Climate of Fear XXIII.

In 2015, the Obama administration signed the Paris climate agreement.  This involved countries committing to reach “net zero carbon” by about 2050.[1] 

This seemed to many Americans to be an impossible lift.  For one thing, History seemed to be against such a swift transformation of energy production and consumption.  It took several hundred years to shift from wood to coal; a century to shift from coal to oil.  For another thing, there are the technological problems.  Meeting the goal will require technologies and scientific processes that do not yet exist.  In 2019, carbon (oil, gas, coal) provided 80 percent of American energy (and 84 percent of world energy), while solar and wind provided only 3.7 percent.  Prime areas of research like computer science (artificial intelligence, software, data analytics), chemistry and physics, and robotics and manufacturing.  Then there is the political blow-back that would accompany putting-down carbon.  By one calculation, more than 10 million Americans work in the oil and gas sector of the economy.[2] 

Some countries have good reason to dread an energy transition.  Oil and gas provide 30 percent of Russian Gross Domestic Product (GDP); 40-50 percent of the Russian government’s budget; and 55-60 percent of its export earnings.  Oil provides 40 percent of Saudi Arabia’s GDP; and 70 percent of its government revenue.  Doubtless, Nigeria’s government is sweating the transition, if they’re aware of it.  One can also imagine the sad “BritSolar for a Brighter Future!” posters in the London Underground.   

Other countries have already embraced it.  The Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) has made a big bet on a shift to less carbon: already, 70 percent of the solar panels in the world are made in China and 80 percent of the battery manufacturing in the world is in China.  It should come as no surprise, then, that half the electric cars in the world are in China.  Moreover, Zi Jinping is a very smart and utterly ruthless.  He has restored the centralization of power in the Communist Party and in his own hands.  Finally, he is ambitious, obviously for himself, but also for his country.  He is in a position to impose substantial and radical change. 

The United States possesses an “unnatural” advantage in addressing the problem of an energy transition.  That is, the US possesses a huge intellectual and commercial innovation infrastructure.  The government plays a strong role here.  The Department of Energy has a research budget of $6.5 billion a year, much of the money devoted to the 17 Department research laboratories.  American universities conduct much energy and science related research and train the scientists of many nations.  American business can go after something if they see money on the far side.[3]  The rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines by the Trump administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” offers a good example of what can be accomplished. 

One question is whether the United States can summon the will to make such a transition.  Climate change-sceptics will drag their feet, not least because many of them stand to suffer the consequences of a transition.  Climate change-believers may be too cavalier about the real disruptions and unconcerned about their opponents.  It’s a tough time for American comity. 

[1] Daniel Yergin, “The New Geopolitics of Energy,” WSJ, 12-13 September 2020. 

[2] A big part of this stems from the “fracking” revolution which reduced reliance on burning even dirtier coal. 

[3] Thus, there are 60 private-sector nuclear energy projects under way.  If we want to save the Earth in 30 years, we may have to run some other kinds of risks. 

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