Global warming is only a piece of the puzzle.
We wish to avoid an abrupt loss in human welfare which would probably be accompanied by a population crash and many other associated tragic losses. Preservation of a few remnant natural ecosystems seems like a constraint we ought not lightly let go of, lest we bequeath our descendants a landscape and a lifestyle hardly finer than that we could achieve on Mars.
In addition to energy, water and food are crucial constraints, both related to climate but under direct stresses as well. Consider some of the risks and couplings. Food is largely provided through extractive use of ground water. Much hope in carbon dioxide control is based on biofuel, but biofuel is water intensive. Fresh water can be manufactured from saline, but such manufacture is energy intensive. Solar and biofuel energy compete with other land uses, renewable energy requires dramatic infrastructure changes or breakthroughs in energy storage, and the idea of atmospheric carbon capture along with sequestration at scale imposes huge burdens on land use and material flows. And so on.
If recent rumblings about the scale and efficacy of biofuels hold water the idea of creating extra biofuel just to bury it is a nonstarter.
See the current issue of Time magazine, with atypical apologies for its typical lack of references to useful literature. In a lengthy and less-than-usually vapid article entiteld “The Clean Energy Scam” Time argues that a full tank on an SUV derived from biofuel is the equivalent of a person-year of food, which seems plausible. Of course, it’s only a month’s worth of meat. Time also argues that creating a field of biofuel implies non-sequestered sourcing of the carbon on an equivalent amount of forested land, which seems less than inevitable to me, but avoiding it is apparently outside our current competence as the article explains quite well.
Can we manage all of it? Any of these problems considered in isolation is daunting. We rarely see anyone considering the big picture.
The level of discourse doesn’t appear promising to say the least. The press and the politicians and industry seem to be saying that what we are facing is a “recession”, confounded perhaps by also having an “enemy” out there. Mention of actual physical constraints on our future seems not so much buried under a rug as beyond the competence of the main centers of public discourse. We aren’t equipped to even recognize, never mind address, the fact that we have a big, complicated and quantitative problem.
It seems to me we have to give up something lest we lose everything.
I suspect a huge push toward nuclear power is the only plausible escape route given the limitations on other sources of energy. There are a lot of numbers you will need to convince me otherwise, though I’m open to them.
As LBJ said, “come, let us reason together”. The first thing we need to demand is proper numbers. We need a new sort of journalism, one that can act in support of quantitative reasoning.
We also need nothing less than a conversion of freight as well as personal travel to electric vehicles, a significant absolute decline in the ecological footprint of the USA and comparable countries including considerably reduced consumption of meat, smoother and kinder international migration, and dramatically improved international cooperation. Coming up with the right numbers and formal constraints to think about these things is very difficult, but the current social configuration appears to already be sufficiently degraded that we fall far short of even trying to find them.
I hate to be a pessimist, but the rate at which problems arise seems likely to overcome the rate at which they are solved. Something big has to change in the way we think about things soon.