CONCLUSIONS & RECOMMENDATIONS

(pages 325-332)

If I were to stop right here, I would be happier, but my high school writing teachers (Footnote 15) would probably not be happy. This is the point where, in a proper narrative, I would reveal the grand conclusion, point the path to the future, and lead the grand and glorious charge to a brighter tomorrow.
 
Fat chance.
 
My impression is that when we scientists try to recommend policy, we have no more insight than anyone else. Asking me what to do runs the risk that someone might believe me because I have expertise in limited, somewhat-related areas. I am a geologist-turned-glaciologist-and-climatologist who took a lot of classes about Earth and enough physics and chemistry and biology and metallurgical engineering to support my interest in the planet, and who has roamed the planet reading the history of climate written in ice and trying to understand the ice well enough to learn what it does to landscapes and sea levels. Having me choose between cap-and-trade or taxes or business as usual, or nuclear or wind or sun or sequestration or geo-engineering, is akin to having a U.S. senator use a universal stage to measure the c-axis fabric of a polar ice core—you are better off getting a real expert than you are pretending that someone else can do the job.
 
Yet, I do have some insights that may be valuable, and I am sensitive enough to the instructions of my high school teachers that I feel I owe you a little more insight on a few of the issues. If someone put a gun to my head and forced me to make recommendations, they would grow out of the following points.
 
This is science, not revealed truth, but the science is solid.
We scientists are simply not socially skilled enough or politically homogeneous enough to organize ourselves to deliberately hoax the world. (Footnote 16) We might have a little me-too-ism at times, and we do watch the sources of our funding, but these are simply not strong enough for us to mistake black for white, or even red for blue. The basis of global-warming science is unavoidable physics. And once science gives a consistent, long-term, assessed answer, the wisest path is to start from there in deciding how to deal with the world, considering the uncertainties but not throwing away the science because of them. This does not tell you what to do, but any other starting worldview requires discarding hard-won knowledge that is highly likely to be right and useful. Unless you are confident that the U.S. Air Force doesn’t know what kind of sensor to put on a heat-seeking missile, you are better off starting from the idea that our CO2 interacts with radiation, and from there global warming is highly, highly likely to be real. This is not a political statement, no matter what some commentators on the fringe may be telling you; it is physics. (Footnote 17)
 
Delaying is not free.
If we could keep greenhouse gases and particles at modern levels, the world would continue to warm and the oceans would continue to rise for a while. We have unintentionally geo-engineered already, mostly by putting up sun-blocking particles, but these have large health effects and may be cleaned up more in the future, allowing more warming because the CO2 stays up while the particles fall down. Furthermore, the longer we delay, the less fossil fuel we have in reserve in case the alternatives don’t work as well as we hope. And the economically optimal path started to reduce CO2 emissions a while ago—we have already committed ourselves to a less-than-optimal path by delaying, and the penalty rises with time. Costly delay does not necessarily require immediate action—sometimes your travel plans are so uncertain that you wait to make an airline reservation even though the price is likely to rise—but the best science says that the longer we wait, the harder and more costly the response.
 
Fossil fuels will run out.
We could drill and mine for a while longer, but eventually alternatives are required. To supply ten billion people, or even nine billion, with the good things enjoyed by most of the developed world now, will require lots of energy. Trends in the supply and cost of fossil fuels do not provide much encouragement that more drilling and mining for fossil fuels will supply that energy for everyone.
 
We need alternatives to fossil fuels, and lots of them.
My economics professors told us, “There are no needs, only wants.” But to reach a stable society, some things look more like needs than wants. The world’s population is projected to rise to between nine and ten billion people by the middle of the century, then approximately stabilize. (Footnote 18) However, there are many assumptions built into the calculations of this uncertain number.
 
Oversimplifying a lot, it appears to me that this projected stabilization of the population requires that the great majority of people must have 1) a reasonable expectation that the children they do have will grow up healthy, and 2) interesting choices about what to do with their lives, which may or may not include having children. These in turn will be very, very difficult to achieve unless people have food, water, medical care, and energy resources. The history of humanity includes a lot of collapsing empires—we have the capability of outgrowing our resources and then facing disaster. We also have the capability of meeting the challenges and succeeding. Powering people sustainably will not come close to solving all of the potential problems facing us, but I believe that we are highly likely to fail in solving those problems unless we provide enough clean, sustainable power.
 
