The Island of Doubt

The language of sacrifice

Fellow Scienceblogger Sharon “Casaubon’s Book” Astyk warns us that the latest thinking on proximity to climate tipping points supports the premise that we can’t make the transition to a post-carbon economy without surrendering some of that oh-so-sacred American way of life. At least, that the message I get from this:

I have argued for many years that we are going to, in the end, have to turn to the language of sacrifice and selflessness, of unity in the face of potential disaster — even potential failure — and that we are better off (because we then achieve at least honesty) choosing that language early, rather than only when we are compelled. This is just another bit of evidence that we will be compelled.

I tend to sympathize with this notion. While the technology to replace fossil fuels is readily available, the sheer scale of the transformation required dwarfs any comparable effort in history. Yes, America stopped building cars almost overnight and converted automobile factories to military vehicles during the Second World War. But that that’s peanuts compared with shutting down all the coal-fired power plants in the world within 12 years, as James Hansen and colleagues suggest is necessary to bring down our carbon emissions enough to forestall catastrophic climate change.

Solar and wind power are growing fast. The problem is, even 10% annual growth adds only a tiny amount of renewable electricity to the grid when you’re starting at less than 2% of the whole.

No, I strongly suspect Sharon is right. Switching technologies won’t be enough. We’re going to have to reduce the amount of energy we consume dramatically. If we’re smart enough to get things moving more or less immediately, we might be able to split the emissions-reductions burden evenly between technology replacement and reduced demand.

But even that is a tall order. Imagine chopping the amount of energy you consume in half. The first 10% is easy — compact fluorescent bulbs, high-efficient clothes washers, low-flow shower heads and so forth. The next 10% is a bit tougher. Programmable thermostats and sweaters in the winter, carpooling and weatherstripping can do that and a little bit more. But then the curve begins to get pretty steep. And the more you cut, the harder it gets to make another cut.

Cutting consumption in half (or likely more than half, given the resistance in Congress to embracing a clean-energy strategy at the production end), means changing our lifestyles. It means moving closer to work and school so you can stop driving everywhere and take the train or bus, bike or walk instead. It means eating less meat. It means less air travel, for both business and pleasure. And it means having fewer children.

If we’re not willing to do all of that, I suppose we’d better start hiking taxes to pay for the multi-trillion-dollar space mirrors and other geoengineering schemes that will be our only option to avoid the really bad stuff that’s in the business-as-usual pipeline.

Of course, maybe we’ll get lucky and someone will discover a clean, cheap method of fusion power. It could happen. But it would be the height of foolishness to bet the castle on a scientific breakthrough. And isn’t relying on science to solve our problems when so many people are ignoring the science that’s telling us we need to change right now the height of hypocrisy?

The embarrassment of hypocrisy isn’t much of a deterrent, I will concede. Given how much opposition we saw to relatively modest changes to health care insurance — it’s really just tinkering around the edges — I shudder to think how much resistance there will be to the pressures involved in changing diet, family size and where we live. The Sarah Palins of this world will have a field day. But engineering will be the order of the day. Social or geo. Take your pick.