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A Deus ex Machina for the Climate Change Problem

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?

On the subject of global warming, or climate change, we seem destined to find out.

On one side are the Republicans, who mostly seem unworried about climate change—or perhaps downright hostile to the very concept. On the other side are the Democrats, who do worry about climate change. A lot.

So which side will win? Which side will lose? If present trends continue, it’s possible that they both could lose. That is, the coming political collision could cripple economic growth, jeopardize national security—and still not address the climate issue.

So what to do? The solution will likely involve something altogether new. That is, it will take the technological equivalent of a deus ex machina. Our own history tells us that we’ve had plenty of those—and now we need another one.

♦♦♦

The battle lines are clearly drawn. Back in 2012, Donald Trump tweeted [1], “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” He has also referred to climate change as a “con” and derided regulatory agreements as “a bad deal.” [2]

The Republican Party as a whole hasn’t been much kinder; the 2016 platform [3] pledged that the GOP would “forbid the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide” and “oppose any carbon tax.” It further promised to cancel the Obama administration’s 2015 anti-greenhouse gas (GHG) initiative, the so-called Clean Power Plan [4].

During last fall’s campaign, Trump told an audience of energy executives [5] in Pittsburgh, “The shale energy revolution will unleash massive wealth for America. And we will end the war on coal and the war on miners.” Trump carried Pennsylvania.

For their part, the Democrats have been just as entrenched. In 2015, Barack Obama agreed to the Framework Convention on Climate Change [6], the so-called Paris Agreement, thus committing the U.S. to reduce its GHG emissions by 26–28 percent below the 2005 level by 2025 [7] (although, since the Obama administration never sought a ratifying vote in the Senate, the legal status of the accord is unclear).

In the meantime, Hillary Clinton embraced the Paris agreement. She said of climate change in 2015 [8],

Sea levels are rising, ice caps are melting, storms, wildfires and extreme weather are wreaking havoc. This is one of the most urgent threats of our time, and we have no choice but to rise and meet it.

And the 2016 Democratic platform [9] was just as emphatic: “Climate change is an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time.”

Today, of course, the Republicans have most of the formal political power in the country. Most obviously, the GOP possesses the White House, and it also controls both chambers of Congress—although its margin in the Senate is narrow. In addition, Republicans control 33 governorships and 66 of 99 state legislative chambers [10]. In fact, not since the 1920s have Republicans had so many seats.

Yet even so, the Democrats still have plenty of punch. They have most of the media, pop culture, high culture, the foundations, and other chatterers. In addition, they have solid support among big-city mayors, activist lawyers, and protesters.

Moreover, the Democrats have overwhelming support in the Deep State—that is, the complex of bureaucrats and technocrats who form the permanent federal government. According to John DiIulio of the Brookings Institution [11], the federal edifice, including contractors and grantees, numbers at least 10 million people. And while not all federal employees are activist liberals or Democrats, it sure seems that everyone connected with the Environmental Protection Agency is one, if not both. For example, amidst the battle over the Senate confirmation of Scott Pruitt, the Trump administration’s choice to run the environment agency, we saw this brazen February 16 headline in the New York Times: “In a show of defiance, EPA workers fight to stop Pruitt’s confirmation.” [12] (Pruitt was confirmed by a vote of 52–46.)

Meanwhile, signs of Deep State power keep sprouting up. On February 24, Washington Post readers saw this headline: “The US Geological Survey hails an early spring—and ties it to climate change.” [13] The USGS, we might note, is a unit within the Department of Interior; that is, it’s a part of President Trump’s executive branch. And yet the report [14] from the National Phenology Network, a USGS grantee, is, to put it mildly, off Trump’s message. The report was a mere pinprick that drew little if any blood. But the Deep State will keep trying.

And oh yes, 97 percent of climate scientists [15] say that climate change is happening, and that means something—although, as with just about every factual assertion in the climate-change arena, there are some who dispute this figure [16].

Okay, so what about the American people themselves? What do they think, all 320 million of them? The polls consistently indicate that Americans care most about jobs and economic growth [17], and yet the polls also reveal that they are concerned about climate change.

A 2016 Gallup poll, for example, found that concern about climate has reached 64 percent [18], the highest level in eight years. We might surmise that this number is “soft,” in the sense that it’s easy to be concerned about an abstraction; what’s harder is to make a choice that costs money or jobs. And in fact, another Gallup poll, asking Americans what they thought was the most important problem facing the country, found that environmental matters rated at just 2 percent [19], behind 14 other topics.

Thus, the debate over public opinion can go on for a long time, with no resolution.

So this might be an opportune moment to add in some indisputable facts. For instance, the U.S. is in the strongest position, energy-wise, that it has been in many decades. Since the early 1970s, we’ve been racked by fears of an “energy crisis,” based on scarcity at home and dependence from abroad. Yet now, thanks mostly to fracking—with, yes, an assist from energy conservation—that’s all out the window. Within a few short years, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), we will be a net energy exporter [20].

It’s also indisputable that this energy abundance is mostly in the form of fossil fuels. Indeed, per DOE, fossil fuels account for 81 percent of U.S. energy consumption [21]. (Renewables account for 11 percent, and nuclear power accounts for the rest.) So we can immediately conclude that any energy transition, if there is to be one at all, will likely be a long time coming; it will be hard to uproot the embedded architecture of fossil fuels.

In the meantime, we shouldn’t forget that the fossil-fuel industry employs nine million Americans [22]. Moreover, the “unconventional” oil and gas sector—that is, mostly, fracking—has created nearly two million jobs [23], and it is on track to creating another million-and-a-half jobs in the next two decades.

Of course, these energy jobs are no more evenly distributed across the country than is political opinion. We might note, for example, that in Scott Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma, smack-dab in the middle of the Oil Patch, Trump won 69 percent of the vote last year; meanwhile, Trump garnered just 9 percent of the vote in San Francisco and a little less than 10 percent in Manhattan.

So once again, it’s blue bi-coastal America vs. red-swathed middle America—with little sapphire dots scattered all over.

As Americans—whomever we voted for, and however we feel about energy and environmental issues—it’s hard not to view this political and cultural divide without a feeling of queasiness. As in, down that disharmonious road lies disunity, perhaps even civil strife.

