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Ivy Main: “In spite of the best efforts of the fossil fuel industry, business will not continue as usual.”

"Efforts to decarbonize our economy started late and are taking too long, but they are working, and they will only accelerate."

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by Ivy Main, cross-posted from Power for the People VA

Until this summer, climate change was a threat most Virginians could ignore most of the time. It was like being hopelessly in debt: too upsetting to think about, so you may as well ignore it. But then smoke kept drifting down from Canadian wildfires and the planet experienced its hottest days on record. People are dying of the heat across the American South and in Europe.

It’s as if the debt collectors suddenly switched from sending threatening letters to sending goons with baseball bats. Alarm is not too strong a reaction.

If the goons have gotten your attention for the first time, you will want to acquaint yourself with the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The concise Summary for Policymakers that accompanies the IPCC’s latest report can get you up to speed. Like sorting out shambled finances, though, it’s both boring and terrifying: Boring because mountains of scientific research inform conclusions couched in dry probabilities; terrifying because those conclusions are bleak.

Humans have overloaded the atmosphere with so much carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gasses that further climate disruption is now unavoidable, no matter how fast we decarbonize. We are in for longer and more frequent heat waves, more extreme weather events, longer and more intense wildfire seasons, accelerating sea level rise, more people migrating to escape newly-uninhabitable lands, more loss of plant and animal species and the further spread of diseases.

On the plus side — oh wait, there isn’t a plus side. Not only is continued disruption inevitable, but if we were to continue business as usual, children born today would live to see New York and most other coastal cities underwater. Instead of 60,000 people dying from heat in a bad year, as happened last year in Europe, the number worldwide could reach well into the millions.

Then there are the possible tipping points that would bring devastation suddenly rather than gradually, and in ways we aren’t prepared for. The latest prediction to hit the news (though it has been discussed for years, with few people listening) is that meltwater from the Greenland ice sheet could force the powerful Atlantic Ocean current to stall sometime between 2025 (gah!) and 2095. That would make the tropics even hotter but send Europe into a deep freeze — a cure for their heat problems, but not the one they’re looking for.

However dismal these scenarios may be, though, we are not dead yet. In spite of the best efforts of the fossil fuel industry, business will not continue as usual. Efforts to decarbonize our economy started late and are taking too long, but they are working, and they will only accelerate. Investment in the energy transition equaled global investment in fossil fuels last year for the first time. In the course of this century, we will not just stop adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, we’ll begin removing the excess.

The energy transition is just part of the changes ahead. We are in the early years of a golden age of invention that will make the 20th century look like a mere prologue. By the time today’s toddlers reach old age, they will have witnessed transformational innovations in technology, housing, transportation, industry, materials, food and agriculture.

I keep a running list of breakthrough inventions and new technologies that together could solve our climate problem many times over. They won’t all pan out, of course, and I’ve learned not to put too much stock in promising ideas backed only by early research.

On the other hand, something transformational could be in the mix that we don’t recognize yet. About 20 years ago I wrote a column mocking cell phones that could take grainy pictures as well as make calls, opining that only teenagers would pay $400 for such useless technology. Some ideas sputter and die, others change how we live.

What is certain is that improvements in wind, solar, battery storage and electric vehicles will continue these technologies’ march to dominance, while fossil fuels become niche. Concerns about the land needs of renewable energy are overblown; you could power the entire U.S. with solar panels on just one-third of the more than 30 million acres currently devoted to growing corn for climate-unfriendly ethanol. Indeed, solar doesn’t even have to displace farming. Agrivoltaics is already making solar and agriculture compatible and creating money-saving synergies.

In the near future, solar cells will be everywhere: on walls and windows as well as roofs, on top of electric cars and printed on paper.  We will also have cheaper, safer, and longer-duration battery storage; already, hundred-hour batteries are set for deployment in 2025.

Innovative wind designs also promise more power for less cost. Offshore wind, still just getting started in the U.S., will be sending power to the East Coast, the West Coast, and Gulf states by the end of this decade. Longer term, autonomous, unmoored, floating wind turbines could guide themselves around the ocean, producing synthetic green fuels or performing direct-air carbon capture.

Similar progress is happening in all sectors of our economy. Artificial intelligence and machine learning will reduce costs and speed up the ongoing work on low-carbon solutions, including in materials and chemicals. Some futurists predict a revolution in food production that will have us all eating cheap, nutritious and tasty microbes instead of animals by 2030 (yes, really), freeing up hundreds of millions of acres of agricultural land for reforestation and wildlife habitat. That seems like a tall order, but then again: cell phones with cameras.

Look, I am not by nature an optimist. I wish I were; it’s obvious that optimists are happier than pessimists (or, as I like to call us, realists). Nor do I kid myself that humans will suddenly lose our tendencies to self-centeredness, greed and bigotry. We have the most astounding capacity for doing the wrong thing even when the right thing is standing there waving its arms frantically in the air and yelling, “Ooh, ooh! Choose me! Choose me!”

And even this summer’s record heat won’t stop climate “skeptics” from insisting the climate is not changing, or as they say now, that “no one knows why” the planet is warming. They are dosing themselves with an attractive snake oil; who wouldn’t like to hope that Nature might defy physics and start cooling us off again, either on a whim or because she secretly works for Chevron?

Let them have their snake oil. The rest of us have work to do.

This article was originally published in the Virginia Mercury on August 3, 2023.

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