November 2017 Column: Advice for Climate Activists
Earlier this month, the MA House passed a bill committing Massachusetts to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and requiring our state to report emissions data to an international agency. This was nice symbolism, and because it was no more than symbolism it became a good opportunity to talk about the true big-picture facts on climate change.
Many environmental organizations and sustainable business groups quickly jumped on the opportunity, saying how the bill must not be the only thing the legislature does on climate this session, noting correctly that the Paris goals are less ambitious than MA’s existing Global Warming Solutions Act goals, and noting correctly that we need dramatic new policy to be able to meet either.
What fewer people talked about was this: if MA exceeded our own “ambitious” emissions goals and went carbon neutral in a decade or two, it would be insignificant compared to the whole world’s carbon pollution. And, if the entire world got on board with the Paris agreement, as President Obama himself noted, “even if we meet every target, we will only get to part of where we need to go.”
The problem is that global warming isn’t a problem you can solve partway. Unlike improving education, civil rights, public health, and scientific knowledge, all of which are beneficial to “make progress on” even if it’s slower than we wish, climate change has a deadline. It’s not one we know precisely, but something around a 2 degree Celsius increase in temperature, which if you play around with global models means we need the entire world to be carbon-neutral in the 2040s. If we maintained “business as usual” until 2040 and then dropped to zero global emissions, we’d stay under the 2 degree target. If we ramped down to zero, we could get there around 2050, but the point is that’s still far more aggressive than the most “ambitious” emissions targets in the U.S. or the Paris agreement.
Keeping that deadline in mind, we need to accept certain facts: first, that in Massachusetts we should never talk about reducing our own emissions, but only about steps we can take that will either model policy to spread around other states and eventually nationally, and steps we can take that will promote revolutionary breakthroughs in clean energy technology to enable the global transition (fossil fuels are lifting people out of poverty; you need something cheaper if the transition is to happen).
Second, we are going to need carbon sequestration: sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere and storing it permanently. Again, by 2040 or 2050 we need a net zero of CO2 emissions – but the temperature will still be going up from all the CO2 we emitted in the previous hundred years by that point. We may stay below the 2 degree target to avoid catastrophic tipping points, but if we want to mitigate the “normal” effects of sea level rise, harsher storms, and droughts, we’ll want to bring CO2 levels back to the “safe” 350 parts per million (maybe even a little less until temperatures have returned to normal). The problem is that sequestration is likely to be energy-intensive, so there’s no point even planning for it until we have really cheap clean energy. It will also cost money, however cheap the energy is, and someone will have to pay for that.
Third – and here’s where some of your are going to hopefully do me a favor and keep an open mind – we need nuclear power. This year, the soon-to-be-decommissioned Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Massachusetts will have generated more carbon-free clean energy than all the renewables in MA combined. While researchers are already inventing novel ways to consume and thereby dispose of the unused fuel we currently call “waste,” we can’t only wait for the emerging nuclear technologies. We can provide clean and relatively cheap energy with current technologies, such as the ones used by the U.S. Navy which has a pretty much perfect track record safely generating electricity with nuclear power, by standardizing power plant designs and building many per year to get the economics of scale that currently don’t exist.
Fourth, we’re going to need revolutionary energy storage technologies. Solar and wind, especially offshore wind, can power way more than Massachusetts’ total energy consumption, but they generate intermittently; to have 100% renewable – or nuclear, which has the opposite problem that it must always generate and can’t easily turn off and on – on the grid, we need to store the excess energy and use it when needed. We could also store excess energy in the form of artificial carbon-neutral fuels and use them at times with greater demand, or in cars.
Massachusetts may have taken a symbolic action in support of climate solutions this month, but we have a lot to grapple with if we’re to truly solve the problem.