I’m writ­ing on a day when SeaT­ac had a high tem­per­a­ture ten degrees hot­ter than the pre­vi­ous record.

Smoky Seattle summer
North Seat­tle, sum­mer 2018 | David A Johnson

Sum­mer — our brief respite of full, sun­ny days and clear-crys­tal weath­er for which we endure our nigh-year pur­ga­to­ry of ever-driz­zle and after­noon sun­sets — had still not offi­cial­ly arrived at the time this review was written.

We can hope this sea­son will squeeze in some few nice days pre­cious amid the ash-gray haze of Pacif­ic North­west for­est fires that turns the high-sky sun into a cigarette’s cher­ry. We’re told this is the new nor­mal, but it could be worse. And it will be.

It is, I promise, worse than you think.”

The New York Mag­a­zine piece “The Unin­hab­it­able Earth” by Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist David Wal­lace-Wells from 2017 goes on:

If your anx­i­ety about glob­al warm­ing is dom­i­nat­ed by fears of sea-lev­el rise, you are bare­ly scratch­ing the sur­face of what ter­rors are pos­si­ble, even with­in the life­time of a teenag­er today.

Wal­lace-Wells details what heat­ing the whole world by degrees real­ly means, the sort of cat­a­stro­phe a rise of four degrees Cel­sius caus­es every­where and how ten degrees makes vast por­tions utter­ly unliv­able from the direct heat — let alone crop fail­ure, flood­ing, and extreme events that will become com­mon enough just to be called “weath­er”.

The UN Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) deter­mined in its Fifth Assess­ment Report that:

lim­it­ing glob­al warm­ing to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reach­ing” tran­si­tions in land, ener­gy, indus­try, build­ings, trans­port, and cities. Glob­al net human-caused emis­sions of car­bon diox­ide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 per­cent from 2010 lev­els by 2030, reach­ing ‘net zero’ around 2050.

This means that any remain­ing emis­sions would need to be bal­anced by remov­ing CO2 from the air.

Glob­al ener­gy con­sump­tion con­tin­ues to grow, and though renew­able sources are grow­ing quick­ly by per­cent­age, they rep­re­sent lit­tle overall.

In BP’s Sta­tis­ti­cal Review of World Ener­gy 2018 (pdf), they determined:

Oil remains the world’s dom­i­nant fuel, mak­ing up just over a third of all ener­gy con­sumed. In 2017 oil’s mar­ket share declined slight­ly, fol­low­ing two years of growth. Coal’s mar­ket share fell to 27.6%, the low­est lev­el since 2004. Nat­ur­al gas account­ed for a record 23.4% of glob­al pri­ma­ry ener­gy con­sump­tion, while renew­able pow­er hit a new high of 3.6%.

The mass extinc­tion we are now liv­ing through has only just begun; so much more dying is com­ing,” Wal­lace-Wells writes.

Amer­i­can poet Roy Scran­ton in 2013 wrote “Learn­ing How to Die in the Anthro­pocene”, to the pur­pose of get­ting peo­ple ready for that:

The biggest prob­lem we face is a philo­soph­i­cal one: under­stand­ing that this civ­i­liza­tion is already dead. The soon­er we con­front this prob­lem, and the soon­er we real­ize there’s noth­ing we can do to save our­selves, the soon­er we can get down to the hard work of adapt­ing, with mor­tal humil­i­ty, to our new reality.

But Scran­ton is an opti­mist. He thinks we’re all going to die. I think that is rosy. I think bil­lion­aires are work­ing very hard to ensure they can get off the plan­et or into New Zealand bunkers quick­ly. I think the peo­ple most respon­si­ble for the extinc­tion of charis­mat­ic life and rec­og­niz­able human cul­ture have a fair chance at suc­ceed­ing in their attempt to sur­vive it and tell their descen­dants that our deaths were a sac­ri­fice that was necessary.

Anthro­po­mor­phic mass extinc­tion was good, actu­al­ly.”

Anatom­i­cal­ly mod­ern humans may not be able to sur­vive a future 7 or 10 degrees hot­ter, but who says future humans will be anatom­i­cal­ly mod­ern? The first peo­ple to have access to CRISPR, and the first to have access to every fur­ther refine­ment of it, will be the very wealth­i­est. I don’t think ratio­nal self-inter­est will moti­vate those dri­ving the cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe to stop and save any of the rest of us.

