The Harsh Realities of Climate Change and How to Respond
A climate change policy expert breaks down the social and economic challenges of addressing global warming.
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I’ve been working on climate change off and on for decades. During that time, I’ve found that the general public doesn’t always understand the realities of the situation, and neither do many of those who are most active about responding to it. I’ve taught college courses on the subject, and even my science and engineering graduate students are often misinformed about it. I’ll admit that I’ve been fooled by many of the issues myself. It’s taken chats with thoughtful leaders in the field for me to really understand the situation.
Much of our climate change strategy so far has focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Some of these, like methane, have a greater impact on climate change than carbon dioxide. In the very first report I worked on, back while I was still a student in the '90s, we came up with well over 50 ways to reduce these greenhouse gas emissions. Thirty years later, we still need to reduce the number of greenhouse gases emitted globally by half before 2030 in order to get to “net-zero” by 2050. The current list of what actions we could take is in an Exponential Roadmap 2030. Its recommended actions aren’t significantly different from what was in the first report I worked on. The reality is, we just don’t have the will to do them.
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Clean Energy Is a Challenge in and of Itself
Let’s take electrical cars as an example. The Exponential Roadmap recommends that by 2030, 100 percent of new car sales worldwide be electrical or plug-in hybrids. But electric cars aren’t the easy fix they’re often portrayed to be. Yes, electric and plug-in hybrid car sales are increasing, but looking only at the growth curves can be deceiving. Overall, they make up fewer than one percent of cars on the road globally as of 2019—just 7.2 million out of 1.5 billion! Can you imagine getting to 100 percent in less than a decade? Pure logic tells you it’s just not going to happen.
And then, of course, there is the challenge of renewable energy sources. If the electricity for your electric car comes from fossil fuel, you’re not actually helping the environment by driving it. When I ask students in classes I teach on energy and environmental policy how much renewable energy they think we use, the answer is typically around 50 percent. As is the case with electric vehicles, the number is increasing, but it’s still only 28 percent globally, which means that even if we had all those electric vehicles on the road, the electricity powering them probably wouldn’t come from a renewable energy source. So again, we aren’t making real headway.
So, I’m sure you’re wondering, is it hopeless? What can we do?
The Biggest Climate Change Challenges We’re Facing
First of all, a new set of technologies is on the horizon called carbon dioxide reduction technologies. Essentially, they take carbon dioxide out of the air. These technologies can take many forms including biological methods, such as storing carbon in forests, agricultural soils or the ocean, and using biomass as an energy source. To me, the most interesting technological method is what’s called “direct air capture”—think of it like a vacuum that takes air in, scrubs the CO2 out of it, and then stores the CO2, either underground or in products like cement. Another option is carbon mineralization. This would speed up what is now a natural process where certain minerals react with air containing CO2 to form solids. All of these methods are expensive and have additional challenges, but they provide new hope for investigation.
Second, we need to advance our use of variable energy sources like wind and solar that don’t generate power continuously. In this case, we need to focus much more on ways to store this energy so we can deploy it when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Think about this like the battery for your phone—when it's charged, it's great, but when you’re not near a place to charge, you’re in trouble. The same is true for wind and solar energy in terms of their ability to provide a reliable source of energy.
Finally, we have to tackle the social challenge, which is less about whether or not people believe climate change is happening than the degree to which they’re willing to pay to fix it. This doesn’t just mean the people you probably assume it does. We all make decisions every day that result in greenhouse gas emissions. Although corporations get most of the blame, it’s really all of us.
Understanding and Responding to Climate Change Are Very Different
Those of us who support immediate action on climate change need to listen more to those who don’t. We are often biased against such individuals, thinking that they don’t understand climate change and its impacts, and that if we just “educated” them, they would “believe.” The actual picture is far more complex. More than 80 percent of Americans believe global warming is probably happening, and that moderate government action is necessary—more Americans than voted for president-elect Biden, who received more votes than any other president in history.
So, we have to dig deeper. Only about 50 percent of this same population thought global warming would hurt them moderately. The next question is, how much are they willing to pay for action on climate change? When President Trump wanted to freeze an Obama-era automobile fuel efficiency standard that would have doubled fuel economy to 54 miles per gallon by 2025, survey respondents were told it would decrease the price of cars. With that information, just under half supported the freeze. And so, again, we have our divided nation.
What is the Value of Climate Change? It Depends on Whom You Ask
In a simpler experiment, I often ask my students a question that was asked of me and other colleagues by a now well-known economist while working on that first climate study so long ago. First, picture the dollar amount of your current income. Next, think of all the societal problems that we face as a society including challenges like homelessness, hunger, health issues and air and water pollution. Finally, if you knew that climate change was a certainty, what percentage of your current income would you be willing to spend on responding to climate change?
I’ve asked this answer of audiences small and large, rich and poor but almost always scientists, engineers, and health professionals. Answers typically range from around 0.01 percent to 10 percent. There are also typically two outliers, at zero percent and 20 percent. So even if we can agree it’s happening, and we’re knowledgeable about the issue, we still can’t agree on price.
In sum, some believe the costs of responding to climate change today are a “luxury good.” If you’re unemployed, having difficulty meeting your basic needs of housing and food, this can well be the case. So, be forgiving, and try to understand others’ economic needs. If your kids are hungry, climate change may not be number one on your priority list.