Three forms of climate denial: Why we need to totally rethink greenhouse gas policy

Three forms of climate denial: Why we need to totally rethink greenhouse gas policy
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Evidence for rising global temperature — and evidence that most of that rise is caused by humans burning fossil fuels – is overwhelming. Yet humanity is not behaving as if threatened by the crisis that climate models predict.

The reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) agreed in the 2015 Paris Agreement fall far short of the stated goals of limiting the increase in average global temperature to 1.5 C and achieving a carbon-neutral economy by 2070.

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Even worse, U.S. policy has since shifted to withdrawal from the agreement and rolling back GHG emissions standards. This inertia is rooted three forms of denial.

 

First is denial of science, where the evidence itself is rejected. The claim goes scientists are misinterpreting or fabricating the data and either nothing bad is happening and if something bad does happen we couldn’t have prevented it in any case.

Second is denial of convenience where established interests — personal or commercial — feel so threatened by some proposed action that they prefer to take the risk that “things won’t be too bad” and say things like “we survived the ice ages, so we can survive this.”

Deniers of convenience do not necessarily deny the science itself but for economic or personal reasons are reluctant to embrace the sacrifice that they imagine will be asked of them.  

The third is denial of hope: It is too late to do anything or other nations won’t do their part even if we did.

Although denial of science can be met head on with more science, deniers of convenience and deniers of hope deserve more respect than they get in the public forum. They are not malicious, and they are not stupid. They are just not convinced.

What we have here is a failure to communicate. First, we lost focus on teaching the basics and became entangled in comparisons of extremely complex climate models and debates over whether any single event or trend is of our doing. This allows deniers of science and organizations opposed to reducing GHG emissions to seize on those uncertainties to obscure the brute certainty of global warming itself.

Second, we have failed to describe what is being asked. What life-style changes will be required and how much will the transition to a low-carbon economy cost?

Two supposedly essential policies widely promoted by activists and some government agencies are deal-breakers for most Americans:

  • We must move to higher density cities.
  • We must give up personal automobiles to relieve congestion and shift to other transportation modes.

Technology and social trends may promote both, but for the government to enforce them is perceived as direct assaults on personal choice of where and how to live and on the freedom to travel. The truth is that neither will contribute much to weaning us from fossil fuels. There is ample literature showing that density has only modest impact on overall energy efficiency, and the energy efficiency of a modern automobile is comparable to other transport modes.

Yes, there is already a trend toward urbanization, but the density of cities generally declines as they grow. And yes, we are paying a price for having built our cities around automobiles, but we have been doing it for a hundred years and it will take that long to undo it. That is time that we just don’t have.

A more productive approach would be to describe how we can achieve a zero-carbon economy using known technologies without sacrificing the comforts and freedoms we enjoy today — and show that the cost of getting there is affordable.

A 2014 study showed four pathways by which U.S. GHG emissions could be reduced 80 percent by 2050 at a cost unlikely to exceed $1 trillion each year. I performed a much simpler study considering pathways to a carbon-neutral economy in 2070 and came to essentially the same conclusions.

In both studies, the low-carbon economy relies on solar and wind (and maybe nuclear) power — twice what we use today by 2050 and three times as much by 2070 — to electrify nearly all transportation and heat for commerce, industry and homes.

That is a lot of wind turbines and lot of solar cells, but we already know how to make both and are getting better at it every day. Jobs that depend on high energy density (like flying) or very high temperatures (like making cement, glass and steel) can’t be electrified. For these we must use renewable fuel.

Recent research has shown that electricity can be used to double the yield of gas and liquid fuel from biomass. With fuel demand so reduced by electrification, biomass supply will be ample without massive shifts in land use and competition with food.

A trillion dollars per year is a lot of money. But keep in mind that we don’t see that full price until 2070, and even then, it is equivalent to having suffered one mild recession with one or two years of no economic growth. The great recession cost us far more. Because renewable energy is capital and labor intensive, the transition will create millions of jobs and new wealth much greater than what was sacrificed as we wean ourselves from fossil fuel.

What does all this mean for our energy policy? First it means we can tell voters what they will get and the most that it will cost. Second, it means that those with much to lose by breaking our addiction to fossil fuel have more to gain by redirecting their investments and acumen elsewhere. We will need more energy than ever, just in a different form. Third, because we already have adequate technology, but not much time, it means that we must start thinking about the end game now.

Today, we tackle each slice of the fossil energy pie separately and use a mixture of regulatory tools to drive a gradual reduction in the use of the incumbent fossil fuels. In the zero-carbon economy, all sectors run on the same fuels: renewable electricity and renewable fuels.

We need a policy that recognizes this will treat all fossil carbon emissions as equivalent and promote eventual replacement of all fossil fuel with renewable electricity and renewable hydrocarbon An effective policy will focus on the decarbonization objective and rely on innovation and markets to harness competition to the common good. Such an energy policy can take many forms. Simplicity and focus on the ultimate objective without dictating the means is the central tenet of a fair, effective energy policy.

Mike Tamor, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at the Arizona State University School for Innovation in Society. He previously worked as a Henry Ford Technical fellow at Ford Motor Company. His 35-year research career spanned from fundamental material science to the development of hybrid electric and fuel cell vehicle technology to global energy systems and sustainability.