PBS Tackles Global Warming: HEAT

I watched the PBS Frontline report Heat online.  It’s 2 hours long, and explores the magnitude and difficulty of scaling back global carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050 (which is what the IPCC says is required).  To be a success in my mind, I think it had to do four things:

  1. Convey the colossal magnitude of the problem, essentially requiring a complete re-imagination of the engines literally driving the global economy: fossil fuels and ever expanding resource consumption, and cooperation between nations and corporations on a scale we’ve never seen.
  2. Describe the potential costs of inaction, including sea level rise, possibly rapid decreases in agricultural productivity in some areas, water shortages in the world’s most populous regions due to melting glaciers, and ultimately, the irreversibility of the changes, due to positive feedbacks.
  3. Explain how solving the problem is difficult, politically: due to effective lobbying from old and currently profitable industries, and the inability of tomorrow’s potentially profitable “green” industries to effectively lobby, because they don’t currently have either the billions in profits to “invest” in DC, or a large base of employees represented as constituents.  Economically: because there is no cost borne by GHG emitters, making the atmosphere a tragic economic commons.
  4. Provide at least an outline of what any potential solution will look like: It will have to be measured in terawatts, meaning the only two sources of power that are up to the task in the long run are solar and nuclear (with reprocessing and breeder reactors eventually).  It will also require a method of turning electricity into some transportable high energy density form, like liquid fuels, or much much better batteries.

I think they did a fairly good job on 1 and 3, and I think they dodged 2 and 4.  Failing to describe the consequences of global warming might possibly be acceptable, depending on who they think their audience is.  It is a PBS program after all, and so it’s mostly more educated relatively liberal folks, who possibly have a better than average understanding of (or at least belief in) the problem.

I think avoiding real discussion of what solutions will have to look like was bad.  Coupled with the gloomy sound track, it led to a pervasively apocalyptic mood.  What we cannot do now, is give up.  Understanding what a solution has to look like, at least in scale and character, helps convey the size of the problem, and also provides something to aim for and advocate.  I came out of the show feeling like things are basically hopeless, even though I don’t really think that’s the case.  If we can’t imagine the future as it needs to be, we’re going to have a hard time creating it.

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