July 2012 was the hottest month ever recorded, and 2012 is becoming the hottest year since record-keeping began in the nineteenth century. Global climate change is here now; it is not only a harmful problem for future generations. And it is bound to grow worse if we continue to ignore it, to deny it, or to devise ineffective mitigation measures that cannot possibly overcome it.
Climate change at its most basic is caused by accumulating heat-trapping greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the air. These gases build up the heat of the earth’s surfaces, ocean waters, and atmosphere with potentially disastrous consequences. The consensus approach of developed nations to the mitigation of climate change risks is to establish multi-decade GHG emissions-reduction programs that will cut relatively small amounts of GHG discharges for the first three decades, ultimately decreasing GHG emissions to around 80 percent by 2050. What the policy-making sponsors of these emissions-reduction efforts fail to take into account is that annual GHG discharges will combine with the already-too-high level of GHGs in the air to increase the cumulative heat-trapping GHG concentration in the atmosphere.
The largest greenhouse gas by volume, carbon dioxide (CO2), is also the most persistent, remaining in the atmosphere for centuries or millennia. The small GHG cutbacks imposed for three decades under consensus emissions-reduction plans, such as Obama campaign proposals or the Kyoto Protocol, would allow the huge remaining volume of heat-trapping gases to reach the atmosphere and to remain there for a very long time. By 2050, when stringent emissions-reductions are supposed to take effect, the consensus emissions-reduction programs will have allowed hundreds of billions of tons of additional GHGs to reach the atmosphere, where the persistent gases will combine with the existing volume of GHGs to worsen many climate change hazards. In essence, the consensus GHG emissions-reduction programs would not attain any tangible improvements in climate change dangers; but instead would allow climate degradation to become steadily worse.
Only one realistic, but not easy or inexpensive, solution appears promising. We must adopt a “de-carbonization” strategy that can replace the main sources of greenhouse gases, including fossil fuel producers, energy generators, and transportation industries, with “clean” GHG-free alternative technologies. This technology replacement approach would enable people to maintain their current lifestyles, or improve them, while no longer continuing to damage climate conditions.
Can we achieve this? In previous decades, the United States poured many billions of dollars into the Marshall Plan, the Interstate Highway System, the Apollo Project, and the construction of Publicly-Owned Treatment Plants. Yet, the predicted harms from climate change are surely as worthy of concentrated mitigation efforts as the initiatives in these other fields. And it appears that most of the clean replacement technologies are already available or are now under development. Here is a short list of these alternatives:
- Fusion – Dr. Stewart Prager, the Director of the Princeton Plasma Lab, contends that fusion can be developed on a commercial scale within 20 years. This energy technology would be especially desirable because it produces almost no wastes and uses “free” deuterium & tritium extracted from seawater to curtail fuel costs.
- Plasma Arc Gasification – David Robau of the Airforce has demonstrated a gasification project focusing energy as hot as the sun’s surface to burn garbage, wood, paper, plastics, and many other substances, resulting in greater energy production, sharply reduced air pollution and less solid wastes (NY Times 09/11/2012).
- Off-shore Wind Energy – Michael J. Dvorak of Stanford University and co-authors recently assessed the high effectiveness and feasibility of wind energy. For example, Denmark is already receiving 20% of its total energy requirements from off-shore wind turbines.
- On-shore Wind Energy – Thomas A. Martin of Willamette University published a study that found installed wind capacity between 1999 and 2011 in the U.S. expanded from 2,200 MW to 43,000 MW and will increase further.
- Dynamic Tidal Power – Dimitri de Boer of the United Nations Industrial and Development Organization (UNIDO) observed that although China already leads the world in the production of solar panels and wind turbines, it has recently formed a partnership with the Netherlands to develop energy from tidal forces. A projected Chinese tidal power project will have an energy generation capacity of 15 MW or more (09/26/2012).
- Solar Power – Despite the failure of several solar power equipment manufacturers on economic, not technological, grounds, adoption of diverse solar power technologies has increased rapidly in the past decade. One study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that by 2010, the 55 countries reporting had an aggregate installed capacity for solar energy of about 196 GW.
- Geothermal Energy – Jeremiah Williamson, a Wyoming official, wrote: “Increasing demand for lower emission, renewable energy coupled with geothermal’s potential ubiquity and ability to provide reliable baseload electric power make the resource an appealing option for renewable energy generation in the United States.” (01/23/12)
- Algae-Based Biofuels – Nadia Ahmad of the University of Denver noted in 2012: “With scientific expertise and political willpower, algae biofuels are ripe for harvesting in the energy sector. Federal tax incentives could be game-changers for algae-based biofuel technology that reduces high energy prices and our dependency on foreign oil.” All biofuels would still result in greenhouse gases, but they would be significantly cleaner and eventually cheaper than the fossil fuels that are now the major sources of greenhouse gas pollution and climate change.
- Thorium and Other Fuels for Nuclear Energy – It is difficult to support nuclear energy because, after sixty years, we still do not have a reliable and widely acceptable mechanism to store radioactive wastes for long periods of time. However, France and a few other nations, now produce more than 50% of their energy using nuclear power, and current nuclear technologies are considerably safer than previously. It may be that in some regions with characteristics that interfere with renewable energy methods, nuclear energy could still be a viable “spot” solution.
This list of “clean” GHG-free alternative technologies is not exhaustive, but it should be sufficient to refute the claim that we must remain dependent on fossil fuels and other major GHG sources endangering our climate and people for hundreds of years to come. The vital question is not whether we can afford to develop these clean replacement technologies – some will succeed and others may not – but whether we can afford not to create clean alternatives while climate change dangers continue growing worse.
The author of this article, Howard A. Latin, is a Distinguished Professor and Justice Francis Scholar at Rutgers Law School in Newark. He recently published Climate Change Policy Failures: Why Conventional Mitigation Approaches Cannot Succeed (2012), which may be purchased at: ecovitality.org or amazon.com.