Suppose that political obstacles to an honest climate change policy were suddenly swept away! Loopholes and equivocations vanish! The world adopts policies to bring CO2 levels back to 350 ppm (and similar levels for methane and other greenhouse gases (GHGs)). What exactly would that mean?
Some are assuming that we can continue prosperity with a “green economy,” but I don’t see that happening. It’s harder than it looks and we need some honest talk about what all of this means.
1. A lot of people are saying we need to cut GHGs by 80% by 2050. There is a very close correlation between total energy used by the economy (from whatever source) and total gross domestic product. So, conservation alone sounds pretty much like back to “little house on the prairie”: if total energy declines 80% by 2050, then the U. S. economy would have to decline 80% as well.
2. We can’t just “flip the switch” and go to a renewable energy economy. There’s a huge “renewables gap.” While the EROEI (energy return on energy invested) for a renewable energy infrastructure of solar and wind is actually pretty good, most of the energy investment must come up front. That means a huge amount of energy diverted, perhaps on the order of 10% to 50% of the whole economy, depending on how fast we want the transition to go and the actual energy investment required (which is not clear).
3. No one knows the exact date of peak oil, but we probably won’t be able to increase crude oil production much beyond the current 2005 peak, if at all. This means a further hit to the energy available to the economy. There is also a problem of peak minerals, peak coal, peak natural gas, peak uranium, and a whole bunch of other things; this is a general “limits to growth” problem, not a specific problem related to oil. All of this constrains our ability to build up renewable energy quickly and maintain a semblance of an economy. Which in turn means that . . .
4. We will have to swallow a huge chunk of the approximately $50 trillion in U. S. debt (in 1974 it was $2 trillion). If the supply of goods is actually contracting (due to infrastructure investment and peak oil) that means that we won’t have the booming economy that we need to pay a lot of this back. If it isn’t repaid, this means that more banks and businesses will fail and more jobs will be lost, sending the economy into a downward spiral.
Deficit spending and devaluation of the currency (which is what FDR did to fight the Great Depression of the 1930’s) can only go so far before the financial system collapses. Deficit spending makes sense if you have a promise of future growth — but because of global warming and peak oil, we don’t have that promise, in fact we are specifically trying to avoid a growing economy as long as it’s fossil fuel based. A growing economy is exactly what gave us global warming.
A lot of environmental activists and vegetarians are assuming that if everyone gets on the climate change bandwagon, that everything will be fine. Everything is not fine. These problems can be dealt with — but we need honest talk about massive changes which are coming, not just for our grandchildren’s time, but in the next decade. Fighting climate change is harder than it looks.