And unfortunately, if present trends continue, energy and environmental topics are likely to make the United States even more deeply divided.

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To get a sense of how feuds over energy and the environment are further splitting the country, we might recall a provocative 2014 essay in The Nation, written by Chris Hayes, the MSNBC primetime anchor. Hayes’s piece communicated its hard-edged essence in its headline: “The New Abolitionism: Averting planetary disaster will mean forcing fossil fuel companies to give up at least $10 trillion in wealth.” [24]

Yes, Hayes went there: in bringing up “abolitionism,” he equated the ownership of oil today with the ownership of slaves before the Civil War. And then he argued that just as slave-owners weren’t compensated for their economic losses after Emancipation, neither should fossil-fuel owners be compensated for their losses (Hayes hopes) in the future.

In the meantime, others have joined this latest green crusade. On the website of the organization 350.org [25], led by the influential activist Bill McKibben, the first item on the to-do list reads, bluntly, “Keep carbon in the ground.” McKibben has quantified that goal as leaving 80 percent of fossil fuels untouched [26]. Others go further; the Union of Concerned Scientists [27] declares that the U.S. “should reduce its emissions at least 80 percent below 2000 levels by 2050.” And it’s not hard to find activists who would go even further than that. Thus we can see that the “leave it in the ground movement” is gaining momentum. It even has its own mnemonic, LINGO [28].

Okay, so that’s what green activists think. But what about the politics of their quest? It’s easy to see how greens can wish to see fossil-fuel owners lose their $10 trillion; the left has never felt fondly toward Big Oil. And yet it’s harder to see how progressives can justify doing away with nine million jobs. To be sure, greens talk about new jobs using new technologies, but red-staters don’t appear to trust such pledges.

We can further illustrate this political dichotomy by looking at the website of Bloomberg Beyond Coal [29]. That’s a joint collaboration between the Sierra Club and the philanthropic venture of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

On the site, if we go to a graphic headlined “Moving America Beyond Coal,” we learn that green activists and litigators have succeeded in shutting down a total of 226 coal plants; there’s a map detailing each shutdown. And we also learn that the effort has reduced carbon-dioxide emissions by 398 million metric tons.

Yet revealingly, we learn nothing about jobs lost or economic growth stunted—evidently, that’s someone else’s problem.

Green crusaders have a right to put whatever they wish on their websites, and, more to the point, to do as they wish with their money. But people in the affected areas—mostly in the Midwest and Appalachia—have their rights, too. In particular, they have a right to look out for their own well-being, and to vote accordingly. And so in Kentucky, for example, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by a nearly two-to-one margin.

In fact, the Sierra/Bloomberg map of shut-down coal plants lines up closely with the 2016 map of the Electoral College. That is, show me a green smackdown of coal, and I’ll show you a red political victory in retaliation. In Kentucky, not so long ago a Democratic state, Republicans now control the governorship, both Senate seats, both houses of the state legislature, and five of six House seats.

So we might step back and ask: Is this the legacy that the greens want to leave behind? That through their actions they inadvertently instantiated the Republican Party in the heartland? Does Bloomberg, who once harbored national political ambitions, really wish to be seen as an enemy of jobs in flyover country? Is no better way possible?

To be sure, the fight is nationwide. In California on February 23, Democratic state legislators introduced their “Preserve California” package, aimed at maintaining the state’s environmental standards as they are now, in defiance of whatever changes the Trump administration might make. In the words of California Senate Leader Kevin de Leon [30], “The goals and objectives of these measures … [are] to do everything within our power to make sure the federal government doesn’t encroach on our far-reaching progressive policies.”

Since Democratic lawmakers enjoy a better-than-two-to-one majority in both chambers in Sacramento and have a close ally down the street in the person of Gov. Jerry Brown, it seems a cinch that the legislation will pass. After all, polls show that 68 percent of Californians support stronger efforts on climate change [31]—stronger, even, than the steps the Golden State has already taken [32].

Of course, the enactment of such an ambitious agenda will almost certainly ignite legal challenges. And California is ready for that, too: it has hired former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder as its legal representative. In other words, green Democrats are ready for a rumble.

Meanwhile, Team Trump is ready, too. In February, the administration indicated that it would be seeking a 25 percent budget cut at EPA [33], with climate-change programs specifically targeted for even deeper cuts. And other regulatory actions, including executive orders, are anticipated.

Yet not every administration proposal makes it into law. As they say, “The president proposes, and Congress disposes.” All we know for sure is that there will be more rumbling.

♦♦♦

Today, Republicans are feeling mostly victorious, while Democrats are feeling, well, furious. The elephants have the formal power of a confident majority, while the donkeys have the informal power of a juiced-up minority. And so again, the powerful force meets the powerful object. It’s easy to see that neither side will win big victories; the more likely outcome is political attrition.

Right now, the pro-fossil-fuel forces might think they have the upper hand. After all, the Trump administration has endorsed both the Dakota Pipeline and the Keystone Pipeline. That’s great news for U.S. energy and jobs, but the greens haven’t given up; at a minimum, the forecast is more attrition, including legal action and guerrilla theater.

We might add: from attrition comes regression. That’s not a value judgment, but rather a statistical-political judgment, as in regression to the mean [34]. In other words: it’s unlikely that the maximalists on either side of the climate-change fight will get what they want. A year from now, it’s more than likely that the greens and anti-greens will still be in the trenches, slogging it out.

Yet after enough difficult slogging, both sides are often inclined to start looking for a negotiated settlement—a deal. And we have, after all, a deal-making president.

Thus there could even be a deal on climate change. On December 5, former Vice President Al Gore, perhaps the world’s most prominent climate-change activist, met with the president-elect and Ivanka Trump for some 90 minutes. Afterwards, Gore said [35],

I had a lengthy and very productive session with the president-elect. It was a sincere search for areas of common ground. I had a meeting beforehand with Ivanka Trump. … I found it an extremely interesting conversation, and to be continued, and I’m just going to leave it at that.

So how should one read those tea leaves?

