First reading of the day was this essay by a historian linked to once and referred to one time previously. And next up, the conscience of our generation compounds the idea, or rather pounds the idea home about who is writing the first draft of what will become our history, by defining reality as we see it today. I have listened to conversations with Daniel Yergin twice recently, and acknowledge being sucked into his expert definition of how to understand the fossil fuel world. I appreciate McKibben’s cold water on my face:
A search for the climate high ground
“Realism” is the high ground in politics—a high ground from which to rain down artillery fire on new ideas.
To wit, this week the New York Times profiled Canadian energy analyst Vaclav Smil, who—alongside others like Daniel Yergin—has long insisted that the transformation from fossil fuels to hydrocarbons must take a long time. Smil is a good writer and a smart historian; he’s documented the many-decades-long transitions from, say, wood to coal, and coal to oil as dominant energy sources.
Now, according to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, held in Glasgow last fall, we should reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030 as compared with 2010 levels. This is undoable because there’s just eight years left, and emissions are still rising. People don’t appreciate the magnitude of the task and are setting up artificial deadlines which are unrealistic.
His new book is titled “How the World Really Works.” According to the Times, he is exhorting climate activists to “get real.” That is is a lot of reality.
And of course he’s right: it is on the bleeding edge of the technically possible to cut emissions in half by 2030, but it’s almost certainly not politically possible to get all the way there. The momentum coming out of Paris in 2015 was fatally blunted by four years of Trump; with autocracies in control of many key nations around the world it is hard to imagine change coming as fast as we need it.
But of course pressing to make that change happen—pushing for the most rapid possible change—could get us further sooner. Smil disagrees: “What’s the point of setting goals which cannot be achieved? People call it aspirational. I call it delusional.” He keeps the same sour tone throughout the interview, but in fact it’s less compelling than it would have been a decade ago. Scientists and engineers have forced the price of renewable energy down 90% over the last decade; we could, if we wanted to, move quickly.
And the point is, we have to move quickly. The move from wood to coal could stretch out over a leisurely century because there was no existential question in play. We’d cut down way too many forests, and were slowly running out of timber, but that’s a different kind of threat from what’s happening, say, this week in India and Pakistan, where 10 percent of the human family is enduring truly astonishing levels of heat. Our retreat from fossil fuel has to be a forced march, or else.
And that’s where people like Smil end up having to pretend that climate change just isn’t that big a crisis, because if it was then he’d be forced off the bench and into the game. The interviewer asks him (after referring to me as America’s leading climate catastrophist, whatever that means) if we’re not facing “imminent” and grave danger. I defy you to make much sense out of his answer.
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