Scran­ton says we need to take deep breaths and pre­pare to die. I think that’s putting on the oxy­gen masks for the impend­ing crash while the drunk pilots para­chute out to safety.

If you think cli­mate change is a seri­ous prob­lem, we have bad news: it’s worse than you think.”

So, that’s the start, prop­er, to A Bright Future by pro­fes­sor Joshua S. Gold­stein and Swedish engi­neer Staffan A. Qvist.

They large­ly agree in premise with those arti­cles, but Gold­stein and Qvist argue the sin­gle most impor­tant thing we could do to mit­i­gate and give us a chance at avert­ing cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe is to first make nuclear pow­er our replace­ment for all fos­sil fuel around the world as it relates to elec­tric­i­ty gen­er­a­tion, then uti­lize sustainable/renewable/clean tech­nol­o­gy to wean our­selves off nuclear after.

Sub­ti­tled “How Some Coun­tries Have Solved Cli­mate Change and the Rest Can Fol­low”, their book is an explic­it rebut­tal to the horse­shoe nihilism of the fur­thest tips on the left and the right. On the left, this nihilism tends to be exem­pli­fied by a sort of total­iz­ing, numb­ing depression.

Why have chil­dren and bring a new life in a world like this? Why quit drink­ing? Why stop smok­ing cig­a­rettes? Why go on? It’s paralyzing.

On the right, of course, it’s even darker.

When the com­ing cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe is admit­ted at all, the rem­e­dy is to say, “Well, the plan­et is already ruined. The impor­tant thing now is to mit­i­gate the effects.

And for them, that means plan­ning how to round up (and, ulti­mate­ly, to exter­mi­nate) the refugees who’ll be flee­ing coun­tries more affect­ed than our own.

One of the push fac­tors in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca right now seems to be how glob­al warm­ing is affect­ing agri­cul­tur­al yields there. So we’re already in the mid­dle of it, already on that path, and we have to get start­ed mak­ing our total emis­sions bet­ter rather than just less-worse, as is the cur­rent goal.

In the book, the authors first sneak their case for nuclear ener­gy in by com­par­ing Germany’s reliance on burn­ing coal to Sweden’s investi­ture in kärnkraft, which is framed as a proven cost-effec­tive ener­gy source that can pro­duce elec­tric­i­ty steadi­ly, day and night, gale or breezeless.

Swe­den gets about 40 per­cent of its elec­tric­i­ty from this source.

[K]ärnkraft pro­vides one-fifth of all the elec­tric­i­ty in the Unit­ed States, and two-thirds of its “clean” car­bon-free elec­tric­i­ty. Like, in Swe­den, nobody has died… almost no car­bon has been emit­ted, and hun­dreds of thou­sands of lives have been saved com­pared with burn­ing coal…

But it comes from nuclear ener­gy, so it’s icky, and we’d rather try any­thing else or at least claim we’re will­ing to.

Look: I, too, watched the “Cher­nobyl” minis­eries. Radi­a­tion poi­son­ing is scary.

But so is black lung, and that killed between 19,000 and 35,600 peo­ple as recent­ly as 2013.

Coal kills the min­ers doing the work imme­di­ate­ly and from long-term expo­sure; it kills oth­ers from expo­sure to par­tic­u­lates in their lungs; and it’s killing the envi­ron­ment we and most of human­i­ty have adapt­ed to ever-so-grad­u­al­ly by rapid­ly releas­ing CO2 cred­it­ed to our plan­et dur­ing the Car­bonif­er­ous Peri­od, when noth­ing had yet evolved to eat the trees pulling car­bon out of the atmosphere.

In West Texas, they just flare off enough nat­ur­al gas to pow­er every home in the state, burn­ing it to no pur­pose except to add to the ambi­ent air pol­lu­tion that kills a few mil­lion peo­ple glob­al­ly each year.

A gas flare burns bright on a production site northeast of Andrews, Texas.
A gas flare burns bright on a pro­duc­tion site north­east of Andrews, Texas. (Jerod Fos­ter for The Texas Tri­bune)

Even if you’re wor­ried about ruin­ing water sources, well, hydraulic frac­tur­ing is pret­ty good at that, and we’re doing a hell of a lot of frack­ing to get at and squeeze out pre­vi­ous­ly uneco­nom­ic oil deposits right now. I quot­ed British Petro­le­um up above: it would be nice if the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon spill in the Gulf of Mex­i­co had result­ed in any­where near the skit­tish­ness toward con­tin­ued oil pro­duc­tion that the next year’s Fukushi­ma Dai­ichi dis­as­ter in Japan had toward nuclear ener­gy production.

