Global warming is a problem, not a looming apocalypse. It calls for a cool-headed approach focused on technological progress and boosting the economic strength and resilience of nations. Ideology should be kept out of it.
Efforts to impose wrong-headed, ideology-driven “solutions” might not only fail to achieve their goal, but could even present a threat to the world greater than global warming per se.
To the extent human actions can slow the global warming process, practically the only effective countermeasure available, according to present knowledge, is to drastically reduce the emission of so-called greenhouse gases, especially CO2, most of which comes from the combustion of fossil fuels. Negative emissions would be even better.
Eliminating the use of fossil fuels for electricity generation, transport, domestic and industrial uses of heat is not only feasible, but – if done right – would yield enormous benefits.
Humanity’s continuing dependence on the combustion of fossil fuels is a symptom of technological stagnation and lack of development at the base of the world economy.
Sure, microelectronics and information technology have raced ahead with breathtaking speed. That is the “lightweight” part, however. The same basic technologies, the same basic fuels and materials, as 70 years ago still dominate the gross metabolism of the world economy – the vast flows of matter and energy upon which everything else rests.
We’re still stuck with coal, oil and gas as fuels; concrete, cement, steel, copper, wood and hydrocarbon plastics as materials; internal combustion engines; gas and steam turbines; copper conductor-based electrotechnology (motors, generators and distribution networks).
Despite countless improvements and refinements, the heavy hardware and basic materials of the world economy have remained essentially the same, while the scale of production and consumption has grown exponentially.
Evidently, this extensive mode of growth cannot go on forever. Not only because of its negative impacts on the climate, health and resources, but also simply because of its colossal inefficiency in physical-economic terms. The way out is to go from an extensive to an intensive mode of growth.
The essential parameter is the increase in power density – or, more generally, performance density – of technology: achieving more useful output or work per unit of space and time, per unit of material resources and per unit of labor. Technological revolutions tend to be accompanied by quantum-jump rises in performance density in this general sense.
Nowadays, people are most aware of this principle in the domain of information technology: the practically exponential increases in computational power per chip (Moore’s Law) and in the amounts of data transmission and storage compared with the size of systems.
The same thing applies to energy. The biggest quantum-jump in modern times came with the discovery of nuclear fission and fusion, which can liberate millions of times more energy per unit volume or weight of fuel, and under appropriate conditions per unit time, than chemical reactions.
Nuclear energy also makes possible vastly more compact power sources, although this potential – apart from nuclear weapons – has so far not been realized fully. Laser fusion and the dense plasma focus are leading candidates. The nuclear era has only begun.
By contrast, wind, solar and biomass energy constitute a giant step backward in power density, requiring hundreds of times more land area and tens of times more material resources per unit output than nuclear energy.
In addition, wind and solar energy, although termed “renewables,” are also “unreliables” – their output constantly fluctuates depending on wind, weather and the time of day. They can at best play a role in combination with, but not as a replacement for nuclear power, which is the only sure foundation for C02-free electricity generation.
As I argued in an earlier article, rejecting nuclear energy in favor of a 100% “renewable energy” scenario would have disastrous consequences for the reliability of the energy system and for the economy as a whole.
Unfortunately, this “100% renewables” scenario is being massively promoted today amid attempts to spread panic about an alleged “planetary emergency” which would leave no time for longer-term thinking.
Some influential circles evidently consider it desirable to foster radical climate-activist youth movements à la Greta Thunberg or Extinction Rebellion in order to clear the way for austerity measures that might otherwise be unpopular. A nice little Cultural Revolution? They are playing with fire.
Planetary state of emergency?
To put the situation into perspective, let us have a look at the “worst-case scenario” studied by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC).
The scenario in question, dubbed RCP 8.5, essentially assumes that governments do nothing to reduce human emissions of CO2.
Under various additional assumptions, which I shall not go into here, IPPC forecasts indicate that between now and the year 2100 average global temperatures would likely increase by somewhere between two and five degrees centigrade and ocean water levels by 52-98 centimeters.
