The future of climate change

We installed rooftop solar on our house in St. Louis ten years ago. Half of the cost was paid by Ameren and we got a 30% tax rebate on the balance. By the time we moved to Rhode Island last year and sold the house, we still hadn’t made back our investment even in nominal dollars. I’m OK with that, since at the time of installation, 80% of our electricity was generated by burning coal. Our donation to the planet.

Rooftop solar was an object of curiosity among my friends. When they asked, I told them that first they should have an energy audit of their house and implement the recommendations, which might save them 10% or more of their energy costs without the investment in solar panels, wiring, etc. People are beguiled by technology, but plain old conservation can make a huge difference.

While there’s a lot of discussion about EVs and renewables these days, it’s really too late for the planet now. If all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions ceased tomorrow and all humans switched to green energy (solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, tidal, nuclear), it would still be too late to avert the pending disaster. The major anthropogenic greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide and methane. Carbon dioxide has a half-life in the atmosphere of about 120 years. The half-life of methane is only about ten years, but methane is about 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Global warming is decreasing surface albedo wherever large expanses of snow and ice once covered the planet: the Arctic Ocean, the Antarctic landmass and surrounding seas, glaciers and ice covering Greenland, North America, the Himalayas and Siberia. Radiation that was once reflected is now absorbed. Permafrost melting will liberate more carbon dioxide. Thawing of clathrates in warming oceans will liberate methane.

It’s not coastal flooding, loss of fresh water and arable land and intolerable heat that will do human civilization in. It’s resource wars, as humans who can no longer survive where they find themselves will fight for their survival against the rest of humanity that has the resources they are losing. The violence presaging these resource wars is already happening in Syria, on the Iran-Afghanistan border and in Central America. It’s only a matter of time before India—which has field-tested nuclear weapons—joins the struggle. I tremble for our children and grandchildren.

There are only two ways to mitigate this horrific future: global carbon capture and geoengineering. Carbon capture has been proven to work on a small, local scale at the source of generation (power plants, over-the-road diesel trucks), but carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is far more dilute, so the challenge of scale-up to reverse atmospheric carbon is still unmet. Geoengineering (solar energy management, weather modification) on a global scale is feasible with present-day technology, but comes with risks in terms of control and predictability and will require unprecedented levels of international cooperation.

It is easy to carp about the challenges and risks of climate change mitigation, but the alternative is the destruction of human civilization as we know it. Conservation and green energy are certainly worthwhile, but absent a way to *reverse* the consequences of greenhouse gases *already* in the atmosphere, it will be too little, too late.