Later, on January 11, appearing at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rex Tillerson [36], now secretary of state, was asked about the Paris Agreement. Tillerson, who had backed the agreement when he was CEO of Exxon, responded,

I think it’s important that the United States maintain its seat at the table on the conversations around how to address the threats of climate change, which do require a global response. No one country is going to solve this alone.

So now, six weeks into the Trump presidency, do we know if the administration will withdraw from the Paris Agreement? Nobody knows. Elements within the administration have been sending mixed signals, yes [37] and no [38]. And in his address to Congress [39] on February 28, Trump didn’t say a word about climate change or the Paris Agreement.

But what about all those proposed budget cuts in climate-change programs? And those other regulatory actions? Once again, we’ll have to see.

♦♦♦

So yes, without any inside information, it’s possible to conclude that a climate compromise is possible. That is, the Trump policy on climate change could end up as being somewhere in between what the greens want and what the anti-greens want.

Admittedly, in politics today, “compromise” is often deemed to be a dirty word, and yet, as we have seen, after enough attrition, combatants tend to think about compromise, much as they might hate to do so. Yes, exhaustion has a way of creating a new perspective.

So here we might offer one thought: make it a good compromise.

After all, from a Republican point of view, a compromise is not so good if it means that only half the remaining coal miners lose their jobs. And from a Democratic point of view, it’s not so great if greenhouse-gas emissions go up only half as much. A soggy solution is not much of a solution.

That has been the problem with proposed GHG compromises in the past, such as “cap and trade” and a carbon tax: nobody’s really in favor of either idea, because nobody really thinks either one will work, let alone be popular or politically sustainable.

So we come to the idea of new ideas, in particular, new technological ideas. If it’s difficult to see how reshuffling the existing policy choices can lead to a satisfactory outcome, it’s easy to see how a new invention could change everything.

Technology is the closest thing to a free lunch most of us will ever see. That is, from the invention of the wheel—the hot new thing in 3500 BC—to the smallpox vaccine, to the railroad, to the internet, most of the good things we have today have come from innovation. Civilization itself is mostly the happy result of cumulative discovery. And yet at the same time, of course, it takes culture and politics to hold it all together.

So with all that in mind, let’s think about climate change. We might start with the presumption that the real goal isn’t stopping fossil fuels; instead, the real goal is stopping atmospheric CO2. By this reckoning, hydrocarbons, by themselves, are not the problem: the problem, instead, is the unwanted by-product, carbon dioxide.

Admittedly, for some greens, the goal probably is, in fact, to eliminate fossil fuels, even if the CO2 concern could be addressed. That is, if one’s mission is to radically transform industrial civilization—perhaps to the point that it’s not industrial anymore—then energy-rich fossil fuels are an obvious first target. However, we might remind such radicals that the end-state of such an effort will likely not be the pastoralization of America, but, rather, the conquest of America, by Russia or China—unless Mexico gets here first. After that, it would be up to our new overlords to determine carbon policy.

Meanwhile, we can assume that if most people believe that too much CO2 in the atmosphere is a problem, then most people will be happy with an answer that puts less CO2 into the atmosphere. Some will say, of course, that we can do this only with renewable energy. Others will say, “no way.” And yet even if the renewable people are correct, there’s still the problem of what to do with the many millions working in the fossil-fuel industry. Do the Democrats really wish to stake their political future on the promise that they can provide well-paying solar-panel jobs to the workforces of Kentucky, Texas, and other hydrocarbon states? Do they really think that they can win future elections on such a platform?

Thus we come to the idea of continuing to burn hydrocarbons, but only as we solve the problem of removing CO2. This process goes by the name of carbon capture [40], or carbon sequestration. (It’s also known as CCS, for carbon capture and storage, or CCUS, for carbon capture, utilization, and storage.)

Carbon capture is an idea that’s been around for a long time—in fact, for a really long time. Green plants and trees, after all, have been using photosynthesis to convert CO2 into a non-atmospheric solid for billions of years. Yes, long ago, our leafy friends achieved the holy grail of climate-change believers: negative CO2 emissions.

Yet among humans, carbon capture mostly involves injecting CO2, in one form another, into the ground. Interestingly, the Obama administration supported the idea of industrial carbon capture. It was during the Obama years, for example, that a new carbon-capturing power plant [41] was built in Kemper County, Miss. Critics say that the Kemper plant suffered cost overruns and will be costly to operate. All that is true. And yet at the same time, we can note that the prototype of anything is expensive; it takes a while to get the kinks out. It’s only when the economies of scale associated with mass production kick in that costs come crashing down.

In the meantime, indisputably, what we are mostly seeing is mass spending. According to Jack Gerard of the American Petroleum Institute, just from 2000 to 2014, his industry spent $90 billion on carbon-capture programs, and all other industries and governments spent another $213 billion [42]. That’s a total of $303 billion—in other words, a lot of money. Has it been worth it? We don’t yet know, because it’s a long and costly journey from idea to prototype to mass production.

Yet some environmentalists are hopeful. “It’s not just a bridge, it’s a destination,” said John Thompson [43], director of the carbon-capture program at the Clean Air Task Force [44], about this emerging technology.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs have been working on the same problem from different directions. A company called Novomer [45] seeks to turn CO2 into plastic. Another company, Calera [46], seeks to turn it into concrete. And others have other ideas: researchers at the University of Washington, for instance, believe that they have found a way to use bacteria to turn carbon dioxide into methane fuel [47].

Others think that it might even be possible to suck the CO2 right out of the atmosphere. A company called Carbon Engineering [48], based in British Columbia, promises “industrial-scale capture of CO2 from ambient air”; Bill Gates [49] is an investor. Other companies, such as 8 Rivers [50], based in Durham, N.C., have the same idea, as do scientists at Arizona State University [51].

Perhaps most breathtakingly, the World Economic Forum suggests that it might be possible to turn carbon and smog into diamonds [52]. Once again, the idea is direct-air capture; that is, pull in the pollutants, rendering them harmless—or maybe even priceless.

Another category is bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS). And thus the green wheel turns, all the way back to the humble organic plant. Such plants, whether they knew it or not, have always been what scientists call “carbon sinks.”

