Today, almost seven billion of us live side by side with whales and woodlands because we get almost all of the energy we use from oil, coal, and natural gas. If we suddenly quit using these fossil fuels and returned to burning whale oil and wood, we wouldn’t come close to powering enough of our tractors, trucks, and irrigation pumps to feed us all.
The good we get from fossil fuels is a mixed blessing, though. If we keep using them, and accept the risks of oil-well blowouts and mountaintop removal, for long enough, the fossil fuels will run out—we are burning them about a million times faster than nature saved them for us. We thus must decide whether to burn most of the fossil fuels and then look for replacements, or to learn while we burn and while we still have a fossil-fuel safety net in the ground.
Our decision must be made under the shadow of global warming from the CO2 released by burning fossil fuels. Sensors on heat-seeking missiles are affected by the interaction between CO2 and energy transfer through the air, and so is the climate. The atmosphere really doesn’t care whether we study it for warring or warming, and military as well as civilian physics research shows that CO2 matters. We thus have high scientific confidence that continuing to burn fossil fuels will cause large climate changes, which will make life more difficult for poor people living in hot places now, and for most people in future generations.
But if CO2 emissions especially harm poor people, are we wiser to reduce emissions, or to reduce poverty by helping people become wealthier? Not surprisingly, economics answers “Yes”—do some of each. How much of each may depend on national security, jobs, ethics, and insurance, as well as economics.
You will hear a lot of shouting from the wings that partially drowns out discussion of these important issues, but this shouting is nothing new. President Abraham Lincoln’s administration found ways to get good scientific advice through the noise, and following his example still works. I will try to stick closely to Lincoln’s example in giving you the best scientific insights. There are things that science doesn’t know, more things that I don’t know, and I am far from infallible, but much of the science really is solid, and I will tell you when it isn’t.
Lincoln also showed us part of the solution for powering the planet. Earth offers vast, sustainable energy resources with the potential to improve the economy and generate a lot of fortunes, including the wind that so intrigued Lincoln on the Illinois prairie long before his presidency.
Being a truly honest broker on such complex topics may be impossible, but I will do my best for you. This could be easier for me than for most people: I enjoyed working for an oil company and benefited from its largesse, my political registration is right of center, and I have won scientific awards for helping show just how bizarrely Earth’s climate can behave without any interference from us. But I also helped the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and played a small role in the Nobel Prize–winning effort of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), where my knowledge of Earth’s history and behavior contributed to the confident realization that the CO2 from our fossil-fuel burning is highly likely to change the world in fundamental ways that will increasingly make life harder for future generations. Our two lovely daughters give me a personal as well as a professional stake in the search for a stable, sustainable world. Onward!