We haven’t been trying very hard.
After a brief boom in response to the oil embargo and price shocks of the 1970s, funding for energy research was halved and held low for two decades, with almost two thirds of that research devoted to fossil fuels, fission, and fusion. Despite recent increases, the money spent on energy research remains a very small fraction of public budgets, or even public research budgets. Yet our ability to generate affordable energy from wind, sun, and other renewables has been improving rapidly. Past performance is not a guarantee of future success, but people who like to bet on past winners are taking note.
 
Betting on the future can pay off.
When my wife and I left our summer of oil-company employment in Dallas, several of our new friends suggested that we could return to the oil company for a bright future. We liked the people, respected their skills and dedication, and enjoyed our jobs. Our decision to pursue an academic career was not controlled by the politics of potential employers in the oil patch. Satisfying people’s demand for oil is important, but we decided that we really wanted to help satisfy the curiosity of students. Almost three decades later, we are happier than ever with our decision.
 
Suppose society were to say to our students, “Your country, your world, wants the ability to sustainably generate enough energy to keep ten billion people happy and healthy. We’ll help you with your education and your start-up companies, if you commit to helping us solve the problems.” I see a lot of students who would love to have a bigger purpose. They don’t want to impress me to get a better grade; they want to learn to make a difference beyond the ivied halls. Many of them are active members of religious or service organizations, running charities or volunteering their time. (Footnote 19) But we fail to engage many of them, who resort to playing video games or drinking instead. If a little more of that energy could be channeled into providing our energy, we would have a very high chance of succeeding.
 
Postscript
I was born in 1957. The odds are good that I won’t live long enough to see ten billion smiling people on the planet—we have a lot of work to do to get there, and with perhaps one billion people hungry already, the task will not be easy. But the odds are quite good that our daughters will live long enough to know whether humanity is really on track to a sustainable future for everyone.
 
Of the many challenges we face, I believe that the biggest is to get along with each other. Breaking things is so much easier than building them, and we have so much to build that we can’t get where we want to go unless we go together.
 
Footnotes
15 My thanks to Mr. Hoeffler, Mr. Mansfield, Ms. Pyron, Mr. Routson, and Mrs. Saylor, who are not to blame for any shortcomings of this book. Also, thanks to a lot of great teachers who taught me other subjects!
 
16 See, for example, the U.S. Congress, Congressional Record, 2003, Proceedings and debates of the 108th Congress, 1st session, vol. 149, no. 152, Washington, DC, where Senator James Inhofe refers to “this hoax called global warming.” Also see the 2009 quote from Senator Inhofe in which he quotes from his 2003 speech: “With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it.” http://epw.senate.gov/public/index .cfm?FuseAction=Minority.Speeches&ContentRecord_id=08d7b2d2-802a- 23ad-41d8-332a1ef4715e (accessed Feb. 8, 2010).
 
17 For those who see politics in physics, I am happy to confirm the public record, that I vote consistently, register as a Republican, and I am a loyal member of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in State College, Pennsylvania, affiliated with a “mainline” Christian denomination. Who I vote for in any given election, and what I say in my prayers, are between me and my God, and you can take the matter up with him if you’re interested.
 
18 UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2009, World Population Prospects: The 2008 Division, ST/ESA/SER.A/287/ES, see http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp2008/peps_documents.htm (accessed Aug. 11, 2010).
 
19 Penn State University, where I am proud to work, is home to the largest student-run philanthropy in the world; see http://www.thon.org/ (accessed Feb. 15, 2010).
 
20 The UN identified fossil-fuel use, and agriculture and food consumption, as being especially unsustainable aspects of our lives, but a lot of the agriculture is linked to fossil fuels; Hertwich, E., E. van der Voet, S. Suh, et al., UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), 2010, Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials, a report of the Working Group on the Environmental Impacts of Products and Materials to the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management.