We Need a Massive Climate War Effort—Now

Source: By KEVIN DRUM, Mother Earth • Posted: Tuesday, December 17, 2019

I’ll take a wild guess that you don’t need any convincing about the need for action on climate change. You know that since the start of the Industrial Revolution we’ve dumped more than 500 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere and we’re adding about 10 billion more each year. You know that global temperatures have risen 1 degree Celsius over the past century and we’re on track for 2 degreeswithin another few decades.

And you know what this means. It means more extreme weather. More hurricanes. More droughts. More flooding. More wildfires. More heat-related deaths. There will be more infectious disease as insects move ever farther north. The Northwest Passage will be open for much of the year. Sea levels will rise by several feet as the ice shelves of Greenland and the Antarctic melt, producing bigger storm swells and more intense flooding in low-lying areas around the world.

Some of this is already baked into our future, but to avoid the worst of it, climate experts widely agree that we need to get to net-zero carbon emissions entirely by 2050 at the latest. This is the goal of the Paris Agreement, and it’s one that every Democratic candidate for president has committed to. But how to get there?

Let’s start with the good news. About three-quarters of carbon emissions come from burning fossil fuels for power, and we already have the technology to make a big dent in that. Solar power is now price-competitive with the most efficient natural gas plants and is likely to get even cheaper in the near future. In 2019, Los Angeles signed a deal to provide 400 megawatts of solar power at a price under 4 cents per kilowatt-hour—including battery storage to keep that power available day and night. That’s just a start—it will provide only about 7 percent of electricity needed in Los Angeles—but for the first time it’s fully competitive with the current wholesale price of fossil fuel electricity in Southern California.

Wind power—especially offshore wind—is equally promising. This means that a broad-based effort to build solar and wind infrastructure, along with a commitment to replace much of the world’s fossil fuel use with electricity, would go pretty far toward reducing global carbon emissions.

How far? Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that by 2050, wind and solar can satisfy 80 percent of electricity demand in most advanced countries. But due to inadequate infrastructure in some cases and lack of wind and sun in others, not all countries can meet this goal, which means that even with favorable government policies and big commitments to clean energy, the growth of wind and solar will probably provide only about half of the world’s demand for electricity by midcentury. “Importantly,” the Bloomberg analysts caution, “major progress in de-carbonization will also be required in other segments of the world’s economy to address climate change.”

This inevitably means we have to face up to some bad news. If existing technologies like wind, solar, and nuclear can get us only halfway to our goal—or maybe a bit more—the other half would seem to require cutting back on energy consumption.

Let’s be clear about something: We’re not talking about voluntary personal cutbacks. If you decide to bicycle more or eat less meat, great—every little bit helps. But no one who’s serious about climate change believes that personal decisions like this have more than a slight effect on the gigatons of carbon we’ve emitted and the shortsighted policies we’ve enacted. Framing the problem this way—a solution of individual lifestyle choices—is mostly just a red herring that allows corporations and conservatives to avoid the real issue.

The real issue is this: Only large-scale government action can significantly reduce carbon emissions. But this doesn’t let any of us off the hook. Our personal cutbacks might not matter much, but what does matter is whether we’re willing to support large-scale actions—­things like carbon taxes or fracking bans—that will force all of us to reduce our energy consumption.

Solutions depend on how acceptable these policies are to the public. To get a rough handle of what a significant reduc­tion means, the Nature Conservancy has a handy app that can help you calculate what it would take to cut your household carbon footprint in half. If you’re an average household, you need to pare down to one car. If it’s an suv or a sports car, get rid of it. You need a small, high-mileage vehicle (the calculator assumes a regular gasoline car) and drive it no more than 10,000 miles per year. That’s for your whole family. You need to cut way back on heating and cooling. You need to live in a house no bigger than 1,000 square feet. And you need to buy way less stuff—about half of what you buy now.

There are solutions to some of these problems—electrification obviously helps with transportation, and better insulation helps with heating and cooling—but only to a point. One way or another, any government policy big enough to make a serious dent in climate change will also force people to make major lifestyle cutbacks or pay substantially higher taxes—or both.

How many of us are willing to do that? It turns out we have a pretty good idea. In 2018, the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago fielded a national poll on climate change. Only 71 percent of respondents agreed it was happening, and of those, more than 80 percent said the federal government should do something about it.

Then the pollsters presented a scenario in which a monthly tax would be added to your electric bill to combat climate change. If the tax was $1, only 57 percent supported it. If the tax was $10, that plummeted to 28 percent. Those aren’t typos. Only about half of Americans are willing to pay $1 per month to fight climate change. Only about a quarter are willing to pay $10 per month.