One problem with BECCS is the amount of land needed; to achieve the necessary carbon-capture effect, we would have to cover much of the earth’s land area, including arid zones, with carbon-sinking trees. To which some might say, “Is that so bad?” Indeed, along the path to this arboreal destination, we might get serious about desalinating sea water, thus making the earth perpetually verdant. Another possibility: why not giant trees, even bigger than sequoias, as in the 2009 movie Avatar? After all, the more wood, the more carbon-sinking.

One way or another, we can solve this problem. If we can put a man on the moon, or edit the human genome, or pack all the world’s knowledge into a single computer chip, we can keep the humble CO2 molecule under control.

Some will note that not all fossil fuels are equal; some fuels are “dirtier” than others. Most obviously, coal can contain heavy toxins, such as mercury, chromium, and cadmium. Without a doubt, coal poses the greater eco-challenge. But maybe that’s actually a political opportunity; after all, it’s in the solving of big challenges, mutually, that citizens of a country bind themselves more closely to one another.

Such carbon-capturing would be expensive, but then, again, nationhood is not cheap. We are supposed to make sacrifices for each other. A body politic is just that: one body. So if we have to spend money, for example, to “buy down” the price of carbon-cleaned energy, well, then, perhaps that’s what we should do.

Okay, exhortation aside, what are the actual numbers? How much will it cost? According to one estimate, the price of converting the entire world to renewable energy—such as solar and wind—would be around $36.5 trillion [53]. And since the U.S. accounts for about 18 percent [54]of world energy consumption, that suggests that America’s share would be $6.5 trillion. If that number is accurate, then we might think about fossil fuels this way: if the goal is to reduce CO2, then we now see that the cost-ceiling on fossil fuel is $6.5 trillion. That is, if we spend anything less than that 13-digit sum on cleaning up carbon, we are still coming out ahead.

So if all these possibilities are out there, we might ask: Why haven’t people heard of them? Why haven’t they been part of the political discourse? As we have seen, there’s plenty of new thinking on carbon capture, but not much in the way of political leadership. Everyone knows there are two sides in the climate-change fight, and yet few know that there’s a technological fix in the middle, waiting to be applied.

So why this lack of awareness? Here’s my hunch: the intellectual leaders of the two sides, green and anti-green, would rather fight each other than work together to resolve the issue. That is, both sides rather enjoy the polarity; to many, especially in Washington, DC, the political equivalent of gladiatorial blood-combat is more fun than actually finding an acceptable solution.

And speaking of gladiator fights, let’s not let the media off the hook: in this environment, nobody gets eyeballs or clicks with stories such as, “Let’s work together to solve a problem.”

Still, we Americans have a republic to keep, and that requires effort, no matter how unheralded. And so we might start looking for common ground—more precisely, higher common ground. And so we come, again, to carbon capture.

A few years back, the 2008 Republican platform [55] conceded that human activity might be a factor in climate change, and yet it also insisted on preserving jobs:

Common sense dictates that the United States should take measured and reasonable steps today to reduce any impact on the environment. … Republicans support technology-driven, market-based solutions that will decrease emissions.

Such language and such thinking is, indeed, the stuff of commonality—and, ultimately, community.

The Democrats, too, have had similar thoughts. In 2016, the Clinton campaign spoke hopefully of making America “the clean energy superpower of the 21st century.” Not much mention was made of carbon capture, and yet it’s possible to imagine that a President Hillary Clinton would have continued the carbon-capture efforts of the Obama administration.

More recently, on February 15, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, argued for a redoubled effort by our national laboratories [56] to work on the hard science of carbon capture, with an eye toward new breakthroughs. As Smith put it, “Through its national labs, DOE has an exemplary track record on basic research.” [57]

Still, despite all this policy ferment, it’s safe to say that not many Americans know that there’s a viable middle ground between “leave it in the ground” and “drill, baby, drill.” And that’s unfortunate.

Yet even so, we can still identify the public interest—and the commonweal is best served by policies that promote jobs and protect the environment. That’s where leadership comes in—maybe even bipartisan leadership:

Leaders step up to say that we need a national action for carbon capture, utilizing the best available technology, as well as the best attainable technology—that is, the carbon-capture tech that beckons to us from the future. Yes, such a plan might displease purists and maximalists on both sides, but would be what the vital center needs—something positive, plausible, and, in a fashion, progressive.

With that in mind, those who are sworn to protect—or who otherwise claim to uphold—the public interest have a duty to help develop energy sources that are both abundant and clean. And for all the reasons we have seen, effective carbon capture will almost certainly be a part of any such agenda.

Such an ambitious plan might take a few years, or it might take a hundred years—the point is to chart a course, now, for moving forward. After all, much is at stake.

To be sure, such positive policies, no matter how boldly states, still might not gain all that much visibility, and yet all who are involved in a grand, technologically enlightened carbon compromise should be confident that, in the end, good policy will prove to be good politics.

James P. Pinkerton, a Fox News contributor for 20 years, served as a domestic-policy aide in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

31 Comments (Open | Close)

31 Comments To "A Deus ex Machina for the Climate Change Problem"

#1 Comment By Robert Wilson On March 9, 2017 @ 7:47 am

No, trees are not carbon sinks. They trap carbon as they grow then release it back into the atmosphere when they die and rot.

Carbon sequestration takes energy. Where’s that coming from? If we had vast energy sources from renewables or nuclear to apply to the problem, then we wouldn’t have the problem in the first place. Jeesh.

#2 Comment By Frank_T On March 9, 2017 @ 9:35 am

As a scientist who has studied geochemical carbon cycling and climate for 25 years, I enjoyed reading this piece. It is good to see TAC publish such a sensible and thoughtful commentary on this topic.

Thank you, James. Your perspective is badly needed.

#3 Comment By Argon On March 9, 2017 @ 9:41 am

“Leaders step up to say that we need a national action for carbon capture, utilizing the best available technology, as well as the best attainable technology—that is, the carbon-capture tech that beckons to us from the future.”

As you’ve noted this ability might take a few years (you’re wrong there) or a hundred years (possibly less). Unfortunately, CO2 emissions and levels in the atmosphere are rising now and net warming will continue. It will be decades before large-scale, carbon sequestration for power plants would likely be brought online. Even then, they’d still not cover most of the CO2 we generate.