Among many other negative effects, there would be an accelerating increase in the number and severity of natural disasters of various sorts – storms, flooding, drought and so forth – as well as disruptive changes in local climates and ecosystems around the world.
For details on RCP 8.5, as well as other scenarios, readers may consult the voluminous publications of the IPCC here, here and here. I should caution, however, that IPCC materials are written more by committees, than human beings.
They are products of a nightmarishly painstaking consensus-finding process involving hundreds of experts and dozens of mathematical climate models and socioeconomic models, with citations of over 6,000 technical papers – a scientific Tower of Babel.
I shall focus here on rising sea levels, as the worldwide consequences are easiest to imagine. Evidently, the projected sea-level rise should be averted as far as possible. But although it would have some very negative consequences, especially for certain regions of the world and above all for less-developed nations, I see no basis for characterizing this as a global catastrophe – not to speak of a looming apocalypse.
It is important, psychologically and otherwise, to realize that mankind could adapt to such a development, if it were to occur – and, at the same time, with a cool head, to consider how best to avoid it.
According to various estimates, about 10% of the world’s people now live in areas less than 10 meters above sea level. If the sea level were to rise gradually to one meter above its present level by 2100 – the upper-range forecast for RCP 8.5 – a significant portion of those people would have to resettle to higher elevations in the course of the coming 80 years.
(Naturally, in some cases coastal cities and settlements might be protected by water barriers, as many are already today. As is well-known, about a third of the Netherlands lies below sea level. The capital city, Amsterdam, has an average elevation of about minus two meters.)
At first glance, the prospect of hundreds of millions of people being forced to abandon their present homes does conjure up the image of a global catastrophe, a disaster of biblical proportions.
We should not forget, however, that we are talking about a transformation process that would span three generations.
On the level of nations, peacetime resettlements of 10% or more of the population are quite common, even over shorter periods. This occurred throughout Europe during industrialization. Also, the migration of US middle-class families into suburban areas, from the 1950s onward, involved much more than 10% of the total population.
The recent example of China is particularly relevant: During the last 30 years alone approximately 500 million people moved from rural areas into cities. The breathtaking pace of construction of new cities and towns in China points to a major upside: a new era of city-building. In fact, hundreds of new cities are being built around the world today.
Even where there is no sea-level problem, it is far more effective economically to create beautiful new cities and towns, with built-in state-of-the-art infrastructure than to renew decaying and collapsing urban areas. It also promises a much higher quality of living for the population.
Another point, perhaps the most important of all: Reflect on the immense progress of science and technology that has occurred over the last century and the unprecedented growth in human resources, infrastructure and productive capital.
The ability of humanity to withstand and overcome the effects of natural disasters and adverse environmental changes has greatly increased. That is symptomized, for example, by the dramatic decrease in deaths from storms and floods.
We have every reason to expect that progress of this sort will continue in the present century, if it is not aborted for political and ideological reasons.
With that background, one can be confident that mankind will be able to deal, if necessary, with the effects of IPCC’s “worst-case scenario” – and with even more severe climate changes, which present-day climate science cannot absolutely rule out. And perhaps mankind will even learn how to nudge the Earth’s climate in a positive direction.
Such statements may seem absurdly optimistic to many people, especially in the pessimistic cultural environment pervading Western societies today. But I think they are objectively justified.
The means are at hand to gradually free the world from its dependence on fossil fuels, while boosting prosperity and economic growth at the same time. One cannot permit “solutions” that would lower productivity, depress living standards and undermine the ability of nations to deal with the effects of climate change in the future.
In technological terms, the key to success is to go from extensive to intensive modes of development, from lower to higher power density.
Jonathan Tennenbaum received his PhD in mathematics from the University of California in 1973 at age 22. Also a physicist, linguist and pianist, he is a former editor of FUSION magazine. He lives in Berlin and travels frequently to Asia and elsewhere, consulting on economics, science and technology.