On climate change, curb your enthusiasm. It’s not that the recent international conference in Paris didn’t take significant steps to check global warming. It did. Nearly 200 countries committed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from preindustrial times was reaffirmed. The trouble is that what’s being attempted is so fundamentally difficult that even these measures may be wildly unequal to the task.

What’s being attempted, of course, is the wholesale replacement of the world economy’s reliance on fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) for four-fifths of its energy. To be sure, the shift is envisioned to take decades, four or five at a minimum. Still, the vast undertaking may exceed human capability.

Hence, a conundrum. Without energy, the world economy shuts down, threatening economic and social chaos. But the consequences of climate change, assuming the scientific consensus is accurate, are also grim — from rising sea levels (threatening coastal cities) to harsher droughts (reducing food supplies).

Samuelson says he accepts the dominant scientific view about human-driven global warming, but points out that without a major technological breakthrough, we’re largely powerless to do much of anything. “The addiction to fossil fuels will triumph,” he says. More:

Despite Paris, we haven’t acknowledged the difficulties of grappling with climate change, whose extent and timing are uncertain. We invent soothing fantasies to simplify matters. The notion that the world can wean itself from fossil fuels by substituting renewables is one of these. The potential isn’t large enough.

Actual choices are harder. For example, Bryce argues that only an expansion of nuclear power could replace significant volumes of fossil fuels. But greater reliance on nuclear poses its own dangers, including the disposal of atomic waste, operational accidents and vulnerability to terrorism.

It’s true that technological breakthroughs could change this. We know what’s needed: cheaper and safer nuclear power; better batteries and energy storage, boosting wind and solar by making more of their power usable; cost-effective carbon capture and storage — making coal more acceptable by burying its carbon dioxide in the ground.

We have been searching for solutions for decades with only modest success. We need to keep searching, but without meaningful advances, regulating the world’s temperature is mission impossible.

It’s at this point that people get really mad, and accuse Samuelson of being a fatalist. But outrage does nothing to answer his point: the task is immense — scientifically and politically — and though we have to keep trying for a solution, there are no realistic ones now.

None of this is to say that Donald Trump is right about global warming, and that we should yield to his viewpoint. At what point, though, do people start to accept that this problem is only secondarily one of US political will? I mean, at what point to people start to accept that nothing serious is going to happen on the climate change front because nothing serious can happen — because of political will globally, yes, but also because the problems are, at this moment, technologically, economically, and politically impossible to solve?

That is to say, at what point does the primary focus of we who accept anthropogenic global warming go on building up community resilience for what’s to come? What would that look like?

UPDATE: A reader writes:

I work in energy and utility policy, so I’m not going to post publicly, but Samuelson makes some great points. There are a few comparisons and points I make to friends of mine that express major concern about this:

Technological Solution – If you want to deal with this, don’t go get a policy degree, get an electrical engineering degree. A decent analog to emissions-causing electric generation is the telephone landline. It’s dying off not because we banned landlines, but because the next generation of communication device became cheaper, better, and more convenient. It’s much harder, but I don’t see a lot of realistic hope on the policy/regulation front.

Developing Countries – Samuelson mentions China, India is also developing quickly, and those are just the big blocs. But grasp the scale. There are almost as many people in India without electricity as there are people in the United States (somewhere around 300 million in the Indian cause is the most recent estimate I believe). They don’t want to forgo affordable electricity (and it will have to be cheap for them to afford it – so – coal) because of some abstract notion of the temperature going up 1.5 C, or whatever an agreement in Paris targets.

Policy for developed countries – Most people when it comes down to it are more afraid of the solutions than the problem. Controlling all major CO2 emitting activities would invade so many corners of private life, it’s hard so imagine it wouldn’t cause a tidal wave of backlash in democracies.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 160 comments