I certainly agree that the research is extremely important but I wouldn’t bank on the yet unknown technology being able to contribute anytime in the next 30 years or more.

While we’re on the topic of what the public doesn’t hear much about, you might want to discuss cellulosic-based fuels. This is the creation of hydrocarbon fuel from harvested plants. It’s a largely carbon-neutral energy source. While the ability to economically ‘crack’ cellulose polymers into usable hydrocarbon chains for fuel has not yet been developed, it has a huge potential for moving us toward carbon neutral energy sources and away from fossil fuels.

#4 Comment By Ted On March 9, 2017 @ 9:42 am

I’m a green energy advocate in general but am quite skeptical of carbon capture. Solar and wind power have dropped in price by a tremendous degree, to the point where wind power is actually cheaper coal power on windy days. The sole remaining problem for the new energy economy is storage, which Tesla and others are pouring billions into solving.

You mention lost jobs in the coal industry, but what about jobs gained in renewables? While I have sympathy for the people mining coal in West Virginia, it’s also famously one of the worst jobs you can have (Coal miner’s daughter, October sky, Billy Elliot and thousands of black lungs concur). It may provide economic stability, but if the choice we’re presented is a coal job in WV or a solar installation job near my home in Baltimore, I choose the renewable job. We can and should provide job or relocation assistance, but not preserve the industry.

Finally my last problem is one of pure viability. Carbon capture is not viable yet. They have invested, by your own accounting $303 billion in the idea, without that research bearing fruit. If the total cost of adopting renewable is $6.5 trillion then let’s not spend more than 5% of that on a technology that isn’t proven. We have better alternatives (sorry).

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 9, 2017 @ 9:46 am

I am tired of being called something other than reasonable because I challenge the science of “global warming”. It’s the impact analysis that I suspect drives my opposition. Here’s an issue that should be based heavily if not entirely on the science.

And the science is just not there. It’s full of contradictions and speculative conclusions and predictions. The required model is just too complex. And the solutions are dubious to have the desired effect. Including the one above, though I am encouraged that it reflects what nature does and does better than human projects. Converting energy from one thing into something else or expelling the matter. The earth dumps tons of atmosphere every day.

I am also tired of being told that my opposition represents some kind of atavistic attitude that rejects environmental care. Contrary, as a conservative, I fully buy in that we have a responsibility to utilize the earth with enormous care and respect, and that demands we exercise wisdom as to her resources generously provided.

If our government agencies would focus on the science and the issues that render it a model that makes sense they would be acting responsibly, but the agenda is driving the issue as opposed to the science. As for the current admin. I have little doubt that situational dynamics is going to drive the choices.

But what is clear is that the efficacy of the technology in most “green revolutionary” advances is very far from workable. In all cases, the environment must play along and until it does, the demands of revolutionists for green tech is going to drive a deeper wedge between the haves and the have nots.

And that is a practical matter. It further presses and already sold out congress to sell out further.

#6 Comment By Mont D. Law On March 9, 2017 @ 11:01 am

As I have said again and again reality doesn’t require people’s vote. Environmental degradation is implacable. It continues whether people believe or not.

No one cares when 1000’s of Kenyan cattle herders start destroying game parks so their cattle don’t die of thirst. Or some island has to evacuate because the sea level got so high the fresh water disappeared. But here’s a fun fact, six days of temperatures between 93 and 96 degrees will seriously impact corn yields. Much more will destroy it.

Since corn is what meat eats this won’t be a small problem.

The only difference between us and the dinosaurs is we get to debate the coming mass extinction.

#7 Comment By John_M On March 9, 2017 @ 11:29 am

Carbon capture will almost certainly be necessary. Rather than mandating approaches, we should set up a rising carbon tax and gradually increase it until it becomes cost efficient to go to a carbon neutral economy. If you have to pay a tax per ton of CO2 emitted, similarly you should receive a payment per ton of CO2 permanently removed. Now this could be by direct removal such as burning biomass and injecting the CO2 into a deep basaltic formation where it forms carbonates (there is a very large suitable formation off the coast of Northern Oregon and Southern Washington), or by using CO2 as a working fluid in a geothermal production plant (such as the Newberry volcanic field in Oregon) where it will gradually be absorbed and converted to carbonates. Another approach would be to mine and grind basaltic seamounts to a fine power that would be dispersed into the nearby ocean so that CO2 was removed from the ocean water by reacting with the silicates to form carbonates that would settle onto the ocean floor as mud.

The other way to sequester CO2 is messier – in rivers with high sediment flows you can get a lot of organic matter buried in the muds at the ocean mouth. If you load up the organic matter and have enough sediment, you will establish anoxic zones where large amounts of organic matter are buried. This already happens off the mouth of the Mississippi. The problem with this is that not only is the associated ocean toxic to life, but you tend to get anaerobic fermentation and are likely to get large H2S burps that can poison the air over nearby land areas at times. But you can clearly get a lot of organic matter into such muds (rather like the formation of oil shale and carboniferous shales) rather easily. I wouldn’t want to live nearby though.

#8 Comment By Argon On March 9, 2017 @ 11:44 am

EliteCommInc.: “I am tired of being called something other than reasonable because I challenge the science of “global warming”. ”

It’s not that you challenge the science, it’s your examples cited as evidence that the science behind global warming isn’t sufficiently developed to conclude there is a real problem.

#9 Comment By JP On March 9, 2017 @ 12:46 pm

So, is the problem AGW or Climate Change? For the last 30 years climate models have failed miserably to project global temperature trends, especially changes in ENSO. If you cannot predict changes in ENSO then your theories are wrong. CO2 based climate models cannot accurately project trends out 5 years, let alone a decade or 2. Ergo, the problem isn’t CO2.

#10 Comment By Donald On March 9, 2017 @ 12:55 pm

Elitecomminc–

Complaining about people criticizing your views makes you sound like a special snowflake. Funny how we always hear that about the SJW’s.

The fact that most scientists disagree with you and that there is evidence for global warming isn’t changed because some guy on the internet says otherwise.

