The Climate Change Challenge — Can We Turn The Titanic Before It’s Too late?
Peter Meisen, Global Energy Network Institute
We’ve seen the movie and we know the outcome. The unsinkable Titanic hits the iceberg and two-thirds of the ships passengers and crew were lost. What if the captain had ample warning of the danger that lay ahead? The history of that fateful event would be altered forever. Today the ship is much bigger -- what visionary designer Buckminster Fuller called Spaceship Earth with the rider that “we are all crewmembers, not just passengers.”
This year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that carbon dioxide emissions, the primary cause of climate change reached their highest level ever in 2010. In a year where the global economy remained stagnant, the use of fossil fuels increased due to the economic growth of India and China. Only the remaining few climate change deniers will ignore the extreme events that wreck havoc with increasing frequency – massive floods in Pakistan and Australia, extended droughts in the U.S. Midwest and Russia, sea ice loss in the Arctic Ocean and glacial calving in Antarctica.
The Keeling curve has become the iconic measure of mankind’s CO2 accumulation - now at 390ppm (parts per million). This is a 30% higher concentration than any time in the past 600,000 years. Plotting temperature and CO2 together shows a clear cause/effect relationship between the two – more CO2, more greenhouse effect.
The primary driver of this carbon dioxide increase comes from our burning of fossil fuels; coal, oil and natural gas in power plants and automobiles.
Last month the IEA issued a dire warning – change this trend in the next 5 years or the world will suffer the unstoppable consequences of climate change. The positive feedback loops that scientists speak of produce multiple negative consequences for our world: sea ice loss causes more ocean heating, warmer northern temperatures releases trapped methane in the tundra (a 20x more potent greenhouse gas), and more atmospheric moisture creates increasing weather volatility. One thing does lead to another.
The G8 leaders of the richest nations have pledged an 80% reduction of 2005 CO2 emissions by 2050. This goal was set to limit global temperature increase to 2oC (3.6oF) – yet the IEA has warned the most recent carbon dioxide increases put this target in jeopardy. NOAA atmospheric scientist Dr. James Hansen has shown that returning to 350ppm of CO2 is essential if our civilization seeks to maintain our environmental quality of life for future generations. Yet good political intentions are met headfirst by economic interests: Canadian oil sands seek markets for this abundant resource while oil drillers seek new deposits uncovered as the Arctic ice recedes.
We’ve been warned of the dangers of our fossil fuel addiction for 50 years, and today the IEA says we must change our present course or else.
The Captain of the Titanic would have altered his heading with sufficient warning – yet today we keep stoking the boilers, rearranging some deck chairs and give lip service to the clear danger ahead.
What will it take? Leadership, technology, policy, investment and courage at all levels of government and business. Politicians have a time horizon of the next election and businesses seek to maximize quarterly profits to satisfy Wall Street and shareholders. Turning a $63 trillion global economy will not be easy.
To turn this fossil fuel ship in 5 years requires a speed and scale that is rarely seen in history. Mobilization of this kind has been seen in times of war or great economic pain. Do we have the capacity to mobilize before hitting the proverbial iceberg? The United States is only one critical player. The shift must occur concurrently in China, India, Europe and Russia. On Spaceship Earth, as crewmembers we either all row together – or bear the consequences of inaction by any major player.
We have models to lead us. Five nations already get 70% - 100% of their electrical power from renewable energy: Brazil, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand and Norway. They use both hydropower and geothermal resources to keep the lights on. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has maps that indicate sufficient solar, wind and geothermal potential to power all U.S. electrical needs. The Desertec Initiative in Europe seeks to develop the solar and wind potential of Northern Africa, where you find ample clean energy potential for the entire planet.
Last year, two Australian universities released a landmark study that showed how their nation could become 100% renewable by 2020 – if they had to. They indicated how much cement and steel would be needed, the cost in GDP to make the transition (2%) and how many jobs would be created. In fact, most nations have similar renewable energy potential and can trade this power with neighboring states using high-voltage transmission networks.
The green industry is positive is so many ways: domestic jobs tapping domestic renewable energy resources and dramatically reducing pollution. We have seen strong growth in both solar and wind installations in the past five years with growth rates of 30-50% per year. The U.S., China, Germany, Spain and India have embraced these technologies and enacted policy mechanisms to spawn development. Every nation is in the energy business as a producer and consumer, and the CO2 issue requires that all 196 nations step up.
The IEA has set the timeframe. The iceberg is just five years in front of us. Turning Spaceship Earth requires unprecedented cooperation and commitment. We know what to do. The sooner we change our course the better for all.
Contact Peter at: peter @ geni.org www.geni.org +1.619.595.0139
Peter Meisen is President of the Global Energy Network Institute (GENI), a research and education non-profit working to link electric networks to renewable energy resources between all nations. GENI co-founded the KLD-MSCI Global Climate Index to drive investment into the top 100 leading companies engaged in decarbonization.