And that’s hardly the only evidence of the uphill climb we face. There’s abundant confirmation of the public’s unwillingness to accept sacrifices in living standards to combat climate change. In France, a 2018 gasoline tax increase had to be withdrawn after yellow vest activists—generally an eco-friendly movement—took to the streets in furious protest. In Germany, where the growth of renewable energy has made it possible to shut down old power plants, the Fukushima disaster in Japan prompted the closing of climate-friendly nuclear plants before coal plants—despite the fact that German nukes have a spotless safety record over the past 30 years and are under no threat from tsunamis. In Canada, a recent poll reported that most people say they’re willing to make changes in their daily lives to fight climate change—but only when the changes are kept vague. When pollsters asked specific questions, only small fractions said they’d fly less frequently, purchase an electric car, or give up meat. And a paltry 16 percent said they’d be willing to pay a climate tax of $8–$40 per month.

None of this should surprise us. Fifteen years ago, UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond wrote a book called Collapse. In it, he recounted a dozen examples of societies that faced imminent environmental catastrophes and failed to stop them. It’s not because they were ignorant about the problems they faced. The 18th-century indigenous inhabitants of Easter Island, Diamond argues, knew perfectly well that deforesting their land would lead to catas­trophe. They just couldn’t find the collective will to stop. Over and over, human civilizations have destroyed their environments because no one—no ruler, corporation, or government—was willing to give up their piece of it. We have overfished, overgrazed, overhunted, overmined, overpolluted, and overconsumed. We have destroyed our lifeblood rather than make even modest changes to our lifestyles.

Even if we could get wealthy Western countries to accept serious belt-­tightening, they’re not where the growth of greenhouse gas emissions is taking place right now. It’s happening in developing countries like China and India. Most people in these countries have living standards that are a fraction of ours, and they justifiably ask why they should cut back on energy consumption and consign themselves to poverty while those of us in affluent countries—which caused most of the problem in the first place—are still driving SUVs and running air conditioners all summer.

This is the hinge point on which the future of climate change rests. Clearly the West is not going to collectively agree to live like Chinese farmers. Just as clearly, Chinese farmers aren’t willing to keep living in shacks while we sit around watching football on 60-inch TV screens in our climate-controlled houses as we lecture them about climate change.

This is why big government spending on wind and solar—everyone’s favorite solution to global warming—isn’t enough to do the job. Subsidies for green energy might reduce US emissions, but even if the United States eliminated its carbon output completely, it would only amount to a small reduction in global emissions.

Yes, we should be fully committed to the kind of framework that congressional Democrats propose in the Green New Deal, which provides goals for building infrastructure and ways of retraining workers affected by the transition to clean energy. But there’s no chance this will solve the problem on a global scale, and 2050 isn’t that far away. We don’t have much time left.

So what do we do? We need to figure out ways to produce far more clean energy, in far more ways, at a cost lower than we pay for fossil fuel energy. As the socialist writer Leigh Phillips warns his allies, “Households need clean energy options to be cheaper than fossil fuels currently are, not for fossil fuels to be more expensive than clean energy options currently are.”

This requires a reckoning. Time is running out, and we can no longer pretend that we can beat climate change by asking people to do things they don’t want to do. We need to focus our attention almost exclu­sively not on things people don’t like, but on something people do like: spending money. Lots of money.

As the Green New Deal suggests, part of the solution is building infrastructure for what we already know how to do. But our primary emphasis needs to be on R&D aimed like a laser at producing cheap, efficient, renewable energy sources—a program that attacks climate change while still allowing people to use lots of energy. This is the kind of spending that wins wars, after all. And make no mistake, this is a war against time and physics. So let’s propose a truly gargantuan commitment to spending money on clean energy research.

How gargantuan? The International Energy Agency estimates that the world spends about $22 billion per year on clean energy innovation. The US share of that is $7 billion—that’s about 0.03 percent of our economy. (Trump proposed cutting that figure almost in half.) This is pathetic if you accept that climate change is an existential threat to our planet. During World War II, the United States devoted 30 percent of its economy to the war effort—or one thousand times what we’re spending on green tech.

There were three elements to this mass mobilization. First, Americans were asked to make modest sacrifices over the course of a few years. Victory gardens were planted, tin was collected, sugar and gasoline were rationed. Men enlisted and women went to work in factories. The rich paid high taxes and the rest of us bought war bonds. Perhaps there’s a limit to how much we can ask of people, but plainly we can ask something of them.