#11 Comment By Frank_L On March 9, 2017 @ 2:03 pm

It’s good to see an article favoring environmental protection. But regarding the usual method of “carbon capture,” I am a somewhat of a skeptic due to the costs of capturing CO2 from smokestacks which typically exceed $125 per ton of CO2, and the fact most carbon capture approaches have no reliable way of storing the carbon in excess of a thousand years.

OTOH, regarding more generic “carbon sequestration” there are reasons for optimism, as there are ways that are affordable and do work. For example, it is possible to produce an exceptionally high-quality biochar (usually with some graphite) that when buried deep in the earth can last tens of thousands of years. And it can be done cheaply, for a cost between $50 and $100 per ton of CO2. And it has numerous other benefits including improving soil productivity (up from 20% to 100%), improving the nutritional quality of crops, etc.

Also BTW, it is possible simultaneously to produce bio-oil using intermediate temperature pyrolysis while also producing long-lasting biochar. Such bio-oil could for example power range-extender engines for hybrid power cars, and the amount of waste biomass in the US is sufficient to power lightweight hybrid cars using such range extender engines for most drivers in the US (I’ve done the math to verify this).

So in other words, moderate carbon taxes would be sufficient to incentivize production of enough bio-fuel the US population would no longer need gasoline, and as a further result the soil quality of US farms would become much better, and this overall process would be carbon negative and can affordably sequester carbon in the earth for over ten thousand years. If people couple such biochar production from waste biomass with a 100 percent renewable electric power production, the US economy overall would be carbon-neutral.

The skeptics out there who claim this sort of thing can’t be done usually have no understanding of the underlying technology, and about how the main barrier to improving the technology is not having the right incentives in place (including patent law that has become far too complex and expensive). If the Congress finally puts the funding in place for carbon sequestration (such as from a carbon tax in the area of $50 to $100 per ton of CO2), inventors will develop the needed technology.

In summary, there are very affordable ways to sequester carbon in the earth for many thousands of years, and doing so can also produce lots of biofuel and would sequester enough carbon the US economy could easily become carbon neutral.

#12 Comment By steveb On March 9, 2017 @ 3:10 pm

Given that non-renewable sources of energy are by definition going to run out, you have to invest in renewables in order to have any hope of generating energy needed for whatever you feel is an appropriate level of society as they deplete, regardless of any reference to climate change. You have several choices:

1. Ignore the problem and hope you personally die before there is any significant impact on your life. This is a viable solution for those with significant wealth. Mr. Trump’s family will not suffer regardless of the changes in climate, your results may vary.

2. Reduce energy usage to push out the day of reckoning beyond your death. Good intentions, but your personal reductions have no impact on society as a whole. Appealing to others to impact society for the better has some impact, but is not likely to make much of a total impact because Freedom!

3. Treat the non-renewable energy stores like capital. You do not spend them; you use them to create investments that produce renewable energy and hope to do the conversion before you deplete your capital and/or produce permanent harmful environmental impacts. As the author points out, this can be disruptive to some individuals and beneficial to others. Much like everything in life actually. You have a better chance if you actually planning this one out than bumbling along and seeing whatever random chance gives you.

Carbon sequestration in the context of energy creation does not address the problem in any sense, you are going to have to increase your energy consumption in order to capture the carbon and deal with it so the total energy you get out of coal is going to drop and you have to increase you consumption of non-renewables in order to maintain the same amount of net energy production. If you use renewables to power the sequestration then you seem to have lost your mind because you probably should just use the renewables directly. Even if it is perfect, you are still using non-renewable energy. Saying we are OK on fossil fuel if we spend less than $6.5 trillion to capture carbon is solving the wrong problem, carbon capture, when you have to actually stop depending on it in the first place. This is not a bad talking point for a fossil fuel executive however as it maintains that industry for a lot longer and helps to slow down renewables by stripping away $6.5 trillion of funding for them. The best theoretical end result from that is a lot of perfect carbon capture facilities that produce no energy because they have no fossil fuels left to burn. Of course in the real world the cost of those fossil fuels will reach un-economical levels long before that as burning the base stock for pretty much the entire chemical industry is pretty stupid.

That leave some sequestration process that is independent of power generation, something that could be used to remove existing carbon and reverse the damage you have already done. Those approaches are generally supported by environmentalists, but those same groups are justifiably wary of those technologies being a diversion used to mask a lack of serious attempts to move to renewables given the historic behavior of those proponents. The fossil fuels industry has a long history of dumping externalities on society in order to maximize profits, why would you trust them now? Their leadership falls under #1 above.

Even accounting for motivations in the fossil fuels industry, there is what I like to call the Start Trek fallacy. You know the scene where the situation looks hopeless and Scotty twiddles some settings in some cramped access tube with a small box with lots of flashing lights and all of a sudden things are fixed and the hero’s win the day. Pretty sweet deal, a few simple tweaks and everything is fixed with no costs or side effects. That is the problem with looking at this and hoping there is a simple painless technical solution, it distracts you from what is going to be a major problem to resolve.

#13 Comment By Nick Stuart On March 9, 2017 @ 6:44 pm

I will be willing to concede that ANTHROPOGENIC Climate Change is a real thing, and that there is something we can do to affect it, when its votaries live their lives like THEY believe it is a real thing.

When DiCaprio, Gore, and the rest ramp back their lifestyles; when “climate scientists” and their celebrity posse conduct their confabs by SKYPE instead of jetting off to Davos or Bali; when there are windmills in Nantucket Sound, on Martha’s Vineyard, in the playgrounds of the rich and famous; etc.

When they act like THEY’re serious, I’ll pay serious attention to what they have to say.

#14 Comment By gVOR08 On March 9, 2017 @ 7:06 pm

I’ve long since lost interest in any debate about the existence of AGW or the seriousness of the consequences. Neither the author nor any of the denier commenters have raised a legitimate technical argument. They can’t. Nor am I much interested in pie-in-the-sky technical hat rabbits when adequate solutions are ready to hand. I might be interested in discussion of the psychology of denial.

