We Are The Architects Of Our Own Demise

Climate Change impacts have taken a decided turn toward even darker territory. Consider the California wildfires. The following graph shows the eight largest wildfires ever recorded in California. All occurred within the past four years. Seven of the eight occurred in the past two years.

The August Complex fire almost doubled the area of the previous largest fire. The Dixie Fire, which is currently burning and is only one third contained, will probably overtake the August Complex fire in terms of area burned. This is a dramatic escalation in the size of these fires.

But even these fires are dwarfed by the fire in Siberia. Fed by melted permafrost, this gargantuan fire has burned through 62,000 square miles, more than all the other fires that are now burning on the Earth. It has already emitted more carbon dioxide than England emits in a year.

Back in the U.S., Lake Mead is at one third capacity – the lowest since the Dam was first filled. This is the result of a 20-year megadrought which climate scientists expect will continue indefinitely as the air gets drier and precipitation in the Rockies that feeds the Colorado continues to fall.  This threatens the well being of 25 million people in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, and Las Vegas.

In the south, the levees in New Orleans held against hurricane Ida’s storm surge, but the powerful and slow-moving storm dumped immense amounts of water as it made its way northeastward towards New York City, where it caused unprecedented flash floods, killed 23 people, and left many unaccounted for. This is the kind of weather climate scientists predicted if we did not stop burning fossil fuels, but we didn’t.  Instead, we burned more.

The IPCC says we must cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and eliminate them by 2050 in order to avoid climate disaster with immense consequences for mankind, not to mention the fate of the rest of the life on the planet.  The strategy is to use wind and solar to do this, but this idea fails to recognize the puny capacity of these renewable resources when compared to fossil fuels.

A little math is in order.  In 2019, the world received 92,000 terawatt-hours of delivered energy from fossil fuels. That is 92 thousand trillion watt-hours of energy or 92 quadrillion watts-hours.  Now let’s consider the energy we get in one year from a typical 2-megawatt wind turbine and a 2-megawatt solar farm. Both can produce about 6 billion watt- hours of energy in a year.

Since wind and solar currently account for less that 3% of all the energy mankind produces and consumes in a year, for all intents and purposes we can treat this as though we are starting from scratch. This means our goal by 2050 is to replace 92 quadrillion watt-hours produced by fossil fuels to the same amount of clean energy produced by wind and solar.  Let’s assume that we divide the burden in half and assign 46 quadrillion watt-hours to wind and the same amount to solar. How many plants of each will we need?

We can calculate how many 2-megawatt wind and solar facilities we need by dividing the energy each can produce in a year (6 billion watt-hours) into 46 quadrillion watt-hours. That’s 46 followed by fifteen zeros divided by 6 followed by nine zeroes.  The zeros cancel out and we are left with six of them (15 – 9).  Six zeroes make one million. Now if we divide 46 by 6 we get 7.67 which means that we will need 7.67 million wind turbines and 7.67 million solar farms.  It can’t be done.

This example made the simplifying but unrealistic assumption that energy demand would remain constant, but it will continue to grow, and that will require even more wind turbines and solar farms. And it doesn’t take into consideration that, for these intermittent forms of energy to work, we will need vast energy storage facilities on a scale comparable to the millions of wind turbines and solar farms that will have to be built.  Nor does it consider the fact that wind turbines must be replaced every 20 years and solar farms must be replaced every 30 to 35 years.  This means that we would be building these plants continuously and in perpetuity.

Some have considered that opening the door once again to nuclear might resolve the dilemma. Nuclear reactors can produce much more energy than a wind turbine or solar farm.  Most nuclear reactors are rated at one gigawatt which means that they can produce about 8 terawatt-hours of energy in a year.  If we used nuclear power to replace 46,000 terawatt-hours of fossil fuel energy, we would need to build about 6,000 reactors. The world currently has 440 operating reactors.  Still too big to accomplish.

And there is the problem of the greenhouse gas emissions already in the atmosphere. The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, so I’ll focus on it.  In 1880, before humans started emitting significant amounts of carbon dioxide, the concentration was 282 parts per million.  That’s not very much but it is sufficient to keep the planet warm enough to support life.  Today we have driven that up to 415 parts per million – an increase of 133 parts per million or almost 50%.

Dr. James Hansen, the pioneering and resolute climate scientist whose 1988 presentation to Congress went viral and put global warming in the forefront of people’s minds has said that the maximum concentration of carbon dioxide we can have and still live life much like before is 350 parts per million.  In order to do this, we would have to remove roughly one half of the carbon dioxide we have emitted since 1880.  The total cumulative amount we have emitted since 1880 is 1.67 trillion metric tons. Half of this is 835 billion metric tons.

It is no simple feat to remove carbon dioxide in the air because of the concentration is so vanishingly thin – four molecules in every million.  This means that two things are required: 1) The movement of a lot of air and 2) a filter with a strong affinity for carbon dioxide molecules.

A standard commercial box fan with a flow rate of 642 cubic meters per minute can pull 5.68 million cubic meters of air through the filter in one year.  That is .00568 cubic kilometers. In order to move one million cubic kilometers of air across the filter, this one fan would have to operate for 176 million years.

Let’s suppose that we had 1,000 of these carbon dioxide removal plants and that each plant had 1,000 fans. That configuration would give us one million fans, and this configuration would get the job done in 176 years. A daunting project to say the least.

The global economy runs on energy, and capitalism thrives on growth, so we do not see any slowdown in energy consumption. Instead, the thrust this year was to recover from the 7% economic slump we saw in 2020 due to COVID, and we are going to make part of it back.  Our reflex thinking is tied to more, not less. We don’t even consider that striving for less in this situation is not only virtuous, but imperative if we value our continued existence.

To emphasize this point, I was mildly surprised to find that, despite Biden’s pledge to put a moratorium on new oil and gas leases, the White House is on pace to hand out more oil and gas drilling permits this year than in any year under President Trump.  In fairness to Biden, I think he is running into some hard political realities. In any event, it is the most permits issued since George W. Bush left the office. I say mildly surprised because I know that both parties have long since made a deal with the oil and gas companies. Our government representatives no longer work for us, they work for the corporations that pay them.

Clearly our government and others still haven’t received the wake-up call. How many more disasters will it require for the light to dawn in the minds of these decision-makers that it isn’t just a matter of profits, it’s a matter of survival. And yet, even if we muster the will, what is required does not appear to be remotely doable.