by Bob Brecha
Bob Brecha graduated from Wright State University (B.S. in Physics, 1983) and from the University of Texas at Austin (Ph.D. in Physics, 1990). Since 1993 he has been at the University of Dayton where he is Professor of Physics and of Renewable and Clean Energy Program, and was founding coordinator of the Sustainability, Energy and the Environment (SEE) initiative from 2007 – 2015. From 2006-2017 he was a regular visiting scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany, including one year as a Fulbright Fellow (2010-2011). Since January 2018, he has been affiliated with the Berlin think-tank Climate Analytics as visiting scientist and from June-December of 2018 as Acting Head of Energy System Modeling and Interim Co-Leader of the Climate Policy Team. Since August 2019 he has been funded by the European Union Marie Curie Fellowship Program to work with Climate Analytics on energy access and sustainability in least developed countries and small island developing state.
As was pointed out by William Trollinger here, here and here, the arguments of climate change deniers shift rapidly, and have actually over time shown a retreat, in that the key talking points have moved from “It isn’t happening,” to “we aren’t causing it,” to “it might be good for us anyway.” Overall the approach resembles a game of Whac-a-Mole in which a serious sustained intellectual discussion is impossible.
Rather than trying to engage with the scientific arguments about climate change, which really are very clear, I want to spend a few words here and in a follow-up blog on two objections to taking climate change mitigation seriously. First, and the topic of this blog, it is claimed that efforts to avoid the worst impacts of climate change by decreasing our consumption of fossil fuels will necessarily harm the poorest members of society. In the second piece I will look at the strangely incoherent claims that climate change action is inherently anti-capitalist.
We can look at three different cases that illustrate the fallacy of the “harm the poor” line of thinking. It is clear that our modern societies have been built over the past two centuries on the use of fossil fuel resources, although we should also remind ourselves that almost 90% of history’s total emissions have come within little more than the past half-century or so. As they say in the finance world, however, past performance does not guarantee future returns. Not only have we created economic growth and well-being for a fraction of the world’s population by using fossil fuels, we have also created severe environmental impacts along the way, even beyond climate change itself. Perhaps just as importantly, we have advanced our knowledge of energy generation to go beyond the model of digging carbon out of the ground and burning it at low efficiency, wasting most of the resource we go to such great lengths to recover.
That’s where renewable energy has entered the picture in a big way. The use of wind, solar and water energy resources has become very much mainstream over the past couple of decades. Whereas twenty years ago engineers were telling us that we would not be able to incorporate more than about 5% wind and solar energy into the electrical grid, countries such as Denmark and Germany are approaching 50% or more, and states like Iowa and Texas in the US are approaching these levels as well. At peak times, as much as 70-80% renewables have been absorbed, without negative impacts on the stability of the electricity system. These are really engineering challenges that are increasingly solvable, especially with the advent of battery technologies coupled to renewable energy that lead to enhanced system stability.
But the engineering aspect does not seem to interest critics. They often simply make a blanket statement, against all evidence to the contrary, that large-scale renewables simply cannot work. Their issue is the cost of renewables compared to the cost of coal, oil and natural gas. But one of the remarkable developments of the last two decades is a common feature of technologies: the more we install, the cheaper each additional unit becomes. Over the past ten years alone, the cost of installing solar photovoltaic systems has dropped by 80-90%; wind power systems have dropped rapidly in cost as well, with the result that in many parts of the US and the world, the cheapest new source of electricity available is often wind or solar power. In parts of the world that have either never had access to electricity (one billion people) or have only inadequate supplies (another two to three billion), the economics of local, smaller scale renewables gain an additional advantage because large centralized power plants (i.e. fossil fuel power) need expensive grid infrastructure as well.
Beyond the fact that in most parts of the world renewable energy is much more attractive than fossil fuels, there are also the neglected negative externalities of fossil fuels themselves. Economists posit that we must include all relevant costs when weighing options for any goods; if the price does not include all costs, then the market is distorted. For example, with fossil fuel energy sources, we should consider, in addition to just the cost of buying the fuel and producing the electricity, the negative impacts on health and the environment that often come along with emissions from power plants, pollution from the mining of coal (mountain-top removal, for example), extraction of oil (BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill, catastrophic conditions in Nigeria near oil fields, etc.). Fossil fuel companies have throughout history been able to foist off these costs onto the rest of the society, often giving the illusion that their products represent the cheapest option available. In the past, there may have been reasonable arguments to support their view, but this is becoming increasingly untenable.
Then there is the situation in which many island states find themselves. They do not argue about whether climate change is real; they are already feeling the impacts too strongly, whether from stronger hurricanes, increased drought intensity or rising sea levels. In many cases, however, historical circumstances led to the development of their own energy systems based on the import of fossil fuels, often oil, both for the production of electricity and for transportation. Countries in the Caribbean pay some of the highest electricity prices in the world, two to three times the rates of the US. At the same time, these countries have abundant sources of solar and wind energy, and, depending on the specific case, geothermal, ocean or hydropower as well. Transitioning is difficult due to the up-front costs of replacing an entrenched system, but as the current infrastructure ages, the clear and economically prudent decision will be to move toward renewables. Although these countries have contributed a vanishingly small amount to global climate change, they will see benefits of a renewable-energy-based economy in terms of lowered pollution, increased energy security and lowered dependence on imports, and increased resilience in the face of climate change threats.
If the starting point of argumentation by deniers is that there is no such thing as anthropogenic climate change, then further discussion is difficult when it comes to the solutions presented above. As that stance is becoming increasingly hard to defend, the deniers move onto terrain that leaves them even more vulnerable to counter-evidence on the ground. Humans have developed socially and technologically, often through our understanding of the natural sciences.
However, one could imagine a world in which technologies became available, but in which we did not develop the current level of understanding of our impact on the natural world. Even in that counterfactual world, the progress we have made with renewable energy would be a desirable path to take, as would replacing fossil fuels over the next few decades; blissfully ignorant of our contribution to climate change, we would then at least partially be avoiding the worst impacts. In such a case one might almost believe in a divine plan for preservation of the species and the natural world through technological progress.
Unfortunately, in our real world, many entrenched special interests and power structures have intentionally muddied the waters of understanding over the past few decades, slowing down and counteracting gains in knowledge and delaying action needed to protect the most vulnerable among us.