person on the planet, which could be spread out (we suppose) over 20 years and 20 easy annual payments of $456.25 each. Well, we still have that pesky inequality problem; millions of people wouldn’t be able to afford this. But it still looks doable. Shall we cite this figure of $73 trillion?

3. It’s not even clear that “100% renewable energy” can be done at all (without radical revisions in economic expectations).

Jacobson et al. have attracted some considerable scientific and political support for their views. My strong suspicion is that some political advocates of a “Green New Deal” are relying on it. But their $73 trillion figure is highly debatable, the monetary cost doesn’t measure either the total societal impact or its feasibility, and this approach has encountered many skeptics.

The skeptical literature is now so extensive that it is probably not worth my while to rehash the arguments (see chapter 13 of Embracing Limits). There are number of well-discussed problems with generating electricity from renewable energy, such as intermittency, batteries and energy storage, infrastructure needed for an all-electric economy, vastly expanded electric grid, the difficulty of designing electric cars and electric trucks, the need for exotic materials (like dysprosium, indium, neodymium) as well as the expanded need for non-exotic materials (like concrete and steel), and the difficulty of providing industrial heat with electricity.

To their credit, Jacobson et al. are trying to address these issues. None of them are absolutely fatal to the feasibility of renewables (again, see Embracing Limits for details and footnotes). But each issue adds a new and different complication, requiring research to understand, raises a different set of interactions with other issues, and tends to chip away at the energy return we get for renewables. I think it’s fair to say that, even with an open mind on renewables, that we need just a bit more detail here.

Thomas Graedel, a Yale professor emeritus and a pioneer in the field of industrial ecology, said in 2012 that providing most of our power from renewables “would take hundreds of times the amount of rare earth metals that we are mining today.” Are there that many rare earth metals in the earth’s crust, in a concentration sufficient to be economically and energetically worthwhile? Is anyone double-checking this?

Source: https://vaclavsmil.com/

Possibly the most prominent “100% renewables” skeptic is Vaclav Smil, who in 2022 was quoted as saying that the renewable energy goals we’ve set for ourselves are “delusional.” Other scientific critiques include this one from William Clack et al., which prompted a highly suspicious lawsuit, now dropped, from Jacobson. There’s also this one from B. P. Heard et al. (“Burden of Proof”), and a more radical critique of our entire economic system from Megan Seibert and William Rees. (This latter paper comes closest to representing my own views.)

What would work is a radical revision of our economic expectations. If we’ve overshot any sustainable limits to growth, then what we need is a smaller economy. Surely this is common sense. What would a smaller economy look like? I discuss this in chapters 13 -24 of Embracing Limits.

In 1500, the entire world was running on renewable energy, mostly biofuels, so we know this technology works. But world population was much smaller, and the standard of living, even for kings and queens, was much lower than today. On the other hand, since then we’ve had over 500 years of scientific progress, and many innovations between then and now do NOT require a huge input of energy. We’ve got books, universities, agriculture, modern nutrition, and modern medicine. We are NOT necessarily back to the fourteenth century; at least, not all the way back.

Where to go from here

Climate change is a massive problem with massive interlocking implications for the economy, for the future of human civilization, and for all life on earth. If it was easy to deal with climate change, someone would have probably done it already.

We need a constructive national conversation on this subject. Right now what is happening is not particularly constructive and arguably not really a conversation at all. Renewable energy, only a partial answer, is getting all the play. We need to bring other knowledgeable people representing different scientific points of view to the table. Climate action will be an effort touching countless different natural and human systems.

Specifically, we need to bring in advocates of simple living, degrowth, nuclear energy, defenders of wilderness, and proponents of plant-based diets, all of whom have insights mostly missing from the current discussion. This is by no means a coherent block of opinion! These groups are not always even talking to each other.

Simple living and degrowth are going to be a hard sell. But if we have an energy problem, this is what would address our energy problem most directly: use less energy. We need simple living on a massive scale. This will obviously and transparently affect the “standard of living” to which many of us in the USA have become accustomed, and we need to figure out how to do this equitably without compromising health or livability. For many of the world’s poorest, what we think of as “simple living” would mean an increase in their standard of living, which they deserve and which we should remember. Our crisis is spiritual as well as technical.

Nuclear power has its own problems. Nuclear energy—like fossil fuels—is ultimately finite and non-renewable. But nuclear is better than coal, would likely work at least for a few centuries, and would address a number of issues better than wind or solar power. You don’t need windy or sunny spots, the land “footprint” is much less than that of wind power, the materials (both exotic and mundane) required in construction of a nuclear plant are substantially less, and intermittency is much less of an issue. Some environmentalists will scream, but we need to be thinking about nuclear power.

Plant-based diets and expansion of wilderness have quite a bit to contribute. Livestock agriculture is a key anthropogenic source of methane, an even more potent source of warming than carbon dioxide. Much of our carbon problem is due to our destruction of the biosphere. Agriculture and deforestation have devastated plant life on the planet, which has decreased by over 50% under human influence.

Trees in Tennessee (source: author’s photo)

Plants are the quickest way to take up atmospheric carbon; it’s called “photosynthesis.” The amounts are not trivial! Bastin et al. put the carbon potential of reforestation at 200 Gt of carbon. We need to put this land back into wilderness (and leave it there), where it would revert to native vegetation (often forests) and allow wild animals a place to breathe, benefiting biodiversity as well as the climate by drawing many gigatons of carbon out of the air.

What’s stopping us from doing this? It would hurt the agricultural economy. Look at the farmers’ protests in Europe this month over relatively innocuous agricultural reforms.

There’s a basic principle of project management at stake here. Climate action is a colossal project. If you are managing a large project, you can pick two out of three objectives: fast, cheap, and good. You can’t have all three. If it’s fast (and 20 years is probably pretty fast), then it’s not going to be cheap—or it won’t be very good. The time for “not fast, but cheap and good” was probably 30 or 50 years ago. It’s much too late for that.

Large projects are highly difficult to manage, even when everyone speaks the same language. They are likely unmanageable when the project is truly colossal, has never been previously attempted, and involves countless different cultures, languages, and political systems. We need to talk.