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Climate And Revolution

November 20, 2014

I am always struck by the gap that seems to exist between what the public and policymakers THINK we need to do to blunt climate change, and what we REALLY need to do. Part of the problem has been that the media has completely failed to treat climate change with the urgency and scale it deserves, a fail which future historians will arguably rate the biggest media fail ever. Another part may be that being honest about the threat of climate change would mean being honest about how completely humanity needs to change its lifestyle, it economics and its politics. And that scares people because change is hard, and change on the scale required implies certain sacrifices.

So I am always interested to see reminders that climate change does not demand incremental policy adjustments but revolutionary adjustments. Because it is only after we come to grips with this fact that we can understand, and hopefully move beyond, the complete inadequacy and complacency of current efforts to address the problem.

The latest screaming reminder that we need to think in revolutionary terms is a failed Google effort to develop renewable energy sources to replace carbon-based energy sources. And, after crunching the numbers, Google abandoned the initiative:

We decided to combine our energy innovation study’s best-case scenario results with Hansen’s climate model to see whether a 55 percent emission cut by 2050 would bring the world back below that 350-ppm threshold. Our calculations revealed otherwise. Even if every renewable energy technology advanced as quickly as imagined and they were all applied globally, atmospheric CO2 levels wouldn’t just remain above 350 ppm; they would continue to rise exponentially due to continued fossil fuel use. So our best-case scenario, which was based on our most optimistic forecasts for renewable energy, would still result in severe climate change, with all its dire consequences: shifting climatic zones, freshwater shortages, eroding coasts, and ocean acidification, among others. Our reckoning showed that reversing the trend would require both radical technological advances in cheap zero-carbon energy, as well as a method of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering the carbon.

In other words, Google decided that even the most dramatic developments in current renewable energy technologies, leading to a 55% reduction of emissions by 2050, just wouldn’t do the job.

Because CO2 lingers in the atmosphere for more than a century, reducing emissions means only that less gas is being added to the existing problem. Research by James Hansen shows that reducing global CO2 levels requires both a drastic cut in emissions and some way of pulling CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it.


It was necessary, but not sufficient:

While this energy revolution is taking place, another field needs to progress as well. As Hansen has shown, if all power plants and industrial facilities switch over to zero-carbon energy sources right now, we’ll still be left with a ruinous amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. It would take centuries for atmospheric levels to return to normal, which means centuries of warming and instability. To bring levels down below the safety threshold, Hansen’s models show that we must not only cease emitting CO2 as soon as possible but also actively remove the gas from the air and store the carbon in a stable form. Hansen suggests reforestation as a carbon sink. We’re all for more trees, and we also exhort scientists and engineers to seek disruptive technologies in carbon storage.

Incremental improvements to existing technologies aren’t enough; we need something truly disruptive to reverse climate change. What, then, is the energy technology that can meet the challenging cost targets? How will we remove CO2 from the air? We don’t have the answers.

How do you achieve that energy revolution? Google’s engineers suggest following Google’s approach to investment and technology disruption:

Consider Google’s approach to innovation, which is summed up in the 70-20-10 rule espoused by executive chairman Eric Schmidt. The approach suggests that 70 percent of employee time be spent working on core business tasks, 20 percent on side projects related to core business, and the final 10 percent on strange new ideas that have the potential to be truly disruptive.

Wouldn’t it be great if governments and energy companies adopted a similar approach in their technology R&D investments? The result could be energy innovation at Google speed. Adopting the 70-20-10 rubric could lead to a portfolio of projects. The bulk of R&D resources could go to existing energy technologies that industry knows how to build and profitably deploy. These technologies probably won’t save us, but they can reduce the scale of the problem that needs fixing. The next 20 percent could be dedicated to cutting-edge technologies that are on the path to economic viability. Most crucially, the final 10 percent could be dedicated to ideas that may seem crazy but might have huge impact.

Today In the United States, the vast bulk of funding for energy R&D goes to established technologies. Essentially no money is allocated to related and potentially disruptive technologies, and about 10 percent is spent on projects that don’t seek to produce economically competitive energy.


I would add that we should also vastly increase the investment being applied to energy tech research (and in fact I would be prepared to make an argument that the United States would be more secure if we spent a very large chunk of our entire military budget on trying to solve the energy/climate problem instead of military forces and hardware).

As to how to start pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, I have an idea about that as well: get the world off meat and start reforesting the vast landscapes that have been de-forested for livestock.

Yes, all this sounds crazy and improbable. But as Google figured out, crazy and improbable is exactly what is needed if we are actually going to try and solve the problem.

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