Global warming: Time to make the right choice in energy policy

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Global warming has been in the news quite a bit lately. The lead editorial in the Feb. 15 issue of Indian Country Today (“God and man at NASA: A change in climate,” Vol. 25, Iss. 36) discussed some recent news stories, including the story about James Hansen, head of the Goddard Institute of Space Studies in NASA, and efforts by political appointees of the Bush administration to keep Hansen from talking to the news media.

I first heard about this story on the National Public Radio program “On Point,” which featured an interview with Hansen on Feb. 3. That interview is available on the NPR Web site (“On Point” archives ). More recently, on March 19, Hansen was interviewed on the CBS program “60 Minutes.”

Also on the NPR Web site is a downloadable copy of Hansen’s Dec. 6, 2005, paper and slide presentation at Columbia University entitled, “Is There Still Time to Avoid ‘Dangerous Anthropogenic Interferences’ with Global Climate?” The paper posits a “business-as-usual” scenario in which emissions of carbon dioxide continue to rise and an alternative scenario in which carbon dioxide emissions level off and then begin to decline.

Hansen said that we are “on the precipice of a tipping point beyond which there is no redemption.” After we pass that tipping point, it will be impossible to avoid changes that will render the Earth “practically a different planet.” The interviewer (who apparently read the paper) asked how close we are to the tipping point. He answered, “If we go another 10 years on business-as-usual … then it becomes impossible to achieve this alternative scenario.”

In the paper, Hansen used a rather startling figure of speech: “If we follow a business-as-usual scenario, we will be creating a hammer hitting the Earth faster and harder than it has ever been hit. Except perhaps when the Earth was hit by the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.” In the interview, he said: “I don’t want my grandchildren to say [that I] understood what was going to happen but he didn’t make it clear, so I’m trying to make it clear.”

The alternative scenario assumes that we flatten out our emissions during the next one to two decades. He said that there are two major sources of CO2 emissions on which we need to focus: vehicles and power plants. The short-term strategy he offered for dealing with both of these sources is improved energy efficiency and not spending money to keep building the energy infrastructure that will only make the problem worse.

Over the long run, he said, satisfying energy needs while decreasing CO2 emissions will require the development of renewable energies, sequestration of CO2 produced at power plants, and perhaps a “new generation of nuclear power.” But in the short term, we can flatten the emissions curve through improved energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency. Every solar energy advocate knows that efficiency is critical. Efficiency is how we can get energy demands for new buildings down to where solar and other renewables can carry the load. Efficiency improvements in motor vehicles could avoid burning many times the amount of oil that could ever be extracted from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Efficiency improvements can save consumers lots and lots of money. But even so, there is not much of a political constituency for energy efficiency.

I am a long-standing advocate of solar energy, and global warming is a problem that has been worrying me for quite some time. In a 1992 law journal article, I said, “To be sustainable, energy development requires a worldwide shift from technologies that consume fossil fuels to technologies that derive useful energy from the sun and from forces and processes that are driven by solar energy … [T]he issue is how much global climate change we are willing to accept before we commit ourselves to achieving this transition.” (“Self-Determination for Indigenous Peoples at the Dawn of the Solar Age,” 25 U. Mich. J. L. Reform 671, 724 [1992].) The dawn of the solar age has been a long and slow process.

Maybe solar energy advocates should do more beating of the drum for energy efficiency. If we really only have about a decade to flatten the curve of CO2 emissions, then maybe those of us who care about the fate of the Earth and the welfare of future generations, and who know something about the interplay between energy efficiency and solar energy, should become more vocal in the public dialogue, more politically active. By way of personal commitment, I commit myself to writing more frequently for this newspaper.

On one point I beg to differ with Hansen’s paper (though I doubt he would take issue with me on this). Renewable energy is not just a long-term solution. Along with energy efficiency, many kinds of investments in solar and other renewable energy systems can be taken from the drawing board to reality in a matter of months. This is especially true for solar heating and daylighting in new homes and commercial buildings. Photovoltaic systems (solar electricity) can also be installed quickly. Wind power projects generally take a little longer: a few years rather than decades.

How long it will take to get to the point at which solar and renewables comprise a major portion of our energy supplies in a national or global sense is a question that, I think, will be answered mostly in the political arena. For readers seeking more detailed information on the realm of the possible, I suggest finding a copy of the March/April 2006 issue of Solar Today magazine, a publication of the American Solar Energy Society (www.ases.org). The theme of that issue is the “Dawn of the Solar Era.” My point, for the purposes of this column, is that there are many commercially available renewable energy technologies that can be bought and put into service within the timeframe in which Hansen indicated we must act in order to avoid passing the tipping point – within the next decade.

This is an important point because it’s a safe bet that the people and corporations that stand to profit from carbon sequestration or a new generation of nuclear power will be sucking up all the federal subsidies they can, based on promises of technological fixes somewhere down the road. I suggest that we don’t hold our collective breath waiting for those promises to be fulfilled. Rather, I suggest we begin to seriously invest in the technological fixes we already have on the shelf: solar, wind, biomass and, especially, efficiency.

The policy choice we face illustrates a concept that economists call “opportunity cost.” We have the opportunity to choose to invest in a renewable energy future; but if we choose to continue to pour billions of dollars into coal and nuclear power, that means that we will we have billions of dollars less to invest in building a renewable energy future.

People who want to help bring about a transition to the widespread use of solar and other renewable energy technologies might want to become involved with some of the existing organizations that are working to promote this. One such organization is the American Council on Renewable Energy. For information, visit www.acore.org.

ACORE, which was founded in 2001 as a “unifying forum” for renewable energy in America, hosts at least three conferences every year: a technology exposition in Las Vegas in April, a financing conference in New York in June and a policy conference in Washington in October. The theme of the October 2005 policy conference is “Phase II” of renewable energy in America. By “Phase II” they mean, basically, this: We have invested enough in research and development of renewable energy technologies to bring us to the point where we are now, with a wide range of commercially viable technologies. That was phase I. Now we need to move toward the adoption of these technologies on a widespread basis.

Tribal leaders and other readers of ICT who would like to help bring about the dawning of the solar age may want to become involved with ACORE. The dawn of the solar age is going to take work, but our chances of success will be enhanced by working together.

Dean B. Suagee is counsel to the firm Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker LLP in Washington, D.C., and is a member of the editorial board of the American Bar Association’s quarterly journal, “Natural Resources & Environment,” in which a version of this article was originally published (Winter 2006, Vol. 20, Iss. 3). He may be reached at dsuagee@hsdwdc.com.