Andy Revkin talks to Nate Lewis about the scale of the challenge we face in addressing climate change. Lewis (whom I took Chem 1 from at Caltech) was one of the first people to communicate the scale of the problem effectively to me, in his Powering the Planet talk. He’s of the opinion that there are big technical gaps to be filled if we’re going to address the issue seriously — we need to learn how to do things we’ve never done before, in a technical sense. But one of his underlying assumptions is that we will 1. have continuing economic growth globally, and 2. that this will necessarily mean an increase in energy use (even as we continue to decrease our energy intensity). I think this need not be the case. High quality lives are available at vastly lower energy usages than we see in the US, or even Japan and Western Europe. They’re different, sure, but that doesn’t mean they’re inferior. Compact, walkable/bikeable/livable cities. Drastically reduced flying and driving, zero energy buildings, petroleum free agriculture, heirloom designed durable goods instead of cheap plastic disposable crap. These things are huge, and make the remaining energy generation challenge much more manageable. Yes, we still need to figure out long term storage and reliable renewable portfolio management, but it’s not the same herculean task that Lewis puts forward: of running our society as we do today, but on some other energy source. Which simply will not work.
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What I think is unfortunate is that, with exception of Al Gore, we don’t have national political figures advocating either approach. Everyone in Washington has their heads in the sand as far as meaningfully addressing sustainability. I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ WWII documentary, and it is incredible to see what Americans gladly gave up in their collective effort to win the war. But they had Roosevelt on the radio all the time, reminding them that that didn’t need new shoes, that they surely had some scrap metal to donate, that kitchen grease could be saved for other uses, and that patches of lawn could be dug up to grow vegetables. For the species, climate change is every bit as big an external threat as the Axis was to the US. Somehow, no one has used that threat to generate political unity or a national sense of common purpose. We need common purpose — some collective acknowledgment of imminent threat and necessary action — to implement Revkin’s vision or yours.