Martin Hoffert: “No. No. No to decoupling the issues of human energy systems from climate change.”


“Without the possibility of catastrophic climate change radically changing Earth’s environment in decades to a hundred years or so, creating a new global energy system would be a problem for the 22nd Century plausibly tackled in a leisurely way without failure posing an existential threat,” says Martin Hoffert, the eminent physicist and alternate energy technology analyst at New York University. We agree: the enormous and difficult project of decarbonizing the global energy system during this century is necessitated by the prospect of unchecked global climate disruption and its potentially disastrous consequences. A ‘clean energy’ transformation is an urgent, time-sensitive policy problem that should be understood as one of the components of climate policy, along with adaptive preparedness.Responding to a September 17 post on Andy Revkin’s New York Times DotEarth blog, our friend Marty Hoffert, Emeritus Professor of Physics at NYU, wrote in a comment on DotEarth that we re-post here (with emphasis added):

No. No. No to geologists and other “pundits” decoupling the issues of human energy systems from climate change.

Without the possibility of catastrophic climate change radically changing Earth’s environment in decades to a hundred years or so, creating a new global energy system would be a problem for the 22nd Century plausibly tackled in a leisurely way without failure posing an existential threat.

Plenty of coal to run high tech civilization at least another hundred years even with substantial economic growth by burning it in conventional coal-fired electric plants and making liquid hydrocarbon automotive fuels from it. It is planet-transforming climate change — from coal-burning plants now on track to be built by China, India and the U.S. that, de facto, will become the energy infrastructure of the middle and late 21st century — that makes a push to urgently transform of our energy system away from fossil fuels the challenge of the century.

Revelle and Seuss’s “Grand Geophysical Experiment” — they had the luxury in the late ’50s to define it in that geologically detached way — will dump thousands of gigatonnes of carbon from gas, oil and coal into the atmosphere as CO2 as they are burned for energy a million times faster than these fossil fuels were made by nature.

This pulse, and its impact on climate, is precisely the problem. It is what drives the need to research, develop, demonstrate and deploy carbon-neutral and sustainable energy sources to power civilization in the coming decades to the end of the century. Of course, the impacts of human climate change will persist over deep geological time, just as for example, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum warming did. But the urgency for energy policy is very near term. Surely geologists should be able to understand how different time scales affect the planetary environment. The human fossil fuel CO2 emissions spike is more like an asteroid impact than the slow degassing of CO2 from metamorphic decarbonization of carbonate rocks at subduction zones by the slow grinding away of plate tectonics.

Those arguing that the fossil fuel greenhouse is unstoppable because of hard-wired human short-term greed, scientific illiteracy and failure of technological imagination may have a point, But think about this: Building seawalls, massively air conditioning new habitats inland and dealing with a flood of environmental refugees as the planet warms with take a huge chunk of additional energy in itself. If that energy comes from burning relatively abundant coal it will only worsen climate change and acidification of the oceans. All the more reason to press for a transformed global energy system. We may not succeed for technical or human behavioral reasons, but as scientists and engineers we ought to at least go down fighting.

If we fail, I can imagine a thousand years from now a small fragment of humankind barely surviving the new planetary climate huddled round a fire in some remote northern latitude observing the night sky, subsisting perhaps as hunter-gatherers on a vastly different and biologically depleted planet listening to a tale vaguely recalled in ancestral memory by the local shaman.

He might tell of humans once walking upon that Moon in the sky. But even little children would know that only gods, not men, not puny men so self-destructively maladapted to technology, could do that.

The geologists are right that Earth will abide. The question is: Will we?

A haunting image and a prophetic warning. Many will run away from it.

Earlier CSW posts:

July 18, 2010: National Research Council: Emissions choices today have implications for global climate on the scale of millennia

On the need to focus on climate change impacts and adopt a ‘emissions budget’ policy of quantifiable limits on emissions of greenhouse gases:

Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts Over Decades to Millennia, a new report released by the National Research Council (the operational arm of the National Academy of Sciences) on July 16, starkly highlights the long-term global consequences of present-day choices about anthropogenic carbon emissions….

“Choices made now about carbon dioxide emissions reductions will affect climate change impacts experienced not just over the next few decades but also in coming centuries and millennia…Because CO2 in the atmosphere is long lived, it can effectively lock the Earth and future generations into a range of impacts, some of which could become very severe.”

The chief recommendation of the America’s Climate Choices mitigation report, Limiting the Magnitude of Future Climate Change, is that the US use an emissions budget—a specified amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted over a fixed period of time—as a framework for developing domestic mitigation strategies. This would equip policymakers with a scientific underpinning for developing an emissions reduction regime, without dictating specific policies.

July 17, 2010: An exchange on climate and energy legislation: must it include a carbon constraint?

Andy Revkin’s concern that battles over emissions restrictions are a losing political game in the Senate climate and clean energy debate, and a distraction from a more immediate need to initiate a ‘sustained energy quest’ (DotEarth blog, New York Times, July 14), prompted us to join an exchange of comments on whether an ‘energy-only’ Senate bill would be an adequate first legislative step.

May 28, 2010: Holdren at Adaptation Summit: We’re not serious until we put a price on greenhouse gas emissions

“If we do not accept that climate change is an enormously important dimension of the energy challenge that we face, and larger environmental challenges that we face, we will not put into the legislation that we need, the key ingredient that we need,” Obama science and technology adviser John Holdren said in his remarks to the National Climate Adaptation Summit on May 27. “Until the US gets serious nationally about climate change – and we’re not serious until we put a price on greenhouse gas emissions – we’re not going to have the international agreement, we’re not going to have the mitigation that we need, and we’re not going to have the support for adaptation.”

January 28, 2010: Obama State of the Union evasive and inadequate on climate change and climate science

In his State of the Union address President Obama failed once again to give the American people some straight talk about global climate disruption.

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