I’m not sure what to make of our willingness to participate in the terraforming of the Earth. To explore it, I’ll consider an alternative history in which Antarctica was marginally habitable, and colonized a million years ago by woolly hominids who developed a Yeti civilization. Our whaling vessels meet up with them in the 1820s, but it’s so cold down there that nobody feels the need to molest them except for few hardy anthropologists, the occasional overzealous missionary expedition, and the usual cohort of scientists who will study the ends of the Earth, no matter how inhospitable. Inevitably, the Yeti spend some late nights with the scientists in their hot tubs watching the aurorae.
They get to talking about the magnetosphere, some atmospheric physics, and the geology of their ice-clad homeland. One day they decide their lives would be better if they could inhabit the entire continent, instead of just clinging to the coastal fringe, and so with the help of some misguided sympathizers, they develop a vast clandestine industrial complex pumping long-lived fluorinated super greenhouse gasses like CF4, C2F6, and SF6 into the atmosphere to warm things up. These compounds are vastly more powerful warming agents than CO2 and methane. They are also long lived atmospheric species, sticking around for up to 50,000 years. If a serious industrial complex were set up to produce and release them en masse, they would close a good chunk of the atmosphere’s thermal infrared window and radically alter the climate for tens of thousands of years. This atmospheric engineering could be done over the course of an election cycle, especially if the Yeti bastards had help from the cold-hearted Canucks and Russkies.
Would the G-20, the OECD or the UN Security Council stand by while a rogue Yeti nation threatened the billions of people who live in coastal cities, or depend on glacial water supplies, all in the name of Manifest Destiny? Of course not. We’d be more likely to bomb their furry white asses back into the Ice Age.
Xcel Energy’s Valmont East Terraforming Station in Boulder, CO. As a side effect, it powers all the lights you see in the background.
James Watt’s industrial revolution was fired by coal, is fired by coal, and shall be fired by coal under the current plan, until death do us part. Anthracite, lignite and bituminous — it is all nearly pure carbon, sequestered in the shallow inland seas of the Carboniferous, scavenged from a powerful greenhouse atmosphere by the first macroscopic life to colonize the land, 350 million years ago. It was into these scaly fern tree forests, club mosses, cycads, and giant horsetails that we tetrapods laboriously crawled so long ago, to gasp our first desperate breaths.
Industrial power, carbon and coal are deeply synonymous. The SI unit of power is named for Watt, and the word “carbon” is derived from the Latin carbo, which means coal. Many of the super-human abilities we are accustomed to wielding today are intimately bound up with this strange rock that burns. Our purpose in burning it is to release usable heat, and we consider the release of carbon dioxide and other pollutants to be a side-effect of that process. In the fullness of time I suspect we will come to see that relationship reversed. When we look back at today’s coal fired power plants a few centuries from now, we won’t see them as electricity generators. We will instead see them as components of a massive, coordinated and yet unintended climatic engineering project. We are effectively terraforming the Earth, participating in the transformation of our planet as a new force of nature. It’s not the first time life has done something like this. The cyanobacteria began pumping oxygen into the atmosphere 2.5 billion years ago, incidentally making both fire and macroscopic organisms possible for the first time. And also incidentally oxidizing away a lot of previously stable atmospheric methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, plunging the Earth into the deep freeze for three hundred million years. I hope that we can be more mindful of the consequences of our actions than the blue-green algae were, but honestly I’ve got my doubts.
Smil’s take on the future of fossil fuels seems very similar to that of Steve Koonin (and thus BP), namely that there’s plenty of all of them in the ground for us to damn ourselves to a hothouse hell, if we should so desire. I’m not entirely sure whether this strikes me as an optimistic, or pessimistic statement, but I suspect it’s pessimistic. If we were forced to change our energy systems, I believe (unlike many Peak Oilers) that we would be up to the challenge, dramatically reducing demand without reducing our standard of living, increasing conversion efficiencies, and innovating our way out of the mess partly technologically, and partly socially. If, on the other hand, we have to choose to stop burning fossil fuels, I’m much less confident that we’ll do the right thing.
Where does our energy come from today, and how do we use it? How much does it take to live the Good Life, and what, really, should that energy be used on? Where might it plausibly come from in the future, and what does the Good Life consist of anyway? Energy at the Crossroads by Vaclav Smil at least attempts to get at this stuff, looking at humanity’s utilization of energy, in the past, present, and several possible futures. But the book is a such a dense mass of numbers and graphs that I think I’m going to have to do this in several posts.
The first two sections Long-term Trends and Achievementsand Energy Linkages, look at how energy use correlates with other variables of interest, how those correlations have changed through time, and how they vary globally today. If there’s an overarching message here, it’s that nothing about today’s global energy system is straightforward. You can’t make many useful comparisons by looking at only one dimension, such as the total primary energy supply (TPES) utilized or the energy intensity (EI) of a nation’s economy, or by simply looking at mean values without considering the distribution they come from. These variables are not normally distributed. Another clear message is that the 20th century was an anomaly. The explosive global growth in fossil fuel utilization that we have seen over the last hundred years will not be sustained, for a variety of reasons, any one of which would be convincing, but which in combination are downright scary. Either the way our civilization uses energy will be utterly transformed, or the sources of that energy will change dramatically. Or both.