[First printed in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on October 13, 2018.]
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just released its latest pronouncement on climate change, and it’s stark. They think it is still possible (barely) to keep the planet at no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, which is thought to be “manageable” but will still cause suffering and death from climate disruption and weather extremes. Our guidelines: The world needs to hit peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, then decline, then cut emissions in half by 2030, then achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
That’s an extremely tight schedule and a big ask. Unprecedented international cooperation and infrastructure transformation are required. Physically possible, but not probable politically, says the IPCC. This is a “Danger! Iceberg dead ahead” message, yet the Democrat-Gazette placed a short synopsis in “The World in Brief” on Page 7A in Monday’s edition. This is typical media treatment, unfortunately. There should be headlines screaming across the front page, with in-depth articles and daily follow-ups. A very possible shipwreck of modern civilization deserves maximum attention and scrutiny.
We must accept that past climate change mitigation efforts have failed miserably. Eighty-five percent of the world’s energy still comes from burning fossil fuels and their consumption is increasing. No longer may we be content knowing that we have done a little bit that helps, whether it is saving some energy at home or a city or utility company installing a solar panel array. Random “little bits” are not enough. Indeed, nations may not go it alone; we all have to be on board. It is different now because we have been given an evidence-based target and a timeline for achieving it. We can set verifiable milestones of accomplishment, and if our progress is lacking, we will need to step up the pace.
Creative and focused energy policy, innovation, and research and development of new technologies will be required, but mainly we must deploy, deploy, deploy tried and true approaches, since time is short. Nuclear power is currently our largest, most reliable source of carbon-free energy. Nuclear has the potential to service energy sectors such as industrial process, synthesis of carbon-neutral liquid fuels for aviation, marine and heavy ground transport, district heating and desalination. These are sectors not easily serviced by solar and wind. We must use every tool and technique at our disposal in the most effective manner. To prematurely eliminate an option (such as nuclear) would be tying one hand behind our backs. We don’t have the luxury of building anyone’s favorite utopia. This is triage.
To sum up the IPCC report: If the entire world gets its act together and pushes — hard — starting today, we might just miss hitting the metaphorical iceberg, and sustain only “tolerable” damage to our vessel. Or, we can head down to the lounge for another cocktail and strike up the band, secure in our belief that no action is required, that all will be as it has ever been.
The choice is ours. This is our “Titanic” moment.