I blame the Republican Party for this state of affairs. The public are ignorant of the relevant science and not equipped to follow a technical argument. They are dependent on political and opinion leaders. Stalin pushed Lysenkoism for years, at great harm to Russian agriculture. Except for perhaps tobacco, I’ve failed to recall any case of the U. S. or other major government ignoring settled science and misleading their followers until now.

#15 Comment By Hans Noeldner On March 10, 2017 @ 1:19 pm

So it is the responsibility of technology to compensate for a lack of enlightened self-restraint in human appetites for power? This sounds akin to expecting medicine and social welfare programs to compensate for sexual promiscuity.

#16 Comment By russ On March 10, 2017 @ 2:38 pm

@Robert Wilson:

Carbon sequestration takes energy. Where’s that coming from? If we had vast energy sources from renewables or nuclear to apply to the problem, then we wouldn’t have the problem in the first place. Jeesh.

Sure it takes energy. But, if it’s from a renewable source it’s still worth it, and the math might indicate that even if it comes from fossil fuels, it’s still worth it if efficient enough.

At this point, I’m pretty sure replacing every fossil-fuel based power plant in the world with a renewable energy plant right now, this very day, would leave us with hundreds of years to get under the threshold I’ve seen cited as the “we need to get here to keep living as our species has lived since its beginning” number–350 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide. So we clearly have more to do than regulate the fossil fuel industry until they go renewable (I believe regulation is part of the solution, but sequestration has to play a role to actually solve the problem, which is what we ought to be shooting for).

#17 Comment By russ On March 10, 2017 @ 2:44 pm

@gvORO8

What position would global climate be in if we’d elected Democrats to every national political office since 2006, when An Inconvenient Truth aired.

Can you show me why the answer is not “exactly the same place we’re in right now”?

And yes, the seriousness of the consequences are a valid area for debate. I’d excuse you for ignoring the claim that there is NO seriousness, but there’s a pretty large range of potential consequences and time frames, from what I’ve seen.

#18 Comment By Ben Stone On March 10, 2017 @ 3:00 pm

The idea that you won’t “care” about climate change until Al Gore or Leo DiCaprio change their lifestyles, is interminably stupid. Just FYI.

#19 Comment By Robert Levine On March 10, 2017 @ 9:56 pm

According to Jack Gerard of the American Petroleum Institute, just from 2000 to 2014, his industry spent $90 billion on carbon-capture programs, and all other industries and governments spent another $213 billion. That’s a total of $303 billion—in other words, a lot of money.

I did not see those figures in the link. Those figures seem awfully high to me.

According to one estimate, the price of converting the entire world to renewable energy—such as solar and wind—would be around $36.5 trillion. And since the U.S. accounts for about 18 percent of world energy consumption, that suggests that America’s share would be $6.5 trillion.

I wonder if that figure is net of the replacement costs of existing power sources. I suspect not. We have a massive energy infrastructure that is going to wear out and replacement over time; the net cost of replacing it with renewables is likely far less than the figures quoted.

#20 Comment By Donald Ernst On March 10, 2017 @ 11:32 pm

I don’t believe in global warming based on lack of evidence and evidence to the contrary. However I do believe we should be moving past fossil fuels as our primary energy source. Higher energy density will allow the human race to continue to progress to new levels of living as well as wealth for it’s impoverished. If the anti-nuclear fanatics had been stopped in the 1970’s we would have moved beyond the current debate about fossil fuels.Nuclear fission and fusion {the latter sabotaged by Reagan by the way]could have taken up the load of a great deal of the electricity provided by coal. Supplemental power could have been provided by new hydroelectric projects of the North American Water and Power Alliance proposal,180,000 Mwe worth. This leaves natural gas for home heating and oil for auto fuel in the fossil fuel sector that would be dealt with eventually by synthetic fuels such as hydrogen and new means of power storage.Instead of this bright and possible future we got continued investment in oil and gas only, more eco-fanaticism and a landscape blighted by arrays of wind mills and fields of solar panels producing little power but taking up lots of space and money, not to mention their own effects on the enviroment.

#21 Comment By Joan On March 11, 2017 @ 8:58 am

@Nick Stuart: Al Gore is no environmentalist leader. He’s a politician who thought he could get a career boost by pandering to environmentalists, but his hypocrisy was soon exposed. Leonardo DiCaprio is a famous actor who happens to have some environmentalist opinions.

The only real environmentalist leader most people have heard of is Bill McKibben. As for the others, people like Hazel Henderson, Vandana Shiva and, if you’re up for a scare, Derek Jensen, the mainstream media will avoid even mentioning them because the business leaders who run the companies that own said media recognize them as the threat they are.

#22 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 11, 2017 @ 10:54 am

Good grief,

Technical issue:

Predict the climate variations in Canada net year.

Based on all available data I am interested in the climate conditions in preparation for a move to Ghana.

Here’s a technical issue. If the renewable such as solar are dependable, it’s a tough slog for us poor folks to shell out twenty thousand we don’t have for a system that doesn’t even cover of half of ts operating costs. If the renewable field had a system that was marketable, I doubt they would need to design regulations forcing other energy providers to provide deliver systems for free.

I have yet to understand why I still need to be in the grid if renewable work.

Just a couple of technical issues.

#23 Comment By peanut On March 11, 2017 @ 11:32 pm

“Meanwhile, signs of Deep State power keep sprouting up. On February 24, Washington Post readers saw this headline: “The US Geological Survey hails an early spring—and ties it to climate change.” The USGS, we might note, is a unit within the Department of Interior; that is, it’s a part of President Trump’s executive branch. And yet the report from the National Phenology Network, a USGS grantee, is, to put it mildly, off Trump’s message. The report was a mere pinprick that drew little if any blood. But the Deep State will keep trying”

So we have now defined scientists who refuse to falsify their results to fit what the leader wants as nefarious Deep Staters. Orwell would be so proud of you guys .

#24 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 11, 2017 @ 11:47 pm

Excuse me,

I missed these comments. It was not intentional.

“Complaining about people criticizing your views makes you sound like a special snowflake. Funny how we always hear that about the SJW’s.”

My comment is in reference to the issue and disagreement. It’s the rather childish name calling. I have no issues with disagreement – but the constant reference to the personal is tiresome.