For those on the right will­ing to acknowl­edge anthro­po­mor­phic glob­al warm­ing at all, the plan seems to be to avoid Actu­al Machine tech­nol­o­gy and kick the can down the road in the hopes some Fan­ci­ful Mag­ic tech­nol­o­gy actu­al­ly pans out, like block­ing out more of the sun in the upper atmos­phere, with­out cre­at­ing worse prob­lems, like block­ing out too much of the sun in the upper atmos­phere.

It’s cer­tain­ly true, though, that envi­ron­men­tal­ism is sus­cep­ti­ble to the same sort of FM prej­u­dices as oth­er areas influ­enced by tech­nol­o­gy (that is, all of them).

Goldstein’s and Qvist’s book per­haps places too much blame on Green­peace and oth­er envi­ron­men­tal groups for being respon­si­ble for the cur­rent cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe and con­tin­ued CO2 emis­sions. With the nar­row excep­tion of the Unit­ed States Green Party’s elec­toral strate­gies in 2000 and 2016, I don’t think it’s fair to ascribe that lev­el of poten­cy to the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly in com­par­i­son to the coal, oil, and methane industries.

If Green­peace were capa­ble of get­ting any­thing the fos­sil fuel indus­try didn’t already want them to have, the world would look very dif­fer­ent indeed.

So it’s not that solar or wind ener­gy don’t have a place in the future but that they aren’t a panacea to the present and have seri­ous, intrin­sic shortcomings.

Wind and solar can’t pro­duce elec­tric­i­ty con­sis­tent­ly or in response to demand, and we don’t yet have the bat­tery capac­i­ty to take advan­tage of their “too much” to store when we have “not enough”.

Qvist and Gold­stein also point out that, again, as Actu­al Machines, there are actu­al envi­ron­men­tal trade-offs involved in pro­duc­ing, main­tain­ing, and decom­mis­sion­ing wind tur­bines and solar pan­els. Those don’t make them net neg­a­tives, but it does mean they have to be eval­u­at­ed as cost-ben­e­fit rather than only ben­e­fit. Part of nuclear energy’s rel­a­tive cost­li­ness and unat­trac­tive­ness is that neg­a­tives like waste and secu­ri­ty are already priced in.

The anal­o­gy the authors make between the com­ing glob­al cli­mat­ic hor­rors and an approach­ing aster­oid is good enough to be worth adding to the pro­gres­sive lex­i­con. That is how earth-shat­ter­ing what’s up ahead will be.

To extend the anal­o­gy fur­ther than intend­ed, sup­pose we could cal­cu­late where the aster­oid would strike, exact­ly: Would that be a rea­son­able jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for those of us in oth­er places to ignore it?

Would it be rea­son­able and eco­nom­i­cal to plan how to turn away and oth­er­wise deal with the refugees that might try to flee their impend­ing deaths?

Would it be rea­son­able to dither over pos­si­ble envi­ron­men­tal dam­age our launch­es into space might one day cause?

(If the anal­o­gy were clos­er to true, of course, then Anglo-Amer­i­can Empires would have been the ones to fling the aster­oid into space in the first place.)

At present, we have a tech­nol­o­gy that is good enough to pro­vide the vast major­i­ty of our pow­er grid’s energy.

If we con­tin­ue to shift to elec­tric and hybrid vehi­cles, the effect on our emis­sions can be even greater because it would impact transportation.

But that still leaves the fifty-one per­cent of ener­gy, glob­al­ly, used in cool­ing and — more crit­i­cal­ly — heating.

So, in my view (NPI does­n’t sup­port con­struct­ing new nuclear pow­er infra­struc­ture), we need to use nuclear ener­gy every place we cur­rent­ly can and build more to make sure our capac­i­ty to non-fos­sil fuel ener­gy is higher.

Our plan­et isn’t dying, but some small num­ber of folks are killing the charis­mat­ic megafau­na on it at an alarm­ing rate. Humans are fair­ly charismatic.

I’d like to see us sur­vive. (And kit­tens and dol­phins and corvids, too.)

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