Climate Change - Locked and Loaded?

"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Alice and the Queen argue about believing in impossible things!

Alice and the Queen argue about believing in impossible things!

Does believing that we can stop runaway climate change by 2050 (i.e., within ONE generation) fall into the category of impossible things? A recent study in Nature (referenced in the Axios “Generate” newsletter) looked at the committed emissions from power plants worldwide already planned, under construction, or operating. The conclusion: we will rapidly blow through our cumulative carbon emissions budget (to keep global temperatures below 2C) in the same way that you might blow through your personal annual budget by spending it all by May of each year.

So the real question is how badly we are “locked and loaded” for global temperature increases well beyond 2C, with all the attendant disruptions, diseases and disasters that implies? How much temperature increase is already locked in, no matter how much we do to stop future fossil-fuel infrastructure from being built?

Studies of committed future carbon emissions are like target practice, helping us prepare for real emergencies!

Studies of committed future carbon emissions are like target practice, helping us prepare for real emergencies!

The conclusion: Cumulative emissions by 2070 just from existing ENERGY infrastructure are more than 650 gigatons. Add in proposed power plants and this total rises to about 850 gigatons, or about two-thirds of the carbon budget needed to keep warming below 2C. Add in the effects of deforestation and all other sources of carbon emissions (e.g., emissions from resource extraction, such as fugitive methane emissions from fracking) and you’re well over the allowable budget.

What’s the implication? It’s time to stop new coal and fossil fuel plants from being financed, planned and constructed, mostly in China, India and developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Time for a massive new “carbon bank” to start financing renewables on a global scale. It’s not good enough just to tell countries not to provide electricity for their citizens. We have to finance and build alternative energy plants.

It’s easy to say “no more coal power plants,” but we have to be committed to financing and building the alternatives at the same scale and pace AND to compensate the losers like coal miners and coal-dependent communities.

It’s easy to say “no more coal power plants,” but we have to be committed to financing and building the alternatives at the same scale and pace AND to compensate the losers like coal miners and coal-dependent communities.

Every time you’re tempted to laugh at or marginalize the thinking behind the Green New Deal (GND), reflect on how you would deal with this daunting, world-changing and potentially disastrous challenge. No, we’re not going to eliminate fossil-fuel-based air travel by 2030 and we’re certainly not going to build a nationwide high-speed rail network to replace it, as envisioned in the GND. But what ARE we/you/me going to do INSTEAD to cut emissions dramatically?

One clear economic implication is that we’re going to have to RETIRE huge amounts of energy-producing and energy-using infrastructure and autos, well before the end of their “useful” economic life and that’s going to cost a lot more than responding to climate-change-related natural disasters. Think of the one billion autos (and two billion total motor vehicles) in the world right now, 99% of which are running on gasoline and diesel, that will have to be retired in favor of electric and fuel-cell options before 2050. Now there’s an economic opportunity for someone to figure out!