Your response is a perfect example. You change the nature of my contention and then proceed to making some personal reference. Now I have and do tolerate a good dose of personal descriptors — but it is tiresome. it makes the discussion about something it is not — One’s personhood.

So as opposed to wrestling with the information, it’s a discussion of how much of a “snowflake’ I sound like. It’s not my feelings, it’s having to wade through all of the personal attacks.

Tiresome.

I do appreciate you reinforcing my observation.

_______________
“It’s not that you challenge the science, it’s your examples cited as evidence that the science behind global warming isn’t sufficiently developed to conclude there is a real problem.”

Challenging the data sets, methodology and ultimately predictability, especially as to implementation —

is to challenge the science. For example the contradictory data on temperature and ice degradation, which the scientific community was attempting to hide based on their own email exchanges, is challenging not only the science, but the integrity of those doing the work.

In short, I think what is being investigate is amazing complex and requires a god deal more work.

Tell me how much of the climate is effected by volcanoes, and earth fissures that spew out tons of various gasses 24/7 and have sine the earth was born.

#25 Comment By Debra Cohen On March 12, 2017 @ 3:35 am

As someone on the “left” who has endeavored recently to read some of the publications on the “right” I am so pleased to read this article. Most of the articles I have read elsewhere have been long on self-righteous anger; short on reason.

One thing about the article that really stands out as a reasoned approach is that the author poses so many questions rather than coming from a place of thinking he knows all the answers. It reflects an open mind.

So, thanks. I learned quite a bit, and I can see that publications on the “right” can vary as much as publications on the “left.

#26 Comment By Balconesfault On March 12, 2017 @ 1:15 pm

“Moreover, the “unconventional” oil and gas sector—that is, mostly, fracking—has created nearly two million jobs, and it is on track to creating another million-and-a-half jobs in the next two decades.”

If you go to the linked report, that job count includes “direct, indirect, and induced” jobs.

Please do not refer to them all as “high paying energy jobs” when clearly the report is including the housekeeping staff at the local Motel 6 where fracking is going on.

#27 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 12, 2017 @ 1:40 pm

“I blame the Republican Party for this state of affairs. The public are ignorant of the relevant science and not equipped to follow a technical argument.”

Nonsense.

The argument is really simple. The use of fossil products is causing an imbalance in the climate resulting in damaging temperature and other debilitation environment effects.

One needs but a sixth grade education to grasp the argument or the science if the science was there. The more complex the science to make the case, the higher the demand that its methodology conforms to what science claims constitutes a fact.

The claim that everyone who doesn’t quite buy is just too stupid is simply an excuse for having an incomplete model, contradictory data and the unwillingness to simply say,

“We don’t have all the data lined up. But we think this is what is happening.”

And that unwillingness to simply acknowledge not having answers or solutions that will yield the desired results rests solely at the feet of advocates. The comments about that note technical issues get boiled down to “deniers”, “boneheads”, both or some other disparaging assail.

Another simple answer rests with science’s failure to teach how to communicate what they know. What the community needs are more Dr. Karl Sagan’s and less Dr. Richard Dawkins.

Read the description above on carbon capture — uhh, the costs alone suggests there’s no advantage as with the carbon sales incentives in which non polluters sell their credits to others who use them to pollute, in the end.

[58]

[59]

[60]

On an international level, the politics is self serving. The worst polluters telling the have nots,

“We got ours, and we intend to keep you from getting yours.”

If there is a problem then it behooves those creating the largest share first demonstrate an ability to turn their polluting around.

But of course there is always the old stand by to anyone who disagrees.

“You’re just too stupid to get it.”

Even after admitting to the personal failings, advocates miss the point and plow ahead.

Yawn

#28 Comment By Al Strickland On March 12, 2017 @ 2:05 pm

Really? Seriously? The ‘radicals’ and ‘greens’ are going to lead to the ‘conquest of America’ by ‘the Mexicans’? I don’t know whether to laugh or cry! We spend more on our military (directly and indirectly) than almost the rest of the world combined, and we can’t even take North Korea, North Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc…
On a separate note, injecting carbon dioxide economically is a pie in the sky dream that can’t possibly be implemented without enormous subsidies (socialism?). This is especially true when all the oil and gas fields are pumped full of of CO2(and all the leaks patched. It would be enormously cheaper to simply leave all that carbon in the ground in the first place. Oh, but we can’t have that, can we?

#29 Comment By Forbe On March 12, 2017 @ 7:56 pm

Your figure of 9 million jobs is incorrect. The link you give as reference leads an article (by an outright climate change denier) whose claim is contradicted by his own link to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. A more accurate figure is closer to 2 million as described here using the same data.

[61]

I invite you to check it yourself, perhaps I am missing something.

I have reservations about whether CCS will ever actually be cost competitive. Onshore wind and solar (75% drop in cost in the past 5 years) are already competitive with coal and even gas without subsidy and will become even more viable as domestic and grid storage options improve. I think CCS is worth pursuing as fossil fuels will be around in some form for some time to come and they could also permit carbon negative power generation.

With respect to jobs, you’ve not put in much research. Employment in the solar industry is booming and has actually overtaken coal jobs (which are furthermore being mechanised out of existence)(see link below). If you add in on and offshore wind, and probably in the near future wave energy, I have a lot more optimism with respect to renewables for job creation than I do for fossil fuels.

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#30 Comment By Ray Woodcock On March 13, 2017 @ 12:50 pm

Would TAC please add thumbs-up indicators? I like the article, and I like a number of the comments. I don’t want to say anything more than the others have said; but in the spirit of quasi-discussion, I would like to signal my support.

By the way, your Captcha is excessive.

#31 Comment By Herb On March 14, 2017 @ 7:03 am

The only viable path economically and politically to minimize the profound dangers of a post normal climate is to initiate a vast program of carbon soil absorption throughout the planet.

Calculations show that we could bring the CO2 atmospheric concentration back down to 350 ppm or less in a half a century or so at an economically reasonable cost. This option would allow for fossil fuels to continue to be burned for sometime.

See [63]

for one model currently being advocated by the countries of the British Commonwealth.